Sugar and Iron

“Sugar and iron!” swore Saint Gishuyu as she rounded the corner. The intricate crossbow that the Sisters of Invention had assembled for her would be useless here. Even the hardest of steel bolts wouldn’t scratch the obsidian flanks of the dark glass machines that filled the ruined courtyard. Wrought by the Stone-masked Shaman himself (the sword-saint surmised) and directed from his watery tomb. Their awful presence threatened the entire city.

She turned on her hooves and ran, intending to retreat and regroup; mere valour would not win the day here. She sprinted down the narrow alleys of the abandoned quarter, leaping over fallen debris and taking to the rooftops where the streets were blocked. Behind her came the crunching, screeching sound of the constructs’ inexorable march.

At the very edge of the quarter, a mechanical carriage rattled along; some arrogant merchant, Gishuyu guessed, in a hurry and taking a foolish shortcut along the border of the foreboding abandoned quarter. With a final burst of energy she dived through the open window of the carriage, landing in a heap on the floor. She scrambled upright, horns catching on the velvet upholstery. She was about to order the carriage to divert towards the grand temple, when she became aware of the damp stink of ozone and the crackle of dread power. The interior of the carriage was just light enough for her to make out the stone mask of the other occupant, barnacle encrusted and trailing lank seaweed.

“Sugar and iron!” she cursed.

- from book III of the interminable and inexplicably popular novel series Boz Uoshape Aeda-Puw Oodoewe Thuth Ueputha (“Adventuresome Exploits in the Service of the High Priestess”). Any errors in translation are my own, but they couldn’t possibly be worse than the original.

Xenolinguists frequently hate two specific things; idioms and expletives.

They’re one of the reasons we need sentient xenolinguists at all, rather than letting machines and linear constructs do all the work. Of course, idioms and expletives often go hand-in-hand, like a particularly annoying couple that always turn up at the same parties you do, and insist on telling you their boring non-xenolinguistics stories.

This hatred stems from the fact that these idiomatic expletives are a right pain in the fucking arse to translate. For example, imagine translating ‘pain in the arse’ for a Nidari; lacking arses, they combust their waste products internally, producing a thin dark smoke that seeps from their respiratory nodules. They also do not experience pain in a human-like way, but rather as something akin to an urgent internal memo.

Alternatively, consider the old English expression ‘Gadzooks’ - rarely heard today outside Ren Faires or Tebokoe ambassadors who have taught themselves English from old books. It sounds like a simple nonsense word –impossible to translate– but in fact derives from the phrase “God’s hooks”, a reference to the nails involved in the execution of the avatar of the Christian religion. How do you translate that? Let alone convey the fact that in its time this was a very strong expletive, bordering on being blasphemous.

The expletive phrase that prompted this little essay is “Mitmuh lu Adohcha”, a Giftee term with the literal meaning “Sugar and Iron”. You know the giftees of course; more properly named the Aba-Tur Ioepebo, they’re the friendly deer-looking aliens, with the ready nose-wrinkle ‘smile’ that looks enough like a human smile to trigger the appropriate emotional response. (As an aside, incompatible body language is a real problem in interspecies communication; it’s very easy to subconsciously read, say, a Tebokoe looking away as disinterest, or a Nidari waving of scythe-arms as aggressive, when quite the opposite is the case).

In the grand scheme of things, giftees (their home world is called Aba-Tur, “Gift” or “Given Thing”, and they don’t appear to mind the daft species name we have foisted upon them) are culturally quite similar to us, and the associations of “Sugar” and “Iron” are correspondingly familiar.

Giftees, like humans, can metabolise sugar, and they generally have a sweet tooth. So sugar and sweetness have similar pleasant associations, even down to the use in affectionate epithets: “my sweetie/honey/etc.” - the Giftee term jethaki aepa means “beloved nectar”. (Interestingly, there is no general “sickly sweet” or “saccharine sweet” idea - maybe because giftees bodies handle sugar better than human bodies). 

A similar scenario exists for “Iron”. As on Earth, on Gift a pre-historic ‘Iron Age’ reflected a time of increased tool use and technological innovation. The giftee associations of Iron are of strength and willpower, although it’s not as universally positive as Sugar, given that iron was also used for weapons.

So if Sugar and Iron have broadly positive connotations, why is “Sugar and Iron” an expletive phrase? Most Giftee expletives are actually very simple; scatological or relating to violence (never sex or body parts, incidentally). But “Sugar and Iron” is not a general expletive; it carries particular connotation of doing exactly the wrong thing. The English phrase “about as much use as a chocolate teapot”, that is, the wrong or useless tool, has some similarities. 

There is a trap for the unwary xenolinguist here; to jump to the conclusion that the core of the phrase is in the difference in materials. Like our “chocolate teapot”, an iron tool made of sugar, or a sweet snack made of iron, would both be useless. However, Mitmuh lu Adohcha has a further connotation, not present in Chocolate Teapot; the phrase implies a contextual rather than generic unsuitability; that is, while a chocolate teapot is generally useless, “Sugar and Iron” suggests something that would have be useful in a specific context is useless in the current one. The English phrase “Useless as tits on a nun” has a similar idea (though not an easy one to translate or unpack).

In fact, the average giftee probably couldn’t explain why “Sugar and Iron” means “Fuck! Major fail!” It actual comes from a piece of poetry from the 2nd Temple era:

Harsh treatment for those who speak joy,
Whilst the corrupt are warmly embraced,
Brings iron to a city wedding,
And sugar to the desert wastes.

(Yeah, yeah, sorry about my clumsy attempt to preserve the rhyme in the original version: rhymes are another other thing xenolinguists hate).

The author was Bekela Jalaze, and she’s believed to have faced censure for her poem, as it’s a vicious political barb directed at the ruling elite.

During the time known as the 2nd Temple era, the primary religion of the preeminent giftee religion –broadly translated as The Church of the Silent Goddess– underwent radical change at the hands of the Uthedi Emperors. In particular, they formalised the scriptures, setting down authorised versions that only the priestess caste was permitted to recite. This was in stark contrast to the earlier (and, in fact, later) freewheeling attitude towards scripture, where stories readily were updated, retold and re-mixed. A storyteller would change the setting, insert local characters, refer to current events and play up (or down) elements without any concern that the story would become any less sacred.

For example, consider the story of Saint Zijimi, the 1st Unbeliever Saint. This simple tale of the Goddess and an atheist lover can be told as a straightforward parable, a comic tale, a historical drama, a stirring romance or bawdy piece of eroticism. (In point of fact, many giftee tales can be told in a bawdy way; the Goddess had a lot of lovers).

The Uthedi Emperors had a much more controlled vision of the religion; the general populace did not approve, but –in the manner of tyrants everywhere– the Emperors had concentrated power in the hands of a small but loyal ruling stratum.

One effect of these new laws was a dramatic drop in the status of lay poets and storytellers; in the 1st Temple era they enjoyed popular acclaim and celebrity, but now –forbidden from telling the sacred stories– they were relegated to performing zush aiteda – “mongrel stories”. (A phrase that has unpleasant echoes of the “degenerate art” decried by another –and in fairness, much worse– regime here on Earth).

The end result, of course, was a lot of highly critical poems and stories. The earlier emperors mostly tolerated this, but the later emperors (there were four, though they are often spoken of as if they were a single individual, as well as being conflated with the Stone-masked Shaman, the devil figure of The Church of the Silent Goddess) took a more hard-line approach with those who wrote or repeated these stories, imprisoning them or banishing them to the desert lands.

But this digression into politics (to which we’ll return later) doesn’t explain what the sugar and iron part of the poem means. To understand that, you need to be aware of the primary cultural and geopolitical divide in the 2nd Temple era. This consisted of two main groups, roughly translated as the Empire (more properly: The Imperium of the Silent Goddess under her Protector Saint Uthedi) and the Desert Clans (or The 10,000 Clans).

The empire was based around the major river delta, and comprised of a string of towns, cities and strongholds along the tributary rivers leading to the seat of power in the imperial city at the mouth of a great river. Although technologically pre-industrial these urban centres had many of the qualities we’d expect to see in a modern city; a rich cultural and social life, for example, and an increasing merchant/clerical class.

As is often the case, the middle and upper classes increasingly sought ways to display their status to the lower orders. One outlet for this was the wedding ceremony, which during this period grew from a simple ritual and celebration into a more elaborate and ostentatious affair, with the sugar –an expensive luxury– at the heart of it.

Guests, family, friends, and –especially– existing lovers and spouses would create (or surreptitiously purchase) complex confections of spun sugar, fondant and icing. These were admired, consumed, and most importantly analysed at the wedding celebration. Naturally, expense and quality were judged, but additionally an entire “language of sugar” developed, whereby the well-versed could communicate well wishes, advice or subtle insinuations to the assembled guests. A guest looking for romantic interaction could even wear sugar jewellery or body dust. (The cliché about giftee gatherings inevitably ending in an orgy is untrue, but exists for a reason).

In contrast, the Desert Clans lived outside the fertile plains, subsisting originally as small nomadic groupings, but by the time of Uthedi III the largest clans had permanent seasonal settlements. It’s important to realise that while “desert” is a reasonable literal translation, the Clan lands did not solely consist of barren sands; much of it was what we might term veldt or savannah, and –importantly– there were several ranges of forested mountains and rocky plateaus which, as well as providing freshwater springs held reserves of minerals, gems and ores which became an vital trading resource.

Each separate clan had its own traditions and its own method of leadership; the generic name for such a leader was Ushaalok, which is often translated as “warlord”. This is a terrible translation for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is gendered male, whereas the majority of these “warlords” were female (early giftee civilization was mostly matriarchal, and the clans preserved this tradition, while the empire slowly reversed it). Secondly, the “war” part is misleading to human ears; while by giftee standards, the desert clans were fractious and combative, giftee war was mostly a ritual affair.

Desert skirmishes were primarily decided by displays of martial prowess and light sparring. Accidental (and maybe ‘accidental’) injuries were not unknown, but were considered humiliating enough that the wounding side would generally concede as result. Coupled with the clans’ strict rules on hospitality, these territorial disputes had little similarity with the human idea of war. (Even Saint Josutha’s Great Uprising, spoken of as a terrible conflict, would rate as no more than a minor skirmish by human standards). Furthermore, by the reign of Uthedi IV, the great ‘warlord’ Azae had brokered a lasting peace between the clans. Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that the clans still had a somewhat martial outlook, and for that reason iron was highly valued.

Initially iron weapons were the preserve of the best warriors; iron was one of the few goods that it was permitted to take as the spoils of ‘battle’. Most clans developed either a formal protocol or informal tradition whereby high standing warriors could advise their warlord. Iron came to signify this right, with non-warrior advisors being granted iron jewellery to permit them to contribute (the term Nef-adohcha, “Iron-speaker” is still used to mean a mentor or valued advisor).

As the ore extraction, smelting and smithing techniques practised by the shaman caste improved, iron became more easily obtained, and it became common for the families of iron-speakers to also carry iron bangles or broaches. Eventually it became normal for even the lowest status individual of a clan to carry at least a small iron disc marking them as a member of the clan rather than an outsider. In this way, by the 2nd Temple Era, many clans had sleepwalked themselves into a rough and ready form of democracy, where anyone could speak (although not necessarily be listened to).

Unlike the Empire, which only had one religion, the Desert Clans preserved a multitude of ‘old ways’ in addition to following the Goddess; things like ancestor worship, general animism, and –in particular– a rich shamanic tradition. Ironworking was an activity that was considered to have ritual significance, and as such the clan’s shamans had control over it. Depending on how cynical you are this was either a natural decision; there is something transformative about smelting and forging, after all, or else a clever power grab by the shaman caste. Certainly, if a clan’s warlord became too aggressive, it was not unknown for ‘the spirits’ to suddenly deem it not propitious to forge further weapons.

Now, since the sanctification of marriages was originally also a shamanic responsibility, and given the ‘iron signifies group membership’ idea, it is hardly surprising that iron became an important prop in clan weddings. For example, early on in the traditional ceremony there is what is essentially a vote on whether the wedding should proceed. Those guests opposed to the wedding were called upon to ‘clash their iron’ - banging together weapons or other iron-work. Those who approved of the match were then invited to do the same. In theory, the side that made the greater din won the day. Of course, in practice, significant ‘nay’ votes were as rare for the same reason as “does anyone know of any just cause or impediment?” is usual met with silence (at least, outside of bad stories).

At the culmination of the service, the couple being married would take up iron weapons and fight a short ritual duel. Depending on the couple, these combats might be elaborately staged and choreographed, or they might be simple unrehearsed sparring. In any event, the duel needed to end in a draw, to signify the equality considered inherent in the state of matrimony (and also, some say, to symbolise the likelihood of conflict, but that such conflict would not be in earnest). If the duel did not end in a draw, this was considered a very bad sign, and the shaman would halt the wedding. And no, to answer a question people often ask, there is no documented case of a marriage combat ending in death, though it is happens in giftee historical fiction fairly often. (Famously, however, Azae’s first wife did chip one of Azae’s vestigial horns in their wedding combat, but this was taken more as a sign of her fiery nature).

(Incidentally, traces of both sorts of wedding ceremony remain to this day; most giftee weddings have both sugary treats and a pretend duel - albeit with wooden, foam or soft-edged smart-gel, rather than iron weapons. The ‘vote’ remains in the tradition of the clapping and stamping that marks the start of the ceremony).

So, finally, there is the meaning of the poem, rooted in two disparate marriage traditions. Bringing spun sugar to a clan wedding would, at best, mark you as a non-participant outsider, particularly as you could not add your noise to the ‘yay’ vote, which might be taken as a slight. Conversely, arriving at a city wedding carrying a chunk of sharp iron and nothing sweet would be considered a faux pas akin to turning up at the reception with a supermarket own-brand bottle of fortified wine.

Hence Bekela’s poem was an admonishment that the Emperor was using exactly the wrong tools for the job, meting out punishment for unlicensed storytelling while turning a blind eye to the corruption of the ruling class. This, of course, is the core dissatisfaction that lead to the Great Uprising and the end of the 2nd Temple Era.

What happened to Bekela during the Great Uprising isn’t clear; there are two main theories, neither of which is well supported by historical records.

For the first, the prison ledgers from just before the uprising show that a Bekela was in a cell beneath the grand temple at this time. Her crime was not recorded. Was this our poet? Presumably, she was freed when Knight-Commander Kuwixa released the prisoners, but credible documentary evidence from the uprising is hard to come by.

The myths, embodied in 3rd Temple scripture, are clear: in the worst storms for a century the cells below the great temple were in danger of flooding. Emperor Uthedi ordered his Knight-Commander to disregard the prisoners and attend to the rebellion sweeping through the harbour district towards the south gate.

Instead –divinely inspired, apparently– he released the prisoners, threw away his sword and armour, and rushed across the city to throw the west door open. Then he made way back through the city, which was by now in turmoil, warriors from the desert clans having arrived at the north gate, and thunderstorms shaking the great temple to its (flooded) foundations. Pausing en route to get stabbed by his high-born fiancée (who did not approve of the uprising), he confronted Uthedi IV, armed only with the dagger pulled from his chest.

He defeated the emperor’s guard (those that did not defect), and fought him to a standstill. When –again, according to myth– Uthedi UV tried to call on sorcerous power, a bolt of lightning touched his iron spear and incinerated the emperor. Badly burned, Kuwixa threw himself into the swollen river to be swept out to sea (to be found, inevitably, by a fishing boat four days later). All very Adventuresome Exploits.

How much of this legend is true? Probably very little; we do not know for sure how Uthedi IV died, for instance, but given that a good portion of the grand temple collapsed under the same deluge that destroyed the east gate, it’s likely this was the cause of his demise.

We do know, however, that four months later the new Josutha lead government asked Kuwixa to resume his role as Knight-Commander - he did so reluctantly and to this day Temple Knights do not wear armour. But of lesser characters, like the prisoner Bekela, nothing is to be heard in either fact or legend.

The other theory hinges on the fact that some years before the end of the 2nd Temple Era, the warlord Azae took a new wife, her fourth, an accomplished poet named Bekela.

Was this the same poet? Surprisingly, that’s not impossible. As mentioned above, Uthedi IV often banished political agitators to the desert lands. This was not quite the death sentence it might seem; under normal circumstances the desert clans would provide minimal hospitality to outsiders. They would not starve or die of thirst, but life would be hard. However, at some point during the reign of Uthedi IV, the great warlord Azae let it be known that these exiles should be given honorary iron-speaker status, including the full hospitality of the clans.

By the time of the Great Uprising, Azae had accumulated a considerable community-in-exile around her: perhaps poet-dissident Bekela was among them? Further, did she play a part in persuading Ushaalok Azae to order clan warriors to march on the imperial city and help overthrow the emperor? This act lead to Azae being named the 2nd Unbeliever Saint, but the reason for it is still essentially unknown. Although Azae wrote many books on philosophy, politics and science, her motivations remain mysterious. Why did she extend hospitality to exiles? Why did she cede the captured imperial city to the Saint Josutha’s rag-tag rebels? The best answer we have is that she simply appears to have been a good person, but perhaps Bekela helped.

If history has largely forgotten Bekela Jalaze, why does the phrase “Sugar and Iron” persist? The answer lies in the speech made by Saint Josutha as she established the 3rd Temple Era. Railing against the old regime, and clearly inspired by Bekela’s poem, she made several references to Iron and Sugar, pointing out the numerous cases of undeserving privilege and unjust harshness displayed by the late emperor. The phrase appears to have entered common use at this time, primarily as a derisive way of referring to the old regime and its paradigms. During the troubled beginnings of the 3rd Temple Era, it was used to refer to hold-out groups of noble families, and other counter-revolutionary forces. In time, it became more of a general curse, particularly for wrong-headed decisions, bad choices and unsuitable tools. It remains in frequent use, though nowadays most people have only the vaguest idea of the complex history behind it.

And that is why xenolinguists hate idiomatic expletives.

* * *

In case you’re concerned, the fictional sword-saint Gishuyu escaped from the Stone-masked Shaman when her friend, enemy, sometime lover, and infamous criminal Cemaela attempted to rob the carriage. With the help of the Sisters of Invention, and despite an inevitable last minute betrayal from Cemaela, a (highly anachronistic) sonic resonance weapon was created that destroyed the glass devices. The Stone-masked Shaman escaped, of course, to cause trouble in further books (which will be translated, hopefully, by a xenolinguist other than me).

Fig.1 - popular anti-imperial symbol during the uprising
Fig.1 - popular anti-imperial symbol during the uprising.