Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we go in search of a group of evil spirits drawn from the soul-tortured mists of history.
I bid you stay close to me today my friends. Those that we seek are dangerous and oft malevolent spirits and I am ill-equipped to do more than send sympathies to your loved ones should you fall under their dark powers. Follow me now through the misty portal to the land of Nippon and a spirit that can be both servant and slayer.
Shikigami are child-sized spirits or demons controlled by Japanese practitioners of divination and magic known as Onmyodo. Invisible in their natural form to all but their masters these servants can possess the unwary, take animal form, cause fatal harm and do basic house chores. Not only can they slay the Onmyodo’s enemies, the shikigami will clean up afterwards and wash the windows.
One of the most powerful Onmyodo, named Abe no Seimei, is said to have controlled the Twelve Heavenly Generals as shikigami. The twelve are considered deities of Buddhism; Abe must have been powerful indeed.
Imagine our hero visiting the home of an Onmyodo. His tea poured by unseen hands. Doors opening and closing. His towel handed to him by a force that resists his urgent tug. Perhaps a cat that appears as a small child when the moonlight falls across its sleeping form rests on his window sill. Will he be on the next plane home or will he seek out the power of the Onmyodo for himself, perhaps with disastrous results?
All magic can be good or evil depending on the one controlling it. What if our Onmyodo is an enemy of our hero or stands to lose something of great value (including his life) should our hero succeed in his mission? How will our hero respond when accosted by the deified shikigami of the Twelve Heavenly Generals, protecting their masters ambitions and bent on denying him success?
We travel now through the misty portal to Israel in search of ghostly castaways that ever seek release through the living.
Jewish folklore speaks of malevolent disembodied human souls that are forced to wander the world seeking a host through which they may attempt redemption. These spirits are known as Dybbuk and come into being when a person dies as a result of suicide or some other major moral transgression. Only by possessing a living human can the Dybbuk seek to fulfill its goal.
During the 1600-1700’s it was commonly believed that those suffering from mental illness and nervous disorders were possessed by a Dybbuk. A rabbi known as a Ba’al Shem (miracle worker) would often attempt to exercise the Dybbuk, denying its goal of redemption by sending it to wander the spirit world and freeing the host.
Will we make our hero the friend or family member of a Dybbuk? a Ba’al Shem seeking to free a possessed victim? Or perhaps the hero is the one possessed? Will she try to help the Dybbuk find redemption or resist and seek freedom?
Can all these factors be combined? Let’s take a look.
Our hero, possessed by a Dybbuk, chooses to assist the spirit in finding redemption while her brother, a Ba’al Shem, hounds her path at the behest of the rest of her family who want the spirit driven from her. Now, what if the Dybbuk itself was a family member and only our possessed hero is aware of that? Continue down this line a bit further and a host of powerfully dramatic stories await.
Once more I bid you step through the misty portal; speak to no strangers and do not listen to the voices that echo in the night or the cold blackness of the other world may claim you.
As autumn turns to the first ten days of Zemheri, freezing wind blows across the Turkish countryside and the Karakoncolos appear in the icy murk, asking strange questions of those who pass them. All must answer using the word “kara” (Turkish for “black”) or risk a fatal touch from this chilled ghast.
At times, the Karakoncolos call to the dreaming, using the voices of lost loved ones, baiting the dreamer to wander into the frigid night. A frozen death awaits those unable to win free from the spirits charms.
Rising from the myths of Ottoman Turkey with a Greek predecessor (the Kalikantzaros), this creature can be as harmless as a forgotten stranger on a tight-bundled eve or as remembered as the last face reflected in frosted eyes.
What if a series of mysterious deaths were to occur? Pillars of the community missing and later found frozen near town, all lulled to their deaths by the charms of a Karakoncolos during the first days of Zemheri? How will our hero, perhaps a detective, seek to save others from this fate? Can the hero succeed in the ten day window or should our story lengthen across a span of years where the hero progressively studies, waits and plans for the coming of the Karakoncolos’ next hunt? How would this obsession affect the hero’s personal life?
Perhaps our hero is a traveler, an average Joe on vacation as winter arrives. Rushing to his hotel with a loaf of Simit for the next mornings breakfast, our hero is accosted by a Karakoncolos. A busy American, he fires an off-hand remark at the stranger, never using the word “black”. This thoughtless and quickly forgotten moment makes our hero the target of the Karakoncolos and only death will suffice to redeem his disrespect. How will our hero survive? Will the spirit follow him back to the U.S.? Imagine such a creature loose in a small town in Montana or the Dakota’s.
And now, my friends, I return you through the misty portal to your safe homes and lives. Dream in peace.
Join me next week when we take a field trip to the theaters of the ancients and the dramatic stages they provide.
If you’re interested in more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries found in “Categories” on the side bar.