Category Archives: Thursday Myths & Legends 101

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Issun-bōshi, The Little Inch Boy

The Little Inch Boy is one of my favorite Japanese fairy tales that my dad would tell me when I was a little girl.

Once upon a time, a little old couple wanted a child, and so they prayed for one, no matter how small.  Eventually they did have a son, but he was indeed small.  They called him Issun-bōshi, which basically translates into Inch Boy.

As the boy grew older, but not bigger, he realized that how different he was, and decided that he needed to go out and find his own place in the world.

Issun-bōshi wanted to be like the great samurai in the stories his parents had told him, and so he traveled in a bowl as a ship, and used a needle from his mother as a sword.

He traveled down the river into the city, where he entreated the government for a position—and eventually he was assigned as a companion for the princess.  The palace servants snubbed Issun-bōshi for his size, but one day as he was traveling with the princess, they were attacked by an Oni, or an ogre, who swallowed Issun-bōshi.  Issun-bōshi then defeated the Oni by poking him from the inside with his needle sword.

After the Oni was dead and  Issun-bōshi escaped, the princess picked up the mallet that the Oni had been carrying, and with its magical properties was able to turn Issun-bōshi into the size of a normal human.  Eventually he and the princess wed and lived happily ever after.


Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Naiads

Naiads are water nymphs, usually connected to a certain spring, well, brook, or stream.  It was believed that if a naiad’s spring or well dried up, that the Naiad would die.

Like most Naiads are playful, but can be deadly to humans.  They enjoy beauty, but are also quite jealous, so if they lure a human underwater, they’re likely to keep it there—and drown it.  The Naiads are either descended from Poseidon, or from Oceanids (the 3000 daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys).  Oceanids are similar creatures, but associated with salt water, as Naiads are associated with fresh.

Naiads were often the focus of cults or rituals in archaic times, with belief that they were tied to fertility or cleansing.  Children coming-of-age would throw locks of their hair into a spring dedicated to a Naiad, and in some cases Oracles or ritualistic animal drownings were tied to a certain spring as well.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Medusa

The most well known of the Gorgon sisters, and apparently the only mortal one as well, though the reason why eludes me. Gorgons were female monsters, vicious and often depicted with gold wings, claws, tusks like boars, and most commonly fangs and snakeskin. At some point around the fifth century, artists and sculptors started taking creative liberties with Medusa’s monstrous appearance and started to represent her as beautiful but deadly.

Though the ancient Greeks believed the Gorgons to have been born as monsters, later versions of the myth, particularly one told by the Roman poet, Ovid, depict Medusa as a beautiful maiden priestess in Athena’s temple. She captures the interest of the sea god Poseidon, and whether by force or consenting, the two lay together in the virgin godesses’ temple. Obviously, Athena was less than pleased. But Poseidon being her uncle, her rage was directed at Medusa, turning her from a beautiful woman into a horrendous monster, with living serpents instead of luxuriant hair, and a face so hideous the

Stone Dreams by Ehecatzin @ Deviant Art

sight alone would turn people to stone.

Eventually, Perseus beheaded Medusa with gifts provided by Athena and Hermes, including winged sandals, a cap ofinvisibility and a mirrored shield so that he would not look directly at her face, but rather her reflection. She was carrying Poseidon’s child at this time and so at being slain, the famous winged-horse, Pegasus, sprung forth.

Medusa’s head was used as a weapon throughout most of Perseus’ travels until he finally handed it to Athena who went on to place it on her shield, the Aegis.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by Medusa and wish there was a retelling of her story in a sympathetic light.  It’s interesting that she would not be immortal like her sisters. And if Ovid’s version of her tale is right, then I feel sorry for the things she had to suffer… at no fault of her own.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Adamantine

Adamantine is a legendary substance dating back to the middle ages, and perhaps beyond.  It was basically meant to be the hardest substance on earth—though whether it is metal or gemstone varies.  Adamantine has captured the imagination for centuries because of the qualities it is meant to have—it is supposed to be unbreakable, untarnishable, lightweight (good for armor), and of enormous strength.  Basically, someone with armor and sword made from adamantine would be nigh unbeatable.

Of course then the question is how something can even be forged out of such a material, but usually this slight complication is done away with by being a gift of some type of supernatural power, whether that be faerie or deity or what-have-you.  The gates of Tartarus are supposed to be guarded with a gate of adamantine, for example, and it was this material the gods used to chain Prometheus.  Adamantine is even mentioned in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Satan’s shield is described to be of “ten-fold adamant,” and the angels’ armor is of adamantine, while also making appearances in The Faerie Queen, and one of John Donne’s poems.

Probably the most recognizable modern adaptation of this remarkable metal is the Adamantium of the Marvel Comics universe—an alloy that must be kept boiling because once it cools it is virtually indestructible.  It is this metal that is grafted to Wolverine’s bones, along with appearing in a dozen other ways.  In this case, it is science, and not mythology, which has created so strong a substance, but the outcome is the same.

What I like about adamantine is that it’s basically a Utopian trope—perfect, and therefore impossible.  But the idea, the possibility of adamantine has existed for centuries… all because of fiction, basically, and that’s a pretty awesome thing.  Good on you, fiction.  Good on you.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: The Gytrash

The Gytrash is a spectral creature of North England myth, appearing to lost or way-laid travelers on lonely roads  as either a large lion-like dog, donkey, or horse.

The creature occasionally manifests itself to lead a lost traveler to the right path, but most encounters are of a more sinister nature, leading the travelers astray, never to be found again.  When the creature appeared as entirely dark, with eyes burning like coals, it’s believed to be at its most malevolent.  It is one of many forms of spectral dogs, in particular, and fairly rare.

The most common reference for a Gytrash is the scene in Jane Eyre, where Jane wonders momentarily if Pilot, Mr. Rochester’s dog who has found her on her way to Thornfield, might possibly be this mythic beast.  She’s reassured when she sees Rochester riding his horse, as “Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone.”

For such a small moment in the book, and such a rarely-heard-of creature, this scene has always stuck with me, as has the image of the Gytrash, appearing on dusky roads and luring wandering travelers astray.  There’s something particularly sinister in the idea of what most people would expect to be a subservient creature  leading tired and lonely travelers astray, in the guise of companionship.  This is one myth that I wouldn’t be surprised to feel the tugs of if I were ever to find myself on an abandoned country road in Europe somewhere.  Maybe even here in America, if the conditions were just right.  If I go for a long walk and don’t end up coming home… well, it may well have been a Gytrash that I’ve let lead me astray.  I think I’d keep away from that one with the burning-coal eyes, though… at least I’d hope I’d have enough sense as that.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Oberon, King of the Faeries

Oberon is best known from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the king of the faeries who interferes with the love lives of mortals, and plays tug-of-war with Titania over trinkets and toys (read: people) they both want.  Oberon was most likely taken from a legend of a Merovingian sorcerer named Alberich, or “elf-ruler,” who was believed to be the other-worldly brother of Merowich, whom the people got their name from.

The name Oberon first showed up in a French heroic song, about a fairy who was cursed  to a dwarfish height by an offended fairy at his birth (hello, Sleeping Beauty?) but was given great beauty in consolation.  In the poem, Oberon aids the hero in winning a pardon for killing the emperor’s son in self-defense, after performing various feats.  This poem was based on bits and pieces of fact of a true hero who lived in the ninth century, but was understandably embellished.  In it, Oberon had a magical cup, which has been compared to the Holy Grail, which was always full for the virtuous.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon wants to a human child that Titania’s taken into her care—it’s the child of a mortal friend of hers who’d died, and she wants to raise it for her friend, but Oberon wants to have the child for his own purposes, to raise as a henchman, basically.   To distract her, he uses a magical ointment that he has put into her eyes, so that she falls in love with a man who’s been given a donkey’s head—meanwhile he has his servant Puck meddle with two pairs of lovers that are wandering in the woods, with a mistake or two made along the way.  Eventually he feels badly for what he’s done to his Titania, though, and the two are reunited.

Given the title of King of the Faeries, Oberon is understandably mentioned here and there in other works of fiction, of a more contemporary nature.  As a few examples, he’s mentioned briefly both in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and also in Frewin Jones’ Faerie Path novels.

Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Nike

Nike is one of my favorite Greek deities, though in truth there’s not a whole lot to tell about her.  She is known as the “Winged Goddess of Victory,” and was the daughter of the Titan Pallas, and Styx, a goddess of water.  She is known to be able to run and fly at great speeds, and is often praised for her wings or for her “fine ankles.”

Nike and her siblings (Cretos, Bia and Zelus) were brought to Zeus by their mother during the war of the Titans, and she became the divine charioteer, rewarding the victors in battle with power and glory.  Nike was a symbol of victory in many aspects of life, though, including athletics, which may not be a surprise, considering the shoe company that has taken her name.

She is connected closely to Zeus and to Pallas Athena, and originally was portrayed almost as a small fairy that would rest on the shoulder or arm of another deity… also, while in Athena’s company she is wingless, but when she is alone she retains her wings.

Nike is one of the most commonly-portrayed figures in classical art, which is another reason that I love her, being a bit of an art-history lover myself.  She is often depicted with wings, and holding a laurel and palm branch, symbols of the glory and stature she is capable of bestowing on people.  She was come to be seen as an intermediary of success between man and the gods.  Of course, like many of the classical gods, Nike was known to be capricious, and not always completely fair in her dealings of victory.

%d bloggers like this: