This blog comes to you from a position of slight existential uncertainty; I’ve discovered that there is another current blog called Crucible of Words, tied directly to Magic: the Gathering. I may at some point change it. I’m currently chewing over alternatives, and “Method in the Mythos” is currently winning out. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know. Permalinks may need to change soon…
But enough of methods and mythos, today I want to talk about myths and marshes. Or, more precisely, complain that they seem to be ignored in a lot of current fantasy. How can you ignore places that inspire such art as this?
What could be lurking in those waters, or underneath the seemingly solid ground, waiting to suck you in?
I was intending for most of this post to be about the various mystical properties historically attributed to marshes, but I unearthed a post from the In the Chime Hours blog, which explains about the way marshes have been historically and mythologically thought of previously far better than I ever could:
Historically, the wetlands have been seen as a link between the mundane world of daily life and Otherworlds, a place where it is possible to come closer to the Gods and spirits, a place where some of those other beings could not only be contacted through, but also lived.
“Dreary and wearisome. Cold, clammy winter still held sway in this forsaken country. The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long forgotten summers.“
Passage of the Marshes, The Two Towers ~ J.R.R. Tolkien.
The close association between people and wetlands has an ancient history. The artifacts that have been found in waterlogged soils from all over the world document the extensive use of wetlands. Many votive offerings, gifts to the Gods, were left in wet places – including the Llyn Cerrig Bach hoard on Anglesey, the magnificent bronze shield of Rhos Rydd and enigmatic figurine of a man from Strata Florida in Ceredigion.
The dead have also be offered. ‘Bog Bodies’ have been found throughout the British Isles and North-western Europe, these bodies were either the victim of a ritualistic sacrificial killing, or that the already dead were ‘offered’ to the bog in the light of the link between the wetlands & the Otherworlds, and used as a burial ground.
In Greece and Asia Minor more than 3000 years ago, the stories of the Greek gods and their deeds became Greek mythology and a rich source of literature, poetry and art. Wetlands in Greek mythology were often sacred places associated with deities, and several Greek gods chose rivers such as the Acheloos and Alfiós as their “bodies”. The River Styx (probably the River Acheron today) was particularly significant as it separated the world of the living from Hades, the world of the dead.
A place where the dead lie (human, and animal) become an interaction point between this world and the Otherworlds, the Veil is thinner.
The spirits of the bog and marsh are known throughout folklore as Will-o’-the-Wisps or Corpse Candles, which are ghostly lights seen at night or twilight over bogs, swamps, and marshes throughout the world, but I will chiefly concentrate on British folklore here.
In Gaelic and Slavic folk cultures, the Will-o’-the-Wisps are mischievous spirits of the dead, or the land, attempting to lead travelers astray. The stories of Welsh folklore are very similar as the lights are said to be the ‘fairy fire’ held by the Pwca (of the Tylwyth Teg), a small goblin-like Faerie that mischievously leads lonely travelers off the beaten path. Which is where the expression ‘Pixie-led’ comes from, as in Devon and Cornish folklore the lights are a Pixy-light, which is not unlike the Norse ‘lambent light’ which could be seen guarding the tombs of the dead.
These spirits do not always lead the poor, hopeless traveler further into the wildness. It’s all a matter of how said traveler treats the spirits of the marsh. If you show respect and reverence to these spirits, they will lead you where you desire to go, if not… Then you are done for my friends! Though if you are brave enough to follow, and show a little respect along the way, following these spirits may bring you more good fortune than you thought possible, as the Will-o’-the-Wisps are said to be guardians of treasure hidden deep beneath the swampy waters. – In the Chime Hours, The Power of the Wetlands – Fen, Bog and Marsh
With this understanding, the notion of being more “between worlds” in marshes lends itself to all kinds of sacred associations, which fantasy authors don’t seem to pick up on. This might be symptomatic of a deeper disassociation between fantasy and the land, where the worlds are now just places for the events in the world to happen rather than a constituent part of the story and its narrative magic.
This frustration was what birthed the Mists of Albion project (which probably needs a different name, I’m all ears for one as the world develops on here). I wanted (partly as a native of one of England’s fenland counties; type “fen” into Google image search and you’ll most likely get shots of East Anglia) to develop a world where the marshes represented an actual shift between worlds, that descending into the marsh’s waters was a precarious journey because supernatural things are very likely to happen. Where landscapes like these:
…hold the very real threats of otherworldly interference and losing yourself in a world where everything shifts and changes, and only when the mists and waters recede do you get a stable world back. But that stability is a problem in itself. Becoming too grounded, too far detached form the mists and their magic can do horrible things to a person; removing their sense of self, their ability to choose and see the present as anything other than a pure certainty. The Mists represent a form of magic in the world, the creative and changing force that all life must possess to a degree.
I also wanted to make something based on traditional myths and folklore, all tied through the overarching cosmology of Mists vs Other (exactly what the Other is I’ll get to in later posts) that create the world, which I’m trying to base loosely on Dark Ages Britain (hence the Albion name).
And what creatures would come from these Mists? Why, the various fae, pixies, elves and other mischievous and magical folk of British folklore, of course! With various twists and turns, to be sure, as the current conception of “fairies” is far removed from the mysterious half-beings of the original tales, but again we’ll get to that later. Suffice to say for now that the fuzzy boundaries created by marshes and their mists have given me a huge springboard into an alternative cosmology very different from the usual fantasy world.
Any thoughts on this, directions it could go in, disagreements, counterexamples, any opinions whatsoever, please post them below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!