Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bird Myths, Pt. 6: Native American Myths

       In the first part of this post, which you can read here, Howie Brokenbow, one of the Ariana's engineers, explained the history and nature of the Aboriginal American Enclave (AAE) as an introduction to his part of the bird myth narrative.  At last I'm presenting his part of the tale. 
       This probably could have been divided into two posts because it's pretty lengthy and ends with some general bird tales that don't fit in other categories.  However, I wanted to finish up this series. 
       This will be the last of the Bird Myth posts.  You can see why I'm having to cut this material from the final version of The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars.  It's fun but irrelevant in an already humongous story.  At least I've been able to present it here, and I do hope everybody has enjoyed the series!
       Here is Howie's narrative:

       “There were many tribes of aboriginal Ammerikens and their mythology varies greatly, but they all include many stories about birds of all kinds.  The one I’m going to tell today concerns the magical, or maybe divine, bird known as the Thunderbird – a giant avian who made lightning and thunder with his wing-beats and eye-blinks.
        “The Thunderbird could also be a shape-shifter like Garuda and some tribes believed Thunderbirds came in flocks.  They could change themselves into men by tilting up their beaks as if they were masks and by removing their feathers as if they were a blanket wrapped around their bodies.  It’s said that Thunderbirds sometimes mated with human women and so the lineage entered the human gene pool.  My own family’s lore says my mother descended from the Quileute people and that tribe had very special thunderbird tales.  I used to tease her about being part Thunderbird because she was so interested in the heritage.  And then when I decided to enlist in the ESC, my family teased me back about inheriting a desire to fly!  
       “The Thunderbird was a mighty, eagle-like creature with a wingspan the length of two canoes and feathers as long as a canoe paddle.  Its eyes flashed fire and its cry is described as like the crack of lightning or the whistling of the wind.  Sometimes it’s said to have beautiful multicolored plumage.  It controlled both storm and rain and its enemies were the Water Spirits, which it fought with its lightning.  In all legends, it’s an awesome creature not to be toyed with, but it was usually regarded as benevolent, protecting the people against evil.  It was sometimes said to be the messenger of the Great Spirit, which is how the name for God in the various AbAm languages is usually translated.  
       “A lot of variant tales exist of what the Thunderbird could do, but I’m going to tell the most famous, the one from the Quileute people.  They lived on the seacoast of what used to be called the State of Washinten, right at the border of Old Kaneda.  They took much of their living from the sea.  In those days the salmon ran in that part of the world and also there were whales along the coast, including the orca.  Today, the pollution of the coastal waters has killed off the orca or driven them to other parts of the world, but in those days they were plentiful.  And the Thunderbird was said to live in a cave in nearby mountains on the edge of an ice field.  If hunters approached its cave, it would roll big chunks of ice down upon them, so no one dared come too near.  Good explanation for the existence of avalanches!
       “The food of the Thunderbird was whales, especially the orca.  It would catch them out in the open sea exactly as the bald eagle catches salmon and it would take them back to its cave.  The killer whales didn’t submit quietly, though.  The orca and the Thunderbird fought many battles, some so fierce that whole swathes of trees would be uprooted.  To this day there are open stretches of prairie mixed in with the forests in that part of the world, all caused by the battles between whales and the Thunderbird.  To top even that, some of the battles were so fierce that the ground was torn up and huge rocks flung around, and that is how the AbAms accounted for the roughness of the terrain.  The factual scientific cause is terminal moraines from the glaciers that receded at the end of the last ice age.
       “Once upon a time disaster struck the Quileute.  There was a stretch of bad weather the likes of which had never been seen.  There were many days of torrential rain and a barrage of huge hailstones, some of which turned to boulders when they hit the ground and can be seen to this day near the village in question.  All that was followed by sleet and snow.  Nobody could fish, all the edible plants died, and the people were starving.  So the Chief of the Tribe called a counsel and there he invoked the Great Spirit for help, saying afterward, ‘Now we wait.  If the Great Spirit sends no aid, we will know he wants our lives to end now.  If he does send aid, we will know our deaths will not come until later.’
       “And so they waited, and as dusk was falling … lo and behold! … there came flashes of lightning and a great whirring sound as of wings beating, and out of the setting sun a huge bird-creature plunged toward them, with a great curving beak and glowing eyes!  It held a big whale in its talons.  It deposited the whale on the ground in front of the awestruck people and then it flew away, back to its usual hunting grounds in the lands of the Great Spirit.
       “And so the people were saved, nourished by the meat and fat of the Great Spirit’s gift until the food of the Earth became plentiful again.  To this day, they never forget to be thankful for what the Thunderbird did for them."

       [I had a picture of the Piasa Bird, but I can't get the darned post to take it, so if you want to see what it looks like, go to]
      “Now I want to tell one more story and it’s from a Midammeriken tribe called the Illinoi, like the region that’s now part of Mitchican-Indipol Prefecture.  It’s about a creature a little different from a Thunderbird.  They called it the Piasaw Bird, which means ‘the bird that devours men’ or ‘the bird of the evil spirit.’  When Uropian explorers first came to that part of Midammerik, they found a giant petroglyph on a cliffside depicting a truly fantastic creature.  It resembled Prf. Katsopolos’s griffon more than it did a true bird.  It had wings, but it also had four clawed feet, antlers, a beard and huge fangs.  Its head was turned to face the viewer and it looked more like a monster mammal than a bird.  I wish I had some of the pictures I have at home.  Like Prf. Katsopolos, I didn’t know to bring anything with me.” 
       “Oh, you know what?” cried Lea Register suddenly.  “I’ve seen that thing!  When I was first piloting cargo flyers, I was assigned to fly out of Sinsinatty to points along the Misipp River and one time the flyer needed some repairs and I had a little spare time, so I took a tour around the region and I saw that cliff painting!  They said it was a reconstruction and not the original, but that it had been there for centuries.  The local people had always kept it touched up because it was so amazing!” 
       “That’s it!” said Howie.  “I’ve never seen it myself – I wish I had!  Anyway, here’s the tale connected to it.  Once upon a time, the Illinoi people were being ravaged by a monster – a flying creature with a man’s beard, a deer’s antlers, and a bird’s talons.  It kept seizing and carrying away children and women and even big men, and not even the stoutest warriors were able to stand against it. 
       “So when a new Chief came to power, he went aside from the people to seek divine guidance.  After he had fasted and prayed for a month, the Great Spirit told him what to do.  He went back to the tribe and assembled twenty of the stoutest warriors and gave them poisoned arrows.  Then they went out and sheltered under a cliff while the Chief, singing the song sacred to dying warriors, exposed himself in the open as bait for the monster.  It was not long before the Piasaw Bird appeared, swooping down and seizing hold of the Chief.  But the other Warriors rushed out and shot all their arrows at the creature and it fell dead.  The Chief was wounded but he recovered, and so the tribe of the Illinoi rejoiced, being freed at last from the demon-monster that had harassed them for so long.  In thanksgiving to the Great Spirit for showing them the way, they carved the image of the Piasaw into the cliff-face and it remained there until a quarrying operation destroyed it.  But a restored form of it has been preserved to this day, just as Lea said.
       “One last note and then I’ll be done.  Throughout history in the Ammeriken part of the world, there have been sightings – almost never supported by any demonstrable scientific evidence – of all kinds of crypto-creatures.  Reports of giant flying animals have been quite common and there was a lot of speculation that they were pterosaurs – reptiles that were the biggest creatures ever to achieve flight – that had somehow survived in a remnant population for millions of years.  They had wingspans of over 10 meters and would have been capable of picking up and carrying away quite large animals.  The sightings stopped around the end of the 21st century; if pterosaurs did exist and were responsible for legends like the Thunderbird and the Piasaw, then environmental pollution and habitat destruction and climate change did them in the way it did a lot of other creatures.  Personally, I have my doubts they could have survived to such a late date, though.”
       “I’m familiar with those reports,” said Robbie, “and I have my doubts, too.  I think the human imagination simply exaggerated what were already sufficiently big birds, like eagles and condors and maybe distant memories of creatures like the elephant bird.  One thing’s for sure – I’m impressed by the size of all these mythical avians.  Except for Capt. Kibwana’s swallows, not a single one of your stories deals with little birds!  Can’t the human imagination construct something interesting that doesn’t require physical prowess?”
       “Oh, you bet, sir!” volunteered Lt. Brokenbow.  “I mentioned there are AbAm tales about all kinds of birds, but I thought we were supposed to do big creatures like the Phenix.  The raven is a small bird that’s particularly important among tribes related to my mother’s people.  He’s one of your trickster characters, Prf. Katsopolos, and a creator as well!  Just an example … one day Raven was flying around with a stone in his beak and when he dropped it in the ocean, it grew into the land where people now dwell.  And then he happened to discover timid little human beings living inside a clamshell and he coaxed them out to play with them.  He intended to stick them back inside the shell when he got bored, but then he found some female humans inside a different shell, so he decided to see what would happen if he put them together with the males.  You can well imagine what the outcome of that was!  Ever since then, Raven has felt protective of the lineage he brought into being.  Later on he stole the sun from the Eagle and gave humanity light and fire and fresh water.  There are a thousand stories about Raven – don’t get me started!”
       Then Clancy Mortimer spoke up a bit shyly.  “On the subject of little birds, I read  somethin’ at school once – it was a West British tale, I do believe, or maybe from Scottlend.  There was this contest, see, to determine who should be King of the Birds, and it was decided that whoever could fly highest, he should be crowned King.  So naturally it was the eagle who won out.  But the wee wren had hid in the eagle’s feathers and popped out at the highest point of the climb and flew up even higher.  So the wren became King of the Birds and was forever after held in great esteem for his shrewdness and cunning.”
       Robbie had begun to laugh with great pleasure.  “Ha!  There, you see?  Now, I’m really taken with those stories!  I’ve always revered eagles, but I have a fondness for wrens, too, and certainly for ravens!”
        “The weakling who outwits the powerful!” said Linna.  “It’s a universal theme!”
       And Clancy added, “If ye don’t mind me sayin’ a word more, ’cause I wasn’t scheduled to be on the program, there’s a couple of add-ons to me tale.  It involves why the owl flies by night.  One says, after the wren became King of the Birds, the other birds were so angry they tried to drown him in a bowl of tears.  But the clumsy owl overturned the bowl and the wren escaped, and then the other birds took out their frustration on the owl and doomed him to fly only at night.
       “And a better one yet … the clever wren volunteered to venture down into hell and retrieve fire for the birds’ use.  He made it home with a coal hugged to his breast, but a spark leaped out and burned off all his tail feathers.  The birds were so grateful that they each gave the wren one of their own tail feathers to make up his lack – all except the selfish owl, and that’s why the owl was exiled and fated to fly by night.”
      “You know what?  I think we’ve come full circle,” said Robbie.  “We’ve gone from my own tale of a real eagle through fantastic god-birds to pterosaurs and back to little wrens and ravens.  We’ve gone from King Garuda to King Wren!  I just hope all of you have enjoyed yourselves as much as I have, and learned as much as I have.  But now I guess the time has come that this meeting will have to adjourn.  Those of us who haven’t had a sleep shift during this pod interval need to get some rest.”  He looked up at the port screen, where the red-orange Garuda with the huge head still squatted, brooding over the assemblage.  “I’ll wager anything I dream about that big chap up there!”

Another look at the red-orange Garuda whom Robbie was talking about:
This work has been released into the public domain
by its author, GourangaUK at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Two Front Covers for The Valley of Thorns!

Click for larger view
Click for larger view

Finished! Or as finished as it can be at this point! I did two versions. In the beginning I got frustrated with the clutter of the full battle scene, so I resorted to abstracting the element of the fight between Lug'tei'a the Warrior Priest and the Demon Warrior Sho'choi'jik'a and adding a border and a few thorn bushes to reflect the title. Then I decided to go ahead and finish the first one after all -- the one with the valley wall, the lookout up in the Awl's Eye, opposing armies, identifiable characters, etc.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Book Review: Bad Spelling, by Marva Dasef

       Bad Spelling is the first volume of the author’s fantasy series The Witches of Galdorheim.  It’s intended for Young Adults although I think children from age 11 up would enjoy it.  It deals with a colony of European witches who escaped medieval persecution by fleeing to an island in the Barents Sea (north of Norway, Finland, and Russia) and using a magic dome to “terraform” it into normal, livable space.  This region is remote enough to be unfamiliar to the average American and thus can substitute for a constructed world filled with trolls, ogres, shamans, and werewolves.  The story deals with a female adolescent witch named Kat who can’t for the life of her learn how to “spell,” that is, cast spells.  Finding out why and solving the problem is at the heart of the plot, which is lively and fast-moving, although a bit shallow in spots (but then in a short YA book one can’t expect much psychological probing of character).
       The book is filled with clever word plays comparable to “Bad Spelling.”  Chapter titles like “Scry Me a River” and “The Troller Coaster,” as well as allusions to modern conveniences unexpected in this remote witches’ world (Botox, satellite phones, and snowmobiles) form a considerable part of its charm.  I got a particular chuckle from this remark (spoken by a troll) regarding the snowmobiles: “That fat elf at the north pole runs a dealership in the off-season.  Gave me a really good fleet rate.”
       I was intrigued by the linguistic elements.  A poem about a troll from the Eddas of Snorri Sturluson is quoted.  I checked and it’s real.  The translation is slightly different from those given in Wikipedia; I don’t know if the author translated it herself or found another translation or simply altered the translation.  There is also a lot of linguistic give-and-take between Kat and the Sami.  I checked the word “lumooja” and discovered it’s Finnish for witch.  All of those allusions can simply be accepted as imaginary or they can be used to inspire the interest of young people in the languages of the region.
       The premise of the story is set in the Prologue, which is laid “November, 1490 – somewhere in Germany.”  Here we learn how it happened that the witches established their colony on the Barents Sea island.  The author chose to write this prologue in a stilted and phony-sounding dialect, which I presume is meant to suggest an archaic period (something already established in the dateline).  It’s full of sentences like this: “Why cannot they just leave us be?”  “I’m afraid ’tis nothing else we can do,” which isn’t even grammatically correct: “I’m afraid it is nothing else we can do (?)”  This dialect serves no function, because the people in question would not have been speaking English at all in 15th century Germany.  Thus, all the quoted dialogue is a translation.  I found that opener a little off-putting, but fortunately the Prologue is only one page long.
       But that’s just a minor quibble.  The book as a whole is very entertaining and educationally suggestive, and I heartily recommend it for the appropriate age group.