I’m thinking again about the mythology of my “spirit beings.” I really need to nail down the details of these beings to move forward with my novel, and I’m finding it difficult. I’m still trying to figure out what my spirit beings are–their history, their current lifestyle, all that stuff, and research isn’t necessarily helping much. But at least I’m beginning to understand why.
I’d very much like to base my spirit beings on the spirits of actual myth and legend, but finding the right critters to fill the bill is a challenge. Not just because what we call “spirits” covers such a wide variety of creatures from a wide variety of cultures, but also because the spirits of actual myth and legend are, on the whole, understood in very different ways from how I understand my spirit being characters. For example, I imagine my spirit beings being an independent “species” that have little or nothing to do with humans unless it is by personal choice. In my story, I imagine them getting sort of dragged into interaction with humans.
Most spirits of actual myth and legend, on the other hand, are defined by the role they play in human life. Which makes sense, since they are creatures of our imagination. Spirits were invoked to explain natural phenomena such as storms or falling rocks or meteor showers. The spirits of a particular culture might have formerly been the gods of a religion that is no longer practiced in that culture. Spirits are sometimes the personification of human fears such as the fear of physical harm or the abduction of loved ones. Spirits are often revered ancestors or heroes of a culture who have been immortalized both figuratively and literally. There are spirits that personify things that are important to a culture, like its local animals, plants, or natural landmarks. Spirits may serve a protective role, such as guardian angels, or can be called upon for favors or to perform certain tasks. And the stories we hear about such creatures are mostly about what happened when they came in contact with humans.
There are very few actual mythological and legendary creatures who don’t play a role of some kind in human society, even if it is just harassment. There would have been no reason for the culture to invent creatures whose existence didn’t in some way revolve around human existence.
Contemporary science fiction and fantasy (what I’m trying to write), on the other hand, is full of creatures whose origins and central concerns don’t revolve around us lowly humans.
I was talking recently to shadowkat67 about contemporary urban fantasy, with its witches and wizards, vampires and werewolves, etc. These supernatural creatures, I speculated, are “post-modern aliens.” In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you saw a lot of science fiction with aliens from outer space. They were very rationalistic bogeymen or fantastic beings, in that it was easy for a rational person to believe there were aliens out there somewhere in space. The “others” of turn-of-the-twenty-first-century urban fantasy, on the other hand, appear to be a return to the supernatural creatures of ancient myth and legend. But only on the surface. Joss Whedon, Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison, Camille Bacon-Smith, etc bring back faeries and demons and vampires, etc, but they present them in modern, rationalistic terms, usually as “aliens” from “other dimensions,” or humans transformed by processes, natural or supernatural, we can comprehend. Joss Whedon’s demons are usually mortal, come in biological species, and breed their own kind, regardless of whether they also have magic powers. Whedon’s “demon dimensions” and Butcher’s “Never Never” are places a human can travel to, and are rightly understood in terms of the concept of “other dimensions” developed in modern physics. And these creatures usually come into conflict with humans the way humans come in conflict with other humans or animal species–we get in their way, or they get in ours.
I am, for better or worse, a product of my time like these authors. I want my spirit beings to be an independent species which can interact with humans, but are not defined by them. I want them to be mortal, if perhaps longer-lived than humans. I want them to be capable of having their own offspring. And yet I still want them to be rooted in an actual myth or legend. So I need to find a legend I can adapt and rework to fit with modern sensibilities, the way other urban fantasy authors have.
But here’s where I hit my other sticking point. Adapting legends from actual cultures and changing them to suit my modern American sensibilities is dodgy ground, to say the least. Vampires come from several cultures, but the culture Bram Stoker adapted his vampire mythology from was Romania. And he did it over a hundred years ago before anyone really had any sensitivities about “cultural appropriation” and distortion of the same. I have found myself, for example, being drawn to what I’ve heard about the Djinn, better known to us as “genies,” another supernatural creature we’ve taken and molded for our own purposes. I want my creatures to be like the Djinn (not the Hollywood version, but the actual legend), but I don’t want them to be the Djinn themselves, because that involves, to my mind, taking what I’ve learned about how the Arabian cultures see/saw the Djinn, twisting it around to suit my purposes, and calling the resulting creatures “Djinn,” no matter how much they may or may not resemble the Arabian conception of the Djinn.
Of course, I could just lift the legend of the Djinn wholesale from middle eastern legend, and in that way honor it, but that involves also lifting large portions of middle eastern culture with it, and essentially writing a story with a middle eastern flavor. But then how far away are we from, “write what you know”? Furthermore, I don’t want to write a story with a middle eastern flavor; that doesn’t interest me. I want to write a story about people and places I am familiar with. And that really is the essence of urban fantasy, isn’t it? Showing the supernatural side of modern Western life.
And that gets us to the crux of the problem for many Modern Western (white) writers. The creatures of myth and legend in the places we are familiar with usually belong to the indigenous culture we are not a part of (and which has, frankly, been ripped off and distorted enough). The creatures of myth and legend from our own ethnic backgrounds belong to distant places we may never have visited and local cultures there we have only passing familiarity with; they are no longer ours, either, and we feel no emotional connection to them.
And to make matters worse, no cultures’ legends have had more ink spilled in the fantasy genre than that of Germany, England, Scotland, and Ireland. So borrowing from some of my own roots would just be cliche.
So yeah, there’s a solution to all this, I just haven’t figured it out yet.