Monday, August 20, 2018

Going Downhill: The Pem-Pah, Part 5.

"You should add a few more cuts to that image before you make the trek back through the marsh. The Creeping and Slithering is resilient this time of year." 
- A rural guide to a performer-priestess and her entourage.

To understand why the religious performances at Anqoh are so severe, the Pem-Pah worldview and their place within it must be established.

They do not worship their gods. They worship against them.

It is unknown when this shift in religious practice occurred, assuming that the Pem-Pah practiced the same polytheistic religion as their upland cousins prior to their own migration into the bay country. There are surviving figures shared between the two traditions in the form of a class of trickster spirits, suggesting at least some common origin or interaction. Otherwise, the two faiths diverged almost completely.

Pem-Pah divinities tend to be as esoteric as they are malicious, lacking individual identities but being synonymous with larger, or sometimes hyper-specific, concepts. This has proved to make intellectual studies regarding them tricky, because their names are so difficult to translate out of a very old form or dead dialect of the spoken language. A few of the (relatively) more straightforward translations into Ersuut are as follows:

The Lapping of Fire; The Bloody Lungs of Saltwater; The Thirst of Drought; A Curse Spoken with a Death-Rattle; The Wailing of Children; The Laughter of Children when there are None; That Which Scrapes at the Dividing Wall; Something Which Could Happen But Never Will; An Unhealing Wound; It Which Deceives; The Lust of Siblings; The Exultant Agony. These "evils" for lack of a better term are the immaterial essence which fuels and causes terrible events in the world. They may or may not be intelligent, but they at least operate on a level comprehensible enough by humans that they can be thwarted, after a fashion.

The natural state of the world is decidedly unnatural to our perceptions, ruled by these forces and their countless relatives, a brutal perversion of life that is, dishearteningly enough, its rawest, perhaps truest form. The evils dwell in the air and in the earth, but originate from, or at least are familiar with, the water. Their eyes are everywhere, and their ire is easily earned. But once gained, it is believed that the attention of an evil can be held, to the disregarding of everything else.

To this end, the Pem-Pah seek to embody the evils in any way possible. Ironic praise-poems written about an evil wrap it up tightly around itself, temporarily forcing it into a mindless state of self-obsession. Speaking its name as well as that of one of its antagonistic opposites causes the two forces to seize upon one another, allowing a risky mortal endeavor to skirt by below them unnoticed. Crafting them in hideous detail in effigy upon one of the streets of Anqoh chains and binds them, and the many objects nailed into them or savage cuts delivered to their new bodies are believed to weaken them greatly as well. Like the devotees of Tallash struggling against the uncaring gulfs, the Pem-Pah battle against something far greater than themselves. Unlike those distant mountain folk however, Pem-Pah religion feels considerably more fatalistic. Respite is temporary, and ultimate failure may only be staved off. Thus it is heresy of the highest order to completely destroy an item of binding. To incinerate a parchment or completely deface an idol is to free the evil trapped within it, and its gaze rarely strays farther than the culprit, unluckily enough.

However song, dance, and performance are held above all other methods of anti-prayer. To wear the mask of an evil or one of its doomed victim-heroes is to invite it into one's self. It takes a strong will and firmness of purpose not to fall prey to such things. Cautionary tales tell of performers dropping dead suffering from injuries eerily appropriate to their respective masks, including to spontaneous burns or lacerations. I am not one for arbitrary skepticism, but I am willing to entertain the notion that at least some of these cases of injury and death could result from self-inflicted harm in the heat of the performance, or some other psychosomatic event.

That does little to describe what can happen when a high priest succumbs, however.

Its name is many lines long and mostly unintelligible to us, but there does exist an evil relating in some way to a failure of performance at a critical moment. When it is not properly contained, it is believed, the entire Maintaining can be undone, and lead to widespread death and misfortune. Civic records allude to a time several generations ago when the high priest of that year's ritual found himself subsumed beneath the weight of his strangely small and unassuming mask, which was meant to contain one of the greatest of spirits. The sky darkened overhead, the tune of every instrument being played inverted itself, the lightning reached across the bay, tearing boats asunder until the stones of the harbor were blackened and scorched, and a ravenous frenzy fell upon those who could not resist their patriarch's eyeless gaze. Groping claws of darkness described as "unlight" erupted from the space around his person, and reality itself keened and wept. Yet he remained quite conscious and apparently in control of his voice all throughout, despite the depravities which his body visited upon his brethren in the dozens. He reportedly begged for death until it was given to him by a low-ranking member of the city guard.¹

Despite these and other setbacks, the Pem-Pah continue to practice the way of life that they have known for centuries. They fish, farm, and act as surprisingly friendly hosts for those who enter their bleak but livable land. Considering the demons which each culture seems to wrestle with, I believe that increased communication and cooperation between Khaitam-po and outsiders--Pach-Pah Yul in particular--would be a fine opportunity for mutual growth and understanding of how to affect positive change on the world.

¹ Similarities between the story of this nameless high priest and case studies on the symptoms of Coherent Shambler Disease are hopefully incidental.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Going Downhill: The Pem-Pah, Part 4.

"To us inlanders (the name they pin to outsiders regardless of their geographic origin), celebrity is a strange and alluring, but often vapid thing. But to the Pem-Pah and their performer-priests, it is a matter of life and death."
- Utlush of Tal, Nambarish traveler.

''They brought me out of my cage under the temple and told me I could either lose my hand, or wear the mask for an hour. I picked the hand."
- Yapun, former swine-duffing mastermind.

Anqoh, whatever else it might be, is an architectural wonder. Though only about one eighth the size of Deneroth according to the estimates of firsthand witnesses to the place, it is an imposing and impressive place in its own right. The city is built in stone tiers a bit like Deneroth, but inverted. Rather than concentric circles growing smaller the higher up one goes, the tiers are at their widest at the city's height, gradually narrowing into the center which is positioned relatively close to sea level.

Further separating it from Deneroth visually is that the symmetrical rings are cut into on one side, opening the city up to an uninterrupted view of the bay to its west. Because of this it might be more appropriate for me to compare it to an amphitheater on a gargantuan scale, which is in fact not far off from one of the principal uses of the city's sacred space. Most amazing of all in my opinion, though least relevant to this piece in particular, is the fact that the entire city is made without the use of mortar. Every stone is cut to fit together with interlocking tabs and sockets, like pieces of a half-finished puzzle thrusting up into the off-colored sky.

The city possesses a wharf with a very high embankment, protecting those working at the water from any Killing Tides which creep into the easternmost reaches of the estuary. Gates also bore through the thickest areas of wall on the flank of the city facing the land, allowing for traffic by road as well as by platform-boat. Individual homes are rarely built out of stone, further separating it from the static and limited living space of Deneroth's tiers. Instead, they are built from clay brick, wood, thatching, and other more perishable materials which allow for the city population to fluidly shrink or expand throughout the years.

The level of importance ascribed to each semicircular ring is also somewhat of an inversion, if I may use the clumsy comparison to Deneroth one final time. While the top tier (or top two tiers) of Deneroth are held as the most politically, socially, and religiously important within the city, the central "floor" of Anqoh is its administrative and religious center. Here, the tallest freestanding structure in the city rises up tall enough to be pronounced in the skyline from two or three levels up and behind. This structure is regarded in popular legend as the oldest in the city, preceding the walls and rings themselves. It functions as the seat of the curiously minimalist secular authority charged with maintaining the city, as well as the home of the city's priesthood.

Here they are recruited, trained, and then distributed across the region for the purpose of officiating rituals and concecrating the endeavors of others. In addition to learning rites and how to blind or dissuade the gods, each acolyte must be accomplished in dance, song, and at least two or three instruments of traditional Pem-Mih make. Thus it is much like a school, with several avenues of opportunity made available to those who are initiated into the priesthood. Yet again unlike in Deneroth, this system works remarkably well. This bureaucracy works year-round to meet the demands put upon them by the very real population of its adherents, as well as to house and care for the large numbers of pilgrims who circulate throughout Khaitam-Po, culminating in the massive festival centered on Anqoh at the end of every lunar year.

Here, the amphitheater shape of the city is put to good use, as every performer-priest available is made to engage in the most serious of rituals to the Pem-Pah: The Maintaining.¹ This nights-long performance involves multiple interconnected cycles of plays. Each play is supposedly a reenactment of a much older historical event, and each plot deals with the sealing away of an evil at great personal cost to the protagonists. These tragedies begin to pile up and develop into an overarching, all-consuming threat which is at last battled in real time by the high priests of Anqoh on the final night of the hectic, fatalistic festival.

Not only trained professionals engage in these rituals, however. Audience participation is all but required, and it is not unusual either to find civilians donning the ritual masks and costumes needed to act out a part on stage. The more taxing and dangerous plays are reserved for professionals and criminals, however. For every year, those who have been condemned for some crime by the courts of the Pem-Pah have the opportunity to commute their sentences by giving themselves over to the priests for their play. Or, in the case of especially heinous crimes committed, they are handed over regardless of consent.

It is a testament to the severity of these performances, then, that willingness to participate is exceedingly low among the punished, even in the case of those whose justice requires death. Incidentally, those crimes which require that one be handed over to The Maintaining are committed exceedingly rarely, especially certain forms of blasphemy which would normally place you on a fast track to the final night.

¹ Regrettably, I do not have access to the proper name of the ceremony- only its translation into Denerothi Standard Ersuut. It appears that the Pem-Pah language name is censored from all chronicles written by outsiders, which is the great bulk of the sources available to me. Allegedly this is because the ceremony is too sacred and powerful to be dirtied or detained by human speech and writing except during the time of its invocation.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Going Downhill: The Pem-Pah, Part 3.

"Don't throw them back in. Not even if they have too many heads, or too few fins. Those we take back to the city. The priests burn them and don their ashes."
- One fishmonger to several apprentices, on the choicest picks of fish to bring to market.

"Like kneeling to adjust your sandals."
- A Pem-Pah expression arising from fisherman jargon, meaning to make a rookie mistake which results in immediate, often severe punishment.

The mid-range heights of Pach-Pah Yul are known for experiencing truly terrible blizzards, the valleys below avalanches, and the peaks above both freezing temperatures so low that no precipitation falls for years at a time. There is no denying that the rugged mountains are a challenging place to live, coupled with a periodic earthquake or the rare century's reacquainting with a dormant volcano.

But the shore of the Khaitam-po bay is another matter entirely. Storm and sea both make their presence known at all times at the heart of the Pem-Pah homeland. The most immediately visible is the former, taking the shape of unnaturally frequent lightning over the estuary and the water of the sea proper just beyond. Virtually every day and night, spiderwebbing crackles of lightning fill the roiling skies or shoot downward into the waters, ranging in frequency from once every couple of minutes to several times a second (according to the reckoning of those who make no use of the standardized taleck). The lightning has a range of colors as well, some of them allegedly very bright and lurid, and a particularly active show can be as captivating as it is distressing.

The cause for the lightning storms and the accompanying thunder is unknown at this time, and shall probably remain so. But the Pem-Pah believe that it is the manifestation of all of the hate and malice possessed by the dark gods of the world, directed toward their people in particular. Naturally for the Pem-Pah mindset, this is in the natural order of things, and a lengthy cessation of the Khaitam-Po Lightning is guaranteed to stir up native anxieties.

In the published journal of one truly adventurous tall-fellow, Basen of Meroth, we have a midsummer event dated to approximately B.R. 84 in which the lightning entirely stopped for a full day and a half, to the point that the sky cleared and stars were visible during the night. The shock to the nearby capital city of Anqoh was so severe that what Basen hoped would be a night of quiet respite turned into endless parading and ritualizing in order to bring back the ire of the gods. Without their bay as a focal point, they explained, the entire world would be ravaged and robbed of its sanity. As our sleep-deprived friend concludes, the return of the storms on the second day resulted in the tearful cheers of thousands crowding the desolate beach which rings the water.

Of course just as soon as they saw their job finished, they one and all sprinted as far up and away from the shore as they could, for the fishermen and keen-eyed among them were quick to point out how the lightning was now joined by something else.

They saw how the unsettled waters had suddenly become much more turbulent, and how the waves were now breaking with foam and bubbles as far out as the barrier between bay and sea. And so, keeping their necks stuck out high and faces upturned as a precaution, they retreated to the places above sea-level where they would not be in danger of the aptly named Killing Tide.

It is a truly insidious killer. Besides the bubbling of the water, it comes without warning. It is tasteless, colorless, and odorless, yet it is capable of wrapping around a person like a cloak and killing them without them even fully realizing it. Some take it to be the groping of angry spirits, released form a chasm in the underworld deep below the bay. Others, including theorists at Nambar or Deneroth (by way of ideas from Nambar), hold it to be some sort of heavy, toxic gas. Whatever it is, it seems to only have an area of influence about as broad as the shore, owing to its inability to reach much higher than five or six feet above the waterline.

This limitation, learned over centuries of hard trial-and-error by doughty fishermen, has been exploited to the safety of those workers, and to the benefit of the industry. Far more often than they are taught to swim, Pem-Pah fishermen are taught how to maintain and use a pair of stilts while working along the coast, or how to operate their small fishing vessels while tethered to  flexible poles thrusting up from their carefully balanced centers which are just long enough to elevate, but not long enough to make them more of a target for lightning than the occasional spike positioned across the bay. Just out of reach of the tide's influence, they are able to continue working their trade until such a time as it is safe to come back down- generally one or two hours after the end of the bay's bubbling are considered safe, depending on how chaotic the water first appears. Similarly perfected over the years is the art of determining which fish are safe to eat or not. Their catches are far healthier than one might think, suggesting that either the killing tide has no effect upon marine life, or that it rises through the water too quickly to harm them to a great degree. Nonetheless, they are also taught to look out for things which do not even meet a generous definition of the word "fish", and what precautions to take against those occasionally aggressive aberrations.

Through normalization and adaptation, the Pem-Pah are able to live quite ordinary lives in the face of truly great and terrible natural forces. Casualties to the storms or tides are either nonexistent, or remarkably low per year. The disposition of the land's people almost makes a stay in the place seem like it could be enjoyable in a challenging and thrilling sense, and I don't doubt that it could be for the right type of person.

But the consensus from people who have done just that seems to be that, no matter how muggy and buggy they are, the outlying villages and trading towns are preferable places to stay than in the scalloped monolith that is Anqoh.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Going Downhill: The Pem-Pah, Part 2.

Click here to read Part 1. 

"The bugs, the waves, the roaring... I can't sleep like this!"
- Tabren Achek, first Pach-Pah Yul ambassador to the cyclopean city of Anqoh.

"Just try counting the thunderclaps, oh Commendable One. That is what I do when I am restless."
- Apota Dolj, his local guide. They lost count somewhere after 186.

In the vast cosmology of the Pach-Pah Yul, there is a clear delineation between good places in the world, and evil places. The underground is feared as the underworld- not because of any malevolent spirits or gods of the dead abiding there, but because it is understood that the place is simply a natural anathema to anything with a surface-born nature, as the People of the Earth possess. The peaks of their homeland however, are pure, cleansed by their proximity to the breath of their greater gods who dwell in the space between the land and the sky.

The lowlands, meanwhile, are theoretically livable in mythological concept, and explicitly so in day-to-day life, yet they lack the protection of the spirits and ancestors. So while the rest of the world is not explicitly forbidden, it would be folly to try and dwell there, because a Pach-Mih would never truly "belong" there. This is the logic which has been used by highlanders to understand the perceived bizarre way in which Pem-Pah culture has developed over the centuries since their genesis. And it his stuck and gained cultural currency, even after years of gradually increasing contact with the Pem-Pah. Because one could be easily forgiven for mistaking the land of Khaitam-po as a cursed and forsaken place.

First, it must be understood that in the unique case of the Pach-Pah who perpetuate this idea, they are spectacularly adapted to their homeland. In addition to their generally stockier builds protecting them from the cold better than those of taller men and women from the lowlands, they are also resilient to the debilitating effects of thin air which have been reported by many a rangy-limbed traveler.

This specialization, however, seems to have a reverse side.

When traveling from high altitudes to low ones, many of the Pach-Pah have been observed to experience a prolonged period of weakness characterized by such symptoms as headaches, fatigue, dizziness, inability to sleep, loss of appetite, and even an overactive bladder. These ailments are generally worse the lower one goes, reaching their ironic peak at sea level, which is exactly where the entirety of Khaitam-po is located. To a person informed by the logic of gods-breath and discouraged or forbidden places, it is natural to believe that this weakening is a very real, very serious treat to one's health, and proof of the bond between people and land.¹ Though the Pem-Pah still visibly share many aspects of physiology and size adaptation with their cousins uphill, it can be surmised that they transitioned into lowland living over a long enough period of time in the ancient past that low-altitude sickness became nonexistent for them. Tall folk seem to lack this handicap, and their contributions to the ethnographic record have been considerable, but I don't believe that each half of these people will be able to form a full and rich appreciation of one another until this divide has been more thoroughly circumvented.

While it is known that a handful of Pach-Pah have been able to temporarily acclimatize over a period of days or weeks throughout history, few other than dignitaries, traders, mercenaries, and adventurers have done so, and virtually none of them have been bothered to do so for the sake of staying deep within Khaitam-po, thanks to the number of other oddities which the location boasts.

In addition to the air being thicker, keen-eyed outsiders have observed that it has a strange, perpetually yellowish-green tinge to it in the atmosphere. Certainly, it is more humid and salty thanks to close proximity to the sea, but many have reported less clearly discernible aspects as well. There is a stifling quality to the air, which can cause a tickle in the throat of outsiders. There is also a discreet odor to it which tends to cling to things, including the clothes on one's back. The Pem-Pah are entirely unfamiliar with these experiences, and have playfully taken to referring to outsiders as being "baby-nosed" as a result.

Flora and fauna are far more diverse in Khaitam-po than elsewhere, with an uncomfortably high percentage of both being harmful to people in some way or another. Toxic plants and venomous pests are known throughout. These things too, the Pem-Pah are adapted to, in the sense that they learn early and thoroughly from their elders how to deal with each one. It is remarkable, though also somewhat off-putting, to see a man casually handle and show to outsiders a species of horn-backed spider whose bite can kill in under five talecks.

Chief among the oddities are sea and storm, however. I have to believe that these alien phenomenons came about some time after the Pem-Pah had founded in their new homeland. Because if they willingly settled down in full view of those ominous sights, I am afraid to wonder what horrible circumstances of their migration caused them to decide that permanent lightning storms and aptly named "Killing Tides" were preferable to what laid behind them on their journey.

¹ This logic has also informed the argument by some of the more isolationist camps within the spectrum of P.A.S.C.O.P.P.Y. nationalism, that other peoples outside of their homeland should not be consorted with in any meaningful way.  This has been another significant obstacle to trade and integration.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Going Downhill: The Pem-Pah, Part 1.

[In a remarkably short period of time, Roberick Bertrum Litte's already haphazard subscalanean office/dormitory has become even more disheveled. With no one to man the half-door to the utility closet during Litte's extended archaeology leave (all two days of it so far), its discount stationery and other discreet acquisitions have been ransacked by his usual customers. For the most part they haven't intended to disturb his personal effects, but when the wooden board nailed to the half-door was bumped into during an entry, the makeshift desk was nearly torn free, and all of its contents scattered across the minority of the floor which was not already taken up by shelves and a bed. While many papers have been looked over for "thesis seeds" by desperate freshmen, this sheaf of unpublished papers is the only one which has been read through with any amount of interest so far.]

"It is the well-known law both domestically and inter-communally that the possession of this volume of taboo metals and gemstones is strictly forbidden. You are fortunate I am not also charging you with intent to smuggle or sell."
- Ortej Tella, customs officer of Quibgyal Commune.

"N-Now tarry just a moment! Surely you know that the laws also state that a provision is made for the cultural folkways of all ethnic lowland-folk! And I'll have you know my grandmother was one quarter full-blooded Pem-Mih!"
- Junral Chyok, amateur peddler, clueless to the fact that Ortej was a matrilineal cousin of his.

It would be entirely remiss of me to suggest that the Pach-Pah community¹ is limited only to their ancestral mountains as well as a handful of border towns on the slopes to their north. Their ancient history was filled with pioneering folk, as well as those whose bravery and soaring imagination brought them down from the peaks of their birth. This led to the ethnogenisis of many inspired peoples who continue to exist in some capacity to this very day, not least of which among them being the Pem-Pah.

Pem-Pah is an exonym of highland origin, meaning "the people who went downhill to water". This is quite an apt description of the group's migration and eventual settlement along the southwestern coast. However, in everyday speech in their native dialect, the people known as the Pem-Pah refer to themselves simply as "the people". For the purpose of keeping the two groups distinct in my writing, I will continue to use the term Pem-Pah.

At some point in prehistory a group of people from the Pach-Pah Yul began to migrate away from the valleys and watered slopes of the mountain chain's interior, moving outward in successive waves toward the west and south. Eventually these waves of settlers pushed past the borders of the mountain range and the hills at its feet, into the lowlands and coastal regions bordering on the western sea. The highest concentration of people during these last settlement waves seemed to be in and around the Khaitom-po, a massive body of water fed by several rivers which has been described variously as a bay, estuary, or brackish-water lake.

As evidenced by the handful of digs which have been conducted outside of the Pach-Pah homeland, the ancestors of the modern Pem-Pah readily took to fishing here. This has inspired a cuisine vastly different from that of their cousin culture, as well as more than a few unique cultural points of view or folklore tropes. First the spear, and then the hooked line and net were used, after which developed the earliest boats and rafts known to the people in and around the mountain chain.

This is thanks in part to the relative abundance of wood found in the lowlands, compared to the scarce and carefully conserved pygmy forests of the mountains. Reedy grasses and palm trees unheard of in the highlands allowed for the construction of wooden vessels as well as buildings, alongside the tradition of stonework which--due to the Pem-Pah lack of involvement in the events leading up to the Collapse--was never forsaken. The settlers maintained their traditional forms of herding and weaving throughout, but also broadened and intensified their practice of agriculture to include and take advantage of the wider variety of crops which could not thrive in the mountains. Even jewelry which makes use of precious stones or metals continues to be made in Pem-Pah territory, much to the chagrin of those who were against the inclusion of Khaitom-po into the Communes with partial membership.

The people who would come to be known as the Pem-Pah proper are first mentioned in civil records from the imperial age of Pach-Pah Yul starting at about 400 years prior to the Collapse, and the death of the last Miqh Pach-Pah. These records are of trade and business transactions, suggesting that the Pem-Pah were already quite established as a culture and an economy, and that commerce and exchange between them and their upland neighbors was at least somewhat regular and normalized by that point. But because the Pem-Pah were not a part of the Pach-Pah empire and an effort was apparently never made to incorporate them, they do not often appear in official, imperial records. According to the reckoning of the Pem-Pah themselves, they were established no less than 1,200 years prior to the time of that exchange. This would make them contemporaries of the earliest incarnation of the empire, as well as the last of the pre-imperial petty-kingdoms. Little work has been done by uninvolved scholars on these old records however, owing to the extreme rarity of visits to the Pem'Pah homeland by outsiders.

This paucity of visitors is not from lack of effort or hospitality, however. Many travelers throughout the eras were known to have set off for the lands of the Khaitom-po, with few of them making it many leagues beyond the border markets.

By that point, they tend to either run screaming back home, or to collapse from need of urgent medical attention.

¹ I would also like to apologize to the Pach-Pah community for my varied and repeated mistakes in rendering its name. Being that Pach-Pah literally means "People of the Earth", it has been brought to my attention by thoughtful readers that all of my uses of the phrase "Pach-Pah people(s)" or the colloquialism "Pach-Pahs" have been erroneous and redundant. I will also make an effort to use the grammatically correct singular Pach-Mih, or simply mih² when appropriate.

² I would also like to point out to my uninitiated readers how mih is etymologically linked to--though very separate in meaning from--the old kingly title of Miqh. Mih is a person, while Miqh is a "great" person.