This is my world-building description of one of the six cultures that make up the world for THE SHAMAN’S CURSE and THE IGNORED PROPHECY (also the recently-completed short story “Becoming Lioness”).
The Dardani are very tall and fair. Hair color generally ranges from white-blonde to light brown. Eye color is usually blue, although grey and hazel are not unheard of. They tend to be long-legged and slender-built. An average height for a Dardani man would be between 6’2” and 6’5”. Both Dardani men and women wear functional tunics and trousers. These are made of cotton in the summer and either wool or goat hair in the winter. The Dardani typically favor either natural fabrics or very soft, muted colors. Other than their tattoos, they wear little adornment. Women typically bind their long hair back at the nape of the neck in order to keep it out of their faces while they work. Women who have become life-mates with their partners will wear a linen cord tied at their waist. Chiefs were a fringed sash when acting as chiefs to indicate their rank.
The Dardani are a people in transition from a nomadic way of life to a more settled one. They move seasonally between relatively set villages. In the spring and autumn, they live in villages composed of a single Clan. During the winter, the Clans break up into smaller bands, each led by a Clan chief, in order not to overtax the scarce resources available during the winter months. In the summer, all the Clans meet at the Zeda waterhole. Actually a small lake fed by an underground river, Zeda is the most consistent source of water on the plains during the summer months. Over the last few generations, the time spent at Zeda has increased, but the Dardani still cannot stay at Zeda year-round. They must give the grasses time to recover from the grazing of their herds and the winters at Zeda are too harsh for their simple life style.
The Dardani tend large herds of cattle and horses, using small herding dogs very similar to Cardigan Welsh corgis to help them. They also keep long-haired goats and chickens in the villages. They occasionally hunt, but it is not a major source of food except during the winter. They keep chaotic vegetable gardens from spring through autumn. They also encourage the fruit trees that naturally occur around their waterholes. Food is usually kept available at all hours during the day and evening at the center of the Clan village. A hungry Dardani simply goes to the center of the village and helps himself when his tasks permit. Men who are out tending the herds or hunting will take meat rolls—literally layers of flat bread and meat rolled up—with them and eat in the saddle. Meat rolls are also the typical food for Dardani who are travelling. Families do try to share morning and evening meals together, if possible.
The Dardani are still a bronze-age people. They make weapons and tools of bronze at Zeda. But they have recently established trade with Caere. They trade livestock and hides, as well as tin they get from the Modgud, for cotton and linen fabrics, healing herbs, salt, copper, and most importantly, iron and steel tools and weapons. Although all Dardani objects are functional first, they do also try to make them pleasing to the eye. The Dardani also have a long-standing trade relationship with the Modgud, particularly for wool and for the pain-numbing pauver fruit, which the Modgud harvest from the Forest. They also get tin for bronze-making from the Modgud. In return, the Dardani provide cured hides, grains harvested on the plains, copper from Caere, and some iron and steel implements.
The Dardani’s environment is ruled by the sky and the earth. The plains have a particularly harsh climate—blazing hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Because of this, they build their huts by digging down into the ground. A circular pit is dug and the sod stacked around the edge to provide the lower portion of the wall. Then the hut is roofed over with hides. This provides natural insulation so that the huts remain cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The Dardani are the most populous of three peoples of the plains, west of the Great Forest. They are tribal, with six Clans making up the tribe. Each Clan has a totem—Lion, Horse, Eagle, Raven, Bear, and Wolf. Most of Dardani life revolves around the Clan. Dardani names always reflect the person’s Clan. All Lion Clan names end in AR or ARA (for a woman), all Horse Clan names end in ON or ONA, all Eagle Clan names end in AD or ADA, etc. Thus, if you know a Dardani’s name, you know what Clan they belong to.
Aside from a few personal items, all goods are owned by the Clan—most significantly, the herds of livestock. All adult and sub-adult (the period between receiving the Clan Mark and being recognized as an adult) Dardani are expected to contribute to the welfare of the Clan. And, in return, their needs are met from the Clan’s goods. Equitable distribution is one of the jobs of the Clan Chiefs. The concept of personal wealth is foreign to the Dardani. When you have to move everything you own four times a year, it’s not necessarily a good thing to have more than you need.
At one time in the distant past (about four hundred years ago) the Clans were more separate. They were as likely to fight each other as to fight the Themyri. And they were much more vulnerable to Themyri attacks because of it. Some Clans, like the Lion and Horse Clans, were loosely allied with each other. A great leader among the Horse Clan, Egeron, gradually united the Clans into the present-day Dardani, bringing them together at Zeda. Egeron was called “The Pillar of the Tribe”. He received a special tattoo incorporating all of the six Clan totems as the branches of a tree on his back. Through Danar’s father, whose mother was from the Horse Clan, Fenar and Kiara are descended from Egeron. So are Bion and Daron.
The Dardani are a very egalitarian people. They treat everyone the same. Every member of the Clan—or the Tribe—has a right to be heard in the council, including women and children who have received the Clan Mark, but are not yet full adults. The chiefs lead by building consensus among the people. But ultimate power remains with the people. The chiefs may only act unilaterally in a crisis or when the people are divided. Chiefs are chosen by acclamation of the Clan. There is no set number of chiefs. A new chief may be selected to replace one who has died or simply because the Clan feels that a member has earned that acknowledgment. There is a general feeling that there should be a variety among the chiefs—wise old men or women like Pakel or Alara as well as younger, more vigorous men like Danar and Bion. Younger women, like Lucina are not commonly chosen as chiefs simply because they spend most of the year living with the Clan of their husband, not their own Clan. Obviously, there are exceptions, though. Chiefs wear a sash as a sign of their position. Men who are chiefs often, although not always, have a sash tattooed onto their manhood tattoo.
The Dardani set great store by personal honor. They will go to great lengths to pay an honor-debt when they feel they have wronged someone. And they will die to redeem an honor-pledge. The chiefs are generally chosen because of their abilities and because their personal honor demands the respect of their people. Women have the same rights as men. They can become Clan Chiefs, just as the men can. Though there are traditional roles for women and men, the Dardani are not shocked if a woman chooses to do a “man’s” work, or vice versa.
Dardani children are loved and looked after by the entire Clan. It is a very loving and accepting environment. For the first ten or twelve years of their lives, they are largely allowed to be children. Only very simple tasks will be asked of them. For the most part, they play in groups of similar age around the village and its immediate environment. Very young children are closely watched, but the supervision becomes less stringent as the children grow. Between the ages of ten and thirteen (usually earlier for girls and later for boys), the children are accepted as members of the Clan. This is the first step in the process of becoming an adult. The initiation into the Clan also forges a mystical link between the person and the Spirit of the Clan totem. Members of the Clan can sense their totem animal when they are near and have a sense of the animal’s mood. Clans have taboos against hunting their totem animals.
At this time, they receive the Clan Mark—a small tattoo that symbolizes the mark of the Clan’s totem—a lion’s paw print, the hoof-print of a horse, an eagle’s feather, etc. This tattoo is placed over the heart, on the left breast. From this time, they are given more freedom, but are also expected to be more responsible. They are now members of the Clan and are expected to contribute, although the tasks they are given are still light and permit them plenty of time to still be children, too. At this time, the boys (and the girls, if they want) are allowed to ride, usually older mares, out onto the plains, so that they can begin to hone the skills of horsemanship they will need as adults.
In their sixteenth summer (at the age of fifteen or sixteen) the boys are put through a manhood test. The test always occurs at midsummer at the Zeda waterhole, under the supervision of the shaman. Dardani manhood tests are group tests. All of the boys go out to accomplish the task together, and all of them must come back together. The stronger boys are expected to help the weaker ones. This exemplifies the high value that the Dardani place on cooperation and group effort. After the manhood test, the boys are given their manhood tattoos. These again vary by Clan—a charging lion, a running horse, a soaring eagle, etc. The manhood tattoo is placed on the right shoulder. After the manhood test, the young men are expected to become more serious about contributing to the Clan’s welfare. The young men generally move into the Clan’s bachelor hut, where they will live until they build their own hut. They are also expected to begin courtship and form relationships with young women from other Clans.
Other tattoos are occasionally used. A roaring lion, a rearing horse, or a stooping eagle are considered hero’s tattoos. Still other tattoos may be given upon completion of some unusual feat, like the successful completion of an Ordeal. These tattoos are most commonly placed on the left shoulder, but some may be placed on the back. The Clan Mark is the definitive sign of a Dardani. Occasionally, outsiders may be adopted by a Clan and given the Clan Mark. To the Clan and the Dardani, there is no distinction between these adopted members and those born into the tribe. If you have the Clan Mark, you belong to the Clan and you are, by definition, Dardani.
The girls’ initiation into womanhood is more private. It generally takes place during the time when the Clan is together, but away from Zeda—during the spring or autumn. There is no test associated with the women’s rite of passage. When she is deemed to be nearing womanhood, the girl is moved from her family’s hut to the women’s hut and begins receiving instruction from the older women. This always occurs after the onset of puberty, but not necessarily immediately after. Since the girl will not normally encounter eligible young men until the Clan arrives back at Zeda, the old women have a chance to explain her rights and responsibilities as a woman fairly thoroughly. Since they grow up amongst livestock and living in one-room huts with their families, they rarely need much, if any, instruction on the facts of life. During this time, the young women also begin to work at the usual women’s tasks—tending the vegetable gardens, watching the young children, spinning, weaving, and sewing, etc. When the Clan arrives at Zeda, young men of other Clans will normally begin to try to attract the attention of the eligible young women. This is particularly true immediately following the manhood test.
Dardani marriage is complex. A man may not marry into his own Clan or the Clan of his mother. Young women of all other Clans are eligible mates. Generally, when a young man and woman are attracted to one another, he will offer her a token. If she is willing to become his year-mate, she will accept the token by saying “I will keep it for you for a while”. The token is usually something that the young man has made or something of significance to him. After the acceptance of the token, the couple will begin to spend much more time together. After a—usually short—period of courtship has passed, the young man will begin to build their first hut. As he digs the pit and builds the hut, she will weave mats of dried grass for the floor and softer mats for sitting and sleeping. Usually, the couple’s parents will bring some small items to furnish the hut and offer their blessings. When the hut is complete, they will move in together. This is often accompanied by lewd and suggestive comments by the couple’s age-mates, who often literally push the couple inside their new hut. During this period, the young woman will chew Uza leaf to prevent pregnancy. She will go with her year-mate’s Clan to the autumn, winter, and spring villages. At any time during the first two years, either partner may decide to terminate the relationship. There is no shame associated with this and it does not affect the ability of either partner to find another mate. The Dardani do not necessarily expect couples to find suitable mates immediately. No particular value is placed on virginity for either partner. However, they do expect fidelity to a mate while a relationship exists. There are severe penalties for the partner who strays and for an individual who tries to come between partners. An unfaithful partner is unlikely to ever find another mate, since they have been proven untrustworthy. After two winters—the most difficult season because of the enforced togetherness—the couple may declare themselves life mates before the tribe. Even life mates always have the option of leaving their partner. No couple is ever forced to stay together in Dardani culture.
The greatest punishment for a Dardani is to be cast out of his Clan and the tribe. This is rarely done and the offense must be something the Dardani feel is unforgivable—like murder or attacking a child. Before the offender is cast out, his Clan tattoos—the signs of his belonging—are obliterated by repeatedly cutting across the tattoo with a knife and rubbing ash into the wounds. After this, the offender is usually sent to the Northern Wastes, away from any area used by the Dardani. More minor offenses are usually handled as a matter of honor between the offender and the victim as an honor-debt. The offender must ask the victim to set the price of his honor. Since the Dardani don’t set high value on possessions, this price is usually a task—by custom, one that helps to offset the damage that has been done. For example, someone who has told a lie, may be required to tell the truth to as many people as will listen. If the offense is known and the offender does not seek to pay his honor-debt, the Clan and tribe may conclude that he has no honor. This is an awful fate for a Dardani.
The Dardani separate their year into six segments, one named for each of the Clan totems. The lunar cycles within those segments are referred to as First and Second, as in First Wolf or Second Lion. The cycle starts with Wolf (January/February, roughly), then Bear (March/April), Horse (May/June), Eagle (July/August), Lion (September/October) and finally Raven (November/December). It is considered propitious to be born in the season of your Clan totem. Fenar (Lion Clan) was born near the end of First Lion. His brother, Vatar, was born at the beginning of Second Wolf, an ill-favored season for the Lion Clan.
The Dardani hold one holiday annually at midsummer. This is the day on which the manhood test is held for the young men coming of age. It is also the day on which couples announce and celebrate their bond as life-mates. After the young men return from their test, a jarai tournament is held. Jarai is a game played on horseback—almost a cross between polo and soccer. Each Clan fields a team, composed mainly of the young men who just completed their test and they play against each other until one Clan’s team has beaten all the others. Then a feast is held, all of the tribe eating together. A special drink of fermented fruit juice (basically a hard cider) is served to the men at the conclusion of the feast. This is the only intoxicant that the Dardani (other than the shaman) use. And it is normally used only at midsummer and when the Clan Mark is given at the end of the summer.
Dardani dispose of their dead by exposure. Eagle and Raven Clan members are typically left on scaffolds so that their Clan totem—the Eagle or the Raven—can remove the flesh and return the Spirit of the dead to the Overworld. The other Clans use varying methods of exposure to accomplish the same thing.
The Dardani religion is chthonic. That is, they believe in Spirits that can act for good or ill. But most commonly, they try to keep the Spirits out of their daily lives, except for the mystical connection with the Spirit of the Clan’s totem. The shaman’s main job is to keep the Spirits at a distance, although he also has certain ceremonial roles, especially surrounding the manhood tests. They fear and distrust all other forms of magic as the work of Evil Spirits. The Dardani do not observe a formal day of rest. An individual Dardani may decide to take a day off occasionally, especially at the time of certain events, such as the birth of a child or returning from a long journey. When pressed, a Dardani will swear, “Sky above and Earth below!”