Monday, September 27, 2010

Elves: Light and Dark

Artist: Unknown

Not long ago, I took a quiz called What Mythological Creature are you?. After answering the twelve questions, it told me I was an elf. This was news to me, since I never considered myself elf-like. Here is the paragraph the site produced.

What Mythical Creature are you?
Your Result: Elf
Elves are skilled, intelligent craftsmen and warriors. An elf will devote his or her life to a certain trade, and thus become the best in the universe at what they do. Elves are commonly very quiet and reclusive, causing them to be shy. However shy, they are not naive and posess a great deal of knowlege and wisdom that seems to be inherited at birth. Elves are immortal, and very dedicated to nature. They walk in harmony with their surroundings, but are not wholely over emotional beings. Love is not thought of as deep or passionate for these creatures, but rather a pairing, or mating that is ultimately result in offspring.
What Mythical Creature are you?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Knowing little about elves, I decided to do some research. I learned elves come from Norse mythology, and are a race of divine, or simi-divine creatures. Originally minor gods of nature and fertility, they can help, or hinder, humans with the aid of magical powers. They often deliver inspiration for art or music. Usually, when I think of elves, my first image is Santa's elves building toys in the North Pole. There's a lot more to elves than toy building. Before Christianity, elves were categorized as either light or dark. 

Light Elves

Light Elf
Source: Here

Like angels, light elves lived between heaven and the world of man. By heaven, I mean the Old Norse heaven Alfheim, found below the dwelling place of the gods. Though capable of interacting with gods, light elves weren't placed as high as the supreme beings. The Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) wrote of the light elves, and their dark cousins in his Gylfaginning.

 "There are many magnificent dwellings. One is there called Alfheim. There dwell the folk that are called light-elves; but the dark-elves dwell down in the earth, and they are unlike the light-elves in appearance, but much more so in deeds. The light-elves are fairer than the sun to look upon, but the dark-elves are blacker than pitch."  

So, while the light elves are "fairer than the sun," their dark cousins are something very different.  

Dark Elves

The Nightmare (1781)
Artist: Henry Fuseli 

Dark elves, wishing to avoid light, live in the murky underground of Svartalheim. Though "dark elf" may allude to their subterranean living quarters, they are commonly described as avaricious and annoying to an extreme. They're actually very similar to dwarves. Like dwarves, dark elves grow from maggots in Ymir's body. Ymir, who I wrote about before, was responsible for a host of troublesome entities springing from various parts of his body. Also like dwarves, dark elves look like hideous people, and turn to stone when sunlight strikes them. They're often blamed for nightmares, sitting on peoples' chests; and whispering frightening dreams into ears. The German word for nightmare is Albtraum, or "elf-dream." 

Tall or Tiny?    

A small forest elf
The Sun Egg (1932) by Elsa Beskow

Though early light elves were human sized, in modern folklore they became tiny. Fortunately, 19th century Romanticism helped return them to their original stature. Since I think taller elves are more interesting, this was a positive development. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings also promoted the taller elf.

Try taking the quiz yourself, and learn what mythological creature you are.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sidehill Gouger

The Sidehill Gouger
Artist: Walter Bender

My father had the unhappy tendency to tell the same jokes and stories until violence threatened. He did this partly to share his brand of hilarity, and partly to annoy the heck out of poor slobs trapped within earshot. One of his worn out tales concerned cows with legs shorter on one side than the other. The freakish cows' legs were mismatched from grazing on steep mountains while perpetually facing in the same direction. Some cows had shorter left legs, and some had shorter right legs. My father's deformed cows sound a lot like the sidehill gouger. 

The sidehill gouger is yet another "fearsome critter" from North American folklore. They're peaceful herbivores, who live in mountainside burrows, and lay between six to eight eggs. If you look closely at the painting above, you'll notice the mother is a "left-sided" gouger, while her pup is "right-sided." This tragic occurance results in much heartache when the unfortunate pup is unable to follow its mother around their mountain home. When gougers try to travel in the wrong direction, they tip over and fall, rendering them helpless to wild predators and human hunters. Another difficulty occurs when "left-sided" and "right-sided" gougers manage to mate and produce pups with mismatched legs. For example, the offspring may have a short right front leg, and a long right back leg. These sad little pups soon become a predator's meal.   

     A goat-like gouger

It's said gougers from the Appalachians have fur only on the side facing away from the mountain. Apparently, rubbing against the boulders on the mountain's slope wears the fur off, leaving the skin smooth to the touch, and tough like leather. Those characteristics make the gougers' furless side very attractive to handbag makers. 

A badger-like gouger with corkscrew tail

It obvious no one truly knows what a sidehill gouger looks like. While some observers swear the gouger resembles a goat, others keenly insist a badger fits the bill. Even the creature's name is cause for disagreement. Though sidehill gouger is the most popular tag, other names include wowser, hunkus, rickaboo racker and cutter cuss. It's certainly enough to make me cuss! In Vermont, the gouger is called the wampahoofus. Enterprising farmers of that state bred the creatures to cows so their bovines could easily traverse the mountainous environment. This must have been the origin of my father's cow story. Personally, I like sidehill gouger the best. They walk on hillsides, and gouge out a path in the process. 

The French dahu.

North America isn't the only country with loopsided creatures traversing the mountains. In France you'll find the dahu, a mountain goat-like animal easily captured with ground pepper. The unsuspecting dahu, smelling the scattered pepper, violently sneezes causing either a rocky concussion, or a sudden roll down the mountainside to the hunters below.   

There's also claimed to exist the sidehill or wild haggis of Scotland. The less said about that little creature the better!    

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Manticore - The History of Four-footed Beasts
Author: Edward Topsell

I've seen some creepy smiles in my time, but this is the creepiest yet. The creepiest of all creepy smiles belongs to a charming beast called the manticore. As you can see, the manticore has the body of a lion, a man's head with rows of shark-like teeth, and a tail covered in poisonous quills capable of being shot from a good distance away. The beast also has a voice like a trumpet, the ability to leap great distances, and the energy to keep going like the Energizer Bunny. Any unfortunate human captured by the manticore was consumed entirely, including bones, clothing, and items being carried. In some later stories, the manticore would query its intended meal with riddles before killing. To tell you the truth, if I saw a manicore, I wouldn't need to wait for the flying quills or riddles. I'd be dead without them! The manicore's name means man-eater. It's a good name and states the case.

Manticore - Bedeian Library
This poor manicore looks more buck-toothed than shark-toothed.

It's "man-eater" name orginated from the Middle Persian martya, "human, mortal being" and xwar, "to eat".  Understandibly, the manticore was considered the most deadly creature in Asia. Though the myth was of Persian origin, the manticore was believed to reside in India and Indonesia. It was mantained manticores were hunted on elephants in India while the creatures were young and without stings. The beast entered European mythology by way of Ctesias, a Greek doctor working at the Persian court of King Artaxerxes II during the fourth century BC. Pausanias, in Description of Greece, said:

The beast described by Ctesias in his Indian history, which says is called martichoras by the Indians and "man-eater" by the Greeks, I am inclined to think is a lion.  

What did our friend Pliny the Elder think?

Pliny the Elder

Unlike Pausanias, Pliny the Elder swallowed the manticore myth hook, line and sinker. In other words, he swallowed it whole. Quoting Ctesias he wrote:

The mantichora has the face and ears of a human with grey eyes, a triple row of teeth that meet like the teeth in a comb, a lions body of a blood-red color, and a voice like a pan-pipe blended with a trumpet. It stings with its tail like a scorpion. It is very fast and has a special appetite for human flesh.

Like Fox Mulder of the X-Files, Pliny the Elder wanted to believe. 

Manticore - Museum Meermanns

In medieval Europe, the manticore symbolized tyranny, envy and the devil. It was evil personified. As late as the 1930's, peasants of Spain thought the creature signified bad omens. It was a beast that kept going, and going and going! 

So if you hear of manticores in your neighborhood, grab the closest elephant and dispatch them while they're young. They're not nice to have around.