The customs that make your world unique
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Last week, I talked about creating your world’s history. Now, I want to talk a little bit about what comes from that history: customs. Where you come from and the customs that you have, make people who they are. Buckle in, kids. This is going to be a long post.
There are a lot of customs around the world that are so intertwined with their cultures that they would fall apart without them. Last week, I talked about how some cultures tell their histories orally with dance, song, and telling stories around the fire. I’ll hold off on talking about the gods of the culture for when I talk about religion in the coming weeks. For now, I want to talk about some of the lifespan customs.
Well...let's just say I learned a lot about birth rituals that I really didn’t want to know—I’m looking at you China. As with everything else, there are a few ways you could go with birth rituals: make up your own, use one from a culture that you like, or make a mix and match of things you like from a couple of different cultures.
For example, the easiest and most well-known birth ritual is christening the child, which is naming the child but also telling your religious community that you’re going to be raising your child in that faith. Another birth ritual I want to mention is from Bali: there, they don’t let their baby’s feet touch the ground for three months.
If you wanted to combine these two traditions, you could have a culture that doesn’t name their children until they’re three months old, and you call for them by their name on that day to try to get them to crawl to you. No matter what you choose to do, having a ritual to celebrate the birth of children in your world will help make your world richer and more believable.
Coming of age
If you thought birth rituals could get weird, just wait until you do your own research on coming of age tests. Not every culture is going to have a coming of age ritual, so this one feels a bit more like it could be left out of your world if you’re doing larger communities of people or making up your own planet and countries. I do, however, still want to give you a couple of examples of coming of age rituals from around the world.
First, I’ll give an example for men and then an example for women. The Satere-Mawe tribe of the Brazilian Amazon perform a somewhat horrific, and extremely painful, ritual for the boys of the tribe in which they must wear a glove saturated with bullet ants for a full ten minutes and perform a dance while showing no pain. For those who don’t know, bullet ants are true to their name, and their sting feels like being shot with a bullet, so this is a true test of endurance and manliness.
While men often have tests of strength and endurance, women will often have beautification rituals to become ready for marriage. Indonesia's Mentawai Islands have one such tradition for their women, and this will also tie into another aspect of world building: what is traditionally beautiful for your world? For the Mentawai, it’s sharpened teeth. When the girls reach puberty, their front teeth are chiseled and filed down to sharp points so that they can be considered beautiful. While it might not be beautiful to us, to each their own in their own culture.
Whether you choose to have a coming of age ritual or not, make sure that it fits in with the kind of culture you’ve created for your people.
Ah, the beauty of courtship. Courtship has become a lost art in today’s modern time of cell phones and sliding into Instagram DMs. There are two that I want to mention (fictional and non-fiction), one that’s subtle and one that isn’t quite so subtle.
The first is from our own B.C. Marine in her world of Carum sound that you can read about in A Seer’s Daughter and her Idylls of Carum Sound. You might notice that she tends to break some of her rules, but she’s set them up in order to break them if she so chooses. When a man is interested in a woman, he will privately present her with a ribbon of intent, which signifies that any action he takes toward wooing her is purely with the intent that it could end in marriage. The reason why this ritual is private is so that if she does decide to refuse his ribbon, it can give her an easy way to say no without embarrassing the potential suitor and relieve the guilt on her part.
The second example that I want to give is in no way subtle, and it’s bound to have jokes galore about it. In Finland, Finnish girls will wear an empty knife sheath, and any man who is interested in putting his knife in her sheath on a permanent basis will either buy one or make it himself to put in the open sheath. If the woman isn’t interested, however, she will return the knife to the potential suitor. If she does keep the knife, though, it means she intends to marry him.
I will note that I’ve only given courtship rituals for heteronormative stories, but you can make a tradition for any type of relationship in your world that you want.
Mawwage is what bwings us here togetha today. If you don’t get that reference, get out—just kidding. You can stay...or can you? Marriage is a huge part of a person’s culture, though today, it’s not always as big a deal as it has been in the past. Sometimes the traditions revolving around marriage are preparing for the marriage, during the ceremony, or after the ceremony has finished. I want to go ahead and give examples from each one.
We’ve all heard of bachelor/bachelorette parties, but Scotland takes the cake on how they decide to celebrate: the Blackening of the Bride. After a night of drinking, Scottish soon-to-be-brides are taken, and her friends will dump anything from foul-smelling goo to covering her with tar before trying her to a tree. This is to show the bride that if she can get through this, she can get through anything marriage will throw at her.
This one gave me a good laugh, and it helped that I got to see it in person when I lived in Korea. After the ceremony is over, the groom will have his feet beaten with dead fish and bamboo sticks to prepare him for his first night of marriage. It’s an odd tradition, and I have no idea how it started, but it will certainly give the crowd a good laugh.
Anyone who has ever watched a period piece set in the 16th century or earlier will know about the bedding ceremony. It’s an awkward ceremony for everyone involved, but there would be need of witnesses for the consummation of the marriage to ensure that the bride and her family could not renege on their deal, because a marriage could be annulled as long as the marriage was not consummated. Sometimes this will start with the bride and groom being carried off in a raucous crowd to be prepared “for bed” so the bride and groom could get it on sooner rather than later.
These are just three examples of these events, and there are certainly more extravagant and interesting examples of them that you might want to incorporate into your world (such as Indian weddings), or you could make up your own traditions for these, but no matter what you decide to do, it needs to fit in with the culture you’re creating.
Hello darkness, my old friend. We’ve finally come to the end of our lifespan rituals, and we’re going to talk a little bit about death. This one we’re probably a little bit more familiar with because we’ve either had family who’ve died, or we’ve read a book or watched a TV show—I’m looking at you Game of Thrones—that has had a lot of death in it, so I’ll keep this section brief.
I only want to give two examples in this section, one you might be familiar with, and one I hope you’re not familiar with because it’s rather uncomfortable to even think about. The first you’ll have seen in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or the TV show Game of Thrones when Khal Drogo died (boo, hiss). Daenerys built a funeral pyre for her late husband and climbed on with him, though she knew that she wouldn’t be killed because of her being a “dragon.” This is inspired by a now outlawed tradition in India called Sati, where a widow would either voluntarily or involuntarily join her husband in the flames. Another example of this in fiction is in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.
Now for the more uncomfortable of my two examples: Endocannibalism. Don’t know what this is? I didn’t either, but you’re welcome for finding out for you. Endocannibalism is when the friends and family of the deceased eat the corpse in order to forge a permanent bond. Surprisingly, there is more than one culture that performs this ritual. On that dark note, I’ll remind you again that no matter what kind of death ritual you choose, it needs to fit the people you’ve created.
Let’s move on to a brighter subject: how you meet and greet people in your culture. A few things that you’ll want to think about when people in your world meet and greet each other is how exactly are they going to do it. Does the one with social rank say hello first? Does a person have to bow or curtsy when greeting someone of higher rank? Do they shake hands as the Romans did to ensure there were no hidden weapons while they speak? Would you greet someone you know differently than someone you didn’t? Is there any greeting that’s considered rude?
On the note of being rude, another thing to consider is if there are any ways to introduce someone that could be considered rude, such as not introducing someone with their full title and name. I’ll use Daenerys as an example because people would be tempted to shorten it because it is very long: Queen Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lady of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, Lady of Dragonstone, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.
Now would it be considered rude to short it to Queen Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name? That would be something you have to consider for your culture.
Why won’t your mother leave?
I’ll admit that I’m one of the least peopley people out there because I don’t like going places, and if you characters are the same way, this is a character you don’t necessarily have to worry much about this section, but you should still have some sort of idea of how visiting people in your culture works.
First of all, how does it come about? Do people tell us as they want and expect food, drink, and good conversation, or will they leave their calling card that they will be visiting later? And once they’re there, how long are they allowed to stay? In the past, if a guest showed up for a visit that they would need a suitcase/trunk for, it would be considered rude to ask them either when they plan on leaving or flat out ask them to leave, so you could be left with a guest for months if you’re unlucky.
Another thing to consider is, what are the responsibilities of the host? Will they provide all clothes and meals for a guest who shows up without a penny to their name? Are they obligated to offer them protection if they’ve fed them?
I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face: no matter what you decide to do, make sure your choices fit the culture you’ve created.
Mind your manners
We’ve all been told to mind our manners at one point or another, but what will they be in your world? Is it rude to speak with your mouth open? Is it rude to speak when someone else is speaking? The list of questions could go on and on and on if I let them, but I don’t want to clobber you over the head with all the questions considering how long this blog post already is. (Don’t worry, this is the last section!)
One thing you’ll want to consider is if there are different manners for the levels of society that you have. I’ll give a few examples of court manners. When dining with the queen, you are not allowed to start your meal until she has, and if she is finished with her meal, so are you...even if you’re not. You are not allowed to turn your back to the ruling monarch. You’re not allowed to be the first one to speak to the monarch. And the queen must be the first to enter a room in a ceremony.
Will your other levels of society differ severely from these rules? Or will the ruling class even have the rules of precedence listed above?
Once again, no matter what choice you make, make sure it fits within the society you’ve created. Thanks for sticking it out to the end; this post is finally over.
Join me next week when I talk about language.
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