Religion and the Afterlife
It is believed by the Heesh that A-dui exists—it is hard to doubt, in the face of so many disparate traditions—but that he is distant from and unconcerned with the world. As far as A-dui is concerned, the heesh are thorough-going deists. Their relationship with their own gods, the Cat Lords, is less “worshiper and god” and more “novice and master,” or perhaps “novice and exemplar.” The Cat Lords are not looking for devotion; to the degree that they act at all, it is in purely altruistic concern (or at least a concern similar to that which a parent has for a child). The heesh venerate the Cat Lords because the latter are the perfect example of what the heesh must do in order to win their own worlds. Indeed, the Cat Lords were heesh once, worlds and worlds ago, and achieved their own apotheosis by following other, presently more distant, Cat Lords.
The heesh do not say “Do this, because The Lord Who Has Many Forms has commanded it.” Instead, they tell stories of The Lord Who Has Many Forms, and try to apply the principles therein to their own lives. The Cat Lords are followed not because they demand it but because it is simply the smart thing to do; why wouldn’t you follow the example of people who, by definition, are better at this than you are? The apprentice watches the master, and after many years becomes a master in turn.
The Lord Who Has Many Forms is the greatest of the Cat Lords. He is a trickster deity, successful more because of his intelligence than his brute strength. Indeed, his favorite form is not the bull or lion but the praying mantis, and other forms which he often takes are the louse, the snake, and the caterpillar. The stories of this Cat Lord demonstrate how even small things can be dangerous and overcome the trials of the world. It is believed that, after an argument with The Lord Who Curses Lions, he took a great amount of dirt and set it into the sky to make the moon. Here he put his house, and here he sits as he watches down on the world. According to some heesh, he descends to the world once a month, when the moon is full, to hunt. Others say that he took many great beasts up to the moon with him, including some that no longer exist, and that those hunters who gain his respect are given the privilege of hunting there in their dreams.
In “the time of many years ago,” lions hid in trees and were able to jump so far that they could leap from one tree to another even though the second was across the horizon. The Lord Who Curses Lions fell in love with the Queen of Lions and desired to take her for one of his wives. He was denied, however, and in his anger he crippled the legs of the King of Lions, so that from that day forward lions are not strong enough to jump from trees. The Lord Who Curses Lions has been killed many times—in fact, lions dropped down on him from trees at least eight times before he crippled them—but is a powerful sorcerer, and knows the ways of returning to life. Those heesh who have similarly managed to return to life are believed to have been blessed by The Lord Who Curses Lions; to have returned to life is generally a sign that that heesh will inherit a world of his own one day.
There are many other Cat Lords. The Lord Who Chases Clouds is said to be responsible for teaching the Heesh how to get honey, and what it was good for. When The Lord Whose Knee Is Bloodied comes out to hunt, his roaring creates thunder and the blood of his prey spills down from the sky as rain and lightning.
The heesh value the principle of “right action,” which relates to the proper way to act both in isolation and in relation to other beings (especially prey). They believe that care must be taken when hunting prey—respect must be paid to a slain animal, or the rest of the herd will be offended and refuse to continue reproducing. Part of this respectfulness or right action in the process of hunting entails not killing more animals than can be used. A heesh who kills many animals and eats only a few of them is a corrupt heesh, dangerously close to being labeled a “less-than-Heesh,” to give a literal translation. Other heesh are likely to try to kill him, so that the animals of the land will not be further offended.
It is similarly a principle of right action to hunt the weak, both among prey and among the heesh. Again, doing so will have pragmatic rather than moral consequences. The heesh pass on this wisdom by relating tales of the Cat Lords, who found themselves in similar situations during their own lives and acted rightly.
Principles of “right action” are important to the heesh because they make it possible for the world to continue operating as it ought to, and give them the opportunity to win worlds of their own (i.e. one cannot have children if the land is dead because the animals have stopped reproducing). Those heesh who gain worlds of their own to hunt on will become akin to the Cat Lords. The heesh of future worlds will look up to them much as the contemporary heesh look up to the present Cat Lords.
When heesh gain the respect of the Cat Lords, they will often be visited in the night or at another time and be given special knowledge. One of the most important traditions involves the art of healing, which is guarded from generation to generation by heesh shamans. It is said that invisible “death-things” fill the world, stalking the heesh (and other beings) as the heesh stalk prey. When a death-thing has gotten hold of a living being, sickness results. Shamans ward off and exorcise death-things by washing his hands in boiled water and then gathering the rest of the community to join in a frenzied ritual dance. Throughout the dance the shaman makes physical contact with each heesh, shrieking nonsense words as he does so, and in the process pulls out any death-things that might be residing in their bodies. This is repeated without end until, one by one, each dancer collapses from exhaustion. It is vitally important that the shaman be able to last until the dance has been completed. Often, the shaman or one of the dancers will have particularly odd and ecstatic dreams that night. These are regarded as omens sent by the Cat Lords, and the shaman probably has another day of exhaustion to look forward to as he chases down a prey animal in order to read its entrails. These dances are performed at least once a month, but more often if there is sickness. They have an important side effect in that they release feelings of hostility and promote social bonding, improving the overall cohesion of the group.
Shamans trigger visions through a variety of methods: the aforementioned ritual dancing; sensory deprivation; hyperventilation; hallucinogenic foods; and intentional, pointless exhaustion. A fish called the sea bream is especially prized for this purpose. Consumption can cause hallucinations of “aggressive and screaming animals” and “giant arthropods,” among other things.
Family and Social Life
The heesh are not just consumers of hallucinogens. They are positively connoisseurs of hallucinogens. The heesh can be counted on to know about the psychoactive properties of just about anything in their territory (as mentioned above, they even know when the fish are good for a trip). They also have a number of techniques for getting that trip. Many are rather mundane and not at all shocking. An exception is the practice of making cuts in the flesh and then rubbing the (usually powdered) substance into the wound. This process mixes pain, hallucinogen, and the effects of controlled blood loss to create a powerful delirium.
A common strategy for ensuring compliance with the rest of the group is shunning the offender. This is what might be termed a “mid-level strategy,” for when something severe is required but violence would be undesirable (as is often the case during the dry season, when resources are at their scarcest). It is more common among settled heesh compared to nomads, because it is generally easier to solve interfamilial conflicts without resorting to violence. This is not to suggest, of course, that settled heesh are leery about violence.
When a male heesh wishes to marry someone, he must first consult with his own father (if alive). This is an all-important step, because his father will naturally be interested in having many strong grandchildren in order to maximize his number of descendants. To grant this to one’s father is a principle of right action, because it demands reciprocity from one’s future sons in the process. Next, he will travel with his family to the camp or settlement of his intended bride, where his father will introduce him to his intended’s father. If they are settled, then a tent will be erected, but in either case the male and the father of the intended will meet together in private, and the male will be interrogated as to his qualifications, family history, and so forth. If all is satisfactory, then his future father-in-law will demand a price in meat, honey, and (in some groups) metal tools. The former will be very specific in nature—not merely a given weight of meat, but meat from particular animals. The idea is give the male a challenge, so that he can prove that he is worthy of siring his father-in-law’s grandchildren. It is not only his own father who will be concerned about the bloodline, after all.
Few males have only one wife. Those who are successful enough to get one will typically go on to have between three and five wives. Most male heesh will simply never manage to have a wife, which is one of the reasons that heesh fathers are so concerned with having strong grandsons—it is no use having children if one’s bloodline ends quickly thereafter. Exceptions to this rule of “many or none” are found primarily in coalitions. The head male will typically arrange for each member of the coalition to have a single wife, less than they would get if they lead the group, but more than they would probably get if they were not part of the coalition and tried to acquire wives on their own.
Heesh have few names—about forty for males, and fifty for females. They are effectively nameless—being called “little one”—until they are two years old, after which they are named after a dead relative, with grandparents taking precedence.
Heesh use a number of strategies in hunting prey. No community uses all of them, but most communities use at least a couple. These strategies include: hiding in the bushes or another hiding place and pouncing on nearby prey, then using claws and teeth to break the animal’s neck, suffocate it, or claw it to shreds; employing long-range weapons; persistence hunting, where a heesh chases its prey at a medium pace until the prey is exhausted and dehydrated (by carrying water with them in containers the heesh are able to rehydrate without needing to find a watering hole); short-ranged sprinting after prey; and wearing costumes made of animal hide and masks (usually from preserved heads) as a sort of camouflage in order to sneak up on prey. The atlatl, or spear-thrower, is the most common type of ranged weapon used by the heesh, with a close second being the javelin. A few heesh have designed a form of throwing axe, but axes of this type are more common as imported metal goods.
Most heesh prefer to hunt in the early morning, late afternoon, and moonlit nights, when there is enough light for visibility but they do not have to worry about the heat of the day. A successful hunt will be celebrated by a feast at that very spot. The head male will gorge himself, and then once he has gotten his fill the rest of the group is allowed to partake. No matter how hungry the males are, they are expected (as a matter of tradition) to leave the bones for the females, who will crack and suck the marrow from them. Whatever is left of the animal will be cut into strips, dried, and brought back to the camp for later consumption. The hunting of small prey animals is often treated as a kind of game, with repeated catch-and-release (and many actual games have in fact arisen out of this practice). It is, of course, used to teach younger heesh how to hunt before they take on bigger prey.
In addition to conventional prey, insects comprise a substantial amount of the heesh diet (about ten percent). Not only are insects eaten, but the heesh are also fond of honey, especially when rendered into an intoxicant or hallucinogenic in some fashion. This may be done by fermenting it, mixing it with another drug, or encouraging the bees to make the honey from hallucinogenic or even poisonous flowers, as is done when making nightshade honey, which causes euphoria and an enhanced perception of geometric shapes. Honey is generally collected by starting a fire below the hive and smoking out the bees. If the entrance to the hive has been damaged during the collection process, then the heesh will attempt to partially plug or otherwise repair it in order to encourage the bees to restore the hive instead of go to a new location. This practice is likely where artificial hives got their start, though artificial hives are made out of mud and clay or wicker plastered with mud or dung.
Honey is most often eaten on the honeycomb, but settlements will build their own hives (as described above) complete with removable frames, in order to harvest the honey more sustainably. Nomadic and settled heesh alike viciously guard their honey deposits, whether they be in trees or artificial hives. Young males are often involved in honey poaching. For some groups of heesh, honey makes up a quarter of their caloric intake, and up to a third during lean times. Because honey is so important to the heesh, it is a principle of right action to not kill honeyguide birds, which have learned that they can guide the heesh (and other races) to bee hives for a mutually satisfactory raid. Some heesh have actually taken to raising and honeyguides, an unusual practice for the heesh—who otherwise do not keep animals, domesticated or otherwise—and is mostly restricted to the nomads.
Bee venom is also good for tripping, in sufficient quantities. Some heesh will “milk” bees of their venom and mix the product in their drinks. Others will simply subject themselves to many stings before diving into a body of water.
The most commonly-used tool is the hand axe, which can be used in hunting, in combat, to aid in climbing trees, to break open beehives, to harvest certain plants, and in various ritual dances.
The heesh are also greatly concerned with water supplies. Some of the longest-lasting and bloodiest conflicts between groups of heesh have been about control over sources of water, especially running water. Droughts can last for many months in the worst regions, and deep wells are of vital importance. Both pottery and ostrich eggs are used to store water.
Settlements are most often ruled by coalitions of males rather than solitary males. A coalition requires the sharing of power, but a group of heesh in cooperation with each other will generally prove able to take down a single leader—and, in the longer term, be able to take down individual competitors. When necessary, a coalition will simply add another member to its ranks when that one is very dangerous (but can’t be kicked out of the settlement for one reason or another), or when it is necessary to cause divisions in an up-and-coming coalition. Generally, the only thing capable of overcoming a coalition of males is another coalition.
Relations with other races
When the Heesh are exporters, it is usually of their drugs and related products. Nothing compares to heesh drugs.
Many races look down on the heesh for their desires, their sociopathy, or both. The Elves take all of it to be a sign of unenlightenment, and hold that heesh are humans who have been waylaid on the road to perfection and need to learn that the pursuit of pleasure gets you nowhere.
Out of all of the races, only the Humans believe in gods other than A-dui and the creations of A-dui, so they are more likely to be understanding of the heesh’s veneration of the Cat Lords. There are perceived similarities, too, between the belief that some Humans have achieved godhood and the belief that the Cat Lords are heesh who were found worthy in previous worlds. The heesh are unconcerned with systematic theology and, furthermore, usually hold that the Human demi-gods are nothing like the Cat Lords, but among some Humans it is believed that what is true for humans and heesh is true of everyone: all races have higher beings which were once members of that race, and which demonstrate the possibility of transcendence for all such people.
Surprisingly or not, the heesh are able to find common ground with Orcs. Both races respect power, or the ability to get what you want despite all obstacles. As well, both are nomadic. Contributing to a measure of disrepute in some lands, it is not unknown for heesh and orcs to actually cooperate from time to time, especially when they perceive the settled races as encroaching on the land which they need to survive. These heesh and orcs recognize that their only allies are each other, and any attempt to turn them against each other must be rejected. Even settled heesh and the rare settled orc are further from their respective races than nomadic heesh and orcs are from each other, they believe, because necessity has forced them to hold a shared way of life over biological similarities.
Written by R. James Gavreau based on my notes.