Wednesday, February 21, 2024

StorySpotting: The goddess under the ice (True Detective: Night Country)

 StorySpotting is a series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I don't usually post about shows where the entire story is based on folklore, but this season of True Detective was just too well done.

Where was the story spotted?

True Detective: Night Country (Season 4)

What happens?

When the entire crew of an arctic research station disappears at the start of the weeks-long winter night, two (personally messed up, as per usual for TD) detectives start trying to solve the case. The plot is intertwined with Indigenous tradition, identity, and relationships with the white residents of the town. There is a distinct supernatural tint to this season: people seeing (and getting clues from) spirits and ghosts, traditions being carried of questioned, and an open-ended season finale that leaves room for explanations that are not tangible.

Early on, the young son of one of the policemen in town is seen drawing a gory picture (below). When his (white) father is taken aback by this, his Indigenous mother argues that he should "know his own culture." It has been confirmed by showrunners that the image is that of the goddess most often referred to as Sedna. The rest of the show has many more moments that reference her myth and her character, although she is never mentioned by name (only as She). The plot is also - loosely - based on her story, if you look close enough.

What's the story?

The earliest published records of this story can be found in Franz Boas' book on Inuit culture (1903), and Knud Rasmussen's books on the Thule Expeditions in the first decades of the 20th century. They collected a lot of information on Inuit folklore and mythology - stories among them. For example, Rasmussen writes that the most powerful spirit in Netsilik tradition was named Nuliajuk, mistress of land and sea and the mother of animals. Boas records her name as Sedna.

So here are some of the elements of this mythology that make a appearance in the show:

- The goddess can make hunting bountiful, or can make animals disappear (In the first scene of the season, we see reindeer fleeing into the abyss from a hunter.)

- She used to be a mortal woman who was thrown overboard into the sea, and people (or her own father) cut her fingers off when she clung to the kayak. Her fingers turned into seals and other sea creatures, and she sank to the bottom of the ocean, becoming a powerful spirit. In some versions, one of her eyes is also knocked out. (See drawing above. I would also argue that the missing eye of a witness, and the missing fingers of the killer who is finally revealed are also an homage to Sedna.)

- She has a house made of whale bones at the bottom of the sea (The ice cave the detectives finally locate has frozen whale bones in the walls.)

- She can summon blizzards (A blizzard, and other freak weather events, play an important role in the show)

- She is especially dangerous, with a lot of taboo directed at her, during the dark time of the year (Which is when the show takes place.)

- When people don't observe taboo, or disrespect nature, she is angered, and she hides the animals. These times, shamans have to descend into her realm to placate her, by combing all the filth out of her hair. (Many people in the show literally descent under the ice, and have various visions and journeys, trying to solve the case that seems like the result of her wrath over the pollution of the local mines.)

- In connection to the above, one source mentions that the "pollution" that offends the goddess is designated with the same word that is used for stillborn children. (In the show, it is specifically mentioned that several children had died due to the pollution from the mines.)

- She also rules over the underworld, where people's spirits go after they die, at least for a while. (Many deceased people make an appearance in the show, talking to various living relatives.)

You can read in detail about Sedna's mythology - and its relationship to environmental awareness - in this book.


I really enjoyed slowly picking up on the references to the myth over the course of the show, and then making guesses at what the solution was going to be. I still did not anticipate the actual reveal in the finale, but I think it was excellently done.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Firendship, love, and dragons (Lunar New Year)

We are entering the Year of the Dragon with this lunar new year, according to various East Asian traditions. So, it is time to break out some of my favorite dragons stories! 

I have done similar collections before, for the years of the Rabbit, Rat, and Pig. Dragons are obviously popular when it comes to folklore - so I decided to limit this list to some highlights where dragons are friendly... or even falling in love. 

Links in the titles, as usual.

Benzaiten and the Dragon

This is an 11th century Japanese legend, chronicling the destruction a fearsome five-headed dragon named Gozuryu brought on people. Eventually, to ease their suffering, the goddess Benzaiten (herself daughter of a dragon) descended from the heavens and created an island to live on. The dragon fell in love with her, but she rejected his suit, pointing out the evils he had committed. The dragon felt shame and changed his ways, transforming into a series of hills to protect the villages he had harmed.

The dragons of Lake Tazawa

Another Japanese legend, possibly reminiscent of a volcanic eruption that happened a thousand years ago. A girl wants to become immortal, but gets too greedy, and transforms into a dragon. A hunter is punished for his own greet by turning into a dragon too, and then being exiled from his lake by a hostile monk. The two of them end up meeting and falling in love. Legend says Hachirotaro (the hunter) visits his beloved in Lake Tazawa and stays with her every winter - because of that, the lake never freezes over.

The dragon-prince and the stepmother

A Turkish folktale about a queen who gives birth to a dragon. The dragon-prince devours all his nurses, teachers, and brides, until one servant-girl shows up and manages to tame him. On their wedding night, the dragon turns into a prince. Later, the lovers are separated, and the girl marries again; when the dragon prince finds her, she needs to make a difficult choice.

King Dragon

Also known as the Lindworm. It's the better known Danish version of the story above. It features a scene where the bride takes off several layers of gowns while the dragon takes off his skins.

The black dragon and the red dragon

Also a Turkish folktale, about a pasha who sets out to find his forty stolen children. On his way he encounters a brood of newborn dragons, and helps them reunite with their mother. The grateful mother dragon, and her brother, help the pasha along his journey, and save him multiple times until he finally finds his own children and returns home with them.

Courageous Daughter

Uighur folktale about a brave girl who sets out to find a cure for her father's blindness. On the way she befriends a dragon, and goes through a series of adventures (including a trip to Rome, and saving a princess), until she can return home with the cure - and even disenchant the dragon.

Pear Blossom and the flower dragon

I highly doubt this is a folktale at all, even though it runs as a "Chinese folktale". Anyway, it works well with young children. It is about a poor girl who sets out to visit her rich uncle, and on her journey befriends a fairy and a flower-loving dragon. In the end, the uncle turns out to be a horrible person, but the dragon helps her achieve her dreams.

The dragon carved from wood

One of my favorite dragon stories, from the Bai people. A village is plagued by an evil dragon. A wise carpenter volunteers to help them by carving a wooden dragon and bringing it to life to have it fight the evil one. It is quite the epic story, with a lot of twists and turns.

Wild Goose Lake

Also from the Bai people. A girl, seeking water for her village during a drought, befriends the third daughter of a dragon king. They share a mutual love of singing, and together they devise a plan to unlock the dam of the lake where the king hoards water. For saving the humans, the dragon girl is exiled, and she moves in with her human friend.

The Laidly Worm of Bamborough

An English story about a princess who is turned into a dragon by her stepmother. Her brother uses magic to combat the witch's curse, and saves his sister through kindness and compassion.

The cooper and the dragons

A cooper accidentally falls into a ravine in the mountains, and has to spend the winter with a pair of hibernating dragons. In the spring, when the dragons fly out, he clings to one of them and manages to return to his village. This is one of my favorite folktale types; it also exists in Hungary, Bhutan, and other places around the world. 

Princess Sita

A legend from Vietnam, about a dragon princess who helps her immortal friend win a bride. When the groom's rival tries to destroy humanity, Sita fights to save people, and even makes a huge personal sacrifice to end the destruction.

Aoxingbe and the dragon

An Oroqen folktale from China. When Aoxingbe tries to rescue a princess from an underworld demon, he gets stuck in the realm below. There he meets a dragon prince who is similarly trapped. He saves the dragon, and in turn, the dragon helps him return home and win the princess.

The dragon king's daugther

A Chinese folktale about a dragon princess who is very curious about the human world. She sneaks out to attend a lantern festival, but almost causes disaster when she gets her clothes wet and returns to her original shape. She almost dies to save humans from her own power, but in the end, a goddess intervenes on her behalf.

Sister Lace

Tale from the Miao people. A girl is famous for making lace that she can even bring to life. When an evil emperor kidnaps her and forces her to create fantastic creatures, she eventually makes a dragon out of lace, and uses it to break out of captivity.

Also, I am not going to list all the tales from it, but I highly recommend my favorite collection of Chinese (and minority) dragon folktales, titled Eight Dragons on the Roof. It is a gem of a book.

Happy New Year!