Friday, October 31, 2014

The Culture Column #44: The Vulture People

The life of the Vulture People is that of the war of all against all. They are everywhere, and they are on the fringe, fighting a war against the world, a war that the world started. They have been spared from destruction only because they can go where no-one else can, living in the places where only they can prosper, and because their enemies war amongst themselves as much as with the Vulture People.

Nevertheless, despite the omnipresence of war, the Vulture People understand the concept of a ceasefire. Only a ceasefire, though. There may have been a time, once, when wars could truly end and the fire-ghosts of the dead could be laid to rest forever, but that time passed away generations ago. The fallen demand vengeance and their blood cries out from the ground where it was spilled and there is no other way to sate their hunger but to carry out their demands. If blood is not answered by blood then they will seek it out themselves, and the dead are rarely able to distinguish between the living.

No, it is far better for those alive to carry out the grisly work of atonement.

Relations with others

One could say that the Vulture People’s relationships with others (and even themselves), or at least the hostile ones, are centered in some strange way on the head. There are many places that will pay for the scalp of one of the Vulture People, either for reason of the magical powers that their body parts are reputed to have or simply as proof of the kill.

Conversely, the Vulture People are often known to their enemies, and even their allies (few would call them friends), as headhunters. Their mobile dwellings and pack dwellings are adorned with them, decorated heads hanging on lovingly-crafted threads and the polished skulls of beloved foes being passed down from generation to generation. Almost every great legend is tied in some way to a skull, even if the legend requires a little bit of rewriting to make the relationship fit. The idea is that the stories that the Vulture People tell didn’t happen in some far-off place, involving strangers so distant in time and space that they may as well not exist, but to one’s own ancestors, and here is the skull to prove that it was real and that it is relevant.

Their preferred language is a creole of the land’s common tongue and something derived from the speech of lands further south, and it has developed far enough from both that there are few outsiders who can reason its sounds out into concrete meaning. They keep it secret, as they often do their grasp of outsiders’ languages. That most of them know exactly what the others are saying is a secret that they keep close to their chests and only a handful are permitted to reveal that they know it.

To compensate they rely on a hand sign pidgin and engage in silent barter. It’s crude, certainly, but it gets the job done and it allows the Vulture People to maintain the advantage that their secrets afford them.

Food

Most of the food that the Vulture People eat can be divided into three categories: meat, wild plants that are gathered wherever they are found, and hardy plants that mostly grow underground. The latter are beneficial because they can be cultivated and safely left alone while the Vulture People make their nomadic migrations through the desert, sure that no-one will come across their food in the meantime.

Most of their meals are designed to be eaten on the move. One popular (and rather complex) dish is made from minced raw beef marinated in a mixture of chili powder, clarified sheep’s butter, and herbs and other seasonings, including salt, sesame oil, spring onion, minced garlic, sesame seeds, black pepper, nuts, and raw egg yolk. Like most of their meat dishes it is served in a tortilla.

Unlike in most societies, the Vulture People’s bread is made from grain that has been allowed to sprout. This bread has slightly more trace minerals and protein and less fat and carbohydrates than bread made from the same, but undeveloped, grains (not that the Vulture People know about trace minerals and carbs). A kind of wheat pudding can be and often is made from sprouted grains as well.

Freshly-dried chiles are collected in string-bound bundles and hung from any surface that will allow it (especially near doors, and sometimes from the same strings that also suspend a head or two). They are given to guests to show hospitality.

Except in the rare case that it is eaten raw, meat is jerked, or dried through a method utilizing low temperatures, and salted or smoked. Even if it will be used in a tortilla it made be rolled into balls in the meantime, to either be eaten as is or be chopped up for use in a tortilla (which may be soft and rolled up like a scroll or fried hard into the shape of a bowl).

Almost any kind of cactus fruit is edible, and the Vulture People are well-acquainted with how to tell these apart from the few that aren’t. An alcoholic drink is made from the syrup, which is acquired by boiling and drying the fruit.

Of the animals that they eat, most common are porcupines, rabbits, turtles, fish (where there is water), and wild pigs. The latter are especially popular in a dish of cubed pork marinated and cooked in red chile, garlic, and wild marjoram.

Domesticated animals

The Vulture People are apathetic to dogs at best and antipathetic at worst. As an alternative they have domesticated the coyote. Vulture coyotes howl rather than bark and are very friendly (sometimes too friendly) but quick to express a dislike of confined spaces. They are faster than most dogs and certainly possess a much higher endurance, being capable of going up to nine hundred miles with only a little food in their bellies. They are, however, a little less intelligent even if they are more capable of surviving on their own, but this is of little import to the Vulture People, who use them as an aid in their persistence-style hunting.

The other three domesticated animals used by the Vulture People provide them with dairy products, among other things. Sheep are a source of wool (though the climate is usually too hot for this to be used in clothing, and wool is usually turned to other uses) and the main source of butter.

Horses are the primary beast of burden (though coyotes are also used in a pinch because of their great endurance). No butter is made from their milk, which takes “considerable skill” to procure, but it is frequently fermented by being placed in a wooden container suspended from a horse so that it gets jostled around during riding. The milk has a sour and pungent taste and the dregs are poured back into their containers after one is finished drinking, no matter how much or little is left. Unfermented, it is useful as a laxative.

Camels are the rarest of the four animals, common enough to not be at all unknown to the Vulture People but rare enough that they are still a greater status symbol than the horse. Their milk, unlike that of the sheep and the horse, cannot be turned to cheese, and they are hard enough to milk in general, but the camel is valuable in the desert environment and their milk, no matter how hard to acquire or how different from the varieties that the Vulture People prefer, is nevertheless highly-regarded on the basis that camel’s milk implies access to a camel. For that reason it is almost never sold, but only given as a gift.


Social structure

The Vulture People live on the edge, perhaps more than the other people of the lands north and south. While this has made them cruel by necessity, it has tempered their sharpness and taught them mercy in other respects. As much as they will bear claws against outsiders, they cannot do the same to their closest ones. Their bands would self-consume like a raging fire on too little brush.

It was said among the Bedooyn people, “I against my brother, I and my brother against my cousin, I and my brother and my cousin against the world.” This is not so for the Vulture People, who may quarrel with their cousins and certainly war against the world as surely as it wars against them, but may never turn against their closest ones.

The extended family is connected through a lineage of women who live together. Into these units men enter upon marriage, leaving behind their parents’ family. It is traditional for all siblings of a given sex from one family to marry all of the siblings of the opposite sex from another family, irrespective of the numbers on either side of the equation. If there is a gross imbalance then tradition may be waived, but just as often it is not. Betrothals are usually arranged while the eldest children are only fourteen winters old, and their younger siblings grow up knowing their future spouses well in advance of their coming of age.

As only maternity can be established with certainty, only the mother’s line is traced in the genealogies and ownership of property is concentrated among the women. Men may own property until they come of age and marry, when their few belongings are joined into their wives’ family’s property. The Vulture People practice ultimogeniture, in which a woman’s youngest child, regardless of sex, inherits all that she owns. This is because the older ones, it is reasoned, have had the opportunity to make their own way by the time of their mother’s death, but because of this it is expected that the youngest will care for xir mother and her husbands in their old age.

After immediate relatives comes the rest of the extended family, the band. Bands are organized into tribes, which can be summarized as “them to whom one owes basic hospitality, for reasons of shared language, dress, and the predictability of their customs (for theirs are yours).” Milk, preferably mare’s milk (or even camel’s milk), is a common element of that aforementioned hospitality thing. In one sense, a band is one’s tribe and enjoys relatively amicable relations with them because they can be trusted, which in turn is true because their behavior is predictable. Who can say what the Dry-farmers will do, or any of the other people of the lands north and south?

One can go to war with other bands in the tribe, however, the same as with any other people. Thou and thy brother together, yes, but not necessarily thy cousin with you. Among their own people they prefer to establish control through gift-giving. One is indebted by the reception of a gift until it can be repaid, and the ability to bestow an exorbitant gift not only establishes one’s relative power but also secures their service for the foreseeable future.

Their prey is usually taken down through persistence hunting, as mentioned earlier. The Vulture People hunt in a relay style, setting up several hunters at certain increments along the trail which they expect to force their prey to follow. As one hunter begins to grow tired another is ready to take his place, and their respective coyotes are on hand to keep the prey from getting off track. Rinse and repeat until the prey literally dies of exhaustion.

(In a pinch, chasing prey off a cliff also works pretty well)

Both sexes participate in hunting, and generally with the same techniques, but men and women hunt different animals. Hunters share one half of their take with others in the band. When everything is pulling enough it works out about the same as if kills were hoarded, but by sharing it is ensured that hunters will be provided for even if they go through unsuccessful spells.

Capital punishment is carried out by hanging, followed by dismemberment. Fun!

Religion

Unlike, say, the Dry-farmers, the Vulture People do not kill those that fail to live up to some mythic Ideal. Such have been touched by the Spirits Around, and they are given place as their status warrants. Outsiders may collectively refer to them as shamans but in truth they may occupy any number or combination of roles.

Many are lore-keepers for the band, entrusted with remembering the most distant things about every story of every head in the band’s possession. Some may be sin-eaters, ritual outcasts who eat only “the beggar’s portion” of a kill and reside on the symbolic borderline between humans and spirits, where they can intercede on behalf of the tribe. Yet others may be “crazy-wise,” sacred clowns who are given permission by dint of their very nature to exist outside of the established way of things. They may not be punished for most crimes, for their actions show both where the traditions must be discarded and where they must be kept, depending on the successes that they enjoy in their pursuits.

The Vulture People venerate fire, the center of what might be regarded as a kind of complex “spiritual ecology” in which wood is fed to fire, which in turn is “held” by steel through the forging process. Fire is the bridge between the dead (the dry stuff burns the best, after all) and the transformed.

Dogs are vermin, spiritually imperfect and unclean beasts that are hated by the Vulture People. Where they are found they are killed, and they are never eaten. They are lesser cousins, even impure abominations, to coyotes.

Hunters fast for a day and a night before they hunt. This is done with the intention of purifying and focusing them. During the hunt they wear masks like animal heads in order to confuse their prey and direct their victims’ anger elsewhere to other animal species. After the hunt they offer prayers while they butcher the animals, dispose of their bones, and distribute the meat. These prayers are offered with ground-up maize and culminate with an anointing by dust.

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