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The most obvious use of beads in northern culture is in their necklaces, which are described in a separate article. A northerner’s necklace symbolizes their identity, memorializes their accomplishments, and celebrate their relationships. But beads are ubiquitous and have significance in other places as well. As people grow and develop new relationships, take on new jobs, and so on, some of the beads on their necklaces are replaced by different ones. The old beads are retained, much as an Empire citizen might retain expired licenses, for the memories they evoke. They can be stored in a pouch or box, but most often are sewn onto clothing.
The elders of each village keep a collection of beads, some donated by carvers and others inherited when a dead person has more beads than are needed to give each of their friends and family a remembrance bead or two. These are gifted when the elders see fit, or see a need. Healers also keep a few extra beads, to gift when needed. A healer nearly always has a pregnancy bead to gift, for instance.
One of the milestones each age-set must achieve before starting their adulthood tests is to choose an age-set bead. The bead must be accepted unanimously or chosen through a more formal consensus process. This is typically done before the majority of the age-set reaches the age of ten years, though it can be done much earlier. Occasionally, an age-set chooses to change their bead, especially if the original bead was chosen when they were very young, however, once they attain adulthood, these beads cannot be changed (though beads that are broken or lost are allowed to be replaced). It is rare and emotionally significant for an adult to stop wearing his or her age-set bead.
A pregnancy bead is always a “cage” bead. This can be created in more than one way. Making a wire, glued-wood, or knotted cord cage around an affection bead is one accepted method of creating a pregnancy bead. And when a woman finds she is unexpectedly pregnant while traveling, this is often how the pregnancy bead is made. However, the more gifted carvers are delighted with the technical challenge of carving a bead which has a ball—or figure—which moves freely inside of an outer image. It is common, though not universal, for an older female relative of a young woman to gift her with one of these fancy pregnancy beads to celebrate passing the adulthood tests. A woman or man who is actively trying to get pregnant sometimes takes the time to create a fancy "hope bead".
Like affection beads, there is no rule that pregnancy beads should be used for only one pregnancy, however, they are almost never used for more than one pregnancy, regardless of how the pregnancy turned out.
Beads are given to children, and sometimes to adults, to mark significant achievements. People can also trade for or make beads themselves to commemorate things they believe are significant milestones.
Beads from the Dead
Some beads are acquired specifically as memory-beads. Most prominent and poignant among these are the beads chosen during a memorial ceremony for the dead. Everyone who knew a deceased person is given a chance to get one of the beads they wore in life. Sometimes an old person, or someone who is ill, will give certain beads to specific people themselves before they die. The beads belonging to someone who has died are placed in a bowl, and people take turns telling stories of that person’s life, and choosing a bead. This practice is so important that people who “take the long walk” cut off their beads themselves, and leave them behind for their friends and family. (see Beads and Memories).
If someone dies unexpectedly in an accident where their beads are destroyed or lost, a collection of beads is created using beads in the village elders’ possession and beads donated for that purpose, so the remembrance ceremony can be held. Any beads belonging to that person which were not lost or destroyed (for instance, beads on a dancing outfit or winter coat that they were not wearing at the time of their death) are included in that collection.
From the time of the Upheaval, healers wore a blue bead of ashakaarg. These beads could be carved as a mortar and pestle, symbolizing the making of medicine, or in some other shape. Unfortunately, ashakaarg in that color (a particularly bright royal blue) has become rare. That color was uncommon in the first place, and faded over time. Consequently, attempts were made to substitute dyed wood or bone, but a similar color could not be achieved and the replacements, while usable, were not attractive. One of the benefits of finding the Lichenwold was finding a durable seed-pod in a suitable shade of blue, which is slightly easier to carve than hardwood.
Only a healer may use a bead of that particular color in the occupation spot on his or her necklace, though there is no restriction against using that color in other spots on the necklace.
It has become customary for children to gift each of their baby teeth to one of the raisers who is taking care of them. They do not have to give all of their teeth to the same raiser, and, indeed, when a child has a parent, grandparent, or other adult who is actively involved in their daily lives, they may choose to give that person a tooth even if the adult in question is not a raiser by profession. Older siblings (in blood or affection) can also be given baby teeth. These teeth are carefully drilled into beads and worn on a special piece of indoor clothing. (see These Teeth Like Stars).
It is traditional, in their first year of adulthood, for each new adult to give beads to certain adults in their life, including their parents, (for giving them life), their primary raiser(s), and any special mentor or teacher. Most often, these beads are made by the new-adult, either during that year or previously, however, beads can be acquired in other ways as well. A person who does not carve well may trade to get beads that are suitable, while a ranger lucky enough to find some ancient metal or ashakaarg beads might use those.
Similarly, even later in life, people will sometimes thank a person who teaches them something or aids them in a time of need with a bead. Beads can also be gifted just to say “I remember you and want you to remember me”.
Affection beads not only serve as tokens of affection, but they are also used to prevent misunderstandings and keep a woman’s sexual contacts during any one biological month down to a single man for the purposes of tracking genealogy. Once northerners realized that they could be limited to such a small genetic pool for generations, their healers knew that tracking genetics and keeping records of who might carry genetic diseases such as amukiiron might be vital to their long-term survival. The rules for wearing Affection Beads on the necklaces are discussed in the Northern Necklaces article.
Affection beads are sometimes called courtship beads, more often before they have been gifted than after. This is especially true when a bead is carved specifically with a specific potential future partner in mind.
Although there is no rule specifying that affection beads cannot be re-gifted, in practice, they rarely are. Women commonly sew their old affection beads onto a coat, dress, or shawl, or use them to make bracelets or other jewelry.
Men, in contrast, often sew the affection beads they receive onto the ends of a sash or belt, typically worn so the beads hang in the obvious suggestive area. Men who are shy about sex sometimes sew their old affection beads onto a shirt or coat. If a man has not agreed to exclusivity with the woman he is currently with, he will usually attach the bead in its permanent position shortly after receiving it.
Although the origin of affection beads was in getting people to track contact for purposes of being sure who sired each child, affection beads are also exchanged between lovers of the same gender.
An affection bead can be small and plain—again, there is no rule to prevent it—but that is very unusual. Both men and women take pride in providing distinctive and beautiful beads to their partners, and a particularly elaborate or beautiful courtship bead is often used in an attempt to tempt a particular lover to say yes.
Symbolism of Northern Beads
Although the northerners do have plain beads (which may be used to supplement memorial beads of one sort or another in patterns on clothing), nearly all beads that commemorate a specific person, event, occupation, or honor are personalized in some way, with carving, paint, or ink.
In addition, the best bead-carvers—men and women who devote a significant part of their time making beads to trade for work or other items—design a tiny, unique maker’s mark. Someone with skill at making beautiful beads is respected and has a certain amount of influence in a village, since they can trade beads for work as well as goods. It is not unusual for a youngster to set out to gain bead-crafting skills so they can get others to do their share of communal chores such as washing dishes and mending clothing.
Beads may be carved with an initial to represent a person’s name. Otherwise plain beads like this are often used for child and grandchild dangles. Child and grandchild dangles can be chosen of materials and in colors to balance the overall look of a person’s necklace, though other considerations can be taken into effect. Ivara makes sure each of her grandchildren’s beads has at least a bit of their favorite color on it, even if that’s only the paint highlighting their initial. An age-set that chooses a relatively plain bead may also have each of their initials carved into it.
Other beads are carved or painted to represent things more directly. Northerners most often use direct symbolism. A bead carved into the shape of a bear might be used as an honor for someone who saved people in a bear attack. Tobern has a round bead etched with the initials of the children he saved in Tobern Climbs, with a stylized representation of rope carved around and between the letters.
Animals can also be used to indicate a profession or to represent some quality they possess in reality or story. A few examples follow; as we have more of these symbols developed in stories, this list will be expanded.
- Snow-Unicorn Tender A bead in the shape of a unicorn track, a unicorn, or a unicorn horn, or a bead carved from a unicorn horn.
- Raiser A child or a child’s toy.
- Musician A drum, rattle, or flute.
- Ice-wren Resilience or surviving an emergency in the dead of winter
- Mouse Mischief
- Fox Cleverness
Of course, much of the interpretation of the beads lies in knowing their history, and in the place they are worn on the necklace. A bead carved from unicorn horn only represents the profession of the wearer when it is in the occupation spot, and even then could mean something else—for instance, a baby carved of snow-unicorn horn could represent a raiser’s profession.
All Related Articles:
Creating a Northern Character: What's normal and expected when designing a Northern Character.
Necklaces: The meanings and construction of the ubiquitous Northern necklaces.