Playing with Mythological Creatures
Something that has always fascinated me is mythology.
Even when I was a child, I was always rapt with the fantastical creatures of imagination. I loved pretending I was Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. If a show had talking animals, I was all over it. I watched, over and over, Fantasia’s graceful centaurs and fairies, the pegasi.
Growing older, I investigated Greek and Roman mythology, in school and via Microsoft Encarta (yes, I am that old). As I immersed myself in anime, I took a shine to Japanese mythology. I delighted in finding the connections between character names and mythology, the legends that informed the stories I was reading. Saiyuki makes more sense when you’ve read Journey to the West, and even Naruto becomes richer, imbued with additional layers of meaning, when you see the mythological milieu surrounding the characters and the story.
I’ve also always maintained reality is boring. Wouldn’t the world be a more wonderful place if magic truly existed? What if there were all sorts of fantastical creatures, gods and demons, centaurs and fairies and nymphs and nine-tailed demon foxes?
I think so.
Being a Fantasy Reader
As a child, I thoroughly enjoyed anything that eschewed the “every day.” While characters in something like My Little Pony encountered everyday problems, they do so in a fantastical realm. What if dragons had body image insecurities and earth ponies sometimes feel discriminated against for not having the power of flight or magic?
I didn’t ever recognize myself as a “fantasy” reader, although I gravitated to these sorts of stories. I think there’s a very certain gendering that goes on. Girls are allowed to enjoy stories about talking ponies and fairy princesses, but we’re not necessarily supposed to carry that enjoyment over to something like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. High fantasy has, generally speaking, been a masculine realm until very recently. In many ways, it still is.
The same is true of being a female anime fan or a female comics fan, even at this stage in the game. I have straight up been called a “fake fan” by a man because I didn’t play an early 1990s Sailor Moon RPG video game that was released only in Japan and needed special ports to be played in North America.
To be clear on the context: I was dressed as Sailor Venus, in a handmade costume, at a convention I had taken a six-hour plane trip to attend. Yet somehow, this level of “devotion” was written off as not “true” devotion, because I hadn’t acquired the same level of devotion as another.
As such, I’ve never engaged fully with the label “fantasy reader” or “fantasy writer,” although, by and large, that’s what I do. I play with make-believe worlds, with make-believe creatures.
Exploring Humanity through Non-Human Characters
At the height of my anime fandom-ness, I was a fan of Inu-Yasha. I forget now where I heard the argument, but the idea has stuck with me: Much of anime and manga is an exploration of what it means to be human.
Since I was watching Inu-Yasha at the time, that particular argument stuck with me. Inu-Yasha is a mixed creature, a hybrid. He’s half-demon, half-human. He’s neither fully human nor fully demon. The story is ostensibly about Inu-Yasha and his crew trying to find the shards of shattered Shikon jewel, but it’s also a journey of identity, an exploration of what it means to be human or demon, or somewhere in between.
Naruto, of the eponymous series, has a similar narrative. Naruto has a demon sealed inside of him. As such, he’s treated as an outcast, as though he is the demon itself. Naruto might journey to become an amazing ninja, but he’s also on a journey to prove his humanity, to discover his identity between “demon vessel,” “demon child,” and “human.”
Do we need another example? How about Son Goku, from Dragon Ball? He’s an alien! He looks and presents as human, but Goku is not ever fully “human.” Yet he identifies with the people of Earth—humans—and becomes one of their greatest champions, defending them from others. Goku, despite being an alien, is much more human than, say, Vegeta.
The Proxy Argument
Using non-human characters to approximate the human experience is an excellent example of using “proxies.” Proxies can allow us to explore difficult or intractable social issues. They work very well for two reasons. One, they don’t tend to offend the same way simply using human characters would, and two, they often lay bare the issues in a very blunt and obvious way.
After all, can we not argue that Inu-Yasha’s half-demon, half-human heritage is a much easier way to talk about racial miscegenation, yet his experiences being vilified, demonized, rejected, and “not fitting in” mirrors the experiences, feelings, and journeys of many mixed race children? Inu-Yasha opens up the space to talk about these issues in a more frank way, divorced from sensitivity about race itself, because demons aren’t real.
Mixed race people, Black people, brown people, Asian people, Indigenous peoples—they are all real. Inu-Yasha becomes a hypothetical hybrid onto which we can project and begin to understand the challenges individuals face in a society where “difference” is denigrated and even feared.
Similarly, we can all see the implicit messaging behind My Little Pony’s divisions between earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns. While all three have their abilities and there are tensions between the groups, difference is good. The earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi are stronger together than they are apart.
The Allure of the Supernatural
I too follow in this tradition of using mythological and fantastical creatures to explore what is essentially a human condition, a human existence.
We must also admit there’s something that draws us, as humans, to the supernatural. For eons, we’ve told stories—often similar stories across cultures—about various kinds of creatures. Water spirits, tree spirits, ocean gods, and mythical beasts populate the world over.
We can take this back to Jungian psychological theory, which speaks of the universal unconscious. We are all interconnected in a primeval web of subconscious impulses. The “universal” figures are recognizable to any of us: the old hag appears in Shakespeare as she does in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in the figure of the witch U-baba. The Russian word “yagababa” refers to this same stereotype. We all recognize her when we see her: a shriveled old woman, seemingly frail, but with a mischievous look in her eyes, a power that belies her appearance. Her power is wisdom—knowledge of ancient things, herbs and hexes.
We all tap into these “universals,” which is why we see them proliferating around the globe, through cultures and languages. U-baba and yagababa and Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters are all one in the same, although they emerge at different times, in different places, in different linguistic and cultural milieus.
This is, then, another way the supernatural—the beyond “human”—speaks to human experience. We’ve all imagined, at some point or another, that something more might exist, something we can as yet explain or know.
There are many theories about where our mythological creatures come from. Some have theorized, for example, the Loch Ness monster is a sort of ancient dinosaur. Dragons might also be dinosaurs. These creatures, we suspect, were perhaps once extant—although through time and miscommunication, embellishment and artistic ingenuity, they evolved.
It’s possible some of these ideas do articulate the things our most ancient ancestors saw. Perhaps someone once did see a dinosaur skeleton and theorized it must be a giant lizard—a “dragon.” (It’s notable, however, that we’re so very young as a species; most dinosaurs would have been long buried and fossilized, so where and when we saw these artifacts remains debatable.)
The mythological, then, speaks to a primeval past, a world that existed perhaps even before human beings did. As a species, we’ve always wondered where we came from. Our digging into the human fossil record showcases our fascination with it. Our scientific inquiry into the birth of universe and the start of life on earth speaks to it as well.
We are creatures of narrative. We use narrative to construct identities—stories about ourselves. Who we are, where we come from, where we’re going. It only makes sense we’d try to create a narrative about where the species came from, about where life itself came from, about how the universe started.
The mythological can also examine where we’re going. Many of the creatures are “trans-human” or “superhuman.” They’ve transcended humanity. They’re gods or demons or something beyond the pale of human, something that little bit more.
The mythological becomes both origin story and progressive narrative. It constructs us.
Knowing the Unknowable
Recent research shows brain cells live—possibly for days—after we die. We’re dead; our hearts stop and we don’t breathe. Gradually, the cells decay and finally stop operating.
Previously, we believed we simply died. That was it.
Apparently, we were wrong. Science is constantly proving us wrong. It’s both terrifying and incredibly comforting. Human consciousness appears to continue even after death, if even for a little while.
On the one hand, what would that be like? Some who have “died” and returned give us a glimpse. They speak of seeing lights, of being drawn to the light, of hearing voices, of feeling comfort and the presence of other beings. Some report feeling “disembodied,” being conscious and aware of their surroundings, but looking down at the physical self.
On the other hand, death is terrifying to us because we don’t know what happens on the other side. We believed we were snuffed out, instantly. Now it seems “death” is more gradual, and there is something more, a (short) afterlife that perhaps wraps up this strange odyssey we call life.
Mythology allows us to know the unknowable. The ancients explained thunder and lightning as the work of gods. Today, science provides our mythology. Lightning is electricity traveling from cloud to cloud and to the earth, and thunder is the sound of that light moving—because sound moves slower than light.
This isn’t universally accepted. Some wonder if lightning is actually the earth shooting electricity up to the sky. While some of us who were spoon-fed the “cloud to earth” paradigm might scoff at this, we might someday prove that theory true.
We no longer believe in thunder gods; we believe in science. Yet there are still many things we can’t explain in this world of ours—and thus we find space for myth-making.
Forgive me for ending a somewhat sober piece on a lighthearted note. I write about supernatural creatures because they’re fun. They allow me to explore and explain things that occur beyond the pale of “natural” or “human.” And that is fun!