An Example of the Infinite Possibilities of Writing Systems: Mandombe

I recently came across Endangered Alphabets, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization engaged in “preserving endangered cultures by using their writing systems to create artwork and educational materials”.

An article in Colossal pulled several examples from the Endangered database. The most striking of them, I thought, was Mandombe. It was created about 40 years ago by David Wabeladio Payi. His work was influenced by the look of a brick wall and a wish to connect the direction a shape pointed with pronunciation.

Endangered Alphabets Mandombe-script-example Sm

Apparently, Mandombe is based on consonant and vowel graphemes, but they are organized into syllabic blocks (like written Korean) instead of word-length units.

Endangered Alphabets Mandombe Script Table Sm

Today, Mandombe is taught in Angola, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, and Brussels.

Wikipedia Mandombe Book Sm

Isn’t it fascinating?

P.S. Did you know that the United Nations declared 2019 The Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019) in order to raise awareness of the thousands of languages that are in danger of disappearing? Also, go ahead and visit the gallery or atlas at Endangered Alphabets for even more eye candy!

Images: script sample and table via Endangered Alphabets. Mandombe book via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

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The Staffordshire Helmet Reconstructed

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest and perhaps the most magnificent find from Anglo-Saxon England. The hoard dates from the 7th century and comes from the Kingdom of Mercia. It was found in 2009 by an amateur archaeologist with a metal detector, and is now owned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils on behalf of the nation.

The vast majority of items in the hoard are war gear, especially sword fittings. Among the items, all of which are of exceptionally high quality, is a helmet. Two copies of a reconstruction completed in 2018 are now available for public viewing, one in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Birmingham, England) and the other in The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England).

And it’s utterly breathtaking!

Twitter Staffordshire Hoard Helmet on Model Sm

Potteries Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

The so-called Staffordshire Helmet is very rare—only five other Anglo-Saxon helmets are known—and looks exquisite: the gold filigree with red accents make an arresting combination, and the dyed crest adds to the wearer’s height.

Birmingham Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

As Erik pointed out, ancient Greeks and Romans portrayed northwestern barbarians as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. On the basis of the Staffordshire Hoard alone, whatever else they were, there’s absolutely no basis in calling Anglo-Saxons technologically unskilled!

Visit The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery or Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for more.

Found via Express & Star on Twitter.

Images: Staffordshire Helmet worn by model via Staffordshire Hoard on Twitter. Side view via Staffordshire Hoard. Front view via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Aithiopia Forever

The Greek historian Herodotus tells us some interesting stories about the people he refers to as Ethiopians (or Aithiopes in Greek). The term Ethiopians/Aithiopes was widely used in ancient Greece for any dark-skinned people from the southern regions of Africa or India, but the people Herodotus means were those who lived in the northeastern African interior, south of Egypt along the Nile, in the region we know as Nubia.

Herodotus reports several remarkable things about these Ethiopians.While many of these stories are fanciful, or at least greatly exaggerated, they paint an interesting picture of what Herodotus and his fellow Greeks imagined the people of inner Africa to be like.

They were physically impressive and long-lived:

The Ethiopians are said to be the tallest and most beautiful of all peoples.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.20

Most of them live to 120 and some surpass this.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.23

They enjoyed a life of ease and good health, enabled by the special resources of their land:

There is a meadow outside the city filled with boiled meats from animals of all kinds. The lords of the city make it their custom to set these meats out at night, and during the day anyone who wants to may feast there. The locals say that the earth itself provides these things.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.18

[The Ethiopians possessed] a spring where they washed themselves and became sleeker, as if they had bathed in oil, even though it smelled of violets. … [T]he water of this spring was so light that nothing could float on it, neither wood nor anything lighter. Everything just sank to the bottom. If what they say is true, it seems likely that it is their regular use of this spring that makes them all so long-lived.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.23

They have an interesting way of choosing their leader:

Their customs are unlike those of any other people, and especially their kingship: they choose as king the one among them who is tallest and has the strength to match his height.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.20

And they preferred to be left alone and not be bothered by the rest of the world’s problems:

The Ethiopian king said [to the Persian king’s emissaries]: “The king of the Persians does not send you with these gifts because he desires my friendship, nor have you spoken the truth, for you have come here to spy on my kingdom. Nor is that man just, for if he were he would not desire the lands of others or enslave men who have done him no wrong. Now, give him this bow and say to him: ‘The king of the Ethiopians advises the king of the Persians that when a Persian can draw so strong a bow as easily as I do, then he may contemplate making war upon the long-lived Ethiopians. Until then, let him thank the gods for not putting the sons of the Ethiopians in a mood to conquer other lands.’”

– Herodotus, Histories 3.21

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Herodotus’ Aithiopia is essentially Wakanda.

Happy anniversary, Black Panther!

Image: T’Challa and Shuri via Giphy

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Visual Inspiration: Now I See from Where Ents Might Have Come

As a kid, I spent time playing in the small wooded areas nearby and imagined all sorts of critters living there. I know I did, but at some point I lost the ability (or willingness, or perhaps leisure? I remember an increase in homework around the same time). By the time I read of the enormous woodlands in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I remember having trouble imagining the really large trees of Lothlórien or Mirkwood, or how Ents might be mistaken for trees.

You see, I grew up two hours south of the Arctic Circle. We have woods up there, of course, thanks to the Gulf stream. The trees may not necessarily grow very big, however—although there are exceptions—and the ones that do grow tall tend to be relatively thin and arrow-straight instead of bulky and gnarly. (Two examples here and here. Both are further south than where I grew up, but nevertheless very similar.)

So, even I can easily imagine how a forest might invoke stories of elves, trolls, ents, and other creatures on the basis of photos of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, Devon, England.

Flickr Andy Walker Wistmans Wood

Flickr Clifton Beard Wistmans Wood

Flickr Natural England Peter Wakely Wistmans Wood

Isn’t it breathtaking? It’s like there are Ents about to walk out from behind a tree at any moment!

Images: Andy Walker (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flicker. Clifton Beard (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr. Natural England/Peter Wakely (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Mountains and Valleys

Landscape and geography shape the ways people live and the kinds of societies they build. While we cannot lay it down as a rule that a particular kind of landscape always produces a corresponding type of society, there are definite patterns that can be found in many parts of the world. One important set of such patterns revolves around the interaction between mountain societies and river valley societies.

River valleys have long been centers of population and growth. Rivers provide crucial resources including drinking water, irrigation water, and fish, which allow for a large population to grow in a small area. Rivers also provide easy transport for people and goods, encouraging travel and trade. As a result, river valleys support the development of large-scale, densely populated settlements. It is no surprise that most of the world’s earliest urbanized societies emerged in river valleys, including the Nile River in Egypt, the Tirgis and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the Indus River in India, and the Yellow River in China.

Because of the ways that river valleys encourage dense, concentrated populations, the people who live along rivers have to develop ways of managing social conflicts that aren’t necessary in more widely scattered settlements. Early valley cultures were faced with the problem of working out competing claims to resources like irrigation water and access to navigable streams. They also confronted situations in which one person’s actions, such as discharging waste into a common waterway, could affect many other people. Different cultures found different ways of dealing with these problems. Some arrived at relatively peaceful and stable solutions while others frequently fell into conflicts over rights and resources. In the end, though, many river valley cultures ended up with complex, socially-stratified societies ruled over by centralized, bureaucratic governments.

Mountain societies, by contrast, tend to be small-scale, economically simple, and egalitarian. In the mountains, crucial resources such as fertile land and fresh water tend to be scattered in small pockets rather than concentrated in large quantities. Travel is difficult and time-consuming. These facts of geography lead to people living in very small communities, individual farmsteads, or movable camps. Self-sufficiency is at a premium when you can’t easily reach out to a larger community to help solve your problems. Mountain cultures therefore tend to remain small and highly local, and to rely more on personal relationships than organized institutions. Large-scale, organized mountain empires do exist in history, such as the Inca Empire in the Andes, but they are rare.

In some mountain cultures, the very sparseness of the population helps to maintain peace—you don’t fight your neighbors if you never see your neighbors—but the same factors that shape mountain cultures also often encourage violent conflict. When resources are limited, population growth can lead to spikes of competition, sometimes escalating into violence. Without well-developed institutions for managing interpersonal or inter-family conflict, fights over land and other vital resources can spiral out of control or drag on for generations. Many mountain societies have historically been subject to frequent violent conflicts, and those who live in them develop fighting skills as a matter of course.

These basic patterns have tended to shape how mountain cultures and river valley cultures have developed in history, but neither valleys nor mountains exist on their own. When valley societies and mountain societies interacted with one another, a whole new set of dynamics came into play.

Valley societies and mountain societies have often found themselves in conflict, but it is has historically been difficult for one to decisively overcome the other. River valley societies have the resources and surplus population to field large, well-organized armies and to provide those armies with a reliable source of supplies for long campaigns. Valley armies, however, have often struggled to assert control over mountainous regions. The fragmented nature of mountains makes it difficult to move large numbers of troops and supplies around. At the same time, mountains provide plenty of hiding places for local fighters who know the terrain well. Mountainous terrain favors the kind of small, mobile, skirmishing bands and guerrilla tactics that small, feuding, fragmented mountain cultures develop. Sometimes in history, valley empires have been able to assert control over the mountains at their edges, but it requires a concerted effort. The Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia, for instance, kept up steady pressure against the mountain tribes to the north and east, but never had much direct control over them. The Roman Empire had secure control of the lowlands on both sides of the Alps generations before it could claim success in the mountains themselves.

On the other hand, mountain people rarely have much success at invading well-developed valley cultures. While mountain warriors tend to be good at hit-and-run raiding and harassing tactics that can effectively limit a valley culture’s reach, conquering a valley takes a more coordinated effort and larger numbers of troops than most mountain societies can muster. Without a well-established centralized government, mountain armies are more dependent on ties of family loyalty and negotiated compromises that are hard to maintain far from home under the rigors of a campaign. While there are often hostilities in the hinterlands where organized, expansive river valley powers run up against the scattered but tenacious resistance of mountain-dwellers, it is rare that one side manages to decisively defeat the other.

Decisive defeats can happen, however. Sometimes, as with the Roman conquest of the Alps, Spain, Illyria, and other mountainous parts of the greater Mediterranean, river valley cultures can gather the resources and effort for a concerted push that overwhelms the locals’ ability to resist. Other times, moments of weakness in the valley can create an opening for aggressive mountain neighbors to sweep down and take control. The Zhou Dynasty in China was founded when a people from the mountainous uplands of the west seized power from the Shang Dynasty that had ruled the lowlands of the Yellow River valley. The Persians came from the mountains of the Iranian Plateau to build an empire that took in two of the great ancient river valley civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The legends of the Mexica, whom we often refer to as Aztecs, say that they came from a mountainous home called Aztlán before migrating into the Valley of Mexico and dominating it with their warriors. There may well be some historical truth behind this myth.

Not all mountain-valley interactions are hostile, however. Sometimes mountain and valley societies can coexist peacefully and profitably. River valleys produce agricultural surplus, which is often in demand in the mountains where farming is harder and less predictable. Mountains can produce useful commodities such as metals, timber, and stone that are harder to come by in the lowlands. Mountains can also be good recruiting grounds for mercenaries to build up valley armies. The rugged mountains of Greece provided trade goods and experienced warriors to Egypt and Egypt in return furnished surplus food to Greece in a relationship that was stable and mutually beneficial.

There are no hard rules in history. The study of the past is as much the study of exceptions and unexpected results as it is of familiar patterns. Still, the patterns are there. History is full of mountain people and river valley people, and the problems and opportunities that arise when they come into contact with one another.

Thoughts for writers

As always, my advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land. The ways that societies shape themselves, cope with problems, and interact with one another are always influenced by the landscape in which they were created.

The dynamics of mountain and valley societies are also applicable to other landscapes. Wherever large numbers of people settle around a shared resource—a mystical Elven city on a nexus of magic-bearing ley lines, say, or a space station guarding a hyperspace portal—similar conflicts are likely to arise, leading to a similar range of possible solutions. Wherever people live in small, scattered communities with limited resources—whether it’s desert nomads traveling from oasis to oasis or hardscrabble asteroid miners—their cultures will likely reflect many of the same influences as mountain societies. When these disparate groups of people interact, they will show the effects of many of the same forces at work between mountain and valley peoples.

The interactions of mountain people and valley people have shaped history. They can shape imagined worlds as well.

Image: Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, photograph by Imrankhakwami via Wikimedia

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

One Month to the Captain Marvel Movie Release

The release of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain Marvel is one month away.

Twitter Review Wire Media CpMarvel Character Posters

Nice—out of nine characters who got their own posters, four are women, four are men, and one is a cat. Can’t wait!

I’ve tried to stay away from spoilers of any kind, but it’s difficult to do completely in these days of nigh-universal social media saturation. (Yes, I protect my media bubble accordingly!)

While looking for an image to post I came across some discussion on the cat, apparently called Goose, whom we saw Nick Fury getting cute with in the second trailer. That, at least, is a safe topic! 😀

And here’s the tv spot that dropped last weekend:

Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel – “Big Game” TV Spot by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Only a few new clips there.

Soon! 🙂

Image: Marvel Entertainment via Review Wire Media on Twitter

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 5

Season 5 of Murdoch Mysteries sees a new addition to the cast, ongoing relationship drama, and the return of some of our favorite and least favorite recurring characters. Here’s how we rated the season’s episodes:

  1. “Murdoch of the Klondike” – 7
  2. “Back and to the Left” – 8
  3. “Evil Eye of Egypt” – 6
  4. “War on Terror” – 6
  5. “Murdoch at the Opera” – 4
  6. “Who Killed the Electric Carriage” – 7
  7. “Stroll on the Wild Side, Part 1” – 5.5
  8. “Stroll on the Wild Side, Part 2” – 4
  9. “Invention Convention” – 8.5
  10. “Staircase to Heaven” – 4
  11. “Murdoch in Toyland” – 2
  12. “Murdoch Night in Canada” – 4.5
  13. “Twentieth Century Murdoch” – 5

The average rating this season is 5.5, a little weak but still decent. This season has a lot going for it, but at the same time has some problems that weigh it down. The season starts off strong with “Murdoch of the Klondike” in which a disillusioned Murdoch turned prospector decides to take up the badge once again, and “Back and to the Left,” an ingenious case of political intrigue which plays with the tropes of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. The latter half of the season drags a bit under the weight of a few too many recurring characters whose stories get in the way of Murdoch doing what Murdoch does best.

Our least favorite episode of the season is “Murdoch in Toyland,” which we gave a 2. James Gillies, from season 2‘s “Big Murderer on Campus” returns with an overdone and rather absurd plot to annoy Murdoch. We have absolutely had our fill of clever serial killers who follow detectives around like puppies pooping on the furniture for attention. No more.

At the top, we rated “Invention Convention” an 8.5. In this episode, an ingenious device used to murder a competitive inventor seems to have been a collaborative effort by his rivals, but turns out to have been even more insidious. This episode features Alexander Graham Bell and lets Murdoch geek out over some before-their-time inventions ranging from the Lazy Susan to e-mail.

One of the best features of this season is the introduction of Dr. Emily Grace as Dr. Ogden’s assistant-on-the-way-to-replacement in the morgue. We enjoy Dr. Grace’s fresh and sometimes shockingly modern (for 1899) perspective, and she has great onscreen chemistry with the established characters. For a series that in the past has struggled to even nominally pass the Bechdel test, adding a second regular female character is also very welcome (although quite a few of this season’s episodes still fail the test, or squeak by on technicalities).

Many familiar guest stars return for another go this season, some more welcome than others. James Gillies we have already mentioned—he worked well for one episode, but he should have ended there. Canadian secret agent Terrence Myers makes a return appearance, as does his American counterpart Allen Clegg. Both actors are always wonderful to watch, but their episode falls a bit flat. Anna Fulford, who helped Murdoch when he was on the run in England and suffering from amnesia back in season 3, makes a welcome return, but her double episode doesn’t use the character nearly as well. On the other hand, James Pendrick is back Pendricking things up with a solar-powered electric car and a gentleman’s feud with Henry Ford that makes for an entertaining episode.

How about the rest of you? What did you love (or not) from this season?

Image: Murdoch Mysteries ladies doing science via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Spider-Man: Far from Home Trailer

After a slew of horrible unsuccessful Spider-Man movie attempts, Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Homecoming felt like a warm spring after a prolonged winter: young, fresh, and welcomed with open arms. Apart from a great supporting cast, Tom Holland’s Spidey is the first screen version that actually feels young and boisterous.

It’s now five months until the sequel, Spider-Man: Far from Home, is released and the first teaser has been out a few weeks:

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME – Official Teaser Trailer by Sony Pictures Entertainment on YouTube

Clearly he is brought back during Avengers: Endgame (which drops two months prior to SMFFH) after being ashed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. It’s an odd situation; then again, this long a sequence of superhero movies is entirely unprecedented.

Anyway. In the sequel, Spidey gets to go to Europe on a school trip – the debate team from SMH by the looks of it. We see glimpses of London and Venice, plus Nick Fury sticking his fingers in the soup. But before Peter even gets his wheels up, we see Aunt May heading a Spidey rally of some sort. (I think I heard that she has become his social media person?) Not a bad way to update the story a bit. And, what! Happy is batting his eyelashes at May?!?

The neatest effects have to be the earth, fire, and water spirits, though. (WoW elementals, anyone? Now I want to play my shaman more… or maybe my frost mage.) I don’t know anything about Peter Gyllenhaal’s character (Mysterio), so we’ll see. The best lines of the trailer are given to Zendaya, however:

Peter: “You look really pretty.”
Michelle: “And therefore I have value?”
Peter: *stutters* “No… I…”
Michelle: “I’m messing with you. You look… pretty, too.”

LOL! 😀

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Cap’n Crackers

Pour, O pour the pirates’ sherry, fill, O fill the pirates’ glass!

As a thank-you for participating in her positive WoW-ing experiment, Alunaria has very generously given us new pets! Here’s my rogue with Cap’n Crackers, a shoulder-sitting parrot, living the pirate life.

Thank you, Alunaria! It was fun, and the new friend is a lovely bonus!

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Quotes: Tanks Being Repulsed by Pistol Fire

After the Finnish centennial in 2017, I’ve been reading outside my usual periods of Finnish history a little, including on the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940, for 105 days against the USSR). Here’s another literally incredible detail.

Fighting was going on near Hulkoniemi village (close to Suomussalmi) near the eastern border in December 1939:

“[T]wo Red tanks attacked a Finnish squad caught in lightly wooded terrain near the village. A lieutenant named Huovinen taped five stick grenades together and crawled forward toward the tanks; his friend, First Lieutenant Virkki, intended to provide covering fire, despite the fact that he was carrying only his side arm. At a range of forty meters Virkki stood up and emptied his 9 mm. Lahti automatic at the vehicles’ observation slits. The T-28s replied with a spray of machine-gun fire, and Virkki went down. Those watching felt sure he had been killed. But he had only dropped down to slap another magazine into the butt of his weapon. That done, he jumped up and once more emptied his pistol at the tanks. Altogether this deadly dance step was repeated three times, at which point the Russian tankers seemed to become unnerved. They turned around and clanked back to the village. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Huovinen had been crawling closer to them from the rear and now had his arm cocked to throw the grenade bundle. Just at that moment the tank nearest him put on speed and retreated. He lowered his grenades in astonishment. Surely there were not many instances in modern warfare of tanks being repulsed by pistol fire.”

– William Trotter, A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940

I’m flabbergasted! Gobsmacked! Slack-jawed! Astounded! A pistol against two tanks, and not a scratch!

In school, we’ve been through the major whys and wherefores, but I don’t remember small-scale stories like this. If you’d put this in a fictional story of any kind, I’m not sure I’d believe it. And, yet, it happened to countrymen of mine.

Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 157.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.