Fantasy Religions: Novel Religions

The religions that exist in our world can be broadly divided into two categories: traditional religions, which developed gradually in their own native societies and have no clear beginning point, and novel religions, which began at a fixed point in time. Many of the great world religions of the modern day, like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, are novel religions, while some traditional religions, like Shinto, still thrive. Some religions, like Hinduism and Judaism, have features of both. In earlier posts, we’ve discussed what sort of things you may want to keep in mind in your worldbuilding for stories or games to make your imaginary religions feel more authentically traditional. Today we’ll take a look at what makes a novel religion feel alive.

There have been many novel religions in world history. A few have gathered large followings and become major forces in the world. Many have faded away after a few generations. Some have done well for a long time, even for centuries, before finally disappearing. There is no single thing that every novel religion has in common, but looking at history, we can see definite patterns as to what makes a new religious movement thrive, even if only for a time. It takes more than a charismatic leader with a new idea, although that is where most of them start.

Connection to the past

New ways of life can be hard to adopt, but they are easier if they connect to things people already know. Christianity and Islam both drew on Jewish traditions, as Buddhism did with the same ancient Indian traditions that informed Hinduism. The ancient Mediterranean cult of Isis based itself on ancient Egyptian religion. Similarly, Zoroastrianism drew on ancient Iranian religious ideas. New movements within existing religions that do not split off on their own also often share the features of novel religions, like the Protestant denominations within Christianity or the Shia branch of Islam. The degree to which new religious movements identify themselves as new or as reforms to or revivals of older traditions can vary widely.

Texts and beliefs

Not every religion, novel or traditional, has sacred texts, but many novel religions do. Such texts help to define how the new movement differs from what has come before and what its followers are expected to do or believe in order to be counted as part of the group. Depending on the religion, these texts may be openly available to anyone who wants to read them, or access to them may be limited only to those who have joined the movement. Novel religions are also more likely to focus on belief, unlike traditional religions which tend to focus on practices and rituals.

Hope in times of trouble

The success of any new religion depends largely on its ability to attract new followers in sufficient numbers to keep the movement going. Most people most of the time aren’t really “in the market” for a new religion, but there are certain times in history when large numbers of people are ready to embrace something new. It tends to happen in times of suffering and uncertainty, among people who have been displaced from their homes and familiar ways of life. The Bacchanal cult of the second century BCE appealed to Italian peasants who had been driven from the countryside into the cities by economic desperation. Haitian Vodou and related religions came out of the traumas of enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas. Christianity and Islam both, in different periods and different ways, emerged among the victims of Roman imperialism. Novel religions often offer purpose, identity, and community to people who have lost the things that gave them those comforts before.

Difficult (but not too difficult)

A novel religion often thrives when it demands practices of its followers that are difficult, but not excessively difficult, to carry out. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. Buddhists engage in meditation of many different kinds. Followers of Isis were expected to furnish a feast for their fellow worshipers upon joining. These kinds of practices, which require time, focus, and effort, but are not overly demanding, help foster a sense of community by creating shared experiences. At the same time, religions which demand overly difficult practices tend to see their followings dwindle. Converts to Mithraism went through initiations involving withstanding heat, cold, and pain (although probably not bathing in bull’s blood, as sometimes alleged). The rigors of these initiations, as well as the fact that it seems to have been open only to men, may have limited the cult’s appeal and kept it from gaining a critical mass of followers.

Outward from the middle

Novel religions tend to begin neither at the top nor at the bottom of the social scale but somewhere in the middle. Simply put, the rich and powerful have little to gain from upending the order of things, while the poor and powerless don’t have the time to ponder on the mysteries of the universe. New religious movements tend to begin among people who, if not always “middle class” by a modern definition, are somewhere on the middling ranks of the social and economic hierarchy. How they spread from there differs. Some religions grow by promising the hope of a better life to the poor, as Christianity did, while others, such as Confucianism, grow by appealing to a discontented elite.

Food

Food, for many of us, is a vital part of our sense of identity and community—think of your favorite family recipes or the special holiday dishes that remind you of heritage and home. Many novel religions present new ways of eating as part of the creation of a new communal identity. One of the central rituals of Christianity involves consuming (literally or metaphorically, depending on one’s theology) the body and blood of the founding figure. Muslims are enjoined to fast during daylight hours during Ramadan and to avoid certain food and drink, including pork and alcohol, altogether. Manichaeism taught that adherents had a duty to spread light in the world and combat darkness by eating certain foods and avoiding others. Eating together, or eating in similar ways to other followers elsewhere, helps to maintain the bonds that hold the adherents of a new religion together.

Thoughts for writers

As an example of how these features of novel religions can inform worldbuilding, here is a short description of an imaginary movement in an imaginary world.

The borderlands of Jash have been ravaged by decades of war between the Jashite cities and the invading armies of the Akluni Empire. As refugees from the rugged hills and scrublands of northern Jash stream into the cities of the lush Jash River valley, they find misery, poverty, and violence. Many of the refugees, looking for the solace of the familiar, have filled the neglected temples of Uzuli, the moon goddess favored by borderland shepherds but little regarded by the city folk.

Among the merchants and farmers of the Jash cities, tensions have been growing as no city seems capable of leading a coordinated response to the Akluni threat. Factions have formed within the cities, some arguing for peace with Aklun, others for resistance to the death; some for throwing the refugees out to fend for themselves, others for redistributing farmland to provide for the hungry. Encounters between members of these factions in the streets and market often lead to harangues, arguments, even fistfights.

Lately, a woman calling herself the Moon Daughter has been gathering crowds in the side streets of the city of Busa, giving stirring speeches promising a return of peace and prosperity. She comes from one of the lesser merchant families of Busa, but no longer speaks to them after beginning her work in the streets. She reports visions from Uzuli that call for all the people of Jash to be as one, to return to the simpler ways of the country, and to withstand the assault of Aklun not by arms but with the patience of Uzuli, who does not fear the waning because she knows that the full moon will come again.

The Moon Daughter’s early followers came from among other merchants families, whose fortunes have fallen under the pressure of war, but she increasingly draws crowds of hinterland refugees. Some of her followers have begun writing down her speeches and publishing them as pamphlets. “Eat of the bitter terebinth and the prickly pear” she says, “in memory of our home that is lost. Then drink of the honeyed wine that promises peace and harmony forever in the turning of the moon.” Her followers gather for common meals, eating and drinking as she commands, but also sharing what food they have with those who have none.

Building in some of the common features of novel religions helps the Moon Daughter’s movement feel fuller and more grounded in the world. It also offers interesting storytelling hooks. What happens if Busa is conquered by Aklun and the Moon Daughter and her followers have to flee elsewhere? What if the priestesses of Uzuli challenge the Moon Daughter for false prophecy? What if the Moon Daughter’s movement becomes so popular its followers take control of Busa, and then have to negotiate with the other Jashite cities who haven’t joined the movement? What if the Akluni Empire collapses and the refugees return home bringing the Moon Daughter’s words and ideas with them, but leaving the life of the city far behind? There are lots of directions you could take a story or a game from this beginning.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

Image: Manichaean diagram of the universe via Wikimedia (China; 1279-1368 CE; paint and gold on silk)

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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Chariots

War may never change, but the technology of war is always being updated, adapted, and replaced with new inventions. Because of the powerful emotions invoked by our experience of war, outdated military technology is sometimes invested with cultural meaning and takes on a new symbolic life when its functional utility is past. Suits of armor designed to protect soldiers from spears and arrows in wars hundreds of years in the past have become decorative objects that convey a sense of antiquity and dignity to a stately home. Swords have been obsolete on the battlefield for a century, but they still exercise such a fascination for us that we give them to heroes in stories set in the present and future. The town where I live boasts of its possession of a disabled artillery piece from a war more than a hundred years past. In the ancient world, chariots went through a similar transition from practical military hardware to symbolic possession.

A chariot is a light cart, usually on two wheels, though four-wheeled examples exist, designed to be pulled by one or more animals, usually horses. Four-wheeled versions, using heavy solid wheels and pulled by onagers (a type of wild ass) are documented in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE. These wagons would have been relatively slow and ponderous, but they allowed the transport of fighters across the battlefield faster than infantry on foot and provided a defensible fighting platform. Light, fast chariots became possible with the invention of the spoked wheel on the steppes of Central Asia around 2000 BCE.

Light, mobile chariots pulled by horses offered several advantages in war. They allowed swift movement around the battlefield, provided an elevated platform from which to observe the progress of battle, and, on open ground, could stage mass charges to intimidate opposing troops. Horses that were too small to carry a rider under the rigors of war could be used to pull chariots. Between 2000 and 500 BCE, the use of chariots spread across a large swath of Eurasia and northern Africa, from China to Ireland, and from Egypt to the Baltic Sea.

Chariots also had some drawbacks, however. They required skilled construction and maintenance. To be effectively mobile, they had to be built light, but such light construction also made them relatively fragile. They required lots of space to operate and were of limited use on narrow, uneven, or muddy battlefields. Driving and fighting from a chariot solo was a virtuoso feat that few could manage, so the need to provide separate drivers in addition to the fighting troops was a drain on fighting power. In most places, chariots were retired from the battlefield as soon as horse breeds that were large and strong enough to carry an armored soldier became available.

In a few places, like the wide, open plains of Mesopotamia, where the terrain was favorable, chariots were used for fighting into the first century CE, but in most places they had vanished from military use centuries earlier. The glory of the chariot, though, kept its hold on people’s imaginations. In most places where they had been used in war, they were repurposed for symbolic and artistic purposes. In China, chariots were used to make impressive showpieces of engineering, like the famous South-Pointing Chariot, equipped with a figure that always pointed to the south no matter how the chariot turned. In India, chariots were reimagined to become vessels for carrying images of the Hind gods in ceremonial processions. In the Mediterranean, they were used for racing and military parades. In many of these places, chariots also entered mythology, remaining the conveyance of heroes and gods long after they had ceased to be used to carry soldiers around the battlefield.

Image: Model of a four-horse chariot, photograph by BabelStone via Wikimedia (found in Takht-i-Kuwad, Tajikistan, currently British Museum; 5th-4th c. BCE; gold)

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.

Gaulish Wheelbarrow Pigs: A Cautionary Tale

Primary sources are a historian’s best friend, and sometimes worst enemy. Primary sources are essential to our understanding of the past, but if not handled carefully, they can also be deceptive. For a case in point, here are a couple of comments on the Gauls of northern Italy in the third and second centuries BCE.

The Gauls were a warrior elite who had migrated into northern Italy over about a century and established themselves as leaders of scattered towns and settlements in the Po river valley. Some of these groups settled down and built up local power bases based on agriculture and trade. Others made their living by raiding the rest of the Italian peninsula or taking service as mercenaries in the many local wars being fought between Italian peoples like the Etruscans, Romans, Sabines, and Samnites. The native people of the Po valley sometimes resisted Gaulish influence and sometimes assimilated into Gaulish culture. By the second century, the expansion of Roman power had subdued or eliminated many of these groups, while some others had allied themselves with Rome.

The cultural realities of northern Italy were complicated. The view from Rome tended to be simplifying and stereotyping, but even the stereotypes themselves could be complicated.

Here is how the Greek author Polybius, who lived in Rome and aligned himself with Roman culture, described the Italian Gauls:

They lived in unwalled villages without permanent structures. Sleeping on leaves and eating meat, they knew nothing but war and farming; they lived simple lives and had no acquaintance with any art or science.

– Polybius, History 2.17-18

(My own translations)

The image is one of poverty in both material and cultural terms. Polybius’ Gauls are little better than wild animals.

Should we take Polybius’ account as an authoritative statement on what the Romans and their Greek allies thought about the Gauls? There is no doubt that the image of Gauls as feral savages lacking even the rudiments of civilized life was common in the ancient Mediterranean, but it was not the only possibility. In fact, just the opposite was also possible.

Cato the Elder, a Roman statesman, took a different view of the Gauls. Most of his account is lost, but a couple of fragments survive in quotations in later works:

The Gauls devote themselves most diligently to two things: war and cunning talk.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Charisius, Ars Grammatica 2

 

The Insubres [a Gaulish tribe] in Italy lay up cuts of pork, three or four thousand at a time, and the pigs grow so big that they cannot stand on their own or walk anywhere. If they want to take a pig somewhere, they must put it in a cart.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Varro, On Farming 1.2.7, 2.4.11; Columella, Res Rustica 3.3.2; Pliny, Natural History 14.52

Cato was no friend to the Gauls any more than Polybius was, but his view of them is different. Unlike Polybius’ ignorant savages with no art or sceince, Cato’s Gauls are cunning talkers. In contrast to the poverty of unwalled villages and beds of leaves, Cato pictures Gauls as so rich in agriculture that their pigs grow too fat to walk unaided.

Polybius and Cato were roughly contemporary and moved in the same elite social circles in Rome. Despite the differences in their points of view, they both reflect attitudes that must have been current among the Roman upper class. We can explain the differences in their views by their different audiences. Polybius was writing primarily for his fellow Greeks and aimed to portray the Romans as a force for order and stability in the Mediterranean. The more wild and bestial he could make their enemies, the more he could burnish the Romans’ credentials. Cato, by contrast, was writing for a Roman audience in the aftermath of Rome’s complete conquest of the Po valley. By building up the Gauls as a worthy foe, he made the conquest seem more glorious.

The variations in these perspectives should not surprise us. It is rare that any group of people has a single opinion about anything. Even the most reductive stereotypes are rarely universal among the people who hold them. Individuals and groups alike can hold multiple attitudes at the same time, calling up one opinion or another as the occasion demands.

For more recent historical periods when we have richer records of peoples’ thoughts and words, it is easier to get a fuller sense of this sort of complexity. In more distant periods of history when we have much more limited records, it can be tempting to assume that the documents we do have represent an accurate picture of what people thought on a given topic. Polybius and Cato are a good cautionary example that even among people who traveled in the same social circles in the same places and times, multiple different opinions were equally possible.

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.

Wine and Sheep for a Princess

Administrative records from the Persian Empire preserve some evidence of a lady of the royal court gathering resources, probably in preparation for a feast:

A message to Yamaksheda, the wine carrier, from Pharnaces: Issue 200 marrish [about 2,000 liters] of wine to Princess Artystone. By the king’s order.

First month of the nineteenth year [March or April, 503 BCE]. Ansukka wrote the text. Mazara conveyed the message.

– Persepolis Fortification Texts (published) 1795

A message to Harriena, the herdsman, from Pharnaces: King Darius commanded me in these words: “Issue 100 sheep from my estate to my daughter, Princess Artystone.”

Now Pharnaces says: “As the king commanded me, I command you: Issue 100 sheep to Princess Artystone as the king ordered.”

First month of the nineteenth year [March or April, 503 BCE]. Ansukka wrote the text. Mazara conveyed the message.

– Persepolis Fortification Texts (collated) 6754

(My own translations.)

We can learn some interesting things from this evidence.

For one thing, it gives us a sense of how the Persian imperial bureaucracy worked. There were higher officials like Pharnaces who were responsible for overseeing the distribution of goods, scribes like Ansukka, messengers like Mazara, and lower officials in charge of particular categories of goods. Messages like these directed those who were lower down in the hierarchy to issue certain quantities of goods while at the same time keeping a record of what had been issued and where it came from.

Secondly, this is evidence for the scale on which elite Persian women could command economic resources. 2,000 liters of wine and 100 sheep cost no small amount of labor to produce. Artystone could, with her father’s consent, draw on the fruits of all that labor.

And finally: it looks like Artystone really know how to throw a party.

Image: Tribute bearer with rams, photograph by A. Davey via Flickr (Persepolis Apadana staircase; c. 518 BCE; stone relief). CC BY 2.0

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.

Mountains and Valleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts for writers

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

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

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

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

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

Bread and Cheese

A sturdy adventurer in a fantasy novel pauses to take a break from their journey to the Land of Quest Completion. They open their knapsack looking for something to eat and what do they find? Bread and cheese.

Always bread and cheese.

It’s a well enough known trope to make an easy, low-hanging joke. It’s the sort of thing you expect in fantasy media whose worldbuilding can be charitably described as “medieval Europe but with magic and dragons and also I’ve never actually read a book on medieval Europe.”

But bread and cheese is not a joke. It is, in fact, a very good and sensible choice for an adventurer to pack for a long and difficult journey.

The human body needs nourishment. For long term health, there are a lot of things you need: a proper balance of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and so on. Doing without any of these essentials for prolonged periods means risking malnutrition, disease, and other serious health problems. For getting through several days or weeks of hard physical work, like traveling in rough terrain or fighting monsters, though, three things are crucial: water, calories, and protein.

An average adult human requires a minimum of about 2 liters of water, 3,000 calories, and 70 grams of protein each day in order to remain fit for physically demanding labor. More is better, but these will get you through if you don’t keep it up for too long. These are the requirements a meal must meet to be suitable for basic adventuring rations.

Water can be found in most parts of the world where people live. It may not be available in large quantities and it may not be safe or pleasant to drink straight from the source, but chances are your standard adventurer can find enough to survive on in most terrains. That leaves calories and protein.

There are lots of different ways of getting both. Your adventurer might eat meat, fish, eggs, milk, beans, vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, insects, or plenty of other things. When a variety of food options is available, people like to indulge themselves (as we moderns and our waistlines know all too well). But not all these food items travel well. Fresh vegetables and fruit will wilt and rot. Meat and fish go bad and may attract dangerous animals. Eggs won’t hold up well to being jostled around in a traveler’s knapsack. Some of these products can be dried, salted, pickled, or otherwise preserved to last longer, but processing adds to cost. Depending on growing seasons and local farming practices, these foods may not be available when your adventurer needs them.

Hence the advantages of bread and cheese. In agricultural regions, staple crops like grain are almost always available. Unprocessed grain, if kept dry and safe from vermin, can be kept for a long time. Bread kept similarly dry and safe may become unappealing and tough to chew, but will preserve its nutritional value even after many days of jostling around in a hero’s handy haversack. Cheese can be made wherever there are milk-giving animals (often reared on marginal or fallow land in agrarian communities), and will last a long time without deterioration if well taken care of. In farming societies throughout large parts of the world, bread and cheese are both readily available, inexpensive, and easy to make portable.

Bread provides a good dose of calories and protein; cheese even more. Combined, they provide the complete set of amino acids that the body needs. (It turns out that combining different protein sources is nowhere near as complicated as conventional wisdom says it is. As long as you have a variety of different foods in your diet and you’re not trying to subsist on on a single non-animal source of calories, you’re pretty much covered. Still, for an adventurer braving the wilderness without a lot of variety easily available, it doesn’t hurt to make sure you’ve got everything your body needs in one meal.)

Bread and cheese. Don’t leave on an adventure without it.

Thoughts for writers

Bread and cheese make good sense for adventurers’ traveling rations in a lot of settings, but that doesn’t mean that if you’re writing an adventure you should just fall back on bread and cheese for all your heroes’ dietary needs.

Food is a fundamental part of life. As such, it is an indispensable element in worldbuilding. People eat the things they eat for good reasons, and societies are often structured, in very basic ways, around the production and distribution of foodstuffs. The availability of a single plant can have far-reaching effects on the culture that grows it. The consequences for worldbuilding don’t end with the food itself but carry on into how it is produced and consumed. Descriptions of food in fantasy literature often feature just as local color, but food can in fact inform major parts of your worldbuilding.

Bread and cheese may seem like an overused cliché, but it has been used so much for a reason. It is an entirely sensible and realistic choice of provisions for travelers in the hinterlands of any fantasy world that broadly resembles the living conditions across most of the premodern world. Don’t be afraid to fall back on bread and cheese if it is the right choice for your story, as long as you are choosing it for a reason and not just because it’s what fantasy adventurers always eat.

Image: Bread and cheese wheel, photograph by Andrew Malone via Flickr

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.

Race in Antiquity: Short Answers

Over the past year, I’ve been posting on the topic of race in ancient Greek and Roman society. The subject is a much more complicated one than it may at first appear and there is a lot to say about it. Today, to bring things to a conclusion, I’d like to offer some short, simple answers to some basic questions. Like most things in history, the full answers are always more complicated, but these are a start.

Did ancient Greeks and Romans have a concept of race?

Not as we understand it today. They primarily thought of human populations as defined by language, culture, family, and legal status. While they were aware of the kinds of natural variations in skin tone, face shapes, hair types, and other physical features we typically use to categorize race today, they did not generally regard these variations as markers of identity.

Did skin color matter in Greek and Roman society?

Yes, but not as an indicator of race. Across much of the ancient Mediterranean world there was a cultural ideal (at least among the elite levels of society who have left us written evidence) that men should work outdoors, preferably as farmers or soldiers, and women should work indoors, especially at textile production. As a result, dark skin was valued in men—a sign that they had spent plenty of time working in the sun—and light skin was valued in women. Light-skinned men and dark-skinned women were often looked down on for failing to meet this social standard. Judgments about skin color stemmed from prejudices relating to gender and class, not race.

Were there any black people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Yes. Blackness is a modern identity grounded not just in physical features but in historical experience and which we cannot simply apply onto people in the past; however, in simple biological terms, people whose features we would today associate with blackness have been identified in Greek and Roman contexts from as early as the thirteenth century BCE to as as late as the fourth century CE. As genetic evidence becomes more available in archaeological research, the number of known examples will surely grow, but literary and artistic evidence is already abundant.

Were there any East Asian people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Yes. Contacts of trade and diplomacy across Eurasia are well documented and people from East and Southeast Asia have been identified in Greek and Roman contexts as far north and west as Roman London.

Were there any Indigenous American, Australian, or Oceanian people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Not as far as I know, but the development of genetic research may yet surprise us on this score. As far as the present evidence will take us, we can say that Greece and Rome were connected to networks of trade, travel, and migration that spanned Eurasia and Africa, but that appears to be their limit.

Were the black and East Asian people who lived in Greece and Rome seen as different?

It’s hard to say. Ancient authors didn’t spend much time writing about the issue, which in itself may suggest that these sorts of differences didn’t matter, but arguments from silence are hard to rely on. Since Greek and Roman culture did not have a concept of race, though, it seems unlikely that these sorts of variations mattered very much. Just as we notice peoples’ hair and eye color today but don’t generally attach much meaning to it, Greeks and Romans may well have noticed if someone had a different skin tone or facial shape, but they didn’t necessarily think it mattered very much.

Were the black and East Asian people who lived in Greece and Rome also Greeks and Romans?

Most of them probably were. The definition of who could be counted as a Greek or a Roman was flexible and depended on circumstance. In some times and places, lines of identity were tightly policed and newcomers were not welcomed in; in other times and places, the definitions were expansive and new people were easily incorporated. A lot of people who came to the Mediterranean from other parts of the world settled down and had families. Even if the original immigrants were not accepted as Greeks and Romans, there is a good chance that their children and grandchildren thought of themselves and were thought of by their neighbors as being just as Greek or Roman as anyone else.

Were ancient Greece and Rome white civilizations?

No. The majority of people who identified as Greeks and Romans in any given time and place were probably, in modern terms, white, but that does not mean that Greek and Roman culture were themselves “white” or had any necessary connection with whiteness. The category of “white” did not exist in Greek or Roman culture, nor did Greeks and Romans believe that their culture was inherently linked to their ancestry. Indeed, they were generally quite happy to point out where they had taken cultural ideas and influences from other peoples. The idea of a “white civilization” would have sounded very strange to Greek and Roman ears.

For more information and further discussion, check out other entries in this series:

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.

History for Writers Compendium: 2018

History for Writers explores world 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 where we’ve been in 2018:

Thinking historically and mythically

Daily life

Crossing cultures

Women in the ancient world

Conflict and resolution

Race in Antiquity

Join us in 2019 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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Tali for Saturnalia

The ancient Romans celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia on this day, the 17th of December. (At least in early Roman history it was a one-day holiday; later, it was extended so that it started on the 17th and lasted through the 23rd.) Saturnalia was a festival of good cheer and relaxed social strictures, thought of as recreating a lost golden age ruled over by the god Saturn. Typical practices included feasting, gift-giving, and a holiday from the usual social rules: children got to order their parents around while adults played children’s games; the masters of the household served a feast to their slaves; and gambling, which was a popular passtime but not usually allowed in public, was freely tolerated.

Romans played many different gambling games, but some of the most popular involved dice. One common game, known as tali, was played either with the knucklebones of sheep or goats (called astragals) or with cubical six-sided dice marked with the numbers 1 through 6, like modern dice. Astragals had four sides. For gaming purposes, it seems they were assigned values of 1, 3, 4, and 6. When playing with six-sided dice, only those numbers were used; 2 and 5 were ignored.

The rules of tali are not entirely understood today. Probably there were many different variations with different rules, and all of them were so common that no one bothered to write down instructions for how to play. Here is a playable modern interpretation based on what we can gather from literary references and artistic depictions.

All you need for any version of the game is four six-sided dice and something to bet with (coins, poker chips, chocolates—whatever you like), although a pencil and piece of paper for each player to record their throws can also be useful.

Simple Tali

Each player pays an ante into the pot.

Each player then rolls four dice, either their own set or taking turns with a common set.

Each player’s roll is then scored, and the winner takes the pot. If no one wins a round, everyone rolls again. If two or more players tie, only those players roll again until someone wins.

Dice rolls are scored according to the following system in which “hands” of dice are ranked, much like hands of cards in the modern game of poker.

  • 6,4,3,1 – called Venus, the best roll, always wins.
  • Rolls that include at least one 6 (apart from 6,6,6,6, which is a Vultures—see below) are called Senio and are scored by totaling the numbers shown (excluding the numbers 2 and 5, which are not counted). Any Senio always beats a Vultures or a roll that includes no 6.
  • Rolls that show four of the same number, called Vultures, score at the bottom of the heap, but will win over other 6-less rolls.
    • 6,6,6,6 – called Vultures, beats only a lower Vultures, The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 4,4,4,4 – called Vultures, beats only a lower Vultures, The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 3,3,3,3 – called Vultures, beats only The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 1,1,1,1 – called Vultures or The Dog, beats only a roll without a 6.
  • Any roll that has no 6 (except a Vultures) always loses.

Here’s how a sample round might play:

  • A rolls 6,1,1,1 – a Senio worth 9
  • B rolls 6,5,3,1 – a Senio worth 10 (because the 5 is not counted)
  • C rolls 3,3,3,3 – a Vultures
  • D rolls 4,4,4,3 – a losing roll

B wins this game with a Senio of 10. Even though D’s roll totals higher, it has no 6, and therefore automatically loses.

Tali variations

The version of tali described above is perfectly playable, but it’s a simple game of chance with no real strategy. Here are a few ways you can make it more interesting. (All these variations use the same scoring system described above.)

Liars’ tali

Each player rolls their dice in secret and hides the total (or, if using a common set of dice, records their roll in secret). After an initial bet, players raise, call, or fold in turn, as in poker, until everyone calls or folds. The players still in the game then reveal their rolls and the winner takes the pot.

Draw tali

Each player rolls their own dice (this variation is difficult to manage with common dice). Any player may then ante into the pot again for the chance to reroll a die. Repeat either for a limited number of rerolls or until everyone passes. The player with the best roll on the table wins the pot.

Stud tali

Each player rolls one die and either keeps it (if using individual dice) or records it (if using common dice). After all players have rolled once, each one either antes into the pot or folds. Repeat three more times until all players have rolled a full four dice. The player with the highest roll among those still in the game takes the pot.

Happy Saturnalia!

Image: Roman dice, photograph by Wendy Scott via Portable Antiquities Scheme (Leicestershire; 1-410 CE; lead)

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.

Race in Antiquity: The Ivory Bangle Lady

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

Part 9: The “Ivory Bangle Lady”

In the past entries in this series, we have talked a lot about theories of identity, how we can interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) both written and artistic sources, and the problems in knowing just who we mean by Greeks and Romans in the first place. Today we approach the question from a different angle, looking at one individual and the world she lived in.

Around 400 CE, a wealthy lady was buried near the Roman city of Eburacum (modern York) in northern Britain. She was buried with jewelry including an assortment of bangles, some of white ivory from Africa, others of black jet from Britain. Her name is not recorded, but she has come to be known, because of her jewelry, as the Ivory Bangle lady.

Examination of the Lady’s remains using the techniques of forensic anthropology shows that she was of African ancestry and had spent her childhood in a warmer climate, perhaps somewhere in southern Europe or North Africa. Her skull has features typical of sub-Saharan African populations and in fact the reference measurements that most closely match her skeletal morphology come from nineteenth-century black Americans. Although no indication of her skin color survives, it is almost certain that, if we passed her on the street today, we would describe her as a woman of color.

Roman York may seem like the last place we would expect to find evidence of racial diversity. It was the northernmost city in the Roman empire, just a little over a hundred kilometers from the Scottish frontier. There are few places in the Roman world that were farther from the cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean, yet archaeology has revealed late Roman York to have been a vibrantly multi-ethnic city. Individuals from Gaul, Italy, and Egypt are mentioned in Roman-period inscriptions from around York. Local potters made cooking vessels characteristic of North African cuisine. A Germanic king with his retinue of warriors is attested in the city backing the emperor Constantine’s rise to power. Not far away, in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall, soldiers were worshiping gods imported from Syria and Persia. A North African woman of Sub-Saharn African descent would have been right at home in such a place.

What did she think of herself? We have no way of knowing except to try to interpret the circumstances of her burial. The bangles with which she was buried may suggest a consciousness of being both African and British, although ivory and jet were both prized in late Roman jewelry. They certainly, however, point to a family of wealth and status. The remains of a wooden box were also found in the grave, including a decorative mount carved with the text “Hail, sister, may you live in God” (AVE S[OR]OR VIVAS IN DEO). The text suggests a Christian connection, although the richness of the lady’s grave is at odds with the contemporary Christian preference for simple burial. The Lady may or may not have been Christian herself, but she certainly had contact with the Christian movement.

The most noteworthy thing about the Lady’s burial may be how unremarkable it is. It is in many ways an entirely typical late Roman provincial grave for a woman of high status. Her choice of jewelry may have been meant to say something about her origin, but it was a choice that would not have stood out among her peers. She was in touch with one of the major religious movements of the day but buried in a traditional fashion; she was neither ahead of nor behind the times. If we had only the grave goods and not the remains, there would be nothing to suggest that the deceased belonged to an ethnic minority.

The most important thing for us to learn from the Ivory Bangle Lady is this paradox: the relative scarcity of people of African origin in the ancient Mediterranean literary record is the product of their presence, not their absence. There were enough North Africans in York to influence the local pottery market, but in most respects they were just like other provincial Romans. They followed the same social trends and religious developments as their neighbors. They had come as soldiers in Roman service, as merchants, or as travelers, just like the Gauls, Italians, and Germans who also ended up in York. They were of all genders and lived at all levels of provincial society, from the bottom to the very top. Among them were people with features typical of sub-Saharan Africa and who would likely appear to us as black, but in their historical context, they were just Romans like everybody else.

If there were women like the Ivory Bangle Lady in York, the farthest Roman city from Africa, then people of black African descent cannot have been uncommon in the cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean. If they are not evident to us in the sources, it is in part because they were so commonplace and so thoroughly integrated into ancient Mediterranean culture that contemporary authors didn’t feel the need to mention them. People tend not to write about the ordinary. We know this well enough from modern social media: our Facebook friends and Twitter celebrities mostly post about the unusual things that happen to them, good or bad, not the everyday events of a typical day. The same principle applies, even more so, to ancient authors, given how much more costly and difficult it was to put their observations onto papyrus in ink than it is to fire off a tweet today.

Archaeology, especially with current developments in genetic research, may provide us with individual cases like the Ivory Bangle Lady, but most of the racial diversity of ancient populations will always be invisible to us because most graves don’t survive in good enough condition and the resources available for research are limited. But individual cases like late Roman York are a reminder that there was nothing the least bit unusual about people of many different backgrounds and—in modern terms—different races living side by side in antiquity.

Further reading

H. Cool, “An Overview of the Small Finds from Catterick,” in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland ed. P. Wilson. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002, 23-43

S. Leach et al., “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain,” Antiquity 84, no. 323 (March, 2010): 131-45.

Patrick Ottaway, Roman York. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

V. G. Swan, “Legio VI and its Men: African Legionaries in Briatin,” Roman Pottery Studies, 5 (1992): 1-33

R. Warwick, “The Skeletal Remains,” in The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York, ed. Leslie P. Wenham. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968, 113-76

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Modern artist’s reconstruction of the burial of the Ivory Bangle Lady, from Leach, “A Lady of York.”

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.