Marriage Among the Elves, Volume 5 (book)
Marriage Among Elves
Volume V: The Sand Clan
-An Investigation by Simon J. Bright
Life on the desert is harsh and life is a frail thing, with death always hovering over one's shoulder. It is not considered as precious as that most rare commodity of water in these dry lands. This is reflected both in the ceremonies that not only join two Elves together, but also form alliances to the water rights of the family lines and the dowry coat of the bride, called the "bal zapen", which carries representations of the water rights she bears.
Oddly enough, the rituals of the mating dance used among the Sand Elves are most similar to those of the River Elves, which gives rise to some speculation about the true origins of this clan, particularly when one begins analyzing the similarities in grammatical structure and word usage shared between the two. Although Sand Elves refuse to discuss such possibilities and become hostile at the thought of comparison to the "corrupted blood" of other Elves, it is highly suggestive that the few arranged marriages permitted with family blessings outside of the Sand Elves have all been to families of the River Elves.
Like the River Elvenkindred, those of the Sands have particular times to announce formal engagements and join two bloodlines in alliance. At the time of the Harvest Festival, the families of all the bloodlines converge at Su'Liyos to celebrate their survival for yet another year, to compare each other's relative wealth and prospects, and reaffirm agreements of marriage.
Unlike the River Elves, Sand Elves marry their daughters at a very young age. Some say this is to keep the bloodlines pure, others cynically suggest this is due more to the desire to cement a water alliance before either fate's hand in the form of an accident or a wandering eye destroys any chance of a marriage and alliance between the two families. Unlike any of the other Elven clans, the bride leaves her family to live in her husband's holdings with his entire extended family. Unofficial polygamy exists, but only among males of great power and wealth well able to afford the expense of several wives and their potential water rights, for no family would offer their daughter as bride to a family without such wealth and power. The daughter of a family who carries the majority of the water rights as dowry is often wedded before she has seen twenty turnings of the seasons to a male Elf in his maturity, or perhaps even his dotage, who has acquired sufficient wealth and power. If there is fruit from this union, the water alliances and the families are bound firmly together.
Considering the harshness of life on the desert and the discrepancy of age between the bride and groom, it is unsurprising that often a premature death intervenes before a child is born. If the wife survives the union and has not yet reached her sixtieth year of life, her family reclaims her dowry and may arrange another marriage at their discretion. However, if the wife has reached her sixtieth year of life, she has attained adulthood and matters become more complex. She now can make her own decisions about a future marriage and retains control over her dowry. She may choose to remain in her dead husband's house hold, for they are obligated to care for her. If she has already established an ongoing, amicable relationship with one of her late husband's sons, she may choose to enter into his house hold as wife. If she does not wed, she may choose to leave the holding at any time, taking her dowry of water rights with her. If she dies before producing a child, the water rights she holds return to her family.
As may easily be inferred from this, the necessity of producing surviving children is self evident, not only to ensure the continuation of the family line, but also to secure water rights and riches. A rich widow free to make her own choice of mate is coveted by all, and the astute woman may accumulate much wealth as her various suitors send her dazzling gifts to display their worth, accompanied by passionate letters of devotion.
During the first week of the Harvest Festival, there is much tension as the various families compare their wealth and status to the other families and hope to either maintain or improve their own standing in the community. The final three days are devoted to the dances announcing formal engagement, with the weddings set for the Spring Fest.
Each day of the festival begins in the same fashion. At dawn, the entire community converges on the gathering area. Musicians begin the slow drumbeat of the Trance Dance with its unnerving yet mesmerizing rhythms as the veiled Sand Dancers enter the central area, each bearing a large urn of colored sand. The dancers set their urns down before them, facing the musicians as they begin slowly swaying in time with the drumbeat.
The drumming quickens, holding the same rhythms but intensifying in tempo and effect. The dancers flail their heads and arms as their movements become more ecstatic, seeming to emanate from their souls to animate their bodies. As the trance deepens, the dancers begin to move about the area with an eerie grace, taking handfuls of sand from the urns and dancing wildly as they pour the sand in patterns upon the ground.
A crescendo of drumming brings the dance to a close and the Sand Dancers halt in unison, crying out in wordless protest before silently reclaiming their urns and filing out of the area. They leave behind a unique circular geometric design scribed in the sand, called from the dancers' souls at the time of its creation. I can only compare the designs to the exquisite works of art wrought in stained glass, particularly when the sun fully rises and releases the full beauty of the crystalline sands.
Once the Sand Dancers leave, the drummers guzzle clear water and again begin to play, this time accompanied by the low melodies of the curled horns, offset by the sounds of tambourine and flute, as veiled women are silently led by their fathers or the male head of their household to form a loose circle of dancers about the design. Each father partners his daughter in a sedate dance that slowly revolves the entire company of eligible daughters about the central design in the same manner as the Sun passes around the earth, signifying the power of the father to make the choice for his daughter.
Once the revolving circle of father-daughter dancers is firmly established, the melody changes to the accompaniment of a brasher, almost arrogant drumbeat. The potential grooms approach the design, taking their place to form a masculine circle surrounding the first circle of dancers. Their somber dress only serves to draw attention to the gilded, highly decorated crimson coffers brimming with coin and gems that are borne in their outstretched hands.
The circle of suitors begins to dance, holding their coffers always before them as their circle revolves in the opposite direction to the father-daughter dancers, indicating their status as supplicants in petitioning the father for the hand of his daughter. There is tenseness in their dance, for although the complicated negotiations necessary for a suitor to acquire his prize were completed seasons ago, she may yet slip from his grasp if her father now denies him by refusing the coffer he bears.
Each maiden wears two circlets of red roses bound by a long scarlet ribbon over her veil. As the two dancing circles revolve, the suitor finds himself facing the maiden and her father. The suitor bows in his dance while offering his coffer to the father, only to be haughtily refused before the circles of dance continue to revolve, removing the maiden from his gaze. On the next revolution he will see the father again, and again offer his coffer, only to meet refusal once more.
The third circuit of the dance is the critical moment for the suitor. If all has gone well, this time the father accepts the offered coffer before slipping the top garland from his daughter's head and setting it on the head of her suitor.
The couple thus joined begins to orbit about one another at the length of the scarlet ribbon joining them, never touching as their private dance pulls them from the father-daughter circle to form a new circle of dancers just beyond the perimeter of the scribed sand. This newest circle of dancers does not revolve about the design but remains stationary, the man and woman in each couple only revolving about one another.
The dance closes as the sun strikes its highest position in the Sky. The father of the maiden approaches the couple and cuts the ribbon joining them before reclaiming his daughter. The engaged couples will retain their garlands throughout the feasting occupying the remainder of the day. At dusk, the community gathers with tiny brooms around the sand painting and, as the drums beat, vigorously sweep every grain of sand away, leaving only the memory of the beauty that had been scribed there.
The same ritual structure repeats the following two days, but is reserved for adult women choosing among their many suitors. Each woman enters the dance alone, twirling about the inner circle as the males seeking her hand dance along the outer one. The woman wears a long crimson scarf knotted casually about her unbound hair with the wide panels of the bal galingen flying about her as she twirls in the steps of the dance. Usually she will honor each man competing for her hand with a teasing dance before unknotting the scarf from her head and dancing in a serpentine fashion among the outer circle. She signifies her choice of mate by draping the scarf around the successful suitor's neck and tying it in a loose danato of joining. The engaged couple then dances the inner circle together for three turns before the dance ends. After a brief pause, the next woman seeking remarriage enters the circle and the process begins once again.
The wedding ceremonies happen during the time of the Spring Gathering. There are certain monks among the Sand Elves trained in manner of Sand Dancers. They are highly sought after for their service in the wedding ceremony, for the gelnurte of the Sand Elves is not a cloth, but an intricate design scribed in sand in the sanctified area where the wedding will take place.
A single monk builds the gelnurte for the couple the day before the wedding. He starts work on the design the moment dawn breaks and must complete it as the sun sets in the evening sky. The design is composed of lines and areas of colored sand carefully scribed and detailed in a creation of breathtaking ephemeral beauty that will be destroyed at the close of the ceremony.
A tall pole marks the center of the design, with groups of long ribbons gathered from it and secured to the four cardinal points of the winds well clear of the sand painting. This symbolizes the unity of the four winds contained within a whole and serves a purpose later in the ceremony.
Reflecting a similarity to the River Elves, the bride does not walk to her wedding. Instead, four well-matched servants bear her there on a richly draped litter. She does not emerge from the shadows of silk shielding her until the ceremony is about to begin.
For the ceremony, the bride wears the bal galingen as a sort of veil, with the sleeves pinned back to form a symbolic tent over her. The dowry coat used in this manner is called "bal zapen" and is only pinned for the wedding ceremony. Beneath it, the bride wears a loose black silk robe which acts as the background to display the extraordinary amount of jewelry she wears to display her wealth and status.
The groom wears a long black silk coat with narrow tails over a silvery silk shirt. His leggings are made of the same black silk, tucked snugly into his low desert boots. He wears a vivid crimson sash tied in a formal Elven knot about his hips.
The bride and groom meet in the center of the sand gelnurte where the officiating monk bows deeply to them and immediately begins to chant the words of Bile Janis oc Hul Haizeani. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he removes from his robes an ornate saltcellar and pours a generous handful into the outstretched hands of the new wife. She pours the salt into the hands of her new husband without spilling a grain, and, in turn he returns it back to her waiting palms. This exchange repeats thrice, symbolizing the ideal that as salt blends in and gives taste to food, so must the bride blend in and become a part of her husband. After the salt exchange, the monk holds out the saltcellar to the couple, who carefully return all the salt to the container. This saltcellar will occupy a position of honor in the couple's home, signifying their unity.
The guests shower the couple with fragrant dried rose petals and scramble to loose the ribbons from their moorings. With a wild cry, the groom sweeps up his bride in his arms and removes her from the sanctified area. The moment they are clear of the sand design, the musicians begin to play a wild dance and every guest who has managed to capture a ribbon begins a shuffling dance as they weave in and out of the other ribbons. At the conclusion of the music, the pole stands alone in a tightly braided coat of silk ribbons with the sand painting completely obliterated by the shuffling feet of the guests.
An extravagant wedding feast follows, which may last for an andu. The bridal couple mingles with the guests during the first day, accepting their good wishes.. After this, they slip from the festivities and return to the groom's home, where they follow the custom of secluding themselves while they become accustomed to their new life together.