Sunday Inspiration: Leadership

Leadership means not giving orders to others, but giving of yourself.
— East African Proverb

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How Many Hit Points Does a 1st-Level Author Have?

A Facebook friend shared this article from the New Yorker a few days ago: “The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons.” Apparently, D&D is growing in popularity forty-some years after it first hit the hobby store shelves. I won’t say D&D is cool again, though. It was never cool in the first place—that’s why I loved it!

According to Neima Jahromi, the author of the article, a “circle of life” story seems to be unfolding as at least some people are rediscovering forms of entertainment that don’t involve video screens and can even require sitting down at a physical table and interacting with one’s friends in real time. According to Jahromi,

In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.

I first played D&D in sixth grade at the invitation of a group of friends who thought it would be something I’d be interested in. The pitch, loosely paraphrased, began, “Now, don’t laugh, but the name of this game is ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ It’s kind of hard to explain.” Intrigued, I showed up and was introduced to three tan booklets packed in a white box with a picture of a wizard blasting goblins (or something) on the front. (Thinking back, I can’t for the life of me remember who was there. I’m pretty sure we were playing in Bryan Beecher’s basement, though. As it turned out, these guys weren’t my go-to D&D buddies in years to come.)

I gave up D&D in college, mostly because I lacked the time. Second, third, fourth, and fifth edition passed me by without even making a blip on my personal radar. But when I started writing Into the Wonder, I started thinking of my worldbuilding tasks as if I were running a new campaign and trying to get my homebrew setting and house rules to work right. (I even managed to get a jokey D&D reference into the first book.)

Along the way, I discovered several other RPG systems and settings that helped me hone in on how magical creatures, powers, and artifacts might work in terms of the story I was trying to tell. Without even thinking about it, I began to accumulate the free PDFs and online extras you can find for GURPS supplements, Changeling: the Dreaming, and other settings and rule sets.

So now I’m working out the details of a different story world for a new set of characters with new sets of abilities. And for the first time, I’ve been experimenting with setting down at least some of this information intentionally in the form of a “rules supplement”-type document.

Along the way, I’ve discovered that a coworker, who has never really gotten into RPGs before (at least not seriously), has a growing interest because it’s something he has started doing with a group of friends outside of work.

And along the way, I have once again found myself bonding with a friend over a shared interest in a geeky hobby.

And also along the way, our conversations have led to exploring the possibility of me crafting a one-shot RPG session set in the world I’ve been creating for the past four or five months. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Funny how things circle around, right?

Six Faery Creatures Indigenous to the Americas

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, here is a brief rundown of some of the more interesting mythical beings associated with the native peoples of the Americas.

HUPIA

Hupias (or opias) stem from the folklore of the Taíno people of the Caribbean. They are said to be the spirits of the dead, although others claim the Taíno people believed the human spirit passed seamlessly to the hereafter, and that the “spirits of the dead” interpretation was the result of Christian missionaries imposing their theology upon the legend.

Hupias are believed to be able to assume many forms. In human form, they can always be distinguished by their lack of a navel. They are also associated with bats, and said to hide or sleep during the day and come out at night to eat guava fruit.

Hupias are also said to seduce women and kidnap people who venture outside after dark.

MAKIAWIS

The plural of mikiawis is makiawisug. These ancient beings are said to have lived under Mohegan Hill in Montville, Connecticut, since before the Mohegans arrived. They are also known in the folklore of the Wampanoag (or Massasoit) and Narragansett peoples, among whom they are sometimes called nikommo

Makiaswisug are sturdily built, but very short—often mistaken for children on the rare occasion that they are spotted by mortals. Despite their stocky, muscular appearance, they move with great grace and delicacy. They often demonstrate an affinity for stones and earth-magic generally. They are quite wise. Many medicine people among the Mohegan learned their skills from them.

Like many of the Fair Folk from Europe, makiawisug are not strictly malevolent, but it is unwise to offend them. They take great offense at people looking directly at them. One should not speak about them during the summer, the season when they are most active and wandering through the woods. At the same time, they are more likely to bring good fortune and supernatural assistance to those thow treat them respectfully. Among the Narragansetts and Wampanoags, the Nikommo feasts are held in their honor.

The makiawisug are willing to be helpful to those who leave them offerings. They prefer baskets of cornbread and berries, but sometimes they will also accept meat.

Their leader is called Granny Squannit, a very powerful and ancient being who has ruled the makiawisug since pre-Contact times. Her name was formerly pronounced Squauanit. She was revered as a goddess by the Algonquian peoples of New England. 

CURUPIRA

These beings from Tupi folklore of the Amazon region are noted for their red hair and their backwards-turned feet. They blend many features of West African and European faery-lore, and are usually regarded as demonic. They can create illusions and produce a sound like a high-pitched whistle in order to scare their victims and drive them to madness.

Curupiras are generally malevolent toward humans and enjoy luring to their doom hunters and poachers that take more than they need from the forest. They protect the animals of the forest. They are one of the few types of faery creature in the New World practice something that might be compared to the “Wild Hunt.”

These beings are sometimes depicted riding a collared peccary as a steed.

NIMERIGAR

Although benign races of small magical creatures exist in many Native American tribes, the “little people” of the Great Plains are most often depicted as dangerous cannibals. They are known to virtually every tribe in the region—and even as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Although nimerigar is a Shoshoni word, it has been borrowed by Plains Algoquians such as the Arapaho, Gros Ventre, and Cheyenne to refer to these creatures. They are called by a multitude of other names, including:

  • Gada’zhe, mong-thu-jah-the-gah, or ni’kashinga man’tanaha (Omaha-Ponca)
  • Hecesiiteihi (Arapaho, “little people”)
  • Iktomi (Sioux)
  • Mi’-a-gthu-shka or mialuka (Osage, “wild people”)
  • Nirumbee or awwakkulé (Crow)
  • Nunnupi or nunumbi (Comanche, “little person”)
  • Vo’estanehesano (Cheyenne)

These beings are dangerous and aggressive by nature. They have been known to kill their own kind with a blow to the head when they become too ill to contribute to society. They sometimes kidnap children or use their magical powers to harm people. They hunt with bows and poisoned arrows, and are able to inflict wounds without breaking the skin. They are, in fact, spirits of the hunt with strong ties to the arrow. They have their own villages, trails, and other places. They can only be seen when they want to be or are taken unawares.

Descriptions of these little folk vary somewhat from community to community. In Arapaho legend, they are immensely strong. According to the Omaha, they are tiny one-eyed cyclopes. The Crow see them with pot bellies and no necks.

Whatever the particulars, nimerigars are usually said to be the size of children (generally between two and four feet tall), dark-skinned, and extremely aggressive. Some storytellers say they have the power to turn themselves invisible, while others say they are hard to spot simply because they move with incredible speed. Some suggest that their warlike temperament comes because they must be killed in battle to reach the dwarf afterworld. Others believe that they are gluttons who habitually kill more than they can eat just because they can.

ESTE LOPOCKE

The little people of Muskogee folklore are especially known to appear to medicine people and guide them in finding the herbs they need. Encounters with these este lopocke (roughly pronounced ee-stee luh-putch-kee) are considered sacred and not to be shared.

The este lopocke live in hollow trees, on treetops, or on rocky cliffs. Their homes can be identified by an extra thick growth of small twigs of branches in the trees.

They are strong and handsome, with fine figures, and sometimes they allow themselves to be seen by a human being. One account describes a little person whose toenails are long, but whose hair is well kept—long but not dangling. Another story describes little people dressed in caps and carrying bows and arrows (David Lewis and Ann T. Jordan, Creek Indian Medicine Ways [2002] 148).

The Muskogee sometimes speak of the little people simply as “gee” (ce in normalized spelling) meaning “little,” so as to avoid using their full name. Even the helpful ones object to being mentioned in a negative light. Even questioning their existence might cause offense.

UWANI AZI

The name of these faery beings means “rock babies,” and they in fact live within rock surfaces, often near water. They are not as prevalent as “water babies,” another creature from California and the Great Basin, and some modern scholars theorize that the one is, in fact, an offshoot of the other. Both are said to be able to imitate the sound of a baby crying, which is taken as an evil omen.

Rock babies look like babies with short, black hair. They are believed to be responsible for many of the pictographs found in the Great Basin area, and they are never finished working on them—as indicated by their changing patterns. The pictographs of rocky babies are characterized by the use of at least five colors rather than the one or two colors used by humans. This rock art can be looked upon safely, but someone who touches them then rubs his eyes will not sleep again but will die in three days. Others say if one touches the rock art, one will go blind.

Rock babies are also called “mountain dwarves.” They are able to pass through solid rock as a portal between the spirit world and the mortal realm. For this reason, it is sometimes said that they actually live beneath the surface of the rock. They sometimes steal human babies and exchanging them for non-human look-alikes.

 

 

Lidércek: Three Hungarian Creatures that Share a Name

An incubus, from The Encyclopedia of Secret Knowledge (public domain)

I don’t speak a word of Hungarian. I am, however, intrigued that there are three distinct types of entities that Hungarians call lidérc (pl. lidércek) or “incubus.” In English, an incubus is a type of seductive demon that visits women in their sleep and inspires erotic dreams. The female counterpart is a succubus. Although there are aspects of this understanding in play here, especially with the “devil lover,” the term lidérc seems to cover a broader swath of supernatural territory.

The Földi Ördög

The first type of lidérc is also called földi ördög or “tiny devil” (pl. földi ördögök). Often in the form of a tiny man, this being serves as a kind of good luck charm—though at the price of a mortal’s soul. In exchange for the soul, the “tiny devil” bestows great riches and as well can make the recipient capable of performing extraordinary feats.

The Ördögszeretö

The second type of lidérc is is also known as the ördögszeretö or “devil lover” (pl. ördögszeretöek). It is sometimes called a ludvérc or a lucfir.

This being attaches itself to a mortal, but might then take one of two courses of action. First, it might decide to bring good luck and prosperity and even help with household chores. At night, however, the lidérc assails its “host” with wild, erotic dreams.

The second course of action is simply to drain the mortal “host” of life force. It appears every night to trouble the person with erotic dreams and sleep paralysis, eventually causing the victim to waste away.

Burning incense and birch branches keep the ördögszeretö from entering a house.

The Csodacsirke

The third type of lidérc is the csodacsirke (pl. csodacsirkék), literally the “miracle chicken.” This is the Hungarian equivalent of the firedrake or pisuhand, a fiery bird that sprinkles flames as it flies. This creature is said to hatch from the first black egg of a hen kept warm either under the arm of a human or in a heap of manure. Like the other lidércek described above, the csodacsirke attaches itself to a mortal and becomes his or her lover, but slowly drains the body of either blood or life force. (It can take the form of either a beautiful woman or a handsome man from the mortal’s past, as appropriate.)

The csodacsirke hoards gold, which it shares to make its owner rich. The only way to stop the lidérc is to make it do impossible chores such as bringing water from the well in a leaky bucket.

A Note about Fantasy “Races”

TL;DR: When differentiating between humans, elves, dwarves, etc., “kind” is preferable to “race.”

In much fantasy literature, we hear of various “races,” meaning elves, dwarves, orcs, and so forth.  The more I think about that terminology, the less I like it. A while back I looked at some of the fanciful humans or near-humans one encounters in the ancient and medieval geographies, populations traditionally called “monstrous races.” At that time, I took exception to that term because of the potentially hurtful connotations of both “monstrous” and “race.” In my introductory post, I wrote:

That can also be an awfully loaded term with a dubious past in pseudo-scientific pronouncements that attempted to justify the oppression and enslavement of some groups of human beings by other groups of human beings on the theory that some groups of human beings are naturally superior to others. Originally, a “race” (Latin gens, Greek ethnos) was simply a definable people-group: a tribe or culture, whether sparse or numerous, whether familiar or foreign. Even so, when talking about human beings—or supposed human beings—whose customs are disquieting or who possess animalistic traits, the word “race” can lead us down some paths we might not want to tread.

At that time, I wasn’t concerned with dwarves and the rest but only with cynocephali, monopods, and the like. But as I think of it, my concern with the word “race” still pertains and is perhaps even more pronounced when we use it to describe what makes Legolas different from Gimli.

It seems to me that “species” is an apter description of what these fantasy populations really are. There are clear genetic differences between elves, orcs, trolls, etc. Hybrid or mixed-lineage characters notwithstanding, the ability of at least some of these groups to interbreed seems at least problematic. That means we’re probably in the realm of using the term “race” to speak of what modern science would call a “species.” Dwarves are different from elves at a deep level that goes far beyond physical phenotype or genetic minutiae (e.g., blood types, lactose tolerance or intolerance, susceptibility to certain diseases, etc.). And explicitly, the term “race” is used to set certain groups apart from the “human race.” Once again, that doesn’t sit well with me.

Of course, “species”—a word used in English with a more or less precise scientific definition—doesn’t quite seem at home in a fantasy setting. Fortunately, there is a good English term from the pre-industrial era that can carry the same weight. That word is “kind.” In the King James Version of the Bible (1611), we read,

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:24-25, emphasis added)

“Kind” is thus, roughly speaking, an early English equivalent to what we usually understood by “species” today. I know I’ve read fantasy stories that speak of “Elfkind” or “Dwarfkind.” Perhaps it’s time to retire the idea of “race” as it is used in the genre and speak of “fantasy kinds” (or “fantasy kindreds”) instead.

What do you think?

Iroquois Supernatural: Culture, Commodity, Sacred, and Spooky

I have great friends. One of them recently found a copy of Iroquois Supernatural: Talking Animals and Medicine People by Michael Bastine and Mason Winfield at a yard sale and was kind enough to pick it up for me as a gift. Bastine is an Algonquin healer and elder. Winfield is a European American who describes himself as a “supernatural historian.”

This is a really neat, informative book. It is chock-full of fascinating tales, keen historical and cultural insights, and a pervasive sense of respect for the Iroquois culture(s) as a whole. I’m mentioning it not to provide a thorough review. My review can be summed up thusly: If you’re the sort of person who is interested in Native American cultures and particularly Native American mythology and folklore, get this book!

I’m bringing this book up, rather, for the guidance it may provide for writers wanting to handle mythological material from outside their culture with reverence and sensitivity. This is a topic that has recently come up in an article at Fantasy Faction by Brian O’Sullivan with respect to Celtic, and particularly Irish cultural artifacts. (You can also read my observations.)

As when I wrote about the uproar over J. K. Rowling’s handling of Native American mythology, I still believe that there are situations where leaving elements of Native American or African mythology out of a story can be more colonialistic than including them. I’m thinking particularly of stories in the contemporary fantasy genre that are set in North America—which happens to be what I write. Populating North America with unicorns and griffins rather than naked bears and great horned serpents strikes me as a lazy and Euro-centric way to tell a story.

Still, the challenge remains to handle these cultural artifacts with care and not treat them as mere commodities. Here is where Bastine and Winfield’s concerns in writing Iroquois Supernatural intersect with my own admittedly different concerns. First and most basically, writers who want to include these kinds of cultural artifacts need to read lots of books like this one, written from a clearly sympathetic viewpoint.

Second, the authors draw a distinction between what they classify as “the sacred” and “the spooky.” This is a distinction that especially writers from outside a given culture need to keep in mind. In the introduction, they write:

Figuring out what to include in this book has been tricky. Where do you draw the line between miracle and magic? Between religion and spirituality? Between the sacred and the merely spooky? This book doesn’t try to choose. How could anyone? (p. 2)

But then they proceed to explain their preference for the spooky over the sacred:

All religions are at heart supernatural. Throughout history most societies have had both a mainstream supernaturalism and others that are looked upon with more suspicion. The “out” supernaturalism is often that of a less advantaged group within the major society. What the mainstream calls “sacred” is its supernaturalism; terms like “witchcraft” are applied to the others. Someone’s ceiling is another’s floor, and one culture’s God is another’s Devil. To someone from Mars, what could be the objective difference? (p. 2)

This comment reminds me of the privileged place Judeo-Christian supernaturalism has in my own culture. Perhaps it will remind you of something else in your own frame of reference. But the writers go on to admit that within Iroquois society itself there are distinctions between the sacred and the spooky. They conclude,

This book is not about the sacred traditions of the Iroquois. It is a profile of the supernaturalism external to the religious material recognized as truly sacred. This is a book largely about the “out” stuff: witches, curses, supernatural beings, powerful places, and ghosts. (p. 3)

Even so, the authors admit that it isn’t always easy to draw firm lines between sacred and spooky. The fact that one of the authors is a practicing traditional healer within a neighboring Native American community is bound to help in this regard! Later on, we hear Winfield explaining further about their approach to this cultural material:

This is not a book about Iroquois religion or anything else we knew was sacred enough to be sensitive. Not only is that not our purpose, but, as a Mohawk friend said recently to me, “If it’s sacred, you don’t know it.” And coauthor Michael Bastine would not reveal it. (p. 22)

So perhaps we can isolate the following touchstones as the beginning of an approach to including cultural material from marginalized or minority groups within our society:

  • Aim for the spooky, not the sacred. Frankly, I’m not interested in writing philosophical or theological treatises on the spirituality of marginalized peoples. (I will admit to a certain interest in reading such studies.) But I love stories about ghosts, monsters, trickster figures, or what have you. As Bastine and Winfield themselves note numerous times, these sorts of things are common to every culture. That suggests to me that, with suitable awareness, writers can fruitfully explore them. If something gets too close to the lived faith commitments of others, however, I tend to want to shy away from it in terms of worldbuilding and storytelling,
  • If it is sacred enough to be sensitive, leave it out. I’m well aware that one reaches a point of sensitivity sooner in some cultures than others, and with different topics in some cultures than in others. Still, is there a better place to start?
  • Strive to understand as much about the culture as a whole as possible. I don’t want to add a cultural element to a story without a firm grasp of how that element relates to others in its “native” environment. Understanding the ins and outs of a culture and its history is a great inoculation against a grab-bag approach.

Do you think it’s possible for writers to handle other world cultures with sensitivity? When have you seen a writer handle well the artifacts of a culture to which he or she was an outsider?

Review of Wonder Woman (No Spoilers!)

On the way to the cinema yesterday, my daughter and I were talking about male and female role models in film. I told her about a YouTube video I had recently found that described Newt Scamander (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) as a refreshingly different model for what a male hero is supposed to be like. We both agreed that, though we enjoyed stories featuring the more “traditional” male heroic archetype (Harry Potter, Iron Man, etc.), it was important to remember that there are other ways of being “a man.”

We looked forward to seeing this newest interpretation of Wonder Woman, a character who, from her inception in the 1940s, offered a rather complex role model for women and girls. She is a woman who is at the same time beautiful, kind, intelligent, and willing and more than able to kick butt and take names when the situation calls for it.

Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and portrayed expertly by Gal Gadot, measures up and then some! Other reviewers have commented that Wonder Woman doesn’t necessarily feel like a superhero movie. Yes, there are super-powered characters in outlandish costumes, but Jenkins grounds these characters so thoroughly in the real world that I found it quite easy to suspend disbelief and imagine that it would be reasonable for Diana and the rest to exist in my world.

I think a large part of this is that the movie doesn’t flinch from portraying the horrors of World War I. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that the “villain” of this movie is Ares, the god of war. The true villain is World War I itself—the senseless destruction, the loss of life, the social dislocation, and especially the loss of hope that this war, perhaps more than any war that came before it, brought. And, as Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor says in a moving piece of dialogue near the end, it was all something we humans did to ourselves.

There is even dialogue that implicates those who would appease the enemy by calling for an armistice are complicit in the tragedy. I don’t know if that is meant to be a cynical note, another gut punch when we the viewers have already been schooled in just how bad war can be. But I couldn’t help hearing that line in the context of Gal Gadot’s former service in the Israeli Defense Force and the many broken cease-fires her country has contended with from enemies all around. Is there a political commentary in there? I don’t know, and at any rate, if it was, it was so exceedingly subtle that it didn’t come across as in any way preachy. (As a side note, this movie could have easily gotten way too dark without the comic relief. It is applied liberally, but never in places that where it detracts from the drama.)

Gadot’s Diana and Pine’s Trevor are both complex and well-acted characters. They are multi-dimensional, and the chemistry between them seemed quite authentic to me. Some of the supporting cast may have come across as more one-dimensional, but their one dimension still added to the overall tone of the movie in important ways.

Are there nits that I could pick? Sure. As visually stunning as the movie is, there are places where Jenkins relied a bit too much on “bullet time.”

Most of my problems (and they are admittedly minor) have to do with the logic of the story world. How can the people of Themiscyra can speak so many modern languages and yet have apparently no knowledge of modern warfare—or indeed the modern world? Who thought flaming arrows were a good idea? How can a proud race of warriors manage not to invent armor for the shoulders or neck? (Yes, that’s directly from the source material, but still…)

Go see Wonder Woman, and take your young teen (or older) children. As I noted above, the scenes of wartime violence and its societal effects are quite intense, probably too intense for younger kids. But beyond that, there is little to offend. There are a few lines of sexual innuendo that will probably go over the heads of most children (and possibly more than a few teenagers!). I don’t recall any questionable language at all, though I may be forgetting something.

In my opinion, Wonder Woman strikes an almost perfect balance of humor, action, and thought-provoking themes. Well worth the price of a ticket.