1879: Inspirations 2

In which we consider further sources in multiple media that have inspired and informed the 1879 product line.


The Sufis, by Idries Shah: Not being a Sufi, I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy, insight, or inspiration to be found in this volume. I can, however, say that it was the first recommended to me, at the top of the list, by a practicing Sufi when I asked for guidance in writing up the Sufis as a playable mystical tradition. The author has written a considerable amount on Sufic practice, and presented several volumes of stories of Mulla Nasrudin and other Sufic parables. This is not an easy book, even for someone well versed in esoteric practice. It takes consideration, and contemplation, and you have to remember that Shah starts off by saying that you can’t actually learn Sufism from reading about it. The only way to truly understand Sufic practice is to follow it, and for that you need a teacher. Not having access to a teacher (yes, there’s a Sufi group in lower Manhattan, no, I can’t get there and still get home due to the bus schedule up to the Hudson Valley), Shah’s work has formed the foundation of my understanding of the tradition. Hopefully, that and review of the work by a practicing Sufi will be sufficient.

Spirits of an Industrial Age, by Jacob Middleton: With a subtitle of “Ghost Impersonation, Spring-heeled Jack, and Victorian Society”, you might expect a somewhat tabloid-style sensationalist work, exploiting the 19th Century’s credulity and hijinks. Far from it; this is a serious scholarly work that explores why people played the ghost, the social and cultural functions and impacts of such, and the milieu that created the opportunity to do so. If you are not ready to learn about ostension, skip to the next item in this blog.

Ostension refers to the real-world enactment of aspects of folk-stories. The word ‘ostention’ comes from the Latin ‘ostendere’, to show. It was used by semiotician Umberto Eco to refer to moments in oral communication when, instead of using words, people substitute actions, such as putting a finger on your lips to indicate that someone should be quiet. Folklorists Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsonyi appropriated the term in their 1983 article “Does the word ‘dog’ bite? Ostensive Action as a Means of Legend-Telling” to refer to ways in which real-life actions are guided by legends. For instance, legends of contaminated Halloween candy predated the finding of actual contaminants in treats by at least ten years (Dégh and Vázsonyi, 1983). Individuals who placed needles, razor blades and other dangerous objects in treats as pranks engaged in a form of ostension. The theory of ostension explains how easily certain elements can pass from legend to ritualised action. Entire legend plots can be reduced to an allusive action. If a narrative is widely known, individuals may become involved in real life activities based on all or part of that narrative. This is ostension in action; when legend alters or shapes the behavior of people. Real events patterned on an urban legend, fact mirroring fiction. In a nutshell:

  • Ostension is the real-life occurrence of events described by a legend. Legends we live. Being in Berlin and wielding a sledgehammer when the Wall fell.
  • Pseudo-ostension involves a hoax in which the perpetrator enacts a legend: for example, teenagers killing animals and creating occult symbols as fabricated evidence of satanic cult rituals.
  • Proto-ostension is where an individual draws from a legend and claims it to be their own experience, transforming a legend into an apparently verifiable first-person account.
  • Quasi-ostension is where naturally occurring events are misinterpreted as first-hand experience of an existing legend – seeing a bear with mange and thinking it to be Bigfoot.

Middleton’s book points out that people have been committing crimes, including serious assaults, inspired by fictional or folkloric motifs at least since the early 19th century. The term used back then was “playing the ghost” – basically, disguising yourself as a supernatural being in order to terrorize your community. Newspaper reports of these events created short-term panics and then folded back into folklore, and so it went in a cascading cycle. For 1879, Middleton provided the basis for numerous hauntings and pseudo-hauntings throughout the London sourcebook, and has laid the basis for consideration of how discoveries in the Gruv could influence Earther culture, through interpretation, re-enactment, and adoption of objects and customs imperfectly understood.

The Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury, has raised a considerable amount of controversy. The book itself is an example of proto-ostension, a collection of urban legends and semi-factual or contra-factual accounts accepted as truth, by an author with sufficient reputation and skill to get the book accepted as such. While it’s certainly an entertaining read, and is providing considerable material for the 1879 New York sourcebook, currently in draft, it cannot be taken seriously as a primary source. It was originally printed in 1927, long after the events it describes (ranging primarily from the 1830s to the 1890s) take place. Many of the events it describes are easily provable to have occurred in different ways, or from different causes. Critiques of Martin Scorsese’s movie, loosely based on the book, can be readily found, and I don’t want to bog down this article any more than I already have by pulling in examples that a quick online search will turn up. Suffice to say that Asbury’s work must be considered the myth of New York rather than the fact – but then in the world of 1879, myths have real power. Not just through ostension, the legend being brought into everyday life through interpretation and enactment, but through magic, belief, what in Earthdawn is called the power of legend. The mana level has not yet risen far enough in the 1879 world for legend to have the kind of power it wields in the Earthdawn world, but that day approaches, and when it comes, Asbury’s work may prove more real despite its factual inaccuracies. People always want to believe the better story, after all, regardless of what’s true.


How Britain Worked: Guy Martin gets dropped into six projects, one per episode, to rehabilitate a bit of Industrial Revolution-era technology. He gets his hands dirty, at one point spectacularly and grossly so, and lends his goofy, cheerful enthusiasm to the efforts. Martin’s deep appreciation of the grafters who put the Empire together, who literally built the Industrial Revolution, gives the series the respect it needs to counterbalance his occasional hijinks, like riding the velocipede down a cobblestone hill. Along the way, you get a look behind the scenes of the mid to late 1800s, as the camera and Guy poke into the gears and cogs, fire up the steam, and not only see how it all works but help get it working again.

The Spice Trail, with Kate Humble: This is the series that turned me on to Kate Humble, and sent me off looking for more of her work. When I wrote the Traveled Scholar for Earthdawn Classic’s Name-giver’s Compendium, I had Ms. Humble firmly in mind. She does not just follow the trade routes of the spices, through India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Morocco, Spain, and Mexico. She learns to climb a monopole ladder and harvest pepper. She sits with the women and cuts cinnamon from the gathered tree bark. She learns how to trade spices by hand signals hidden under a towel to prevent rival traders from knowing the price being struck. Over the course of three episodes, Humble traces pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, saffron, and vanilla to their sources, takes part in harvesting them, hears the stories of these crops directly from the people who farm them, and explores the impact that the spice trade had on each region. She goes and sees for herself, and far from trying to be an impartial observer, goes into the kitchen and helps cook the post harvest feast. Humble’s perspective, her willingness to engage, and her ability to speak with the women of these places and work alongside them, reveal a lot of stories not previously heard. Follow this up with The Frankincense Trail, where she buys two huge bags of frankincense from a grower, and then takes them on the old trading route all the way to Jerusalem, presenting a box of her incense to the Patriarch, who then uses it in the Christmas Eve service at Manger Square.

BBC Victoria’s Empire: Someone at the Beeb had the idea to send Victoria Wood around the world to noteworthy locations in the Victorian Empire and try to make some kind of clever self-referential commentary on the whole thing. Victoria ran off with the idea and sassed her way through three episodes of visitations, revelations, uncomfortable realizations, and semi-welcome tourism. The series targets locations named after Queen Victoria, God bless her, and leads Ms. Wood down a number of rabbit holes. Probably the best way to sum this series up is to do so in the words of Victoria Wood herself:

“The more I’ve gone from country to country, the less I feel able to do any sort of clever end of documentary smarty pants type summing up, cos the Empire isn’t one thing. It’s so many threads. If you go right back to the beginning, it’s about state sponsored piracy. It becomes about stuff. It’s about cord, it’s about cotton, it’s about tea, it’s about coffee, it’s about slaves. It’s about people, mainly men, chancing their arms, seizing their opportunity to have a life that isn’t possible in a very class bound tiny little island. It becomes then about moral responsibility, about people feeling genuinely superior to other races, having a moral duty to teach them how to live and how to worship. By the time you get to the Victorian Era, it’s actually a brand. It’s a concept. It’s a selling point. [ … ] it’s a way of people leaving England, an England with no jobs and no prospects, and they can go to somewhere in the Empire. They can live a life that’s more British than if they’d stayed in Britain. I’ve met people around the world who think the Empire’s a jolly good thing, that the British are a jolly good thing. I’ve met people I could barely look in the eye because they say that we’ve stolen their country. So I don’t know, all these threads come together and they’re knitted into a big sort of shapeless moth eaten old woollie that is the Empire, and some people are very fond of it and some people want to chuck it in the bin. I don’t know. I’m done. I’m going home.”

Tally Ho!