- Introduction and Coffee
- Why does Starbucks Coffee… um… maybe you should just read it.
- Why can we walk past beautiful artwork without noticing it?
- Calliope Jones and the Writer’s Cusp
- Why is the sky over Los Angeles that particular color of yellowish grey?
- What’s the real deal with gasoline prices?
- The Songs of Books
- Why do some people stay on the train past the end of the line?
- The Arrogant Writer and the Beached Mermaid
- Why do we get spam email that’s complete gibberish or random sentences from books strung together?
- Why does alcohol produce hangovers, and why doesn’t it produce hangovers consistently?
- Dog Reincarnation
- The Princess and the Wyverns
- Manannán mac Lir and the Isle of Ninjas.
- Why is there a disconnect between Art and Industry?
- Why are there Suburbs?
- Why do people check the time on mobile phones instead of watches?
- Prosperina: A Mythology of the Modern World Holiday Special
- Mythology of the Modern World: Aren’t I Just Ripping Off John Hodgman?
- Where do babies come from? I mean, really come from?
- The Souls of Toys
- The Fruit Fly and the Nymph of Time
- Why are the ideas of things scarier than the reality?
- Time Zones and the Witching Hour.
- Ball Lightning, Missing Socks, Drawer Crud and the Protectors of the Hearth
- Why do things break right as their warranties expire?
And here we are on Monday, and the Mythology of the Modern World is happily open for business.
Today, our question comes from an old friend not only of Banter Latte and Websnark but even random noodlings and writings for the In Nomine role playing game over at Steve Jackson Games. Moe Lane — an excellent writer of regard on matters idyllic and profane alike (including many matters political, for those who can’t bear to have their assumptions challenged. Be prepared — Moe plays streetball) asked all the way back in the original myth call:
Why is the idea of a ten-foot bug scarier than the reality of one?
Now, I know a number of you just clenched your muscles and thought “what, is he crazy? A real ten foot bug would be terrifying.” And that’s fair enough — but I’d remind you that you’re reacting, once again, to the idea. Even the situations where people have shown terrifying pictures of gigantic spiders climbing up barn walls are expressions of the idea, since those pictures are inevitably created via photoshop or camera angles. If one wanted to listen to the boring scientific explanations done by experts who went to schools and learned facts, they’d explain that ten foot bugs of either the arachnoid or insectoid varieties wouldn’t look like their smaller brethren and would work very differently. It has to do with square-cube laws and the way exoskeletons and hydraulic muscles work and… well, that’s not why you’re here, is it?
Nor is this to claim that ‘bugs’ aren’t scary. I’m a confirmed arachnophobe. A spider the size of a quarter can get me shrieking in a most unrefined manner. No, what we’re really discussing is the fantastic, versus the mundane. In our minds, we can conceive of the most horrific things. Confronted with the reality… well, sure they may still be scary, but at least a small part of our brains thinks “wait — this is what the fuss is all about?”
Which brings us to our core question, distilled to its essence: why are the ideas of things scarier than the reality?
One note? This is kind of a dark one. Just be warned. I blame Moe.
*** *** *** ***
For those who came in late, we’ve discussed the nature of the spirits and nymphs that live behind the scenes and actually accomplish most of the world’s tasks. These spirits are collectively called daemons — not demons, which is an entirely different affair that itself is for a different day, but daemons. Originally codified by the Greeks, daemons are not gods, per se, but are spirits — helpful and beneficent for the most part, who embody, keep and maintain the forces of nature. The nymphs we keep talking about are daemons, as are many of the residents of the lands of fae (many — not all. Again, another story).
Most daemons are helpful and kind, wanting to do the best they can, especially on behalf of human beings like you or me. These are collectively know as eudaemons. Rarer are those spirits who are malevolent and baleful — who want to hurt mankind, both as individuals and as a species. Those are the kakodaemons. And despite what you may think (if you’re new around here), eudaemons and kakodaemons are not defined by their species, but by their souls. You can have two muses standing next to one another, and one may be a helpful eudaemon and the other a destructive kakodaemon, and you’ll never know which is which unless the kakodaemon is good enough to tell you, generally while trying to kill you.
I’m reminded of one rather dramatic example, both of how one misunderstands “good and evil” spirits and the real trouble seeing eudaemons and kakodaemons for what they are. There are two types of spirit who flow through the worlds, closely intertwined in function. These are the balandii — the spirits of wise counsel, who whisper in the ears of people who confronted by new concepts or situations, helping them to reasonably plan to engage the unknown, and the belathii — the spirits of fearful counsel, who whisper in those same ears, inspiring fear of the unknown and new. It’s natural to assume the balandii are eudaemons, good and true, and the belathii are kakodaemons, dark and fell.
However, it’s just not true. The balandii and belathii both work to serve, protect and help humanity — encouraging careful, reasoned planning and a healthy fear of new situations, new encounters, and theoretical circumstances to help human beings survive and succeed in these situations. They usually work in similar circles, but aren’t know for working together, per se.
At least, not any more.
Once, as far back as folks can remember, plus or minus a saga or two, there had been a pub in the byways of the spirit, known as the Tower. It was a meeting place for the spirits as they went about their business, encouraging and whispering in the ears of humanity. And on one day that I remember, three of the balandii were sitting at one table. They were friends — Kevin Madios, Joe ‘Mim’ Mimir, and Gala Morris, in having beer — ale on draft, and they were talking.
“I’m just saying — we’re duplicating infrastructure. We’re duplicating manpower. We’re duplicating support staff — and for what?” Mim was saying, gesturing with his hands. He was kind of a hands-talker.
“Geez– don’t knock over my beer,” Gala said, moving her glass out of the way.
“Look at us — look at us, and the belathii, and the muses, and the rest–”
“Right, right,” Kevin said. “Infrastructure. It’s inefficient.”
“Not to mention we’re sometimes getting caught up with the same subject, and we have to find a way to wait in line with each other and it’s just a mess….”
“And what’s the deal with airline food, am I right?” Gala smirked.
Mim stared at Gala.
“What? You’re the one doing a set at the Improv.”
“All I’m saying is–”
“All you’re saying is we should work from, what. Central dispatch?” Gala asked. “Come on. How would that even work? How could they keep things fair?”
“We wouldn’t need central dispatch — we just need to learn to work with each other! I mean — well look. At that table over there!” Mim pointed.
At said table were three other spirits. They were belathi — Jarl King, Phoebe Abuori, and Demi Moreal. They were having margaritas and laughing.
“Okay — that girl?” Kevin said, pointing at Demi. “She’s cute. Officially, I mean. She’s cute. I know these things.”
Gala rolled her eyes.
“What? She is.”
“And she’s with those guys. I think she’s probably taken.”
Joe looked over. “I dunno. They seem more ‘hanging out’ than ‘threesome.'”
“I didn’t say they were a threesome!”
“Anyway — there’s three of them, there’s three of us. It’s perfect. We should work with them.” Mim grinned. “We could cut down our workload, get things done faster, and think about it. We could pair the natural fear and reticence they spread with the care and reason we bring.”
Gala frowned. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“You know… it could work,” Kevin said. “I mean, a lot of the time a human’s in a situation where he needs one of us, there’s also a belather involved. It’s natural to fear something and size the situation up in your head.”
Gala shook her head. “You’re just saying that because you want to meet that cute belather.”
Kevin shrugged. “Sure. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Waiter! Send a round of drinks over to those three, please — and invite them over to our table.”
The waiter — a relatively jaded dwarf — rolled his eyes. “What kind of drink do you want to send to them?”
Kevin paused. “Uh–”
“Mead,” Gala said, suddenly.
“What?” Mim asked. “Is mead really… inviting?”
“It’s distinctive. You want to make an impression, right?”
Phoebe paused, and shrugged. “Mead it is.”
The dwarf shrugged. “Three meads. You got it.”
“And three for us,” Kevin said.
“Seriously?” Gala asked. “I didn’t mean–”
“Why not. We’re buying it for them. We might as well drink it too.”
“Ooookay then. Six meads.” He walked off, shaking his head.
“This is crazy,” Gala said.
“I dunno,” Mim said. “I like mead.”
“That’s not what I mean… oh, whatever.”
A few minutes later, the belathii approached the table. “Did… these three glasses of mead really come from you three?” Demi asked.
“Is that so strange?” Kevin asked, smiling up at her.
“Downright weird,” Deli said, smiling back, sipping her honey wine. “But I’ve seen worse openings.”
“That’s not why we wanted you to come over,” Phoebe said. “We–”
“That’s not why you wanted them to come over,” Gala said. “Kevin clearly had a different agenda. Hi. I’m Gala, this is Joe, and–”
“And that’s Kevin,” Jarl said. “Got it. Jarl, Demi and Phoebe.”
“Hi Joe!” Phoebe said, grinning.
“Call me Mim.”
“Really?” Phoebe said. “All right. Hi Mim!”
“Hey,” he said. “S’up?”
“Well — let me tell you all about it…”
Six or seven bottles of mead later, the six were finally forced to leave the bar. Singing, I would add. “–in England’s green and pleasant land…” Demi sang, laughing.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Phoebe said, leaning hard into Mim’s shoulder. “You… you guys haven’t even… you haven’t even said if you like the idea!”
“Traveling together?” Jarl said, taking another pull off his mead bottle. “Partnering up like we’re swim buddies at camp? Should we do pinkie swears too?”
“Come on,” Kevin said. “Come on. It could be fun!”
Demi giggles, leaning up against him. “Could it, now?”
“All right all right all right,” Phoebe said, waving her hands. “Shut up shut up shut up. Okay — who’s with who? Who’s… who’s… with who?”
Mim chuckled. “I’ll go with you, all right?”
“Weeeell… if that’s the best–”
“She says yes,” Demi said. “Kevin?”
“Well, sure. If we don’t go together, Gala won’t get to accuse me of doing this purely to date you.”
“You are doing this to date her!” Gala snapped.
Demi shrugged. “It’s working, right?”
“So… I guess that’s you and me,” Jarl said to Gala.
“Yeah. I saw that coming.”
“All right — eight A. in the M. Right near the Fruitful Tree. We all meet there.”
“Yeah yeah,” Jarl said. “Deal. I’m… just gonna sit here for a bit.” He sat on the stoop of the Tower pub.
“Make room,” Gala said, sitting next to him.
“Oh ho,” Kevin said. “Now who’s–”
“Just go already.”
Kevin, Demi, Mim and Phoebe half staggered down the road. The belather and the balander left on the stoop heard Jerusalem start back up when they were about twenty yards away.
“Working together to make things easier on each other,” Gala said.
“And better for the humans,” Jarl said, taking another pull off the mead bottle.
“Yeah,” Gala said. “Hand me that thing, would you?” She took a long drink.
“You’re gonna finish it,” Jarl snapped.
“I’ll finish you.” She looked down the road again. “I assume I’m not the only daemon on this stoop who doesn’t like where this is heading?”
“You could say that.”
The two turned and looked at each other, and saw something in each other’s eyes. Something you or I wouldn’t see — and for that matter, Kevin and Demi, Phoebe and Mim would miss too. But they could see it. And they could recognize it. Something dark. Something wrong.
“Maybe this won’t work,” Jarl said, softly. “Maybe this will go wrong all on its own.”
“If we could have paired up differently. Me with Mim, say–”
“That wasn’t going to happen,” Jarl snorted. “That Kevin wanted into Demi’s pants the moment he saw her, and she wasn’t about to stop him. Trust me, I know her. And Phoebe is just the right kind of enthusiastic to–”
“All right, so they’re already hooking up. And they probably assume we are too.”
“Yeah. So what do we do?”
Gala considered. Now, she was a kakodaemon. That should be clear by now. But she was also a balander — a spirit of thoughtful planning, who could weigh a situation.
“We let them get good at this,” she said. “And we do the same.”
“Because. It’s one thing to never give a gift to someone.” She slowly smiled. “But it’s another to let them have it… and then take it away.”
“And to find a balance…” Jarl said, slowly smiling. “And then knock it off kilter.”
“Exactly.” And for the first time that night, the two began to laugh.
Well, the next day, the three belathii and the three balandii met by the Fruitful Tree, and they all paired off and flew together. And as they came upon humans confronted with the unknown, or with new concepts or images, they were able to come together, and on the one hand, the human would become fearful of the possibilities, and what might go wrong, or what might happen, or just what a ten foot insect would look like. But on the other hand, they also thought rationally about what they would find, and measure it up in their mind, adjusting their fear to the facts, so that the result was a human being who was properly concerned but confident in the truth of the situation. The pairs each worked closely, compensating for each others’ faults and reinforcing their strengths.
And, as was abundantly clear, pretty soon Kevin and Demi were spending all their time away from their work as well, and so were Mim and Phoebe. They grew closer and closer, and it was pretty clear everyone was happy with the situation.
Even Jarl and Gala, but that was just because they had a plan of their own.
Every Thursday night, the six would gather at the Tower pub, and they always drank mead. It had become a ritual that attested both to the strength of their bond and the success of their new way of doing things. So it was unusual when Gala asked Kevin and Mim to meet her behind the Tower on a tuesday night instead.
“What’s going on,” Kevin asked. “Is something wrong?”
“Well, kind of,” Gala said. “We’ve worked together for a long time, right?”
“Well, sure,” Mim said. “Hey — wait. Is this because we’re spending so much leisure time with Phoebe and Demi?”
Gala laughed. “No. No, that’s not it at all.”
“Are you sure?” Kevin asked. “I mean, we used to spend all our time together — it’s natural that–”
“Seriously. It’s not about the time you spend with those two belathii… off the clock, anyhow.”
Kevin blinked. “Huh? What do you mean?”
He spasmed, then, hard — a knife bursting through his chest.
“It’s about spending time with them on the clock, little balander,” Jarl hissed in Kevin’s ear as the balander spasmed, foamy blood coming from his mouth.
“Kevin!” Mim shouted. “What have you–”
Gala was smaller than Mim by over a head. She corrected that with a sweep of a hooked sickle, sweeping through Mim’s neck as though it were air. His head struck the ground, shocked expression on his face.
The pair of kakodaemons looked at the dead balandii, Gala breathing hard. Slowly, they began to laugh. “Now what?” she asked.
“That depends. How much of a sick monster are you?” Jarl asked, an almost leering smile on his face.
“What have you got?” Gala asked, a dark smile spreading on her face.
“Get their bodies. We need to get ready for Thursday night.”
On Wednesday, Demi and Phoebe met at the Fruitful Tree at eight, as they always did. This time, however, none of the rest of their sixsome showed up. After waiting until they were very late, the belathii flew off to their day’s work, not knowing where any of the others were.
Obviously, Mim and Kevin were dead, but Jarl and Gala weren’t. Instead, they were busy. They had dragged the bodies of the balandii deep below the Earth. There, they found the rarest, sweetest honey, and joined it with the blood of the fallen pair. They brewed with techniques known only to the foulest of beings, making a heady, potent mead the color of blackberry, though it shone red when firelight reflected through it. They bottled it up in three bottles, and carried it back into the light.
“Oh thank God you’re here, Gala,” Demi said, looking frantic as Gala and Jarl sat at the usual table.
“Why? What’s up?” Gala asked.
“It’s Kevin and Mim,” Phoebe said. “We haven’t seen them since our rounds on Tuesday. They’re not answering their phones! I thought maybe they were with you–”
“No — I thought they were with you,” Gala said, eyes growing wide. “Oh no — where–”
“Calm down,” Jarl said. “They’ll turn up. Here — this should help.” He pulled out the bottles of mead.
“You want to start drinking?” Demi demanded.
“Just one — to calm our nerves down.” He unstoppered the bottle, pouring the dark mead.
“I’ve… never seen a mead like that,” Phoebe said.
“I dunno,” Gala said. “It looks good to me. C’mon. One glass, so we can be nice and calm while we wait.”
“…all right,” Demi said. “One glass.”
And they picked the dark mead up, and they drank. And Jarl and Gala tasted exactly what they expected — the heady, rich, sweet flavor of their crime. The taste that came from making two foolish eudaemons drink a wine made from their very lovers. The taste of sweet victory. That, and nothing more.
But Demi and Phoebe, the eudaemons, drank, and they tasted something more. They drank deep of enlightenment, of knowledge… and they too drank of the treacle that was Jarl and Gala’s crime. And they knew. They knew who the kakodaemons were. They knew what they had done. And their eyes glittered… with dark knowledge… and with hate.
Gala half-smiled. “What do you think?”
Demi and Phoebe looked to each other. “I think you should have known better,” Demi hissed, driving the point of her utility knife into the balander’s throat.
“And you should have been scared,” Phoebe growled, driving her own into Jarl’s chest.
They were dragged off by the dwarves of the tavern, but the damage was done. And of course the truth was discovered easily enough. Phoebe and Demi were punished — you don’t just up and kill even kakodaemons — but it was hard to say they weren’t justified. And after all this was done, Phoebe and Demi had little they could do but go back to work.
But things were different now. As Gala had thought, long before… when a gift was taken away after being given, it was worse than never having it at all. Where before, there was reason and fear, given in more or less even measure, followed by true synergy… now even the other balandii couldn’t balance the equation any more. Now, fear tipped the balance, and in new situations, or when considering new concepts, fear would grip a man. In imagining how something might go, all too often people would magnify their fears, until they grew to the point where people would be almost panicked by the very idea of what was to come… only to be almost disappointed by the mundane reality.
Sometimes, of course, people are still visited by balandii — they didn’t disappear or anything — so it wasn’t a hard and fast rule. Still, in particular, when people were dealing with pure imagination — say when reading a horror book — their imagination would magnify the terror. When confronted with a representation — say, watching the movie based on the book — the result would almost inevitably seem… well, silly.
And sometimes, when people drink a little too much mead… or indeed, any alcoholic beverage… belathii are less likely to show up and whisper in their ears. They remember the betrayal of their kind and… well, they just don’t like it. So, when one has enough liquor, situations never seem scary enough. And of course it’s unlikely that a balander will be at hand, either, so the drunken fool will undoubtedly also fail to think things through.
Sometimes, the kakodaemons win. It’s just how life goes. And the hangover’s not much fun either, but that’s another story.