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This public article was written by alexis, and last updated on 23 Nov 2019, 08:04.
The Sretso are divided into matrilineal clans (khaʔ), each claiming descent from a common ancestor (thasre), usually one whose tales or achievements are of legendary renown. These clans are distributed into bands (ľor) ranging anywhere from thirty to about a hundred people each. Typically bands are composed of two clans, where one is the traditional marriage partner for the other, and vice versa. (While this is effectively a moiety system, it should be noted that it's possible to marry outside of the band entirely, though this is rare and only occurs in smaller bands.)
Within a band, society is divided into three classes: the warriors (ħwetso), the shamans (šurtso), and the women (ŧwai); warriors and shamans are subclasses of men, and both marry women. The warriors are in charge of war, hunting, and fishing; the shamans take care of religion, medicine, and crafts; women raise the children, prepare food, and make clothing.
Horses are the wealth and livelihood of the Sretso, and a significant part of their cultural identity; they are often treated as members of the clan, and everyone learns to ride a horse from an early age.
[top]Marriage and family
Clans, as mentioned, are matrilineal (lineage is determined solely through the mother). Children are born into their clan and will never leave it; even after they marry, they are essentially "guests" in their wife's clan.
A man's wealth and inheritance (mostly) belongs to his lineage, but his wife's children don't actually belong to his clan. The Sretso additionally place a lot of authority in women, who have freedom in choosing who to sleep with, so it's not certain that his wife's children would even be his—but it's always certain that his sister's children (i.e. his nieces and nephews) are at least related to him, and are thus his heirs. It follows that authority would fall primarily to the eldest maternal uncle (sor), but warriors are generally away from home for almost half the year between raiding, hunting, and travelling, so in practice his sisters (sortsre) handle the day-to-day affairs.
The concept of “fatherhood” is incredibly foreign. Srekhil does have a word for “father” (pwam), but it carries almost no connotation outside of being a biological relationship; where most cultures would use “fatherly,” the Sretso would instead use soral, “avuncular.”
Under these circumstances neither infidelity nor homosexuality are prohibited. The lineage must go on, of course, but clans are typically large enough that people of the same generation can make up for any difference. Some women aren't even expected to have children at all, if their sisters are already taking care of it. Gay men have an even easier time, and brief flings while away from the band are not uncommon.
Traditionally, warriors marry at about 20 while shamans don't marry until they're 30 or even older, reflecting the different ideals for each class: strength and virility for the warriors, wisdom for the shamans. Marriage is of course exogamous, and technically arranged (with negotiating being done by uncles/mothers), but in practice both partners would have to agree to any match.
A child's birth is an entirely female occasion, and no men are allowed to participate or witness the event. Other female relatives help care for the mother and child (and attend to complications, if any). The child won't be named until a year passes, if they are healthy; particularly sickly children aren't named until they become stronger, usually before their third year. Children without names are often referred to as čiči, the diminutive term for any child or baby. The band is still nomadic, of course, and it's a common sight to see a baby suckled by their mother on horseback, hanging from her neck in a sling.
When the child is deemed healthy enough, they are given a šinnar or “familial name,” a personal given name used before adulthood, and presented to the rest of the clan in a public ceremony (thyol). A person's age is counted from the date of their thyol, not their actual birth.
By around age 8, children already have their own horse, and have learned how to ride it in all sorts of terrain, how to care for it, how to calm it down, even how the horses are mated and, when the time comes, killed. All these skills have a spiritual component as well; horses are also considered to be physical manifestations of powerful spirits.
Next is learning to hunt mice, rabbits, and other small animals with the bow, first on foot and then on horseback. Girls are also trained with the bow, in case they need to defend themselves. Making clothes and preparing food are considered women's work, but even young boys are expected to help with this, and these skills could be useful later in life, especially in situations (such as a long hunt or campaign) when women aren't around.
Amusements mostly involve the whole family: dice games, storytelling, music, playing with siblings or other kids—often with imitations of adult games of chance or skill.
Adulthood is marked by rites of passage: the khyeʔthaʔ (“become-man,” beginning at 14) for boys and khyeʔŧwai (“become-woman,” beginning at puberty) for girls. (One who is going through a khyeʔthaʔ/-ŧwai is known as a hyamtso, lit. “undergoing one.”)
The details vary by band, but prototypically these consist of rituals, teachings, and ordeals meant to prepare the hyamtso for adulthood. These include training in hunting and how to use a variety of weapons, memorizing certain spells and oral tales from the shamans, determining what spirits and ancestors are strongest in the hyamtso, and tests of endurance or pain tolerance (fasting, sleeplessness, or scarification). The process is far less intensive for girls, whose training also includes childrearing and some healing arts (and, informally, navigating clan/band politics).
The khyeʔthaʔ and khyeʔŧwai are long, typically lasting a little under a year. Completing them is considered a sign of favor from the ancestors (srenai “ancestor-glory”). The hyamtso is now considered an adult; this includes a koʔnar or “public name,” which is chosen by the hyamtso themself, and (for men) classification as a future warrior (praiħwe) or shaman (praišur) to continue their training, depending on what areas of the khyeʔthaʔ they excelled at.
[top]Honor, war, and hierarchy
The concept of honor (nai) is integral to the social climate of Sretso bands, demonstrated through courage, justice, wisdom, and/or combat ability. Weakness, cowardice, and dishonesty are seen as the worst characteristics a person can have. Insults are seen as a challenge, and failure to respond to one will permanently damage your social standing. As a common proverb says:
Ħa yo peš sa ňe yaššai ľiʔ yiʔ čwe mwiš peš koʔtsal.Bands are ruled (de facto, ancestors are the real rulers de jure) by a chieftain (yumtso), who can theoretically be from any social group (warriors, shamans, women), but in practice is usually the strongest warrior. Succession is determined with the yumtwaʔ, a small tournament that is essentially a shorter (no longer than a month) version of the khyeʔthaʔ. Like the khyeʔthaʔ, details vary, but it generally includes tests of core practical skills of the Sretso (horse breaking and riding, hunting, archery, swordsmanship, wrestling, spearthrowing) as well as spiritual and social components (entreating the ancestors, tests of herbal and mythical/historical knowledge, determining their lineage). A chieftain is expected to embody the strength, wisdom, and hospitality of the band, becoming essentially a synthesis of the three social classes.
“It is better to have a broken bone than a broken reputation.”
Warfare between bands (ľorħwe) is mostly based on disputes of honor, though territory or resources are also common causes. These conflicts are heavily ritualized, often with a negotiation of terms between the chieftains beforehand and a small number of combatants (typically the band's strongest warriors).
The approach to raiding and war against non-Sretso (šri) depends on the circumstances and the parties involved, though it is rarely as “clean” as ľorħwe conflicts. The most common types of attacks:
- Against merchants with little protection. The raiders (šritso) only carry off portable, high-value items (jewels, jewelry, metals, textiles), and usually leave the merchants themselves alone, except maybe to humiliate them in some fashion.
- Against peasants and small settlements, to capture animals and goods or claim territory. These tend to encounter more resistance and be much more violent. Dense areas are avoided, particularly because the Kižīwi have since learned to build high fences and traps for the raiders' horses.
- Against Kižīwiš cities, outposts, or armies. Because of the scale of the battle (and the potential bounty), these usually involve a coalition of two or three bands fighting together. Traditionally, the warriors call on the Kižīwi to surrender before commencing their attack. A city that does surrender becomes the possession of a yumtso and is required to pay tribute (čwar), while those that refuse are pillaged without mercy.
The typical strategy against large armies is to cut off its head—commanders and generals—and break the morale of the troops. The Sretso's superior mobility, skill with archery, and method of warfare means that they can pick the enemy off from a distance, often defeating armies much larger than the bands.
Should a Sretsor warrior die in battle, both his body and horse are burned where they fell. Their bones (the most direct connection to their spirit) must be burned down to ashes, to prevent the enemy from retrieving them. Anything not fully burned is ground to dust. Their other goods would be divided among his lineage, with a portion (about a third) going to his wife's.
The Sretso venerate their own ancestors (sre), who are in theory the legal rulers of clans. They influence the fortunes of the Sretso people, and watch over their horses, their battles, and their morality. The ancestors lead bands into battle in the form of macabre standards made from their bones (sreľeš), adorned with hides, feathers, jewels, gold, or other valuables, and carried by a respected group of shamans (sretya). Ancestor worship is so central to the cultural identity that sretso simply means “people of the ancestors.”
The shamans (šurtso “wise one(s)”) are healers, guides, and keepers of oral history, but their primary duty is to interpret and speak on behalf of the ancestors. To do this, the shamans will enter an altered state of consciousness through a combination of intoxication, hallucinogens, and wild dancing. During this state (known as srekyar), the shaman is believed to embody or channel a particular ancestor; through him, a family can make offerings (usually food, which is then eaten by the shaman), ask the ancestor for counsel, and receive blessings. These ceremonies traditionally take place during the night, which is considered to be when the ancestors are most willing to interact with others.
Channeling the ancestors is considered to be a koʔru or communal practice, something deemed as the shamans' duty to his clan/band. The khwaru or private practice of the shamans is instead oriented around contact with the pwor, nonhuman spirits found in nature. There are countless rites and rituals to follow, all of which are far more individualized than the rites of the ancestors—fasting, bloodletting, chants, treks away from camp, using hallucinogenic herbs—but no one action is strictly necessary to attract the attention of the pwor, and an experienced shaman can ignore them all.
A shaman may meet many pwor, but usually chooses one—or is chosen by one—as his sraʔ, a spirit companion that would accompany him through his life. This can be anything from a fox to a lion to something that isn't an animal at all. One of the signature marks of a Sretsor shaman is a tattoo on their face, traditionally a stylized representation of the sraʔ, meant to symbolize their bond.
The relationship between a shaman and his sraʔ is often described as similar to the one between a warrior and his horse. While the ancestors rule the clans and influence their fate, they also tend to be somewhat distant, and are approached more with propitiation and ritual than sincerity; a sraʔ, on the other hand, has a more direct and personal connection with their shaman, assisting him in his daily tasks, protecting him, and offering companionship.
Shamans tend to cultivate a certain wildness, and a little irrational behavior is expected: one might talk nonsense, or decide not to talk at all, or suddenly run off on some errand for the ancestors or a sraʔ, or grow a beard only to suddenly shave it off the next day. Their clothing is often bright, wild, and a little dishevelled, with decorations of bone and valuables, much like the sreľeš. (This can be a welcome break from the tactless and violent culture of the warriors.)
Although shamans are the primary spiritual leaders of a band, there are also female healers (tyetso) who have their own practice. They are most commonly elderly women (especially those who never had children), and will act as midwifes for new mothers, tending to complications during childbirth and treating most illnesses or injuries in general. The healers use a variety of methods, but typically their practice consists of herbalism supplemented by other minor forms of medicine. When an illness or injury is more severe or isn't responding to a tyetso's care, a shaman is usually approached, especially when the illness is primarily mental.
Instead of sraʔ, the women have minor goddesses (hyoš), interpreted by the tyetso, who protect women and their crafts, and bless children coming into the world. These hyoš are regarded by the shamans as a variety of powerful pwor who have an affinity towards the women's practice.