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My Next Novel: Escaping from a Bad D&D Campaign
And by “bad,” of course I mean “awesome.” I’ve written before about how Dungeons & Dragons was a pretty important part of my adolescence. Not only did it prod me out of my introverted shell and entice me to interact with a few close friends, it stoked an interest in mythology, fantasy, and adventure that continues to this day.
But let’s face it: Old-school D&D as played by über-nerdy teenagers was usually a hot mess—a glorious hot mess, but a hot mess all the same. If you were first exposed to D&D in the 70s or early 80s, and that corresponded to your junior high or high school years, you know of which I speak. What I mean is that some of the tropes of D&D are a bit unconventional, even within the fantasy genre. For example…
There are Loads and Loads of “Races”
D&D has always been a fantasy kitchen sink. That’s part of its charm. Beings from Norse and Arthurian mythology rub elbows with creatures from ancient Greece, China, the Middle East, and realms even further afield. Add to that the creatures that sprung like Athena fully formed from the minds of Gary Gygax and company.
That diversity extends to the humanoid fantasy “races” found in the game. (I’ve explained before that I don’t care for the terminology of fantasy “races.” But I’m using the term here so you know what I’m talking about.) At first, if you didn’t want to play as a human, your choices were elf, dwarf, or hobbit—the latter quickly adjusted to halfling when the Tolkien estate <ahem> took exception to TSR’s use of the term. It was only a matter of time before half-elves were added. Then came half-orcs, gnomes, various sub-classes of elves, and even more fanciful creatures. And if you look at the intelligent monsters that aren’t (usually) permitted as player classes, you’ve got to add goblins, kobolds, gnolls, lizard men, nymphs and satyrs, giants, dragons, an assortment of demons and devils…you get the idea.
I heard somewhere that Gary Gygax literally couldn’t conceive of why everybody didn’t want to play a plain vanilla human fighter. That’s why those early editions put caps on how high non-humans could advance in levels: he wanted non-humans to be rare!
Soon, however, humans effectively became the minority, if not in the campaign setting then at least in the makeup of the average adventuring party. (Fair play compels me to acknowledge that the Fellowship of the Ring consisted of four hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, a quasi-angelic being, and only two humans!) (Snark compels me to acknowledge that the only thing rarer than Men in LOTR was Women.)
Magic Is Everywhere
I’m pretty sure that every member of my old D&D group operated under the assumption that, if an item existed in the rule books, it was bound to exist somewhere in the campaign setting. Half the point of playing D&D was accumulating the most whiz-bang magical goodies: flaming swords, enchanted armor, various and sundry wands, staves, rings, and potions. And these were the good old days where you could wander into any fair-sized city and find a “magic shop” where some of these items were even available off the shelf.
And this is before considering the vast supernatural powers most player-characters could wield. From the beginning until today, decent D&D parties always have at least one or two decent spell-casters. The parties that don’t tend not to survive for very long, because even if the players don’t have access to spells, you can bet the bad guys do!
But even the non-spell-casting types are usually capable of physics-defying feats of strength, stealth, endurance, or what have you. And don’t get me started on psionics! In short, the genre of D&D has always favored larger-than-life heroes with access to powers and abilities far beyond those of mortals. (Seems I’ve heard that line before…) In the early days when I was playing, we didn’t worry about that in the least; it was all part of the awesome.
In short, D&D has tended from the start to favor a great diversity of non-human characters interacting in a setting in which, far from being the stuff of misguided superstition, magic is as commonplace as blackberry bushes. That’s a marvelous setting for a game of fantasy adventure. But it isn’t the “real world.” Now, I don’t mean it’s a flaw that D&D has wizards and dragons and such because they don’t actually exist. I’m not that thick! I’m saying the classic D&D setting isn’t even the “real world” in the sense that people alive in the Middle Ages would never have recognized it as theirs, notwithstanding the fact that they would have been earnestly afraid of witches and ghosts and truly awed by the fantastical creatures scholars described in their bestiaries.
It is, however, a world that those medieval people would have heard of, be they peasant or king. It’s the world in which many of their favorite stories were set, a world that shaped their imagination and their cultural ideals by setting them against a place so obviously different that the conventional rules no longer applied.
It is, in a word, Faery Land.
It’s the place heroes go to fight dragons and rescue princesses before eventually finding their way back to the ordinary world to live happily ever after.
So, what if somebody who’d grown up in this high-powered, magic-rich, and decidedly non-human-centric D&D campaign found it advisable to leave? Where would he go? What would he do? What alliances might he forge with the inhabitants of whatever new world he landed in? What foes might he have to face there?
And what if this new world was ours?
Fairies in the Bible?
Speaking of Jewish folk beliefs, a few years back I wrote a piece about fairies in the Bible at my other blog. Some of that material, with some elaboration, found its way over here in my post on “Shedim: Eldritch Beings from Jewish Folklore.” Here is the full, original post from July of 2013, only slightly edited:
Joel Hoffman has written a blog post about unicorns and other mythological creatures in the Bible—or at least in the King James Version. As he usually does, Dr. Hoffman raises an intriguing question about how the original Hebrew words the KJV rendered as “dragon,” “unicorn,” and so forth should be handled. Did the original writers intend their readers to understand these as real-world creatures (e.g., as serpents, rhinoceroses, etc.) or did they mean to depict creatures of fantasy? He writes,
More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.
Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translations wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.
On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.
Hoffman deals mainly with “unicorns” (re’em) and “dragons” (tannin), although he makes passing reference to a possible merperson in the character of Dagon, the god of the Philistines.
Along these same lines, I would suggest that there are a handful of possible reference to fairies in the Bible—at least if the rabbis of the medieval period were interpreting these passages rightly.
Two Hebrew words are of interest: shedim and se’irim, both translated daimonia (“demons”) in the Septuagint. Shedim only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shed or sheid). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,
They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard.
Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to the Akkadian shedu, a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps something we might think of as a guardian angel. Then again, people around the world have made offerings to various local protective spirits to secure their goodwill. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging such a practice. Thus, in the Bible, they are depicted not as helpful minor spirits but as false gods to be avoided.
The next word is se’irim (singular se’ir), meaning “hairy beings” or “shaggy beings.” In the KJV, the word is translated “satyrs.” There are a few more references to se’irim than there are to shedim. According to Leviticus 17:7, “The Israelites must no longer sacrifice their communal sacrifices to the goat demons that they follow so faithlessly. This will be a permanent rule for them throughout their future generations.” The LXX renders se’irim as mataiois, “to empty or vain things.”
Se’irim dwell in the desolate wilderness and are apparently fond of dancing. According to Isaiah 13:21,
Wildcats will rest there;
houses will be filled with owls.
Ostriches will live there,
and goat demons (LXX, daimonia) will dance there.
And again in Isaiah 34:14:
Wildcats will meet hyenas,
the goat demon will call to his friends,
and there Lilith will lurk
and find her resting place.
I saw you wondering about Lilith in that verse. We’ll come back to her in a minute. It should be noted, that the Septuagint translation removes Lilith from the picture but possibly gives us a completely new mythological creature. My fairly wooden translation of the Greek is as follows:
Demons will meet onocentaurs
and they will shout one to the other,
There onocentaurs will rest
for they found a resting place for themselves.
If you’re not up to speed on medieval bestiaries, let me quickly explain that an onocentaur is part man, part ass. (And please refrain from any comments about half-ass blog posts. Thank you.)
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the se’irim are “are satyr-like demons, described as dancing in the wilderness…identical with the jinn of the Arabian woods and deserts.” Azazel, the goat-like wilderness demon (Lev 16:10ff) and Lilith (whom we already encountered in Isa 34:14) are said to be of the same class of beings. Further, it should be noted that some see in Lilith a prototype for later vampire legends. The Jewish Encyclopedia also raises the possibility that “the roes and hinds of the field” (gazelles and wild deer in the CEB) in Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 are “faunlike spirits similar to the se’irim, though of a harmless nature.”
How does all this apply to fairies? Thomas Keightley argued in The Fairy Mythology (1870) that the prototypes of European fairy legends were to be found not only in the nymphs and satyrs of Greco-Roman mythology but also in Near Eastern stories of jinnis and peris (or jinn and parian, to use the correct Arabic and Persian plurals). He even argued that our English word “fairy” derives ultimately from Persian pari (or peri). This linguistic argument may or may not hold, but anyone who looks at Persian peri-stories will find many parallels to what was believed about fairies in rural Europe until fairly recent times.
If Keightley is correct, then the European conception of fairies owes a good deal to the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world(s) in which the Bible was written. It therefore would not be unusual to find references to the such creatures in biblical and other early Semitic materials.
After tracing the fairy mythology throughout northern Europe, Keightley makes quick reference to Jewish legends about similar creatures found in the rabbinic corpus. These beings are in fact called shedim and seirim (although Keightley transliterates them shedeem and shehireem). Another term, maziqin (or mazikeen in Keightley’s transliteration), is Aramaic and applies specifically to a malevolent spirit. According to rabbinic tradition, all these beings are in fact directly analogous to the jinn of Arabic folklore. Keightley writes,
It has long been an established article of belief among the Jews that there is a species of beings which they call Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen. These beings exactly correspond to the Arabian Jinn; and the Jews hold that it is by means of them that all acts of magic and enchantment are performed.
The Talmud says that the Shedeem were the offspring of Adam. After he had eaten of the Tree of life, Adam was excommunicated for one hundred and thirty years. “In all those years,” saith Rabbi Jeremiah Ben E’liezar, “during which Adam was under excommunication, he begat spirits, demons, and spectres of the night, as it is written, ‘Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begat children in his likeness and in his image,’ which teaches, that till that time he bad not begotten them in his own likeness.” In Berasbith Rabba, R. Simon says, “During all the one hundred and thirty years that Adam was separate from Eve, male spirits lay with her, and she bare by them, and female spirits lay with Adam, and bare by him.”
These Shedeem or Mazikeen are held to resemble the angels in three things. They can see and not be seen; they have wings and can fly; they know the future. In three respects they resemble mankind: they eat and drink; they marry and have children; they are subject to death. It may be added, they have the power of assuming any form they please; and so the agreement between them and the Jinn of the Arabs is complete.
Keightley shares three Jewish legends about the shedim: “The Broken Oaths,” “The Moohel,” and “The Mazik-Ass.”
As with dragons and unicorns, there are probably some who will pounce on “rational” or “scientific” explanations for fairies. Some do, in fact, attribute European fairy-lore to dim memories of diminutive tribes driven underground—and ultimately to extinction—by later invaders with the advantage of iron weapons (in both Europe and the Middle East, iron is a potent weapon against the Fair Folk).
In my experience, however, I think most interpreters would see shedim and se’irim as terms intended to describe supernatural or otherworldly beings and not merely misidentified pygmies or “wild men”—whether or not they judge such creatures to be “real.”
A History of the Fae
Leo Elijah Cristea has posted the final installment of his series on the fae. (Links to all four parts here.) This has been a very informative series looking at the legends and myths surrounding the Fair Folk, and I heartily commend it.
In this final part of our exploration of the fae, it seems appropriate to take a look at not only the varied and expansive wealth of literature and that features fae, or any recognisable incarnation of them, but also a more comprehensive look at their time line. We’ve briefly explored the evolution of the fae, from Irish folklore, through to Shakespeare’s romantic depictions, and to their modern day Disney or urban fantasy cousins, but the long and fluid history of the fae makes it difficult to succinctly follow. As such, if we head as far back as a pre-Christian time, indeed touching on the relevance of Pagan faeries and early Greco-Roman fae we start to see that two things are true:
You’ll just have to click through to see what those two things are. 🙂
Faeries and Folklore, Part Three
Leo Elijah Cristea’s third post on Faeries and Folklore at Fantasy Faction discusses some famous faeries from folklore and literature.
The Fairy Investigation Society
I may have to check these folks out. I’ll definitely be taking their online survey of faery beliefs.
The Fairy Investigation Society (FIS) was founded in 1927 by a British man named Quentin Crauford. Attracting mostly Theosophists who believed that fairies were elemental beings, the Society continued sporadically through the 20th century until finally disappearing in the 1990s.
In 2013 the Society was re-booted by Simon Young, an English historian living in Italy. While membership in the original Society was limited to people who believed in fairies, the current society is open to “all those who have an interest in fairylore, be they believers or ultra skeptics.” I’m proud to be a member myself!
This review of Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times may be of interest to some.
Fairy Mythology at Mythic Scribes
Alice Leiper gives a succinct introduction to fairies in myth and literature over at Mythic Scribes.
The Evolution of Fae
Alas, the title of Leo Elijah Cristea’s most recent post on the fae is not a reference to how these beings emerged and diversified through random mutation and natural selection. It is, however, a wonderful discussion of the varieties of Fair Folk one encounters in myth and literature. In particular, this post tries to tackle those elements that are recognizable as at least suggestive of faeries in world mythology, always admitting that whatever overlap (or identity) is claimed must only be claimed with due appreciation for how the source cultures themselves do different things with their various nature spirits, angels, or what have you.
If we delve back in time and focus on the birth of these various stories, even widening our net and including other “fae-like” beings whose appearance or vocation has led them to be tangled up in the same net as faeries—such as the short, stout Northern Dwarves, the elfin Álfar and Svartálfar who could become the aos sí, as well as the creatures already discussed—it becomes clear that appearance alone is sometimes enough to define the beings from different realms as fae.
In this way, we can trace the evolution of the faeries through their alteration and adaptation, drawing up lines of likeness between similar beings, as well as their manmade transformations throughout literature and popular culture.
This is an excellent article, well worth the read!
Faeries and Folklore at Fantasy Faction
Leo Elijah Cristea has started a new series of posts on “Faeries and Folklore,” so, obviously, I’m going to link to it!