What’s in a Troll?

Last week’s chapter “Winged Victory” contained a new monster for Hildegard to square off against: the humble troll.

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Skogtroll (Forest Troll), by Theodor Kittelsen, 1906.

 

Trolls are something of an oddity in terms of folkloric creatures. No other race perhaps save fairies have had a broader spectrum in terms of reinterpretation when it comes to fantasy literature. TvTropes even has a page dedicated to this pheonemenon that’s worth looking through. Tolkien’s trolls, for example, were massive brutish creatures sometimes capable of speech, that sometimes turned to stone in the light of the sun, and were (by some interpretations) made as a crude parody of the Ents. Contrast to the trolls of the Warcraft Universe, who are the tall voodoo-practicing remnants of an ancient Mayan-esque empire and speak with distinct Jamaican accents. This is taken to perhaps its most extreme in the “Troll Market” of Guillermo del Toro’s film Hellboy II: The Golden Army where dozens of varieties of bizarre and almost alien trolls are on display.

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Source: Hellboy II

But where do trolls come from? That’s something of a tricky question.

The word ‘troll’ derives from a proto-Fermanic word of unknown origin, but generally encompasses the same theme across northern languages, that of a semi-mystical ‘fiend’. It is a general term used across several mythologies and folkloric traditions, meaning it’s not possible to codify a single set definition of ‘troll’. In Norse Mythology, “troll” was considered more or less a cognate of ‘jotnar’ or ‘giant’.

Later Scandinavian folklore had their own variant of trolls, and likely a more familiar one. These were older, pseudo-natural beings that lurked in dark forests and under ancient bridges to menace the heroes of tails. They are in many ways the generic ‘bad guy’ for the hero to defeat, and were frightened off by lightning (possibly a Norse holdover) or the presence of the sun. It is possible that “troll” was introduced by Norse settlers, expanded and then later re-narrowed to fit various folkloric templates.

The trolls in The Cities Eternal are, in this case, being used as a general bad guy monster as they’ve been portrayed for centuries. They’re more cunning than a beast but still far less than human, and with a tendency to carry off or eat humans. As the serials has long stressed the possibility of multiple interpretations of one story living side by side, it can be safely assumed that these are far from the only trolls of this world.

Goddess of Victory

 

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Nike holding lyre, Athenian red-figure lekythos C5th B.C., Blanton Museum of Art

 

Last chapter brought the previously introduced goddess, Nike, to the forefront. But who is Nike? Most people know of her through the modern shoe company giant that bears her name, and it’s not surprising that a company wishing to associate itself with athleticism and success would name themselves after a goddess who personified victory itself.

According to Hesiod’s Theogeny Nike is the daughter of titans. Specifically the titans Pallas (not to be confused with Athena’s epithet, Pallas Athena), and Styx (not to be confused with the river). Styx the goddess is the divine form of the legendary river, a nymph and titan said to live near the entrance to Hades. She is quite significant as it was she, according to Hesiod, who was the first titan to side with Zeus during the Titanomachy, the War against the Titans. It was for this reason that her name became the name that all gods swear upon.

It is unclear what side of the war against the titans that Nike’s father Pallas found himself on. According to the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, he was slain by the goddess Athena, and his skin became her enchanted armor (Making their cooperation in the chapter Flying Solo rather awkward). However, this is likely a conflation of the Titanomachy and the later Gigantomachy (War against the Giants) as most sources say Athena had not yet been born in the War against the Titans.

Regardless, Styx’s four children all fought on the side of Zeus and the Olympians. They were Zelos (“Zeal”), Bia (“Force”), Kratos (“Strength”), and Nike (“Victory”). Nike was most closely associated with the Olympians Zeus, as his charioteer, and with Athena, reflected in her first appearance i nthe serial. She is depicted with any number of items representing victory, such as a palm branch, a lyre for celebrating, and a sash or wreath to give to a victor. In The Cities Eternal, Nike avails herself of armor and a spear, as victory over Typhon and the Primordials has not yet been achieved.

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Winged Victory of Samothrace

Perhaps her most notable aspect are her wings. In virtually all depictions Nike is a winged goddess, giving her an appearance not unlike later depictions of angels. Indeed, it is possible that the first depictions of winged angels from Byzantium drew their inspiration from Nike and her Roman equivalent, Victoria.

Nike in The Cities Eternal is a subordinate goddess to the Olympians but still a formidable figure. Just as she did during the Titanomachy, she is prepared to fight with the Olympians to bring order back to a world in chaos. She might not have as much power to bestow as Ares, Hephaestus, or Zeus, but her new champion is far from an amateur.

The Three Sisters of Fate

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“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
“When the hurly-burly’s done,
“When the battle’s lost and won”.
That will be ere the set of sun.”
“Where’s the place?”
“Upon the heath”
“There to meet with Macbeth.”

(Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I)

(Image source: Wikipedia)

Fate is a concept that has run a course through fiction, mythology, history, and philosophy since the early days of humanity, so it should be little surprise that it makes a prominent appearance in The Cities Eternal. The exact nature of fate, however, and the trio of women who appear to command it is left largely ambiguous, and deliberately so. In today’s post, however, we will examine the mythic origins of the three sisters and what they represent.

A trio of witches determining fate is a common theme in western myth and storytelling. The Greek Moirai, the Roman Parcae, the Norse Norns, and Shakespeare’s Wyrd Sisters are all variations on the same theme: a trio meant to represent past, present and future. The Sisters in The Cities Eternal are a deliberate amalgamation of their traits. They carry the properties and names of all three, for they are all three. We saw in The Wolves of Rome that some gods can change their behavior or appearance under different epithets. And more recently in Where All Roads Lead we saw that across pantheons even gods with common origins such as Ares and Mars can be very different. The trio, however, are specifically not gods. They are something older, more ephemeral, and altogether more powerful.

The names of the fates and the bodies of the witches can be seen more as vessels than true forms. Like an actor playing a role, when one wishes to confer with the being known as Atropos, then the younger sister inhabits that form and that pattern. It is the form most people know, but it is nothing but a mask for the tenders of fate to wear. The Younger sister might also take the name of Skuld, Morta, or simply the Grim Reaper.

And the sisters are not fate. A deliberate choice was to make the trio of sisters the menders and caretakers of the “threads” of fate rather than a representation of fate itself. Fate is a non-living but constantly shifting idea, best represented by the threads of a tapestry. The Elder Sister spins new threads and tends the threads that have already been woven. The Middle Sister ensures that everything is woven properly in place, measuring the lengths that will be needed. The Youngest sister plans the shape the tapestry will take, and cuts the threads once they have been put in place. Together they weave a tapestry of fate that dictates the rise and fall of people, nations, and worlds.

So who are the mythological figures from which these figures drew inspiration?

The most well-known are the Fates, also known as the Moirai, of Greek Mythology. Rather than past, present, and future explicitly, they were identified more as the ones who weaved, measured, and cut the threads representing the lives of gods, heroes, and mortals. As with similar figures they numbered three: Clotho, whose name meant “spinner”, who would spin the threads of fate from a distaff onto a spindle; Lachesis, whose name meant “allotter”, who would measure the length of the thread, the length representing their allotted lifetime; and Atropos, whose name meant “unturnable” who held the “Abhorred shears” to cut the thread of life when it reached its end. In a reverse of their Norse counterparts, Atropos is the eldest while Clotho is the youngest, as they are more representative of the three stages of life as opposed to the passage of time.

As with many figures of Greek mythology, these three had prominent Roman counterparts, known as the Parcae. Their roles and symbols are largely similar, with Clotho becoming Nona (the Ninth, as it was on the ninth day of life a Roman child was named and from that day their thread was woven), Lachesis became Decima (the Tenth), and perhaps most disturbingly Atropos became Morta (the Dead One).

The power of these figures varied across time. One of Zeus’ Epithets was “Master of Fate” and he was occasionally seen as able to command the Moirai to follow his will. On other occasions, however, even the gods are beholden to the fates chosen for them by the Moirai, Fate was a powerful force in Greek mythology that even the gods feared. This can be seen near the end of The Wolves of Rome, where Zeus implies that the fates have ceased to listen to him with the Days of Revelation, as our trio have their own business to conduct.

The Norse equivalent of the trio are the Norns. Classically they appeared as a trio: Urd (from the same word meaning “wyrd/fate”), the Eldest. Verdandi (Meaning “present/happening”), the Middle Sister, and Skuld (“debt/future”) the youngest. Unlike the Moirai, the trio did not have predefined roles save perhaps what can be gleaned from the etymology of their names. They work together, rather than separately, to divine the fates of men and the path the world would take. They draw knowledge from the Well of Fate and tend to the World Tree Yggdrassil. Another unusual feature of the Norns is that there are implied to be many, or at least they take different forms. They are often conflated with Norse sorceresses (Volvas) and Valkyries, and in the words of the dragon Fafnir in the Poetic Edda:

“Of many births

the Norns must be,

Nor one in race they were;

Some to gods, others

to elves are kin,

And Dvalin’s daughters some.”

This implies that Norns either appeared as, or occurred as gods such as the Aesir, giants,elves, and dwarves. In Norse mythology this may have been literal, with many Norns existing across the worlds. In The Cities Eternal the number stays at three, but those three can take any shape or form they desire, and are not as easily bound by things like time and causality.

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This image of the trio of witches who could determine the time of birth and death as well as the fates of nations, has been repeated in fantastic literature ever since the image first appeared in mythology, most prominently in the play Macbeth by original wordsmith William Shakespeare. There the “Weyward/Wyrd/Weird” Sisters acted as a warning and prophecy to the ambitious Thane Macbeth, a decidedly fantastic element in the tragedy.

Our trio in The Cities Eternal is at once possibly the most powerful and the most ephemeral. They are the tenders of fate, its guardians and its diviners, unreachable by all when they do not wish to be found. The Younger Sister, be she Atropos, Morta, or Skuld, is every bringer of death across cultures. She is the diviner of the future and the one who deals out death at the allotted time. Whether she can be bargained with is debatable, as her plans are entirely inscrutable. Does winning a game of chance against the Unturnable One mean you have truly added years to your allotted time, or was it always part of the plan, and you always had those years to begin with?

Only the Three Sisters can see the threads, and they aren’t telling.

Wolves of Legend

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The Capitoline Wolf (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Humans and wolves have had a long, complicated relationship for millennia. At times, the wolf is placed as an antagonist to humans. They are nocturnal; they harass shepherds and steal food away in the night; they are cruel hunters with sharp teeth that must be opposed by stalwart heroes not afraid to face the darkness.

In the modern age, we romanticize the wolf more than fear it. With the advancement we’ve made, we have little to fear from the wolf in our day to day lives, while the wolves have much to fear from us instead. This has led to many positive portrayals of wolves, like our friendly wolf pack in Cities Eternal! Even so…The traditions of the evil wolf live on.

We tell our children stories of little red riding hood and the big bad wolf, or the three little pigs, where the wolf represents an unknown danger, a stranger, seeking to take us away from our ‘walls’. In the black and white world of Middle Earth, Tolkien set wolves on the side of evil, antagonistic beasts in the service of the enemy. Tolkien drew inspiration from many mythologies including the Germanic and Finnish traditions, both of which look unfavorably on the wolf. In Finland, the word for wolf also means “useless thing”!

Perhaps the fiercest example of wolf as an antagonist is the great wolf Fenrir, who is fated to eat the king of the gods, Odin, at Ragnarok. His offspring, the wolves Skoll and Hati that we met in The Wolves of Rome, will devour the sun and moon and send the world into a freezing cold.

But wolves hold another place in mythology, as well. Many Indo-European cultures looked to the wolves as symbols of strength. The Dacian people, one of Rome’s fiercest enemies, carried the wolf upon their standards into battle, before replacing it with the equally scary dragon. Though we know little about the Hittite mythology, it is believed that they saw the wolf as a symbol of unity and knowledge. Rome, as well, used the wolf as an emblem for the Roman legions, specifically the Legio VI Ferrata, commanded by Julius Caesar.

In Greece, the wolf was associated with a number of deities, including Zeus and his children, Apollo and Artemis. Evidence suggests that there was a strong worship of wolves in the region of Arcadia, which served as the basis for the story of King Lykeon, the King of Arcadia who was turned into a wolf by Zeus. Zeus was called Zeus Lykaios, or “Wolf Zeus”, for a festival in his honor at the base of Mt. Lykeon…the wolf mountain. Apollo also bears the epithet Lykiaos, lord of the wolves. Homer refers to Apollo as the Wolf-born in the Iliad, a possible reference to an ancient tradition mentioned by Aelian and Aristotle that Apollo and Artemis’s mother, Leto, turned herself into a she-wolf to escape the wrath of Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera. Apollo and Artemis were literally wolf-born, raised in the region of Lycia in modern day Turkey.

The mother wolf motif is not unique to the Greeks, however. One of the creation myths for the Ainu people of Japan involves the white wolf Horkew Kamuy and his lover joining together in union, from which the Ainu people are descended. The Turkish people believe in Asena, a wolf living in the steppes north of China from where the Turks originally came. They tell how Asena came upon a sole child in a Turkish village that had been raided by the Chinese and she raised that child as her own, nursing him. A similar story exists among the Chechen people, and both the Turks and the Chechen have used the wolf as a nationalist symbol.

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Asena by Luiskaan

But as the title of this book says…all roads lead back to Rome.

Lupa Capitolina, the friendly protector of Rome, comes directly from the pages of Roman mythology with the tale of Romulus and Remus. The two boys were born to the vestal virgin Rhea Silvia, daughter of the old king of the city of Alba Longa who had been overthrown by his brother. Rhea had been allowed to live, because she had sworn the vows of chastity of all vestal virgins, but it is said that Mars came to her, locked away as she was, and together they conceived twins.

Unwilling to tolerate the risk to his power, Rhea’s uncle, Amulius, orders them left by the Tiber River, to be exposed to the wild forces of nature. The river water, however, flooded, carrying the babies down to the den of a she-wolf who was with cubs of her own. Taking the babies in, the she-wolf nursed them until they were discovered by a shepherd and his wife, who fostered them and raised them as their own.

The twins would eventually learn the truth of their heritage and overthrow their uncle, restoring their grandfather to the throne. Heirs to Alba Longa, but impatient to rule their own city, the two set off to build the walls of a new city together, above the hills of the wolf-den where they had grown as children.

When it came time to decide upon which hill to build, however, the twins could not agree. Romulus thought the Palatine was far better suited for the city, while Remus favored the Aventine. The two agreed to let the gods decide, but when both claim divine favor, they quarrel and Romulus slays Remus, his twin, in the name of Mars and the other gods…Similar to a certain fiery red head! The city is named after Romulus and he rules as its first king.

Capitolina, in our tale, stays loyal to her surviving son, serving to protect Rome in its early days from the threats of rival tribes. In those days, she was more animalistic and wild, running with the armies of Romulus as they conquered the neighboring Italians, bringing them into the nation that would become the Kingdom of Rome. After all, she was the mother of the city, a position she cherished even when in hiding, before the Days of Revelation.

Homunculi: The Making of a Man

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Faust’s Creation of a Homunculus (Source: Wikipedia)

 

The creation of artificial humans has been a subject of fiction, folklore, and mythology since some of our earliest stories. Though these same tales have taken many shapes and forms over the years, they come in a number of flavors including that of the Cities Eternal’s favorite homunculus, Elisa.

Artificial humans can be seen going as far back as classical mythology. In many creation myths (Egyptian, Greek, Aztec, etc) it is gods who are responsible for either birthing humans into existence or forming them out of other materials (bones, mud, and blood most often). But we’re going to focus on the more Frankenstein side of things: Humans making other humans.

The oldest and most classic is the story of Pygmalion, the lovelorn sculptor who fell in love with his sculpture, which was subsequently brought to life by Aphrodite. This is one of the earliest examples and something of a cop-out (It’s still a divinity that brings the statue to life), but unlike previous examples both fleshy (Pandora) and metal (Hephaestus’ automatons, Talos), this si the first one to be made and wished alive by human hands. In Ovid’s version the statue lacks a name, but in later interpretations she would be given names such as Galatea and Elise.

In many ways the shift of creator figure from divine to human is deliberate comparison. By creating life in his own image man himself becomes divine, a motif with earliest roots in a reoccurring figure from Jewish literature: Golems.

Golems are living figures made in the shape of men, built of mud and animated by a scroll known as a shem. More often than not these compliant automatons were seen as less than human (because of course only God can create men) characterized by their primary handicap: The inability to speak. Golems are mentioned several times in the Talmud, but became popular along with many other forms of mysticism during the Middle Ages, when tales of golems being made. This came to a head in the most famous story of golems, that of the legendary Golem of Prague, built by the Maharal to defend the Jewish ghettos of Prague from anti-Semitic attack.

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The Maharal (Source:Wikipedia)

The popularity of golems rose around the same time as discussion of our primary specimen of interest: The Homunculus. First described in alchemical writings by renowned sixteenth-century alchemist Paracelsus, the homunculus was a miniature human being that was grown primarily from collected and putrefied human semen (Relating back to the popular-at-the-time notion of preformationism) fed with blood and left in the womb of a horse.

Paracelsus was not the only alchemist interested in the creation of life, and accounts of the creation of miniature humans by artificial means were popular throughout Europe and the Middle East.

This idea of the creation of life by human hands is one that continues well into the modern era with mixed reaction. It became the subject of modern horror with the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, wherein the making of a human without conjunction of man and woman results in a misbegotten and murderous monster who, while clearly intelligent and eloquent, ultimately resents his creation in a world where he was never meant to be. Modern adaptations often add the macabre twist of constructing the body itself from stitched-together corpses.

Much can and has been said on Frankenstein, whether Shelley knew of the homunculus myth or simply tapped into that same common motif based on her own experiences, who can say. But since then depictions of artificial humans have always had a touch of the depraved rather than the noble. The idea that life made outside of natural human union is an affront, an aberration, harkens back to the golem’s own subhuman nature. In the modern era of fiction we have built for ourselves a new artificial fiend, that of AI. In many ways artificial and robotic life in science fiction represents the same modern fear of the unnatural depicted in Frankenstein. Life made outside of nature will inevitably conflict with nature.

But what of the homunculus? The word itself is used in modern fantasy fiction more often than not, in those works where alchemy is the truer science rather than Chemistry’s slightly-daft old uncle. Others have used them as allegory for the dispossessed (Those made without families truly belong nowhere) and misogyny (What kind of man seeks to create life absent from a woman?). The homunculi of the Cities Eternal take a decidedly modern approach. Elisa is truly artificial, and inhuman in many of her mannerisms. She is made explicitly by magic from the handiwork of a master alchemist, but her creation is more Frankenstein than Paracelsus’ un-palatable semen fermenting. Her apparent albinism serves multiple narrative functions: That of marking her as an outcast in society who is never truly able to fit in, a deliberate comparison to an artist’s signature (Or more darkly an owner’s brand), as well as a fun little shout-out to the TYPE-MOON fictional universe in which all homunculi of the Einzbern family were depicted as albino.

Much can and has been written on man’s relationship with creating life. Some see it as enlightenment, others as taboo. It taps into a key societal conflict of natural vs. artificial, and has its roots deep in our cultural psyche.