The Fremen Mirage

Here’s a great set of articles, by Bret Devereaux, on what he calls the Fremen Mirage, or what might be called the Myth of the Warrior Race. There’s also a great sub-series on Sparta, one of the most pernicious of these myths. All this should be of great interest to conworlders, as well as people interested in the history of our planet.

A warning, though: there’s a lot to read. I spend most of Friday on these.


Pedantic note: Devereaux likes the miniseries, but this is from the Lynch film, which is the only one I saw, and whose costume design rocks.

The basic elements of the myth are:

  • Empires are started by virile, manly men full of manliness.
  • They get weak because of luxuries, corruption, and sex.  They may actually lisp.
  • They are then taken over by virile manly men from warrior cultures.

Dune happens to be a shining exemplar of this; in the Sparta series he invokes 300. His use of the name invites digressions on the book, and he provides one, but it’s probably better than limiting the idea to one real-world exemplar, or using squishy words like “barbarian”. I’ll just use “barbarian”, but do imagine scare quotes used throughout.

To summarize the rebuttal:

  • States have little to fear from barbarian bands, which they normally beat or co-opt. Their major preoccupation is advanced states similar to their own: either neighbors or opposing factions in a civil war.
  • Agricultural states have no problem creating a professional army which, pound for pound, can beat barbarian bands.
  • On an individual basis, your basic state soldier was probably more fearsome than the barbarian, not less.
  • Corruption and sex have nothing to do with the decline of states.
  • Sparta was a pretty horrible place and its elite cruelty destroyed its own power in not much more than a century.
  • The myth generally has no interest in the accurate description of barbarians; it’s always a self-criticism from within the advanced states. To be more precise, it’s the whining of certain elites within those states, used against other parts of the elite.

The obvious counter-rebuttals, and the counters to those:

  • But the fall of Rome. Yes, all empires have to fall sooner or later. But people get inordinately interested in the 400s alone. Devereaux goes over Roman history from one sack of Rome to another– 390 BCE to 410 CE.  Think about that: that’s 800 years of solid power.  And in the East, another 1100 years. Barbarians win sometimes, but the state is forever.
  • But the Mongols.  The steppeland of Eurasia has a long and important history, and was a major threat to multiple civilizations. Nomad power is real. But the Mongols were just the high-water mark of a tide that, in the larger view, was controllable. China was almost always ruled by Han Chinese, and anyway was very good at assimilating conquerors.

Kind of amusingly, the Warrior Race trope is often used for and against the same people. E.g. the Greeks were manly warriors when fighting Persia, corrupt softees when fighting Rome. The Romans were manly outsiders when they took over Greece, softees when fighting Germans. The Arabs were virile outsiders during the Caliphate, and unutterably corrupt for the 19C Europeans.

But again, it’s never really about the barbarians. The myth was elaborated, though undoubtedly not originated, by Roman writers around 100 BCE to 100 AD… that is, the height of Roman power, when Rome was still expanding and the Germans were nothing to worry about. It was basically the complaint of one bunch of rich Romans against another. None of those making the complaint gave up their wealth and went to live in military camps in order to build up their manliness. Few of them actually visited any of the barbarians they praised. (Caesar did, but he was fighting them; he wasn’t engaged in conservative whining so much as flattering his own enemies in order to puff up his victories over them.)

Sparta is a fascinating story, and when you really look at it, it proves just about the opposite of what its fans think. Consider this: there were just 8000 full Spartiates– males with full citizenship– in 480. It was the largest state in Greece, and it was able to send just 5000 hoplites to Plataea. Athens sent 9000. Aristotle notes that if worked like other Greek states, Sparta could have supplied 30,000 hoplites. So its 85%-slave social system made it underperform in number of troops, a key metric for military success.

Nor were they that much better than other Greek troops. They shared the same equipment and tactics of all Greek states, and phalanx warfare was a matter of group action, not individual prowess. The Spartans may have had no profession but war, but they didn’t bother to train much.  Sparta did defeat Athens in 404– with the help of Persian funds. When it attempted to defy Persia, Persia simply switched its subsidies to Athens, and Sparta’s response was to appease the Persians by giving them the Ionian cities. Very manly!

And that was Sparta’s height. By 418, Spartiate strength was down to 3500.  By 371, it was 1500. Not coincidentally, Thebes was then able to shatter Sparta’s power and free Messenia, the territory that supplied most of its slaves. Devereaux goes into the reasons why, but in short: the Spartan elite was self-inoculated against all change. Their system was based on exclusion: excluding the helots, excluding elite members who couldn’t pass the agoge training system or maintain the common mess, excluding impoverished Spartiates. They had no way of maintaining their numbers without changing at least some of their ideology.

The myth was revived in the 19th century, added to the malodorous stew of European racism. Tacitus’ praise of the Germans (who he had never met) were intended to shore up Roman manliness, but they found a new audience in Germany, which liked to see itself as a scrappy and manly warrior race. France found its warrior race in ses ancêtres les Gaulois, while the Brits chose the Celts. (Not that this made the English particularly appreciate their sister nations.) The British in particular loved to divide their own subject people into warrior and non-warrior races… not the least reason they lastingly screwed up Indian politics.

One thing Devereaux doesn’t quite go into is the importance of the Fremen Mirage to modern conservatism. A lot of conservative ideas make no sense unless you interpret them in its light. Adapting the adage that American vote as if they were temporarily distressed millionaires, we may say that conservatives see themselves as temporarily comfortable Spartans. Yes, they live in nice suburban houses and have nice office jobs, but in their minds they’re living in a mess hall with other manly men, ready to lay waste to the softies. Spartan attitudes about the 85% of slaves below them in the hierarchy are relevant as well. Conservatives are fond of hazing rituals, even for themselves; but they also approve of pure misery for the lowest swaths of society (i.e., everybody but themselves).

What can you do with all this in your conworld?

One, throw out your Warrior Race– your Klingons, your Dothraki, your Cimmerians, your orcs. These are all fantasies made by civilized people who are tired of civilization but don’t want to leave it.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that you can’t have warriors, or war. War is hell, but storytellers can hardly do without it. But get rid of the notion that civilized states are bad at it, or that barbarians are particularly cruel. Agriculturalist empires are very good at cruelty in war.

The main threat to your civilized states will be other civilized states, or themselves.

At the same time, you should balance Devereaux with Scott.  (Not that they conflict, but they have different emphases.) The state has been near-unstoppable for the 5000 years since its invention. But until recently, it had real trouble extending its power over the people who lived in non-grain areas (marshes, mountains, jungle), and over nomads. The first group may be sizeable, but is not usually a threat to states; the second is.

But your nomads should be based on real nomads, not on the mythical Warrior Race. Some generalizations about real nomads:

  • They’re trained on horse-riding and archery, which makes them a great natural cavalry. Occasionally this can be parlayed into the conquest of an agricultural state… but that’s a) a rare reward, and b) a poisoned one. Nomads are rarely good or lasting rulers. (Mongol rule lasted less than 75 years after Khubilai Khan. The Qing held on much longer, but they weren’t really nomads.)
  • The first resort of states is to co-opt nomads. And that works pretty well!
  • Nomads don’t disdain city luxuries; in fact they’re quite fond of them. Historically they have a great interest in civilized religions, and nomad elites are good at joining agricultural elites.
  • Nomad societies are not extraordinarily macho; in fact their women are often far freer than in agricultural states.

Due to geography, Europe, India, and China were never going to be overwhelmed forever by nomads anyway. They just have too many people. Arguably Mesopotamia did not have this advantage, and that’s why it was not a major power after 500 BCE. More on that in my upcoming book…

States do decline, but it’s not due to luxury and corruption. More often, it’s due to the concentration of wealth, or ecological factors, or the elite losing interest in supporting the central power.

Finally: unlike individual humans, an aged state can rejuvenate itself. This may be as simple as a vigorous new dynasty taking over. Both Rome and China had some dramatic periods of instability or civil war, and yet kept picking themselves up for centuries.



More Talmud

I finished the Talmud, or rather Norman Solomon’s selections from it, which is less than 10% of the whole thing. But at 800 pages I feel that reading even that is an accomplishment.

Now, all too much of the book reads like this:

If someone bends down to drink, the water that comes up on his mouth or his moustache is ki yuttan, but [that which comes up] in his nose or on his head or beard is not ki yuttan.

Ki yuttan is “if it is put”, from Lev. 31:37-38:

If such a carcass falls upon seed grain that is to be sown, it is clean; but if water is put on the seed and any part of a carcass falls upon it, it shall be unclean for you.

You see, don’t you, that ki yuttan implies that the water got there by human intention, so it’s important to clarify what actions are intentional and what are not. Drinking, your intention is to get water in your mouth but not on your head. Why the moustache but not the rest of the beard is ki yuttan I can’t tell you, presumably because Solomon does not include the gemara in this chapter.

So, it’s fun when the rabbis instead decide to include a comedy routine. This comes in the context of a discussion of first-borns. Rabbi Joshua ben Ħanania goes to Athens to debate the Greek elders in their fortified academy. The Greeks had a rule that if the inner guards see a foot enter,  the outer guards are killed for their negligence; if the outer guards see a foot leaving, the inner guards are killed. Joshua places his shoe down facing the interior, then facing the exterior, so that the elders killed both sets of guards, and he could enter.

He then enters a debate with the elders, where they try to trick him and he one-ups them each time:

Elders: If salt goes bad, what do they salt it with?

Joshua: With the placenta of a mule.

Elders: Does a mule have a placenta?

Joshua: Does salt go bad?

Elders: Build us a house in the air!

Joshua uttered a divine Name and suspended himself between the earth and the sky. Pass me up bricks and mortar! he demanded.

Elders: If a chick inside an egg dies, which way does its spirit emerge?

Joshua: It goes out the way it came in!

And so on, for a page or two. Apparently some scholars did not find the comedy and instead tried to extract deep meanings from the debate.

It’s also interesting to find some bits of weird science.

  • There’s a discussion of “refining gold a thousand times”, so that a thousand measures of gold were reduced to one. Gold is an element and can’t be refined. (An alloy can be refined, though something that was just 0.1% gold would hardly be called an alloy of gold!)
  • It was believed that flies and other creatures spontaneously generate in, say, meat. This was relevant to cleanliness rules. Were they part of the meat, or were they separate, unclean “swarming things”?
  • There’s a discussion of what happens when a cow gives birth to a camel, or vice versa. This was considered rare, but a definite possibility and therefore something to worry about, as cows are kosher but camels are not.
  • The rabbis suggested that the father produces a baby’s bones, sinews, and the whites of its eyes, the mother its flesh, skin, pupils, and hair; and God the spirit and the power of sensation and movement. It’s striking that this white/red division of genetic labor was the same as that posited by the Indians. (India Construction Kit p. 179)

Finally, here’s a taste of gematria. Hebrew doesn’t have separate numerals; rather, each letter has a numerical value as well. This means that every word can be read either as a linguistic sign or as a number, and that invites endless esoteric discussion. Proverbs 8:11 states

I endow those who love me with substance;
I will fill their treasuries.

E.g., ‘substance’ yesh is ישׁ. Now שׁ is 300 and י is 10, so the numerical value of yesh is 310. So Rabbi Joshua ben Levi concluded that “the Holy One will reward every righteous person with 310 worlds.”







Egypt Lit

Here’s a depressing thought. What if all of British and American literature, in three thousand years, were reduced to this:

  • one book of short stories
  • one book of inspirational poems
  • a couple hundred identical Bible translations
  • some labels from Dr. Bronner’s soap


That’s about where we are with Ancient Egyptian. I’ve just read most of it, in two not-too-large books: The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptian Poems (tr. R.B. Parkinson, 1997), which focuses on stories, and Ancient Egyptian Readings (tr. Wim van den Dungen, 2018), which focuses on wisdom literature.  That’s in addition to the Book of the Dead.  The one thing I haven’t read is the medical-magical literature. Plus, the two books overlap– e.g. you get the Teachings of Ptahhotep in both.

We’ve probably lost an immense lot. For one thing, almost anything in the Nile Valley itself is permanently lost. Papyrus scrolls don’t like humidity, and what wasn’t buried in Nile silt is rotted. Almost everything we have is what someone took the trouble to store in a tomb up in the desert. Mostly the Book of the Dead, but also a few other scrolls. Some of the pieces in these books, originally written in the Middle Kingdom, at least 3500 years ago, only exist in one or two scrolls. It’s probably completely arbitary what survived and what did not.

The longest piece is a complete translation of the Pyramid Text of King Unas– the texts written in his tomb, around 2300 BCE. As such they may be the oldest religious texts in the world, earlier than the Rigveda and far earlier than the Bible. They’re ancestral to the Book of the Dead, and curiously they’re far easier to understand. They are not as filled with allusions and strange metaphors, and mostly they’re pretty straightforward: the record of a large array of sacrifices, then a long set of prayers and spells to introduce Unas to the gods, identify him with Horus and Osiris, and scare off a few minor demons. It’s probably most notable for its extreme confidence, bordering on hubris. No, not bordering on hubris: barging over the border flagrantly. The hymns sound like Unas is going to rule not just alongside the gods but over most of them. He’s going to sit next to Re, and climb on the thighs of Isis and Nephthys, and suckle the breasts of the goddess Ipy. Seems kinda bold, man.

“Sinuhe” is a little tale of adventure. The title character is a courtier accompanying the Prince on an expedition against the Libyans, and overhears a messenger reporting the assassination of King Amenemhat. He’s seized by a terrible panic and flees the Prince’s camp. He doesn’t stop running till he gets to Canaan– which to the Egyptians was a near-desert, a place of lawless nomads who live in tents, don’t dress in fine linen, and don’t attack the army openly like gentlemen. (Why go there at all? Trees, far taller than anything back home.) Nonetheless the Canaanites treat him well and he becomes a chieftain there, marrying a native.

He grows old and, near death, misses Egypt. He prays that he might return rather than dying in a strange land. Mirabile dictu, the king sends him a letter inviting him to return. His desertion is forgiven. He gladly accepts, leaving his family and his tents, and reports to the king, urging him to invade and pacify the land he left. He becomes a councilor before he dies and is buried in a nice though small pyramid.

Honestly the attitudes are those of an Anglo-Indian who carves out a satrapy in the Northwest Frontier Province, but never really took to living among the natives, and dreams of retiring on a little estate back in Stropshire.

The most unusual of the pieces is the “Dialog of a Man and his Soul”, which is in both books. The man is as surprised to be arguing with his soul as you or I would. Philosophical questions aside, the soul’s position is, perhaps surprisingly, that longing for the Afterworld is foolish: one should simply enjoy life while it lasts. The man will have none of it– he’s sick of life, his reputation is ruined anyway, and he has no friends, and the Afterworld will be much more pleasant. Not with that attitude, you might think. But he and his soul patch things up for the moment.

The most amusing piece is the Teaching of Khety. Khety is a scribe, and the piece is propaganda for the profession, and includes a long survey of other jobs and how horrible they are. A sample:

I shall tell you about the wall-builder;
His sides hurt,
for he must be outside in a howling wind,
building without a kilt,
his loincloth is a cord of the weaving shop,
a string for his backside;
his arms are covered with earth,
and mixed with all kinds of shit.
Though he eats bread with his fingers
he can wash himself only once a day.

This was highly popular with scribes, who assigned it to their students to copy, so we have this text in a good number of copies.

For nuggets of wisdom from Ptahhotep about surviving in the rough world of the Egyptian elite, you’ll have to wait for my book. A hint, though: quietness. The ideal official was even-tempered and courteous, as well as pious and full of ma’at (truth/order).

Would you enjoy the book? Well, probably a lot more than the Book of the Dead, and less than Gilgamesh. If you know your Bible, you may be interested to see how the genres of hymnology, lamentations, prophecy, and wisdom were not invented by the Hebrews. Really, Isaiah couldn’t think of harsher rhetoric about Egypt than the Egyptians had already come up with themselves.

(If you’re curious, the Egyptians were not too discriminating when they looked at foreigners– there were Libyans, Nubians, and Aamu (Canaanites), and no one really cared to delve deeper. Even the Babylonians don’t get a mention.)

If you do read these, I recommend the Parkinson translation. It’s more scholarly, though a little less vivid. But really it’s because he has all the best stuff– the stories.

The Book of the Dead

Now I can say I’ve read the Book of the Dead— the real one, not a crankish “symbolic translation“. This one translates the Papyrus of Sobekmose, and the translator is Paul O’Rourke. I don’t feel like uploading a new picture, though.


Sobekmose lived sometime in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1050). He is identified in the text as “Goldworker of Amun”, presumably some sort of jeweler. He got the slightly less expensive version of the Book without so many pretty pictures… but a lot more text. It contains about 75 chapters instead of 3.  (The total from all versions of the Book of the Dead amount to over 200 chapters.) Curiously, the scroll was written in cursive hieroglyphics on the recto, and in hieratic characters on the verso. (Hieratic is basically a faster, simplified form of hieroglyphics.)

So, I’ve read it, but I don’t understand it.  That’s fine, and it’s what I expected. Here, you can see what I mean: here’s a random chapter.

Allowing the Goldworker of Amun Sobekmose, justified, to go forth amongst his enemies. I have hacked up the sky. I have ripened the horizons. I have traveled through the earth (to) its edges. I have put the akhs (and) the great ones in an uproar because I am one who is equipped with his millions, namely with my magic. I eat with my mouth. I defecate with my anus because I am, indeed, a god, lord of the Duat. I was given these things fixed that make the Goldworker of Amun Sobekmose, justified, prosper.

You might hope that it sometimes becomes clear, like some poems in the Rigveda; but not really– it’s all like that.

An akh is a transfigured soul, with superpowers. It’s the desired end state of the whole process of mummification, judgment, and going through the many ordeals of the afterlife. The Duat is the netherworld, both the place where the dead live and the place where the Sun (Re) travels after it dies in the west and is reborn in the east.

The overall purpose of the book is clear, too. It’s a collection of spells and instructions for the deceased to get the best possible afterlife. The Duat turns out to be full of perils. There is the judgment of Anubis and that of the 42 gods to go through, of course. But there are also monsters who want to destroy you.  There’s a ferryman who will take you where you need to go only if you can correctly name all the parts of his ship (and this means the poetic/metaphorical names, not the technical terms):

Tell me my name, says the mooring post. Lady of the Two Lands in the Shrines is your name. Tell me my name, says the mallet. Leg of Apis is your name. Tell me my name, says the prow-rope. Braid of the Mooring-Post of Anubis in the Work of Embalming is your name. Tell me my name, says the steering-post. Columns of the Path of the Necropolis is your name….

Plus, it seems to be a struggle merely to get your body together and working. There are spells to “open the mouth”– you need to speak in order to say the spells. There are spells to keep your organs working, to allow you to move around, to eat proper food. There are spells to turn into an animal temporarily (mostly birds) to avoid dangers or get around better.

Many of the chapters involve a claim to divinity. Sobekmose is supposed to not just invoke Osiris but become Osiris– or other gods– in some way. I suspect this is tied to the origins of the Book of the Dead as Pyramid Texts– spells written on the wall of the king’s tomb. The king was a god, the son of Horus, so of course he would assert his divinity in the Duat. Apparently this was taken as the birthright– excuse me, the deathright– of any Egyptian who could afford mummification.

Here, by the way, is the translation of the same text from my other post:

I am purified on the day that I am born. I am cleansed in the two very great swamp waters which are in Herakleopolis (on) the day of the food offerings of the common people, (for) this great god who is in it.

Nothing resembling the  “dazzling illusion of life”!

When you do come before the 42 gods, you must declare your innocence, but also your knowledge of their names. E.g.:

O bone-breakers who came forth from Herakleopolis, I have not spoken falsehoods.

O lord of truth who came forth from the Two Truths, I have no stolen offering portions.

O traveler who came forth from Bubastis, I have not eavesdropped.

O pale one who came forth from Heliopolis, I have not run at the mouth.

O wammty-snake who came forth from the place of execution, I hav enot commited adultery.

O reciter of words who came forth from Weryt, I have not been hot-tempered.

And so on. Curiously, there’s not much instruction on what to do if you have sinned. Presumably you brazen it out. There are other spells which sound like the gods will purify you if you approach them correctly.

Now, a lot of the obscurity was probably not present for the original writers. It’s easy to imagine a similar text, full of metaphors and allusions, which would only be intelligible to Christians:

Bring me to the promised land, O Word of God. I have been washed in the Jordan. I have been cleansed by the Lamb. I have been through the valley of the shadow of death; I have seen the single set of footprints on the sand. I trust the Shepherd who was born of a virgin, the Carpenter who came riding on a donkey.

It’s also likely, of course, that the original writers were purposefully obscure. If Sobekmose is paying for a book of powerful spells, he might well be disappointed if he could actually understand it. Magic seems more convincing when it’s difficult and suggestive, when it seems to mean something but refuses to explain itself.

There’s also evidence that the texts were difficult even for the scribes copying them, and they made errors as a result. E.g., the list of ferry parts gives the same name for the ferry and the ferryman (“the one who finds faces, who uplifts faces”). O’Rourke suggests that this is a copyist’s error.  Another example: the 42 gods are said to “swallow from their excesses”, which makes no sense. Other versions of the book have “who swallow truth”.


The Diary of Lady Murasaki

I just read Lady Murasaki’s diary, a procedure that fortunately did not require breaking into the Tsuchimikado Palace and burglarizing her room, which would have greatly put her out, but reading Richard Bowring’s Penguin Classics version.


Picture of Murasaki by Hiroshige, 1880

Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部 is an icon of Japanese literature, and indeed world literature, as she’s the author of the world’s first novel, 源氏物語 (Genji Monogatari / The Tale of Genji). Now you know who to blame for all those annoying Genjis in Overwatch. Her novel was recognized as a classic within a century and has remained popular ever since, and naturally it’s been turned into illustrated scrolls, manga, anime, and live-action films.

For all this fame, it’s surprising that we don’t even know her real name. Partly this is due to Heian court etiquette, in which names were avoided as much as possible. Shikibu refers to the Ministry of Ceremonial, which her father briefly ran. Murasaki means ‘purple’ and is a nickname, borrowed from one of the women in her own novel. It’s a native Japanese word, borrowing the kanji from ‘purple’. Shikibu is however a direct borrowing of *shiəkbhǒ ‘style-section’, pronounced shìbù in modern Mandarin.

She was a member of the Fujiwara clan which dominated the capital, Heian 平安 (the earlier name for Kyōto). Its leader, Michinaga no Fujiwara, had arranged for his daughter Shōshi to marry the Emperor, and he appointed Murasaki as a lady-in-waiting to her.  When the diary opens, in 1008, Shōshi was 21 and Murasaki around 34. She was already known for her ongoing writing of Genji, and for knowing Chinese, very unusual for a woman of the time; Michinaga’s choice was undoubtedly made to help build a salon for his daughter. (Murasaki was married but her husband died young. She had a daughter, who isn’t mentioned in the diary, though she must have been about 9— it’s not clear where she was living.)

The diary is short— the introduction is almost as long— and mostly concerned with the events surrounding the birth of Shōshi’s first son. There are long descriptions of the many court ceremonials, with careful attention paid to the subtle signals of Heian court life: where people were seated, what clothes they wore, how close they came to the ideal of being lively without being rowdy or boring. (Don’t picture the kimono with wide obi of our times; rather, women wore multiple kimono tied with a cord.)

There’s a constant theme of melancholy:

But then for some strange reason— if only my appetites were more mundane, I might find more joy in life, regain a little youth, and face it all with equanimity— seeing and hearing these marvelous, auspicious events only served to strengthen my yearnings. I felt downcast, vexed that nothing was turning out as I had hoped and that my misery simply seemed to increase.

Toward the end she offers some portraits of the women she know. Most are carefully positive, but one stands out for its negativity:

Sei Shōnagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but if you examined them carefully, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial.

This passage is of particular interest because Sei Shōnagon is another prominent Heian female writer, author of the Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi, not a novel but more a book of anecdotes, poems, and essays). Murasaki herself mentions learning Chinese faster and better than her brother, but she mostly hides her learning— though she casually mentions things like a minister in a ceremonial reciting the beginning lines of Sīmǎ Qián’s Records. (Which itself is a telling detail: the ceremonial in question is the baby prince’s first bathing: nothing to do with Chinese history. It’s like reading from Herodotus, in Greek, at a christening.)

The details of court life differ, but the basic humanity comes through. Well, of course, you think— how hard is it to write about small human interactions and one’s own feelings? But we’re used to a thousand year of novels, personal essays, and journalism. A lot of early literature is epics, chronicles, manuals, poetry, or religious stuff, genres where people are normally very serious and aloof. One can only wish that we had anything as quotidian and candid as the diary from, say, Babylonia.

What was Heian court life like? From Murasaki’s account, very crowded. She describes a number of ceremonies that were jam-packed with dozens of nobles. In daily life, she was almost constantly surrounded by other court women and servants. She could retire to her room, but it was small, walls didn’t go up to the ceiling, and people would be bustling about at all hours.

A point of pride for both men and women was being able to quickly improvise verse. She mentions one event where, bored, she was leaving with another woman, when Michinaga himself caught them. He demanded a poem for the new prince, and she answered,

How on this fiftieth day can we possibly count
The countless years of our prince’s reign!

“Oh! Splendid!” he said, reciting it twice to himself; then he gave a very quick reply:

Had I as many years as the crane, then might I count
How many thousand years his eternal reign would be.

Elsewhere she admits that she sometimes (though not on this occasion) prepared poems in advance in case she was asked to improvise one.

Another time, Murasaki is away from court and misses her friend Lady Dainagon. She sends her a poem by letter, and receives back:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost
The mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.

The translator explains that mandarin ducks were believed to make inseparable pair-bonds and were a metaphor for lovers— but then goes on to insist that the poem should be taken as “a conventional exchange between close friends— nothing more.” This is an odd comment!  It’s presumably offered so that we won’t suspect a lesbian affair. But how can a British professor a thousand years later, however learned, know all about the sexuality of Heian courtiers?

Elsewhere Murasaki mentions that she and another lady-in-waiting used to remove the panel between their rooms, making a larger room. Michinaga notices and makes a “tasteless remark” that it would be awkward if one of them had a lover the other didn’t know. But she answers it anyway, in her diary: there would be no problem, because they were “very close.”

From her own account, Murasaki is very attentive to female beauty— though you could say it was part of her job. Then there’s this incident:

I looked in at Lady Saishō’s door, only to find her asleep. She lay with her head pillowed on a writing box, her face all but hidden by a series of robes— dark red lined with green, purple lined with dark red…. The shape of her forehead was enchanting and so delicate. She looked just like one of those princesses you find depicted in illustrations. I pulled back the sleeves that covered her face.

“You remind me of a fairy-tale princess!” I said.

She looked up with a start. “You are dreadful!” she said, propping herself up. “Waking people up like that without a thought!”

That’s a degree of closeness one can describe as pretty darn close. And if it did get closer than friendship, what record would one expect to find after all these years?

The female perspective here reminds me of the Míng novel Golden Lotus. That was an elite but not royal family, and Chinese, and written a few centuries later, but the cultural milieu and the concentration on minor events of daily life are similar. I’m also reminded of the French elite of the 17th century, a time when you might not be expected to improvise a poem on the spot, but where the rich and the erudite mingled and shared their values.

I haven’t read The Tale of Genji itself, though it’s on my list. From reviews, it seems to be extremely lusty— it’s almost entirely devoted to Genji’s many loves. This contrasts with the retiring persona Murasaki presents in her diary— there is not a single hint of any amorous intrigue on her part. The nature of the novel at least explains a passage in the diary, when Michinaga gives her this poem:

She is known for her tartness
So I am sure that no one seeing her
Could pass without a taste.

The continuation— it’s unclear if it’s his or Murasaki’s:

She is a fruit that no one has yet tasted—
Who then can smack his lips and talk of tartness?

From the diary, this is a rather rude imposition. But then, the reserved persona of the diary might have been a conscious presentation, a necessary counterbalance to a rather racy novel.



Book of the Dead

I’ve been reading about Egypt… I had been trying to keep it out of my book, but it moved itself in, much as Egypt kept moving into Canaan.  The last book I read was the Book of the Dead, translated by Ramses Seleem. In particular, it’s a translation of the Papyrus of Hunefer, one of the shorter versions of the BotD, from around 1300 BCE.


That’s Hunefer above, in fact: he got the deluxe illustrated Book for his tomb, with his name in all the spells and pictures of himself and his wife Nasha. (She doesn’t appear in the illo above; the other folks are all gods. To the left Hunefer’s heart is being measured by Anubis against a representation of maat, truth or virtue. Thoth is recording the results. Fortunately, he passes the test, and is ushered into the presence of Osiris, flanked by Isis and Nephthys.)

I’m afraid I can’t recommend Seleem’s version.  The main problem is that he seems to be a believer…. yes, in ancient Egyptian religion. I’m not quite convinced you can be such a thing, but the thing is, he has all of the convert’s convictions that a) he knows things hidden from the experts, and b) whatever he believes is identical to what was believed 3300 years ago.  But religions, like languages, change, and entering into the mindset of people long dead is extremely tricky. Saying you have special insight because you actually believe this stuff only makes it trickier.

To start with, there’s some linguistic BS. For instance, he mentions the Egyptian word for the wrapped body, krst. He then claims that this is “the root of the Latin word corpus” as well as the word Christ. Which is… non-mainstream.  Both words are Indo-European and not even related to each other. (Christ is a nominalization formed from χρῑ́ω ‘rub, anoint’; an actual cognate of this word turns out to be ghee.)  From some quick Googling, this krst nonsense does seem to be widespread, but that just means that cranks have been copying it, one book to another, for a hundred years. A chance similarity just never stops doing its mischief.

Just as bad: he thinks that language derives from lingua (‘tongue’) + age, thus, “the speech of ages.”  Argh!  In fact it’s from French langue (which is from lingua) plus the common nominalizer –age, which isn’t the same as the noun âge.

Well, non-linguists may mess up etymologies. Moving on… he informs us that the Egyptians were not actually polytheists– the words neter ‘god’ and netrit ‘goddess’ should really be ‘law or principle’, masculine and feminine: he suggests yin and yang as equivalents.

Now, I’m no expert– ask me after a few more books– but my suspicions are aroused, because this is how people from polytheistic religions talk when the most privileged religions are monotheistic. You see it in Hinduism and also in ancient Rome: scholars very gravely announce that the gods are illusions and cover an even more ancient monotheism, or even a trinity. (I’m aware, by the way, that the process is very far along in Hinduism.  But that doesn’t mean that such interpretations were what (say) Vedic religion was “really about.”)

One, there’s nothing wrong with multiple gods! You don’t have to give in to Yahweh-envy. And two– if ancient Egypt was monotheistic, it makes it a good deal harder to understand why Akhenaten’s reforms were ultimately resisted.

All of this could be ignored if we can trust his translation. But then he explains that his translations are “symbolic.” E.g., one line from Hunefer literally reads

I am pure in my great double nests, in the city of Sutnny, in the day where the people gave offerings to the great principle in it.

He says that this should instead be translated

I achieved purification of my body and soul in the time of my youth, when other people were busy with the dazzling illusion of life.

I would like a second opinion on this.

If all the Egytologists agree, great. That is, if “double nests” is a way of saying “body and soul”, that’s fine. I’m more wary of “the dazzling illusion of life”, which certainly can’t be explained by anything in the literal translation.

The problem with such interpretive translations is that the translator trusts their own explanations far more than he trusts the actual sacred text. Even if the interpretation is good, it’s theirs more than the writers… and really, it’s a rare interpretation that exceeds the original. Read a commentary on the Dao De Jing, then read a minimalist translation, and see which you get more out of. Or read the parables of Jesus, then some pastor’s book about them. (There’s nothing wrong with writing commentaries… but even as a believer, you should recognize that sages’ words are one thing, disciples commentaries are another. Not a few sages have said just that!)

I much prefer Wendy Doniger’s approach with the Rig Veda. Where the text is maddeningly obscure, she lets it be so. She explains a good deal of it, but separates text and interpretation, and doesn’t over-supply the latter. Yes, it can leave the reader feeling that they don’t understand everything. That’s a plus. It’s no favor to give the reader the illusion of understanding a very old and difficult text.

The other problem with the “symbolic translation”: it bleaches out almost all meaning and interest from the text. Saleem’s version of Egyptian religion turns out to be, well, pretty much like most religious writing. Here’s a random sample from his commentaries:

These three pillars (awakening, purification, and activation) form the earthly triangle. When this has been activated, the heavenly triangle comes into operation. This include the process of rejuvenation. When the body is working correctly, the internal and external energy can be fully utilized. The body then starts to create new skin and tissues in all its organs and muscles, which take about 15 years. 

So… some nice words come together and are given a metaphorical name. There are special disciplines for the elect which allow a fuller life. It’s the message of every religion and completely devoid of any interesting specifics.

By the way, I don’t at all reject spiritual points of view or disciplines. I just find writings about them to be nearly meaningless. I’ve known a few people I consider to be near saintly. The thing is– they talked like any other religious person; it wasn’t their gift. Their quality was in what they did, not what they said. This is undoubtedly why so many religions are based on personal, one-on-one discipleship.

Anyway, I don’t feel I can use much of the book. It does contain a lot of information on Egyptian mythology, and it’s beautifully illustrated.



A New Green History of the World

I just finished this; it’s by Clive Ponting, and it was published in 2007. Immediate reaction: Human beings suck. I really wish there was a better species to belong to.


You may get an idea of its depressiveness from the fact that just one chapter is devoted to global warming. Yeah, that might destroy our civilization, but we were already headed that way. Also, if you think the culprit is manufacturing, or oil, or capitalism, think again. The problem goes way back, at least to the beginnings of agriculture.

And that may be letting the hunter-gatherers off the hook too easily. Humans are not only frighteningly efficient hunters, they’re death for other large animals. When humans reached the Americas, they quickly eliminated 75% of all large animal species.

As for agriculture, the main problems are these:

  • Soil erosion. Exposing the soil means that much of it is blown or washed away. This in turn silts up the rivers and causes flooding. The process is particularly deadly in the tropics, because rain forests have very poor soil— after a few crops are grown the land turned into baked clay, good for almost nothing.
  • Salinization. Irrigation in poor soils creates waterlogging and brings up salt, which impedes crops. Sumerian culture basically destroyed itself this way: by 1700 BCE crop yields were 1/3 of what they were when civilization began. (Sumer itself never fully recovered— political power moved north to Babylonia.)
  • The extension of agriculture to more and more marginal terrain.
  • Deforestation. Forests are cut down for building and for fuel. Over six thousand years, almost all of China and all of northern India have been converted into cropland. The current appearance of Mediterranean countries— semi-desert with occasional stands of olive trees— is man-made; forests once covered most of the land.
  • Poor diet. Most peasants survive almost entirely on grain and beans. Hunter-gatherers are far healthier. Plus, living with animals we get all their diseases.
  • These days, the unsustainable and polluting high usage of fertilizers and antibiotics.

Basically, Malthus was right: any increase in productivity is soon eaten up (literally) by increased population. 90% of human beings lived in starvation-level misery well into the 1800s. And that’s before you consider epidemics, war, or slavery.

There’s just one civilization that had a sustainable model, due to its geography: Egypt. The flood of the Nile brought a new coating of soil every year, so salinization wasn’t a problem. The valley is surrounded by desert, so there was no forest to cut down and no temptation to use marginal land. Egypt basically farmed the same way from 4000 BCE till the 19th century. It’s in trouble today, largely because of the Aswan Dam. The dam stops the silting process, so the Nile delta is shrinking, salinization is now a problem, and soil fertility must be supplemented by chemicals. Irrigation has spread schistosomiasis and fresh water is scarce.

Then there’s overhunting and overfishing. The chapter on fishing is particularly depressing. Humans just cannot seem to figure out that fish stocks are finite, even as they exhaust one after another. The fishing industry naturally resists any form of regulation, but again: we don’t just use fish species, we use them up. Once the fish are gone, you don’t have a fishing industry any more.

If you have an early-industrial conworld (as I do), some observations from Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian doctor. He noted a number of industry-specific diseases in 1700:

  • potters got trembling and paralysis from lead poisoning
  • glass-makers got ulcerated lungs from antimony and borax
  • gilders and hatters got mercury poisoning (thus the Mad Hatter)
  • coal miners got lung diseases
  • cotton mills also produced lung problems, due to lint in the air; people who worked with wood had similar problems due to wood dust
  • coal and oil products caused cancer

Next— colonialism. Here at last the Europeans get to be the clear villains. I’ll just tell one story, which was new to me. In Kenya, whites stole all the good land. But they needed cheap labor for their plantations, so they couldn’t just let the natives continue to use traditional methods on what land remained to them. They instituted a poll tax and a hut tax, paid in cash, to force the Africans to work for them. When this didn’t produce enough labor, they raised the taxes, appropriated more land, and put import duties to raise the cost of living. This “worked” in the sense that the plantations got their labor. It also killed off nearly half the population.

The kicker: this happened, not in the 1720s, but in the 1920s. This is part of why stupid articles about how the American revolution preserved slavery drive me up the wall. The British were evil to the people they ruled… and not much better to their own descendants. (Not to get into too much of a digression: the British were able to outlaw slavery in their own colonies only because they’d lost the biggest slave-owning population, in British North America. And they supported the Confederacy in our civil war. They sold warships and blockade-running ships to the CSA— for which they had to pay the US reparations afterwards. No, they weren’t more benign than any other unelected overlords. And no, monarchy is not cuddly.)

The USSR did its fair share of devastation. They purposely drained the Aral Sea, which was supposed to provide good cropland but instead created a salty desert. Attempts to use Kazakh steppe as cropland was a disaster, resulting in losing 50% of the cropland in Kazakhstan. Collectivization killed millions of peasants and reduced food consumption even in the cities. Most industrial sludge was dumped untreated into rivers… several times rivers caught on fire. A nuclear accident in  Siberia released radiation equivalent to 3000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, and made Lake Karachai the most radioactive place on earth: you’ll get a lethal dose if you just stand on the shore for 30 minutes.

Another big mistake? Cars. Cars use 20% of world steel production, 35% of zinc, 50% of lead, 60% of rubber, 1/3 of oil. Car accidents kill a million people a year worldwide. In car-based Los Angeles, 2/3 of the center city is devoted to roads, garages, freeways, and parking areas. Yet street traffic is actually slower in modern cities than it was in 1900.

As for global warming… not much of this is news by now, but prospects are bad. Temperatures are up 0.85° C on average, and rising 0.2° C per decade. But it’s not uniform: the change in temperate areas is about 150% of that, and even higher at the poles. The goal of limiting warming to 2° C is optimistic. Worrying signs:

  • Polar ice is already starting to melt. That could raise the sea level significantly and, by removing all that reflective white ice, accelerate warming.
  • As the tundra melts, huge amounts of methane are released. And methane is a far more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide.
  • Ironically, reducing industrial pollution could accelerate warming, by removing dust from the air.
  • The oceans absorb CO2… but there’s a strong possibility (based on examining climate change from millions of years ago) that this doesn’t continue indefinitely.

Predictions are tricky, but if these processes take off, warming by 2100 may be more in the range of 10° C. (That’s 18° F in case you’re rusty on Celsius. And recall, it’s higher in temperate latitudes. So Chicago’s average summer day of 85° F might be 112° instead.) And note, if we haven’t done anything, temperatures continue rising.

I’m naturally an optimist, but it’s hard to maintain that reading this book. At least let me emphasize that all this is a crisis of humanity’s own making. If we keep going as we’re going— well, we get ecological collapse with massive population die-off. But like Scrooge’s ghosts, the message is that we could pick another path. But it will require a hell of a lot of painful change, rethinking our civilization from the ground up. And at precisely the moment we need to make changes, we’re ruled by reactionaries who want to accelerate the collapse.

So, any other species need recruits? Gnolls? Half-orcs maybe?





Upcoming books

You may be wondering, or if not you should: what’s my next book?

It’s books. But the next one should be my Quechua reference grammar.


Based on some quick quizzes on Twitter and the ZBB, it seemed that people are more interested in a reference grammar than a textbook. Which is good, because I more or less have one! I wrote the grammar (and a dictionary) for my own use when I was studying Quechua in the 1990s.

It needs quite a bit of work yet, partly to make the text as good as possible, and partly because I need to go over some of the source materials in much more detail. But, that work is underway now.

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ve probably seen that I’m also doing research on the Middle East. Now, in theory this should be no harder than distilling all of India or China into a book. But, well, it isn’t. China is largely the story of one people and language. India is much more miscellaneous, but it’s mostly one civilization, whatever exactly that means. I could cover everything from Sumer to Khomeini in one volume, but it would mean compressing each bit into near unrecognizability.

So, my current idea is two books. One will cover the Ancient Middle East— concentrating on Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Persia, more or less up to Alexander. (That is, I don’t expect to cover Egypt or Anatolia in detail.) That’s certainly doable. After all, histories of Mesopotamia alone have to cover a lot of this material, because its empires were all over the Levant, and were eventually conquered by Persia. And most of the area was occupied by Semitic speakers, and shared a good deal of culture and cosmology. The obvious languages to cover would be Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

There are a couple of really interesting puzzles to cover:

  • How did agriculture get started, and more importantly, why? People seemed happier without it.
  • How did one unimportant subgroup of Semites, of the same language and culture as the entire Levant, come up with a fervent monotheism?

Naturally, the latter question could take over the whole book, but I don’t intend to let it. I just read a history of ancient Israel, and though it’s interesting, what I crave is precisely the larger context. The Bible, and thus most historians, present Israel as somehow totally distinct from their neighbors. But they weren’t, at all; they basically spoke the same language, and indeed if you read a little closer they actually had enormous trouble keeping separate from those neighbors. And then there’s the tantalizing Persian connection— they interacted closely with the other monotheistic religion in the area. More on that later.

Book Two would cover the same area from about 600 to the present. That’s mostly the Islamic era, but also includes the very interesting 600s, when the age-old war between the Byzantines and Persians heated up, well, more than it ever had. The languages covered would be Persian and probably Arabic.

Clever people may note that there’s a gap of nearly a millennium in between. That’s intentional. I expect to cover the Persian part of the story, but what’s missing is the Greeks and Romans, and early Christianity. That’s nowhere near as new to most of my readers, I think; and covering them would require a different base area anyway.

Now, that’s plenty to do, but one day recently I woke up with my head full of Xurno. That is, I was thinking about the plot for Diary of the Prose Wars, my unfinished Almean novel. I read over the material I had. I think it’s in worse shape than I remembered, but that’s fine. The real problem was the plot, and I worked on that a bit. (For what it’s worth, it does focus the mind a bit when one’s own country is going to pot. “Oh, that’s how awful authoritarian regimes are formed.”) This won’t be a high priority, but apparently my subconscious was working on it, and I look forward to seeing it do some more.


Against the Grain

I just finished this book by James C. Scott, and it’s amazing. It’s one of those books that’ll unwind your mind and rethread your head. I’m tempted to rewrite the early history of Almea, and you may want to do the same with your worlds. Oh, hey, is it clear that the post title is the book title? It’s called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.


Actually a bad guy

Everything you know is wrong

At some point, maybe in sixth grade, you probably read some histories that suggested, more or less:

  • humanity progressed from foraging, to pastoralism, to agriculture, the last being true civilization
  • each of these steps was an advance in freedom and prosperity
  • nomads and foragers did not understand agriculture, otherwise they would have immediately adopted it
  • agriculture was necessary for large permanent settlements
  • since agriculture developed, the world has been dominated by large agricultural states

All of these statements are wrong. A truer set of statements would be:

  • People prefer foraging or pastoralism, but can be coerced into agriculture
  • Agriculture (and to a lesser extent pastoralism) is a step backwards in freedom and prosperity
  • Nomads and foragers understand how crops work and sometimes plant them, but prefer not to be tied down to a much more tedious and unhealthy lifestyle
  • Large permanent settlements preceded agriculture by a few thousand years
  • For most of history, the bulk of humanity has lived outside the effective control of states

There’s a simple reason the state dominates history, as opposed to humanity: because that’s what generated stone cities and writing that survived. It takes a lot more work to uncover what happened before states appeared, or in areas where the towns were built from perishable materials. Quite a lot of that work has been done in Mesopotamia, which is the focus of the book. (On the other hand, there’s a huge amount that we’ll just never know.)

Our secret weapon: Fire

A nice trendy argument is when the Anthropocene began: the geological era dominated by humans. Was it when we noticed global warming, or when the industrial revolution began? Scott makes a case that it began 400,000 years ago, when hominins mastered fire. Fire greatly changed our diet, and our own bodies and brains, because it allowed us to cook both meat and vegetables, unlocking a great deal more nutrients. Our huge brains are the product of fire: the other great apes can’t support equally sized brains with their diet of raw food. Fire has shortened our guts, which are about a third as long as those of chimps’, because we don’t need as much digestion. We can eat a wider range of things; that, and the warmth of fires, allowed us to greatly expand our habitat.

What’s less realized is that we also used fire to transform the landscape. Sometimes this was accidental; sometimes a purposeful hunting/foraging technique. Fire could be used to chase prey into a killing zone. More subtly, it encourages certain crops which we happen to find useful, and animals that grazed on those crops. Just about every landscape we consider “natural” has already been modified, thousands of years ago, by humanity, largely through fire.

A little fact which underlies the scale of this change: when Europeans reached the New World, their diseases killed off perhaps a majority of the natives– who for centuries had been using fire to clear the forest. The forests sprang back, incidentally absorbing so much CO2 that global climate cooled, from roughly 1500 to 1850.

Next there’s an extended discussion of what happened in lower Mesopotamia and when. The first oddity is that it looks like there were permanent settlements by 6500 BCE, about 1500 years before solid evidence for agrarian villages. The second is that it took another 2000 years before states developed. (Mesopotamia was not the pioneer in sedentism; there was year-long settlement at various sites around 10,000 BCE.)

What sort of area could support sedentism before agriculture? Not the arid desert that much of this region is today… but at that time it wasn’t desert, it was wetlands, if not actually under the sea: almost half of the current land from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf was then part of the gulf.  Ancient Ur was on the coast. The land was about 10 meters below the current level; the difference is due to 10,000 years of sediment from the Tigris and Euphrates.

It was very rich in resources, especially as it was a mixture of coastal and river environments. Frequent changes of the watercourse allowed planting on rich, naturally cleared silt without irrigation. Animals and birds abounded, and migratory gazelles and asses came through, and could be corralled into narrow areas for hunting. If an area is sufficiently rich, you don’t need cultivated fields to support villages.  (Another such area is the pre-Columbian Pacific Northwest.)

Agriculture isn’t an either-or proposition. The same people could hunt, forage, take care of animals. The same plants that were later cultivated grew wild, and foragers had long had the equipment to harvest it and prepare the seeds for cooking. The sort of opportunistic sowing just described (right after a flood) took little extra effort.

This ecological zone survived to modern times, but farther south, and the lifestyle did too, among the Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s, displacing half a million people and turning the marshes to desert. The dikes were breached after the US invasion; the marshes are partially restored but few of the people have moved back.

Why plant?

The big question is: if things were so good, why did Mesopotamia move to agriculture at all?

Ester Boserup posited that the change must be out of desperation, e.g. overcrowding, the loss of large game, climate change. For Mesopotamia, there doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of these. Scott can’t suggest anything better, so really we don’t know why the changeover happened.

Of course, once it has happened, it has a certain inertia. You can support a much higher population with agriculture– which means that though individuals can and do retreat from the lifestyle, entire populations can’t.

Co-evolution in the village

There’s a section on what Scott calls “late Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps”… that is, farming villages. The jargon is meant to underline that a bunch of co-evolution was going on, as crops, weeds, domestic animals, uninvited vermin, and people all adapted to living together.

A lot of this was driven by the humans, of course. In general we want crops with increased fruit or grain size, no toxins, no hard cases or spiky protrusions, and which are easy to harvest– e.g., heads that don’t shatter. For animals we want docility, increased fertility, tolerance for cramped conditions and a monotonous diet, and comfort around humans. We also get some unintended consequences: less genetic diversity and robustness; and among the animals, neoteny, reduced sexual dimorphism, and a certain stupidity. (This even affected our vermin: rats and mice who live among us, for instance, are smaller than their wild counterparts.) Many of our crops and domestic animals couldn’t survive without us.

Something that affected all the species was disease. Cramped and unsanitary conditions spread diseases not only within but between species. (Measles comes from sheep or goats; smallpox from camels; influenza from waterfowl.) And epidemics were one of the failure modes of this lifestyle: they could wipe out a settlement, a kingdom, or an army.

More subtly, living in villages affected us too. Evolution did not stop with the Cro-Magnons; we’ve become adapted not only to cooking but to grains and to large quantities of alcohol (historically healthier than the nearby water). In the West, we’re adapted to drinking milk in adulthood. We have some resistance to all those new diseases. Arguably we too are domesticated animals, subject to some of the same changes, including smaller size, duller teeth, neoteny, less sexual dimorphism, and tolerance for crowding and stress.

The bad guy enters

Cue the Imperial March, because now our villain enters: The State. States appear in Mesopotamia around 3100 BC, and everything goes to hell.

In brief: with the state, you get all the drudgery of agriculture, plus coercion and oppression. Someone evidently noticed that if 90% of the people were farmers, a quarter or half their produce could be taken from them, supporting an elite: kings, nobles, priests, soldiers, merchants, craftsmen. (To be precise: if left alone, the people wouldn’t produce this surplus; the state coerces them to produce more than they otherwise would.)

It’s a bad bargain for the farmer… which is why, to the extent of their power, the authorities kept them from leaving. And that’s if they were free to begin with: there was extensive use of slaves, and one of the main purposes of war was not to conquer territory, but to grab captives.

Scott’s particular insight is that states worldwide, up to at least 1800 CE, were based on grain, and that this was no accident. (For the purposes of this discussion that includes rice and maize.) Grain is a tax collector’s dream: it ripens all at the same time, so you can go right in and take a large part of the harvest. (To ensure this uniformity, states often mandated that fields be planted at a particular time.) Grain can be stored for years, and it’s one of the highest nutrient-per-weight foods, so it can be transported long distances.

Can you have a state based on tubers or manioc instead? Not nearly as easily. Tubers don’t have to be harvested all at once; indeed, the best place to store them is in the ground, till they’re needed. If the tax man wants a share, he has to go and dig them up, and if he does, he has a wagonload that’s heavy, easily spoiled, and barely worth transporting.

All the major empires, Scott asserts, are based on grain– and their effective area of control, as opposed to the lines they or we draw on maps, is the limit of grain cultivation. Beyond that are two major populations.

The misfits

One is the non-grain-growers: people who don’t fit, or don’t want to fit, into the tax man’s grain system. Scott has written another book, The Art of Not Being Governed, about the huge region that never quite fit into the East Asian states: southwestern China, northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma, and Assam. These are largely mountainous areas where it was hard to grow grain, and where the people grew other things, as well as raising animals, and if necessary melted away when the administrators and armies attempted to enforce control.

The other exception is the pastoralists, as well as mixed groups (like the ancient Germans and the Jurchens) who farmed or herded as circumstances warranted. Though his picture of states is grim, he presents the nomads as far healthier, happier, and more egalitarian.

One reason, it must be said, is that the nomads noticed that the surplus of the peasants could be skimmed off as easily by themselves as by their own elites. So the peasants endured not only the depradations of the taxman, but that of the horselord.

States naturally fought back, but it’s not easy to defeat nomads, who after all have no cities to loot, and can easily melt away into the steppes. But cooperation was often preferable to war. Nearer nomads could be bribed to fight farther ones, or be co-opted as cavalry.

Most of our sources come from states, and we should be skeptical when states claim that non-grain areas or nomads acknowledge their suzerainty. That was a way of saving face; the reality was often that effective control over either was impossible, and huge sums were spent to keep the nomads happy.


The whole structure of states was precarious. States could collapse due to defeat in war, or ecological change, or epidemics, or by peasant revolts, or by the increasing toll of deforestation and salinization. In early Mesopotamia, states were particularly prone to collapse– as Scott puts it, the interregna outnumbered the regna. One historian, Robert Adams, notes that the Third Dynasty of Ur was unusual in lasting a hundred years. Mesopotamia as a whole seems to have collapsed from 1800 BCE to 700 BCE; during this period urban settlements had 1/4 the area they’d had previously. The Greeks famously collapsed around 1100 BCE, losing their cities and literacy for hundreds of years.

Such times are called dark ages, but given the general misery under state control, they may well have been a relatively pleasant breathing space for the people. They were certainly more egalitarian, and cultural output was probably not less; it simply switched from written to oral modes. (The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of Greece’s dark age.)

If you put all this together, and try to look at humanity as a whole before 1500, it may well be that the majority of humans were outside state control, and all the better for it.


If there’s a takeaway for your understanding of history, or for your conworld, I’d suggest something like this:

  • The fluidity of people about foraging/herding/agriculture. It’s not a progression, and the same population, or individuals, might engage in all three.
  • How long it takes between sedentism and states. (I’m sure I didn’t leave enough time in Arcél…)
  • The importance of grain. Think hard about starting a state outside river valleys suitable for grain production.
  • The frequency of collapse in the first millennia.
  • The fact that states are bad news for much of the population.

These are not ironclad rules, especially in fantasy. It’s not that all cities were hellholes. (Just one detail: Chinese cities were probably healthier than European ones, simply because the manure was a valuable substance and removed from the city.)

There were also mitigations Scott doesn’t mention, such as debt jubilees. (See David Graeber… I think that’s the first time I’ve cited him as being more cheerful than another book.)

Some grains of salt

As ever, I have a few cavils. One is that Scott can be annoyingly low on details. You won’t get any explanations of how Sumerian city-states differed from the Assyrian or Babylonian empires. He gives population estimates without explaining where they came from or how reliable they are. He admits that slavery and war pre-existed states, which surely undercuts his major villain, but he provides no way to estimate how much.

More seriously, I’m not sure that his ideas apply so well to Africa, or the Americas, or India.

  • There were kingdoms in Africa, for instance, but so far as I know agriculture never depended mostly on grain, as it did in Egypt or Mesopotamia or China.
  • He mentions the Inka and Maya, but on his own admission maize is not as easy for the tax collector as wheat– it can be left in the field to dry.
  • As for India, at one point Scott says that only two large empires appeared in its history, the Guptas and the Mughals– a statement of colossal ignorance.

I’m inclined to think his ideas apply well enough to temperate areas, but he should have left tropical areas to another study.

Finally, I think he over-paints the picture of the state as tyranny and “barbarism” as pleasant and egalitarian. You could be captured and sold into slavery by nomads, or as a nomad. Or you could be forced to serve in the khan’s wars. And the state/nomad balance didn’t always favor the latter: e.g. Rome was not really bothered by the Germans until the 200s.

And the lot of peasants varied– e.g. it seems to have always been better to be a colonist, when your numbers were few and therefore you had to be treated fairly well. I’m inclined to think it’d be better to be a Chinese peasant in the 1C than the 18C, because game and trees were still available.  For that matter, you’d really want to be born in the beginning rather than the end of a dynasty: taxes were lower, the state was more organized, and bandits were held in check.

(Also, wasn’t 19C Ireland a potato state? Scott doesn’t even mention it.)

In Search of the Phoenicians

Taat’s the title of a new book by Josephine Quinn. Her hot take is that the Phoenicians never existed– that is, that they were not really a nation, an ethnic group, or a civilization as we understand these terms.


The Carthaginian goddess Tinnit

I don’t think she proves her case, but she does show that it’s complicated. First, it’s quite true that the Phoenicians were never “a nation”. They were usually divided into city-states, and from about -600 the Levantine cities were ruled by one empire after another.

(The major cities were Sidon and Tyre, which are both in modern Lebanon. The first was natively Ṣīdūn, today Ṣaydā; the second was Ṣūr— we owe the T to the Greeks. Carthage was Qart-ḥadašt ‘new city’.)

But you can have a people without a nation. The Greeks and the Romans certainly thought of the Phoenicians as a people, mostly a competing people. They spoke a common language, they were gifted in commerce, and they were said to be very religious, and also duplicitous. Greek φοῖνιξ refers to a Phoenician, to the characteristic and expensive dye (Tyrian purple) they sold, and to the date palm. Later it was applied to the mythical bird. (Before reading Quinn’s book I had never made the connection between Phoenicia and phoenix.) The Romans adapted φοῖνιξ as poenus, at a time when they didn’t bother to mark Greek aspiration. This gave the adjective pūnicus, the source of Punic.

We also have the viewpoint of the Israelites. A modern reader of the Bible may be tempted to see Israel’s neighbors– the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Edomites, and the Phoenicians– as entirely unlike them. In fact most of them belonged to the same linguistic group, Northwest Semitic, and were (according to Quinn) mutually intelligible. If you look at what the Bible actually describes, the Canaanite gods and goddesses were broadly worshipped in Israel, to the distress of the prophets; it wasn’t until after the Exile that the Jews emerged as uniformly monotheistic. Several Israelite kings married Phoenician princesses.

From a Middle Eastern point of view, then, the Phoenicians were simply the coastal, seafaring part of the general Canaanite population. Aramaic is another member of the family, basically derived from the dialect of Damascus; it became the lingua franca of the entire Levant and Mesopotamia until the Arab conquest.

What did the Phoenicians call themselves? Probably they didn’t. Reviewing hundreds of years of inscriptions, Quinn finds that they mostly identified with their cities (i.e. Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, etc.). There doesn’t seem to be a Phoenician word for Phoenician. There are a tiny number of references to KN’N (Canaan).

In architecture and sculpture, the Phoenicians didn’t seem to have a style of their own; they freely borrowed from Egyptian, Greek, and Persian styles.

They were not united by religion. There were a number of Canaanite gods, and it seems that each city picked a different small number to worship. There are two entirely separate cults associated with Carthage.

  • One was associated with Baal Hammon and Tinnit; their worshippers erected temples which focused on sacrifice of animals and occasionally infants. This cult seems to be limited to two sites in Africa (including Carthage), plus Malta, Motya in Sicily, and six sites in Sardinia.
  • An entirely different cult was centered on the god Melqart (‘king of the city’), who was particularly favored in Tyre. Melqart was worshipped in Carthage, Cadiz, Utica, and a few other cities. The Greeks identified him with Herakles; they routinely did this with foreign gods, but the Carthaginians seemed to agree: they borrowed Herakles’ lion poncho for representations of Melqart.

The strongest argument against Quinn’s thesis (to her credit, she brings this up herself) is that starting in -410, Carthage minted coins that featured a date palm.  This seems to be an acceptance of the Greek term φοῖνιξ as a marker of “Phoenicity”, issued just at the time Carthage was assuming greater control over the western Mediterranean.  (It was never exactly an empire in the Roman sense; its territories were more allies than subjects.) Tyre itself minted coins with a palm tree about two centuries later.

Carthage always remembered its relationship with its founding city Tyre, and was said to send tithes there regularly. At the same time, Quinn points to a particular moment of diplomacy where a Tyrian was treated as a foreigner. These facts aren’t hard to reconcile, if you think of the relationship between the US and Britain, or Brazil and Portugal. You can feel that there’s a special relationship while also being conscious of the differences.

You could settle all this by looking at Phoenician literature… only there’s almost none to consult, just a bunch of short inscriptions. Perhaps, unlike the Greeks and Israelites but like the Persians, they simply didn’t have much to say. But more likely we’ve just lost it all. Carthage is said to have had a library, which the Romans donated to local kings, keeping only a treatise on agriculture. If you get hold of a time machine, I urge you to get to Carthage before its conquest and record the contents.

The Phoenicians have a long tail in history. The tophet cult only increased after the Roman conquest: there’s something like 75 sites in the eastern Maghreb with tophets dated to the -2C through the 2C. Punic continued to be spoken in the region until the time of St Augustine (fl. 400). And quite a few nations have seen themselves in the Phoenicians, including the British, the Irish, and the Lebanese.

Oh! I think I forgot to say how the book is. I enjoyed it a lot, and learned a lot; don’t take my statement that she doesn’t quite prove her thesis as a complaint. She assembles all the evidence she can and is willing to look at it in new ways, and I think that’s the proper way to handle history.