Archive for August, 2013

The myths of Central America contain several dragon-like characters, of whom the best known is Quetzalcoatl. This major deity of several civilizations was half of a titanic divine war in creation myth.

Quetzalcoatl’s cult has been identified first among the Toltecs of central Mexico. It was later adopted by the Aztec civilization, who regarded the Toltecs as their forebearers in much the same way Medieval Europeans did toward Rome. Worship of this deity was not only limited to the Aztecs, however. Artifacts of the Feathered Serpent are found all over Central America, wherever the Maya and their kin held sway.

According to the Aztec creation myth, the world was created by Ometecutli (Lord of Duality) and Omechihuatl (Lady of Duality). This pair had four sons, all major deities. They were Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, Tonatiuh and Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca was the lord of evil, darkness, and sorcery. Ironically, he transformed himself into the first sun and lit the world, but the other gods could not accept this because of his evil. Quetzalcoatl cast Tezcatlipoca into the sea, plunging the world back into darkness. Enraged, Tezcatlipoca assumed the form of a giant jaguar and destroyed all human life.

Quetzalcoatl then became the second sun and shone in the heavens. As lord of agriculture, industry, and the arts, his reign was benevolent. But Tezcatlipoca was only biding his time. He clawed Quetzalcoatl down from the sky, causing hurricanes and floods as the sun went dark. Almost all the humans were killed, but the few who survived became monkeys in the trees.

In response, the rest of the gods banished both Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca from the heavens. They chose Tlaloc, god of rain and thunder, to be the third sun. But Quetzalcoatl was angry, and he caused a rain of fire that dried up all the rivers and again destroyed all but a few humans. Those who survived became birds in the sky.

After this, Quetzalcoatl created the goddess Chalchiutlicue to become the fourth sun. Now it was Tezcatlipoca who was overcome by jealousy. He sent a massive flood to drown the sun and earth. Once again, all but a few humans perished. They survived as fishes in the sea.

Once again, the world languished in darkness. All the gods gathered at Teotihuacan and vowed to sacrifice until there was light again. Two gods gave up their very lives. The moon appeared, lighting the darkness. It wasn’t the same, and some of the gods threw a rabbit at the moon, trying to strike it down. The rabbit’s image was imprinted on the moon, but the power of the sacrifice withstood their assault. At last there was light again.

After this, Quetzalcoatl atoned by traveling to underworld and gathering the bones of all the humans who had died in his war with Tezcatlipoca. He sprinkled them with his own blood, and they came back to life! Thus, all Aztecs considered themselves to be Quetzalcoatl’s children.

Alas, Tezcatlipoca still nursed his grudge. He snuck into the village where Quetzalcoatl ruled, and spiked Quetzalcoatl’s drink with mushrooms. While intoxicated, Quetzalcoatl committed incest with his sister. He was so shamed that he no longer considered himself fit to rule. Quetzalcoatl sailed into the east on a raft, but the raft caught fire and he burned to death. His ashes turned into birds and carried his heart back up to the heavens, where it shone brightly as the morning star.

Despite his violent deeds, the Feathered Serpent left his people with a legacy of accomplishment in the arts and agriculture. Worthy of a dragon, indeed.


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One of the best fantasy anime is Record of Lodoss War, an openly D&D-inspired tale released by Madhouse in 1990 and translated for the US market by Central Park Media. The initial series of 13 episodes was released as an OVA, or Original Video Animation, which is similar to the US practice of releasing directly to video rather than with a theatrical release. Unlike in the US, however, releasing as an OVA does not indicate low quality. To the contrary!

Record of Lodoss War had its start with a gaming group, run by Ryo Mizuno. His “Forcelia” campaign setting was the basis of a “replay” story serialized in a magazine. “Replay” stories were essentially retellings of game sessions — as if, today, you wrote down your gaming sessions in a blog — and could be as popular as short fiction and novels. Mizuno’s replays attracted a large enough following that he began to reformat them into novels. The first of these was published in 1988 — some of the earliest Japanese high fantasy novels.

With this publication, the series popularity grew even more. Anime and manga began production before Mizuno had even finished his trilogy. There eventually were multiple manga and anime, but the first OAV series is the one I’m most familiar with.

In this tale, a young man named Parn longs to be a hero, like his father who disappeared years before. He joins forces with the priest Etoh, wizard Slayn, Dwarven warrior Ghim, Elven sorceress Deedlit, and rogue Woodchuck. (A very typical D&D group, you must agree.) The first episode shows them delving into a Dwarven ruin, where a green dragon sleeps the ages away. Long ago, dragonkind had negotiated a pact to stay out of human affairs and politics, but there was nothing in the pact about eating intruders…

One of the remarkable things about Lodoss War is the sense of scale between dragons and humans. Parn rushes out to battle the green dragon, but can only reach its ankle. In other scenes, a human stands beside a dragon and only the dragon’s muzzle is visible.

Several dragons are scattered through the world of Lodoss, mostly as guardians of great treasures. Each is an individual, with its own motives, so the white dragon, Bromd, lives in the temple of Falalis, god of Light, while the black dragon Narse lurks in the evil kingdom of Marmo. The dragon with the most screen time is the red dragon Shooting Star, which ravages the countryside of Flaim. The “demon dragon of fire mountain” has a certain item in his horde that both sides want, and a couple of episodes are spent in his lair.

The characters are interesting, there’s a good swashbuckling feel, and it has some exciting plot twists. The main flaw, for me, was lack of variety in the background music. Nevertheless, this series stands up as one of the best Japanese fantasies, especially the first OVA series. There’s little blood and no sex, this is one the whole family will enjoy.

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Q: What is a dragon’s dream career?

A: Banking. (Just don’t ever ask for a loan!)

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The last stop on my tour of Famous Lake Monsters brings me back to the good ol’ USA. Lake Champlain is a large, deep lake that lies along the northern border between New York and Vermont, with a small portion extending into Quebec, Canada. Native American tribes knew of a mysterious creature living in the lake from ancient times. Its name among the Abenaki tribe was Tatoskok. Contemporary Vermonters and New Yorkers call it Champ.

Champ’s physical description is quite like that of Nessie and Ogopogo: a big beastie with a very long neck and one or more humps sticking out of the water. The similarity leads optimists to believe that all three lake dwellers are part of a single species — a plesiosaur or ancient whale that somehow clung to existence into modern times. Skeptics counter that this image of the long-necked lake monster has become so widespread that everyone “knows” what a lake monster looks like and therefore repeats it automatically.

The earliest published Champ report dates from 1883, when Sherriff Nathan Mooney claimed he was standing on the shore and saw a “gigantic water serpent” which he estimated to be 25 or 30 feet long. After Mooney’s report became public, other local people came forward with tales of their own sightings. (This was 50 years before Nessie’s big debut, in 1933.)

The legend continued to grow. In july of 1819, a newspaper called the Plattsburgh Republican, reported that a “Captain Crum” had seen a gigantic serpent. This article tried to relate Champ with the 1817 sea serpent sightings at Cape Ann, Massachusetts, which I talked about earlier this summer.

By the end of the 19th Century, stories about Champ were so widespread that P. T. Barnum offered $50,000 to anyone who sold him a Champ body he could display in his circus. (Can you imagine the taxidermist trying to preserve an animal that size??) The bounty was never collected.

As with Nessie and Ogopogo, photographs and recordings claiming to show Champ have appeared. The most famous of these was taken by Sandra Mansi in 1977. Her color photograph appears to show a dark gray body and long neck with small head. A video recorded by two fishermen in 2005 shows similar features. In both cases, nobody could conclusively identify what was in the pictures.

As in Loch Ness, investigators have used sonar and similar advanced equipment to search Lake Champlain’s depths. One such attempt yielded an audio recording of echolocation calls, captured at three separate locations within the lake. Experts reported that the calls were similar to those of Orca or Beluga whales, but couldn’t tie them to any real animal. Neither species of whale is known to inhabit Lake Champlain.

Regardless of scientific findings, Champ’s legend is dear to the people living around Lake Champlain. A baseball team in Vermont is named after Champ, and lakeside towns use the creature as a theme for community festivals. Champ-related tourism is dear to the local economy, too. One alleged sighting, by Frenchman Samuel de Champlain in 1609, was traced to a 1970 magazine article, evidence of how contemporary writers can add to a legend.

In the end, lake monsters are just like every other form of dragon in folklore. We love the idea of them, that beautiful lakes can hide terrifying beasts. The mystery and the fruitless search are part of the thrill.

May it ever be so.

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The second most influential lake monster in the world hails from Canada. Ogopogo is the legendary inhabitant of Lake Okanagan, British Columbia. Native Americans of the region called it Naitaka (“lake demon”) and told white settlers about it from the 19th Century on.

Eye witnesses describe Ogopogo as between 40 and 50 feet long, with several humps showing above the water surface. Many sightings take place around Rattlesnake Island, near Peachland, BC. However, the most famous sighting was in 1926, at Mission Beach, when 30 cars full of people all reported seeing the creature.

A man named Art Folden took a home movie in 1968, which showed a large wake moving across the water, but no clear image of what made the wake. And as recently as 2011, a person with a cel phone captured video of two large objects moving beneath the surface. Again, they could not be identified.

The name, Ogopogo, comes from a 1924 popular song, The Ogo-Pogo, a Funny Fox-Trot. Nobody is sure how the song got to be connected to the lake monster, but it’s fitting because Ogopogo has penetrated into popular culture even more than Nessie.

The legend has been explored in documentary and weird-science shows such as In Search Of (1978) and Unsolved Mysteries (1989), National Geographic’s Is It Real (2005) and Destination Truth (2010). Ogopogo has been a fictional character in episodes of X-Files (1996) and Monster Quest (2009). Anime, video games, children’s books and urban fantasy novels all include or make reference to Ogopogo.

Theories abound on Ogopogo’s true identity. Long-lost plesiosaurs, pre-historic whales, and sturgeon (an impressive fish that can grow to 12 feet long; however, sturgeon are not found in Lake Okanagan). As with most cryptids, no body has ever been recovered, and thus no scientific identification can be made. We are left to wonder what Ogopogo really is… and that’s the best part!

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When you’re talking about lake monsters, one name probably comes to your mind: Nessie, a.k.a. the Loch Ness Monster. Sightings have been reported around Loch Ness since the 6th Century.

According to the legend, an Irish monk named Columba was traveling among the Picts who inhabited the region, presumably in an effort to convert them from their Pagan ways. Columba and his companions came across a funeral near the River Ness. They were told that the dead man had been killed by a water monster. Columba sent one of his friends to swim across the river and back. Sure enough, a great beast pursued the man. Columba confronted the creature, made the sign of the cross, and commanded it to leave. The great beast fled before him, and the monk was later beatified as Saint Columba.

Other reports have been made over the centuries, but the monster became famous after a series of sightings in 1933. On July 22nd of that year, Mr. and Mrs. George Spicer were driving beside the lake when they saw a huge creature (perhaps 25 feet long) with a long neck (perhaps 10 feet) crossing the road in front of them. It lurched across the road and into the loch, leaving trampled vegetation in its wake.

One month later, a man named Arthur Grant claimed that he nearly crashed into something while riding his motorcycle along the lake road at 1:00 a.m. Grant, too, described a huge body and long neck, adding that the beast had seal-like fins rather than feet.

History shows that the road along Loch Ness had only been completed in spring of 1933, allowing more people into what had been a quiet rural area. It also allowed word of these incidents reached British newspapers, where they aroused great interest. Ever since then, people have gone to Loch Ness hoping to see something incredible.

Beginning in November of 1933, photographs began to appear alleged to capture Nessie’s image. The most famous of these is from 1934, when a Dr. Wilson claimed he had been viewing the lake, saw the monster, and rushed for his camera. The resulting image was printed in newspapers and contributed to the sensation.

The so-called “Surgeon’s Photo” has been a focus of investigation in the decades since. Many theories describe explanations from innocent (the image of a circus elephant swimming, with its trunk out of the water so it could breathe) to deliberate fakery (a log being towed with one branch sticking up).

Many more photos have appeared over the years, and later home movies and video recordings have added to the legend. In most cases, there’s no background to these images. This makes it impossible to tell if the video was taken at Loch Ness or somewhere else, to say nothing of how large or small the objects in the videos may be.

Further explorations at Loch Ness have incorporated sonar and other modern equipment. In 2011, Marcus Atkinson showed sonar images of a 5-foot-wide object following his boat at 75 feet depth. Again, skeptical explanations abounded (a mat of algae floating on the currents).

Despite it all, the legend of Nessie as a giant, long-necked, finned beastie lives on. Today, Nessie even has an official web site and keeps an online diary. Check it out here — and keep watching the water!

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It’s still summer, it’s still hot, and I’m longing to go to the lake. We’ve already talked about sea serpents, so this time let’s talk about lake monsters!

In their own way, lakes are as beautiful and mysterious as the sea. The surface is deceptive. You can’t tell what’s under there most of the time. Hidden objects can suddenly break the surface — even large objects like floating logs. The water is constantly shifting, so things bob and float, distorted by swells. Whether on a boat or a dock, you often don’t know what’s coming toward you. It could be a floating log with a branch sticking up… or it could be a lake monster!

There is an amazing variety of legends and myths about monsters living in lakes.
This list, from a Wikipedia article, includes folklore from 28 countries. The greatest number of reputed lake monsters is in the United States, by far, with 27 on the list (and that doesn’t include a report I was already aware of). Canada, with 19 entries, comes in second. In fact, nearly every big lake in North America seems to have its own mysterious critter.

The cynic in me wants to point out that it’s in affluent countries, like the US, that people have enough time to sit around at their lake cabins, maybe with a drink or two, and see things in the twilight… But! Where’s the fun in that?

The two main kinds of lake monsters are crocodile-like, low-slung with huge jaws, or dragon-like, long and thin with smaller heads on very long necks. There are any number of theories as to that they are. Surviving dinosaurs or whales! Elephants swimming! Floating logs! Large fish! Or some kind of prank…

But you and I know the truth — they are dragons, coming up for a visit. Next time, I’ll talk about some famous lake monsters from North America and beyond.

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