31 October 2007

Mermaids, Werewolves, Vampires, and Catholic Saints

Of those four, the mediaeval Russians thought one group were heroes and the other three were unholy abominations. Any guesses? Hint: the mediaeval Russians were Eastern Orthodox, not Catholic.

In honour of Hallowe'en, let's take a look at a few modern mythological monsters and how their counterparts were viewed by the mediaeval Russians. Because you know, once you get past the threat some of them pose to the survival and progress of humanity, religious beliefs can actually be really cool. I mean, people believe some crazy stuff for crazy reasons.

(Today's post draws from what I learned in "Russian 13: Vampires, Witches, & Firebirds," Dartmouth College, Fall 2006.)

Mermaids were hyper-erotic members of the undead

The Russian word for "mermaid" is rusalka (plural rusalki). Today, "rusalki" refers to the same sweet little fish-tailed good-natured water nymphs of the Hans Andersen variety that most of us think of when we think of mermaids. But such was not always the case. "Real" rusalki were members of the undead. One became a rusalka by dying a "bad death"--that is, one for which no death ritual could be performed, either because there was no body over which to perform the ritual (for example, victims of drowning) or protocols dictate that the rituals may not be granted to the deceased (for example, if the deceased was a suicide or a heretic).

Rusalki were almost exclusively female, lived in bodies of water (particularly lakes and rivers) but could wander out of water into the forest, generally looked like ordinary human beings (ie, no fish limbs, sorry Ariel), and usually wore nothing or next-to-nothing. They ran the gamut from gorgeous to hideous, but one universal theme prevailed in most accounts: rusalki had huge breasts. Pendulous breasts. We're talking boom-boom-what-knockers-thank-you-doctor breasts.

Although not particularly bad-natured, rusalki were highly dangerous due to their apparent naivete. Death by rusalka typically happened in one of two ways, both highly erotic. The first way was simply for a rusalka to lure a man into the water with promises of sexy sex, where he would drown (to the rusalka's disappointment... she liked sexy sex as much as her victim did). The second way was much more interesting; the rusalka (and sometimes a friend or two) would wander into the woods, find a sleeping man, and tickle him. Often with their breasts. Now, that sounds like a good time, but the rusalki just didn't know when to quit. They would tickle their victims to death. They get an "A" for effort, but seriously... Worst. Foreplay. Ever.

So to avoid death-by-mermaid, stay away from water, be chaste, and don't engage in any tickle fights with buxom undead.

Werewolves were the good guys

We typically think of werewolves as being cursed... but in mediaeval Russian folklore, lycanthropism was the mark of a hero. Such heroes could usually transform into animals at will; wolves were most popular, but bears ran a close second. Connections have been drawn between werewolves and both the ancient cthonic god Volos and the leshii ("forest master"). Among the more notable suspected werewolves of Russian folklore were King Vseslav and epic hero Volkh Vseslavevich. (More on all those guys in a later post.)

So there's no need to worry about wolfsbane or silver bullets or full moons or all that hooey. Werewolves were the good guys.

Vampires had OCD (and I would have been one!)

Vampires in Russian folklore were a lot like the vampires we think of now: members of the undead that rise at night and steal the blood/life essence from the living. Like the rusalki, vampires were the result of a "bad death." There was especially a connection between heretics and vampires. It is thought that this was largely a response to church persecution of heretics. The peasantry invented horrifying vampire myths to justify the church's otherwise irrational fear and hatred of heretics. So if I were to go back to mediaeval Russia, I would be hunted by the church and then pegged as a vampire. Yay!

The best sure-fire way to get rid of a vampire was to cut off the head and incinerate the body. But for corpses suspected of being vampires, other tricks would work as well; your prime directive was to keep the vampire from getting out of its grave. A stake through the heart won't destroy a vampire like you might think, but a stake through the heart and into the ground will keep him pinned in place, kinda like a macabre butterfly collection. If you don't have a long stake handy, breaking the kneecaps or cutting the leg tendons would work in a pinch. But my favorite method for keeping a vampire in bed is to pour a pile of grain, sand, or salt on the grave. The idea was, when the vampire woke up, he would see the pile of sand or whatever and would be compelled to count every single grain. Because apparently, Russian vampires all had OCD. By the time he was done counting, then, the sun would be rising and he would have to go right back into his grave. (I bet you never realized how true to life Sesame Street's Count von Count was!)

CATHOLIC SAINTS! SPOOKY SPOOKY!

So here's the thing about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. They differ on how they treat undecayed flesh. For Catholics, if a body doesn't decay, that's an indication that the body is blessed by God and the deceased was probably a saint. For Eastern Orthodox, a corpse that doesn't decay goes against the natural order and must therefore be an unholy abomination (lack of decay is one warning sign that a corpse is actually a vampire).

So stay away from Catholic churches this All Hallow's Eve. But of course, you should stay away from Catholic churches all the time. ;-)

27 October 2007

Dresden Codak Lives!

Genius rationalist cartoonist Aaron "Dresden Codak" Diaz is finally going full-time with his comic. This makes me so very happy.

Don't know Dresden Codak? For shame! Here are two of my favorites to get you started: Dungeons & Discourse and Epilogue.

(Of course, now that he's quit his day job, it's up to us to keep him alive. I think I have to add the "Historical Preenactment Society" t-shirt to my Christmas list.)

25 October 2007

Feelin' Gutsy

Sorry about that unexpected little hiatus. Out of curiosity, I've finally decided to give Linux a shot (Greg Laden would be pleased). So after some practice on Sara's old laptop, some experimentation on mine, a package of recovery CDs from Lenovo, and a few too many late nights, I've finally got my laptop set up as a dual boot of Windows Vista and Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon), and I am most excited.

I've still got some bugs to work out in Ubuntu, but everything's stable enough on both operating systems now that I can spend a few minutes at my computer doing something other than managing an update or installation, or waiting for the machine to restart, or googling a solution for my wireless driver, or some such nonsense. So let the blogging recommence!

(PS - I don't know Ben's excuse for not writing lately. I mean, all he has to worry about these days is grad school! :-P)

08 October 2007

Cephalopod Awareness Day!

Sara and I are celebrating our 3-year anniversary today. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention the other significance to October 8th... it's International Cephalopod Awareness Day!

We had been planning to go to the New England Aquarium today, but the work week left us too tired and with aching feet, so our field trip is postponed. However, we did have fried squid as an appetizer at dinner (they say that ancient warriors would eat their enemies' hearts in order to absorb their courage), and Sara got me the perfect anniversary present: a copy of Claire Nouvian's The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss.

Among other things, I'm excited to use that book as a drawing reference. Actually, for the past few weeks I've been planning a cephalopod-centric project that should hopefully be seeing some light in the near future. In the meantime, here's a quick look at how I like to draw an octopus.

The most important thing to understand (from this cartoonist's perspective) is construction, an understanding of how all the different parts fit together. Once you understand the construction of your subject, you can draw it in any pose at any angle you want, and then flesh it out from there. My biggest breakthrough in cartooning octopi was realizing that they were constructed of three basic parts.

First, let's look at a diagram of octopus anatomy, courtesy of the Internet:



I really like this diagram, but it's a little more complicated than we need it to be. Let's simplify things a bit:



There, that's better. There are three main parts of the octopus--the mantle, the head, and the arms. The mantle contains most of the organs and makes up the bulk of the octopus. The head houses the eyes and brain. The arms radiate out from the bottom of the head, with the mouth at the center. We can use these three parts to lay out a quick sketch of a pose:



Note that we can change the relative sizes and positions of the parts to give our octopus a different character. Why, we can even make a whole 'nother kind of cephalopod... say, a squid:



It's all the same, mantle connected to head connected to arms. Once we have our basic layout, we can use that to sketch and clean up an outline, adding whatever details we want:



I know that's just a really quick rundown, but hopefully you found it at least slightly interesting and/or useful. Happy Cephalopod Awareness Day!

07 October 2007

Skeptics in the Pub

The Internet came to life a little bit last Thursday night, as Rebecca of Skepchick hosted a small gathering at John Harvard's for drinks and conversation. It's always great to meet new people, especially people as cool as these.

It looks like Skeptics in the Pub, Boston, is going to be a monthly event now, so if you're in the area and didn't make it to this session, keep a weather eye open for the next one.

Rebecca has a couple pictures of the gathering here.

04 October 2007

The Rest of the Asshats

Blah. Work threw off my bloggin' groove. Here are the rest of the asshats from last Thursday, plus a couple extra that have cropped up in the meantime.

First, Jena 6 prosecutor DA Reed Walters, who during a press conference said that the only reason the peaceful protests of the previous week didn't turn violent was because of the "direct intervention of Jesus." The demonization of the out-group is sickening. It's an age-old tactic... If your enemy does something good, take the credit; if you do something bad, blame it on your enemy.

Next, Senator Sam Brownback, who (according to *shudder* One News Now) has introduced legislation that would force women considering abortion to get an ultrasound. Brownback is trying to sell it as a way of providing information to the woman so she can make an informed decision... but there's no information value to this. We aren't talking about ultrasound to determine fetus health, or any medical condition. Furthermore, the bill doesn't require that the woman look at the ultrasound--only that one be taken. And since there's nothing stopping women now from getting ultrasounds taken if they so choose, that means there's no practical difference in "information available" to the woman. It's purely about scare tactics, a legal way of accumulating blackmail photos. "If you get that abortion, we'll show yer fam'ly the pitchure and tell 'em you killed a baaaay-bee!"

Next in line: John McCain says America is a Christian nation and doesn't want a president who believes in "the Islam." So, so wrong. I'll say this, though: a lot of the people ragging on McCain are invoking the "no religious test" clause in the Constitution. It's a great clause and all, but it's not really relevant. McCain isn't saying a non-Christian couldn't theoretically be allowed to take office; he's just of the opinion that such a candidate wouldn't be good for the job. His position of only voting for Christians is his perogative; it isn't un-Constitutional, it's just fucked up. I can't believe I almost liked McCain once upon a time... in the past year or two, he has done nothing but pander to the fundie nutjobs of the Religious Right.

Our final asshats (for now), WaPo's On Faith series asked about Christopher Hitchens last week:
Best-selling atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote: 'Religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.' Why is he right or wrong?
The question itelf was fairly tame. But it opened the floodgates for accusations of "fundamentalist atheism" (or "secular fundamentalism," or other variations). The question du jour for On Faith has since changed (to discuss John McCain, in fact), but you can see an example of the former here. Apparently it bears repeating: passion is not the same thing as fundamentalism or militancy. Just... no.

*deep breath*

All done for now. That's quite enough of that.