kent_allard_jr: (the ancients)
I'm a bit reluctant to talk about religion in public, particularly other people's religions, due to vivid memories of arguments in Alarums and Excursions and elsewhere in the 1990s. Whether it's a resistance to generalizing, a concern with cultural appropriation, or a natural urge to mystify (there'd be no need for gurus if you could learn the stuff in a goddamn book), people tell you you just can't understand this stuff unless you were raised in it since birth and spent 30 years in an ashram, temple or mountaintop. As you can tell, I never cared for this type of attitude; I think generalizations can be worthwhile when you're learning a subject (you can pick up the exceptions later), cultural appropriation is harmless as long as you give due credit to your source, and mystification is to be frowned upon. I think you have to reject it if you're interested in comparative religion, not out of a search for Ultimate Truth (which should take a lifetime on a mountaintop...) but out of simple intellectual curiosity.

Reading about Hinduism has strongly challenged my approach. Hinduism is so complex, so baroque, so filled to the brim with gods, scriptures and sects that it'd be natural to throw up your hands and say it's beyond a Westerner's understanding. Some say you can't call Hinduism a "religion" at all, and I agree that it'd be silly to call it a single faith, anymore than Judaism, Christianity and Islam are "the same religion." Nevertheless I think I can piece together some of the main themes and, at the risk of overgeneralizing, identify the more prominent approaches. Read further for my gloss on a 3500-year faith... )
kent_allard_jr: (Default)
As I've said many times, I've always been more interested in myth and legend than in contemporary fantasy, and this was true when I discovered D&D as a kid. So the book that most excited me was Deities and Demigods. That book was my introduction to the Cthulhu Mythos (as well as "Melnibonean" and "Newhon"), but it presented the material out of its original context. The Erol Otus artwork suggested, as you would expect with a D&D supplement, that Lovecraft's stories took place in a standard Medieval setting with castles and princesses and the rest of it. It presented the mind-boggling prospect of a Cleric of Cthulhu, armed with mace, shield and chainmail, marching into the dragon's lair with a standard D&D party, no different from any other evil cleric except that he can't say his god's name and he sacrifices virgins in his off-hours.

Lately I've been reading short stories of Clark Ashton Smith and CL Moore, part of my research into pulp heroic fantasy. The odd thing is, their "Medieval romances" resemble that hypothetical D&D pretty well. The monsters are Lovecraftian, with little resemblance to creatures of myth or legend, and pagan priests are presented as sinister and bloody-minded. As I recall this was also the case with the Conan stories I read as a teenager. I expected this from Smith, a horror specialist who (like Howard) was a frequent Lovecraft correspondent, but I was surprised to find it in CL Moore's Jilel of Joiry stories.

I don't know where this taste for tentacled blobs comes from (Hodgson? Merritt? Burroughs?), but it's interesting to see a very different approach from Tolkien when it came to the forces of darkness and evil. Ideally, I'd say, you should follow one or the other if you want a consistent atmosphere.
kent_allard_jr: (creativity)
I noted, about a month ago, that I was working on a pre-history of my fantasy world. I had to stop for a bit while I moved in earnest, and during that time Google Docs apparently changed its file-sharing settings, so you can make docs available to the whole Web. (If GD always had this feature, and I missed it, my apologies.)

Anyway ... here's my latest draft for the "second era," or prehistoric human history. It's not pretty -- I tried to record events as straightforwardly as possible -- but it gives you the basic gist.
kent_allard_jr: (creativity)
Humans have practiced agriculture and lived in towns for about 10,000 years, at least in the Middle East, yet we only have written records for half of that time (since about 3,000 BC). This has long fascinated me. Five millennia of people toiling the fields, worshiping their gods, waging war and telling stories around the campfire, and all of that experience has been lost to us. I suspect their accomplishments could have rivaled, say, that of the Inca, another preliterate Neolithic civilization; we know as little about the Inca's predecessors as we do about the Samarra and the Ubaid, but that doesn't mean they were less impressive than the folks Europeans stumbled upon.

I resolved to give my fantasy world a prehistory, one that players wouldn't know about but which would leave traces in ruins and half-forgotten legends. This is contrary to most fantasy worlds, which have written records that go back eons by Earth standards. (Over 3,000 years separate the two Wars of the Ring, for example. The first War was as a distant to Frodo and the gang as the Trojan War is to us, but they seem intimately familiar with the old events at Mount Doom.) This can be justified by the longevity of fantasy races, but to me that's a reason to keep the immortal races at a distance, and declare that humans, elves, and the rest never hung around long enough to give each other history lessons.

What should a prehistory consist of? In my universe, I used myth-like stories to account for differences between people. So I came up with tales to explain migratory patters, attributing dispersions to dramatic events that sent folks fleeing all over the map. I also had the stories describe the changing relationships between men and the gods, imitating the dynamic you see in Genesis. So humans were often wicked and cruel, sometimes even depraved, while the gods were self-righteous genocidal maniacs, smiting whole cities out of disgust with human misbehavior.

I don't know if it's all a waste of time -- since few players will see this stuff, or care all that much -- but I like the way it adds depth to a fantasy world. I'd be interested to hear other thoughts on this approach.
kent_allard_jr: (the ancients)
Paul Hamlyn published a series of books on mythology back in the 60s and early 70s. Many of them were painfully dry but I loved them nevertheless, particularly Indian Mythology by Veronica Ions which introduced me to the magnificently baroque layer-cake of Hindu deities. (Hindu philosophy, sadly, was beyond my 8-year old understanding.) In the early 90s I was delighted to find them republished by Peter Bedrick Books, and over the years I amassed the whole library in one edition or another.

European Mythology by Jacqueline Simpson sat on my shelf for years, and I finally got around to reading it. A fascinating book! The title was slightly misleading, as there were no explicit references to pagan gods or practices. It was really a book about folklore: Fairy-folk, charms, witches, festivals, legendary kings and other beliefs of European peasantry. The author took an admirably cautious approach, describing each story or belief while refusing to speculate about their ultimate origins.

Simpson's resistance to theory left her with more room to describe the folklore. A few random tidbits:
  • Many of you know the Celts, and other cultures, attributed magic powers to blacksmiths. Powers were also attributed to other professions, such as rat catchers (the Pied Piper being a famous exemplar); Hungarian shepherds, who were thought to have magic crooks that could watch their flocks for them; and Scottish horsemen who could tame wild horses with magic words.
  • I was unfamiliar with many of the faeries from Eastern and Southern Europe, such as the Vodanoy, a frog-like ogre that hibernates under winter ice and awakes in a fury; the Polevik, a farm-guardian covered with muddy, grassy hair who strangles intruders; and the Pavaro, another farm guardian (Italian in this case), with a dog head and iron teeth and claws.
  • Apparently "dragon parades" are (or were) common throughout Europe, reenactments of the creature's defeat by a hero or saint. One of them, to my surprise, was the Tarasque, whose effigy was paraded through Tarascon, France twice a year. (Supposedly St. Martha subdued the beast with a sprinkle of holy water; if only it was that easy in D&D!)
These were just a few of the delightful recollections in European Mythology, which is sadly out of print. If you find it, though, I highly recommend buying a copy.
kent_allard_jr: (the ancients)
One of the great things about discovering new mythologies is that you learn about all sorts of parallels and potential connections you never knew about before.

I bought a book of Nart sagas from the Caucasus a few months ago, and returned to it the other night. The Narts were a race of superhuman heroes who may have been pagan deities before Christianity (much like the Tuatha De Dannan, but their divinity isn't as obvious). Despite widespread interest in mythology the Nart stories aren't widely known, probably due to the obscurity of Caucasian languages.

Anyway, the myth I found most striking was "How Pataraz Freed Bearded Nasran, Who Was Chained to the High Mountain." An evil giant named Paqua, who lived on a mountaintop, sent a cold wind that extinguished all the fires of the Narts. They sent their leader, Nasran, to try to reason with the giant, but Paqua just chained poor Nasran to the mountain. He also sent his giant eagle to drink Nasran's blood and peck at his lungs. Finally the great hero Pataraz climbed the mountain, defeated Paqua and his eagle, and brought Nasran home.

The parallels with the Prometheus legend should be obvious here. Now it's possible that the Circassians picked the story from the Greeks, but I doubt it: In the Prometheus legend, after all, the Titian is chained to mountain in the Caucasus, implying that the Greeks (likely settlers in the Black Sea) heard the story there and brought it back with them to Greece.

Parallels with other myths have been found -- with Indra, with Odin, and with King Arthur stories -- but I find them a lot less convincing.
kent_allard_jr: (profile)
This year I'm considering dressing up as Odin in his traveling-among-mortals disguise. Here are some things I might need:
  1. An eyepatch (easy enough)
  2. A big, floppy hat (also easy, I'm sure, though I don't know a good place to buy them)
  3. A walking stick (ditto)
  4. A cloak (again, easy enough I'm sure)
  5. Some raggedy clothes that wouldn't look out of place on poor Dark Ages Scandinavian. If there was a burlap sack big enough to hold me, I guess it could work for the top half. I could just wear my plaid pajama bottoms for the legs I suppose, even if plaid is more a Celtic thing. Footwear I have no idea...
  6. A beard, which I'm growing right now; something longer would be more appropriate, but fake hair looks awful
  7. White hair -- either very cheap coloring or a wig, but see "fake hair" above
Anyone have any thoughts as to what would work and what wouldn't, where I might find this stuff locally, that sort of thing?

Roman Gods

Mar. 17th, 2009 06:59 am
kent_allard_jr: (Default)
One of the conventions that's always bothered me was the idea that the Greeks and the Romans had the "same gods" with "different names." The Romans certainly acted like this was the case, but they assumed such correspondences with all kinds of deities, not just Greek and Roman; they'd say the Germans "worshiped Mercury most," but that doesn't mean that Wotan (whom Tacitus was probably referring to), Mercury and Hermes were all "the same god" in any meaningful sense. (They apparently even had a name for this style of thought, "interpretatio romana.")

As far as I can tell, the relations between Roman deities and their Greek counterparts were more complex than the standard correspondences assume them to be. Some Roman gods were ancestrally related to their Greek analogue; some were borrowed directly; while others were given Greek attributes as a kind of window dressing. In no particular order:
  • Jupiter is a cognate of the Greek god Zeus Pater (Father Zeus), so the two are almost certainly ancestrally related.
  • Apollo was just adopted directly, a Greek god that caught on among early Romans.
  • Apparently the same can be said of Bacchus, which was apparently another (Greek) name for Dionysus
  • Juno and Minerva were Etruscan deities (Uni and Menarva) the Romans worshiped and later considered analogous to Hera and Athena, respectively.
  • Mars, apparently, was also taken from an Etruscan deity, Maris. Originally an agricultural god, he picked up the war portfolio and thus was equated with the (far less important) Greek god Ares.
  • I don't think anyone knows where Neptune came from. The Etruscans worshiped a god named Nethuns, which Wikipedia says "is likely cognate with that of the Celtic god Nechtan and the Persian and Vedic gods sharing the name Apam Napat." It seems hard to believe that the Etruscans would pick up the cult from the Latins (it usually worked the other way around), let alone the Celtic rowdies of the North, but stranger things have happened I suppose.
  • I'm not sure what the etymology of Vulcan is, but he was an indigenous Roman god of fire. He doesn't seem to be Etruscan, since their god was named Sethlans and I don't see the resemblance.
  • I can't find the etymology of Diana either, but she was apparently an ancient Italian goddess who was regarded as "foreign" by the Romans.
  • On Sunday I was sternly rebuked for referring to the Greek god of the dead as Pluto, rather than Hades, but Pluto may have been a Greek name for the god as well. (I know Wikipedia is a lousy source, but this is an LJ entry, not a Ph.D. dissertation, and it's better than nothing.) In any event, Pluto apparently was a Roman god of metals who got the underworld gig.
  • Ceres at least might have an Indo-European name, so she may be an aboriginal Roman deity who was later equated with Demeter. The same can be said of Mercury, which apparently is a cognate of "merchandise." On the other hand neither is mentioned in this list of di indigetes so I may be wrong.
  • The relation between Vesta and Hestia is hard to discern. Despite the apparent similarity the two names aren't cognates, and Vesta's cult is too ancient to be a likely borrowing. (Strangely, Vesta isn't on that list of indigenous deities, but that may say more about the list than the Vesta cult.)
  • Proserpina is just Persephone mispronounced, the same as Hercules and Herakles.
That covers the main Olympians, at least. Hope it was useful or interesting to somebody.
kent_allard_jr: (Default)
At a party last night, I mentioned that the Greek god Apollo and the ancient Indian god Rudra had a lot in common. The deities are very different on a superficial level; Rudra was a wild, violent, almost beast-like deity, while "Apollonian" became associated with cool reason and self-control. Nevertheless, I said, both of them were archers who spread disease, and they shared "rat-like" epithets suggesting a connection to a common ancestor.

I just looked up my reference, Comparative Mythology by Jaan Puhvel. Here's what it had to say:
An entire structure emerges: Apollo as the plague bringing known as Smintheus (from sminthos, denoting a ratty type of mouse), while Asklepios is derived from skalops or (a)spalax 'blind rat, rat mole.' This reflects an animal symbolism of the plague rat as the disease spreader and the mole as the blind, beneficent healing animal. Ancillary symbolism abounds: Apollo has the epithet Loxias 'the one with the oblique gait,' a reference to the typical movement of mice...

The Vedic Rudra had as his animal akhu- '[rat] mole,' as did his son Ganesa, who is sometimes depicted as akhu-ga- 'riding on a rat,' even as Apollo Smintheus was bebekos epi toi mui 'mounted on a mouse' (Strabo 13.48). Rudra was known as Vanku- 'totterer, waverer,' also a reference to the typical gait of rodents ... The similarities are striking and specific enough to postulate as prototype an ambivalent archer-god who could either hurt or heal and whole animal manifestation was either rat or mole.
I don't know Greek or Sanskrit, and I have no idea if Puhvel is pulling the linguistic stuff from his ass. Even if he wasn't, of course, this still wouldn't constitute definitive proof of a connection. Nevertheless, it's not a crazy hypothesis.


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