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Spirits of the Sacred Skies

22 Jan

The ancient peoples of the vast continent of South America never formed a coherent cultural unit. They cannot, therefore be treated as such in describing their religions and mythologies. Thousands of languages and dialects were spoken throughout South America, but there were no writing systems before the Spanish conquest. The sources of ancient myths are therefore native oral records transcribed by Europeans or European-trained natives in Spanish, Portuguese or, in a few cases, Quecha (the language of the Incas), accounts by contemporary chroniclers and modern anthropological studies. Legends and mythological accounts, together with deductions based on archaeological evidence, constituted the religions of South American societies. Like all peoples, they felt compelled to explain the important things in their universe, beginning with where they came from and their place in the larger scheme of things. Despite the regional and cultural diversity of South America, there were common elements, some almost universal. In most regions, for example, there was a named creator god. Among the Andean civilizations Viracocha, with many variations, was the creator. Although his worship was prevalent among coastal civilizations, there was also confusion and/or rivalry with the supreme god Pachacamac. Among the Amazonian tribes, four almost universal themes can be recognised. First is the presence and power of shamans, and the associated use of hallucinogenic drugs to gain access into the spirit world for the wellbeing and guidance of humankind. Second is the belief in the power and ancient divinity of jaguars. Third is the practice of cannibalism and fourth, less widespread, is headhunting, a practice steeped in supernatural and ritual significance for the purpose of capturing an enemy’s soul.

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Philadelphia by Night

20 Nov

William Penn first landed in the New World in 1682. Armed with a land charter, he founded a colony based on religious freedom that just a century later would give birth to a new nation. Penn named the new city Philadelphia, derived from Greek words meaning ‘City of Brotherly Love’. Magic has lurked in the Philadelphia area for as long as it has been populated (and perhaps even before humanity settled there). Magical beliefs and practices flourished among the indigenous peoples of the area, and as immigrants, missionaries, and colonists were attracted to the area, each brought their own magic with them. Since well before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600s magic has been a part of Philly’s history. The Lenape tribes who populated the area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the European settlers arrived viewed magic (or what the Europeans would label as magic) as an integral part of daily life. It was simply how the world worked and was recognised and treated as such by members of the various Lenape tribes. While many of the specifics have been lost over the four centuries of European intercession in the area, some basic information was preserved through a variety of sources.

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Samhain, Feast of the Dead

30 Oct

Festivals emphasizing death and the supernatural are common in almost all cultures. Modern Hallowe’en, for example, is influenced by and probably originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAH-win’ or ‘SOW-in’). Around 1,000 BC the Celts – who at the time populated Ireland, Great Britain and northern France – celebrated the first day of winter as their New Year. Winter began, in the climate of northern Europe, in November. The end of summer marked radical change in the daily life of this pastoral people. The herds were brought down from the summer pastures in the hills, the best animals put to shelter, and the rest slaughtered. For the Celts, the period we now consider the end of October and start of November was a time of preparation, festival and plenty before the coming of the long winter. As agriculture became a part of their lives, harvest time also became part of the seasonal activity. This communal celebration became known as Samhain. Linguistically, the word evidently simply combines the Gaelic words sam for ‘end’ and hain for ‘summer’ i.e. end of summer. However, although the bounty of nature and the change of seasons were important aspects of Samhain, it was also a festival of the supernatural.

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Celtic Otherworlds

18 Sep

Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.

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Fearsome Critters

19 Jun

The jackalope is a mythical animal of North American folklore (a so-called fearsome critter) described as a jackrabbit with antelope horns. The word “jackalope” is a portmanteau of “jackrabbit” and “antelope”, although the jackrabbit is not a rabbit, and the American antelope is not an antelope. In early lumberjack folklore, fearsome critters were mythical beasts that were said to inhabit the frontier wilderness of North America. Many fearsome critters were simply the products of pure exaggeration; while a number however, were used either seriously or jokingly as explanations for unexplained phenomena. For example, the hidebehind served to account for loggers who failed to return to camp, while the treesqueak offered justification for strange noises heard in the woods. A handful mirrored descriptions of actual animals. The mangrove killifish, which takes up shelter in decaying branches after leaving the water, exhibits similarities to the upland trout, a mythical fish purported to nest in trees. In addition, the story of the fillyloo, about a mythical crane that flies upside-down, may have been inspired by observations of the wood stork, a bird that has been witnessed briefly flying in this manner. In particular instances more elaborate ruses – such as the jackalope – were created using taxidermy or trick photography.

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The Lost Kingdoms

27 Mar

The lost world is a subgenre of the fantasy or science fiction genre that involves the discovery of a new world out of time, place, or both. It began as a subgenre of the late-Victorian adventure romance and remains popular into the 21st century. The genre arose during an era when the fascinating remnants of lost civilizations around the world were being discovered, such as the tombs of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, the semi-mythical stronghold of Troy, the jungle-shrouded pyramids of the Maya, or the cities and palaces of the empire of Assyria. Thus, real stories of archaeological finds by imperial adventurers succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination. Between 1871 and the First World War, the number of published lost-world narratives, set in every continent, dramatically increased. The genre has similar themes to “mythical kingdoms”, such as El Dorado.  In the popular imagination lost cities are real, prosperous, well-populated areas of human habitation that have fallen into terminal decline and been lost to history. Most real lost cities are of ancient origins, and have been studied extensively by archaeologists. Abandoned urban sites of relatively recent origin are generally referred to as ghost towns. Fictional lost cities have been created by many authors as the setting for stories and myths throughout the ages. These include places such as Atlantis, Ur, Lemuria and Thule, which have become part of the shared mythology of the human race.

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India’s Eternal Cycle

31 Jan

In the Indian tradition, time is seen as non-linear – past, present and future co-exist in each generation. This theory underpins the doctrines of karma and samsara, the cycles of causality and rebirth. Indian religion has evolved over many centuries – its gods and goddesses have not been discarded but modified, and their attributes and roles have become fluid. It is this fluidity that has resulted in a rich body of stories and one of the world’s oldest unbroken traditions – India’s earliest religious texts are the four Vedas (‘books of knowledge’), which date from circa 1000 BC. Present-day India, as diverse in cultures and topography as ever, is imbued with ideas that can be traced back through millennia. There are few distinctions made between mind and matter, or humankind and nature. Hinduism, the most widespread religion in India (although just one of seven major faiths with Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism), is at once also a science, a lifestyle and a social system. The vast number of Hindu gods and goddesses can be bewildering, but beyond this variety lies unity, expressed in the unchanging, indestructible divine reality known as brahman that, according to Hindus, exists in all things. Everything in the universe, every creature and plant, is a manifestation of brahman and thus contains an element of the divine.

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Spawn of Ungoliant

13 Sep

Among the foulest beings that ever inhabited Middle Earth were the Great Spiders. They were dark and filled with envy, greed and the poison of malice. First of the beings that took spider form was Ungoliant, mother of the evil race that plagued the world thereafter, as well as a close ally of the first dark lord, Morgoth. Her origins are unclear, as Tolkien’s writings do not explicitly reveal her nature, other than that she is from “before the world”. Ungoliant fled after devouring the light of the Trees that once lit the world in its springtime and it is not known what ultimately was her fate, although it is suggested in The Silmarillion that her unremitting hunger drove her to devour herself. At some point, however, she gave birth to a race of Great Spiders, including the character Shelob in The Lord of the Rings and the spiders of Mirkwood in The Hobbit. Unlike many of Tolkien’s other creations, such as Smaug, Beorn, ents, orcs, hobbits and so on, even the most eminent experts on his work have struggled to find clear sources for the Great Spiders of Middle Earth. It is, however, possible to begin to explain the origins of these terrifying creatures by reference to Tolkien’s earliest inspirations (and fears) as a child.

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Snow, Glass, Apples

12 Jul

Snow White is a German fairy tale known across much of Europe, the most popular version of which was published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm in the first edition of their collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Following the release of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animated feature in 1937, the tale took on a whole new level of popularity and is today one of the most famous fairy tales worldwide. While the majority of people today regard it as nothing more than a story for children, with magic, romance and cute dwarfs, the older versions of the story, including that of the Grimms’, with its themes of sexual jealousy, revenge and murder, was incredibly dark and certainly not written with children in mind – except as a warning. These deeper themes in the story have given rise to a significant body of ‘Snow White scholarship’, which seeks to explore the hidden meanings in the fairy tale and place them in some sort of context. Michelle Abate has explored the fact and fantasy of filicide in Snow White, Shuli Barzilai has considered the fairy tale in terms of its being a mother’s story, Vanessa Joosen has highlighted the retellings of Snow White between magic and realism and Steven Jones has given broad consideration to the inherent pitfalls in Snow White scholarship. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is Neil Gaiman’s famous revisionist re-telling of the story, Snow, Glass, Apples, which completely reconceives the fairy tale in a manner more disturbing even than the Grimm version that is best known today.

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The Race of Twilight

14 Jun

Although Middle Earth is full of monsters that are highly original, Tolkien also introduces us to some fairly familiar foes: the trolls from The Hobbit, for example, are quite traditional in the way they are depicted. Although it must be said, by the standards of most trolls in mythology and fantasy, the three encountered by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit were mental giants. Bert, William and Tom spoke and understood the tongue of men and had an elementary, if faulty, knowledge of arithmetic. They were, none the less, turned to stone as a result of the quickness of wit of the wizard Gandalf and in this they conformed to myth and legend in more than one way. For the idea that trolls “must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of” is an ancient one, with the god Odin playing the same trick as Gandalf in the Old Norse poem Alvissmal. Elsewhere, again in keeping with Scandinavian trolls, Tolkien tells us that “In their beginning far back in the twilight of Elder Days, these were creatures of dull and lumpish nature and had no more language than beasts”. Like orcs, Tolkien’s trolls were bred by the artifice of the first Dark Lord Morgoth, and were his own twisted version of the noble race of Ents. But trolls were rightly feared, for they were twice the height and bulk of the greatest men, had skin of green scales like armour and they desired most a diet of raw flesh. As if that were not bad enough, by the time of The Lord of the Rings a troll-race not before seen appeared in Middle Earth – one that, unlike the older race of twilight, could even endure the sun.

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