Vampire Vednesdays: Vampire Corpse

It is not entirely accurate to say that there are no vampire legends among Native Americans, but the few creatures native to North America that might (perhaps generously) classify as “vampires” are quite a bit different from their European cousins.

Among the Iroquois, for example, there is a monster sometimes called a “vampire corpse,” “vampire skeleton,” or “cannibal corpse.” Obviously, the name is a product of cultural cross-pollination with European settlers. In the Seneca language, the creature is called a tcis’gä, which simply means “corpse” or “skeleton.” Its nature is in some ways comparable to a European vampire, in other ways more like the zombie of popular culture. It has an emaciated, skeletal body and variety of magical powers. They are repelled, however, by redbud branches.

A vampire corpse can be a simple dead body that something evil has overtaken. Or, it could be the body of a sorcerer so full of its own magical potency that it endures after physical death. In either case, it is a ravenous undead creature with a frightening appearance and a hunger for human flesh.

These creatures’ bestial demeanor and cadaverous appearance make it impossible for them to impersonate normal human beings. They might lie in wait in their coffins in remote huts or cabins, preying upon lost travelers who hope to spend the night under their shelter.

A similar creature, the skudakumooch or “ghost witch,” is associated with the Wabanaki cultures of the Maritime Provinces and adjacent areas.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-García

I’m going to cut right to the chase. Go buy this book, now. You won’t regret it.

Still here? Then allow me to explain. Gods of Jade and Shadow is a delight. It’s the story of Casiopea Tun, an eighteen-year-old from Yucatán in 1927. On her mother’s side, she’s from an influential local family, the quintessential big fishes in a small pond. But on her father’s side, she’s of Maya heritage and therefore looked down upon by her more fair-skinned cousins. She dreams of one day escaping her little village and seeing the wider world, out from under the oppressive thumb of her Grandfather and her spiteful cousin Martín.

One day, an encounter with a Maya god of death promises to make her dreams come true—if it doesn’t kill her first. She leaves her village on a trek across Mexico in the company of this dark Lord of Xibalba, the Maya underworld, along the way meeting numerous other creatures from the indigenous and colonial mythologies of Mexico. The death god, Hun-Kamé, is on a quest to retrieve certain elements stolen from him by his vengeful brother Vucub-Kamé, who now sits on Hun-Kamé’s throne. Once he collects what he has lost, he will be able to challenge his brother. Until then, his existence on this mortal plane is bound to Casiopea’s. The longer he remains in his semi-mortal state, the closer Casiopea comes to her own death.

As she did in Certain Dark Things, Moreno-García masterfully weaves ancient Mesoamerican folklore with modern Mexican sensibilities. Gods of Jade and Shadow reminded me of the Latin American novels I read in my Spanish Literature classes back in college—and that is definitely a good thing! She spins a tale of magical realism as adeptly as did Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luís Borges, or any of the other greats of the twentieth century.

Most important, she makes me care about her characters. By the time you get to the end of the story, you understand why each of them acts as they do. You cheer for the heroes while feeling at least a twinge of pity for the villains. They’re all imminently human—even the gods and monsters.

So if you like contemporary fantasy or magical realism, buy this book.

If you like tender coming-of-age stories, buy this book.

If you love Mexico, its people and its culture, buy this book.

You really won’t be sorry you did.

Kiss of the Butterfly by James Lyon

A few years ago I re-read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and wistfully thought, “I miss the days when vampires were the bad guys.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a sympathetic villain with a tortured soul as much as the next guy, but I’m kind of a purist when it comes to my folkloric creatures. Do interesting things with them, turn their mythology on its head if you like, but first show me that you’ve done your homework. You want to write about vampires? Fine. Just don’t make them sparkle.

So I leaped for James Lyon’s Kiss of the Butterfly the day I found out about it. Lyon has a PhD in Balkan History, and the tale he weaves about the restless dead drinks deep from the well of Slavic, and especially South Slavic, vampire lore. If you’re going to tell a fresh vampire story these days, you could do worse than to take the reader back to the source. I knew a little about pre-Lugosi, pre-Stoker vampires, but was still blissfully ignorant of many of the twists and red herrings you get when your protagonists are going up against the Real Deal.

Lyon sets his story against the backdrop of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Into this war-torn region comes American grad student Steven Roberts, looking for a dissertation topic in Slavic ethnography but growingly afraid that his mentor, the mysterious Professor Slatina, has something far more momentous in mind for his protégé.

There is much to appreciate in this brief novel. The slow-burn start that puts all the pieces on the table before the fangs ever come out. The political commentary about war, violence, depravity, and demagoguery. The frank, if a bit wooden, philosophical musings about good and evil, God and faith, and, of course, the devil.

Kiss of the Butterfly is not, however, a perfect book. To be honest, the ending was a bit of a letdown. Without spoiling the plot, certain expectations are raised near the end of the second act that are never met. The ending is therefore a bit frustrating. What do you mean we don’t get to read the scene where X happens?

The book ends as if it’s the first volume of a series, but since it was published in 2013, I’m not looking for one—nor can I imagine a sequel that wouldn’t have to tread a whole lot of the ground covered in this book.

If you like vampire stories, however, you definitely owe it to yourself to read this novel. And if you don’t like vampire stories, maybe you’ll appreciate a look at where the cultural fascination with these bloodsuckers all began.

10 Random (Non-Spoilery) Observations about Avengers: Infinity War

1. The fact that certain events at the end of the movie are guaranteed to be reversed in the sequel keeps me from having a deep emotional reaction to said events.

2. Marvel is able to go dark. After Thor: Ragnarok, I wasn’t so sure. If not for #1 above, I’d say far too dark for my tastes.

3. At first I thought Dr. Strange suffered a surprising moral failure. Then I realized there are 14,000,605 reasons why he did what he did.

4. I’m curious how a fan of Chick tracts might have reacted to the post-credits scene.

5. That one guy? I’m still not 100% sure he’s dead.

6. I kept wanting to refer to Thanos as the Mad Malthusian.

7. If the sequel involves breaking into Gringotts to retrieve a magical artifact, I’m crying foul.

8. The end credits music was phenomenal! It really captured the tone of where the story has taken us.

9. Was Ned giving Peter the distraction he asked for, or was he legit freaking out because of the giant space donut?

10. I did not expect dwarves to be that tall. I kind of liked it.

The Latin Word(s) for “Muggle”

Yesterday I offered a brief rant about the apparent absence of the French neologism moldu for “Muggle” in the new Fantastic Beasts movie. I’m fascinated by foreign languages, and several years back, when my daughter was at the height of her Harry Potter fascination, I became interested in how some of the unique magical terminology of the books translated into various other languages. Today, I’d like to share a little bit of what I found, and some conjectures I was able to make from it in terms of an original Latin word for “Muggle.”

Two factors make it difficult to arrive at a Latin word for “Muggle.” First, several modern translations of Harry Potter into the Romance languages simply leave the English word untranslated. Frustratingly, this is also the case with Peter Needham’s Harrius Potter et philosophi lapis. Second, among the translations that go to the trouble of inventing a vernacular equivalent, the forms are widely divergent.

In what follows, I’ve observed the following conventions:

  • Words found in official Harry Potter translations are in boldface: Romanian încuiat.
  • Conjectural words arrived at through linguistic principles are preceded by an asterisk: Sicilian *babbanu. My knowledge of some of these languages is quite limited, and I’m happy to concede I may have applied the necessary sound changes incorrectly.
  • Conjectural words where the etymological root is itself open to debate are preceded by an asterisk and followed by a question mark: Norman French *muguel?

With that out of the way, let’s get started.

Eastern Romance Languages

The Romanian word for “Muggle” is încuiat, an archaic form of încuia, meaning “ignorant.” This, in turn, comes from Latin incuneatus, “wedged in,” hence “narrow(-minded)” or “ignorant.” We might propose an original sense of “ignorant of magic” or something similar.

Italo-Romance Languages

In Italian, we find the word babbano for a non-magical person. This word is suggestive of babbeo, “fool, idiot,” deriving from Latin balbus, “stammering, stuttering, fumbling.” A hypothetical Late Latin form *balbanus most likely lies behind babbano and might suggest incompetence at uttering incantations or casting spells.

Presumably the terms in Sicilian, Venetian, and other Italo-Romance languages are cognate to Italian babbano.

Gallo-Romance Languages

Harry Potter has been translated into two Gallo-Romance languages: Catalan and French. As far as I know, all translations into the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (such as Catalan) use the English word “muggle.” These languages will be considered in the next section.

In French, we find the word moldu, as I noted in my previous post. It is ultimately derived from Old French mol, meaning “soft” or “limp.” It is also vaguely possible that moldu was influenced by Proto-Celtic *meldo-, meaning “soft,” “humble,” or “mild-mannered.” The Gaulish form, used during Roman times, would be *moldos.

At any rate, in most of medieval France, the word for Muggle would have been moldu. We might, however, hypothesize that the Norman French dialect had a word something like *muguel, of Germanic origin.

The word in Occitan, spoken in the southern part of France, is most likely cognate to the indigenous Catalan term, whatever that should be.

Ibero-Romance Languages

In Brazilian Portuguese, we find the slang term trouxa, “gullible, sucker.” This word is related to Old Spanish troja or troxa “load, burden,” and only serves as a synonym for Muggle because of its colloquial secondary meaning.

Translations of Harry Potter into the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (Spanish, Catalan, and Iberian Portuguese) all use the word muggle. There doesn’t seem to be anything to gain by second-guessing the translators. They tell us that muggle is a perfectly acceptable Catalan, Spanish, or Portuguese word, so let’s take them at their word. For whatever reasons, these three languages have adopted the English term as a loanword and accept it as part of their indigenous vocabulary, much as Spanish speakers have also adopted Anglicisms like bisteca (“beefsteak”), fútbol (“football”), parking (“parking lot/car park”), etc. Perhaps in time, the spelling of “muggle” will be altered to conform to local conventions (e.g., in Spanish, it might become something like *móguel or *múguel).

But what did Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan-speaking wizards call non-magical persons before adopting this English world? Almost certainly, it was a local derivative of one of the Latin words discussed above: mollis, *balbanus, or incuneatus. Since Spanish is often closer to Italian than to French, *balbanus-forms are most likely, though we can’t really rule out mollis-forms. I suspect incuneatus-forms would be highly unlikely, however.

Furthermore, given the precedent of French moldu, if the Ibero-Romance languages settled on a mollis-form, they may well have added an augmentative or pejorative suffix to their vernacular terms (Spanish muelle, Portuguese mole, Catalan moll, etc.). In Spanish, the Romance language with which I’m most familiar, the range possibilities is quite impressive: mollón, mollote, mollejo, mollucho, etc.


Here, then, are my best guesses for the local indigenous words for a non-magical person in various Romance languages, either attested in published translations or proposed on linguistic bases.

Eastern Romance
Romanian: încuiat

Italian: babbano
Sicilian: *babbanu

Lombard: *bauban
Venetian: *babban

—Langues d’oc
Catalan: muggle (originally *balba? *mollo?)
Occitan: *balban? *molon? (or *moldu?)

—Langues d’oïl
French (Norman): *muguel?
French (Standard): moldu

Asturian: *muggle? (originally *balbanu? *mollón?)

Galician: *muggle? (originally *balbano? *molón?)
Portuguese (Brazil): trouxa (originally *balbão? *molão?)
Portuguese (Portugal): muggle (originally *balbão? *molão?)

Spanish: muggle (originally *balbano? *mollón? [*mollote, etc.?])

To conclude, there are three good candidates for the “original” Latin word for a non-magical person, incuneatus, *balbanus, and mollis. Incuneatus has the advantage of being an actual, attested Latin word. Mollis is also attested, but would seem to have a common enough meaning as to require some sort of modification (such as the French ending –du) to make it serve as a technical term. Similarly, balbus is an attested word modified by the adjectival ending–anus to form *balbanus.

At least to me, incuneatus has the least pejorative connotation. Perhaps we can propose a Classical Latin incuneatus and later, less “sophisticated” Vulgar Latin forms based on mollis and balbus. There are many other examples where Latin has both a “proper” and one or more “slang” words for the same thing: equus and caballus (“horse”), caput and testa (“head”), capsa, buxus, and scatula (“box”), etc. Romance languages draw their vocabulary sometimes from one side of the lexical pool and sometimes from the other.