The Lands of the Balhe Society
The Balhe Society arose directly from the Vreski Society of the late Empire. The Empire was always a paradox, even to its rulers and subjects. Without doubt, Vreski Society had a single political structure and cultural milieu, both of which pivoted on the existence of a form of caste system where a person's position in society was largely determined by their birth. At the time of the Imperial expansion into the south west quarter of Ewlah, Vreski Society had become stratified into a number of major castes which rarely interacted with each other beyond formal occasions. Every person inherited their caste at birth from their mother, and would remain part of that caste until their death. There was some separation of work between the castes - for instance lower order castes were not permitted to perform higher order caste work, and equally vice versa.
Co-operation between castes was formally controlled by Imperial edict, and informally controlled by cultural precedent. Marriage between castes was (surprisingly) permitted, but was not a common occurance. Thus the paradox: was the Vreski Empire a single Society, or was it several separate societies occupying the same space and time?
The Balhe mythos contends that the Balhe Peoples were descended primarily from the Vreski Servant (not Slave) caste, some of whom managed to escape into the interior of the continent during the chaos of the 'Strife' that led to the fall of the Vreski Empire. Linguistic evidence does seem to indicate that the founders of Balhe Society mostly came from lower order castes, with few words or structures of upper caste Imperial Vreski surviving in the Balhe languages. But more recent DNA research has shown that Balhe Society has a greater genetic variation than would be expected if they had descended from just one or two castes.
Balhe Society is certainly unique among all the Societies on Ewlah, in that it is the only one to have no 'history' beyond the shores of the continent. Whatever the origins of the Society, today it can be stereotyped as a largely democratic and individualistic Society underpinned by strong social awareness - community action often plays an important, but not overriding, role in the lives of individuals.
The history of the Balhe peoples
During the late gt660s and early gt670s the Vreski Empire underwent a number of natural and social disasters commonly known as The Time of Strife. This included two separate outbreaks of epidemic disease - the first almost certainly a haemorragic fever (possibly transmitted sexually as it tended to cluster in specific castes), while the second is thought to have been a viral infection, possibly influenza. Alongside these calamities there was also a political change as the Emperor neared the end of his long reign, and social changes marked by religious upheaval - particularly among the lower castes.
By gt671, refugees from the Strife had ventured deep into the heart of the continent, following the Taete river northwards. By the end of that year, refugees had started cultivating areas around the shores of Cebrhuu Jimizhuu. The sustainability of these cultivations was precarious, and many died during this time - all Balhe peoples have a rich store of stories and laments retelling the horrors of life around the Lake of Rotting Corpses. Even so, this didn't stop the continued influx of new refugees arriving at the camps.
Pressure on the cultivations forced the refugees to explore the river further north. By this time some organisation had been established in the camps, alongside a rough and ready rule of law, which meant that these expeditions were more organised. In gt686 one expedition entered the Jasuu valley and discovered the Jasuu Oasis of Type Two lifeforms that had survived there. Without doubt it was this discovery that saved the nascent Society from disaster, as novel plants well adapted to the valley climate were able to be easily transplanted and exploited. By gt688 a new plantation - Zeluerhine - had been established below the oasis, and within 5 orbits most of the survivors had moved north. It is also at this time that the trickle of refugees dried up as the Vreski Empire entered its last, brief phase of stability.
The Ba'hadim migration
The Ba'hadim, according to legend, were Servant Caste people who had been bred by the Vreski for aesthetic and sexual pleasure - though some researchers doubt the veracity of this story, rather arguing that the various body deformities occasionally seen in the modern Ba'hadim population are due more to inbreeding and mutation. Whatever the truth is, there is little argument that a large group of refugees left the Zeluerhine Plantation in gt699 and headed west, crossing the Zoiznuu Jarakizhuu to reach the interior of their continent.
The trek of the Ba'hadim has become legendary across the whole continent. For almost 10 orbits the survivors from the mountain crossing headed northwards, reaching the Froshmuu Uveson in gt709 or 710 where they finally chose to settle. For the next two centuries, the Ba'hadim disappear from human history: not until gt914 was contact re-established with them, by Telik explorers.
For the rest of the population, the 8th century was a time of slow and steady expansion northwards up the Taete river and its tributaries. In gt708 pioneers from Zeluerhine established Ziguh'he Plantation, which in turn established Trinkolhe Plantation in gt725. Swaeye Plantation, in the Frhoshmuu Kausizhuu, was established in gt739; Gevile Plantation in the Nauskounuu Taetizhuu followed in gt760. And in gt777 pioneers left Trinkolhe and headed east across the mountains to explore the Frhoshmuu Egosizhuu: Tobase Plantation was established in that valley in gt785.
If the 8th century can be seen as a time of expansion northwards, the 9th century was a time of expansion east and west. Pioneers from Gevile moved east through the Pisyuu Gevilon in gt790 to establish new settlements in the Farhuu river valleys, and over the course of the next 30 orbits much of the Cuskusuufluu Cantan was explored. The Faeyen Plantation on the east coast of the continent was established in gt826, and steadily grew over the next 50 orbits to become the largest and most populous plantation in the Balhe Lands.
The Istrans had chosen not to cultivate this part of the eastern coast for good reasons: the area is plagued by typhoons, making soil management and cultivation difficult at best. The Balhe settlers, by establishing settlements inland and working their way slowly towards the coast, managed to spread the risk of failure - most of the cultivated land along the coast was built up slowly, and almost all of it is terraced and cleverly drained to prevent soil erosion following a storm. During the gt840s and 850s much work was done on establishing new settlements in the islands off the coast. More importantly, the Istrans made contact with the Balhe settlers in gt842: from this first contact grew trade between the Balhe and Istran Societies, extending in time to include the Ambostak to the north and the Telik to the south (though Balhe traders tend not to trade with the Vreski cities that they have to pass to reach the Telik Lands).
The Jaesconesh sect and the Taete Wars
Balhe religious beliefs have always been a complex affair, mixing local superstitions and beliefs with stories of a creator. The Vreski viewed the creator as a wrathful being, though most Balhe see the creator as mostly benign, or even indifferent. One visionary seer, Ganuete, formed his god in the Vreski mould. He was by all accounts a very charismatic person, who attracted an intensely evangelical set of followers. Ganuete was murdered in Zeluerhine in gt722, but his religion survived his demise, and by the early gt730s the Jaesconesh sect was evangelising in settlements and plantations throughout the Taete valleys.
The Jaesconesh world view was fundamentalist in nature, and intolerant of competing spiritualist beliefs. Even so, the sect managed to co-exist with the larger Balhe populations for over a century. By the mid gt840s, tolerance between believer and non-believer was beginning to break down; arguments became much more heated, and often culminated in violence. In gt849 open conflict between the two sides broke out in the city of Gevile: late in that orbit the Gevile Massacre saw Jaesconesh followers take over the city, killing hundreds of non-believers and expelling many more. The Massacre marked the start of the so called "Taete Wars" - a series of un-coordinated fights, ambushes, burnings and deliberate soil poisonings between believers and non believers. The non-believer survivors of the original massacre formed militias sworn to remove all believers from the valley; these militias attracted many volunteers from across the Balhe area.
The Gevile Massacre may have marked the high point of Jaesconesh efforts to evangelise the valley, but it also marked the start of their downfall. The believers were always a minority in the general population - no more than 15-20 per cent - and once the militias mobilised against them they had little chance of winning the war. By the mid gt850s non-believer forces had gained the upper hand in the conflict. In the spring of gt856 the Jaesconesh were given the choice to leave the valleys forever or face annihilation. The Jaesconesh chose life, and the survivors began what they called the Journey of Terror across the Soufwhuu Mesizhuu and Zoiznuu Kulhbizhuu. Many died on that journey: the Jaesconesh themselves claim only one in ten survived, reaching the Thakluuzh Verginizhuush in in the winter of gt856.
Prior to the Taete Wars, there had been little concept of government abover the level of the settlement or plantation - each cultivated area was effectively sovereign and independent, each with its own currency, laws and system of governance. Trade between settlements, plantations and cities was encouraged, but carried a risk that traders would fall foul of the widely diverse customs they had to deal with.
The concept of the Land - a system of governance above the level of the settlement moulded to meet local needs - arrived with the Telik traders in the gt840s and the Taete Wars, which saw a massive increase in cooperation between settlements, particularly in the Taete valley, provided a foundation on which the idea could be tested. In gt879 the settlements and plantations along the Taetuu River between Gevile in the north and Cebrhuu Skonamon in the south agreed a political settlement establishing the Land of Taete. The experiment proved to be successful, with a massive expansion in trade throughout the valley. In 894 the cultivations east of the mountains followed suit, creating the Land of Cantage - one of the largest single Lands ever created (if one discounts the Bartekol League, which was a loose federation of Lands rather than a Land in its own right).
Rather than join these new Lands, those settlements and plantations not included in the original agreements chose to become Lands in their own right and negotiate treaties and trade agreements to give them access to the emerging markets. The settlements south of Cebrhuu Skonamon established the Land of Frhadose in gt899; the settlements in the Froshmuu Kausizhuu established the Land of Meskause in gt904.
News that the fabled Ba'hadim still survived, and had established their own plantation and city - Ayene - in the interior of the continent reached the Balhe in gt918. In gt921 an expedition from Meskause set out across the mountains, reaching Ayene in the autumn of that orbit. They returned in gt922 accompanied by Ba'hadim envoys, and over the course of the next 10 orbits great efforts were made to build a durable trail to connect the two Lands together.
Trade was also burgeoning in the east, principally with the northern Lands of the Istran and Ambostak Societies. Ambostak explorers had reached the Froutiguu river valleys in the early gt940s, and by the gt950s land-based trade routes were opening up between all three Societies, replacing the much riskier sea-based commerce. By the end of the century the cosmopolitan city of Cancwame had grown rapidly to become the largest city on the continent. Surprisingly, perhaps, the trading language of choice between the Societies was a simplified version of Gevey, the most widely spoken of the Balhe languages.
In the west, too, there was peace and expansion as the Jaesconesh survivors began to cultivate the lands around Cebrhuu Ohnen. Contact between the Jaesconesh and the rest of Balhe Society was limited - and to this day remains strained. From the start, the Jaesconesh organised themselves into a single theocratic state - called Nuulime. The four cities of Nuulime were all established in the gt870s, and it appears that the people enjoyed a peaceful existence under the theocracy for more than a century. However, the gt990s saw a hardening of religious fundamentalism across the four cities, accompanied by purges of the "uncommitted". It is believed that the first victims of the purges - who escaped death - were exiled to the Froshmuu Nulimizhuu in gt996, and from that time the upper Nulim valley has become the place where dissidents and heretics are sent. To all intents and purposes Frheete (as the "Valley of Exile" is known in the Nuulim language) is a separate 'Land' to Nuulime.
Fundamentalism has not remained exiled across the mountains either. The gt1020s saw the rise of another charismatic fundamentalist - Mi'huede - who began his preaching in Zeluerhine and moved slowly northwards. While nowhere near as successful as the Jaesconesh, his vision of the wrathful god attracted a following of several thousand by the time he reached the walls of Gevile in gt1026. Denied entry to that city, and threatened with slaughter, he continued northwards and founded a new settlement in the Froshmuu Illhon - now the Land of Illhe.
The place of religion within Balhe society
Four great strands of religious belief intertwine to form the bedrock of Balhe Society's mythology and spirituality, with two strands dominant. These can be summarised as:
- the creator stories
- the great punishment myths
- the starman beliefs
- folk spirits
In Balhe Society, the creator stories form the basis of the officially approved form of religious observance, particularly in the western Lands, while veneration of folk spirits is the norm at the domestic level. The creator - called Jaakra in the Gevey language - is a monotheistic, benign supreme being. The essence of the central creation myth tells how Jaakra created the planet, sun, stars and the cosmos from his (literally "its") thoughs and voice, as a home for himself. He then decorated his new home with life. The first attempt (which includes the bulk of the planet's lifeforms) was not satisfactory to Jaakra, who then created disease, dacay, destruction and death to make space for his second attempt - humanity-centred lifeforms. Once this work was completed, Jaakra withdrew to his fortress of fire and ice within the bounds of the Roof of the World, where he sits still in contemplation and grace. Occasionally, Jaakra is roused to visit his creation, giving blessings (which sometimes have unforseen, unfortunate outcomes) as he sees fit.
In the Jaakrisme religion, there is no life after death or melding with the godhead, nor any reincarnation - though some dispute this. Jaakrisme is worshipped mainly in temples and convents. Prayer and contemplation is principally directed at trying to understand the purpose of the creation, and of humanity's place within it. Temples and convents also play a role in education, healing, and artistic and scientific endeavour.
Jaesconesh - a harsher (purer) form of Jaakrisme based on the teachings and writings of the Seer Ganuete and his disciples - is the official religion in the Lands of Frheete and Nuulime. The followers of the Seer Mi'huede follow a similar, more recent interpretation of Jaesconesh in the Land of Illhush.
In other Lands, while Jaakrisme may fill the ritualistic and philosophical needs of Balhe Society, it lacks the structure to fulfill people's everyday spiritual requirements. For these, many people turn to the complex and dynamic world of the folk spirits. These spirits can be broken into three main groups:
- archetypes such as Sam-loivjahre (Big Man Sam) and Thoel-sastrhivde (the Corn Bird)
- geographicals - stretches of river will have a spirit, as will significant geographical features such as hills, springs, caves, etc
- hearth guardians - every family will have its own guardian, often a family totem or relic. The concept also extends to towns and cities, longstanding workgangs, guilds and businesses, sports teams and drama companies, etc.
The spiritual tradition of folk spirits is almost entirely oral and ad-hoc, with worship being in the form of placation prayers and small offerings. Carved or metalworked representations of given spirits are commonly worn, and stories featuring folk spirits are often retold in their honour.
At the more exotic end of this religious spectrum can be found a number of cults and secret societies based on the belief that folk spirits are able to posess a draafethe (shaman), who can then perform magic. Most people avoid such groups, and draafethem are often considered to bring misfortune to a community that tolerates their presence.
The other two strands of religious beliefs which impact on Balhe society (the starman beliefs and the great punishment myths) are more peripheral, their main impact being in their inclusion within some of the folk spirit stories to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the storyteller). Everyone is aware of these stories but few give them great credence. Their impact in the philosophical debates in Gevey society are negligible. Indeed, the starman beliefs are considered to be an Istran import, while the great punishment myths are viewed as being Vreski, and thus nothing more than superstition.
In fact, the only significant Vreski Society religious practice surviving in Balhe Society nowadays is the association of wearing certain colours, metals and jewels on various occasions. This practice, originally a complex warding system to protect the wearer from the attention of leshpesh (demons), has now mingled with the folk spirit beliefs, with stories being devised to explain why these practices arose.
Recently, some scientists (particularly in the fields of archaeology abd biology) have raised the possibility that there may be a seed of truth deep within the starman beliefs to help explain their empirical findings, such as the two competing ecosystems (with their varying amino acids and nucleic acids). This is, of course, a very controversial point of view.