A Reminiscence of Tékumel

I came to Tékumel late. When I started roleplaying in the very early 80s Empire of the Petal Throne had already assumed the status of a legendary artifact from the earliest days of RPGs. When I started collecting a diverse array of RPGs in the early 90s the only thing in print was the Different Worlds semi-reprint of the original game. I’m not sure when I picked that up but it must have been in the period around 1993, give or take a couple of years — I do remember the long-dead store I bought it from. I found it instantly compelling, and started accreting what would become a substantial collection, at great difficulty and often great expense.

I have sold off a lot of RPG products over the years, but my Tékumel stuff is and will remain on my “from my cold dead fingers” list. I never did meet Professor Barker, nor did I have any significant contact with him on the Tékumel mailing lists on which he was sometimes active, nor did I ever make it to U-Con for the Tékumel track there, much to my regret. Nevertheless, Tékumel remains one of my greatest influences — Barker’s elaborate depiction of Tsolyáni among other languages are why my own invented language of Draványa exists as it does, and why I ended up taking a Linguistics class a few quarters ago, and why I found it easy — because I had already done a lot of reading on my own in the field, inspired by Barker.

The Ytherra of earlier epochs showed Barker’s influence very clearly. The current one not so much unless you know where to look, but it’s still there, in the languages, in the deep history and the naturalistic cosmology and the unknowable terrors that gnaw at the roots of the world of men, and in the races much more alien than one finds in traditional fantasy. This will someday, I hope, see print, and if it does I’ll acknowledge the debt it owes him.

Barker’s death was not unexpected, I’m afraid — he had been unwell for some years. He did, however, create before his passing the Tékumel Foundation to carry on the work of Tékumel, and to preserve his copious notes and artifacts for a new generation of fans. It’s remarkable not that Barker has died, but that he was with us for so long, still creating until near the end.

It’s been said that hardly anyone listened to Velvet Underground albums, but everyone who did started their own band. I think Tékumel is like that — so brilliant, so ahead of its time — that it spurred others to embark on creative journeys of their own. It did for me. It’s still ahead of us today, in many ways, a work as challenging as it is inventive.

So Farewell, O Ye of Wide Journeyings. You left us a great legacy that we’ll be struggling to live up to for decades to come.


Of the Nine Ingots and the Siring of Light

It is agreed among the followers of all the Gods that the stars were shaped before the world upon which Men dwell. Among the oldest of the Gods there are Zerem who speaks not and Symbrac, the Forge-Lord. In the days before the siring of Dragons Symbrac set within the Earth the Forges of the Velkánd, heated by the fires of the blood of the world which yet flowed upon its unfinished surface, in which He would later forge things of wonder and terror and legend. He labored long in the days before the world was fully shaped, and sought within the deep places that then were vast and empty, for fuel for His fires and for ores from which to forge such things.

In those days the stars were not yet set in their appointed places in the dome of endless night, and some among them fell to earth. Upon one such came Symbrac, and He knew that things of great potency might be made from it. Yet the stars were the domain of silent Zerem, and the Forge-Lord had no claim upon it, and no knowledge of the smelting or shaping of the steel therefrom. So to learn these mysteries Symbrac flew to the peak of the tallest of all the mountains upon the world, whose name has been forgotten, and upon it lay the Looming Hall of Zerem.

Before the Silent Lord Symbrac made the sign of respect and asked of the secret behind the star-stone, which was of like kind to iron but would endure forever and was possessed of strange virtues besides. Yet Zerem was silent, as ever, holding to his mysteries. A second time Symbrac made the sign of bargaining and asked to learn the secret, offering Zerem many of the treasures made in Velkánd from the fruits of the earth that are now exhausted. Yet the Lord of the Sunless Sky was silent still, watching. A third time Symbrac, making the sign of wrath, demanded to know the nature of the star-metal, and still Zerem stood silent.

Yet now Zerem stood and spread the Cloak of Night, and the endless dark of the sky was revealed, and even mighty Symbrac was filled with awe and fear. And Zerem opened his two hands, and there in his left hand was revealed a bargain to be made, and in his right was a gift for the making, nine ingots of the star-metal, smelted and ready for the forge. And the bargain was for a mingling of the essence of each God, for Zerem though silent is mighty in thought and lore and knows all the secrets of Men and Gods, and is beyond the limits of woman and man. So Symbrac consented to the bargain which would bring forth a great light to keep the dark at bay, and then did Symbrac and Zerem join once and never again, and from the union of star and fire was born Ilmántar, who is the Sun, alike and yet different from his fathers.

Of the secret of smelting the star-iron Symbrac knows it not and seeks it still, but though the skies of Ytherra are not foreign to Him, He has ever after kept close to the earth, haunted by the memory of the things lurking among the stars beyond the sight of Men, older and mightier even than the eldest Gods. But the nine ingots of star-iron he kept close to Him in the Forges of the Velkánd, and in the Inexhaustible furnace at its heart he made mighty works of craft over ages before and after the epochs that are remembered: the Anvil of Doom upon which the fate of the world is said to be forged, the Ashen Blade of Kórbrak, the Shining Claw that cut its way to Empire in the hands of Men, the Chimes of Jehén that will sound the world’s ending and others long forgotten. And it is said that one ingot remains in the great smithy of the Velhánd, and that Symbrac will not touch the fire of the forge to it until the Last Days draw near.

Historical Development of Draványa

The following is an excerpt from the in-development article on the Draványa language. It should be regarded as a draft pending revision and possible expansion. It is from the introductory section; the next segment, on Phonetics, is mostly done in draft but what remains of it (dealing with phonological rules,) will take considerable work to finish, since it will require me to break down the several hundred extant Draványa words and put them back together, codifying the underlying patterns as I go. But I expect to produce either a pronunciation guide or the draft of the rest of the section before that.

Dravanya is a member of the Laghá language family, a descendant of the speech of the nomadic peoples who came from the northwest to settle in the lands now called Arál Draván (in its historical sense) around six centuries before the founding of Dravá. As this people spread throughout this area, four primary Laghá language groups evolved: Dherúya (spoken in the Dhéruhir,) Zherúya (spoken between the Zemún and Álnetha rivers,) Urúthu (spoken in the lands drained by the mighty river Ján,) and Teráya (spoken in the coastal lands south of the Shoulders of Belrévesh, which were settled later than the previous regions.) With the rise of Dravá as the dominant power in the region, its dialect of the Dherúya branch came to assimilate the Zherúya and Urúthu types over the first millennium of the Imperial period, and later, as Arál Draván expanded to the south by both military and socio-economic force, the Teráya branch as well. The dialects of this latter region retain some unique features to this day because of the later accretion of those peoples into the Imperium, but it should not be thought that these linguistic shifts point in a single direction; later forms of Draványa contain fetaures clearly borrowed even from Zherúya and Urúthu dialects but not found in the dialect of Dherúya that began to be known as Draványa in the last century BF.

The people indigenous to the region now called Arál Draván were the Vádzh. Nothing is known for certain of them save the alien form of their name, but it is thought that they were a settled people of widely scattered small communities and practicing primitive methods of agriculture at the time of the Laghá migrations. Their impact on the migratory Laghá must have been very significant, for within a few ceturies of the migrations small cities emerged and writing and more advanced agricultural and metallurgical techniques developed. So while the synthesis must have been a fruitful one, culturally the narrative is one-sided; scraps of even the ancient Laghá language are extant from around the fourth and fifth ceturies BF, when the Vádzh tongues also must have yet been widely spoken in the region, yet nothing is recorded of them. Nevertheless, many words thought to be of Vádzh origin were borrowed into Laghá, and their decendants can be found in the Draványa of today.

In the last two centuries BF the Laghá tongues began to be called for the now-dominant polities in the region, and thus the dialect of Dherúya spoken in Dravá came to be called Draványa, called in this period Archaic Draványa, or the hamúlka vurésh, the “Founder’s Speech.” It is the oldest form of the language in which records of any substance remain, though glimpses of the earlier language can be seen in hymns retaining still more ancient forms but recorded in writing in this and later periods.

Rather arbitrarily, this period is considered to endure until around the time of the First Interregnum in the 10th cenury IR. After that the language, now dominant throughout the region, passed into a phase now called terrútor kefúthu, the “tongue of ages past,” or Old Imperial. Despite undergoing many linguistic changes during this and other periods, the language continues to evolve until a period between 32nd and 36th centuries IR, now known as the Age of the Grammarians to some modern scholars of that bent. It was during this time that Draványa (and other languages to an extent not as well-remembered,) began to analyze the structure of the language and develop formal rules for it. Those prescriptions have remained largely static ever since, and are by and large reflected in the description of Draványa presented here.

Nevertheless, all language continue to change over time regardless of the wishes of grammarians, so while the most literate and educated classes learn a formal speech based on the prescriptive grammars developed during this period, the informal speech has devloped independently of such strictures, such that today there exist two variant dialects, a formal and an informal, which are different enough to be only mutually intelligible to a certain extent. The formal dialect has changed much more slowly over the following centuries, and documents of that antiquity (1600 years) remain intelligible to the learned today.

Magic on Ytherra

There are two broad classifications of magic present on Ytherra, both of which utilize the ambient power of the essence, that force which pervades the world, and which is called Ilésh Asú in Draványa and Ihénza in Old Manthezárin. So-called “Low Magic” uses the power present in objects and symbols, or energy that can be easily coaxed from such. Practices such as alchemy and herbalism, the use of runes and augury are examples of Low Magic. “High Magic” is the direct manipulation of the essence.

This latter was chiefly a Manthezárin development, although its methodology has been widely adopted, even in Arál Draván, where practitioners utilize essentially identical methods, although there are many superficial differences. Early in the history of Arál Draván a distinct magical tradition developed, chiefly due to Dravánu feelings of cultural superiority, culminating in the development of a “dialect” of Archaic Draványa called Nashanáya, a complex artificial language invented with High Magical practice specifically in mind, as a counterpoint to the predominant use of Manthezárin by spellweavers across Suratha.

Today, these two traditions continue to co-exist. In Arál Draván, the so-called Asangáru Tradition is overwhelmingly dominant, and it holds a great deal of sway in Angháza, which lies within the Dravánu cultural sphere. Even there, however, it contends with the Manthezárin Tradition, which is dominant everywhere else. This is true even in Selurean lands, in which a third tradition is being developed in the Gray College. This approach is fundamentally different from the older methods, regarding the essence as a single unified force rather than six different varieties of energy. Some preliminary breakthroughs have already been made.

The essence is comprised of six different types of energy, each of which corresponds to one of the six Empyreal Realms. These “flavors” of power are called Correspondences; each affects different parts or components of the physical and immaterial worlds. In all of its forms, the essence can be manipulated; indirectly as by the process of alchemy, or directly by application of both the intellect and the will, a practice requiring long study and careful instruction, and also a particular gift or talent. Those so gifted, when they are identified at an early age, can be trained to mastery of this ability.

The Asangáru hold that each individual gift is attuned to one of the types of power, more or less exclusively, with talent in the others regarded as rudimentary or residual. Practitioners of that tradition thus focus training in one of the six Asangáru paths, each a subgroup within the Asangáru Concord and each corresponding to an Empyreal Realm and its associated Correspondence, and trained solely in that path, with a few legendary spellweavers mastering multiple paths. In the Manthezárin Tradition, while it is realized that most individuals are more gifted in one Correspondence than in the others, value is seen in mastering as wide an array of magics as one is capable of. Magi of the Manthezáin tradition tend thus to be less specialized than their Asangáru counterparts.

A comparatively young tradition has arisen in the Selurean Kingdoms, born only two centuries ago with the establishment of the Gray College near Enthierre. Adherents to this philosophy hold that magical energies exist in only one form, which while seen as differing by Magi of older traditions, are fundamentally the same. This approach has led to some breakthroughs long considered impossible by Asangáru and Manthezárin Magi, combinations of the power of the multiple realms rather than effects utilizing only one. The Selurean Tradition is still young, and its Magi have not yet approached the levels of power seen in Magi of the elder traditions; many of its techniques, while revolutionary to the student of the schools of magical thought, are of a lesser magnitude than long-perfected techniques. The manipulation of the weather is an exceptional case; this was thought impossible for centuries except in very limited scenarios, but Selurean Magi have managed to create spectacular and potent effects in the last three decades. The Gray College guards these arts carefully, but it is not clear that such feats are even possible in the older Traditions.

Too, in the Selurean Tradition the talent for High Magical practice is not seen as an absolute; any sentient being is in principle capable of the practice of High Magic according to this doctrine, at least on a rudimentary level, and presuming that the individual has sufficient gifts of determination, willpower and intellect, such that they are capable of grasping the essentials of the techniques involved.

There is another source of esoteric power which some choose to pursue; the aid of powerful entities of various origins. The Gods are the most obvious of these, and their powers are often invoked, not only by priests but by common people. As a rule, divine blessings are subtle, unlike the savage power wielded by Magi, but it can be effective nonetheless. The Gods and their servants are a part of Ytherra, even dwelling as they do in the Empyreal Realms; other entities, many of them malign or alien in nature, can be contacted in the Well of Worlds, a cluster of adjacent dimensions separated from Ytherra by stronger barriers than divides it from the Empyreal Realms.

The structure of the Well of Worlds is largely conjectural, but it seems to be arranged in a series of tiers or layers; some layers are comparatively easy to contact, but the beings dwelling therein are of roughly the same order as mankind (or perhaps of the old races,) and concern themselves chiefly with their own inscrutable agendas. Entities from the more distant layers are progressively more powerful, more concerned with Ytherrean events, and more dangerous. Such beings are collectively called Azakárin, demons, and the practice of contacting and dealing with them is called diabolism. Not all of those from the nearer layers of the Well of Worlds are inimical in principle, but they have outlooks and ethical codes different enough from mankind’s to make them treacherous to exhort aid from.

Entities from the Deeper Void are inimical indeed, and greatly desirous of influence on Ytherra, for reasons which are not fully understood by mortal practitioners. Bargaining with such entities is extraordinarily hazardous, as they consider mortals to be lesser beings on the order of gnats, and do not hesitate to subvert or even devour such arrogant mortals who anger them, and seem not to have any semblance of an ethical or honor code as such are thought of by Ytherreans. Such practices are proscribed almost everywhere on Ytherra, though exceptions exist.


The city of Amarhaj is considered something of a cesspool by the rest of the Eleven Cities, but it is Haddan’s most prosperous port, located on the Hadd delta, and home to a very powerful merchant caste. Most of the goods flowing into and out of the region move through Amarhaj.

Amarhaj is ruled by the House of Marhaj, considered upstarts and merchants with unseemly pretensions by the highborn elsewhere. Indeed, the House of Marhaj does have some roots in the merchant caste, among traders who raised their lineages to the nobility by skillfully playing the Hadn caste game, using carefully arranged marriages to ensure that their progeny would be members of the warrior caste, and bribing enough nobles and priests to be raised thereafter to the nobility. The old ruling family, the House of Anaydd, died away nearly two centuries ago through coerced marraiges with the merchant clans and the occasional murder by the newly-ascendant Golden Circle, and no longer exists as a distinct entity, although Anayddn blood remains alive in the Marhajn.

In Amarhaj, this was part of the price of doing business, but elsewhere it is the cause of much disapproval and distrust, despite taking place seven generations past, and the Marhajn have had serious problems establishing productive relations elsewhere in Haddan because of it. Still, everywhere there is a need for goods, and Amarhaj is the hub from which such goods flow into the Haddanai cities, and from which wealth from the wider world flows back to them.

Politically, the Marhajn are an extension of the powerful Golden Circle, often called the Coinmasters, a semi-official council of the city’s most powerful merchants, who control the business of the city and therefore have a great degree of control over the goods that move via caravan or river barge to the remaining ten cities – or not, at the Coinmasters’ whim. The Marhajn are very popular among the common people, a tradition encouraged by the Coinmasters, and the traditional role of the Prince has been to give the occasional speech from the palace balcony, sign any writs the Golden Circle brings before him, appoint the choices of the merchant league to the appropriate magistracies and otherwise while his time away in luxury and decadence. The Coinmasters are widely hated among the populace, who view then as consumed by greed and avarice, wanting nothing more than to finalize their stranglehold over the region’s trade and thereby accrue even more wealth and power. The Prince is thus a convenient figurehead with deep connections to the merchant caste, allowing them to control the city and its lucrative trade while maintaining a veneer of respectability and decorum for the benefit of both the citizenry and outsiders.

Military control and policing of the city is handled by the Blackarrows, an ancient mercenary unit of long tradition but short memory, working in the employ of the Coinmasters for over a century. The city guard is weak, long-neglected and entirely ceremonial, but for the most part the Blackarrows assume civic duties without serious incident, having long accustomed themselves to such tasks. In the last year, an attempt by the Coinmasters to strong-arm the mercenaries into halving their pay backfired, resulting in one of its two companies departing Amarhaj and leaving for the employ of the Prince of Chaldech. The extent of the connection or coordination between the two companies is unclear outside the group itself, and some among the Golden Circle have entertained the idea of terminating their contract, but no consensus on the matter has yet been forged.

The Malhaddish Spice Company, a foreign trade conglomerate, arrived a dozen years ago and has set up offices and warehouses, and works hand-in-hand with the Coinmasters in establishing trade connections overseas and managing the flow of goods. Some men whisper that the Company is responsible for a series of disappearances within the city, but no investigation to date has tied them to it in any way. But then, some men who whisper thus disappear shortly thereafter, never to be seen again.

The Temple of Ilraj in the city is small but well-kept; its newer, larger temple was seized by the Coinmasters three decades ago as payment for debt and now serves as the hall of the Golden Circle, most of the members of which are dedicants of Aresti, and deep in the more sybaritic activities of that faith. The Temple of Aresti is thus very well-connected indeed, with many followers among the upper castes, and its headquarters is huge and lavishly appointed. The common people tend to be adherents of Mother Hadda, and Amarhaj is the center on her worship in the Eleven Cities, with several small temples and Gijan, a holy site, overlooking the great river itself.

An Overview of the Haddan

The region, Haddán, is an equatorial collection of sophisticated autonomous city-states on the strip of costal land west of the Kelarh Mountains, dominated by a hereditary aristocratic caste called the jédayk. Each city is nominally ruled by a gálul jédayk, a High Prince. The people of Haddan are called the Hadn or Haddanái, and the common tongue among the cities is a’Hadnai, simply ‘the language of the Hadn.’ The written language is called a’Gheza, a graceful syllabic script highly evolved from the old Masanáni pictographs, the oldest form of writing in this part of Surátha.

There are eleven major Haddanái cities, primarily strung out along the coast with a few clustered around the river Hadd and its many tributaries. On the other side of the mountains lies the Qad or a’Fal desert, a vast expanse of sandy waste populated only by the scattered Falkaydn tribes; barbarous, illiterate nomads who eke out a meager existence on scrub and lichen and speak the crude dilaect of a’Falái, unintelligible to the ear of civilized peoples.

To the south lie the enigmatic Kingdoms of Gold and Ivory, nestled in tropical jungles. On its northrn coast is a fertle area occuplied by the Holy Kingdom of Ar-Knest, ruled by a God-King and peopled by a folk even more insular than the Hadn.

The religious life of the Eleven Cities revolves around a trinity; the Sun God Ílraj, his wife Hadda the Sea-Mother, and his sister and occasional lover Áresti, the Goddess of Night and Opulence. Various barbarian deities are worshipped by foreigners in the port cities, but these are deeply marginalized and frequently the subject of persecution. Minai the Moon-Goddess, daughter of Ilraj and Aresti, is known and is considered marginally acceptable, but she has no organized church except among outsiders. In most parts of the region, the Temple of Áresti is the most powerful and popular. The priesthood is regarded as an honorable pursuit for all castes, even the nobility, although the highborn are often inclined to dismiss such things as a sop for the masses. Among the higher castes women gravitate toward the Temples more than men, but there is no caste of priests; those within a Temple hierarchy retain their birth caste, and the chain of command in each Temple reflects this.

Culturally, the Hadn are very insular; the Principalities are an epicenter of high culture, and foreigners are barbarians regarded with idle curiosity at best. Society has a deeply-rooted caste structure, with the noble jedayk caste in the dominant position. The jedayk originated as a priestly class within the faith of Ilraj but has evolved in a primarily secular aristocratic direction, and there is no longer any assumption of religious affiliation attached to that station. Members of the Hadn warrior caste are skilled riders; only peasant chaff would fight on foot. Horsemanship, archery and swordsmanship are considered honorable pursuits in sport or war. The merchant caste, below the warriors, is made of traders and craftsmen, and makes up a substantial part of the city population. Of all the merchant subcastes, the Constables, Salters and Horsetenders are the best-connected, if not technically the highest. Beneath the merchants lie the peasant (or worker) caste, subservient to all except the casteless, who may be treated as property. Both the merchant and peasant castes are divided into many specialized subcastes; the higher castes are not so divided. The slave population is not very high, as persons may only be enslaved judicially; no one may sell themselves into slavery, and there is no powerful slave trade bringing chattel in from foreign lands. Performing tasks outside the purview of one’s caste is not strictly forbidden, but it makes one unclean, after which one must be purified at a shrine of Hadda, or by bathing in the Great River itself. In general terms the noble and warrior castes are considered the higher classes, merchants and peasants the lower.

Laws are in theory discussed and refined by the noble caste and submitted to the authority of the Prince for review and approval, after which they take effect. In practice the power of individual Princes is sometimes limited, while in other cases a forceful Prince can enact laws against the will of the noble caste.

Justice is administered by Magistrates selected by the Princes from the warrior caste; punishments are typically harsh, with imprisonment, torture, branding or mutilation even for minor crimes, enslavement for serious offenses, and for the most severe crimes the penalty is death by strangulation, with beheading reserved for those of the warrior caste (and the occasional Prince.) For members of the warrior and princely castes, death is the only sentence administered; minor crimes are typically overlooked, and lesser penalties are seen as deeply dishonorable for both the criminal and the presiding magistrate. Prisoners, and sometimes slaves, are often worked to death in the vast salt mines near Jarhaddi, or set to tasks ensuring a similarly short lifespan.

Within the confines of the caste structure, gender roles are relatively fluid (women born into the warrior caste often become warriors,) and within the broad merchant and peasant classes there is an ability to move between subcastes, all of which are technically regarded as equal in station. There is also a process called saukaytn by which a member of the warrior caste can be permanently adopted into the jedayk, including the spouse and progeny of the one so honored, but the practice is administered with the assent of the Temple of Ilraj and is thus rarely done. The ideology behind the caste system is primarily religious, and dates from the time when Ilraj was the dominant deity of the region; even today, the Sun Temple is a staunch supporter of the caste tradition to the point of being somewhat more reactionary than the general population, even to disallowing members of the lower caste into their priesthood, a practice which has resulted in dwindling Temple attendance despite strong connections with the highborn.

Marriage between castes is a cause of scandal for those of higher station, and typically results in the ‘exile’ of both parties from the Temple of Ilraj, but if they are adherents of Aresti or Hadda this is of little consequence. Children of such a union are born into the caste of the mother.

Literacy is very high among the noble and warrior castes, and common even among the merchants; the Hadn have a strong tradition of learning and education, although these things are considered above the station of the peasant caste. Medicine, metallurgy and astronomy are especially advanced in the region, although practitioners of the latter are often suspected of ties to the forbidden faith of Kurayt, the outcaste half-brother of Aresti, who is Lord of those things that hide unseen in the darkness.

Foreigners are typically regarded with suspicion. Two foreign groups have established themselves in Haddan, however; the Malhaddish Spice Company, an outland trading conglomerate which has bought acceptance with the liberal distribution of coin, and the recently-arrived Selurean Embassy, initially met with hostility until it was realized that they were moon-worshippers and thus marginally enlightened (if a bit thick.)

A Moment in a Sunless Kingdom

Twelve stand amid the Twilight, conversing in strained tones.

“It is decided, then,” says the first.

The second repsonds, “Yes. I will go first, to lay the path before the rest of you. Remember that your timing must be precise.”

“I wonder what we’ll remember? I’d wished to feel the sun on my face before going,” says the third.

“You will again,” says the fourth. “But tomorrow, not today.”

“We would not need to do this again, if it weren’t for that damnable pact,” mutters the third.

“Now is no time for lamentation!” snaps the fifth. “We have already decided.”

“We’ll be legends thrice over,” laughs the sixth. “It’s a thing none before us have done, or ever will again. Now come, it’s time.”

“Yes,” intones the seventh.

The second pauses for a long moment outside of time. “Then let us go.” Motioning to the rest, he says “follow at the appointed time.”

And after only a moment, he takes a single step.