Sunday, April 5, 2020


The Masib people have been dead for over two thousand years.

While it is possible that small numbers of them fled into the Oron'er Mountains and lived among their distant kin there, the distinct Masibi culture is undeniably extinct- Haraal made sure of that.

The westward push of the Haraalians culminated in the Battle of the Masibi River, where the ascendant emperor's army dammed up the river's headwaters. This is seen by some as a link to the old Ersuunian methods of control through riverine despotism.

This maneuver both deprived the Masibs of water and use of their sailboats for battle or evacuation, and allowed Haraal's cavalry to cross the muddy riverbed and attack the uncooperative river people on both banks. Those who were not cut down were rounded up. Many were given over as hostages and slaves to high-ranking Ersuunian warriors and personal allies of Haraal, but many more were herded into the riverbed.

The only known facet of Masibi religion is that they venerated their river. Just as it gave life to them, it took it away, for they believed it was the gateway to the afterlife. They were known to set their dead adrift downriver on tiny rafts which often made it all the way out to sea despite the tumultuous rapids downriver. Haraal was aware of this practice, and decided to end the massacre with a bit of poetic flourish, as so many heroes are wont to do.

So he kept the surviving Masibs huddled and pinned upon the silt, his lancers lining the riverbanks to keep them from escaping. By the time they heard the roar of the river surging forward after the dam had been broken, it was too late to flee. Every remaining Masibi man, woman, and child was swept away in a current that was said to have struck their bodies with the force of a stampede of wild horses.

A regional myth from southeastern "highland" Nambar references a day when thousands of drowned bodies were found floating down a river after a local god was angered, but it is unknown if this is more than an eerie coincidence.

Regardless, the Masib people are dead. But their relics still survive.

Many trophies were taken as part of the conquest, and by some faint luck several specimens were not melted down, repurposed, or otherwise destroyed. They became collector's items and curiosities destined to collect dust in display cases for centuries at a time until, at last, they began to trickle into Deneroth. Again, they languished in obscurity in the archives and storage rooms of so many moneyed hobbiests, but at least here they began to be taken notice of by more academic minds, now and then. Eventually a call went out when someone with enough clout and interest in material culture offered to purchase any verifiable Masibi artifacts and retain them at the ITU.

Forgeries, deliberate misidentifications, and simple mistakes meant that this collection was swollen with unrelated specimens for several generations, but over time it was narrowed down based on what little is known or able to be reconstructed about the Masib people. Precious few items remained in the end.

I saw one of them in the Grand Archive, once. I even held it.

It was a dark, lozenge-shaped piece of heartwood about the size of a small dinner plate. The wood was flat on one face, with a bowl-like depression on its obverse. Many smaller indents filled the space. These carvings created a complex series of patterns, images, and scalloped shapes which were filled and surrounded by dozens of tiny, inset pieces. Ridges of whitish shell like little mountain ranges were most visually prominent, but much of the face was dominated by swirling lines of colored beads. Pieces of metal or precious stone were also visible, where they hadn't been pried off ages before.

This thing was a ghomta, or "rememberer's friend". It is the only instance of the language which the Masibs spoke that we know of, for not even the original name of the river they lived beside is known.

The ghomta was a sort of mnemonic device used to aid a speaker in telling a particular story, or cycle of stories, or a set of laws. The Masibs were a pre-literate people, like many of the tribes of the Oron'er Mountains today. They relied instead on memory to keep their rich oral tradition alive, and items like this ghomta helped facilitate that.

Every piece on a ghomta was coded with significance that every storyteller would have been trained to understand. A certain border motif might evoke the presence of a god in a given story, while a series of red and black beads indicate where two major characters in an epic met or had a confrontation. The speaker would hold a ghomta in their lap and trace it with both hands as they spoke, each part meant to jog the memory of a person who had worked to memorize these stories since their early childhood. Yet the tradition was expansive enough that even professionals required memory aids like the ghomta. They apparently took many different forms, but only a handful of bowl-types have ever been found.

A storyteller was at a disadvantage without their ghomta, but a ghomta is absolutely nothing without its storyteller. The connotations and deeper meanings to each piece and motif on a ghomta was not actually recorded in them- without having knowledge of the stories they aided in telling, they could not be read. Indeed, to say that they were ever "read" is inaccurate.

I held the ghomta in my hands one day, during my second freshman year. I was still struggling to learn Liturgical Ersuut, and a mistranslated footnote sent me on a wild pig hunt through the wrong part of the archive. But even after I realized I was in the wrong place, I had to sit down with this thing. I had to place it in my lap, and run my fingertips over its worn old surface. I stared at every little detail, as well as the spots and blotches of discoloration from hand oils, where other hopelessly lost undergraduates had held it and tried to puzzle through its meaning for a term paper.

I never wept harder in my entire life, than I did then.

There are no more Masibi storytellers. They all died over two thousand years ago. Their voices are eternally silenced. We have a piece of their vibrant history right here, at our very fingertips, but we will never be able to know what it says. No one is left alive to make sense of its weathered beauty.

We will never know what they thought of the world.

We will never know what they named their beloved river.

We will never know the stories they told their children around the fire at night.

What did they say? What did they learn? What did they love, and hate, and use as an excuse to celebrate and drink when dark days were upon them?

It is right here, and yet it is gone.

1 comment:

  1. Thought I'd take a second to alleviate my anxiety down here away from the post.

    The inspiration for this post is a real device called a lukasa, commonly employed by the Luba people of Congo. I realized as I was writing that taking an important ritual item from an extant group of people and applying it to an ancient, long-gone culture so that a man from the setting's dominant ethnic group has something to lament about can come across as dumb and culturally appropriative. I just wanted to acknowledge that, and stress that I didn't intend it that way.

    That said, I encourage all of you to check out the Luba oral tradition and the lukasa. It's way cooler than I could do justice to with my pastiche, and fortunately their culture is alive and well, with many people still able to use these devices.

    Preserving culture--while keeping properly abreast of the ever-changing world--is important. Otherwise human diversity is lost, and no one remembers it except for hack fantasy writers looking for cool ideas to use.