Winter Solstice Dispatch 2022

Hello, and welcome to the December 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. At the summer and winter solstices, I mimic the sun and pause to reflect on my own creative work. However, in this edition, guest contributor Rebecca Buchanan will pause and reflect in my place with a return to June's discussion of Pagan futurism via her short story, "Hysthaany." Rebecca is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer and is a regular contributor to ev0ke: witchcraft*paganism*lifestyle. She has published four short story collections and two poetry collections as well as numerous other novellas, short stories, and poems in every genre from fairy tales to fantasy to horror to mystery to romance to science fiction. She has a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies in Religion from Claremont Graduate University, and a personal library that is threatening to outgrow her house.Rebecca's writing comprises the greater part of this edition, and I've set it apart by indicating her contribution in the section headers. Toward the end of the edition, I'll take the baton again for a few final words before closing.

Let's get started.

An Excerpt from "Hysthaany" by Rebecca Buchanan

[Humanity has moved out among the stars. Commanded by the Goddess Sekhmet and led by the priestess Marjani, one group of humans has dedicated themselves to saving the Hysthaany, a sentient felinoid species on the edge of extinction.]

“The star of my home system has many names and many Gods. Ra, Shapash, Helios, Amaterasu-no-mi-kami, Sunna, Tonatiuh, Surya, and many, many more.” Marjani drew a circle in the dirt with a slim wooden stick, dark red and streaked yellow. The edges of her bright blue shawl dragged in the soil. She darted a glance at the small circle of Hysthaany who huddled in front of her. Late afternoon sunlight slanted through heavy grey clouds, barely illuminating the small clearing in which they sat. Her gaze rose to the naked, stunted trees which surrounded them; to hear elders such as Shthaan tell it, the trees had once been wrapped in thick layers of papyrus-like bark that the ancient Hysthaany had used to create their art and build their homes.

But that had been generations ago.

“Why so many names?” Hhatanath demanded. His indigo eyes, too large for his face by human standards, were narrowed in confusion. The over-sized pointed ears that rose from the top of his head swiveled back and forth.

“Gods?” Thahany interrupted. She scratched her nose with the tip of her black tail and peered at Marjani. “Like what Shthaan talks about? The voices in the wind? And the dancers in the ground?”

Marjani smiled at the kitlings. There were only eight of them. Only eight young. She felt her smile falter and forced it back into place. “So many names, Hhatanath, because there are many Gods who make their presence and blessings known through the sun. But on star charts, the sun is called Sol; it keeps things simple. And yes, Thahany, Gods just like Shthaan speaks of. It was a Goddess — kin to those voices in the wind and dancers in the ground — who brought us here.” She drew three more circles in the dirt, much smaller than the central circle. She pointed at the third one. “From here. This is our cradle world, the planet that gave birth to my species. And, like the star which warms it, our cradle world has many names and is home to many, many Gods and spirits: Gaea, Geb, Terra, Pachamama, Jörð, Mokosh. To keep things simple, though, we usually just call it Earth.”

Aashath, youngest and skinniest of the kitlings, crawled around until she could lean against Marjani. Tucking an arm around Aashath, Marjani pulled the kitling into her lap, careful not to bump any of the sores on the little one’s back; feeling a shiver run through her thin frame, Marjani pulled the shawl from her own shoulders and wrapped it around Aashath.

She drew a fourth circle. “I was born here, on a world of red deserts and steep cliffs. So were Padmini and Luis. I worked at a hospital — like Hyshatii’s medicine tent, but bigger — as a healer and a priestess. It was at the hospital, during a meditation, that I was given a vision of you.” For a brief moment, the kitlings and the forest dissolved, replaced by mounds of bones and ash. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and continued, “I did not understand, at first. So the Goddess kept sending me visions and dreams until I did understand. She sent dreams to Kumari and Eric, too, and Captain Atsadi. She is worried about you, and she wants me — all of us — to help.”

Thahany scooted around and flopped onto her belly. “What does She look like?”

“Well ….” Marjani twisted her wrist, shifting the weight of the light built into her sleeve. “She looks a bit like you, actually. I suppose that is why She wants us to help you. When I see Her in my dreams, She is very, very tall, taller than the ruins of the Haunted City, with the sharp teeth of a hunter and eyes that glow like the hottest fire and fur that is soft gold, and the sun is Her crown.”

“She has a tail?” Hhatanath asked, voice tinged with skepticism.

“Oh, yes, and claws, too. Sharp ones. Sometimes.” Marjani shrugged. She tugged the shawl back into place from where it had dropped low around Aashath’s shoulder. Through the tight weave of her biosuit, Marjani felt Aashath press hard against her chest. “She is a Goddess. She can appear however She wants. Kumari says that the Goddess appeared as a lion cub — a kitling — in her dream. Eric … well ….” Marjani tightened her shoulders. She would not frighten the kitlings with that particular vision.

Hhatanath frowned harder. “Why didn’t She help us before? Or the voices in the wind and the dancers? Why didn’t they stop the wars and the poison?”

“I …. I don’t know. The Gods did not stop the wars on Earth, either.” She tilted her head down at Aashath and gently tapped the kitling’s nose; cloudy indigo eyes blinked up at her. “Not so long ago, my people fought wars, just as yours did. They cut down the trees and dammed the rivers and built terrible weapons, filled the air with poison and drove many of our fellow creatures to extinction. They turned away from the Gods, just as yours did, even forgot the Gods entirely, their names and their rites and their myths. They abandoned the wisdom of the heroes and philosophers and priests and farmers and hunters who came before them. And, in their ignorance and pride, they nearly destroyed themselves and the world that gave them birth.”

Frowning, Hhatanath traced the large circle and the four smaller circles with his tail; it was nearly bare, only a few reddish tufts of fur poking out here and there along its length. “They’re punishing us,” he said quietly.

“No,” Marjani responded, voice just as soft. “There are consequences to every thought and action, and you are living with the consequences of what your ancestors did. They brought this world about and you have to live in it.” She rocked Aashath gently. “But it needn’t be this way, not forever. My people learned to hear the Gods again, rediscovered the ancient wisdom and rites. We turned back from the edge of destruction, saved ourselves, our world.”

Thahany poked at the circles in the dirt with one claw. “What is Earth like?”

“It is beautiful. So beautiful. Green and blue and red and brown and white. There are mountains so high that they disappear into the clouds, and canyons so deep that you cannot see the bottom. There are jungles so thick with trees that no sunlight or rain touches the ground — “

“Rain?” Thahany squeaked, suddenly jerking upright. She curled in her tail and a shiver spread through the small group.

“A clean rain,” Marjani hastily assured them. “A good, clean rain that feeds the trees and rivers. Not like the burning rain that you know here on Hysthaany.”

“Can we go there?” Thahany asked.

Marjani’s lips curled up sympathetically. “Perhaps. Earth is very far away.”

“But we wouldn’t be sick there.”

Marjani opened her mouth, trying to think of a response.

Thahany plowed ahead. “We would honor your Gods, sing all their names, do whatever they want if they would let us live on Earth. Where we could breathe. Not be sick — “

The other kitlings were nodding, pointed ears swiveling, tails twitching. A low desperate growly-hiss filled the air, their mangy fur rising into spikes.

“You would still be sick.”

Heads snapped around and ears and tails stilled, focusing on Atsadi as he stepped into the clearing. His dark blue and gray biosuit covered him from neck to foot; he even had his gloves on. His thick black hair was pulled into a tight knot at the nape of his neck. A silver fish pendant swung free on the right side of his head, bouncing gently against his ear, then his cheek. Rocks and dirt crunched beneath his boots as he moved closer. Too many years on a spaceship; he would never learn to walk quietly on earth.

He stopped at the edge of the group and crouched down beside Marjani. He glanced towards her for a moment, face grave, then turned his attention back to the kitlings. “The sickness is deep in your bones, in your blood. It would stay with you, even if you left this world for another, and it would stay with your children, and even your children’s children.”

Marjani shifted little Aashath in her arms. “And the Gods I spoke of are the Gods of my people. Honor your Gods, your ancestors and heroes and poets and philosophers. The voices in the wind and the dancers in the ground. Shthaan can still hear them.” She poked the kitling's nose and Aashath’s eyes crinkled in a silent giggle. “And I know Aashath can hear them. Work with them, and they will help you heal yourselves and your world.”

Rebecca on the Folklore Behind the Fiction

Science fiction and polytheism. Not two topics that one would think to discuss at the same time, let alone combine in a literary work. But the above excerpt from “Hysthaany” is an example as to why science fiction and polytheism can and should be combined; why they work so well together; and why the lack of spirituality in mainstream science fiction is an oversight that should be corrected.

To begin, let’s define our terms. With science fiction, I am going for the broadest and most inclusive possible: the “literature of ideas” that allows for the exploration of futuristic concepts, possible futures on Earth and other worlds, the consequences of technological advancement, and social and environmental change.1 Polytheism is easier: belief in multiple Deities, spirits, and other-than-human powers.2 In other words, we’re discussing the place of pluralistic spirituality in a genre centered around change and possibility and the future of humanity, both individually and collectively.

Next, let’s work our way through the points above. Religion in mainstream science fiction — whether literary or cinematic — is almost entirely absent, or entirely othered. Most science fiction leans heavily towards the rational, the mechanistic, and the technological; not only does everything have a scientific explanation, but religion is seen as backwards and primitive and utterly incompatible with science. Religion is something for humanity to outgrow, or even eradicate when we encounter it elsewhere.

Religion also tends to be othered in mainstream science fiction. The rational humans have outgrown spirituality; it is the backwards aliens who still believe in Powers above and beyond them, pray, and engage in devotional rites. Such beliefs are alternately grudgingly tolerated, looked down upon, viewed as a threat, or wiped out, depending on the particular work of science fiction.

Now, some would argue that there are exceptions to this; they are correct, as there are always exceptions. However, the three most often cited as examples of popular science fiction that embraces spirituality — DuneStar Wars, and Star Trek — don’t quite fit the bill. In Dune, protagonist Paul Atreides is viewed by some as a promised messiah, which puts him at odds with the quasi-religious Bene Gesserit. But Atreides is the result of generations of selective breeding and mental training; there is nothing other-than-human about him. And while the Jedi may have all the trappings of a religious order, the Force is explained away as an energy field generated by microscopic organisms. Of the three, Star Trek perhaps comes the closest to meeting our criteria. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Benjamin Sisko is honored by the alien Bajorans as the Emissary, an ambassador of sorts from their Prophets. But Sisko himself has no special abilities, and the Prophets are dismissed as alien entities who exist outside of the human concept of time; other-than-human, yes, but not capital ‘G’ Gods. On those occasions when religion does appear in Star Trek, as in the case of the Bajorans and the Klingons, it is practiced by non-human species.

Examples such as these have been embraced by people — especially polytheists — looking for spirituality in science fiction; looking for representations of themselves; that is, characters who can embrace both technology and faith, nature and the supernatural. But even these examples fall short. If we want to see ourselves in science fiction — if we want to see ourselves in not just an imaginable future, but to make such a future where we are visible and valued — than we are going to have to write these stories ourselves. Because we deserve a place among the stars just as much as anyone else.

So, how do we do that?

Rebecca on the Writing Process

Well, first, recognize that there is no conflict between polytheism and science. That’s conservative Christian gaslighting; the belief that sacred texts have a singular, literal interpretation, with no room for disagreement or alternative explanation. Consider, after all, the first scientists were polytheists. Where do you think agriculture and viniculture came from? Humans observing the world around them, experimenting, getting results, and repeating those results. That’s science. So were the earliest engineers and architects (hello, Imhotep and whoever designed the Sumerian ziggurats), the earliest mathematicians and astronomers (hello Ahmes, Archimedes, Aryabhata, and Gan De), and the first physicists (hello Thales and Maharishi Kanada).

In polytheistic traditions, our sacred myths are precisely that: myths. They are explorations of the relationship between humanity and the divine, between humanity and nature, between one divinity and another. Our myths do not oppose our attempts to understand the world around us; rather, they complement and support it. Our Gods are with us; they are all around us, in the sun and moon and trees and air. By understanding the world better, by understanding how creation works, we come closer to them. The Moon is a Goddess, and representative of a Goddess, and Earth’s only natural satellite. These are not contradictory or mutually exclusive; in a polytheist worldview, they are all simultaneously true.

Science fiction is a genre of ideas and change, and polytheism is about relationships. How could they not go together? Let’s say you’re writing a story about a group of human colonists on an alien world. After a few generations, it is no longer alien; it is home. The humans will have adapted to their new environment: food, clothing, the diurnal/nocturnal cycle, language, and more. All will have changed. Do you really think the religion/s their ancestors brought from Earth will remain unchanged? No. They, too, will adapt, and polytheism is particularly good at adapting; much more so than monotheism. Your human colonists, as the generations pass, will find new Gods among the mountains and forests of their new home; in the patterns of the stars and the changing of the seasons.

So, where to start? The polytheistic aspects need to be central to the story; if they are not present, the story collapses. You can’t just throw in a few random prayers to some God or other, and a stray “By the Gods!” That’s lazy and boring. Let’s suppose that you are writing a military science fiction story. Cool. Make your character the latest in a long-line of warrior-priests, someone who is dedicated to Mars but who is now beginning to question his place in the world; maybe he is now feeling the need to save lives directly, and so is drawing closer to Apollo and Asclepius. How does that affect his career and family relationships? The hierarchy of his military order? If he has a critical role in an important military operation, how is that affected? And so on.

Or maybe you’re writing an alternate future story. Say, the Aztecs and imperial China are the two dominant powers on Earth, and are now in competition to colonize the solar system. What if your main character is the daughter of a Chinese aristocrat and his Aztec concubine, who was raised in the Taoist tradition? How does her spirituality inform her dual, and conflicting, cultural identities? What if she is studying at a Taoist temple when the conflict between these great empires arrives on her doorstep? How does she find peace, and a place for herself?

Or, a third option, you’re writing a solarpunk story. Humanity has built a sustainable society, and is slowly healing the wounds we have inflicted on the world. Maybe your character is a devotee of the Yoruba orishas, Oshosi and Osanyin. How does their devotion to the powers of forest, herbs, and hunting influence their work to restore the Earth? Do they meet the orishas in the wild? If so, how and why? How do other characters react to this devotion and these encounters?

And remember: do your homework. If you are drawing upon a real-world tradition, treat it with respect. Study the beliefs and rites, the history and religious organization (if there is one). If you are not a practitioner, find someone who is to beta read your story.

And, above all, as noted previously, the polytheistic and science fiction elements must be equally important. Organically, holistically interwoven. Without both, the story breaks apart.

The future belongs to everyone. We all deserve to see ourselves in that future, to imagine ourselves, individually and collectively, as important, vital, and respected.

So write that future.

A Note from Ceallaigh to Followers of the Folklore & Fiction Project

The Folklore & Fiction project is the first of its kind; a marriage of folklore scholarship to the storytelling craft written by a PhD Candidate in Folklore and professional writer. It launched in January 2019 with the promise that because I was not yet a Doctor of Folklore and because I was using the project to organize my thoughts for a future book on folklore for storytellers, my dispatches and podcasts would be and remain free for you to enjoy.

In the last four years, these materials have been adopted into university curricula and helped storytellers of all stripes enhance their work. The project has also brought me opportunities for career advancement, notably in the radio play I wrote for the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa, which you can listen to at theotherpath.ca. I'm glad my work has been useful to so many people, I'm grateful for these opportunities for professional development, and my promise holds. The Folklore & Fiction dispatches and podcasts will remain a free, public resource.

But now that my dissertation is nearly drafted, the Folklore & Fiction project will undergo a few important changes. In 2023, I'll be producing the 2020 dispatch archives as podcasts, and these will be released on the first Tuesday of every month. (Dispatch subscribers will receive an emailed notification of these when they air.) I'll also be completing my first book on folklore for storytellers. This is the only work I promise to undertake for Folklore & Fiction next year, though I do hope to release a few dispatches and podcasts about Appalachian folk songs derived from English and Scottish ballads. Meanwhile, I'll also be writing the first novel in the Song and Covenant trilogy and producing an EP titled Lead On, Wild God.

To those of you who follow the Folklore & Fiction project, thank you. It has been and remains my great pleasure to share my thoughts on folklore and storytelling with you, and I'm delighted to know you find it helpful. That's why I do this work; to educate and strengthen your muse. I hope you have a lovely holiday season, and I'll see you in the new year!

This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for the podcast edition of the January 2020 dispatch "What is a rite of passage?" Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.

Listen to the Folklore & Fiction podcast here:

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Works Cited and Recommended Reading

  • An Accidental Goddess by Linnea Sinclair.
  • “Ailaanin” in Garland of the Goddess: Tales and Poems of the Feminine Divine edited by Gerri Leen.
  • “Alexander’s Heart” in A Witch Among Wolves, and Other Pagan Tales by Rebecca Buchanan.
  • All Father Paradox by Ian Sharpe.
  • “The Blue Bird and the Raven” in With Lyre and Bow: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Apollo edited by Jennifer Lawrence.
  • “Eleutheria: A Tale of Magna Athenaia” in ev0ke: witchcraft*paganism*lifestyle.
  • The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk.
  • “Hysthaany” in The Serpent in the Throat, and Other Pagan Tales by Rebecca Buchanan.
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.
  • Of Kindred and Stardust by Archer Kay Leah.
  • Questing Beast by Ilona Andrews.
  • Rihannsu: The Bloodwing Voyages by Diane Duane.
  • “Rust” in Dauntless: A Devotional for Ares and Mars by Rebecca Buchanan.
  • “Seeds” in The Serpent in the Throat, and Other Pagan Tales by Rebecca Buchanan.
  • The Shining Cities: An Anthology of Pagan Science Fiction edited by Rebecca Buchanan.
  • Star’s Reach: A Novel of the Deindustrial Future by John Michael Greer.
  • Traveler: Book One of the Druid Chronicles by J. Paige Dunn.
  • “Vignette VII: Melissae” in ev0ke: witchcraft*paganism*lifestyle.
  • Wreck of the Nebula Dream by Veronica Scott.

Monthly Meme Archive

Here are the folklore-related memes I published to social media in November 2022.

Folklore & Fiction Facebook Group

Are you a storyteller with an interest in folklore? If so, the Folklore & Fiction Facebook group might interest you.

Fairy Tale: a wonder tale or magic tale that typically features dwarfs, dragons, elves, fairies, mermaids, talking animals, trolls, unicorns, or witches, and usually magic or enchantments. Myth: a sacred story of the gods; a religious account of the beginning of the world; the deeds of Gods and heroes; as a result of which the world, nature, and culture were created and given order. The Fox and the Rose combines the best of both of these traditions, literary and spiritual, magical and mystical.

Buy The Fox and the Rose on Amazon.

 

  • 1. “Science Fiction” on Wikipedia. Retrieved 6 May 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction
  • 2. “Polytheism” on Wikipedia. Retrieved 6 May 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polytheism.