Matrilineality

Most traditional societies around the world have been patrilineal: power and property are passed down the male line of succession, usually from father to son, sometimes from grandfather to grandson, only on rare occasions to other relatives such as nephews, brothers, or cousins who share a common male ancestor. Some societies, however, have been matrilineal, where lines of succession are defined by descent from a common female ancestor. In these societies, power and property typically pass from brother to brother or uncle to nephew, only rarely from father to son.

Matrilineality should not be mistaken for matriarchy. Matrilineal cultures are often just as patriarchal as patrilineal ones are. Matrilineality is not a matter of women having power or being more important in society than men; it’s just a different way of determining which man is important and powerful.

Matrilineal succession can seem confusing and hard to follow for those of us who are used to the rules of patrilineality, but the principle is straightforward: to identify the next in line, find the nearest male relative who can trace their descent through their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. to a common female ancestor with the current holder of the property or position in question. The nearest would be a brother by the same mother. Next nearest would be a nephew whose mother was the current person’s sister by the same mother.

Here’s an example. Consider this extended family.

In a patrilineal society, here’s how property and power would pass down from the eldest son of the original couple to his son and grandson.

In a matrilineal society, the line of succession from the same eldest son would go first to his brother, then to a nephew, then another nephew, then his brother.

Matrilineal succession has advantages for certain kinds of societies under certain circumstances. For one thing, it spreads power and property out among the family lines of a clan or extended kin group, rather than letting one line have a monopoly. It can also create incentives for skilled and ambitious men to marry into the family—if we image the example above tracing the lines of succession for a kingdom, the men who marry into the family will never be king themselves, but their sons and grandsons might be. Another advantage to matrilineality is it multiplies the number of legitimate heirs within any given generation, which can be helpful in times of crisis when a man might die leaving no sons of age to take over his position.

For these reasons, matrilineal patterns of succession often appear in societies that need to encourage cohesion and cooperation among different families in the face of a dangerous world.

Thoughts for writers

Lots of good stories involve questions of succession, whether its the return of a lost heir to claim their rightful inheritance, a struggle for power among rival families, or the mysterious death of a rich old miser. If you’re in the mood to write that kind of story, it’s worth thinking about the rules of succession in your world and what consequences they might have for your characters. Even if a matrilineal society isn’t in the cards, it’s good to remember that not everything has to go from father to eldest son.

Charts by Erik Jensen

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 4

Season 4 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has some great episodes and some fairly bad misfires. The Klingons, having been quiet for years, are suddenly feeling aggressive again, and our favorite Klingon, Worf, joins the station crew to help them deal with the consequences. This story fuels a good part of the season, but there’s plenty more to see, too. Here’s our take:

  1. “The Way of the Warrior” – 7
  2. “The Visitor” – 9
  3. “Hippocratic Oath” – 5.5
  4. “Indiscretion” – 5.5
  5. “Rejoined” – 8
  6. “Starship Down” – 8
  7. “Little Green Men” – 8
  8. “The Sword of Kahless” – 1.5
  9. “Our Man Bashir” – 10
  10. “Homefront” – 3
  11. “Paradise Lost” – 5
  12. “Crossfire” – 2
  13. “Return to Grace” – 4
  14. “Sons of Mogh” – 1
  15. “Bar Association” – 7
  16. “Accession” – 2
  17. “Rules of Engagement” – 2
  18. “Hard Time” – 2
  19. “Shattered Mirror” – 3.5
  20. “The Muse” – 2
  21. “For the Cause” – 4
  22. “To the Death” – 6
  23. “The Quickening” – 4.5
  24. “Body Parts” – 6
  25. “Broken Link” – 4

The average rating this season is 4.9, the same as in season 3, but season 4 gets there a different way. Where season 3’s episodes were mostly in the weak-average to average-good range, season 4 sends its episodes to the far ends of the scale. Only a handful fall in the 4-6 okay-but-not-great range; most are either well above or well below.

The distribution of ratings shows a certain level of confidence by the writers this season. You can tell that they felt comfortable enough with the characters and the setting at this point that they were ready to try new ideas, even really weird ones. What if we spent an episode in the holosuite playing a James Bond pastiche? What if we met a suicidal Klingon? What if Quark, Rom, and Nog were the Roswell aliens? What if there were a conspiracy to stage a military coup on Earth?

Some of these ideas really flop, like “Sons of Mogh,” scoring only a 1, in which Worf has to deal with his brother Kurn, who is depressed about the loss of status their family has suffered in the empire. The story presents the kind of ethical dilemma Star Trek specializes in—suicide is an honorable end for a Klingon with no hope, but it is unacceptable for a Starfleet officer like Worf—but never goes anywhere interesting with it. The episode boils down to Kurn standing on one side of Worf shouting “Kill me!” and the rest of the station crew on the other shouting “Don’t!” There’s nowhere interesting for this story to go.

On the other hand, some of these ideas pay off brilliantly, like “Our Man Bashir,” a full 10, which finds Dr. Bashir and Garak playing a swinging-sixties spy game in the holosuite for much higher stakes than they expected. DS9 largely avoids the Next Generation shtick of having the holodeck go haywire so the crew can have an adventure in period garb, but this episode figures out a way to make the holosuite matter: after a transporter accident, the main station crew’s physical patterns are stored on the holosuite until they can be rescued, but if the game shuts down they could be lost forever. This set-up gives us several delightful results: Bashir, the doctor playing spy, and Garak, the spy playing tailor, take their witty repartee to new heights in this episode, while some of the other regular cast get to go full ham in their holosutie roles—Nana Visitor as a sultry Russian agent and Avery Brooks as an omnicidal mad scientist steal every scene they’re in.

The rest of this season largely follows suit. Some ideas, like sending Worf and Dax on a quest for a lost Klingon artifact in “The Sword of Kahless”, just sputter and die. Others yield fantastic episodes, like “Little Green Men,” a hilarious romp through pulp sci-fi tropes, or “The Visitor,” a touching meditation on the power of love and memory.

While the Klingon war story at times just feels like a holding action while waiting for the Dominion to make its move, it also gives the series some new avenues to explore. This season does a lot of interesting work by overturning the status quo and seeing what happens to familiar characters in unfamiliar situations. Worf, Quark, Odo, and Dukat all find themselves cut off from their people in different ways; Sisko faces the possibility of treason within Starfleet; Dax has to grapple with the legacy of her past lives in ways she has not faced before; and Rom and Nog start new lives outside the traditional bounds of Ferengi culture.

Season 4 has a lot going for it, even if not every idea works. There’s a lot here that’s well worth coming back to.

Image: Bashir and Garak all tuxed up from “Our Man Bashir” via IMDb

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

History for Writers Compendium: 2020

History for Writers explores history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s what we’ve been talking about in 2020:

Thinking historically

Thinking mythically

Imagining other places

Living other lives

Writing other worlds

People in the past

Join us in 2021 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

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.

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 3

We’re back with season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and things are starting to look up as the series moves further toward developing its characters and its longer-term plots. Here’s our episode ratings:

  1. “The Search, Part I” – 4
  2. “The Search, Part II” – 5.5
  3. “The House of Quark” – 8
  4. “Equilibrium” – 4.5
  5. “Second Skin” – 5.5
  6. “The Abandoned” – 2
  7. “Civil Defense” – 6.5
  8. “Meridian” – 3.5
  9. “Defiant” – 4.5
  10. “Fascination” – 4.5
  11. “Past Tense, Part I” – 3
  12. “Past Tense, Part II” – 3
  13. “Life Support” – 4
  14. “Heart of Stone” – 7
  15. “Destiny” – 6
  16. “Prophet Motive” – 6.5
  17. “Visionary” – 6
  18. “Distant Voices” – 3.5
  19. “Through the Looking Glass” – 4
  20. “Improbable Cause” – 6
  21. “The Die is Cast” – 5
  22. “Explorers” – 6
  23. “Family Business” – 5
  24. “Shakaar” – 4
  25. “Facets” – 5
  26. “The Adversary” – 4.5

The average rating for this season is 4.9, a good step up from last season’s 3.9. There are few particularly good episodes this season, but also few particularly bad ones. Most sit comfortably in the okay-but-not-great 4 to 6 range.

You can tell that both the writers and the actors are more at ease with the characters and ready to push them in interesting directions. This season Kira has to reckon with the consequences of her violent past as a freedom fighter, Jake takes his first faltering steps as an adult, while Sisko the elder gets a promotion to captain, a new ship, and a handsome bald head. Even minor characters such as Nog, Garak, and Kai Winn experience substantial changes. No one faces as much of a challenge this season, though, as Odo, who discovers his people only to learn the horrible truth about them.

Our lowest rating this season goes to “The Abandoned,” at 2, in which Odo tries to show a young Jem’Hadar an alternative to violence. Despite a strong performance by Rene Auberjonois, this episode falls flat. There is little development and no payoff in this story. Other episodes do a much better job of both exploring the Jem’Hadar and showing us how Odo deals with the atrocities committed by the Founders. It also hews uncomfortably close to the racist 90s discourse of “superpredators.”

At the other end, we have the delightful “House of Quark,” at 8, as our highest-rated episode. This episode is a violent but entertaining comedy of manners as the bloody, honor-bound world of Klingon dynastic politics collides with the cowardly but cunning financial chicanery of the Ferengi. Armin Shimerman and guest star Mary Kay Adams play marvelously off one another as the lovable Ferengi rogue Quark and the imperious Klingon grande dame Grilka, while Robert O’Reilly, who plays the normally intense and calculating Chancellor Gowron gets to do a bit of slapstick comedy. Also worth noting is “Heart of Stone,” at 7, in which Odo confesses his love to what he thinks is a dying Kira, and Nog seeks Sisko’s support for joining Starfleet Academy; both stories give us some excellent acting and interesting character development.

This season sees some significant shifts toward the long-term storytelling that would define DS9‘s later seasons. Although most episodes remain standalone (or self-contained two-parters), many of them bring important changes to characters or plotlines which are picked up by later episodes. The politics of both Bajor and Cardassia, as well as the relationship between them, see major upheavals this season, while the threat of the Dominion becomes more sharply defined and its relationship with the Alpha Quadrant more complicated.

Got any favorites of your own from season 3? Let us know!

Image: Grilka and Quark in a marriage of (in)convenience, from “House of Quark” via IMDb

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

Good Health with Telesphorus

With Covid-19 still largely unchecked and the winter flu season closing in on us (in the northern part of the world at least), health and illness are on a lot of our minds. So here’s a votive statuette of an ancient Greek god of health, Telesphorus.

Telesphorus represents an interesting combination of influences from several different cultures. Mythology describes him as a son of the Greek healing god Asclepius specifically concerned with recovery from disease or injury. In art he was often shown as a short, squat man similar to some earth-related deities from Phrygia in inland Anatolia wearing a type of hooded cloak typically associated with Gauls. This version, found in France and carved at some time when the Roman Empire ruled the region, has heavily outlined eyes, a triangular nose, and straight bands of hair, all of which are characteristic of Gaulish and British art. Somehow, this seems an appropriate image for a season in which we face a worldwide pandemic.

We wish you all good health in the times ahead.

Image: Telesphorus statuette, photograph by Millevahce via Wikimedia (found Moulézan, currently Musée Archéologique de Nîmes; Roman period; limestone)

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

Evidence for Donkey Polo in Ancient China

An interesting archaeological find was reported earlier this year from western China where the excavation of a noblewoman’s grave has provided evidence for the use of donkeys for games of polo by elite women in the Tang dynasty.

The sport of polo was popular among the Chinese aristocracy in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Literary sources document that women played as well as men, and that, even though donkeys were typically associated with low social status as pack and farm animals, they were also favored by the elite for playing polo. The excavation of the tomb of a Tang noblewoman, Cui Shi, for the first time offers archaeological evidence to support the written accounts.

Although polo has traditionally been played on horseback, the authors of this study, led by archaeologist Songmei Hu, mention that donkeys may sometimes have been preferred because their natural response to stress and danger, something a polo match would frequently present, is different. While horses, as herd animals, have developed a sensitivity to commotion among nearby animals and tend to respond by fleeing, donkeys, with a more solitary history, are less perturbed by the kinds of chaos that a polo field might present.

The authors identified the remains of at least three donkeys in Cui Shi’s tomb. For animals more traditionally connected with the peasantry than the elite, this was an unusual find for the grave of a woman whose family moved in the higher circles of the imperial aristocracy. But the family’s status was also connected to polo: written sources document that Cui Shi’s husband, Bao Gao, was promoted by the emperor to the rank of general on the strength of his skill in the sport. The bones of the donkeys themselves also show signs that they may have been used for playing polo, as they show patterns of growth reflecting strong and sudden stresses, such as animals suddenly starting, stopping, and changing direction on the polo field would experience, rather than those typical of animals used for carrying burdens or pulling carts.

This find is both an example of how archaeological and literary evidence can support one another and a view into the lives of elite women in ancient China who weren’t content to let the men have all the fun of donkey polo!

Image: Tang dynasty polo players via Wikimedia (tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, Qianling Mausoleum, Xi’an; 706 CE; wall painting)

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A Striking Greek Gods Photoshoot

Here’s a beautiful new imagining of the Greek gods, “20 Dioses y Diosas para 2020,” photographed by Ana Martinez and styled by Mario Ville. This photoshoot combines ancient ideas, modern fashion, and imaginative graphics with Black models taking the roles of the gods. You can see the full set of photos at N20.

A few of my favorites:

Juana Mum as Hera

Lewis Amarante as Poseidon

Ruben Baika as Apollo

I appreciate how these images combine classic symbols such as Apollo’s lyre and Poseidon’s trident with modern dress and accents. I wish the artists had chosen to use color for the clothing rather than just white, since ancient images of the gods were brightly colored, not the plain white marble we are used to seeing now, but there’s no denying how strikingly the white garb sets of the models’ dark skin. I also enjoy seeing versions of some of the less well-known gods like Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and Eris, goddess of discord.

This photoshoot is another example of how effectively the ancient Greeks crafted their mythology and its visual language in ways to be flexible enough to allow for many new interpretations and to be accessible to a broad and diverse audience.

Images by Ana Martinez via Neo2

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

Now It Is Time to Drink!

If you’re feeling celebratory today, here’s a little verse from the Roman poet Horace to put you in the right mood. Horace was celebrating the defeat of Marcus Antonius in the last phase of the Roman republic’s long-running civil wars of the first century BCE (although, for political reasons, focusing most of his scorn on Antonius’ Egyptian ally, Cleopatra). But you can drink and dance for whatever is making you happy today!

 Now it is time to drink! Now with liberated feet
dance upon the earth! Now the sumptuous
feast of the gods
can be spread, my friends!

Before this, the time was not right to bring the good Caecuban wine
up from the ancient cellars, not while the insane queen
schemed to bring death and ruin
to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,
drunk with vain hopes
of sweet
victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.1-12

(My own translation)

Enjoy!

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

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 2

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took some time finding its legs, and season 2 is still pretty wobbly. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

  1. “The Homecoming” – 5
  2. “The Circle” – 4.5
  3. “The Siege” – 6
  4. “Invasive Procedures” – 4
  5. “Cardassians” – 2
  6. “Melora” – 2
  7. “Rules of Acquisition” – 3.5
  8. “Necessary Evil” – 5
  9. “Second Sight” – 2
  10. “Sanctuary” – 2.5
  11. “Rivals” – 2.5
  12. “The Alternate” – 1
  13. “Armageddon Game” – 4
  14. “Whispers” – 6
  15. “Paradise” – 1
  16. “Shadowplay” – 5
  17. “Playing God” – 4
  18. “Profit and Loss” – 2
  19. “Blood Oath” – 5
  20. “The Maquis, Part 1” – 4
  21. “The Maquis, Part 2” – 5
  22. “The Wire” – 6.5
  23. “Crossover” – 5
  24. “The Collaborator” – 6
  25. “Tribunal” – 2
  26. “The Jem’Hadar” – 6

In all, not a great second season. The average rating is a meager 3.9, and there are no standout episodes like season 1’s “Duet.” You can tell that the actors were still growing into their roles, and the writers were still figuring out how to balance the optimistic, episodic tradition of Star Trek with the morally complicated ongoing stories they wanted to develop.

We have two episodes at the bottom of the barrel: “The Alternate” and “Paradise,” both rating only a 1. “The Alternate” promises some interesting development for Odo’s backstory when the crew finds remains of a similar being in ancient ruins, but only delivers a bog-standard fathers-and-sons-with-a-bad-relationship story. “Paradise” similarly promises a critique of the Federation’s techno-uptopia when Sisko and O’Brien crash on a planet where their technology doesn’t work, but delivers only a manipulative extremist who loves to give interminable monologues. These may be the most disappointing examples, but a lot of other episodes this season have interesting ideas in them that they can’t manage to do anything good with.

The best episode of the season is “The Wire,” at 6.5. In this episode, we learn more (but less than it seems) about the mysterious Cardassian tailor, Garak. While this episode has its weaknesses, it blossoms in the nuances of Andrew Robinson’s performance as Garak the erstwhile spy, by turns ingratiating, crabby, frightened, playful, and remorseful as he dangles hints of his past life just out of reach of the doctor who is trying to help him cope with a hidden addiction.

But if this season doesn’t have much to offer in the way of great episodes, it does lay a lot of the groundwork for the seasons to come. Important elements of the ongoing narrative are established or developed, like the Maquis resistance movement in the Badlands, the post-occupation chaos of Bajoran politics, the return to Classic Trek‘s “Mirror, Mirror” alternate universe, and the slowly growing menace of the Dominion in the gamma quadrant. Just as importantly, it sets up some of the important character and relationship growth that would become the heart of the series. Doctor Bashir and Chief O’Brien’s friendship first stretches its legs this season, as does Dax’s history with Commander Sisko. Recurring characters like Garak and Rom begin to come into their own.

Season 2 is not the best that Deep Space Nine has to offer, but it lays the foundation for the greatness that is to come.

Image: The operations crew at work, from “Playing God” via IMDb

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