In the novel I’ve been working on, there are semi-spiritual beings called syven (a Siberian term for “helping spirits” or familiars) that can be bound to a person’s tattoo and later summoned in need. When this happens, the syven assumes the form of the tattoo to which it is bound. So, for example, if you acquire a syven and bind it to the three-headed hound stamped on your shoulder, presto! You’ve just summoned a mild version of Cerberus.
Of course there are rules and limitations surrounding this power. To acquire a syven in the first place you must pass various rites and stringent training, and then perform a special task for an ayami, a tutelary syven in charge of other lesser syven. The type of tattoo you bind a syven to is significant: some tattoos depict creatures that require more energy to summon than others. And of course you cannot summon your familiar indefinitely. The more powerful a creature is, the shorter its summon span before it must be recalled.
Anyways, rather than get too deep into those rules right now, I thought I would share what happened when I asked a basic storytelling question: what do syven look like?
The answer partly depends on their mythical origin. For that I am relying on your typical “fallen angel” narrative. I don’t mean that syven were angels per se, but spirits who once had the power to move freely between the spiritual and physical realms of existence. Or to use Dungeons and Dragons cosmological terms, they could travel between a few of the different planes of the multiverse. But then they did something stupid and horrible to warrant the wrath of God, or gods—opinions on the cosmos vary widely in this fictional setting—and subsequently they were banished to live among mortals, and were marked with symbols on their bodies whose meaning they have no memory of. Later their role evolved to become servants of the humans who could bind them to their tattoos.
With that bit of background established, I started to envision the syven as a type of horned, cat-like creatures. With a bit of online search I found the image below.
I liked the horns, but not the legs. I decided it was too … animal-ish. So I began to think of syven as humanoid, bipedal creatures in the vein of a faun or a satyr: hoofed legs, human torsos, pointy horns. Sort of like a more dangerous and serious version of Mr Tumnus from CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. That led me to the next image.
This one felt closer to my goal: syven as creatures shrouded in mystery, able to blend seamlessly with the wild, and reclusive even though humans regard them as venerable semi-spirits worthy of shrines and sacrifices. The faun in this picture also seems to have a faint mark on its face. That could just be the shadow of a jawline, but it connects to the myth I had in mind of beings scrawled with indecipherable marks.
Nevertheless I was still having trouble formulating a clear idea of the syven’s facial features, so I kept looking around. There is no dearth of concept art on fauns and satyrs on the Internet. Most of it is idealized, sexualized, and/or stereotypically Greek or Roman in style, and I was bored with the vast majority of it. Then I came upon this one:
At last! Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh! I mean, not literally, but you get the idea. This picture most closely matches how I imagine the syven, or more specifically the ayami category of syven who have charge of a domain and a handful of syven underlings. The crown of horns and deep-set eyes convey age, power, and seniority (the bird just chilling there on one of the horns is kind of silly, though). The lines flowing around the neck and chest speak to some mysterious tattoo. Even the lip ring and toga clasped at the shoulder evoke a consciousness and sophistication I hadn’t seen in a lot of other concept art. I felt that I had at last found a decent reference point to guide ideas about the nature and appearance of these strange beings.
Anyways, if any of you writers or artists out there recently came across some inspiration for your work, let me know. I love hearing stories about that sort of thing. Happy art making, and keep going!