Friday, June 26, 2015

Herakles-Nergal, meet Herakles-Kanishka!

Two swords

This morning I was thumbing through my copy of Costume of the Ancient Eurasia by Sergei A. Yatsenko and a certain piece of sculpture caught my eye:

This is identified as "Nergal from Hatra". 

Found in Iraq, obviously Parthian, it immediately reminded me of a statue in the Government Museum of India, from the Mathura school:

This is usually recognized as a statue of Kanishka, the great king of the Kushan empire.

Now, they might not look that similar at first. What stood out to me especially was the sword! Why? It's a Central Asian type of sword, sometimes called Sarmatian type 1, believed to be derived from Chinese western Han dynasty swords of an earlier period. (often found in Sarmatian graves, typically with jade fittings - disc pommel, chunky box-like crosspiece, a scabbard slide and another piece for the bottom of the scabbard)

The scabbard slide isn't apparent in the Hatra sculpture, perhaps due to poorer ability of the sculptor (it's definitely less realistic and finely carved), but otherwise the form is very close. Especially the pommel, which in both cases ISN'T a disc (as is typical for the Sarmatian/Han swords), but some kind of curved shape, sometimes interpreted as an animal (snake or bird) head.

The basic form of the costume is similar, but that's not surprising between two cultures with a nomadic tradition.

I'm not the first one to point out the similarities either, John M. Rosenfield in The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans draws a comparison between Kanishka and this statue of a Parthian officer (also from Hatra), emphasizing the importance of the sword being displayed:

Same could be said for king Uthal's statue:

Nergal? Herakles? What?

I tried to find out more about why this relief is thought to be depicting Nergal. The other important thing I noticed about the figure - he also carried an axe.

In her paper titled "My Lord With His Dogs", Lucinda Dirven says:
A great many of these shrines are centred around the cult of a Herakles-figure, who was worshipped in Hatra under the name of Nergal.
Now, Nergal is usually worshipped like so:
 Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle. He has also been called "the king of sunset". Nergal evolved from a war god to a god of the underworld. In the mythology, this occurred when Enlil and Ninlil gave him the underworld.

I've not heard of an aspect associated with Herakles before. Wiki says there was a solar aspect of him as well, which I'll have to beleive. Still, nothing that would suggest an axe attribute to me. (axes, clubs or maces are typically attributes of thunder gods, or the non-thunderous serpent slayers. This would make sense for a Heraklean aspect, not so much for Nergal.)
The pronaos of the shrine yielded a plain bronze plate with the inscription nrgl klbʾ. 23 The cover of an offering box representing a dog in relief was, according to the fragmentary inscription, made for Nergal.24 The base of a statuette of which only the bare feet, lion skin and club remain, has an inscription that dedicates the object to nrgl klbʾ. 25 In the same shrine, an alabaster statuette of a dog was found, with an inscription on the plinth mentioning three dogs (fig. 1).26 Although Nergal is not mentioned in this text, it is probable that the dog refers to his cult. The same holds true for a small altar with a representation on the front of a male figure raising an axe.2
Lion skin and a club sound appropriately Heraklean. Perhaps it was through the lion skin that the connection to Nergal was made? (Nergal being depicted as a lion)

Dirven then follows with:
The dogs have a snake for a tail, and from the collar around their neck hangs a bell. In addition to the dogs, the god is associated with snakes and scorpions. Of special note are the two snakes that rise like a crescent from the god’s shoulders.
I'm most likely reaching, but various thundergods are associated with serpents (for obvious reasons) and snakes, some even with scorpions. (Frex: A Czech "weather saying":  "Na sv. Jiří vylézají hadi a štíři." = On st. George's day the snakes and scorpions crawl out.)

And what of Kanishka and his massive mace?  I see both the axe and mace as divine weapons (swords representing the earthly warrior weapon). The mace is described by Rosenfield (p.179) as a "makara", referring to the carved metal head, depicting a monster.
The Makara possessed a dual nature in early Indian art. On one hand, it was the emblem of the fructifying principle inherent in moisture - a king of water demons, on the other it was the emblem of passion and death.
Rosenfield then lists several examples of Makara bringing destruction, as well as another aspect of the club being a symbol of justice. (held by the ruler)

Again, I might be reaching, but I'm reminded of the duality of Thunder Gods' axes, hammers and maces in various IE cultures - beside the destructive thunderous use of the weapon, the other end of it often had other effects:
- The Balts would throw axes in the fields, put them in the path of newlyweds and under their bed before their first night together. (all to increase fertility)
- In the Voroněž region, Slavs would throw an axe over their herd and into a fire, to ensure fertility of cows and also their safety.
- In the Ukraine, axes were used in birthing rituals and later put into newborn's cradles.

And let's not forget that Thór's hammer Mjölnir and Irish Dagda's club could also raise the dead!
(all examples from Perun the Thundergod by Michal Théra)

Where am I going with this?

It would be quite interesting if Kanishka, famous for his efforts in spreading of Buddhism, had himself sculpted as a thunder deity.

Then again, we know Herakles made it into the Buddhist pantheon as Vajrapani, guardian of Buddha himself!

This depiction is Gandharan, from the 2nd century AD. So perhaps it's not that much of a reach.

In summary: I noticed two swords looked kinda similar. Turns out I wasn't seeing things and that while we might end up with a bit of a divine goulash, looking for these connections is fun. :)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

What's in the Box?!

Last week I found a box full of old drawings of mine. Most of these were drawn 15-13 years ago. (I was 14-16). It's quite fun to see where this whole art thing started.

On top there were notebooks full of roleplaying stuff. I used to DM for our group, so there are many maps and I also drew scenes from the adventures we played through.

 (this was a really fun game, we played while hiking. So no dice rolls, just roleplaying. I didn't even have a story prepared in advance, had to make it up on the go. And yes, I was obviously into Mike Mignola's artwork. :))

This is a map of the world we played in. Yeah, a single continent (more like an island) with all the climates we could ask for. :D Classic.

I sure went through the angsty teenager phase too. 

My learning years, this was an attempt to (very poorly) ape Ron Tiner. 

This is pure gold. :D I had no idea who Drizzt was, but a gaming magazine mentioned he used two scimitars and was something like an elf. Obviously, his face has to be in shadow (I don't know what he's supposed to look like! Red eyes though.). Why the blue feathery cape, or why he's sitting on a mouldy dragon skeleton and a pile of gold? No idea. This one is probably one of the oldest bits in the box.

A comic I started drawing while visiting my grandmother. As far as I understand the story, it's a cyberpunk world where the Inuit people took over thanks to some kind of technology or drug they invented or discovered. I think I started reading Shadowrun at the time. :)


A Hellboy comic I never finished. The story (as I remember it) was about Hellboy and an undead knight teaming up to tame a hellhound that escaped from Hell in the 15th century. It starts with a very James Bond-like moment, Hellboy is chasing a shaman through a dimensional portal and the spell backfires, exploding the shaman all over the place. (Hellboy is fine, of course, he always falls everywhere.)

To finish up, here's a silly doodle thing. No idea why the sound of an arm being hacked off would be "SLAP". 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On Writing With Responsibility

For a while now, writing and re-writing the script for Oak and Thunder, I've been wrestling with the main character. Specifically (and I'd say this is a common issue) with her sex being different from my own.
Can I do this? Will she end up a caricature, do I even have a chance of empathing out what a woman would think, do and say in the situations I describe?
After reading quite a few "How to"s and various writing guides specifically aimed at this problem, I decided not to worry about it too much. Of course I'm reading female writers' work, of course I will ask women for feedback, but ultimately I want to write a solid character, giving it the same treatment as all the other ones.

All this research however allowed me to see how many different (sometimes quite contradictory) ideas there are out there, about writing female and minority characters in stories.
Some of them stood out to me as reasonable or useful - chief example among these was Ursula Le Guin's method/philosophy. I highly recommend her collected essays - "The Language of the Night":

Now, in OaT, my main character is a woman, her best friend would be probably described as non-heterosexual and many characters in the story are not "white".
The thing is, none of these choices were made (primarily) for the sake of inclusivity, being progressive, or activism. They sort of happened, mostly springing out of the setting I chose or from myself. 
My primary goal is to write an interesting story, not a political statement.
"Recent American SF has been full of stories tackling totaliarianism, nationalism, overpopulation, pollution, prejudice, racism, sexism, militarism, and so on: all the "relevant" problems...But what worries me is that so many of these stories and books have been written in a savagely self-righteous tone, a tone that implies that there's an answer, and why can't all you damn fools out there see it? Well, I call this escapism: a sensationalist raising of a real question, followed by a quick evasion of the weight and pain and complexity involved in really, experientially, trying to understand and cope with that question....If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No door shut."
Le Guin, a very vocal feminist, of course wrote some books held up as examples of SF activism - " The Left Hand of Darkness" among them, a story set in a world of androgynous beings who develop temporary sex+gender only at the time of mating. It would seem she's not fond of easy answers, of black and white interpretations of the world. (her essays on Tolkien and his concept of good and evil are great, a firm rebuttal to anyone claiming T.'s work uses a simplistic and childish sense of morality)
"The recent fantasy best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a serious book, unmistakably sincere. It is also intellectually, ethically and emotionally trivial. The author has not thought things through. He is pushing one of the beautifully packaged Instant Answers we specialize in this country. He says that if you think you can fly very fast, why, then you can fly very fast. And if you smile, all is well.
What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons-horizons seen from mastheads, from airplanes; we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless "Why?" and "What's next?"...What is truly alive stops before nothing and ceaselessly seeks answers to absurd, childish questions. Let the answers be wrong, let the philosophy be mistaken - errors are more valuable than truths; truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs. And if answers be impossible of attainment, all the better! Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow's stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud."
(emphasis mine) 

In other parts of the book, Le Guin warns wannabe-writers from becoming preachy. What we write comes from us, it's inevitable our view of the world, ethics etc. will seep into it. It's the easily given answers to real questions and problems that lead to preachiness and eventually - propaganda.

From "Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin":
"I have often been told by critics that my writing is too didactic, my adult books, that the moral is too clear. And I'm always embarrassed and afraid they're right, because the book as I wrote it was sort of an argument to me, and when it's written, it all sort of becomes clearer. And so it seems perhaps more didactic, and less a sort of an ongoing argument which usually it was, while I was writing it. I never wrote a book, ever, with the intention of teaching something...Some of my stories are openly polemical, but that's a bit different, art and polemics can go together."
and in another answer:
"Art is action...Any practice, any art, has moral resonances: it's going to be good, bad or indifferent. That's the only way I can conceive of writing - by assuming it's going to affect other people in a moral sense. As any act will do...Taken as a whole, overt moralizing is not an admirable quality in a work of art, and is usually self-defeating...I don't want to get on hobbyhorses in my fiction, saying that this is "good" and this is "bad"."
I'd very much like to avoid moralizing and preaching  in my own stuff, as well as criticizing or shunning the work of others for not doing so.

I think everyone should make whatever they think is right and good. And if not create, then support, help others create whatever it is you enjoy or whatever you feel is important.
(at this point I listed a few things being made where I thought they were "doin' it 'rong", but then I took my own advice and deleted it. Judge not...etc.)

To finish this post, I'm borrowing a quote from Nuno Miranda Ribeiro:
(from comments on this blog:
"I think that Ursual K. Le Guin, and don't trust me fully, because as someone who admires her, I am biased, does not try to think for the reader. She uses her view on society, of course, but what she does is what she calls (and I trust her, because I admire her) "thought experiments", where she, by the artifice of science fiction, creates situations (societies, civilizations, moments in history) where elements of human nature, of the dynamic of society, of the complexity of gender relationships, can be looked upon. But then she never tells the reader, "this is what you should think about it".
I would like to make this my approach to writing, as much as I can.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

On Not Jumping to Conclusions p.2

A quick one today. Going through my news feed at, I noticed a paper called "The Anatolian Myth of Illuyanka".
The name rang a bell and indeed, it's a dragon/serpent in the Hittite version of the eternal battle between a storm god and a chaos beast.

Anything related to that part of mythology, beginning with "ill", "wal" or "yl" I always have to check. I'm no etymologist so I'm most often wrong, but any language relations between the Hittites and the Tocharians/Yuezhi would be most pleasant and could be used in some way. (in Oak and Thunder)

Alas, it was another case of me getting too excited over nothing. :-D Illuyanka is in no way related to Ylaiňakte. In fact, despite Hittite being an isolated branch of the IE language family, this is a case of the typical naming tradition for the storm god and his serpent.
 Illuyanka is probably a compound, consisting of two words for "snake", Proto-Indo-European *h₁illu- and *h₂eng(w)eh₂-. The same compound members, inverted, appear in Latin anguilla "eel".
And of course, his opponent is Tarhunt/Teshub:
Teshub (also written Teshup or Tešup; cuneiform dIM) was the Hurrian god of sky and storm. He was derived from the Hattian Taru. His Hittite and Luwian name was Tarhun (with variant stem forms TarhuntTarhuwantTarhunta), although this name is from the Hittite root *tarh- "to defeat, conquer" 
Just as with Ylaiňakte (= Indra/The Smiter), Tarhun means "conquerer", the PIE root is even the same as with Thor and other IE thunder gods and smiters. (the meaning "smiter/conquerer" is also the same in the Iranian god - "Verethragna")
Taranis, as a personification of thunder, is often identified with similar deities found in other Indo-European pantheons. Of these, Old Norse ÞórrAnglo-Saxon Þunor, Old High German Donar—all from Proto-Germanic *þunraz (earlier *þunaraz)—and the Hittite theonym Tarhun (see Teshub) contain a comparable *torun- element. The Thracian deity names Zbel-thurdos,Zbel-Thiurdos also contain this element (Thracian thurd(a), "push, crash down"). The name of the Sami thunder god Horagalles derives from Thor's. 

All in all, nothing new under the sun, no exciting connections to explore. The Tochari are still weird and isolated.

Monday, January 5, 2015

"Oak and Thunder" part 3 - Tone Deaf?

I've had a bit of a break from work on OaT. (a couple of months. I've done concept art and illustration, both set in Glorantha in the meantime. Lots of cool stuff I won't be able to show for quite some time, sadly.)

I still thought about it a lot, but haven't done any writing or drawing. The reason is simple - I realized I didn't know enough to be making it properly.

Yesterday I finished "Language of the Night", a book of essays by Ursula Le Guin.
(a great book by the way, I really recommend it. It's not a light read and not all the essays are equally interesting, but it's worth buying a used copy even.)
It named an issue in my current script for Oak and Thunder and in other works of art where I noticed it, but couldn't quite name it before - inconsistency of tone.

In my case, I didn't realize I was writing two or three different projects into one, not quite knowing what exactly it was I wanted to achieve.
And then it dawned on me - I want to play it straight. All that I appreciate about Tolkien's writing, about old fairytales and heroic epics - the style, the language, the "setting", I want to do that.

Not a clever twist, not a play on the themes! Everything these days is (seems to me) a mashup of genres, a spin on something, a cliche or a trope reversal. It's cynical, ironic or goofily nonsensical.

I've been playing Dragon Age Inquisition and it's a great example of tonal dissonance (in more ways than one) - the overarching narrative is written straight - epic and classically heroic, while many of the dialogs and banter are contrastingly mundane and out-of-place "current". I'm not at all asking for ye olde speak, especially in American-voiced games it always sounds silly. Just more of a vocabulary and topical consistency.
The game uses well-tested and familiar ways to tell its story, set up its characters etc., but the world and characters themselves (the gameplay as well at times) don't always fit, don't mesh, the gears grind.
I cringed when SPOILER FOR DA:I

in a moment of desperation and disorder, everyone started to sing. They sang to get their spirits up, to unite, to honor the player as their savior. And I'm angry at myself I cringed, because that was a moment which the game attempted to play straight, without Sera laughing, making silly faces and throwing innuendos around, without penis jokes, or talk about "riding the Bull". And I recognize it was partly my fault I couldn't take it seriously. /SPOILER

The Witcher series, for instance, tried to play with tone on purpose, the contrast is there to say something, not as a jarring byproduct.

It's mainly a writing challenge, I'll definitely need help with this. Reading through the long script I wrote, it's too much like people talking on Facebook, or at best roleplaying on a forum. That's the English I know, the one I speak and write online. But it's not the right tone. I can't have Wala and Wape making pop culture references to each other, or drawing cat memes with their enemies' blood.
(those are the current up to date versions of the main characters' names, btw. I'm learning a lot about proto-languages)
I don't mean to write entirely straight, humorless and dry, a boring saga of head-chopping murder heroes! There need to be light and funny parts just as there need to be serious and dark parts, a balance. But I need to strive for a unity of language and themes. Tolkien is a big inspiration in this aspect, a wrong word in the wrong place is just wrong, there's no way around it.
Finding the right words! How easy! :)

I also realized I didn't quite have the characters yet. I know what they do throughout the story, sure. I mostly know what they look and dress like, but I don't fully know what they "are", I can't see their faces and their emotions.

A solution, for now, is to focus on research for the big story and script and draw up short stories. Quick ones, with minimum of writing, just to get a feel for the tone, where I want to go with characters and the art style. (I already have two stories reworked, an action one and a...different one.)
Research is also back on track, I'm reading a lot about religion and linguistincs. Definitely discovering more of the themes and philosophy than every day details about the life in that place and time.

I hope everyone had good holidays! All the best in the new year, friends!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

For the Stiff and Aching Back

Just a quick tip post today.

I'm sure many digital artists (as well as other professionals regularly working while sitting) experience lower back pain, or at least stiffness.

For the two years I've been doing this full time, I've found two things that help me deal with pain and stiff muscles.

One's hot baths. Of course, you wouldn't have those every night after a long day of painting, but I find that once a week is just fine.

The other is a magical artefact called the Iplikator.

I lied, there's nothing magical about it. You'll definitely run into all kinds of yoga or acupuncture mumbo jumbo on the internet. All it really does is poke your back, make the bloodflow a bit better and relax your back muscles.

And that's enough. If it's placebo effect, doesn't matter, it works great. It didn't improve my eyesight, it didn't improve my posture (much), it doesn't cure any diseases. 
I use it almost daily, 20-30 minutes in the evening, laid  on a hard surface (soft or springy surface makes it less painful at first, but also defeats the purpose).
Some people wear a t-shirt, I don't. It's less effective than the naked back.

No need to wriggle or do yoga on it, I just lay down, it hurts a bit, but then it gets very comfortable. I watch a movie, or an episode of a tv show (just enough time). Be careful not to fall asleep though, getting up after a nap hurts! 
A side effect that I noticed (which might be just me, or placebo) is that I sleep much better after I've used the mat.

I've had my mat for quite a few years, we bought the original version based on the Russian prototype, for some 20 USD back then. These days it's a bit more expensive, but 25 EUR or an equivalent in dollars will pay for itself very quickly. (I recommend getting the big one, D1 or just the full size that covers your entire back)

Note: I'm not paid by makers or resellers of this thing. ;) Just sharing something others might find useful.

Also, this is in no way a substitute for exercise and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle. I'm not a doctor and don't have any medical training, so don't take my word for medical advice. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Not Jumping to Conclusions

Etymology and linguistics can be quite beautiful, as well as confusing.

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I had one of those hazy epiphanies when you dart out of bed and scribble furiously on the closest napkin.

The main character in Oak and Thunder is named "Ylai". (Whether it's her birth name, or a nickname, I've not yet decided.)
The Tocharian (an IE language that's thought to be spoken by the Yuezhi, or their descendants) word "ylaiñäkte" is commonly translated as "Indra" (Hindu god of Thunder and other things, certainly one of the many related IndoEuropean thunder gods). The etymology isn't entirely clear, but it's thought the -ñäkte part stands for "god" and "ylai" is related to various other words for "smite" or "hit".

That makes Ylai a "Smiter".

Now, in the book "Perun: God of Thunder", Czech scholar Michal Téra examines the various aspects of thunder god worship among Slavic people. Interestingly, one of the Christianized versions of Perun (and other Slavic thunder deities) was Saint Elijah. In Russian - Ilya.

How good is that?! Ylai, Ilya...

Unfortunately, the two names aren't related. Ilya is a Russian version of Eliyahu, meaning "My God is Yahweh (in Hebrew).
Bummer, right?

I'd love for there to be an etymological connection - Téra mentions the association of thunder worship and Elijah started in early Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, from where it came to the Balkans and to the Slavs. Unfortunately, most IE roots for thunder gods are entirely different and don't seem to relate in any way. (*trHon - thunder, *perk- and *per- for oak, smite, thunder or mountain)
Tocharian seems to be quite isolated in this regard:

"B ylai- and A wlā- would reflect PTch *w'älā(i̯än)-, in turn from PIE *wel(hx)eha-(h1en)- ... Semantically more likely, given the connection with storms (see ylaiñeṣṣe), however, is a derivation from*welh2-eha- ‘Smiter’ from *welh2- ‘strike’ [: Hittite walh- ‘strike’ and perhaps, with s-extension, TchB wālts- ‘trample’]."

It's far more likely the association was made thanks to attributes Elijah already had in the Old Testament - "he raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and was taken up "by a whirlwind.". 
Raising the dead and fire from the sky are very common things for a thunder god to do. 

Sometimes an epiphany ends in disappointment.