Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Can I Register a Tamga in the SCA?

This is part one of the post I've been promising since this summer. It's ended up being very long, so I've split it into three parts. The second part is where you'll actually be able to see all the tamga that have been found, where, when, and which tribes were using them. In the third, I'll post a list I've compiled of the elements used to construct them.
Sarmatians had symbols called tamga* which were used by some Sarmatians in the same way badges are used in the SCA.* They have been found scratched in stone, as openwork designs in belt buckles, on leather straps, spearheads, the backs of bronze mirrors, and elsewhere. They represented a person (or group of people) and his/her/their possessions and are in line with the representation of "me" and "mine" that Western heraldry has. Great! You're a Sarmatian and you can register Sarmatian heraldry! Woot!

...It's not quite that simple, unfortunately...

  SCA heraldry is based on middle and late period Anglo-Norman styles. This is great for Western European personas and for the sake of standardization, but it's much harder to register something which does not follow those rules. The end-all deciding factor on whether a non-Western European piece of armoury can be registered or not is this- "Can it be blazoned in a way a Western European would understand?" The idea behind this is that the SCA was founded on Western European ideals. Other cultures are treated as though they were visiting that region.

  This has created problems in the past in terms of perfectly period things being registered: The Japanese have their own style of heraldry called "mon" which function as family crests. There is a comma-shaped charge called a tomoe. They're a fantastic choice for someone with a Japanese persona....until they go to register it. By precedent, they cannot be registered in the SCA because if a visiting Japanese person went to register their arms with a Western group, without every single herald being handed a picture and told that "this is a tomoe", you can't hand the blazon to any herald and expect them to be able to emblazon it.
  Now, that doesn't mean a SCAdian with a Japanese persona can't use tomoe in their heraldry- it means they can't register it. Registering is done to prevent conflict. It means that someone can't come along and say "I like your device. I'm going to use it as mine too!" (or accidentally come up with the same/similar design). If someone sees your device on the field, they know it's you and not someone else. But when registering a perfectly period device is not possible because of the way the rules are set up, not registering it and trusting in others to play nicely is the way to go. One could set up their own heraldic jurisdiction to regulate mon, but it wouldn't have official power in the SCA, so all comers would, again, be trusted to play nicely on an honor system (and it would be up to them whether to even take part). Honor systems are more likely to work in the SCA than out of it (courtesy and medieval chivalry and all that); you're more likely to be "copied" by accident than on purpose.

  So what about tamgas? Well...they, quite frankly, would look nothing like anything to a Western herald. They're doodles of geometric shapes. It's all lines, so any closed shapes are automatically voided (Think of fill vs. border when making a circle in Photoshop or Illustrator. Tamgas are never filled.). Some of them are the same as something seen in western heraldry (voided triangles, for example). Others sort of look like something seen in western heraldry (there's one shape which requires no stretch of the imagination to see a stylized water bouget). would have to know the history of that particular pictograph (like one which represents an Iranian rooster). And occasionally you run into one that looks like someone who was really drunk just made a squiggle; those should probably be discounted for use in the SCA (how would you conflict check a squiggle?).
  So, like Japanese mons, your options are three-fold: 1) Forget about doing [your] period heraldry and just go with standard SCA heraldry; 2) Design a tamga for yourself and never try to register it (perfectly reasonable); or 3) Try to make one which could be registrable under certain circumstances and see what happens.

I'm going with option 3.

  Now, my main arms are standard SCA-type heraldry (Argent, three piles inverted in point throughout azure and overall a raven striking sable wings elevated and addorsed.). Sarmatians are not my only love in the SCA; I love Western heraldry and wanted my own arms. But for a badge- which is how Sarmatian tamgas were used for most of their history- I'm trying to register a tamga.
So now that you've decided to try to register a tamga- what do you do? Well, for starters, document, document, document. I've included all the tamga documentation I've found in this post, so look at the designs and read the references. For most tamgas, you're going to be invoking the Regional Heraldic Style rule: if it was used for your persona, you can ignore the Western rule that says you can't do it.
  I've presented the potential problems you may run into in two ways: first as a discourse, and some again as a potential conversation between submitter and herald. Read whichever you prefer (or both).

Recognizability from a distance- Western heraldry is meant to recognizable from a distance on the battlefield. Objects are thick instead of being thin lines. Tamgas are typically recorded as thin lines. I'd suggest  thickening the lines for registration, then you can display it as thin lines if you so wish.
Slot machine heraldry- Most tamgas are made of three different elements. "Slot machine heraldry" is a term for having three different coprimary charges (i.e., a flower, a star, and a wolf; not as in three flowers). There are no period examples of this in Western heraldry, so it is not allowed.
Period charges- Some tamga element could look like something known to Westerners, but not known to have been used in heraldry. It doesn't mean you can't use it, just that it's a "Step From Period Practice", or SFPP. Two SFPPs in the same device/badge means it's unregisterable, so limit yourself to one weird element if you don't want to risk running afoul of this.
Fieldless charges- Western devices are [mostly] objects on a background color. You wouldn't take a gold lion and put it on a red background in one place, then a purple background in another and say they represent the same person. Badges, on the other hand, can be fieldless (the symbol represents you regardless of the color fabric (or other thing) you end up sticking it on. Tamgas are fieldless, which is fine except that SCA fieldless designs must have all objects conjoined in some way. Most tamgas are like this, but some are elements in proximity, but not connected to, one another.
Tincture- Tamgas don't have tincture. They're just lines and could be any color, or be gouged out of some hard surface instead of painted or whatnot. SCA heraldry requires tincture except in certain cases (See "tinctureless" devices like the laurel wreath. They exist because the symbols themselves are very important.) I don't know of any non-important SCA-wide armorial elements considered to be tinctureless, so pick a color for your tamga to have. There's a limited number of badges you can have (four, I think), so you won't be able to grab up every color possible for that device. It's a  problem we have to live with.
And the doozy...
Armorial identifiability- A design has to be recognizable in two ways: 1) If I show you the blazon, you can draw the same emblazon that I have in my head, and 2) If I show you my emblazon, you can write the same blazon as me. Tamgas run into problems here because that won't always work with a Western herald.

Some examples of what could happen in the submission process:
It works easily from blazon to emblazon (also addresses line thickness)-
Sarmatian: I want a circle (not filled in) and an upside-down 'V' shape attached to its bottom.
Western herald: Like this?
Sarmatian: Yes. The lines are all thicker than what I had in mind, but that's the right shape.
Western herald: It needs to be considered visible from afar, so we'll register it with thick lines and you can display it with thinner lines.
Sarmatian: Okay, works for me.
It works easily from emblazon to blazon (also addresses colors)-
Sarmatian: Can you blazon this for me?

Western herald: That would be "An annulet and a chevron couped conjoined in pale." What colors were you thinking about?
Sarmatian: Oh, no colors. It's just lines.
Western herald: Well, we can make it fieldless so you don't need to have a background to your shape, but the lines themselves need to be a specific color.
Sarmatian: Okay, then I'll register one badge of each of the colors.
Western herald: There's actually a limit on how many pieces of armory one person can have. {Something in my memory says four badges, but I'm not certain and can't find it.}
Sarmatian: Hm...Well, let's go with one badge in a light color and another in a dark color. How about white and black? {This is so the symbol can be put on an object of any color and still be in good contrast if you so wish.}
Western herald: That would be argent and sable.
Sarmatian: Oh, and blue is my favorite color. It's in my Western device. Let's do that too.
Western herald: Another in azure, got it.
Not-so recognizable elements- 
Sarmatian: I want to register this.
Western herald: The square works, but what is that?
Sarmatian: It's a pictographic representation of an Iranian rooster.
Western herald: ...I'm having trouble seeing that. Do you have documentation for it?
Sarmatian: Yep, it's right here in this journal article.
Western herald: Okay, I see it, but I don't think we can register it looking like that.
Sarmatian: Why not?
Western herald: If I told another herald to draw a rooster on top of a square, they'd draw an actual rooster. It needs to be consistently emblazonable.
Sarmatian: Hm... I see your point. What if I submit it as an actual rooster and display it as the stylized element?
Western herald: That might work. Let's try it.

Slot machine heraldry-
Sarmatian: I want to register this- its "A chevron inverted couped, a triangle voided, and a crescent inverted all conjoined in pale."
Western herald: That's an insta-boing for slot machine heraldry.
Sarmatian: But it's period for my persona.
Western herald: Okay, then document it and let's see if you can get a regional exception.
Unconjoined elements-
Sarmatian: How about this? (Fieldless) A crescent and a fess couped, both in pale sable.
Western herald: If the badge is fieldless, the elements need to be conjoined. Either conjoin them or give yourself a tinctured field.
Sarmatian: Mm... I don't really want a tinctured field. It doesn't work with tamgas. I've got this documentation showing unconjoined tamga elements.
Western herald: Include it and we'll see if it passes.

  Please keep in mind that these are only conceivable ways to work around the Rules for Submission to register your period tamga. Even if you can get a regional exception for something, I don't know about multiple exceptions on the same device. Another possibility- the regional exceptions would only count for the stylized design, not the Westernized emblazon, but the stylized design itself isn't registrable, which means the variety of registrable tamgas would be very small and not at all representative.

  I'm submitting one myself once my current device submission goes through. If I'm remembering correctly, you need to register a device before you can register a badge. I'm hoping I won't need to resubmit. Commentary only gave one reason to- a conflict with a device that doesn't look like it, but because of the way the rules work, counts as conflicting. If they got a letter of permission to conflict, it can be passed (here's hoping!).
The tamga I'll be submitting is purposefully designed to address several potential problems so I can generate discussion addressing each of them. It will contain some easily recognizable elements and one that will require documentation to be blazonable (which I will be providing for the heralds). I'll be including both the tamga design and an unstylized version of the blazon. It would be great if the tamga itself were registrable.....but I very seriously doubt it is. It has three different elements, so we'll see if I get a regional exception for slot machine heraldry. I did make a conjoined tamga since those are the most common, which means someone else will need to attempt the unconjoined type.
  On top of all this, I'm including extensive documentation on what tamga are, what purpose they served, and why they are period for me (Which means you won't need to send in quite so much if you try to register one after me[assuming it passes, of course].). I'm crossing my fingers. We'll find out about half a year from now (the submissions process takes a while...).

EDIT: There are new Rules of Submission so very close to being put into play. The new rules are friendlier to non-Anglo-Norman heraldry and require that the submission look like it would have in period. This means no drawing a Western emblazon to pass a tamga (yay!!!). So just draw your tamga like a Sarmatian (or other steppe or Turkic persona) would. But still make sure to include documentation for all the standard SCA heraldry rules it violates. I'm not sure what this means for registrability, though... Unless the College is willing to register a blazon like "a tamga composed of...." it might not be possible to register tamga now. We shall see (whenever I get around to finishing translating Lebydnsky). If not, display them anyway. They're your period. Being standard SCA period is far less important than being true to your own if you're that into your persona.

*--Sarmatians were not the only ones with tamga; they're widespread among Asiatic nomads are adopted by some other groups after the fact. Different cultures have different flavors of tamga, however. I only describe Sarmatian tamga here.
*--Sometimes you will find texts which say tamgas were ancient mystical and occult symbols. Saying something is mystical in archeology or anthropology might be true, but other times it's a copout for "I have no clue why it exists." (Paleontology and biology experience a similar phenomenon, but for us, saying a feature was/is for display is the copout. Again, sometimes right or likely, sometimes not.) The texts saying tamgas are mystical are older.  I'm inclined to think they're also outdated.

Brzezinski, R., and Mielczarek, M., 2002, Men-at-Arms: The Sarmatians 600BC-450AD, Osprey publishing.
Nickle, H., 1973, Tamgas and Runes: Magic numbers and magic symbols, Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 8, pp. 165-173.
Sulimirski, T., 1970,  The Sarmatians, vol. 73 of Ancient Peoples and Places, Praeger Publishers, Inc.
ТАМГА (к функции знака), В.С. Ольховский (Историко-археологический альманах, No 7, Армавир, 2001, стр. 75-86)


  1. Good luck getting it passed! Let us know how it turns out. :)

  2. Here I thought the cop-out answer in biology was sexual dimorphism! Clearly I'm behind the times on cop-outs. I feel so... so undereducated! :)

    1. Display usually comes in the form of sexual dimorphism, so you were right. :)