Spirits Abroad and At Home

Welcome to Part 6 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Doctor Z Aung as moderator, Graci Kim, and Momi Mondal. The description for the panel was as follows:

Yōkai, manitou, aswang–these are some non-western spirits. Western SFF has mostly limited itself to European creatures. How do these natives of other lands’ stories compare to the more familiar ones? Can we learn about (and as writers, can we reveal) something about cultures by comparing their spirit tales?

At the panel, we were treated to the panelists comparing and contrasting the views of spirits from their native cultures, with Graci Kim representing Korean beliefs, Momi Mondal, the Bengali beliefs, and Doctor Z’s family’s Myanmar traditions.

While the panelists shared their knowledge based on their families and cultures, beliefs and traditions vary from family to family and from village to village and thus, are not intended to be a definitive statement on what all people from a culture believe or have believed in the past.

House Spirits

Traditionally, Korean house spirits are like deities — contained to a room or object. The Korean spirits are all about people fulfilling their expected role in society. The unmarried virgin ghost or unmarried bachelor. The evil ghost with a featureless face, haunting children, because she was unable to have children in life. These spirits inhibit a house, they don’t follow a family.

But not all spirits are ghosts.

In Burmese (Myanmar) culture, one prays to and gives offerings to house spirits. And there are spirits for houses, villages, and towns. These nature or house spirits are often people who died in service or tragically.

For the Bengali, the word for ghost means “dead humans”. Their only stories about animals are dead people coming back as such. They don’t have spirits that aren’t ghosts, because they have a polytheistic religion.

Originally, they had altars to their ancestors to watch over them, until other religions came in. Eventually, the concept of a heaven and hell were introduced to their stories. Their god stories are very different from their ghost stories, though.

Are The Spirits Positive/Protective?

In Korean tradition, the family watches over you. And dreams themselves can be messages from them. Graci Kim dreamed of her grandmother and gut pain. The dream went away when her granny was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

For the Bengali, their gods aren’t necessarily positive or protective, they just are.

In Burmese culture, ancestor worship is regional, rather than gods. Plus, Hindi gods are always good. You familiarize the god to yourself, and the gods are all family, so that shows in how they react. They’re like your family or network.

What Inspires The Darker Tales?

Some are inspired by loss — lost children, lost spouses, people who died before they could fulfil their role in society.

Some are inspired by urbanization — talking to someone in the dark and realizing later, it was a stranger, not who you thought it was. These tales remind you to be polite and welcoming to strangers… so you don’t tick off someone with power.

Others are inspired by tragic events — chinese migrant workers who died were bound tightly and sent home, and looked like they were marching home, inspiring ghost stories.

And others exist to reinforce social roles — Momi shared that she’s from a lower caste Indian background, (what used to be called untouchable), but was so integrated these days, she didn’t know it until later and didn’t really suffer much from discrimination. Yet, in the films and stories, the bad guy was almost always from that lower caste.

Writing Tips for Non-Western Spirits

When writing ‘the other’… no one is stopping you, they just ask that you have a level of respect for the culture it derives from.

The lived cultural experience lends an intimacy that research struggles to duplicate. Before you tell the story, ask yourself: is there someone better suited to write this.

American science-fiction publishers typically are looking for the big stories with the strong cultural influences, not necessarily explorations of internal cultural clashes, not involving Westerners. Small stories work better as short stories, while diaspora tales are a totally different sub-genre.

Recommended Reading

  • Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad
  • Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride
  • F.C. Yee The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
  • NK Jemisin’s The Great Cities series
  • Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen

What do you bring to your writing from your culture?

What cultures do you like exploring in your writing?

Cultures and Their Myths

This is part 1 of my CoNZealand – WorldCon 77 notes.

The titular panel was called “Shared Common Myths” and the panel description was as follows: “How do myths and legends impact cultures around the world? Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell argued that the same stories underlie myths everywhere. Were they right, or are there fundamental differences between myths from around the world? “

The panelists were Helen Marshall (as moderator), Peadar Ó Guilín, Graci Kim, and Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

While the premise of the panel was the shared myths, the discussion instead demonstrated that the culture that births the story influences the myth far more than one would expect. While I am referencing all of these items as “myths”, many of them are sincere beliefs of their followers, and in this post, I am aiming to give them all the same level of respect.

Myths that more people should know about

In some Korean myths, in the beginning of time, Bear and Tiger both wanted to be human and prayed to Hwanung. The divine king told them to go into a cave with only mugwort leaves and garlic to eat. If they stayed in the darkness for 100 days and 100 nights, through the dark and cold and hunger, they would become human. It didn’t take long before Tiger left for food. But Bear became the first human — a beautiful woman.

The fascinating part is the foods it describes were so unexpected.

Another myth put forward was told in Laurie Anderson song ‘The Beginning of Memory’, based on Aristophanes’s ‘The Birds’. The Earth was originally covered in water, so birds would circle it endlessly. When Bird’s father died, there was no where to bury him, so, instead, she buried him in the back of her head — and that was the beginning of memory. The notion and contemplation of memory is fascinating.

For the Irish, their mythology talks about the interaction between two worlds in touching planes. In the ‘Voyage of Bran’, on a rough sea, Manannán mac Lir rode by on his chariot. Bran called out, “how do you wheel on the sea?” and Mac Lir replied, “it’s fields here for me.” In another Irish tale, a ship flies by and its anchor gets caught in a tree. A man swims down through the air to free the anchor and starts to drown. A farmer, seeing all this, cuts the anchor free. The man swims back up, the shipmates wave, and the ship sets sail once more. The ways the two worlds overlap, but differ in geography is fascinating.

In a West African creation myth, there is a God of Sky and a God of Water. Another god offers to create land. So, they give him a chain and a snail shell filled with dirt. The god climbs down the chain from the sky, and pours the dirt out of the shell, creating land and mountains and more. He’d brought other artifacts with him, and filled the land with humans, animals, and vegetation.

The Differences Between The Myth World and the Real World

The intersection of different or parallel worlds is always fascinating.

For the Irish, they claim to have beat the spirits that came before, the Tuatha De Dannann, and agreed to split the land with the losers. But not east to west, not north to south. The Irish took the top of the ground and granted their spirits the underground. And it is because of this trickery that the Irish spirits can be so antagonistic, and always trying to get the better of the rules. Spirits in other places may be kinder, or not, depending on the culture that birthed them.

In myths, there is often an underworld — beneath or beside our world. In some mythologies, the underworld/spirit world isn’t really another place, it’s a revolving door. In some Korean traditions, when you die you are wrapped in 7 layers of shrouds and, in the spirit realm, you are on trial for 49 days. And every 7 days, your descendents can perform rituals to help. Eventually, your spirit will be reincarnated.

Life and birth are different in spirit worlds. The ways gods are said to birth themselves or each other are not the mortal way.

The Basis Of Myth

A culture’s myths are based on one (or more) of three things:

  • what a people wants to be true
  • what a people believes is true
  • what a people fears is true

The further back in a culture’s history you find a created myth, the more likely that the myth is a way to make sense of the world around them, and a sense of self. As more cultures with their own believes intersect, you see more external values and morals being filtered into the stories. Many later myths that have been collected have been filtered through Christian/Muslim/Confucianistic/etc beliefs.

There was mention of the story of a mythological firefly creature that conveyed what people needed to do to be safe from malaria — that was created after the mosquito was introduced (inadvertently) by the colonizers.

Absorption versus Changed Myths

Myths have always changed and evolved, that is the nature of oral traditions. Plus, there are some myths are changed by outside influences, and some myths from outside cultures absorbed and rewritten with native influences.

In Korea, every family had its own spirits, and then Confucianism made them into family ancestors. Things are interpreted by where you live and your culture.

In Christian church art, they often made the paintings and the images of the stories they were trying to teach filled with flora and fauna very local to the area, so that the people could see themselves in the story.

The Power of Modern Myths

By creating and rewriting myths, you can create a sense of community. You can bring the culture you were born into and make it more accessible, or more relevent to current issues and concerns.

Disasters and war and trade have always influences myths and changed both their nuances and their focus. They give us a way to cope with the truth.

Today? The pandemic is likely going to spawn tales and myths for generations.


What are your favorite myths? Have you ever created one or your own or rewritten one? I know I love to.