Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Hslew

I did some ethnographic research a while back and never got it published so I thought I would upload it here.

The fascinating Hslew tribe inhabit a wild, wet, mostly treeless territory on the western part of the island of Niatirb. Though much of the territory is uninhabitable peaty uplands the Hslew are able to eke out a living in the numerous valleys that cut through this land. The stocky tribe has had fractious relations with the dominant tribe of the island, often having been subjugated by the taller Hsilgne, who arrived on the island some centuries ago from across the sea. The Hslew language is quite unlike that of the Hsilgne and has much more in common with other wild tribes that inhabit the marginal regions of their island group. Although the climate is mild, the Hslew perceive it to be harsh and unforgiving. If it is raining they tell the visitor that this is ‘typical’ and if it is sunny they say that it will not last. 

The culture of the Hslew seems to be in a most degenerate state. Most of the tribe has abandoned their own language in favour of that of the Hsilgne as this is considered more desirable for bartering and other forms of exchange. In recent years, however, tribal fervour has been whipped up by those who want to see the cultural and economic fortunes of the Hslew disengaged from those of their powerful neighbours.

A number of cultural and religious strata can be identified in the artefacts of Hslew life. Hslew religion is essentially primalist or animistic. It is characterized by totemism and fear of the evil eye. Though much of an older way of life has long since been abandoned, some glimpses of it can be seen in the form of rituals that have continued to the present. For example, many Hslew will make it a point to leave a building by the same door through which they had earlier entered. This custom is explained in terms of a fear of ‘bad luck’ and is taken very seriously by some – there is often a locking up ritual in their public buildings in which warning is given so that individuals can exit appropriately. 

Although, surprisingly, parents have no say in the marriage of their children, the father of the girl has to go through the ‘giving the bride away’ ritual. This takes place in a specially designated building that is quite unlike the Hslew dwellings. Both clans of wife-takers and wife-givers are expected to attend this ritual. They go to great lengths and borrow heavily from money-lenders to ensure that they do not lose face during the course of the ritual. This is odd because most of the young people have already left the dwellings of their parents some time before. In advance of the central ritual, younger girls, dressed in a ritual garb similar to that of the bride, enter the building ahead of the bride herself. The significance of this custom lies in the fact that the girls act as decoys in order to distract the attention of the evil eye from the bride. If at a later date, either the man or woman no longer wants to be married, one of the tribal elders simply writes this fact on a certificate. The Hslew are allowed by the elders to have only one wife or husband at a time. Any subsequent marriages are treated as secondary marriages and are contracted with very little special ritual.

The Hslew never take time off from their work unless they have to. “You’ve got to do it,” is a phrase that is commonly heard uttered by those who are taking a break. The Hslew are, however, passionate about their tribal pastime, which involves a kind of game of ritualized antagonism over a prolate spheroidal ball between the young men of two opposing clans. The game, which they take most seriously indeed, is associated with the consumption of vast quantities of an intoxicating drink made from the fermentation of certain local plants. Each of the battling clans is identified by a totem such as a bird of prey. Such totems are protected by the traditions of the tribal elders and hefty fines are imposed on anyone who steals their eggs.

Another totem, called the Nogard, is revered by the tribe as a whole. A festival in honour of this mythical beast is held each winter in preparation for the annual spring festival. On this occasion the Hslew challenge the young men of other tribes to join them in their tribal game. Every Hslew man dreams of playing for his tribe even when he is well beyond his youth. Before the battle is joined the two armies stand in rows facing each other while that of the Hslew sing a song in supplication to a distant and lesser-known patron battle deity whom they implore to direct them across a certain mythical river. Many Hslew believe that this deity is more powerful than the Nogard but few are familiar with many of the myths surrounding him and for the vast majority it makes little difference to their everyday lives.

Still confused? Try reading unfamiliar words backwards!

(I am indebted to an article I read a long time ago for the idea for this post.)