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.

Wondrous Tribes: Pygmies

Pygmies were originally a tribe of very small humans.They were located at the southernmost reaches of the world, either in (you guessed it!) Ethiopia or India.

Their name comes from pygme, the Greek word for “cubit,” and they were said to stand only about one cubit tall, or about eighteen inches. Ctesias speaks of “three-span” pygmies (trispithamoi) who stand twenty-seven inches tall. Flavius Philostratus reports pygmies in India who live underground—which would make them both pygmies and troglodytes: perhaps a subject for another time!

Anthropologists define pygmies as any human population where the average adult male height is less than 4′ 11″. The term has been especially applied to certain peoples of central Africa, who may in fact have been the ultimate inspiration behind Greek mythological pygmies. Even so, calling these people “pygmies” is problematic if not outright offensive. To be on the safe side, kindly refer to them instead by their ethnic names: Twa, Efe, Mbuti, etc.

The mythological pygmies fought an endless war against flocks of migrating cranes in a story that goes back at least to Homer. Their battles against the cranes was a popular scene in classical art. They were often depicted as pudgy, comical figures.

Pygmies also made the jump from the Old World to the New, at least in the minds of European explorers. On his second voyage (1535–36), Jacques Cartier apparently met Donnacona, “King of Canada” (actually, a village at the present site of Québec City), who informed him that there were pygmies (“picquemyans”) in that region. There’s no telling what Donnacona actually said or whether Cartier interpreted it in culturally familiar terms that may not have done justice to what the king intended to say. At any rate, no doubt owing to this tidbit of information, Pierre Descelier’s world map of 1550 depicted pygmies in North America—battling cranes just as in the ancient myths!

There is an earlier reference to pygmies in North America, but it’s a bit more ambiguous. On Mercator’s world map of 1569, we find this note in the Arctic region: “Here live the Pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, like unto those they call Skraelings in Greenland.” At four feet, these “pygmies” are giants compared to the pygmies of the classical world!

Skraelingjar is the Old Norse word for indigenous people the Norse encountered when they began to settle Greenland and Vinland (aka Newfoundland). Mercator understood that this term translates—culturally if not etymologically—as “pygmies.” An even earlier map, Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina (1539), depicts a Norseman and a very short adversary facing off with spears in southern Greenland. Olaus writes,

The little dwarf fearlessly attacks his bigger opponent and triumphs in victory, for at every opportunity he assaults taller men with no less courage than if he could boast a giant’s might and so have the upper hand.

Mercator apparently received his information from a fourteenth-century source, an unnamed friar who wrote a travelogue titled Inventio fortunata (“The Fortunate Discovery”) in the 1360s. This friar learned of “skraelings” (skraelingjar) in Greenland from Norwegian churchman Ívar Bárdarson. But which came first? Did the Norse call these people skraelingjar because that was already their word for “unusually short human,” or did a Norse cleric, conversing (no doubt in Latin) with a foreign colleague, land upon pygmaeus as the closest suitable translation of skraelingr?

In fact, the actual meaning of “skraeling” is up for debate. Some say it comes from an Old Norse word for skin and refers to the animal skins the native inhabitants of Greenland wore. Others say that, whatever the original meaning, the word is used in medieval Norse literature as a pejorative term implying small stature.

Finally, I should mention that the faery folk of many North American peoples are conceived of as tiny “little people,” often no more than two feet tall. Some older works even translate the various native terms as “dwarves” or “pygmies.” These, however, are creatures of a much more magical nature than the “picquemyans” of Cartier or the “skraelings” of the Norse: changing shape, becoming invisible, effecting magical cures, etc.

Some of these little folk are dangerous—though by and large you’re probably safer with the average Native American faery being than you are with the daoine sídhe or most European elves. The more “mundane” pygmies are probably easier to get along with if you show them due respect.

Wondrous Tribes: Patagonian Giants

A European watches a Patagonian giant swallowing an arrow to cure his stomach ache (1602)

Giants are not, properly speaking, one of the wondrous tribes of the Greek and Roman classical writers. Virtually every culture on the planet has some kind of myth about incredibly large humanoids, from eight or ten feet tall up to the size of mountains—and beyond. In Norse mythology, the entire world was created from the dismembered body of the giant Ymir.

Nor are giants alien to North and South America, continents filled with slant-eyed giants, stone-skinned giants, and every possible variation of huge, man-eating ogre. There is one particular tribe of giants, however, that I should discuss in this series on the intersection of Old World myth and legend and the exploration of the New World. These are the giants of Patagonia at the extreme southern tip of South America.

Though the bones of “giants” (actually large prehistoric animals) have been discovered throughout North and South America, Magellan’s voyage to circumnavigate the globe brings us an account of a first-hand meeting between Europeans and a tribe of giants. The story is related by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian nobleman who accompanied Magellan on his voyage. Pigafetta relates the following story that took place as they rounded the tip of South America in 1520:

One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general’s and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned.

It was once assumed that the name “Patagonian” is derived from Spanish pata, meaning “leg,” “paw,” or “foot.” (We saw that same root in Patasola in my post about monopods.) If the final syllable is taken as an augmentative, then Patagonia might then be translated something like “Land of the Bigfeet.” Nowadays, however, most people think Magellan took the name from Primaleon, a popular novel of the time. In that work, there is a race of wild people called by that name. Word of Magellan’s discovery spread, and later world maps would sometimes even label this region “Land of the Giants” (regio gigantum).

What are we to make of this report? It is possible that Magellan encountered members of the Tehuelche people, who were, in fact, unusually tall—at least compared to the relatively short 16th-century Europeans. We’re talking six-footers, not ten-footers. When Sir Francis Drake visited this same region in 1628, he encountered these tall native people. Though acknowledging their impressive size, he is quick to call Magellan out for his gross exaggeration:

Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.

Ah, the joys of professional rivalry!


Wondrous Tribes: Monopods

In the ancient geographies, monopods are people with a single, large foot on which they hop about. Pliny states that these unusual creatures, who are also found in Aristophanes’s play The Birds, are first mentioned by Ctesias in the late fifth century. He writes,

He speaks also of another race of men, who are known as Monocoli, who have only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility. The same people are also called Sciapodae, because they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet.

By whatever name, these one-legged creatures are usually said to be found in India or sometimes Ethiopia—the two regions most likely to be home to such fabulous beings in the minds of classical writers. According to Isidore of Seville, the monopods of Ethiopia were very fast hoppers.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that European explorers reported tales of such creatures in the New World. Here, however, we find not merely a second-hand report of what some native told them but an actual (purported) first-hand account. In the thirteenth-century Saga of Erik the Red, one finds the story of a monopod sighting in Vinland, the Norse name for Newfoundland and the surrounding areas. Chapter 14 of the saga begins,

One morning Karlsefni’s people beheld as it were a glittering speck above the open space in front of them, and they shouted at it. It stirred itself, and it was a being of the race of men that have only one foot, and he came down quickly to where they lay. Thorvald, son of Eirik the Red, sat at the tiller, and the One-footer shot him with an arrow in the lower abdomen. He drew out the arrow. Then said Thorvald, “Good land have we reached, and fat is it about the paunch.” Then the One-footer leapt away again northwards. They chased after him, and saw him occasionally, but it seemed as if he would escape them. He disappeared at a certain creek. Then they turned back, and one man spake this ditty:

“Our men chased (all true it is) a One-footer down to the shore; but the wonderful man strove hard in the race…. Hearken, Karlsefni.”

Then they journeyed away back again northwards, and saw, as they thought, the land of the One-footers. They wished, however, no longer to risk their company.

I haven’t been able to track down the Norse original, but I suspect “one-footers” is a translation of einfótar (singular, einfótr). Of course, rendered in Greek, this would bring us back around to “monopod.”

Though never (to my knowledge) reported by the early Europeans, there are also legends of mythical monopods in South America. Saci (or Saci-pererê) is a one-legged trickster figure who lives in the forest. He originally appeared as a one-legged child with red hair. Later, he took on a more African or biracial appearance, his red hair became a red cap, and he took up smoking a pipe.

Saci has a sinister female counterpart, a vampiric monster called la Patasola, known mainly from Colombia. Both beings are seen as guardians of the forest, taking special delight in tormenting hunters, loggers, and others who wander into their territory.

The South American monopods are more “magical” than those the Norsemen reputedly encountered, but I’m not sure I’d care to meet members of either tribe.