Abikus: West African Changelings

Kneeling Yoruba worshiper with child; photo by Hiart (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The words abiku and ogbanje refer both to a child who dies before puberty and to the evil spirit that brings about that death. Abiku is the Yoruba word; ogbanje is the Igbo word.

An abiku is a “spirit child” sent by his or her other spirit playmates to be born into a family and terrorize them. The abiku spirit world is said to be populated by children who play all day long and are engaged in all sorts of merrymaking. They often choose a rich family as their victim. The child of this rich family then repeatedly falls sick, causing his or her parents to squander their wealth seeking for a cure.

Eventually, at a previously determined date (especially on a joyful occasion like a festival or marriage), the child falls sick and dies. Then he or she is reborn again and again to the same family until they are totally exhausted emotionally and financially.

There is no known way to divest oneself of an abiku. Sometimes, however, when a mother repeatedly gives birth to an abiku, he is branded at death so as to be recognized when he comes back again. They are often spoiled by their parents in a bid to persuade them to stay.

Certain Yoruba names suggest the suspicion that a child is, in fact, an abiku. Such names include Durojaiye (“stay and enjoy life”), Banjoko (“stay with me”), Malomo (“don’t go again”), and Durosinmi (“stay and rest”).

In Igbo folklore, ogbanje are often very beautiful girls.

Fairies in the Bible?

Speaking of Jewish folk beliefs, a few years back I wrote a piece about fairies in the Bible at my other blog. Some of that material, with some elaboration, found its way over here in my post on “Shedim: Eldritch Beings from Jewish Folklore.”  Here is the full, original post from July of 2013, only slightly edited:

Joel Hoffman has written a blog post about unicorns and other mythological creatures in the Bible—or at least in the King James Version. As he usually does, Dr. Hoffman raises an intriguing question about how the original Hebrew words the KJV rendered as “dragon,” “unicorn,” and so forth should be handled. Did the original writers intend their readers to understand these as real-world creatures (e.g., as serpents, rhinoceroses, etc.) or did they mean to depict creatures of fantasy? He writes,

More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.

Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translations wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.

On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.

Hoffman deals mainly with “unicorns” (re’em) and “dragons” (tannin), although he makes passing reference to a possible merperson in the character of Dagon, the god of the Philistines.

Along these same lines, I would suggest that there are a handful of possible reference to fairies in the Bible—at least if the rabbis of the medieval period were interpreting these passages rightly.

Two Hebrew words are of interest: shedim and se’irim, both translated daimonia (“demons”) in the Septuagint. Shedim only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shed or sheid). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,

They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard.

Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to the Akkadian shedu, a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps something we might think of as a guardian angel. Then again, people around the world have made offerings to various local protective spirits to secure their goodwill. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging such a practice. Thus, in the Bible, they are depicted not as helpful minor spirits but as false gods to be avoided.

The next word is se’irim (singular se’ir), meaning “hairy beings” or “shaggy beings.” In the KJV, the word is translated “satyrs.” There are a few more references to se’irim than there are to shedim. According to Leviticus 17:7, “The Israelites must no longer sacrifice their communal sacrifices to the goat demons that they follow so faithlessly. This will be a permanent rule for them throughout their future generations.” The LXX renders se’irim as mataiois, “to empty or vain things.”

Se’irim dwell in the desolate wilderness and are apparently fond of dancing. According to Isaiah 13:21,

Wildcats will rest there;
houses will be filled with owls.
Ostriches will live there,
and goat demons (LXX, daimonia) will dance there.

And again in Isaiah 34:14:

Wildcats will meet hyenas,
the goat demon will call to his friends,
and there Lilith will lurk
and find her resting place.

I saw you wondering about Lilith in that verse. We’ll come back to her in a minute. It should be noted, that the Septuagint translation removes Lilith from the picture but possibly gives us a completely new mythological creature. My fairly wooden translation of the Greek is as follows:

Demons will meet onocentaurs
and they will shout one to the other,
There onocentaurs will rest
for they found a resting place for themselves.

If you’re not up to speed on medieval bestiaries, let me quickly explain that an onocentaur is part man, part ass. (And please refrain from any comments about half-ass blog posts. Thank you.)

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the se’irim are “are satyr-like demons, described as dancing in the wilderness…identical with the jinn of the Arabian woods and deserts.” Azazel, the goat-like wilderness demon (Lev 16:10ff) and Lilith (whom we already encountered in Isa 34:14) are said to be of the same class of beings. Further, it should be noted that some see in Lilith a prototype for later vampire legends. The Jewish Encyclopedia also raises the possibility that “the roes and hinds of the field” (gazelles and wild deer in the CEB) in Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 are “faunlike spirits similar to the se’irim, though of a harmless nature.”

How does all this apply to fairies? Thomas Keightley argued in The Fairy Mythology (1870)  that the prototypes of European fairy legends were to be found not only in the nymphs and satyrs of Greco-Roman mythology but also in Near Eastern stories of jinnis and peris (or jinn and parian, to use the correct Arabic and Persian plurals). He even argued  that our English word “fairy” derives ultimately from Persian pari (or peri). This linguistic argument may or may not hold, but anyone who looks at Persian peri-stories will find many parallels to what was believed about fairies in rural Europe until fairly recent times.

If Keightley is correct, then the European conception of fairies owes a good deal to the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world(s) in which the Bible was written. It therefore would not be unusual to find references to the such creatures in biblical and other early Semitic materials.

After tracing the fairy mythology throughout northern Europe, Keightley makes quick reference to Jewish legends about similar creatures found in the rabbinic corpus. These beings are in fact called shedim and seirim (although Keightley transliterates them shedeem and shehireem). Another term, maziqin (or mazikeen in Keightley’s transliteration), is Aramaic and applies specifically to a malevolent spirit. According to rabbinic tradition, all these beings are in fact directly analogous to the jinn of Arabic folklore. Keightley writes,

It has long been an established article of belief among the Jews that there is a species of beings which they call Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen. These beings exactly correspond to the Arabian Jinn; and the Jews hold that it is by means of them that all acts of magic and enchantment are performed.

The Talmud says that the Shedeem were the offspring of Adam. After he had eaten of the Tree of life, Adam was excommunicated for one hundred and thirty years. “In all those years,” saith Rabbi Jeremiah Ben E’liezar, “during which Adam was under excommunication, he begat spirits, demons, and spectres of the night, as it is written, ‘Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begat children in his likeness and in his image,’ which teaches, that till that time he bad not begotten them in his own likeness.” In Berasbith Rabba, R. Simon says, “During all the one hundred and thirty years that Adam was separate from Eve, male spirits lay with her, and she bare by them, and female spirits lay with Adam, and bare by him.”

These Shedeem or Mazikeen are held to resemble the angels in three things. They can see and not be seen; they have wings and can fly; they know the future. In three respects they resemble mankind: they eat and drink; they marry and have children; they are subject to death. It may be added, they have the power of assuming any form they please; and so the agreement between them and the Jinn of the Arabs is complete.

Keightley shares three Jewish legends about the shedim: “The Broken Oaths,” “The Moohel,” and “The Mazik-Ass.”

As with dragons and unicorns, there are probably some who will pounce on “rational” or “scientific” explanations for fairies. Some do, in fact, attribute European fairy-lore to dim memories of diminutive tribes driven underground—and ultimately to extinction—by later invaders with the advantage of iron weapons (in both Europe and the Middle East, iron is a potent weapon against the Fair Folk).

In my experience, however, I think most interpreters would see shedim and se’irim as terms intended to describe supernatural or otherworldly beings and not merely misidentified pygmies or “wild men”—whether or not they judge such creatures to be “real.”

Djab: Caribbean Spirits for Hire

Djab are a feature of the Vodun religion, but are associated more with practical magic than with spirituality. Their name is derived from French diable, “devil.” In fact, the same word is found in Louisiana Creole. These beings are not necessarily diabolical, though. Rather, they are what might be called “mercenary spirits”: they are independent supernatural contractors that can be hired or bribed to perform magical work. They must be paid for every job and they can be very aggressive about collections, to the point that they can effectively be the equivalent of supernatural loan sharks.

Djab are conceived as a type of lwa or intermediate spirit between the mortal realm and the Creator. At least some djab are the spirits of deceased mortals—or at least present themselves in this way. It is possible that the “spirits of the dead” interpretation may be the result of Christian missionaries imposing their theological bias upon the legend.

Magical practitioners can summon a djab through spells and rituals. Such spells are typically aggressive and less than savory—means of invocation that other spirits will refuse. Furthermore, djab are willing to do malevolent work from which other spirits may shy.

Djab may serve as guardians to a spell-caster if so requested. They prove to be formidable bodyguards willing to search out and destroy enemies. They are also sometimes invoked to serve justice when it is otherwise not found. Some djab are truly scary and unpleasant while others are just exceptionally independent. Each djab tends to manifest somewhat differently.

Particular djab might be affiliated with a person or a family—who may or may not be able to exert control over it. Like a European-style domestic spirit, it passes itself down from one generation to the next and is treated like one of the clan. Other djab, however, are wild, autonomous spirits who play by no rules but their own.

A “djab-djab” (or “jab-jab”) is a traditional costumed figure of Carnival. They are described as:

men in jester costumes, their caps and shoes filled with tinkling bells, cracking long whips in the streets, with which they lashed at each other with full force, proclaiming in this display that they could receive the hardest blow without flinching at its coming, while feeling what, at its landing, must have been burning pain. (Richard and Jeannette Allsopp, Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage [Oxford University Press, 1996] 194)

A female djab might be called a djablès (diablesse), but usually djab serves for both male and female, both singular and plural. (Djablès or “devil woman” usually refers to an evil creature that appears on a lonely road in the form of a pretty young woman, who lures men into the woods. There, she reveals herself to be an old crone with cloven hooves and causes her victim to either go mad or die.)

Pisuhands: Fiery Estonian Household Spirits

By Alb1183 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http:// creativecommons. org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pisuhands are a type of Estonian domestic sprite that customarily assumes the form of a firedrake or small dragon. (Estonian and Finnish are related both linguistically and culturally.) While their Germanic cousins, the kobolds, often live in the hearth or behind the stove, pisuhands represent the fire itself. They are almost always male and with a youthful appearance when in human form. They are often being mistaken for small boys. They tend to wear red caps and white tunics.

Far from simple tonttus (the Finnic equivalent of Celtic brownies), pisuhands can have impressive magical abilities. In addition to their ability to assume the form of firedrakes, they might also turn into black cats or chickens. In some accounts, they appear as a rooster indoors and as a drake outdoors.

Pisuhands perform household tasks such as keeping the firewood dry as well as tending to the stable and barns and making sure that the pantry and money chest are well stocked. They have also been known to bring gifts to the master of the house. Occasionally, they acquire these gifts by stealing them from others. Furthermore, they are sometimes seen guarding treasure.

Pisuhands are often quite patriarchal in their outlook. They tend to form especially strong bonds with the male head of a household. They are very loyal to the families they serve. The master of a house should keep the firedrake well fed and treat it with respect. They can also become revengeful when insulted, and are liable to burn the house down.

They have been known to travel across the world doing chores for their masters, bringing them essential medicine, exotic foods, and gifts, in exchange for being taken care of.

If startled in flight, a pisuhand might drop some of his treasure. In some accounts, one can shout “half and half” or throw a knife at the creature to make him drop his treasure. If two people together see one, they should cross their legs in silence, take the fourth wheel off the wagon, and take shelter. The drake will then be compelled to leave them some of his haul.

Irish Mythology: Culture or Commodity?

Here’s a very thought-provoking article by Brian O’Sullivan on how elements of Irish culture and mythology have been used—and more often abused—in fantasy fiction. His main point is found, I think, in the these two paragraphs:

The problem, however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale, but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.

From an Irish perspective therefore, when you see your native cultural icons plucked from their normal environment, repackaged in some pseudo-Celtic [nonsense] and then reproduced out of context in a fantasy product, you can start to appreciate why other native groups complain about the commercial appropriation and exploitation of their cultures. For Irish people in particular, it feels as though we’ve been bombarded by mawkish, overly romanticised and culturally inaccurate interpretations of our own mythology for decades.

O’Sullivan is clearly and rightly passionate about this, and he provides much food for thought. I’m grateful for his raising my awareness of how things things are experienced for people who cherish these mythological elements, even if they don’t literally believe in them.

He later mentions the backlash over J. K. Rowling’s handling of Native American mythology in her “History of Magic in North America.” I’ve shared some of my thinking on that matter elsewhere, and much of what I say there applies here as well. My fiction is set in the United States of America. To write authentically, I feel I have an obligation to deal with the entire melting pot of cultures that I see around me on my way to work every morning. Therefore, this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to say Native American beliefs and folklore concerning magic, fantastic beasts, and so forth are off limits for fantasy writers. Nor, for that matter, should be the mythology of West Africans brought to North America as slaves. To be honest, leaving these elements out strikes me as more colonialistic than including them. Writing off black, Native American, or other non-white contributions to American life and culture leaves a story at best only half-told.

The challenge, especially for someone of European descent (something Ms. Rowling and I have in common), is to listen to these other cultures and go the second mile in attempting to depict them with dignity and integrity.

Of course, it’s up to you, my readers, to decide whether I’ve met that challenge.

Of Beans and Vampires

Today I learned that apparently you can use beans to trick vampires. By some sort of leguminous magic, vampires are prone to mistaking beans for pregnant women (and possibly other kinds of humans). Who knew?

This tidbit may or may not be related to my previous post about commodity items as media of exchange. Time will tell.

Also, leguminous is an adjective meaning “relating to or denoting plants of the pea family” (including beans).

Wondrous Tribes: Blemmyes

Blemmyes were an actual African people described in ancient Roman histories who threatened Roman Egypt a few times in the third century AD. The name possibly derives from bálami, meaning “desert people” in the Beja language of Africa. (Note: The proper singular form is blemmyas or blemmye; the plural form is either blemmyae or blemmyes.) Along the way, the Blemmyes also became fictionalized as a tribe of headless humanoids whose faces are located on their torsos.

In various medieval sources, blemmyes are said to be six, eight, or even twelve feet tall and perhaps half as wide. Furthermore, they are often reported to be cannibals.

Herodotus described such creatures in the fifth century BC, calling them akephaloi (“headless ones”). How a real-live human population came to be seen as headless monstrosities is anybody’s guess. Certainly the nearly universal human tendency to demonize and dehumanize one’s enemies is at play. More concretely, some propose that the historical Blemmyes had an unusual fighting stance that involved tucking the head close to the chest, or else they had the ability to raise their shoulders to an extraordinary height, nesting their head in between. Others ponder whether these reports of “headless giants” involved the custom of painting faces on their shields.

At any rate, the blemmyes as a “wondrous tribe” apparently captured the imagination of ancient geographers and naturalists, not to mention the centuries of learned Europeans who had studied their tales. In time, the legend of these headless men shifted from Africa to India. From there, as with so many ancient wonders, they found their way to the New World just in time to be discovered by European explorers.

In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh reported that, along the Caora river, there lived

a nation of people whose heads appear not above their shoulders which, though it may be thought a mere fable, yet for mine own part I am resolved it is true because every child in the provinces of Arromaia and Canuri affirm the same. They are called Ewaipanoma. They are reported to have their eyes in their shoulders and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders. (Discovery of Guiana, spelling and punctuation updated)

Section of the Piri Reis map depicting a blemmye and a monkey

Raleigh reported that these blemmyes lived in the same general area as the fabled city of Manoa, which the Spanish called El Dorado.

But Raleigh wasn’t the first person to “find” blemmyes in the Americas. Nearly a hundred years previously, Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis depicted a blemmye in South America (near the coast of Brazil, to be specific) on his world map of 1513. Beside the drawing, he explains, “These wild beasts attain a length of seven spans [5′ 3″]. Between their eyes there is a distance of only one span [9″]. Yet it is said, they are harmless souls.” Thus, these blemmyes are a fair bit smaller than their Old World cousins—and apparently less hostile to humans.

When William Shakespeare wrote Othello in 1604, he included this fabled tribe among the oddities his title character reports as he describes his earlier exploits:

And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,—such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. (Act I, scene 3)

I should also note that the Hidatsa, a Siouan people from present-day Minnesota, have a myth about a “headless monster” with a gaping mouth in its shoulder. who kills the mother of the Twins, important culture heroes. I have no way of knowing if those who tell this story imagine a blemmye-like creature with eyes on its chest or shoulders, or else something else entirely. In any case, there are a few headless monsters in world mythology: in addition to the blemmyes and their New World kin, there is also the dullahan of Ireland, a headless horseman immortalized for Americans in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I don’t want to think about blemmyes riding around on horses. Though perhaps the ones in Guiana could domesticate some Brazilian headless mules to ride.