Today I have a guest post by fantasy author Marie Brennan, whose books include the Onyx Court series, the Doppelganger duology, and Memoirs by Lady Trent. The first Memoir by Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, is available now. The second, A Tropic of Serpents, was released in the US earlier this year and is scheduled for release in the UK on June 20 (although it seems to be available now in some stores). I loved A Natural History of Dragons, an enchanting, beautifully illustrated book that tells the story of the early life of Lady Trent and her first major adventure as a dragon naturalist, and I’m delighted the author of this wonderful novel is here today to discuss five mythological creatures that rarely appear in fantasy fiction!
Have you ever flipped through a Monster Manual from the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game? They’re chock full of bizarre creatures, from aasimars to zoogs. Some of them are based on real folklore — dragons, demons, dryads — but others are the pure invention of the game designers (rust monsters, anyone? gelatinous cubes?).
Which makes those books a lot like old medieval bestiaries. The people who wrote those were recording some creatures that existed in folklore, but sometimes I think they made up a few extras, just to entertain themselves. How else do you explain some of these bizarre creations?
Here, in no particular order, are five mythological critters that have been sadly neglected by fantasy fiction, which ought to appear in many more stories than they do:
Shakespeare described these in Othello, except he erroneously called them anthropophagi: “men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.” They don’t so much have heads as faces in their bodies — mouths in their chests, eyes in their shoulders. Herodotus said they lived in ancient Libya; maybe it was a bit of local folklore there, or maybe it was just something somebody told him once and so he wrote it down. If you look at woodcuts of the blemmyes, they’re incredibly silly-looking — but imagine one of them shoving food into his chest. I know it would freak me out. (There’s a Chinese creature called the Xingtian that’s similar, too. Maybe it used to be a worldwide species?)
Japan is full of weird monsters; they made card games out of them long before the advent of Pokemon and similar titles. Mokumokuren are one of my favorites, because they’re so useless. If you let your rice-paper screens become damaged and don’t repair them, then eyes will look out out at you from the holes while you sleep. Which is all they do. They don’t suck out your life or anything like that; they just watch you. Oh, and you can get rid of them by simply repairing your screens.
This one comes out of a Chinese text called The Guideways Through Mountains and Seas, which is more than two thousand years old. The West has stories about the Fountain of Youth and so on, but in this case it’s a horse: white body, red mane, gold eyes, and anybody who rides it will live for a thousand years. (Come to think of it, the white body and red mane remind me of the way the hounds of the Otherworld are described in Welsh folklore.) This seems ripe for a Captain Ahab-like quest to catch the horse and live for a millennium. Has anybody written that yet?
This Serbian creature is great for lazy people: it will steal honey and milk and so on from other people’s farms and bring them to you. Obtaining one is a bit of a pain, though: apparently you need the egg of a black hen, and then you need a woman to carry it under her armpit for forty days — during which time I imagine it would start to smell more than a little, especially since the woman isn’t allowed to wash her face until the forty days are up. But hey, you could start a household industry hatching those things for other people!
Careful what islands you tie up your boat on. One of them might actually be an enormous sea creature — one with a really gross method of feeding. According to a twelfth-century Norse text, it would belch up whatever it had eaten earlier, which would attract a bunch of other fish to feast on its leavings. Then it would swallow the whole mess, new and old. But it would also be happy to eat any people that went exploring on its face, and there’s nothing like an adventure where the land really is trying to eat you . . . .
Really, mythology is just crammed with weird things. It’s a gold mine of stories waiting to be told!
Marie Brennan is the author of nine novels, including the Doppelganger and Onyx Court series. With Fate Conspire won Kirkus Review Best Fiction of the Year. She won two Isaac Asimov Awards for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Grand Prizes in 2003, and has received honourable mentions for Year’s Best Science Fiction and Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.