by Lazarus Black
In my humble opinion, the most troublesome and difficult aspects of modern English-speaking cultures are the reinvention of other cultures to fit lazy, ill-conceived stereotypes. And this goes well beyond Blackface and Banditos and hits closer to Europe than an American might think.
Trigger Warning: Religion and Sex
I'm speaking of language; in particular, the names of divine concepts and figures in so-called mythologies.
The very word "God" doesn't even mean the same thing in every culture or language. Some cultures do not and never believed in a literally human-shaped sapient entity living in this or another dimension, carefully concerned with their creation and the humans living inside of it. Loosely, Sikhs and Buddhists believe in an ever-present divine oneness of all the energy in the universe that they don't worship as much as attempt to commune with and get closer to. They just have different methods and goals of doing that.
Certainly, most faiths in the world have anthropomorphized their teachings to communicate better to children and neophytes, but they were very much aware that those metaphors were never to be taken literally. There is a famous tale from the Viking Age of the jötun Loki lying down with the goddess Síf and then shaving her head bare. Subsequently, her husband Thor drives him away and the gods combined force him to atone by retrieving a wig of pure spun gold for her to wear. Now, on the surface - this is a silly little sitcom piece. But the Vikings didn't see it that way. You see, Loki is fire, Síf is a field of grain, Thor is the life-giving rain, and the tale literally teaches Slash-and-Burn Agriculture, which the Vikings practiced. And once you know that, every other depiction of Loki and Thor just screams offensive and insulting. Sorry, Marvel. You've done irreparable damage to history.
What does language have to do with it?
Ancient people's rarely worshipped divine being with random syllables. Jesus is just a corruption of Yeshua, which has a closer cognate in Joshua. But even so, those are all simply names of a person whose only purpose is to identify them as a unique person. And Jehovah is a corrupt pronunciation of יהוה -> JHVH -> "JaHaVaHa". If this ancient Hebrew word had a definition, I haven't found one I trust. It is likely to be just be another epithet of honor, like Mister or His Royal Highness. That is what الله -> "Allah" is: not a name, but an honorific.
That is not how most "gods" work. The gods of the Helenes (Ancient Greeks), Hindus, Maya, Egyptian, Celts, and Norse, were all common words. Which meant those cultures deified those words. And when some English-speaking author writes a version of that god without using any concept of that word, they are "appropriating" it to refer to something trite. Further complicating this are the so-called scholars of mythology who have simply united together to propagate these horrors. In 19th century England, racists translated these concepts and deliberately changed their meanings into English. And even today, many modern people beginning their studies in those lores refuse to question them. Bullfinch's Mythology itself is a monument to racism. Don't read it. Burn it if you have a copy.
Here is an example of everything I mean: In the poetic manual Edda, Snorri Sturlusson lays down the ultimate importance or metaphor in Northern European culture. The Norse word for metaphor was "Kenning", or more literally "Knowing" (which explains the letter the K in "knowing"? Seriuously.). Northern Europeans used to worship a god they called "Odin". Snorri then lists dozens of other names, or Kennings, for Odin. And explains that every instance those names are used should be known to be the same figure. What the 19th century English did was translate every word in those stories then, but not his names — except one. As a modern English speaker reads those translations, it comes off like "Odin did this and Odin said that and Odin is responsible for XYZ". And if one of the other names was used, they would just leave them, and put a footnote in like "* This is another name for Odin". Well, they're not wrong - but they are hiding the most important truth from the readers. And it was deliberate. Because one cannot know the language and not have the reality of these stories hit you upside the head like a sledgehammer.
The one name these criminals translated was Alfǫðr ->L "All-Father". The Father of all beings. Oooooh *sarc*.
But what about Odin? Well, fun fact, Od or O∂ means "passion" and the "-in" suffix denotes a proper noun. In English we capitalized proper nouns instead, so it becomes "Passion". And that changes everything.
"Odin is responsible for XYZ" appears to the uneducated to be no different than "Jesus is responsible for XYZ" or "Elvis is responsible for XYZ" or "David Letterman is responsible for XYZ"... But "Passion is responsible for XYZ" actually MEANS SOMETHING. It explains something in their universe. They aren't attributing a concept or event to some unknowable will of a fickle, human-shaped magical being. They are declaring "Passion" itself is divine and a power in the world. A Viking leaping off his ship and crying, "Odin will give me strength!" while swinging his axe is just plain stupidly tossing his future like dice. But the same Viking screaming, "Passion will give me strength!" illustrates the awe-dropping power of self-will.
But, how are All-Father and Passion names for the same thing? This is where the scholars were more than racist - they were prudes.\
Simply put, every single one of this god's names means penis. Every single one. Here are some of my favorites: Thruster, Pointer, Prodder, Driller, A Man's Bow (like a ship), Dangler, the Hanging One, One-Eyed, Hooded-One Love's Husband, Yeller/Moaner/Growler, and more. And of course, All-Father. He is literally everyone's father because he is not a person - but the deified concept of penis. Yes, there are some names that refer to war (another kind of passion), but those are also dick-jokes.
Let's look at him closely: the lore describes him as wearing a hat/hood that covers one eye, his weapon is a spear that drips wedding rings, and he is never without a pair of wolves or ravens (testicles) and drinks only from a cup or well (while other drink from horns). In my favorite story, he turns into a one-eyed snake, plunges into a cave between two mountains, and then escapes to vomit Passion Juice all over the world.
And when the Havamal quotes him as "I hung from the world tree, myself from myself" it means that man is the world tree - just like millions of men describe their penises "my little self" or "little man" (sorry for the ancient misogyne).
And every original single tale about him was told with that in mind. And when these ultimate understanding of his nature and purpose in the universe are missing, you know that tale was spun by an appropriationist (e.g. 13th century Christian monks, 19-21st century prudes, Marvel, etc.).
Now multiply this horrible practice by the hundreds. Frey and Heimdall are one-and-the-same*. Kali is not the "demon-goddess of death". Kali is Time, not too different from Chronos. Aphrodite isn't named ἀφρός - "Aphros" - "foam" for the waves on the sea. Aphros also means to salivate - to foam at the mouth. The goddess of love and lust is born from literal sexual foam that prudes were too terrified to discuss.
What does it all mean?
It means that one must do more to appreciate another culture than trust those who went before you. Everyone makes mistakes. It happens. But willful ignorance is not a mistake.
Research for yourself. Yes, it's hard and time consuming.
Research for yourself.
Yes, it's hard and time consuming.
You will encounter resistance. Native Americas have had their cultures (plural) ravaged for so long by so many pretending to care that many are actively offended at anyone even asking them anymore.
You will learn complications. Asking anyone in China to represent all 1+ billion people is worse than asking anyone in America what the best pizza style is.
Pick up an English-to-Whatever dictionary and do the work. Open your mind to ideas and experiences and even moralities that aren't yours. Your work will be better than anyone else's for it.
How will it be better?
For example, every Chinese person's name also means something. In English, a person may be named Hunter or Harmony, each considered perfectly valid names as well as words that are meant to infer something about the person. One recently famous example is the comedian Jimmy O. Yang, who explains his personal name in Cantonese is actually 萬成 Man Shing or "Ten-Thousand Success".
If you wrote a character with this name, it can infuse you theme and reversals with greater import than picking a name at random.
In Bell of the True Dragon, my protagonist is a young American-born Chinese woman who discovers she is a dragon-goddess. And her name means EVERYTHING.
May's full first name in Mandarin is 美御 Měiyù. It's not really an uncommon name. It is a compound word made from
美御 Měi : Beautiful — and — 美御 yù : Protector
So her name means "Beautiful-Protector", and she lives up to that name throughout the book. But I didn't stop there. Her family name, Líng, is a treasure! Because Mandarin has so many homophones — words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings — I leveraged that into a quintuple-entendre.
The five Chinese characters that represent Líng are:
聆 Líng : Listener. As a goddess, she listens to people's problems and aids them.
伶 Líng : Clever Actress. As a goddess, she is all things to all people. Whomever they need her to be, she becomes.
铃 Líng : Bell. The story is named for the Sacred Bell she shares a fate with.
翎 Líng : Plume-of-Feathers. She is a Chinese dragon with along plumes of feathers in her mane and tail.
凌 Líng : "Ling". Just an ancient family name with no other meaning.
Knowing all of these things about her and finding those roots inside her own name, bonds me to her in my writing. I portray her more pure and complete. And that comes across to my reader. Do you feel it?
And as much as I admire my own ability, there is no way I could have imagined this combination on my own without it sounding fake. But anyone can just look these up and find them to be true.
(* Frey aka Fro-Ing aka Lord of the Soul aka Twin of the White Goddess aka the White God aka the Golden One aka the Shining God aka One Sitting Highest Who Sees All aka He Who Married the Womb aka He Who Settles in the Valley. And the only tales of them existing together were written by Christian monks often deliberately disparaging the non-Christian gods.)