It’s probably safe to say that vampires and werewolves have had their fair share of literary exposure over the years. Werewolves first appeared around 61 AD, in The Satyricon by Petronius. Vampires, at least in legend, had been around just as long, but not named or given attention in fiction until the early nineteenth century. But when it comes to paranormal creatures though, these guys are only the tip of the iceberg (and I’m not referring to Claudia Gray’s book with werewolves on the Titanic!) There are a myriad of other mythological beings out there that just might tickle your fancy or scare your pants off if you’ve decided it’s time for a change.
Myths and legends from the British isles have a history as long as those of the vampires and werewolves. Add to that a plethora of monsters, gods, and fantastical creatures, and the subject matter still has so much untapped potential that authors can use them easily while having the ability to create interesting, original twists. Everything from King Arthur to the Tuatha de Dannan has played out in fiction over the centuries. With each new series that features the Fae or pagan gods, it seems the lore is exposed more widely to readers.
There are so many facets to Celtic (Irish and Scottish), Welsh, and English stories that it can be hard to tell them apart. Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles does a wonderful job of featuring the ‘old gods’ of this ilk. Aengus Og, brandishing his sword Moralltach, Bres and Brigid as husband and wife, once, but now on the outs (is it even possible for gods to divorce?!). The Morrigan, a major character in Hearne’s Chronicles, is reputed to be a woman or a crow, wailing out death announcements. For fans of Lost Girl, the Morrigan is leader of the dark fae in the series and definitely not the old woman wrapped in feathers as legend may have it. Hearne’s version of her as sometimes crow, sometimes sexually voracious (and masochistic) beautiful woman falls more in line with the TV interpretation, though here she is able to change shapes to suit her whim.
But these are just a few representatives of the gods on land. As much as they had their own stories, they also knew their way to the faery mounds. However it was accessed, the land of the Fae was (is?) never far from our own realm, separated by a thin veil as the story goes. This plays a large part in many of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books as Harry needs to enter the Never Never a few times in his wizarding career, for answers or protection. How to get there is one mystery. Who we’ll meet ‘on the other side’ is another matter entirely.
When discussing species of fae, it could range from Titania, Queen of the Seelie court to beings like the Selkies, that look like seals but can transform into humans as needed. The Selkies have been featured in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry series (A Kiss of Shadows) and in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series (River Marked). The Banshees, warners of imminent death by method of ear piercing screams and similar in task to the Morrigan, have also popped up in popular culture, appearing in the TV series Charmed, where Phoebe almost becomes one, but also in Rachel Vincent’s Soul Screamers series.
These are just two examples of faeries. Famously known is Puck, a puca or woodland sprite, that has been in everything from Shakespeare (of course) to Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series, Lesley Livingston’s Wondrous Strange, and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, among many other incarnations. Kalayna Price’s Alex Craft and Nicole Peeler’s Jane True series’ both have a barghest in them, typically seen as a large, black dog with equally big teeth and claws. In both of those storylines, the barghest is in more of a protector role than that of a scary monster.
And truly, the list could go on and on (and on and on....). But, in addition to those mentioned above, here are a few other authors you can check out, though I’m sure there are many, many more:
Holly Black (Modern Faerie Tales series)
Karen Marie Moning (Fever series)
Maggie Stiefvater (Books of Faerie series)
Christopher Moore (A Dirty Job)
David Gemmell (The Rigante series)
A quick closing note on faeries before moving on to other myths: some of these books suggest that the land in which they dwell shrinks a little everyday because of a lack of believers in our modern world. On this note, to ensure continuation, it might be a good idea for us all to read a few of these titles.
Norse mythology is something I vaguely remember learning about way back in high school. The Greeks and Roman legends were fun, but the Norse always held a certain interest above those, as perhaps more glamorous for their emphasis on braveness? For some reason, it was a smaller portion of the learning experience, so the lessons that stuck were simply about the tree of life (Yggdrasil), Valhalla, the hall for dead warriors, and, well, Thor, because he became a Marvel comics superhero and movie star. This is just a small facet of the legends from the Scandanavian lands.
There are also giants, a constant threat to Odin and the rest, the Norns, the Valkyries, and so much more. Much of the landscape in the Norse tale is beautifully laid out by Kevin Hearne, in his novel Hammered. Here Thor is portrayed as less than heroic (and more of a world-class jackass) than in many other incarnations. Hearne’s main character, Atticus, decides to head to Asgard to deal with Thor (permanently?) and to steal a golden apple from Freyja, as payment for previous services rendered by someone back home.
The Valkyries are similar to the Morrigan in that they hang around battlefields. The difference is seen as the Norse women are given the task of actually choosing who lives or dies on the battlefield. This is made trickier by that fact that Odin wishes to fill Valhalla, his home, with many fallen warriors to keep him company. And, again, for our fans of Lost Girl, we found out in S3E3 that Tamsin is a Valkyrie. This will not bode well for our intrepid team and maybe is foreshadowing some impending doom for one of them. The Norn also appears in Lost Girl, much to Kenzi’s dismay, though there is only one on the show. In the legends, there are three women, representing the past, present, and future. This plays a small part in Hammered also, as does so much of the Norse mythology.
Loki is another interesting figure, in that he is the trickster god. Remember The Mask with Jim Carrey? That was a Loki mask he put on that made him turn green and go all crazy-like. Loki can be found in novels like Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants and A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok. And if you desperately need more Thor, check out Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything, as well as Eoin Colfer’s sixth book in the Hitchhiker Trilogy, And Another Thing.
Speaking of trickster gods, Coyote is Loki’s equivalent in Native American legends throughout many of the tribes in California and the Great Plains. Coyote is a man that you have to watch yourself around as Hearne’s Tricked will show you. Coyote is also the father of Mercy Thompson, as written by Patricia Briggs. But there’s got to be more out there than just Coyote from the North American indigenous people, right? Of course there is! The Wendigo, specific to Algonquian legend, is a creature born of cannibalism and apparently gets bigger with each person it eats. Eek! It has appeared in TV shows like Grimm, Charmed, Supernatural, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (I kid you not!) Stephen Kings’ Pet Sematary also has this creepy beast within its pages. There are even some modern North (and Central) American legends, like The Boogeyman, the Mothman, and El Chupacabra that feature prominently on TV and movies, but less so in popular fiction.
In Slavic folklore, there was a story about a woman that would eat little girls if they did not behave, at least according to Lost Girl’s Kenzi. Baba Yaga was a character described to probably millions of children over the years to maintain a certain level of obedience. It’s easy to see how effective it would be once you know a little more about this scary old woman. Miss Yaga is often described as having a toothless grin and a large nose complete with wart. She rides through the skies (probably chasing after the brattish kids) in a mortar and pestle. She lives in a house that rests on chicken legs and its surrounding fence is made from human bones. Charming, right? This makes her a perfect addition to fiction (as the bad guy, of course), like in Joy Preble’s Dreaming Anastasia series, as well as an appearance in Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Knight (she isn’t named in Kagawa’s story, but the description of her abode makes it abundantly clear who she is) and Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment.
Of course, no mention of myths can go without adding in the Greeks and Romans. For the most part, what they wrote about way back when were tales of morality and human consequence. They obviously never tuned into Spartacus on Starz, though I’ll bet the bloodshed was just as gory. But “stories with morals” doesn’t necessarily mean they were solemn bedtime tales either. Just ask Pentheus (of Euripedes’ The Bacchae fame) whose mother became a Maenad and aided in ripping her son apart with her bare hands. Coming into more modern representations, we see the gods in movies, like Clash of the Titans, and in books, like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and so on. There is no shortage of these to be found, for sure.
There is one character in particular from this bunch rife with potential for fictional renderings: Bacchus. Known as Dionysus by the Greeks, Bacchus (the Roman version) was the god of wine and ecstasy. Sounds like he could be fun, right? If you remember back to season two of True Blood, you’ll know that Bacchus was the god whom Marianne, a Maenad herself, carried out all of her craziness to honour. Fans of the show will also know how that didn’t work out so well for Bon Temps in general. In written works, Bacchus appears in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles a few times also. He is the perfect patsy, considering his penchant for wine and mayhem, for Atticus to blame a few things on. One thing you can be sure of though is that if this god is around, you’re in for a rip-roaring good time! (Bad Pentheus pun there?)
(An aside here about Kevin Hearne: he has to be one of the best users of myths and legends in his stories and he manages to make them very entertaining to read. I’m sure there are others that blend many of the world elements into their stories but I’ve personally yet to come across one so complete.)
When you consider the sheer number of cultures, and their beliefs, that have made their way into popular paranormal fiction, you can be sure there will never be a lack of reading material for fans of the genre. The choices are so wide ranging, they apply to young readers as easily as they do for fans of more mature storylines, like those found in Moning’s or Hamilton’s work. What I did find a shortage of were stories featuring Hinduism, Buddhism, or Chinese mythology, just to name a few (though Christopher Moore’s LAMB does cover some of these, like Yetis, Kali, and Buddhist fasting.) So, if you decided to kick your vampire and werewolf books to the curb, hopefully this will help to find some new based-on-myth material.
Did I mess anyone really good? I’d love to hear about more authors and their unique takes on world myths and legends!
Jackie Lester imagines a day when she can make a living as a writer. Until then, she reviews eclectic books at My Ever Expanding Library and lives in small-town Ontario with her daughter.