The Legends and Myths Behind The Ancient Magus' Brideby Rebecca Silverman,
Kore Yamazaki is a dream of a mangaka. That's not just because she writes moving and fascinating stories that combine a slow, deliberate pace with likable and nuanced characters, but also because she really knows how to do her research. Both of her series published in English, The Ancient Magus' Bride and Frau Faust, rely on knowledge about Medieval beliefs about magic and witchcraft, as well as the folklore of the British Isles and Germany. Since there's much more of The Ancient Magus' Bride available, along with a beautiful anime adaptation, there's also a lot more to focus on in terms of where and what Yamazaki is pulling from in terms of folklore and folk beliefs. The entire story revolves around Elias Ainsworth, a magus or wizard, and his bought bride Chise's immersion in his world of ancient magics and creatures. While some aspects are undoubtedly tweaked for the dual purposes of storytelling and modern audiences, others are taken directly from the beliefs of the Medieval and pre-Christian worlds. And since knowing more can definitely make a story you already enjoy even better, let's take a look at some of the places where Yamazaki draws more unswervingly from her research. As a note, since most of my resources were Scottish, I use the Scottish Gaelic spellings for most of the fairies – “sith” can also be spelled “sidh” in Irish Gaelic.
While there isn't a specific wizard or magus from history with the same name as our favorite ancient magician, “Elias” itself has an interesting history. The name is a cognate of the Biblical name “Elijah,” meaning “my god is Yahweh.” That alone is fascinating given that the mythology of magic users today is largely regarded as stemming from the Wiccan and Druidic traditions, because there are very clear Orthodox Jewish roots in Elias' name. More importantly for the story, Elijah was a particularly popular character in Medieval tales, both because of the original Biblical character, but also because the name later belonged to several Christian saints, two of whom were beheaded, which can be seen as tying in with Elias' skull head(covering). But just because there wasn't a historical magus known by his name doesn't mean that there aren't some real-life inspirations for Yamazaki's character. Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) seems a likely inspiration given that he is supposed to have successfully created automatons and other homunculus-like creatures. Like many other Medieval wizards, Magnus was also a high-ranking member of the Church, which again ties in to the history of the name Elias and also marks what we might today look at as a contradiction in terms: many of the Medieval world's “sorcerers” were either members of the Church or what we'd today call scientists, people like Roger Bacon, Dr. John Dee, or Robert Grossetête. (It also explains Elias' relationship with the local church early on in the story.) Given what we see of Elias' methods and studies, his character is evidently based on the simple idea of what it meant to be labeled a magus in the Medieval world, something that has carried over into Chise's time simply by virtue of his very ancientness.
Similarly to Elias, Chise's familiar Ruth also draws from a variety of sources. The idea of a “familiar” is one most readers and viewers will be acquainted with – it's a spirit or fey creature who assists a magic-user with their work. Most of us think of cats (specifically black ones riding broom behind their witches), but Ruth's dog form is actually just as well established in the lore of the British Isles. While Yamazaki refers to him as a “grim,” there are many magical dogs in British folklore, from King Arthur's pet Cafall to Irish hero Finn's Bran. Scottish folklore tells us of the cu sith, or “fairy dog,” who is a likely source of inspiration for Ruth's character. The cu sith is a monstrously large beast, about the size of a yearling cow, and has long, greenish fur. With it's braided tail and insane speed, the cu sith is at least kind enough to give a warning bark, which can be heard echoing in an unearthly way. He gives you two chances to get away – if you hear him bark the third time, it's all over for you. The cu sith is probably a source for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Hound of the Baskervilles, but more interesting is the idea that he's also a source for Ruth, which again comes down to the character's name: “ruth” is a word no longer used in English meaning “pity” (as “ruthless” is “without ruth”). As the cu sith can be said to take a degree of pity on its potential victims, Ruth's seemingly misgendered name can instead be attributed to that quality. Other famous fairy dogs who may have been an influence are the trio of cu sith Fios, Luatha, and Tron, who represent the qualities of knowledge, swiftness, and, somewhat oddly, heaviness, presumably in reference to dogs as hunting companions. In that same vein, we have the Welsh Cwn Annwfn (Dogs of the Otherworld), the dogs who run with the fabled Wild Hunt, which pursues the souls of (or in some cases actual) evil people. Relentless pursuit of evil seems like a good quality to have in a familiar, doesn't it?
Of course, if you've seen the Fairy Dance arc of Sword Art Online or any of the many other shows and manga that use Celtic magical beliefs, you're much more likely to be familiar with the cait sith, or “fairy cats,” and as I mentioned before, they're generally our default figure for the animal familiar. The Ancient Magus' Bride definitely knows this, and the anime's fourth episode introduces the Cat King. According to Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde's 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, the Cat King does exist , but he seems to just sort of hang around like any other housecat. (She recommends snipping off a piece of his ear to find out if your cat is the King; apparently he'll yell at you in human words if he is.) Titles aside, cats are considered to be symbolic of King Arthur's foe Mordred, which probably accounts for some of their magical bad reputation. More specifically, a French variant of the Arthurian legends tells of the Chapalu (thought to be a corruption or older spelling of “chatloup,” or the Welsh “cath palug”), who pushed Arthur into a pond or bog before conquering England. That's almost certainly part of the inspiration behind the plot of episode four and its corresponding manga chapters – the Cat King may well be Chapalu himself, and Chise's dip in the lake feels very much a parallel to King Arthur's plunge. Interestingly enough, the Welsh fairy cat Cath Palug is also associated with water. According to the lore, when the fairy pig Henwen was chased to the edge of the sea, she gave birth to a litter of kittens. The kittens waded into the ocean and swam away, and one of those kittens became Cath Palug, who patrolled the Menai Straight between Anglesey and the Welsh mainland. Henwen's other kittens are said to have become the Irish murchata, vicious horse-sized felines who prey on fish and the unlucky humans who cross their paths. (And lest all of these water-loving cats seem too weird, there are real cat breeds who like to swim – the Turkish Van is the best-known of them. There's also a chapter book series called The Purrmaids about mermaid kittens, but we'll leave that alone.) What's perhaps most interesting about Celtic cat fairies is their changeable, troublesome nature – like with many of the fey, you never quite know what you're getting when a cait sith wanders into the plot. Looked at in this way, it makes a lot more sense for Chise to have a cu sith for a familiar – because even with a fairy dog, you're more likely to know what you're in for.
In the second season of the anime, Chise ends up taking a trip to fairy land. If you've read any British mythology, specifically Irish, you'll know that that's not necessarily a great thing – the home of the fey can be a very difficult place to come back from. In part that's simply because time moves differently there – something covered in the late Medieval Scottish tale of Thomas the Rhymer, who thinks he's only spending three years in fairy land but each fairy year is the equivalent of seven in the real world. Many Irish and Scottish myths also discuss the fact that if you consume food while in the fairies' realm you'll never be able to leave, which ties in with the Greco-Roman myth of Persephone.
The fairies themselves are often broken down into different categories, most commonly known as the seeley (good) and the unseeley (bad) courts. As with many groups, however, it's not always easy to simply lump them all into one of two categories, and many of the fey folk are far more grey than black or white. For example, the leanan sidhe in the story is a mythical muse who drains her lover's life in exchange for his creative prowess. It's not that she wants to, of course – that's just the nature of the beast, so to speak, and an aspect Yamazaki uses particularly well. (We can blame W.B. Yeats for any more vampiric interpretations of this particular fey creature.) The banshee is a bit more well-known as the harbinger of death, but again, she's not inherently bad; it's more like she's simply doing her job, but because we've come to view death as strictly negative, her reputation has taken a hit as well. There's really a fey creature for very nearly everything, with household helpers like brownies being among the better know, and although we don't get to meet many of the fey folk within the story, we can perhaps hold out hope for some of the more interesting ones to show up, such as the gancanagh, a male fairy who speaks seduction to young women, or the clurichaun, a little fellow who drinks up your wine supply and haunts wherever you keep your booze.
Fairy myths are among the most widespread in British folklore, and Yamazaki barely brushes the surface with many of her stories and characters, so a lot of this is a bit beyond the scope of this article. This is a subject I highly recommend researching if you're at all interested. For the most part Yamazaki sticks close to characters we already know – such as Oberon and Titania for the king and queen of the fey, popularized by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - but there are others who can claim those titles (The Seven Deadly Sins uses an older fairy king, Hellequin), so there's a lot more to explore on this subject.
But what about magic and magi in general? As you might guess, there's a lot of ground to cover with that question, and every culture has its own version of how magic works and what it is. Today we tend to make a few major assumptions on that front – Wicca and Druidic beliefs are easy go-tos for a lot of people, or maybe the Macbeth-style witch with her cauldron, broom, and familiar spirit. But it's important to remember that magic is often tied in with religious beliefs and practices, and during the rise of Christianity, many of those were, if not outright demonized (Voudou is a good example of this process), then at least demoted to the level of superstition or parlor tricks. It's a combination of these three things that shapes the magic and ritual of The Ancient Magus' Bride, and Elias' practices are tied up in questions of alchemy, Celtic magic, and a few other cultures.
In his rare 1928 text The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall describes magic as “…the ancient art of invoking and controlling spirits by a scientific application of certain formulæ. A magician, enveloped in sanctified vestments and carrying a wand inscribed with hieroglyphic figures, could by the power vested in certain words and symbols control the invisible inhabitants of the elements and of the astral world.” This sums up the way Yamazaki's story uses magic in general quite nicely – Elias' appearance certainly suggests “sanctified vestments” and he's definitely doing a lot of what Hall describes. Hall's definition is intended in context to cover basically all magi, and his text covers the ancient world through his present. He points out that in the middle ages, a lot of magic was simply known as pseudo-science of alchemy, which had many royal and renowned adherents. Simply put, the Medieval period was a time when magic and science were blending in interesting ways, and we get some indications that perhaps Elias has lived through that era, but the main body of his magic comes from Celtic lore.
Druids were the main practitioners of magic in the British Isles, and among the many powers attributed to them are weather control, shapeshifting, and invisibility. The shapeshifting aspect is particularly relevant to the second half of the anime, when Chise is given the fox skin and is able to transform into that animal. While there is a world-wide tradition of transforming via animal skin, Chise's fox is an interesting combination of East (which uses foxes more frequently in its mythology) and West, where women transforming by donning an animal skin can be seen in legends of selkies in Scotland and Ireland. Selkies are women (and sometimes men) who wear sealskins in the water and remove them to become human on land. In most selkie legends, a man attempts to keep a selkie woman his captive wife by hiding her sealskin. Chise's experience is a reversal of that tale – she's involuntarily trapped in the fox skin, almost running away into the forest when she'd rather stay with her husband. It's a good example of how Yamazaki relies on her research but then shapes into something uniquely her own, molding it to reach her Japanese readers while still keeping it universal in its usage and themes.
Medical practices often also relied on elements of magic, with tinctures and potions standing alongside wearing a bag of herbs around your neck. The fact that Elias and Chise make a variety of different concoctions with a number of different purposes over the course of the story fits into this. Early medical texts were sometimes simply known as “herbals,” meaning that they relied on herbs and other plants grown in your kitchen garden. While we still have a few well-known, or at least locally known, go-to plants for various issues, such as squeezing jewelweed on a bug bite to stop itching or aloe on a sunburn, other “remedies” involving the natural world were much more suspect, such as swallowing a spider wrapped in a raisin to cure ague (malaria) or ingesting egg whites mixed with nettles to combat insomnia. (Please don't do this.) Baldness “cures” ran from rubbing goose droppings to raw steak on your head, while wearing a bag of buttercups as a necklace would fight insanity. Fortunately for the story, Elias doesn't rely solely on this variety of folk medicine – instead, the potions he teaches Chise are more in line with the idea that it's not just the ingredients, but also the time they're procured and what you say over them that makes them work. It's more “magic” as we're used to it, with the added Druidic belief that wands make things work better, and somewhat more easily pulled off than accidentally finding some St. John's Wort on Midsummer Eve to cure your fever – and perhaps most easily related to cultural beliefs like chicken soup will cure all ills, a variation of which nearly every culture or family has.
Kore Yamazaki's The Ancient Magus' Bride is a good story on its own merits, but it's even more fascinating when you begin to look at the sources for some of its storylines. From old pharmacology practices to the real King of the Cats, each plot point has a little something to be discovered in the depth of Yamazaki's research. This is only a brief exploration of a few of those potential sources. Stop by the forum and let us know what you've found.
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