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Obscure Non-European Historical Settings/Cultures

Discussion in 'Research' started by SinghSong, Jan 18, 2021.

  1. SinghSong

    SinghSong Minstrel

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    The pseudo-Medieval Europe setting's effectively the default staple setting for the majority of fantasy fiction, and many (including several of us on this forum, over the years) have voiced their opinions that it feels increasingly tropey, dull, boring, stale, unoriginal and overdone. But one of the problems is that, quite frankly, they're the only historical pre-industrial civilizations and societies that most fantasy authors have any half-decent knowledge of, (i.e, beyond the knowledge that such-and-such civilization/kingdom/empire existed at all). As such, here's a thread to share info about any cool or interesting, relatively obscure non-European historical societies and civilizations, to help those of us looking for inspiration for some more original, less cliche, but still equally realistic and plausible historical fantasy settings.

    So then, to kick things off, allow me to regale you with the true story of the medieval Igbo Kingdom of Nri, which has always struck me as one of the most interesting and promising prospects to use as the basis for a magical fantasy world's setting, due to the unique nature of its government, society and religion. One of the few states to have ever arisen which can be described as a religio-polity, the Kingdom of Nri was ruled by an elected priest-king, comparable to the early Popes, known as the eze Nri, a divine ruler who held ritual and mystic (but not military) power. And the Kingdom of Nri maintained its hold over its settlements, and expanded further into new territories, not through military force, but by employing a class of missionary nobles to obtain them by ritual oath (which would doubtless be a far more practical and workable option in a magical fantasy world, where magically binding oaths actually worked). Unlike the more paganist and animistic religions which are stereotypically deemed to have been universally practised across pre-colonial Africa, the Nri believed in an omnipotent, omniscient supreme deity, whose being encompassed the entirety of creation. They believed that 'The Light', Anyanwu, was the symbol of perfection that all people should aspire to, and that Agbala, the collective spirit of all holy beings (human and non-human alike), transcending religion, culture and gender, was entrusted to lead them there.

    And in all of West Africa, it was the only region where slavery was explicitly forbidden; from the rule of the 10th eze Nri onwards, all slaves who set foot on Nri soil were considered free. The Nri had a taboo symbolic code, with the rules regarding these taboos used to educate and govern Nri's subjects. This meant that, while certain Igbo may have lived under different formal administrations, all followers of the Igbo religion had to abide by the rules of the faith and obey its representative on earth, the eze Nri. An important symbol among the Nri religion was the omu, a tender palm frond, used to sacralize and restrain. It was used as protection for traveling delegations or safeguarding certain objects; a person or object carrying an omu twig was considered protected. The influence of these symbols and institutions extended well beyond Nri, and this unique Igbo socio-political system proved capable of controlling a large area. One of the core tenets of the state religion, Odanini, was religious pacifism, rooted in a belief that violence was an abomination which polluted the earth. Instead, the eze Nri could declare a form of excommunication from the odinani Nri against those who violated specific taboos (including slave trading and ownership). Members of the Ikénga, the priests and the nobility of Nri, could isolate entire communities via this form of ritual siege, resulting in their impoverishment and in starvation, given that the nobility also controlled the means for agriculture (in essence, comparable to the imposition of blockades and/or sanctions).

    And given that the Kingdom endured for almost a millennia, the policy was clearly used to great success within their own borders, and greatly boosted trade in the region; Nri maintained its vast authority well into the 16th century, with the peace mandated by the Nri religion and enforced by the presence of the mbùríchi nobles allowing free trade, both internal and external, to flourish. In Nri, as in Igbo society in general, there were strong social pressures toward individual distinction, and people could move upward through successive grades by demonstrating their achievements and their generosity. One of the traditional representations of this was the ikenga, that part of oneself enabling personal achievement, with cult figures (revered in a manner akin to saints or minor deities) representing the attributes of distinction, and the relative lack of overall centralization among the Igbo-speaking peoples conducive to the development of a great variety of art styles and cultural practices. Ironworking, in particular, increasingly rose to prominence during the Kingdom of Nri's height of power- with Ogun, the god of iron, becoming an increasingly important deity, especially for the other more militaristic Igbo Kingdoms, credited with introducing iron as well as being the first hunter and warrior, the opener of roads, clearer of fields, and founder of dynasties.

    The iron sword of Ogun, a central symbolic motif, is still associated with both civilizing and aggressive actions. And iron had significant ritual status across the entirety of Igboland, in which the forge functioned as both a ritual shrine and sanctuary, and the anvil was often also used for the taking of an oath or as a sacrificial altar. Ironworking demanded great proximity to supernatural powers, thus smiths were both admired and feared. Across West Africa, forges are considered to be female, and the act of smelting iron is equated to the gestation period. Thus the male smith is often considered the “husband of the forge”, and whilst though women are involved in many aspects of the metallurgic process, they almost never work the forge. The Bamana staff, or ceremonial spear, was another good example of the type of object produced by Igbo blacksmiths in the Kingdom of Nri, as early as the 13th century- these were almost always figural, and though they may have possessed sacred names, publicly they were simply called “iron women”, often carried by those who had purchased an important village title, or were of high rank (marking the status of members of the Ikénga, the Nri Priesthood and Nobility).

    To this day, they may also be commissioned by members of either the Jo or Gwan initiation associations, to be placed in the ground around altars in the sacred groves or in shrine houses; and farther afield, in regions culturally influenced by their legacy, similar staffs are still presented to young men at the conclusion of their initiations and as part of circumcision rituals. As spears were the primary weapons used for both war and hunting before the introduction of guns, they continue to be considered an important symbol of manhood. Staffs often receive offerings of millet, water, or beer, which are poured over the works during ceremonies. This can lead to the heavy rusting found on even relatively recent examples. The highly specialized skills of ironworkers were so prized that such artisans were often itinerant and moved where they were needed, or even traveled with armies into battle, often as members of larger, organized 'blacksmith's guilds' (the perfect real-world historical analogue to the 'adventurers'/magicians' guilds' imagined in many fantasy settings). This traffic expanded the social contact that occurred between Nigeria’s major kingdoms, and therefore fostered the rapid exchange of knowledge and spiritual beliefs.

    However, the Kingdom of Nri fell into decline and its eventual demise because, in the end, it proved too idealistic to cope with the pressures and demands of the outside world. Ultimately, it had no way to protect the freedom of its people, either from infringing slave states or from the British slave traders when they came to claim their share of the Atlantic Slave Trade; in the end, when faced with profiteering adversaries over whom their faith had no influence whatsoever (with no actual magical power to back it up), their strict adherence to their no-violence policy inevitably led to their downfall. Though, even in our timeline, this wasn't set in stone; at a relatively early stage, the Kingdom of Nri could hypothetically have well abandoned its policy of religious pacifism for a more militaristic 'crusader' mentality; the eze Nri's role would have borne an even greater resemblance to that of OTL's Roman Catholic Popes during the same time period as a result, and their nobility, spreading the word to neighbouring communities where they still practise Nri taboos such as slavery, would have taken on more of a 'Holy Order' vibe, provided with weaponry to counter raids in more lawless regions and authorised to use force to defend their assigned areas.

    In later generations, when other surrounding states begin encroaching on its domain, one could easily imagine this theocratic militarization developing still further, with the Kingdom of Nri raising standing armies from the wider populace to combat them, pushing them back out of its Holy Lands and eventually conquering them one-by-one. And if you think about it, in a magical fantasy setting, wouldn't the existence of magic, and/or the existence of actual deities, make it a lot more plausible for any kingdom and/or empire to impose its power and expand its territories by employing a system akin to that of the Nri, stymieing slavery by imposing religious taboos against it, and maintaining the economic incentive for abolition as opposed to slavery, courtesy of the fact that a society without slavery is always going to be far more efficient when it comes to free trade and consumerism? Food for thought...
     
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2021
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I think whatever you don't know counts as obscure. Unfortunately for me, that is a lot of the world's history.
    When I write in pseudo European [maybe not all that medieval] settings it is because that is what I can research easiest and know best. I can leave my home and with 20 minutes be at a Bronze Age barrow, a medieval castle or a Roman road...
    I have a soft spot for Persian based cultures. Probably because i worked with a woman that was adamant she was not Iranian but Persian! While we worked she would tell me folk tales and myths from her history.
    And I have a long held interest South Western Native American Nations and their history. But being UK based first-hand research is a little difficult. It may also be seen as intrusive and unwelcome.
    There is a long history of outsiders sticking their noses in and wanting to know about everything, and not really caring if the people wanted to keep it to themselves.
     
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  3. SinghSong

    SinghSong Minstrel

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    Of course, it's always going to be easiest, and involve the least hassle, drawing upon influences which you can research easiest, and have the most first-hand knowledge of. That's the main reason why most western fantasy fiction authors do use the pseudo-European medieval/pre-industrial setting (and why it's the same with most Japanese, Korean and Chinese authors using pseudo Far Eastern medieval/pre-industrial settings for their own work), after all. That was the idea behind this thread- to provide a place where we can share and draw upon our collective research into other, more obscure world cultures and histories, both for creative inspiration and just to find out a few things you didn't know before. BTW, when you say "South Western Native American Nations and their history, are you talking about in the USA, like the Hopi, Navajo and Cocopah? Or in the Americas in general, like the Mapuche, Aymara and Fuegians?
     
  4. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Yes, I was talking about the USA. Mainly the area centred on the Four Corners.
    I got hooked on the area reading Tony Hillerman's Crime Novels and it has grown from there.
     
  5. Eleanor Konik

    Eleanor Konik Dreamer

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    Thank you for sharing this! I was not familiar with this kingdom, although I'm loosely familiar with many other West African kingdoms.
     
  6. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    I'm going to a little awkward here and point out that the pseudo-Medieval Europe setting you're refering to is nothing of the sort. It is a very simplified (and in my view overused and lazy) setting, which doesn't reflect the very real variations in culture and governance which existed in western Europe in the Middle Ages. An example would be the difference between England and Wales, where Wales had (and has) a completely different language, a very decentralised form of government, different inheritance rules and a very different culture compared to England. Another example would be Sweden, which for most of the period wasn't a single kingdom - it was three different kingdoms, an area in the south which was part of Denmark plus a large area in the north (whats now Lapland) inhabited by the Same people. Of those kingdoms, all had slightly different laws, one was a sort of federation of local rulers, one had overseas possessions in the form of parts of Finland, and the only thing they had in common was language and some of their culture. And this is before we start talking about what are now Italy, Spain and Portugal.

    I think what I'm arguing for is a lot more thought from authors when they (we) create the settings for our stories. Why does the country your protagonists live in exist? How is it ruled? What sort of culture does it have? What sort of trade is there? And so on. Yes, your setting may end up being a bit like medieval Germany, but it could equally end up being like medieval Lapland...
     
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  7. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    This is one of the reasons why I think the world building in the Belgariad books works. There are Vikings [Chereks], Knights in armour [Mimbrate Arends], Romans [Tolnedrans], Egyptians [Nyssians], Mongols [Algars] and even Hobbits [Sendars - okay they are not short and are human but they are practical and very sensible farmers with little use of "adventures"] and a few Itinerant Wizards. All this with little attempt to disguise their origin ideas. It set up a complex world really quickly and let me enjoy the story.
     
  8. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

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    The problem is that this world isn't complex but rather cartoonish. It fits with Edding's comical style but let's not get hyped above a world based on national stereotypes to an extreme in its world building.

    When I was younger I hated Eddings but he has grown on me. But I can't say that he every moved beyond the category of authors who are "entertaining, amusing but nothing more". There is nothing wrong with this but there is something wrong in my opinion to ascribe a greater depth than there's there. I belive the "Rivian Scrolls" or what the world books is called makes it rather clear Eddings wasn't setting out to write Middle Earth or Westeros when he made his world for the Belgariad.
     
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2021
  9. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    Except that David Eddings is a far more complex author than most people realise. Its said that he took every trope he knew of and, with the help of his wife (both had degrees in English), wrote a series of books around them to prove it would work. The result is derivative, formulaic and also a very good read, mostly because the characters are very well developed. That characterisation is helped by the fact that there's also quite a lot of their own lives in the books, amongst them his own battle with alcoholism.

    World building isn't just about the setting, it's also about the characters and what happens to them. So yes, create your world, and be original if that works for you. But don't forget your protagonists, their characterisation is what your story will hang on.
     
  10. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

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    To start with I have no details as to the creation of Edding's works but I know what the end result looks like. I don't doubt that both David and Leigh Eddings were both talented, far more than me, and intelligent and educated, again far more than me. I don't however doubt my own experience of the world that it takes place in which isn't very deep even if very well written and functional for the story.

    To my knowledge world building is exactly the setting. Developing characters is character development which to my knowledge is separate from world building but connected with it, as all elements of a story should be.
     
  11. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    I disagree. You can't separate your world building from you characterisation, since the world/setting in which the characters act will influence and inform their motivations and their actions. As a very basic example, if a character decides to fight against what they perceive as an unjust and unfair ruler, why do they do this? What makes that ruler unfair in their eyes, is their view of the ruler shared by others and why isn't there another way of changing things? These are questions you can't answer without the details in your setting, but its those details which driver the characters actions. They are interlinked.
     
  12. SinghSong

    SinghSong Minstrel

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    Of course they're interlinked, but to what degree? It's the quintessential nature vs nurture argument, the "people/characters are purely the product of their environment and experiences" argument, vs the argument that "different people/characters are unique, and will react to the same environment and experiences in different ways". And it's something which all authors, with different styles and focal narratives, have every right to "agree to disagree" about.
     
  13. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

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    To get back on topic, my favorite bit of non-European cultural trivia are the Rai stones. These are stones used on the Yap islands in Micronesia in a sort of payment system. Or rather, social transactions as wikipedia calls them (alliances, mariages, larger deals, that sort of thing). In itself this isn't all that unusual. After all, there isn't all that much difference between a round polished stone and a coin .

    It gets unusual when you factor in the size of these stones, which are commonly between 30 - 50 cm and the largest being 3,6m and weighs 4,000 kg. These stones then are not moved when they transfer ownership, it is just agreed that ownership passes from one person to the next. There's even one which became inaccessible because it's under water (it was on a boat which sank). But everyone agreed the stone still exists, so it can still be used in transactions and it still changes hands.

    I find it a fascinating cultural phenomenon and I still have it on my "could be used for worldbuilding list". I can easily imagine a dwarven culture who use a similar system.
     
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  14. SinghSong

    SinghSong Minstrel

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    Cool info, and definitely worth taking note of. Following on from that, how about the Papuan tribal communities of New Guinea, particularly in the Sepik region (divided between the East and West Sepik Provinces of PNG, with a combined area almost as large as the island of Ireland)?

    These are also some of the most ancient peoples on Earth outside of Africa, and the singular most genetically divergent from the rest of humanity, due to the last isolated Denisovan tribes having clung on in the Highlands of New Guinea far longer than anywhere else, before being assimilated into the wider human population there roughly 14-15,000 years ago; with 7-8% of the DNA of the Papuans who live in this region having come from Denisovans, compared with 3-5% of the DNA of Aboriginal Australians and Melanesians, and less than 0.2% of the DNA of any other peoples anywhere else in the world (including the Sherpas of the Tibetan Plateau, whose genetic mitochondrial adaptation to high altitudes, enabling them to get more mileage out of less oxygen than any other humans, originally came from the Denisovans as well, and is also shared by the majority of the Papuan Highlander population). And it now appears that the majority of Papuans (63%), and them alone, inherited another particularly advantageous genomic sequence from their Denisovan ancestry, known as 'AQR', which affects how their immune systems react to viruses, playing a major role in the detection of viruses and regulation of antiviral immune response; with separate research indicating that AQR is capable of recognizing and regulating the responses to viruses such as HIV. Papuans are also unique in their variant of a gene called JAK1, which codes for a protein that is important in cytokine signaling – a process where immune cells communicate with each other, enabling them to do so more effectively, which also came from Denisovans.

    This was one of the world's earliest epicenters of civilization and agriculture; recent archaeological research suggests that people (though whether these were the early migrant ancestors of the Melanesians and Aborigines, or the Denisovans, isn't known) occupied sites in the highlands at altitudes of up to 2,000 m (6,600 ft), rather than being restricted to warmer coastal areas, as early as 50,000ya. And the early Papuans' agricultural system, in the form of ancient irrigation systems in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, has been scrutinized by archaeologists, with their research indicating that the highlands were an early and independent center of agriculture, with evidence of irrigation going back at least 10,000ya, and providing confirmation that bananas, coconuts, sugarcane, breadfruit and taro, among several other now global, world-changing crops, were all cultivated here for the first time, before later being adopted and spread across the world by the Austronesians after they sailed up the Sepik River and made first contact with the Papuans c. 3.500ya.

    The gardens of the New Guinea Highlands are ancient, intensive permacultures, adapted to high population densities, very high rainfalls (as high as 10,000 mm/year (400 in/yr)), earthquakes, hilly land, and occasional frost. Complex mulches, crop rotations and tillages are used in rotation on terraces with complex irrigation systems. Western agronomists still do not understand all of the practices, and it has been noted that native gardeners are as, or even more, successful than most scientific farmers in raising certain crops, with evidence that New Guinea gardeners invented crop rotation well before western Europeans. A unique feature of New Guinea permaculture is the silviculture of Casuarina oligodon, a tall, sturdy native ironwood tree, suited to use for timber and fuel, with root nodules that fix nitrogen. Pollen studies show that it was adopted during an ancient period of extreme deforestation, c. 4,500ya.

    And for these peoples (along with several Aboriginal tribes at the top end of Australia as well, cut off from New Guinea after the flooding of the Gulf of Carpentaria c.8-12,000ya, indicating that this cultural practice could well precede the flooding of the Sahul Shelf, and could conceivably be a relic inherited from the Denisovans themselves), bone weapons were a central part of their ancestral culture. Several tribal groups still craft and use them to this day, in spite of the ready availability of metal, due to their spiritual significance. And these weren’t just made from the bones of other animals either, but from the bones of other people as well. Most commonly though, these bone daggers were fashioned from the bones of northern cassowaries (or Emus, in the case of the Aboriginal Australian tribes who also shared/retained this practice). Which in spite of (or perhaps because of) being widely acknowledged as “the most dangerous bird in the world”, were semi-domesticated in several New Guinea Highlands societies, and were the only indigenous Australasian animal known to have been partly domesticated by people prior to European arrival. This wasn’t just for use of their meat and ornamental feathers, but for the use of their bones as tools, as well as to be traded in ceremonial gift exchanges. And for those tribes which semi-domesticated them, they were effectively raised as wild game animals, to be killed in ritual combat- with only a direct blow to the head, or an arrow shot from very close range, deemed to be acceptable sure-fire methods to kill them.

    Traditionally, in their culture, human bone weapons were only deemed to ‘belong’ to the wielder, and bestow spiritual power upon them, if the person who’d donated the bone which it was fashioned from was a direct ancestor of theirs (thus providing a conduit for them to draw upon the collective strength, skill and wisdom of their clan’s ancestors). Or, in the case of animals (and ‘head-hunted’ non-relatives from other tribes), if they’d been killed in honorable, close-quarters single combat by the wielder himself, thus granting the wielder spiritual ownership and empowerment over the weapon/s fashioned from their bones via the right of conquest (though this didn’t apply to bone tools- with the only real taboo relating to their usage being that to it was unacceptable to craft or use tools made from human bones). And to an extent, bone weapons are still very much revered in Papuan culture and society, in a similar manner to the Japanese reverence of katanas, and even in relatively modern settlements, are still custom crafted and displayed prominently in many Papuans’ houses, in much the same way that you’ll still see katanas wall-mounted in many Japanese houses (and that you’ll see cremation urns in many Indian houses- with Papuan ancestral bone daggers also having similar cultural significance to these).

    Bone only started to fall out of choice as the favored material of choice for weapons and tools, in Papuan society, as late as the mid 20th century; and even then, with Western missionaries’ abject horror at their ‘barbaric heathen practices’, having made the false assumption that everyone who used bone tools and weapons had to be cannibals, and actively sought to stamp them out, playing a huge role (and to be fair, several of the largest tribes were still practicing religious cannibalism, even at this late stage). Though this was more due to their greater ability to garner cultural, spiritual, and religious significance than it was to the actual effectiveness of bone as a weapons material- even the Papuans only used bone for stabbing weapons (e.g, daggers, pikes, spearheads, arrowhead), since there were any number of available hardwoods that were more suited to fashioning blunt, bludgeoning tools and weapons from, and bone’s near useless for cutting.
     
  15. SinghSong

    SinghSong Minstrel

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    (cont.)

    Across the catchment area of the Sepik River- which the Iatmul people, the largest and most dominant tribe along the river, call the "Avusett" instead, a compound of "bone" (ava) and "lake" (tset)- oral accounts tell the tale of the first generation of ancestral spirits and culture-heroes, who then embarked on a series of mythic-historic migrations, and created the world by naming all the features of the world into existence—trees, mountains, stars, winds, rains, tributaries, villages, actions, virtually everything in the world. These totemic names are deemed to be sacred; different clans claim their own totemic names and worship the unique clan spirit/s associated with them, with tattoos, scarification and other bodily markings indicating clan allegiances and differences in social status. Here, spirit houses/ 'Haus Tambaran', richly decorated with murals and carvings, are the focal points for a regional belief system which reveres spirits manifesting as animals- from pigs and cassowaries to snakes and eagles, with the crocodile being most revered by the Iatmul, along with most of the other Sepik tribes who live along the banks of the Avusett/'Bone Lake' river, because according to Iatmul creation account, an ancestral crocodile was responsible for forming the island. In the beginning, after the cataclysmic Great Flood, the earth was covered by a primordial ocean, into whose depths the crocodile dived. Reaching the bottom, it brought up on its back a load of mud, which became an island when it surfaced. From that island, the land grew and hardened, but it continues to rest on the back of the ancestral crocodile, which occasionally moves, causing earthquakes. Both now and in the past, the prows of most sizeable canoes are carved, as here, in the form of a crocodile.

    And ancient tradition also dictates that Iatmul males undergo a religious rite of passage if they wished to be initiated as warriors, involving ritualized scarification of their backs to resemble the crocodile's scales, with the hundreds of cuts traditionally inflicted using bamboo slivers, without any form of pain relief. Smoke is then blown into the wounds, before ochre and tree oil was pushed into the cuts, both as coloring agents and to ensure that the scars remained raised once healed. These cuts are meant to be representative of the marks inflicted by the teeth of the ancestral crocodile, as it ‘swallows’ the young men during the rite of passage, before they may spend several months inside the spirit house learning life skills from previous initiates (with cultural appropriation introducing this to popular culture around the globe after Marvel Studios incorrectly assumed that the rite, and the Iatmul, were Africans, and incorporated it as a key element of N'Jadaka/Erik 'Killmonger' Stevens' character design for the Black Panther movie). It's also worth mentioning the Iatmul only gave up their ancestral practices of head-hunting and cannibalism for good after the conclusion of WW2, with the tribe having conducted its last head-hunts against invading soldiers of the Imperial Japanese invasion force during the New Guinea campaign- knotted ropes still remain in the Iatmul's largest spirit houses to this day to commemorate their guerilla warfare contributions to the campaign, where each of the dozens of knots represent a severed head. And tribal elders still take pride in their forefathers having stripped these aforementioned severed Japanese heads of their flesh, which was then mixed with pig and dog meat and fed to the tribe's young boys to make them stronger, as an extension of their religious philosophy. If you're looking for a real life template for an Orcish or Dark Elven tribal shamanistic society, surely there can't be many more hardcore or suitable than theirs?
     
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