Chapter 2. Beginnings: Identity and the Sacred
I believe that the term was first proposed by Louis Althusser, one of the big guns of critical theory, but I’m not absolutely sure. It has gone through many variations and reformulations, because it is such a useful notion. Jean-François Lyotard famously described postmodernism as a kind of “incredulity towards metanarratives,” which shows that it’s useful even backwards. I am quite fond, recently, of Michael Herzfeld’s notion of “cultural intimacy,” though I think the term is dreadful. Anyway, it’s around quite a lot.
Now practically speaking, no large culture has a single master narrative—there are lots. But there are always dominant tropes of some kind, because otherwise what would politicians talk about? And you learn a great deal about a culture by its narratives about itself.
Remember how a sacred thing is a concrete symbol of the way the society thinks about itself in the ideal? Well, a master narrative is a narrative version of much the same thing.
Now the reason this is practical is that it is very often the starting-point for a designer, whether she knows it or not. She thinks, “Hmm, I want a warrior culture, sort of like the samurai Japan thing, but I want human sacrifice.” The thing is, no actual culture works like this, in the sense that culture is not a salad bar from which some ruling group picks this and that element, but that’s not the point—and you likely have reasons for choosing what you choose. Practically as well, it may be important for your design, for whatever reasons, that this culture you’re designing match the description.
So the first thing to do is to write down a short list of the really big, essential points. These are the things you absolutely do not plan to change. Polish it as a sentence or two instead of a list. Maybe if the list is long, you might want to tick off which things are stuff mostly talked about internally and which things are a big deal in public rhetoric. What you now have is a rough outline of a master narrative.
The Purarken are an ancient warrior people who live in caves cut deep in the walls of canyons and arid mesas; they follow strict ascetic disciplines, have a strong honor-code based on a system of feudal lordship, and are infamous for sacrificing prisoners to their war god, Piruka.
Now this is from the outside, of course, but it works. We’ve got a good start, really: this sounds a lot like a fair number of cultures as described in RPGs. We’re off!
But before getting too excited, remember the basic principle of a master narrative: for all the same reasons as the little sketch of an American master narrative is really not at all true of America (and is entirely true, as well), this sketch of the Purarken is quite deceptive. But how, specifically?
We have begun to describe a little bit of the ideal of this society as it sees itself. We are in that sense beginning to understand, just a little, what they consider sacred. What we do not know, however, is how this plays out in actual practice. More to the point, remembering the division, this little narrative tells us exceedingly little about everyday life. We don’t know, that is, almost anything about how the Purarken live most of the time—we only know what gets bruited around at war rallies, big annual sacrifice festivals, and so on.
The Sacred Sword
Let’s think for a minute about the concrete symbols. We have a narrative; how does it manifest in things?
The Purarken are a “warrior culture,” but what does that mean? Apparently they think war is a big deal, but we don’t know why or how. We also know they have a war god named Piruka, and that prisoners (of war, perhaps?) are sacrificed to this divinity.
Let’s keep it simple, for the moment. How about swords? Swords are nice. They have a lot of nice symbolism all built in: blades, guards, shininess, steel, and so on. And fantasy cultures love swords. So let’s have them be into swords, and make Piruka have a big sword. Okay, so since this symbol, the sword, is pretty obviously linked to the master narrative, it’s clear that swords are sacred objects.
We now know that swords are hedged around with taboos: that’s one of the definitions of the sacred, that it can be profaned. Unfortunately, a lot of taboos on blades have already been done to death in fantasy: cannot be sheathed unless blooded is always popular. So let’s not do that, since we have as yet no reason to follow the obvious.
What does the Purark sword look like? Is it single-edged or double? What sort of hilt and guard? What’s it made of? Who makes it? We know that these things are not going to change a whole lot, because (a) sacred objects don’t usually change form and style rapidly, and (b) the god Piruka has one of these, so we have models everyplace Piruka is represented (assuming he or she is so—bear in mind that divinities, if that’s what Piruka technically is, are not necessarily represented).
Our designer said “samurai Japan,” so let’s go with something sort of like a katana. Single-edged, long, fast, very sharp, made of high-quality steel by an immensely complicated technical process, minimal guard, hand-and-a-half, nice and shiny.
Practically speaking, this cannot be all that common a weapon, because the technique of making it is too complicated. Sounds like this sword will be restricted to some sort of warrior class or caste, which is fine. Male or female—or both? Let’s go with both, to be all egalitarian.
Well, but now things get complicated at once. If both men and women carry these things, or can do so, sexual symbolism is likely to enter into representations of this sword. Not that it wouldn’t with just men or just women, but with both it’s going to get kinky. Could Piruka, the war god, be a goddess? Or ambisexual? I’ll go with goddess—gives me things to play with.
What about the human sacrifices? We have said that the sword is sacred, and that the Purarken sacrifice their prisoners to their goddess. Do they use the sword to do it? Wait!
Before we make another move here, we need to step back and think about method. I insisted, right at the beginning, that culture is a vast web of complicated stuff all bound together. Most of it is not especially conscious. And before we get too excited about the Purarken, we need to watch out, because we could very easily fall into the trap of simplicity.
Just tracking out the line I was starting above, we were all ready to have the sword used for the sacrifices because it’s the sacred sword and it’s the sacred sacrifice to the sword/war goddess, and on and on. Dull, yes. But more to the point, wrong.
I suggest that you hold clearly in your head a principle of messiness. Culture is messy stuff. People never agree about anything much—certainly not anything important. Not over time, anyway. If your design is getting simple, it’s going wrong.
The problem is that as a designer, one tends to get excited because things start to click. You’ve thought of ten weird things and been playing around with this and that, and suddenly you see that seven of them can link together perfectly, and you naturally want to run with it. Now here I am telling you not to do this.
Well, actually you can. But there is another explanation or reason you have to add:
If it is common and generalizable across the culture, it is part of the master narrative.
In other words, if you come up with one of these wonderful, neat bits of reasoning that makes the whole thing hang together perfectly, it is ideal but not necessarily real. It is possibly, even probably, something that these people, and especially various of their leaders, say is real, quite a lot. But that does not mean it is really so.
Here we get back to the dreaded emic and etic, in a way. There is a terrible tendency to design a culture etically, from the outside, and make that description transparent: here’s what they do, here’s what they believe, here’s what they’re like. But if that description is accurate, it is not transparent to the emic: the people do not think of themselves in the way you have described. My feeling is that you have to go the other way: here is what they say about themselves, here is what their leaders say they should believe about themselves, here is what they say the gods want them to do. As to what really happens, as observed by someone from the outside... well, that’s quite another matter.
This leads, indirectly, to a fundamental principle of mine. When you are working on designing some piece of a culture, you will often, even constantly, come across a choice. You can decide it in several ways, and you don’t really care that much what the answer is. Is the god male or female? I don’t care—just pick one. Okay, so here’s the principle:
Always pick the less obvious choice, and figure it out later.
Now this is more true the farther along you get, but on the whole I think it’s true throughout. If you follow this principle, you will get complication immediately and automatically. Of course, if you do care a lot about the choice, go with what you want. But most of the time it really does not matter a whole heck of a lot. That’s when you always go against your immediate gut reaction.
The basic problem is that you, like the people we’re describing, think in largely predetermined categories. What you think is obvious and natural isn’t so, at least when you’re talking about culture. You probably think religion is about faith and gods, for example. So if you are going to create a culture that is not a cardboard cutout, you have to suppress your presuppositions.
So let’s get back to the Purarken.
So do they use the sacred sword to sacrifice their prisoners to the war goddess? NO.
Why not? I don’t know, because I don’t know why they sacrifice, either. I don’t know anything about their thinking, their myths, their practice. But I do know one thing: I should not impose a simplistic notion upon them before I know what’s at stake.
In fact, let’s take up the whole problem in another chapter.