"I do not come to you as a reality; I come to you as a myth."
- Sun Ra
"We do not really mean that what we are about to say is true.
A story, a story; let it come, let it go"
- Traditional African folktale beginning.
The history of the Warhammer Pygmy is a short one. Forgive the pun, it won't be the last. Their history begins in 1984 and ends in 1988, and represent the only Warhammer race of explicitly African origin.
Warhammer is (was) a Fantasy Battle game, a tabletop wargame heavily influenced by the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, and Dungeons and Dragons - regurgitations of well worn northern european fantasy tropes. Warhammer also drew on alternative history, the geography and many of the peoples obvious caricatures of real-world historical people, and also began to eschew the purely Eurocentric setting of generic fantasy for the further-reaching land of Lustria.
|Pygmy | Warhammer 2nd Edition | 1984|
Introduced in 2nd Edition Warhammer Battle Bestiary, alphabetically sandwiched inbetween Tolkienesque Orcs and Von Danikenesque Slann, sit the little cannibal Pygmies.
A quick statistical comparison against the human baseline shows us:
Strength and Toughness lower than the standard human. Pygmies are the cheapest troops available in the whole game. Having such a low profile, arming and armouring them becomes cheaper than larger and more powerful troops. They do have access to blow-pipes and poisons which might give them some chance at defeating their enemies, and of course, point-by-point they'll outnumber anyone.
2nd Edition is also packaged with an introductory scenario, The Maginficent Sven which also brings us a tale of Pygmies having a feast to celebrate the release of a Norse captive (they'd killed 120 of his fellow adventurers) and roasting the said prisoners leg as center-piece to the feast, while plying him with beer. Of course this is meant as dark humour, but things like this are actually being reported as real events, although with real-world Pygmies of the Congo as the victims, and neighbouring tribes as the oppressors, so it's not really all that funny. Nonetheless, the story shows the Warhammer Cannibal Pygmies having the upper hand both morally, with a warrior code of honour, and physically over their dirty thieving murder-hobo (white) Nordic aggressor.
|Cannibal Pygmies in the Jungle of Doom 2004|
Still, the Cannibal Pygmy myth seems to have some entertainment value. Sure "other things exist" isn't really an excuse. Some tribes of Pygmies are reported to have practised cannibalism, and whether true or not it does inform contemporary notions of what 'pygmies' is meant to signify. It's worth noting that Pygmy itself is an ancient greek word for a mythical race of crane-fighting dwarfs - the term being applied by white imperialists to the
Around a year after the rulebook, Citadel Miniatures released figures sculpted by Alan and Michael Perry. the C27 range consisting of 10 different designs.
|Citadel Journal Spring 1985|
The Spring 1985 Citadel Journal gives us some line artwork, from the pen of Dave Andrews or John Blanche I think, and neither of their finest hours. There is also a change in design direction of the figures themselves from the initial illustration as the original drawing definitely has hair (and furry ankles like the photos below) and the blowpipes no longer need a stand, and are of a fluted end design, rather than the thick didgeridoo type affair seen in the Warhammer 2nd Edition Bestiary.
The spear, shield designs, feather head-dresses are evidentially taken from Zulu material culture (see above). The 3rd Citadel Compendium gives us some grainy photographs to peer at.
|3rd Citadel Compendium 1985.|
|Pygmies White Dwarf #70 | October 1985 | Painted by Tim Olsen|
The miniatures are undoubtedly rather grotesque caricatures. It's often argued that features have to be exaggerated on the tabletop to make things identifiable, and certainly looking at many of the other ranges they are not really any more cartoonish than say, the average Dwarf or Halfling. They are somewhat problematical in that in their exaggerations conform to a long-standing negative stereotype.
|cannibal capers Disney 1930|
Also see the British Pathe film from 1929 Borneo And The Pygmy Cannibals
The problem isn't so much the caricature itself, Games Workshop aren't inventing here, just perpetuating it, but when it is the only creature of Black Origin, the whole thing starts to look a little bit like institutionally racist stereotyping.
The miniatures are reasonably hard to track down on ebay, but usually fetch around £4-5 each. Meanwhile Kalistra make some very similar looking ones (don't know if they fit scale wise)...
|similar designs by Kallistra|
Then, after 1985... nothing. No new models or scenarios or rules, like the Amazons, the Slann and the rest of Lustria the Pygmies just faded away into deep tropical mists. Warhammer Fantasy Role Play is released with no Lustrian content, instead extending Albion and the Old World with Fimir and Zoats. Until...
|Note the White Dwarf is a black guy.|
To celebrate it's 100th issue, White Dwarf published a scenario for the Warhammer Fantasy Role Play game a competition scenario entitled the Hanging Gardens of Bab-Elonn written by Basil Barrett (known for the Doomstones campaign) for the 1987 Games Day convention. It takes the traditional timed dungeon crawl and re-dresses it as a pygmy reconnaissance mission into a floating pyramid, which unbeknownst to them is set to self-destruct, in T-minus 2 hours.
How much of the background is taken from Richard Halliwells unpublished notes for his Lustria campaign and how much is Basils creation is anyones guess - there are hints of new spells in a forthcoming Lustrian supplement, which never surfaced. The background narrative of the scenario places the Pygmies as accidental inter-stellar settlers of the Lustrian continent, after their spaceship malfunctioned and crashed into the tropical jungle. In the wider mythos, the majority of the Warhammer Known World races (elves, dwarves, orcs, men) are considered to be the results of genetic experiments by the alien frog-demons called the Slann, with only Amazons, Lizardmen and perhaps Dragons, being the only truly native races on the planet. So like the Slann, the pygmies have extraterrestrial origins as an advanced, spacefaring culture, who have subsequently lost their knowledge and technology, and after being stranded have devolved into a primitive way of life.
|S▽N:R▲ | THE NUBIANS OF PLUTONIA|
It is tempting to focus a post-imperialist, post-industrial, post-space-age, anti-modern lens onto the Pygmies. The golden age of high technology has passed and all we have to look forward to is the subsistance charms of neo-primitivism, and such a criticism could be fruitful (shamanism, ancestor spirits all ripe for developing those themes), but as we established above, the characters are clearly based on colonialist caricatures of African people, which combined with their extra-terrestrial origins opens them up to be read in an Afro-futurist context.
Need an introduction to afro-futurism? Watch the 1974 Sun-Ra movie "Space is the Place", it's OK, we'll still be here blathering about Warhammer when you get back, the Floating Pyramid won't really blow up (T-minus 1.5 hours). Bonus points for references to Ingmar Bergmans The Seventh Seal.
Sun Ra "I do not come to you as a reality; I come to you as a myth." is a great expression, and the reaction of the kids is brilliant. Myths of racial identity, ideological formations and cultural norms. We can call these ideas stereotypes or memes or charicatures, but Sun Ra reaches into his Barthesian semiotic toolbox, and uses the word myth. Quite purposefully too - not only does it largely connote falsehood or lie, but also a thing of power, a story we tell about ourselves to explain our place in the universe. If you watch Sun Ra's film, you'll see he uses several negative, derogatory sterotypes of African Americans to contrast his new, positive Afrofuturist myth.
Apparently within our (globalised, internet-based) culture there is a derogatory myth of the African American who is lazy and eats watermelon, which originated in early American discourses on slavery, and have come to represent an aggressive mythologising of ignorance and stupidity within American culture - and it is peculiarly American, watermelon isn't a great signifier of anything except fruit in these parts. However, we are introduced to the Negro Pygmy hero of the scenario as he is relaxing, sitting under a tree and eating a watermelon, illustrated by Paul Bonner.
It might be enlightening to contrast this image with that of a 19th C. engraving. (lots of others here which when seen en-masse give a good impression of the overall myth and its relation to its subject in visual culture)
|19th C. engraving|
In Bonners image, and Barretts supporting text, the pygmy Banga Gong sits in a village idyll, not a plantation, Banga is a free man, not a slave, and has obtained the watermelon through his own work, not through the 'charity' of his masters (or by theft). He's having a rest, enjoying the sunshine and eating fruit, not rabid with glee. The watermelon isn't a giant-sized ridiculous slabering thing, and in fact, looking at the colouration and lack of seeds, it's more likely to be a honeydew melon. We may frown upon the use of the watermelon as a symbol, because of its repeated use within a negative mythology, but in the context it being placed here it is not demonaic, it is not a symbol of oppression nor of denying Banga's socio-economic position.
The other stereotype we can clearly read in the diminutive image of Warhammer Pygmy is the Picaninny - a word applied to black children, and to infantilise black adults. The pygmies are short, slightly comical, have a great love of food and buffoon-esque. Of course, in fantasy, the image of a child-like, child proportioned, ravenous pot-bellied fool is a common myth which is more often applied to a certain class of whitefolk - Hobbits are, after all, Pygmys in rural Edwardian English white-face - can we not see in Sam Gamgee a lighter shade of Tom? Perhaps these mythemes stem not from racial tensions but rather rural vs. urban and class concerns... can you make cider from Watermelons Mr Baggins? Hmm. Pass da pipweweed Sam. I digress...
|Citadel Halflings (2nd Citadel Journal)|
|Stupid. Fat. Hobbitses.|
Is it 'cos I is a faaaaarrrmeeer?
A minor digression. Oo-ar. Oo-ar.
We are also introduced to the Pygmies twin gods, the god of Work (who nobody likes) and the god of Food (who everybody likes) their followers carry a motif - said to be a crecent moon or a mouth with the smile facing up, or down. An alternative reading of the signs may be a large slice of watermelon.
|Brobat and Beesbok|
The Pygmy Gods of Warhammer
Floating Gardens of Bahb-Elonn employs these myths quite blatently, and then recontextualises the cannibalistic watermelon-eating picaninny as a descendant of a race of advanced alien astronauts, who have lost their great, spacefaring past and have subsequently descended into primitive cannibalism. Similarly in Sun Ra's movie Space is the Place, negative stereotypes of black americans as pimps, workshy layabouts and gangsters, are contrasted against Ra himself as an enlightened 'angelic being' from Saturn, in touch with both his ancient Egyptian ancestry and futurist astroblackness. What Ra teaches us is that all these ideas are myths, they are all vaguely ridiculous and we do not have to accept them as truths. Indeed a major part of the proselyting strategy of Afrofuturism is to directly contrast the old, accepted social mythology with the new - with the "alter-destiny" as he puts it, so that the present no longer has to define the future.
However, the transcendent, redemptive messenger that Ra represents is absent from the game scenario itself, and this is problematical in terms of representation. The Afro-Futurist himself is missing, the whole scenario would be thematically stronger if he were actually portrayed in some form, rather than alluded to. Yet if the players manage to win the scenario (which is no walk in the park) our heroes reclaim their historical birthright and become masters of the spacecraft-pyramid, they effectively become Ra. and this is of a game as a system of signs - it is interactive, the primary role that must be fulfilled by the player.
As such we can see the central theme being one of transcendence and reclamation, of moving from one (derogatory) mythical form - the picaninny watermelon stereotype, to a new (transcendent) form - the Afrofuturist. And more significantly, this doesn't occur through an external agency of a Prophet or Pharaoh as Sun Ra would have it (with himself as phaero-prophet), but through the agency of the individual hero.
Probably a reference to Bob Marley. the song One A We by Culture:
Man like brother Bob Marley a one a we.Rubba Dub
But most of all to stand by our side,
As the King of Kings, Lord of Lords,
Emperor Haile Selassie I and I, ey-ey.
I and I keep fighting for our rights.
A reference to the Rub-a-dub style of reggae, a prcursor to the modern Dancehall style.
Jamaican patois, translates as "meagre dog" or mangey dog. Peter Tosh guitarist with The Wailers and successful solo artist wrote a song with this title.
Possiby a refrence to Get it on (Bang a Gong) by T.Rex, otherwise a pun on the words Bang a Gong.
an Australian (Wiradjuri) word for an isolated pond.
Probably a pun on slang for smoking cannabis through a water pipe, should be noted that cannabis is a Rastafarian sacrament and central to Rastafari religious practice.
Possibly from Africaans 'bees', 'bok' = cattle, goat. Shamans of Beesbok are responsible for food.
Possibly a reference to chemical hygene company Brobat - Shamans of Brobat are charged with making poison for blow-darts.
The names are not racist slurs, and only one or two silly onomatapias (such as other names from Warhammer, such as Slann names, Gottalottabotl - gotta lotta bottle - a milk advertising slogan in the 80s, or the ogre Ezza Ugezod - He's a huge sod) Instead the majority seem to be affectionate monikers stemming from Black British culture, Jamaica and Australia being Commonwealth countries - names like Magga Dog and Brudda Bob seem to signify someone with a more than casual acquaintance with Reggae, although we shouldn't discount a cheap compilation LP being picked up simply for research purposes. Nontheless takes an informed position, and makes the kind of irevverent jokes that litter the ground of Warharmmer.
The name Bahb-Elonn (the villain) is a classic Warhammer pun. Obviously the pun is on the name of city of Babylon, and the Floating Gardens on its famous Hanging Gardens, one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient World. However, Babylon has a deeper resonance within Rasterfari culture, illustrated nicely by the song By the Rivers of Babylon, popularised in the mid 1970s by German disco group Boney M (themselves no strangers to Afrofuturism, their first album being entitled Nightflight to Venus ) based on Psalm 137 about the plight of the Isrealites taken as slaves into Babylon. Feel free to press play and carry on reading, there's nothing of note in the imagery.
There is another mythological slant to this, Bahb-Elonn is a magic user, and his theft of the ancient pyramid-craft is more than a simple reference to colonialist aggression. One only needs to look at the headline act in 19th C. Occultism - Aliester Crowley to see the appropriated Egyptian symbolism and imagery within the Western Esoteric Tradition, and Crowley can be seen to be culturally (or perhaps even psychically) inhabiting the pyramids themselves, robbing them from their African heritage and re contextualising them within . Bhab-Elon then can be read as representing the Masonic / Golden Dawns appropriating, claiming for themselves the history and mythologies of African culture for their own selfish magickal gain.
|Aleister Crowley in Egyptian garb|
Big contracts, big contractors
built pyramids, period
Jay Z - Free Mason
But unless the multi-platinum darlings of Hip-Hop are funding the Egyptian uprising or attempting to stem the systematic wiping out of the Mbuti in the Congo, just like Mr. Crowleys psychic attack on Hitler in WWII, it lacks any real-world clout, and is ultimately empty narcissistic entertainment glorifying capital and celebrity with themselves as the new overlords - the new Celebritarian Antichrist Ssuperstars to borrow Maryin Mansons extended critique of celebrity obsessed pop-culture.
Enough of that! Back to the Warhammer...
Bahb-Elonns arrogant use of evil magic, his Faustian lust for power and abuse of magic eventually traps him into eternal conflict with a daemon, which subsequently causes the immanent destruction of the floating pyramid. The ur-narrative of rebellion and uprising would be more elegantly satisfied by the pygmies confronting Bahb-Elonn head on. Yet perhaps this denial of vengance is a subtle restatement that colonialist masters are still untouchable by their 'lessers' and a final re-assertment of the conservative balance of power.
An Afrofuturist reading of the Floating Gardens shows it to be actively engaging in transforming myths, subverting negative sterotypes of Africans rather than simply reproducing them and creating an role-playing-game worthy of Ra's 'alter-destiny' whilst also respecting the history of slavery and portraying it as a universally bad thing, without overburdening it with guilt messages. One could level the charge of simply perpetuating certain negative stereotypes against the Floating Gardens, and not portraying the positive ones, but nontheless the negative myth is usurped - not only are the watermelon eating pickaninnies free men, but men whose history and future is far greater than they know and it is by their own hands that they will reclaim both...
P.S. Pushed "publish" instead of "save". This wasn't quite cooled, and probably needed breaking into smaller posts. Oh well, it's done now!