Some Random Thoughts on Black Panther

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Erik’s random thoughts:

  • This is the movie that Thor was trying to be: a Shakespearean family drama about an exiled hero coming to terms with the destiny of his people and his father’s failures in the midst of a gorgeous futuristic city-state. (On a side note: does anyone actually remember the original Thor movie or have we collectively agreed that the franchise starts with number 3?)
  • I love the architecture of Wakanda. It looks like the product of thousands of years of African tradition with the highest of modern technology, just as it should.
  • Even for a fantasy of African exceptionalism, the story does not shy away from the bitter real history of imperialism, exploitation, slavery, and its modern-day consequences, and the movie is richer and stronger for it.
  • Shuri is awesome. Her combination of flippancy in the face of tradition, passion for technological tinkering, and powerful love for her family and home make her a delight to watch. I think she’s my favorite character in the whole movie, and that’s not an easy pick in this one.
  • Could we have T’Challa and Shuri take over the Tony Stark role in the Marvel Universe, please? I appreciate what Iron Man did to kickstart the MCU and hold the early installments together, but I’ve had enough of him now. I honestly don’t think I can handle one more movie about Tony Stark’s emotional issues. T’Challa can be the guy in the super suit who cracks wise while leading the fight and Shuri can be the tinkerer who keeps upgrading everybody’s gear.
  • Even in a franchise that includes a movie about waking up one morning to discover that literal Nazis have taken over the US government, Black Panther feels like the movie we most need in 2018: a meditation on the temptations of division, resentment, and revenge and the hard choice of embracing a flawed and fractured world with hope. As crucially as Black Panther contributes to the representation of black people in genre media—and by Bast it does—it has a lot to say outside the dialogue of race as well.
  • For the record: as a white man, I have no problem whatsoever identifying with the characters of this movie. I’m not talking about Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, either—Zuri is my guy.

 

Eppu’s random thoughts:

Note: These thoughts are based on one viewing. I’m fully aware that some of them are just scratching the surface and that I need to see the move (at least!) a second time and mull things over properly.

  • If I had to use one word to describe Black Panther, on a meta level it would be confelicity: I am so, so, SO glad for those black people who are exited, overjoyed, and exhilarated over seeing a full cast of people that look like them acting with grace and agency, not minimized but celebrated! On a story level, I’d use equality.
  • I knew from reading non-spoiler reviews beforehand that the movie passes the Bechdel test, so I didn’t even bother tracking it. It was very nice not to have to care.
  • If it was nice not to have to care about whether the Bechdel test passes or not, it was outright GLORIOUS to see that WOMEN ARE PEOPLE in their own right, with their own interior lives, not just breasts and posteriors for men to ogle. And such a spread of different women, too, each doing their thing according to their interests and skills. Because that’s who we are, and what we do, and have done for millenia, and it’s damn time that the self-absorbed, able-bodied, white cis hetero men in Hollywood respected that. (Yes, I know that the Black Panther team behind the camera included many, many people of color, including women, but that’s not the default, is it.)
  • And of course it’s not just that women are people in their own right, but that there are so many diverse black women. Have you any idea what a disservice (to put it mildly) your typical Anglo-American fiction does to women of color, especially black women? I didn’t until I started paying attention. It’s atrocious and shameful.
  • Black Panther was visually beautiful. Beautiful! It was so beautiful my brain experienced a moment of “this looks wrong” when stepping out of the movie theater into the dim and snowless February evening in Massachusetts.
  • Also, the sets and costumes were breathtaking just like I thought. Everything looked like it was produced by a living culture, with layers of history and development alike.
  • OMG, the tech. Those dragonfly helicopters! Attack rhinos! I kinda want those 3d phone calls! No—scratch that. The maglev trains and über-advanced health care. Like now.
  • The opening sequence (T’Chaka voiceover telling a story to young T’Challa) and the end credit visuals I thought nodded back to the superhero fight statue end credits for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yet neither ever lost sight of the fact that they were for and about Black Panther.
  • A superhero movie with a male lead confident and mature enough to listen to others ROCKS! (Hat tip to Justina Ireland for pointing out T’Challa’s ability to listen as a core personality trait.)
  • I liked Martin Freeman’s character Everett Ross in this movie. He started with “I know what I’m doing, piss off little people” claptrap. In Wakanda, however, he quickly—and without too much whining—realized how out of his depth he was and spent a good while looking and listening and learning. In the final battle, he redeemed himself to some extent in my eyes when he hopped back into the fighter jet holo-interface to destoy the final cargo plane after he’d discovered that the base he was sitting in was under attack and that there was less than a minute before the gunfire broke through. And never, ever was he written or played as a Mighty Whitey.
  • It was also good to see a thoroughly accomplished man (T’Challa) grapple with impostor syndrome (not ready to be King). We don’t see or hear much of that; mostly it’s women who are saddled with it in the public discussion.
  • I liked T’Challa’s relationship with the rest of his family members, but I LOVED every moment between him and Princess Shuri. They so clearly love and respect each other as equals—with different skill sets, sure, but equals nevertheless—plus jostle around like real-life siblings.
  • Finally, all of the acting was so good. I won’t miss Andy Serkis’s character. At. All! Props to Serkis, his incredible performance made the dude truly terrifying and disgusting, but I’d rather watch the competent and kind Africans, thank you.

Shuri and T'Challa gif

Images: Black Panther poster via IMDb. Shuri and T’Challa gif via media.riffsy.com.

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

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Imagining a Minoan Home

Imagining the mundane details of daily life in past cultures can be difficult. Everyday things like houses, clothing, and daily routines tend not to be well-represented in textual or archaeological sources because they were so ordinary that no one thought to write about them or take care to preserve them. Yet these are exactly the sorts of everyday details that can be most useful when looking to the past for inspiration for worldbuilding. To try to understand what daily life looked like in the past, we often rely on chance finds and careful reading of sources that weren’t intended as guides to the mundane.

For example, we have only a limited idea of what an ancient Minoan house may have looked like. The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete and some of the southern islands of the Aegean Sea in the first half of the second millennium BCE, at its height between roughly 2100 and 1400 BCE. Minoan palaces have been thoroughly excavated at sites such as Knossos and Phaistos, but what about the homes of ordinary people?

We have a few valuable sources of evidence. One is this pottery house model found at Archanes, on Crete. This model shows many features that must have been part of everyday Minoan architecture: solid lower-story walls and a breezy columned upper story, windows barred with slats, a projecting balcony, and perhaps a small walled garden. (The entry door is on the other side of the model; the upper story is modern reconstruction.)

House model, photograph by Zde via Wikimedia (Archanes, currently Archaeological Museum, Heraklion; c. 1700 BCE; pottery)

To get a sense of how houses like this fit together to make up a village, we can look to the site of Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement on the island of Thera (now called Santorini) that was buried in a volcanic eruption sometime around the late 1600s BCE. Despite the destructive effects of the eruption, excavation at the site has found a tightly-built settlement of multi-story houses connected by streets and drainage channels.

Photograph of Akrotiri excavation by F. Eveleens via Wikimedia

 

More evidence comes from a fresco that was preserved on the wall of a house at Akrotiri, depicting a panoramic view of the island. This segment shows the town. While the image is a little hard to interpret, we can clearly see a densely-built settlement with houses made of regularly cut stone sitting on many levels. These houses display many of the same features as the Archanes house: low doorways, porticoed porches, windows covered by slats, and people looking out from balconies or rooftops.

Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

When we put all these different sources together, we can begin to imagine everyday life in a Minoan house: the shady lower floor and the breezy upper floor, the slivers of sunlight coming in through the window grilles, the gurgle of water running by in the drain channel right outside, and the endless chatter of the neighbors on their overhanging balcony. For creating any sort of pre-modern culture in a warm, dry setting like the Mediterranean, it’s not a bad start.

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.

Favorite Kinds of Storytelling: Learning to Work Together to Solve Problems

There are some things that we can all pretty much agree are part of a good story, whether on the page or on the screen: compelling characters, an interesting setting, a well-crafted plot. These things are basic to most great stories. But then we have our own individual tastes, the particular things we hunger for and that make us excited about one story more than another.

The two of us have spent some time thinking about exactly what we most want out of stories. Here’s what we came up with.

Avengers How Do We Do This As a Team

Erik here. What I most want out of a story can be summed up as: Problem-Solving. I want to watch characters go through the process of confronting a problem, considering how to deal with it, and figuring out the best solution. I want to see not just the successful results but all the steps it took to get there. I want to know what the characters did, how it worked, and why it worked.

The obvious sort of story for me to go to is a mystery in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / Agatha Christie tradition, where the narrative centers around a problem that needs to be solved and the climax comes with the detective meticulously explaining how they worked out that the vicar’s charwoman is actually the long-lost sister of Lady Dudsworthy and the poison was hidden in Colonel Flusterton’s peppermint lozenges.

But I also enjoy other kinds of stories that explore other kinds of problem-solving. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is full of problem-solving and process, from Gandalf working out the magic word to open the doors of Khazad-dum to Frodo and Sam donning orc armor to sneak across Mordor. My favorite part of the novel is the Council of Elrond, when our heroes sit down and spend a chapter just talking about the problem, possible solutions, and the limits of their options, rather than rushing off into heroic battle. Jane Austen’s novels also offer a kind of problem-solving, especially my favorites Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Even though the problems are about relationships and social interactions, Austen’s characters approach them with the same attention to what is possible, what is not, and how to best go about achieving their goals.

On tv, I love shows like Leverage and Burn Notice that focus on the practical details of how their characters pull of heists or get out of scrapes. I also enjoy shows that focus on the processes of problem-solving in more human, less technical terms, like Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey. Some of the movies I enjoy the most combine solving practical problems with working out conflicts between people, like The Avengers and Pacific Rim.

 

Eppu here. My favorite story moments involve a bunch of characters learning to work together. I haven’t yet found a good existing name to describe the device with. The closest ones I’ve found are We Work Well Together (a trope) and team building, but both have a slightly different focus. For the lack of a better term I’m calling mine Learning to Work Together.

Specifically, what I like is the hard-to-capture process of the characters realising (usually after a struggle or struggles) how to fit into a working whole all the separate strengths that each person brings. Optimally, of course, it will be a well-working whole at least from the point of view of plot. It’s nice if the characters will end up at least appreciating if not outright liking each other, too, even if there might be tense moments. At the very least they will have to deal with each other well enough to fulfill their goal(s).

Many ensemble stories tack on a sequence of Learning to Work Together to explain how the characters become a unit after they find each other. Some devote more time and effort into it, but for others the process of getting to know your teammates is more or less handwaved aside to make space for the all-important plot. While plot is necessary, I don’t think it should override everything else: I’m looking for a balanced story—preferably with a good heaping of Learning to Work Together.

Some favorite screen examples include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Hunger Games, Marvel’s The Avengers, and the series Leverage (although arguably the latter might better fit under We Work Well Together). One of the reasons I ended up liking Pacific Rim much more than I expected was the attention that was given to the formation of team Raleigh and Mako, with Pentecost hovering at the rim. (Badum-CHING! [Sorry!])

Satisfyingly protracted versions are shown in the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Elementary. While Murdoch Mysteries concentrates more on the problem-solving aspect, now and then recurring side characters or one-off visitors get wonderful sequences of Learning to Work Together. And, come to think of it, several of my favorite Doctor Who episodes involve the characters figuring out who the others are and how to interact with them effectively (“42”, “Blink”, “Silence in the Library”, and “Midnight” to mention a few).

Examples in novels and novellas that I’ve read recently include A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, and Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series also sprinkle in many instances of Learning to Work Together whenever characters make new connections.

 

The best stories for the two of us to co-geek over as a couple are stories about groups of people learning to work together in order to solve problems. When we sit down to rewatch a favorite tv series or reminisce about our favorite books together, we go back to the stories about how different people can come together, learn to respect and trust one another, and use their own individual talents to work through a problem that none of them could solve on their own.

Made into a sound bite, Erik’s favorite stories are about “How do we do this?” and Eppu’s favorites are about “As a team.”

Image: screenshot from the 2012 Marvel movie The Avengers

Creative Differences is an occasional feature in which we discuss a topic or question that we both find interesting. Hear from both of us about whatever’s on our minds.

Dirty Jokes in Ancient Gaul

It’s been said that one of the measures of skill in a language is the ability to tell a dirty joke. It looks like some women in central Gaul were up to snuff in their Latin.

The evidence comes from a set of loom weights with Gaulish and Gaulish/Latin inscriptions. Loom weights are small weights, often made from stone, pottery, or metal, used to keep tension on the fibers in certain types of loom. They are a very common find in archaeological sites because they were simple everyday objects that lots of people used, people needed a lot of them, and they were easy to replace if they got damaged or broken. (So many loom weights turn up in archaeological digs that there’s a joke among archaeologists that if you find something you can’t identify it’s probably a loom weight.) Most loom weights are quite simple objects, like the Saxon examples in the illustration here, but a collection of loom weights with inscribed texts have been found in France, dating from some time during the Roman period.

The texts on these weights are short sayings, often with a good rolling rhythm like these:

Nata imi daga uimpi

Gaulish for: ‘I am a good and pretty girl.’

Nata uimpi curmi da

Gaulish for: ‘Pretty girl, bring me beer.’

But then there are some like this one:

Nata uimpi uim pota

Now, nata uimpi is Gaulish for ‘pretty girl,’ like in the previous examples, but uim pota is Latin. Pota means ‘drink,’ which is clear enough, but uim is a little trickier. Uim is abbreviated from a longer word, and there are two possibilities. If it is shortened from uinum (more typically written as vinum), then the inscription says: ‘Pretty girl, drink wine.’ On the other hand, uim could be short for uirum (or virum), in which case the meaning gets a bit naughtier: ‘Pretty girl, drink the man.’ (Which probably means exactly what your dirty mind thinks it means.)

Early researchers concluded that this naughty loom weight must have been made by a man and given to a woman who didn’t understand the double meaning, because women are delicate flowers who would never say such a thing. More recent scholarship has pointed out that those earlier researchers clearly haven’t spent enough time around women.

These and other (even naughtier) loom weights suggest that there was a community of Gaulish-speaking women who were also sufficiently familiar with Latin to make dirty jokes. Textile work was traditionally a women’s activity and would have taken up a significant part of their time. It could also be a social activity. We should imagine these Gaulish women gathered together weaving, sewing, and chatting, not unlike a modern craft circle. In that context, these loom weights with their rhythmic sayings and naughty suggestions would have been a playful accent to enliven the working day.

Image: Saxon loom weights, photography by Simon Speed via Wikimedia (currently Bedford Museum; stone)

On, of, and about languages.

Rating: Doctor Who, season 4

Next up in our rewatch-and-rating project is Doctor Who (new series), season 4. Here’s what we thought:

  1. “Voyage of the Damned” – 7.5
  2. “Partners in Crime” – 9
  3. “The Fires of Pompeii” – 6
  4. “Planet of the Ood” – 6
  5. “The Sontaran Stratagem” – 6
  6. “The Poison Sky” – 5
  7. “The Doctor’s Daughter” – 4
  8. “The Unicorn and the Wasp” – 10
  9. “Silence in the Library” – 10
  10. “Forest of the Dead” – 10
  11. “Midnight” – 9
  12. “Turn Left” – 5
  13. “The Stolen Earth” – 4
  14. “Journey’s End” – 4.5

Season 4 is a brilliant one studded with fantastic episodes. The overall average for the season is an impressive 6.9, and even the lowest-rating episodes of the season are a couple of 4s—no real stinkers this time around. Part of what makes this season so great is the Doctor’s new companion, Donna. After pseudo-girlfriends Rose and Martha (who both had their moments—especially Martha), Donna and the Doctor are just chums traveling time and space, which makes for a fresh dynamic. Catherine Tate puts in a wonderful performance as Donna, letting us see the vulnerability and warmth of heart under her brassy exterior. She and David Tennant also play wonderfully off of one another in their comic scenes. There are also some ingenious episodes this season, making drama and terror out of things as mundane as shadows and repeated words.

The least successful episodes for us were “The Doctor’s Daughter” and “The Stolen Earth,” both coming in at 4. In “The Doctor’s Daughter,” the Doctor gets insta-sorta-cloned to produce a soldier daughter in a bog-standard sci-fi story about two warring races who have forgotten what they were fighting over in the first place. “The Stolen Earth” is the set-up to a two-parter about the Earth (and other planets, including, bafflingly, Clom) disappearing from space as part of a nefarious plot. Most of the episode is spent watching various familiar characters fail to do anything of any particular use. Both of these episodes have a shaggy-dog-story quality to them with an interesting set-up but not much in the way of payoff. Even the return of our beloved Martha in both of these episodes can’t elevate the limp writing.

But that’s okay, because we are spoiled with not one, not two, but three full 10s at the top of the list. First there’s “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” a delicious romp that brings us Agatha Christie with a giant alien wasp twist. This episode manages the difficult task of snort-guffawing it’s way through all the tropes of the English country house mystery while still creating a powerful emotional story around Christie’s famous disappearance and amnesia. Then there’s “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” a stunning two-parter that poses a complicated mystery with a powerful and satisfying resolution. The Doctor and Donna arrive in a planet-sized library to find it empty of people, but filled with shadows that can kill. After a perilous adventure and the slow unraveling of the library’s secrets, we end with a touching story about the lengths we will go to for the people we love. This episode is also noteworthy for introducing Professor River Song, marvelously played by Alex Kingston. A couple of time-travelers, the Doctor here meets River for the first time, just as she is meeting him for the last time.

Honorable mention goes to “Partners in Crime,” at 9, in which Donna and the Doctor run into each other while investigating the same shady weight-loss company, and “Midnight,” a claustrophobic horror story about a mysterious force copying people’s words.

There are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and you may have different takes on this season’s highs and lows. We’d love to hear about it. Feel free to share which episodes of season 4 you loved or didn’t.

Images: Doctor Who season 4 via IMDb; Donna and the Doctor via Send me to the Stars; River Song via Everything is Topsy Turvy!

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

Race in Antiquity: Skin Color

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In these posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 3: Skin Color

Race, as we use the concept today, applies arbitrary divisions on the wide diversity of human physiology. The fact that these divisions are arbitrary does not make them irrelevant or innocuous. As with many other ways of dividing up humanity, race has often been used to justify inequalities. The ancient Mediterranean world was not free of inequality or arbitrary divisions between people, but that does not mean that those divisions worked the same way as the modern idea of race.

Skin color is a useful place to start. Although many different aspects of human physiology have been used to mark out racial divisions—face shape, hair texture, skeletal proportions—none is more thoroughly interwoven into racial ideology as skin color. The terms black and white are conventional ways of identifying race. Others, such as red, yellow, and brown, though not as widely used as they once were, still appear today, sometimes with more complex meanings than they once had. Even the currently preferred circumlocution people of color still supposes that skin color is a prime marker of identity. In both life and art, we tend to look at skin color as the signal marker of racial identity, and to identify both ourselves and others in those terms.

What did skin color mean to the people of ancient Greece and Rome? It was not irrelevant. Greek and Roman authors and artists were aware that different people had different skin tones and they sometimes connected these distinctions with identity in significant ways, but that is not the same as recognizing race. We cannot read ancient literature or look at ancient art and evaluate it the same way we would treat at a modern movie or news story.

Consider this cheeky couplet from the Roman poet Catullus, addressed to Julius Caesar:

I don’t try too hard to please you, Caesar.

I don’t even know whether you are a black person or a white person.

– Catullus, Songs 93

(All translations my own)

To a modern Western audience, this sounds at once like a reference to race. To call someone a “black person” or a “white person” today is transparently and unambiguously a racial identification. Yet Catullus meant nothing of the kind. He certainly was not ignorant of the ancestry and identity of one of the most powerful people in the Roman world in his day. In Classical Latin, “I don’t know whether it’s black or white” is a common saying meaning “I don’t care in the slightest.” Catullus wasn’t talking about Caesar’s skin color at all.

There are examples in classical literature when people’s skin color is explicitly described, but even those cases do not follow the same patterns as modern racial categories. For example, in the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is disguised by the goddess Athena when he first arrives home to Ithaca. When he first meets his son Telemachus, however, the disguise is briefly lifted, and part of what marks the transformation is a change in skin color:

Athena pointed with her golden wand.

First she wrapped him well in a cloak

and spread a tunic around his breast, filled out to its prime.

He became black-skinned again, his jaws stretched out,

and a dark blue beard covered his chin.

– Homer, Odyssey 16.172-6

The word used to describe Odysseus’ color, melanchroiēs, can be literally translated as ‘black-skinned,’ but really means ‘deeply suntanned.’ The darkness of Odysseus’ skin is important because it marks his age and experience. It was not part of an ethnic identity he was born with but something he acquired through experience.

Ancient authors similarly associated pale skin with youth and naivete. The comic playwright Aristophanes used whiteness as a marker of foolish inexperience to describe a character who had what his Athenian audience would have regarded as a ludicrously bad idea:

After this, some handsome young fellow,
as white as Nikias, jumped up,
put up his hand to speak,
and said we should hand the city over to the women.

– Aristophanes, The Assemblywomen 427-30

Nikias was a prominent politician of the age who championed the cause of peace between Athens and Sparta. Just like Odysseus’ “black skin” was a marker of his long career as a warrior, Nikias’ “whiteness” distinguished him as a military dilettante. In neither case was the color of their skin meant to convey a racial identity.

It seems that even at a basic level, ancient Greeks and Romans described colors differently than we do today. Latin has two words for both white and black. Albus means pale, lusterless white, while candidus means bright, gleaming white. Ater is flat, matte black while niger is glossy black. In Greek literature, many objects are described with colors we would not associate with them today: wine is black; grass is white; honey is green; iron is blue. (Note also Odysseus’ “dark blue” beard.) When ancient authors describe people in terms of color, we must be particularly cautious in how we interpret them.

In some cases, ancient authors did use skin color as a way of describing ethnic identity, but it was not the only physical feature, or even the most common one, that they paid attention to. Hair color, eye color, facial features, and physical proportions were equally relevant as ethnic traits, as shown in a couple of examples from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes and the Roman historian Tacitus:

Ethiopians say the gods are dark and snub-nosed; the Thracians give them red hair and blue eyes.

– Xenophanes, fragment 16

The physical variety [of the Britons] is suggestive. The golden-red hair and burly limbs of the Caledonians shows them to be of Germanic origin. The colorful faces and curly hair of the Silures, plus their position opposite Spain, suggests their ancestors were Spaniards who came across the ocean.

– Tacitus, Agricola 11

These observations should both caution and stimulate us.

On one hand, we cannot simply read ancient sources—or their modern translations—the same way we would read modern texts. Ancient Greek and Roman authors did not think in the same racial terms we use today, and we risk misunderstanding them if we simply apply modern concepts to ancient texts. When we read that the Greek historian Herodotus described the people of Egypt as “black” (Histories 2.22), the question we have to ask is not “What does ‘black’ mean?” but “What did ‘black’ mean to Herodotus?” Like Homer describing Odysseus, he probably meant that they were deeply tanned. He could not have meant that they belonged to the racial category of people we today classify as black because Greeks of his day did not use the word black with that meaning. Quite simply, Herodotus tells us nothing of much use in assigning modern racial categories to the ancient Egyptians.

On the other hand, the fact that ancient authors did not generally use skin color as a way of distinguishing racial groups in the same way we do does not mean that the ancient Mediterranean was ethnically homogeneous. Greek and Roman authors described the world in the terms that mattered to them. They had no idea that we would be coming along a couple of millennia later asking different questions with different ways of describing ourselves. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: the fact that ancient authors tended not to describe people’s ethnicities in terms of skin color does not mean that people of many different ethnic origins and skin tones did not live among them.

Race is a clumsy and historically fraught way of dividing up the rich complexity of human diversity. Just because ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t divide people up in the same way we do doesn’t mean that the world they lived in was any less complex than our own. If we want to find evidence for that diversity, we have to be prepared to look for it in ways that don’t depend on modern conventions.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Portrait of Septimius Severus and family, photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Wikimedia (currently Altes Museum, Berlin; c. 200 CE; painted panel)

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.

Inuit Tactile Maps

Maps tell us where we are and how to get where we’re going. Sometimes, the top-down, bird’s-eye-view style of map we are most used to today is not the most helpful tool for achieving that goal. Anyone who’s had to orient themselves in a strange landscape with a traditional map knows the frustration of trying to match the visible landmarks and shapes of the terrain to the lines and symbols of the map. There are also plenty of places where pulling out a flat paper map would be impractical.

From Greenland comes a different approach to mapping. These drawings show two carved wooden maps of the coastline around the eastern Greenland settlement of Sermiligaaq that were sold to Danish explorers by a local named Kunit in the 1880s.

These small carvings, known as the Ammassalik wooden maps, represent the shapes of the coastline. The narrower map represents a string of islands; the wider one records a stretch of the mainland coastline and is read in a continuous stretch up one side and down the other. They are small enough to be held inside a mitten so that a traveler paddling down the coast by kayak could feel their way along from one bay to the next.

Just another example of how human ingenuity finds different solutions to similar problems.

Image: Drawing of the Ammassalik maps via Wikimedia

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Eating

Whether it’s lembas bread and stewed rabbit or a nice fresh pan-galactic gargle blaster, the things that characters eat and drink can be a useful way of establishing the feel of an unfamiliar world. But how your characters eat and how their food is prepared and served can contribute just as much to your worldbuilding as what they eat. Here are a few things to think about when creating food systems for fantasy worlds.

Wet carbs or dry carbs?

Traditional cuisines in most of the world are based on carbohydrates, but those carbs can come in many different forms. If they’re dry—flatbread, raised breads, tortillas, biscuits, etc.—then people are likely to eat them by hand and may well use them to pick up and hold other dishes like stews and sauces. If they’re wet—porridge, cooked rice, pasta, etc.—people are more likely to use implements like spoons and chopsticks to hold them.

Eating by hand or eating with implements?

While this can be to some extent determined by the nature of the food, many foods can be eaten either by hand or with implements. Implement-eating cultures tend to develop specialized implements for particular foods or kinds of eating; whether or not people have access to or know how to use the correct implements for the right food can be a marker of social status. On the other hand, hand-eating cultures can have just as complicated rules about how to eat. Forget the renfaire stereotypes about grabbing a turkey leg and tearing into it; societies that eat by hand tend to have strict rules governing when and how often you wash your hands, which hand you use to eat with, even which fingers and which individual finger joints should be used for which foods.

Large pieces or small pieces?

Some cuisines, such as most traditional European cookery, tend to cook meats and vegetables in large pieces which individual diners cut up for themselves. Others, such as traditional cuisines across much of south and east Asia, tend to cut meats and vegetable into smaller pieces in the kitchen which are served up to be consumed as they are.

Communal dishes or individual servings?

Sometimes food is served in communal dishes from which everyone takes what they like; other times, everyone gets their own individual serving. Both ways of serving are wrapped up with social etiquette. With communal dishes, there are usually rules about how people serve themselves, in what order, and how much at a time. With individual dishes, there may be rules about whether everyone gets the same things or the same amount.

In any culture, you are also likely to find variations on these possibilities. People of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds within the same society may well follow different eating customs. The same people may also eat differently under different circumstances: a quiet family dinner at home probably has different social rules than a public banquet for a festival day. Drawing out these complexities is also a part of worldbuilding.

Food is important. People often get emotionally invested not just in what they eat but in how they eat it. Many of the customs and norms that societies develop for how food is eaten and served have their roots in protecting hygiene and managing social hierarchies, two very important issues for personal well-being. Even today, when modern food safety practices and the weakening of traditional social hierarchies has made these issues less urgent, people can still have deep emotional reactions to perceived transgressions as trivial as folding a slice of pizza or eating a hamburger with fork and knife.

Imagine how important customs of cooking, serving, and eating food could be in a world in which your character’s standing in society may depend on knowing which finger to use to dip into the shared sauce bowl.

Image: Preparing butter, image from Shiwunbencao (ink on paper, Ming period)

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.

Quotes: A Woman Who is Always Going on About the Grammatical Arts

And don’t get me started on the woman who, as soon as she sits down to dinner,

lauds Vergil, makes excuses for the fallen Dido,

pits the poets against each other, and weighs up

Maro and Homer in a balance scale.

Teachers give way, professors are vanquished, the whole crowd

falls silent, the lawyers and hawkers can’t get a word in—

not even another woman!

Don’t sit down to dinner with a woman

of that loquacious sort who slings a tricky syllogism

with her whirling talk, who knows all the histories,

but rather one who isn’t well read.

I can’t stand a woman who is always going on about the grammatical arts,

whose talk is always in tune with the laws of logic

and who has some verses of an antique poet I’ve never heard of on her lips.

– Juvenal, Satires 6.434-40, 448-54

(My own translation)

This bit of the Roman satirist Juvenal’s harangue against women—directed at those who have the audacity to read books, have opinions on them, and not give way to men who think they know better—sounds to me a lot like certain modern men’s bellyaching on social media about women who insist on having opinions on comic books, sci-fi movies, video games, or other pieces of popular culture.

There are two broad schools of thought on Juvenal. One takes his curmudgeonly satires at face value and sees him as a butt-hurt bro throwing a tantrum. I incline towards the other school of thought which sees Juvenal’s satiric persona as a put-on performance, like Stephen Colbert’s old schtick. The real target of Juvenal’s ire was not well-read women but his fellow Roman men who were sore about women having ideas about books they hadn’t even read themselves.

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

Transmog: Darkmoon Days

WoWable has a fun new thing going on: a transmog contest! Check it out here.

This edition’s theme is the Darkmoon Faire, a monthly off-kilter carnival that brings players together for fun mini-games and profession quests. The transmog challenge is: “If your character lived/worked on the Darkmoon Faire, what would be his/her occupation?”

Erik:

Here’s my dwarven hunter. If she worked at the Faire, she would be the in-house veterinarian because she loves all creatures great and small—but especially the great! A giant elekk is just a big puppy to her. Now, when you’re caring for weird giant animals from all over the world and beyond, that means dressing appropriately for the possibility of getting poked, bitten, and just maybe breathed fire on, so this is the sort of practical gear she would wear around the menagerie.

(Here’s the vet set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.)

Eppu:

My dwarven windwalker monk would be a fire juggler at the Faire. I don’t really role-play her, but I think of her as a shamanesque monk, interested in the various elements. And as a windwalker, in my headcanon she’d be able to propel the torches in very showy ways.

WoW Darkmoon Faire Fire Juggler Transmog Windwalker Monk

(And here’s the fire juggler set.)

This was fun. We look forward to the next challenge!

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