Here is my recap of the creatures I used in my story poem, The Fear of a Farmer: Valkyrie, Norns, Water Horse, Selkie, sea serpent, and Cherubim. As I did for The Staff in the Tree, I have chosen to show certain illustrations with some accompanying verses. I’m a bit more pleased with the visual quality in this particular book. And now…
“So know, as you tremble with eyes open wide, I’ve come to commission the hero inside.”
From out of the darkness, a trio of Norns Gave such admonition as righteousness scorns.
Its profile was equine but horribly so, Distorted, and much like a fish did it go.
He turned to discover a striking surprise, A womanly creature with ebony eyes.
“I said I would love and return to the deep. A promise I make is a promise I keep.”
Respectfully, Einar stood up in the stern. The guardian lowered its head in return.
“What’s this,” chuckled Asger, “that falls on my ear? You give him the wrong appellation, I fear.”
Their power was awesome, as often was proved By flashes of lightning whenever they moved.
“Be careful,” said Anni. “Arise, but don’t speak.” She stood and positioned her hand on its beak.
The Fear of a Farmer has just been made available on Amazon. You may find out more about it by clicking HERE.
I must start by admitting that the above picture is inaccurate, but I will get to that later. The following painting by Raphael shows what cherubim (plural for cherub in the Old Testament) are not: fat babies with wings.
I am only familiar with these creatures from the Judeo Christian tradition. They are described as guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Genesis) and as appearing to the prophet Ezekiel in a vision he had during the Babylonian captivity (Ezekiel). The latter account also refers to them as “living creatures” stationed around the throne of God. They are described as having four faces: that of a lion, that of an ox, that of an eagle, and that of a man. They also have four wings full of eyes, the hands of a man and the feet of a cow. It has been suggested that their appearance is symbolic (e.g. ox as servant, lion as ruler, etc.) and should not be taken literally.
This description may seem grotesque to some, intriguing or even cool to others. It also defies artistic representation, but this hasn’t stopped people from trying. A golden sculpture of two cherubim facing each other on the Mercy Seat ( or lid) of the Ark of the Covenant is described in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament). In the photograph of a re-creation below, each is shown as a kneeling human figure with two wings, and both are shown facing each other with their wingtips touching. The truth, however, is that we don’t really know exactly what these figures looked like.
By the way, the above image might remind you of what the Ark looked like in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movie version shows pretty good agreement with scholarly opinion, but all scriptural accuracy in the movie ends there.
Large statues of two cherubim were stationed behind the Ark in the Holy of Holies, the inner and most sacred chamber in the temple built by Solomon. They were allegedly human figures, each with two wings, and two of their wings touched in the center between them while the other two extended to the walls. Again, we cannot be entirely sure of what they looked like.
Depicting the description from chapters 1 and 10 of the book of Ezekiel is more problematic. Here is an attempt from around 1200 (A. D. or C. E., depending on your preference of notation).
Oops! On closer examination this looks more like a seraph with six wings instead of four, but I’ll keep it, anyway, because I like the colors.
Here is another from a different church, as nearly as I could make out the rather obscure reference I found. Well… the heads of an eagle, an ox, a lion, and a man are shown as described in the book of Ezekiel, but it appears to have six wings. Is this a cherub-seraph hybrid?
The following illustration is one for which I could not obtain a credit, but it shows what I said about the difficulty and aesthetics (or lack thereof) of portrayal earlier in this post.
In my drawing at the top of this post, I chose to take a simpler approach. Honestly, I just wanted to draw this concept (I like eagles, as did my mother when she was still alive), and I found a way to include it in my story in a way that added some additional meaning to the plot. I envisioned a huge, four-winged, four legged eagle and left it at that. I will conclude with the following drawing of a cherub being placated by Anni, the Valkyrie.
In an earlier post from this category of Mythological Beasts and Spirits, I mentioned that the Lindorm was sometimes described as a sea serpent, sometimes not. Sea serpents appear in multiple myths and legends. The Midgard Serpent in Norse mythology might be regarded as a sea serpent since Thor went fishing for it in one account within TheProse Edda. This concept for a monster is evidently very resonant in the human mind, and I wanted to develop it for my fabricated myth, The Fear of a Farmer.
The following image is apparently taken from a book, and its caption indicates that this sketch by W. D. Munro was of an alleged sea serpent that washed ashore in Hungary Bay, Bermuda, in 1860. From the appearance of the creature, it is obviously an oarfish.
The following illustration is by Tamplier Painter and takes an approach common to modern fantasy art: the employment of frills and fins. The profile of the head resembles that of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Older illustrations often did little more than depict sea serpents as over-sized snakes with minimal embellishment.
For the picture at the top of this post, I chose to use a similar approach by eliminating fins and other appendages. That made coming up with an interesting head shape important. You’ll be the judge as to whether or not I succeeded. I combined the features of a T. rex (mainly the line of the upper jaw), an alligator (eyes, snout, and hinge of lower jaw), certain snakes ( body and enlarged ear opening), and some lizards (dewlap or throat pouch). To these, I added a bulging pate and rather prominent ridges above the eyes, ears, and nostrils. I’m a biologist as well as a monster aficionado from way back, so this was a fun project for my inner ten-year-old. Below is the initial profile of the head on which I have based all of my other drawings of the sea serpent in my story.
I’ll end this with a painting by Edward Burne-Jones depicting a story from Greek mythology. It shows Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Cetus, the sea serpent to which she was being sacrificed… by her parents!
Next week, I will cover one more creature whose description defies illustration. Nonetheless, that has not dissuaded some artists (or me) from trying.
Selkies are found in Celtic mythology, including Irish and Scottish folklore. They are also featured in Icelandic folklore. I will add here that there are threads of relatedness between Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, and Norse legends. Selkies are creatures which exist as seals in the ocean or as human beings on land. They evidently become human by shedding their seal skins. In a number of accounts, Selkie women are trapped into marriages when men steal and lock away these seal skins. The stories are often romantic tragedies which end in a Selkie recovering her skin, forsaking her human family, and returning to the sea. Of course, opinions on whether such events are tragedies vary since the Selkie was essentially held captive in a forced marriage. Any male inclination to “force now, persuade later” is best avoided.
For my epic story poem, The Fear of a Farmer, I chose to portray the Selkie as a changeling who simply alters her form when she moves between land and sea. Here, I must confess my lack of internet skills, despite which I was still surprised and frustrated by my inability to find classic paintings of this popular legend. Most of what I found was more modern and tended to fall into the following categories: naked women on rocks, naked women on rocks with seals, naked women with seals in water, naked women with seal eyes, and naked women stripping off seal skins. These generally don’t interest me, and I find many of them rather creepy or even grotesque. In the above picture, I chose to represent a Selkie as a naked woman wrapped in her own hair for the sake of modesty (mine). The background scenery is reminiscent of what I saw when I was on the southern coast of Oregon. Very large rock formations were both on the beach and offshore. Below is a facial close-up to develop her visual character.
I did find some other images which seemed to have that something extra which tickled my imagination. Unfortunately, I was unable to find credits for all of them. Those I could find are captioned. These next two show a powerless yearning to return to the sea. They are also distinctive in that the women are dressed.
Likewise for this one. It is dramatic and poignant since the Selkie has recovered her skin and is obviously preparing to escape back to the sea. The effect is intensified by the furtive, resentful, or regretful look she is casting over her shoulder.
Here is a photo of a statue. Can you identify the category?
Incidentally, The Fear of a Farmer has finally been formatted and should be available for purchase on Amazon by the publication date of this post or soon thereafter. Here is where I have to show my requisite illustration of a seal. This is similar to the view I was afforded in Bandon, Oregon, where I saw a harbor seal swimming roughly 10 yards off shore and paralleling my progress as I walked along the beach.
Let us turn now to Celtic mythology (more specifically, Scottish legend) for another mythological creature: the Water Horse. Sometimes considered synonymous with a Kelpie, sometmes considered distinct from it, this entity appears to be part creature and part aquatic spirit.
It is a changeling (shape shifter) that appears in various versions as a woman, a man, a horse, or combinations of these. Whichever version you run across, it is usually a very deceptive and dangerous thing to encounter. In at least one Scottish legend, it lures people into mounting it for a ride, whereupon they become fastened to its back and unable to get off. It then plunges into the water and drowns them. In other accounts, it kills by devouring or crushing its victims. Regardless of the method used, it sometimes does this when it is in human form. This last possibility renders the following painting by Herbert James Draper particularly chilling.
The artistic portrayals I have seen are in three main categories. It can be human (usually female) as seen above. Secondly, it may simply be shown as a horse or a horse in the water. The following picture apparently combines the first two approaches.
Finally, it is sometimes depicted as a hybrid between a horse and a fish or eel of some kind. This is more typical of modern fantasy art. The rather gruesome example below is oddly accentuated by the presence of the heron.
I like the bold, clean lines of this next one. The style is more graphic.
I also like the following blend of Celtic and Greek mythology.
In the picture with which I began this post, I chose the hybrid approach. If you look closely, you can see that I adapted it from Ming Dynasty sculptures of horses. I substituted simple fins for the hair of the mane, chin, and tail. I also extended and pointed the ears. I will end with a profile of the head which I drew to enhance the visual character of this creature for my story.
But wait! There will be another mythical creature next week…
Oops! I lied. I was originally going to do something different. It’s been an uncommonly busy summer for my wife and for me, and school is about to start again for both of us (the school nurse and the college professor). What I’m trying to say is that I’m feeling lazy, so I’m going to try to get by with some additional pictures I drew of a Valkyrie for my story poem, The Fear of a Farmer. I’ve been writing ad nauseum that it’s copyrighted but not yet published. Due to the many illustrations, it is taking me a long time to get it formatted.
I wrote last week, that portraying Valkyries requires some tricks with picture composition in order to make them more evocative. I obviously chose adding wings, but most artists don’t do this. In addition, I wanted to develop the visual character of Anni, the Valkyrie, by doing a portrait and playing with her facial expressions. In this picture, she is giving the farmer the instructions he must follow to save his village from an oncoming invasion.
The following illustration shows her pondering the fate of the farmer. I added an inquisitive sea gull to accentuate the mood.
Finally, I tried a different action pose because, well, it just sort of blew into my mind and wouldn’t leave. In this rendering, she is reaching into the ocean to save the farmer from drowning.
Well, that’s it. I told you I was feeling lazy. Next week, I’ll take on another entity.
Norse mythology strikes me as being visually literal. What I mean by this is that spirits and creatures look like humans and animals – sometimes exaggerated in size, sometimes not – but they typically are not hybrids or chimeras of different species. Serpents look like serpents, gods like men, goddesses like women, etc. Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, is an exception to this rule due to his eight legs, but I think it largely holds true. Of course, the gods are able to change form, sometimes into those of animals, but they tend to look like ordinary animals, albeit sometimes exaggerated in size.
So what does this have to do with Valkyries? Well, they look like women – fierce, war-like women, but women, nonetheless. I wanted to illustrate a Valkyrie named Anni for my story poem, The Fear of a Farmer, but I didn’t have enough confidence in my artistic ability to make her look sufficiently impressive, so I added wings. In this sense, she looks a bit like the stereotypical imagery from a Wagnerian opera.
So what are Valkyries? That’s a good question. I can tell you what they do in Norse mythology, but it’s a bit harder to explain what they are with complete clarity. Much of what we know of them comes from The Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson and other works such as The Saga of the Volsungs.
Valkyries are females who fly over battlefields to choose the best of the slain for entrance into Valhalla, the great hall of Odin. Are they otherwise normal women who aspire to or are chosen for this calling, or are they spirits who can take on physical form? One scholarly opinion I read favors the former, but I don’t know the overall consensus since it is outside my field of expertise (molecular biology). Either way, they are a blend of the natural and the supernatural. This is often the case with Norse mythology and Greek mythology. Valkyries could interact with the living and even marry them. In The Saga of the Volsungs, a Valkyrie named Brynhild is betrothed to Sigurd, the main hero.
Valkyries are not normally portrayed with wings, so portraying them impressively is all about presentation. By this, I mean picture composition. I have chosen some examples which for various reasons have impressed me. Valkyries are often shown as wearing armor and/or riding horses, but there are some other tricks that can be used as well.
Okay, this might be cheating a little. The Valkyrie doesn’t have wings, but her horse does. Of course, I’m no purist in creative matters like this. Based on the kinds of stories I like to write, I think it’s cool when artists and writers borrow different elements from different mythologies. Pegasus quickly comes to mind from Greek mythology.
In this example, the expressions, postures, and poses of the Valkyries and their horses make for an interesting composition which is heightened by the artistic style and choice of color. This really drew my eye.
Here is a more abstract approach which blends them with elements of nature – in this case, clouds. Note how the sense of scale, the dark birds, and the windblown trees accentuate the effect.
In the next two examples, we again see interesting and dynamic poses combined with a sense of context as Valkyries are shown riding in the air. Winged helmets serve as further suggestions of their power of flight. For reasons of personal taste, I especially liked the second of these. Look at the eyes of the horse on the left.
This next one might be my favorite. Has the Valkyrie merely taken off her implements while keeping dutiful watch, or is she awaiting the return of the warrior she loves? I think art is really doing its job when it encourages us to imagine and speculate.
I might as well end with another selection from my copyrighted but currently unpublished story poem, The Fear of a Farmer. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll just say it shows a farmer named Einar being born aloft by Anni, the Valkyrie.
Norse mythology seems to have been developed more recently than Greek mythology, and some of its entities apparently reflect this. For example, the Norns bear certain similarities to the three Fates. The Norns are also female spirits, a trio of sisters whose names exhibit wide variations in spelling, depending on the source. I will use the names from the glossary at the back of my copy of the Poetic Edda: Skuld, Urth, and Verthandi. These three were said to determine the fates of gods and men. They spun these fates by Urd, the well of destiny at the base of Yggdrasil, the tree which connects the nine worlds. Those of you who have seen The Avengers: Age of Ultron might recall a scene which alludes to the Norns and Urd without explaining them.
For my story, The Fear of a Farmer (copyrighted but not yet published), I took some artistic license and moved them out to sea. There, they utter false prophecies to dissuade the hero from his appointed task.
Here is a portrait of one of the Norns. I wanted to show more facial detail to develop her visual character.
After I had done this, I looked up some paintings by more regarded artists. I was interested to compare my black and white renderings to theirs. This one is supposedly titled The Norns and was allegedly done by Arthur Rackham. I can verify neither the title nor the artist. I have my suspicions since the style of this one is so different than that of another one attributed to him.
Here is an eerie depiction of the Norns over a cradle.
The Norns in this picture are shown at the base of Yggdrasil. Well, technically, Yggdrasil was an ash tree, not an oak.
Another black and white….
… and a couple in color. Both are titled (guess what?) The Norns. I’m fairly confident that the first of these actually is by Arthur Rackham. The second was also attributed to him, but I am not as confident of this. It is, however, an interesting abstraction that plays on the imagination.
In both of these examples, I like the ethereal use of color. Additionally, the utilization of silhouettes in this last illustration adds to its effectiveness.
My brother-in-law, James P. Wood, made the above illustration to go with a scene from my first story poem, The Kraken, in which the main character has an encounter with the Griffin King. I obviously borrowed this creature from existing mythology and medieval heraldry, and it appears in historical and current coats of arms, two examples of which are shown below.
The Griffin (or Gryphon) has the head, wings, and legs of an eagle at its front and the body, hind legs and tail of a lion. It is similar to the Hippogriff, which is the offspring of a Griffin and a mare (see the appropriately titled earlier post in this series for more on the Hippogriff). In heraldry, the Griffin represents courage, boldness, and skill in battle. It was sometimes given significance in Christian symbolism.
Perhaps my favorite rendition of a Griffin is this one made by John Tenniel for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I like the way the artist places it in the pose of a sleeping dog.
Of course, I must offer the requisite version by William O’ Connor from Dracopedia: The Bestiary.
I will leave you with one more illustration by James P. Wood from The Kraken.
The Kraken can be ordered on Amazon by clicking here.
The original Chimera is a creature from Greco Roman mythology which has the head of a lion, the head (or body) of a goat, and the tail of a serpent (often represented with a serpent’s head). The earliest reference we have is from the Iliad by Homer. Shown below is an intriguing Etruscan bronze, the Chimera of Arezzo, from the 4th Century, A. D.
Going back even further, there is this Greco Roman mosaic from Palmyra, 3rd Century, A. D. It depicts the battle in which Bellerophon slays the Chimera while riding on Pegasus, the winged horse which he tamed with the help of the goddess, Athena.
As is often the case in mythology, it all started with a woman. Bellerophon resists the efforts of Sthenoboea, the wife of King Proteus, to seduce him. Angry at being jilted, she levels accusations against him. This is reminiscent of the tale of Joseph resisting the efforts of Potiphar’s wife to seduce him. The latter is found in the book of Genesis from the Old Testament and is, incidentally, the older account.
Anyway, King Iobates of Lycia, the father of Sthenoboea, assigns Bellerophon a number of heroic tasks, including the slaying of the Chimera. Athena gives our hero a golden bridle which will enable him to mount and ride Pegasus. In this next painting, Athena can be seen standing in the background.
I will end this post with another depiction of the ensuing battle.