Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part II: Subsistence on the Hoof

This is the second part of a four part (I, III, IV) look at the Dothraki, the fictional horse-borne nomads of the A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones series. We’re looking at, in particular, the degree to which George R.R. Martin’s claim that the Dothraki are “an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures” holds up in the face of research. Our last part, “Barbarian Couture” looked at the influences that shaped the visual depiction of the Dothraki and found them badly wanting, more based in stereotypes and misconceptions than historical reality.

This week, we’re turning to the foundation of social structures: patterns of subsistence (which, to be clear, means in plain English: “how do they get food and basic resources?” That’s all subsistence is – how do you get enough resources to survive.) Originally this was going to fit into a larger argument about culture, but I decided to break it out because we are at long last looking at the logistics and subsistence strategies of nomadic peoples. Every time we have covered the logistics of agrarian armies and societies, there has been a request to do a deeper dive into the way that Steppe nomads in particular, and nomads more generally, are different. Well here it is!

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(Bibliography note before we dive in. I am not going to run through everything I’ve glanced at here, but for those looking to read more on this or retrace my steps more generally, a good starting place on the Steppe peoples is T. May, The Mongol Art of War (2007). There’s also more than a dash here of bits from K. Chase, Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (2008) as well as T. Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, trans. T.N Haining (1991). For the Native Americans of the Great Plains, I have relied principally on A.R. McGinnis, Counting Coup and Cutting Horses: Intertribal Warfare on the Northern Plains, 1738-1889 (1990), F.R. Secoy, Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians (17th Century through Early 19th Century) (1958), and A.C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (2020))

As with the past essay, the key statement we are really assessing here is this one by George R.R. Martin:

The Dothraki were actually fashioned as an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures… Mongols and Huns, certainly, but also Alans, Sioux, Cheyenne, and various other Amerindian tribes… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy.

A statement which claims, quite directly, that the Dothraki are modeled primarily off of both Eurasian Steppe nomads and Great Plains Native Americans (with a ‘dash’ of fantasy). Last time, we found that the appearance of the Dothraki fit almost entirely within the ‘dash’ of fantasy. So this time we will begin to ask the same question about Dothraki culture – to what degree may it be said to be based in any actual historical horse-nomad cultures?

A Feast For People

Now ‘culture’ is such a huge topic, it may well be asked why start with subsistence strategies. The answer is that in the pre-modern world, subsistence was one of, if not the, most dominant factor shaping culture. After all, most people before the industrial revolution spent most of their time just doing the basic activities (herding, farming, spinning, weaving, cooking, etc.) that made survival possible! Government structures, military organization, cultural values, marriage and fertility patterns, social structures all flow out of those things which most people were doing to survive, shaped by the needs of those subsistence strategies.

(A brief pedantic note: this sort of approach to history, beginning with big, slow changing patterns (what I often call here ‘structures’ – not a term I made up, by any means) like climate, geography, subsistence strategies, culture, etc. is generally associated with what is called the Annales school of history, which is a method of history. This framework is often more interested in La longue durée (lit: ‘the (really) long term’) which is just a fancy French way of saying ‘a focus on the long-term historical structures (like those listed above) instead of short-term events (like wars, rulers, that sort of thing).’ As always, this sort of historical theory is a toolbox, not a dogma; different approaches to answer different questions. But in this case, it is handy because of the way that the basic activities necessary for survival in a given climate form a sort of ‘bounding box’ for cultural possibility.)

What is particularly notable is with A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is that our viewpoint character for Dothraki culture is a young woman who spends her time with the Dothraki in the khalassar’s (the Dothraki word for a tribe or clan) moving encampment. Daenerys can only really view warfare second hand (at least in the books we get; the show is another matter), but she ought to be able to witnesses the subsistence system directly. Even if she wasn’t involved in it directly (because she’s a high status queen), the daily work of survival would be going on all around her and in practice much of it would likely be at her direction as she exercises authority over lower-status individuals in the camp.

Now normally we would start this by looking at how subsistence strategies are represented in the books and show, but I think in this case it is going to be more helpful to begin with the historical subsistence systems first, since they are complex and we’re going to have several of them. We’re actually going to start at the ending as well, with subsistence strategies of Native Americans on the Great Plains, for reasons that will be clearer once we’ve discussed it.

A Changing of Patterns

The domesticated horse is not native to the Americas. There is perhaps no more important fact when trying to understand how the horse-borne nomadic cultures of the Eurasian Steppe relate to those of the Great Plains. The first domesticated horses arrived in the Americans with European explorer/conquerors and the settler-colonists that followed them. Eventually enough of those horses escaped to create a self-reproducing wild (technically feral, since they were once domesticated) horse population, the mustangs, but they are not indigenous and mustangs were never really the primary source of new horses the way that wild horses on the Steppe were (before someone goes full nerd in the comments, yes I am aware that there were some early equines in the Americas at very early dates, but they were extinct before there was any chance for them to be domesticated).

Via Wikipedia, American mustangs. Mustangs are descendants mostly of Spanish horse breeds. Notably, they tend to be smaller than many other breeds of European horses, even in cases where their domesticated forebears were larger breeds of draft horses or destriers. This is because big stable-fed horses can’t survive on grass alone.

Horses arrived in the Great Plains form the south via the Spanish and moving through Native American peoples west of the Rocky Mountains by both trade and eventually raiding in the early 1700s. Notably firearms also began moving into the region in the same period, but from the opposite direction, coming from British and French traders to the North and West (the Spanish had regulations against trading firearms to Native Americans, making them unavailable as a source). Both were thus initially expensive trade goods which could only be obtained from outside and then percolated unevenly through the territory; unlike firearms, which remained wholly external in their supply, horses were bred on the plains, but raiding and trade were still essential sources of supply for most peoples on the plains. We’ll get to this more when we talk about warfare (where we’ll get into the four different military systems created by this diffusion), but being in a position where one’s neighbors had either the horse or the gun and your tribe did not was an extreme military disadvantage and it’s clear that the ‘falling out’ period whereby these two military innovations distributed over the area was very disruptive.

But unlike guns, which seem to have had massive military impacts but only minimal subsistence impacts (a bow being just as good for hunting bison as a musket, generally), the arrival of the horse had massive subsistence impacts because it made hunting wildly more effective. But the key thing to remember here is: the horse was introduced to the Great Plains no earlier than 1700, horse availability expanded only slowly over the area, but by 1877 (with the end of the Black Hills War), true Native American independence on the Great Plains was functionally over. Consequently, unlike the Steppe, where we have a fairly ‘set’ system that had already been refined for centuries, all we see of the Plains Native American horse-based subsistence system is rapid change. There was no finally reached stable end state, as far as I can tell.

Though there is considerable variation and also severe limits to the evidence, it seems that prior to the arrival of the horse, most Native peoples around the Great Plains practiced two major subsistence systems: nomadic hunter-gathering on foot (distinct from what will follow in that it places much more emphasis on the gathering part) on the one hand and a mixed subsistence system of small-scale farming mixed seasonally with plains hunting seems to have been the main options pre-horse, based on the degree to which the local area permitted farming in this way (for more on those, note Isenberg, op. cit., 31-40). Secoy (op. cit.) notes that while there is some evidence that the Plains Apache may have shifted through both systems, being hunter-gatherers prior to the arrival of horses, by the time the evidence lets us see clearly (which is shortly post-horse) they are subsisting by shifting annually between sedentary agricultural racheirias (from the Spring to about August) and hunting bison on the plains during the fall. Isenberg notes the Native Americans of the Missouri river combining corn agriculture with cooperative bison hunting in the off-season (in that case, in the summer). Meanwhile, the Comanches and Kiowas seem to have mostly subsisted on pedestrian bison hunting along with gathering fruit and nuts, with relatively little agriculture, prior to going fully nomadic once they acquired horses. Bison hunting on foot required a lot of cooperation (so a group) and it seems clear that it was not enough to support a group on its own and had to be supplemented somehow, at least before the arrival of the horse. Some mix of either bison+gathering or bison+horticulture was required.

Via Wikipedia, a herd of American bison (sometimes also called buffalo) in Montana. While it is common to call them buffalo, technically the American bison is distinct from the old world species of Bubalina more correctly called buffalo. Also: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Isenberg argues (op. cit.), that at this point the clear advantage was to what he terms the ‘villagers’ – that is the farmer-hunters who lived in villages, rather than the nomadic hunter-gathers. These horticulturists were more numerous and seem quite clearly to have had the better land and living conditions. Essentially the hunter-gatherers stuck on marginal land were mostly hunter-gatherers because they were stuck on marginal land, which created a reinforcing cycle of being stuck on marginal land (the group is weak due to small group size because the land is marginal and because the group is weak, it is only able to hold on to marginal lands). That system was stable without outside disruption. The horse changed everything.

A skilled Native American hunter on a horse, armed with a bow, could hunt bison wildly more effectively than on foot. They could be found more rapidly, followed at speed and shot in relative safety. It is striking that while pedestrian bison hunting was clearly a team effort, a hunter on a horse could potentially hunt effectively alone or in much smaller groups. In turn, that massively increased effectiveness in hunting allowed the Native Americans of the region, once they got enough horses, to go ‘full nomad’ and build a subsistence system focused entirely on hunting bison, supplemented by trading the hides and other products of the bison with the (increasingly sedentary and agrarian) peoples around the edges of the Plains. Many of the common visual markers of Plains Native Americans – the tipi, the travois, the short bow for use from horseback – had existed before among the hunter-gathering peoples, but now spread wore widely as tribes took to horse nomadism and hunting bison full time. At the same time, Isenberg (op. cit. 50-52) has some fascinating paragraphs on all sorts of little material culture changes in terms of clothing, home-wares, tools and so on that changed to accommodate this new lifestyle. The speed of the shift is quite frankly stunning.

Via Wikipedia, a Cheyenne family using a horse to full a travois, c. 1871-1907.

We’ll come back to this later, but I also want to note here that this also radically changed the military balance between the nomads and the sedentary peoples. The greater effectiveness of bison hunting meant that the horse nomads could maintain larger group sizes (than as hunter-gatherers, although eventually they also came to outnumber their sedentary neighbors, though smallpox – which struck the latter harder than the former – had something to do with that too), while possession of the horse itself was a huge military advantage. Thus by 1830 or so, the Ute and Comanche pushed the Apache off of much of their northern territory, while the Shoshone, some of the earliest adopters of the horse, expanded rapidly north and east over the Northern Plains, driving all before them (Secoy, op. cit., 30-31, 33). Other tribes were compelled to buy, raise or steal horses and adopt the same lifestyle to compete effectively. It was a big deal, we’ll talk about specifics later.

Horse supply in this system could be tricky. Unlike in Mongolia, where there were large numbers of wild horses available for capture, it seems that most Native Americans on the Plains were reliant on trade or horse-raiding (that is, stealing horses from their neighbors) to maintain good horse stocks initially. In the southern plains (particularly areas under the Comanches and Kiowas), the warm year-round temperature and relatively infrequent snowfall allowed those tribes to eventually raise large herds of their own horses for use hunting and as a trade good. While Mongolian horses know to dig in the snow to get the grass underneath, western horses generally do not do this, meaning that they have to be stall-fed in the winter. Consequently in the northern plains, horses remained a valuable trade good and a frequently object of warfare. In both cases, horses were too valuable to be casually eating all of the time and instead Isenberg notes that guarding horses carefully against theft and raiding was one of the key and most time-demanding tasks of life for those tribes which had them.

So to be clear, the Great Plains Native Americans are not living off of their horses, they are using their horses to live off of the bison. The subsistence system isn’t horse based, but bison-based.

At the same time, as Isenberg (op. cit. 70ff) makes clear that this pure-hunting nomadism still existed in a narrow edge of subsistence. From his description, it is hard not to conclude that the margin or survival was quite a bit narrower than the Eurasian Steppe subsistence system and it is also clear that group-size and population density were quite a bit lower. It’s also not clear that this system was fully sustainable in the long run; Pekka Hämäläinen argues in The Comanche Empire (2008) that Comanche bison hunting was potentially already unsustainable in the very long term by the 1830s. It worked well enough in wet years, but an extended drought (which the Plains are subjected to every so often) could cause catastrophic decline in bison numbers, as seems to have happened the 1840s and 1850s. A sequence of such events might have created a receding wave phenomenon among bison numbers – recovering after each dry spell, but a little less each time. Isenberg (op. cit., 83ff) also hints at this, pointing out that once one factors for things like natural predators, illness and so on, estimates of Native American bison hunting look to come dangerously close to tipping over sustainability, although Isenberg does not offer an opinion as to if they did tip over that line. Remember: complete reliance on bison hunting was new, not a centuries tested form of subsistence – if there was an equilibrium to be reached, it had not yet been reached.

In any event, the arrival of commercial bison hunting along with increasing markets for bison goods drove the entire system into a tailspin much faster than the Plains population would have alone. Bison numbers begin to collapse in the 1860s, wrecking the entire system about a century and a half after it had started. I find myself wondering if, given a longer time frame to experiment and adapt the new horses to the Great Plains if Native American society on the plains would have increasingly resembled the pastoral societies of the Eurasian Steppe, perhaps even domesticating and herding bison (as is now sometimes done!) or other animals. In any event, the westward expansion of the United States did not leave time for that system to emerge.

Consequently, the Native Americans of the plains make a bad match for the Dothraki in a lot of ways. They don’t maintain population density of the necessary scale. Isenberg (op. cit., 59) presents a chart of this, to assess the impact of the 1780s smallpox epidemics, noting that even before the epidemic, most of the Plains Native American groups numbered in the single-digit thousands, with just a couple over 10,000 individuals. The largest, the Sioux at 20,000, far less than what we see on the Eurasian Steppe and also less than the 40,000 warriors – and presumably c. 120-150,000 individuals that implies – that Khal Drogo alone supposedly has. They haven’t had access to the horse for nearly as long or have access to the vast supply of them or live in a part of the world where there are simply large herds of wild horses available. They haven’t had long-term direct trade access to major settled cities and their market goods (which expresses itself particularly in relatively low access to metal products). It is also clear that the Dothraki Sea lacks large herds of animals for the Dothraki to hunt as the Native Americans could hunt bison; there are the rare large predators like the hrakkar, but that is it. Mostly importantly, the Plains Native American subsistence system was still sharply in flux and may not have been sustainable in the long term, whereas the Dothraki have been living as they do, apparently for many centuries.

So to say the Dothraki share a subsistence system with Great Plains Native Americans is simply wrong. There are complex factors of trade, living-style which simply don’t exist here, the scale is all wrong, as is the ecology. Thus, when it comes to exemplars from a subsistence standpoint, we may safely put the Great Plains to the side.

Well, what about Steppe Nomads?

A Flock of Sheep

The horse is native to the Eurasian Steppe – that is where it evolved and was first domesticated, though the earliest domesticated wild horses were much smaller and weaker (but more robust and self-sufficient) than modern horses. The horse was first domesticated here, on the Eurasian Steppe, by the nomadic peoples there around 3,700 BCE. It seems likely that the nomads of the steppe were riding these horses more or less form the get-go (based on bridle and bit wear patterns on horse bones), but the domesticated horse first shows up in the settled Near East as chariotry (rather than cavalry) around 2000 BCE; true cavalry won’t become prominent in the agrarian world until after the Late Bronze Age Collapse (c. 1200 BCE).

Via Wikipedia, part of the Mongolian Steppe. Note that not all of the Steppe is flat (though much of it is); steppe is about rainfall. Some of it is warmer, some of it is colder (but see the note on temperature variation from last time), some is more mountainous, some is flatter. There’s also a range from relatively lush grass to relatively sparse grass.

I wanted to start by stressing these dates just to note that the peoples of the Eurasian Steppe had a long time to adapt themselves to a nomadic lifestyle structured around horses and pastoralism, which, as we’ve seen, was not the case for the peoples of the Americas, whose development of a sustainable system of horse nomadism was violently disrupted.

That said, the steppe horse (perhaps more correctly, the steppe pony) is not quite the same as modern domesticated horses. The sorts of horses that occupy stables in Europe or America are the product of centuries of selective breeding for larger and stronger horses. Because those horses were stable fed (that is, fed grains and hay, in addition to grass), they could be bred much larger what a horse fed entirely on grass could support (with the irony that many of those breeds of horses, if released into the wild in their native steppe, would be unable to subsist themselves), because processed grains have much higher nutrition and calorie density than grass. So while most modern horses range between c. 145-180cm tall, the horses of the steppe were substantially smaller, 122-142cm. Again, just to be clear, this is essential because the big chargers and work-horses of the agrarian world cannot sustain themselves purely on grass and the Steppe nomad needs a horse which can feed itself (while we’re on horse-size, mustangs, the feral horses of the Americas, generally occupy the low-end of the horse range as well, typically 142-152cm in height – even when it is clear that their domesticated ancestors were breeds of much larger work horses).

Mongolian archer on horseback (1895). Note how relatively small the horse is; the rider has to position forward, over the horse’s shoulders, rather than its back, to help it carry his weight.

Now just because this subsistence system is built around the horse doesn’t mean it is entirely made up by horses. Even once domesticated, horses aren’t very efficient animals to raise for food. They take too long to gestate (almost a year) and too long to come to maturity (technically a horse can breed at 18 months, but savvy breeders generally avoid breeding horses under three years – and the Mongols were savvy horse breeders). The next most important animal, by far is the sheep. Sheep are one of the oldest domesticated animals (c. 10,000 BC!) and sheep-herding was practiced on the steppe even before the domestication of the horse. Steppe nomads will herd other animals – goats, yaks, cattle – but the core of the subsistence system is focused on these two animals: horses and sheep. Sheep provide all sorts of useful advantages. Like horses, they survive entirely off of the only resource the steppe has in abundance: grass. Sheep gestate for just five months and reach sexual maturity in just six months, which means a small herd of sheep can turn into a large herd of sheep fairly fast (important if you are intending to eat some of them!). Sheep produce meat, wool and (in the case of females) milk, the latter of which can be preserved by being made into cheese or yogurt (but not qumis, as it will curdle, unlike mare’s milk). They also provide lots of dung, which is useful as a heating fuel in the treeless steppe. Essentially, sheep provide a complete survival package for the herder and conveniently, made be herded on foot with low manpower demands.

A chart of the various uses for sheep products I was able to find in my reading. It is almost certainly not exhaustive. I have left qulut (discussed below) off of the list because I cannot find anything solid on if sheep-milk can be used that way. Note that sheep milk cannot generally be made into qumis/airag, but can be fermented into kephir, though it’s not clear to me if that was widespread on the Steppe.

Now it is worth noting right now that Steppe Nomads have, in essence, two conjoined subsistence systems: there is one system for when they are with their herds and another for purely military movements. Not only the sheep, but also the carts (which are used to move the yurt – the Mongols would call it a ger – the portable structure they live in) can’t move nearly as fast as a Steppe warrior on horseback can. So for swift operational movements – raids, campaigns and so on – the warriors would range out from their camps (and I mean range – often we’re talking about hundreds of miles) to strike a target, leaving the non-warriors (which is to say, women, children and the elderly) back at the camp handling the sheep. For strategic movements, as I understand it, the camps and sheep herds might function as a sort of mobile logistics base that the warriors could operate from. We’ll talk about that in just a moment.

So what is the nomadic diet like? Surely it’s all raw horse-meat straight off of the bone, right? Obviously, no. The biggest part of the diet is dairy products. Mare’s and sheep’s milk could be drunk as milk; mare’s milk (but not sheep’s milk) could also be fermented into what the Mongolians call airag but is more commonly known as qumis after its Turkish name (note that while I am mostly using the Mongols as my source model for this, Turkic Steppe nomads are functioning in pretty much all of the same ways, often merely with different words for what are substantially the same things). But it could also be made into cheese and yogurt [update: Wayne Lee (@MilHist_Lee) notes that mare’s milk cannot be made into yogurt, so the yogurt here would be made from sheep’s milk – further stressing the importance of sheep!] which kept better, or even dried into a powdered form called qurut which could then be remixed with water and boiled to be drunk when it was needed (this being a dried form of yogurt, it would presumably be made from sheep’s milk, as mare’s milk wasn’t used for yogurt). The availability of fresh dairy products was seasonal in much of the steppe; winter snows would make the grass scarce and reduce the food intake of the animals, which in turn reduced their milk production. Thus the value of creating preserved, longer-lasting products.

Of course they did also eat meat, particularly in winter when the dairy products became scarce. Mutton (sheep meat) is by far largest contributor here, but if a horse or oxen or any other animal died or was too old or weak for use, it would be butchered (my understanding is that these days, there is a lot more cattle on Mongolia, but the sources strongly indicate that mutton was the standard Mongolian meat of the pre-modern period). Fresh meat was generally made into soup called shulen (often with millet that might be obtained by trade or raiding with sedentary peoples or even grown on some parts of the steppe) not eaten raw off of the bone. One of our sources, William of Rubruck, observed how a single sheep might feed 50-100 men in the form of mutton soup. Excess meat was dried or made into sausages. On the move, meat could be placed between the rider’s saddle and the horse’s back – the frequent compression of riding, combined with the salinity of the horse’s sweat would produce a dried, salted jerky that would keep for a very long time.

(This ‘saddle jerky’ seems to gross out my students every time we discuss the Steppe logistics system, which amuses me greatly.)

Now, to be clear, Steppe peoples absolutely would eat horse meat, make certain things out of horsehair, and tan horse hides. But horses were also valuable, militarily useful and slow to breed. For reasons we’ll get into a moment, each adult male, if he wanted to be of any use, needed several (at least five). Steppe nomads who found themselves without horses (and other herds, but the horses are crucial for defending the non-horse herds) was likely to get pushed into the marginal forest land to the north of the steppe. While the way of life for the ‘forest people’ had its benefits, it is hard not to notice that forest dwellers who, through military success, gained horses and herds struck out as steppe nomads, while steppe nomads who lost their horses became forest dwellers by last resort (Ratchnevsky, op. cit., 5-7). Evidently, being stuck as one of the ‘forest people’ was less than ideal. In short, horses were valuable, they were the necessary gateway into steppe live and also a scarce resource not to be squandered. All of which is to say, while the Mongols and other Steppe peoples ate horse, they weren’t raising horses for the slaughter, but mostly eating horses that were too old, or were superfluous stallions, or had become injured or lame. It is fairly clear that there were never quite enough good horses to go around.

Via Wikipedia, a photo taken in 1921 of Mongolian herdsman, tending their livestock, with sheep on the foreground and horses and camels in the background.

The other major source of meat, especially when on campaign, but also when in camp, would be hunting. One might expect the mighty Mongols to only hunt the more fearsome game, but the most common animals to hunt were smaller ones like the marmot, although the Mongols would hunt essentially anything on the steppe, including deer, antelope, even bears and tigers. Mongol hunting practices are quite developed (especially the large group hunt known as the nerge, which we’ll talk about when we get to warfare). Hunting, especially hunting small game with a bow from horseback, was a skill a good steppe nomad learned very young; one source describes Mongol boys learning to ride on the backs of sheep and practicing their archery by shooting small game (May, op. cit. 42), which is both adorable and terrifying. Needless to say, a warrior who can drop on arrow at distance onto a marmot while riding at speed on a horse is going to be a quite lethal archer in battle.

A String of Horses

War parties, as noted, often moved without bringing the entire camp, the non-combatants or the sheep with them. This was actually crucial operational concern on the steppe, since the absence of a war party might render an encampment – stocked full of the most valuable resources (livestock, to be clear) – effectively unguarded and ripe for raiding, but at the same time, attempting to chase down a moving encampment with an equally slow moving encampment was obviously a non-starter. Better to race over the steppe, concealed (as we’ll see) and quick moving to spring a trap on another group of nomads. But how did a war party make those high speed long-distance movements over the steppe? Horse-string logistics (a term, I should note, that I did not coin, but which is too apt not to use).

Each steppe warrior rode to battle with not one horse, but several: typically five to eight. For reasons that will rapidly become obvious, they preferred mares for this purpose. The Steppe warrior could ride the lead horse and keep the rest of them following along by connecting them via a string (thus ‘horse-string logistics’), such that each steppe warrior was his own little equine procession. These horses are, you will recall, fairly small and while they are hardy, they are not necessarily prodigiously strong, so the warrior is going to shift between them as he rides, sparing his best mount for the actual fight. Of course we are not looking at just one warrior on the move – that would be very dangerous – but a group on the move, so we have to imagine a large group (perhaps dozens or hundreds or even thousands) of warriors moving, with something like 5-8 times that many horses.

[Edit: It is worth noting that a horse-string war party might well also bring some number of sheep with them as an additional food supply, herding them along as the army rode. So even here, sheep maintain their importance as a core part of the subsistence system.]

Now of course the warriors are going to bring rations with them from the camp, including milk (both liquid in leather containers and dried to qurut-paste) as well as dried meat (like the saddle jerky discussed above). But the great advantage of moving on mares is that they when they are lactating, mares are already a system for turning the grass of the steppe into emergency rations. As Timothy May (op. cit.) notes, a mare produces around 225-2.5 quarts of milk in excess of the needs of her foal per day during her normal five-month lactation period, equal to about 1,500kcal/day, half of the daily requirement for a human. So long as at least two of the horses in the horse-string were lactating, a steppe warrior need not fear shortfall. This was more difficult in the winter when less grass was available and thus mare’s milk became scarce, which could impose some seasonality on a campaign, but a disciplined band of steppe warriors could move massive distances (the Mongols could make 60 miles a day on the move unencumbered, which is a lot) like this in just a few months.

In adverse conditions (or where time permitted because meat is tasty), steppe warriors on the move could also supplement their diet by hunting, preserving the meat as saddle-jerky (discussed above). In regions where water became scarce, we are frequently told that the Mongols could keep going by opening a vein on their horse and drinking the blood for both nourishment and hydration; May (op. cit.) notes that a horse can donate around 14 pints of blood without serious health risk, which is both hydrating, but also around 2,184kcal, about two-third of the daily requirement. This will have negative impacts on the horses long term if one keeps doing it, so it was an emergency measure.

The major advantage of this kind of horse-string logistics was that a steppe warrior party could move long distances unencumbered by being essentially self-sufficient. It has a second major advantage that I want to note because we’ll come back to it, they light no fires. For most armies, camp fires are essential because food preparation – particularly grains – essentially requires it. But a steppe warrior can move vast distances – hundreds of miles – without lighting a fire. That’s crucial for raiding (and becomes a key advantage even when steppe warriors transition to taking and holding territory in moments of strength, e.g. the Mongols) because sight-lines on the steppe are long and campfires are visible a long way off. Fireless logistics allow steppe warriors to seemingly appear from the steppe with no warning and then vanish just as quickly.

That said, these racing columns of steppe warriors, while they could move very fast and be effectively independent in the short term, don’t seem generally to have been logistically independent of the camp and its herds of sheep in the long term. Not only, of course, would there be need for things like hides and textiles produced in the camp, but also the winter snows would drastically reduce the mares milk the horses produced, making it more difficult to survive purely on horse-string logistics. Instead, the camp formed the logistical base (and store of resources, since a lot of this military activity is about raiding to get captives, sheep and horses which would be kept in the camp) for the long range cavalry raids to strike out from. To the settled peoples on the receiving end of a Mongol raid, it might seem like the Mongols subsisted solely on their horses, but the Mongols themselves knew better (as would anyone who stayed with them for any real length of time).

A Subsistence of Steppes

All of that discussion done, we come to the question, what would an outsider observe when viewing the Steppe subsistence system? After all, what we are really assessing here is a portrait of a Steppe society as viewed by an outsider (conveniently, a lot of the evidence that forms the backbone of our discussion so far is exactly this; check out May, op. cit. for more on that). And I certainly don’t expect Martin (or the showrunners) to bring their story to a screeching halt in order to discuss horse lactation schedules and making dairy products. So if we were in, say a Mongol camp (keeping mind that a Turkic or Hunnic or Scythian nomad camp wouldn’t be very different), what might we see?

Via Wikipedia, a Kazakh yurt. The material for the covering is wool felt (sheep products!)

The primary camp structure is the ger (the Mongolian term) or a yurt (the Old Turkic word) – a portable round tent, typically fairly large, covered with a mix of felt and hides. The ger is one of those structures which, having presumably been incrementally improved over centuries, is just really impressive for its simplicity and elegance. The ger can open at the top to allow a fire to be kept inside (and smoke to escape) in cold climates and additional layers or felt, hide or fur can be easily wrapped over the basic frame to provide insulation to hold in that heat. In hot weather, the coverings can be changed out for thinner felts and even be lifted to provide air circulation. Meanwhile, the pole construction is stable and sturdy. Most importantly, a good ger in the hands of experienced nomads is stunningly portable – often just a couple of hours to either break down or set up, and the entire assembly – the poles, felt panels, hide covers, all of it – can be stored on a single cart. A large encampment would have many of these, probably around one for every ten or fifteen people or so, very roughly. Of course, since the gers move on the carts, they cannot go with the war party, but have to stay with the moving encampment, so a figure like Daenerys would always be in the same place as the carts with the gers.

Via Wikipedia, constructing a Mongolian ger. Note the multiple layers of covers (which might be felt or hide, depending on the weather), along with the (barely visible) wood frame of the structure. In the back, you can see a full constructed ger

Anyone staying there for even a brief span of time is likely to observe the encampment’s many animals, both the horses but also the sheep, along with other animals (cattle, yaks, etc). Wealth in nomadic society is fundamentally measured in animals (especially sheep and horses) so the guest of a powerful, wealthy khan is likely to see a lot of animals. Moreover, they are going to see people spend a lot of time tending these animals. Ewes and mares will be milked, some animals (particularly sheep) may be slaughtered for meat. The sheep would be sheared for wool. Textile production was a task for the women of the encampment; producing fabric from raw wool is labor intensive and would be a fairly constant activity in order to provide the thick wool felt that is used to make everything from clothing to the walls of the yurts themselves. Likewise, dairy processing – turning the milk into cheese, yogurt or qumis – is going to be a constant background activity; qumis, like churning butter, has to be agitated while it ferments, often hundreds of times (although the movement of horses might be used to provide the agitation on the move).

And of course the animals themselves have to be sustained, taken out to graze near the camp, moved between pastures to avoid stripping the grass. Needless to say, animal husbandry can be a lot of work! The camp’s movements itself would not have been random. This is a common error with nomads, assuming they just ‘wander.’ Instead, tribal groupings of various sizes had territory they controlled and shifted, typically in a regular seasonable order, between camp sites to allow the grass in each area to grow back. Trespass on such territory was met with violence, since the trespassers’ animals were literally eating the very basis of the subsistence of the controlling group (we’ll get to it later, but it is odd that the Dothraki Sea seems to lack such territories and also seems to lack ethnic divisions of any kind).

Via Wikipedia, another Kazakh yurt (1860), with animals nearby, sheep being tended in the foreground, another grazing in the background, along with a horse and a camel. More animals graze in the far distance.

In short, the subsistence system would be in evidence almost everywhere since so much of the activity that goes on in the camp was oriented around the pastoral system.

A Show of Brown

Which, at last brings us back to A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. We can start with the show, because visual storytelling is easier to assess. We are able to see Khal Drogo’s khalasaar on the move:

What beautiful shot composition. “So we’ll set the brown horses against the brown grass and the brown leather.” And of course it is one of the tiny handful of non-white cultures that gets slammed by the wall of brown things.

Now to be clear, this is not a war-party, Daenerys is here and we see women and even people (potentially slaves, given the Dothraki attitudes about ‘walkers’) on foot carrying supplies. But where are the herds of sheep? Or even the herds of spare horses? We see one rider for each horse. This isn’t a budget issue, they clearly have a lot of horses, they’ve simply put too many people in the shot; they need to fire about 4/5ths of their extras. And where are the loaded carts carrying the gers? Because, in the show at least, they do have some kind of shelter:

Now, credit where credit is due: those are clearly a kind of shelter, albeit rather small. Not quite a yurt or a tipi, but perhaps a wigwam. That said, for open steppe like this, this isn’t exactly a great design. First off, they appear somewhat poorly made for what are presumably portable, reusable structures (one assumes they are not butchering and tanning all that hide every night). As you will notice above, a Mongolian ger is typically a fairly carefully made thing (people like nice things!) and Native American tipis and wigwams are no different! The choice to shape them as wigwams is not great either: wigwams were generally temporary and non-portable structures, as I understand it; the tipi was designed for repeated use, variable climates and portability and would be a much better choice for this (but I think a ger would be the more correct choice for how the Dothraki are set up, especially since they have carts). In this case, the huge, show-stopping problem is the clear lack of any smokehole at the top of the structure, making it impossible to light a fire inside without smoking yourself to death. Still, within the limits of a show, at least they have dwellings of some sort. They’re not good dwellings, certainly not the sort of dwellings I’d suspect of centuries of development, but they exist.

Also, can I just add – why is brown this culture’s theme color? It is really frustrating. People in the past liked to look nice!

We also see at least some subsistence activity in the camp, but it is entirely the processing of what look like hunted animals, although in one scene it looks like Drogo does, in fact, own a whole two goats that have been brought along and should feed his immediate household for an afternoon or so. Credit where credit is due, there is one extra in this scene who looks to be rolling something that may be her pressing cheese. More confusing to me is why the men are singularly uninvolved in preparing the meat from animals – the deer and rabbits – that are clearly hunted. That’s a skill they would have, since they must regularly hunt well away from the main encampment! I guess manly men don’t field dress hunted animals?

[Update: I have subsequently learned that in fact men generally did not field-dress their own hunted kills in the Steppe and possibly also the Great Plains. So mea culpa, this one bit in the show is actually reasonable. Another point, surprisingly, for the Game of Thrones set crew over the books, which don’t include this element.]

In short, no subsistence system we have discussed is displayed in the show: there are no big-game bison being processed here which could actually feed this large assemblage of people (that one deer and three rabbits sure won’t do it) and there is no flock of sheep that can do the job either. Now I am usually pretty inclined to give the set team a pass on these sorts of things, but the dialogue makes clear that the absence of those systems is quite intentional. Jorah flatly tells Daenerys, when she asks for literally any food that isn’t horse, “The Dothraki have two things in abundance, grass and horses; people can’t live on grass” (S1E2). Given that he is handing her a bit of horsemeat, we may assume he is both serious and at this point also more or less accurate about the diet (which is, at this point, his diet too!). So the show is quite clear, in its text, that the primary thing the Dothraki are supposed to be eating is horse, only mildly supplemented by other game. But as we have noted, neither the Steppe or Great Plains subsistence system is built around eating horses – instead they are both built around using horses to get another animal to mostly eat, either herding domesticated sheep or hunting wild bison.

That said, I cannot really fault the show, because this is one of the rare cases where the show has managed to do somewhat better than the books, mostly, it seems, by dint of the set crew being forced to put something in the background and ‘generic Hollywood camp’ (‘let’s see, someone’s got some stew going, people vaguely doing something nondescript in the stream, what else? Or right, let’s just put a random animal up on a rack over here…’) at least fills in some standard subsistence tasks and putting those two goats and the one deer in the background could at least be taken to imply that there are a lot more of these somewhere, even though the dialogue of the show rules them out as major food sources.

An Error of Books

No, the problem here isn’t with the show, it is with the show’s source material. So let’s go through it, starting with the least important things. Where the show had sensibly added yurts and merely forgot to have any way to move them, Martin has the Dothraki live in “palaces of woven grass” (AGoT, 83) which I assume the show did not replicate because the moment someone described doing that everyone realized what a bad idea it was and moved on to something more sensible like a yurt covered in leather. Grass and reeds, of course, can be woven. However, as anyone who has done so will tell you, the idea of trying to weave what is essentially a grass basket the size of a tent in a single day is not an enviable – or remotely possible – task. Trying to move such a giant grass basket without it coming apart or developing tears and gaps is hardly better. And at the end, a woven-grass structure wouldn’t even really be particularly good at controlling temperature, which is its entire purpose! It is rather ironic, given that unlike the show’s Dothraki, Martin’s Dothraki do seem to use at least some carts, because Viserys is forced to ride in one (AGoT, 323) and so could bring yurts with them. The just don’t.

More to the point, it is very clear that Martin imagines the Dothraki subsistence system to consist almost entirely of horses. The Dothraki ride horses, they eat horses, they drink fermented mare’s milk. The Dothraki – as in the show – are presented as eating almost entirely horsemeat. They eat horsemeat at the wedding (AGoT, 84), and Daenerys’ attendants are surprised that she asks for any kind of meat other than horse (AGoT, 129), although Daenerys herself seems to have access to a more agrarian diet (AGoT, 198) and other characters observe that the Dothraki prefer horsemeat to anything else (AGoT, 272). There is no mention of herds of anything except people and horses moving with the khalasaar. There is also no sense that the Dothraki are hunting big game like one would in the Great Plains; Drogo kills a hrakkar – a sort of lion, apparently – as a display of bravery (AGoT, 495) but there is nothing that would suggest the kind of bison-based subsistence system (at the very least, if that was the system, Daenerys would be well aware of it, because the camp would be awash in bison-products). I found no references to larger game and the Wiki only offers, “packs of wild dogs, herds of free-ranging horses, and rare hrakkar” which is, needless to say, not enough to make up for the absence of large herds of bison, especially for trying to feed Drogo’s camp of perhaps a hundred thousand people (or more!).

They clearly do not herd sheep. This becomes painfully obvious with the raid on the Lhazareen village. The Dothraki – Khal Ogo’s men – in raiding a sedentary pastoralist settlement, kill all of the sheep and leave them to rot. Dany sees them “thousands of them, black with flies, arrow shafts bristling from each carcass” and only knows that this isn’t Drogo’s work because he would have killed the shepherds first (AGoT, 555). And we are told that the people there “the Dothraki called them haesh rakhi, the Lamb Men….Khal Drogo said they belong south of the river bend. The grass of the Dothraki sea was not meant for sheep” (AGoT, 556). We are told that the Dothraki have “vast herds” but this can only mean herds of horses, given that they apparently take offense at any other animal being grazed on the Dothraki and look down ad shepherds in general (AGoT, 83). To be clear, for a nomadic people moving over vast grassland to spurn the opportunity to capture vast herds of sheep would be extraordinarily stupid. At the very least, thousands of sheep are valuable trade goods that can literally walk themselves to the point of sale (we’ll get to this idea that the Dothraki also don’t understand commerce a little later, but it is also intense rubbish; horse nomads in both the New World and the Old understood trade networks quite well and utilized them adroitly). But more broadly, as I hope we’ve laid out, sheep are extremely valuable for subsistence in Steppe terrain.

But Martin does not even do horse-string logistics right. While Daenerys eats cheese (AGoT, 198), we never hear of the Dothraki doing so. The Dothraki do have an equivalent to qumis, but no qulut, no yogurt. Even the frankly badass bit about drinking the horse’s blood as a source of nourishment does not appear.

The horses themselves are also wrong. First, Daenerys and Drogo each have one horse they use, seemingly to the exclusion of all others. If you have been reading this long, you know that is nonsense: they ought to both (and Jorah too, if he intends to keep up) be shifting between multiple horses to avoid riding any of them into the ground. Moreover, Martin has imported a European custom about horses – that men ride stallions and women ride mares – into a context where it makes no sense. Drogo’s horse is clearly noted as a red stallion (AGoT, 88) while Daenerys’ horse is a silver filly (AGoT, 87). But of course the logistics of Steppe raiding revolves around mares; in trying to give Drogo the ultimate manly-man horse, he has actually given him the equivalent of a broken down beater – a horse only able to fulfill a slim parts of its role.

Finally, the group size here is wildly off. For comparison, Timothy May estimates that, in 1206, when Temujin he took the name Chinggis Khan and thus became the Great Khan, ruling the entire eastern half of the Eurasian Steppe, that the Mongol army “probably numbered less than a hundred thousand men” (May, The Mongols, (2019), 43), though by that point his army included not merely Mongols, but other ethnically distinct groups of steppe nomads, Merkits, Naimans, Keraites, Uyghurs and the Tatars (the last of which Chinggis had essentially exterminated – next time, we’ll get to the nonsense of the Dothraki being a single ethnic group). That is, to be clear, compared to the armies of sedentary empires of similar size (which is to say, huge) a fairly small number! We’re going to come back to this next week, but the strength of Steppe nomads was never in numbers. Pastoralism is a low density subsistence strategy, so the steppe nomads were almost always outnumbered by their sedentary opponents (Chinggis himself overcomes this problem by folding sedentary armies into his own, giving him agrarian numbers, backed by the fearsome fighting skills of his steppe nomads).

Via Wikipedia, Chinggis Khan’s empire in 1207; it is about 1,500 miles across.

Khal Drogo’s khalasaar, which moves as a single unit, supposedly has 40,000 riders (AGoT, 325-6); Drogo is perhaps the strongest Khal, but still only one of many. With 40,000 riders, we have to imagine an entire khalasaar of at least 120,000 Dothraki (plus all the slaves they seem to have – put a pin in that for later; also that number is a low-ball because violent mortality is clearly very high among the Dothraki, which would increase the proportion of women and children) and probably something like 300,000 horses. At least. Of course no grassland could support those numbers without herds of sheep or other cattle. As noted above, Isenberg’s figures suggest much lower density in the absence of herding – just under 70,000 nomadic Native Americans on the Great Plains in 1780 (and less than 40,000 in 1877), including women and children! But more to the point, no assemblage of animals and people that large could stay together for any length of time without depleting the grass stocks.

Even if we ignore that problem and even if we assume that the Dothraki have Mongol-style pastoral logistics to enable higher population density on the Dothraki Sea, my sense is that the numbers still don’t work. Even before Drogo dies, we meet quite a few other independent Khals with their on khalasaarsMoro, Jommo, Ogo, Zekko and Motho at least and it is implied that there are more. Drogo’s numbers suggests he should be roughly at the stage Chinggis Khan was in 1201 or so – with Chinggis controlling roughly half of the Mongolian Steppe, and his old friend and rival Jamukha the other half. But Khal Drogo has evidently at least a half-dozen rivals, probably more. It is hard to say with any certainty, but the numbers generally seem too high. Having that entire group concentrated, moving together for at least nine months (long enough for Daenerys to become pregnant and give birth) would be simply impossible inside of a grazing-based subsistence system, sheep or no sheep.

In short, no part of this subsistence system works, either from a North American or a Eurasian perspective.

A Tome of Changing Land Use Patterns

[Note: Parts of this conclusion were moved to Part III of this series, because they made more sense there. Alas for the perils of serialized publication! So if you see someone in the comments still talking about something I said that isn’t here, check to see if it isn’t in the conclusion there.]

This isn’t actually much of a surprise. Martin has been pretty clear that he doesn’t like the kind of history we’re doing here. As he states:

I am not looking for academic tomes about changing patterns of land use, but anecdotal history rich in details of battles, betrayals, love affairs, murders, and similar juicy stuff.

That’s an odd position for an author who critiques other authors for being insufficiently clear about their characters’ tax policy (what does he think they are taxing, other than agricultural land use?). Now, I won’t begrudge anyone their pleasure reading, whatever it may be. But what I hope the proceeding analysis has already made clear is that it simply isn’t possible to say any fictional culture is ‘an amalgam’ of a historical culture if you haven’t even bothered to understand how that culture functions. And it should also be very clear at this point that George R. R. Martin does not have a firm grasp on how any of these cultures function.

Once again, Martin has instead constructed this culture out of stereotypes of nomadic peoples. Indeed, Timothy May, in writing, notes himself the stereotype that the Mongols were always eating big haunches of meat (The Mongol Art of War, 60-1) or that the Mongols were numerous beyond counting (The Mongols, 43) and points out that these are both longstanding stereotypes but also straight nonsense. And that straight nonsense, along with at least having heard of qumis, appears to be the sum total of Martin’s understanding of steppe logistics.

Hardly a promising start to our look at Dothraki culture. So far our ‘dash of fantasy’ has turned into a barrel of salt. Next week, we keep digging in the salt to see if we can find any real culture there at all.

424 thoughts on “Collections: That Dothraki Horde, Part II: Subsistence on the Hoof

  1. This could probably wait until the section on war, but I was disappointed that even when Martin sent his Dothraki to war, the ONE THING we could expect them to be good at, they still underwhelmed. The description of their battle against the Unsullied is that they just defeated themselves by battering headlong against a shieldwall without even trying to flank it or do the classic feigned retreat. And their scorn for Cart King Viserys is notable for how the real Mongols reportedly wheeled the morbidly obese Subutai to battle because they valued his strategist’s brain so much.

    Speaking of the Unsullied, any thoughts on them and their comparisons to real slave soldiers throughout history? It hasn’t escaped my amateur notice that slave soldier corps like the Janissaries or Mamluks were considerably better treated than the Unsullied, to put it mildly. I suppose you have covered this Cult of the Badass mentality before, most notably in the Sparta series.

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    1. 100% agree on both points. When I read it I thought that Martin had originally intended to make the Dothraki orcs and only changed his mind at the last minute.

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      1. That would have made George’s sex scenes between Daenyris and Drogo a bit trickier to nail. It’s bad enough as it is. George seems to . . struggle with sex scenes. George’s geographical analogies for a certain Lady’s anatomical predisposition towards moisture, well, its creative, but . . . maybe a little too creative to read without much cringe.But Orcs?

        (Editor: I think you’ve made the point here. Let’s try to keep things family friendly or at least appropriately serious and scholarly in tone.)

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        1. Oh dear, the potential for Orc-Human sex scenes is reminding me of the infamous “Celebrian”, an early LOTR fanfic. And going by the descriptions here, something which Martin might indeed prefer. What I’m taking away from all this is that his real criticism of Tolkien is not “no fully-developed economy” but “not enough graphic sex and violence”. I think I prefer Tolkien’s handling of such matters – ‘do I really need to describe for you what would happen to a small Human village that got raided by Orcs? We have enough knowledge of such atrocities in real life not to need graphic descriptions in fiction’ – but if you’re going to write juicy gossip historical fiction (and there is nothing wrong with that, Suetonius has got your back there George), then stick to that and don’t look down your nose at other writers with “I’m doing *real* history”.


          1. Bingo!

            Isn’t it interesting that the subject mater usually labeled “mature” – sex and violence – are precisely the preoccupations of adolescent boys?


          2. Isn’t it interesting that the subject mater usually labeled “mature” – sex and violence – are precisely the preoccupations of adolescent boys?

            I think that it’s a version of the impulse to see life as fundamentally meaningless, nasty, brutish, and short, and positive emotions and high ideas as therefore false and misleading. In people of more refined aesthetic sensibilities, such an impulse generally takes the form of a preference for tragedy over other genres, and attempts to crowbar in ambiguity and subversion where it doesn’t really belong (“Whilst this medieval praise-poem ‘Our King is a Really Awesome Guy’ might seem pro-royalty, if you squint hard enough you can see that it’s actually a subtle subversion of the principles of monarchy”); in people of less refined aesthetic sensibilities, it’s more likely to take the form of watching a bunch of backstabbing sociopaths rape and murder each other.


          3. A novel that handles this issue in a much more mature and interesting way (albeit with its own set of issues strictly as a work of literature) is “The Last Ringbearer” by the Russian paleontologist cum amateur author Kirill Yeskov, which takes the view that the LotR narrative as presented by Tolkien is a self-serving propaganda fable written by the victors of a war of conquest, Mordor is a human nation whose ruler Sauron is a mortal human king, and terms like “orc” and “goblin” as used by the men of the West are the equivalent of wartime racial slurs like “Jap” or “gook.”

            Really it’s obvious when you think for like 2 seconds that a major role of nonhuman “humanoid” species in scifi/fantasy is to provide an outlet for racist fantasies that the authors and readers of such works wouldn’t dare express openly if the species in question were depicted as actual human beings (especially obvious when a work uses the term “races” to describe the various species, and/or when a work depicts these allegedly distinct species having sex and producing offspring) so if one is gonna play with those themes, one might as well try to use them to say something intelligent.


          4. Really it’s obvious when you think for like 2 seconds that a major role of nonhuman “humanoid” species in scifi/fantasy is to provide an outlet for racist fantasies that the authors and readers of such works wouldn’t dare express openly if the species in question were depicted as actual human beings

            Which is why the races are so often depicted as superior to human?

            (Anyway, The Last Ringbearer entirely left out the hobbits, which undercuts its claims.)


          5. “Really it’s obvious when you think for like 2 seconds that a major role of nonhuman “humanoid” species in scifi/fantasy is to provide an outlet for racist fantasies that the authors and readers of such works wouldn’t dare express openly”


            No, it’s not “obvious” if you think about it for two minutes or even two decades (as Tolkien did), not unless you’re bound and determined to find an opportunity to slap someone with the racist tag. It doesn’t even pass Occam’s Razor, much less Tolkien’s own statements: Orcs were invented, originally, simply to have armies of Bad Guys whom the Good Guys could slaughter without qualm- no different from the function of Darkspawn or zombies or bug-eyed aliens. But since Tolkien was not a pulp author, and a thinking Catholic, he had difficulties with the concept he could never reconcile: an entire sentient people, condemned to evil and damnation irrevocably? He tried to find an out, trying concepts like “orcs are non-sentient beasts” or “orcs are automata, biological robots,” but he never found one.


          6. Well… yes? “X race is stronger/faster/more ruthless/more cunning/etc than us, hence the need for us to stand together in a strong authoritarian ethnostate to keep them in line and/or wipe them out” is a perfectly common feature of real-world racist ideologies, especially when you’re talking about a “race” of brutish warlike savages like the… uh… orcs, or a “race” of shifty, devious, cunning, avaricious schemers like the… uh… goblins from Harry Potter.

            I don’t recall any hobbits being characters in TLR, but how would that undercut the premise either way? Obviously Yeskov’s response would be, sure hobbits might as well exist in his universe, why not, but if so they’re just another a human subgroup and all the alleged innate differences between them and “regular” humans are just ethnic stereotypes as with the orcs.


          7. Actually, speaking of Harry Potter goblins, it’s interesting to note the shift in Tolkien’s depiction of dwarves, which he’s on record as claiming to have been at least partly inspired by Jews (in his cosmology, a kind of premature “early-model” sentient race made by an overeager Valar who jumped the gun on the whole Creation mishegoss, thus at least partially lacking the same divine spark as Eru’s chosen races, the elves and men). In The Hobbit, written well before WWII, the dwarves’ insatiable greediness is heavily played up and drives the major plot twists toward the end of the story, whereas in the later LotR books written during/after WWII, Tolkien seems to be more cognizant of the potential problems with this allegory and backs off the dwarvish stereotypes significantly.


          8. ” it’s interesting to note the shift in Tolkien’s depiction of dwarves, which he’s on record as claiming to have been at least partly inspired by Jews (in his cosmology, a kind of premature “early-model” sentient race made by an overeager Valar who jumped the gun on the whole Creation mishegoss, thus at least partially lacking the same divine spark as Eru’s chosen races, the elves and men). In The Hobbit, written well before WWII, the dwarves’ insatiable greediness is heavily played up and drives the major plot twists toward the end of the story, whereas in the later LotR books written during/after WWII, Tolkien seems to be more cognizant of the potential problems with this allegory and backs off the dwarvish stereotypes significantly.”

            I think you’re getting the cart before the horse. Tolkien’s transitioning of the Dwarves from fully evil creatures (Book of Lost Tales ca 1916-20) or mostly evil (Turin and the Foaloke and related writings mid-1920s) happened with the writing of The Hobbit ca. 1930, where Dwarves were (more or less) good guys, and in The Lord of the Rings they became admirable in their own stubborn, grumpy way. Whereas his likening them to the Jews *came later,* and was (as always with Tolkien) linguistic in origin: the Dwarves were a diasporan people, preserving their own ancient language among themselves. Still later when he sketched that language, he built it from Semitic-style trisyllabic bases. But if you’re trying to say that Tolkien was motivated by antisemitism, you couldn’t be further off-base, because he was quite the opposite.


          9. Actually, speaking of Harry Potter goblins, it’s interesting to note the shift in Tolkien’s depiction of dwarves, which he’s on record as claiming to have been at least partly inspired by Jews

            He said that the dwarves’ position in non-dwarfish countries was analogous to that of the Jews in non-Jewish countries, not that dwarves themselves were based on Jews.


          10. I think I read that Tolkien’s dwarves speak a Semitic language that he invented, and that he explained their Norse names as the names they use among other peoples.


          11. To be clear here, I’m very much not trying to say “Tolkien hated Jews” or “Tolkien personally pushed the Zyklon B button at Auschwitz” or anything like that, especially since Tolkien clearly “did a growth” (as the young woke folks say) and deliberately distanced his work from those kinds of stereotypes as their real-world consequences became clearer through world events. What I’m doing is bringing up the Dwarvish-Jewish connection as an example to illustrate is something much more basic, echoing an observation by China Mieville, although it’s obvious enough that I’m sure it’s a common enough thought: the universes invented by Tolkien and similar fantasy/scifi creators are universes where racism is true, in the sense that different “races” are depicted as having innate, non-superficial biological differences in ability and temperament that make them innately predestined either for vastly different roles in the social division of labor within a society, or for vastly different types of society altogether. And sure, ideas like that in a fantasy context don’t necessarily mean that someone directly supports real-world racist projects like Jim Crow style racial oppression or Nazi style racial genocide, but at the very least, ideas like that in a real-world context are (a) typically at the center of the ideologies used to justify those kinds of projects, and (b) false.


          12. godfreyofboulogne:

            Orcs were invented, originally, simply to have armies of Bad Guys whom the Good Guys could slaughter without qualm- no different from the function of Darkspawn or zombies or bug-eyed aliens

            Yes, which is precisely the point: if one is actually a Good Guy, there’s never such thing as an enemy that one should feel comfortable to “slaughter without qualm,” period, and the further one goes to indulge and relish the fantasy that such guilt-free slaughter could ever conceivably exist, the more it’s a sign that one might not be as Good a Guy as one supposes one is. If Tolkien had decades-long moral discomfort about the status of “evil races” like orcs in his cosmology, it at least shows that his basic sense of moral intuition was at a higher level than the storytelling premises he set out for himself, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse those premises as such.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. And yet they’re still 100% unstoppable against anyone else, resisting any attempt at cities even neighbouring the Dothraki sea unless tribute is payed.


    3. Nearly every aspect of the unsullied is down right ludicrous. I don’t think there’s any way to even make a useful comparison to notable historical groups of unfree soldiers.

      I wonder what Martin would have cooked up, if he had heard about ministerialis. Bands of noblemen being sold at the market to anyone with the urgent narrative need of a lower ruling class?

      Liked by 3 people

        1. Huscarls where closer to knights in social standing, besides there’s contention as to wether it was a feigned retreat or if william was just able to rally his army very effectively.


          1. Discipline beats bloodthirsty enthusiasm most of the time, there are exceptions. Usually when the professionals are led by idiots.
            Dothraki Screamers’ are definitely blood thirsty enthusiasts who seem to be living off soft targets and their reputation.


          2. Discipline verse aggression is something of a meme inspired most often by the romans. Who had some of the most bloodthirsty soldiers in the ancient world. There isn’t a divide here, discipline is a restraining factor to the aggression that the romans prized. All their virtues are about being badass killers. Discipline is imposed until it is time to unleash the roman soldier on the enemy. It wasn’t valued as highly for its own sake.

            This is something of a theme in real history.


          3. Actually I believe the point of discipline is to leash aggression and channel it. A legionary was a cog in a very efficient killing machine, he had to be trained to stay in position and play his assigned role rather than just run amok.

            Liked by 1 person

          1. But Harold’s army were mostly levied men, more used to milking cows than repelling invasions. I think they were all knackered from having to run all the way from Stamford Bridge too. But putting down raiders and cattle rapists is a completely different thing to repelling a trained, professional army who want to invade you.


        2. One thing a lot of people tend to miss is that the “Carmen de Hastingae”, which modern scholarship accepts as our earliest source, makes the point that the feigned retreat rapidly became a real flight, and it was only salvaged because not all of the English attacked, leaving William free to attack the English on the flank and drive them back. So, another way to look at the battle is that the English lost not because they fell for the feigned retreat, but because the best of them didn’t.

          Liked by 1 person

      1. The feigned retreat isn’t just about pitting the discipline of the pursuing army against their avarice. The retreat is the best opportunity to inflict losses upon an enemy. Failing to pursue a genuine retreat ensures that the retreating army is as strong as possible when it returns for round two.


        1. Yes. On the other hand, in the specific situation being discussed (Dothraki horsemen fighting Unsullied phalanx infantry), the Unsullied have no realistic ability to pursue a retreating foe, and their officers (at least the ones internal to the ranks) are relatively professional and know it.

          So the core contention (“Unsullied wouldn’t fall for a Dothraki false retreat”) is probably correct.

          The corollary is “Unsullied can’t pursue a Dothraki TRUE retreat to any good effect.”

          Which would be kind of a problem for the Unsullied, if the Dothraki weren’t obliging enough to keep Zerg-rushing them over and over.


    4. I think you’re spot on about the slave stuff. The only 2 ‘slave soldier’ models I know of are 1) the Islamic system where you take boy slaves young and then train them up into soldiers and 2) emergencies in the Classical period where a state had so exhausted its manpower that it was slaves or nothing. in the first case I know the janissaries especially were absolutely indoctrinated that they were excellent soldiers and Muslims, and were well treated. Their slavery was represented to them as a special bond with the Sultan, who became a kind of father figure. Very unlike the treatment of the Unsullied. The slave armies in my case 2 were usually of a temporary nature and I believe were usually promised their freedom if successful.
      In both cases work was done to generate the ‘will to combat’, something that is not obvious for the Unsullied in the show.
      I wonder if this is orientalism at work again. If a battalion of Northmen were being shown as being represented as humiliated and denigrated before battle, would it make intuitive sense that they be shown as brave and steady fighters?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I do note that while the Janissaries and mamluks were high-status slave soldiers, the mamluk state also had lower-status infantry (often black african) and even the british raised regiments of slave-soldiers in the West Indies (though IIRC; again with promise of freedom at the end)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. IIRC, the West India regiments were units of the regular army, so the usual Kings Regulations probably applied. As they were part of the regular army, and expected to do the same job, I suppose they would be treated much the same.

          I believe a number of colonial empires also recruited slaves into their local militias, promising freedom for those who fought well. Common sense suggests you have to credibly promise some reward to the people who fight for you; other wise why would they fight for you?

          It occurs to me that Russian serfs were also drafted into the army. And as they could be could be bought, sold and tortured at their owners whim, we would call them slaves if they had been black.

          I don’t suppose that any of those armies was as robotic as the Unsullied.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That is a good example. Serf soldiers were quite close to true slave soldiers – they didn’t want to be there, they weren’t going to be freed and they were often treated with condescension and brutality. But unlike the Unsullied they were still considered part of the people, of the Rodina, and therefore appeals to their patriotism and their religion could be, and were, made. (Also they weren’t great soldiers- the performance of serf infantry in the Crimean War was a driver in the abolition of serfdom).


          2. The russian serfs were not actually slaves. A family could not be broken and they could rarely be moved to another location. So they could be sold where they stood. They could easily redeem themselves if they were enterprising and made enough money.
            The russian infatryman were quite similar to the Unsullied in hardness of military life. They were forcibly drafted, were expected to serve for 25 years and not to marry in the meantime. Their families and commuinities usually considered them as deceased and there was little connection to them during service time. The infatryman entered a life inside a small unit (artel) and stood there for decades. The discipline was harsh yet he could make money in commerce, keep a mistress, advance, etc.
            The difference from Unsullied was that he was highly appreciated in the society. He was the son othe Czar, the defender of Orthodox christianity against Muslim mounted raider, defender of the Russian land against Western (Swedish, French, etc) aggression. The campaign life was very tough with huge casualties due to exhaustion and disease. Battles usually inflicted other huge casualties because the armies operated far from support bases and retreat was not an option. The russian “infatryserf” still performed quite well and it was all due to the appreciation offered by society.
            Unsullied units could not perform long range campaigns without rebelling or deserting en mass at the first occasion.


        2. There were also a whole slew of slave soldiers in Haiti who were given similar promises of freedom. After some of them got screwed over the others ones became less enthusiastic about the whole thing for obvious reasons. But there was a lot of fighting in the very early stages of the Haitian Revolution with white-led slaves fighting mulatto-led slaves.


      2. The Unsullied seem to me to be examples of Ender’s Game S&M about how being brutalized makes you tough and a fighter and a manly man among men destined to be a Great Leader, instead of damaging them, possibly irreparably, unable to cope with school or have friends who aren’t accomplices and unable to deal with others as adult. Or even physically damaged, as in missing teeth or crooked limbs from badly healed breaks or even brain trauma. Part of that is a general sour view of humanity as Hobbesian war of all against all, I think, the kind that thinks The Lord of the Flies is a profound study of human nature. (Or for some, an accurate portrayal of the ethos of the British public school system?)

        Maybe some of it is taking at face value brags about how tough “we” had it growing up. You know, we walked five miles to school, every day, uphill, *both ways!* Or thinking the Spartan agoge actually starved boys to indoctrinate them like a (sensationalized horror story about modern day) cult yet magically didn’t stunt their growth or weaken them to fall prey to disease.

        Martin seems to have the humanities’ disdain for history as social science. So maybe Martin really believes that the Mamelukes and Janissaries and Spartans really show that only the strong survive and prosper and the more Darwinian their upbringing, the more superman they will be. or maybe he really believes that slaves are constantly tortured, more or less for the fun of it a la Westworld (HBO first season, at least,) because that was routine every day, if not every moment. And actually getting work out of slaves, instead of the pleasure of damaging their own property, had nothing to do with slavery. Regardless of why, the result is nonsense.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. As for the Unsullied they don’t seem to be especially impressive one on one, more that their horrible training beat all of the individualism out of them so that they have perfect discipline and follow orders mechanically which makes them good at formation fighting. Humans don’t work like that either, but that’s a different kind of inaccuracy than what you’re talking about I think…


        2. I think Lord of the Flies is overrated, or wrongly rated (The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, and The Spire are all better), but the particular thesis it and Hobbes share isn’t about human nature in society but human nature in the state of nature. In fact, the thesis is rather anti-Fremen: human beings in the state of nature are not noble badasses, but nasty, brutal, and short-lived.


        3. I would also note that Ender’s Game and its sequels make it pretty clear that all of the kids from Battle School are…somewhat psychologically damaged and display several of the traits you describe. The adult characters in the book are under the impression that their treatment of Ender was necessary and proper. Card himself presents things rather more ambiguously.


      3. There was a time when Athens was in desperate need of oarsmen to get the relief to a beleaguered army. So they rounded up a bunch of slave, manumitted them on the spot, and promised them the status of “citizen of an allied city” if they made it on time.


      4. The unsullied are another of GRRM’s weird amalgams: he tries to mix chattel slavery with mamluk/janissary military slavery and it doesn’t really work well.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Slavery is an existential evil but it is also a nuanced institution. ‘Slave’ includes a variety of statuses and functions. It’s complex.


  2. I do adore reading you when you’re very angry with something. My spouse, who enjoyed A Song Of Ice And Fire in their youth, was way ahead of you, to the point that he would use ‘Dothraki’ as a short term of dis-endearment for a preposterously violent parody of steppe culture in other media. We read this essay together over dinner, and had a fine time doing so.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Not much luck on the typo hunt.

    I wonder if having a horse would help?

    Via Wikipedia, a Cheyenne family using a horse to full a travois, c. 1871-1907.
    Via Wikipedia, a Cheyenne family using a horse to pull a travois, c. 1871-1907.


    1. Horses arrived in the Great Plains form->from the south via the Spanish and moving through Native American peoples west of the Rocky Mountains by both trade and eventually raiding in the early 1700s.


    2. “Mutton (sheep meat) is by far largest contributor here, but if a horse or oxen or any other animal died”
      “oxen” is plural, and strangely specific (I expected “cattle”).


    3. Several examples of ‘form’/’from’ presumable typing errors, I noticed during read-through, but didn’t note the positions of.
      Given the word-count, and having a day-job, pretty good work from Bret on the spelling/grammar/punctuation counts though. 🙂


    4. nomadic hunter-gathering on foot (distinct from what will follow in that it places much more emphasis on the gathering part) on the one hand and a mixed subsistence system of small-scale farming mixed seasonally with plains hunting seems to have been the main options pre-horse → seem to have been
      sedentary agricultural racheirias → sedentary agricultural rancherías [at least, that’s my best guess]
      but now spread wore widely → but now spread more widely
      a valuable trade good and a frequently object of warfare → a frequent object of warfare [or “and frequently an object of warfare”]
      At the same time, as Isenberg (op. cit. 70ff) makes clear that this pure-hunting nomadism still existed in a narrow edge of subsistence [replace “that” with a comma]
      the margin or survival → the margin of survival
      wondering if, given a longer time frame to experiment and adapt the new horses to the Great Plains if Native American society on the plains would have [replace second “if” with a comma]
      They haven’t had access to the horse for nearly as long or have access to the vast supply of them or live in a part of the world where there are simply large herds of wild horses available. [This isn’t a grammatical sentence for me. There’s a failure of parallelism between the clauses coordinated with the “or”s here; they’re all supposed to be negated by “haven’t” but it doesn’t work because the tense isn’t the same. If it were “They haven’t had access … or had access … or lived …” it would be fine, but as it is the best I can suggest is “They haven’t had access … and don’t have access … and don’t live …”]
      the Dothraki have been living as they do, apparently for many centuries. [Insert a comma after “apparently”]
      There are complex factors of trade, living-style which simply don’t exist here, the scale is all wrong, as is the ecology. → There are complex factors of trade and living-style which simply don’t exist here, and the scale is all wrong, as is the ecology.
      were riding these horses more or less form the get-go → from the get-go
      a horse or oxen or any other animal died → a horse or ox or any other animal died
      these days, there is a lot more cattle on Mongolia → there are a lot more cattle in Mongolia
      This was actually crucial operational concern on the steppe → a crucial operational concern [or “of crucial operational concern”?]
      the mares milk the horses produced → mare’s milk
      The camp’s movements itself → The camp’s movement itself [or “movements themselves“]
      Timothy May estimates that, in 1206, when he took the name Chinggis Khan [Since the pronoun “he” has no other noun phrase to refer to, it looks like it was May who took the name Chinggis Khan in 1206]
      estimates that, in 1206, …, that the Mongol army [“that” is repeated]
      as whimpy as herding sheep → as wimpy as herding sheep


    1. Those bisons that are nowhere to be seen. 😉

      I suppose part of the problem is that Martin wants (only refering to the books, haven’t seen the TV series) the Dothraki to come to Westeros, and a problem already hinted at is getting a whole bunch of them and their horses across the sea – it would take a pretty large fleet. Bringing several horses per warrior along, together with some flocks of sheep would prove close to impossible, not to mention that the terrain of Westeros would not allow for a Nomadic sustenance style. He probably intends to got for something in the style of the Golden Horde, but those never had a sea between their steppes and the lands they raided. So he focusses on the warfare part and glosses over the rest (‘I want a people of badass mounted archers from the steppes, and yay, horses!’).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The Mongols did try to invade Japan twice, but they relied on their Chinese and Korean vassals to prepare a fleet and they obviously didn’t put mounted archers on the ships.


      2. I’m thinking that the Dothraki and the Wildings would get along like a house on fire (the running and the screaming and so on) and that the surviving Dothraki would probably decide not to leave which creates another problem for the North, but eh, winter is coming.


      3. not to mention that the terrain of Westeros would not allow for a Nomadic sustenance style

        Not that this is necessarily intentional on GRRM’s or D&D’s part, but if you read Bret’s post on the preposterous logistics of the loot train battle, it seems to indicate that Westeros as described in the books and displayed in the show actually does contain fairly large expanses of barely-populated steppelike grasslands that might allow very well for a nomadic subsistence style, raising the question of why a group similar to the Dothraki (or even better, a group similar to an actual steppe nomad culture) hasn’t already emerged to occupy that potential niche before the Dothraki themselves show up to interrupt Jaime’s inexplicable multi-hundred-mile overland wagon train march.


        1. I don’t recall any grassland in Westeros in the novels. I get the impression that Westeros is almost all agricultural land and forest, except for the sandy desert of Dorne and the continental glacier in the extreme north.

          Bret’s post on the loot train battle is primary about the show, because that battle doesn’t happen (or hasn’t happened yet) in the novels. He does pull some numbers from the novels to conclude that Westeros is sparsely populated, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s steppe.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, I was refering to the books only. I didn’t see anything like a typical steppe country in Westeros. It’s more like Europe from the glaciers in Norway to the Extremadura in Spain, with England, France, Germany in between re. forests, agriculture and such, and some Italian-ish town for King’s Landing, all in XXL size and with a rather vague idea about distances, and thus about population as well. With no sea in between I could see the Dothraki – based in the steppes at the Westerosian Volga, perhaps 🙂 – doing some raiding in those lands, maybe exact tribute from rulers too weak to keep them out, but they would keep their centre in the steppes.


          2. Fair enough as far as the actual visual landscape and terrain features of the area of Westeros depicted in that scene, although the map Bret is cribbing from in that post is book-based and shows some pretty large expanses of terrain with essentially zero settlements or major roads. One would think that if this area was the de facto breadbasket of Westeros, there’d be some noteworthy largeish cities straddling its only mapped roadway, or a greater concentration of important lordships/castles to contest such valuable domains, or at least some better-developed transportation infrastructure in the absence of navigable waterways to get that food to cities like King’s Landing or Oldtown.

            Really I just think Martin backed himself into a corner with the weird and comically oversized geography of the continent he decided to draw for his first book, and didn’t think particularly well or hard about how real-world human societies (let alone a single feudal kingdom) would actually go about populating/subsisting/traveling/etc over the landscapes he mapped out. And of course this problem is only compounded by the showrunners’ idiocy in having Jaime decide to do a massive trans-continental wagon trek across what appears to be steppeland to transport a fucking grain stockpile, especially when (a) their enemies have a large force of steppe nomads tailor-made to attack such a caravan, and (b) they could easily transport this grain around the continent by ship instead.


          3. I think most of the blank areas on the maps appear because they just leave out any castle or town that doesn’t appear in the story or belong to a major lord. The Lord of White Harbor commands dozens of lesser lords and hundreds of landed knights, and not one of their castles appears on the maps.

            But yes, everything makes more sense if you assume that every large number GRRM writes is a wild overestimate.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Germany, for example, is dotted by castle ruins. I can cover several on a single day if I plan my tours well. With that feudal pyramid of lords and bannermen, Westeros should look the same. It’s not only the big ones like Winterfell or Casterly Rock, it’s also the smaller castles that played a role mostly in local history, all those seats often named for a local family, Hohnstein, Scharzfeld, Sichelnstein, Hardeg … or a location like Toll Station Keep (the last castle post in my blog is a typical example for a less well known one). Scotland, where I’ve been castle hunting as well, also has a fair amount of them.

            And don’t get me started on the absence of middle sized towns that were important for the trade network. No Goslar, no Lübeck, no Nuremberg …. The Riverlands are the only part of Westeros that has a somewhat realistic distribution of settled places.

            The only point I can forgive is the lack of abbeys and monasteries, another staple of the Mediaeval landscape, since the religion is structured somewhat differently. Else King Robert and his entourage should have descended on some poor abbot every night during the journey to Winterfell. 😀


  4. I would have thought to use hands instead of cm for horse height.

    Mentioning wrong horse. It struck me that in one of the released preview chapter Salmy in full plate is able to use the horse of Daenerys. Martian certainly seems to believe his nomads get by with one war horse and not ponies..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, as an American horseman I find even feet and inches to be confusing and without intuitive meaning; centimeters are even worse. Bret is saying that Mongol and Plains horses were in the 14 hand range, as opposed to modern riding horses in the 16 hand range, or draft horses which are generally over 16 hands.


      1. Although I realize this morning, the answer to a question I have never considered, that a hand is almost exactly 10 centimeters, which makes Prof. Devereux’s numbers more intuitively comprehensible.


      2. My Mustang mare was just shy of 14 hands and was a great horse. Nice stocky build built that I kind of like. But adopting a big 16 and half hand jumper really did make clear the difference between a horse that would forage the last stuff edible in the winter pasture snow or no vs a big guy who had been a stall queen his whole life. As soon as it snowed the big guy would just wait for his hay and his oat or barely supplement. The Mustang would spend her time getting through my fence and than walk over to the unused neighbor’s pasture waiting right about where I would see her coming out the front door so she could show off that the fence was just a suggestion (which than required about 15 minutes of chase the horse game before she would walk up and follow me back home. My still thinks I spoiled her)


    2. My standard plea to people doing historical stuff: have BOTH. Original measurements, whether that be cubits or hands or shekels, for people who are specialists or want to look at the original sources. Metric for everyone else in the world. So here 122-142 cm / 14 hands, works for both types.


      1. I would be surprised to learn that the Mongols measured horses in hands as opposed to Chinese or indigenous units of measurement. So knowing how many bharim tall a pony was would be meaningless to most of this blog’s readers anyway.


  5. Yay! I’ve been waiting for you to talk about Mongol logistics for months, ever since you made a comment about how “awesome and gross” it is.

    I really want to see a video game based on a Mongol horde now, because this seems like a really cool set of army movement mechanics that you don’t see too often. It would be like a historical XCOM 2 – you’ve got your slow-moving logistics base where you make strategic decisions about what territory you want to fight in, and then you’ve got the fast-moving raiders moving out around them, plus the occasional too-cool-to-be-real bit like drinking your own horse’s blood for water.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. The expansion for the original Rome:Total War made an attempt to model the Huns as a playable faction. They got some kind of bonus (reduced unit support costs? Greater gains from pillaging?) while they didn’t permanently claim any land, but at some point they’d have to, because even with the bonuses, momentum wouldn’t last forever, and the victory condition needed permanently claimed land


        1. The Attila version had them work in hordes (IE: Mobile armies with a support structure) that I guess worked tolerably well as an abstraction? (the “buildings” could be stuff like “Sheep flocks”, and interestingly enough since the game modelled climate change, if not actual seasonal variation, there was even some incentive to keep on the move beyond the need for plunder)


    1. The thought popped into my head while reading of something like the barbarians in Civilization V, but with mobile bases. But as a big fan of XCOM 2 I’d be all for a historical version!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “The answer is that in the pre-modern world, subsistence was one of, if not the, most dominant factor shaping culture.”

    Modern ones, too, but here it’s the abundance and assumptions of infinite wealth, which can have bad consequences.

    Remember the story of milk near the beginning of the shut down? Where we were worried about hunger and dairy farmers were throwing away milk because it was not saleable without a certain part for the machines? Whoops! No one had thought that factory was essential. . . . (And that’s a small example of the possibilities.)


    1. It wasn’t about having a certain part for the machines, it was supplying it in a consumer-friendly form. Consumers buy milk in 1 gallon jugs, restaurants and cafeterias buy milk in industrial-sized bags, and schools buy milk in kid-sized cartons, etc. So you end up with a bunch of milk in giant bags that you can’t sell at Kroger, and not enough gallon jugs to keep consumers supplied. And since milk doesn’t keep for very long, you can’t just keep it around while you wait for the bottler to ramp up production.

      The concern about hunger was “I lost my job to the pandemic and I can’t afford food,” not “There’s no food to buy because the supply chain broke down.” The supply chain as a whole held up pretty well, the main issues were in perishables and “panic goods” like pasta and toilet paper.

      Liked by 3 people

        1. Just take a moment to think about the posibility of the supply chain for food, breaking as badly, as the supply chain for toilet paper. I mean it would have been a much higher priority issue and fixed faster, but it took almost 6 weeks before I could reliably find any kind of toilet paper agian.


          1. AFAIK the supply chain for toilet paper didn’t break down at all, the problem was mass buying at the retail level. TP has a low value/bulk ratio, and is normally used at a steady rate, so there’s little leeway in the supply chain. And there’s absolutely no point to ramping up production, unlike with masks or sanitizer, because there was no change in medium-term demand: same number of butts needing the same amount of wiping. No more toilet paper was going to be sold over the lifetime of a factory.

            Though it occurs to me that some changes to distribution did need to get made: people were spending more time at home and less in office buildings, requiring a shift in where TP was sold and how it was packaged, and maybe in the type of TP: institutional TP is often much thinner than people like at home.

            But still, the overall supply of TP was fine. By contrast I recall worries about less food being harvested and processed, due to a lack of workers (either directly due to illness, or due to border closures.)


      1. Toilet paper had a similar problem to the milk – lots of giant rolls for commercial toilets (offices, restaurants, bars, etc) and not enough domestic rolls for people’s homes.

        I know a bunch of people who have a minimum-sized order of commercial toilet paper taking up a large fraction of their basement storage space from early on in the pandemic.


  7. “Even if she wasn’t involved in it directly (because she’s a high status queen), the daily work of survival would be going on all around her and in practice much of it would likely be at her direction as she exercises authority over lower-status individuals in the camp.”

    You do have to factor in her ignorance and foreign status. She wasn’t raised in the culture and would have a trick directing what she was just learning. (Much depends on whether she’s willing to learn.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dany is basically a trophy wife, a useless ornament for Khal Drogo. She isn’t expected to do anything but have sex with him and bear his son. Judging by the status of the Dosh Khaleen more is usually expected of a Khaleesi than this.
      By and large subsistence is women’s work. Food must be gathered, processed and either served or stored. Household goods must be kept in order and repair, servants or slaves directed in their tasks, clothing made and cared for. Somebody must be doing this if not Dany and she should at least see the activity going on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. With nomads, it seems likely to me that erecting the tipi or ger is home-making yet still men’s work.

        Also, with nomads, I’ve been wondering if the men just standing and sitting around isn’t something like a bank where there all these women busily working away behind the counters, and men in uniforms are just standing around (occasionally sitting, maybe) like a useless bunch of layabouts.


      2. Note that Penelope in the Odyssey, despite being a queen, nonetheless spent her time weaving. Queens in subsistence and just-beyond-subsistence cultures were still expected to lead by example, just as the king was supposed to lead in hunting and war.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Though they were making elite fancy stuff. Helen is described as creating a story cloth, weaving details of the war into it. Elizabeth Barber figures Penelope was making a story cloth as well, a simple funerary cloth couldn’t have plausibly taken three years. Also see Arwen’s banner for Aragorn in LotR.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. As I recall, Alexander the Great himself set out to conquer Persia in a home-spun tunic. (After his time, of course, the Successor States got rich enough that their queens didn’t need to do chores any more.)


          1. There’s a story that he presented the captive queen and queen mother of Persia with purple yarn for weaving. They took it as an insult, he was implying they were now slaves and must work for their keep. He apologized and explained that he had intended a courtesy, his own mother and sister wove and would welcome a gift of expensive purple yarn for their work.


        3. I do note that as Bret mentioned in one of the articles about Sparta, Weaving was pretty totemic among greek women, so it’s kind of hard to say if it actually signifies soemthing a queen would do or if it just signifies them being an exemplary woman. Though there were examples of queens at least leading their court ladies in the production of cloth until quite late in european history.


          1. And upper-class women all the way into the 19th century were expected to pass the time with embroidery, even if they weren’t making anything particularly useful


          2. Catherine of Aragon and later Anne Boleyn not only made Henry VIII’s shirts themselves, Anne was furious when Henry kept wearing Catherine’s shirts even after they’d separated, but sewed clothing for the poor. Textile work was not only necessary but in some ways a prestige function. It was part of the womanly ideal. A reputation as an industrious and skilled weaver or needle woman was desirable even for a queen.
            Even in the 19th century some women continued to make clothes at home for reasons of economy, while others made their living sewing for pay, and even those who could afford a modiste still did mending as well as fancy work. Some of the latter was made to sell at bazaars gotten up for charitable purposes.


          3. I remember wearing wearing socks made by my grandmother as a child (not very long ago). They were woolen, very warm and sturdy, not something you’d find in most shops today.

            Making good clothes for loved ones to wear, much like cooking them a good meal, is pleasant and not at all a chore – probably an instinct bred into our hunter-gatherer ancestors.


      1. She may not begin being taught as much about the society she lives in as, say Caetlyn Tully, whose brother was born after she was old enough for an heir’s education, then married a lord with a leadership style based on personal connections, ruling over a vast land populated with sedentary peoples, but as Dany’s arc goes on, she has very strong motivation to learn about Dothraki subsistence.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “medieval culture” is less relevant here than how her specific caretaker and then brother had her raised. It’s been a while but my impression is that she didn’t get the good education, or encouragement to take responsibility for anything.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. “Thus by 1830 or so, the Ute and Comanche pushed the Apache off of much of their northern territory, while the Shoshone, some of the earliest adopters of the horse, expanded rapidly north and east over the Northern Plains, driving all before them ”

    For those so lucky as to escape —

    Some simply practiced genocide as a regular tactic.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Also, can I just add – why is brown this culture’s theme color? It is really frustrating. People in the past liked to look nice!

    Now you’ve got me curious about what cross-cultural trends one can find in people’s aesthetic sensibilities. Like, how universal is it for brown to be not-nice? How universal is it for bright primary colors to be nice? How closely does color-niceness correlate with the rarity of appropriately-colored dyes? Et cetera.

    (Not only would those trends be interesting to know about in their own right, I think I also need to know about them in order to understand the quoted point. After all, there are some sectors of aesthetics which vary heavily from culture to culture even just within the modern era. So I don’t really have any intuition for which instances of drabness-to-my-eyes in depictions of the past are products of people in the past having had different aesthetics and which are actual inaccuracies.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I of course don’t know every single human culture but in my fairly extensive reading of history and anthropology I don’t recall coming across many cultures who considered muddy browns ‘nice’. Even those that are self consciously minimalist such as early modern Japan liked color. The ancient athenians valorized plain simplicity but they used color in their clothing and architecture. Browns tend to be left to the very poor and slaves.
      The Comanche could be fairly drab in their workaday garb but they loved dressing up in colors and beads and did so at the slightest excuse.


      1. Cultures which self-consciously value simplicity tend to go either for (off-)white, or else for sombre blacks (like the Puritans).

        The biggest cross-cultural variation I can think of is mourning colours: black in the West, white in the Far East. I’m not sure what colours people in other cultures associate with mourning, though.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. White has its history as a mourning color in the West, too. For instance, in The Secret Garden, her guardian orders them to make Mary a white wardrobe because she was all in black and he didn’t think it fit for a child. (At the time, white could only be introduced for an adult in half mourning, but a child could still wear it for full mourning.)


        2. In the Puritans’ time, black was among the most expensive dyeing colors (at least for a rich, staying black; you could still get a budget-black that would fade fairly quickly. It being expensive is why the court fashions of Spain, England and the Netherlands were also in black for much of the late 16th-early 17th centuries). They did wear it but only for formal occasions or for their elders. Instead, they designed “Sadd” colors (sad meaning serious, not sorrowful) that were naturally subdued, so a Puritan wearing green, orange, pink or blue is completely accurate, but a Puritan wearing bright tones of these colors would not be.
          The off-white has a simple answer- the cloth (usually linen or wool) isn’t dyed. Dyes weren’t expensive in themselves, which is why medieval peasants could still wear bright colors without too much expense. Members of the clergy wearing undyed cloth (like the Franciscan Gray Friars) were doing it as a statement about their commitment to poverty (a marked contrast from some of their contemporaries who were benefitting from some serious misplacement of church funds). Black as a mourning color in the West is fairly recent (Victorian era is when it got properly codified with set rules about when you could leave the mourning state), but it’s mostly based on basic connotations about black=bad, white=good whose origins are too loaded and debatable to get into here. In either case it seems to be partly because white and black are striking not-colors that indicate bereavement in the most literal sense- of having lost something (kind of the symbolism of shadows without light or a blank, featureless page- white especially so since it’s literally without dye in some cases). So you’re definitely onto something there.
          That said, it doesn’t follow that because a population lives hand-to-mouth that they would value somberness in their design. While some Puritans did colonize Massachusetts, others stuck around in England and had no more difficult of a time with subsistence than their more ostentatiously-clothed neighbors. In fact, they had control of Parliament from 1649-1660 (someone correct me on those dates/that characterization since I know next to f-all about the English Civil War).
          Meanwhile, many of the Steppe cultures have rich embroidery traditions (embroidered clothes and linens being a primary part of a girl’s dowry and a way to prove her ability to provide her new family with quality textiles, at least in Turkic cultures- I know less about ones further east such as the Mongols). Uzbeks, who are further west but have had similar subsistence practices to the Mongols, use the ikat style of dyeing which, despite using different methods, gives off a similar impression to tie-dye– bright, swirling colors and all. Suzani textiles are another example of the bright, decorative styles favored by people with similar livelihoods as the nomads described above. Mongolian embroidery seems equally detailed and labor-intensive, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a good deal of women’s time not spent cooking, caring for animals or processing textiles being spent embroidering cloth or hide objects in camp.


          1. Fun fact: English “black” and French “blanc” come from the same root. Which may seem more plausible when you realized that “blank” also comes from it.


    2. Color is pretty common, and if usable dyes aren’t available, there’s still black/white contrast, or texture. Does anything about the Dothraki clothing or tents look attractive, comfortable, or well-made?

      (I also suspect the show used a color filter to make everything appear extra drab, like Oh Brother Where Are Thou.)

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Your comment got me wondering about whether or not Joseph’s indicated the ancient Hebrews similarly valued multi – coloured clothes. The Wikipedia article indicates the modern idea comes from a Greek translation using polikos and quotes a torah scholar saying the original Hebrew had a lot of possible translations, all around fanciness, but not all of which are about colour.


    3. It’s going to depend on the dyes, yeah. Brown is easy to get and in some cases doesn’t even require getting (your fiber comes in that color naturally), so brown isn’t likely to be considered “fancy” anywhere that’s relying on natural dyestuffs. Bright colors frequently require bleaching followed by a much rarer and more expensive dye, so both labor and material costs figure in, therefore it’s going to be the province of the rich, therefore it’s the nicest stuff around. But the exact specifics will depend on where you are, because what dyes you can get in your own region vs. having to import them will vary.


      1. You don’t generally have to bleach already-off-white wool or linen, as far as I know, which is why white sheep are favored over other colors. Bright colors were pretty easily achievable for medieval European peasants (this site has a list of instructions taken from a Flemish manuscript; the main reason peasants wouldn’t wear bright colors would be about the sins of pride and vanity and it not being suitable for lower classes, which wasn’t always a value people followed closely (we have plenty of examples of masters/mistresses giving or willing servants their hand-me-downs.) And given that Uzbekistan has a rich tradition of dyeing really bright swirling colors and most embroidery and weaving I’ve seen from the Steppes is very bright or rich, I’d say that getting color isn’t necessarily difficult. Fixing (making it stay that color), brightness and the level of richness can be more costly, but many many many plants and materials can be used for dyeing, so people have usually done it with anything they can- common exceptions being leather and linen, which don’t take dyes easily or well. (Linen was usually used as an underlayer in part for this reason) Given what we know about Steppe cultures’ preponderance of wool… and visual sources of Mongol cavalry riding into battle in bright reds, purples and greens… I have to disagree on this one.
        Brown on brown is usually as difficult to achieve than wildly-popular woad blue since basically all sheep that you’re raising to use for wool for dyeing (as well as food) are going to be white sheep because then you don’t need to bleach it. That goes for the Flanders textile fairs as much as it does for Mongols. (In fact, since woad is native to the Steppes and brown is usually from bark or walnut shells, which, y’know, the Steppe is mostly treeless, blue might be _easier_ than brown) Of all the concerns, I’d say the amount of water involved in dyeing might be the biggest one on the Steppes, but if you can find water for 3,000 sheep and horses you can find enough to boil dyes in.


  10. The only way I can imagine the Dothrakis to be plausible is if they’re all the first generation of scattered refugees from a settled civilization that just collapsed. Nobody has figured out steppe survival and the bands are still gathering around charismatic warriors before they settle into ethnic divisions. These charismatic warrior-chiefs are so disconnected from actual subsistence that they don’t know what to do with sheep or how to milk mares.

    The next generation will have many fewer Dothraki.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I was going to say “then the ecosystem won’t sustainably support the correct levels of calories for the observed populations” but I remembered that Planetos has the messed-up seasons going on, which could rejigger some of the caloric flows. Not sure to what extent.

      But if the Seasons extend into Essos, and the Dothraki have highly seasonal population levels, then they are looking at a terrifying population collapse over the course of the books as the summer grass -> mare’s milk -> Dothraki calorie chain breaks down. The population cratering would be a huge looming threat for the Dothraki civilization; presumably they’d be extremely concerned about this and/or have a Winter mode of subsistence worked out. Which we see no evidence of.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s pretty clear that plunder and tribute-taking is a major part of Dothraki economy. Now, we can discuss how plausible that is in turn, but it has to be included. Showing up at a city and getting bought off seems to be one of the most important means of subsistence.


    1. But they ignore food on hoof. We see that Vaes Dothraki is a perpetual trade fair as well as a site for plundered monuments but the Dothraki don’t seem to buy anything, sticking to their painted leathers and horsemeat.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. And do what with it? There’s no evidence of the Dothraki making use of urban manufactured goods, whether plundered, or traded for with plunder. This is most unlike the Amerinds, who traded for European goods whenever they could get them; John Smith wrote that the Powhatans would trade two deer for an iron axe, and a veritable mountain of corn for a copper cook-pot

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Love the return of the point that a great way to create a ‘Fremen’ culture (where individuals from that culture are on average more militarily dangerous than their opponents) is if militarily useful skills are generated accidentally/ automatically by their subsistence regime. As you say, there are few ways in which a Mongol mounted hunter, capable of finding and shooting a marmot at 40 yards while moving at 10 mph, is *not* bloody dangerous.
    A similar, more Western case is the way that the Boers, who hunted a lot and were therefore great at fieldcraft and marksmanship, proved very dangerous in skirmishing especially against notionally professional British soldiers.

    It’s a good shout for world builders – make a group/’race’ dangerous as a side effect of how its daily life works.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This was something I found interesting in its absence in The Expanse. There was a lot of talk of Mars comparing to German technological sophistication, but quantitative inferiority in the World Wars. But not as much about how the Belter lifestyle gives them an enormous fleet of long-endurance spacecraft and experience at asteroid redirection. (They are only made into a major threat in later books by an infusion of massive amounts of Martian military hardware.)


      1. I’d kind of read the Belters as a good use of this trope, to be honest. Their catastrophic numerical disadvantage (there are, what, 100 million Belters, max, against a billion Martians and 10 billion Earthlings) was partially offset by the fact that their lifestyle made them natural spacefarers, gave them access to a good bit of metal, plus they had the advantage of being higher in the Sun’s gravity well


        1. What’s the advantage if you’re higher in the Sun’s gravity well? You need the same delta V to go either from a higher to a lower orbit, or viceversa. If anything, it’s a handicap, in that things are much further apart out beyond the Belt.

          Also, Belters are very much *not* natural spacefarers in a setting where voyages happen at constant 1g acceleration, and ships’ combat performance is primarily limited by the crews’ ability to pull high g’s.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. At series start Belter culture was heavily infiltrated by the Inners, with all their governmental and police institutions being run by Earth and Mars directly. That made developing organization harder. I’d say that it’s not just the Martian equipment that made them viable, but the success of the OPA rebellion on Ceres and Johnson’s work to establish them as at least theoretically co-equal to the UN and the MCR, which gave room for Marco’s group to really spread out and develop serious operational capacity.

        That’s on top of the degradation of UN and Martian military assets the resulted from the war and ensuing postwar RIF, which left them vulnerable.


    1. Thats… Interesting. I find saddle-jerky as a thing (mostly the “soaked in sweat to get it salty” bit…) a lot more disturbing than just mares milk.


      1. Right? I’m surprised at my own reactions too. (After all, my diet is heavily dairy as well!) I think a lot of it was less about the relative foreignness of the two customs and more about the surprise factor. The “[f]or reasons that will rapidly become obvious” got me thinking about why mares would be preferred, without success, so the right answer threw me for a bit of a loop.

        And, at the end of the day, isn’t a mammary gland simply a modified sweat gland anyway? (Supposedly.) The miracles of mammology!


      2. My first reaction was a certain amount of shock – “so that’s how they did it!”, then admiration – salt is after all, something that not many nomadic cultures can access, and it is very highly valued in most “up-from-Stone-Age-recently” cultures. And they got it of their horses backs. They have my admiration for a very skillful use of their horses.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. When Chesty Puller was in Haiti he saw the local troops threading straps of beef through their belt loops to salt and cure them. They’d add salt on top, but their own sweat did a pretty good job of curing as well.


  13. It is fairly clear that there were never quite enough good horses to go around.

    There seems to be something Malthusian going on here. The human population grows or shrinks as the horse population grows or shrinks.


    1. Probably not so much, since there’d be a certain amount of ‘flex.’ To be really effective as a warrior on a raiding party you might ‘need’ five horses, but having four probably wouldn’t be the end of the world, and if you were doing well you might have six or more.

      A disastrous crash in water or grass for grazing might result in collapsing horse populations but this wouldn’t affect the total human population nearly as much as the impact on the SHEEP population would.

      No, I suspect that the main reasons there are never enough good horses to go around are:

      1) Constant attrition of the BEST horses in warfare, because you ride your best horse into battle and sometimes those horses are killed.

      2) A sliding scale of what constitutes a ‘good’ horse. A horse that seems mediocre by the standards of a tribe that can afford to be choosy might be very good by the standards of a tribe whose existence (and access to large horse herds) is more marginal.

      3) Horses being a prestige item: the most capable warriors will seek to expand their horse herds, well beyond what they can personally ride so that they have good horses to gift to their followers. As such, the tribes with the best ability to raid their neighbors, or to buy up good horses, will concentrate the best horses to be found on the steppe and still be desirous of more, because being able to give one more follower one more horse that’s better than what he has is ALWAYS prestigious.


      1. In North America, the horse issue was complicated by the tribes not really (except for the Nez Perce) getting horse breeding. They tended to ride their best stallions and so leave the inferior ones with the mares. . .


        1. That reminds me of a show I saw on Chinese silk production: the better silk producers saved the best ten percent of the cocoons to produce the next generation, discarded the worst ten percent, and made silk only from the middle 80 percent of the cocoons. But they had thousands of years to learn that.


      2. The Comanche by all accounts were extremely fortunate in possessing large herds of horses, a fact they flaunted when meeting with other tribes, giving out horses like candy to their guests to show off that they could afford it. They also took considerable pride in their skill as horse thieves. Cavalry stationed in the southwest were alarmed at the rate they lost horses.


    2. Steppe populations could produce a large number of horses but they will sell the best ones to agrarian societies. The settled society could trade metals, textiles and grain for the 3 years of maturing a horse. The trade was generally of about 30 -40 000 to China and 5 -10 000 to Russia each year . Military campaigns by the settled states will raise these numbers.


  14. Even Martin has pretty much said that he just makes up numbers: They are pretty much all without exception nonsense. (and if the Dothraki are bad, he Wildlings are worse…)


    1. Years ago they started making a Game of Thrones video game. They never finished it, but they got far enough along for Martin to play it a little.

      He asked them why the Wall was so big in the game. They said it was as big as the book says. “I wrote it too big!”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Wall is absurdly tall, about ten times taller than it should be. It would still be taller than the Great Wall of China if it was ten times lower. Make it five times lower and it would still be taller than the walls of Mehrangarh, which is a positively gigantic fort in India.


    2. I wondered why the giants in Martin’s world subsist mainly on vegetables–you would think they would be hard to find in a semi-Arctic/Inuit type culture. It seemed like a throwaway detail that just wouldn’t work.


      1. The giants originally lived across the entire continent. By the time of the novels they’re a tiny remnant living in what is probably a far from optimal environment for them.


  15. I wonder what fantasy elements you could add to make this make sense – like, maybe the “grass” of the Dothraki Sea is some kudzu-like plant that chokes out all other vegetation, and is toxic to most grazing animals other than horses?


  16. I am disturbed by the lifelessness of the Dothraki Sea. Where are the herds of large herbivores? The masses of birds, the marmots? Wild horses and hrakkar do not an ecosystem make.


  17. One thing that always struck me as being key throughout history was just how important logistics are to any military, but especially to any kind of mounted force. Even a lighter one like that of a nomadic army. Whether it be the Mongols, Louis XII’s Compagnie’s D’Ordnannance in the Italian Wars, a Civil War cavalry troop or a modern Armor Brigade Combat Team, you can’t do much of anything unless your mounts have the fuel/care necessary to keep moving. You fail in that key task and suddenly you’ve got a lot of extra light infantrymen.

    Even today, in units where we might still have some kind of cavalry heritage (even if no one’s ridden horses in combat since WW2) the saying goes, “the horse, the saddle, the man.” The horse being an analogy for the Abrams and the saddle the representing the crew.

    Everyone on the crew, from the driver to the tank commander had to have situational awareness on how much fuel their platform had and if they’d gotten the required amount of Petroleum, Oils and Lubricants (POL). So of course maintenance was and always will be a fact of life. You don’t take care of your mount/weapons system, it can’t take care of you.

    Even at my very junior level, most of my time in leadership was spent going over the logistical side of things and then planning around that.

    So to my mind, this depiction we see in Martin’s work reminds me more of something out of the now-defunct Warhammer Fantasy setting’s Hordes of Chaos faction. For comparison to Martin’s depiction, imagine a modern Armor Brigade that never does anything besides raid, the soldiers sustain themselves off hydraulic fluid (that’s a joke just so we’re clear, that shit’s actually pretty toxic) and the tanks never require maintenance, being sustained by the bloodcrazed daemonic entities bound to their metal forms.

    The difference being, that in Warhammer we at least get some mention of how important it is for the Chaos-serving steppe tribes to build climate appropriate structures and to try and sustain themselves by any means possible.

    Those that don’t have to abide by that rule are at least handwaved in that they’re supernaturally “blessed” by their gods or they’ve become so close to daemons in their own right, that they don’t really need to abide by such mortal concerns. Even trade is at least alluded to in more peaceable times.

    That was something else that baffled me in learning about the series’ depiction of a steppe culture. In real life, we see archeological examples of early nomadic tribes trading and spreading across the world as often as they warred and raided. There’s even been evidence of Yamnaya DNA as far west as what is today Spain. Scythian tombs often show a wealth of artifacts from different corners of the world. Such sites also show us that the aforementioned Scythians, for example, loved finely crafted gold artifacts and both men and women had numerous, intricate tattoos.

    I realize what Martin was going for, but I think he was too quick in disparaging “academic” history. What we learn from these supposedly tedious aspects of human history paints us a picture, in the case of many nomadic tribes, of a vibrant and colorful culture that was as fascinating in peace as in war. Even in the days of Chinggis Khan’s expansion, things like guest rights were vital cornerstones of their society. He was also willing to incorporate existing civilizations, officials and intellectuals into his government, something his descendants readily sustained.

    Part of the reason for that particular Khan’s harsh treatment of his enemies in later life, was due to his father’s death while the men was supposedly a guest. Even today, documentaries about Mongolian culture show us a people that can be incredibly generous and welcoming. And their culture is very much one that values things like music, color and their particular brand of honor. Things like herding sheep on foot or conducting other forms of physically demanding work are not seen as somehow beneath them or women’s work. Rather, they’re everyone’s collective duty. Those are simply tasks you have to complete if you want to survive in that kind of environment.

    In short, by refusing to take these kinds of factors into account, Martin doesn’t portray the kind of society he’s truly going for so much as he comes across as having missed several major opportunities.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Guest right is universal across human culture. Every culture has stories of what happens when guest right is violated – in the Bible there are several, the threat against the angels in Sodom when they visit Abraham’s nephew Lot is one, etc. Scotland’s got some interesting tales of this sort, and iirc, one of them made it into one of Burn’s poems.


  18. I know nothing about ASoIaF or GoT (never read the books or watched the series), but I have studied the steppe nomads in some detail, particularly the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, and this is a great series for highlighting some of the differences between Eurasian horse nomads and the First Nations peoples of the Plains, about which I know not nearly enough. I’m sure there’s a lot Bret is reading and being forced to leave out because of space, but there are a few things related to the basic economy of steppe nomads that are not mentioned here but I think really bear mentioning for those with an interest in such things, so here goes:

    1) Eurasian horse nomads deliberately practiced multiple forms of informal population control (most famously, directly nursing children for multiple years to limit the birthrate- mother’s milk is ascribed mystical powers in both Turkic and Mongolian folklore, which limited the use of wet-nurses, and children were often nursed well past the age they could walk and talk) and dispersal, to prevent overburdening the land in good times, and also to limit the consequences of a zud (a Mongolian word describing one of a number of phenomena that limit critical winter grazing) or, Tengri forbid, multiple zud in a row, in bad times. The idea of wandering around for months at a time in a single group of tens of thousands of people is completely insane, and almost guaranteed to lead to severe degradation of the pastures, starvation, or, more likely, both.

    2) Although steppe nomadic societies could be entirely self-sustaining in some places and at some times, in many places the primary diet of animal products was heavily supplemented by grain products (like the millet that goes into shulen, as described in the article, but also processed flour, which could be made into noodles, flatbreads, dumplings and other pastries, or added to soups as a thickener), tea, both black and green (an absolutely vital element of any social event among most steppe cultures), and other products of agriculture, that were acquired from the settled villages on the fringes of nomadic zones, together with metalwork, silks, and the like, both luxuries and necessities. Most of the time, such resources could be acquired peacefully – the steppe economy tended to produce a surplus of some valuable things (like leather, felts, livestock, and military expertise) that could be readily exchanged for things it did not produce itself – but even when resources were acquired through raids, non-animal-based foodstuffs were always a sought-after resource. (As an aside on diet, I am sometimes asked how the steppe nomads managed to avoid scurvy and similar illnesses typically suffered by those with a limited dietary range- the answer is, basically, that their dietary range was often broader than generally assumed. The Kazakhs (and quite possibly others, but I can only speak with any authority on the Kazakhs in this case) also had a tradition of deliberately grazing their flocks on multiple kinds of plants – many kinds of flora grow on the steppe, it’s not an unbroken monoculture of a single species of grass – which, supposedly, passed their goodness on to the nomads who drank the animals’ milk. If any nutritionists have seriously examined this assertion, I am not aware of it, but it does indicate a remarkably sophisticated understanding of the importance of a mixed diet. Notably, and in support of the statement that horse meat was *not* a staple of the diet, kazy (horse sausage) is considered a fine delicacy among the Kazakhs, eaten to give strength and courage before battles or other contests, not an everyday food.)

    3) It is correct to call attention to the importance of migration routes and grazing territories for the steppe nomads, but there’s an important distinction being left out, between horizontal transhumance (moving herds across mostly-flat ground to different pastures from season to season) and vertical transhumance (moving up and down altitudes with the seasons). In Central Asia, the latter type is most characteristic of the Kyrgyz, but it is also practiced among the Kazakhs in the Altai mountains in the Kazakhstan/China/Russia/Mongolia border region. This creates some specific pressures on the communities that engage in it. For example, as the migration routes were even more restricted, and winter in the mountains could be even more brutal than on the plains, Kyrgyz nomads often lived (and still live!) in permanent stone buildings (with solid walled enclosures to protect the flocks, rather than makeshift windbreaks consisting of the lea of the yurt itself, fences with spare felts and not-yet-processed hides draped over them, and piled dung, as was commonly the case on the steppe) during winter, but used yurts of the same kind as their steppe-dwelling neighbours while on their summer pastures. Based on this series, it seems fairly clear that this is not the type of nomadism GRRM had in mind, and it certainly doesn’t change any of the conclusions being drawn in this article, but it should still serve as a reminder of the complexity of the real-life cultures from which inspiration is supposedly being drawn.

    I could say more, but this wall of text is already getting pretty imposing, so I’ll leave off there for now. I’ll be keeping an eye on this series, and happy to add more here if there’s interest!

    (Қазақша ұқий алсаң, сәлем саған!)

    Liked by 6 people

    1. To add to the note on scurvy and other nutritional deficiencies:

      Vitamin C is quite abundant in animal tissue, especially organ meat, but high cooking temperatures destroy it. Nomads who have access to internal organs (e.g. liver, which even after cooking still has substantial amounts of vitamin C), and preserve their muscle meat without raising it to high temperatures (e.g. saddle jerky) can get quite a lot of it from animal sources.


    2. I believe the term you’re looking for is “lactational amenorrhea” with regard to the practice of using breastfeeding as a form of birth control. I was unaware steppe nomads relied on it but it’s been used by hunter-gatherer societies for the same purpose of population control.


    3. That kind of transhumance is of course also practiced way outside of traditional nomadic cultures: It remained a major fact of life in northern Sweden for instance (where you would drive your cattle inland during summer for grazing, often having young women act as cattleherds, and return them down to the coast for winter)


    4. Wyston,

      Thanks for the comment, very interesting.

      With regards to illness caused by nutritional deficiency, one thing you get from studying different cultures is that people are EXTREMELY versatile with regard to diet. People can get 90% of their calories from grains, or 90% of their calories from meat and fat and do just fine. It seems that illnesses from dietary deficiency are caused by really extreme environments/situations (scurvy on a ship) or new staples where there isn’t adequate cultural knowledge (pellagra caused by milled corn in the American south).


  19. It’s not just about the real-world facts, it’s about the symbolism. Sheep are docile and blindly obedient, why do you think we call idiots “sheeple”? Stallions are rebellious, creatures of chase and action. When you say the Mongols were nuanced, I hear that they were compromised. They sacrificed the freedom and power of the stallion for the emasculated safety of the sheep and the mare. Our imagination lets us free the archetype from the compromises, to see it as a pure thing, undimmed by frailty. The Platonic Hordes. If we cannot see beyond the confines and frailties of our own world, we will never cast them off. We will never become what we could be.


  20. Typos:

    Great Plains form the south [from]

    Native American peoples west of the Rocky Mountains [east]

    coming from British and French traders to the North and West [east]

    I have left qulut [qurut]

    225-2.5 quart [what’s going on with those numbers?]

    The just don’t. [They]

    artisinal [artisanal]

    whimpy [wimpy?]


  21. If you’re measuring the extent to which GRRM attempted to represent real peoples and cultures, shouldn’t you cap out your understanding at the time he would’ve stopped researching for the Dothraki and locked in something consistent? That’d be 1996 at the latest, but probably earlier. Obviously the primary sources didn’t change in the past 24 years but — I am not an expert, so I’m asking — perhaps the secondary sources advanced? He probably would’ve been reading only secondary sources, which I think we’ve implicitly admitted would’ve been reasonable.


  22. The figures I remember from Francis Haines’ The Plains Indians show a population boom in the tribes that moved into horse nomadism. But prior to that the largest populations were riverine tribes, like the Pawnee. They were horticulturalists in the well watered areas with wood for building, supplemented by buffalo. The hunter/gatherers as I gathered from it were people like the Maidu, who were into acorns.

    Off topic, but it is customary now to assume people killed off all the large plains animals. Except the buffalo. How did they get omitted? I don’t even understand how people weren’t inefficient plains hunters without horses. Or even how they could efficiently and safely fire the grasses *while they were on foot.*


        1. Yes, and one of the theories of why they died is that people killed them. I assumed that’s what stevenjohnson was refering to.


    1. Firing the grass: not a problem- you wait for a windy day and make sure you’re upwind of the herd when you light it.


      1. If the wind changes direction, and you’re stuck in a prairie fire on foot, I think you’ve got a problem. But maybe I’m just a wuss….


        1. I worked on a prescribed burn crew one year and we did all our burning on foot. We were taught “your safe zone is the black” i.e. once you’ve burned off an area, it’s not going to burn again. So if the wind changed, you’d just run into the area you’d already burned and you’d be fine. At least, as long as you didn’t get a fire whirl going. (Google “fire tornado”.)


          1. I kept thinking about this and thinking about this and, aside from the need for pretty good boots to tread on the black, I cannot figure out how one can combine this safety rule with using fire to corral large numbers of animals for slaughter. Some of the hunters would be downwind of the fires to kill the animals being herded as near as I can tell. The firesetters could pretty easily follow the rule, of course.

            The issue of fires to herd animals into a killing zone arises because it, like herding them off a cliff, is a way for technologically primitive peoples to slaughter a species en masse, on a scale that could drive them to extinction.


    2. I can’t actually tell you why the bison weren’t killed off, but when I last read up on the Pleistocene extinctions, the overall takeaway was “we don’t really have a good explanation for them, and especially for why they played out in the specific way they did.” Overkill is one hypothesis, but it was being called into question even before we started getting support for the idea of pre-Clovis settlement (and overkill usually relies on the argument of “humans showed up and the animals weren’t used to them so got slaughtered by skilled Clovis hunters,” which starts to come apart if humans were around for some thousands of years prior to that with more primitive toolkits). Climate change is another hypothesis, but it’s got problems, too. I haven’t read up on this in some years, admittedly, but a quick glance shows me the argument is far from settled — in fact, there’s now a second-order predation hypothesis (humans unbalanced the ecology just enough for ripple effects to go off in various directions) that I don’t remember from my days writing a paper on the topic. The actual cause was probably some combination of factors, the nuances of which are why bison survived and mammoths didn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Second-order hypotheses are almost inevitably going to be more likely than any single cause.

        For example, climate change is rarely going to kill off all of a species *by itself* unless that species lives in a (literal or metaphorical) island that is completely destroyed by the changing climate. There will remain small areas where the climate is still tolerable, and the species will likely persist within those enclaves in most cases. If the climate changes back or the species adapts to the new conditions, they can then repopulate.

        But climate change PLUS hunting is far more likely to kill off a species, because the hunters will tend to focus in on those surviving enclaves where the target species’ population would otherwise get a chance to hang on and recover.

        Having two problems is usually harder to solve than having one problem.

        Liked by 1 person

  23. Might “palaces of woven grass” be some kind of garbled reference to the “palace made of canes” reported by Marco Polo as one of Kublai Khan’s residences in Shangdu (Xanadu)? This palace seems to have been a pavillion made of lacquered and varnished bamboo and able to be taken apart for shipment and reassembled on any suitable site. It was a unique building as far as I am aware, but a long and garbled reference chain might have led Martin to think of elite residences being made of grassy materials. I am aware that this is a stretch, but I thought the coincidence was interesting.
    Reference from

    Liked by 2 people

  24. To bend over backward to be extremely charitable to the sheep-killing; perhaps the Dothraki have some sort of religious or cultural taboo on mutton, similar to the Jewish and Muslim taboos on pork? But that still leaves the question of what they’re eating. And it would be a strange taboo for steppe nomads to have, as it’d be just making life harder for themselves Because Reasons; IIRC at least the real-world pork taboos are somewhat defensible with epidemiological and ecological arguments.

    Really, the impression I get from this essay is Dothraki culture as written would make more sense if you crossed out every reference to horses and replaced it with some sort of fantasy animal. It would have to be something fast-breeding and fast-growing that can turn grass into animal tissue very efficiently but produces little or no secondary products (no eggs and little or no milk); maybe it’s not a mammal.

    Alternately, maybe the Dothraki are primarily hunters like the North American Great Plains cultures and their staple food is some sort of fantasy super-bison with similar traits (fast-breeding, fast-growing, very efficient at turning grass into animal tissue), hence the Dothraki can have much bigger populations than IRL horse nomad bison-hunting cultures? Rationalization: this hypothetical super-bison unfortunately tastes like crap, somebody like Danaerys basically never eats it because the immediate household of a powerful leader would be high-status enough to get the good stuff for every meal, and in Dothraki cuisine the good stuff is mostly horse and horse products supplemented with the occasional tastier wild game. The horse meat heavy diet is generally easier to rationalize if you assume Danaerys’s perspective is biased by mostly interacting with rich people who have more meat in their diet than the average Dothraki.

    Of course, this is all being bending over backwards to be charitable to the source material, trying to come up with interpretations that might salvage it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Martin could have followed the Plains Indian model and made the Dothraki hunters of meaty megafauna, impressively badass, if he thought keeping sheep was too wussy. Seriously something should be eating all that tall grass. Several different something’s, and predators to keep them in line, and small animals, and birds, and fish and amphibians in the rivers. Also there should be a number of food plants. Dothraki subsistence strategy is incredibly limited. People not only like to look nice, they like tasty food.

      Liked by 1 person

  25. Oh, another thought I had that I forgot to post…

    I’m thinking of James C. Scott here, specifically their points about how “barbarians” are often not primordial cultures that progress passed by but actually descendants of “civilized” people who fled from the taxation, oppression, etc. of states…

    Maybe the Dothraki would make more sense if they’re actually recent adopters of the steppe nomad lifestyle and were sedentary farmers a few generations ago, maybe a couple of centuries ago tops? Their culture isn’t masterfully adapted to the steppe, their adaptation to their new lifestyle is still very much a work in progress. That might explain things like their dwellings being not very good. Perhaps some of the “Fremen mirage” features of their culture could then make sense in a kind of meta way; their culture isn’t so much “barbarian nomad” culture as a “civilized” person’s attempt at “barbarian nomad” culture; in a sense they’re less like Mongols and more like ISIL. Stuff like the sheep-killing might fit with that; it’s people who still don’t quite grok what being a pastoral nomad means doing something stupid because they think it will make them look badass. Aren’t the Iron Islanders supposed to be kind of like that, not so much Vikings as reactionaries violently LARPing at being Vikings? So I guess it would kind of fit.


  26. FWIW, Jared Diamond wrote about bison having an evasive migration pattern that made them resistant to being wiped out, vs. predictable bottlenecks.

    > Or even how they could efficiently and safely fire the grasses *while they were on foot.*

    Australian aborigines do it too.

    As for foot hunting, you do it communally. Recently I read a book on Cheyenne lifeways. Pre-horse ways were surrounding a herd and scaring it into confusion, picking off animals with bow and arrow. Or driving them into a pen of bluffs (cliffs) and bushes, where they’d run in circles, and pick them off with bow and arrow. Antelope were hunted the same way, or driven into pits. Fire wasn’t mentioned, though I’d imagine a line of people with torches would also help drive animals.

    And then the infamous “drive herd off a cliff” approach.

    Even with horses, the Cheyenne enforced communal hunting of buffalo herds; going off on your own incurred penalties.

    Turnbull wrote about the Mbuti pygmies doing communal hunts in the jungle. People, including women, would set up a line or semi-circle of nets (disclaimer: I read a long time ago), while other people would use noise and and maybe fire to drive a mass of small game into the nets for clubbing time. I don’t remember elephant tactics in detail, but it almost certainly involved several men with spears to confuse and drive the target.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Cheyenne etc. didn’t hunt the buffalo and antelope to extinction with the same tactics as older peoples are assumed to have hunted most other species in North America to extinction. This is the part that confuses me.

      As to Australians starting prairie fires, I wasn’t aware there are extensive prairies/savannahs/grasslands/veldt in Australia. Nor do I have any idea why they would want to fire them even though there are more of them than I realized.

      I wasn’t aware the behavior of the extinct megafauna was so well understood that we know they had inflexible migration routes by convenient cliffs etc. But I do know that the buffalo had regular paths in the east, where there habitual movement wore a passage through the forests. There is a river in West Virginia named Tug Fork River, so named because in the eighteenth century English explorers smoked buffalo tugs, strips of meat. This are is near the intersection of modern WV, VA and KY. These passage zones don’t seem to have led to extinction of buffalo in the area until historic times. By the way, the Shawnee supposedly had a horse pen near the Tug Fork, leaving the name Horsepen Mountain.

      It is a very edifying story to condemn humans for exterminating animals even thousands of years ago, a great object lesson for this epoch. I just don’t understand why the buffalo weren’t hunted to extinction too.

      I did think that the advent of humans might have imported new grasses, from seeds left on grasses used as stuffing and other accidents. Also, the increased number of uncontrolled fires from camps would have changed the mix of grasses, to more fire resistant types, that happened to be less nutritious for most of the fauna. Population collapse in herbivores is followed by population collapse in carnivores. But this is definitely not an orthodox idea at all. The prevailing tendency is to assume mass extinction at the hands of early men as a fact.


      1. There is at least one potential theory that the Buffalo was, if not hunted to extinction, at least severely reduced, and that early post-contact diseases and the general “shatterzone” effect of contact in the 1500’s caused enough of a human population collapse that the buffalo could recover: In that theory the massive buffalo herds wasn’t the “normal” situation on the Great Plains, it was the effect of a drastic reduction in the top predator-species (IE: Humans)

        Though there has been some scholarship that casts doubt on this (mainly it involves questions of how fast and how widespread the effects of european contact were, if diseases and general instability raced ahead of europeans or if it largely hit the locally affected peoples first and it took time to reach the inland) but I’m not familiar enough with the exact nature of that.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. The hypothesis that early Native American hunters killed off most of the Pleistocene megafauna is still hotly debated–see, for instance “What Killed the Great Beasts of North America?” by Michael Balter (Science, 2014), and the paper it summarizes. So maybe the answer to “why didn’t they kill off the bison along with the mastodons” is “they didn’t kill off the mastodons.”

        Australia has extensive savannas in the north. Here in North America, burning prairie grasses has multiple functions: it recycles nutrients, it favors fire-resistant grasses over trees which would otherwise encroach on the wetter portions of the prairie, removing the dead grass allows the soil to absorb more sunlight and warm up more quickly in spring, and it clears lines of sight around a camp to make it harder for enemies to sneak up. I don’t know much about cultural burning practices in Australia, but I would speculate that many of the same functions apply there (other than “warming the soil”, perhaps).

        Do you have any source for the idea that more fire-resistant grasses are less nutritious, or is that pure speculation? As an ecologist with an interest in prairies, I’m curious about that.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I do not remember where I read that more fire resistant grasses have a higher silicon content, which affects digestion for animals adapted to previous grasses. If I were a properly trained scholar I would no doubt record these things for reference. I have a fairly good memory for written materials (matched by an appallingly bad memory for matching names and faces) so I’ve *probably* remembered the point about silicon content correctly. But my source did not address whether there was a shift to more fire resistant grasses (or imported grasses) after the arrival of humans. That being the essential point, yes, this is pretty much a speculation: Just barely plausible enough at this stage of ignorance to be charming.


          1. Hmm, that’s interesting. My understanding is that in the area I’m familiar with (northern Great Plains), the reason the prairie grasses are more fire-resistant than non-native grasses like brome is that prairie grasses are warm-season grasses whereas most of the non-native grasses are cool-season grasses. So in late fall or early spring when the prairie is burned, the prairie grasses are still dormant and their growing points are still below ground. They’re fire resistant only in the sense that fire doesn’t kill the dormant plants; the dry stalks and leaves burn quite nicely. I have no idea how much of this applies to other grassland ecosystems, though.


        2. The megafauna was driven into extinction wherever the humans arrived. The mamoth were first killed in Europe but survived in Siberia until the humans got needling techniques and created warm clothes. Still there were some mamoths on Wranghel Island with all its small size, Arctic climate, etc and they were not dying. Arrive the men on the island and the mamoths are gone. The same goes for all the megafauna in the islands and continents without an original human population.


      3. Wait, I think your assumption that American Bison/Buffalo weren’t hunted to extinction, flawed. By the late 1880s, every source I’ve seen puts the Bison population below 1,000. William Hornaday, the director of the New York Zoo, was (…suspiciously) confident enough to put it at 541 in 1889.

        By 1900, the sources are putting the number at 250-300. That’s from a peak of 50-75 million (again, sources vary) just 100 years ago.

        The extinction was only stopped by deliberate conservation and population recovery efforts, and multiple active breeding and cross-breeding (with domesticated cattle) programs.

        So, saying that they weren’t hunted to extinction by humans, seems like a very disingenuous “but, actually!” take.

        This PDF has some good sources and figures if you have a PDF reader with a good search function:

        Also, the Wikipedia page is pretty good, and has quality citations (…though it lacks direct links to most of them, grumble grumble.)


        1. It’s not flawed. Steven is saying the *Cheyenne* and other Indians didn’t hunt the bison to extinction. White people with repeating rifles, commercial hunting (including export to Europe), and a deliberate goal of wiping out the Indian way of life, hunted the bison to extinction.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Agreed, except that the white men who hunted the bison to near extinction weren’t using repeating rifles, but massive single-shot blackpowder-cartridge “buffalo rifles:” the Sharps, the Remington rolling block, the Ballard, some Martinis, and (though not nearly as hyped as the others) most of all, the GI-issue trapdoor Springfield.

            The early repeating actions like the 1873 Winchester couldn’t handle rounds that long (contrary to myth, they were strong enough to handle the pressure). Repeating big-game rifles had to wait for the 20th century and the ubiquitous magazine-fed bolt action firing high-velocity nitrocellulose-propellant rounds..


  27. I’ll have to find the source but another reason mustangs and other wild horses are shorter is soundness. The average mustang height helps prevent lameness issues that would plague taller horses running free.
    Something else to consider too is that horses generally give birth in the spring. Not only is the milk supply drying up in the winter a good horseman wouldn’t want to stress heavily pregnant mares with winter raiding.
    Something else I have read but not sure of the veracity is that Bedouin tribes preferred to ride mares over stallions because mares were quieter and would not start hollering around strange horses like a stud would.
    The Dothraki did not seem to respect their horses in the bit of GoT I watched. At least not like other horse centered cultures. I fully admit I am looking at it from veterinarian, horse lover, and former horse owner point of view.
    PS Love the blog.


  28. Re buffalo hunting, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta shows evidence of use for 6,000 years. It is now a UNESCO Heritage site.

    Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden is an account of Hidatsa agricultural practices. It is available free on-line.

    Further north in Eurasia, where the forests give way to tundra, both the Sami people of northern Scandinavia and the Samoyed(e) people of central Siberia domesticated reindeer. Both peoples also domesticated Spitz dogs to help in herding the reindeer, resulting in the Finnish Laphund and the Samoyed. Although Spitz breeds are generally thought of as sled dogs, in both these cultures reindeer pulled sleds and the dogs were herders, although they could also be used to carry a pack or pull.

    The red and white fabric on the yurt at the beginning of the article shows a love of colour and pattern. It could have been needle-felted, woven or embroidered. I hope when you get to fabrics that you will discuss nomadic as well as sedentary cultures. Big looms don’t move well. Steppes would be full of flowers in the spring, since a steppe has lots of forbs as well as grasses; where bunch grasses grow there is lots of space for other plants. Many flowers and roots produce reasonably colour-fast dyes. Yellow and green are easy, red and blue are more difficult. White sheep are popular because their wool takes dye well, but fleece doesn’t have to be white.


    1. Six thousand years of buffalo jumps mass kills certainly doesn’t suggest that driving herds off cliffs is an efficient way to drive a species extinct, at least not to me. But then, the puzzling thing is why buffalo (and antelope) were driven to extinction.


  29. Re: grass dwellings: the essay says they’d be basically giant woven grass baskets and would be impractical to carry around. Maybe they could make a lot of portable woven grass-based screens (think something kind of like a wicker shield), and with those make structures that can be easily assembled and disassembled?


    1. Maybe they’re frames covered with thatch instead of felt or hides? The frame comes apart and is portable and there’s always plenty of grass.


  30. “Instead, tribal groupings of various sizes had territory they controlled and shifted, typically in a regular seasonable order, between camp sites to allow the grass in each area to grow back.”

    In this humans are no more than other “nomadic” or “migratory” animals. When you’ve got only a few set options you don’t squander those – unless you are suicidal.


  31. I’m not too surprised that Martin got a lot of history wrong. I remember that he once posted on his Livejournal blog a very favourable review of a set of historical miniatures he’d bought because of the detailed notes that came with them and that these notes had taught him a lot about the specific period the miniatures were based on (I think it was a medieval set). So he was admitting to learning history from a freaking toy catalogue.


    1. I think Martin knows a lot about history in terms of “interesting stuff that happened” but very little in terms of “how shit worked back then.” You can read reams and ream and reams of pop history about a time period and still not know much about how the nuts and bolts of their systems worked.

      Liked by 1 person

  32. I would defend the numbers, actually. Forty thousand is a lot, but it’s the same as Robb’s forces coming out of Riverrun and much less than Renly’s hundred thousand. It’s inflated from historical figures, but in the same way as the Wall being 300 feet tall and the Starks being kings for (two? four? six?) thousand years, not in the numberless-hordes way.


  33. Do you have a reference for the assertion that modern, large horses can’t survive solely on foraged grass? As far as I know any horse that doesn’t do heavy labor can live on (reasonably good) foraging


  34. I kept thinking of the Pure Horse People of the fantasy world of Glorantha, who herd only horses and look down on those who herd lesser beasts.

    It barely works for them because keeping pure powers their magic, but my interpretation (which I think was shared by the creator of Glorantha, Greg Stafford) is that they are basically marginalized and only survive because they keep slaves who do the unclean work of farming or herding sheep.


  35. If anyone’s at all interested in the contrast between Turkic Steppe nomads and their sedentary neighbors, I highly recommend “A Bride’s Story” by Kaoru Mori, a manga set in the area around the Caspian Sea just before the Russian takeover, ca. 1870. The story is very well researched, mostly concerning the process of marrying and what daily life looked like between various groups (villagers vs. city-dwellers, nomads with/without horses, herders vs. farmers vs. fishermen, Turkic vs. Persian, etc.). It’s also about how those groups interacted with each other and with outsiders (which is something that has had centuries to be codified, since the area is at the crux of the overland Silk Road, but it’s also in the midst of changing as people sense that the Russians, that weird tribe from the north, are planning to invade). It’s a great slice-of-life with beautiful illustrations, and it’s able to walk the line between deliberate values dissonance (standards of nudity, hospitality, and value on independence vs. obedience, for example) and fully condemning things like domestic abuse (which is rare and hated by all the main characters but they act in a period/culturally appropriate way to protect someone from said abuse, so it doesn’t feel morally right in a way that’s imposed upon the past, more like they are using the morals of their own culture to take a stand against something which is just plain wrong all the time).

    It also examines material culture a lot, which makes sense because the main measures of wealth would be herd size (if they were herders, of course), quality of land and/or house, and the beautiful textiles the women in a family created (a girl’s dowry upon marriage would mainly be linens she’d embroidered over years of preparation, which you can sell in a pinch but mostly is a form of art for daily use. Like we said with Dothraki couture, people like to have nice things regardless of how hand-to-mouth their lives can be, and textile work from the area is truly beautiful and unique.)
    Fair warning, the main story starts with a 25 year old woman marrying a 12 year old boy, which A. is not expected to be consummated for a long time, B. is not framed as sexual at all and reaches the intimacy level of hugs and one very chaste kiss (there is no sexual interest between the characters and the author doesn’t use it for gross eroticism), and C. is considered highly unusual in-universe and out (the author acknowledges marriage pairings were more common between, say, two 18-20 year olds, not least because finding and vetting a potential spouse and building up dowry/support money could take a while, but was interested in how a marriage with such contrasts might play out; she is also a nomad marrying into a farm culture). In all honesty, they are the least interesting pair in the story, but they’re in the spotlight a lot at the beginning before the story branches out more to different characters and even different countries. Just so you know about the age-gap thing going in- it’s not as gross as it sounds and the author is very thoughtful about it, and the story overall is great.
    Yes I did do all this disclaimer on a Game of Thrones analysis post. There’ve gotta be other people like me who weren’t able to read/watch because of the violence but still like the poli-sci analysis.


    1. I second the overall recommendation. However, I remember the bride being 20, not 25, and Wikipedia agrees. I also remember Wiki’s further comment: “Unknown to Amir, some of the men she encounters look down on her because she is considered old for a new bride, and long past the traditional age when women in the society have started having children.”

      I have no memory of why this marriage happened. I’m not sure the author ever said.


  36. Bret, I apologize for posting this too late–should have done after your last entry–but I recall hearing in a Hardcore History episode that the Mongols before their great success wore clothes made of mouse skins. That seems like a nonsense. Do you have any insight?


        1. Damn autocorrect.
          I’ve always been a lousy proof reader unfortunately, I see what I expect to see rather than what’s there. Should have caught that one though.


  37. Enjoyed this post even more than the last one, especially where it goes into the nuts and bolts of how the Mongols worked. The bit about how Martin has shorn away everything from people except their destructiveness and how bad that is also hit home.

    It seems that where so many people (Martin included) go wrong is getting migrations and campaigning armies mixed up. I’ve been listening my way through The Fall of Rome podcast and it seems like so many people make the same mistakes about Late Antiquity Germanic peoples that Martin makes about the Mongols.

    Some nitpicks though:

    -I think you’re misunderstanding Martin’s talk about “Aragorn’s tax policy.” He ISN”T saying that Tolkien should have told us more that but rather that being a good person doesn’t make a person an effective rural. Being morally upright and being good at drafting public policy don’t always go hand in hand.

    -For the lack of diversity among the Dothraki they have a pretty recent ethnogenesis (about 400 years before present) which is a blink of the eye in a world with the standard wildly inflated fantasy timescales that Martin uses.

    -While relying on pretty much only horses for food is wildly inefficient and AFAIK has never been done I suppose that it is possible if you set up a society in which horses are massively prestigious compared to everything else. But then we run into the problem of it being very lazy to have the society of horse rides who eat horses and worship a horse god and horse this and horse that and horse the other thing, very shallow and one-note.


    1. Oh and two more things:

      -Martin loves to throw around huge numbers without thinking through the implications of them. The most hilarious example is the wall being ludicrously tall but arrows still reaching the top of it somehow. Same thing here with Dothraki numbers.

      -The Real Is Broke trope: is very much the show more than Martin. We get a gazillion things that are described as brightly colorful in the books that the show turns to mud.

      Liked by 1 person

  38. I have aquestion, you describe the first people domesticating horses somewhere in the Eurasian steppe as “nomads”. In recent years I have heared a couple of times that some historians now think that those people praobably rather were semi-sedetary (just like the nativ-american people who turned into horse-nomads).
    And the lifestyle we think about when we say steppe-nomads, only realy developed with the Skythians some time at the edge of the mediteranian iron age. Do you have any opinion about that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My understanding is they became less sedentary after they got the wheel as having carts helped a lot but I’m hardly an expert.


    2. I have read a book which offers a hypothesis for horse domestication in Ukraine, horse driving for carts and chariots and finally horse riding.
      The initial horse owners used them for culinary delicacies and exported them to Middle East and Eastern / Southern Europe for the same purpose about (3700 BCE). The people in Middle East decided that the horses were better compared to mules / donkeys for chariot driving when an important man had to make an appearance. The idea found its way back in Ukraine. the initial communities were sedenaty on river banks. The cart allowed them to move farther on the steppe for grazing and became semi nomad. They elaborated on the cart and created the war chariot (about 2000 BCE). The war chariot was soon sent back to Middle East (mariannu elite corps). Ukraine soon became an area of intense raiding and the communities shifted back to sedentarism for defence and also to militarism for survival. The end result was again nomadism and semi nomadism as fully armed and armored chariot drivers mantained the peace. Some point forward the compound briddle was invented and horses could be rode. Enter mounted nomad, mounted archer and mounted lancer (about 1000 BCE).


    3. I recommend The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony (2007) on this topic.

      The people who first domesticated the horse (~4000-3500 BC) lived in mostly sedentary villages along the rivers. A significant fraction of their diet came from fish (which makes dating their bones harder, but that’s another issue). Horses did significantly impact warfare. Although they couldn’t live nomadically and didn’t seem to use the horse in battle, it gave them significantly more mobility for raids. The first wave of horse-users off the steppes into the farming communities of the Danube River valley occurred before the steppe horse-users were fully nomadic.

      It was not until the wheel/wagon spread north through the Caucasus (~3300-3000 BC) that the people really became nomadic and could use the entire steppe. That’s when were start seeing major burials located far from the rivers. This culture (the Yamnaya horizon, Proto-Indo-European speakers) spread more quickly and farther than the first wave.

      Another major wave came after the invention of the chariot on the steppes (~2000 BC, Sintashta/Andronovo culture, Proto-Indo-Iranian speakers). They mostly spread south off the steppes into Iran and India.

      Skythians (after the period covered in Anthony’s book) might have invented horse archery and were some of the first to ride horses into battle. But nomadic steppe peoples who used their horse culture to improve their logistics for war threatened sedentary civilizations long before that.


  39. It seems like GRRM could have had a lot of the plot he wanted with more realism if he had a culture which, Mongol-like, had long ranging raiding groups and slower moving herders, but where the herders were a stigmatized low-power class and Daenerys spent her time with the raiders and absorbed their contempt for the herders. Presumably, this also requires some sort of overseers who stay with the herders but enforce the desires of the raiders.


  40. One question for you while reading this — I already knew that horse nomads cannot have too many people gather together in in a single place for too long, or stay in one place for a long time without having their horses eat the ground bare. But what were rough timelines and numbers for this sort of thing? Your posts on moving armies with wagons ended up with some fairly hard numbers on how long an army can march on its stomach — how long can a horse nomad army remain stationary on theirs? How different was that for the nomad army compared to the nomad “moving home base” with the women, children, carts, and goats?


    1. This completely depends on season of year, and amount of rainfall. When I visited Mongolia I was asking exactly these type of questions (how many acres do you need per sheep/horse, etc.; how long can you stay w/o moving, etcc.) and inevitably the Mongolians would just say “it depends.” I’m working on trying to annualize the calculations, so I can at least estimate how many acres PER YEAR were need for X horses and Y sheep. Others have tried this too, but the range of estimates is WIIIIIDE!


  41. Re: men’s role in hunting, Pierre Pouchot in mid 18th century described Native American procedures like this (not Great Plains! but likely similar): “”Often the husband comes back without a word & lights his pipe. After a little while, he says to his wife: ‘I have killed such and such an animal more or less at such and such a place in the forest.’ As he has blazed a trail on trees along his route, the woman sets out, brings the animal back on her shoulders & skins it.”


    1. Is this the woman does the hard work, or is this also: The woman gets to decide what cuts she cooks, what hide or hoof or horn or gut she uses for making things, without the hassle of having the whole carcass stinking up the camp.

      But then, I’ve never had a sound grasp of when it was exploitation, for the strong to do the heavy lifting/fighting or for the prolonged, repetitive work to be done by those with superior endurance.


  42. “leaving the non-warriors (which is to say, women, children and the elderly) back at the camp handling the sheep.”

    Please remember that some horse nomad cultures included a non-trivial number of women among their warriors (the Scythians, from both archaeology and Greek writing about “amazons,” were one such).


    1. Scythians yes, but Mongols, Huns and Tartars, no, so far as we can tell, so women-warriors were not a universal thing among steppe nomads but a particular custom of the Scythians. I didn’t get into that point because Martin’s Dothraki absolutely don’t let women fight.


      1. OTOH there’s women *hunters*, who might be useful in a defensive fight, even if not regularly warriors. Wikipedia talked about the Liao Dynastry, from the Khitan people, where women were taught to hunt, and managed herds and households, held military and government posts, and dowargers led armies.


      2. There was Khutulun, a mongol princess remembered as a warrior and wrestler, and some archaeological evidence, as in bones, including an unusually tall woman buried with weapons and women who seem to have practiced archery. However it seems clear that such women were exceptional, not the rule.
        The so called Mongol Amazon, the tall lady with the weapons, was buried near a more conventional Mongol lady whose adornments included souvenirs from Europe, almost certainly gifts from male relatives who had taken part in fighting in the west. Women’s adornments are an ancient and cross cultural means of showing off the successes of her menfolk.


  43. Hey hey, we haven’t had a Tolkien intrusion into the discussion yet, so let me open the breach. How does all this apply to Rohan? Letter 297: “Rohan. I cannot understand why the name of a country (stated to be Elvish) should be associated with anything Germanic; still less with the only remotely similar O.N. rann ‘house’, which is incidentally not at all appropriate to a still partly mobile and nomadic people of horse-breeders!”

    So he thought of them as somewhat nomadic, even if that wasn’t clear in LotR. Though we do have “the Horse-lords had formerly kept many herds and studs in the Eastemnet, this easterly region of their realm, and there the herdsmen had wandered much, living in camp and tent, even in winter-time. But now all the land was empty, and there was a silence that did not seem to be the quiet of peace.”

    “Their horses were of great stature”

    “‘There are three empty saddles, but I see no hobbits,’ said Legolas.” — no remounts.

    Some spare horses in RotK: “There on the wide flats beside the noisy river were marshalled in many companies well nigh five and fifty hundreds of Riders fully armed, and many hundreds of other men with spare horses lightly burdened.”

    The Rohirrim seem to love their horses too much to eat them, and Tolkien was English, and the English abhor horsemeat. No mention of any kind of milk or other dairy products… really, no mention of Rohan food at all. No mention of sheep or cattle, just “herds”. (Though Appendix A does mention a loss of cattle and horses in Helm’s time.) There is mention of homesteads, and “But great store of food, and many beasts and their fodder”

    So I think we’re supposed to believe in Rohirrim farmers to the south and west, and great herds of horses living on the grass to the north and east, with these grass-fed horses being big enough to carry tall warriors in long mail without a need for spare horses.

    I am not sure it actually coheres.

    The Wainriders and other invaders from the east are probably more like steppe nomads; Tolkien doesn’t given enough detail to get it wrong. In Unfinished Tales he does say they trained their women in fighting:

    “The revolt planned and assisted by Marhwini had indeed broken out; desperate outlaws coming out of the Forest had roused the slaves, and together had succeeded in burning many of the dwellings of the Wainriders, and their storehouses, and their fortified camps of wagons. But most of them had perished in the attempt; for they were ill-armed, and the enemy had not left their homes undefended: their youths and old men were aided by the younger women, who in that people were also trained in arms and fought fiercely in defence of their homes and their children. Thus in the end Marhwini was obliged to retire again to his land beside the Anduin”

    Eowyn seems to have been trained as well, but there’s no mention of women Rohirrim fighting even in an existential defensive war.


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