You Don’t Want War Elephants

If you’re building an army to conquer the pre-modern world (or a fantasy world something like it), you might be tempted to include war elephants. At first glance, they seem like a great idea. Elephants are large, thick-skinned, strong, and intelligent, with long tusks and powerful trunks. Including them in your army is about as close as the real world gets to having dragons on your side. Well, I’m here to tell you that in most cases, they’re actually not such a great idea. (There are a few exceptions; I’ll get back to those later.)

Not all elephants are trainable. Three species of elephants survive in today’s world: Asian, African bush, and African forest. Asian elephants can be trained, but the African bush and forest elephants cannot. Several other species and/or subspecies of elephants once existed in various parts of Africa and Asia, but they went extinct in antiquity as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Elephants susceptible to domestication have historically been used in North Africa and Southeast Asia for labor, transport, and war.

Elephants do have their uses in war. They have been used as mobile platforms for archers and light artillery. They can also trample and gore enemy soldiers, and use their strength to help demolish the defenses of towns and fortresses under siege. Horses who have not been trained with elephants will not go near them, so war elephants can be good for disrupting enemy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they are good for carrying or dragging supplies and heavy pieces of baggage like siege weapons. Despite these uses, there are a number of serious problems with using elephants in combat.

We may as well start with the moral problem. Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and so most elephants used for labor or war must be captured as calves from the wild and trained into obedience, often using quite brutal methods. It goes without saying that this is a terrible thing to do to any creature, let alone such an intelligent and social animal, but if you’re already building an army for world domination, I assume you’re beyond such niceties as moral scruples, so let’s move on to the practical problems.

One big problem is that elephants are not naturally combative. Apart from males competing for mates, mothers defending their young, and occasional rogue elephants behaving abnormally, an elephant is much more likely to run away from danger than toward it. It takes extensive training to get an elephant to withstand the chaos of a battlefield, and even then it was a common practice in the past to feed war elephants fermented fruit to get them drunk before battle. Getting elephants drunk helps keep them aggressive, but it also makes them harder to control. There is a real risk that a sober elephant facing the clamor and commotion of a battle will turn and run away, or that a drunk one will ignore its driver’s commands and simply go on a rampage. Now, I know what you’re thinking—drunk rampaging elephants sound like an awesome weapon to unleash on your foes, but keep in mind that around half the soldiers on an average battlefield are going to be your own, and there’s no way to be sure that an out of control elephant will do more harm to your opponents than to you.

Another problem with war elephants is the cost. Elephants in the wild may eat up to 300 kilograms of forage per day. In captivity, eating a richer diet, elephants consume around 50 kg of grain and vegetables per day, more if they are doing heavy work. That amounts to at least 18,250 kg per year. Pre-industrial agricultural yields could vary widely with region, climate, and farming techniques, but at best you could expect around 500 kg of grain per hectare of farmland per year. That means you’d need about 36 hectares of land dedicated to feeding just one elephant. 1 square kilometer of farmland could, under the very best conditions, just barely maintain three elephants. If you have a big enough empire with a strong enough agrarian economy, this may sound like it’s worth it, but consider the opportunity cost. The same farmland could also support 100 soldiers for a year, who can be trained in any number of specializations, will (hopefully) not get drunk and turn on your own troops, and can be more useful in most situations than three elephants.

Now there are a few situations in which elephants can offer a real advantage in war. One is when you’re fighting forces who have never encountered them before. To the inexperienced foot soldier, an elephant is a huge, loud, monster with giant tusks and a disturbingly prehensile nose. Few inexperienced armies have the discipline to withstand their first sight of an elephant, and many have been known to run in panic in the face of an elephant charge. After a little experience, though, this advantage wears off. Those who have seen elephants a few times learn how to deal with them, by facing them with a dense hedge of pikes or aiming for their eyes, mouths, and the soles of their feet with javelins. The Carthaginian general Hannibal got one battle’s worth of use out of his elephants before the Romans figured out how to counteract them.

The other situation in which elephants can be useful is among warring peoples who all use and fight with elephants. In this case, since all sides know how difficult and expensive it is to maintain elephant forces, putting on a big display of elephants in the field serves as a show of force, demonstrating the resources and organizing capacity of your army, which may convince your opponents to come to terms rather than risk a battle. War elephants were historically used as battlefield showpieces in this way by the kingdoms of India and Southeast Asia, as well as the Hellenistic kingdoms formed from the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Getting effective use of your elephants in such a case, however, requires a major investment of resources which might be more practically spent elsewhere.

In short, if you are bent on conquering the world, I don’t recommend using war elephants. For the occasional times when they would actually be useful, they aren’t worth the cost. (And brutalizing elephants is horrible.)

Image: “The Padava Brothers Do Battle with the King of Anga” from a manuscript of the Razmnama via Wikimedia (currently Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; 1598; paint on paper; by Mohan, son of Bawari)

History for Writers 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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Visual Inspiration: Small Aqua-Blue-Brown Lizards

Now that summer is properly on the way here in the northern hemisphere, it’s time for summer critters. This aqua-blue-brown lizard, Anolis grahami, would make a lovely detail in speculative—or, indeed, in any kind of—story-telling.

Wikimedia jpokele Grahams anole Jamaica

In the real world, they’re endemic in Jamaica and an introduction to Bermuda. According to Wikipedia, occasionally you can see a pure turquoise blue lizard.

iNaturalist waynewg Grahams anole

Goodness, they’re incredible!

Found via Jon Suh on Twitter.

Images: Graham’s anole on Jamaica by jpockele via Wikimedia (CC BY-2.0). Graham’s anole on a piece of wood by Wayne Godbehere on iNaturalist (CC BY-NC).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

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.

Turning Vinegar and Lobster Shells into Sustainable Bioplastic

Four Master’s students from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London, UK, have created a bioplastic from chitin combined with vinegar. This sustainable plastic can be manipulated to produce items of varying stiffness, flexibility, thickness, and translucence by adjusting the ratios of the base ingredients.

Instagram Shellworks Variety of Material Properties

Instagram Shellworks Bags Bubblewrap

Apparently, the material can also be turned back into the original bioplastic solution.

Shellworks is Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar, and Andrew Edwards. Their work is still at prototype stage, but it sounds like there is a potential for increasingly (if not utterly and entirely) recyclable, non-toxic plastic here. Sounds awesome!

Visit the Shellworks website or Instagram for more.

Found via Colossal.

Images: Variety of Material Properties by Shellworks on Instagram. Bags and bubblewrap by Shellworks on Instagram.

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

Crabeater Seal Teeth: Straight from a Nightmare

Whoa…! Crabeater seals come equipped with some serious dental power:

Twitter Cassandra Khaw Crabeater Seal Teeth

Wikipedia Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins Crabeater Seal Skull

If I saw this on a screen, I wouldn’t believe it. I’d just put it in the “stupid, unrealistic, flashy tv / movie / game design” bin.

Found via Cassandra Khaw on Twitter.

Images: Skull seen from the side via Cassandra Khaw on Twitter. Drawing of skull by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Tamias

Let me tell you about the word tamias.

Tamias is a word in Ancient Greek. It was the title of the official in charge of the Athenian state treasury. It is related to the verb temnō, which means to cut something up into pieces, especially used of carving meat.

Now, meat was not always easy to come by in ancient Greece. Most people would not have eaten meat on a regular basis, at least not from land animals—bird and fish meat was probably a little easier to come by, but meat from animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs was a rarity. In fact, meat from these animals was almost always consumed as part of a sacrifice. When the ancient Greeks offered an animal to the gods in sacrifice, only a small representative portion of the animal was usually burned for the gods. The rest of the meat was cooked and consumed by the community.

Since sacrifice was a religious act, there were important rules about the procedure. One was that the portions of meat shared out among the participants had to be of equal size. To do otherwise would be to suggest that the blessings of the gods invoked by the ritual should come down unequally. The carver who prepared the meat for cooking therefore had a job that required both expertise and a solemn devotion to the good of the whole community.

When the Athenians were organizing their state and assigning one official to responsible for managing the state finances, it makes sense that they would invoke the image of the old sacrificial carver for an official who would take on a post of such weighty responsibility, but this is not where the saga of tamias ends.

A treasurer’s job is not just to share out funds equitably but also to store and guard valuable goods so they will be available in the future when needed. This is the idea invoked by the scientific name Tamias striatus (literally ‘stripey treasurer’) for this fellow. The chipmunk carries food in its big cheek pouches and stores it for the winter in its burrow.

From food to gold and back to food again: that’s the history of tamias.

Image: Eastern chipmunk, photograph by Cephas via Wikimedia

On, of, and about languages.

The Curious Case of Cambyses and the Apis Bull

The Persian king Cambyses has a bad reputation. He has come down in Western histories as a prototypical mad emperor: arrogant, violent, and contemptuous. The centerpiece of this narrative is his treatment of the Egyptian Apis bull, but the evidence does not match up with the stories that have come down to us.

Cambyses ruled the Persian Empire from 530 to 522 BCE. Under his rule, Persia expanded westward to conquer Egypt. Egypt was a valuable prize for Persia, phenomenally rich and well organized, with strong trade connections to the larger Mediterranean and Africa. The Persian conquest of Egypt went swiftly and easily. Holding the territory was another matter.

The Persian Empire was the largest empire in the world, indeed the largest empire that had ever existed up that that point in world history. Persia owed a large part of its success to a policy of cultural accommodation. Conquered peoples were left alone to follow their own cultures, speak their own languages, and worship their own gods; Persian culture was not imposed on them. Persian kings took steps to ensure continuity of local traditions and present themselves according to local ideals and expectations.

Cambyses followed this same policy in Egypt. He officially ruled as pharaoh under the Egyptian name Mesutire and he carried on the traditional religious and military activities of Egyptian kingship. Among those activities was providing for the Apis bull.

Egyptians believed that an aspect of the god Ptah came to Earth in the shape of a black bull, known as Apis. Apis was cared for in a special temple and lived a life of luxury. When one Apis bull died, it was believed that the spirit of Ptah was born again in another calf, somewhere in Egypt. The death of an Apis bull was therefore an occasion of important ritual: the old bull became identified with the spirit of the god Osiris and had to be mummified and ceremonially interred, meanwhile the hunt was on up and down the Nile for the next calf to be born with the proper signs. Since the new Apis bull could not be born until after the previous one’s death, properly recording and commemorating the event was crucial. The finding of the new Apis was also the occasion for a major religious festival, which was joyously celebrated throughout Egypt.

An Apis bull died during Cambyses’ time in Egypt. The precise timing of its death and the ceremonies for its burial are not entirely clear, but it was given a full and proper burial under Cambyses’ authority, as attested by the inscription on its sarcophagus:

Horus, Uniter of the Two Lands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever! He has made a fine monument for his father Apis-Osiris with a great granite sarcophagus, dedicated by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mesutire, Son of Re, Cambyses—may he live forever, in perpetuity and prosperity, full of health and joy, as King of Upper and Lower Egypt eternally!

Translation by Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire (London: Routledge, 2007) 4.13

The cult of the Apis bull was closely connected to kingship in Egypt and this inscription shows Cambyses fully engaged in his role as Egyptian pharaoh. He associates himself with the royal falcon god Horus and shows filial deference to both the sun god Re and to the spirit of the dead Apis bull. Whatever Cambyses may have personally believed, he was making sure that his public behavior was irreproachable as a king of Egypt.

Which makes it strange to turn back to the Greek sources and find a dramatically different account of Cambyses and the Apis bull:

When Cambyses returned to Memphis [after an unsuccessful military campaign in the south], Apis (whom the Greeks call Epaphus) appeared in Egypt. When Apis appears, the Egyptians at once don their best clothes and hold a celebration. Seeing this, Cambyses was convinced that they were celebrating his misfortunes, so he summoned the rulers of Memphis. When they came before him he demanded to know why the Egyptians were behaving in this way, which they had not done before, just when he was returning having lost so much of his army. They answered that a god had appeared, one who only came to them after long stretches of time, and that it was the custom for all Egyptians to rejoice on such an occasion. Cambyses replied that they were lying and he put them to death for it.

He next summoned the priests, who told him the same thing. He replied that if a tame god had come to Egypt, he would know about it. He then ordered the priests to bring Apis before him, so they fetched him. Apis, or Epaphus, is a calf born of a cow which then cannot become pregnant again. The Egyptians say that a ray of light from heaven strikes the cow, and this is how Apis is conceived. The calf called Apis has these signs: he is black with a white triangular mark between his eyes and the shape of an eagle on his back, the hairs of his tail are double, and there is a beetle-shaped mark under his tongue.

When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses—who was a little disturbed in the head—drew his dagger and stabbed Apis, aiming for the belly but hitting the thigh. Laughing, he said to the priests: “Are these your gods, fools, of flesh and blood who can feel the bite of iron? This is a fitting god for Egyptians, but I will teach you to make a laughingstock of me!” Saying this, he ordered the priests whipped and any other Egyptians celebrating to be killed. So the festival ended and the priests were punished. Apis lay in the temple wasting away from the blow to his thigh. When he had died of the wound, the priests buried him in secret without Cambyses’ knowledge.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.27-29

My own translation

How did Cambyses go from a king properly honoring Apis to a tyrant mocking and killing him? The answer is: Egyptian resistance.

No matter how much Cambyses tried to behave like a traditional Egyptian pharaoh, he wasn’t one. Egypt had a strong sense of national culture, with a strain of isolationism. There were also internal conflicts within Egypt that the Persians did not manage with much success. Over time, as resentment against Persian rule built up, the memory of Cambyses the conqueror was adapted to suit Egyptians’ attitudes towards contemporary Persians. By the time Herodotus was traveling in Egypt asking questions about history—about a century after Cambyses—popular opinion had thoroughly rewritten the king’s reputation.

Herodotus and other Greek and Roman historians had no idea about Cambyses’ actual behavior in Egypt, and their own anti-Persian prejudices inclined them to accept any negative story about a Persian king. Thus Cambyses the arrogant bull-stabber became a fixture of Western history, even though he was only ever a figment of lurid anti-Persian rumor.

Image: Funerary stela for an Apis bull, photograph by Rama via Wikimedia (found Serapeum of Saqqara, currently Louvre; 643 BC; painted limestone

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.

Visual Inspiration: Two Birds, a Snail, and a Mushroom

A few more possibilities for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold, this time from among the Earth’s birds, snails, and mushrooms.

The male pink robin (Petroica rodinogaster) has a bright fuchsia chest and belly; the female looks drabber, with merely pinkish-tinged underparts. These small birds live in the cool temperate forests of southeastern Australia.

Flickr Dave Curtis Pink Robin

The many-colored fruit doves (Ptilinopus perousii) live on islands in the south-west Pacific Ocean (Fiji, the Samoan Islands, and Tonga). The male is yellow on the wings and back, red on the head and neck; the female is greener, darker on the back and greyer on the head and breast.

Flickr Tom Tarrant Many-colored Fruit Dove

The violet snail (Janthina janthina) is a small purple mollusk found floating on the surface in tropical and temperate seas worldwide.

Flickr Ian Jacobs Janthina janthina Cropped

Indigo milk cap (Lactarius indigo) is a species of generally blue or blueish mushrooms found in eastern North America, East Asia, and Central America. The milk that oozes out of a cut or broken mushroom is also indigo blue, but slowly turns green upon exposure to air. According to Wikipedia, it’s edible and sold in rural markets in China, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Wikipedia Dan Molter Lactarius indigo
Flickr Arthur T LaBar Indigo Milk Cap

Aren’t they all incredible?

Images: Pink robin by Dave Curtis on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Many-colored fruit dove by Tom Tarrant on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Violet snail cropped from photo by Ian Jacobs on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Indigo milk cap by Arthur T. LaBar on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and by Dan Molter via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Why I Won’t Be Eating Porgs– I Mean Puffins

A news and culture writer Andrew Husband writes in “Porg Recipes For The ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Fans In Your Life” on Uproxx that us Nordics eat puffins:

“[…] we’ve put together a short recipe list — consisting of hors-d’oeuvre, entrées, and entremets based on traditional puffin and poultry dishes — for your perusal.

“Yes, you read that right. Despite being protected by several national and international conservation organizations, puffins are considered a rare delicacy in Nordic countries. And seeing as how The Last Jedi‘s porgs are based on the puffins writer/director Rian Johnson saw while filming at Skellig, it makes sense their preparation would be similar.”

As a source for his wild claim, Husband offers all of one link, and that goes to a CNN Travel article Iceland food can be unusual; check out these 10 dishes”.

Here’s my official response as a Nordic person:

Yeah… nope. Nopety-nope-nope-nope. So much NOPE!

While Iceland is unquestionably one of the Nordic countries, it’s ludicrous to claim that the existence of a practice in one country (or even two) equals its existence in all five.

Now, had Husband talked for instance of reindeer, he would be more correct, but still not entirely so. The Sami herd reindeer in the north of Finland, Sweden, and Norway, so we three nations tend to eat reindeer meat. In fact, sauteed reindeer or poronkäristys was one of the regular dishes at my elementary school cafeteria in Northern Finland, so I personally couldn’t call it a delicacy even though I’ve eaten it less often since. In Denmark and in Iceland it’s an import, and apparently they hardly eat reindeer at all (or so the all-knowing Internet tells me).

But puffin? I’ve never even heard of eating puffin before, although it sounds like the practice does have long roots in Iceland and Norway (judging e.g. by the existence of lundehunder or puffin dogs in the latter) and some other areas like the Faroes. And now that I know Atlantic puffins are considered vulnerable, I wouldn’t eat them even if I happened to be in a country where hunting them wasn’t banned. Not even if you paid me.

“Porg Recipes” arcticle found via File 770.

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

Ancient Clay Cup Animation

Oh, wow: quite possibly the oldest attempt at animation ever comes from some four thousand years ago. It’s a depiction of a goat jumping up a tree to eat the leaves:

The sequence laid flat looks like this:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup Reproduction

And here’s a photo of the cup:

Wikimedia Burnt City Iran Clay Cup

Found via The Real Iran on Tumblr. My Tumblr source doesn’t unfortunately give any more info, but it sounds like the cup was found in the Bronze Age site of Shahr-e Sūkhté (or Shahr-e Sukhteh) in Sistan, southeastern Iran.

Just reading the Wikipedia page for Shahr-e Sūkhté makes my imagination run—a large trading route hub with connections to Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and India with rich material culture would make an excellent setting for historical or speculative fiction. (For example, among the archaeological finds from the Burnt City is apparently the world’s first artificial eyeball.)

Finding real-world inspiration like this is when I really wish I was a writer!

Images: Animation via Wikimedia. Reproduction via Wikimedia. Cup photo via Wikimedia (Shahr-e Sūkhté, Iran; late half of 3rd millennium BCE; clay).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?