Historical Reference: Ethiopia, Part I

Historical Reference: Ethiopia, Part I

We’re going to do a short series of Historical Reference posts this month. They are intended to be essentially elevator pitches for games in Afrocentric settings.  Before going further, though, we should set some ground rule understandings.

Take “Historical” with a grain of salt or twenty. D&D is not a historically accurate representation of medieval Europe and neither will our elevator pitches here be strongly historically accurate. Until ‘very recently’ in the timescale of human existence, “history” tends to come to us through a small number of channels. These channels, being human in origin, can’t help but come from a certain perspective (some would say bias).  Thus “history” tends to be skewed in favor of some and against others.  Furthermore, history is full of really uncomfortable and inhumane things. While we do need to look at those things full in the face when managing our real world, we don’t need to bring them into our fictional worlds. We want to make a space in our games where everyone can feel safe and have fun escaping from that real world for a while. Doing so usually means leaving behind some ‘historical accuracy.’ (Yes, games like Steal Away Jordan or Dog Eat Dog are intended to address social justice issues. Those will be the exception rather than the rule.)

Another understanding is that “Ethiopia” is kind of a dodgy term. What we consider Ethiopia by current political boundaries is not what ancient writers may have deemed “Ethiopia.” For the purpose of this post, we’re considering “Ethiopia” to be the region of land surrounding the Red Sea and south of Egypt – what we would think of today as Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and some of Somalia. Disclaimers out of the way, let’s pitch some games!

Kingdom of D’mt

The Egyptians called the region we’re addressing today Punt, which is sometimes rendered Pwenet or Pwene depending on who’s translating. Within the land of Punt were several nations, most notably Kush (ancient Nubia) and Kerma. Kerma is currently the oldest known human civilization, going back to at least 2200 B.C. and maybe as far back as 3,000 B.C. Kerma had walled cities, archers and elaborate funeral ritual, the equal of classical Egypt or Mesopotamia. It was eventually conquered and subsumed into Egypt. Kush arrived on the scene somewhat later, but fared better. Kush is known to have been ruled mostly by women (called Kandakes, the base for our name Candace) when independent and by men on the many occasions when Egypt would conquer it. Kush’s military may have been primarily female and the nation may also have employed a sort of loose communism, though there is not enough evidence to state either way on those ideas definitively at the moment.  Kush even managed to conquer Egypt at one point and install its own line of Pharaohs in a manner similar to the Mongol Great Yuan Dynasty of China.

‘Ta Netjeru’, meaning  “land of (the) god,” is another name for Punt. The name has at least two roots. First, the region produced large quanitites of gold, incense, wood and ivory to be used in religious ceremony. Second, unlike Egypt, much of Punt (and the African continent in general) has an ancient tradition of monotheism mixed with ancestor worship and spirits of nature.  There is a creator god who is somehow ultimately responsible for making everything and then some number of various lesser beings serve that god. Exactly who this god is, his name, and what the servants are called vary wildly from culture to culture. It’s all very decentralized.

D’mt was a small kingdom in Punt along the coast of what we now call Eritrea just north of the Bab-al-Mendeb (strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden). It is not to be confused with the medieval kingdom of Damot, which is probably a revival of the old name. D’mt seems to have been founded around 1000 B.C. and is gone by 400 B.C. with no good explanation as to what happened and the names of only four of its kings. That shrouded past makes D’mt an excellent place to put a game. We can safely assume D’mt was as advanced as Kush or Kerma, but the lack of current excavations frees us from canonical history and invites speculation as to its demise.

Considering D’mt’s proximity to polytheistic Egypt and Sabaea (modern Yemen), this time and place looks absolutely ripe for a Mythender game. D’mt is being attacked by Egypt via Kush to the north. There is a corrupting influence among the spirits and Egypt is taking advantage of that corruption to spread its borders. Players assume the role of empowered mortals (priests, medicine-masters, etc) to defeat the corrupted Egyptian “deities” but must be careful lest they too fall to corruption. Resist the urge to make the game an evangelizing mission to teach the Egyptians “the right god(s)” – religious evangelism as we know it is not a pursuit that these cultures would have engaged in.  It’s a political struggle couched in mythic terms.  Players looking for local mythological references on which to base their characters might look to Holawaka or the Blemmyes. EthopianFolklore.com has a few dozen folktales as well that players might use as hooks. The hyena in particular is an important figure.

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About Ryven Cedrylle

Thanks for taking the time to read this post! You could have gone anywhere for these last couple minutes and you chose us. Your time does not go unappreciated. For more of my unique brand of deviance, follow me on Twitter. Looking for players for your Hangout RPG? Hit me up on Google+. I also have a blog about religion and astrology if that's up your alley, which you can check out here.

4 Responses

  1. Really great post! There have been very few games in the past that touched on this, and I don’t think any of them actually took it any further than remaking a european viewpoint in a non-european country. Would be really great to see a game that went into a culture like this in the same manner L5R did with a fantasy Japanese culture. I know it wasn’t perfect, but it sure wasn’t “europeans with katanas.” 🙂

  2. Thanks for this post! This is an excellent start. I’m looking forward to Part 2. Thanks also for the link to EthiopianFolklore.com.

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