The Skiapod and the Purple Onion

Fantasy fiction is full of all kinds of stock creatures—dragons, vampires, and mermaids to name a few. For a long time I’ve always wanted to put skiapods in a novel. A skiapod is a one-legged humanoid with a foot so large, they are said to hold it above their heads to shade themselves on a sunny day. That’s an illustration above.

Skiapods and Me

My upcoming urban fantasy novel, my hero, the Purple Onion, is aided in his adventures by a skiapod named Mori. The story takes place in the city of Dodoville, which although set in the modern world, is enriched with flavors from medieval Europe. I believe the book makes it clear enough what a skiapod is, but some test readers haven’t heard of them, so I thought I’d say a few words here about their history and why I chose to include them in this project.

I first encountered skiapods in high school or junior high alongside other fabulous creatures which Europeans of the Middle Ages imagined living in the far corners of the globe. (Next best known after skiapods are the men who wore their faces on their midsections, called Blemmyes.) I must have seen them either in a social studies book, or more likely, as a gloss in those Folger Library editions of Shakespeare plays.

(Woodcuts are my favorite.)

I re-encountered skiapods circa. 2004 in Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, where each type of monstrous men is associated with one of the Christological heresies, such as Arianism, Docetism, and other words I never learned the meanings of. The skiapod featured most prominently in the story is cheerful and accomodating, so I adopted those characteristics for Mori.

I read (somewhere) that the European idea of the skiapod came from a god in India said to be one-footed and to shade themselves. This god was almost certainly a leafy plant, but in the west it was understood as humanoid, hence the preoccupation with holding the foot over the head. I’ve always been fascinated by ideas with no real author, but rather are invented by the “telephone game” of culture.

Because of this alleged Indian origin, I assumed they were introduced to Europe by the conquests of Alexander the Great, which is why in my book Mori is mentioned in connection with Alexander several times. However, in the century before Alexander’s campaign, Aristophanes mentions these creatures in his play, The Birds. Later in the Christian era, St. Augustine addresses the questions of whether men such as skiapods and Blemmyes are descended from the sons of Adam. I’m sure his answer has all sorts of interesting implications for the history of Western racism.

Dodoville and the Skiapod

I designed the city of Dodoville as a place where all the misfits of our world collect. Dodoville walks a strange line, because it is a fictional country nebulously located in the modern world. I created it to be a place all the imperial powers—Britain, the U.S., Russia—took an interest in, yet obscure enough that many people have never heard of it. For this reason, it is a natural collection point for many of the world’s misfits.

While some stories in Dodoville will stay closer to realism, the Purple Onion lends itself to more fantastical elements. This superhero’s city felt like a good home for a skiapod, a species whom history has forgotten in a location geography has forgotten. I created Mori, a character whose name has ironically forgotten the “memento” (i.e. “remember”).

Despite having only one leg, skiapods are remarked upon for their surprising agility. I kept that quality because it allows Mori to appear to be handicapped while having an advantage, a paradox the human mind had no difficulty accepting. I also gave him technological savvy far beyond human power. Because I like ambiguous characters, I made him outwardly cheerful and subservient, but I made it clear that he also has his own agenda and is playing a long game no else knows about.

Oh, and I gave him a sharp tongue, because someone has got to keep Dodoville’s most elite hand-to-hand fighter in line.

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