Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Myths People Tell

I've been interested in the Ainu for a long time. One of the things that is most interesting about Ainu history is how unknowable it is. In many ways the story of the Ainu very closely parallels that of American Indians or any other native people subject to colonial power - a tale of slow but inexorable loss. Yet accessing information about pre-colonial Ainu history and culture is especially difficult because their assimilation has been so absolute. From the late 19th Century the official line in Japan was that Ainu were simply "former aborigines" who were to be subsumed into the (ethnically homogenous) Japanese State. This meant the almost complete destruction of a way of life that was already under intense pressure. You get an insight into this from reading the Introduction and Prefatory Remarks to BH Chamberlain's collection of "Aino Folk Tales", written in 1888: by this stage, Aino culture was already "at its last gasp":

Even in religion, the most conservative of all institutions, especially among barbarians, the Ainos have suffered Japanese influence to intrude itself. It is Japanese rice-beer, under its Japanese name of sake, which they offer in libations to their gods. Their very word for "prayer" seems to be archaic Japanese. A mediæval Japanese hero, Yoshitsune, is generally allowed to be held in religious reverence by them.

Even the word which the Ainu used for "god" had by Chamberlain's day been replaced by a loan-word from Japanese - kamui, borrowing from the Japanese kami. In other words, this was a people whose traditions had already, by the time they were a subject of interest to anthropologists, been almost trampled into oblivion.

This means that even the folk-tales of the Ainu often seem to be hinting at a people who were trying to come to terms with a world which had radically and permanently changed. Take this story:

The First Appearance of the Horse in Aino-land.
A very beautiful woman had a husband. He was a very skilful fellow. Once he went to the mountains, and disappeared. But at night he returned, bearing a deer on his back. After feasting on the deer, they went to bed. But in the middle of the night, the woman wept and screamed, saying: "This man is not my husband. Though with shame, I will declare the fact as it is. His penis is so big, so big, so big, that it will not get into my vagina; and if it did get in, I should die." 
Alarmed by her cries, the neighbours ran out, and came into her house; and one strong fellow took a stick, and beat the husband, saying: "You must be some sort of devil," whereupon the husband turned into a horse, and ran away neighing. Afterwards he was beaten to death. 
The truth was that the husband had been killed and supplanted by the horse. That was the first the Ainos saw of horses. In ancient days every sort of creature could thus assume human shape. So it is said.

I'm only the most amateur of armchair speculators, but even so this tale strikes me as being fraught with subtexts (practically super-texts, really) about the collision between horse-riding agriculturalist invaders from the South and Northern forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers and fishermen. I think it's fair to say that Freud would have had a field day with it.

In any event, I think it's hard to disagree with Chamberlain who, despite his pretty mean-spirited and patronising view of the Ainu, makes the excellent point that folklore is in part a kind of attempt at science - a way of understanding the world. Not explaining things, but processing them and internalising them. I think it's also much more than that and you shouldn't reduce it to something purely instrumental, but it seems to play that role amongst many others. In the tales of the Ainu, read in the round, you get a strong sense of people (probably subconsciously) trying through stories to get to the bottom of why their world was the way it was.

This all raises a question for me: what kind of stories would people in a fantasy setting tell? Given that folklore is not just a way of telling fun stories but a way of making sense of things, how would people do that in a world where there were actually dragons and orcs and elves and magic? That is, we human beings in the real world seem in part to have dreamed up supernatural events in order to form a perspective on various elements of our own existence. So what kind of stories would it be necessary to dream up in a world which actually really had supernatural events taking place?


  1. Way back when I was in University, I took a class on Early Modern Japanese History, which, as is the way with University classes, had a ethnic history aspect. The book assigned for this portion of the class was " Our Land Was a Forest", a history of Ainu.

    Unfortunately, I have only skimmed the book as much as was needed to pass my exams, so I know little about the people, but the concept has fascinated me as an example of cultural domination.

  2. You raise a really interesting question that has been on the edge of my mind for a while, but I couldn't formulate it. RuneQuest (in all its versions) seems to be an attempt to answer this, but I don't know how satisfactory I find it.

  3. Sean Robert Meaney24 February 2016 at 10:02

    Their language will always tell you who they are.
    Ai-nu are protoindoeuropean phonetics with multiple possible meanings.
    Ai: to give; utterance.
    Nu: now!
    It is demanding something from another. Not realy a name of a people.

    There are variations:
    Ai(dh): to burn
    Ai(g): goat
    Ai(s): to desire
    Ai(w): vital force, long life.

    So thats not likely their actual name but one imposed on them through interaction.

    1. I don't really understand what you mean. Ai-nu is also Japanese phonetics, which has nothing to do with Indo-European.

  4. "So what kind of stories would it be necessary to dream up in a world which actually really had supernatural events taking place?"

    I feel like you're forgetting that in the past (and in the present, in a certain way, for certain people), we were living in "a world which actually really had supernatural events taking place." Humans believe(d) in psychic powers, and miracles, and angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, faeries, goblins, prophetic dreams, star arrangements and celestial phenomena that had real meaning and impact here on earth. We believe(d) in supernatural properties belonging to certain plants, stones, animals, colors, and times of day. We believe(d) that people who knew the right secrets could make things happen, or not happen, in defiance of all the laws of reason and nature. People found dinosaur bones and decided that dragons are real but hiding; noticed coincidences and decided that the neighbor was a witch.

    Surely there would be an effect from living in a fantasy world - stories about dragons would be more consistent, and largely based on actual dragon characteristics, perhaps - but aside from that effect, the ghost stories of a world with real ghosts otherwise wouldn't necessarily be any different from the ghost stories of the people in this world who only thought they'd met ghosts.

    Fantasy fiction in a fantasy world would be different, but keep in mind that a lot of "fantasy" folklore was thought, by at least some of its tellers, to be completely realistic.

    1. Yes, we believed those things, but they didn't really exist. My question is, in a fantasy world in which those things really do exist - can be seen and interacted with - then what kind of folklore would people come up with?

    2. Sean Robert Meaney24 February 2016 at 17:40

      Actually they existed. Goblin and kobold comes to us via the ku phonetic. These were other people. Humans, but not us. I've tracked the ku to the indus valley/hindu kush. They are a physically smaller people than the 'humans' who come to take their land. Relations between the ku and humans are not pleasant. They are displaced. They are absorbed into our own human tree vanishing from reality.

    3. I feel like I kind of answered your question above, albeit tangentially.

      First, as I say, people are already telling stories about imaginary things that they believe they truly experienced, so it wouldn't be that much different from stories about real things that people believe they truly experienced.

      That said, the details of the story depend on your experience, and the subject matter being real would likely produce greater consistency than our world's stories do. E.g. in a world with real vampires, you wouldn't be as likely to have Chinese hopping vampires, Nosferatu, Rice's dark brooders, and sparkly pedophiles all showing up. You'd have a smaller range of variation centered on what people had seen and heard about their world's vampires. Well, in my opinion.

    4. Yes, I understand what you mean, but in our world even if the people believed in what they were telling (which I am a little bit dubious about, but that's another story) it wasn't real in the same way that it would be if there were really supernatural events going on. A story about a dragon which you believe in but which doesn't really exist is qualitatively different than a story about a dragon which self-evidently exists.

    5. Leo [the lion] has three principle characteristics. His first feature is that he loves to saunter on the tops of mountains. Then, if he should happen to be pursued by hunting men, the smell of the hunters reaches up to him, and he disguises his spoor behind him with his tail. Thus the sportsmen cannot track him.

      It was in this way that our Saviour (i.e. the Spiritual Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Rod of Jesse, the Lord of Lords, the Son of God) once hid the spoor of his love in the high places, until, being sent by the Father, he came down into the womb of the Virgin Mary and saved the human race which had perished.

      The Lion's second feature is, that when he sleeps, he seems to keep his eyes open.

      In this very way, Our Lord also, while sleeping in the body, was buried after being crucified - yet his Godhead was awake.

      The third feature is this, that when a lioness gives birth to her cubs, she brings them forth dead and lays them up lifeless for three days - until their father, coming on the third day, breathes in their faces and makes them alive.

      Just so did the Father Omnipotent raise Our Lord
      Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day.

  5. Sean Robert Meaney24 February 2016 at 17:33

    Thats the flaw in dungeons and dragons. You come into a world that cant possibly have begun from cave man beginnings. Consider the odds of actually surviving in a world like this before that first magic spell is written or magic sword or undead turning cleric.
    The gods are going to need to take an active presence in the setting. The Greatmark a real geographical boundary that keep horrors at bay. Beyond that valley where humans exist is a boundary you dont cross. Ogg the caveman doesnt go on to conquer the world...

    1. There's no requirement for cavemen beginnings in D&D. Like you say, the gods are a real thing and their creations are their chess pieces, formed from whole cloth. Either that, or those cavemen come into being wielding potent magics, part and parcel of their genesis.

  6. This is a really interesting blog post (one of very many recently - for which many thanks!).

    One of the more interesting things that George RR Martin does is to attempt to answer the "folklore in a fantasy world" question. Characters occasionally refer to "grumkins and snarks" ("goblins and orcs", surely!), and these are conflated with the *real* monstrous threats of the Others and wights. He's helped, of course, by his setting's relative lack of monstrous humanoids - and by the fact that the Others (malevolent ice fairies) have been absent from the setting for so long.

    Tolkien, from time to time, comes up with the idea that orcs can ebb and flow in size and strength - that they tend to dwindle to relative insignificance in the absence of a Dark Lord. So, when Sauron is in power - whether in the Second or Third Age, goblins get much bigger and fiercer (the uruks in the Third Age and similar or identical "great orcs" in the Second; we get to see the same process up close a bit more with Saruman's Isengarders). I think there's something folkloric that can be done with that: there might be stories of goblins in the mountains, but no one has seen one for generations and no one thinks of these rather pathetic creatures as a threat - until reports come in that they are abroad, larger and fiercer than before, and armed with fell weapons ...

    The "dwindling" thing ties echoes Scottish folklore's treatment of the Picts (which has very little correspondence to the historical Picts). It also mirrors the Angles and Saxons' fear of Roman cities as "the work of giants".

    Obviously, the folkloric quality of any monster can be enhanced by giving them folkloric traits. So, perhaps a goblin chieftain’s head is not attached to his neck, but rolls around his shoulders and arms like a juggler’s ball. Or perhaps his drooling mouth hangs open to the ground. Or his eyelids are so heavy that they need his followers to hoist them up so that he can bring his terrible gaze to bear. And so on.

    That sort of non-standardising folkloric approach can work well with the “mythic underworld” – especially if it goes all the way down to Hell! For miniature gaming, I’ve been playing around with orcish colour schemes inspired by Giotto and other painters of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance (towards the bottom of this page: I think that “monsters come from Hell” lends itself to all sorts of interesting and unpredictable encounters. If orcs are minor devils, then they needn’t be conventional or tribal or predictable in any way. Nor need they have a generic name – perhaps an “orcish” leader is simply known as “Blue Jack”, and his vile, blue-skinned followers are otherwise unique – and especially in their legendary appetites and cruelties. Another “orc” – the Screaming Laird of Dwarrowdight or whatever – might look and act completely differently – and have entirely different stories told about him round the peat fires of the peasants …

    1. Good comment - I have had similar thoughts about "orc" simply meaning something like "antagonist": a catch-all term for anything which is nasty and brutish and wants to kill you.

  7. I think it's worth digging into what the purpose of folk tales was/is and that, in the large, was/is to 'warn'. Little Red Riding Hood counsels one against trusting strangers, wandering in the woods alone and perhaps even promiscuity (at least those are SOME takes).

    So what do role do folk tales have in a fantastic reality? I would suggest largely the same as in ours. They might illustrate the patterns of behaviour held by a monster, whilst simultaneously offering up a mirror to the human condition. There would be metaphors, warning against the vices and dangers, represented by a particular monster, in any given human culture.

    Also, the role of the shaman cannot be underestimated. Monsters experienced within an altered state, are certainly real to one that encounters such things within the boundaries of a vision. These mythic excursions are then related to the normal folk, that some real world wisdom might be gleaned therein.

    Clearly, tbe D&D cleric, being in direct communion with 'the other', fulfils the role of shaman more accurately than he/she does that of a medieval priest. Thus, much folk lore, would be directly linked, merged and even birthed, from the warnings of priests and the perspectives of very real divine entities.

    Anyway, that's what I was able to articulate on my phone, sat on the bus.

    1. That's interesting: Little Red Riding Hood except the wolf is actually a wolfwere? And it isn't a metaphorical warning about trusting strangers or male lust, but a quite literal warning about being careful because there are wolfweres in the world...

    2. Absolutely. Folklore would become dire, emergency ķnowledge, meted out as an imperative.
      Maybe 'metaphor' was the wrong word. I think I was going for something like a fable, namely, there's another dimension to the story; a moral to the tale. E.g. In the story with the wolfwere, the reader or listener, would still learn a lesson about how to comport themselves in society (whilst also receiving a crash course in the mystic properties of silver).

  8. Very interesting question (and the Ainu are fascinating, although I must admit that most of what I know of them I learned from the video game Okami...).

    There's a couple of ways to start answering your question. First is to look at the kind of stories people told about real animals in our world; the second is to look at urban myths and legends - stories that we share about our world now.

    Lots of animal folklore are "just so stories" like How The Ostrich Got Its Neck or Why the Hippo Does Not Eat Fish. We can easily come up with similar stories for the monsters and unusual creatures in D&D that do already have their origins spelled out ("How The Displacer Beast Got Its Illusion").

    Other animal folklore ties them to human life as omens and signs (eg magpie rhymes) or supposes that they secretly have human-like societies (crow and cat courts). These too are easily transferred onto D&D monsters ("One stirge for blood, two for tears, three for weeks, four years..." or "The secret Rust-monster church")

    Finally urban myths are often about things that sound plausible, and often prey on our fear of not being in control of our environment.

    So D&D versions might be "my uncle knew a wizard once who used haste spells too much. They found him dead of thirst - it looked like he had been waiting for for weeks for water to come out of the pump..."


    "I heard that a maid for one of the noble families asked her employers why they kept a bunch of goblin statues in the cellar, as they made her scared to go down their. The nobles immediately left, taking all the family and servants out of the house. Then they told her - they don't have any goblin statues! The town guards came and brought adventurers, but all they found was an empty cellar with a collapsed tunnel entrance in one wall...

    and finally:

    "my mate says that you can get high from smoking dried flumph tentacle. The magistrates don't want people to know because then no-one would buy the overtaxed ale from the taverns!"

    1. Great comment. I think you ought to create a mini-adventure or one-page dungeon based on "The Secret Rust-Monster Church".

  9. Sort of relevant:
    Also worth considering is the extent to which something's naturalistic existence renders it banal. A relevant factor is the extent to which interaction between disparate peoples happen. If your standard D&Dland person lives a life not all that dissimilar from people in our ancient times, I think it's reasonable to conclude that their folklore would also not be all that different from ours, modulo proper nouns and the like. But if your D&Dland looks more like the Mos Eisley cantina and less like Westeros or even Greyhawk, and commonplace people are casually forced to interact with the Other, then the folklore of D&Dland would probably be much weirder than anything we can easily imagine. Bring out the cultural anthropologists, I guess.

  10. Sean Robert Meaney: "Thats the flaw in dungeons and dragons. "

    That's the flaw in YOUR Dungeons & Dragons.

    We can't explain how our frakkin' universe works. Therefore, why explain how cavemen could exist in a D&D world?