Juno, Genius, Lares and Penates and say nothing of Dis Pater (not a dissipater – but a chthonic god and wealth accumulator – as his wealth is the dead – which gives a whole new slant to ‘plutocrat’. Oh and he is possibly derived from the Sabine god Soranus. Where Soranus got his wealth from is unknown, and the rumor that it was from selling a primitive form of Preparation H is on the whole a base slander.)
That’s to name a few of the rabbit-holes I’ve been running down. Soranus was a bit of bummer, as the Hirpi Sorani (the wolves of Soranus, fire-walkers who carried about the entrails of sacrifices during their rituals. It took a lot of guts to do it.) sounded promising. I was looking at the ‘brothers of the wolf (luperci)’ as part of a story I had been toying with. I just felt the name would make it hard for the reader to suitably appreciate the meaningful nature of the tail. Heh. When you’re stuck, fruitless research is at least not as pointless as political arguments on facebook. The fruitless research will eventually, possibly, find its way into a story. I know: a story with two bands of naked young men running around the streets spanking women with furry thongs… but then 50 Shades of Gray was popular, so you never know…
So: what prompted this particular digression – and what does it have to do with writing? I mean besides giving you the story seed for a Roman S&M fantasy? Actually it did relate to the book in hand and started with looking up genius loci (protective spirit of place, to give it one interpretation) – which lead onto genius (which one hoped wasn’t mad as it was the individual’s protective spirit, later interpreted as a soul) and thence into Lares and Penates – the household gods.
The fascinating thing about ‘household gods’ and indeed genius loci, are just how widespread similar myths are – whether you’re talking about Slavonic domovoi or various incarnations of genius loci – from Chinese Tudi or the Landvaettir of Norse mythology – these are concepts that cross a huge number of cultures. Yes, when you read up on the rituals and details, they’re fascinatingly alien. I mean I hardly ever sacrifice more than some veggies to Greenmould, the tutelary deity of the refrigerator… I don’t give him a piece of every meal as one would to a Lar.
What I am doing here – not just wasting time (I can do that with freecell or facebook) is picking up on a concept which has appeal – both broad and enduring, and that re-evolves and repurposes old superstitions and myths. Which – if you’re a story teller, is like a dvergr finding an ore-rich vein. This is where the stories are. Humans predisposed to accept and believe them (or at least suspend disbelief in them). It’s rather beyond the scope of this post – but look at people’s reactions to different houses or localities. “This house feels welcoming.” “This place gives me the creeps” Now- there may be good psychological reasons or even physical cues to these reactions — but a large proportion of humans have them. They’re well over 2/3 into believing in genius locii. You don’t have to work hard to make this suspend disbelief – even if you, the hard-nosed rational writer, who never propitiates the cistern-troll* with the required libations, think it is nonsense.
It’s kind of like the art of war – the writer attacks at the point least likely to resist – in fact likely to welcome him as liberating explainer of things which otherwise conflict with the rational. Jim Butcher does it brilliantly. As a writer you can make it hard for yourself – or you can exploit the ‘weaknesses.’ This is just one.
Another joy of ‘household gods’ and genius Locii (besides a rich mythology to mine and play on) is that they are in a way the perfect foe (or friend) because, oddly, the last thing (as Diana Wynne Jones pointed out in her ‘Tough Guide to Fantasyland) is the supernatural item or being that is omnipotent, which the hero or villain spend the entire book not using – although it would make 1000 page novel a great piece of flash fiction. They’re literally ‘small’ gods – powerful in their setting, but nowhere else, and usually with clear limitations. It’s those limitations that make the story, not the vast power.
This brings me onto my final point: and I’m guilty too. As sf-and particularly fantasy writers, we’re conditioned into the final battle, the ultimate enemy or cataclysm. And some of those make great stories. But you might notice that even in those, it’s the personal and often (looked at dispassionately) relatively irrelevant ‘small’ character-to-character interactions that bind readers to the ‘big’ story (Tolkien does this so often – and yet so many imitators don’t notice.) But great stories don’t actually HAVE to be the saving the universe or the kingdom from destruction. Great stories are simply defined as ‘entertaining’ (and preferably to a lot of readers) which is why many successful authors are rather like household gods – the story they weave is important to the characters in it, not to the world – Louis L’Amour to Maeve Binchy, or Heyer Regency Romance – very satisfying as a read. Important to OUR universe (which is really our families, friends and homes) and not THE universe.
It’s a door to endless stories.
And now, the fridge is making strange noises at me…
Certain rituals must be performed.
*Ever wondered where that supply of cubed carrot and green peas (which you haven’t eaten for three years, you’ll swear) comes from when you throw up? They’re actually warning from the cistern-troll, who is not pleased by your lack of observance.