With my love of variety in fantasy literature, I try to experiment with lesser-used mythological creatures. I’ve talked before about the phoenix, that metaphor everyone knows — but few fantasy writers use to full potential. And I’ve dabbled with black dog interpretations ever since I first found out about that interesting little clump of British Isles lore.
Today, I’m here to discuss sirens. You know, those mythical aquatic women who aren’t mermaids?
Originating in Greek mythology and later adopted by the Romans, sirens are supernatural women who sing in enchanting voices. They tempt or hypnotize men, most notably sailors on long, lonely journeys. Sometimes the sirens distract the sailors into crashing their ships; sometimes the lovely singing just lulls the sailors to sleep so the sirens can easily kill them. Either way, it’s a bad outcome for any man enchanted. The first Greek examples of sirens were associated with meadows and earth, but later siren lore had a water connotation — including dangerous, rocky seashores for befuddled sailors to crash their ships onto.
That ocean context sometimes causes sirens to get mixed up with mermaid lore. Nowadays, particularly sexy mermaid artwork is sometimes tagged as a siren. But Greek texts originally described “winged maidens” with bird legs. The siren was sort of like a harpy‘s more attractive sister. Her bird traits represented her beautiful singing voice. An early Christian text also points out that love is a sharp-clawed bird: it “flies and wounds”.
There are also historical artworks of sirens as fish chimeras who look slightly like mermaids. And some artworks where sirens looked like ordinary human women, lounging on rocky seashores. Like most mythological beings, sirens are open to interpretation.
As for me, I grew up hearing a bit about Greek/Roman mythology and its singing sirens. My more memorable siren encounters came in video games. Final Fantasy games and their summoned spirits represent a wide variety of Earth folklore, after all.
But in the modern fantasy genre, siren encounters are fleeting compared to elves, dragons, vampires or werewolves. The siren doesn’t seem to be a mythical creature that gets much thought or reinterpretation. So when I saw the submission call for the Distorted anthology — asking for modern, realistic, or fantastic interpretations of mythology — I thought sirens would be a great subject. Their flexible lore would let me worldbuild. Their built-in themes of love, temptation and punishment would help me make a great story.
I wrote a piece called To Sing Which Tune. It’s about a version of modern Earth where sirens (feather-covered humanoids with gills) have always been friends to humans. They call boats away from danger, and they perform their lovely songs on TV for our entertainment. At least, that’s how it used to be.
Nowadays, the siren population is showing more and more cases of violent dementia, attacking humans unprovoked and with little warning. Marine ornithologist Helen thinks it’s because of toxic chemical buildup in their bodies, a side effect of human pollution. Helen is driven to help all sirens — most of all her lifelong friend, Odyssia. But she might be too late.
To Sing Which Tune is darker than my usual stories, but it was an interesting project and I’m delighted to be included in the anthology! And I’m glad I jumped at this chance to write about beautiful, deadly sirens on a modern seashore.
I’ve been doing some rough draft work for Tinder Stricken, and a lot of thinking about the new book’s world. It’s been a while since I did extensive worldbuilding for a writing project! The Stories of Aligare setting has been firm in my mind for years now, with only the smaller details and customs that needed defining. It’s a nice change to design a completely different realm — and the creatures in it.
Which brings me to the phoenixes! Greek mythology usually refers to the phoenix as a large, magical, immortal bird that periodically douses itself in fire and rises up renewed from its own ashes. That renewal symbolism is a great selling point for a mythological creature and it’s been interpreted variously over the years, even embraced by early Christian symbolism.
The phoenix has differing physical descriptions, depending on which ancient text you consult. It’s usually said to have a crest of feathers on its head, and red/yellow colouring that suits a fiery creature. Other than that, they’re up to the individual’s imagination. Sometimes the phoenix is the size of an eagle or a rooster, other times it’s said to dwarf an ostrich. (I suspect that the stated size has to do with whether people wanted to carry the legend on their arm like a trained falcon, or ride it through the sky.)
There are other cultural representations of phoenix-like birds, such as the Slavic firebird, or the simurgh sometimes said to plunge itself into fire after 1 700 years of life. And some mythical creatures are loosely compared to the phoenix just because they’re legendary birds.
In particular, the fenghuang is often called a “Chinese phoenix”, although it’s not fire-aspected. Fenghuang are legendary birds associated with femininity, justice, honour and the various celestial forces, and sometimes used to symbolize the ruling empress. Fenghuang were originally described as elaborate chimera creatures (much like Asian dragons) but more modern depictions of fenghuang are mostly fusions of peacocks, pheasants, cranes, ducks and swallows. To be fair, they do look a lot like a Western phoenix.
And can we consider Harry Potter a legitimate folklore source for phoenixes? I think we can, since the series is so far-reaching. Fawkes the phoenix has the crest, long tail and colouration of a traditional phoenix, and he bursts into flames to recover from periodic death. His feathers are powerful magical items that can be made into wizarding wands. And Fawkes also has some less traditional special abilities — such as healing tears, teleportation, and an enormous carrying capacity — that phoenix lore is able to support. Surely, a creature magical enough to be healed by fire must have some other amazing traits, right? J.K. Rowling was able to put her own spin on the mythology.
Because much like dragons, the phoenix has a lot of long-standing mythology to draw from, but not many stone-set rules. A phoenix can be recognisable while still being different from what we’re expecting. I love it when the fantasy genre does that!
I’ve used phoenix lore alredy in my Aligare world — as Phoenix the Legend Creature, said to cause volcanic eruptions each time she throws herself into the renewing “firerock”. Now, with Tinder Stricken, I’m using phoenixes in a more central role to the story. Much like my Aligare dragons being more approachable interpretations of Earth lore, and mundane in their own world, I’m making the phoenixes of Tselaya into more realism-based creatures. They’re not all-powerful legends. They’re just living things — and a part of the local ecosystem.
These phoenixes are about the size of an eagle, with physiology like a combination of ravens and cranes. They’re omnivorous, snapping up passing insects and other opportunities, but the bulk of their diet is shoots, buds, fruit and seeds from high-magic-content plants. Because such plants are rare in the challenging growing conditions of Tselaya Mountain, phoenixes cultivate some of their food. They use flint and steel to start fires, so that they have fertile ashes to grow seeds and saplings in.
I thought that using striking tools to start their fires would be an interesting take on phoenix lore, since tool use is a well-known sign of intelligence in Earth birds. To that end, phoenixes have stringfeathers — two tough, cord-like tail feathers that they can use to help carry objects. The stringfeathers can be wrapped or tied around the phoenix’s cargo, including their prized bits of fire-starting minerals, or their gathered plant sprigs. The rest of the phoenix’s tail is forked like a swallow’s tail. I figured that a mountain-dwelling bird would face high winds, so they’d need a more practical, flight-assisting tail than the showy display plumes usually seen on a phoenix.
But the crest aspect of phoenix design suits my purposes. Partly due to intelligence and partly due to their magic-rich diet, Tselaya phoenixes are very good at communication. Their three crests of feathers help them express themselves.
And an intelligent, fire-starting bird like that is bound to get on the wrong side of the local humans. Phoenixes are generally considered dangerous pests — but the best way to get rid of a wild phoenix is to have a trained phoenix talk to it and ask it to leave. When Tinder Stricken‘s main character has her family heirloom knife stolen by a wild phoenix, she essentially needs to fight fire with fire. (Huh, I just noticed how conveniently that idiom fits into my scenario.)
So I’m looking forward to working with my own take on various old lore. Phoenixes and similar legendary birds might be well-known and open to interpretation, yet they’re nowhere near as popular as dragons. And unlike werewolves and vampires — which are nearly their own genres — phoenixes don’t often get top billing in fantasy novels. I think that should change! The phoenix is one more aspect of speculative fiction that’s fertile ground for reinvention.
I wrote a story based on the prompt word blue.
All Things Blended
by Heidi C. Vlach
The apprentice lost track of how many months passed, as she travelled under the shifting sky on her two dusty feet. Gradually, she gathered all the components.
In the secret depths of mountains she found lapis lazuli, a vivid-hued thing like a jungle bird. On the salt-sprayed coast she found a sea snail, plain and viscous but its chroma was hidden inside. In markets and bazaars, she bargained for treasures: azure crystals; a velvet pouch of cobalt powder; a lovely turquoise gem polished to a pearlescent shine; desiccated leaves of indigo. When her coin ran out, she walked herself through green-flourishing places, for woad, and cornflower, and periwinkle.
She had all that the earth could give her. With feet sore and blistered, and her face weathered like wood, the apprentice returned to the workshop. The dust-cloaked space was hers now, its original master long since departed. There was no alchemist here — not yet, not until this apprentice claimed her true colour.
Over and over, she read the spellbook, with her knuckles brightly sore from gripping the pestle. The instructions were distinct for each shade and each preparation; she left fingerprints, cobalt smudges glaring against the yellowed pages.
She crafted a nerve-wracking array of fine pigments, all heaped onto tin plates. The apprentice waited some hours, tried to summon her soothing choice of colour in her heart, and finally she could stand it no longer and she spilled of her powders all onto a hammered gold platter beneath the sky. Carefully, with a knife’s edge, she arranged the powders into a ring. All her tints fanned together now, blending.
She bent close over the pigments, her dun robes a shield against the breeze. She read the spellbook with purpose now, running its words through her mind’s voice like sand through her fingers.
Combine with the hue of the sky, the claiming spell said.
Her heartbeat welled up underneath her. She had hoped the journeying would grant her wisdom, hoped that she would be a lightning rod to revelation but she was no master just yet.
Patience was key. A cool presence like her chosen colour. She closed her eyes and sat there breathing, aware of her mundane body’s outer husk. The apprentice was a fleshy thing rent in common earth’s colours but she was blue inside, she knew she was. She returned to the passage at the end of the spell, the one lodged in her mind like an eloquent fishhook:
When blended, the ingredients will produce the very colour of a productive life: equal parts calmness, confidence and clarity. Know the colour blue and you shall be as the sky, the sea, the ice never melting.
Really, she thought, a clear and oceanic life was all an alchemist could want. Breeze fingered the apprentice’s robes and she was calm regardless. She had her ingredients gathered; she could persevere a little longer.
Combine with the hue of the sky, the book said.
She turned her face upward, poised over her azure and turquoise and ultramarine. The apprentice spent a little more of her time as the daylight waned and waxed, as the winds turned and the sky showed her more of herself.
She would know the right shade when she saw it.
Lately, my mind is mostly on my upcoming collection of dragon short stories. Not the NaNoWriMo murder mystery I’m supposed to be hammering out, haha, oops. I’ve just always found dragons fascinating. All of human culture has, it seems, because there are so many dragon-like things scattered across our folklore.
Dragons are pretty much always amazing creatures in their mythologies. Most can fly, whether they have wings or not, and there are few things humans envy more than a naturally flighted creature. But dragons aren’t the delicate little birds and bugs we’re used to seeing in the air. They’re beings of great size, power, longevity and/or wisdom. Sometimes they have fire breath, poisonous blood or other dangerous skills. Sometimes they are wise, benevolent creatures, guarding water sources or teaching speech to humans. Whether humans are supposed to slay them or worship them, dragons just seem to demand human attention. They represent a thick stew of our primal fears and desires.
In the last 50 years or so, mainstream English fantasy books have added some new ideas to the mix. Dragon-riding is probably the most notable. Dragons were mostly evil monsters in Western culture, even in Tolkien’s highly influential works. But this idea suddenly caught on that dragons could be loyal companions who help protect humanity. Maybe that was influenced by the kind-hearted Eastern dragons? Maybe people just realized that dragons would be even cooler if we didn’t need to go out and murder them? Who knows.
So we’re all confident we know what a dragon is, and yet there are so many angles to approach the idea from. Dragons kidnapping princesses because that’s just what dragons do. Dragons guarding something valuable — golden treasure or golden knowledge — that humans want to take because that’s just what humans do. Flight and companionship and bravery, being shared one way or another between humans and dragons. There are so many ways to spin the concept. That’s why I’m trying to hit as many of those angles as possible in my short story collection.
In the Stories of Aligare, I already took the companion dragon concept in a different direction. In the development of the Aligare world, I wanted to take the idea of ally dragons and make the dragons more mundane. More typical to see walking around in a town. So korvi folk are like weird little friendly birds compared to most Earth dragons — but by Aligare standards they’re large, strong and courageous in combat. They have the gift of flight and all the freedom that comes with it. So korvi are dragons and yet they’re regular, relatable people in their society. It would be hard to do that in a world with humans.
But the short story collection is letting me play with more human-centric concepts of dragons. I’ve got two standout favourite stories so far:
1) A wise queen tries to befriend and negotiate with the dragon who kidnapped her all the time when she was a princess.
2) Small, magical dragons are the dominant race and they use humans to power their magicpunk flying machines. Y’know, so the dragons are riding the humans.
These subversions seem obvious to me, but I haven’t seen them around nearly enough.
So to answer the question “what do dragons represent to us?”, I’d say they’re the embodiment of the fantasy genre itself. Dragons can be very familiar and predictable, like the comfort food of speculative fiction. Or they can be radically different from everything else out there — yet still recognizable. I think we can all agree that that’s pretty neat.
UPDATE: My dragon short story collection, Serpents of Sky, is now available! Check the Books section of this blog for all the buying options, or just click this cover image to go to Amazon:
◦ Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for? (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar? (heidicvlach.com)
On the Aligare Lore page, I’ve outlined the twelve Legend Creatures thought to inhabit the land, maintaining balance and lending colour to the place. The most commonly talked about is the Barghest, a giant green-furred dog. He’s a big part of Aligare morality.
Aligare’s Barghest is based on the black dog folklore of the British Isles. These monstrous, ghostly dogs go by many names, including barghest, cu sith, or black shuck. Most black dogs are malevolent creatures that stalk lone travellers in the night and cause people to disappear. But a few black dogs are benevolent — like really scary guard dogs who escort travellers instead of eating them. I drew from both versions when imagining my Barghest. There’s also a little Grim Reaper in him, and some Lady Justice, too.
It’s said that if an Aligare being has lied, cheated, stolen or caused harm, they will eventually get the strange feeling that they’re being watched. No one else sees or senses anything unusual, but the victim knows something is up. They’ll catch glimpses of glowing eyes in the shadows. They’ll detect the shape of a dog slinking along behind them — not an ordinary dog, but a beast bigger than a horse. The Barghest is a master of darkcasting magic; it is only seen when it wants to be seen, and it can hide in an ant’s shadow if it wants to.
Eventually, when the victim is alone, the Barghest appears before them. The hound can’t speak, but it’s said that a victim’s sins will come flooding back into their mind as they look up at the judgement creature’s face. If the victim is a sentient person, this is their chance to explain themselves. They have one chance to plead their case, explaining why they committed sins, maybe even promising to rectify the situation. And the Barghest is capable of mercy — but the excuse had better be very good. If he doesn’t like what he hears, the person will vanish without a trace. Some say the Barghest devours his victim on the spot. Others say he banishes them from existence, so it’s like the person and their sins have been erased from the land.
The people of Aligare may genuinely value teamwork and sharing, but there are still temptations. Sentient beings are the most suscteptible to greedy, cruel impulses. So in Aligare’s oral history, on the rare occasion a character acts sinfully, they always vanish mysteriously. Could they have simply gotten lost in the forest, or drowned without a trace? Maybe. Are these historical stories just tall tales invented by the bards? Could be. Or those sinful folk might have met the Barghest and been forced to pay the price for their transgressions. If the benefits of teamwork aren’t enough motivation for a person, then the thought of a scary judge-cum-executioner usually does the trick. If someone still decides to act sinfully, well, they must have a good enough reason to risk meeting the Legend Hound.
I haven’t heard back from the other korvi fellow I sent to Fenwater [with a supply of healing stones], gods only know where she is.
“She wouldn’t have taken your stones? It happens in times like these.”
It did sound as though she had aemet friends in Greenway … A frown marred Ethen’s face, and he said, She can plead her intentions to the Great Hound, I suppose.
Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 19
So the Barghest is mentioned with reverence, and he’s meant to be scary. But Aligare folk don’t really fear him. This isn’t some slavering monster that eats anything he can catch. The Barghest only notices and stalks those who do wrong, and he only renders judgement on those who have knowingly sinned against others. If you have a clear conscience and you always try to do what’s right, then you have nothing to fear.
Tijo bent over a bag of stones now, sorting them with fierce motions. “Nothing is hopeless, Syril. I heard of a young aemet with stipple fever some years ago. She boiled in her skin for two entire days and came out of it fine. Seeing, speaking, remembering everything. If I can make such good fortune happen for those poor souls you found in the fields, then let the Barghest take me if I choose to stand idly by.”
Frankly, if Syril were the Legend hound judging rights and wrongs, he would swallow up all of korvikind for making choices at all, terrible mess of wormy apples that this was.
Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 13
The Barghest also won’t punish any creature for its basic nature. Carnivorous animals must kill to eat. As long as a person kills animals mercifully, and for a good reason like needing food, that’s acceptable, too. And the Barghest allows demons to cause illnesses and bad luck in people, because they’re only nourishing themselves in their own strange way.
So the Barghest is partly there to answer the question, “Why is everyone so nice in these books?” The Aligare world has what we’d consider strong morals and a ridiculously low crime rate — so the Barghest isn’t often needed. But the Legend hound is there in the minds of Aligare folk, providing yet another reason to do the right thing.
- Aligare wildlife: the pandora (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- How lifespan affects the fantasy viewpoint (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible? (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
What is a dragon? Weird question, right? Nearly every culture in the world has a mythical creature that might be described as a dragon. And since the whole world knows the general concept, the actual definition of a dragon can be pretty vague.
There are two commonly referenced types of dragons, though: Western dragons, the monstrous, four-footed dinosaurs with wings on their backs; and Eastern dragons, the peaceful, long-bodied animal medleys that fly with magical levitation. Dragons almost always have reptilian traits, and are usually large, powerful creatures. When a fantasy book mentions a “dragon”, we can still have a general idea of what to expect.
Because so many cultures developed dragon-like creatures independantly of each other, it has been suggested that the dragon represents something fundamental in the human psyche. We have a tendancy to look at snakes, crocodiles, predatory birds and large cats and be awed, so ancient humans all took that inspiration in a similar direction. They invented dragons that were to be respected, either for their terrible evil or for their godly wisdom.
I was watching an episode of River Monsters (which I’d link to a clip of or some information about, if I could find it) where the host is trying to unravel an African urban legend of a man-eating fish. He touches on the local folklore — which has a very Western-looking dragon in it. This dragon design didn’t spring up spontaneously. It has the legs of a hippopotamus, the neck of a snake, the head of a crocodile, and wings inspired by the fins of a carnivorous fish — all dangerous animals that kill fishermen on a regular basis. That interpretation of dragon is basically the sum of all fears. A hero who can defeat this dragon is a celebrated character, indeed. It was the first time I had seen a really logical process for designing a dragon, although I’m sure plenty of cultures have a method to their dragon designs if one digs far enough into history.
When I was writing Shades: Enlighten, my clumsy first novel, I considered what I wanted my dragons to be. I liked the intelligent, friendly interpretations of dragons much better than the evil monsters, and I definitely didn’t want any characters trying to shank my dragons with swords. They should be ordinary people, I thought. Not grand legend-beasts. Ordinary, relatable people. The image of dragons is so familiar to any fantasy fan, I figured there could be a more mundane majesty about them, in the way that a human acquaintance can inspire our respect if they seem brave or noble or hard-working.
And mostly, I wanted to remove my dragons from the mental image of a hulking, four-legged European dragon. So I went with a slim, bipedal design. Sort of bird-like. They had four limbs plus wings on their backs, and the dragon tail became a tripod leg to keep these top-heavy creatures standing upright. And along with the reptile skin and webbed wings, they had a crest of ornamental feathers on their heads. (These early prototypes were called dracans. Stunningly creative name, I know.)
When revamping the Aligare world to write Remedy, I freshened up my dragons, too. I had been reading up on Earth’s archosaurs, the biological family encompassing crocodiles, birds and some types of dinosaurs. If you mash together a crocodile, a bird and a dinosaur, you’ve covered all the major points of a dragon, right? And Archaeopteryx was always my favourite dinosaur as a kid …
So, that settled that: my dragons became more bird-like. They got efficient feather wings capable of generating lift, and I thought the extra feathers added ordinariness, too. We’re all used to seeing birds in our daily environment, right? Not intimidating eagles (probably), but social birds that flutter around chirping and chatting. Pushing the bird-like angle of dragons gives them a distinct flavour. Inspired by that, I gave my dragon people a better name: korvi, based on the genus Corvus that defines our world’s crows, jays and magpies.
When people say they’re sick of dragons in fantasy, they usually mean they’re sick of the unquestioned Western dragon. It’s huge; it has convenient superpowers; it can fly despite smashing every Earth law of aerodynamics into powder. But there’s so much leeway in our collective idea of what a dragon is. There’s inspiration literally everywhere on Earth, in all our vague historical texts and all our natural surroundings. I think the fantasy genre should make more use of that.
- Korvi feathers (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- How lifespan affects the fantasy viewpoint (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Who would win in a fight: Dragons or Dinosaurs? [Poll] (io9.com)