October 11th, 2008


I am half man, I'm almost like you

One theme that crops up pretty often in mythology is creatures that are half-human and half-something-else. The Greeks were particularly enamored of such creatures, but they weren't the only ones to include them in their stories.

Centaurs - Part human and part horse, these mainstays are Greek art and mythology are generally portrayed as wild creatures, but they also included the wise teacher, doctor, and astrologer Chiron. This guy was the tutor of many popular Greek heroes, including Jason and Achilles. It's almost certainly because of him that a lot of centaurs in relatively modern fantasy literature (Narnia, Xanth, Harry Potter, etc.) are skilled astronomers and/or tutors. It's commonly believed that the idea of centaurs arose when the Greeks first saw people riding on horses, and couldn't tell where one ended and the other began, but this is by no means certain.

Goat-People - There were actually several different sorts of goat-people in mythology, including the satyrs, the fauns, and the Panes (followers of Pan, who also had goat features). The Romans, with their typical desire to incorporate as much of their conquered people's mythology into their own, tended to conflate these beings. They were symbols of untamed nature, and the Greek satyrs gave their names to the burlesque satyr plays (although these plays were apparently NOT the origin of the word "satire"). They might have also been instrumental in the depiction of the Devil with some goat features, but there seem to be a variety of possible origins for this portrayal of Satan. Other cultures had horned gods (the Celtic Cernunnos probably being the best known), and there's that business in the Torah about the scapegoat for Azazel.

Mer-Folk - While I've seen a lot of modern portrayals of mermaids, I really didn't know where they originated. Wikipedia suggests that the first known mermaid stories were Assyrian, and the best-known dealt with Atagartis, the mother of Semiramis. There are mermaid stories in many other parts of the world as well, though, and the Greek deity Triton was said to have the body of a fish. It's a common theme in mermaid tales for them to lure people to their deaths, sort of like the Sirens. I believe the Sirens are sometimes represented as mermaids, but they seem to have been more commonly described as bird-women.

Selkies - They're basically women with magical seal-skins, which turn them into seals. Or are they seals who turn into women after shedding their skin? I'm not sure, but there are similar tales of women transforming into animals (or vice versa) throughout the world. I've heard of Middle Eastern stories that involved women who could turn into birds, and the Decemberists' album The Crane Wife was based on an old Japanese tale about a man marrying a crane-woman. One common theme in such legends involves men stealing the animal skins in order to get the women to marry them, which really doesn't sound like the way to a healthy relationship. Incidentally, Frank Black has a song called "Selkie Bride," based on the legends of the seal-women.

Minotaur - While most of these beings at least had human heads, or the ability to turn into full humans, this poor guy ended up with the head of a bull on top of an upright body. This grotesque being was a result of the tryst between Queen Pasiphaë of Crete and a white bull sent by Poseidon, with the woman inside of a wooden cow. This bovine fetish on the queen's part was apparently a curse from Poseidon because King Minos refused to sacrifice the bull, although I have to wonder what the good of sacrificing a bull FROM Poseidon TO Poseidon would have been. If he can generate bulls on his own, why does he need humans to cook dead ones for him? But then, the Bible also has mentions of God providing animals to be sacrificed. Hey, gods, why not just cut out the middleman, and all that return-to-sender business? Minos, by the way, was either the son or grandson (depending on which version of the story you're reading) of Europa's own union with a bull. I guess this was a popular fetish for Cretans. Whoever wrote this myth obviously wasn't too fond of Crete. I don't think I really noticed as a kid how much political content went into these stories. I mean, there are stories in Genesis about how the neighboring tribes were the descendants of Lot's incestuous unions with his own daughters, and the Ramayana is largely a tale of the Aryans overcoming the Dravidians. Anyway, getting back to Crete (where, according to a popular rumor, everyone is a liar), Minos locked the Minotaur up in the middle of a labyrinth, and made the Athenians send him young people to be killed by the Minotaur. But Theseus, the Prince of Athens, managed to kill the Minotaur, proving the old Greek adage, "Athenians rule, Cretans drool!" Or is that "Cretans are a bunch of cattle-fuckers"? I'm not sure.

I've barely scratched the surface as far as these composite animal-people go. I mean, we can't forget about nagas, sphynxes, harpies, and others that I'm sure I've forgotten. And that's not even getting into the werewolves, who would be appropriate for this time of year. Perhaps I'll return to this topic in the future, but I do have a lot of other ideas. Some other topics that I'd like to cover in the future include composite monsters WITHOUT human features, automatons (we'll surely be returning to Crete that week, to take a look at Talos), flood myths, and the end of the world. And when I've run out of overarching ideas, I can start getting more into specific stories and characters. If you have any other ideas, I'd be glad to hear them. Also, are there any sources you can recommend, especially for mythology from outside Europe? Most of my mythology posts so far have been based on largely on memory, combined with stuff from Wikipedia and some quick Google searches.

Oh, and I haven't heard from matt_argos in a long time, but since it's his birthday today, I might as well wish him a happy birthday. The worst that could happen is that he won't see it, right?