5.3.17 Was doing some essay writing in one of my favourite cafés in Clifton yesterday while it rained, and then went to play the last game of South West League for quidditch. We lost, but not as badly as we thought we would! I’m finding this essay so interesting it’s a shame I’m finding it so hard to write! Xxx emily
How To Blend Cultures (Without Making Impossible Mixes)
This is a guide specifically about fantasy worldbuilding. WWC gets a lot of questions around “I’m mixing two cultures together, how do I do that?” and this is to explain both how to do that and when you very much should not.
Next up, mixing Greece/Rome with far-flung cultures gets a little bit eyebrow raising. Unless it was a direct trading partner/conquered property, Greek/Roman cultures do not mix with non-European cultures. The Greek empire only went to the Northern regions of India at its very peak, and that is limited to the ancient world. Rome stopped in the Middle East, so, again, you don’t have the cultural backing for a mixing of anything outside of its borders.
Depictions of Rome and Greece in ancient literature shows other ancient cultures found them quite backwards, and were adverse to mixing with them. By many standards they were very backwards, and it’s only Europe (and, as an extension, America) that revered them to the extent they do. Asia and Africa had no reason to see them as advanced, because they made many more technological advancements than either. North America and Oceanic cultures hardly interacted with either, and had both their own technological advancements+ cultures closer by to borrow advancements from, instead.
Outside of that, cultures are born out of the environments that made them. As a result, places with wildly dissimilar climates and resources pools will not be able to blend harmoniously unless you’re taking a modern analogue society where globalism has happened. This is plain old because resources only travel so far, and people are more likely to build culture around resources they have easy access to (even well-established trade links can lead to people re-creating things: Han purple and Egyptian blue point to an ancient trade link, but they were made with local materials processed differently).
Roman architecture exists because the Romans had access to copious amounts of concrete materials/marble and lived in the Mediterranean, which got very hot summers, heavy rains, and not a whole lot of cold. As a result they created structures that worked for this, which included open airways, pillars, easy to clean floors, shade, and ventilation. Places that lack these resources will not be able to replicate Rome.
Their resource pool was very specific to their regions, and there’s a reason Rome had the rule that anybody who did’t live like Romans were slaves: it was really hard to live like a Roman, and they wanted their slave pool as large as possible.
Different cultures with different resources formed in wildly different ways, and might not even have anything similar to Greece or Rome. Because of this, you need to look really close at why culture developed the way it did. If it’s because they had extremely dissimilar resources pools, it’s wise to not blend the cultures (or at least not think they’ll look anything like their original cultures)
Which brings me to value systems. Cultures put value on different things. Each culture ends up with a base philosophy for what they esteem and how they use resources, which proceeds to influence how it develops. Architecture has meaning to it. So does what colours you use in different applications. Because these things are sacred and/or practical for certain social orders. “Sacred” in cultures ends up becoming a shorthand for “this ritual helps us survive.”
There is no such thing as “aesthetic” when you get down to the root of each single item, because that aesthetic has a practical purpose. There is also no such thing as a “solely religious reason” under the same logic. Cows have become sacred in most varieties of Hinduism— because cows (and oxen) have been the main farming animal in the Indian subcontinent for millennia. They provide milk for sustenance, power for ploughing fields, and dung, which can be used as a floor polish and, when dried, a source of fuel for fire that gives off a more even heat than wood. As a single provider for crucial elements of agrarian life, their sacredness developed from their practicality. Having cows roam freely meant absolutely everyone could have access to an efficient cooking fuel.
Chinese brush painting has meaning. Jade sculpture has meaning. Pagodas and sloped roofs and gates have meaning. The philosophy, environment, history, and present circumstances of a culture is built into every. single. little. thing. about that culture, meaning you cannot just change it out.
Unless you learn the very root of culture, their values and stigmas and honours and shames, you cannot modify it accurately. Cultures survive because that was the best way to respond to the world at the time. A long-standing culture such as China’s has to be functional and incredibly well suited for the environment, otherwise it would not have survived. There is something about Chinese culture that works extraordinarily well for it to perpetuate itself, and you cannot disrespect that.
Learn the “why” of culture. Learn how it came to manifest and the reasons behind its manifestations. Study the geography and resources available to the people at hand. Know a culture so well you can explain how it works in real life and how your world’s history parallels the circumstances that created a similar culture in fantasy.
Only then will you be able to pull it off with respect.
This little island, perched on coral, has a higher population density than Manhattan. In fact, it’s density is four times that of Manhattan! It is only 2.4 acres in size, yet, it’s home to 1,200 people. Santa Cruz del Islote is a small island in an archipelago off the coast of Colombia. With no water, and electricity just 5 hours a day, why does anyone live here?
Legend has it that about 150 years ago, a group of fishermen from the coastal town of Baru, about 50 km away, were looking for new waters to fish when they stumbled upon this small coral island, sitting low in the waters. As it was too late to return, the fishermen decided to set up camp on the island for the night and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the island had no mosquitoes, a rarity in the area. The story goes that the men slept so peacefully that night that they decided to stay.