Mining Tales of Old for Worldbuilding

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A few weeks ago someone wrote me to compliment me on my book, Whom the Gods Love. They enjoyed most of it, but one particular scene struck them as odd. If you’ve read the series, you might already have guessed which scene this is. In a story rich with allusions to various mythologies and folktales, there’s a creature that seems out of place, something created for what might look at first glance to be a low-brow laugh — the aswang.

Before I go into what exactly an aswang is, I want to briefly touch on how I choose to borrow elements from history. Some authors enjoy re-writing historical events with a twist or in a new setting. George R.R. Martin, for instance, has said the War of the Roses was partial inspiration for his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Some authors use stories written hundreds of years ago and modernize them, like Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer winning novel, A Thousand Acres, which is a modernized re-telling of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Fairies are sexy now, too, I guess. I’m here to ruin that for you. 😉

Whenever I write of fantastical things, I often go back to my love of folklore and mythology. I enjoy using those stories to pepper my worlds with the familiar, and I enjoy playing with the idea of what we remember those stories to be about. For instance, in Whom the Gods Love the fairies are closer to the malicious version of that creature than to the cuter version we see in fanciful garden ornamentation. I’ve taken the malicious nature to the extreme in that series — the fairies are despicable creatures.

When I use these elements in my stories, I take a liberal definition of the creatures when they are well known. Most people have read fairy stories so have some idea of what they are. I don’t want to simply cut and paste fairy descriptions to people; I prefer to twist the tale in some way to upend expectations. However, when I’m using a story that might not be so familiar to my readers, I adhere more closely to the stories I’ve read. Sun, in Enchanted Legacy, remains a trickster character and even has several of the powers common in Monkey King tales, like duplicating themselves with hairs from their body. Similarly, the aswang closely resemble the horrors they are in Filipino tales about them.

I could put something scary here, but instead a bulldog on it’s back. Relevant.

Aswang are as familiar to Filipino people as vampires or werewolves would be to westerners. It’s their version of the boogie monster – a creature so terrifying it’s stories have carried on for hundreds of years. There are many variations of aswang, much like there are many variations of vampires. Some vampires can turn into mist, garlic is dangerous to some, some can control your mind, etc. While the Wikipedia article I’ve linked does not mention the use of phallic symbols to ward Aswang away, other sources frequently mention this method of keeping the aswang at bay. Thus, in my story, I included that tidbit. Lest you think the story of the aswang is meant to titillate (I’ll admit, in Whom the Gods Love it’s played up for a laugh) in the Filipino culture such is not the case. If the percentage of Catholics in that country doesn’t convince you of that (80%), then perhaps the habit of what the aswang does will — one of the common prey of aswang are pregnant women — specifically, fetuses.

A great deal of folklore comes from times when people didn’t quite understand science. Sometimes folklore was accurately related to real remedies we still use today — the leaves of a willow tree to alleviate pain, for instance, became aspirin. Superstitions surrounding fertility in ancient cultures often resulted in the use of phallic symbols for fairly obvious reasons — you use those to make babies, so a symbol celebrating the baby making seems appropriate when successfully having a baby in those times was extremely difficult. In the case of the aswang, they are used in a manner to ward off miscarriages, a distressing and common event where the cautionary behaviors to prevent it from occurring remained mysterious. Even today we continue to discover new causes of miscarriages as science advances, such as chromosomal abnormalities. In the days when these types of stories were being spoken around a fire, things like folic acid and other prenatal vitamins wouldn’t be worked out for hundreds of years.

As a species, we tend to like tangible answers to our problems. Creating a monster that steals the unborn is a problem we can mentally tackle. Science we haven’t discovered yet, less so. So the aswang was born, and the warding to keep it away invented, giving hopeful parents some comfort that they were doing what they could to keep their baby safe. And thinking on it, since stress isn’t great for mothers to be, it probably worked in some small capacity at relieving at least that problem.

I tell you all this, because I’d like people to know the choices I make for my stories are thought through. I didn’t just put the aswang into my book because I was amused by the idea of a phallus keeping monsters away, though that is amusing to me. I put it in there because I worked with a Filipino woman for a few years while in undergrad. When I was in grad school, I worked on a large project gathering myths, legends, folktales and fairy tales from around the world. My friend and co-worker wanted to make sure I included Filipino tales in the project. She provided me with a lot of resources, and I was delighted to learn new stories as much as she was delighted I included them in my research.

I love camping. Also relevant.

I find the differences in stories from far flung regions fascinating, but not nearly as fascinating as I find the similarities. These are the stories we carried with us, before we had paper, before we had written language, before we had any kind of technology, aside from biological technology (spoken word) to carry them on. We thought they were important enough to keep telling. I’m happy to do my part to keep telling them and I hope you enjoy finding them in my stories. Feel free to ask me where something comes from if you suspect it has an origin older than my book. I love talking about them.

Next entry I’ll discuss sex scenes and why I choose to write them the way I do. Now that discussion will be titillating. 😉

P.S. It isn’t just tales I’m careful about including, but words as well. I’ve had a couple readers ask me about the title for Voro, and where it comes from. It’s Latin, and tangentially referenced in the book. The word is tattooed on Casey’s back — more than once.

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