Saturday, 9 February 2019

The River People and the Sea People

Here's something. A simplification of the ancient world for the purposes of deriving a flavourful setting.

Two points of derivation, coming from recent reading (as well as a visit to the current exhibition at the British Museum): Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Sidon (and, therefore, Latro in the Mist) and The Ancient Greece of Odysseus by Peter Connolly. The latter is an old textbook I recall from school: the benefit in it coming not from the summary-style retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey, but from the links it makes to Mycenaean artefacts and Trojan archeology, being an introduction to things like the Boar's tusk helmet, the figure-of-eight shield and the Dendra armour.  This is coupled with a very pleasing set of illustrations by Connolly, that impart a slightly less clean-cut look to the Classical World (next to what one might call the 'Clash of the Titans' approach). The Greeks and Trojans have fringed skirts to their tunics - rather than the clean white edges of other visions - as well as thick-featured, stiff-bearded faces.
Image result for figure of eight shield
An illustration from The Ancient Greece of Odysseus.
Note the odd, Sea People derived 'feather hat' on Aeneas (back, right).
Note also the horned helmets!
Anyway, all this produces a certain dichotomy from a broad-brush stroke account of the ancient world: between the islands of the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, and the river kingdoms of the Fertile Crescent.

Throw into this a certain form of popular history: the sort that produces web articles with titles like 'Alexander the Great: Not so Great! Six Reasons WHY'. (This sort of thing irritates me as a rule: not because it comes to such a conclusion, but more because of its use of a contradiction to the established record as a piece of clickbait - to say nothing of the kicks people get out of being the 'brave new revolutionaries'. But apparently I'm not averse to using it for fantasy settings.)

Also, because I can find a way to put him into anything, C. S. Lewis. In The Dark Tower, a paperback anthology with some of his short fiction and portions of unfinished projects one comes across a few chapters of After Ten Years, which would have been a novel about Menelaus (called Yellowbeard) and Helen after the Trojan War; it is fruitless to speculate too much, but perhaps it would have been rather like Lewis's other novel of the ancient world, Til We Have Faces. (More on the titular tale of the Tower here). Aside from a lovely first chapter detailing the squalor and discomfort of forty men squatting inside a wooden horse for twelve hours, the description of the sack of the Trojan Palace feeds quite nicely into this.

"The room was full of a sweet smell, you could smell the costliness of it. The floor was covered in soft stuff, dyed crimson. There were cushions of silk piled upon couches of ivory; panels of ivory also upon the walls and squares of jade brought from the end of the world. The room was of cedar and gilded beams. They were humiliated by the richness. There was nothing like this at Mycenae, let alone at Sparta; hardly perhaps at Cnossus. And each man thought 'Thus the barbarians have lived these ten years while we sweated and shivered in huts on the beach.' "

Naturally, looting ensues.

SO: this is the world of a new setting. Forget Plato, forget Aristotle, forget the Parthenon. The Greeks are the Orcs of this setting: savages, raiders - who live on rough islands in the salt waters. Alexander, King of Macedon? The equivalent of the Urak-Hai. Even cunning Odysseus, remember, had to prove his identity at the end of the Odyssey by a feat of arms, bending and shooting a bow. Their alignment is chaotic.

They come from the sea, from the storms. They even worship the God of the Seas, the Earthshaker, the Great Chaos!
They are raiders and fighters, for those barren islands will not support crops like the fertile river mud will. 
Some of them even ride horses, pressing their thighs against a beast of the field rather than fighting from the war-platform of a chariot.*
They don't oil their beards. They don't even wear trousers!

The civilised folk are the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Persians who live on rivers, by the tamed water. At this point, we should note the Babylonian myth of Marduk slaying Tiamat, dragon-spirit of the salt waters.  The link between the sea and chaos is rather well established by the Chaoskampf of comparative myth. These riverfolk are also scholars: astronomers, builders of the great ziggurats, recorders of history, wisdom, law and prophecy (Leviathan and Dagon needn't be the only Biblical reference here). I would note also at this point the cosmopolitan make-up of the Persian Armies in Herodotus and the allies of Troy in the Trojan War (Ethiopians and Amazons). Lawful alignment, of course.

Goodness knows how the Phoenicians and Hittites fit into all this. Semi-chaotic profit-driven merchants for the former and mountain-dwelling dwarf-archetyple smiths respectively, perhaps.

Of course, the 300** style portrayal of Sparta fits in marvellously well here as a noble savage or barbarian hero. However, this all needs a little more work before it comes together; perhaps a map. But I'm still somewhat satisfied with the background workings of it described here.

*I'm aware that the Greeks of the Trojan War used chariots and that cavalry-proper rather than chariots, but for the sake of accentuating the difference in the setting, I'm doing this. Besides, the Old Testament-esque feel of a law against riding a horse with ungirded thighs works rather well.
**Mandatory reference at this point to the Keiron Gillen graphic novel Three, which works rather well as the anti-300, making it clear quite how unpleasant Sparta could be. Very worthwhile read; the paperback edition comes with interview-commentary by a Professor of Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies.

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