Behold, a telling of the future: this podcast episode will be about omens, prophecies, curses, and all manner of predictive magics! Sometimes it’s just not enough for the hero to defeat an evil king; there also has to be a magical preview, but why? What benefit do such predictions provide, and why are authors so fond of them? That’s what we’re talking about this week, along with several takes that can only be considered “galaxy brain.”
Generously transcribed by Bunny and Nikki. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle[opening theme]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: …And I hope you both have kept your tea leaves and your coffee grounds, you’ve looked up some sphinx riddles, and you’ve remembered all of your dreams, because today we’re talking about prophecies. There’s meaning in everything.
Chris: Oh no. I didn’t realize that dream of leaving for work with no pants was a prophecy.
Wes: It was very important! Chris, there could be all kinds of hidden meanings in there. Who knows what omens might come up from your subconscious, trying to tell you about something dire?!
Chris: Me and my subconscious need to have a talk, I think.
Oren: I predict that I won’t like prophecies. And the prediction came true.
Wes: I was gonna say, we’ll talk about self-fulfilling prophecies later. But you know, prophecies are a big part of, you know, fiction stories, the fantasy genre in particular. They can be effective tools to generate interest. And that said, they are also kind of tired and cliched, and we’ll definitely talk about why they’re boring and not that great. But you’re still gonna see them. I mean, they’re popular. People like to think dreams have meanings. And every time some show decides that a dream has a meaning, hey, that’s a prophecy or an omen. Or a curse. Who knows? It might just be that.
So we thought, there are a few things you could do to make sure that if you include them, you do it for good reasons. And when you probably should not include them.
Chris: I will say that dreams in and of themselves add a lot of value just because you can do creative things with them that you can’t do if characters are awake. You can basically show their internal conflicts manifesting in a much more tangible and concrete way. And that’s always going to be fun. I wouldn’t give a whole prophecy. Just use ’em for omens. Omens are just prophecies, but better.
Wes: Just quickly for semantics: omens are symbols meant to be interpreted. They’re the most vague of prophecies.
Chris: They feel naturally vague, right? It doesn’t feel contrived when they’re vague. They’re supposed to be very simple and hard to understand.
Wes: Which is kind of nice. Omens, like you say, do that effortlessly. Meanwhile, prophecies are almost always words. And then those words have to be obtuse riddles, and that can get really annoying and frustrating to get to a level of an omen. In an omen, you could have just had a dream about dark clouds and been like, “oh no. I’m gonna die.”
Oren: I mean, omens are great because they fulfill the role of foreshadowing and building atmosphere and that’s all fine. That’s all a lot of fun. It becomes an issue when you start having prophecies that are specific enough that your characters are supposed to see them as actual indications of the future, as opposed to, “there’s a creepy crow on that house.” That could be an omen or it could just be a crow there. Who knows?
Wes: You’ve also hit on another difference that I guess I didn’t think of. Omens can come from anywhere. Prophecies come from people or anthropomorphized things, like a sphinx or something like that. Someone has to say or record a prophecy, but you can step outside and get hit in the face with an omen.
Chris: Well, I don’t know. Stars can say prophecies.
Oren: But are the stars saying it or is the person looking at the stars and interpreting them saying it?
Chris: They say it’s written in the stars. So it must be the stars. I don’t know.
Oren: You go outside and the grass has grown into letters and it’s like, “Beware the Ides of March.” It’s like, “Hmm. Hmm. All right. I guess that’s a prophecy.” Technically.
Wes: Caesar’s lawn care worker that day just mowed it right over, like, “oh, no! Sorry!”
Oren: Well, prophecies are specific enough that it would be hard for them to exist without a person in some capacity, because they’re trying to tell you specific things, even if those specific things are vague. This is as opposed to an omen, which is just imagery for the most part. Imagery and associations.
Chris: Also, sometimes omens are much more literal, like for instance, in The Birds. We start with the dead bird. That is foreshadowing. It is literally a sign of what is coming. Later, it’s less mysterious, but it also really plays the role of an omen, especially since dead animals are so associated with bad stuff happening.
Oren: Whereas prophecies kind of run into the same problem that time travel runs into, ironically, because the prophecy is trying to predict the future beyond the ability of me being like, “well, there is a log across the road, so I don’t think cars are going to be able to cross.” Right?
Chris [laughing]: Prophecy!
Oren: There was a car accident on the freeway, so I predict traffic will be bad! Anyone can do a prediction. The concept of a prophecy is that it’s supposed to be able to tell you things that you can’t just predict by analyzing the facts of the situation and saying what you think is gonna happen. And then that starts to get blurry if you’re dealing with sci-fi and you have something like psycho history from the Foundation books, or you have the Augments from Deep Space Nine, who can basically give prophecies until the writers decide this one’s not gonna work. All the others work, but not this one for some reason.
Chris: I think one of the biggest issues with prophecies — besides the fact that we’re supposed to give specific words but they have to be in weird cryptic riddles, which is an obvious problem — is also that anything like that can be used in ways where it feels like the writer is supposed to be having the story support an outcome, but they don’t feel like they need to because a prophecy did it. And sometimes this is just a way of trying to fix a plot hole. For instance, “only the farm boy can defeat the big bad.” We have to find a justification for why this one character who’s not normally qualified to do something is supposed to be the one to do it. Now, I think that can be fine, but you have to put in the work to show that there is actually a reason why the farm boy has to be the one to do this, besides “the prophecy said so.”
I think this is a particular issue in romance. I know a lot of people find the whole, “oh, our love is destined!” romantic, but do they belong together? because if they’re actually good for each other, it kind of feels like there shouldn’t be a prophecy that’s ensuring they get together.
Oren: Yeah, I often find prophecies just extremely tiresome because half the time, it’s like, “what was even the point of having that prophecy?” If you needed the prophecy to make the story happen, then that feels contrived. And if you didn’t then why was there a prophecy there? If the events of the story would’ve lined up so that the farm boy defeated the evil king without the prophecy, then what is the point of the prophecy? It feels like it’s just there to try to promise me that there will be a defeat of the evil king later, because the story’s boring.
Chris: Well, honestly, I think they exist primarily to make things in the story feel special. And I think that’s true for romances too. It’s all, “Our love is so exceptional.”
Chris: “Because we’re written in the stars,” or what have you. It does start to get a little cliche when you do that tons of times, but I can understand the impulse to wanna put a prophecy in there. And it feels mysterious, right? People like the atmosphere that comes with prophecies and it can be good if they’re subverted. One version that could have been done better, but wasn’t bad, was in the series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. There’s a lying prophecy.
Oren: I’m not familiar with that one.
Chris: So it’s actually an antagonistic prophecy that basically sets up the character. So they try to follow the prophecy, but it actually sends them to do something evil.
Wes: Oh, nice.
Chris: And so then at the end of the series, they have to figure out that it’s actually misleading us and we shouldn’t do that. The only thing is that, to create foreshadowing that this prophecy is just a big lie, the foreshadowing is another cryptic message. It’s like, “Beware the false messenger!” That’s the best you can do? We need a cryptic warning, but it also can’t be something that anybody would connect with this prophecy. So we just get the false messenger thing.
Oren: Yeah. That’s the whole thing of like, “Aha that weird, vague cryptic thing turned out to be referring to this later.” I’m not impressed, to be perfectly honest, cuz you made it so vague and cryptic that it could be referring to almost anything.
Wes [laughing]: Yeah, but then you get to be right.
Oren: Yeah, I guess. It feels like the author is trying to tell me how smart they are. And I just don’t buy it.
Wes: Anybody who writes a prophecy is trying to tell you how smart they are.
Chris: I mean, to be fair, some people just really want prophecies and then are left with a very hard task of writing them.
Oren: Yeah. And I’m sure that they aren’t all malicious. But I would like to imagine them as that.
Chris [laughing]: They aren’t all malicious?!
Oren: They aren’t all malicious.
Chris: Prophecies are very malicious!
Oren: Most of them!
Chris: They’re to get the readers and viewers. They’re a personal attack on you, Oren. That is what they’re for![all laugh]
Oren: I mean, I guess this is probably more about taste than anything else, but I just get so frustrated when characters make obviously bad choices because of the prophecy. Because the prophecy is always gonna end up meaning a different thing than you thought it meant because it’s so vague. It can mean anything. And it always requires the characters to leap to the most absurd conclusions. There’s a field day to be had for what’s wrong with the Star Wars prequels, but God, I hated the whole Ankin has a prophecy where he sees Padme’s face in pain? And from there he concludes that she’s gonna die in childbirth and that he has to make a deal with Sidious? And it’s like, there are so many better options.
Wes: But that, Oren, is tapping into a literary tradition of self-fulfilling prophecy. That goes back to Greek storytelling with Oedipus, where Anakin gets a prophecy and we’ll say, Oedipus, king of Thebes, also gets a prophecy. They both don’t like it. So they’re like, “we have to do everything we possibly can to not bring this thing about.” And in doing that, they bring it about, which is supposed to be tragic.
Chris: Yeah. I will say though, that in the case of Oedipus, the actions they take to avoid the prophecy are much more logical than the actions that Anakin takes.
Oren: What do they do in Oedipus to prevent that from happening?
Wes: They talk to people and gather information like reasonable people.
Chris: Don’t they send the baby off to be killed?
Wes: Well, so, the parents get a prophecy and then they send the baby off to get killed. The shepherd takes pity on the baby and doesn’t kill him. And then he comes and becomes king, basically. And then Tiraseus shows up, and they say, “Hey, there’s this prophecy and that’s the problem. And that’s why there’s a famine. Everybody’s dying or whatever.” And Oedipus is like, “let’s get to the bottom of this.” And they go about trying to get to the bottom of this. and in doing so, he learns that he is the source of all the problems. He does the right thing. He finds out why things are going bad, but then he stabs his eyes out. yeah.
Oren: As one does.
Wes: Yes, as one does.
Chris: But I do think, again, with the Anakin issue, it goes back to using a prophecy to prop up something that the story doesn’t support. Ideally you want the story to be able to work out without the prophecy and not make it feel like the prophecy is an excuse for plot holes.
Wes: And also, between the two, in the Greek stories, there’s a prophecy, but there’s also a prophet. Tiraseus is showing up, telling everybody these things. But then, in Anakin’s case, he has a nightmare. Somebody tell him dreams aren’t real. You’re just stressed! Go have a holiday! It’ll be okay. So I think there’s credibility when it comes from without, sometimes.
Oren: I guess maybe this is just me being frustrated that the characters aren’t more genre-savvy, cuz it’s like, “okay, so you have a prophecy of kill father, marry mom.” All right, well, the fact that you are sending the baby away to be killed suggests that you think this prophecy can be changed. Because if it can’t be, if it’s set in stone, if it’s predestination time travel, then nothing you do matters and you might as well just do what you would’ve done normally. And if you think it can be changed, why is that the action you’re taking to change it? There have to be better options.
Wes: But that was also kind of the point of Sophocles as a playwright. So many of his stories were, “don’t try to mess with this stuff. It’s only bad. Accept fate.”
Chris: Right. The misdeed that is punished is basically trying to defy fate.
Oren: Yeah. If the prophecy can be changed, then knowing about it allows you to change it because you’ve introduced chaos. You have changed the deterministic sequence. And if knowing about it is part of that sequence, then whatever, the universe has it out for you. So just relax.[Chris and Wes laugh]
Wes: I see your point, Oren. Don’t send the kid away to be killed, bring the kid here and just deal with it. But then of course they probably say, “oh, but actually the real kid got swapped at birth.”
Oren: Right. That’s the predestination paradox angle of it. And if that’s how it works, then who cares? [all laugh] At that point, again, nothing you do matters. So you might as well just not do anything.
Wes: That’s true. But then, in that case, you’re supposed to be showing the hubris and the pride of these actors who think that they’re better than all of this.
Oren: Yeah, I get it. I get the point. I just don’t like it. I just don’t like it.
Chris: I get pretty annoyed with the whole tap dance about the certainty of prophecies. It’s like, “no, this prophecy is gonna totally happen. Wait, but it’s not certain!”
Oren: Yeah. The thing where the prophecy is something you want to happen, that gets real weird, right. Because it’s like, “you have to do this, cuz the prophecy said so.” And it’s like, “oh, so the prophecy is guaranteed to happen? So I’m guaranteed to defeat the evil king?” “Well, no, only the parts you don’t like are guaranteed to happen.” “Oh, all right.” The prophecy says that you have to do 5,000 pushups a day. So you have to do that. That’s gonna happen whether you want it to or not. But defeating the evil king? No, that might not happen. Pinky swear.
Chris: It’s either that, or make the prophecies so cryptic that you just don’t know what it means anyway.
Oren: Yeah. Cryptic clues are, prophecy or not, their own whole problem. Because who is giving these clues and why are they making them so cryptic? If you want the person to do something, why are you making it harder for them to understand what they’re supposed to do? And if you don’t want them to do it, why are you giving them information that they might use to be able to do it? This is the same problem as, for instance, why do you make the entrance to your house a riddle instead of a key that you have? Why do you want people who are good at solving riddles to be able to break into your house?
Wes: A nice, straightforward prophecy that I quite like is “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone in anvil is rightwise king born of all England.”
Chris: See, that was nice because it explains itself. Everybody thinks that whoever pulls out the sword from the stone is gonna be king. So then whoever happens to do that is king now.
Wes [laughing]: Great!
Chris: You don’t even need a magical explanation for that one.
Wes: I know. It’s like the perfect prophecy. Everybody’s like, “oh, we just need to do that,” And then they can’t. A little bit more straightforward language is fine. Saying “whoever pulls this sword out of stone and anvil is king” is great because there are no dead giveaways with weird specifics and stuff. You can still kind of tell your farm boy story. And there’s just gonna be that moment where it happens without really getting obtuse or weird or more things that Oren would really hate.
Oren: Put that under the label of more things Oren would really hate. But, I mean, if you’re doing that prophecy, you’re gonna have to make some choices. One, is the story over when they pull the sword out? Because at that point, the prophecy can be as literal and as enforced as you need it to be, because all it says is that if you pull this sword out, you’ll be king. It doesn’t say who’s gonna do that. So at that point, pulling the sword out could be the goal. But if the story keeps going after that part, and now you’re trying to become king, well, now you’re gonna have to ask some questions about how that prophecy works and whether or not it’s actually set in stone. Pun absolutely intended.[all laugh/groan]
Chris: [Laughs] We should talk about curses. I mean the type of curse that is basically a bad prophecy, right? Cause we could call any negative omen a curse if we want to, but I think we’re talking about Sleeping Beauty.
Oren: So the core problem with curses in any kind of fantasy story is that they are a really convoluted way of attacking someone
Wes: So Oren’s like, “I don’t want you to send that kid out on some hill with some shepherd. I just need you to shoot them with a crossbow.”
Oren: Look, I’m just saying, if you could put someone to sleep for a hundred years or whatever, why are you conditioning it on them pricking their finger on some kind of sewing instrument? That’s a weird condition. Or like, if you can kill someone, why are you making the condition of their death if they confess their true love for somebody? What possible reason could you have for doing things that way?
Wes: For the pain, Oren, for the pain.
Oren: For the lulls.
Chris: So this is this trope, which I just made fun of on a comic, but it appeared in recent Nancy Drew season where we decide to have an antagonist that’s supposed to be extorting Nancy Drew – but there’s still gotta be a much more straightforward way of extorting her, right? It’s like, if you stop me, then if you get together with your love interest, he’ll die. It’s like, okay. Not just if you stop me your love interest will die, but if you stop me and then you date your love interest then he’ll die.
Oren: That’s not only more convoluted, it’s way less effective as a deterrent strategy.
Chris: And of course, the other thing about this is every time we get one of these “You can’t date your love interest because you’ll die” – again, this also happens in Princess Tutu – and the idea is if she expresses her love she’ll turn into a light and fade away, or something like that. Skin to the sea has it too. But it’s all just very arbitrary.
And then the character always has to break his heart, cause it’s usually, again, a female protagonist with a male love interest. Always has to, you know, “No, I don’t love you!” Do something devastating, right? So Nancy Drew yells at her love interest, “No, I don’t have any feelings for you. We’re just friends, you know?” And that just doesn’t seem like the rational way you would act in a situation where you have a very specific restriction.
Oren: At least in Skin of the Sean and Princess Tutu those are in theory not being cast by the protagonist’s enemies as an attack against them.
Chris: Yeah, that is more like a weird law of the universe.
Oren: Right. Which is still pretty weird. Why is the universe set up that way? Princess Tutu is at least a parody story, so I guess we can excuse it under the it’s supposed to be making fun of this rule. But you know, I see that in a lot of stories where it if you do this weird specific thing, the universe will punish you. And it’s like, that’s just a very odd thing for the universe to be set up to do. Why is the universe so concerned with this particular romance?
Chris: It’s like some storyteller ran out of romance obstacles.
Oren: Yeeeaaah. It’s almost like that.
Wes: You mentioned Good Omens earlier. Prophecies, or omens, or all of it – I’m trying to decide. Agnes Nutter wrote down everything. I mean, they literally say, if Agnes predicted everything, then she’ll know exactly what we need to do next. And they randomly grab an omen out of there, like floating around the room or something. It kind of gets at what you’re talking about, Oren. It’s like, what’s the point of anything?
Oren: Well, to some extent, Good Omens is doing the thing that is a natural extension of what you would do if prophecies worked this way, which is, “Ok, so the prophecy can’t change, because predestination paradox, and as contrived as it is, that’s how it works.” And so your options are to either use whatever you know is going to happen to your advantage, which is what the family does.
I think in the show, they mentioned that they invested in Apple in the Eighties. So she predicted that Apple is going to become a huge company – nothing can change that no matter what you do – even if you blow up Apple headquarters, somehow that will lead to Apple becoming a big company. So instead just buy Apple stock. It doesn’t say anywhere in the prophecy that you don’t do that.
And that’s what they do to a certain extent. But then later in the story, they start trying to actually get the prophecy to find out what’s gonna happen. But at that point. It doesn’t really matter because they’re trying to know a thing so that they can presumably change the outcome, but we’ve already established that you can’t change the outcome of these prophecies. If the outcome is something you’re trying to change, knowing it won’t help, unless you’re going to do my good friend the Illusionist Gambit, where you fake out the universe, by making it look like the thing that the prophecy said was gonna happen happened. So that technically the prophecy is fulfilled and the universe will get off your back[Laughter]
And they don’t do that in Good Omens because they’re not that evolved. They haven’t reached the Galaxy Brain level of thinking that I have. I’ve been podcasting for too long. You either stop podcasting as the hero or you keep podcasting long enough to see yourself become the Galaxy Brain villain.
Wes: I’m here for it.
Oren: I mentioned this very early, which was at the start when we were talking about sci-fi prophecies, but I just wanna circle back because sci-fi prophecies are a new level of problematic. Because at least in fantasy, you can generally have some kind of reason why we can’t just keep churning out prophecies. But if you invent a machine that makes prophecies, it can just keep making them, especially if you’re going with the standard sci-fi explanation of this computer is just really, really, really good at predicting things based on the data we feed it. It’s like, well, you can just keep doing that. If it actually works, why would you ever stop?
Chris: This also can be annoying just because it’s impossible for a regular computer, because you need data. A lot of times people making technology forget that sometimes you don’t have the data necessary to make conclusions. It doesn’t matter how smart the computer is. So potentially you could use that to limit computers’ predictions. At the same time, then you would call attention to, how is it getting all the data it has in the first place? Do you have infinite data collection? I mean, if you’re omniscient then I think your predictions would be pretty good at that point. Anybody could predict a lot of things that they’re omniscient.
Oren: And that’s the problem with the Augments in Deep Space Nine. Where they keep making all of these predictions, because they’re that smart – you know, quote unquote – some kind of vague intelligence that they have, and those predictions always come true. Until they predict that the Federation is gonna lose the war. And the message at the end of that episode is like, well, we’re gonna fight anyway. And I guess they end up being wrong, but we never come back to that to try to be like, well, why were they wrong this time? Why are they right every other time, but this time they’re wrong? Is it just, do they have an error rate? Cos that would be interesting. Maybe their error rate is 18% and this happened to be in the 18%, but that would mean some of their other decisions are also wrong. And that’s not how the show treats it. It’s a mess. It’s a huge mess is what it is.
And this applies to any character whose power is being able to predict things, because they’re so smart because that’s sort of power that it’s really hard to tangibly show why it does or doesn’t work. So it’s just gonna end up seeming contrived most of the time.
Chris: Yeah. I think you’d end up at a Troi situation.
Oren: Mm-hmm , that’s exactly what it.
Chris: “I feel like he’s deceiving us, but I don’t know about what.” All right, well, we could kind of tell that already, but thanks Troi
Oren: And this is why the Foundation was smart in that the Foundation is like, “I have a special new thing that can predict societal trends” and it’s like, well, “Congratulations, we can already do that. Lots of us predict societal trends all the time.” “Yeah, but mine’s special.” “All right, what do you predict?” “I predict the empire will collapse because it’s overly dependent on unsustainable trade practices.” “Wow, we never could have predicted that without your very special machine. Thank you. Seldon good job.” You know, it’s like, just keep the predictions very broad and then just kind of ignore it for the rest of the story.
Wes: Yeah. So I guess just keep in mind as we kind of close up here that the prophecy that makes your story predictable is not a good prophecy, and maybe a prophecy in your story just isn’t a good idea. So sayeth the wise Orlando.
Chris: If you enjoyed this podcast, please support us on Patreon. You can go to patreon.com/mythcreants or mythcreants.com/support.
Oren: And now as the prophecy has foretold, I will thank our existing patrons: Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in star Trek; Ayman Jaber, who is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel; and Danita Rambo, lives up at therambo geeks.com. I predicted that this would happen and it did. [Mystic voice] Goodnight![Closing theme]
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