Monday, January 21, 2019

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 20.

The days pass, and winter settles deeper around us. Our wagons reach the outskirts of the muddy land on which Porylus was founded, and are relieved to find that the earth has frozen up substantially. Rather than mucking through trackless fields for an extra few days, we are staying on schedule while serenaded by the constant, uncanny crackle and crunch of frost beneath our feet, wheels, and hooves.

It reminds Hraela of the sounds of the rivers back home, and we are treated to another one of her tales of Gertish folkways, which I am always more than happy to hear. After the burning of children in effigy has been taken care of and a village is settled in for the long haul of winter, ice becomes a source of occasional diversion. Apparently it is a custom to strap bones to one's feet and use them to glide across the surface of a frozen river. The rivers can produce a fine layer of thin, blackish ice which apparently makes a very eerie sound when glided upon, or when stones are skipped across it. Skilled ice-gliders are able to produce series of sounds and notes bordering on music. Unskilled gliders tend to fall and sink, their ghosts lingering below the river's surface and adding to the intensity of other gliders' performances by chancing them around under the ice during subsequent winters.

Sarq asks her if her people have any traditions that don't involve someone dying horribly in some way.

She scoffs, but does not otherwise reply.

We are jarred from our discussion by the sound of shouting up ahead. Not particularly spirited or angry shouting, but the kind of shouts used to carry a conversation long distances through cold air. We stick our heads out from below the wagon cover and crane our necks, and eventually spot a figure on a hilltop overlooking our procession, body dark against the pale grey smoke which rises up from a squat chimney behind it. They wave a rather large grain scythe around in our general direction. Apparently the snow cover obscured a series of property markers, and we've torn through some farmer's field. Fortunately it is fallow this time of year, so we've done no real damage, and the farmer will not be bringing that scythe and two-dozen relatives down to speak with us personally- assuming we are quick to extract ourselves from their property.

I can already tell that I will enjoy our stay here.

While cresting the next few hills we are far more cautious about staying on the road, and we begin to see towers in the distance. The tallest catches our eyes, and for good reason. It is the tower which was once the heart of the Ivory-Campus-at-Porylus, and its architecture is a clear hearkening-back to our beige city. In fact, for the past two hundred-odd years it has been said to be even more ITU-like than the tower of the ITU itself, stature notwithstanding.

The exact details of the controversy (if it could even be called that) are vague to this generation, but what is known is that the damage sustained by the former study-observatory of Laizij was damaged during or immediately after the events of the Rupture. The domed roof of the tower collapsed and a section of wall on the top level sloughed off to one side. The damage to the Eternal Scholar's personal study was a severe blow to the ego of the University. Curiously however, instead of working to erase the memory that it had ever happened, the Directorate decided to embrace the wound. The debris and top floor remain untouched, except what was needed in order to shore up the integrity rest of the building, and Board meetings continue as they have for centuries, just one floor lower than previous generations enjoyed.

Damaged relics and artifacts, including the section of wall, were incorporated into the ritual practices of the University's religious functionaries, adding a dimension of grief and mourning to the previously stuffy and emotionless practice of the Eccentric's most devout followers. If money was ever presented for the tower's full restoration--as many have suspected must have been the case at one point or another--it never saw the light of day. Rumors of embezzlement or deep, generations-long rivalries between Board members and their successors are popular among freshmen and library wall graffiti to this day. I suspect the story could be blown wide-open and exposed, if anyone ever took an interest in that sort of high-tier budget trivia and administrator gossip.

But that is a story for another time, and hopefully another person. More than towers are creeping into view now.

Roofs of red, white, or black checker the outskirts which grow organically outward from the center-most cluster of the city. Mud brick, wood, stone, and other materials make up the walls supporting them, none of them ordered together or separated in any manner that suggests a rigidly-enforced policy of hereditary decorum along family lines. And amid that refreshing forest chaos can be seen people stamping along in the cold or driving wagons this way and that along streets of raised earth and cobblestones. They don't pay us any mind as we near the outskirts. No one stops to stare or make a crude remark relating to graduate students or mistaken associations with wizardry. We are nothing special here. It is almost like we are back in a nicer district of the False City, though Porylus has only a fraction of the former's population.

Our caravan splits at a forked street, the majority of our help going right to find suitable lodging for the night. We continue on toward the left, into the city center. Taller, older, and more stately buildings are here, from the better decades following the city's founding. And nestled amid them, delineated by little more than a waist-high stone wall with wide openings, is the campus proper. The school here is arranged spirally, with the gradual inward, rightward turn of the main road culminating in the historical tower at the hill's crest and center. I don't know the reason for the spiral shape, though my guess would be that it was seen as an auspicious sign by those old alumni of Laizij's entourage.

Before we are able to reach the beginning of the incline, we see a crowd forming as if out of thin air. They are an irregular bunch of mostly young folk, with a few comparable to my age or a bit older peppered throughout. I count between twenty and thirty.

And they are all staring at us.

And they are... smiling? And waving?

We do not realize that they are students of Porylus until they tell us so, and we do not believe this for a good couple of moments afterward. But apparently our coming was announced, and these people willingly, without duress or threat of academic discipline, chose to come and welcome us. Several of them even introduce themselves as members of the university's representative sporting team, and they seem confused by our momentarily frightened questions of where they are hiding their spike-toed boots and wooden clubs. Evidently "sport" means "sport" in the local dialect, and not "heavily armed and bored children of wealthy families harassing people for fun and profit", as in Deneroth. Hraela is hesitant to let go of the grip of her training sword until they convince us of their peaceful intent, all while the rest of the students or off-duty faculty laugh at what they perceive to be a big joke.

Gradually, the others are compelled to hop down from the wagon and join with the small crowd, which picks up a few stragglers as we make our winding way up through the campus. Hands are shaken, names exchanged, and interest in the Ivory way of things is piqued. I even hear something resembling a compliment about the school uniform, which Porylus entirely lacks. Sarq, Ciudo, and even Hraela seem to enjoy themselves.

As I watch them, I am overtaken by a deep, wounding nostalgia which I've no right nor reason to feel.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Crimson Honey (2/2).

Click here for Part 1.

I keep scooping.

The crying recedes into the distance. The mists begin to close in around the riverbank once more, choking the sounds around us except for our own groaning. Most of us stop shaking, and the river reeds take our place.

I keep scooping.

I see myself, and my mother. I am young, and she is not dead yet. She hugs me, and I fling myself from the side of a cliff. The skin on my back peels away--more than it already is--and I sprout wings. I claw out the eyes of the village boys, and then I fly to where the rivers pour out of the sky. The water smells like dog.

There is a hard crack, and this time the pain throbs inside of me. I lean over and cough. Fragments of tooth litter my lap. The molar finally finished crumbling. I rub some honey against the hole. It bleeds, but the blood mingles with the honey and I stop noticing.

The crying stops, but something else takes its place. The sound of wind, and churning water. The branches weeping over the river flail and bend, making way for the mist as it flees back down the current. I turn my head, and I can see the boat over my shoulder, naked and still in the waters. The pale man is speaking now, and the laughing man is arguing with him over something. They thrust their poles into the riverbed, but the boat doesn't budge. They strain and push. The aft end rises up and the prow dips, but they go nowhere. I see clutching, scrabbling little things clinging to the bottom of the boat. They look like waterlogged hands, and overgrown fingernails.

I hesitate, and keep scooping.

The wing blows harder, howls louder, and we hunker down and cry, or shout and leap up into it to be bowled over. The trees bend and rattle, and people are screaming in the village up the bank. My hands squeeze tightly around the jar, and I hold it to my heart.

Then everything is still. The wind dies. People lift their heads again.

There is someone else out on the river. He is looking at the men in the boat. But he is not in a boat. The surface of the water is breaking beneath his bare old feet, and gnarled bones are clutching at them, propping him up. He is wearing faded old green and blue that blinds me to look at, and his staff is as black as a yawning pit in the earth that I could fall into. He lifts the staff up, and the men in the boat start to shout or move. They do not finish whatever they are doing before the thunder cracks.

His staff hits the water, and it splits open.

The boat splits open, and the chest splits open.

All of the jars come crashing down into the hole in the river, and we hear the shattering of glass beneath the splintering of wood. We hold out our hands and cry in anguish. Some of us that can still walk leap down into the shallows and try to wade out toward the red-dinged water. More grabbing little things reach up out of the silt and stop them, hold them, and keep them from thrashing.

The laughing one and the pale one are clinging to the sinking halves of the boat. They are shouting out and cursing at the man now. I do not see the man that they were taking away any longer.

He breaks his silence, and the boom of his voice makes my ears throb. He speaks like us, but he is not like us. He looks like the old grandfathers in the village, but he is not bent by time.

His eyes are so bright.

They hurt the most to look at.

I stop scooping.

One of them swings a pole at him, and he raises his hand to meet it. The wood cracks in half and splits down the middle, and the laughing man falls down into the water with a shout. They are all yelling now, but the wind and the river grow louder. The current swells, and a wave rises up to scatter the last pieces of the boat. The laughing man and the pale one cough and sputter, and climb up onto the bank. They drag themselves into the forest.

The water glints and glimmers with honey and coins until they all wash away.

The old man is looking at us now. He is dragging the honey-drinker by his collar as he walks across the bones in front of him. He is coming toward us, and the hands in the shallows stop grabbing at us.

But they take our jars with them. Bony fingertips and split nails scratch over the glass and clay and pull them into the earth like it was sand, and we bloody our hands trying to dig them back out of the dirt.

I try to pull a root out of the way, but it is too deep, and my knuckles feel like they are going to pop. My face is wet now. I am sobbing into the dirt.

The man is standing over me when I look back up.

He is tutting at me, but he is smiling.

He says he is sorry that he has arrived so late. That he will do what he can.

The swirls start to fade from behind my eyes, leaving only the blur of my tears, and the pain comes back. It hurts less than it usually does. I can lift my arms when the old man extends his gnarled hand.

I take it.

Sunday, January 6, 2019


Now that I'm inching back into activity here on the blog (I honestly thought I'd be gone longer), I realize it's time for another one of my posts that can't decide between history and mythology. And what better topic to address in that mindset than the millennia-old concept of sacral kingship, in order to quell the need to go back and edit my college research project?

Sacred kings, past and present, are broadly defined as monarchs (male or female) whose temporal rule holds religious significance. They may hold religious authority, in which case they may hold some similarities to an outright theocrat, or they may simply be an otherwise earthly ruler reigning with the legitimacy conferred on them by a sacred figure or institution. Sacred kingship took a huge variety of forms around the world throughout history, arguably being present on every single continent with the exception of Antarctica.¹ The divine right of kings and mandate of heaven were enormously significant in the western and eastern halves of Eurasia respectively, but I want to look into a form of divine legitimacy that was carried by rulers of states which often straddled Europe and Asia- nomadic pastoralist empires.

The khan named Temüjin consolidated the disparate Mongolic tribes and officially formed the Mongol Empire in 1206 CE. After this date he became known as Chinggis Khan. He, like so many other khans of the Mongol people(s), had previously been invested with his power by a böö, or shaman, at the feet of the mountain named Burkhan Khaldun, located in modern day Khentii Province. This was a sacred mountain for the Mongols, and according to the account of his life, Temüjin once escaped certain death after a lost battle by taking refuge at the mountain. Burkhan Khaldun is traditionally believed to be a sort of axis mundi connected to heaven and the sky-god Tengri. By propagandizing the unlikely victories, narrow escapes, and seemingly miraculous events of Temüjin's life, it was easy to demonstrate to the Inner Asian world that he was a legitimate authority figure, surely under the guidance and protection of Eternal Heaven.²

But Burkhan Khaldun wasn't the only source of sacral kingship that Chinggis Khan benefited from. Humans live between heaven and earth, after all. And that is why he chose to place the capital of his nomadic empire at the literal and figurative center of the nomad's world, in a place called Ötüken.

Ötüken, often referred to as Ötüken-yish or Ötüken-jer, meaning "forest" or "land" of Ötüken, respectively, is an area of land that is difficult to pin down today. One theory put forth by Mongolist Thomas T. Allsen is that it stretched from the Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia to the Sayan Mountains of nearby Tuva³, though this doesn't quite match up when you try to place its most central landmark, the Orkhon River Valley, at its center. This is further muddled by the frequent claim that Ötüken is also a single mountain at the center. Though to be fair, spiritual geography can be very vague or flexible based on the needs of the time.

The Orkhon Valley, located at the tentative heart of Ötüken as well as about 320 kilometers west of the modern capital city of Ulaanbaatar, was where Chinggis Khan founded his first imperial city of Karakorum. But it had also once been the site of the city of Ordu-Baliq, seat of the Uyghur Khaganate almost four hundred years prior. Yet the Uyghurs had come there centuries after the fractious Göktürks had done the same twice over, and before them had come the Rourans, and even before them it is possible that the Xianbei and Xiongnu confederations had centered their states on the river valley. By the lifetime of Chinggis Khan it was the site of over a thousand years of cultural continuity and habitation by prestigious nomads whether they be Mongols, Turks, proto-Mongols, or other poly-ethnic or uncertain groups. Chinggis Khan's decision to place the seat of his new empire there was as natural as it was calculated.

And with good reason: thanks to a local microclimate, some of the greatest grazing lands in the Mongolian Steppe are located here, in addition to a breathtaking array of forests, mountains, rivers, and lakes. I believe it was as close to a paradise as the harsh steppe landscape could have offered to ancient nomads.

But it wasn't just a beautiful landscape with practical or tactical value and a long history.

Orkhon Valley is the place from which qut emanates.

Qut is a divine power which originates in Ötüken and spreads outward, granting the local ruler the divine right to unite and rule all of the tribes of the land. It was an extension of the favor of the spirits of the land, or yer-sub, whose mood and disposition toward humanity was said to be seen reflected in the weather and bounty of nature, in particular the fruit trees of Orkhon. The valley was recognized in writing as being vital to imperial power as far back as the early 8th century CE, when one of the rulers of the Göktürks, Bilge Khagan, inscribed on a stele at the site that "If you stay in the land of the Ötüken, and send caravans from there, you will have no trouble. If you stay at the Ötüken Mountains, you will live forever dominating the tribes!"⁴

It is also no coincidence that Ötüken is one of many names given to the earth-goddess of Turko-Mongol mythology, commonly seen as second in power only to Tengri, who was often presented as being her husband or relative. By controlling both Ötüken and Burkhan Khaldun, Chinggis Khan had the exceptional ability to say that the two greatest divinities of the world were on his side.

I see qut as sort of a hybrid sacral kingship model, which combines the elements of a few others. It comes from a physical location which must be seized and controlled in order to harness it, yet it takes the form of an empowering supernatural energy that is non-exclusive with, similar to, and distinct from the general favor or protection of the chief deity. I'd dare to say it resembles the power of barakah conferred upon people, objects, and places by God in Islam, though on a comparatively very limited scale, and with very specific stipulations attached.

Today we don't have a lot of world leaders claiming that they are empowered by magical leyline energy, which is probably for the best. But the beauty and history of the Orkhon Valley are preserved by a UNESCO heritage site designation.

¹ Though to be fair, we aren't sure about how the Elder Things governed themselves.

² Franke, Herbert. The Cambridge History of China, Volume 6. Cambridge University Press, 1994. Page 347.

³ Allsen, Thomas T. "Spiritual geography and political legitimacy in the eastern steppe." Ideology and the Formation of Early States. Brill Academic Publishers, 1996. Pages 124-125.

⁴ Drompp, Michael R. "Breaking the Orkhon Tradition: Kirghiz Adherence to the Yenisei Region after A. D. 840." Journal of the American Oriental Society 119, no. 3. American Oriental Society, 1999. Page 391.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 19.

With the singing laborers of the woodland edges receding behind us, we continue on through the lazily rolling hills and frosted yet boggy fields. These hills will define the next several days of our travels, until we meet the second major milestone of our journey. Sarq has asked me if the mountains will begin to come into sight soon, yet seems confused by my answer that we will not be reaching the Pashels for several weeks yet. Evidently he means, when will we see the mountains on which Porylus Mons is built?

I look at him for a long, hard moment and wonder when that fairy-tale will stop being told.

Porylus is not located on or near any mountain or mountains, I explain to him. I can tell that another opportunity for "story time" has arisen, so I tell the children to gather 'round. My associates give me a look normally reserved for fathers who've just told unforgivable jokes, but they humor me for the time being. After all, there is little else to do while stuck in this wagon together.

Over a period of approximately one hundred years after the formal consecration and opening of the Ivory Tower's University, there culminated the most genial and passive-aggressive religio-political schism the world has ever known. It all began when scholars who had been chafing under Laizij's eccentricities since Deneroth's founding wished to pursue their own research and knowledge-creation outside of the direction and limits of the Eternal Scholar's interests, yet could not do so without his auspices. So the plan was hatched by one Agerit, an early major contributor to what would become ITU's alchemistry department. He attempted to impress upon Laizij the wisdom of the idea of opening a sister campus to the ITU elsewhere in the burgeoning Haraalian kingdom. After the right appeals were made, Laizij looked upon the idea favorably, and then passed it on to his administration to work out the specifics.

It quickly became the first of countless casualties lost in the depths of Denerothi bureaucracy.

For decades the motion to develop an administrative subcommittee languished in obscurity, outliving all those who signed the original petition, including Agerit. But his name lived on in the original paperwork, which ultimately allowed the approved agreement to be passed down to his great grandson, Harl, who dwelt in one of the middle rings of Deneroth at the time. Incidentally his distant scion was of somewhat like mind, having been barred from entering the ITU due to an unrelated but equally convoluted issue related to family politicking and changing legal definitions of descent held by different offices within University administration. Deciding to hell with it, the effectively unschooled and illiterate Harl took up his ancestor's work and organized enough frustrated academics together to be able to fund the foundation of what would become Porylus Mons.¹

The name Porylus Mons could be translated to mean something like "city of the spongy mountain". Pory- is a cognate with modern words denoting porousness, for the extreme moisture retention of the muddy soil surrounding the site, while -lus is probably derived from the Old Ersuunian word for a chieftain's mobile court, later expanded to refer to settled cities. Mons simply means "mountain", and so could be stretched with some imagination to refer to a much smaller hill. Ciudo is the one saying all of this after butting into the conversation, and I've decided to throw him a bone by letting him address etymologies. He has been thorough, though I have the urge to point out to him that with the development of Serminwurthian study of anatomy, that last word has taken on a slew of other meanings.

The location chosen for the founding of the city was selected based on budget limitations, because the farmers of Deneroth's south were relatively easy to buy the land from, living as far away from the lucrative east-oriented trade roads of the past as they did. Imperfect emulation of Deneroth began when the city was centered on a modestly impressive hill amid the former fields, as a means of demonstrating kinship between the two cities and fostering a functional relationship with the hidebound and traditionalist clergy-faculty.

The sandstone tower at the city's original center was once the domicile of the appointed heads of the school board, but within two generations it was deemed impractical and somewhat isolating, so it was made into a city museum of sorts and opened to the public, which has a significantly easier time accessing the center of the city than in Deneroth, because Porylus was planned laterally, rather than vertically. The oldest and innermost architecture of the city was built with the theme of concentric circles in mind, echoing a bird's eye view of its sister city, but as the settlement attracted genuine interest to the area, its outline expanded to become something that could today only be described as vaguely ovoid.

This habitual lip-service or imperfect emulation became a norm after that first gesture of shared culture and lineage. When funding was eventually obtained in order to elevate the new city out of its early years of disorganized homesteading, it was only at the conclusion of a days-long meeting between administrative groups, and the successful execution of a pig cheese ceremony rigorously practiced by the Porylian hosts for days prior to it. The prose and academic language of the ITU was similarly copied for diplomatic reasons, though it did not take hold in nearly the same way. The occasional quote or publication reaches Deneroth reminding everyone of Porylus' existence and using the old manners of speech, though how genuine this appearance of continuity is is a matter of some debate. I remain skeptical, and hopeful that it is not the case.

Hraela questions my reasoning behind this. I would say that an independent, enterprising spirit was present in Porylus since before the beginning, clearly in disagreement with the old-and-current way of things. I would say the divergence in areas of study since that time is clear evidence of evolving outlook and internal management. I would say that the complete abandonment of ITU's numerical ranking system is the final nail in the proverbial coffin. I would say a number of things. But since she is asking in the same voice that a freshman speaks when they are attempting to hide the fact that they are copying a quote word-for-worth for later use in a thesis statement, I will only say that the geographic distance and Deneroth's relative isolation up until recently probably caused some amount of drift, the same way Deneroth and Nambar have managed to remain somewhat at odds and out of communication.

She seems to be satisfied with this for now.

¹ It is not like Deneroth was going to pay for the project, after all.