Bé belief systems

This article summarizes the religions and philosophies of the Bé, who dominate the northern, tropical part of Arcél.

Some say there is one Bé religion, others that there is no such thing. Both practices and gods change greatly over time. The root of everything is the ancient Bé pantheon, yet few believe in its gods anymore. They believe in the All-Soul, or in a particular manifestation of it, or in no gods at all.

We can speak of schools (łó) or sects (tlu), but individuals are not compelled to choose between them. Some people pick and choose doctrines; others are fiercely convinced that groups besides their own are iniquitous.

See also:


Years are given in the Verdurian ZE.

Important dates to keep in mind, with parallel religious systems:

-4000 Bé as hunter-gatherers First tier: gods
-1000 Transition to agriculture Second tier: goddesses
1100 First city-state (Héjùs) Hâełó (Rationalists)
1613 First empire (Lésàɔ) The Nàłó (Interiorists)
1690-1719 Ktuvok invasion
1705-1997 Men’s Empire; writing Hɛ́nsɔ̀r (Not-having)
2267 Establishment of Belesao Third tier: Devotion and synthesis
3020-3075 New civil war
3480 Present day Modern developments

Beic and outsider beliefs

The Bé are of course aware that other nations have different beliefs. Apart from Hɛ́nsɔ̀r, these fall into four very different categories:

If there is a need to distinguish Bé from foreign beliefs, terms such as Bétlu “Bé worship” and Rurpɛ “our gods” are used; these are neologisms from the last two centuries. The term Trɛrè “Holy Way” is also used, but this really applies to something else.


The is a language family, and by extension a cultural sphere. Anyone who speaks a Beic language is part of the Bé.

Geographically, the Bé is tropical rain forest just south of the equator, with a southern fringe of steppeland. There is a six-month dry season, corresponding to the temperate winter, and then a monsoon (łɛ̀) for about three months, followed by another three months of intermittent rainfall. The Bé region is bounded to the south by high mountains (though these are passable without great difficulty to the south of Belesao). An iliu enclave in the far east prevents expansion in that direction.

One corollary is that the Bé is hot— the average temperature is 35 - 40° C (95 - 104° F). Clothing is understandably scanty.

Another is that things rot. Wooden villages and entire cities are lost to the jungle, and even ancient stone temples are overgrown and broken up by vegetation. Writing was not introduced till 1800, and no physical texts that old exist, except carved on stone— books had to be copied, and undoubtedly much has been lost. The most ancient scriptures and histories were preserved orally. (History before about 1500 is probably less solid than it appears in the Historical Atlas, though it's very unlikely that anything spectacular, like unknown civilizations, are hidden in that time period.)

The lands of the Bé thus form an ecological zone which resists intrusion. There have been invasions— from Uytainese, from Ōkmisan, from Ereláeans— but none of these was adapted to the heat, none knew how to navigate the jungle, and their crops were of no use. The invasion of the ktuvoks was another matter, but did not change basic Beic beliefs about the world. To the Bé, there are only two types of habitat: mînnèn ‘tree-place’ (the forest), and prɔ̌ŋǎ ‘cold-world’, everything to the south.

Historically the Bé lived only in the center of this region, present-day Belesao. To the west were the Linaic peoples; to the east the Minče. These two groups are linguistically related (as Linaminče), and the Bé have traditionally looked down on both of them. The Bé were the first to discover agriculture and metallurgy, and the last eight thousand years is largely the story of their expansion into almost the entire rain forest zone. Even where the Linaminče have established independent nations, these are largely Beic in culture. But more on this below.

Beic society is notable for being female-dominant. The people who run families, businesses, and monarchies are women; the chief divinities are female; most nations allow only women to serve in the army. This has certainly influenced Beic religion, not so much because female clerics think differently, but because attitudes about the family differ in a society where young women must— in order to exercise power— be freed from the responsibility of child-raising.


There is a wide range of Beic languages. However, this document will use only the best understood of them, Lé. Lé is spoken in the Ŋɛ̌ and lower Čú valleys, the heart of Belesao. Downstream along the Čú, its sister Pàn is spoken, while to the east you find Nér.

If you are that extremely jundɛ dlǐ, a person with a good knowledge of modern Lé, some of the extracts below may seem to have weird syntax and meanings. That's because those texts were written down 1500 years ago and the language has changed. (The sounds of the words can only be given in their modern pronunciation— the writing system is syllabographic and our knowledge of Beic languages besides Lé is scanty.)

First tier: The gods

The godsBandsRitualsAgricultureThe womenStories
There have been no less than three tiers of gods in the Bé. The first tier is mostly male, with male priests. We know little about them, which has not prevented later Bé from telling elaborate and contradictory stories about them.

We know from iliu and elcarin sources that the Bé lived around the Léłas Sea from at least -4000. The proto-Bé were hunter-gatherers, with a strong division of labor by sex: the men hunted, fought, and raised adolescents; the women gathered food, cooked meat, and took care of younger children. As with most hunter-gatherers, the society was fairly egalitarian… it's hard to oppress people when they can simply melt away into the jungle and hunt and gather elsewhere. However, men were the heads of families, and they were the one who talked to (and of) the gods.

The gods and their supplicants

The major gods were these:

(The treemouth (mînmê) is a huge, very agile lizard, which hunts and hides in trees in order to catch birds and small mammals. This niche is available on Almea in part because it has no monkeys.)

The gods are there to grant things to men. The two chief gods are associated with the entirely male activity, the hunt. First, there was a public propitiation to Jǐn. This involved a sacrifice of blood— if possible you used the last scrap of meat from the last hunt, but if you're going hunting you're very likely out of food, so often it came from the hunters themselves.

Then there would be a secret propitiation of Ŋɛ̌. Hunting was viewed as a seduction, both of the animals and of their protector Ŋɛ̌. The initial ceremony was held in the forest; women were not supposed to see it. It reportedly involved vaunting the men's virility and skill.

After that it was all business, but the men sometimes said that they could tell when Jǐn was hunting with them. They saw the animals faster, they made less noise, and their arrows shot truer.

Tré was approached when one wanted a wife or a child. He was also blamed if a person fell in love suddenly or unexpectedly.

Hír was the bard of the gods, and the god of bards. That he was lame suggested one career path for handicapped men in primitive Bé culture. If you weren't a bard, you went to him when you needed to know something— anything from where the animals were, to how to cure a sickness, to how to find your way in the forest, to what your enemies were doing.

Dò and Nér were propitiated not to grant favors, but to avoid calamities. Dò was described as eating the dead, so he could often be propitiated by offering him alternate prey. Unlike many gods, he was not satisfied with bones and sinews; he wanted meat and fat, which had to be burned. It was usual to offer him a portion of any large animal hunted, just to stay on his good side. If you were worried about yourself or a loved one dying, you might hunt an animal for him— or an enemy. It's said that he would accept a child as well. (Life was hard, and if the monsoons failed, the young and the elderly were likely to starve. Might as well declare one of them a gift to Dò in hopes of sparing the others. No violence was necessary.)

You would go to Nér in order to avert an omen, or because you wanted something that harmed another, or something that belonged to another. He also had the perfectly aboveboard function of knowing where the good stones were, the ones that made the best arrowheads or other tools.

Band structure

Compared to the later family units (), which numbered one to three dozen people, hunting/gathering bands were small— perhaps just a couple nuclear families, linked parent-to-child or brother-to-brother. Based on the behavior of Linaminče hunter/gatherers, bands were probably fluid: rather than belonging permanently to a single group, a man kept up with half a dozen different groups (based on various blood ties) and might attach for a time to any of them. People wandered over a fairly large territory, which enabled both animals and plant food sources to regenerate.

Wives were often remote relatives; as a corollary their brothers and fathers were probably part of the husband's network of relationships. Women thus kept up with their own family ties, rather than disappearing into a new family.


The most important ritual was the initiation into the hunting cult for adolescent boys, parallel to the sârpáɔ ‘night instructions’ of later times. They presumably worked the same way: the boy was woken up in the middle of the night (for the secrecy and the disorientation), taken to a secret meeting place. There were instructions, ceremonies, and probably the use of drugs. The boy became a man and learned how to seduce Ŋɛ̌— that is, how to approach both prey and women.

Life passages (birth, marriage, death) were celebrated, but we have few details. There are stories that when their women gave birth, the females in the band all attended her, while the men took the husband aside for a birthing ritual of their own. Marriage was low-key; the band decorated the bride and groom with paint and leaves, then sent them off into the woods for sex. Death required a day's fasting and resting (this may have been to punish Dò or the other gods, who would get no sacrifices that day). The dead were left high up in a tree, and the area would be shunned for months.

There were stories about the gods, and about memorable hunts, probably sung by bards (lǔtɛ). This must have been an important activity if it was important enough to include a bard among the gods.


The rain forest was a rich place, supporting a high density even for hunting and foraging, and thus long-lasting settlements. Some of the food women gathered included sorghum (), stripcorn (desú), streff (łuhì), hardroot (mɔ̀čɛ̀), yam (âraŋ), and tengbeans (tèŋ); they must have noticed that seeds discarded near the settlement would germinate later. From this it was not a great leap to cultivating these plants. By -1000 the Bé got most of their nutrition from garden agriculture. That is, they would cultivate a plot for several years, then (as its nutrients were exhausted) move on to another location.

By -750 they had domesticated the nawr ox, used first as a source of milk, meat, and dung (nawr dung makes an excellent fuel), and then as a traction animal, allowing fields to be cleared much easier, and the population density to climb.

The sex roles from earlier times persisted: the men hunted and talked to the gods; the women planted crops, and collected the produce. Traders, not only locals but those from Krwŋ across the mountains, began to show up, and as it was more likely that women would be in the settlements, women managed trade as well.

Settlements could be larger, and it appears that these were based on female blood ties— i.e. sisters, female cousins, mother and daughter(s). The women could work together and the men could wander off to hunt with whoever they wanted to, as before.

What of the women?

If the men were worshipping Jǐn, Dò, and the rest, what were the women doing? The three leading theories:


There must have been prayers and songs of worship for the gods, but these have not survived. However, a fair number of stories still exist.

Hunting fleas

This is a story from the Súŋdǐŋ (Commentaries)— thus from second-tier times; but it remembers that Jǐn was a hunter, which is unusual in later sources and perhaps a mark of antiquity. Its whimsical nature perhaps made it memorable.
One day Jǐn wished to hunt, but he tired of hunting jaguars, crocodiles, and boars.

“What if I shrunk myself down and hunted the flea?” he said to himself.

This is what he did. He shrunk to the size of a speck of dirt, and set himself to hunt in the jungle of a dog's fur.

He was delighted to find that the fleas were excellent sport. Quick and agile, they could leap half the length of the dog, causing him to run for hours. Crafty and quick, they could hide in the blink of an eye.

Jǐn collected dozens of fleas, and finally was ready to cook and eat them. But now he found that they were so hard that they were inedible.

“Pah!” he said. “These are made of bones. At least the jaguar is tasty!”

Therefore he released the fleas and returned to his proper size. Now the dog had to hunt them all over again.

The love of Tré

This is a story told by the shamans. Recall that Tré is the god of sex and love, and Nér is something of a trickster.
It is a blessing to tell tales, and the gods like to hear their names repeated, so I will tell you this story.

The god Tré saw the wife of Jǐn, and he felt desire for her. But Jǐn sees everything and is very jealous, so what could he do?

He went to Nér, and explained his desire. “How may I approach Jǐn's wife, when Jǐn is vigilant and violent?”

“You must do it like this,” said Nér. “Hide in the river in front of Jǐn's house. Wait till it is dark. There are no moons tonight, so you will not be able to see, and neither will Jǐn, even if he is awake. I will whisper to his wife to come meet you on the edge of the water. When you hear her come to the water, you may come to her.”

“Thank you, clever Nér,” said Tré.

He did as Nér told him. He hid in the river, and waited for the night. It was indeed so dark that nothing could be seen.

He could hear Nér whispering at the window. He was terrified lest Jǐn awaken, but the god continued to sleep. He heard soft footsteps approaching the water.

Eager and excited, Tré came out of the water, and immediately felt soft flesh.

“Jǐn's wife is fatter than she looked at first,” he thought. “All the better!” For no woman displeased Tré.

Therefore he took hold of her body and made love to her. She made soft noises, and again he was afraid that Jǐn would wake, but he did not. He continued with his lovemaking for many hours, and finally made his way home before dawn.

The next day he encountered Nér. He was about to thank him for his help, but then Nér said, “You fool! I got Jǐn's wife to go out to you, but instead you were fucking a river hippo! Of course she was disgusted and returned back home.”

Thus Tré made a fool of himself, as love does to us all.

Second tier: The goddesses

ChangeoverSourcesGoddessesNight visionsRitualsNoblesInstitutionsShamansSpiritsSexPànkrê

Crisis and changeover

The Bé continued the switch to garden agriculture; by around 600 the pure hunter-gatherers did not exist, except among the neighboring Linaminče.

This led to a crisis: the large game animals— river hippos, boars, crocodiles, large snakes and turtles, wild cattle, lagomorphs, and so on— largely died out. There were smaller animals, like rabbits and frogs and turtles and čɛ̌ (gerbil-like rodents), and the occasional deer or large rodent, but these were hardly a great source of meat, and besides, women were allowed to hunt all of these except for deer.

The men began to help out with “women’s” work— fishing, farming, child-rearing— but apparently under female supervision. The leadership of the families passed to women. By the time we have Uytainese visiting the region and writing about it, around 1000, the Bé were already female-dominant.

How did this happen, without violence or coercion? The most likely story, in my view:

The eclipse of their livelihood and raison d’être must have led to depression and tension. The men had defined themselves by providing meat and seducing Ŋɛ̌; it must have been demoralizing to no longer be able to do so. Humans don't readily give up privilege, so they may well have attempted to maintain their former dominance and monopoly on religion… but other humans are also quick to notice when the providers don't provide and have become dependent, despondent losers.

Possibly the transition was calm, or only required some moderate exhortation: in some families, the men started to help the women out. People like to be useful, and it made for better relations with the women. More importantly, it led to greater efficiency. Communities where the men and women both worked would have outperformed ones where only the women worked. Eventually the new lifestyle spread to all the Bé.

But there was a religious revolution. These things often appear just when they are needed. The new beliefs empowered the women, made them more confident, gave them divine sanction over the men. The women had their own secrets now— and those reminded them that they controlled the food supply, access to sex, and valuable trade goods. Just as working in community was more effective than the men sitting around useless, a community motivated by powerful goddesses was more effective than those still struggling along with the old male gods.


We have three major sources dealing with the second tier, all of which were passed on orally long before they were written down. In chronological order: If you understand Classical Lé, as spoken in Lésàɔ in 1600-1900 (and which formed the standard literary language in the period 1900-3000), then the Pànkrê is not difficult, but the Ùrlǔ is obscure, even baffling. That was part of why the Súŋdǐŋ was necessary, as well as why a whole series of Hǒsúŋdǐŋ (“Lesser Commentaries”) was written later.

The goddesses

The major divinities of the second tier, their genders, and their personalities:
Name Gender Attributes
Dlɛ́s m wild and unconventional, seductive and anarchic
Ìsu m beautiful, young, innocent
Jíŋ f ambitious and haughty
f malignant and dangerous
Lín f playful, uncareful, and lustful
Łas m wild, strong, alternately merry and furious, narcissistic
Ŋisú f sunny and helpful
Ŋòŋ m miserable, degraded, depressed
Sáemàe f intelligent, cold, eccentric
Sɔn f authoritarian, hard-working, disciplined
Tɔ̀ f dark and sullen
f/m musical, vain, sexually ambiguous
If that last one seems somehow familiar… yes, that's almost certainly Hír the Bard, the only one of the old gods to remain, if in a new form and an altered name.

Choose your Divine Adventure

There were a dozen gods, but you didn't worship them all; you worshipped just one. This was your hɔ́rłu ‘chosen (one)’. In the sârpáɔ or night instructions you received as an adolescent, they even told you that, for you, the other gods didn't even exist.

How did you choose? In the jungle, by stories. You had heard some of the stories all your life; deeper and more intense stories were told in the sârpáɔ. You were given hallucinogens which sometimes let you meet the gods. Perhaps you knew already; perhaps one came to stand out; perhaps you were confused and spun a die. You didn't tell anyone at first, but eventually it would be obvious, both from your prayers and icons and decorations, and from your behavior.

If you asked for guidance, they’d just quote the Súŋdǐŋ at you:

A good girl chooses the One who is like her.
A strong girl, the One she would like to be.
A wise girl, the One she is unlike.
A fool chooses her sister's god.
(In the cities, or in wealthy , there were also images to look at, so you could choose based on the appearance, clothing, and associated items of the .)

Now you had a goddess or god () to pray to, to beseech, to sacrifice to, to thank for help, to castigate for neglect. There were special songs in the Ùrlǔ for your . There were shrines in the jungle you could go to, and particular disciplines, devotions, or sacrifices. The other devotees of your were a special sisterhood, pledged to help you even if they weren't in your family. And the knew of your devotion, of course. They guided your fate, according to their particular values.

When you died and entered the spirit world (nɔŋǎ), your judged you. If you passed their test, you could stay in the nɔŋǎ, a realm of bliss and plenty, with plenty to do— converse with the other dead or with the spirits, explore, learn, mess with the physical world. If you didn't pass their test, you were sent back in a new life (tláɔlù)… not necessarily as a human being. This was a failure and a punishment, the elders told you. The aim was tɛn ‘release’.

Thus, though you might choose your based on their personality— based mostly on how they act in stories— you are also choosing an entire morality. If you follow Jíŋ, she will not condemn you for pursuing power, or for using shady means to get it. If you choose Lín, you are free to indulge your libido, and laziness won't be held against you. Dlɛ́s is the right choice for rebels and anarchists, Sɔn for those who defer to (or are) authorities. If you don't care for other people's rules, you will pass Kâ's test. Drummers follow Łas; bass guitarists love Ŋisú; lead singers go for Lǔ.

Perhaps this sounds chaotic… shouldn't a religion offer the same guidance to everyone? But the Bé would point out that we have all this diversity in aims and behavior anyway— nobody follows that single set of rules. Why not at least let each psychological/moral type get spiritual guidance in a form they will understand and appreciate?

Or to put it another way, there was something to be said for each of the . And something against each one. Was Kâ the mistress of betrayal and crime? Sometimes you need a good assassin or jewel thief; and it's said that to catch a devotee of Kâ, only another Kâ-ist will do. It's hard to criticize cheerful Ŋisú… only, in our experience, her devotees make terrible queens and generals. If the queendom is tyrannical, you can only hope that enough followers of Dlɛ́s or Kâ are there to topple it. If it is weak and corrupt, call on the lovers of Sáemàe and Sɔn.

(But note that the authorities didn't care what god you followed. Following Kâ didn't keep you out of jail.)

What if you chose wrong? This is a serious matter, much more so than the original choice, but it can be fixed. In general you had to propitiate your current hɔ́rłu, receive their assurance that they held no more claim on you, then seek the acceptance of the new one. You would be well advised to travel to the shrines of both , offer sacrifices, and consult with priestesses. If you skip all that, you might be embarrassed after death to be judged by the wrong god.

Do the gender of the gods matter? Only one, Lǔ, was “officially” bi- or non-gendered. But one of the secrets told of the sârpáɔ, told only to those who asked, was that all of the gods could be treated as either sex. They were gods, able to choose their own aspects. (Of course, the gods would not change the structure of Bé society for you. A man who chose a masculine, ambitious Jíŋ would have a hard time reaching his goals.)

The night visions

It's natural and easy to find out about a religion through its texts. And the Abrahamic religions condition us to expect that a religion is defined by its scriptures. Beic religion has texts, but its heart is in its practices.

An individual believer in the rain forest learned mostly through the sârpáɔ ‘night visions’, begun soon after puberty. These were designed to be disorienting and weird. You were woken up in the middle of the night. Your relatives were there, but they wore long robes and masks that distorted their images and voices. You were put in a robe yourself— a disagreeable sensation when you are used to wearing nothing but a loincloth. You were given something to drink, something milky and alcoholic.

If you had any family members of the same sex and about the same age, you would go through these experiences together.

Still half-asleep, you were marched what seemed an eternity into the jungle, pitch black except for one torch held by one of the elders. You hurried to keep up. Strange sounds could be heard at a distance; if you asked, you were told that they came from the spirit world.

Finally you reached a clearing, or a cave. Now you were told stories, or taught songs, or learned rituals. You were warned not to repeat anything you learned to children, or (if you were female) to boys.

The drink you had been given was ŋássa, fermented streff milk, but often it had an additional ingredient: pɔ̌r, a mild hallucinogen. This was used when myths were retold, for with pɔ̌r you dream while awake, and those dreams are affected by what you hear. So as the story was told, you saw it and felt it. It was not hard to believe in the gods (and to find the one that spoke to your heart) under such circumstances. The songs even said:

Rur lús pɛ na pɔ̌r ro.
We find the gods in the pɔ̌r.
There was practical instruction, too— mostly about sex and sex roles.


The major rituals in this period were associated with the family. All involved a feast and various songs and rituals. When institutions needed rites, they expanded on the family rituals. Queendoms were established like brɔ̀ŋ; the start of a military campaign was celebrated like a birth; if there was a curse on the land (an epidemic, or a rebellion, or the failure of the monsoon), it was symbolically buried.

Nobles and priestesses

Some families were more important than others. They might have a key location, or access to trade goods, or genealogical primacy, or they simply owned nawr oxen when their neighbors didn't. These developed into the nobles (jin), who could maintain a claim to own the surrounding land. They were entitled to a share of the produce from all in their area, and only they could give permission for to enter or leave the region, or to split. In return they were expected to share their oxen, to mitigate famines, to arbitrate disputes, and to occasionally distribute largesse at great festivals.

In the early centuries, there were limits to the authority of nobles— largely because a family could always just head out to the frontier. By 800 or so, however, there was no frontier. (You could find more jungle, but you'd have to fight Linaminče for it.) Over the centuries, the power of nobles tended to increase— e.g. their take of the crop increased from 10% to 25%, and to this was added another 20% cut for the queen.

Noble families work like peasant , but they are larger and never officially split. Since its wealth and power are based on its land ownership, splitting would mean becoming poorer and weaker. The bands thus operate much like a European noble family, except that daughters rather than sons inherit.

As a corollary, all daughters but the first are superfluous. They remain attached to the estate, and indeed are usually kept quite busy; a large estate needs stewards, supervisors, envoys, councillors, and priestesses, and the noblewoman trusts her sisters more than hired strangers.

Sons are valuable too— mostly because they can be married off to other noble families (or, in a pinch, to rich bourgeois) to cement alliances or favors.

The sisters can marry and have daughters; but what then? Technically they are valued members of the band and can live off the estate forever... but in practice it’s desirable not to clutter up the estate with remote relatives. So it’s the nieces who tend not to marry.

If a branch of the family does multiply, it will probably move to a distant region as a new middle class band.

It was the noble families who first employed priestesses (pɛlɔ). These were often a sister or niece who specialized in organizing and leading rituals. As the family increased in power and visibility, so did they, till ‘priestess’ was a recognizable career… as well as a way for older women to be influential but not to threaten to divide the family's wealth by having children.

Other institutions

As social complexity increased, large institutions emerged: military units, guilds, criminal gangs, trading organizations, schools, and eventually nunneries and temples.

The model for any institution was the , particularly the noble . This particularly applied to institutions that you left your original family to join. The army (etc.) is your new family; the old woman in charge is your new elder (háɔ). The command hierarchy is the age hierarchy: each age consort can give orders to those below. It was even licit to sleep with other members, so long as they were in your own age consort.

With the army (and religious institutions), the major difference from an actual was that they were sex-segregated. Most armies were all-female, and even if not, male units were separated. Thus the army was something of a relief valve to prevent overpopulation, as women who joined it were far less likely to have children.

(If a woman did have a child, the army would raise it, but this was done by endowing charities, and the children usually ended up in the urban lower classes.)


The other ancient form of religious professional was the shaman— called tlějɔs ‘thick-hair’ after their matted hair. These were the experts in the nɔŋǎ, the spirit world— often those who were unable to fit into ordinary society, perhaps through a disability or mental illness.

Besides their dreadlocks, they were known for wearing robes— really, tattered rags hanging from their shoulders. As they rarely washed them, their eccentricity was broadcast by their odor. Shamans could be male or female— indeed, this was one of the few roles in society for an ornery and independant man.

They foraged for themselves, or lived off offering for services rendered. Such services included exorcisms, curses, blessings, healing, hallucinogens, storytelling, communication with the dead, and geomancy (sùŋdlán)— consulting for the proper location for a brɔ̀ŋ, a building, or a city.

The tlějɔs before the 2000s were largely self-appointed and self-trained… though they seemed to consult each other, and maintain old stories dating back as far as the first tier of gods. (They are one reason we know something of that tier, in fact.) In later times the role was largely supplanted by ascetics and wandering (but trained) priestesses.

The spirit world

The Bé believed that there was another world, the nɔŋǎ, literally the ‘inner realm’. This was vaguely and variously defined as: By contrast the world we see is the kɛsŋǎ, the outer world. Because it was mostly held that we have to transcend this world, it's more commonly called dòŋǎ ‘death-world’. In modern times this is the name for Almea.

To really understand nɔŋǎ was to have nɔtǎn, literally ‘knowledge of the inner’.

There were disputes over which world the celestial bodies belonged to, but the most common view was that they were in nɔŋǎ.

Marriage and sex

As this section applies from ancient times to the present, it's written in the present tense. Things are often different in the cities; we'll deal with that later.

Female leadership

Women are the acknowledged leaders. They are usually older than their husbands; they control the family’s wealth; inheritance and naming are matrilineal; husbands join the wife’s family and take her name. Women are considered smarter, tougher, more even-tempered, more virtuous (yet, when they are bad, more evil). Men are recognized for their strength, but the comparison is inevitably made to the even stronger nawr ox. Men are considered the more emotional sex, and the sexual tempters.


Society is organized into extended family groups called bands (), led by an elder woman (háɔ) and consisting of her descendants, plus males who have married into the family.

Bands rather than marriages are the basic economic unit: members work for the band as a whole, and wealth is pooled. Raising children is a task of the entire band.

The optimum size of a band is one to three dozen people; when the band becomes larger than this, it splits. When an elder dies and has two adult daughters, they each become the nucleus of their own bands. When a band splits, it will abandon its old fields and begin two new plots. This practice helps maintain the ecological health of the jungle.

(Bands don’t legally own land— noble families do; poor bands simply have the right to work somewhere on the estate, and the nobles don’t care how many bands there are.)

Adolescent sexuality

A girl moves from child (rɛ̀) to maiden (dǎr) when either breasts or pubic hair start to appear, at 11 to 13 years of age. This is the signal to begin the sârpáɔ, and to wear skirts or loincloths. (Children go naked.) Menstruation begins at 14 to 16, and full fertility a couple of years later.

Girls are taught in detail how sex and pregnancy work. They were taught that men were wild and emotional, and had to be governed by women, who were judged by higher standards. Sexual play was expected (though it was indecent to do it where others could see), but intercourse was discouraged. This was not because the Bé valued virginity (given their active lifestyle, few girls made it to marriage with an intact hymen), but to avoid pregnancy before a girl had the mental and social resources to handle it. (Besides, the boys most readily available, in her own brɔ̀ŋ or neighboring ones, were relatives.)

Boys are told the basics of sex, and more in the way of sexual morality. They are strongly told to follow the lead of the girl (throughout their lives their sexual partners will normally be older). Merely to touch a girl without permission is punished; for rape the punishment is death (or banishment, with a warning symbol tattooed on the forehead).

Sexuality and marriage

Since women are not the property of men, there is no cult of virginity, nor any concern that women be faithful to their men. Nonetheless a woman is not supposed to have sex till a few years after menarche. They’re expected to devote themselves to learning their band’s work and ways.

Men technically do not marry a woman; they marry into a band. (Indeed, the word for marriage, jɔhù, means ‘band entry’.) As marriage is not the basic economic unit, marriages are not accorded the importance they have in our society— both parties are free to terminate it. Men will not lightly do this, however: since wealth stays with the females of the band, leaving the band will almost always be a severe economic loss. Moreover, bands are reluctant to accept older males.

Moralists do spend effort exhorting women to keep their men— a clue that, often enough, they do not. On the other hand, if a woman has tired of a man, she can stop sleeping with him without kicking him out of her band (which is the elder’s prerogative anyway). The band won’t lightly give up an extra pair of hands.

A marriage is sought for a particular girl in the family, when she’s old enough (between 18 and 22). It’s not inappropriate, then, to use the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Nonetheless, sex between any band members of the same generation is licit. To put it bluntly, a man can and probably will sleep with his wife’s sisters (and with her cousins if they are part of the band). His primary pair-bond may even shift to one of them. The Bé like to say that their morality allows the male (considered the randier, more animalistic gender) to stray, but within bounds.

Marriages are sought with allied bands; these are often ultimately related, but the rule is that one cannot marry into bands which have split off from one’s own within living memory. (In our terms, you can’t marry your cousins, because they’re probably in your own band, nor your second cousins, because their band split off only a generation back; but third cousins are fair game.)


Young women bear and nurse babies, but that’s the extent of their formal responsibility. Past infancy, the primary caregivers are younger girls, middle-aged women, and older men. This wide range is considered healthy for the child.

To put it another way, a young girl is learning the skills needed for her band’s lifestyle; that includes raising children, so she helps out. A healthy young woman, however, is best used working at the band’s primary economic activity. As she ages, she has more time for leisure pursuits— including caring for children. When she becomes an elder her primary responsibility is governing the band.

Boys will help take care of younger siblings, but it’s not so important for boys to learn the band’s ways— they’ll be leaving it when they marry. Thereafter, their primary task is working to help support their new family. Their working life is longer mostly because of sexism. As old men, however, they’re not expected to work hard, and they have little role in running the band, so they’re most useful in taking care of the children.

Inheritance and extra daughters

The band system developed when the Bé were relatively land-rich. Bands would multiply over time, expanding the area of settlement. In established countries, however, there is no virgin land. Social norms have developed to prevent too much splitting of bands. The marriage age has risen into the late 20s, restricting pregnancies. Perhaps more important is the cultural expectation that third and later daughters don’t inherit. What are their options? If this sounds severe, there are mitigations. The women retain their dominant role, meaning they can boss the men around. They continue to enjoy their property and their family home. They’re not restricted from sex. In a society without modern medicine, mortality may restore their inheritance at almost any time. And the seemingly harshest measure, leaving the band, is actually a path upward in society.

(Raising too many boys is not a bad thing— after all, they’ll be leaving the band; they’re someone else’s problem. And at the social level, they can’t ever divide anyone’s inheritance or cause overpopulation.)

Population stability

According to Marvin Harris, earthly sexism is ultimately a way to control population. Frequent warfare puts a premium on raising fierce young males— that is, crucially, it discourages raising fertile young females. Beic society achieves the same goal with different tactics: surplus girls are removed from the reproducing population by making them priests and warriors.

To be stable in population, women should have on average just one married daughter. Ignoring child mortality, we would expect half of the peasant women at any one time to have one daughter, a quarter to have two, and a quarter to have none. In practice the latter two cases are somewhat more numerous, as not all women have two adult children, and women that have borne only boys are more likely to keep trying for a girl.

If times are bad, or a band has very little land, even second daughters may be considered superfluous.

The ideal band has at least two females in every generation; in practice this means that once a woman has two adult daughters, their lineages may continue together in one band for several generations, if none of them manages to repeat the feat.


As in many premodern societies, any amount of homosexual activity is tolerable so long as it doesn’t interfere with one’s reproductive duties. The eldest daughter had better have a daughter of her own; her husband had better be willing to help. (Even here, though, the band structure means that there are always backups. The band structure is a lot more tolerant of non-reproducing members and weak pair-bonds than our couple structure.)

Women generally consider male homosexuality to be harmless and even titillating… if they take notice of it at all. What inferiors do in their own beds is not, after all, very important.

Just as penetration is not considered a dominating act among Beic heterosexuals, it isn’t in homosexual sex either. Some homosexuals assume ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles, in which the latter is the bottom and takes a dominant role, but this is by no means universal.

Lesbian sex is considered quite appropriate for third daughters, nobles’ nieces, and others who aren’t supposed to bear children. It’s more reliable and less of a hassle than most forms of contraception. It’s very common in the priesthood and the military, though (like het sex) it’s frowned upon when it crosses age cohorts. For women who are supposed to reproduce and haven't yet, it’s a little strange and shameful, especially if it’s blatant or long-term.

As a point of comparison, a 2013 survey found that 19% of British women under 25 reported a lesbian sexual experience, compared with 3% of seniors. (For that matter, the Kinsey report found that 37% of males reported one homosexual experience.) The number in a society where lesbian sex is actually approved of must be even higher, perhaps over half of all women. This is consistent with what we find in Bé literature— a same-sex encounter or affair is entirely ordinary.

As marriages are arranged, same-sex marriage is trickier— but possible. A woman without a could be adopted, and in unusual cases a woman could leave one and enter another. It was simpler to do this informally. (Also note again, joining an institution was legally and often socially a same-sex marriage.)


How can the women dominate when their lives are interrupted by childbearing?
As the detailed explanation makes clear, women begin having children later than in other societies, and have fewer children— and other people do most of the child-rearing.

In addition, soldiers and priests generally don’t have children at all.

Finally, recall that the most powerful members of society are old women.

Doesn’t that lead to a lower population?
No; people don't have to have huge families to keep the population up. Most Bé live in not very dense settlements and move their plots every few years, which cuts down on disease. And like our own society, and unlike a traditional terrestrial premodern society, Beic society is more K than r. To be blunt, children are cared for better, so there’s less infant mortality, so women don’t have to bear a constant stream of children just to ensure that two survive.
Aren’t women afraid of men getting violent?
No more than they’re afraid of the nawr bulls. Like bulls, males can be dangerous if angry and unrestrained. As in warfare, the general rule is: make sure the fight is on your terms. You try to keep the men happy, direct their competitive instincts at each other, and in the worst case keep some dirty tricks up your sleeve. (E.g. a Bé woman usually has a knife and a man doesn’t; she also knows how to kick a man in the balls. For what it’s worth, she’s also probably better fed.)

Beic socialization is also opposite ours. Terrestrial men have been socialized for tens of thousands of years to be violent, to enjoy fighting, to treat women as possessions. Our own society is changing, but this is so recent that the old ways are still very much alive. Beic society conditions women to be leaders and fighters, and men to be obedient, affectionate, sexy followers.

Why don’t the men rebel?
For the same reason Western women didn’t rebel until they had a modern society to rebel in and modern notions of personal independence. What’s a man supposed to do if he steps outside almost every institution of Beic society? Outside the bands, he’d have no wealth, no house to live in, no sexual partners, and few skills for making his way in the world— plus he’d face the hostility of the priests and the armed forces.

This isn’t to say that Beic society is any more monolithic than ours. There are niches where men can make a living on their own.

There is also the important episode of the Men’s Empire.

How can a female army work?
For one thing, the entire Beic zone is female-dominated. So mostly, female armies face female armies, and everything works pretty much as you’d expect.

Beic social mores produce a dedicated soldiery, and professional armies outperform mass conscripts, at least before the era of the rifle. A swordswoman who’s trained for war all her life will make short work of a male peasant attempting to wield a pitchfork or axe.

Just as our armies have used elephants or horses, men are used for their strength. In some areas, men are trained as swordsmen. They’re also used as pikemen, either defensively or offensively, as their ability to absorb or inflict a blow is better.

However, Beic warfare emphasizes feminine advantages: endurance and maneuverability. The quintessential Beic warrior is an archer, and the basic military doctrine is to deal with a stronger opponent from afar, when it can’t bring its strength to bear. Women have greater endurance, as well, which allows a greater emphasis on maneuverability.

It’s also worth pointing out that in a female-dominant society, women are healthier and better fed. A Bé soldier may well be bigger and stronger than her male compatriots, though not than an Uytainese soldier.

Some readers may wonder how Bé warriors can run topless without discomfort. The answer is 1) warriors wear leather armor, so they do have support, and 2) the Bé are not busty; their body shape is similar to Southeast Asians.

What if the female army faces a male one?
If an army from a male-dominated culture attacks a Beic force, it typically sends the infantry charging, confident in the momentum of their strong bodies. Then, seemingly from all over, volley after volley of Beic arrows decimate the overconfident invaders. It’s hard to see where they’re even coming from; the archers move around with confusing speed. If the men do get close enough for a pitched battle, they find that the opposing army is either better-trained or more numerous or both.

Geography helps too; the Uytainese states are in a different ecological zone, and have never conquered the north. The Bé region is dense tropical forest unsuited for massed infantry. The barbarians are a different story— but they are fewer than on Ereláe since the zone of the plains is so much smaller; and lacking horses till recently, their dominant form of attack is the bow anyway. With a large standing army, the Bé have usually been able to stand up to the nomads. (And in social structure the nomads are in between Beic and Uytainese norms— typically they arm both men and women.)

Do women fear rape?
Not any more than they fear being gored by a nawr ox.

To the extent that rape is an act of control by men socialized to expect sexual favors from women— well, that whole mindset doesn’t exist in the Bé. There aren’t subsocieties of men that encourage such behavior, either. Serious weapons are in female hands. And men don’t even have the freedom to be out looking for trouble.

Do men resent their inferior status?
Some do, certainly— thought these tend to be upper class men with an unusual degree of freedom, but who want more. (The Men's Empire didn't free the lower classes.)

Men are brought up believing that their culture is the Way Things Ought to Be, approved by the ancestors and the gods. Indeed, men do a lot of the socialization of boys; and most men who read the writings of the masculinists are disgusted and even angry.

In modern times, Beic men (especially of the middle and upper classes) are more aware that things are different in other parts of the world. For some of them, that’s exciting and provocative; but for the majority, perhaps, the corollary is that masculinism seems foreign. It’s already clear that the more advanced nations of Ereláe are a threat: they’ve taken over two regions of Arcél already. That creates pressure both to adopt and to indignantly reject foreign ideas.

Are women better or fairer at sexism than men are?
Not really. Beic sexism certainly isn’t more enlightened or more virtuous than ours. Any doctrine that half of humanity isn’t quite as human as the other half is morally questionable, and will make a lot of people miserable.

Most people are not monsters, and Beic women love their husbands and sons as much as any other humans do. But this can be compatible with enormous sexism— even decent women can be disdainful of men, and there are plenty who can be mean or even violent.

Of course, some of the ways men can oppress women have no real counterparts. Beic women can’t easily rape men, or force them to bear children, and they don’t even demand that they keep to one woman. On the other hand, they’ve gone ahead and invented new sins of their own. There are ways to sexually humiliate men, for instance, or to permanently mar their bodies.

Aren’t men biologically more aggressive, women more nurturing?
Are they? There’s an enormous range in human culture, from what are arguably matriarchies like the Iroquois or the Moso, to fairly egalitarian societies like our own, to repressive cultures such as Arabia or ancient Athens.

Also consider subjugated populations in our own history, from English servants to illegal immigrants to slaves: men can be quite servile.

Recall also that Beic female dominance isn’t about aggression, it’s about control. Men are considered more emotional, and no one is surprised when they fight among themselves. Also, the idea isn’t to produce the male counterpart to (say) an anime schoolgirl, sweet and harmless. Men are expected to be high-spirited, somewhat crude, and apt to compete with each other. (The characters in a Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith movie are fair approximations to urban Beic males.)

The Deeds of Pàn

The Pànkrê (Deeds of Pàn) was composed in the period 1300-1550. It is the great Lé epic— though it technically concerns their sister ethnic group, the Pàn. It's attributed to one Sɔnŋáe, who is also one of its characters.

In form it's composed of rhymed stanzas (the pattern is ABAB), with some passages in prose and a few examples of other meters. Lines are normally six characters long. With 6,320 stanzas, it's about the size of the New Testament.

(Like other ancient texts, it lacks the case markers of modern Lé. As it moves objects around anyway in order to catch rhymes, this can cause ambiguities. Many Lé prefer to read it in a modern translation.)

Its story is relatively simple, and relates directly to the replacement of the first-tier gods: it's about how the heroine Ràe stole the goddesses for women.

According to the book, men had their own gods, while women had none. As only the men had access to spiritual power, they ruled women with a heavy hand. (This should not be taken as a memory of events two millennia before. This section is clearly based on the model of contemporary Uytai and Krwŋ; the society already has agriculture and cities. It's also to be noted that of the old gods, only Jǐn and Dò are correctly named; other gods are given fanciful names, such as Mûn “nawr bull”.)

The leader of the men, Sànjɔs, is arrogant and sadistic, and attempts to marry off Ràe to an old man, Sùŋ, who has two wives already. Ràe escapes, but resolves to liberate not just herself but all women.

Ràe realizes that the women need gods of their own. But where to find them? Her solution is audacious: steal them from the elcari.

The bulk of the story is a heist caper. Ràe assembles a team, they head to the mountains, infiltrate the elcarin city, and steal the goddesses. (This is done by stealing their idols.) Ràe's team is made up of other oppressed women, including the narrator Sɔnŋáe, but they also encounter an orphan boy named Sàs who insists on joining them.

The Lé knew some things about the elcari (łɔ̌r), who had a huge realm in the Kròŋǎ mountains to the south of Belesao, because the elcari came to trade the metal and gems they mined for jungle products. They heard about the sprawling underground cities they lived in, and their ancient enemies and relatives the múrtani (trǔŋłɔ̌r). However, they didn't know much more than that; the elcari are mostly just obstacles to getting the idols.

Four of the idols (Ìsu, Lín, Łas, Jíŋ) are acquired by stealth or tricks; two (Ŋòŋ and Tɔ̀) are rescued from the elcarin trash heap; one is purchased (Dlɛ́s); and one (Sáemàe) escapes on her own and joins them; the remaining four (Dlɛ́s, Kâ, Ŋisú, Lǔ) have to be fought for, among the múrtani. Naturally, as they accumulate goddesses, the goddesses help them acquire the rest. They leave the elcari just one god, which explains why to this day the elcari are monotheists.

Finally they go to confront the men. There is a short battle, more comic than epic— the main event is the goddesses sending the old gods packing. The men are knocked out rather than killed, except for Sànjɔs and Sùŋ. When they wake up, realizing that they have no gods, they meekly submit to Ràe and the goddesses. Ràe's band of thieves becomes the new ruling class, and Ràe marries the devoted and resourceful Sàs.

There's more than a thousand stanzas left; they're devoted to a vision in which Ràe learns about the history of her descendants— the Tràŋ, royal family of Héjùs, and her even remoter descendants, the queens of Pànsàɔ.

As each goddess is rescued, there are hymns (often taken from the Ùrlǔ), as well as vivid descriptions. The theologians appreciated the work because of this, though they carefully explained that the story of the theft was metaphorical. The people liked it because it was a good story, and it's been listened to, read, expanded, and adapted for two thousand years.

Later, as we'll see, Ràe was taken as an avatar of the supreme god Jɔ́s.

The Hâełó (Rationalists)

The first city state appeared around 1100, in Héjùs; others soon followed: Joní, Jansɛ̀, Kɛ̌kè, Ŋɛ̌sɛ̀. They did not perhaps exceed 10,000 residents, but that extraordinary density in a land where the average settlement was a few dozen people. Such towns had to live largely on taxation.

Urban life created new inequalities: the poor were poorer, the rich richer. Elite women had more freedom than ever— everyday work was left to servants, and they could devote themselves to education, to governance, to art, to large-scale trade, to thinking. At the same time certain professions opened up to men— running taverns, for instance.

Middle class could be far larger than village bands— more of a clan than a nuclear family. At the same time individual members were more independent, perhaps living apart from the . Land was always owned by the rather than by individuals, but there was more of an idea of personal property. Pair-bonding was also stronger.


Urban life created many new specialties; one was philosopher (inmán ‘wise one’). The first inmán had no thought of creating a school, or writing texts— indeed, writing didn't exist yet. They were not in contact with Uytai or any other nation or species. In compensation, they had the first chance to think about everything, without preconceptions.

Presumably most of their work was in thinking, conversing, debating, and teaching, but what's survived is short poems in rhyming couplets, because these were easily memorized.

The Commentaries

Their first fruits were the Súŋdǐŋ ”Commentaries”, explanations and expansions of the Ùrlǔ. They are conventionally attributed to a woman named Hɔ̌ŋ, but this should not be taken seriously; they were written over a period of centuries (1000-1300), in different styles and dialects.

The Ùrlǔ were terse and already archaic. For instance, one song in its entirely runs

Mar toŋ Lín
Hîr tle ŋín
Hós drê pɛ
Né mánnɛ
Dǎr ŋɛ nù
Líŋ bú čù

To woo Lín:
Plenty of ŋín.
To win the goddess
Sorghum, never.
What she loves:
Fine red čù

(If you remember your Lé, the most striking thing about this poem is the absence of case markers.)

Now, ŋín was and is no problem: it's a large perfumed flower whose blossoms Bé girls still wear in their hair. But what was čù? No one knows. It was probably a plant product, like the other items mentioned. The commenters did not want to admit they didn't know; instead they specified

If čù is lacking, use bò stems;
if there are none, tàenîn [flower].
They don't explain their reasoning, but both these things are red. Red things, that's what turns Lín on.

But more often they supply theological reasoning. For instance, one hymn to Kâ asks for harm (infertility and rancor) to come to an enemy. They explain:

Why choose Kâ? Is she not evil?
Let no one say so; she is a goddess.
Who the song addresses, do you think
“That one is the criminal and their fate is good?”
Kâ goes beyond [the allowed] if she punishes the innocent:
This song also, if the evil sing it.
[Or] the song teaches us what is in our heart.
Who desired the evil? The human, not the goddess.
Which comes down to “Sing this one at your own risk.”

Sometimes the commenters worry about cosmology. For instance, one verse is the first reference to the elements as the Bé named them:

The light [sâɔ] things are these:
wind, sea, radiance, spirit.
The heavy [tlǎɔ] things are these:
Wood, rock, bone, and skin.
With these the world is made;
these and their compounds.
One commenter (in prose) tries to deal with creation, but soon ends up over her depth:
Did the gods make the world? No, the gods were themselves made. Jíŋ and Lín and Łas and Sɔn, they are children of Jǐn and Dò. They are grandchildren of Hɔ́ [Spirit] and Trɛ̌n [Rock]. Hɔ́ made Trɛ̌n, but also arises out of Trɛ̌n. Before them was Dlîŋ [Mud], but there must have been one other thing, even if very small, which made heaviness and light out of the mud.
This is a rare reference to the first-tier gods.

Elsewhere a different story is told, though Dò also features in it:

The first god was Dò [Death]. Death is always hungry, but there was nothing to eat. “I will create an animal to eat,” he said, and he did so. But then he had nothing, and he was still hungry. "I will create two jaguars, they will mate and bring cubs, and I will eat those," he said. So he did, but before they could mate, the jaguars themselves died, for they had no food. Now Dò created gallenes for the jaguars to eat, and grain for the gallenes, and water for the grain. But there were never more than a few jaguar cubs to eat. So he had to create many more things, and he did not allow himself to eat every cub that was born; some must survive to create more animals. But they all belonged to him, and in time he would eat them all.
Sometimes a shadow of doubt occurs:
Rur lǔ ɔ̀ŋ bɛ̀.
Pɛ má drê dɛ̀?
Łéŋ čáŋ dɔ̀n sɔ;
Ŋír pás éŋ lɔ.
Kǐ má ŋír lûr?
Bɛ́n ŋássa rur.

We sing, and still we fall.
Has the goddess no compassion?
The gods are hungry, so they eat [the sacrifices].
Perhaps she had eaten enough.
Would her sister listen to us?
But we have no more ŋássa.

This must have provoked answers or rebukes, for the same poem continues:

If there is no ŋássa,
Offer wine, sprinkle water.
Whoever stops singing,
They will perish.
There are interesting clues about female/male relations. E.g. one commenter out-and-out asks “why women come first”. She answers herself: because women, like the gods, have the power of creation.

Others, remembering earlier times, take a longer view, and offered a warning:

In this age, women rule men.
In another age, men ruled women.
In the next, who will it be?
It depends on how women act now.
A comment on a particularly triumphant song:
This song gives power, so the men sing it when they hunt. But the women sing it every day.

The Ancient Books

The next literature we have is the Prùŋpàŋ, the Ancient Books. These date from 1200-1500, and they mostly concern the affairs of the city states: the genealogy of queens, legends of the rise of noble families, records of early wars, statements of law.

These too were remembered without writing, though they are in prose. They speak of a class of inbraŋ ‘rememberers’, later the word for ‘scribe’. A queen, a judge, or a writer would use the inbraŋ like a word processor, to record a paragraph for a few days or forever. Some of the texts name both a writer and her inbraŋ.

Especially in later works, there is plenty of cosmological speculation. Judging from the texts, the impetus was the application of prayer to statecraft, because it obviously didn't always work. Ordinary life in the brɔ̀ŋ could go wrong, but perhaps less so: the crops would come, those who wanted children in general got them. Or perhaps peasants were just less entitled. If a queen’s prayer was denied, you had a very angry queen asking some very pointed questions.

First you'd probably try to calm her down, by reminding her that she too was only human:

My queen and my sister, we are all mortal, we are mud and spit compared to the Goddess. You rule a city, but she rules the heavens. The Goddess gives birth to the world, she lifts the sun in the sky, she causes the monsoon to come, she makes the earth shake. We cannot do these things.
Prayer is a machine to work the universe, and when it fails you can handle it like other machines: RTFM, jiggle the connections, try it again. One author provides a checklist:
The song must be sung in its entirety, not missing a syllable.
The melody must be pleasing, the voice pleasant.
If a word is mispronounced, the song is not heard.
If the singer is inattentive, the song is not heard.
If the singer does not understand the words, the song is not heard.
One who has done violence, who has disrespected her mother, who has stolen, who has disrespected the gods, no goddess will hear her until she has made expiation.
If a sacrifice is to be made, it must be made, in the correct quantities, and with the correct items or acceptable substitutions.
Another book offers what must have been a very useful protocol: if you sing on behalf of someone, they must sing at least a couplet themselves. So if the prayer was not granted, it was partly their fault.

For others, the problem went deeper, with the very nature of divinity. Did the gods have absolute power? Were they obliged to listen to humans? Did they always act wisely? What was their ultimate nature?

There were multiple answers, including these:

But a consensus answer emerged, perhaps helped along by a linguistic trope. It was not really possible for a writer to pick one of the gods as primary. Everyone chose their own god, so it would be assumed that she was simply boosting her own choice. Besides, no writer wanted to alienate 11/12 of her audience. It became a convention to speak of generally— that is, ‘your goddess’, ‘the goddess‘, ‘gods’.

Increasingly statements about sounded like statements about a substance or concept— Divinity. Rather than a community of squabbling gods living in a divine city, with their own laws and genealogy, writers depicted Divinity as an idealization of creation and morality.

This could have gone in the direction of monotheism, but the writers preferred an expansive definition of . They disliked saying what it was not. Some identified it with lightness, making heaviness the attribute of matter or mortality, but this did not satisfy:

They tell us works on mud, creating the world we live in and ourselves. But how can mud be turned into plants that grow and animals that move? can only awaken what is already there. Growth and movement are present, unsuspected, in mud. That is because mud too is , and only has to speak to itself, to make the mud remember its divine nature and rise up.
Thus the authors arrived at pantheism, the idea that everything is made of God. Some expressed this very clearly:
Everything we see is made of the eight elements, but the eight elements are made of . The mud under your feet, the wine you drank today, the urine you passed, all are made of . You yourself are made of .

“But I am a creature of bone and skin,” you say. “I am born, crawl around, and die. I am not a god.” But when your mother created you in her body and gave birth to you, was that not acting as a god? Mud does not move around of its own volition, nor does it talk, but you do both, like a god. Your body turned wine into urine; is transformation not a property of the divine? You teach wisdom to your daughters; where does wisdom come from except from God? We do not see because is inside () things, and we only see the exterior (kɛs) of things. The interior world (nɔŋǎ) is not far off, it is inside, but our eyes are not made for it. We perceive it with the spirit instead.

That tells us what the goddesses are— they are appearances (prɛ̀n ‘seemings’) of divinity. But what were the attributes (hon) of divinity?

This too could now be answered: divinity had all the attributes. This move had already been made with heaviness and lightness: you couldn't restrict divinity to one extreme, it was both. This was applied to everything: it was heavy and light, hot and cold, good and evil, male and female. It was čɛ̀ŋhon, all-valued. Or equally, mánhon, no-valued. (The individual gods were júŋhon, specific and particular.)

This did not, of course, prevent creating hierarchies of attributes. Lightness was still greater than heaviness, mind greater than matter, female greater than male. But there would always be the reminder that divinity was above them all and in them all.

The Rationalists

In the 1380s the southern empire of Krwŋ invaded, occupying the southern highlands. They were unable to penetrate far into the jungle, but the threat spurred the city-states to consolidate. By 1450 three queendoms had emerged: Pànsàɔ in the south, Jansɛ̀ on the coast, and Dásnâr to the west. Mɔłɔsɔu emerged in the far east by 1510.

In the 1500-1700 period, there was a flowering of religious thought, now known as the Hâełó “School of Mind” or “Rationalists”. The name came later, when they needed to be distinguished from the Nàłó, the “School of the Heart”. In terms of that contrast, they were the orthodox, the authoritarians.

In the 1500s, they had no name except inmán “philosphers”; they were simply the successors of those who had recently declared that divinity pervaded everything. If they were authoritarian, it was because they were, in general, the sisters and priestesses of the authorities. They were concerned with the proper performance of ritual and the correct understanding of divinity because it was their job.

They did privilege hâe ‘mind’, but not in opposition to ‘heart’ but to ŋàɔ, the body or the physical, mere matter. This too was divinity, but a lower sort, to be called into activity only by the higher power of mind. Similarly, the elder brought forth wisdom and activity in the young, and the female in the male.

The eight elements were neatly divided:

sâɔ light sâɔsâɔ   tɛ́n light (radiance), hɔ́ spirit
tlǎɔsâɔ wind, łas sea (water)
tlǎɔ heavy sâɔtlǎɔ tlɔ́s wood, rǐŋ skin
tlǎɔtlǎɔ trɛ̌n rock, mɔ́ŋ bone
These were refined with the attributes hot (rɔ̌s) and cold (prɔ̌); for instance, hot light was fire, cold light was ordinary light. They worked out the 128 combinations of these attributes, giving them not only a nice categorization but a theory of disease. (Essentially, you wanted the higher attributes to dominate but not to overwhelm the lower.)

When it came to morality, the Rationalists were equally systematic, and unsurprisingly elitist. As they liked to say,

Jin tlìn bɔr rǐ jin nú bɔr.
The higher rules the lower, because the higher raises the lower.
It was obvious that nobles, adults, women should rule over commoners, children, men, just as the mind ruled the body and the goddesses ruled the world. But to rule was to raise up, to bring forth effort and morality. The underlying model was your grandmother (háɔ): she is the unquestioned matriarch of the family, but she governs out of love, and she governs because she is the most capable.

The corollary was that to not raise up the lower was like a grandmother who hated her children— it was to be worse than the worst they could do. With great power, in other words, comes great responsibility.

Who was going to tell an evil ruler that she was morally base? The gods, of course, out of their duty to raise her up. If she did not listen to her priestesses and advisors, they would have to act by sending rebellions, epidemics, omens, and reverses in war.

(When the ktuvoks invaded in 1690— an unutterably novel kind of disaster— the sin of the elite must have been unprecedented. It was difficult to blame the empress Čúlàe, especially when she died in the war; but there was a feeling that her daughter Tlarŋáe was tainted, and this contributed to the rebellion of the Men's Empire.)

The most memorable statement of Rationalist morality likened each sin to an animal:

The dog steals.
The cat is disobedient.
The gallene is jealous.
The fish is perverse.
The lizard is lazy.
The frog is foolish.
The snake is murderous.
The ox is stubborn.
The pig is greedy.
The čɛ̌ [gerbil-like rodent] is lustful.
The rat brawls.
The drú [tree cat] lies.
The ɔ̌s [an extravagantly plumed bird] is vain.
The louse is spiteful.
The bat is unfaithful.
The dishonesty of the tree cat is its method of hunting, by a sudden surprise pounce; in animal tales it is depicted as lulling its victims into a state of trust. The Lé moralists were sure that river fish did not pair-bond nor have sex, but produced fry anyway.

Much of what the Rationalists said is lost, or reported only in the distorted attacks of the Nàłó or Hɛ́nsɔ̀rists. They lived before writing, and their day-to-day life was handling the religious life of city-states and queendoms. They had their intellectual descendants, but those had responded and integrated the teachings of the other schools, and they will be considered under the third tier of Lé spirituality.

The Nàłó (Interiorists)

Lady Tâɔnà, who lived in the early 1600s in Mɔłɔsɔu, began Nàłó, the Interiorist school or tradition.

Tâɔnà’s story

The story is told in the Tâɔnàje Pàŋ (Book of Tâɔnà, 2157).

She was born as a princess, with the birth name Siŋnɔi (Lé Hìnŋáe), in Klɔusa, the capital of Mɔłɔsɔu. She was the third daughter of the queen, thus a lofty figure but unlikely ever to rule. The stories describe her as dispensing wisdom and moving between the worlds (ŋǎ) as a child, yet a spoiled and selfish adolescent. She tried “every virtue and every vice”, as well as investigating all the known paths to enlightenment (nɔtǎn); none of them satisfied her.

She decided to enter the inner world— nɔŋǎ, the spirit realm underlying our world— for good. But a firefly spirit stopped her.

“Why do you wish to enter nɔŋǎ?” the spirit asked. It spoke only when it was lit, and unlike a mortal firefly, it was invisible when unlit.

“Because I am tired of dòŋǎ (the mortal realm),” she replied.

“To be tired of things is mortal,” the firefly pointed out.

Siŋnɔi admitted that this was so.

“Therefore, entering, you will still be in dòŋǎ. To truly enter nɔŋǎ you must learn to do so without leaving dòŋǎ.”

“How is this done?”

“By learning that you are already here,” the firefly answered. It said no more— as it was invisible when not speaking, it was impossible to know if it was there or had gone.

Siŋnɔi resolved to reflect on this. She could not do this in a palace, or amid the interruptions of other people. She said goodbye to her friends and walked to the river that marked the beginning of the virgin jungle. She removed her clothes and her knife. She crossed the river naked, bringing nothing with her.

She stayed there for a year, eating nothing, drinking nothing but water. She knew that she could not be harmed, because she was prevented from leaving the mortal realm.

However, she did not find nɔtǎn. After a year she exclaimed, “I should swat that firefly.”

The firefly blinked its light next to her: “Try it, if you can!”

She turned to where it had lit, angrily: “Have you been here all this time?”

It blinked on again. “Not all the time. Did you find what you were looking for?”

“I’ve meditated for a year, but I’m no closer to nɔŋǎ,” she admitted.

“And yet no farther,” the firefly said. “However, thinking won’t bring you to nɔŋǎ; you must give birth.”

“I have to have a baby to enter nɔŋǎ?”

“You are so literal-minded,” said the firefly. “But being born, does a woman not move from nɔŋǎ to dòŋǎ?”

“I don’t understand. Can a woman give birth without having a baby?”

The firefly didn’t respond. But she had reached the limits of meditation; she left the jungle, putting on clothes again— or perhaps she didn’t, as artistic representations invariably show her naked (and blue-skinned). She had sex with a peasant man and gave birth to a baby. She cared for the baby for a year, but it grew sickly and died.

Crying, she said to herself, “This little one has passed from nɔŋǎ to dòŋǎ and back again; the one with my help, the other against all my wishes. I have no power at all in this.”

“You are very close now,” the firefly said, blinking on next to her.

She was too distraught to be angry; and so she no longer resisted, and finally understood what the firefly had been saying. She could enter nɔŋǎ because she was already inside it. She did so now and spent a year in the spirit world, and then another year in the moral world, resting and reflecting.

After this a woman asked her what do do with her son, who was hearing spirit voices. She listened to her and then to the boy, and rebuked the spirits so they would not bother the boy. Because of this she realized that she should use her knowledge to help others. Thus she became a healer and teacher. She spoke of enlightenment coming to the heart alone (tâɔ nà), so she was known as Lady Tâɔnà, though she never called herself this, having little use for titles or even names.

In legend she lived for two hundred years. She mastered her own physical appearance, so that she could appear as an aged crone or a beautiful young woman as she wished. When she felt she had done enough for her people, she left the mortal plane for good... or at least she ceased to make it her habitation; her followers believed that she occasionally reappeared for many centuries and still could, if it interested her.

Heart vs. mind

The name of the school (and Tâɔnà’s own) assert the primacy of heart () over mind— hǎe, the province of the competing Hâełó or rationalist school.

Heart implies intuition, feeling, individuality, and direct experience, as opposed to reason, legalism, and practicality. Both schools believe in doing good, but Nàłó offers no justification for this besides ŋɛ̀ ‘desire’ (and mocks the rationalists for their elaborate arguments on policy and morality).

The point of Tâɔnà’s enlightenment story (though to talk about “points” is to be suspiciously rationalist) is that reason and ritual are only half the journey. She had to leave the city and meditate, but that alone got her nowhere. She needed to feel— to experience pain, love, and heartbreak— and to still the rational mind whose chatter prevented nɔtǎn (enlightenment).

Spirit is everywhere

As the story suggests, Nàłó placed a new importance on the spirit world. It was not merely where people went after death (if accepted by their gods). It was everywhere, just out of sight. It is our natural home, and there is nothing surprising about talking to spirits, travelling the spirit world, or having spiritual power over the world. It’s only rationalist inhibitions that prevent us from doing these things.

Why don’t we all live indefinitely or work miracles, as Tâɔnà did? Partly, it’s because we’re inhibited by false teachings, or distracted by ordinary living. And partly it’s because these things are something of a game anyway. If you have access to the spirit world, why mess around with superficial features of the mortal world? Save the sick person if you like, but it just affects their mortal manifestation anyway. As Tâɔnà said, the question is like asking “Once you can swim, why do you not spend all your time in the water?”

It can be seen that Nàłó transferred beliefs about Divinity () to the spirit world (nɔŋǎ). It barely talked about gods at all, not even to deny them.


Nàłó is also the locus of skepticism in the Beic realms. In large part this is due to their arguments with Hâełó, which they found riddled with error. Dissecting pragmatic and legalistic claims, Nàłó naturally began to catalogue logical fallacies, devise clever pedantic counters, and disdain Hâełó values: reason, dispassionate observation, authority, correct ritual practice.

This may seem to conflict with the previous point— weren’t they skeptical about the spirit world? Certainly, in that they warned that spirits (like the firefly) were evasive to the point of annoyance, that visions of the nɔŋǎ were misleading and incommunicable, that one person’s spiritual experience was not a guide or a norm for others.

But their response to our concerns would be that it’s we who aren’t skeptical enough, for we blindly accept the primacy of the physical world. Materialist views of the mind would particularly amaze them: why are spiritual beings pretending to be machines?

Sex roles

It’s explained that Tâɔnà’s experience of actual birth was unnecessary. There is no one path to enlightenment; the firefly was speaking metaphorically. But the importance given to birth was typical of Nàłó and to some extent all Beic thought. Discussions of female-male relations stressed the unique ability of women to give birth, which was given as a justification for female supremacy— though sometimes it was taken as negative; after all one was drawing a spirit into the realm of death.

Nàłó was strongest in its home country of Mɔłɔsɔu, which was known even among the Bé for the low status of men, perhaps in reaction to the male-dominant Hake state and later underclass. However, an undercurrent of Nàłó thinkers defended and praised men, whose emotional nature they considered to be closer to than the rational spirit of women.


Nàłó did not condemn behaviors, only attitudes: e.g. murder wasn’t a sin, murderous rage was. Moralists carefully analyzed attitudes and intentions, and condemned their Hâełó colleagues whose alleged focus on outward action blinded them to the seething corruption inside most people’s hearts. In this sense Nàłó was like American conservatives, who look at most problems as moral ones, and find it difficult to conceive that their pragmatic opponents have any morality at all.

However, Nàłó was also individualistic: Tâɔnà expressed great scorn for campaigns to regulate morality, along the lines of the Swolan movement. You can’t impose morality any more than you can dictate enlightenment.

Tâɔnà, though always referred to with her royal honorific nàɔ, had given up her high position to dedicate herself to enlightening herself and then others. Nàłó retained some of this attitude; many of its greatest thinkers renounced wealth and refused public office. But they rarely advocated asceticism; mortification of the body was considered to draw attention to the physical world rather than free the spirit.


I’ve already hinted at how the Hâełó saw their opponents: vague and impractical, foolishly dismissive of objective reality and yet annoyingly moralistic.

Many had no patience with Nàłó’s idea of enlightenment (nɔtǎn), which seemed maddeningly squishy, even irrational. For every person who found Tâɔnà’s teaching stories suggestive and thought-provoking, there were two who considered them idealistic bull.

Nàłó went in and out of favor with the state. Some queens embraced it, or at least appreciated its emphasis on morality. But Nàłó could also turn on a government it considered immoral— or simply too concerned with practical matters. Even distributing food in a famine or building roads was of little interest to Nàłó: good works in this world are just adding makeup to a corpse. Nàłó was all about personal transformation and had little to say to a community.

Nàłó history

The Nàłó school was originally simply the followers of Tâɔnà, who passed on her teachings and methods. There was no overarching organization, but there was a tradition of direct teacher-to-student transmission, emphasizing the memorization of the oral tradition. Thus followers fell into three classes:

In the 1900s a new writing system was developed for Lé, based on the syllabographs of Uytai. There was some resistance to using it within philosophy, especially as the Hâełó school was the first to use it. Writing seemed too close to ritual, something external and formal that Tâɔnà wouldn’t have approved of.

The inrɛn had no such qualms; indeed, wasn’t it necessary to defend Nàłó in the emerging new international medium? Soon enough the inłó joined them, writing defenses and commentaries, and aide-memoires for learning the oral tradition.

By the 2100s several written versions of Tâɔnà’s teachings existed; in 2133 a council of Mɔłɔ adepts went over these to produce a definitive edition: the Tâɔnàje pàŋ or Book of Tâɔnà, completed in 2157.

Writing had two contradictory effects. It systematized the beliefs of the school, creating a strict orthodoxy: correct teaching no longer required consulting the local łíŋ (which generally required travel and conversation); you just consulted the Book of Tâɔnà. On the other hand, it was easier to spread both Nàłó and dissenting ideas. Many people were influenced by Nàłó without even being inrɛn, which implied acceptance of the entire body of thought.

Hɛ́nsɔ̀r (Not-having)

See here for a full description of Uytainese Hyemsur. This philosophy originated with the ascetic Syalenar, who lived in the ruined Krwŋese city of Pursut in the 1820s. The starting point of his meditations was the ecological and social collapse of Krwŋ; his conclusion was that it was based on hubris, the desire to possess and control the world, and that the only way to live was syalen “not-having”.

In the 2000s, the Uytainese fundamentalists, the Swolanists, persecuted the Hyemsurists, and many of them moved to the Bé, which was undergoing upheavals and civil war at the time, and was extremely receptive to a world-renouncing philosophy. The religion was adapted as Hɛ́nsɔ̀r.

Hɛ́nsɔ̀r was for some time perceived as foreign, but was eventually nativized. As part of this process, many terms which had previously been borrowed were now calqued. I've used the modern terms.


Hɛ́nsɔ̀r is named for its overall goals: hɛ́n “inner peace” and sɔ̀r “social harmony”. How did you get them? With the three nots:

Syalenar's great opponents were the Swolanists, whose name derived from their “three -an”: To these he opposed a new triad of virtues: The Hɛ́nsɔ̀rists borrowed a Lé term or concept: tɛn ‘release’. By this they did not mean release from punishing rebirths, but something that could happen in this life— enlightenment, the achievement of both inner peace and social harmony.


Syalenar had little use for rituals, gods, or gurus, but later Hyemsurists, and even more the Hɛ́nsɔ̀rists, venerated inbédɛ̀ ‘persons of great compassion’. There were seven Uytainese (starting with Syalenar, his wife Myarfai, and his scribe Purthel), and later seven Bé (especially Ŋɛ̀dì, the first Bé proselytizer, and Mánlɔ, the great ascetic).

The rites of veneration came to mean building a small shrine with an idol (whose shape goes back to the uywar, the packets containing the bones of an Uytainese ancestor), bowing to it, and offering small sacrifices— drinks, fruit, a bit of stripcorn. This could be an alcove in one's home, or an entire shrine tended by priestesses.


As in Uytai, Hɛ́nsɔ̀rists founded nurúrnèn “study centers”, where students gathered under the leadership of a kerán. Here the emphasis was on meditation, reading, and discussion. However, following the idea of dɛ̀, the study center might also undertake missions of charity: feed the poor in their area, offer healing, care for orphans.

As the latter activity involved teaching, nurúrnèn were effectively schools for both poor and middle-class children.

A nurúrnèn normally contained shrines to all fourteen inbédɛ̀, so that (unlike in Uytai) scholarly and popular practice was similar.


In Uytai there were Hyemsurist hermits, but the focus was the nurúrnèn. In the Bé, however, the ascetic side of Hɛ́nsɔ̀r flourished. This was largely through the example of Mánlɔ in the 2100s. (Her nom de religion means “nobody”.)

The life of Syalenar was familiar to Hɛ́nsɔ̀rists, but few followed his example of solitude. To Mánlɔ it seemed unaccountable that anyone would not. She studied the scriptures, organized charities, and was finally offered the position of kerán. She took this as recognition that she had achieved tɛn, and immediately walked out to begin a ten-year sojourn in the jungle. She believed that drêdɛ ‘not-having’ included clothes, hair, and hammocks, so she went naked, cut off her hair, and slept on the ground.

When the ten years were up she did not rejoin any nurúrnèn nor leave the jungle, but she stopped fleeing from would-be disciples, and allowed them to sit near her and imitate her. The stories tell that when she was “too old” she starved herself to death, though since her age is given as 120 it can't be called a great lessening of life.

To the three disciplines she added tɔ̌ŋdɛ ‘not speaking’. It's claimed that she never spoke— though it's also said that her gestures and facial expressions were eloquent. The later tradition however was that silence was required only of the novice (ŋɛ̀saɔr); her guru or teacher (bǎmɛ̀ŋ ‘mother-teacher‘) was allowed to speak in order to instruct her.

Ascetics (saɔrlɔ) were known in other traditions (such as Lady Tâɔnà and to some extent the shamans), but the Hɛ́nsɔ̀rists exceeded them in dedication and ostentation. They followed Mánlɔ's lead in going naked and hairless; they either foraged in the jungle or begged in the cities; they often followed practices of extreme self-mortification. They were somewhat notorious for accepting male disciples, though they were supposed to avoid all sexual gratification, and naked mendicants had to go about in same-sex groups.

(It should be remembered that in the heat of the jungle, no one wore much clothing, but adults did wear a skirt or loincloth. To go tlɛ́rɔ̌ŋ ‘bare-crotch’ was associated with great poverty, or the aftermath of a disaster. It may also be relevant that their entirely bare skins contrasted with the tattered rags and dreadlocks of the shamans. They also came up with a new word for religious nudity, łàɔdɛ ‘not-wrapping’.)

All of this was a challenge (and a model) for other schools of thought. The rationalists were particularly affronted, and sometimes tried to ban ascetics from territory they controlled. To fully control one's emotions was valued in Nàłó, but it seemed a mean feat next to the heights of Hɛ́nsɔ̀rist asceticism. And the family-oriented morality of the traditional gods, seen as essential to the proper functioning of society, was challenged by people who considered authority, wealth, strict morality, and war to be evils.

Forms of release

Syelanar taught that the achievement of hɛ́n ‘inner peace’ was only the first step; the next was spreading sɔ̀r ‘social harmony’. If you mastered both, you had tɛn ‘release’.

The ascetics offered another path to release, through study with a bǎmɛ̀ŋ and then entering a life of asceticism.

Inevitably there were those who claimed to have an even shorter path. One Hɛ́nsɔ̀rist faction claimed that study and meditation were tedious distractions, and asceticism a backwards form of vainglory. They allowed that Mánlɔ had achieved tɛn, but only while she was in the forest alone, speaking to no one. This faction talked about tɛn so much that this became the name of their school (Tɛnłó).

Tɛ̌nłó nuns believed that tɛn could come suddenly, almost randomly, if the mind was prepared. Stories were told of those who achieved it between one step and the next, or when their bǎmɛ̀ŋ slapped them, or during sex. Eventually things settled down and Tɛ̌nłó too became something you could study in books— mostly accounts of eccentric nuns and their questions and comments designed to disorient the student so as to allow tɛn to seep in before she could resist it.

Third tier: Pantheism and devotion

Belesao was in crisis from 1690-1997, dealing first with the ktuvok invasion, then the unprecedented alliance with other Bé, with the iliu and the elcari. Then there was the even more unprecedented Men’s Empire— not a revolution placing men on top, but one where the male infantry took over the empire, while keeping the empresses as figureheads. During this period writing was adopted from Uytai.

When the men's army was unable to conquer Mɔłɔsɔu their prestige suffered, and perhaps more importantly, they were out of the country. The female-led rebelled, placing the empress Dɔjíŋ back in power. This led to a long civil war. It was not till 2267 that a new empire was proclaimed, this time with a powerful parliament (Béjan).

The Lé were eager to write down their scriptures, but in doing so they discovered that a) the oldest ones needed translation into modern Lé, and b) no one kept to the old beliefs anyway.

Temple worship

The early city-states and queendoms had nothing resembling temples or nunneries. State rituals were simply done in the palace, or the square in front of it; monastic life was unknown.

The first empire, Lésàɔ, consolidated in 1613, did everything on a grander scale. Its capital, Sîpó, was a true city, with as many as 50,000 residents. The queens built funerary complexes where ongoing rites and sacrifices were performed, including plays and recitations glorifying Lé history. These made the Dòsɛ̀ or City of the Dead a lively place.

At the same time shrines to various goddesses had developed, largely in remote jungle areas, as making a physical trip to ask a favor was itself meritorious. The empresses enlarged these places and endowed them with a permanent staff, which turned them into pɛčó ‘god-places’, temples. Finally, perhaps realizing that the tourism income alone would justify it, they endowed large temples in the cities.

For some time the temple of Sɔn in Sîpó was the largest and grandest in the empire. Sɔn was the goddess of Sɔnjɔs, the first empress; her daughter Jolɔ and granddaughter Rinŋáe chose Sɔn as well and built the temple as a monument not only to their god but to the empire itself. But it was destroyed in the civil wars following the collapse of the Men’s Empire.

During that period the temple of Kâ, deep in the jungles of the Ŋɛ̌ valley, was the largest and richest of Bé temples— in legend, due to the robbers and criminals who tithed to their cruel goddess. During the civil war the temple of Kâ was the focus of a large state, maintained by fear: its gangs, spies, and assassins spread its influence far beyond its borders. It was not till 2261 that an alliance led by Jansɛ̀ destroyed the temple and its empire, a war commemorated by the great epic Béhàɔráŋpàŋ. A thousand years later the great thief adventurers Fánao and Ŋar visited the ruined temple.

The idea of a community of religious scholars— a dásčó ‘together-house, nunnery’— began with Nàłó. The majority of inłó, Nàłó scholars, were upper or middle class women who could afford to devote their time to study and meditation. Hɛ́nsɔ̀r added the idea of the mendicant priestess (or priest), in effect opening the religious life to the poor.

There were Hâełó (orthodox or rationalist) institutions, but these were more schools than nunneries.

In administration, both temples and nunneries (like armies and criminal gangs before them) adopted the model and terminology of the family band (). Joining one was treated like marriage— you left your previous family and the institution became your new family. Like the army, the religious institutions were a good place for third daughters or aristocratic nieces to go— a way to have a career without having children (and thus diluting the wealth of your birth family).

(What if you wanted sex? Sex outside the (indeed, outside your age cohort) was adultery… if your was an all-female temple or nunnery, the only licit sex was lesbian. For many straight women, not having to have children was a plus, and for many it was a religious sacrifice. For the rest, our sources make it clear that nun/priestess adultery was common. Plays and novels often featured horny priestesses, and moralists often condemned them.

The synthesis

In the 2500s came the important Dìpàŋ (Book of Wisdom) by the philosopher Línɛ, which achieved renown as a synthesis of the best philosophical thought in the Bé. Línɛ studied all the schools (including ones we have not had space for). She said that her book integrated them all; her admirers said that it did this so well that the old schools were destroyed. It's quite true that after Línɛ, Nàłó, Hâełó, and Hɛ́nsɔ̀r hardly survived as separate schools.

Her points can be summarized as follows:

The world we perceive is the outer world (kɛsŋǎ).
The larger or deeper world is the inner world (nɔŋǎ).
The outer world is real, because its interior or true self is the nɔŋǎ.
All humans begin by living entirely in kɛsŋǎ.
We are able however to enter into nɔŋǎ— at first fleetingly, finally permanently.
All humans are on this upward path.
As things of kɛsŋǎ can protrude into nɔŋǎ, things of nɔŋǎ can protrude into the All-Soul (čɛ̀ŋhɔ́).
As the kɛsŋǎ resides in and hides the nɔŋǎ, nɔŋǎ resides in and hides All-Soul.
Motion, growth, and creation are the modes of nɔŋǎ within kɛsŋǎ.
Wisdom, inner peace, and bliss are the modes of All-Soul within nɔŋǎ.
Nɔŋǎ pervades kɛsŋǎ but it is much more. So it is with All-Soul and nɔŋǎ.
There are multiple paths upward: the way of kɛsŋǎ, the way of nɔŋǎ, the way of divinity.
All lead upward in the end; none are left behind, though some take a very slow path.
The goddesses are beings of the spirit world, but each is an avatar of All-Soul.
Line coined čɛ̀ŋhɔ́ ‘universal soul’ as a synonym for ‘divinity’. This neatly allowed her to go in two different directions: the use of hɔ́ ‘soul’ made Divinity seem more personal, an active presence like the human soul; simultaneously it divorced the idea from the goddesses, who as beings of story and personality tended to offend philosophers. It also allowed clear statements such as that “the goddesses manifest the All-Soul” which would have been obscure with .

The three ways

What are the three ways ()?

  1. Kɛsrè is the way of kɛsŋǎ. This is the pursuit of bodily goals: sex, pleasure, food, and power. To pursue something at all requires motion and effort and a goal outside the self, so there is a spark of divinity in it. Línɛ will not condemn you for it, though she cannot help you if the authorities do. This path to divinity is very long— almost always it cannot be completed in one lifetime.
  2. Nɔrè is the way of nɔŋǎ, sometimes called the way of the háɔ, the matriarch. We might call this the way of virtue or righteousness. You learn about the inner world, how it works, how to call on its power. You live as best as you can in the world, with serenity in your own soul, love for others, and justice in the wider world. The more interest you show in the nɔŋǎ the better— prayer, worship, listening to priestesses and hermits— but you do not have to be a hermit yourself. If you have done well at this, you will come to nɔŋǎ after death.
  3. Trɛrè (‘holy way’) is the way of divinity. This is the way of saints, sages, and hermits. This path rejects the physical world and its values as distractions; even nɔŋǎ is a way station. The sage can enter nɔŋǎ whenever she chooses. When she dies she is absorbed directly into divinity.
Línɛ's framework is a form of panentheism. In effect, everything is God, but the things we know do not exhaust God's nature.

In this system, it was easy to point out the insights and the failings of each of the old schools.

Línɛ even included the iliu and elcarin deities in her framework. The elcari followed Nɔrè, for they valued righteousness but had almost no use for divinity. The iliu could live in nɔŋǎ as readily as they could live under the sea or on land, and their curious gods were names for divinity. She was even willing to believe that their triple division of God reflected an insight into divinity that humans had missed. (There were some excellent summaries of iliu beliefs available, and she included a section which summarized the names and natures of the three gods.)

As for the ktuvoks, Línɛ clarified that malign as well as benign spirits inhabited nɔŋǎ. That is, there were demons, which the ktuvoks worshipped. They could also lead humans astray; that was why spiritual errors were more destructive than physical lusts. However, there was no malign counterpart to divinity.

Superiors and inferiors

Línɛ wrote at the time Belesao (having newly discovered steel) had conquered Mɔłɔsɔu, and the overall tenor of her thought, though it puts ascetic renunciation on the top rung of spirituality, is to uphold authority. Nɔrè is middle and upper-class righteousness, and Línɛ fully reassures it that its path is good.

The mood of the times went beyond this, however, and Línɛ says some embarrassing things about the rights of queens and nobles, the importance of listening to your mother, and the inferiority of men. The latter subject was pressing during the invasion of Mɔłɔsɔu. The Mɔłɔ ruled a Minče people called the Hake, who were male-dominant (though this was changing under Mɔłɔ influence). The Hake were also treated as serfs. This presented the Lé with twin examples of social dominance. Línɛ and the Lé in general split the difference, despising the Mɔłɔ for their ethnocentrism and the Hake for their male dominance:

With the Hake, the Mɔłɔ follow the way of power only. What is the difference between Hake and Mɔłɔ? Are the Hake inferior? They are not temporarily incapable, like a child or a drunk person. They are not weaker by birth or accident, like a man or the blind or the lame. They are capable and intelligent and no eye can detect a Hake body, if their tongues do not speak. For that is the difference— they were once a separate people, and either speak their own language, or they speak Mɔłɔ badly.

The Mɔłɔ say that they are savages, because they do not know the Ùrlǔ, and because they let men rule them. They say that they must teach the Hake how to be Bé. But how do they teach them? They do not teach them, they only make them into slaves and servants. No wonder these savages do not respect their mistresses!

Men ruling women is strange to us, though we know that not all the world is like this. The Nyanese, the Uytainese, and the Gleŋ are patriarchies. Why this should be is a mystery of Divinity; perhaps it is as an example to us of what may go wrong when authority is not respected. The life of women in these countries is grim and sorrowful. They are owned by their husbands who, like a nawr ox, are not satisfied by one woman, but rape whoever they choose.

The Empire at this time restricted male rights even further. Men were restricted from being orthodox priests, university teachers, Béjan members, or advisors to the queen. The rare noble lines which allowed male inheritance were changed to disallow it. There was a puritanical crackdown on male dancers, actors, and prostitutes— for a century male roles in the theater had to be performed by women. The Mɔłɔ male infantry was disbanded under Lé rule. There was even a new rule (though enforcement was impossible) that men could not wear silk.

Economic progress can be socially regressive— in similar ways, the role of women declined in Sòng China, while in 18th century England the industrial revolution took the clothing industry away from women, and increasingly imprisoned elite women in useless domesticity. Life in the jungle may have continued as before, but urban Bé life brought in immense wealth— and immense inequality. Some of the restrictions on men had economic motivations: a profession denied to men was more available to women. (There were similar restrictions on immigrants and, in Mɔłɔsɔu, on the Hake.)

But there were theological justifications as well, and Línɛ did her part in creating these. There was little need to insist on women's right to rule— there was no threat that they would not. But she objected to men having any authority at all, and equally to any indulgence of their obviously lustful and lascivious behavior.

In her later years Línɛ returned to this theme, but with a curious ambivalence:

Women have a divine responsibility to care for their men and to keep them from sin. How often we fail them in this! But that is why it is important to suppress male entertainers and prostitutes. They are not strong enough to avoid this temptation themselves. This is not true!
For centuries scholars wondered what that last exclamation meant. Was she reconsidering, and if so what? The rest of the essay was standard worrying-about-the-menfolk female supremacy. At last someone looked closely at her manuscripts and memoirs of her last years, and realized that all her last papers were dictated to her son, as her eyesight was failing. He loyally wrote down her words, but in this one case could not resist an interpolation.


There was warm resistance to Línɛ in her time, but after her death her ideas dominated Beic philosophy. The orthodox all followed Línɛ, happily following Nɔrè while respecting (and subsidizing) Trɛrè. Thus Hâełó disappeared as a living movement. Nàłó was forced to adopt her framework and terminology and simply niggled over details. It was now possible to be an “orthodox ascetic”— accepting Línɛ's framework and rules rather than Syalenar's.

As for the people, they had discovered a new path of their own.

The devotion cults

The first devotion cult was arguably that of Kâ, discussed above. In theory those who worshipped Kâ did so by the usual adolescent choice. But it seems too much of a coincidence that entire gangs, or guilds of assassins, all chose Kâ in their sârpáɔ. When the temple was destroyed, the question became moot. But as the devotion cults came from the west, it's possible that organized cults of particular goddesses existed there long before the histories take note of them.

The first reported devotion cults are noted in Hàɔráŋ (west and north of Belesao, in the Hàɔ valley) in the 2300s. They are attached to previously unknown deities, Sâɔ and Jɔ́s. They spread to Belesao starting in the 2600s.

The novelties about both cults were:

Plus, the cults were created from below, by common people, not by priestesses, scholars, or theologians.

The cult of Sâɔ

We have already met Sâɔ as the term for lightness (not-heaviness, not radiance). This was an important word in Hâełó; it was sometimes used for Divinity, but the orthodox preferred not to identify the divine with the top half of various oppositions, but with the whole.

The early worship of Sâɔ was associated with the poor and uneducated, and with a provocative, scandalous wildness. The Hɛ́nsɔ̀rist ascetics had gone naked, but as hermits or mendicant beggars— asceticism was not for the masses. The Sâɔists took off their clothes en masse, at temples in the jungle or in the city, leaders and ordinary worshippers, male and female. There they worshipped an image of the línmo (vulva) of Sâɔ and heard songs exalting the love of Sâɔ that sounded to outsiders like incitements to an orgy:

Accept our love, Lady Sâɔ
The ardent love that liberates.
We chant your name a thousand times
Out of the joy of our passion.
You are the Lady, hidden to the world
but not to our devotion.

Sing to Sâɔ,
Dance to Sâɔ,
With drum and flute
With eager steps.

We long to recline on your breasts
but just to touch your feet is a joy.
We reel like drunkards
out of devotion for Sâɔ.

Early reports talk about people shaking like being possessed, screaming, dancing, and copulating. I should add that you could have seen all of this, except the sex, in various early sects— the Shakers and the Quakers didn't get those names for nothing. You can experience it today in Charismatic churches, among the Sufis, and or at Candomblé gatherings. The Greek Dionysians were even more uninhibited.

(It should probably be pointed out that the majority of these naked crowds were middle aged or elderly. Young people had work to do. Or if they didn't, they weren't always very presentable naked.)

One early devotional, the Dránłu Dìpàŋ (Extended Book of Wisdom), propounds an unusual method of expiation:

Heaviness/sin (tlǎɔ) weighs us down like a stone. But to put on heaviness like a garment, in full submission to Lady Sâɔ, is accepted as devotion. Therefore go the secret place, before the línmo of the Lady, and drink till you are light-headed. Remove your skirt and cover your body with ash and mud. Lie in adultery with a man. Take his seed, and the ash, and the mud, and place it on the Image (ŋàɔmɛ̌ŋ). Now wash yourself in the holy river, and your heaviness will be removed.
Later commenters hasten to explain that this was all metaphorical— there was no adultery, only a meditation on adultery as a way of taking on sin and getting rid of it. (They are less clear on whether the mud was real.) Still, the Dránłułó, the school based on this book, was known or notorious for writing explicit erotic manuals. (This actually fit Línɛ's doctrine of Kɛsrè: if all a soul could understand was lust, the philosopher should write a manual on lust.)

Devotion to Sâɔ could also take the form of self-mortification, such as fasts or whippings. Stories about ideal Sâɔists were sometimes gruesome, as in this story:

A Sâɔist was visited by a pilgrim, who demanded a meal of meat. He had no animals, so he killed his own infant and offered it to her. The pilgrim was joined by a friend, who also required meat. The man cut off his own leg in order to have something to serve. More pilgrims arrived, so he removed his remaining limbs. He had to ask the pilgrims to cook the last arm. Immediately, the five pilgrims themselves became limbs and a body, the form of Lady Sâɔ herself. She restored the man's limbs as well as his child.
(This story is one of many dealing with the lâetɛ, the ‘virtuous man’— seen as a male submissive to the point of grotesquerie. This was an ideal enjoyed by female rather than male believers. However, it was common for men to be more Sâɔist than their wives.)

There was a spirit of rebellion to Sâɔism. The emphasis on provocation and rule-breaking could be used politically as well. Sâɔists were tired of inequality, tired of poverty and war, tired of the increasing arrogance of the nobles and the increasing rigidity of orthodox religion. Hàɔráŋ and later Belesao were troubled by Sâɔist rebellions, which sometimes succeeded in taking over and estate or an entire town, burning down the nobles' houses and especially the hated land registrars.

Queens banned it, but it was too big to ban. The worship was once held in “secret places”, it was soon held in large public temples.

In its wilder days there were stories that Sâɔ had herself rebelled against the goddesses or destroyed them. But later it was explained that the goddesses were aspects (prɛ̀n) of Sâɔ (everything is ultimately an aspect of Sâɔ). In Sâɔist areas, you still chose a goddess of your own, and that was how Sâɔ appeared to you. Some temples had alcoves for each prɛ̀n; other specialized in just one.

Sâɔ also acquired a male aspect, identified as Prátɛ ‘high-consort’ (or even Sâɔtɛ). Naturally Prátɛ appealed to men, and his priests were normally male. He was sometimes spoken of as the male part of the goddess, sometimes as her consort; sometimes the goddess was depicted as a hermaphrodite, split down the middle into male and female halves. Prátɛ was also identified with the second-tier male god Łas. Temples added a hónmo (penis) next to Sâɔ's línmo.

Sâɔists were big on sin and expiation, to the point where outsiders were confused: as one orthodox cleric complained, “Why do they worship Lightness (Sâɔ) and speak of nothing but Heaviness?” A Sâɔist counter-attacked provocatively:

Heaviness is a blessing, because it has no pretensions, and leads directly to Sâɔ. Give me one of your righteous— well-mannered, well-taught, well-dressed— and I can do nothing with her; she speaks of Divinity and yet never leaves the path of sin. Give me a soul laden down with heaviness, and in an hour she will be crying tears of repentance and eager to put on ashes and repent.
At the same time, intractability bothered the Sâɔists so much that they invented the concept of hell— četrǔŋŋǎ ‘place of punishment’. Clerics would describe the torments of hell in graphic and evocative detail, contrasting them with the delights and rewards of Líŋsàɔ (Paradise).

Which sins could land you in četrǔŋŋǎ? Murder and rape, naturally, but also injustice, disrespecting Sâɔ, oppressing the poor to the point that they starved to death, and starting wars.

The cult of Jɔ́s

In origin Jɔ́s is almost certainly a Linaic god. In the Sibra language there is a god named Korta; in Ayalampa, one named Čruka. (Final -s in Lé often derives from a former final stop.) There are references to Jɔ́s in western countries, still a minor goddess, in the 1900s.

During the heyday of Kâ (2050-2261), the devotees of Kâ fought several wars with the Hàɔ. The Hàɔ seemed to reinterpret the gods as fighting a war among themselves— Jɔ́s leading one side, Kâ the other.

The epic of Jɔ́s and Kâ

The great Hàɔ epic, the Béhàɔráŋpàŋ, is a mythological account of this war, though it also incorporates the war against the ktuvoks, and the events surrounding the founding of Hàɔráŋ. Most of it was composed during the war itself— including the ending— and only lightly revised following the actual fall of Kâ. (Of course the fact that the most important players in the final war were Jansɛ̀ and Pànsàɔ did not fit a narrative of Hàɔ greatness.) The definitive edition dates from the 2500s, and elevates Jɔ́s even more.

The epic has an unusual structure, with protagonists and antagonists constantly upgrading in a conflict which takes generations, escalating in each of its eight chapters.

  1. It starts as a conflict between two humans— Lánko, a peaceful noble, and her priest Jɛkos. Jɛkos conceives a scheme to steal Lánko's estate and, after her death, build a great temple there. For the moment it is frustrated.
  2. Jɛkos's son Ŋitɛ marries Lánko's daughter Ànje. He manages to alienate the estate by the simple measure of quietly murdering each of the daughters they have, then poisoning his wife. He builds the temple, though it still belongs to his god Tɔ̀.
  3. Ànje had another daughter, Brɛ́drɔŋ, from a previous relationship. Brɛ́drɔŋ builds a new settlement and find allies, helping to build the state of Hàɔráŋ. Meanwhile Ŋitɛ marries a woman named Jumɔ́ŋ, who murders her own husband and turns the temple over to Kâ.
  4. At this point the deities start to be involved, taking on human form. Tɔ̀ and Ìsu face off— Ìsu's avatar is the noblewoman Łashun, the daughter of Brɛ́drɔŋ; Tɔ̀'s is the arch-priestess of Kâ. Both the temple-state of Kâ and the nation of Hàɔráŋ grow and fight.
  5. Now it's the turn of Sɔn and Lín. Lín's avatar is the queen of Hàɔráŋ; Sɔn's is the king of the ktuvoks.
  6. Next is the struggle between Rèr, a wandering archer who happens to be the avatar of Jɔ́s, and Prɔ̌ŋáe, chief assassin of the temple of Kâ and himself an avatar of Kâ. Rèr must make alliances not only with the Lé but with the iliu, the tree-cats, and the jaguars. Prɔ̌ŋáe meanwhile enlists the ktuvoks, the snakes, and golems based on the four Heavy elements. This is for the future, however; the main action is Prɔ̌ŋáe's attempt to assassinate the queen of Hàɔráŋ— whom he approaches by seducing Rèr. Rèr unmasks him in time, kills him in a great duel, and saves the queen.
  7. The next chapter tells the story of the great battle on earth, and the greater battle in heaven. We are done with avatars; the leaders are Jɔ́s and . The battle on earth is led by Rèr on one side, the Kâists and the ktuvoks on the other.
  8. The final confrontation takes place in the spirit world (nɔŋǎ). The celestial armies disappear, taken up into the deities who created them. Ìsu duels with Tɔ̀, and both are killed— but Ìsu's spirit is taken up by Jɔ́s, and it is explained that Ìsu too was an avatar of Jɔ́s. Similarly Tɔ̀ was an avatar of Kâ. The next battle, between Lín and Sɔn, ends the same way. But when Kâ dies, she too disappears into Jɔ́s. Jɔ́s incarnates one more time, as Làemíŋ, queen of Hàɔráŋ. She rules in peace for a hundred years, then ascends back into heaven.
The reference to Làemíŋ is a somewhat awkward descent into actual history: Làemíŋ was a real queen and did rule after the defeat of Kâ, but only for 24 years (2259-2283). Very likely she was still alive when this part was composed; one version of the text weakly suggests that the avatar status passed to her next three descendants.

The absorption of Kâ into Jɔ́s has given rise to two interpretations.

The epic is almost as popular in Belesao as in Hàɔráŋ, though a text is preferred with interpolations referring to Lé heroines.

At one point in Book 8, the author quickly retells the Deeds of Pàn, giving the opportunity to depict Ràe as yet another avatar of Jɔ́s.

Temple takeovers
Though Jɔ́sism is more sedate than Sâɔism, it was just as much a challenge to the existing order. This was because it grew by physically taking over temples.

Some flavor for this may be seen in this Jɔ́sist account of a takeover from the łɛłu ‘the corrupt’, their term for the orthodox:

The temple of Łas in Bruháɔ was held by the łɛłu. Its priestess Tàenà knew nothing of Łas and despised Our Lady. She cared only to collect taxes and exert donations. To the łɛłu, the sacrifice was not for the goddess but for themselves. For a common person even to step inside the temple required a gift. The barefoot and barecrotched could not enter even with a gift. Only the priestesses were allowed to enter the innermost room to touch the goddess. Tàenà delighted in enforcing the most fastidious and obscure rules of the łɛłu, while the adulterers and tax farmers and rotten judges were welcomed in. She spent the people's money on elaborate robes, frivolous coverings for the icon, and estates for herself and her priestesses.

Our Lady told us, “Go and sing there of me. Go barefoot and painted; offer the gift which the łɛłu demand, but sing of me. Do this three times.” We did as she desired, three times, and three times the łɛłu forced us out. Now Our Lady told us, “They have condemned themselves. Go and sing once more, and do not allow yourselves to be forced out.” We called all the followers of Our Lady and we entered the temple, throwing out the corrupt. The doors of the innermost temple were opened to the light, and the goddess there was cleansed and liberated.

Jɔ́sism had its strongest appeal among the urban poor, while Sâɔism was more popular with the peasants. The takeovers were characteristic of the period 2300-2500; after that Jɔ́sists were able to build their own temples.

Though the Bé wear few clothes, this passage shows that Bé clothing nonetheless showed fine gradations of rank and spirituality. Robes were associated with traditional religion, precisely because they were so divorced from everyday wear, and (especially in earlier times) in order to take on the roles of spirits. Tàenà's fancy robes were a marker of upper class status.

The upper and middle classes wore skirts (łàorá); the poor wore loincloths (rɔ̌nkɔ̀s); the destitute went naked. The rich wore high sandals made of leather; the poor wore low sandals made of wood or truca; the very poor went barefoot. The devotion cults, like the ascetics, believed that spirituality should be marked by frugality. The Jɔ́sists did not take this to the point of ritual nudity like the Sâɔists, but for a special occasion like this they went barefoot. Jɔ́sist priestesses did not (and do not) wear robes.

“Painted” refers to a practice of painting colorful lines on the face and chest. A decoration (dlàɔsê) on the forehead is still a common sign of a Jɔ́sist; adepts can recognize from the details of a person's dlàɔsê the particular avatar they follow.

Worship consists largely of singing and dancing, plus a homily; the early saints of Jɔ́sism are its songwriters. Services are more restrained than those of Sâɔism, but there is still a deep emphasis on emotional excitement. A Jɔ́sist temple also has icons, often a fancy painted statue out front, and a shapeless mass in the shadowy interior.

There are nunneries (and monasteries) where students worship, study, chant the name of Jɔ́s, and care for the elders or the nearby poor. Ordinary worshippers are urged to take at least one year of their lives to live in a nunnery.

Jɔ́sism has a lot to say about bodily movement. This is developed as dance, as meditation, as exercise, and as martial arts. To control the body is good practice for controlling the mind, and movement is considered to have medical benefits. Many Bé are perhaps more interested in these disciplines than in Jɔ́sist teachings. Men are particularly valued as dancers and masseurs; women are urged to learn martial arts.

The sacrifices of the Ùrlǔ are deprecated; as we saw in the temple takeover, they were interpreted as a tax on the poor by the rich. (This was certainly not the original meaning, when Bé religion was a matter of family ritual, but that's how it came to be perceived in dense, unequal cities.)

However, a new ritual of reverence developed, under the general name of ŋɛ́n ‘bow, bend’. Prototypically this means bowing to an icon as you pass it and whispering its name three times. Wine or sweets might be left for an icon— but only, say the sages, “if the worshipper can freely afford it.”

A particularly worthy pilgrimage is to visit the shrine of each of Jɔ́s’s avatars in the approved order. This can be technically done in a visit to a very large Jɔ́sist temple, which will have shrines for each avatar; this allows the poor to undertake the pilgrimage. More respectable, however, is a grand tour over all of Belesao. (A middle class person can do this cheaply, as there are institutions which will feed and house pilgrims. The problem is the time it takes from one's family and business. Many thus undertake it when their children are grown and married.)

The theology of Jɔ́s
Sâɔists say that the goddesses are aspects (prɛ̀n) of Sao; in practice, it largely supersedes them. In Jɔ́sism they retain more of a sense of identity; they are avatars ( nɔŋàɔ, lit. ‘embodiments’).

To Jɔ́sists, these all began as humans like Rèr. Jɔ́s lives the entire life of the human being. (These are always exemplary human beings, but texts differ on how conscious they are of being Jɔ́s. Sometimes they don't remember.) At the end of their life, they reascend into Paradise, and remain as a god. Thus all the old gods are former humans.

This faciliated the growth of Jɔ́sism— you could continue to worship your goddess. (Plus, of course, it allowed temples to be taken over.)

Jɔ́sists had little interest in the inner world. Rather, they spoke of Paradise (Líŋsàɔ, lit. ‘the good country’), the perfect realm maintained and ruled by one of Jɔ́s’s avatars. The requirements to get in were not steep; as one manual put it,

Whoever says the name of Our Lady once, in reverence, will live in Líŋsàɔ.
To reinforce the point, clerics sometimes added that the notorious pirate empress Ŋíntàe of the 2800s had spoken Rèr's name on her deathbed, and went straight to Paradise. This was actually a double-edged message: to the elite it was a provocative example of the ease of salvation, but to the poor it was a declaration of support for a popular figure. (In fact Ŋíntàe gave generously to both Jɔ́sist and Sâɔist temples.)

New Bé movements often welcomed men, but perhaps only Jɔ́sism had a theology of gender equality. As one cleric put it:

The łɛłu tell us that Divinity lies in both male and female, but they prefer the female. But if divinity lives in the male, then male and female are the same. Our Lady took the form of Ìsu, of Łas; if the supreme deity was male, then male and female are the same! Are men not fathers of our children and partners in our work? Do they not speak wisely, comfort and serve us, and worship with reverence? In the Bé women rule men; in the south men rule women. It is only accident, and means nothing to Our Lady.
There were prominent Jɔ́sist male clerics, but it has to be said that Jɔ́sists hardly changed the culture, nor tried to. The point was more to annoy the powerful than to change the way families worked.

Jɔ́sism is explicitly hostile to Trɛrè, the way of ascetics and mystics. Of course, in some ways this was because the devotion cults already extended some ascetic practices to the masses— to the elite, the cultists looked like naked mendicants greatly multiplied in numbers. But the Jɔ́sists recognized that the mendicant lifestyle was largely an affectation of the well-off… and not infrequently a career for scammers and hypocrites. A peasant woman could hardly leave her family and live as a beggar— and if all the peasants did it, there would be no food for anyone. Jɔ́sists disparaged religious practices that were not available to everyone; their clerics taught that clerics were not particularly holy.

Modern developments

No major new schools have arisen in the eight centuries since the devotion cults came to Belesao. Rather, there has been incremental development within each tradition.

Among the orthodox

The school of Línɛ tried, awkwardly, to integrate and account for the devotion cults. It was easy enough to declare that Sâɔ and Jɔ́s were different names of the All-Soul. A common formulation is that they form a trinity, where all three are equal but All-Soul is a little more equal than the others.

More difficult was to decide which of the three Ways the cultists followed. Neither Nɔrè nor Trɛrè seemed to fit. The ease of salvation promised by the cults did not easily fit either path, and neither Paradise nor the Sâɔist hell fit into the categories of the spirit world and absorption into divinity.

There were valiant attempts. One thinker proposed that the cults formed a fourth Way, Nùrè, the way of devotion. Some just stretched terms and ideas to fit, supposing that Paradise was another term for nɔŋǎ and Hell for rebirth.

Others reacted against the cults, retreating even further into an abstract and inactive God. Sometimes the late orthodox sound like Deists, contemplating (you can't call it worshipping) a bloodless All-Soul who created the universe and did not dirty herself with any further action.

(This was perhaps influenced by the boom in mechanical devices, such as clocks, compasses, and millwork. Intellectuals were fascinated by these, and applied these— the most advanced mechanisms known— to the concept of divinity. Perhaps human beings— or the entire universe— could be wound up like a clock and left to run.)

Most, perhaps, ignored the cults, leaving them to the masses. If the people needed a more emotional and personal god, let them have it.

There has a been a masculinist awakening— men and even women write about equality of the sexes, and most of the imperial restrictions on men were eliminated in the last civil war (3020-3075), when male help was suddenly valued. Men were given the vote in Belesao after the war. The sight of Ereláean men acting as sea captains, traders, and professors is no longer a source of gawking wonder, though it's also led to oddities such as female prostitution.

(There is also a lot of resistance to gender equality. The example of Uytai or Kebri is often taken as negative, and moralists frequently worry that foreign influence will make men less religious and even more lustful.)

In the last century or so, urban life has seen an incipient deteroriation of the family band, the . The root cause is that more modern institutions— universities, corporations, law firms, medical offices, government offices— want to hire individuals, not families. Middle-class couples often live away from their and can hire servants to take care of the children.

In addition, the latest wars were fought with mass conscription and muskets. Mass army units could no longer be run as a family; they were large masses on non-professional recruits.

The later devotion cults

The “people’s cults” have become become increasingly sophisticated.

By the 2700s, Sâɔism had settled down, found middle and upper class converts, became respectable, and had its own theologians. You could worship with your skirt on now, though there were still nunneries where the nuns went naked. (Monks had to wear loincloths.)

Jɔ́sism concentrated even more on its avatars, especially the human ones. The most popular were Rèr and Ràe, the heroines of the great epics. The largest temple in any city is likely to belong to Rèr.

To some extent the two cults came to resemble one another, especially at the level of individual believers. Jɔ́sists would undertake Sâɔist expiations, and worshipped Sàs, the consort of Ràe, imitating the worship of Prátɛ. Sâɔists adopted the reverences (ŋɛ́n) and talked about avatars of Sâɔ. Both enjoyed and retold each other's stories.

And there were more stories to tell. New myths grew up about the childhood of Rèr. Sâɔ appeared in miracle stories, conversion stories, or parables about his life with Prátɛ.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution was the Brɛ́drɔŋje Dàe (Story of Brɛ́drɔŋ), a play which expanded on Brɛ́drɔŋ from the Béhàɔráŋpàŋ. Her mother had left her family, leaving her a poor fisherwoman. She learns that an evil man, Ŋitɛ, has married her mother and murdered her half-sisters. She cries for them, but her mother Ànje still does not talk to her… until she sends her a letter saying that she has been poisoned. Brɛ́drɔŋ is to unearth a cache of coins her mother has hidden, become a warrior, and attempt to recapture the estate the evil Ŋitɛ took from them. She does her best and rises to become the most powerful noble in Hàɔráŋ, but she becomes too valuable to the queen to be allowed to pursue her personal vengeance against Ŋitɛ. Her husband (a Hàɔ noble) also begs her not to go, as their daughter is too young. Brɛ́drɔŋ dies full of honors, but devastated by her failure to accomplish her mother's quest.

For Bé readers, the tragic ending was especially poignant as they knew that Brɛ́drɔŋ's daughter Łashun was an avatar of Ìsu (who was himself an avatar of Jɔ́s) and the mother of the eventual victor Rèr. Brɛ́drɔŋ simply couldn't see the big picture. Fortunately, as she dies Rèr herself appears (this is before her birth, but don't ask questions) to explain her key role in the whole earthly and cosmic saga. Finally Brɛ́drɔŋ smiles, reveres her divine grandson, and ascends into Paradise.

Believe me, this play has it all: murder, sudden turns, irony, comedy, battle, tragic failure, and a final transcendence that, for a moment, makes audiences feel that everything ultimately hangs together.

The devotion cults also created their own theological works. They faced the schematic of Línɛ from the other direction. They admired her systematic mind, but suggested that she had got the order of Nɔrè and Trɛrè backwards. The ascetic was a pathfinder, showing the way of frugality and sacrifice. But that path was sterile. In a neat pun, they called it Trǎɔrè, the path of ego. The self-mortification and the isolation were done for the self, and to save oneself rather than the community is ultimately not even saving oneself. Nɔrè was more on the right track, but they felt that Línɛ had written for comfortable rich people, people who needed to be told to be less greedy and controlling, not to have their comfortable lives equated to those of the ascetics.

Above all, they felt that Línɛ had missed the need to be involved. Her greatest value was dɛ̀, compassion. Their own was , love and devotion. The difference was essential: one was a regard de haut en bas, pitying but superior. Love does not look on from outside. It jumps in, gets itself dirty, and does what it necessary without asking to be thanked.

Other countries

This treatment has already gone on for perhaps too many pages, and yet it's really only treated the central Bé territory. Let me briefly go over countries besides Belesao.

Łeisau, in the far west, is known for its Linaic influence. This largely means that local gods are still worshipped— though they are always carefully described as avatars of Jɔ́s or Sâɔ. The pirate empress Ŋíntàe has become one of these gods. The Linaic peoples were fairly sexually egalitarian, and Łeisau is known for its feisty and independent men.

Mauraŋ, just to its east, is best known for a third devotion cult, the only one devoted to a male conception of god: Łas. On Earth it seems that goddesses may be venerated almost in inverse proportion to the treatment of women, and here the worship of Łas does not improve the treatment of men. Rather, a male god allows women, at least, to channel erotic feelings into religious ones. However, his position as chief god is probably due to his original portfolio: Łas is the sea, and this country is highly focused on the sea, and many make their living from it. Unsurprising, Łasnù is strongest on the coast.

Hàɔráŋ, where both devotion cults originated, currently doesn't exist— its territory is divided between Mauraŋ and Belesao. It's known for an attempt starting in the 3200s to revive the traditional second-tier goddesses and their sacrifices. Discomfited by the challenges of the modern world, especially those coming from Ereláe, a fundamentalist movement wants to scrupulously follow the Ùrlǔ and Súŋdǐŋ. They haven't made much headway against the devotion cults, and they have more scholars than actual temples, but they have aristocratic supporters and make a good deal more noise than their numbers warrant.

Mɔłɔsɔu in the east was of course the origin of Nàłó. It threw off Lé rule by 2628. They solved their Hake problem by having a civil war about it, in the 2870s. Rural landowners fought against tariffs that benefited the cities and against the cities' desire to improve the lot of the Hake serfs. But the war went badly for the landowners, and they had to enlist the Hake as soldiers. Then they lost anyway, and the radicalized urbanites outlawed serfdom. Today it is a legal offense even to call someone a Hake or point out Hake descent.

The country is considered religiously conservative— the old goddesses are still worshipped, without concessions either to Divinity or to the devotion cults. At the same time, there are still Hake cults in remote regions, or strange millennial communes. The Mɔłɔ are considered particularly hard on their men, and yet there are reports of all-male gangs or villages here and there.