Custom is King

We often think of multiculturalism as a particularly modern virtue, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus gave a pretty good argument for respecting other peoples’ cultures more than two millennia ago.

Here’s the story he tells:

When Darius was king [of Persia], he summoned the Greeks who were at his court and asked them how much money it would take to get them to eat the bodies of their deceased fathers. They replied that nothing would make them do so. Darius then summoned some Indians, called Kallatiai, whose custom it is to eat their dead parents, and asked them—in the presence of the Greeks, who had an interpreter to explain the Kallatiai’s words—how much money it would take to convince them to cremate their deceased fathers [as was the Greek custom]. The Kallatiai exclaimed that he should not even mention such an abomination. Custom dictates such things, and it seems to me that [the poet] Pindar got it quite right when he said that custom is king.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.38

Herodotus does not tell this story at random but to illustrate a point. Cambyses, a different Persian king, had mocked the Egyptians for worshiping a white bull, and Herodotus felt that Cambyses had been very wrong, even insane, to do so. This story about Darius’ cultural investigations was meant to drive the point home: everyone believes in their own way of doing things, and it is wrong to dismiss or disparage other peoples’ culture, even if you don’t share it or even understand it. We can respect other people’s culture just as we expect them to respect ours. No culture is right or wrong.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s a Greek author standing up for Egyptian traditions against the scorn of a Persian king and citing another Persian king’s discussions with Greeks and Indians to do it. Herodotus’ defense of multiculturalism is itself multicultural.

Image: Relief sculpture of Darius via Wikimedia (Persepolis; sixth century BCE; stone)

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.

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What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?

One of the workshops I attended at Worldcon 75 was about non-European-based fantasy worldbuilding. It was a lively and enjoyable workshop, but—no doubt for logistical reasons—the discussion of what exactly makes a setting seem European was cut rather short. It’s not a question that is easy to answer, even though—from Tolkien to Game of Thrones—it is obvious that a lot of fantasy literature and media draws heavily on European, and specifically medieval European, influences. What is it about a fantasy world that makes it feel European, and what kinds of things should we consider changing if we want to create something that doesn’t?

Our popular collective sense of medieval European history is a fairy-tale world of knights on horseback, castles, kings and queens, pageantry and chivalry. For people growing up in the West, fairy tales in this tradition shape some of our earliest exposure to storytelling and it is no surprise that their forms and characters continue to inform how we approach fantasy. If you want to make your fantasy world feel less European, one approach is simply to look around the world for different terms to slot into the formula. Instead of telling a story about a dashing knight riding his trusty steed to rescue the princess from the castle of the wicked queen, you can tell a story about a dashing jaguar warrior riding his trusty ostrich to rescue the geisha from the stone fortress of the wicked maharani. This kind of “palette-swapping” (as Jeannette Ng calls it in an excellent recent Twitter thread) can work, up to a point, but the more depth and detail you have in your story, the more shallow this kind of worldbuilding will feel.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of “fairy tale” Europe. Knights, castles, kings and queens all have some basis in reality, but they are complicated. Mounted knights played only a small part in medieval European warfare and only in certain regions and periods. The crenellated stone fortresses we think of as “castles” had a similarly limited scope. Kingship was a precarious position across most of medieval Europe (where it existed at all). The most powerful actors were often local warlords. Chivalry meant the rules of war, which were followed as haphazardly as rules of war generally are. Their more romantic aspects were an embellishment of popular literature. Indeed, modern fantasy literature that imagines a world of chivalrous knights and fair damsels wandering from castle to castle draws far more on medieval fantasy literature (not to mention the self-serving propaganda of a small warrior elite) than on any of the realities of European history.

Furthermore, many of the things we commonly associate with medieval Europe were not originally European. Heavily-armed cavalry had been pioneered by the Parthians and depended on technologies—most crucially stirrups and large, strong horse breeds—developed in Central Asia. Stone fortifications had a long history of development in the Levant, and European castle designs drew heavily on Islamic examples encountered by Crusaders. Speaking of the Crusades, the Christian texts and ideologies that guided medieval intellectual culture were rooted in Jewish traditions and the cultural turmoil of the Roman empire’s eastern provinces.

So, what, after all, is so European about Europe? When we say that the fantasy we’re reading feels European, or that we want to write something that doesn’t, what are the things that add up to that?

My basic advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land, so let’s look at the land of Europe.

Europe, geographically speaking, is not really a continent but rather the long, vaguely triangular western end of Eurasia. Compared with most other major land areas, Europe is relatively compact. Most of the landmass falls between the 40th and 60th parallels. Many bays and small seas penetrate the land and break it up into numerous peninsulas and islands. A long mountain system sprawls across the southern half, a smaller and more fragmented one across the northwestern diagonal. Wedged between them is a broad plain threaded with numerous rivers, with forests in the west giving way to grasslands in the east. The North Atlantic current brings warm water and wet winds to the western coast while the many bays and small seas bring the climate-moderating effects of water to much of the land.

This geography has several significant effects for human cultures in Europe. One is that the climate is relatively stable and uniform across most of Europe. The southern half tends more warm and dry while the northern half is more cool and went, but broadly speaking, the temperatures, rainfall, seasonal weather patterns, and growing conditions are similar enough across most of the land that the same crops can be grown and animals raised in most regions. (No, I’m not saying the climates of Spain and Finland are identical; I’m saying they have enough in common that a farmer from one place would not have to learn a whole new way of farming and acquire entirely new crops and animals to get by in the other.) The major staple crops are grains, primarily wheat and barley, with hardier alternatives like rye and oats appearing farther north. The principal farm animals are pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, with goats being more common in the mountainous south and cattle more common in the northern plains.

The geography also makes travel and transport relatively easy. Most places in Europe are within a few hundred kilometers of the sea and much of the area is crossed by navigable rivers. Since waterborne transport is more efficient than overland, large cargoes can be carried around Europe more easily than in many other regions.

Put together the similarity of climate and the ease of transport and the result is a land where many basic elements of economic and social life—the organization of agricultural labor, the rhythms of the farming year, the structure of local trade—are similar in many different places. The relative ease of connecting local economies into long-distance trade means that goods, people, and ideas flow readily from one region to another.

Despite the ecological cohesiveness of Europe, this landscape has different effects on political life. The profusion of islands, peninsulas, and bays breaks up the landmass into many smaller regions. So do the mountains of the south and the forested areas of the north. While these smaller regions are connected by trade and travel, they are difficult to assemble into large coherent states. There are many places in Europe where one leader with a small following of warriors could easily control a handful of villages or a stretch of river valley, but these small territories are much harder to unite under one leader’s power.

These two tendencies have underlain much of European history and are still visible today: cultural and economic interconnectedness at odds with political fragmentation.

When people are united by culture but divided by politics, their warfare tends to focus on establishing dominance over the enemy rather than destroying them. The respect for shared institutions and values facilitates the development of common diplomatic customs which can limit the destructiveness of warfare and channel competition into symbolic contests. On the other hand, diplomacy can draw conflicts out by delaying a decisive clash. People are likely to find themselves at war repeatedly over the same issues, a feature we can also see in European history.

These factors tend to draw European societies into internal connections and conflicts, but Europe is also well connected to the outside world. The Mediterranean Sea is easy to cross to North Africa or the Levant and the there is an extensive land connection to the rest of Eurasia. A short overland trip from the southeastern Mediterranean leads on to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. North America can be reached either by riding the circular North Atlantic trade winds or by island-hopping by way of Britain, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. People have always been moving into and out of Europe both individually and in larger migrations, bringing the influence of outside ideas and cultures into the region and taking European ideas abroad.

All of these factors are part of what makes Europe European. We can see their influence even in the fairy tale version. Many kings and queens (and other kinds of rulers) have competed for power across stretches of Europe, relying on knights (and warriors of other descriptions) who supported themselves on the agricultural produce of small local regions. In parts of this fragmented landscape, local magnates built castles (and other kinds of fortified dwellings) to secure their control of territory and resources. The cultural and economic connections between many of these warring parties fostered the development of a common set of norms for the conduct of warfare, which literature elaborated into a fanciful code of chivalry. Contact with the outside world and immigration of foreign peoples brought new ideas and technologies—like stirrups and stone castles—which then spread widely through networks of trade.

These forces are not always visible in storytelling, but they underlie many of the basic assumptions, social structures, and cultural habits that make so many fantasy worlds feel European. Even some of the most basic staples of fantasy literature have their roots in the European landscape—of course everyone eats bread and cheese when wheat is the dominant crop across most of Europe and cattle are the primary herd animal on half the continent.

If we want to build fantasy worlds that don’t follow the same familiar patterns, we need to understand where those patterns come from.

Images: La Belle Dame sans Merci via Wikimedia (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; 1901; oil on canvas; Frank Dicksee). Satellite map of Euopre via Wikimedia. A View of Tallanton Castle via Wikimedia (Scottish National Gallery; 1816; oil on canvas; Alexander Naysmith).

Post edited for clarity and to correct historical inaccuracies.

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.

Sun, Moon, and Stars

Today, as many of us eagerly await the coming solar eclipse, is a good time to think about how peoples of the past experienced the sky. While eclipses were rare and sometimes frightening events for ancient cultures, living day to day with the rhythms of the sun, moon, and stars shaped how different peoples measured and thought about time.

Peoples whose way of life depended on mobility, such as hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, had good reason to care about the cycles of the moon. A bright full moon could provide enough light to travel long into the night while at the same time bringing out both prey animals that hunters depended on and

nocturnal predators that could be a danger to pastoralists and their flocks. Timing movement, hunting, and watchful nights around the cycles of the full moon was advantageous to peoples whose lives and livelihoods were shaped by forces like these. The lunar cycle—the period of just over 29.5 days between one full moon and the next—formed the basis for dating systems organized around months alternating between 29 and 30 days.

Agriculturalists, on the other hand, depended more on the sun, whose light and warmth they needed for their crops. Timing planting and harvest to the cycle of the seasons was crucial—plant too early and the crops could die from cold or drought; plant too late and the harvest would not mature before the growing season ended. Since the lunar cycle does not match up with conveniently with the solar year of just under 365.25 days, early farmers had to either adjust their calendars by fudging with the number of months in each year (a process called “intercalation”) or else track the time by counting the days in the year.

But the solar year doesn’t come out to an even number of days, so solar calendars require adjusting as well. We do this today by adding an extra day to February in leap years, but ancient peoples often depended on the observation of astronomical phenomena, such as the solstices and equinoxes or the yearly cycle of observable stars in the night sky. Different cultures approached this problem in different ways. In some places, people built megalithic monuments, like Stonehenge or the aboriginal Australian stone arrangement at Wurdi Youang, to mark critical astronomical alignments. Other peoples, such as the Maya, Babylonians, and ancient Chinese, developed sophisticated mathematical methods of observing and predicting astronomical events. Hindu sages in the fourth through tenth centuries CE calculated the length of the year to an accuracy within a few minutes of modern observations. Pre-modern people pictured familiar images in the constellations of the stars not just out of an impulse to explain the visible world around them but as a memory aid for tracking the movements of important markers of the cycle of the year.

The various lunar, solar, and astronomical ways of calculating time have all left their mark on the cultures who used them. Some important modern holidays, like Christmas and the midsummer holidays celebrated in many parts of the world, fall on or near important days in the solar calendar. Others, like Ramadan, are determined by a lunar calendar and move through the seasons year by year. Still others, like Passover and Diwali, represent a compromise between lunar and solar systems—tied to a season, but falling each year on a day determined by lunar cycles. The tracking of the year through the movement of constellations across the sky, once vital to the survival of agrarian societies, remains with us in the popular pseudoscience of astrology.

Thoughts for writers

In worldbuilding, calendars are useful not just for coordinating the events of your plot but as a reflection of the societies your stories take place in. If the celestial mechanics of your world is anything like ours, people will look to the sky to help them keep track of the conditions that matter in their way of life, but different societies will care about different things. Cultures that place a premium on mobility or who care about the movements of animals—whether predators or prey—will particularly pay attention to the cycles of the moon (or whatever else lights up the night). Sedentary, agricultural societies will need to mark the turning of the seasons by the movements of the sun and stars. A lot of societies will have reasons to combine solar and lunar calendars: herders and hunters need to manage the migration of animals from one season to the next, and lunar cycles are useful for farmers to coordinate market days, social events, and political gatherings. Cultures that have incorporated both pastoral and agricultural traditions are likely to reflect the history of that negotiation in how they mark the passage of the year. The sun, moon, and stars are not just beautiful parts of the natural world; they were vital tools in the lives of people all around the world in history, as they continue to be for many people today.

Image: Two diagrams with the sun and the moon via Wikimedia (currently Getty Center; late 13th c.; ink, paint, and gold leaf on parchment)

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.

The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

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.

Greek Myth, Etruscan Tomb

We like to think of the modern world as one in which different cultures intertwine and overlap with one another, but there were complicated cross-cultural interactions in the ancient world as well. For example, look at this wall painting from an Etruscan tomb.

Sacrifice of Trojan captives, photograph by Battlelight via Wikimedia (François Tomb, Vulci; late 4th c.; fresco)

This scene depicts an incident from the Trojan War. After his friend Patroclus was killed in battle, the great Greek warrior Achilles went mad with grief. He piled up an enormous funeral pyre for Patroclus, on top of which he also killed twelve Trojan prisoners. At the center of this painting, Achilles slits the throat of a naked Trojan prisoner while a Greek soldier leads another prisoner to the slaughter from the right. To the left, the ghost of Patroclus, in a blue cloak with a bandage over the fatal wound in his chest, looks on in dismay.

This incident comes from the Greek legends of the Trojan War and is mentioned in the Iliad, but it is a rather obscure scene. It was rarely, if ever, referred to in later Greek literature or depicted in Greek art. The fact that an Etruscan artist could use this event as the basis for a tomb painting demonstrates a more than passing knowledge of Greek myth.

The Etruscans were a people of northern Italy who had extensive trade contacts with the Greeks and imported large quantities of fine pottery and other Greek luxury goods. They also imported Greek legends and stories, which they frequently depicted in their own artworks. Like the painting in the François Tomb, Etruscan art often picks up on obscure or unusual incidents that were not widely depicted in Greek art. This selectiveness tells us that Etruscans were not just copying the Greek art that they acquired but were making conscious artistic choices based on extensive knowledge of the Greek material.

This painting also adds some uniquely Etruscan elements to the scene. The winged woman directly behind Achilles is Vanth, an Etruscan goddess whose role seems to have been to decide the fate of the souls of the dead. The blue-skinned man to Achilles’ right is Charu, another Etruscan god who led the souls of the dead to wherever Vanth decided to send them. Vanth and Charu are purely Etruscan characters with no basis in the Iliad. Greek myth had figures who performed similar functions, but they looked nothing like Vanth and Charu.

These two figures are not simply added to the scene. The way that they frame the sacrificial act and share a knowing look over Achilles’ head changes the scene’s meaning. Rather than just seeing Achilles’ awful act, we see that his act happens in a context that transcends the mortal world. The Greek afterlife was pretty much universally bleak, except for a few select troublemakers who got ironically tortured. The Etruscan afterlife is poorly understood, but they seem to have believed that the deeds of the living affected the fate of the dead, which could be pleasant or terrifying. In this painting, Vanth and Charu seem to be saying to one another: “We see what’s happening here, and it won’t be forgotten. We’re here for the Trojans this time, but Achilles’ day is coming.”

This painting is one that a Greek artist would never have painted and that a Greek viewer wouldn’t have understood. It only made sense to an Etruscan, but to an Etruscan who knew their Iliad well enough to recognize the figures of Achilles and Patroclus and identify the moment in the story that was being depicted. Here in this image we have a moment of cross-cultural interaction on display.

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.

Know Your Barbarians

The word “barbarian” today conjures a fairly specific image: a large, muscular man or woman wearing leather or furs hefting an enormous weapon. They are ragged and dirty and if they have any kind of organization, it is as a rabble of warriors following whoever happens to be the strongest. This image has its roots in classical Greek and Roman literature, but Greco-Roman ideas about barbarians were broader and more complicated than this.

Greeks and Romans both had complicated relationships with the outside world. The economy of ancient Greece depended on foreign trade, especially with Egypt, but Greece was also on the northwestern frontier of the Persian empire, which often threatened Greek cities or interfered in their internal politics. Rome was an expansionist empire with ambitions of conquering the whole world, but the strength and stability of the empire depended on integrating conquered peoples into Roman culture.

Out of these historical experiences, Greek and Roman writers, artists, and philosophers developed a wide repertoire of narrative models for describing other peoples. These narratives ranged from the nuanced and admiring to the stereotyping and pejorative. “Barbarian” could mean many different things in different times and contexts. Among this repertoire, there were conventional archetypes that authors and artists could draw on and expect that their audience would recognize them.

These archetypes were nebulous conglomerations of tropes and stereotypes, not always consistent and liable to be manipulated, tweaked, and subverted in individual works of art or literature. They could be reduced to caricature or filled out with individual details. They functioned much like modern national and ethnic stereotypes. Imagine the caricature version of a British gentleman, replete with bowler hat and umbrella. We might expect such a character to have certain typical qualities, both positive (unflappable, chivalrous, witty) and negative (stodgy, proud, insensitive) and engage in typical behaviors (sipping tea, playing polo, driving a Jaguar). Of course, stereotypes don’t have to be followed. A Brit in a bowler hat with an umbrella may also turn out to be a tongue-tied chocoholic who raises miniature goats and likes to watch telenovelas, but the author who creates such a character and the audience that encounters them will recognize how the standard tropes have been played with.

Greeks and Romans had two principal archetypes for barbarians. One was based on small, materially poor, less well organized cultures mostly found to the west or north, such as Scythians, Thracians, Gauls, Germans, Iberians, Britons, and Dacians. The other was based on large, wealthy, sophisticated cultures mostly found to the east or south, such as Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Lydians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans.

The northwestern barbarians are the ancestors of the modern “barbarian” image. They were portrayed as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. They had no idea how to behave in a civilized society and were almost like wild animals. They lived in poverty and with barely any kind of government except the ability of the strong to impose their will on others. They could also be shown with good qualities, such as generosity and honesty. The were the original “noble savages,” ignorant of the benefits of civilization but also uncorrupted by its temptations.

The southeastern barbarians were the opposite. They were portrayed as weak, decadent, devious, overwhelmed by luxury and tangled in arcane social hierarchies. They had given in to the corrupting effects of civilization and overindulged in every kind of physical pleasure. They lived like slaves under the rule of despotic tyrants, but they were so accustomed to the comforts of luxury that they lacked the will to resist. They could have positive qualities as well. Their cultures were ancient and sophisticated, rich in accumulated knowledge. We don’t have a good term for the opposite of “noble savages,” but we might call them “depraved sophisticates.”

Central to both of these archetypes is one of the key values of Greco-Roman society: self-control. The southeastern barbarians displayed too little of it, giving in every kind of indulgence and unable to resist the rule of a tyrant. The northwestern barbarians, by contrast, were too willful, unable to subordinate themselves to the structures of law and social order. By creating these archetypes, Greeks and Romans positioned themselves in the middle—sophisticated enough to enjoy the benefits of civilization, but strong enough to resist its corrupting effects.

Both of these archetypes have come down into modern literature. The northwestern barbarian has become the standard modern “barbarian,” but aspects of it can also be seen in modern Western stereotypes of Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans. “Darkest Africa” stories about wild cannibal tribes dumbfounded by modern technology and scientific knowledge play upon the same images of violence, savagery, and technological ignorance that Romans applied to the Gauls and Germans. The southeastern barbarian formed the basis for romanticized Western depictions of the Islamic world, China, and India. “Arabian Nights” fantasies of scandalous harems and treacherous palace politics, ancient secrets and fabulous treasures hidden in the twisting back streets behind markets filled with spices and gems evoke Greek tales about Egypt and Persia.

These archetypes have also found their way into fantasy and science fiction. Tolkien’s Elves reflect some of the more positive southeastern qualities of wisdom and sophistication while his Orcs display the violent, fractious, bestial traits of the northwest. Star Trek‘s Klingons and Romulans represent the tropes of warlike honor and treacherous sophistication. The people of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones face the rugged, wild, disorderly peoples of the north and the rich, old, devious kingdoms of the east.

Once you know your barbarians, you’ll recognize them everywhere.

Images: Hyboria, by Yan R. via Flickr. Sultan from the Arabian Nights, by Rene Bull via Wikimedia.

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

Heroic Warfare and Mass Warfare

There are many ways to fight a battle, even in worlds without modern weapons and techniques. Two terms that are useful for thinking about pre-modern battles are heroic warfare and mass warfare.

Heroic warfare is centered on a small number of leaders. These leaders are usually the most experienced and best equipped fighters their side of the fight can muster. They rely on their reputation as great warriors, so they need to stand out and be seen by everyone on both sides. In heroic warfare, battle begins not with both sides rushing into the fight but with the leaders stepping forward to identify themselves, boast about their victories, taunt leaders on the other side, and generally try to intimidate the enemy while boosting their own troops’ morale.

Mass warfare relies upon large numbers of soldiers who are all similarly equipped and who fight as a group. Commanders often stand out so that their own troops can identify them and follow their lead on the field, but they fight as part of the group and success does not depend on their individual reputation.

Historically, heroic warfare tended to be practiced in small-scale, culturally homogeneous societies. As societies grow larger and more complex, they tend to shift away from heroic warfare to mass warfare. There are practical reasons for this. The advantage of fighting in heroic style is that it greatly limits the number of casualties. The point of all the showing off and boasting at the beginning of the battle is try to convince the other side that they can’t win and so they’d be better off coming to terms and avoiding the fight altogether. For that to work, though, both sides have to have enough confidence in one another that they can make an agreement and expect the other side to honor it. That kind of confidence usually depends on having a shared set of cultural norms and values. It is much harder to manage across a wide cultural divide.

At the same time, heroic warfare is not all for show. The message that a heroic leader is trying to send is: “If we actually do start fighting, we’re going to beat you.” For that message to be credible, the leader has to be able to back it up, and even the best leader is no good without followers. Heroic warfare depends not just on the leader standing in front but on the soldiers standing behind them ready to fight if the other side doesn’t back down. Heroic warfare works when the number of troops on both sides is small enough that one well-equipped, skilled leader’s participation in battle might actually make a difference. In larger societies that can put thousands of soldiers on the field, the talents of individual leaders are much less relevant to the outcome of a fight.

Thoughts for writers

We like heroes. As storytellers, we tend to focus on the stories of individuals, even in settings where the actions of groups matter more to the outcome. There is nothing new about this. Ancient myths and medieval romances are full of heroic warriors, even though they were told by people who lived in times of mass warfare. The ethos of heroic warfare is undeniably appealing, but if it is going to make sense in our stories we have to think about how to make it work in settings where it doesn’t naturally fit.

There is a place for heroic warriors in settings of mass warfare. Where most of the real fighting is done by mass armies, there are still times when a powerful leader can make a difference—when events that play out on a small scale matter to the larger battle and when threat and intimidation are called for. These are the moments we need to craft as writers.

In other words, even when most of the fighting is done by these guys

you can still find a place for someone like this.

Images: Battle of Issus via Wikimedia (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples; 1st c. BCE; mosaic). Stormtroopers via Giphy. Darth Vader via Giphy.

Angels and Pinheads

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? For many of us, this is our go-to example of a pointless question. It is often used to ridicule the Middle Ages as a time of naive religiosity still mired in darkness and ignorance before the coming of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is one of the most important and consequential questions in western intellectual history.

The key is that the question isn’t really asking for a number. The number is irrelevant. The answer that matters is: finite or infinite?

Angels, according to the traditions of the western monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are God’s agents in the world. They are how the divine will is enacted in the physical world we live in. For believers in those faiths, therefore, understanding angels is a way of understanding how God acts in the world.

If the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is some finite number, then two angels cannot occupy the same space. It doesn’t matter what the number is; if there is a point at which you just can’t fit any more angels on that pin, then angels must have volume and mass. If they have volume and mass, they necessarily have other physical properties derive from those qualities like density and velocity. In other words, angels are bound by the same physical laws that operate in the rest of the world and which we humans can observe, study, and understand. On the other hand, if there is no limit to how many angels can dance on a pin, then they must not have these same physical properties and therefore cannot be understood or described by analogy with anything that exists in the material world.

What this all adds up to is: if the number is finite, then we can understand the workings of God’s will through mathematics, physics, and observation of the natural world, but if the number is infinite, then those studies are of no use and we can only comprehend God through the study of revealed texts and the writings of inspired individuals like prophets and saints. To understand those texts, however, we have to understand not just the languages in which they are written but the literary genres in which they were composed and the historical and philosophical references they depend upon to convey their messages.

Or to put it in even more familiar terms: science versus humanities.

As human beings, we often rely on symbols and shorthand to discuss important questions. Those symbols draw on the cultural context that surrounds us and they can seem nonsensical without that context. In a thousand years, people may think 20th-century Americans had an odd obsession with arguing over whether donkeys or elephants are better animals, and their 21st-century descendants were no less ridiculous with their fights over whether red or blue is a better color, but we today know the weight of complicated ideas that lie behind those convenient symbols. In the context of medieval scholastic thought, angels and pins served a similar purpose.

Thoughts for writers

The “angels and pin heads” debate is a fine example of how important cultural context is for both research and worldbuilding.

When doing research, it is crucial to remember that people in past societies had thoughts and arguments that are just as complicated as we have today, but they often expressed those ideas in shorthand references that are not transparent to us. If you’re doing research or reading primary sources and people seem to be hung up on arguments that seem pointless or silly, chances are there’s something much more serious behind it and you need to get a handle on their symbolic vocabulary in order to understand it.

(Of course, sometimes people do have pointless and silly arguments, and that’s just as true in the past as it is today. Looking at you, Star Wars vs. Star Trek folks.)

For worldbuilding, think about the kinds of symbolic shorthand people in your fictional world use for their important debates. Symbolic arguments are useful. When everyone around you already knows what the symbols mean, they save time and energy. If the big question for people in your world is whether hereditary monarchy or military aristocracy is a better basis for government, most people aren’t going to go around talking about “hereditary monarchy” or “military aristocracy” all the time. Those are long and cumbersome words to be throwing around. They’re more likely to argue about crowns and helms, or the hunter and the fawn, or some other metaphor. The arguments will also probably turn around seemingly insignificant questions, such as whether one should eat sitting at a table or on the ground, or what color shoes women should wear. Part of your worldbuilding is understanding how the symbols connect to the serious questions.

Whether you explain things for your audience or not is up to you, but layering in symbolic arguments like pin heads and dancing angels is part of the depth that makes a fictional world feel real.

Image: Five dancing angels, photograph by Jebulon via Wimikedia (Musée Condé, Chantilly; c. 1436; oil and gold on wood; by Giovanni di Paolo)

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.

Nitocris’ Vengeance

Here’s a story told by the Greek historian Herodotus about an ancient queen of Egypt, as told to him by the Egyptian priests he was interviewing about their country’s history:

The priests read out from a papyrus scroll the names of three-hundred and thirty kings. In all these generations there were eighteen Ethiopians and one Egyptian woman; the rest were Egyptian men. The woman’s name was Nitocris… They said that she avenged her brother. The Egyptians had killed him when he was their king and then given the kingship to her, so she slaughtered many Egyptians by a trick to avenge him. She had an underground chamber built and invited those Egyptians whom she knew to be most guilty of her brother’s death on the pretense of an inaugural feast, although she was actually planning something else. As they were feasting, she had the river let in to flood the chamber through a great hidden channel.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.100

My own translation

Like Herodotus’ other stories about Egypt, this shows an interesting mix of actual historical knowledge with folklore, probably both Egyptian and Greek.

It is very difficult to verify the number of kings Herodotus’ interviewees listed for him. Earlier Egyptian records of kings have survived only in very fragmentary forms and later writings about Egyptian history, even those by Egyptians, tended to rely on Herodotus. When Egyptian dynasties recorded the reigns of their kings, they had as much incentive as an other politicians to exaggerate some things and erase others. When Herodotus was traveling in Egypt, the country was under Persian rule and not particularly happy about it. The priests that Herodotus talked to had their own reasons to encourage a certain view of Egyptian history.

Nevertheless, in rough terms, 330 is a reasonable estimate of the number of kings who had ruled in Egypt over 3,000 years. The priests’ count also includes a number of “Ethiopian” kings, who correspond to the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, when Egypt was conquered and ruled by Nubians for about a hundred years between the mid-eighth and mid-seventh centuries BCE.

That leaves Nitocris herself. The name may be a garbled form of a very early king who had otherwise been forgotten about by Herodotus’ time. We now know from ancient inscriptions that more than one woman ruled Egypt, whether as regents for their sons or as pharaoh themselves. The most famous of these female pharaohs is Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1478 to 1458 BCE, just over a thousand years before Herodotus visited Egypt. The “underground chamber” mentioned in the story may be a distorted recollection of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, which was built partially into the side of a cliff and which is surrounded by the underground tombs of later pharaohs who chose to be buried at the same site (now known as the Valley of the Kings).

Hatshepsut’s successor, Thuthmosis III, had her name stricken from monuments and her public statues destroyed—not necessarily out of any personal animosity, but simply because the existence of a female predecessor may have threatened the legitimacy of his own and his descendants’ reign. The erasure of her public memory, though, may have opened room for some of the more outlandish and dramatic elements of her legend to grow (and may explain the loss of her name).

At the same time, the themes of family chaos, murder, and revenge that run through this story are very much in tune with Greek mythology. Whether Herodotus invented them or the priests enlivened the tale, they seem calculated to appeal to a Greek audience. There may well be some of both: the priests may have adapted their native oral tradition to better suit their Greek interviewer, while Herodotus may have amplified the familiar elements of the story as he retold the story for his Greek readers.

It may best for us to see the story of Nitocris as a kind of collaborative Greco-Egyptian historical fiction.

Image: Portrait statue of Hatshepsut, photograph by Rob Koopman via Wikimedia (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden; granite; c. 1450 BCE)

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.

Keep Out

The image above is a papyrus sign found near an ancient temple complex at Saqqara, Egypt. The original is 36 cm (a little more than a foot) wide. The text is in Greek and reads:

By order of Peukestes:

No entry.

This is a sacred enclosure.

My own translation

What does this sign mean and why was it posted in Greek somewhere near an Egyptian temple?

The name Peukestes helps us towards an answer. There is one important Peukestes we know from the sources with a connection to Egypt. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt with his Greek and Macedonian army. The Egyptian people had lived unhappily under the rule of the Persian empire for generations and they greeted the newcomers as liberators. When Alexander moved on the next year to continue his conquest of Persia, he left Egypt under the charge of two of his commanders, Balakros and Peukestes. (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 3.5.5)

The Greeks and Macedonians of Alexander’s army had Egyptian good will on their side and they did not want to lose it. At the same time, Egypt and its great monuments were a source of endless fascination to foreign visitors in antiquity, just as much as today, and not all foreigners knew how to behave with respect. Centuries earlier, Greek mercenaries in the service of the Egyptian pharaohs had carved graffiti into the stones of ancient temples. Balakros and Peukestes, trying to hold onto a valuable province through the turmoil of liberation, certainly did not want any of that going on.

The sign was probably originally posted outside of the temple complex at Saqqara as a warning to any Greek troops indulging in a bit of sight-seeing that they had better be on their best behavior, including staying out of places that were sacred to their Egyptian friends.

Multicultural and cross-religious encounters are nothing new in the world. People have been thinking about the problem of how to get along peacefully with those whose ways of life are different from ours for thousands of years. Respecting other peoples’ religious traditions isn’t just polite, it’s sound policy.

Reference for the papyrus: Eric G. Turner, “A Commander-in-Chief’s Order from Saqqara,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60 (1974): 239-42.

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.