(The following article is part of A Layman’s Guide to Ancient Life)


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Metaphor especially has clarity, sweetness and strangeness, and its use cannot be learned from anyone else.

-Aristotle

As worldbuilders we’re often unaware of how modern metaphors permeate our ancient worlds.

While we’re free to use modern language conventions when writing fiction, the language our characters use should be markedly different. The most simple mistake is to use linguistic anachronisms, words that wouldn’t be used given the current state of knowledge. A common example of this is ancient archers being given the order to “fire,” which would not have been used prior to the arrival of firearms. More subtle anachronisms are easily overlooked – much of the knowledge we think of as basic fact didn’t exist until after the 16th century. For example, a character wouldn’t say they “drew breath into their lungs” unless they’re aware of the function of their lungs; for much of history, the heart was thought to distribute the breath.

Consider the metaphors of the body in relation to the state of technology. The ancient city was born in water; seas, rivers, lakes, and springs were the nodes at which humanity gathered, and civilizations grew according to their mastery of flows.The challenges of delivering water incited the first examples of large-scale engineering – irrigation demanded the construction of canals, dams, and pumps, while the need for potable water within the city brought about reservoirs, pipes, sewers, and aqueducts. Water, not fire, was the main source of ancients’ power – water wheels milled grain, sawed lumber and cut stone, while water clocks counted the hours. The primacy of water in ancient life directly coincided with hydraulic metaphors of the body; the Greek theory of humours viewed the body as a balance of fluids which pumped and circulated through channels within the body, paralleled by the Ayurvedic concept of doshas. Treatments were similarly hydraulic, centered around drawing fluids from the body via bloodletting or purging, while the heart, the body’s primary pump, was identified as the seat of consciousness. Where the body was hydraulic, the spirit was pneumatic. Wind was force without form; power that could drive a ship but could not be seen or contained. Concurrently the breath was synonymous with life force or vital energy – in many cases the words for “breath,” “air,” “wind,” and “spirit” were one and the same. In turn the ancient concepts of pneuma, qi and prana view the subtle body as a network of fine pneumatic channels through which spirit circulates.

Following the enlightenment, metaphors of body, mind and cosmos underwent drastic change. The advent of classical mechanics led to the idea of a clockwork universe and man as a biological machine; with the coming of the 19th century, the body came to be ruled by electrochemical currents; nerves as wires, emotions as biochemistry. Germ theory gave us the viral metaphor, later adapted into the language of computers. As computers became commonplace, the digital metaphor was applied to both body and universe; brains as computational devices, ecologies as networks, existence as information. Just as it was with the ancients, our current technology can explain the totality of existence.

As moderns, we draw upon a vast legacy of knowledge with which we shape our worldview; consequently our language is full of modern metaphors for existence. This is my biggest complaint with movies set in historic or fantastic settings – modern writers write modern lines for modern actors, and the world feels entirely modern. We forget that while the ancients share our humanity, the world they inhabited was fundamentally different than ours. By changing the language of our characters to reflect this, our world becomes more different, more distinctive, more real. It’s this attention to detail that takes people out of the present and into the rich, living world you’re created. This works for me. Find something that works for you and stay creative.

It was written once that the road to creation is long. You know this to be true.

For as long as you can now remember you have walked the ákros, the glacial wastes that begin where the maps of men draw their ends, vast white plains that reach behind and beyond you towards unreachable horizons. Supplies are gone and the cold inescapable, a cold that numbs the face and deadens the feet, a cold that promises a swift and dreamless sleep. You walk.

You walk until the chill has gone deep into your blood, each breath a knife in your throat. You walk until the wind becomes a veil of white, driving into your eyes and fighting each step. You walk until you can walk no further, and then you fall to your knees. Looking up, through the whipping snow you think you glimpsed a thunderhead. You think you crawled; you do not quite remember.

For you are no longer on ice, but on stone, stone that shines darkly and glistens with water. There is something ancient about it, something that betrays a power within its veins.  This is not mere stone; this is the foundation of the world. This is the living rock.

A cool wind is about you, and the smell of rain. Drops begin to fall, and then you are enveloped in a storm, its water warm and sweet. You shed your clothes and rise to your feet as the downpour washes over you, drenching your hair and skin. Though you cannot see before you, you hear a roar in the distance.

Slowly, the rain recedes. The air here is thick with mist and power, saturated with a mageia so dense it makes your skin tingle. You dare not cast, but tentatively wave your hand in a half-incantation; the epaoide flows from your fingers near-unbidden, blossoming before your eyes into something wondrous and terrible, something that turns to glance upon its creator before twisting into the spray. The air is thick with power, here; the powers of creation.

As you walk forward the roar becomes louder, deafening. And then you see it.

A wall of water, broader than a hundred cities and taller than the eye can follow, falling from above the heavens to crash into the dark and churning sea beneath it.  This is it – the beginning of the oceans, the fount that birthed the nine seas. No, it is more. These are the very waters of creation. This is the beginning of life, of the world. This is the beginning of all things. You look below and see waves, waves that would dwarf mountains, moving in immense surges to crash upon the rock beneath you. The sound of their breaking is that of a thousand thunderclaps; it is the heartbeat of creation. It is the sound of the breaking of the world, and if there is pain in that sound it is the pain of birth, timeless and unending.

The spray of the ocean blows in your face and drips from your hair, sweet and cold, the water of life. You spread your arms, open your mouth. You wish to drink it all, to spend an eternity in this place.

You cannot.

Slowly, you turn back.

Slowly, the roar recedes. The rain is kinder on the return journey, and the winds are at your back.

There is no path to return but the one you took to arrive.

There is no path but the long road.

Remember that all is opinion.

-Marcus Aurelius

As worldbuilders we often confuse what’s “real” or universally true in our conworld with what its inhabitants believe.

Buddhist doctrine distinguishes between two types of truth; the relative and the absolute. All truths derived from perception are relative, as they originate from a perspective. At the present there are thousands of worldviews, each simultaneously providing conflicting truths. Religion gives us monotheism, henotheism, polytheism, and pantheism; philosophy gifts us a hundred schools of thought, and science (which until recently was undistinguished from philosophy) a thousand competing theories. We can safely assume that over the coming centuries the knowledge of today will seem as archaic as mythology. As individuals within a universe, we have a limited perspective and can never know everything or anything in totality. To an individual within a universe, all truth is relative.

In worldbuilding the opposite is true. We’re creating a world in which we’re not on the inside; we’re the God in every sense of the word, aperspectival, omniscient, and omnipotent. The world is us and exists inside us, and there’s not a single atom, city or star that exists without our knowledge. Everything we believe about our world is an absolute truth. Like Gods, we create the world in our image. A little too much in our image, however, because the occupants of our worlds seem to have near-omniscient knowledge about it as well.

Take language as a simple example. In a modern, literate, interconnected world, we have standardized scientific names for plants. In the ancient world, a plant that grows across an entire continent will have hundreds of names, even within continuous civilizations. The same applies to geography, fauna, cities and empires; there are no universal names. Relativity directly affects the world – competing cultures will have drastically different versions of what happened a hundred years ago, which in turn influences the present. Relativity is especially pertinent when it comes to the metaphysical. Most conworlds have a cosmogeny – often the cosmogeny, which isn’t so much a myth as it is an account of actual events – and all the inhabitants of the world believe in the same version. This is very different from the real world, where there are thousands of coexisting mythologies. Myths are metaphors for the truth, and multiple metaphors can exist simultaneously without conflicting. Yet in the majority of published conworlds, the spiritual appears to have been standardized.

Some worldbuilders will do this consciously or for the sake of simplicity, and that’s fine – it’s your world, just give me a good reason why it works. But most conworlds are populated by perspectival beings, which leads to inevitable differences. I see this as a great creative opportunity. You don’t need to restrict yourself to a single worldview; your world can be host to a wide variety of mythologies reflective of its differing cultures. Gods, spirits, and energies can be mutable and mutually compatible; contrasting cosmologies can draw from a single truth. History is fluid; magic is diverse. Ideas abound.

My process is to create a truth and let the occupants of my world try to figure it out. This is more reflective of the real world, but organization is key. My solution is to divide my writing into two categories – canon and artifacts. Canon is absolute – it describes the world as it actually is, providing a consistent foundation for reference. Artifacts are writings (tablets, scrolls & codices) produced by characters inside the world. As both types of writings provide insight into the world, I link them together. Canon articles about historic events include links to their various in-world histories, while in-world cosmologies can refer back to their canonical metaphysics. This works for me. Find something that works for you and stay creative.