It’s been well over two years since the last installment of this series of posts that used to be known as Anansi’s Trail, and there have been some pretty good reasons for that long gap in-between posts. However, I shall resume this series, and it seems a no-brainer that the next installment should be about Mermaids. Ever since the Discovery Channel’s programme on mermaids earlier this year (in May), there’s been an interesting amount of press and feedback that even resulted in an official statement from the U.S. National Ocean Service to reiterate that No, Mermaids Do Not In Fact Exist!
I greet this with a mixture of intrigue, a teeny bit of resignation and a healthy dose of hilarity. People have been looking for proof of mermaids for as long as there have been people. From Columbus, to the various Youtubers who keep posting evidences (simulated, artistically contrived or otherwise) that mermaids exist.
Mermaids are a powerful draw and exist as a symbol for the intersection between the known and the unknown. As beings that are inherently liminal, they haunt, and will continue to haunt many of us. Perhaps this may explain the rising popularity of Mermaid YA novels this year*; one hopes this interest will help strengthen efforts towards the conservation of our marine life, because, need I remind you, there are countless denizens of the deep that are in danger of being fished or poisoned into extinction, even if we do not take into account climate change.
Heidi Anne Heiner of SurLaLune Fairytales has said a great deal concerning mermaid culture on the internet and concerning the rising interest in Mermaids due to the aforementioned Discovery “mockumentary”. Quoth Heiner:
“After all of my mermaid research and studies a few years ago, I have to admit I am firmly convinced that mermaids do not exist in our reality. But they are magical, wondrous beings along with their many related iterations across cultures.”
The SurLalune Fairytales Blog is always a delight to visit, and if you’re interested in developments in the scaly world of mermaids on the internet, I’d suggest paying attention to the mermaids category on her blog.
In Mythical Mermaid:The Missing Link Between Man and Fish, Greg Laslo opines:
“The more cynical, and probably more correct, take on the whole mermaid thing was that the mermaid became a symbol of empire and domain, a creature that demonstrated one’s ability, in a national sense, to travel to disparate parts of the world and, of course, come back again. Mermaids were common figureheads on sailing ships from many countries for hundreds of years, and there are mermaids on the bridge supports in St. Petersburg, Russia, along canals that lead out to sea.”
Laslo’s strongly worded article traces the aftermath of travel and colonial influence, citing for instance, the case of the mami wata and makes for a fascinating, if not entirely unproblematic read. Still, much food for thought.
Mermaid culture on the internet is not merely about scholarship or in the belief of whether these water-based visions are real or if it really matters whether or not they exist. A lot of it has to do with the idea of beauty, of what we hold to be beautiful, or otherworldly. I could make an argument that the image of a siren on the rocks, combing her hair, baring her upper body to the world while her lower regions remain safely tucked within glittering scales has very much to do with the male gaze. I could, but for my love of mermaids, and for my love of the water. Besides, I suspect most daughters of the sea would scoff at you should you decide to claim that they adorn themselves for the benefit of those supposedly amorous onlookers.
I posit that mermaids are a duality. And duality is always about choice. You could choose to be lovely, or watermaidenly, you could choose to bedeck your hair and your arms with ornaments, or you could indeed, chose to be a snarky, spinsterish type of mermaid. Whichever version you choose to be, there are plenty of venues for visual inspiration, whether dodgy or legitimate.
More articles that are reasonably researched, and coupled with beautiful visuals may be found in the following two venues:
The Mermaids and Mythology magazine, for one, which focuses more on a mermaid “lifestyle”, with fashion shoots and interviews:
Here’s the somewhat more scholarly Mermaids which is from the same people who brought us the Faerie magazine. They have articles from the likes of Ari Berk, on various diverse aspects of mer-lore, inclusive of the mami wata.
* I suspect that by the time Watermaidens is ready to be sent off to an agent, this fad will be over, and this is not necessarily a bad thing! For it is not chiefly concerning mermaids, and is far too gnarly and snarky to be about visions of loveliness alone.
The South East Asian region is a heady mixture of hybrid nations straddling the waterways and trade routes between India and China. Rich with much-disputed spices, regions yielding gold, tin ore and precious wood such as teak, it was inevitable that different cultures, civilisations and religious beliefs would clash with each other. Sometimes, there would be assimilation, whether peaceful or violent. Growing up, I was treated to tales of pre-Islamic empires such as Sailendra and Srivijaya, which spanned major parts of the Nusantara (the Malay Archipelago), as well as the stories of Indochinese empires and the clash between the forces of Siam and China in their bid for the Malay Peninsula. This historical backdrop provides the fodder for many stories. The tales of Thailand and Cambodia are rich with Buddhist iconography melded with local animism, while the Malay archipelagoes developed their own unique, intrinsic culture which assimilated the storytelling patterns of both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions with that of local animism. Later, as Islam became the main religion, the Islamic motif added a new, distinct note within the weaving of the tales.
I’ve been inspired by these tales, both in writing and visual representations. The painting below, The Lilypad Princess, was in part influenced by what would eventually evolve into Learie’s tale within Domus Exsulis – my dreams of those long-ago empires of Srivijaya, Sailendra and beyond:
This issue of Arthropod Trails is by no means extensive. I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of the wealth of tales found within South East Asia. I suspect that it will be, at the very least, a series in two parts, since I would like to devote more space to other regions in South East Asia. It has been interesting looking for the translations; most of the sites I found were a mixed bag. I found the most helpful sites were by bloggers who wove translations along with personal anecdotes about how the stories figured in their life. Other sites are businesses with pages devoted to explaining the stories behind names. I thought this was peculiarly appropriate; after all, folktales and legends will continue to be woven into the practicalities of everyday life, whether we acknowledge them or not. To a certain extent, tourism commodifies these stories. Whether for better or worse, I leave it for others to decide. I’m more interested in dreaming rich, textured dreams which I will then transfer onto either visual or text-based mediums!
While I was stalking the folklore and myths of Thailand and Indo-China, I came across a reference to the Himmapan Forest which intrigued me. The Himmapan Forest is said to exist somewhere between India and Nepal. Stories about the forest are steeped in both Buddhist lore and local folktales, and many of the figures in Thai art which have these hybrid animals are said to live within this mystical forest. I was particularly taken by the Thep Kinnaree and would like to do a visual representation of it someday! There are many other creatures within the Himmapan Forest, however, and here are artistic depictions of Thai mythical creatures such as the Naga, the Hong, the Kinnaree, and the Garuda (some cross-over with Indonesia here). Life in Vientiane has an intriguing account of the Himmapan Forest, describing it as a “secret palace” where there are people who are half-bird and half-human.
A fascinating page offering the basics of Indonesian Myths and Folktales, connects it to Indian Mythology. In particular, the writer explores the evolution of the Five Pandawas who were found in the Mahabarata and the Bhatarayuda within Indonesian folklore.
I also discovered a page about the Myths of Origins and the Deluge of Indonesia, I was particularly taken with this, because I’d been looking up different versions and manifestations of the Deluge. It’s inevitable that an archipelagic region would have tales such as these.
This waterlogged tale from Indonesia is about a very different sort of watermaiden, found within the Legend of Lake Toba, which I referenced within my poem, Golden Apples, a kind of trans-cultural paean to the wild woman/storyteller.
Unbeknownst to most of the western world, the Malay Archipelago had more than one woman warrior or queen in its arsenal of tales. In Hikayat Panji Semarang, the entire heroic romance in old Indonesian Malay features a female princess who cross-dresses as a man so she can be a warrior! One of the most famous Malay female warrior queens is Cik Siti Wan Kembang. I found it interesting that the most helpful pages on Cik Siti Wan Kembang were anecdotal blog posts but it was inevitable. Daring to Speak Bahasa is a thoughtful post which touches on malay folklores and legends. The blogger writes about how the legends personally affected and influenced her, delving into the complexities of Malaysian race politics. On the other hand, Reunited in Negeri Cik Siti Wan Kembang is a less political blog post detailing a journey into Kelantan, with foodbloggery and a painting of the warrior queen.
Another strong female icon within Malay folklore is The Princess of Mount Ophir, or Puteri Gunung Ledang. This story revolves around a princess (or demigoddess) who lived up a mountain and who swore to take no one as her husband. Of course, such an oath would be a challenge to most powerful patriarchs, and so the legend was born. The Fairy Princess of Mount Ophir (Puteri Gunung Ledang) features both the story and the popular culture references in Malaysia by Sejarah Melayu, which is in itself an extensive site dedicated to the documents, archival research and folktales behind and surrounding the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) manuscript. Malacca Tourism’s pithy and concise (as well as accurate) version of the Puteri Gunung Ledang tale is also a helpful read, particularly because it doesn’t serve up the overblown, romanticized versions that now exist due to popular culture. Like many of these tales, mysticism is tied with a message about the abuse of power.
Another example of this may be found in the Mahsuri stories.The legend of Mahsuri is the prototype tale of the virtuous wife who has been wronged by nobility, due to gossip, ill-will and the abuse of power. Up till the late-80s, it was said that the island of Langkawi was put under a curse for seven generations by Mahsuri, which is why it could never develop. Around the 1990s, there was a tourism boom on Langkawi, and it was said that the curse had lifted. Many of the attractions on the island revolve around Mahsuri’s story, and there is also a musical about the whole thing, which I saw as a kid. Here’s a fairly accurate and decently written rendition, for the website of an Australian Satay House, of all things!
One of the things I love about the stories of the Far East as well as those of South East Asia is the deep romanticism mixed with pragmatism. There are elements within these tales which are very much public-spirited, containing elements of therapy or catharsis. Happy endings are not typical or required; some tales may be moralistic, while others are peculiarly enigmatic. The legend of Ulek Mayang has always been one of my favourite stories, and is particularly enigmatic. The story is part of a ritualistic performance that includes song, dance and mantras. Like many, I was first introduced to it via a dance performance on a school concert day. The story put chills through me, as it should, because it was both otherworldly and incredibly sad, filled with the human longing for different realities. This is pretty much consistent in other East Malaysian performances, such as the Mak Yong. The story is of the relationship between the fishermen and the spirits of the sea (or mermaid princesses), and is about seven playful sea princesses who caused the fishermen to go unconscious. There are mantras within this performance which has all the hallmarks of psychotherapeutic healing linked to ritual (The book, Religious and Social Ritual: Interdisciplinary Explorations edited by Michael B. Aune and Valerie DeMarinis has very good examples and explanations of this. I’ve used it before in my Masters in Literature thesis, and it will likely be helpful for those of you interested in ritual.). Here’s a page with a clear, concise and well-written exposition of the legend.
For further reading, First Day Covers has a page on Malaysian folktales, served in concise paragraph form. Also, here’s an interesting variation of the Raja Bersiong (fanged king) story I was not aware of, related to the origins of the town, Baling. And yes, Raja Bersiong is another wicked king, who developed a penchant for human blood in his curry after a cook accidentally cut his hand while cooking a royal feast.
Africa has Brer Rabbit, Malaysia has its own, witty little mammal, Sang Kancil. The fragile mouse-deer is an iconic figure within Malaysian folktales and children of different races would have been told these stories both at home and at school. Most of the tales are about resourcefulness when you’re outwitted by bigger and stronger animals in the forest. Sejarah Melayu details the connection between the Kancil and the legend of the founding of the Malacca Sultanate by Parameswara. I’ve always been interested by the significance of the tree within this tale. The Sultanate takes its name from the Malacca tree, but the entire experience is mystical.
Outwitting a Crocodile seems to be the most well-represented Sang Kancil tale on the world wide web, but I am interested in finding more.
Cambodia evokes images of a hidden empire within a tropical forest, with sacred apsaras guarding its ornate, stonework enclosures. I was enchanted by the following sites which gave me a glimpse into Khmer folktales which were a mixture of folk wisdom and Buddhist beliefs.
Khmer Folktales by My Cambodia News.
A page of Khmer Folktales by Cornell University’s South East Asia Outreach division.
Khmer Fashion Lab’s translated Khmer folktales.
To Sell a Donkey (folktale).
Alamat, A Phillipine Folktales, Myths and Legend Page is a site that lists out the different folktales, myths and legends according to different elemental domains, featuring creation myths as well as legends. Beautiful in both its organisation and its sentiment, I would definitely list this as a must-visit if you’re interested in pinoy myths and folklore. For something a little older, Folktales from the Phillipines by D.L. Ashliman provides interesting reading and context, while, for something more local, there’s a blog dedicated to Pinoy folktales.
Faerie sites gave me an innumerable amount of pleasure and comfort when both the internet and I were young. However, some sites have disappeared into the ether whilst others seem to have lost their lustre. And so, I decided to discard my nostalgia and instead discover and celebrate the newer manifestations of the faerie revolution and subculture online, as well as the evolution of older ones. Almost all of these will (eventually) make it into my Faerie Culture/Subculture Online page. Like many of you probably know, faerie (sub)culture and the arts related to faerie have evolved into different spheres, and you will likely find manifestations everywhere, in pageants, balls, masquerades, even advertising! This particular issue of Arthropod Trails isn’t going to be exhaustive but it should instead be a starting point for your own journey for hidden delights, the winding footpaths of faerie which exist on the World Wide Web.
- NeverNever is a delightfully humorous webcomic by John “The Gnitch” Robey, about the war of the “ethereal upon the mundanes”, featuring a human named Arthur, and the faerie colonel Beowulf, whom he befriends after his father accidentally captures Beowulf in his mousetrap with a cupcake!
- For an example of the marriage between blogs, audio recordings and textual whimsy, The Misty World of Arial Hollyberry is a beautifully designed weblog featuring the adventures of the protagonist with the faerie Arial, through the lands of faeries. Written and presented by Tami Ruesch, each post features an audio version so one might hear the stories being narrated by the author.
- Mythwood features the faerie art of Larry MacDougall, while Odd Fae and Autumn Things features beautiful oak figures, masks and other sculptured beauties (and artful uglies) by Dawn M Schiller.
- On a whim, I also started looking for steampunk faeries, and was not disappointed! Here’s an alchemical steampunk faerie by Fyriel of Orpheus Alchemy and look, another adorable steampunk faerie!
- If you are interested in all things subculture and faerie-related, and are relatively braver, there are also Faerie Balls around the world, where you may dress up in costumes, meet other enthusiasts, artists, maskmakers and costumers. And, of course, there are the magazines which cater to faeries artists, artisans, musicians, writers and faire/ball-goers, Fae Magazine and Faerie Magazine.
- One of the most beautiful and thrilling manifestations of the subculture may be The Medisaga Trilogy, which is a projected trilogy of films by mythic film-maker Lisa Stock so I would suggest that the intrepid adventurer in search of all things faerie visit her website for more information about the project. And you may view trailers of the first film in the trilogy, Titania, here. You can also participate in the crowdfunding of this project, here.
When I think of electronic fiction back in the nineties, I think of illumined words in darkness and sparkling lights. Doubtless, some of this would be caused by what is becoming a nineties web-page joke: animated gifs, embedded midis and texts that sometimes glistened with starling truths but which often fell down, sluggish with over-glittered kitsch and clichés. Some succeeded, some didn’t. Over a decade has passed. Some of the texts that I enjoyed and I would have liked to link to have disappeared into the ether. Some of the authors remain, but have either moved on to print media or have done other venues and projects on the internet. But works of magic still exist, and still glisten on this world of wires, signals, binaries and hexadecimals. They will continue to inspire and be inspired by print media, and there will be crossovers in either direction.
I have been writing in this medium for over a decade now, and when I began, my ultimate goal was, as it is now, the print media. My own vision of a faerie isle bathed by the light of the storm, which I began in 1997, owed something to various manifestations of the Amor and Psyche story, as well as the Countess d’Aulnoy’s Laidronette. As with many other purveyors and lovers of myth and fairytales, this expanded into its own tale, with its own set of mythologems. It was not perfect, I was very young and very inexperienced when I started writing about a mad dwarven perfumer named Ipede Dwinkum, and an equally mad young princess who disappeared through a muggy green swamp in search of her Serpent. The stories went through several changes and revisions, and my world grew as I grew up.
Things have changed substantially in this arena. While lay-people and clueless academics deride online fiction, they still mine the internet for ideas and the random fiction of unknown writers, to use as examples on courses about online fiction, or for other purposes best not discussed in polite company. There is a wealth here which to me is a second coming of all those anonymous oral storytellers who used to walk up and down immeasurable byways through the corridors of time and culture. While self-publishing and online publishing will continue to be viewed with suspicion and stigma by some quarters, I believe that the cross-over between mediums will contribute to, if not legitimization, at least a partial acceptance. As with other mediums, certain venues are more reputable than others and certain types of online fiction will gain more credibility than others. What is the key? It is really the same as other mediums, first, there has to be a certain standard, secondly, a form of peer-review. Basic rule of thumb seems to be that if it is accepted by a certain group or level of peers, it’s legit.
Where does it leave the rest of us who are somehow in-between, not quite legit or peer-reviewed? I don’t know. There are days, when being a writer on these frontiers for over a decade is more painful than other days. Days when you feel your work is cannibalized, your effort is thankless and futile. But at the end of it, all I can see are positive outcomes. It is good if there are crossovers and more and more people are aware of web fiction as a new and dynamic medium in which the boundaries of the text can be challenged, where a true hyper-textual model is possible, beyond what Joyce could envision. It was because of this delirious possibility that, armed with myth, literary theory and a deep love of James Joyce, I started my own hypertextual, storm-tossed web in 1997. I wanted to dive into text; my desire was for a living breathing textual world to wrap around me and my I-narrators. I wanted to do strange things with point of view and tenses.
There is a fluidity here that allows writers to bridge the gap between text and performance, taking us into myriad possibilities with regards to story arcs, points of view and how both reader and writer is re-defined by the hypertextual experience. In the end, this isn’t a story about peer review, the relative obscurity of hypertextual authors or any of our many defeats and occasional triumphs. A story could start in one section of my web, and end in another, while cross-referring an earlier note, posted several years ago. Text bogles or dragons could meander from the actual fictive spaces to my editorial ramblings. There are so many gaps, gashes and crevices available to people who delight in this arena. And there are so many ways in which the narrative voice can develop which simply cannot be done in more traditional mediums.
So, if you ask me why we write, weave and sometimes dream about the manner in which we are going to present this content to you, I will assert that this is a by-blow of all the permutations of experience that we undergo as storytellers, mythmakers and word-children. The nature of who we are has not changed. The arena has. The medium shifts. While my tale is hardly a success story as much as it is a rite of passage experienced by someone who grew with the internet and who passionately loves it, it remains an example of how diverse web-published fiction can be and how many paths lead here and depart from here.
Online fiction on the Web: Crossovers and Success Stories
Online fiction and literature has been the subject of literary and narrative theory for the past few years but it still remains fairly obscure and on the fringes of acceptability. I would suppose some of the reasons for this include the wide diversity in both subject matter and quality. However, over the past decade or so, there have been notable cross-overs between print authors and online fiction. One of the earliest to test the fluidity of this form was Tad Williams, notable author of Memory, Sorrow & Thorn and the Otherland books. While not the first to create episodic online fiction, he was arguably one of the pioneers of this medium who was also an established author. The Shadowmarch community was initially formed so that fans of Tad Williams would be able to subscribe and pay for instalments of the stories. The stories overlapped both a traditional fantasy world and the eerie interstices of Faerie. Eventually the Shadowmarch project was canned and we got the Shadowmarch print series, with two books out and the first part of the third book in the works (and much anticipated by his fans!). Other established authors who have published online include Elizabeth Bear, whose Shadow Unit is an imaginative episodic collaboration with writers Sarah Monette and Holly Black. Shadow Unit still has an active audience and fairly efficient business model.
Another example of electronic fiction that succeeded in gaining both critical acclaim as well as a working pay model is Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, a feminist retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I would be remiss and unscholarly, if I did not mention one of the more recent and more interesting cross-over endeavours, by the fairly established fantasy writer, Catherynne M. Valente. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a novel, posted in episodic form, which is (still) offered free but is fueled by donations which one can offer via the tip jar on her site. Valente is apparently no stranger to online fiction, from a brief visit to her site, I note that she has both an Omikuji project as well as The Ice Puzzle (2005). Like many of more recent fantasists such as Jeff Vandermeer, John Scalzi et al, word of Valente’s new novel exploded through the blogverse/web 2.0-verse sometime in June and is a testament to how blogging, tweeting and internet culture has evolved, creating more than one bridge between traditional fiction and its online manifestation.
Notable Examples of Online Hypertextual Literature
This list is not exhaustive; there are numerous directories with works of online literature, ebooks, `zines with short stories and other examples of novels published in episodic form online. Some of these are more prominent than others and I will leave for you the pleasures of discovery! For this particular list, however, I limited myself to sites with complete stories, linked by hypertext, which were free to read and which were self-sufficient examples of what hypertextual fiction can do, and which crossed the frontiers of fiction by making full use of the hypertextual experience. Novels published on blogs or websites alone do not count for this list. If you know of any other websites which fit this bill, please let me know.
- The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot by Stephanie Strickland
- Through the Cobweb Forest by Connie Toebe and Lisa Stock
- Odysseus She by Katherine Phelps
You might also want to browse the Electronic Literature Organization’s Showcase of Electronic Literature.
Critical Reading, Electronic Literature Advocacy and Literary Theory
- Electronic Literature Organization
- Booting the Binary Bard by Katherine Phelps
- Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media by Marie-Laurie Ryan (book)
- Materiality and Matter and Stuff: What Electronic Texts Are Made Of by Matthew Kirschenbaum
- “Do you want to hear about it?”: The Use of the Second Person in Electronic Fiction by Ruth Nestvold
- Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet H. Murray (book)
Once upon a time, mythopoetica.com’s Afterimaginings newsletter had a Webbed Feet category to share unearthed web-treasures. This web-adventurer’s notion of binaried and pixellated beauty may not be yours, but that’s besides the point. The point is that there has lately been an over-reliance on Web 2.0 which obscures, rather than enables our finding these hidden pockets of beauty, be they visual or intellectual.
Needless to say, Webbed Feet is now back and renamed Arthropod Trails! Not sure of the frequency of these editions, consistency is not my forte, so I’ll just post them when I post `em. Let’s break past the binary lockdowns and walled gardens!
The Art of Daniel Conway
I discovered Arcipello (Daniel Conway)’s art on deviantart and love the way he works in the motif of floods and water into his visually stunning dreamscapes. His website is a visual treat and should be explored.
The Modern Historian
Kevin is a bona fide historian, since he’s pursuing a PhD in history and has a passion for what he does. His “this day in history” daily posts are a treat to read as they’re both informative and visually appealing. They’re also available as twitter and rss feeds. If you’re a history geek or love these bits of information, I highly recommend this site.
The Faery Crossing
Originally, a lot of the sites that I looked for on my Anansi’s Trail postings would be faerie sites. Over the years it got harder to find the sites that spoke to me of faerie without being tacky or twee. This site was one of them and I am glad to see it is still around and still possesses visual magic. Also, the font-lover in me goes squee at this site.
Design is Kinky
Art and design news, and well-curated exhibits. Design is Kinky indeed.
Aunt Violet’s Book Museum: (a home for decayed gentlewomen)
If you love old books, old dust-covers and decorative binding, then this website is a treat to visit. The collection includes literary ghost stories, swashbucklers, the novels of H. Rider Haggard and the e-zine The Weird Review. Run by the author Jessica Amanda Salmonson, this site is a reminder of how a simple, no-frills html design which is well-curated is a visual treat on its own merit – even more so!
* The name of this category/series has since changed from Anansi’s Trail to Arthropod Trails, and this document has been edited to reflect this change.