Monday, September 17, 2018

Goblin Watch, Episode 2: Mythology 1.

((I really should devote myself to a maxim other than "promise little, deliver less" one of these days. But no matter! Goblin Watch is officially not dead, and with luck I was able to get this embedded audio player to work rather than hyperlinking to SoundCloud for every episode.

Enjoy, if you are able!))


Goblin Watch, Episode 02.

Hello, and welcome back to Goblin Watch! The mini-series dedicated to the origins and iterations of everyone's favorite tricksters and diminutive knaves!

Here today we have the first installment in our sub-series looking at goblins and their kin in mythology. We also have the beginnings of titular colon cancer, knowing how often I like to sub-divide and create tangents to my own work.

When we left off last, we had laid down a basic framework how this series is supposed to work. Now, we're going to see if I can't maintain that system by looking at the some of the earliest bits of information related to etymologically-linked goblins in mythology. Mind you, I won't be glossing over or ignoring all of the different goblin-like beings of other, non-European mythologies- this is just an easy way to dip one's toe into the whole thing. If there's a creature similar to (or not so similar to) a goblin in another belief system, rest assured I will try to find it. Or, if you'd like, prompt me to home in on a particular topic in a comment down below!

To recap, the word "goblin" and its equivalents are found in many Indo-European languages. English and Welsh got its goblin and coblyn from French gobelin, which existed alongside German kobold, and both of those descend from Latin cabalus. Ultimately, or at least as far as language experts can tell, that comes from Greek kobalos, plural kobaloi.

Kobaloi came in two forms in the myths of ancient Greece, as recorded by several slightly less ancient scholars. The first is as a class of spirits in service to the god Dionysus, the traits of whom they exhibited in addition to being tricksters and mischief-makers among mortals. The second is a use of kobalos in a pejorative sense, referring to a person as a kobalos because they are a knave, thief, or general rogue. This sense of the word is still informed by the meaning of the first however, because a roguish kobalos was believed to be acting like--or even invoking--the kobalos spirits. There is also a considerable amount of overlap between kobaloi spirits and two other classes of beings, called the kabeiroi and the Kerkopes. The kabeiroi were mystery cult deities of possibly non-Greek origin popular in the Anatolian peninsula, often depicted as dwarves with massive phalluses.The Kerkopes were a pair of vaguely simian forest spirit brothers and consummate tricksters. Both sets will be included in this discussion for the sake of applicability.

Perhaps the most popular mythic episode involving kobaloi comes from the exploits of Heracles, or perhaps more precisely the exploitation of Heracles, in which the Kerkopes totally yoinked his stuff while he was sleeping.

Take that, demigods!

Of course Heracles, being Heracles, soon woke up and discovered what the brothers were doing, so that he could defeat them and seize them in a heroic fashion. But the brothers had as much charm and wit as they did physical ability and sneakiness, and they made good use of their punishment when Heracles slung them both upside down from a pole laid across his shoulders.

As he walked and they swung back and forth, they started cackling at something. When Heracles finally set them down to ask what was so funny, they explained that they were laughing at his backside, which was apparently quite bare and very darkly tanned. He decided to be a good sport about it and, laughing at the jokes at the expense of his own bronzed butt, Heracles released the Kerkopes.

Speaking of butts, or at least an area not too far from it, the name Kerkopes is of significance. It means "tailed ones", and suggests that the brothers actually possessed tails like an animal. A different myth attempts to explain this name by presenting the Keropes as the result of a terrible curse. Zeus, being Zeus, for whatever frivolous reason decided to transform the brothers from their more human appearance into the first monkeys. This gives an explanation for the perceived capriciousness and trickiness of humanity's little primate cousins. It also reminds us that of the hundreds of geographic variations on goblins present throughout tabletop RPGs, Pathfinder's monkey goblins are among the least far-fetched!

... Alright, maybe still a little far-fetched.

The kabeiroi are less attested to in legends, and have more enigmatic origins. It appears as though the name is derived from a different source as kobaloi. One theory, popular since the 16th century, has been that kabeiroi (also transliterated as cabeiri, cabiri, or kabiri) is derived from the ancient Semitic root word kabir (kbr), meaning "great". Other than a few suggestions over the centuries that the word might be of Hittite, Sumerian, or Indo-Aryan origin, this theory seems to have held up until the drop in debate interest which I found while researching this topic today.

Evidently the most current and complete source on the kabeiroi and their connection with other Hellenic deities is a poorly scanned 2004 reprint of an 1877 tome written by one Robert Brown. But Brown seems to have thoroughly acknowledged and addressed earlier scholars in his two-volume work, such as preserving an earlier assertion that the kabeiroi were treated as being the same in ancient times as the kobaloi, and that they were the companions of Dionysus. This makes sense given the kobalic bent toward mischief and the phallic nature of the kabeiroi, because Dionysus, as a god of wine and revelry (among other domains) was very much involved in party antics. Brown also presents the word or name "choroimanes-aiolomorphus", which to the best of my understanding means something like the power of shape-shifting, supporting the association between kobaloi and skillful trickery. Small, sneaky shapeshifters are a feature of countless different mythologies and folklores across Eurasia to this day, including creatures which might be more readily identified as elves or dwarves.

The kabeiroi, despite being stereotyped as droll little pricks, were venerated as gods or potent spirits in their own right, thanks to a cult which had once spread outward from the islands of Samothrace and Lemnos. In a more formal setting they were associated with craftsmanship and with Hephaestus, or even made to mirror the Olympic pantheon in general. Considering that Samothrace was once Phoenician, this might be a case of early syncretism. The kabeiroi's numbers varied from depiction to depiction, and their names were hardly ever recorded in favor of being referred to as the "great gods", but there seemed to be at least two, often seven or eight, and as many as an entire race of them with varying ratios of males and females within. Sometimes they came in pairs, but other times every kabeiroi was male.

We begin to see here early hints of the surprisingly effective artifice and almost nonexistent women which would become prominent features of goblins-as-orcs in the legendarium of J. R. R. Tolkien.

As the kabeiroi cult spread, it became a part of broader Classical Mediterranean religious practice, and was gradually subsumed within Greek and later Roman traditions. The famous tragedian Aeschylus wrote a play named The Kabeiroi, which apparently involved the Argonauts becoming privy to their sacred mysteries, though it only survives in fragmentary or referential form today. The historian Herodotus was also initiated into the cult at some point. But like almost all of the mystery cults from the period, worship of the kabeiroi eventually declined in the face of newer or stronger movements in the region.

But this was not before the kobaloi were able to find a place in the mythology of other parts of the European continent. And so, perhaps in a flanderized form, the mischievous spirits survived their Aegean origins and were allowed to continue their process of transforming to suit the mythological niches which they would encounter, going forward. They would no longer be worshiped as gods, but we couldn't hog the limelight for too long, could we?

Next episode, we will look into some of those European proto-goblins more deeply.

I am the Furtive Goblin, this was Goblin Watch, and I thank you for listening! Yes, listening and not watching, as I mistakenly said last episode.

If I made any mistakes in this episode, or I didn't explain something to your satisfaction, please leave a question below and I will gladly address it.

Brown, Robert. The Greek Dionysiak Myth, Part 2. Kessinger Publishing, 2004 [1877].

Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Harvard University Press, 1992.

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