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Banners in the Mist:
a quarterly newsletter
delving deep into the past

Hi! I'm Joyce Holt, writer of historical fantasy.

Eventually I'll use this venue to offer sneak peaks of my forthcoming novels. For now, while my career is in the limbo-land of waiting to hear back from agents, I'll devote this quarterly newsletter to glimpses into the past, not necessarily related to my body of work.

World News

Dateline July 1, AD 1451

reprinted July 1, 2016     - - -     Volume 3 Number 3

An End to

Birth of the
        Iroquois confederacy

Gaustauyea, south shore of the Great Sparkling Water (Lake Ontario)--

What finally persuaded the Mohawk tribe to join the Great Peace?

Clan Mother Jigonsaseh has long been pleading with the menfolk of her Seneca tribe to cease their endless feuding with neighboring tribes. "But they started it," has been the inevitable protest.

Here at Jigonsaseh's longhouse in Gaustauyea, where this inspired Clan Mother rules over a zone of peace and neutrality, excitement and hope have been rising during the last moon or two -- ever since the arrival of a wise man from the Wyandot (Huron) tribe, along with his spokesman Ayonwatha (Hiawatha) from the Onondaga tribe.

The wise man known as Skennenrahawi (the Peace-Maker) preaches peace and unity, a message Jigonsaseh and her followers delight to hear.

Together the three advocates of harmony have crafted a plan to break the cycle of war and depravity, including cannibalism, human sacrifice, black magic.


  They have persuaded not only the Senecas but also the Cayua, Onondaga, and Oneida tribes to join their Great Peace.

The Mohawks have been the great hold-outs, showing nothing but scorn and scathing at the idea, eager to continue the unending bloodshed.

Then last week it happened, the direst of omens. In the middle of the Peace-Maker's plea to the Mohawk elders, the sun went dark at noontime!       (June 28, 1451)

Shaken by the ominous dimming of day, the Mohawks have thrown down their weapons and agreed to end the constant warfare. They have joined the league of five nations.

Wampum belt, with symbols for each tribe;
see box below for explanation of symbols

Today was announced the order of business to be used during intertribal negotiations.

Delegates from each tribe will make up two ruling councils in the newborn Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). The Clan Mother Council will meet at Gaustauyea with Jigonsaseh as its first leader. The Clan Mothers will appoint the men to sit on the Grand Council, which will meet within the territory of the Onondaga tribe, at the heart of the league.

The women will set the confederacy's agenda, and then the men will debate and negotiate any conflicts. The women will have veto power over the decisions made by the men of the Grand Council.

If the women determine the men are abusing their power, they can remove members of the Grand Council. The Grand Council, in turn, can remove members of the Clan Mother's Council if they deem a Clan Mother to be corrupt.

Thanks to the wisdom of the Peace-Maker, his spokesman Ayonwatha, and first leader of the Clan Mothers, Jigonsaseh, peace now rains down upon the lands around the Great Sparkling Water


The Haudenosaunee:
the Iroquois Confederacy, or League of Five Nations

the Seneca

the Cayuga

the Onondaga

the Oneida

the Mohawk

PROCLAMATION by Skennenrahawi, the Peace-Maker:

"A broad dark belt of wampum of thirty-eight rows -- having a white heart in the center, on either side of which are two white squares all connected with the heart by white rows of beads -- shall be the emblem of the unity of the Five Nations."

Wampum belt, with symbols for each tribe

"The first of the squares on the left represents the Mohawk nation and its territory.

"The second square on the left and the one near the heart, represents the Oneida nation and its territory.

"The white heart in the middle represents the Onondaga nation and its territory, and it also means that the heart of the Five Nations is single in its loyalty to the Great Peace, that the Great Peace is lodged in the heart (meaning the Onondaga Lords), and that the Council Fire is to burn there for the Five Nations, and further, it means that the authority is given to advance the cause of peace whereby hostile nations out of the Confederacy shall cease warfare.

"The white square to the right of the heart represents the Cayuga nation and its territory.

"And the fourth and last white square represents the Seneca nation and its territory.

"White shall here symbolize that no evil or jealous thoughts shall creep into the minds of the Lords while in Council under the Great Peace. White, the emblem of peace, love, charity and equity surrounds and guards the Five Nations."

Wampum beads are made from the white and purple parts of Quahog clam shells.
They are used to communicate between tribes, summon councils,
record history, bestow status, and more.
Read more at the Onondaga tribe's website.


A Haven for Art and Refugees
The enlightened kingdom of Nri

AFRICA: Nri kingdom (Nigeria)--

Whether you seek fabulous bronze artwork, asylum from persecution or slavery, spiritual enlightenment, or spectacular festivals, the Igbo culture has plenty to offer the world traveler.

This month -- Önwa-mbü (July), the rainiest of the year -- is the perfect time to take in the festivals. The Igbo people stop everyday activities for seven weeks to cavort in Mmanwu (masquerades) and other festivities, wearing brightly colored robes and masks.

(Don't be fooled by the "seven week" description. The Igbo are not idle slackers! In the kingdom of Nri, each week is four days long, for a 28-day, 7-week lunar month; they reckon thirteen months a year.)

The northern Igbo paint their wooden masks in black and white, but the southern Igbo go all out with bright colors.

Don't be surprised if a masked figure approaches and scolds you for bad habits or poor behavior. This custom provides constructive criticism and helps the citizens of Nri improve their social skills, leading to a kinder and gentler civilization within this enlightened realm.

Oppression and abuse are not tolerated. Escaped slaves find refuge in this benevolent society.

There's not a single drop of aggressive blood in the Igbo kingdom. Nri's ruler -- Eze Nri Omalonyeso -- himself wields no military power. Instead, this elected priest-king sends emissaries to neighboring realms, preaching peace and persuading to alliances.

Those neighbors are glad to engage in trade and commerce, eager to obtain the famed Igbo bronzework which contains an unusually high silver content.

How do the Igbo artisans get such fine surface detail?

Instead of using beeswax in the lost-wax process of bronze-casting, they use latex, derived from the milky fluid found in certain flowering plants.

bronze artwork

two bronze manillas
(armrings used as currency)

Seeking spiritual enlightenment?

Odinani, the main religion of Nri, says that all things spring from a central spiritual force. Chukwu is the creator of everything visible and invisible. Among the invisible are a myriad of lesser deities, which are parts of the mind of Chukwu. Ala is the divine feminine earth force. Ndichie refers to the ancestors. Chi is the "personal deity," the guardian spirit of each individual.

Chukwu (chí + úkwú: supreme chi) himself demands no sacrifices, shrines or altars, though every neighborhood has shrines to the lesser deities. Some households might have smaller shrines to honor ancestors, and another shrine to honor the personal chi. Some people build ornate chi shrines with colorful china plates set into the clay walls. Polished mud benches hold offerings of china, glass, manillas, and food.

In Odinani belief, each person is the creator or maker of her own destiny. The highest goal is to enter the spirit world as an ancestor. Each person is given seven chances at life through reincarnation, returning only as a human being, being reborn into a later generation of her own family.

ANTIQUITY: the sacred number four

Six centuries ago the first Nri king, Eri, encountered four deities who represented the days of the week.

Here are their names in the Igbo language.
  • čké: east
  • órěč: west
  • ŕfo: north
  • Nkwo: south
According to Igbo thought, the week is divided into four days. The day is divided into four parts. Even the world itself is divided into quarters, and consists of four elements: fire, air, earth, and shallow water.

Scissor-glasses: 15th century high technology
Altarpiece depicting Saint Peter, by Nördlingen painter Friedrich Herlin;
St. Jakob Church in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Germany)

From Convex to Concave
Lenses for the myopic

EUROPE: County of Tyrol (Austria and Italy)--

For two hundred years the convex lens has proved itself of great use for reading, sewing, and other close-work. The convex lens appears not only singly in a magnifying glass but doubled to aid both eyes at once.

The scissors-glasses pictured above are evidence of great advances in technology in the ultra-modern Fifteenth Century of today.

It's a logical leap, then, to wonder about the benefits of the concave lens. And one deep thinker has done just that.

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, bishop of Brixen in the County of Tyrol, has recently woven the metaphor of lenses into his lectures. Rumor has it he plans to write another treatise, his sixteenth, this time focusing on the "intellectual lens" and a person's ability to look at philosophical matters from both a close-up view and a wide angle; the ability both to perceive and to comprehend.

Listeners wonder about his casual reference to the use of a concave lens to allow the myopic (near-sighted person) finally to see clearly into the distance. Is such a device possible? Myopics are clamoring for more information.

The term Cusa uses for a lens, "beryllo," refers to a translucent stone called the beryl. This gem makes excellent lens material, as do crystal and fine glass.

Goldsmiths, by the way, often offer lens-grinding services.


This gemstone gives its name to the corrective-vision apparatus. In France, "beryl circles" first morphed into "berycles" or "beryllus" and today has become the commonly used term "besicles." In German culture they have come to be called "brillen."

Last year, Pope Nicholas V's librarian Giovanni Tortelli referred to besicles as "spectacles," while in antiquity, Petrarch called the convex device an "ocularibus." Time only will tell which term remains in widest usage.

  One local expert on antiquities points out that Emperor Nero, who ruled in Rome from AD 54 to 68, was myopic. He used a concave emerald to watch the gladiatorial games.

Was this as a sort of shade from the sun, a sunglass monocle? Or did Nero use the concave gem to aid his eyesight in viewing the distant competitors?


From an upcoming treatise by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, bishop of Brixen in the County of Tyrol:

"The beryl is a clear, bright, transparent stone, to which is given a concave as well as a convex form, and by looking through it, one attains what was previously invisible.

"If the intellectual beryl, which possesses both the maximum and the minimum in the same way, is adapted to the intellectual eyes, the indivisible principle of all things is attained."

                        ~ Cardinal Cusa (De beryllo, 1458, pages 4-5)

An emerald is a green beryl, colored by trace amounts of chromium.

    at the

Cacao, potatoes, and emeralds

on the Colombian altiplano--

Trading representatives from both the Aztec and Inca nations met yesterday at Somondoco to negotiate exchange rates for the emeralds the Muisca people mine here in the high eastern Andes.

It is well known that the Somondoco gems are a deeper, more brilliant green than is found at other mines in Muisca territory, and thus bring a higher price in trade. The very name of the mining community reflects the high quality. "Somondoco," after all, means "God of green stones."

The chieftain of Somondoco welcomed the ambassadors with a three-day feast before the talks began. The trade goods brought to the table, so to speak, were of course Aztec cacao beans and Incan potatoes.

Potatoes grow well in our own fields, but the different strains brought from the south provide a delectable variation to the daily menu. And cacao beans, everyone agrees, are nearly worth their weight in emeralds!

            When the trade representatives showed curiosity about the geological aspects of the Somondoca mines, the head of mining showed them a chunk of ore.

"Dark limestone," he explained, letting them touch the slick black surface that resembles slate.

"It has a soapy feel," one of the Aztecs commented.

"How do you know where to dig?" asked one of the Incans.

"There's a certain type of subsoil we look for," the supervisor said, making sure not to give away the secret.

An anonymous source informs us that prospectors seek out soil composed of ash-colored rock wherein can be found iron nodules coated with whiskery white sulphur.


Wisdom of the Muisca: botany, bird-watching and weather

When the potato and pea plants close their leaves and point upwards, it’s a sign of coming rain.

So is the song of the red-breasted blackbird.

On the other hand, the song and flight of the copetón (rufous-collared sparrow) is a signal that the rain is about to stop.

red-breasted blackbird



A Thief
    Comes to Grief

The perils of plundering
        the sacred mine

AUSTRALIA: Thuwarri Thaa (West Australia)--

The interloper broke custom, long-standing trading practices, and (not least of all) solemn taboos, the greatest mistake of his life.

When the custodians of the Wilga Mia ochre mine entered the caverns this morning -- after taking the proper steps to honor the guardian spirits -- the elders found the body of a stranger crumpled at the foot of the scaffolding.

      The man had apparently sneaked into the mine under cover of dark, planning to dig and carry away sacks full of precious red ochre.

But without the protection of the four guardian spirits, the thief could not keep his footing high above the cave floor.

The theft was a doomed venture. The interloper broke a fragile peace when he passed the boundary stones on his way into the diggings. He certainly would not have known to walk backwards when leaving the mine, sweeping his footsteps as he went in the ritual of departure.

No one among the local Wajarri people recognize the stranger. By the designs painted on his boomerang it is supposed that he came from lands to the north.

Even distant clans have heard tell of the riches of Wilga Mia mine, ochre that shimmers and gleams with tiny flecks of mica. Trading parties on their way to Wilga Mia usually place orders in advance, sending a runner ahead to give notice (by way of a message stick) how much ochre is wanted. Meanwhile the main party travels at slower pace, encumbered by their trade goods of boomerangs, spears, and kangaroos.

This one unfortunate fellow paid instead with his life. He will be buried tomorrow afternoon, far from the sacred grounds of Wilga Mia.

A palette of Australian ochres and charcoal

Pole scaffolds lean against the cavern walls in the mine. Workers climb to different heights and use heavy stone mauls to break the ocher loose. Bearers then carry the lumps of ochrous stone to the surface.

At the top of the northern slope, other workers pulverise the ore to a fine powder. They dampen it with water and work it into balls that dry in the sun, ready for transport across the continent.

Ochre diggings elsewhere
in this wide red land:

Northern Australia:
Ochre Pits

central Australia:
Standley Chasm

Saga of the Lost Ox
From the ink-stick of a master

ASIA: Japan--

This morning Rinzai Zen monk Shubun unveiled the masterpieces he has been laboring over for the last few months.

Readers may recognize the Saga of the Lost Ox, a series beloved for the last three centuries. Shubun has given a modern rendering to the ancient artwork of zen master Kakuan.

In Search of the Bull

Discovery of the Footprints

Glimpsing the Bull

Catching the Bull

Taming the Bull

Riding the Bull Home

Four more ink wash paintings complete the ten-picture series, taking the saga from its whimsical beginning to a philosophical ending:
  • The Bull Transcended
  • Both Bull and Self Transcended (a blank canvas)
  • Reaching the Source
  • Return to Society

The Bull Transcended

browse earlier issues

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read flash fiction at Wildwood Wandering: weekly blog

email:     jholt.banners(at)

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