Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘commentary’


Control of Attention is the First Skill of a Magician

Attention is selectivity applied to perception. It is an inward decision, usually made unconsciously, about what is worth perceiving and what isn’t. Attention both finds meaning and creates meaning. When we adopt the principle of “separate the subtle from the gross,” we are deciding on purpose where we want our attention to go, temporarily withholding it from what is obvious and bestowing it instead on what is inconspicuous and elusive.

In the world of spirit, attention is the equivalent of physical movement. It carries us toward the knowledge and acquaintances we seek and away from influences that we have determined to be harmful or useless. If you can’t control your attention, you can’t move properly, can’t get where you want to go when you want to go there. To the extent that you allow your attention to be jerked around by whatever happens to be manifesting most insistently, you look to other spiritual beings like a spastic. Control of attention is thus the first skill an aspiring magician must master, and perhaps the most important.

Catherine MacCoun, On Becoming an Alchemist, pp. 52-53

I have used the concept of attention-as-spiritual-movement in my fiction, most notably in the “The Princess, the Sorcerer, and the Wizard” story thread on the Rings of Honor site.

Birth of the Alphabet

Early writing systems—in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and later in Mesoamerica—were pictographic at the outset, employing a picture per word or, in some cases, combining two or more pictures to represent more complex words. These symbols were not related to a particular language and its sounds but might be usable by another language, just as today’s universal road and toilet signs may be comprehensible whether one speaks English, Arabic, or Korean. This was true, also, of the earliest symbols employed in the systems we call Linear A and Linear B.

But though pictographs may be drafted to represent nouns and fairly low numerals (and were therefore admirably suited to the work of ancient accountants, who could confine themselves to counting the number of chariots and javelins in the armory and the number of horses in the stables), they are less serviceable in representing the multiple forms of a verb and begin to disintegrate altogether under the weight of such linguistic complications as subordinate clauses. So these ancient systems soon added other, more arbitrary signs to represent more accurately the actual labyrinth of language, eventually introducing even symbols that represented some of the syllabic sounds of a specific language. The final network of symbols was a combination of pictographs, considerably stylized and simplified by generations of scribes, and other complicated signs and syllabaries. These hundreds, sometimes thousands, of separate symbols could be mastered only by those who had years to devote to the study. Such cumbersome writing systems became the fuel on which their civilizations ran—the oil of the ancient world. If you participated in ownership, you had it made in the shade. Otherwise, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss, the main function of such systems was "to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings"—literacy as oppression.

Though we don’t know who thought of it, we know where the idea of an alphabet came from: the Levant, that small corridor of coast running from Syria to the Sinai and encompassing Lebanon and Israel-Palestine. The first alphabet was, in the main, a borrowing from the underutilized syllabaries hidden away in the vast network of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Like most inventions, this one probably evolved in several stages and was helped along by more than one inventor. But by the middle of the second millennium [B.C.E.], we find a language being written on stones in the Sinai that is neither pictographic nor strictly syllabic, the alphabetic precursor of written Phoenician-Canaanite-Hebrew. This primitive alphabet came to the Greeks probably by way of Phoenician merchants, whose welcome ships, loaded with metals and such exotic materials as the precious red-purple cloth of Phoenicia, plied the whole of the Mediterranean littoral.

The Greeks added vowels to the Semitic consonants and set this list of pronunciation symbols in an unvarying order, giving us the alphabet (alpha and beta being the first two letters), on which the Romans would subsequently make their own revision—and so bestow on us the very symbols in which [this web site is] printed.

Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, pp. 55-57

I have substituted the words “web site” in place of the author’s “book”.

Supernatural Tactics of the Mongols

The Mongols even resorted to supernatural means to assure their success. They asked Tenggri, or Heaven, for his favor on the battlefield, in the same way that Muslim and Christian armies appealed to their god. But the Mongols also employed other supernatural tactics, of which the most important was weather magic, conducted by a shaman known as the jadaci.

Several accounts mention the use of weather magic. The jadaci used special rocks known as rain stones, thought to be imbued with the power to control weather, in order to summon rainstorms, or even snowstorms in the summer, which caught the enemy ill-prepared. The Mongols, who had lured their opponents away from their base, took shelter during the storm and then attacked while their foes were disoriented. A prime example of this tactic was recorded during the war against the Jin after Chinggis Khan’s death. Bar Hebraeus relates that Ögödei resorted to using rain stones after he saw the size of a Jin field army. After he had lured the Jin away from any support, he called upon his jadaci to summon a storm. The ensuing downpour, in the normally dry month of July, lasted for three day and three nights. The Jin army was caught in the open and drenched while the Mongols donned rain gear and waited the storm out. They then turned around and ambushed the Jin army, annihilating it.

Other sources indicate that Tolui, rather than Ögödei, was the general involved in this episode. Tolui had retreated after encountering a much larger Jin force, and after the Jin had attacked his rearguard he summoned a Turkic rainmaker to perform his magic. Rashid al-Din recorded that ‘this is a kind of sorcery carried out with various stones, the property of which is that when they are taken out, placed in water, and washed, cold, snow, rain and blizzards at once appear even though it’s the middle of summer.’ The rain continued for three days, changing on the final day to snow accompanied by an icy wind. The Jin troops were exposed to this severe weather while the Mongols found shelter. After four days of snow, the Mongols attacked and destroyed the bewildered and weakened Jin troops.

Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War, pp. 81-82

This is the first explicit reference I have found of the use of magic in warfare.

Ottoman Nobility: Pashas, Begs, and Beglierbegs

In [the] provincial government [of the Ottoman Empire] no distinction was drawn between civil and military authority. The administration of large cities like Damascus or great provinces like Egypt was entrusted to pashas, this being a title, not an office, indicating that its holder had been admitted to the highest ruling circle of the empire and membership of the Divan, or State Council. These officials were regularly transferred from one post to another, to prevent them from developing local loyalties or building personal systems of patronage and power. Practice was somewhat different in the conquered territories of Balkan Europe…where senior officials normally retained office for long periods of time. European Turkey was considered to be an administrative unity called the Eyalet of Rumeli, whose supreme governor was the Beglierbeg; during the 1540’s [C.E.] two new Hungarian beglierbegliks were created, with their capitals at Buda and Temesvar. The area was subdivided during the fifteenth century into sanjaks, most of which were reorganized during the sixteenth century into twenty-four pashaliks, governed, as their name implies, by officers of the rank of pasha, who were, however, as in other frontier regions of the empire, entitled begs.

Paul Coles, The Ottoman Impact on Europe, pp. 43-44

Emphasis mine.

Xenograg’s title of bey is a cultural variant of beg.

The Immense Wealth of the Persian Kings

[The Persian quisling] Tiridates led Alexander [the Great] into a large building behind the palace of Xerxes [at Persepolis] that served as both an armory for the royal bodyguard and a repository for the king’s wealth. Diffused light filtered through a series of openings in the roof above and washed gently over the tons of gold and silver bullion that had been neatly and methodically stored there. Within the treasury building were 120,000 talents of bullion, the largest single concentration of wealth to be found anywhere in the ancient world.

Darius I had imposed a tribute of precious metals in addition to a tribute of goods on his satraps and on the subject nations of the empire. Instead of converting that tribute into coins that could then have been put into circulation, Darius and his successors had it melted and then formed into ingots of gold and silver. The bars were stored in the palace treasury, and when the kings of Persia needed to finance particular projects, wars, or adventures, the precious metals were cast into coins. It was Darius who had introduced the coining of money into the empire; hence, the Persian coin became known as the Daric. Until that time, the empire had been administered largely on the basis of barter.

Successive generations of Persian kings had dipped into the treasury and spent vast sums on themselves. Over the years, they had spent great amounts on administering and expanding the empire and had dispensed large sums in fighting, hiring, and bribing the Greeks. Yet no matter how much money the kings spent, every year at the New Year ceremony more came in to replenish and add to the royal coffers. In the treasury building at Persepolis, Alexander was shown the full measure of how wealthy the Achaemenid kings of Persia had been and how wealthy he had now become.

John Prevas, Envy of the Gods, pp. 18-19

For comparision, Alexander started his invasion of the Persian Empire with a war chest of only 70 talents of gold.

Decline of Cavalry in Western Europe

The role of cavalry had declined in the Spanish army because the Spaniards had increased their infantry partly at the expense of it. Since a properly armored heavy cavalryman could cost four times as much as a pikeman or arquebusier, a small decrease in heavy cavalry could finance a huge addition to the infantry and bring about a dramatic alteration in the proportions between infantry and cavalry. Though a large part of their cavalry consisted of traditional full-armored lancers, the Spanish did have cavalry that performed a light cavalry’s strategic duties of reconnaissance and attack on the enemy’s stragglers, foragers, convoys, and logistic installations. Usually mounted arquebusiers filled this role. Because of the difficulties involved in using the arquebus while mounted, these horse arquebusiers were really mounted infantry. They usually dismounted to use their weapons. But on at least one occasion, after the battle of Ceresole in 1544 [C.E.], mounted arquebusiers pursued retreating heavy infantry and, by dismounting to shoot and remounting to continue the pursuit, managed effectively to simulate the traditional Parthian or Turkish tactics of light cavalry.

Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World, p. 192

The rest of western Europe copied this change from the Spanish, leading to the permanent decline of “pure” cavalry in warfare there.

Bronze Age Greek Art of War

…As a group [the Greek hero-kings of the Iliad] represent the Bronze Age art of war. Their hands were battle-wise with blood and calloused from stealing cattle. They could trample the enemy like a carpet under their feet or calm the heart of a nervous army under attack. They knew horses like a stable hand and ships like a boatswain, but most of all they knew men and how to lead them. They could be as smooth as the ghee-and-honey paste with which Assyrians cemented rows of mud brick or as rough as the gnarled limbs of an old olive tree. They knew which soldiers to reward with silver rings and which to punish with prison or mutilation. They could inspire the men to follow on foot while they rode in their chariots and to compete for the honor of fighting bravely in their presence.

They could break an enemy’s lance or deceive him with words. They knew how much flour it took to feed an army and how much wood was needed to burn a corpse. They knew how to pitch camp or launch a fleet, how to debrief a spy or send out an informer. They could draw a bow and split a copper ingot like a reed or hurl a spear and pierce the seam in an enemy’s armor. They shrugged off mud and snow, towering waves or buckets of rain. They could appraise lapis lazuli with a jeweler’s eye or break a merchant’s neck with a hangman’s hands. They could court a milkmaid or rape a princess. They relished ambushes after dark and noontime charges. They feared the gods and liked the smell of death.

Barry Strauss, The Trojan War, pp. 34-35

A very vivid description of a hands-on leader in a brutal era.

A Bronze Age Setting

I came across this pair of blogposts on Tankards and Broadswords:

  1. Bronze Age Settings (Aside From the Obvious)
  2. The Great Ziggurat of Ur

The first contains a clear imagining of what a Bronze Age setting could be like—would feel like. The second illustrates the cyclopean architecture found in the period.

Xenograg’s homeland is supposed to be Early Iron Age. Bronze armor and, weapons, and architecture are still seen in some places, and the magical arms in tombs will likely be of bronze. I even have a house rule that says bronze is better than iron for enchantment.

My compliments, Badelaire.

Cartoons from ‘Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord’

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord was the first computer role-playing game I ever played. One of my favorite parts of the game was the manual and its humorous cartoons.

Here are the seven best ones:

The Adventurer’s Inn

The Adventurer's Inn

Show-Off

Show-off

An Act of the Gods?

An act of the gods?

The Year-End Clearance Sale

The year-end clearance sale

What Happens When You Stutter During Spell Casting

What happens when you stutter during spellcasting

MATU!

Matu! Gesundheit.

How Not to Open a Chest

How not to open a chest

© 1981 Sir-Tech Software. Used without permission.

More on Hunting as War Training

I have previously posted on Hunting as War Training. Both this and that excerpt reference the medieval European experience, but the concept is not exclusive to that period.

Hunting in all its forms was strongly recommended by chivalric writers as the perfect preparation for military life. The typical argument was put forward in the first half of the fourteenth century [C.E.] by [King] Alfonso XI, who found time between ruling his kingdom of Castile and fighting the Moors to write a book about the sport.

For a knight should always engage in anything to do with arms and chivalry, and if he cannot do so in war, he should do so in activities which resemble war. And the chase is most similar to war, for these reasons: war demands expense, met without complaint; one must be well horsed and well armed; one must be vigorous, and do without sleep, suffer lack of good food and drink, rise early, sometimes have a poor bed, undergo cold and heat, and conceal one’s fear.

Different types of hunting required different skills, all relevant to warfare, including knowledge of the quarry’s habits, handling a pack of hounds, complete control of an often-frightened horse and the use of various weapons, including spears and swords to perform the kill.

Juliet Barker, Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England, Chapter 2

My Renaissance Faire Handfasting

On October 10, 2004, I got married at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Our celebrant, Bill, went above and beyond the call of duty. He wrote the words, played the hammer dulcimer, and drew the Fermat’s spiral in chalk upon the ground. He also drove 16 hours in 34 so as to not neglect his parishioners.

Thank you, Bill. You made our special day absolutely unforgettable.

Of Its Kind, the Last

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 [C.E.] when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens—four dowager and three regnant—and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cort├Ęge left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August, p. 1

photo of the nine kings
Standing, from left to right: King Haakan VII of Norway, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, King Manoel of Portugal, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, King George I of Greece, King Albert of the Belgians. Seated, from left to right: King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King George V of England, King Frederik VIII of Denmark.

The photograph is not from The Guns of August. I failed to record what book I found it in. Imagine if it was a color photograph.

Imagining the Centaur

The power of the steppe was based on the individual pastoral unit, the man on horseback. By all accounts, he was a unique creation, singular in his abilities and outlandish and terrifying in the eyes of victims, so much so he frequently defied description. Aesthetically, he left much to be desired. Clad shabbily in boots and trousers—both inventions of the steppe—kept supple through liberal portions of leftover butter and grease, he was likely a pungent warrior, especially since he himself never bathed. Upper garments were composed of crudely stitched pelts, valued only for warmth and protection. Strapped to his back was a quiver full of carefully crafted arrows and his formidable bow, both encased against the elements due to their extreme vulnerability to moisture. A well-cast bronze dagger would have completed his personal arsenal, since the steppe’s rich copper and tin deposits were exploited almost from the beginning of penetration.
It was horsemanship that set the pastoral trooper apart. Under ordinary circumstances control was exerted by reins attached to a bit—sometimes copper or bronze, but also bone or hemp. Saddles were blankets and hides. There were no stirrups, not before 500 [C.E.] at the earliest, so balance was based on experience and skill. Over time a horseman’s thighs and knees grew so sensitive to his mount’s movements that it became possible to maintain a firm seat at full speed using legs alone. The net effect was a union that left some wondering where the man left off and the horse began—the Greeks, for instance, imagined a race of centaurs, wild and unpredictable, humans and equines joined at the hip. Others were less fanciful, but nearly all who crossed his path were amazed by the steppe horseman’s ability to let go the reins and launch a rapid-fire barrage of arrows at full gallop through an arc of 270 degrees or more. He was as dangerous in retreat as moving forward—his fabled rearward Parthian shot brought an end to a legion of pursuers. No one was more lethal in the ancient world.

Robert L. O’Connell, Soul of the Sword, p. 50

Emphasis mine.

I never understood why centaurs were envisioned as forest creatures. Horses and ponies live on plains, steppes, and savannas.

I occasionally regret creating the Rellugai as turkic humans instead of centaurs. They would have been more difficult to write, but my writing can sometimes be too human-centric.