There are some pretty odd authors around nowadays. What with the genres of New Weird, Bizarro Literature, Slipstream, works which come close to one or the other, and work that seems to straddle the gap between all of them, there’s a lot of exciting work around that is, frankly, more than a little peculiar.
These strange, surreal veins of fiction are not just being read by academics or thoughtful artsy types, though — not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that — they’re actually fun.
Chaos Nazis, cynical and violent anti-heroes, idealistic dupes played by the system, wig monsters, weird chimeric modifications of human beings, bizarre sentient personifications and loci, terrible things happening for little-to-no reason and a wry, dry sense of humour appearing now and again. I could be talking about this latest, excellent cultish trend in literature, or I could be referring to ancient myths. Except for the Chaos Nazis. I think.
Take Adad, the Assyro-Babylonian god of wind, rain and thunder. He’s usually depicted standing on the back of a bull, wielding lightning bolts in both hands. Now, it probably doesn’t sound that awesome — so far, so god-like — but think about what a bull represented back then, what it actually would feel like to try to stand on a bull, what it would look like to come across a man calmly standing on the back of one of the most powerful animals you’ve come across.
The idea of drawing him like that is roughly equivalent in modern terms to the idea of drawing a superhero standing on a motorbike, except the motorbike is explicitly designed not-to-be-stood-on, and there is some random unnatural-natural powers malarkey going on about the head area.
My point is that these ancient gods, heroes and morons weren’t created the way they were just by mistake, or because people genuinely believed these things about them to start with. The idea of a storm god was there, and then someone put him on the back of a wild bull with no saddle because it would be totally awesome to do that.
When you start to hear the voice of the person telling the story, you begin to get a sense of just how strange, imaginative and wondrous these myths and legends were — so strange that we’re only just catching up to them, and we still take a helping hand from them whenever possible.
In John Dies At The End, we have (Spoiler alert) Kuk/Korrok/Koddock malevolently guiding events from afar.
In Miéville, we find dead and dying gods littering the pages of Kraken.
In Gaiman, we have the love letter to mythology that is American Gods.
The Granddaddy of weird story-telling, H.P. Lovecraft, included a slightly fishy Phillistine god named Dagon in his mythos. It’s all dependent on the wonderful, bizarre, worrying tales that people were already telling each other thousands of years ago.
Here are some of my favourite weird tales from ages past.
AGDISTIS was born when some of Zeus’ seed fell on Mount Ida, near where Cybele was sleeping, the story already displaying the keen grasp of human sexual reproduction the Ancient Greeks were well known for.
Agdistis happened to be a hermaphrodite, which, in another example of failing to logic correctly, apparently terrified the gods like nothing else — androgyny was apparently evidence of the sort of wild, uncontrolled free spirit that the gods despise.
Thinking clearly, the gods got Agdistis drunk and tied shklis/shker genitals either to his foot, or to a tree (accounts differ, and I’m not convinced that the details of precisely what the crazy deities tied someone’s genitals to is exactly the most important part of this story). When he woke up from what must have felt like the worst frat party ever, Agdistis tried to stand up and tore his own penis off.
Simply for the crime of being an apparently terrifying androgynous figure.
Now most stories would probably end up there, with the newly castrated individual dying a slow and rather horrible death. However, what with ancient people seeming to hold some rather bizarre beliefs about sex, they refused to let this lie. Literally. Where Agdistis’ genitals fell, an almond (or in some versions, pomegranate) tree sprouted.
A nymph called Nana decided to cradle some of the almonds in her chest, as you would, whereupon one of the randy little almonds disappeared, getting up to some mischief that ended up with her being thoroughly up the duff. I probably should have mentioned, but you will have to re-adjust your definition of “strange” when reading about these myths. To mean “batshit insane”.
And this is where it all began to really kick off.
Nana eventually gave birth to a guy called Attis, who happened to be beautiful enough to make Agdistis fall wildly in love with him — Agdistis being Attis’ own grandmother, if you remember. Or possibly his transgendered father. Or both. Families in ancient myths were complicated. Either way, this deeply, deeply wrong love knew no bounds, except of course for the part where Attis reciprocated it.
There are a few versions of the story from this point, but they all end badly. One version has Agdistis appearing in her true form, which drives everyone insane. Another has her show up in her form as the goddess Cybele, which is kind of cheating but still sort of caused Attis to profess his love to, um, “her?”, which drove his wife into a grief-stricken frenzy of self-mutilation, which in turn caused Attis to castrate himself under a pine tree.
No-one knows why the pine tree is important, but presumably ancient story-tellers were so bored of self-castration at this point that they started telling stories like, “yeah, and then, duh, he cut his cock off. Oh, and there was a cool pine tree there, you totally should’ve been there. It was all gnarly and weathered and stuff. Had this real deep, eternal sort of vibration to it. If cameras were invented I’d show you all my grainy black-and-white shots of it for hours and hours. But yeah, sorry, kind of a boring story — who hasn’t cut his own genitals off in a fit of passion, am I right?”
Attis was not a god, and therefore did not have hilarious post-penis shenanigans.
Of course, Agdistis repented, and begged Zeus for a favour (which he pretty much owed shkler, given that he seems to’ve been absent through much of shklis childhood, as well as either failing to intervene or actively being involved with the whole “getting drugged by the other gods and sexually mutilated” thing). What was that favour?
The chance for Attis to live again? Don’t be silly! The favour shklee asked was that Zeus keep the handsome body of the combination son/grand-son who shklee lusted after in perfect condition for the rest of eternity.
Extremely creepy. Extremely strange. But you’ve got to admit, a book like that written today would sell.
ULLIKUMMI was another product of a god effectively having sex with a rock. However, this time it was deliberate, which makes it alright, doesn’t it?
Probably not. This time, the cause of the whole mess was that a god named Kumarbi wanted to get vengeance on a god named Teshub, his son, who had overthrown him and was now king of the gods. Now, I don’t know how much you know about gods, but it tends to be pretty bloody difficult to become king, and they don’t often go down without a fight.
So Kumarbi’s genius plan of having sex with a rock seems pretty incomprehensible already. The fact that it worked was probably more luck than judgment, to be honest: goddesses don’t seem like the kinds of girls who do ‘pity lays’, so being an ancient ex-king of the gods there probably wasn’t a whole load of choice for poor, lonely Kumarbi.
The child that inexplicably resulted from this rocky (because he was made of rock, you see?) start was, of course, deaf and blind, being a rock but felt every second of his pitiful existence. Which was probably something of a downer.
To keep the boy safe, Kumarbi placed him under several fathoms of water on the shoulders of a giant, because hurr durr derp de derpity derp-tee durr.
Oh, to be extra safe, he didn’t tell the giant he was there.
Upelluri could’ve noticed at any time that there was suddenly an evil diorite boulder growing extremely rapidly on his shoulder, but fortunately for Ullikummi he did not. The task of telling Teshub of this hilariously non-threatening attempt on his life fell, instead, to the sun god, once Ullikummi grew tall enough that he was higher than the waves.
Teshub then decided, of course, to leave the boulder alone because it was a goddamned boulder, and no threat to anyone, much less a god, much less the king of the g- no, no wait, it says here he wept with fear. At an over-sized pet rock. Should I remind you that Ullikummi was both deaf and blind? And a rock? I did mention that part, right?
Eventually, after being comforted by his sister (I’d tell you to stop sniggering at the back, but these incestuous godly bastards being what they are, you probably have a point), Teshub decided to attack Ullikummi, the rock. He attacked Ullikummi, the rock with THUNDER AND RAIN.
At this point, you have to assume that Kumarbi had a genetic disorder of some kind, because all of his sons are involved in the most stupid epic battle for the future of the Universe I have ever heard of. An epic battle in which a quasi-sentient rock sits blindly (and deafly) growing quietly and unobtrusively in the red corner, while in the blue corner the king of the gods pisses himself and sporadically attempts to attack the rock using the exact things that it is incredibly strong against. The having-sex-with-a-hole-in-the-ground issue is another pointer. But I digress.
At about this point, Teshub lost the fight. To a rock. Ullikummi reached the walls of his city, somehow, taking him by surprise, somehow, and forced him to abdicate. Somehow.
Probably after having watched this go on for quite some time, laughing, the ‘wise’ (read: not a total idiot) god Ea stepped in with the brilliant idea of attacking the monster with a saw, which no-one had thought of before.
To be fair, it was a specific type of magic saw they had lying about the place, cluttering it up, but really that’s no excuse for forgetting it exists when faced with a large, very static enemy. Quite the opposite, in fact. So with the poor deaf-blind monster cruelly sawed-off at the ankles, lying helpless on the floor, the gods suddenly rediscovered their bravery and joined in the attack on the severely disabled, and now grievously injured, child. Restoring Teshub to the throne in the process.
I have to say, I wouldn’t be particularly interested in buying that book, if it were written today. It just smacks of exploitation, and I’m really not comfortable with that at all.
TEZCATLIPOCA was a Meso-American (Aztec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan) god. They were all pretty damned messed up. Further to this, he was an Aztec god, probably the most expansionist (though not necessarily the most war-like) of the major Meso-American tribes. Now, picking an Aztec god for one of these stories is sort of cheating.
When you invite your buddies THE FLAYED LORD, THE FEATHERED SERPENT, and THE SMOKING MIRROR, also known as THE DARK GOD over to your place for some brews, you’re either going to end the night with some seriously messed-up stories to tell the next day, or you’re going to record a very kvlt black metal demo that will only ever be heard by the thirty trvest people on the planet.
Now, Tezcatlipoca was the smoking mirror, and the dark god. He could perhaps be described as an intimidating character. He could also be legitimately described as the Aztec God Of Jumping Out At People From Dark Places At Night And Wrestling Them, which, trust me, does not hold up as a defence in any court of law. To give you an idea of the kind of god he was, the Aztecs carved him many stone benches along their most prestigious roadways in order to give Tezcatlipoca a place to sit, rest and think. Tezcatlipoca used these benches as sites for ambushes.
So trust me when I say that it’s not at all surprising how this story starts:
Tezcatlipoca was walking into the city of Tollán one fine day, almost completely naked and painted green. As an insanely cunning (only one of those words is three-quarters accurate) cover for his disguise, he claimed to be a seller of green paint.
I suspect that the next part of the story tended to be written either by Tezzy himself, or his priests, because supposedly he decided to seduce the daughter of Huemac, governor of the city of Tollán. She was said to be so beautiful that all of Tollán were desperate for her love (she was actually said to be more beautiful than Mount Ixtaccíhuatl, but I’m assuming this was a regional thing — wait, what the hell is up with all the sexualising of mountains that goes on in these stories?). Also supposedly, he achieved his seduction by merely passing close to her bedchamber and hoping that she would see him lookin’ all green and nekkid and sexy.
I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: NEVER GET NAKED, PAINT YOURSELF GREEN, ANOINT YOURSELF THE AZTEC GOD OF NIGHT-AMBUSH WRESTLING-FUN, AND GRAPPLE PEOPLE SITTING ON PARK BENCHES. DO NOT DO THAT. IT DOES NOT ATTRACT WOMEN AS MUCH AS THE AZTECS WOULD HAVE YOU BELIEVE.
There is apparently a finer line between Aztec god and meth-addict repeat-sex-offender than I had realised. But I digress from the crazy. Tez’s plan worked so well that the daughter of the governor became sick with longing for his lithe, green body. The guv’nor quickly found out who was to blame, at which point Tez entered part two of the crazy-person’s recipe for success.
This was to tell the father of the woman Tez was repeatedly flashing that he could take Tez’s life any time he chose. I think I would’ve chose, but given what happens later in the story I would probably have regretted the decision very quickly indeed. The father chose to let him live, because he could see that if Tez died then the princess would swiftly pine away to nothing, and this was a less than acceptable outcome. Obviously.
So, Tez got the girl. There’s nothing like emotional blackmail of close relatives, body-paint, violent brooding men and a hefty dose of near-nakedity. Wait, wrestling really hasn’t changed that much since Aztec times, has it?
Anyway, the people of the city were sort of disgruntled that this stranger had won the princess’ hand in marriage (probably not a church ceremony, otherwise fairly traditional), and he was probably quite noticeable due to all the prancing around like a great attention-seeking nonce he was doing.
For these reasons, even though he was let into the army under a “don’t ask, don’t tell (that you are the dark god of the obsidian knife and smoking mirror, Tezcatlipoca)” policy which they custom-made for him, a few soldiers noticed him. And sorta jostled him into the most vulnerable position in the army.
Now I want to make it very clear. This was a god whose job was fighting people at night. He was the god who got to be called the dark god in a pantheon which included someone whose sacrificial victims were flayed, then had their skin worn by priests for months afterwards.
That’s the equivalent of getting to go to the Hallowe’en party dressed as The Crow when one of your friends is The GODDAMNED CROW because you are more Crow-like than they are. He was not in any danger. Apparently, though, he took this pitiful attempt at ‘doing a King David’ (again, not what the actual Toltec people called it) extremely seriously indeed.
When Tezcatlipoca returned to the city, he was cheered by everyone, due to his great valour in battle, and due to his having survived in such a vulnerable position. The people forgot their petty grudge, and had learned to love this odd, violent stranger who’d married the most sought-after woman in the entire city — in the entire Valley of Mexico. More sought after than a mountain, and mountains were apparently rather hot property back in the day.
Everyone loved him, he had a beautiful wife and the proud garb of the warrior — as opposed to the proud garb of pretty much nothing at all. He’d never been in real danger, and most of the people present had had nothing to do with his “being-manoeuvred-to-a-slightly-more-dangerous-place-on-a-massive-battlefield”ing. Which was a slightly abstract ‘crime’ to begin with. I think you can all see where this is going.
He threw a lavish feast and celebration! He encouraged the people to dance and sing their little hearts out. By encouraged, I of course mean “forced _ against their will using his magic powers”, and by “their little hearts out” I of course mean “painfully fast, until he tired of his cruel game and made them dance their way into a ravine which he had just created”. Yeah.
Old Tez just didn’t like the people of Tollán. One time, he killed hundreds of innocents with a gardening hoe in the flower gardens, presumably just so he could make hundreds of gardening-related action-hero style one-liners. Another time, he entertained the people by making the war god Huitzilopochtli, disguised as a child, appear to dance on his hands. Possibly Huitzilopochtli had lost some sort of drunken bar wager the night before.
So, naturally, the people crowded around to see. Unnaturally, they were so drawn to the spectacle that they created a crush, killing many innocents (there is a theme developing). The survivors were annoyed, and turned on the two gods, eventually killing them, presumably through weight of numbers.
Once dead, the gods exacted their revenge: they leaked everywhere. The liquid and gas they exuded was so foul that anyone who smelt the gas died instantly. A few tried to drag the bodies away, wearing masks to protect themselves, but the gods were too heavy to shift. So they set up a massive crowd with ropes and cords to pull the gods away.
Naturally, the ropes broke, and the people tumbled over, causing further devastation and death. In the end, the entire population died. Because that’s what happens when you fail to kill a stranger, kids. The tales of Tezcatlipoca’s life are simply too dark and light-less to possibly work as a book.
He caused multiple genocides, jumped out and attacked people at night in a most disturbing way, and never appeared to do anything good (he killed an earth monster once, but I think that would go in the prologue [Aztec calendars confuse me], so we’d be left with arbitrary unremitting horrors for the rest of the novel).
There does appear to be a consistent moral of “be careful at celebrations because you’ll probably all die”, but I’m not sure how relevant that is to the modern age, or indeed any age, really.
These stories should be taken with a pinch of salt. I am no scholar, and I have deliberately chosen the most exciting, stupid or bizarre aspects of the most exciting, stupid or bizarre stories. These stories varied wildly, too: Leiwani, the Hittite god of the underworld, for instance, gradually transformed from being “King” of the underworld into a woman.
There are many different accounts of the lives and times of all these people and deities, similar to the different ‘continuities’ of modern day comic book heroes, only much more important because it was all seen through the eyes of religion. However, I think that we can safely conclude one thing. Ancient legends are bitchin’.
Modern authors might be getting stranger, but they still got nothin’ on the ancients.
I still think there are some mind-blowing modern authors. I was hoping the stories I picked would have a common theme, but they all seem to be utterly bizarre in very different ways, which actually quite pleases me.
There is now a Scandinavian myth to read, if you enjoyed this blog post.