It’s been a long time since I’ve done a bestiary entry. My initial thought was to tackle something off my running list-of-creatures, but I settled on Dryad and realized that there’s a lot more to it than just spirit-of-the-tree. So here we go with another super-category. I’ll be updating the Bestiary Page this week and adding a couple of related tags that I can expand on more easily. That being said –
Generally when we think about beings in relation to ourselves, humans, there are a couple of simple categories we define by being not-what-we-are. Here’s an incomplete list of Things Humans Are:
We can contrast this list as follows (we can also argue about these):
Keep in mind that I’m trying to keep both of these lists as positive in terminology as possible, but there are obvious places where positivity can break down.
Generally our understanding of Gods is that they are like us but more so. They are immortal and heavenly but more civilized than civilized (after all, the gods gave us the rules for civilization – they represent the Platonic ideal). They are divine.
Faerie are immortal but earthly and straddle natural and uncivilized in unpredictable and bizarre ways. Sometimes there are the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Sometimes there is chaos.
Chthonic spirits are connected to the land – trees, rivers, rocks, and winds. In Greek mythology, these are their kind of creature – dryads and nereids, for example, while the same kinds of beings in Scottish folklore get lumped in with faerie. These might also be considered elemental, as below.
And hey, we wouldn’t be the species we are if we didn’t take the categories that we identified and tried to mess with them even more. It turns out that the lines between these worlds are surprisingly thin.
Going back to the Greeks, we’ve got deities like Zeus who can throw thunderbolts, not to mention turn himself into any animal under the sun (this superpower seems to be activated by Zeus getting turned on by any attractive local maiden when Hera is looking). He fathers a number of children (1) out of wedlock and lo and behold we get the figure of the demigod. Mortal, but with that little extra zing. Helen of Troy (Zeus and Leta), beautiful beyond measure. Herakles (Zeus and Alkmene), strong beyond measure. Perseus (Zeus and Danae) – uh, hero. Beyond measure? Hard to say. Tantalos (Zeus and Plouto), king and jerk beyond measure. Within Christianity, there is a similarly blurred line. Approached from the side of earth moving toward the divine and we get saints – individuals who are so holy as to be otherworldly. As a result of their particular goodness, they are able (by definition) to perform miracles. These may include defying death (at least in some murderous versions), speaking to animals, or healing. (2) Approached from the side of the divine moving toward earth and we get angels – certainly not gods or even godlike, but much more than human and much closer to God than their just-over-the-fuzzy-line-counterparts, saints.
The dividing line with faerie is murkier in some ways, perhaps due to an excess of legends that don’t really have much in the way of a canonical reading. Is Morgan le Fay a faerie or a late version of a Celtic witch? Selkies can presumably have children by humans, but they have a human shape, after all, so it only stands to reason. Often in stories it is possible to marry faerie, such as the only belatedly honorable Prince who weds a rusalka (water spirit), but there are not necessarily children by the union. More common are the theft of human infants, replaced with changelings, or stories of mortals who get lost (metaphorically or literally) and find themselves in thrall to someone.
In this sense, I am limiting my considerations to older sources and to my memory. In contemporary fiction, they are quite… omnifertile. I just made up a word. In Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels, for example, there are entire subcultures around the partially-fae and the faerie nobility. Although her characters are manic about identifying their ancestry (Daoine Sidhe, you?) she might have a Selkie marrying a kitsune (fox spirit – and a Japanese one, for that matter) and having children as a result. Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey trilogy hinges upon a half-human/half-fey girl. In other words, just because it used to be one way doesn’t mean it is that way any longer.
By the same token, there are darker versions of these same things. Where we have gods and angels on one side, we have demons and devils on the other. In Joss Whedon’s mythology, vampires are half-demon, looked down upon by the really powerful (or at least pure-blooded (?)). Spirits from Arabian Nights, djinni, afreeti, and marids, seem to straddle a line that is both religious (relating to the Quran) and elemental – like chthonic figures but not tied to a locale. Afreeti are more of the fire spirit, djinni are more of the air. In Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books, they are all related to fire and air and are caused pain by water and earth.
It’s probably worth mentioning at the tail end here that in some instances, witches and wizards would count as otherworldly as well – as long as the magic that they practice separates them from the rest of us poor slobs. Baba Yaga and Mother Holle, for example, are in the more-than-human category, whereas the “wizard” class from Dungeons & Dragons is not because in that world anybody can become a wizard. Magic’s out there for the using. Point to consider: if it’s something we can get our hands on, a little less otherworldly; if it’s something innate, inherent, or inherited, a little more.
(1) Given the number of children that Zeus had a hand in (so to speak), it speaks to a certain central role in his character. We’re used to thinking about goddesses as being the fecund ones, but it could be that that was Zeus’s primary raison d’etre.
(2) Hands down one of the greatest resources for lives of medieval saints is Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. Online some sections and a description of it can be found here. Print copies and even e-reader copies would seem to be available as well.