A to Z: Zaccoum

Published April 30, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Ah, finally at Z!  There were a surprising number of “Z” choices, but it was much harder to find one that wasn’t Chinese.

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

So, let’s follow standard procedure and start with the Compendium text.  In this case, it’s from Shin Megami Tensei IV/IV Apocalypse:

A tree believed to grow in Jahannam, the Islamic hell.  It bears fruit shaped like the heads of devils.
Its existence is mentioned in the Qu’ran.

And before I move on any further, let me start out by saying that I do not know what spellings are viewed as the most correct when transliterating from Arabic to English, so I apologize right now if I use any that are incorrect.  Obviously, the ones in the text quoted from the game are not mine to change, and in all other spellings, I’m following what’s on the Wikipedia page, because while it’s not a completely reliable source, it’s…well…easily accessed.  (Because I suck.)

According to said Wikipedia page, the Zaqqum is not mentioned very frequently:  looks like it’s only in four verses.  (Now that I think about it, that’s not actually surprising.  Something that only exists as part of the torments of sinners after death would hardly be mentioned frequently in a religious text.)

As you might be able to tell from the game art, the Zaqqum is a tree with fruit shaped like heads.  It’s actually supposed to be devil heads, not human heads, though.  The game’s art is vague enough that it works either way, but in this other art I found of the Zaqqum, the heads look human:

By Shahhh [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The fruit from the tree is fed to the sinners — one of the only foods they’re allowed to eat — in order to increase their suffering, burning and tormenting them from within.  Or the fruit is the fruit of all the sins they committed in their lifetimes, so the more evil a sinner is, the bigger his personal Zaqqum is, I guess is what that’s saying?

According to Wikipedia, there are three real types of plant that have been nicknamed “zaqqum,” but looking at the pages about those plants, I’m not entirely clear as to why.  (Well, one of them is poisonous, so I guess that’s why in that case, but the other two are less clear.)



Well, that was an underwhelming post.  Sorry.  A-to-Z burn-out, I guess…


Book Report: The Grey Witch

Published April 29, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

So, today I’m bringing you the report on my selection for Challenge #19, “A book of genre fiction in translation.”

Firstly, that graphic I got off Goodreads isn’t accurate.  There’s no white on the cover; everything white you see there is also black.  And everything that isn’t black is gold, and the black is, well, I’m not sure if it’s real leather or pleather, but it’s something leather-like, at any rate.  This is a very spiffy edition, and it’s certainly been a long time coming:  it missed being a 30th anniversary edition by a few weeks.  (It released in December of last year.  Had it come out in January, it would have been a 30th anniversary edition.)

Those of you with even a passing acquaintance with anime — older anime, anyway — are probably familiar with the name Lodoss War. but for those who aren’t, let me explain that this book spawned a massive franchise, with many more novels, lots of manga (graphic novel) adaptations and spin-offs, and two anime series, one an OVA (direct-to-video, limited episode) and one on television.  Oh, yeah, and the Crystania movie (blehh), and the Rune Soldier Louie TV anime.  And a number of video games, of which I think only the Dreamcast game ever came over to this country.  (It was a bit clunky, but a pretty decent game.  Even if the best part, to me, was watching the anti-hero laugh after his goblin minions obeyed when he ordered them to drop dead.) Record of Lodoss War is something of a cultural institution in Japan (at least in pop culture terms), and has had a profound influence on all the fantasy that followed in its wake.  It also, according to the afterword, apparently invented the “light novel” almost single-handedly.

The best way to sum up the genre of Lodoss War is Lord of the Rings by way of Dungeons & Dragons.  Quite literally, actually, as Record of Lodoss War started out as life as a tabletop RPG session, which the author fleshed out and novelized into this book.  (According to the afterword, written for a now-five-year-old Japanese edition, all the further novels came from Mizuno alone, rather than from further RPG sessions.)  In some ways, the Lord of the Rings influence is extremely obvious (like the dwarf being named Ghim and hating elves), and in other ways, there isn’t much Tolkien influence at all:  thieves (aside from Bilbo Baggins) don’t play much of a role in Middle Earth, but Wood is an important part of the story, and there is nothing anywhere in Tolkien’s work that is anything like Karla the Grey Witch.  (Not that I’m aware of, anyway.)

Read the rest of this entry →

A to Z: Yurlungur

Published April 28, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Aaaaaand we have another one I really shouldn’t be doing.  But this was one of the ones I really wanted to cover, you know?

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

This colorful fellow shows up quite frequently.  His compendium text for the Devil Survivor and Shin Megami Tensei IV games is:

A snake with a rainbow body from Murngin lore.

He is a fertility deity who controls the weather and resides in a holy pond filled with rainbow-colored water.  He is a grand entity that transcends good and evil.

Although actually, that last sentence is only in the Devil Survivor games, not the Shin Megami Tensei IV games.

But setting that aside, let’s start with the basics.  Unless you happen to be particularly well versed in the cultures of that part of the world, you’re probably wondering what “Murngin” means.  It refers to a particular aboriginal group in Australia, but it’s actually an outdated term:  Yolngu is the currently accepted name for the group.  Anything more detailed than “they live in northern Australia” would either end up with me making mistakes and or spouting misinformation/misunderstood information, so I’m instead just going to point you in the direction of the Wikipedia page on them if you want to learn more.  (It cites a lot of sources; even if the page itself is less than useful, the sources are probably good.)

Read the rest of this entry →

A to Z: Xi Wangmu

Published April 27, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

This one is daunting, but after the last few, it’s refreshing to know that when the post is over, I’ll sit back and say “that is way too lacking in information” not because there isn’t any information, but because there’s too much of it.  Um, naturally, it’d be better if I didn’t sit back and say that at all, of course, but…I’m up to X.  Of course I’m experiencing a little burn-out…

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

Xi Wangmu has been a pretty frequent inclusion in the more recent MegaTen games, but she didn’t start appearing until the PS1 era.  Dunno why.  Anyway, this is her compendium entry from the two Devil Summoner games:

A goddess revered in ancient China who grew popular during the Han Dynasty.  Her palace was said to be atop the mythological Mt. Kunlun.

She is mostly human in appearance, with a distinctive headdress, as well as the tail of a panther and the teeth of a tiger

Originally she was said to govern the Five Calamities, but later came to be depicted as a beautiful sage and enshrined as the ruler of Mt. Kunlun.

Among her legendary encounters was Sun Wukong, who stole and ate the Peaches of Immortality.

And a more abbreviated entry from the Shin Megami Tensei IV games:

An ancient Chinese goddess who ruled over the Kunlun mountains.  She was worshipped during the Han Dynasty.

She looks like a human, but is said to have the teeth of a tiger and tail of a leopard.  She kept the peaches of immortality, which Wu Kong stole and ate.

Admittedly, the biggest difference there is that one says tail of a panther and the other says tail of a leopard, but…

Let’s move on to the real Xi Wangmu!

Er, to a small sliver of the real one, anyway.  There’s a lot there.  (Like, whole books of it.)

It should come as no surprise — given that the games tend to be at least relatively accurate, and that they get more accurate the closer to home things are — that what the game says is pretty much correct.  It leaves out a lot, but it’s not wrong about anything, as far as I can tell.  For about the first thousand years (give or take a couple of centuries) of her known existence, she was ferocious, and had…well, the Wikipedia page only mentions the teeth of a tiger, but I doubt the game simply made up the tail.  After she became part of Taoism, though, that’s when she became the “Queen Mother of the West” that she’s been ever since.  (“Queen Mother of the West” being the translation of Xi Wangmu, btw.)

Pao-Shan Tomb Wall-Painting from the Liao Dynasty (907-1125). Wikimedia Commons

This painting could easily be an influence on the game art, don’t you think?  (Well, maybe not.  But the colors are very similar!)

Anyway, after she ceased to be a dispenser of pestilence, then she did indeed become known as “the dispenser of prosperity, longevity, and eternal bliss” at about the time that China was prospering due to the added trade from the Silk Road, and the different regions were better able to get to know each other.

According to legend, she met with countless famous figures, including a long list of emperors, a number of heroes, and even the father of Taoism…and in one account, it was actually Xi Wangmu who wrote his famous Dao De Jing, one of the foundations of Taoism.  (Or is Daoism the correct way to write it?  The various pages on Wikipedia are inconsistent on that score…and I’m so tired I actually wrote “correction” instead of “correct” just now…)

Her home was not always said to be on Mt. Kunlun, but that seems to have become the default after a while.  Likewise, sometimes she was said to grow the Peaches of Immortality, other times different peaches that only extended life, and other times they were merely nearby.  She’s known for serving them to her guests, though, regardless of where they grew.  (In that respect, she could be compared to Idun or Hebe, with their golden apples and ambrosia respectively…)  And yes, Sun Wukong did steal them from her once, though I had to go through about five different Wikipedia articles to confirm that!  (It was my own fault, though.  When Xi Wangmu’s page didn’t say that, I should have just looked his up straight away.)



Bah.  I need to stop writing these posts at night when I’m tired from work.

A to Z: Wendigo

Published April 26, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

I’m sure I had lots of other choices for “W”.  Well, some other choices, anyway.  But Wendigo is the only one who ended up in my list as I went through the games where I could easily access the compendium.

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

Aside from the horns, he seems more like a yeti than a wendigo, really.  But he’s a suitable sight for the terrified central trio of Devil Survivor, who meet him at the beginning of the game, before they’re used to seeing demons everywhere, and the next morning are given the prediction by their future diaries (lol, anime inside joke) that they’re going to be killed by him that day.

Anyway, this is what his compendium entry says in four of the five games available to me:

An abominable snowman of Canada.  Its height is over five meters.

It has a face that looks like a skull and its thick fur lets it run quickly in the snow.  It appears in villages and eats humans.  Sacrifices are common to avoid being attacked.  It is also said to be a type of spirit that dwells in mountains.

(The fifth, Persona Q, doesn’t feature wendigo.  He doesn’t seem popular in the Persona sub-series, which is odd, because you’d think he’d fit right in.  Though actually, the last sentence was only in two of the four games.  The rest was in all four.)

As with some of the other demons I’ve looked at (yesterday’s, for example), the description of the wendigo seems to be based on something very specific, something that isn’t the original belief, but I don’t know what, precisely.  Since it was made the title character of a 1910 short story by Algernon Blackwood, the wendigo has taken on an entirely new and ever-changing life outside of the culture in which it originated, to the point that some people probably don’t even realize it started out as a native monster from before the arrival of Europeans on this continent.  But a lot of that is in horror fiction and/or horror movies, all of which I avoid, so I’m gonna skip the wendigo’s second wind as a monster (even though that’s the one that seems to be the game’s real point of reference) and go instead to the original one.

The beast we call the wendigo actually has a lot of names, coming from the Ojibwe, Algonquin and Cree languages.  As that might indicate, the original belief was widespread across what is now the northeast United States and eastern Canada.  The wendigo is a man-eating beast that symbolizes gluttony, and the insatiable results of simply giving in to gluttony and greed:  every time a wendigo ate a human, they grew proportionately by the amount of meat they consumed, meaning that next time they fed, they would need even more meat, in an endless cycle, which is why the uncontrollable glutton was also always emaciated and starving.

The actual, supernatural wendigos are not cannibals (despite usually being labeled as such) because they don’t eat each other.  However, a human being could become a wendigo if they gave in to their greed too readily, or if they spent time with real wendigos.  Those human wendigos were cannibals, eating whatever humans they could.  The Wikipedia page on the wendigo mentions several documented cases of cannibalism that were said to be humans becoming wendigos, one of them dating back to 1661!  Of course, the only cure for a human who became a wendigo was death.  Thankfully, such cases dwindled in the 20th century.



I feel like there was more I needed to say here.  Probably shouldn’t be trying to write at midnight.  Maybe I’ll remember later and edit this.  (Or maybe this nonsense will still be here when the post goes live in five — er, four and a half — days.)

In any case, I wanted to close this post with a link to another (long completed) enamel pin Kickstarter (yes, I’m obsessed) that has a very different take on a wendigo.  The pins are cute little faces of monster girls, but there’s also non-SD art of the first three, which is, well, not quite NSFW, but very close to it.  (So probably don’t click the link if you’re at work…)  And yes, if you were wondering, the wendigo pin is one of the ones I’m getting.  (Hey, be glad I didn’t do this on Mothman, too.  I had one there I could have linked to, too…)

A to Z: Vouivre

Published April 25, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Today’s demon is one I first met in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey on the Nintendo DS…the 3DS remaster of which will be releasing on the 15th of next month!  YAY!  (I am frankly astonished that I somehow managed to go this long through this process without mentioning that…)  Okay, “YAY” might be a bit of an exaggeration, though;  Strange Journey was even more ham-fisted in certain story aspects than the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei games, but I can’t help being excited every time a new MegaTen game comes out in English, you know?  Besides, I never forced myself to get the Law and Chaos endings of it the first time around, so this way I can do the smart thing and start with them, so that the Neutral ending becomes my reward.  (Thankfully, I had learned that lesson by the time Shin Megami Tensei IV came out…)

Right, lengthy digression over with.  Let’s get on to today’s featured entity…

Image copyright Atlus. Provided by the Stealing Knowledge blog on tumblr. Click for link.

Yeah, this was one of those demons where my first reaction was “WTF?!”  (Though it’s nothing compared to the bondage Angels…)  When I finally got one in my party and could read the information in the Compendium, that didn’t really help explain to me why she was half human and half red, winged Silurian.

This is her entry from Shin Megami Tensei IV/IV Apocalypse:

A female dragon with bat wings.  Sometimes depicted as a beautiful female spirit.

They have bat wings, eagle legs, and a snake tail, and are all female.  The secret of their power is the garnet gem in their forehead.  If it is stolen, they lose their power and must obey the gem’s owner.

Yup, not…not…not really explaining anything, is it?  (Her wiki page has her Strange Journey entry, and it’s not significantly different.)  Honestly, I have a feeling that what we have here might be another Porewit situation, only the wiki hasn’t caught on to this one.

You know why I think that?  This is the only image off the appropriate Wikipedia page:

From the Liber Floridus, circa 1448. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It describes the vouivre (Franc-Comtois dialect), or guivre (old French), as having “a long, serpentine body and a dragon’s head” and “venomous breath.”  Aside from living in small bodies of water (EDIT:  when I wrote this last night, that said “small bodies of language”; I must have been more tired than I thought) and having a strange tendency to be embarrassed by (or afraid of) naked people, they were pretty much just plain old dragons, if perhaps rather small ones.  In fact, Wikipedia claims that the English word “wyvern” comes from “guivre,” and that “guivre”/”vouivre” had in turn come from the Latin “vipera”

None of that has much to do with the highly specific MegaTen description.  The closest I could come to that in the Wikipedia article was this bit here:

in The Drac: French Tales of Dragons and Demons, the vouivre is depicted as a female creature with dazzling, green scales which emanate sound as the vouivre flies. The vouivre is depicted as greedy, her head crowned with pearls and a golden ring about her tail. The beast in this story stayed in a cave for most of her time, then left to bathe only for a few minutes.

The page didn’t actually cite the book properly (like listing author, year of publication, etc), so I had to look it up on Goodreads.  Turns out the book was published the same year I was born!  Given that the sole Goodreads review mentions that one of the other dragons in the book is the Tarasque, another odd MegaTen demon with strangely specific compendium entries, I have a feeling that someone among the MegaTen staff has a copy of that book.

And yet what little Wikipedia and the review has to say about the voivre in that book doesn’t quite fit with the compendium entry, either, so it still feels like something a bit weird is going on.  Exactly what, though, is hard to pin down.  Did that book’s version of the vouivre become popular enough in Japan to receive a fictional version that became so well known as to feel like it was the real thing to the average Japanese reader?  Did some name substitution go on somewhere?  Or is that really what that book has to say about the vouivre?

Needless to say, I plan on buying a copy and reading it to find out!  (That makes three books I’ve come across in this process that I’ll be buying…)

So this post has ended up being a bit more of a mystery than I intended.  Sorry about that.  (I’ll (hopefully) come back and edit in a bit more after I read that book, but that won’t be much use to those just passing through for A-to-Z…)

A to Z: Ukobach

Published April 24, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Whew, the end is finally in sight!  (Like last time, I’ve had to promise myself a reward for finishing…)

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

Ukobach is an old stand-by for the MegaTen series, though he’s not a surefire to be in every installment.  (Um…no, that was not supposed to be a pun…)  His appearances are so randomly spaced that I only have one compendium entry for him (only one out of five recent games had him, in other words), from Persona Q:

A subordinate demon of Hell, ordered by Beelzebub to stock the fires that heat its iron pots.  He also throws coal into the fire to torment humans trapped in Hell.

Yup, that’s deeply informative.  His MegaTen Wiki pages has a couple more entries, but they don’t really say anything different, they just phrase it slightly differently.  They also mention that he’s the first demon you get in Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army, which I might add is one of my favorite MegaTen games…except for the clunky combat.  (I even have a Raidou Kuzunoha action figure!)  I loved watching demons (including Ukobach here) trailing along behind Raidou through the streets of Taisho-era Japan…

Anyway, this is one of those demons that I knew had to have either tons of information or almost none.  Because you see him all over the place.  In Japanese video games, anyway.  (Probably in American ones, too, but I don’t play as many of those, for whatever reason.)  For example… Read the rest of this entry →

A to Z: Tzitzimitl

Published April 23, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

I wonder if Nahautl names look as daunting to native speakers of other languages as they do to native speakers of English?  Though Tzitzimitl is actually fairly tame, as Nahautl names go.  (Quechua names can also be pretty intimidating.  Actually, maybe it’s just long names in any language that isn’t either Germanic or Romance that look impossible.  I even stumble over Greek names sometimes…)  Of course, right now, I have a killer visual migraine going on, and everything looks daunting.  So I should just get on with the plot and hope the caffeine kicks in to get rid of the flashing lights in front of my eyes.  (I wonder how many people in older times thought they were crazy and/or having visions just because they had an odd form of headache?)

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

So, this is the way Tzitzimitl looks in most of the MegaTen games.  (Her appearance in the two Persona 2 games was a lot like this, only toned down a bit, and as to Devil Children…well, the less said about that the better all around, it seems from what little I know about it.)  In Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker and Shin Megami Tensei IV/IV Apocalypse, her compendium entry says this:

Aztec goddesses of night and fear.

They constantly attack the sun and cause solar eclipses.  They demand a sacrifice once every 52 years.

In Persona Q, on the other hand, her compendium entry says this:

Goddess of Aztec myth governs night and fear, symbolizing death and evil.  Her war with the sun caused a catastrophic solar eclipse.  She seeks a sacrifice every 52 years.

Obviously, you notice there are some discrepancies there.  The first three games refer to Tzitzimitl as more a type of being than a single goddess, and the fourth one mentions a single goddess.

Read the rest of this entry →

Book Report: The Serpent and the Rainbow

Published April 22, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

I teased a bit about this book earlier this week, so I’ll try to get right down into it, but there’s a lot to say here!  This was fulfilling Challenge #14, “A book of social science.”  On the assumption that anthropology counts as a social science.  Because if it doesn’t, then something is broken.

This is a classic of cultural anthropology (though the author’s area of specialty is more ethnobotany) from the mid-1980s.  It starts out in the early ’80s, when a more senior researcher calls the author, Wade Davis, into his office and tells him about the surprising case of Clairvius Narcisse, who was found wandering in a small town in Haiti nearly twenty years after his death.

Yup, the man sickened and died — in a hospital staffed with “Western”-trained doctors — and was buried in 1962.  And yet there he was alive, and reporting that he could remember being buried, and then being dug up and made into a zombi slave for years.  (Davis uses the spelling “zombi” instead of “zombie” and “vodoun” instead of “voodoo,” at least in part to avoid the goofy images associated with those more familiar spellings…though he doesn’t outright say that’s the reason.)  All the necessary precautions had been taken to assure that the Narcisse of the 1980s was the same one who was declared dead in 1962 (I’m assuming, since it wasn’t mentioned, that they didn’t have any pre-burial fingerprints for the man).  Although reports of such things had been floating about for decades, this time there was solid proof that someone had been declared dead and then turned up very much alive.  There was also a woman for whom the same proof was available.

Long story short, Davis was given funding to go to Haiti and investigate these cases, because they had come to suspect that these zombis had been created by the use of a drug that made them seem dead (this is literally compared to the drug Juliet took to convince her family she had died) and an antidote that was then administered to revive them after they were dug up again.  Such a drug would be invaluable for use in, for example, inducing suspended animation in astronauts about to begin an interplanetary (or interstellar!) flight, so Davis went to learn the secret of the drug.

This book is the story of what he learned about vodoun, Haiti, and the social forces binding the two.  I won’t tell you the conclusions he came to, except to say that their initial suspicions were quite naive.

I dog-eared so many pages in this book that I can’t possibly share all of them with you…so I’m just going to try to find the ones that support what I want to say.

First, his depiction of what Haiti is — of what the Haiti he saw was — is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book; rather, Haiti was the main “character” of the book, not the narrator-author-anthropologist.

The Haiti described by Davis is vibrant, lively, and full of a spiritual warmth that has been lacking in the few other accounts I’ve read of visits there.  (I think Roxanne Gay mentioned visiting Haiti, where her parents were born, but the description was largely focused on the jarring presence of opulence side by side with the most abject poverty.  Something I’ve read recently did, anyway…)  Some of that may be due to the fact that this book was written in the ’80s, and Haiti has been hard-hit in the last ten years or so by natural disasters.  But I think some of it has a very different explanation.

In the chapter where Davis goes into distressing detail about Haitian history, starting back in the days of the French colony of Saint Domingue (which actually treated its slaves even worse than the American South did!) he moves on past nationhood into the scholarly study of Haiti and vodoun.  And he talks about how in the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Haiti to produce an anthropological study of Haitian vodoun.  (I hadn’t realized she was an anthropologist — and student of Franz Boas! — as well as being an author.)  Before he tells us about what she learned in Haiti, he tells us about what the world’s (and especially America’s) perception of Haiti was at the time:

For some time American and European foreign correspondents had indulged their readers’ perverse infatuation with what was known as the Black Republic, serving it up garnished with every conceivable figment of their imaginations.  For Americans, in particular, Haiti was like having a little bit of Africa next door, something dark and foreboding, sensual and terribly naughty.  Popular books of the day, with such charming titles as Cannibal Cousins and Black Bagdad, cast the entire nation as a caricature, an impoverished land of throbbing drums ruled by pretentious buffoons and populated by swamp doctors, licentious women, and children bred for the cauldron.  Most of these travelogues would have been soon forgotten had it not been for the peculiar and by no means accidental timing of their publication.  Until the first of this genre appeared in 1880 — Spenser St. John’s The Black Republic, with its infamous account of a cannibalistic “Congo Bean Stew” — most books that dealt with vodoun had simply emphasized its role in the slave uprising.  But these new and sensational books, packed with references to cult objects such as voodoo dolls that didn’t even exist, served a specific political purpose.  It was no coincidence that many of them appeared during the years of the American occupation (1915-1934), and that every Marine above the rank of captain seemed to manage to land a publishing contract.  There were many of these books, and each one conveyed an important message to the American public — any country where such abominations took place could find its salvation only through military occupation.

I think the image created by those books has still not fully been wiped away, especially if the words of certain excessively loud individuals in modern day are any indication.

More people should read this book to get an idea of the real Haiti.  Well, the real Haiti of the 1980s.  (I’d love to see a follow-up now, to find out what was the same and what was different.)

One of the most evocative images of Haiti actually came during one of Davis’s returns to America.  He brought with him “a kaleidoscopic Haitian suitcase constructed from surplus soft drink cans.”  On getting back to his office at Harvard, he had this to say about it:

It was amusing to look at that colorful case so symbolic of an entire nation.  Haiti, it is said, is the place to discover how much can be done with little  Tires are turned into shoes, tin cans into trombones, mud and thatch into lovely, elegant cottages.  Material goods being so scarce, the Haitian adorns his world with imagination.

On a similar note, after returning to Haiti and going to a hounfour (a place where a houngan (vodoun practitioner) practices, in this case acting to heal some very desperately ill people).  Unasked, the patients shared their food with Davis, despite that they likely realized that as a foreign blanc, he had far more money than they ever would:

It was not surprising to see such sickness in the hounfour, which is, after all, a center of healing.  But to encounter such generosity and kindness in the midst of such scarcity was to realize the full measure of the Haitian peasant.

The role of vodoun in Haiti he summed up beautifully here:

Yet images alone cannot begin to express the cohesion of the peasant society; this, like a psychic education, must come in symbols, in invisible tones sensed and felt as much as observed.  For in this country of survivors and spirits, the living and the dead, it is religion that provides the essential bond.  Vodoun is not an isolated cult; it is a complex mystical worldview, a system of beliefs concerning the relationship between man, nature, and the supernatural forces of the universe  It fuses the unknown to the known, creates order out of chaos, renders the mysterious intelligible.  Vodoun cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers.  In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual.  Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entier community.

Another passage that really set me thinking was this one:

Perhaps our biggest choice came four centuries ago when we began to breed scientists.  This was not something our ancestors aimed for.  It was a result of historical circumstances that produced a particular way of thinking that was not necessarily better than what had come before, only different.  Every society, including our own, is moved by a fundamental quest for unity; a struggle to create order out of perceived disorder, integrity in the face of diversity, consistency in the face of anomaly.  This vital urge to render coherent and intelligible models of the universe is at the root of all religion, philosophy, and, of course, science.  What distinguishes scientific thinking from that of traditional and, as it often turns out, nonliterate cultures is the tendency of the latter to seek the shortest possible means to achieve total understanding of their world.  The vodoun society, for example, spins a web of belief that is all-inclusive, that generates an illusion of total comprehension.  No matter how an outsider might view it, for the individual member of that society the illusion holds, not because of coercive force, but simply because for him there is no other way.  And what’s more, the belief system works; it gives meaning to the universe.

Scientific thinking is quite the opposite.  We explicitly deny such comprehensive visions, and instead deliberately divide our world, our perceptions, and our confusion into however many particles are necessary to achieve understanding according to the rules of our logic.  We set things apart from each other, and then what we cannot explain we dismiss with euphemisms.  For example, we could ask why a tree fell over in a storm and killed a pedestrian.  The scientist might suggest that the trunk was rotten and the velocity of the wind was higher than usual.  But when pressed to explain why it happened at the instant when the individual passed, we would undoubtedly hear words such as chance, coincidence, and fate; terms which, in and of themselves, are quite meaningless but which conveniently leave the issue open.  For the vodounist, each detail in that progression of events would have a total, immediate, and satisfactory explanation within the parameters of his belief system.

For us to doubt the conclusions of the vodounist is expected, but it is nevertheless presumptuous.  For one, their system works, at least for them.  What’s more, for most of us our basis for accepting the models and theories of our scientists is no more solid or objective than that of the vodounist who accepts the metaphysical theology of the houngan.  Few laymen know or even care to know the principles that guide science; we accept the results on faith, and like the peasant we simply defer to the accredited experts of the tradition.  Yet we scientists work under the constraints of our own illusions.  We assume that somehow we shall be able to divide the universe into enough infinitesimally small pieces, that somehow even according to our own rules we shall be able to comprehend these, and critically we assume that these particles, though extracted from the whole, will render meaningful conclusions about the totality.

I feel like this tells me so much about what’s wrong with the world today:  our culture has subdivided itself into mini-cultures with their own incompatible worldviews, and we’re all unable to look past them to find common ground.

Also I keep wondering about that example with the tree.  What would a scientist say about why it happened to fall just when someone was passing by?  Particularly someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who doesn’t like to fall back on words like “coincidence.”

To close out this disjointed quote-fest (there not being much here other than quotes), I should probably point out that since this was written in the 1980s, certain aspects of it are not very politically correct.  (Like, for example, the references to “peasants.”)  But it’s very clear throughout just how much Davis admired and respected the culture that he had spent so long researching and becoming a part of.  It’s a fascinating read…though the chapter about pre-revolutionary Haiti does require a strong stomach in a couple of places.

A to Z: Shiisaa

Published April 21, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Somewhat ironically, my return to Japanese mythology is again visiting non-standard Japan.  Specifically, we’re looking at an Okinawan mythical being again.

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

Though he didn’t show up in the earlier MegaTen games, Shiisaa has been a standard since the PS2 era.  (Though his earliest appearances were before that, he didn’t become standard until the Playstation 2.)  So I’ve got a couple of versions of compendium text on him for you.  First, from the two Devil Survivor games:

A holy beast said to protect houses from evil and grant them fortune.

It is known to have the power to keep evil away.  Ceramic statues in its image are placed on the roofs of houses, in similar fashion to gargoyles.  In Okinawa, souls of the deceased become balls of fire and will burn houses, but Shiisaa keeps such spirits out.

And from the Shin Megami Tensei IV games:

A holy beast said to protect houses from evil and grant them fortune.  It looks similar to Shinto guardian dogs, but is actually modeled after a lion.  There are many stories about it in Ryukyu lore.

Persona Q‘s text is almost identical to that; there’s just a couple of words deleted for it.

And, because the wiki made it available, here’s his text from Shin Megami Tensei IMAGINE (which is, I believe, a PC MMO, and one that’s not being supported anymore at that):

A legendary creature said to repel disasters and misfortune and bring good luck to villages. Shiisa resemble a cross between a lion and a dog. They are revered as guardian deities in Okinawa. Their form is thought to be derived from the lions of the ancient Orient.

Shiisa are holy beasts that possess the power to repel demons and exorcise evil spirits that cause fires. Shiisa statues can be found in a variety of places, such as on the roofs of houses and outside temples. The statues are placed so that they face northeast (toward the Demon gate), south (to guard against fire), or the direction of a gate or cross-street.

Okay, so that’s a lot of game text (admittedly, much of it is repetitive), so it’s high time to move on to the real thing, eh?

Read the rest of this entry →


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