Fantasy cultures can be varied, colorful and exciting as the real world and more so, if writers make the effort to craft these most critical backdrops. Nonetheless, many fantasy novels today seem to be set in an unending series of northern European countrysides; the villages, castles and taverns inhabited by Germanic, English or Scandinavian peoples; the forests, streams and caves haunted by trolls, orcs and goblins. Think twice before doing the same with your novel because you are covering ground many other writers have already visited and will continue to tread.
Beyond Europe, however, there are thousands of potential world cultures to use for inspiration or as a base for your fantasy cultures. Several cultures are profiled on the following pages. One intent of these profiles is to hint at the great variety of foreign cultures available to writers from every inhabited part of the world and from every period of human development. Another intent is to inspire and guide writers to seek out more information about these exciting cultures and incorporate them into their own worlds.
Writers should consider what point or points in a culture’s development they are going to portray. Each has its particular allure and interesting characteristics. Culture cannot remain static for long and are constantly changing, expanding and contracting. Is the culture in the ascendant, with dynamic leaders striving to carve a place in a world of dangerous competitors? Is it a strong, powerful state, secure against all but the most dangerous enemies? Is it an ancient, now-decadent culture with indifferent leadership and on the brink of imminent decline? Or has that decline already begun, with collapse from the inside being hastened by aggressive outsiders?
If you know the story you want to write, you can pick cultures with a history that fits your ideas. Similarly, the history of a particular culture can go a long way toward inspiring story lines, events and characters.
Several fascinating cultures are profiled in the following chapter to inspire you to use them or find others more suited to your needs.
More information is available to writers today than at any other time in human history. In fact, this creates a problem of not knowing just where to start or what to choose.
Despite the vast resources of the World Wide Web, good old-fashioned books are probably still the most accessible resource. Most writers know how valuable bookstores and public libraries can be in finding good source material. You should be careful, however, not to neglect two ends of this spectrum.
Children’s books often make great introductions to an unfamiliar subject. So what if a book on the Roman Empire is written at a seventh-grade level? If you don’t know anything about the subject to start with, the clear outline, simple prose and pictures will be refreshingly easy to digest. And fantasy writers might not need much inspiration beyond this.
University libraries are the other end of the spectrum and can provide books of a specialty level that will not generally be found in a public library or mall bookstore. Writer’s can explore this venue when greater detail is needed on a specific subject.
Books that focus on specific arts or sciences of a culture can be of use to writers who want protagonists with special backgrounds or skills. For example, a book on Inca record-keeping techniques could be quite instructive to a writer creating a character who is an Inca imperial governor.
Reprints of original epics and texts can be incredibly instructive, of an ideal if not always of a reality. Such texts are of immeasurable value when creating fantasy worlds. For example, the Hindu epics Mahabarata and Ramayana, Chinese philosophical works like Confucius’ Analects or Aztec codices.
Periodicals can also be a good source of material. Two of the best are National Geographic, which typically features aspects of one or more world cultures in each issue, and Living History, which covers historical activities and events from all periods of history.
Africa is now widely considered to be the cradle of humanity, so it is appropriate that some of the oldest and richest human cultures should have originated there.
Many of these cultures veritably demand to be incorporated into the milieux of fantasy worlds. Among these are tribes of pastoral cattle herders in east Africa, forest kingdoms in west Africa, mountain peoples in Ethiopia, and the riverine cultures along the Nile (Blue and White), the Congo and the Zambezi.
One of Africa’s greatest cultures, New Kingdom Egypt, is profiled here.
Egyptian (New Kingdom) Culture
What we think of as ancient Egypt lasted nearly four millennia, beginning around 3500 B.C. and continuing until about 30 B.C. Historians divide those thousands of years into ten broad periods and these periods into more than thirty different dynasties.
The New Kingdom, comprised of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, is in many ways the most interesting period, and was characterized by dramatic social and political change and by the transformation of Egyptian culture from a simple riverine kingdom into a complex militarized empire.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century B.C., the kings of Egypt were subject to a militarily powerful people called the Hyksos. These people dominated the Nile river valley and occupied the northern part of the country, holding in vassalage the Egyptian nobility. Egyptian kings of the seventeenth dynasty rose up against the Hyksos, leading a war of liberation against them and their native allies and overthrowing them after several years of savage warfare. Amosis became the first king of the eighteenth dynasty (1570 – 1320 B.C.).
Arts and Sciences. Egypt’s great pyramids are what it is best known for architecturally, but they were old when the forefathers of the eighteenth dynasty were driving out the Hyksos. Egypt’s last pyramids were completed about one thousand years before the advent of the New Kingdom. New Kingdom architecture is just as significant and even more varied than that of earlier periods.
During this period, the dead were interred not in pyramids, but in smaller, personal tombs. Nonetheless, pharaonic tombs were still very elaborate, consisting of chambers excavated from the solid rock of hillsides, their approaches augmented by temple complexes and columned galleries. Walls were decorated with images of mythological and historical events, carved in sunken relief (as opposed to the low-relief figures of earlier periods).
Prior to the overthrow of the Hyksos, Egyptian culture was sophisticated and civilized, but, metallurgically and militarily, it was still in the Stone Age. Their acquisition of Hyksos bronze-working skills brought them up to par technologically with some of the other great cultures of the ancient world. A growing sense of national identity also helped to elevate their position in the international scene of the day.
Pictograms called hieroglyphics were used throughout Egypt for, among other things, record keeping, religious texts and tomb inscriptions.
Government. The pharaoh, a semidivine king wielding absolute power, sat upon the throne of Egypt and served as the ultimate military, secular and religious overlord. Three of the most well-known pharaohs reigned during the New Kingdom: Ramses II, widely identified as the pharaoh of Genesis in the Bible; Tutankhamen, who was laid to rest in the richest royal tomb to survive into the twentieth century; and Hatshepsut, a rare and powerful female pharaoh who ruled for twenty-two years.
As the New Kingdom evolved into a militarized state, a bureaucracy evolved to oversee such things as weapon and equipment manufacturing centers, arsenals, military levy and payroll lists, acquisition and breeding of horses, and the construction of border fortifications.
Military. Three broad arms comprised the Egyptian army during the New Kingdom: Egyptian chariotry and infantry, and auxiliary foreign troops for example, Nubian archers or Canaanite peasant levies.
Prior to and during the early days of the New Kingdom, chariots were rare and highly prized, and often acquired from a defeated enemy force after a battle. Chariots were crewed by two soldiers. The archer was heavily armored in a coat of scales and armed with a composite bow. The driver was lightly armed and had little or no armor but may have had a large shield mounted on one arm. Chariot runners, lightly armored infantrymen, were assigned to chariots and detailed with dispatching the crews of disabled enemy chariots.
The weapons and equipment of infantrymen evolved during the New Kingdom, reaching a characteristic point during the nineteenth dynasty (1320 – 1200 B.C.). Such foot soldiers wore the familiar striped headcloth or a simple round helmet, carried large rectangular shields that were rounded on top, and wore armor made of bands of linen across the chest and the nonshield arm. Their wood-and-bronze weapons included hand axes; two-handed, weighted mace axes; spears; throwing sticks; and Khopeshes (heavy curved swords).
Archers became more important during the New Kingdom, eventually being armed with powerful composite bows in place of simple stave bows. The effectiveness of such troops in battle was greatly enhanced when they were formed in mass. They wore no armor and were kept from close combat with the enemy.
Egypt’s borders had traditionally extended only a few miles to either side of the river and along the coast at the mouth of the Nile. During the New Kingdom, Egyptian forces extended these borders into neighboring areas, largely to act as a buffer for the Nilotic homeland. Egyptian armies campaigned south into the Sudan, north into the Levant (modern-day Lebanon), and as far east as the Tigris-Euphrates river valley (in modern-day Iraq).
After the overthrow of the Hyksos, military challenges for the New Kingdom included a long-term war with the Kingdom of Mittani to the north, clashes with the Hittites of Persia to the east and the Libyans to the west, and a major land and sea invasion by the “Sea Peoples,” a coalition of eastern Europeans and Asians. Defeated by Ramses II during the twentieth dynasty (1200 – 1085 B.C.), the remnants of these people settled along the coasts of what is now Israel and became known as the Philistines.
Economy. Egypt’s economy was based on intensive agriculture within the lush Nile River valley. Traditionally, farming villages that were clustered around temple or palace complexes, rather than urban areas, were the centers of communal life.
As the militarized society of the New Kingdom developed, fortified palaces, border fortifications, and enclaves of craftsmen specializing in critical skills (e.g., chariot makers, bowyers and fletchers) became increasingly vital.
Egypt also engaged in trade with a wide variety of states, including Somalia and southern Arabia along the Red Sea, and Crete, Phoenicia and Syria in the Mediterranean Sea. And, as a burgeoning imperial power, goods flowed into New Kingdom Egypt from the lands under its control, mostly via specially built coastal and riverine trading vessels. For example, at least three sorts of wood were used for Egyptian war chariots, most of them coming from the Levant, or Lebanon, and many of the spices used for perfumes and embalming were sent from Yemen, in southern Arabia.
Religion. A pantheon of humanlike gods, many of them with animal heads, was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. Among the most important in the New Kingdom were Amun, god of Thebes; Ra, god of the sun; Set, god of death; and Montu, god of war. The pharaoh was often associated with Amun and Ra, and increasingly with Montu.
Worship of Egyptian gods spread throughout the ancient world, where they were sometimes revered under different names, for example, the goddess Isis was worshipped in Greece as Aphrodite, and later in Rome as Venus.
Egyptian rulers showed devotion to the gods through the construction of massive temples and tomb complexes that required thousands of craftsmen and many years to build. Egyptians believed that properly preserved dead lived on in the afterlife, and the noble and wealthy were embalmed in an elaborate ritual process that lasted several weeks. They also believed that objects buried with the dead could be used by them after death.
One pharaoh, Akhenatan, attempted to impose upon Egypt the worship of a single god, Aten, the sun-disk. His monotheistic reforms did not long survive his death.
During the New Kingdom, the priesthood grew rich and powerful, coming to own a third of the country’s arable land. Because they were appointed by the king, however, they could not easily pose a challenge to him.
To ancient and medieval Europeans, Asia was a vast, mysterious, fabulous place, full of innumerable foreign kingdoms, peoples and religions. This impression, while not always accurate in specifics, was generally very true.
The largest continent is home to perhaps the greatest variety of cultures, heroes, gods and kingdoms, some of them truly alien to the people of the West. Indeed, Asia is ripe to bursting with rich material for the fantasy writer. Japanese cultural elements have become popularized and familiar, but little is known by most of us about other Asian cultures.
These seem almost uncountable and include the Buddhist kingdoms of Tibet, Indonesia and Cambodia; the Hindu peoples of India; the Muslims of Pakistan and Afghanistan; the nomadic Mongol shamanists of the central Asian steppes and deserts; and the Indo-Sumerian city dwellers of the Indus River valley.
Two Asian cultures, Chinese and Mughal, are profiled here.
(Early Imperial Period, 221 B.C. – A.D. 618)
Chinese written history goes back more than three thousand years, and people have lived in China for tens of thousands of years. China’s history can be divided into four broad periods: the Age of Conflict (1500–221 B.C.), the early imperial period (221 B.C.–A.D. 618), the Golden Age (A.D. 618-1368) and the late imperial period (A.D. 1368-1911).
In the centuries prior to the Early Imperial Period, China was divided into a dozen warring states. One of them, Qin, defeated the others during the fourth and third centuries B.C., unifying the country in 221 B.C. After this, China was periodically divided by internal conflict and split into as many as three opposing kingdoms, but the ideal of a unified country under a single emperor persisted.
Art and Sciences. Some of the world’s greatest art, literature and architectural wonders were created in China.
Bronze casting was an important art form from about 1000 B.C., and produced beautiful, intricate vessels and implements decorated with abstract designs and animals. Ordinary people never used bronze, however, and such items were reserved for the rituals of the imperial court and temples.
A written language of pictorial figures similar to modern Chinese writing was developed during this period and used for preserving everything from government records to the works of philosophers. This development was accompanied by the invention of bamboo paper around the first century A.D. followed by block printing.
Medicine was advanced by ancient standards, and acupuncture was one of the medical disciplines developed during the early imperial period.
Architectural and engineering accomplishments of the age were extensive. Imperial engineers built bridges and roads, linking the far corners of the country. Among the architectural feats of the period still evident today are the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. During the early imperial period, sections of defensive line in the northwest were connected to form the Great Wall, a fifteen hundred-mile-long barrier intended to hold back the dreaded Xiongnu (Huns). The Grand Canal, flowing one thousand miles from Beijing in the south to Hangchow in the north and linking the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, is still used today.
Chinese cities tended to be symmetrical, walled, laid out on grid-plans of straight streets, and filled with square and rectangular buildings. Buildings were usually of red brick and roofed with green-glazed ceramic tiles.
Government. Imperial Chinese society was structured into a rigid hierarchy, the earthly head of which was the emperor, the “Son of Heaven,” who ruled with absolute power. Ministers, officials and a system of bureaucrats assisted the emperor in running the great country, and aristocratic, military and religious factions surrounded him, seeking to forward their own interests and creating continuous court intrigue.
Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of a unified China. He had a reputation for evil and cruelty, but also for efficiency and lawfulness. He instituted standardized weights and measures and built roads throughout the country. Scorning Confucianism, he championed a philosophy called legalism that advocated a system of rewards and punishments for various sorts of behavior. After his death, chaos racked the country for eight years.
The hierarchal nature of Chinese culture was largely based upon the teachings of Kung-Fu-tzu (Confucius), who traveled throughout the warring states of China during the Age of Conflict (1400-221 B.C.) advising kings to rule by setting a good example for their people. His book Analects influenced Chinese leaders and scholars for two thousand years. He taught that children were subject to parents, wives subject to husbands and younger people subject to older people.
Military. Unification presented China with different military challenges from those of the warring kingdoms, including quelling uprising and defending frontiers from foreign invaders. Foremost among the latter were the Xiongnu, against whom several determined military expeditions were led.
Infantry formed the basis of contemporary Chinese armies, augmented by smaller forces of chariotry and cavalry. Forces formed for a special purpose might have a different composition, however; for example, expeditions into the western steppes were made up mostly of cavalry troops. Chariots were typically crewed by three warriors; a spearman, a driver and an archer or crossbowman.
Armor consisted primarily of coats of leather or linen, enhanced with scales or whole plates of bronze or iron for the best equipped troops, and augmented by shields and helmets. Weapons included straight, single-edged swords; crossbows; composite bows; and bamboo-hafted spears.
Economy. The vast majority of Chinese were farmers who worked the valleys of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. Others were tradesmen, bureaucrats or soldiers who dwelled in towns. The entire country, especially the rich south, paid taxes in the form of grain and manufactured goods to support the government and the army.
Trade was facilitated by the roads, canals and rivers of the empire, and flourished under the stable conditions of a unified government. Among the most important trade routes was the Silk Route, which stretched from Changan in the middle of the country all the way to Persia (modern-day Iran).
Religion. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism were three of the main religious or philosophical movements that influenced Chinese history. Their various factions represented them at court, and strove to curry and maintain imperial favor.
Confucianists believed that the earthly bureaucratic hierarchy of the empire was simply an imperfect model of a heavenly hierarchy, and that all people had a divinely ordained duty.
Taoism developed about the same time as Confucianism, but in opposition to it. It was formulated by Lao-Tzu, who in his Tao, or way, said that wise men do not try to change the world, but rather do nothing and seek harmony with nature. Monasticism flourished amongst Taoists, and great monasteries, often supported by pious patrons, were built throughout the country.
Buddhism, an import from India across the Himalayas, brought a pantheon of deities and supernatural beings to augment those of the existing Chinese religions. It too leaned toward monasticism.
Hordes of Islamic Turco-Mongol soldiers swept into India in the early sixteenth century, conquering vast territories, subjugating the local Hindu people and establishing one of the most colorful and durable empires ever seen. Established in 1526, the Mughal Empire began to wane in the early 1700s, eventually became a puppet state of the British, and collapsed in 1858. It is possible that no other empire has exceeded the luxuriousness, wealth or absolute power of the Mughals.
The forces that for over a century dominated most of India were descended from Mongols, who had in centuries past settled in Turkey and converted to Islam. Under Babur, a nationless military adventurer descended from both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, these people conquered Afghanistan in the early sixteenth century. In 1516, Babur made his first raid into India, and in 1526, he invaded in force, deposing the ruling Islamic dynasty and establishing the Mughal empire.
Mughal life revolved around the court and opulent, elaborate, sometimes labyrinthine palaces and zenanas, or harem precincts, which were the settings for the intrigues, assassinations and coup d’etats that plagued the Mughals throughout their reign. Mughal emperors, padishahs, along with their officials and supporters, had to constantly be on guard against poisoning, strangulation or other forms of assassination.
Arts and Sciences. Although descendants of a people who excelled at destruction rather than creation, the Mughals became great patrons of poetry, painting and architecture.
Tomb architecture is what the Mughals are best remembered for, most notably the Taj Mahal; several other tombs, less well-known outside of India, remain notable sites to this day.
The Mughals were also very literate people. A well-administered empire, the Mughals employed innumerable scribes and record keepers, leaving behind a detailed, if somewhat narrow record of their reign; for example, women were rarely mentioned at all, and those that rose to positions of power, such as the Nur Mahal, wife of the emperor Jahangir, tended to be vilified for their efforts. The padishahs were multilingual, enjoyed creating poetry and kept detailed memoirs, mostly in Persian.
Poetry was highly regarded and valued cup-companions of the emperor were expected to entertain him with verse. Spontaneous couplets ranked especially high.
Indian miniature painting reached its height under the Mughals, and accurate likenesses of all the emperors and many of their officials survive to this day.
Government. The padishah was an absolute dictator, epitomizing the eastern despot. The earliest Mughal emperors were able military commanders and administrators, and created a stable government and an extensive bureaucracy that allowed the empire to be maintained by the increasingly indolent, less capable emperors that followed them.
By modern standards, the best of them were excessively cruel and authoritarian, routinely torturing to death enemies, and engaging in entertainments that included massive hunts and forcing unarmed men to fight dangerous animals. Invariably, however, the padishahs seemed to have had dual personalities. For example, Shah Jahan apparently murdered two of his brothers on his way to the throne, and rebelled against his father, Jahangir, multiple times. Nonetheless, he was a brilliant intellect who so loved one of his wives that he constructed one of the world’s great monuments to passionate romance, the Taj Mahal.
Subadars (provincial governors) controlled the various suba (provinces) of the empire, which were divided into sarkars (districts) administered by faujdars. Ghatwals administered small frontier districts.
Military. As befitted a people descended from the Mongols, elite troops of aristocratic cavalrymen were at the heart of the Mughal military system. Cavalry armor and arms included mail, swords, axes, maces, lances and composite bows.
Secondary formations included armored war elephants, match-lockmen and slow, unwieldy artillery trains that tended only to be useful in sieges. Huge, elaborate fortresses housed their troops and watched over the country.
Defense of the empire was a constant concern and necessitated keeping able generals and thousands of soldiers in the border regions. In the north, Afghan tribesmen kept the frontier in a state of almost constant warfare (as they have for so many other conquerors), and Persia periodically attacked, as they did during the reign of Jahangir, capturing the fortified city of Kandahar. In the south, unruly Rajput lords schemed away in their hilltop forts, ever ready to seek personal gain by striking a bargain with a likely pretender to the throne. In the eighteenth century, the powerful Maratha caste arose and began to gnaw away at Mughal territory.
Economy. Mughal government heavily taxed its subjects, taking from the vassal Hindu population a third of its agricultural produce. Trade goods from China, East Africa and the Middle East flowed into Mughal India, and direct trade with European powers began in the sixteenth century. Currency included gold murhs, silver rupees and gems, notably sapphires and rubies. The complex financial affairs of the empire and the major provinces were overseen by civil officers called diwans.
Religions. The Mughals were Muslim, and perhaps more than anything else, this separated them from the subject Hindus, whom they considered pagans. Nonetheless, the Mughals allowed them to worship unmolested, and Akbar, greatest of the padishahs, even tried to unite Hindus and Muslims through a new religion of his own called Din Ilahi, Divine Faith.
Mesoamerica, that expanse of land extending north from what are now El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala through southern and central Mexico, was home to the most sophisticated pre-Columbian peoples of the New World, among them the Maya, Aztec, Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec and Zapotec.
All the Mesoamerican peoples were products of a shared cultural tradition that included similar art and architecture, agricultural systems and religious beliefs. These people carved their civilizations from the vast rain forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, the rugged mountains of the Pacific coast and the scrublands of central Mexico.
Two Mesoamerican peoples, the May and the Aztec, are profiled here. Several others are described briefly in the chronological order of their ascendancy.
Mayan culture flourished in the Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico beginning around A.D. 300, with more than a dozen of their huge city-states rising up from the steaming rain forests. Many Mayan cities, among them Copan, Palenque and Tikal, were huge by ancient standards and home to as many as fifty thousand people.
Endemic warfare and climatic changes that began around the middle of the ninth century coincided to bring about the decline of Mayan culture. Many cities were abandoned, and the recording of dates on stone tablets ceased, the last in 889. Life shifted to a few rival cities in the north and south of the area once dominated entirely by the Mayan states. These remaining cities held out against various successor peoples for several centuries, but most were conquered by the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. Their final stronghold, Tayasal, fell in 1697.
Arts and Sciences. The Maya were the only New World people to develop a complete written language. Such writing was composed of both pictograms and symbols that represented sounds. By connecting these sound symbols appropriately, the Maya could write any of their spoken words.
Most Mayan books, or codices, were religious texts that Mayan kings believed they could use to predict the future. Hundreds of such bark-paper books were destroyed by the Spanish when they conquered the remaining Maya in the 1520s. Now only a handful of these texts remain.
Mayan astronomers were experts at their crafts, gauging the movements of heavenly bodies for religious purposes. They were able to predict eclipses and the movements of the planet Venus.
Government. Mayan society was not unified and individual cities were ruled by their own kings. Such kings were called ahaw (lord) or makina (great sun lord), and served both as military commanders and priests. Mayan kings of note, whose names come down to us from monuments and inscriptions, included Shield Jaguar and Bird Jaguar of Yaxhilan and Pacal of Palenque.
Mayan kings served their people by performing critical religious ceremonies that usually involved drawing their own royal blood, which was believed to have special powers. Other duties included human sacrifice to their gods, usually of prisoners captured in war.
Mayan kings led their troops into war and gained prestige for the capture of enemy warriors. However, they ran the risk of being captured themselves and becoming a prime human sacrifice in their turn.
Military. For many years, scientists believed that the Maya were a naturally peaceful people. Evidence has come to light in recent years, however, that a continual need for human sacrifice drove the Maya into constant warfare against each other.
Mayan warriors wore costumes and face paint calculated to terrify their opponents, and went into battle howling and blowing war trumpets. Capturing enemy soldiers rather than slaying them was the primary goal of such conflict, and warriors were respected for the number of enemy they had taken in battle.
The planet Venus was identified with the god of war, and its seasonal appearance marked the annual start of Mayan intercity warfare.
Economy. Most Mayas were farmers, growing corn, squash and beans in forested areas cleared using slash-and-burn agriculture. Such commodities, along with luxury goods and currency in the form of cacao beans, were traded amongst the Maya.
Jade was the most precious material known to the Maya and was used to make ceremonial and religious accoutrements for the nobility and priesthood.
Religion. The Maya believed in dozens of gods who governed the various aspects of nature, and who were able to both create and destroy. The sun god gave warmth and light, but could also bring drought; the rain god brought water, but could also inflict floods; the war god brought victory, but could also impose defeat.
The gods were placated with their favorite foods, notably corn cakes, meat and human blood. Incense made from the sap of the copal tree was burned during offerings to the gods. Rituals also included pageants in which priests dressed like the gods and danced to music.
Prominent among the Mayan gods were Ahaw Kin, the god of the sun, who entered the underworld at night and was transformed into the jaguar god of war; Tlaloc, god of rain, who was worshipped by many other Mesoamerican peoples, including the Aztec; and Yum Kaax, the god of the staple food corn. Many other gods were also worshipped, some specific to certain areas or cities; many of them are now nameless, their identities lost to the ages.
In the earl fourteenth century A.D., the Aztecs were a migratory people who eventually settled on several islands in Lake Texcoco in central Mexico. Here, by 1325, they began building their capital, the city of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), which was joined to the mainland by several causeways. From this secure base, the Aztecs began to expand into neighboring lands, seeking farmland, prisoners to sacrifice to their gods, and wealth. They established an empire that lasted some two hundred years.
In 1519, Spanish conquistadors under Hernando Cortes landed on the Mexican coast east of Tenochtitlan, on the day and year it had been predicted the god Quetzalcoatl would appear. Cortes was identified with this deity and was thus able to rule the Aztec through the reigning king, Montezuma II. He ultimately plunged the empire into civil war and left it utterly destroyed by 1525.
Arts and Sciences. The Aztecs had strong engineering abilities and built cities full of palaces, temples and public areas. Aztec cities did not tend to be walled, and siege warfare was not common. However, Aztec cities were deliberately laid out with convoluted street plans that could be used to confuse, trap and ambush invading armies. Temple and palace precincts within cities were often walled citadels, and pyramids and other tall public structures could be used as firing platforms by defending archers. Thus, entering Aztec cities was not hard, but taking or holding them proved to be very difficult (even for the Spanish, who were more than once almost annihilated in brutal street fighting).
Huge pyramids often served as tombs for Aztec rulers, and “god houses,” small temples, were built on top of them as a place where the deceased noble or various gods could be honored.
Other prominent public structures included game courts for hachtli, a brutal game played with a rubber ball between two teams of warriors (the Maya played a similar game). Such I-shaped courts had walls about eight feet high set with a vertical stone ring through which the ball had to be maneuvered using only elbows, hips and legs.
Aztec astronomers carefully measured time. Time passed in cycles of fifty-two years, and each year was divided into eighteen months of twenty days each, each of these days having its own name. Time was reflected on huge, carved stone calendar wheels, some more than thirteen feet in width.
Government. Head of the Aztec empire was the tlatoani, or emperor. Upon the death of an emperor, the army commanders and chief priests chose a successor, usually from among the most qualified members of the royal family. Aztec rulers tended to be wise priests and skilled warlords.
A large staff of soldiers, priests and administrators worked for the emperor and ensured that his commands were carried out, and a bodyguard of two hundred chieftains saw to his personal security.
Military. Aztec methods of warfare were highly stylized but nonetheless brutal. Capture of enemy soldiers was important to the Aztec, who typically had such prisoners killed in ritual combat.
Battles were usually fought between opposing lines of brightly clad Aztec soldiers, with the most experienced soldiers in the front ranks. Levies and veteran soldiers, including knights and shock troops, cuahchics, were all identified by distinctive uniforms, and commanded in battle by captains and generals.
Armor for common troops was the ichcahuipilli, a heavily quilted cotton vest. A padded cotton body suit, tlahuizli, was worn by veteran soldiers. These came in a great variety of colors and patterns, and were determined by experience, status and unit. For example, two elite units were the Eagle Knights and the Jaguar Knights, both of which wore stylized wooden helmets decorated to look like their totem animals. Shields were used by all sorts of troops and were made of wood covered with hide and decorated with colored cloth or feathers.
Aztec weapons were made of wood and stone. Most fearsome of these was the macahuitl, a sword-shaped, hardwood club whose edges were armed with rectangular obsidian blades (freshly chipped obsidian is sharper than surgical steel). Another favored weapon was the tepoztopilli, a hafted weapon like a spear whose head was armed with pieces of obsidian. Bows, slings and atlatls were also used, the latter to hurl large darts with great velocity.
Economy. The Aztec’s primary crop was corn, which was used to make tortillas, their staple food. Because the early island-dwelling Aztecs initially had limited farmland at their disposal, they developed chinampas, large floating wicker baskets filled with earth in which they grew plants, including trees.
Merchants called pochteca extended Aztec trade throughout Mesoamerica and to the lands beyond (as far north as the Mississippi River valley). They also served as spies, bringing back information about rival cities. Because the Aztec had no beasts of burden and did not use the wheel as a tool, all of the pochteca’s wares had to be carried on the backs of porters.
Religion. Aztec gods gave their people what they needed to live but demanded human sacrifices in return. Their chief deity was the sun god Huitzilopochtli, who battled the moon and stars every day but needed human blood for strength and would be defeated without it. Thus, the Aztec believed the world would end if they did not make sacrifices, a belief that made warfare a perpetual way of life. Other important gods included Ixtilton, Huitzilopochtli’s lieutenant, and Quetzalcoatl.
Sacrificial victims were frequently treated as honored guests for a time, after which they fought ritual combats or played games of hachtli, often willingly. Survivors were then executed upon the temple altars.
Aztec priests painted their bodies all black and never cut or washed their hair. They often fought on the battlefield as elite warriors.
Clothing. Aztec clothing tended to be simple. Men wore loincloths and decorated capes held in place by a shoulder knot. Women wore knee-length fringed skirts and colorful ponchos. Both sexes wore sandals or went barefoot. The cloth or pattern an Aztec was allowed to wear was determined by his rank, a stricture constantly challenged by the newly wealthy pochteca merchants.
Pendants worn through the nose were popular with men, as were decorative spikes or knobs worn through the skin below the lower lip. Women favored makeup in the form of bright patterns pressed on the face with ceramic stamps.
OTHER MESOAMERICAN CULTURES
The Olmec are among the most ancient of the Mesoamerican peoples, becoming fully established by about 1200 B.C. and flourishing until about 400 B.C., when they broke up into smaller communities.
Centered along the southern Gulf coast of what is now Mexico, the Olmec were Mesoamerica’s first complex culture, and many other regional peoples ultimately traced their ancestry back to them. Olmec communities were characteristically built in marshy areas on raised clay platforms that included stone paving and drainage systems.
Of all Mesoamerican art, that of the Olmec is perhaps the strangest, and includes colossal carved basalt heads, often as much as ten feet tall and twenty tons in weight, and weird jade depictions of were-jaguars and people with broad, fleshy features (unlike those of other local peoples), many with cleft skulls.
The Toltecs migrated into the Valley of Mexico in the seventh century A.D. during the waning of Mayan power and after the collapse of Teotihuacan. They dominated central Mexico from the tenth to the mid-twelfth century A.D., establishing their capital at Tula, the northernmost of any built by a Mesoamerican people.
Drought weakened the Toltec in the twelfth century, and Tula was overrun by displaced peoples around 1150. Some of the surviving Toltecs fled to the Valley of Mexico, and many Aztecs were later proud to claim a Toltec lineage.
The Toltec had strong contacts with the Maya of Chichen Itza, as evidenced by similarities in art and architecture. They also established trade routes that stretched from what is now Costa Rica to the American Southwest.
Zapotec culture was centered in what is now Oaxaca state in modern-day Mexico on the hilltop capital of Monte Alban, a site founded around 500 B.C.
By about A.D. 300, the Zapotec had developed one of the greatest of the Mesoamerican civilizations, and it flourished until around A.D. 800, which the metropolis of Monte Alban was home to about sixty-six thousand people. After this time, the focus of Zapotec culture shifted to smaller towns and the capital began to decline, but was never completely abandoned.
Mixtec invaders conquered most of the Valley of Oaxaca during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, after which the center of Zapotec civilization shifted southward to the Tehuantepec region, where it remained independent until the Spanish conquest.
Zapotec art included the oldest hieroglyphic inscriptions yet found in Mesoamerica, many temples and painted tombs that contained funerary urns in the form of Zapotec gods.
The Mixtec established several city-states in the seventh century A.D. in the mountainous Oaxaca region of southern Mexico. For many centuries, the Mixtec did not intrude much upon the affairs of their neighbors, but in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, strengthened by various political alliances and diplomatic marriages, the Mixtec conquered most of the Valley of Oaxaca and displaced the Zapotec. Mixtec soldiers tended to use the atlatl and sling more than other weapons.
The Aztec in their turn conquered most of the Mixtec lands between 1486 and 1519, and later defeated them completely with the help of Zapotec and Spanish allies.
Mixtec artisans were among the most skilled of Mesoamerica, and created turquoise mosaics, gold jewelry, painted manuscripts and stone carvings. Many of the richest archaeological finds from Mexico were fashioned by Mixtec craftsmen.
Our own continent is home to a great diversity of colorful cultures, some of which are familiar to us, corresponding in part to the popular images we have of Indians. From the wigwam building woodland Indians of the East Coast, to the tipi-dwelling buffalo hunters of the Great Plains, to the whale-hunting totem-pole carvers of the Pacific Northwest, North America provides ample cultural material for the fantasy writer. An added benefit to adapting these cultures is the wealth of resources available, including published literature, historical sites and the living legacy of Indians themselves.
As Indian cultures that predate contact with Europeans are most appropriate to fantasy settings, writers should be careful to separate indigenous aspects of Indian culture from those that were formed by such contacts. For example, although the Plain Indians are thought of as great equestrians, horses were brought by Spanish explorers and colonists and were unavailable before the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Similarly, the familiar tomahawks of the woodland Indians were trade items brought by Europeans. A bit of research in this area can be both instructive and surprising.
Innumerable books on American Indians can provide general leads on the most well-known Indian cultures. One which is not well known is also one of the most exotic, the culture of the Mississippians.
From around A.D. 700 to 1500, a sophisticated people known to us as the Mississippians flourished in the great river valleys of North America, practicing agriculture on an intensive scale and building great cities of earthen mounds and pyramids. In many ways, their culture was similar to those of the great civilizations of Mesoamerica.
Introduction of corn to the region more than two thousand years earlier, in the sixteenth century B.C., allowed the indigenous hunter-gatherers to settle down and practice agriculture in the valleys of the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas and Red rivers. The urbanized civilization of the Mississippians evolved from this culture and reached its peak around A.D. 900 during a period of global warming that provided the conditions for even more intensive farming.
Mississippian culture reached its height between A.D. 1100 and 1200, when climatic changes led to widespread drought; this climatic episode lasted until about 1550. These devastating changes led to malnutrition and starvation. This, combined with resulting social chaos and war, a likelihood of disease or parasitic infestations spawned by overcrowded living conditions, and Old World diseases spreading ahead of European explorers, decimated the native populations and ultimately destroyed the complex Mississippian culture.
Early sixteenth-century French explorers visited some Mississippian cities and contributed to what we know about them. However, when Hernando de Soto ventured up the Mississippi in 1541, all he discovered was ruined cities and abandoned fields. Mississippian culture had disappeared.
Arts and Sciences. Mississippian towns are their most enduring legacy, which in layout were amazingly similar to those of Mesoamerica. Huge earthen mounds, the largest precolonial structures in North America, were the central structures of these towns. Some two dozen flat-topped mounds clustered around a central rectangular plaza. Cahokia, the most prominent Mississippian site, contains more than one hundred mounds, the largest of which is one hundred feet high and contains more than twenty-one million cubic feet of earth. Many mounds were surmounted by temples, and the mausolea of the social elite. Timber longhouses with thatched roofs were also characteristic of Mississippian towns.
The Mississippians had standard units of measurement and a working knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, all of which was applied to the layout of their cities and placement of their mounds. Nonetheless, they did not have a written language.
Government. A stable economic base resulting from the surplus allowed powerful chiefs to consolidate villages into states centered on temple towns, and to levy taxes for public works, like the temple cities. These mound cities served as administrative centers where tribute and grain surplus were brought and food distribution took place.
A complex social order developed, and four distinct castes developed, those of warrior, priest, artisan and farmer.
Military. Collapse of the Mississippian culture led to social chaos and warfare; during the period A.D. 1200-1300, as many as 30 percent of adults may have been killed in warfare. By 1200, all cities and many villages were defended by twelve- to fifteen-foot-tall walls and shooting platforms. Mounds were also palisaded and used as redoubts. Weaponry included bows and arrows from around A.D. 800; stone-headed axes and clubs were also used.
Economy. Rich alluvial soil, excellent climactic conditions and a new hardy strain of corn produced an annual crop surplus, which allowed village populations to explode from a few hundred to as many as ten or twelve thousand. Diet was nearly 90 percent corn, supplemented with nuts and game.
Labor became specialized, and artisans crafted arrowheads, shell beads and a type of pottery traded up to thousands of miles away.
Trade existed with peoples in Canada, Wisconsin, Virginia, Montana and the Rockies, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and the Gulf Coast, and Mexico. Marine shells, obsidian, jade, mica, quartz, pipestone, copper and silver, and the teeth of alligators, sharks and bears all flowed into Mississippian towns.
The collapse of the agricultural system resulting from climactic changes eventually destroyed Mississippian economy, necessitating a partial return to hunting and gathering.
Religion. The Mississippian mounds were at the center of a complex, widespread religion now referred to as the Southern Cult. It may have had Mesoamerican influences, and was at least in part a death cult; for example, upper-caste dead were left in mortuary houses on central mounds until partially rotted, when they were given elaborate funerals.
Ritual objects found in burial sites and on mounds include disk-shaped gorgets of shell; monolithic axes and maces of dense, polished stone; carved wooden masks; and pottery heads.
Once the agricultural system degenerated, the Mississippian temple cities disappeared, along with state religion.
Oceania, the island world of the Pacific, is home to a variety of exotic cultures that can be dividedinto three broad groups. Micronesians, living on the tiny coral atolls of the western Pacific, clad in sea urchin armor and wielding weapons edged with shark teeth; pygmylike Melanesians, dwelling in the mangrove swamps and mountain forests of New Guinea; and Polynesians, inhabiting the islands of Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand.
It is a Polynesian culture, the Maori, that is discussed here.
Around A.D. 900, a Polynesian people arrived at a pair of large, temperate islands far to the south of any known to them. Those islands are today known as New Zealand, and its first human inhabitants as the Maori.
As North Island has a warmer climate that supports agriculture, it became densely settled. South Island is colder, and the Maori there dwelled in smaller groups and lived primarily as hunter-gatherers. Settlements along the coast were typical, and inland areas were settled where game was initially plentiful. Precolonial Maori population ranged between 100,000 and 250,000.
Maori culture until about A.D. 1350 is referred to as archaic. After that time, many natural resources had been depleted and several game species had been hunted to extinction. From the late fourteenth century onward, warfare increased dramatically, as did the building of fortifications. This is then referred to as the classic period of Maori culture.
Arts and Sciences. Traditional Maori art forms included chants, dances, songs, wood carving and tattooing. Carving was used for meeting houses, great canoes and weapons. Warrior wore tattoos in swirling blue and black patterns on their faces and buttocks.
Poetry and storytelling were also highly regarded amongst the Maori, who were not a literate people but did have a strong oral tradition of myths and legends. Their language is part of the Austronesian family, related to Tahitian and Hawaiian.
Government. Kinship ties were the primary force upon which Maori society was organized. The basic social unit was thus the whanau, a family group of three or four generations that dwelled together. Several whanau with common ancestry comprised a hapu. Such “subtribes” owned valuable assets like canoes and controlled a specific area of land over which it exercised hunting, foraging and fishing rights. Several hapu in their turn made up one of about fifty large tribes, each member of which was descended from a common ancestor, usually a hero with great powers. Within these social units, Maori culture was divided into three social classes: the aristocracy, commoners and slaves captured in war.
Military. By 1350, the Maori were building hill forts called pa. These were usually constructed on a piece of high ground or, more dramatically, by terracing the slopes of an extinct volcanic crater; some were also built on level ground or in marshes. Pa were typically composed of ditches, earthen banks surmounted by wooden palisades, and raised fighting platforms from which missile weapons could be hurled. Dwellings, storehouses and sometimes cultivated areas were clustered within the pa around a central open space, or marae.
Many warriors went into battle naked, while others wore flax coats, short capes or simple waist-blankets. The most characteristic Maori weapon was the patu, a short, broad, tear-shaped club that came in many variations and was made from a variety of materials, including polished black or green stone, wood and whalebone. Other weapons included darts; the tewhatewha, and two-handed wooden war club with a beaklike head; and a fighting stick called a taiaha, which at a glance might have looked like a small spear.
Cannibalism was practiced upon men, women and children killed in the course of warfare. This was done not so much for their value as food but because of a belief that supernatural powers could be conveyed by consuming the remains of enemies (relatives were buried with elaborate funerary rites).
Economy. Maori dwelt in villages and practiced small-scale farming, mostly of sweet potatoes. Diet was augmented by fishing, hunting and gathering. Game included at least thirteen species of moa, heavy, flightless land birds ranging in size from a few feet to more than three yards in height, and the kiwi, a small bird with rodentlike habits.
Stone of various sorts from thoughout New Zealand was traded extensively among tribes, especially obsidian, chert, argillite (for adzes), quartzite, orthoquartzite (for blades) and greywacke. South Island greenstone became a favored stone for status items like ceremonial clubs and ornaments.
Religion. The Maori believed in a pantheon of nature gods, which included major deities like Rangi, god of the sky; Papa, god of the earth; and Tane, god of the forests. Priests, or tohunga, consulted major gods prior to important occasions, such as warfare or the construction of a canoe. Commoners were more likely to commune with ancestral spirits or local minor deities, like Maru, a god of war.
Priests communicated with the gods by means of god-sticks, carved wooden images wrapped with a length of cord. Such sticks were thrust into the ground, and the string pulled upon during ritual chants in order to attract the god and petition him.
How tabu, or spiritually powerful, someone or something was very important to the Maori, and very complex and difficult for others to understand. All men were tabu to some extent, based upon factors like their lineage and how many enemies they had defeated (women were tabu only when menstruating or during childbirth), and the status of warriors and priests was measured according to how tabu they were. Great priests and chiefs were so tabu that food they touched could kill commoners eating it and paths traveled by them could not be used by anyone else.
South America was home to some fourteen million natives in the years just prior to the arrival of Columbus. The ancestors of these people arrived on the continent around 12,000 B.C., and settled in the lowland jungles of the Amazon River basin, along the shores of the Caribbean and throughout the Andes mountain range. The continent’s greatest cultures evolved along its west coast and included the Nazca, Moche and Chimu. Most successful and well-known, of course, were the Inca.
Largest of the pre-Columbian states, the Inca rose from an obscure tribe to an empire in less than a century. Around A.D. 1300, they settled high in the Andes mountains and built Cuzco, their capital. In 1438, Pachacuti Inca ascended to the throne and began to subdue neighboring peoples; his son Topa continued in his foot-steps, conquering the northern Peruvian kingdom of Chimor. Eventually, the Inca empire stretched along two thousand miles of the South American coast, spreading inland an average of about two hundred miles and encompassing a third of the continent’s population.
The Inca learned much from other highland peoples, especially the conquered Chimu. When Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro encountered them in 1522, the Inca empire under Atahualpa was still growing and represented a sociopolitical system that had evolved over five thousand years.
Arts and Sciences. Amazingly, even though they developed an indisputably great civilization, the Inca had very few of the characteristics normally associated with a civilized people. Things they lacked included the wheel and a written language.
Nonetheless, the Inca undertook huge public works and left behind a durable legacy. Massive citadel, temple and fortress complexes, formed of perfectly fitted, irregular blocks of stone weighing several tons each, are the most obvious remnants of Inca engineering ability. Just as impressively, they linked their empire with some twenty-five thousand miles of interconnected mountain and coastal roads, overcoming ridges with tunnels, marshes with causeways, and the rifts and chasms of the Andes with suspension bridges up to seventy-five yards long. These bridges are still built by Peruvian villagers, who construct them in a mere three days using nothing but rope made from twisted grass, anchoring the ends of the bridges in ancient stone sockets carved by Inca craftsmen.
Government. Incan government was pyramidal, a strict hierarchy that ensured government control at all levels of society; at its apex was the Sapa Inca, who wielded absolute authority in political, military and religious matters. The aristocracy consisted mainly of the emperor’s relatives, and served as his councilors and provincial governors. Government officials, some of them highly specialized, were all accountable to the Sapa Inca, either directly or through those above them.
A form of record keeping known as quipus allowed information to be kept on things such as tax revenue and turnout for public projects or military duty. The quipus, a cord with knots in significant numbers, patterns and colors, was a document that allowed information to be stored and transferred, and was read and interpreted by officials called Quipucamayoc.
Couriers, chasquis, ran along the roadways to deliver official messages; they ran 6 ½ minute miles, and in relays could cover 1,250 miles in five days.
Two main weaknesses of Inca government were that there was no clear line of succession to the throne and authority collapsed when the Sapa Inca died.
Military. A standing army of up to ten thousand men formed the core of the Inca military, acting as a cadre for an agrarian militia that could be activated when needed.
Primary Inca weapons were a stone-hurling sling of plaited Ilama hair and the macana, a mace with a star-shaped head of stone or bronze. Other weapons included a double-edged hardwood weapon like a two-handed sword, stone- and bronze-headed axes, and throwing spears with metal or fire-hardened wooden heads. Soldiers’ uniforms consisted of their regular clothes, augmented by helmets, quilted cotton coats, shields and slats of iron-hard wood hung from the back of the neck to protect the spine.
Depots of weapons and supplies were set up along the well-maintained Inca road system. The main purpose of this road system was to allow rapid movement of large bodies of troops. Disciipline and the ability to quickly move well-supplied armies was one reason the Inca were able to defeat enemies against which they were superior in neither weapons nor tactics. Battles between the Inca and their foes were chaotic messes, opening up with volleys of slung stones, followed by hurled spears and then close combat with maces, clubs and axes. Inca disorganization in battle, along with ritualized patterns of campaign and prescribed times for attacks, made them unable to withstand the brutal efficiency of the Spaniards.
Defeated but still hostile peoples were relocated to the Inca heartland, while loyal subjects were sent as colonists, mitimaes, to conquered areas.
Economy. Heavy taxation allowed the Incas to maintain a standing army, fight wars and undertake huge public works projects. A tax of about 66 percent was levied on produce and manufactured goods, and the mit’a, an obligation to produce labor, was levied on the masses.
The superior road system also allowed efficient transport of goods, transported ont eh backs of Ilamas and people. Levied goods were transported to and stored in government supply centers, some of which were massive; the granaries at Huanuco Pampa could hold up to thirty-six million liters of grain. Such centers also served as manufacturing centers for the production of goods such as textiles, tools or pottery. Such goods were highly standardized throughout the empire, and show little individual variation.
Religion. The Sapa Inca was believed to descend from the sun god, and the main state religion was the cult of the solar deity. Common people were allowed to worship local rocks and streams, so long as they also propitiated the sun god. Viracocha, the creator god, was the chief deity and the one worshipped by the aristocracy.
Temples were filled with gold and silver ornaments and statuary, most of which were melted down and shipped back to Spain as ingots after the Spanish conquest.