Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 6

The Dominion war heats up, taking the characters of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in lots of new directions, some more interesting than others. Here’s our take on what season 6 has to offer.

  1. “A Time to Stand” – 6
  2. “Rocks and Shoals” – 7
  3. “Sons and Daughters” – 0
  4. “Behind the Lines” – 3.5
  5. “Favor the Bold” – 5
  6. “Sacrifice of Angels” – 6
  7. “You Are Cordially Invited” – 8.5
  8. “Resurrection” – 2
  9. “Statistical Probabilities” – 4
  10. “The Magnificent Ferengi” – 8.5
  11. “Waltz” – 3
  12. “Who Mourns for Morn?” – 7.5
  13. “Far Beyond the Stars” – 8
  14. “One Little Ship” – 9
  15. “Honor Among Thieves” – 0
  16. “Change of Heart” – 4
  17. “Wrongs Darker than Death or Night” – 0
  18. “Inquisition” – 2
  19. “In the Pale Moonlight” – 7
  20. “His Way” – 1
  21. “The Reckoning” – 4
  22. “Valiant” – 2
  23. “Profit and Lace” – 2
  24. “Time’s Orphan” – 6
  25. “The Sound of Her Voice” – 4
  26. “Tears of the Prophets” – 5.5

This season’s ratings are all over the place. There are a number of strong episodes in the 7-9 range, but also multiple 0s. The average comes to 4.4, in line with season 5 and a bit less than seasons 3 and 4. It seems a bit unfair to average out this season’s episodes, though, because there are so many different things going on. The Dominion war storyline runs through the season and provides a lot of solid episodes. There are also big moments of character development, some good—Worf and Dax getting married in “You are Coridally Invited”, everyone’s favorite barfly getting a backstory in “Who Mourns for Morn?”—some less good—Kira doing a reverse Back to the Future on her mother and Gul Dukat in “Wrongs Darker than Death or Night,” Quark learning what it’s like to be a feeeemale in “Profit and Lace”. Then there are some episodes that just come out of nowhere, like Sisko having a vision of twentieth century science fiction and racism in “Far Beyond the Stars.”

At the bottom end of the scale, we have a trifecta of absolute 0s. There’s “Sons and Daughters,” in which Worf’s son Alexander and Dukat’s daughter Ziyal both get to have strained relationships with their respective fathers. There’s “Honor Among Thieves,” in which O’Brien inexplicably has an undercover mission infiltrating a seedy crime syndicate, an episode with no good reason to exist, let alone be in this series. And there’s the aforementioned “Wrongs Darker than Death or Night,” a limp episode for such a pretentious title that is both overly contrived and weightless at the same time. I’ve mentioned before that it sometimes feels like there was a frustrated noir writer in the writers’ room, and they have their fingerprints on this season as well. “Honor Among Thieves” is straight-up noir, and “Wrongs Darker than Death or Night” leans hard in the same direction. It’s as uninterseting now as it was before.

But this season also has some great episodes at the other end of the scale. The best of the season is “One Little Ship,” at 9, in which a miniaturized Dax, Bashir, and O’Brien in a miniaturized runabout help rescue the Defiant from being captured by the Jem’Hadar. It’s a fun episode that gives all the characters something to do and nicely balances the silliness of its main conceit with the seriousness of the ongoing war plot. Two more episodes that also strike a good balance between goofiness and gravity are “You Are Cordially Invited” and “The Magnificent Ferengi,” both at 8.5. In “You Are Cordially Invited,” the weighty question of whether Worf and Dax can make it as a couple despite their differences is interwoven with Klingon wedding rituals that are as gloriously over the top as you would imagine. “The Magnificent Ferengi” finds Quark, Rom, Nog, and some of our other favorite Ferengi mounting a rescue operation when their Moogie is captured by the Dominion, and it goes both hopelessly wrong and delightfully right.

For all that Deep Space Nine is remembered as the dark, gritty version of Star Trek, filled with tension and war, it has also given us some of the goofiest, most wonderfully weird episodes of the franchise.

Image: Little O’Brien and Little Dax contemplate big problems on the Defiant, from “One Little Ship” via IMDb

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

A Preview of The Greco-Persian Wars

I am pleased to announce that my second book, The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents, is coming out in just a few days. This book tells the story of the wars between Greeks and the Persian Empire in the early fifth century BCE through translations of ancient documents.

While the wars of the early fifth century in Greece dominate modern histories of Greco-Persian interaction, they were only part of a larger history in which the main actors were not Greeks but Persians, and whose events played out not simply in Greece but across the eastern Mediterranean. Looking at a broader history allows us to put the Greco-Persian Wars into a more meaningful context. The story of Persia’s engagement in Greece is not one of East-West cultural clashes or Greek ascendancy, but of Persia’s success in adapting to the challenges of an unstable, frequently violent frontier region, and that is the history my book explores.

This book features over eighty-five separate selections translated from Greek, Old Persian, Elamite, Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Egyptian, and Lycian, each with contextual notes. They are accompanied by a short historical introduction, a glossary, a chronology, maps, and a select bibliography.

Here is a selection from one of the documents. In this text, set some hundred years after the famous battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, we see how complicated relations between Greeks and Persians remained. This text is a useful reminder that we have to think not of relations between Greece and Persia but between Greeks and Persians. On both sides, individuals had their own motivations and interests that could lead to unexpected alliances and tricky rivalries.

* * *

Friendship and its complications

Xenophon, Hellenica 4.1.31-39

Relationships of xenia, or guest-friendship were a traditional way in which Greek aristocrats formed personal relationships across the boundaries of the polis. Similar relationships were also extended to Persians who dealt with the Greek frontier. While these relationships could be channels for diplomacy and political negotiation, they could also create conflicting loyalties. The exchange between the Spartan king Agesilaus—at that time ravaging the Persian-held territories in Ionia—and the satrap Pharnabazus in 395 or 394 BCE shows both the potentials of xenia and its dangers.

First they greeted each other and Pharnabazus held out his right hand. Agesilaus clasped it. Then Pharnabazus spoke first, since he was the elder.

“Aegsilaus, and you other Spartans here,” he said, “I became your friend and ally when you were fighting the Athenians. Not only did I support your fleet with money, but I myself fought alongside you on horseback and we drove your enemies into the sea together. You cannot accuse me of ever having played you false, like Tissaphernes. Yet despite this, you have now left my land in such a state that I cannot even feed myself, unless I gather up the scraps you leave behind like an animal. All the beautiful houses and woods full of trees and beasts that my father left me, which I used to enjoy so much, I now see either cut down or burned up. Well, if I don’t know what is righteous and just, you tell me how these are the acts of men who know how to repay favors.”

The thirty Spartans were ashamed and said nothing, but then after a time Agesilaus spoke up.

“Pharanbazus,” he said, “I think you understand that in the Greek cities, people also become guest-friends to one another. But when their cities go to war, such people fight on behalf of their homelands against their friends, and even kill them, if it should so happen. In the same way, since we are now at war with your king, we are compelled to treat everything of his as enemy territory. However, we would think it the best thing in the world to become your friends. Now, if it were a matter of throwing off the king to be ruled by us instead, I certainly would not advise it, but if you side with us now you will have the chance to flourish without having any master or humbling yourself to anyone. I think freedom is, after all, worth any amount of money. Even so, we are not urging that you should be free and poor. Rather, by taking us as your allies, you will increase your own power, not the king’s, and by subduing those who are now your fellow slaves you will make them your own subjects. You will become both free and rich—what else could you need to have perfect happiness?”

“In that case,” said Pharnabazus, “shall I tell you plainly what I will do?”

“That would be a good idea,” said Agesilaus.

“Well then,” he said, “if the king sends another general here and makes me subordinate to him, I will gladly become your friend and ally. On the other hand, if he gives the command to me, ambition is such a powerful force that I will fight you to the best of my ability.”

When he heard these words, Agesilaus grasped Pharnabazus’ hand and said:

“My dear friend, I hope you will be our ally! But know this: I will leave your territory now as quickly as I can, and in the future, even if the war continues, we will leave you and your land alone as long as we have other foes to fight.”

That was the end of the meeting, and Pharnabazus mounted up and rode away, but his son Parapita, a fine young man, stayed behind. He ran up to Agesilaus and said:

“Agesilaus, I make you my guest-friend.”

“For my part, I accept,” Agesilaus replied.

“Remember it,” said Parapita. He at once gave the beautiful javelin he was carrying to Agesilaus. In return, Agesilaus took a splendid decoration from the horse his secretary Idaeus was riding and gave it to Parapita. Then the young man leapt upon his horse and followed after his father.

* * *

If you’ve found some of my previous posts about Persians, life in the Persian Empire, and the complicated relationships between Persians and Greeks interesting, you may enjoy The Greco-Persian Wars.

The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents comes out February 24th from Hackett Publishing.

Hardcover: $49 / Paperback: $18 / e-book versions available

You can pre-order directly from Hackett or on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or from your local bookseller.

Image: Greco-Persian Wars paperback cover by Hackett Publishing

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An Ancient Minoan Saffron Gatherer

Here’s a beautiful ancient Minoan fresco of a woman gathering saffron on a rocky hillside.

Saffron is a spice derived from the crocus flower, and since each flower produces only a tiny amount of the spice, gathering it on any scale is a labor-intensive process. With her large earrings and the many colorful, decorated layers of her clothing, this lady seems a little overdressed for such hard work. There may be various explanations. Perhaps this fresco represents a ceremonial harvest, not unlike the use of a golden shovel to dig the first scoop of dirt on a building project, or possibly a small harvest for religious use. It might also be simply an artistic depiction suitable for an elite home and not intended to represent the actual attire of an agrarian worker.

Whatever the case, it’s a beautiful work of art.

Image: Detail of saffron-gathering fresco, photograph by Yann Forget via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

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

Two-Question Worldbuilding

There are lots of different ways to imagine new secondary worlds and the cultures within them. You can start from the ground up—literally—by drawing a map and thinking about how the landscape shapes the cultures within it. You can start with a big concept and work your way down into the details from that, or go the other way and start with a single detail that serves your narrative, then build the rest of the world around it.

But sometimes you don’t want to mess with all that. Sometimes you’re writing a story or mapping out a game and you need your characters to have a little bit of interaction with a far-off foreign land, but not enough to make it worth developing in every detail.

Here are two quick questions you can ask to lay the basis for simple worldbuilding for side cultures in pre-industrial worlds that still gives them some substance:

  • How many people have control over their own source of food?
  • How much do those people have to compete with others for food sources?

We’re not talking actual numbers or anything quantifiable here, just a general sense: a little bit, a fair amount, or a lot?

(Food sources come in many forms. We most often think of farms and herds of animals, but consider also fishing and hunting, trading with food-producing regions abroad, or raiding richer neighbors.)

The first question tells you about social structure: food is crucial to life, so access to it is one of the most powerful ways people can assert control over others or claim their own independence.

Where only a few people control the available food sources and most other people are in some way dependent on them, there is strong social stratification. It could take many forms: tenant farming, slave plantations, highly-regulated trade markets, or organized piracy of trade routes. Whatever the case, the society will have a small elite marked out by their wealth, way of life, or social privileges.

When most people control their own food sources, you have a much less stratified society. It could be small farms, independent merchant families, or bands of friends who hunt and fish together. The society need not be perfectly egalitarian—some farmers or trading partnerships may be wealthier than others—but when most people are self-sufficient, the rich have less leverage to get the poor to go along with any claims they make to special privileges. Societies where people aren’t dependent on others for survival can also have trouble organizing any kind of large-scale collective action, whether it’s setting up an organized legal system or sending an army on campaign.

In between, you get a range of possibilities: some people manage by fishing and keeping market gardens, others labor on the estates of the rich, while bands of young warriors form up now and then when things get tough to go plunder richer lands, then come home and return to their homesteads. In a society where people live at many different levels of subsistence, social stratification can be complicated, but also fluid. A tenant farmer may be able to save enough over time to buy a plot of their own and join the ranks of independent farmers, while an aristocrat who suffers a run of bad harvests may have to sell their tenanted estates and buy a smaller patch they can farm themselves, but that doesn’t make them social equals.

The second question goes to internal conflict: the more people who have to compete over resources, the more turmoil you are likely to see within a society.

When there is little competition over resources—either because they are abundant enough for everyone or because those who control them have a grip too tight to be challenged—societies are likely to be stable. Some may be inward-looking and peaceful, others may simply export their conflicts abroad: a state full of rich farmers might support a large army to invade and colonize other lands, or a society with no resources available at home might drive the poor and desperate to raid their neighbors or move away as laborers or mercenaries.

By contrast, in a culture where there’s not enough to go around or where those who have resources can’t effectively defend them, expect a high level of internal conflict. This conflict might take violent forms, from ongoing petty raiding between neighbors to civil wars, or it might be channeled into cutthroat negotiations between rival trading houses or a frantic scramble for royal patronage among the highborn families.

In between the extremes, at a moderate level of competition, you are likely to see a society that goes through cycles of stability and fractiousness, where the winners know that they can’t hold onto their gains forever, but the losers can afford to lick their wounds, build new alliances, and hope to come out on top next time.

Below is a rough chart of what a society with a particular combination of resource distribution and competition may look like. Remember that these are patterns and tendencies, not absolute rules. Our own world’s history will furnish plenty of examples of societies that don’t fit these patterns, and you can certainly imagine worlds that don’t. But if you find yourself in need of some quick-and-dirty worldbuilding, this is a good place to start.

Chart 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.

A Farewell to Cards

Back in the 1990s, in my high school and college days, I used to be into Magic: The Gathering, the granddaddy of trading card games. I’ve dabbled a little since then, but it’s twenty years since I played the game with any seriousness. I really enjoyed the game, especially the challenge of coming up with interesting decks (I was what they used to call a “Johnny” player), but it isn’t part of my life any more, so I’ve decided its time to get rid of my collection.

After doing a little research on ways of selling Magic cards (and thinking about which ones are viable in the midst of a pandemic), I decided to list my cards on Cardsphere, a website created by and for Magic fans.

So far, I’ve only sold a handful of cards, but I keep my eye on the offers and little by little I’m working the collection down. I was never much into the collecting aspect of the game, so I don’t have many of the high-value cards (although I do have a couple of old dual lands that I’m hoping to sell for a few hundred dollars apiece). Most of what I’ve sold so far has gone for pocket change, and I know I’m losing money on postage on some transactions. Still, it is a pleasure to know that these cards I no longer have any use for are going to make someone else happy.

The process of sorting, organizing, listing, and sending off my cards has meant I’ve spent more time looking at my collection in the past few months than I did in the previous couple of decades, and in a way that has been good for me. It’s nice to be reminded of happy days long ago and to say a proper goodbye to the old dears.

My card inventory is visible here, if anyone wants to check out what I have to offer.

Image by Erik Jensen

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

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 5

It’s a bit of a lackluster fifth season for Deep Space Nine, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bright spots. Here’s our take:

  1. “Apocalypse Rising” – 4
  2. “The Ship” – 5.5
  3. “Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places” – 7
  4. “Nor the Battle to the Strong” – 5
  5. “The Assignment” – 2.5
  6. “Trials and Tribble-ations” – 9
  7. “Let He Who Is Without Sin” – 1
  8. “Things Past” – 1.5
  9. “The Ascent” – 7.5
  10. “Rapture” – 5.5
  11. “The Darkness and the Light” – 1
  12. “The Begotten” – 4
  13. “For the Uniform” – 3.5
  14. “In Purgatory’s Shadow” – 4.5
  15. “By Inferno’s Light” – 5.5
  16. “Doctor Bashir, I Presume” – 6
  17. “A Simple Investigation” – 2
  18. “Business as Usual” – 1.5
  19. “Ties of Blood and Water” – 2
  20. “Ferengi Love Songs” – 5
  21. “Soldiers of the Empire” – 6
  22. “Children of Time” – 4.5
  23. “Blaze of Glory” – 3.5
  24. “Empok Nor” – 1
  25. “In the Cards” – 8
  26. “Call to Arms” – 8.5

The average rating for the season is 4.4, not terrible but a bit weak. There are some good episodes this season, even some great ones, but there’s also a lot of crud at the other end of the scale dragging the average down.

The worst episode of the season is a rare three-way tie between “Let He Who Is Without Sin,” a character study of a grumpy Klingon; “The Darkness and the Light,” an overblown bit of noir that kills off some of Kira’s more entertaining old resistance buddies; and “Empok Nor,” another bit of noir which forces the usually sparkling Andrew Robinson to play a duller, flatter version of Garak. All of these rate a 1 for having tedious plots (if any at all) and wringing the joy and life out of the performances. In fact, a pall of noir hangs over a lot of the lowest-rating episodes this season, suffused with angst, tension, and cynicism. “The Assignment” (2.5), “Things Past” (1.5), “A Simple Investigation” (2), and “Business as Usual” (1.5) all feel like the writers’ room was full of frustrated 40s detective pulp scribes.

On the other hand, there are some brilliant episodes this season, too. The best of the lot is “Trials and Tribble-ations,” coming in at 9 with a joyful celebration of both the spirit and the silliness of classic Star Trek. The loving recreation of the classic sets, costumes, and props, plus the ingenious ways our DS9 crew get to have their own adventure in the background of one of the great comedy episodes of the original, make this episode a delight to rewatch. The same spirit of fun animates “In the Cards” (8) and “Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places” (7), two episodes that part the gloom of war and politics for a moment to let the relationships between the characters flourish. And the season ender, “Call to Arms” (8.5) is a gripping action piece that throws all of our characters into unexpected situations for the start of the next season.

There may be a lot to skip this season, but there are definitely some episodes that are well worth going back to.

Image: Sisko and Dax blending in on the original Enterprise, from “Trials and Tribble-ations” via IMDb

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

A Busy Paeonian Woman

The Greek historian Herodotus tells a story about how the Persians were induced to conquer the Paeonians, a people of the southern Balkans. Like many of Herodotus’ stories, this one is probably more folklore than fact, but it’s a story with a point.

The story takes place while the Persian king Darius was campaigning in the Aegean from his base in the Lydian city of Sardis. A couple of ambitious Paeonian aristocrats figured that if they could convince Darius to conquer Paeonia, they could set themselves up as his local representatives and rule the Paeonians in his name. Here’s how they went about piquing Darius’ interest:

After Darius had crossed over to Asia, two Paeonians by the names of Pigres and Mantyes came to Sardis along with their tall and beautiful sister. They wanted to make themselves tyrants over the Paeonians, and when they had observed Darius sitting outside the town of the Lydians to hold his court, they went about it like this: they dressed their sister up in her best and sent her to fetch water carrying a pitcher on her head while leading a horse by her shoulder and spinning flax. Went she went by, the sight of her caught Darius’ interest, since no Persian or Lydian woman did what she did, indeed no woman of Asia at all did. He was so intrigued that he sent some of his guards to keep an eye on the woman and see what she did with the horse. They reported what they had seen: when she reached the river, she watered the horse, filled the pitcher up to the top with water, and went back again by the same route, carrying the water on her head, leading the horse by her shoulder, and turning her spindle.

– Herodotus, Histories 5.12

(My own translation)

Darius falls for the trick and is convinced that such amazingly hardworking people should be added to his empire.

There are some things to notice about this story. One is some rather complicated gender politics. On one hand, you could hardly find a more literal example of men exploiting the hard work of women for their own gain. On the other hand, it’s interesting that the Paeonian brothers thought that the best way to impress the Persian king was not with the bravery or endurance of Paeonian men but with the diligence and skill of Paeonian women. The fact that it worked implies that Darius both appreciated how difficult a task it was to do three things at once—fetch water, manage a horse, and spin flax—and saw such skill as a good addition to his empire. Herodotus’ story is likely fictional, but it may suggest some Greek awareness of how highly women’s labor was valued in Persia.

To look at it from a different point of view, however, we have to remember that the whole thing was a con, and Darius was the dupe who fell for it. Ordinary Paeonian women weren’t going around carrying jugs, watering horses, and spinning all at the same time while looking their best, and Darius was a fool for thinking they did. That’s something for all of us to remember in these days of social media and the fetishization of busy-ness. We are all like Darius, seated outside the city walls watching carefully curated false images of people doing impossible amounts of work and looking fabulous doing it. And, just like Darius, we’ll all be better off it we recognize it for the lie that it is.

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

Well-Dressed Immortals

Very few works of art survived from ancient times with color intact, which can make it hard to imagine just how richly colorful the world may have been in the past. So we’re fortunate to have this frieze of Persian soldiers in glazed brick survive with so much visible color, especially the richly patterned details of their robes. These soldiers, depicted on the Persian kings’ palace at Susa, probably represent the professional core of the Persian army, popularly known as the Immortals.

The brightly patterned robes these soldiers wear may be a ceremonial dress more suited to putting on a display at court than to campaigning on the wild frontiers of the empire, but it is interesting to note that the Greek historian Herodotus makes special mention of the clothing of Persian soldiers when praising the bravery of the Athenian and Plataean soldiers who faced them at Marathon:

These were the first Greeks we know of to charge into battle, and also the first to look on men in Persian clothing unshaken, for up to this time even hearing the name of the Persians had struck the Greeks with terror.

– Herodotus, Histories 6.112

(My own translation)

The Persians were well aware of the use of spectacle for political purposes. It may well be that Persian soldiers dressed to impress when on campaign as well in order to intimidate their opponents, for much the same reasons that the British army of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries loved to put their bright red coats on display in formation.

Image: Immortals relief from the palace at Susa, photograph by mshamma via Wikimedia (currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 5th c. BCE; glazed brick)

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

A Roman Boat Trip to Nowhere

Most of us aren’t doing a lot of traveling these days, what with the pandemic restrictions. Some people are missing the travel experience so much they’re paying for flights to nowhere, but it’s good to be reminded that travel can also be a real pain—uncomfortable accommodations, bad food, rude fellow passengers, awkward schedules, and the like.

Travel could be just as difficult in the past, too. Here’s the Roman poet Horace’s description of an unintentional canal boat trip to nowhere to remind you of what you’re (not) missing.

[…] An hour went by in taking fares
and hitching up the mule. The vile marsh midges and frogs
kept sleep at bay; all the while a boatman, sloshed on cheap wine,
competed with a passenger in crooning to absent
girlfriends. At last, worn out, the passenger went to sleep
and the lazy boatman hitched the mule to a rock
to graze, then flopped down and snored.
When morning dawned we realized the old tub
wasn’t moving, not until some hothead jumped up and gave
the mule and boatman both a good thrashing about the head and hindquarters
with a willow switch. […]

– Horace, Satires 1.5.13-23

(My own translation)

Enjoy the pleasures of just staying home!

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

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.