Just Ask Ug, Part I

You know what a barbarian is, right? A hulking, mentally feeble, half-dressed warrior who grunts and hacks his way through life, right?

Wrong – You Classist.

Barbarians are so much more and so complex, so talented, and — most importantly — much more fun to play in a fantasy game than the character described above. D&D, AD&D, 3e, Pathfinder, et cetra have all made forays into barbarian territory. Most fantasy setting games have, as well as video games, steampunk, cyberpunk, and future games as well. What people so often forget is that barbarians are a force to be reckoned with, the things that made Alexander the Great shudder, and of the six times Rome was sacked, barbarians managed four of them.

What’s in a name? The word barbarian is (βάρβαρος ([barbarous]) Greek, and it carries with it an ancient prejudice. Barbarians were called such as they babbled languages which sounded like “bar bar bar” in place of right and proper Greek. This title was used for all people who lived on the fringes of classical Europe: Celts, Persians, Scyths, even Egyptians. Later, the label was further expanded to include the likes of the Franks, Huns, and Goths. Still later, this same label was applied — with the same old negative connotation — to the native peoples of the newly discovered lands – Aztecs, Iroquois, the Songhai, and so on.

Barbarian as an umbrella: Let’s look at the barbarian supergroup – What makes them special? For starters, it was their success outside the sedentary lifestyles of the Greeks, Romans, and later European powers. Barbarians were able to adapt to living in harsher conditions, such as wild forests, scrub lands, the tundra, and jungle edges. It would be a mistake to think that barbarians are incapable of farming, but a bulk of their food supply was based on animals; husbandry and hunting. Barbarians would set up villages and camps, if they have any permanent settlements at all. Due to a high competition for a smaller amount of supplies a primitive yet effective means of population control was unconsciously developed: the glorification of war. This lead to their organization of their social groups to be based on blood-kin — the clan, family, and tribe — rather than on abstractions such as the city or nation state. Populism and Nationalism hold no sway for the barbarian.  Finally, the barbarian keeps an oral culture, not a literate one. Being illiterate, however, does not mean barbarians are stupid, as evidenced by the elaborate poetry of the Celts. Priests, singers, and orators keep a fully developed mental and intellectual culture alive in almost all barbarian societies.

We’re going to break the discussion down into three various kinds of barbarians, as described by a British Archaeologist named Stuart Ernest Piggott. There are the high, low, and nomad. We’ll also briefly look at an early European example of each.

The High Barbarian: Example, the Celts. High Barbarians of have enough agriculture in its economy to produce a food surplus, well-developed material culture, including elaborate jewelry and sophisticated weapons technology. (The Celts invented horseshoes and chain mail, among many other things.)

The Low Barbarian: These are the group often referred to as “savages.” This group often depends almost exclusively on hunting and gathering, supplemented by stock raising, and thus have a poorly developed material culture. The Proto-Germans are a good example.

Nomad Barbarian: Such as the Scyths, they had no fixed settlements and live entirely by stock-raising. Depending on the lushness of the grazing lands they and their livestock occupy, the material culture of nomads is either rich or poor. The Scyths, used here as an example, had many luxuries obtained by trading horses to the Greeks and Romans.

The Social Order: Barbarian society can be loosely defined as a democratic aristocracy. Each person who was free would have a vote in tribal concerns, such as declaring war. If they have nobles or leaders and they insist on acting against the will of the tribe, they were deposed or simply ignored. The one fixed social division is between free and unfree. Some groups kept slaves, but these were often prisoners and their offspring. Other unfree include criminals, debtors, and the dishonored. The unfree would somehow bind themselves to free families like serfdom. Amongst the low barbarians there is little distinction; everyone raises stock, which is collectively owned by families — not individuals. Men hunt game and women gather or garden to supplement the food supply. However (as the Roman historian Tacitus pointed out), as wealth accumulates in a primitive society, power tends to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands [Though this is not true of only primitive societies]. As a society become wealthier it is capable of supporting specialists such as carpenters or priests. This led to the high barbarians and wealthy nomads developing a hierarchy. Those at the top, the nobles, have surplus wealth (usually measured in livestock) and personal influence. While this would often stay concentrated in families because wealth begets wealth, it was in no way a system reminiscent of a monarchy.  A cowardly noble, for instance, would be scorned and ridiculed. Due to this lack of ‘kingship’ when a leader dies or retires due to age, a great deal of electioneering and sometimes even civil war takes before a new ruler can be declared.

The Taboo: Or geis, as it was called among the Celts. The power of the taboo is great, even today. What do you say when someone sneezes? Do you know any athletes with weird pre-game quirks? Ask someone in the theater what happens if you say “Goodluck” before a show. This superstition can help you get into the headspace of the barbarian. A taboo isn’t a quest, but rather a prohibition – and most often, its irrational. For instance, turning left or not being allowed to kill a bird. Ever. All societies have taboos, but barbarians believe in them so implicitly ill will befall either the individual, or worse – the tribe.

That’s all we have time for today, next week we’ll look a little bit more at the noble barbarian class and how to include a little bit more pizazz into your barbarians than just, “Ug Smash.”

For more information:

Cunliffe, Barry. The ancient Celts. Penguin, 1999.

Fehr, Perry. Barbarians of Porphyra, Purple Duck Games, 2014.

Piggott, Stuart. Ancient Europe. Aldine Transaction, 2007.

Simpson, St John, and Svetlana Pankova. Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia. Thames & Hudson, 2017.


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