Daily Life

Metallurgy in pre-columbian Central Mexico

28 October 2016 Comments (2)

If dazzling jewelry was your weakness, then you might have found it hard to pass through a marketplace or workshop areas of Tenochtitlan or any other major Mesoamerican altepetl/city-state without spending much of your hard earned goods or local currency – cocoa beans and cotton cloths – on too many beautiful trinkets. Glittering bracelets, earring and anklets of copper and gold or brilliantly polished precious stones were always in high demand, and the canny Mesoamerican traders knew how to tempt a customer with most charming, intricate, lavish designs, causing jewelers and other artisans work long and hard to supply the demand.

Pre-Columbian metalworkers toiled in their workshops, located usually in the less prestigious parts of the city, along with other craftsmen and their shops – feather-makers, stone-workers, weapon-makers and such, organized into guilds, represented well in their districts, taxed but respected, the heart of the middle class and the spine of it. Unlike their fellow other craftsmen and artisans, the metal-smiths’ working areas required special facilities – powerful braziers, specialized tools, considerable supply of fuel. Braziers were typically made out of stone, with special openings for pipes crowned with clay tips to be inserted into the raging fire in order to make it rage fiercer, reach desirable temperatures by blowing into it constantly.

Copper, for one, needed to be heated to over six hundred degrees (Celsius) in order to separate it from the most obvious excess of other minerals it was extracted with from the earth, then reach 1250C in order to make it into a workable material for smelting. Blowing reed pipes with clay tips achieved that, but to maintain such long standing fires plenty of firewood was required. A problem for the big cities where most of the metal smiths’ workshop were located; less so for the miners out there in the country, those who didn’t produce the finished products but still needed to do the first round of heating in order to separate copper and silver from other minerals those raw materials were mixed with.

In Nahuatl, the lingua franca of Central Mexico, the term for mining was ‘in tepetl auh in ozototl’ which means ‘the mountain and the cave’, indicating typical location of precious stones and minerals. The term for digging up a mine was ‘tlallan oztotataca’‘to dig caves in the earth’. The word for copper was ‘tepoztli’ and ‘tepoztli iohui’ meant the ‘copper vein’. In Western Mexico, where metallurgy was even more wide-spread the dominant Pu’repecha language is full of appropriate terms.

The easiest and most wide-spread technique of mining was surface collection, where the ore was simply available on the surface, either in streambeds or on the ground. The erosive power of streams would break the ore and the heavier metals would settle on the bottom in areas of slower flow. Those were also the easiest to recognize because the deposits of cooper that are naturally dull gray in coloring, when exposed to the weather conditions of the surface brighten into vivid green or blue. A wonderful lead for the miners to follow, to collect what’s on the surface and dig short tunnels in order to reach the hidden treasures in the correct places. This technique is called ‘open-pit mining’.

The Underground Mining was also used when the deposit occurred deep below the surface in the form of a vein in a hard rock – the term tepoztli iohui means copper vein. In this case, tunnels were excavated in the rock to remove the ore, narrow vertical shafts driven through the rock, widening out to horizontal galleries where the ore was found. Pre-Columbian miners preferred to drive adits – nearly horizontal entrances to a mine – or tunnels into rocky slopes over digging shafts, which made drainage and haulage much easier.

In Mesoamerica, evidence of underground mining, including sizeable adits, shafts and galleries dug with hafted hammer-stones dates back to the beginning of AD, not only in order to extract metals but of course in order to haul out precious stones as well – cinnabar, turquoise and obsidian mines, even though the obsidian mines did not required digging adits.

Evidence indicates that the tools used to excavate mines and extract the ores were varying, consisted of stone hammers, large stone mortars, either portable or fixed on the walls of the mine, pestles upon which minerals were probably ground, bone scrapers, and digging sticks, ceramic ladles, obsidian blades, and wooden wedges. Remains of ocote-torches, and vegetal fibers impregnated with resin, baskets, ropes and ceramic pots, have also been recorded often.

As mentioned before, to separate metals was crucial, so the miners would work the found treasures on the spot, using what we call today pyrometallurgy when the ore was ground, mixed with charcoal and heated in a crucible or brazier. At the right temperature, up to 1300C, copper would separate from other components and merge into droplets. Adding ash or sand helped to melt the slag, so the copper would sink while the rest of the liquid would float, ready to be picked off while still hot, or broken off while cooled.

However to created refined, beautiful or useful items, the purified metal would have to be sent to the cities and into the hands of the urban craftsmen, the metal-workers. Styles of fashioning final products were many and diverse: hard-hammering or cold-hammering (working the metal when its cold), annealing (heating the metal after cold-work reduced its plasticity), casting (shaping metal when in its liquid state). Decorating techniques included gilding, embossing, soldering;lost-wax casting, gilding, low-relief decorations (created by hammering from the reverse side of the object), sheathing and so on.

Cold-working involved changing the form of a metal object by bending, shaping, rolling and hammering. As the metal being shaped internal stress serves to harden the part. Heat also serves to harden the material. Bells, needles, tweezers, rings, awls, axes, ornaments were usually made by cold-working from an ingot cast with occasional round of annealing. However if concentration of tin or arsenic was high enough to cause brittleness, hot working or forging was employed.

Small open rings for earrings or hair ornaments were very popular. Cold-hammered, then annealed through several sequences, those would fetch good prices on the marketplaces of big cities. After 1200 AD such rings were forged in high-tin bronze. Silvery rings were made by silver-copper alloy.

Tweezers were as popular, made by two symmetrical blades joined by hinge that was fashioned from a continued piece of metal. In earlier times they were hammered out from a solid piece, then bent over a wood piece or other solid material in a shape of a hinge, then cold-worked into a final shape and the excess metal cut. Later tweezers were made out of alloys and have been of a high quality, hot-worked into shape. Tweezers made of gold were saved for leaders and foreign offerings alone.

Sheet-metal ornaments were made of extremely thin cold-worked sheet of copper-silver, copper-gold, copper-silver-gold or silver-gold mixes. Those were used to ornate breastplates, shields, headbands, pendants, earrings, disks and bracelets. Copper-silver alloy was the most popular for such ornamenting purposes.

Axes were made from copper or bronze, mostly for symbolic use as it seems. Those were cold-worked, annealed, then cold-worked again. Copper (like silver and gold) is not an optional metal for cutting wood, but naturally occurring copper, due to its metallic impurity, can be relatively hard, useful for splitting wood. However, even such axes lost their edge quickly and needed to be reshaped. Bronze alloy axes became wide spread in Post Classic period (after 1200 AD). Tin-bronze, copper-arsenic and copper-arsenic-tin were added to enhance the tool. Those were three times thinner at the edge and harder, made by pouring molten alloy and into the mold (Florentine Codex), then shaped by hammering and annealed and cold-worked again to harden them.

Needles and awls, hoes, fishhooks, digging stick-points, thin leaf-like objects were made out of arsenical copper, usually cold-worked and annealed, sometimes used as tribute payment. Copper bells and later on bronze bells were created for decorative purposes, their shapes vary from round, to oval, to cylindrical, with suspended ring at the top and a narrow slit opening at the base, with loose clapper made of metal, ceramic or pebble. Such bells sported beautiful, elaborated designs. Some were made from coiled threads of wire, forming complex vertical and horizontal patterns. The original models for these belts were made entirely out of wax, winding piece of wax thread around a clay core.

Mesoamerican smiths experimented lavishly, producing alloys of copper-silver, copper-gold, copper-arsenic, copper-tin, as well as more complicated mixes of copper-silver-gold, copper-silver-arsenic, copper-arsenic-antimony, copper-arsenic-tin. Copper-silver alloys were reached by smelting copper and silver ores separately, then melting the two together (as there are no ores to contain both metals in satisfactory amounts together, such alloys could be nothing but intentional product). Copper-arsenic alloys could be achieved from the same ore and the same smelting (in West Mexico it was probably achieved by smelting chalcopyrite and arsenopyrite together). Copper-tin alloys were produced either by cassiterite in order to win metallic tin then adding tin to the molten copper, or by smelting cassiterate together with copper ore minerals. Such bronze was manufactured only in two areas in Americas – Andean highlands and West Mexico. In West Mexico it dates back to 1200 AD. Copper-gold alloys usually contained plenty of copper and much less gold, mainly to give the product a shiny appearance.

So while strolling around the better parts of Tenochtitlan or other important city-states of the 14th-15th century Central Mexico, one was likely to have one’s vision assaulted by fierce glint of the noble people’s jewelry or the glittering of the ornamented walls and temples. Then it would be a high time to visit the most sought out jeweler oneself, or to look for his mat on the marketplace.

An excerpt from the upcoming novel “Obsidian Puma”

There was no room for mistakes in this trade, his benefactor would repeat over and over. With the sort of the fire they maintained and the sort of the metallic liquid they dealt with, one single mistake could cost a person his life or, at least, his ability to live properly. Still, there were times when he didn’t care one way or another, not heedful of the warning of his employer, or rather a slaver. There was a limit to a person’s ability to crouch next to the blazing braziers, blowing to make them rage fiercer. One couldn’t do it all day long for many days in a row.

The other workers, both sons of the owner and one disinterested nephew named Patli, did other things, hammered and scraped to refine the half ready products, worked with blades and ceramic ladles on the less delicate ornaments, rushed around with bee-wax and pottery. Learned the trade! While all he, Miztli, did was to slave in the melting room, tending the fire and not letting it go down the insanely high heat, allowed to pour melted goods into various clay and stone utensils sometimes, starting his day earlier than anyone and finishing way after the others were well away at the main house or wherever, loitering and having a good time.

He wasn’t a son or a nephew, or any other sort of a family member, but his father wanted him to learn how to work the precious metals and not only how to extract those from the earth, and so here he was, living in misery for more than three moons, blowing into the fire to make it rage fiercer. Some learning!

Grimly, he blinked the sweat away from his eyelids, watching the greenish powder that he was made to scrape from a solid piece of copper earlier in the day, in the blissful coolness of the outer room. There was another pile of powdered stone poured to mix in the pot this time, not gold but a duller looking mineral. It created better results, a stronger metal that was easier to work with, sturdier but more flexible at the same time. Magic. It was a beautiful sight, those simmering liquids of various colors, a pretty show to watch. In the beginning, it thrilled him to no end, the ability to turn something solid into a workable flow to be shaped to one’s desire, any form, any size, a jewel or a brick, or just an impossibly thin sheet of metallic wonder to create detailed reliefs for noble establishments upon their request.

These days, it bored him to death.

The outer screen screeched, announcing newcomers, quite a few of them, judging by the voices and the draft that managed to sneak in through the cracks in the wooden screen. Miztli ground his teeth and let his fingers crush the straw he worked with. To throw the remnants of his tool into the raging fire made him feel better. In less than a heartbeat, it was consumed, ceasing to exist – one moment there, the other gone.

Twisting his lips contemptuously, he reached for another pipe, a whole pile of those, reed straws being as plentiful as the mud upon the shores of the Great Lake, but old Tlaquitoc would grimace all the same, scolding his apprentice for carelessness and lack of concentration. If only there was a way to feed this entire establishment to the fire.

The draft made his work momentarily easier, igniting the flames in both braziers, as the screen shielding the entrance to his backroom moved, letting a thin surge of the fresher air in.

“Niltze!” Instead of the squat, wide-shouldered figure of his stocky employer, the lithe form of Chantli slipped in, thousand-folds more welcome. “Still working on that copper from the morning pile?”

Pleased to notice her moving into the corner of his eye, Miztli smiled with the free side of his mouth, nodding ever so slightly. When busy with such fiercely raging flames, one could take his attention off of it up to a very small limit.

Throwing Spears

2 November 2015 Comments (0)

With the Cold Moons safely gone and the spring taking over for good, the women of the longhouses were hurrying out to start preparations for the new planting season. The winter time of the dried-meat-and-fruit diet would have everyone starving for fresh, juicy treats, from sweet maple syrup to fresh strawberries and anything else the generous earth was willing to offer at this time of the year, until people managed to make their crops grow anew. So the Maple Moon, the first moon of the spring, would be spent on collecting wonderfully sweet, highly nutritious maple sap, to celebrate, gorge and store for the year-round use.

However, before this moon’s activities were done with and the next Thundering Moon took over, the men would be hastened out there, lazy males that they were – or so some Clans Mothers would have claimed – to engage in the fields-clearing activities. Fallen trees, broken bushes, stones and other hurdles, the remainders of the fierceness of the winter moons, would require a male strength to be removed. This was the only part where women had shown tolerance to the male intervention in their business, the agriculture being solely female task in the Longhouse People’s society, their duty and their responsibility, the equality of genders those people knew centuries before other cultures were to discover such thing.

But politics aside, when the old fields were cleared or maybe a new one reclaimed from the surrounding forest, the men would not miss the opportunity to use the newly flattened ground for their own entertainment before the women got around planting their crops through the following Planting Moon. A spear-throwing contest required a perfectly flattened ground, just the one the newly cleared field was offering.

The game would start with the players dividing into two teams of various sizes, depending on the amount of the willing to participate. From a small group of men, or youths, or even just kids armed with sharpened sticks, playing in pairs, to teams as large as fifteen to thirty warriors displaying their skill on the Thunder Ceremony through the moon that bore the same name, preceding the Planting Moon, spear throwing contest was a popular way to display one’s expertise and skill.

The players goal was to fit one’s spear through a hoop that was rolled over the flat ground at a fairly removed distance from the thrower. As with teams, those came in various forms and sizes. Some hoops were simple, made out of a branch bent as a circle, tied at its edges with a leather strip. Others were invested devices, made out of bundled cornhusks wrapped in a rawhide. Those would usually sport a web of leather strips inside the ring, to assist in determining the score in the way the spear went through it.

The spears were varying in their appearance as well. From sharpened sticks to exclusive javelins to professional gaming spears with forked ends to catch the hoop so the spear wouldn’t go all the way through, the spears would pierce the hoops in their perfect middle, or anywhere near it, or maybe just push until it feel, cutting its flight over the field short – anything that made the hoop fall was declared a good throw. Only the clear miss would cause the player lose his pride together with his spear that was to be handed to his contester as his rightful spoil. Otherwise the teams would go on, hurling their spears until reaching the agreed amount of points, or until all spears changed their hands, sometimes accumulating in the possession of one good player or several.

Either way no onlooker would be left feeling as though they had wasted their time watching the game and cheering, or sometimes even betting on the possible winners, adding more items to the spears that were destined to change hands.

Sometimes the contesting team would throw their javelins all at once, displaying their superior skill and organization. More often though, the players would hurl their missiles in pairs, each representing the rival team, trying to pierce the hoop in his turn.

The player who pierced the hoop while his rival missed, would be declared the winner and the new owner of the loser’s spear. However if both players managed to make their spears go through, they would go on throwing again for an agreed-upon amount of tries, then the contest would be transferred to the next teams’ representatives.

The Thunder Ceremony was held in April, a Thunder Moon, celebrating the return of the Thunderers, who would come from “where the sun sets”, bringing back rains and replenishing the water life. According to the Creation Story, during the time when everything was new and the Celestial Twins were still struggling, Heno the Thunderer helped to drive many of the Evil Twin’s creations back into the earth with his mighty lightening, frightening and suppressing ferocious animals with it to these very days “… it’s been told that if the Thunderer were to cease, these animals would emerge and cause a lot of suffering… so, whenever we hear them, we are to make an offering to them of the real tobacco so that they will continue with their responsibilities…”

The War Dance, performed on this ceremony by men alone, was followed by the hoop and spear game, the spear throwing contest, played as the part of the ritual – not just a wonderful entertainment, but also the representation of the symbolic contests between the good and dark sides of the human nature, the Good Right-Handed and the Evil Left Handed Twin Brothers and their eternal struggle. This was the most official contest, played by large teams, owners of professional hoops and spears.

An excerpt from “The Warpath”, People of the Longhouse Series, book #4.

“Are you ready, mysterious non-Onondaga man?” The Flint was back in his good humor, balancing his precious javelin in his hand, playing with it, displaying his skill.

“Who throws first?”

“You. The host has the honor.”

“My pleasure.” Swinging his spear in his turn, Ogteah strolled toward the nearest spot that had less chances of the sun glowing directly in his eyes. The Flint man, he noticed, skipped quite a few tens of paces away, his limp again barely noticeable. Was he pretending to have this liability?

Ogtaeh pushed a new wave of misgivings away, sensing the eyes of the woman, the lively chatter of her companions distracting.

“Ready?”

The shout came from far enough, making him wish to grind his teeth. From what distance was this man intending to have them aiming? With this smaller hoop, and now from farther than customary, was he planning to have them both missing the target?

“Go on.”

Deciding to brazen it out rather than spend his time worrying over something he could not prevent at this point, Ogteah focused, measuring the distance, guessing the possible path of the ring with his eyes. There was no need to concentrate on the starting point. A veteran of many such contests, he knew that a brief glance in the hoop-thrower’s direction was more than enough. Those who studied the man, trying to predict his movements, missed half of their chances to hit the target before the ring rolled its course.

The deepening silence of those who watched warned him, heightened his awareness, made his muscles tense, his body tilting, the hand holding the spear only a part of the effort. As did the swish that his ears didn’t miss.

The hoop shot forward, like a pouncing predator, pushed with enough force to make it almost fly. At the same moment, Ogteah’s entire body came to life, his instincts deciding for him, as they always did.

Another swish, this of his spear, was louder, resonating in his ears. He could feel the force of the throw, the unerring path of the lethal weapon. It wouldn’t miss, he knew. It couldn’t. Indeed, the hum of the air released from quite a few chests at once told him that the target was down, before his eyes confirmed that. The women behind his back giggled as one of them shouted too loudly, not quick enough to hide her admiration.

“Not bad.” The Flint man didn’t bother to retrieve the fallen hoop, letting one of his friends rush along the tramped-on grass. “Impressive, really.”

But there was no real appreciation in the warrior’s voice. Or maybe there was, but his eyes flickered amusedly, unconcerned. It took the edge off Ogteah’s sense of victory.

“No sweat,” he said lightly, heading toward the man with the hoop and his own spear. “Show us what the Flint can do from such distance.”

“Quite a lot, mysterious local. Quite a lot.”

Rolling the ring was never his favorite part of the competition. He did not do it well, not like some others, who could send the hoop practically flying. Like the annoyingly self-assured Flint.

“Ready?”

He just shoved it forward, in no showy manner, not surprised when the colorful spear pushed it violently, made it fall before it reached the middle of its journey, losing no momentum. Worried a little, he rushed forward, to see that the missile did not go through the perfect middle.

“Not bad as well,” he called out, relieved. The spear didn’t even stick in the web, but was lying quite a distance away, having probably hit the outer ring. A near miss, he thought, smirking. Why did he let stupid misgivings bother him at all?

Never leave in hunger

14 October 2015 Comments (0)

One of the sturdiest pillars of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) society was the tradition of hospitality, the warmest welcoming a visitor was to receive, whether a friend, a clan/family member or a total stranger, even an enemy or a captive, it didn’t matter. The law of hospitality was as firm as the frame of the longhouse, and as unwavering.

Not that it was as simple as knocking on a door and asking if anyone was in, of course. That would be terribly bad manners on the part of the visitor to display, unacceptable really.

What a person would do while approaching a town or village, or just a cabin in the woods, is to halt his steps and pause, choosing a good spot to rest his limbs, because the waiting might be a long one. The invitation to come in would arrive inevitably, but one was to let it be ensued. So usually a visitor would find a prominent, easily observed spot, arrange a fire, staff his pipe and make himself comfortable, while leaving it to his prospecting hosts to make the next move. Which would eventually be made, always. The hosts knew the protocol as well as their guests.

The hospitality of the Longhouse People was exceptional, as was their cooking. No one left a longhouse hungry, or even just unsatisfied with the meal. Even the captured warriors expecting their ceremony of execution would be spoiled rotten by good meals and warmest accommodations until the time of their trial came. Let alone peaceful visitors.

Anyone was at liberty to enter a house at any time, if the occupants were in, made welcome and offered food. If he was hungry, he would eat heartily, with no reservations. If not, he would sample the food as a compliment to the giver. A refusal to do so would be construed as terrible impoliteness.

Such custom steamed from the firm belief that the Right-Handed Twin and the other creators made the earth and everything it contains for everyone to share and enjoy “… they stocked the country with plenty of game, that was not for the benefit of the few, but for all…” This is reflected in most basic of many Haudenosaunee laws. “… As air and rain were common, so was everything else… whatever liveth on the land, whatsoever groweth out of the earth, and all that is in the rivers and water, was given jointly to all…” Everyone was entitled to their share.

People of the Longhouse had but one regular meal a day that was prepared through the mid morning and eaten somewhere around that time. This of course was not to say that the people were required to do with one single bout of eating. Nothing prevented a person of every age or gender to pass through the communal storage rooms in the back and front of each longhouse, or climb the upper banks of one’s compartment in a hunt after a juicy snack.

The food was always available, readily warmed too; it’s just that the serious cooking was done in the morning only. Haudenosaunee women were not the kind of females to be pushed into slaving inside the house day and night. They had work to do, from keeping their nation’s entire agriculture enterprise alive and kicking to choosing reliable elders to represent their towns and villages in the Great Council to the best of their interests; and yes, to advise the government on an occasion. So no excessive cooking, and only one family meal to start the day with.

The food would be removed from the pot or kettle to bark or wooden dishes and then handed over to the recipients, who would either sit on the floor or remain standing along the walls as was more convenient to them. Men were served first. Then women and children.

Made from maize alone the variety of food was staggering, but of course the Longhouse meal included many more ingredients besides the precious three sisters – corn, beans and squash. Those three main staples were venerated, grown lovingly and always together, complimenting each other nutritionally while providing helpful support – “…a corn having a natural pole for the bean vines to climb while the bean roots improved the overall fertility of the plot, helping stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind, and shallow-rooted squash vines becoming a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years…”

So the corn formed the main part of the menu and was represented in almost every dish and meal. All sorts of bread and pastries, baked, fried and boiled, with nuts or berries, sweetened with maple syrup or flavored with meat and salt; great variety of hominy, pottages and puddings seasoned with everything from sweeteners to grease and meat; endless list of soups offering everything from meat to mushrooms and onions; hot drinks and snakes such as roasted cobs to nibble or even a sort of a pop-corn – all this and more would enliven people’s menu as seasons would change and days passed, along with variety of bean soups and puddings, squash dishes, multitude of different berry treats from drinks to porridge and snacks, nuts’ flavored meals, and so on and on. The menu was endless, rarely repeating itself. The Longhouse women knew how to spoil their families and guests.

In the end of such family meal the diners would say Nyawe which meant the thanks are given, while the hostess would reply Niu which meant it is well. This was the custom, to thank the creators for bestowing this food on the people as much as to appreciate the hostesses’ trouble in preparing it.

When distinguished guests came to the community, a great feast was laid in their honor. Not to mention the days of great ceremonies! Through those celebrations, the ceremonial grounds or the adjacent valleys if the settlement was too heavily populated to conduct their ceremonial activities inside the fence would turn into a large bowl overflowing with food. In such cases Clans Mothers would combine their efforts, having every longhouse contributing from its supplies and manpower, or rather womenpower, in order to prepare and serve everyone.

An excerpt from “The Foreigner”, People of the Longhouse Series, book #2.

She shrugged, shaking the longing off. She could have participated in the dancing even now; she was not that old. For the duration of the opening Feather Dance, wearing only a few rattles or no rattles at all, she might have managed but for her duties as the Clan Mother. Those were what kept her from dancing.

“The food would be served after the second Thanksgiving Address and the Women Song,” one of her fellow Wolf Clan Mothers was saying. “I suggest we start organizing it once they finish the Feather Dance.” She was a stocky woman, good-natured and prone to laughter, unless pressed with work. Too anxious to get everything done, when too many matters attacked at once, this peer of hers was losing much of her good humor.

“It might be too early for that, Sister,” said another woman, the head of the third and the smaller Wolf longhouse of the town.

“It won’t. We need time to make fires and spread the ware. Also to send for the missing items and foodstuff when we spot their lack. The girls would be useless, busy dancing or staring, so it’ll leave us with less women to work and still hordes of hungry people to face. So many visitors this time. And the Long Tails foreigners!” The round face turned to Seketa, glaring with unhealthy red. “Tell her!”

“Calm down, Sister.” The arm she placed on her companion’s shoulder was supposed to soften the amused quality of her smile. She was such a worrier, that peer of hers. “It is going to be well. I checked and rechecked all our supplies that were brought here, and they are enough. Didn’t you see me counting all those people, then spending half the morning around our piles? There would be no missing items, no need to send reluctant girls in their festive attire. We have all we need here.” The wink of the third woman made her smile widen. “We received the honor of hosting the first day of the ceremony, and we will not make the Wolf Clan look bad. Trust us on that.”

A dubious head shake was her answer. “If you say so, Sister. But let us hope you are not mistaken. It would be embarrassing to run out of food or utensils. Our clan will be a laughingstock for many moons to come.”

“It won’t be.”

Turning around, she watched the dancers and the fire, this vantage point even better than her previous one. The girls of the Wolf Clan were easy to pick out, the decorations of their festive attire different than those of the Turtle, Heron, or Bear Clans, or any of the others. Without noticing, her eyes checked their motions and regalia again, making sure all was done as it should be.

“In need of some help, girls?” The Turtle Clan’s head woman neared with some of her fellow elderly friends in tow, all smiles. “Think we will be eating well this first day of the ceremony? Must impress the foreigners, mustn’t we?”

“I think our guests are suitably impressed as it is,” said Seketa, seeking her husband with her gaze, his tall, broad-shouldered figure easy to pick out and not because of the magnificent headdress he wore for the occasion.

Such an imposing man, even when surrounded by his fellow dignitaries and other prominent people of the town, faith-keepers and members of the council—a very colorful group, their headdresses and regalia shining brilliantly in the early afternoon light. Some of the foreigners were near him too, as expected, decidedly different and strange in their long-sleeved shirts, the fashion her former people followed these days, she had heard. Her former people!

She suppressed a grunt. He was heard speaking about the possibility of opening the negotiations again, claiming that it must be the time to do it now, when the Crooked Tongues were united and easier to communicate with. There had been a heated argument, she had been told, on the evening before. Not many people were prepared to go against him. Still there were such, some of them growing more vocal, gathering courage now that the foreign delegation brought unsettling news of the enemy’s unification.

Her heart squeezing with worry, she didn’t dare to ask him about it when they had retired to sleep on the night before, not wishing to bring up the subject she knew they would not agree upon. He had had enough as it was, without her turning against him as well.

So she had just hugged him and snuggled against him, instead, and when he enveloped her in his arms and whispered that he missed her and that if the accursed politics came between them once again, he would be terribly put out, she listened to the silence and the even breathing of their numerous guests, then let her hands wander, reassured. Lovemaking inside a longhouse was usually a quiet, careful affair, strangled under the furs and the blankets, unlike the beautiful playing around the couples engaged in out there in the woods. Even respectable Clan Mothers. Or maybe not. Maybe it was only her. Living with such a man, how could she not?

“What is the meaning of that smile, Sister?” The Turtle woman’s voice brought her from her pleasant memories, made her aware of her twisting lips.

Would you marry me?

8 October 2015 Comments (2)

So what happened when the all-too-familiar scenario occurred in this or that Haudenosaunee/Iroquois town or village, when a certain pretty girl would catch a certain boy’s eye, refusing to leave his thoughts no matter where he went? Or the other way around, of course. Like everywhere else in the world, in the areas around Lakes Ontario or Erie love drew no bounds and spared no victims, in a habit of striking unexpectedly and just as one anticipated none of it.

So first of all, if you had an eye for a pretty girl and preferably before deciding to fall in love with her, you should have made sure that she wasn’t a member of your clan. Because even had she lived in another longhouse, village, town, or a nation belonging to the Great League, it wouldn’t do. The laws governing clans and their relationship were strict and uncompromising.

Two people of the same clan couldn’t marry, being considered blood relatives even if ten or more degrees removed. And no, each clan was by no means restricted to the same village or town. Stretched over settlements and nations, the clan system was one of the sturdiest pillars of the Longhouse People’s societies, as much as it was the part of life among its neighbors, enemies or allies, Wyandot/Huron, Erie, Neutrals and others.

You could be an Onondaga man, a member of a Wolf Clan, for example, but if you fell in love with a Flint/Mohawk girl who had happened to belong to her people’s Wolf Clan as well, a person you never ever met or set an eye upon before, neither on her not on her family, it didn’t matter, because by the law you two were considered related, ineligible for building a family unit.

In this love has no power.

However if you were lucky to fall for a beauty that belong to an entire different clan, even if she grew up in the longhouse next door, then you could go ahead with any marriage proposals and plans you wish.

So having ensured that the two of you are getting along nicely enough and your both intentions are dead serious, your next step would be your mother, or better yet, the Clan Mother, the respectable matron that ruled your longhouse – this part of your extended family as one longhouse would not represent the entire clan of this or that fairly large town. To obtain such important person’s permission and blessing was essential, and advisable as well.

Then, assuming that this respectable lady saw the wisdom of your choice and approved, you would leave it in her hands, to take the next step.

Wedding cakes were prepared from the same dough the regular bread was made, yet molded differently, they presented your claim fairly well. Shaped as two balls connected by a short neck, those forms were wrapped in corn husk and tied it the middle, then tossed into a pot of boiling water, to simmer for about an hour.

Twenty four such cakes were taken by the boy’s or girl’s maternal grandmother or the appointed grandmother of their longhouse to the longhouse of the desired party. The recipient, not the lucky chosen but again the Clan Mother of his or her longhouse, who usually would have been consulted beforehand, to avoid embarrassing misunderstandings, would taste the bread, then notify the mother of the desired party. The mother of the boy or girl is expected to honor her elder’s wish unless she has substantial objection. But if offered none, the proposed side would take the same amount of cakes and carry them back to the longhouse of the proposing side.

In the rare instance that the suit was rejected, “… it is said, the cakes would be left untouched and the humiliated proposer … would have no choice but to creep back in order to retrieve her baked goods. Some say that the rejected cakes were never eaten, but often stored to be pelted at the offending party, for misleading the proposers at the first place…”

However, if the cakes were tasted, then returned with beaming smiles, the marriage sanctioned and approved by all parties involved, the happy couple was free to move together with not much of a further ado.

Which meant that the lucky groom would be the one packing things, preparing to move to his new home. Not the other way around (very little in many men’ cases as those would be limited to their personal possessions, weaponry and clothing – everything else was the property of the longhouse they lived at before, belonging to the women of this dwelling).

Yet, it was not to say that the man would changed his clan’s belonging. A member of his original clan, his mother’s and not his father’s extended family, he would remain a part of it, but his children by the girl he married would belong to her clan.

The Iroquois society was one of the few that truly did not put a woman in any disadvantage while not treading on man’s right as well. As it was women’s duty to run a house and a family – the reality many other cultures had faced as wells – it was only natural that a woman would retain legal rights and not only the duties to manage her household most efficiently, without restrictions and the need to ask for permissions from her mate. He has his own duties to face, to provide for his family and to keep it safe, and in those areas he didn’t need to ask for his female partner’s permission as well. A well balanced relationship between the genders it was.

In the case it didn’t work out, the divorce was as easy as was the marriage. No special ceremony, especially if both parties and their families were in agreement.

Not always the case, of course, not where human feelings, convenience and matters of honor were concerned. Well, in this, women still had the upper hand, being the owner of their house or rather a compartment in their family’s longhouse. The reluctant man would still be shown the door at either entrance of his disappointed ex-wife’s longhouse. There was nothing he could do about it.

Yet again, having a right to throw their men out, women didn’t do that lightly, as thus she and her children would be left without a provider. With the house and her extended family’s support, yes, but with no one to hunt and fish, clear new fields or rebuild should the need to rebuild arise. Who wanted to depend on the extended family for such matters? So, as impatient as a woman may have grown with her chosen mate, many would resolve to solve their marital problems in other ways than the roaring ‘get out of my house’ dramatics.

An excerpt from “The Great Law of Peace”, The Peacemaker Series, book #3.

She sighed, then, out of a habit, scanned the lake surface, always empty, bringing no hope.

“It’s nothing,” she said. “I changed, but it’s for the better. I was a silly girl before.”

“You? You were never silly. You were always serious, but full of life, of purpose. Now you are empty.”

She shrugged. “Why would you care? We are not children to play in the woods anymore. I’m of no use to you, full of life or not.”

He said nothing, peering at the lake, as though expecting the bright canoe to appear out of the misty vastness, too.

What if it did? she wondered suddenly, the wave of excitement washing her, beginning at her belly, slipping upward, toward her chest, tickling in her feet. Oh, they only thought she was empty.

She stifled a nervous giggle. If the canoe appeared, she would have to distract Hainteroh’s attention, take him away from the cliff, lure him back into town, then come here running. She squinted against the glow of the lowering sun.

“I talked to my mother,” she heard him saying. “Asked her to talk to the Grandmother of our longhouse.”

“Oh, why?” Feeling the twinge of well-familiar disappointment, she frowned. The bright bluish vastness was empty, as always, leaving her with the bitter taste in her mouth and her stomach as empty as the neglected lake.

“She’ll bring the cakes to the Grandmother of your longhouse.”

She caught her breath. “Hainteroh, no!” The lake temporarily forgotten, she peered at him instead, taking in his proud, eagle-like profile. He had grown to be quite a handsome man, she suddenly realized, having not noticed that before. “Please, make her not do that. Go now and tell her not to, before she brings the cakes to our longhouse.” She caught his arm. “Please. I can’t accept.”

He didn’t move, didn’t take his gaze off the water, but she saw his throat convulsing as though he had swallowed hard.

“Why not?” His voice was also colorless, empty.

She brought her palms up, careful not to scatter the precious shells. “I’m too young for that. I’m not ready.”

“You are not too young, Seketa! You’ve seen seventeen summers. Many girls of your age are taking a man into their lives. Look around you. Are your friends sleeping alone? Tindee and the other girls. Eh?”

She shrugged. “I don’t care what they do. I’m not ready.”

“Will you ever be?”

“I don’t know.”

“You liked the foreigner, didn’t you?” Now his voice took a growling sound.

She felt it like a blow in her stomach, her limbs going numb. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“So you did like him, that filthy, murderous savage!” Now his eyes were upon her, burning with rage.

She clenched her teeth against the suddenness of her own anger. “He was not filthy and not murderous. Don’t you ever say such things about him! He was good and kind and different. He was brave. He killed the giant brown bear with his knife! Think about it. He was decent and he was good.” She heard her voice piquing, turning loud and shrill, impossible to control. “Yeentso was the filthy, murderous lowlife. Not the Wolf Clan boy. But no one paid attention, no one cared. Because he was a foreigner, no one was prepared to let him show himself. No one was prepared to listen!” Drawing a convulsive breath, she tried to control her voice. It rang ugly and shrill, disturbing the sacredness of this place.

He peered at her, his eyes narrow. “No one but you, Seketa. You cared, you listened. You let him deceive you with his filthy lies.”

The Peach Stone Game

4 February 2015 Comments (0)

Games of chance seem to be not a small part of North American life since the times immemorial. Even the deities were reported to engage in betting, while contesting for power and influence over the ‘Turtle Island’ (our world) and those who populated it, the people of their creation. In this Iroquois seem to be no different from their neighbors, other dwellers of the Eastern Woodlands.

When the world was young and only barely created, the Divine Twins, the grandchildren of the Sky Woman, the first people to populate the Turtle Island, were engaged in a fierce contest, struggling for domination.

The Right-Handed Twin (sometimes called Sapling or the Good Twin, Skyholder), responsible for creating everything good, from people and animals to useful plants, has to protect his creations against his evil brother the Left-Handed Twin (sometimes called Flint, or the Bad Twin/Troublemaker), the one who was busy making troublesome things, poisonous herbs, bad animals, darkness. Unable to best each other through cunning or even violence, the brothers had finally settled on solving their differences through Peach Stone Game, a game of luck.

It is reported that since those old, old times, people are expected to reenact this sacred game in honor of their creators. Through certain ceremonies – namely Mid-Winter, Seed and Harvest Ceremonies – Peach Stone Game is played on the second, or sometimes third day of the festivities, lasting for many hours, to “…amuse the life-giving forces, please the plant and animal kingdom and make the creator laugh…”. The message people are sending back to the Right-Handed Twin is that they are grateful for what they have and willing to share it with others.

A flat-bottomed wooden bowl containing six flat stones, fruit pits or nut shells, painted on one side and unmarked on the other, is switching hands between two players, who shake it vigorously in turns, causing its contents mix. The most desirable outcome is when all stones display either their painted or unpainted sides. Such turn brings the lucky player an immediate victory of the entire round, enriching him with one of the bets and five beans from the central pile. Usually the game is started with one hundred and one bean in the ‘bank’- a hundred for the actual betting, and the additional one for the creator.

If the player got five stones of the same color – whether marked or unmarked – he collects one bean and goes on shaking the bowl one more time.

The throw of four beans or less give the player nothing but the loss of his turn to his opponent, who would be now eager to get the score of five or more, hoping to win the entire round either by getting all stones on the same side or by scoring five stones after five stones until the beans of that round come into his possession one by one.

The moment the turn ends, the losing player vacates his seat for the next member of his team, to take his place and hope for the better luck.

The game can go on for hours, if not days, accompanied with much excitement and maybe even side betting of the onlookers. But when played traditionally, through one of the three ceremonies, the bets are always returned to their owners in the end.

An excerpt from “The Foreigner”, People of the Longhouse Series, book #2.

“One more bean to the Turtle Clan!”

People let out a held breath. The cheers filled the air, louder, more uninhibited than before. No matter what clan each observer wanted to win, so many favorable throws in such a short period of time, with no luck at all for the other side, were a rare thing. The spirits truly favored the renowned leader, as they always had.

“One more bean and they’ll have to look for another player,” said someone.

“And in the meanwhile, we get our well-deserved refreshments.” Iheks’s voice was back to his usual lightness. “I’m starving.”

“Don’t count on the feast of yesterday,” someone said with a laugh.

“Why not?”

“Wolf Clan is busy losing the game. They won’t be organizing our meals today.”

“So what? Others can do that as well.”

“Not as well as the Wolves.” The man next to Ganayeda beamed at him. “You should have been here yesterday, Brother, instead of running all over, picking fights with our disgusting neighbors from across the lake. What a feast it was, and what dances! No one wished to retire to sleep, not one single person, not even our exotic guests.”

“Oh, the Long Tails? They are still here?” Encircling the crowds with his gaze, he suddenly realized that he had forgotten all about this troublesome delegation. What became of them?

“Oh, yes, they are.” This time it was Iheks again, shifting his weight from one foot to another, waving away a fly. “They will be participating in the ballgame, or so I hear. If our Onondaga Town’s opponents will arrive in time, that is.”

“Only four stones!” cried out one of their neighbors.

At the center of the contest, the bowl passed back to the Wolf Clan man, to many outcries of disappointment.

“No one can get five stones time after time,” stated Ganayeda, as disappointed as the rest of them.

“Unless you are favored by the Great Spirits themselves.”

“Well, the War Chief is favored. He won four rounds in no time. But then, it was only expected.” Iheks’s chuckle floated in the pleasantly sunny air. “I can’t recall a time when our leader failed, whether organizing, campaigning, or engaging in throwing games.”

Another bang of the bowl. Ganayeda shifted his eyes to the people crowding the other side. Jideah was standing among those in the forefront, looking pale and unwell. Was she ill?

Catching her gaze, he nodded amiably enough. Or so he hoped. Somehow he didn’t wish to interact with his wife, not now. Maybe later, when he wasn’t as angry over what happened near Lone Hill, when he had stopped thinking about Gayeri in the hands of the filthy enemy.

The wave of rage was back, washing his insides in perfect accord with the collective gasp that escaped many throats, rising like a tide. His mind snapped back to the present.

“What…”

One arm protecting his wounded side, he moved forward together with the shifting crowd, his attention again on the players. Father’s back was as straight as an arrow, while his rival leaned forward, examining the contents of the bowl with his eyes so wide they turned round. The counters from both clans froze as well, bent above the object of the staring, as motionless as a pair of rocks. The silence was brief but encompassing.

“Could it be?” breathed someone, and then the crowds erupted into yells and cheers, while the counting man of the Wolf Clan straightened up slowly, lifting the bowl, afraid to breathe on it, let alone shake it.

“Six unmarked stones,” he said, offering it to the closest of the observers. “All stones are displaying their painted side.” Clearing his throat, he encircled his spellbound audience with a wide-eyed gaze, repeating loudly, in an echoing voice. “The lucky throw!”

 

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