Readers of this blog know — and share — my fascination with unusual mythological creatures, and embedding them in fantasy books. So it gives me great pleasure to host a post about Mesoamerican critters from one of my favourite writers, Douglas Lumsden. Today celebrates the release of his latest novel, A Night Owl Slips into a Diner, and I hope this post will show you the depth of research into mythology combined with the absolutely unique Urban Fantasy world Lumsden has built. Enjoy!
Although my Alexander Southerland, P.I. books feature a number of traditional fantasy creatures, such as trolls, gnomes, dwarfs, and at least one elf, I also draw on the folklore of the Western Hemisphere for many of my non-human (or semi-human) critters. In researching these mythological beasts, I ran across a wealth of intriguing critters.
The adaros, featured in A Troll Walks into a Bar, are taken from the mythology of the Pacific Islands, although these myths deal primarily with the adaro men. These humanlike sea creatures were often described as having gills on either side of their necks and a shark-like dorsal fin on their head. They were strong enough to pull ships from the surface of the sea to the ocean depths. Unfortunately, female adaros are rarely mentioned in the stories about these creatures, but that allowed me to use a lot of creative license in developing my backstory for the adaro women in my books.
In Alex Southerland’s world, the immortal Dragon Lord Ketz-Alkwat rules the realm of Tolanica (North America). The name is a corruption of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god often referred to as “The Feathered Serpent.” Quetzalcoatl has roots that go all the way back to the ancient Olmecs, who flourished from 1200-400 BC, and he was worshiped by the people of almost every civilization that passed through Central Mexico, including the Toltecs, the people of Teotihuacan, the Cholulans, and the Aztecs. He was even worshiped by the Mayans further south in Central America. He was associated with any number of natural phenomenon, but mostly he was simply the boss god, the head honcho, the god in charge. That made him a natural inspiration for old Lord Ketz.
When I set out to write A Witch Steps into My Office, I made a conscious effort to find more western alternatives to the traditional European fantasy critters. I began to research extensively into Mesoamerican and Native American folklore, and I ran across some fascinating possibilities. I used a few in Witch and in A Hag Rises from the Abyss, the third book of my series.
The witch who steps into Southerland’s office is a bruja who taps into the power of traditional Mesoamerican gods and spirits. Prominently featured in her story is the dog spirit Xolotl, who is associated with a number of things, including fire, lightning, and maize, but who was most often regarded as a spirit of death and the underworld. In some stories, he is held to be Quetzalcoatl’s evil twin. It seems that the Aztecs did not consider the noble dog to be man’s best friend; in fact, they regarded doggies to be filthy beasts. Centuries earlier in Teotihuacan, however, Xolotl, although believed to be something of a trickster, was more benevolent. He was the bringer of fire, and he provided food during times of draught.
Another Mesoamerican god featured in Witch is Huitzilopochtli, the “left-handed hummingbird.” He was the god who led the Nahua Mexica people to their new home in Tenochtitlan, where they formed the civilization that the Spanish referred to as the Aztecs. According to the Aztec cosmology, Huitzilopochtli had a big job: he staved off the end of all life by keeping the sun shining in the sky. As is typical of Aztec gods, he required mass quantities of human blood in order to do his job. The Aztecs considered the price to be worth it, especially when they could take the blood from enemy tribes on their borders.
In A Hag Rises from the Abyss, I decided that Southerland needed a pet (of sorts). I wanted something a little unconventional, and I found what I wanted when I discovered the Huay Chivo. According to legends originating in Central and South America, the Huay Chivo was once a powerful sorcerer who got a little too greedy and wound up living out his life as a monstrous man-goat. According to the stories, he sickens shepherds with his gaze and then feeds on their livestock. Southerland is kind of stuck with him and considers him a “lodger” rather than a pet.
I’m fascinated by the role of “little people” in Native American mythology, and when I was looking for a North American version of the hobbit, I came across the Nirumbees, a fascinating race of tiny warriors and medicine men who inhabit the stories of the Crow Nation in the mountainous regions of Montana and the Dakotas. In these stories, the Nirumbees are only 18 inches tall. I made Ralph the Nirumbee about a foot taller so he could better play the role I’d set for him, but I used the drawing above as my model for his appearance and general attitude. The irascible Ralph has become one of my favorite characters, and he is prominently featured both in Hag and in my latest book, A Night Owl Slips into a Diner.
The hag who rises from the abyss is the Central American creature known as the Sihuanaba (or Siguanaba). This vengeance demon (or angel, depending on your point of view) terrorizes wayward men who mistreat the women in their lives. She appears to cheating husbands and lovers as a beautiful woman in a white dress or robe, but when the wayward men follow her into the wilderness, she reveals herself to be a horrible hag, often with a horse’s face. She either murders the men or drives them insane. Hey—they’ve got it coming! The Sihuanaba is a Mesoamerican example of an almost universal icon: the “woman in white” who brings death, especially to men who have been disrespectful to women.
A number of the critters from western mythology I discovered in my researches wound up on the cutting room floor, at least for now. Here’s a few of the ones I found fascinating, but simply haven’t had the room to use–so far!
The Wechuge is a cannibalistic creature featured in the folklore of Native American people in Northwestern Canada. In some of these stories, he is the result of spirits possessing humans who are ambitious for power. These possessed humans become powerful beasts who hunt, kill, and eat people who stray too far from their tribes. Although strong, they are intelligent and more apt to use cunning and guile rather than brute strength to trap their prey. In some stories, the Wechuge are made of ancient ice, which has come to life to hunt human prey. They can only be harmed by fire, which melts them. If you’re wandering in the wilderness areas of Northwestern Canada, always have a lighted torch in hand.
The Navajo Indians tell stories of the Skinwalkers, shapeshifting demons that walk through the wilderness in human form, but transform into supernatural bears, wolves, coyotes, or giant birds. They started as powerful shamans who used dark magic to take on the attributes of powerful animals. By wearing the pelts of animals, they could transform themselves into the animal itself. Over time, they became so attached to their animal selves that they ceased being human. More than mere werewolves, these Skinwalkers had mystical powers that allowed them to read the minds of humans and even enter their minds and take control of their bodies. These were terrifying critters, and the Navajo tended to blame a lot of natural misfortunes, such as disease, on their haunting presence. Because of the stories of the Skinwalkers, the Navajo adopted the practice of forcing shaman to wear the pelts of friendly animals, such as sheep.
The Bakwas are diminutive creatures, about half the size of humans, featured in the stories of Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest. They live in the country of ghosts, and wander the forests searching for lost travelers. When they run across one, they will offer him food that appears to be dried salmon. In actuality, the meal consists of maggots, snakes, lizards, and rotten wood pulp. If the hungry traveler eats the food, he dies and his spirit is forced to serve the Bakwas in the ghost country forever. Don’t trust little people in the wilderness offering food when you’re hungry!
The Maya told stories of the Camazotz, an intimidating god (or, occasionally, goddess) noted for his/her bat ears. Pregnant women worshipped Camazotz, who would ensure the health of the baby in return for blood sacrifices (animal blood was fine, but human blood would work, too). Camazotz looks scary, but was usually benign. Usually. Unfortunately, the god/goddess had a penchant for swooping down on wanderers who strayed too far from human settlements during the night, beheading them, and draining them of their blood. Best to stay with the group, guys, especially at night.
I’m going to have to find a way to put the Dark Watchers of Big Sur in one of my books, if for no other reason than they are just down the road a piece from me. To this day, people in Big Sur report sightings of these dark mysterious giants who stand on the cliffsides overlooking the beautiful Central California coastlines. Wearing cloaks and broad-brimmed hats, often holding staffs, these brooding statuesque watchers, standing more than ten-feet tall, are often spotted gazing out over the ocean, silent and unmoving, only to vanish in the twinkling of the eye. The stories of the Dark Watchers date back to tales told by the Chumash Indians long before Europeans set foot on the California coast. No one knows who these watchers are, what they want, or what they might represent, but sightings are common. Maybe one day they will reveal their mysterious intentions. Or maybe their only intent is to watch.
I’ve been truly inspired by my research into western myths and legends, and I know that I’ve only scratched the surface. My searches have been nothing short of fascinating, and the fantasy creatures I’ve discovered are a refreshing change of pace from the more traditional elves and goblins of European lore. They are also more logical in a western setting. I’ve taken a lot of liberties with the creatures I’ve encountered, but it’s all in the name of artistic license. So far, none of these nightmarish monsters have seen fit to take retribution for being inaccurately represented, and I’m hoping it stays that way. But if I vanish under suspicious circumstances, Mesoamerican mythology may very well give you the clues you need to solve the mystery.
I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did! I certainly love Doug’s books (see my reviews), so getting an insight into the world behind them is absolutely fascinating. And, as mentioned above, today is the release day for A Night Owl Slips into a Diner! I had the pleasure of an advance copy (review to follow soon), and I can’t recommend enough that you should get a copy. This is book 4 of the Alex Southerland, P.I. series, so if you haven’t read the previous ones I suggest you fix it quickly by starting at the beginning.