Wise Women are essentially the spiritual leaders of most Ungol communities. These no-nonsense matriarchs guard uncounted generations of oral traditions and tribal secrets. This knowledge is put to good use tending the sick, aiding childbirth, advising local leaders, placating the spirits of the land, and warding their folk against the taint of Chaos. Wise women krugs gather in specially decorated kibitkas that men are forbidden to enter; there, they share lore and discuss matters of importance. Girls who demonstrate “the sight” are interviewed in these tents to determine their suitability to join the wise women, an experience that can terrify even the strong of mind.
All wise women are titled “baba.” If a girl named Noga is accepted by a wise woman krug, she would be called Baba Noga thereafter. Even though baba roughly translates to “grandmother,” all wise women, regardless of age, use it. Hag witches—who are simply wise women with the ability to cast magic—use the same title. Grander titles are pointless to the hags, who view such trappings of power as pretentious, arrogant, and foolish. After all, an untried 20-year-old hag obviously would not have more influence than an experienced 60-year-old wise woman.
An ancient tradition of magicians survives among the Ungols, and their influence extends even to the Gospodars. The wise women keep the oral lore of the tribes, mediate with the spirits of the steppe, and keep a vigilant eye out for the taint of Chaos.
Naturally, everyone hates them.
That is, of course, a slight exaggeration, but no where are the wise women, or the hags, actually popular. The reasons for this become clear when their activities are examined in more detail.
Lore & Wisdom
Wise women are primarily called wise because they know much of the history of the Ungol tribes and of their dealings with the creatures of the steppes. They use this knowledge to help the tribe. In some areas, the ability to recollect such information might make them popular, but on the northern steppes of Kislev, their knowledge consists almost entirely of past disasters and the depredations of the servants of the Ruinous Powers.
Thus, their advice almost always consists of telling people they cannot do things that look like a good idea. That valley might look sheltered and fertile, but it was home to a cult that bound Daemons. Travelling south with the horses might earn a fortune, but if the rota does not perform a particular ritual, then the ghosts of a raiding band of Kurgan will be freed to come after them. And so on.
Among the Ungol, almost no one questions the wise women. There are no traditional stories of what happens when you do. Some groups of Gospodar provide new cautionary tales every year of those who ignored the hags’ advice, and Ungols tell tales of the latest disasters to happen amongst their conquerors. The longer a group has lived on the steppes, the less likely they will disregard a hag’s advice, but there are always a few who harbour grave suspicions about the source of the women’s knowledge. Some among the Ungol harbour similar doubts but point out that if there really is a Daemon living in the hill, you won’t be protected just because the wise woman who warned you was told by that very Daemon.
It helps that, by the time they have seniority in a group, wise women tend to actually be at least somewhat wise, so following their advice very rarely leads to disaster. Doing as they say might not be pleasant, but it is typically safe, and that counts for a lot on the steppes.
The wise women also deal with the myriad of minor spirits who inhabit the steppes. All wise women have the Sight—the ability to see or otherwise sense supernatural creatures—that lets them seek out the spirits who may be causing problems for a rota and deal with them.
These spirits are typically spiteful and malicious, and trying to destroy or drive them away merely invites greater retribution. The wise women sometimes take that approach, when a spirit is a major threat, but normally, they reach some agreement to appease the spirit, which generally involves the villagers doing something strange and difficult or unpleasant. Sacrifices are not uncommon, though any spirit requesting Human sacrifice would be marked for destruction. Odd rituals or bans applying to the whole village are also common parts of the bargain. Spirits asking for something the village enjoys doing are incredibly rare, so wise women rarely bring good news back with them from their negotiations.
In addition, the wise women are close to the spirits and, thus, could send them to plague their enemies. Some threaten to do exactly that in disputes between villages, and a few can even make good on their threats. Thus, even the wise women who do not have personal magical power may have access to supernatural backing, and that backing does not have the best interests of Humans at heart.
Living in a land so close to the Northern Wastes, a land repeatedly trampled under the feet of Mutant hordes, a land that has been warped and reshaped uncountable times by the forces of change, it is only to be expected the people of Kislev will sometimes show the taint.
This manifestation is very dangerous. Those touched by the Ruinous Powers are ready-made spies and traitors. Whenever the taint is manifested, the wise women—thanks to the Sight—can see it and take action. They take the tainted away to the oblast, and he disappears from the knowledge of the village.
The taint normally manifests in children soon after birth, and parents give their children up without protest. But they don’t necessarily like it. While they might admit it is not the fault of the wise women their child is a Mutant, it is hard to avoid blaming the people who actually take your child from you. It is even harder when the taint is not visible and something only the wise women can see. Gospodars often protest in those circumstances, and sometimes, the wise women must resort to stealth to remove the threat from the village.
Among the Tainted
Almost everyone assumes that the wise women kill the tainted, so their corrupted spirits cannot come back to haunt the living. The wise women encourage this belief, but it is far from the truth.
Rather, the tainted are taken to remote, hidden communities, where they are enslaved and forced to lend their assistance to the hags for whatever sinister purpose they might have. Most tainted do meet their end quickly through brutal torture or the exhaustion of their life energy for some ritual or another. Those with the stamina to endure the hag’s cruel caress are eventually sent north to find their deaths fighting in the Chaos Wastes. The wise women justify their actions with the excuse that the only way a tainted soul can be purified is to fight against the forces that inspired the corruption, and so they instruct the tainted to fight and die for Kislev.
There are many theories as to where this tradition originated, not that the wise women’s tactics are known far beyond their ranks. Those who are aware of this procedure claim that the wise women are simply following the same customs as those used by the Norse, who also send off their altered to find their destinies in the depths of the Shadowlands. Others believe that dispatching these suffering mortals to a violent end is nothing more than purging their lands of unwanted corruption.
Most wise women cannot use magic. A few, however, are touched further by the spirits and have the ability to shape spells. This touch has two side effects. First, the wise woman apparently ages more quickly than normal, so a wise woman of thirty summers might look like a crone of sixty. This aged appearance does not affect the wise woman’s mental or physical abilities, so the ancient crone might be much spryer than one would expect. This effect is why the magic-wielding wise women are referred to as hags. Hag witches are those who wield basic magic, while hag mothers are the most powerful among them. Second, the magic slows down the hag’s actual ageing. A hag can easily live to be over 100, and some live far longer than that.
The wise women do have a nationwide organisation, but its activities are quite restricted. Most problems are dealt with by individual wise women or small groups, and they rarely feel the need, or desire, to call for assistance from other wise women. Nevertheless, all wise women acknowledge the authority of the old mothers, the oldest and wisest among them. Most of these women are hag mothers, but some are drawn from among the oldest wise women. The old mothers determine where the tainted are trained and decide on what missions the tainted will receive. Old mothers are also responsible for the initial training of wise women and choosing which ones will become hags. In theory, they could set other policies for the wise women, but “fight Chaos” has been a good policy for generations and seems unlikely to change any time soon, if ever.
Most wise women live in villages or nomadic bands, looking after that group. Most hags live away from other Humans, either alone in remote areas or travelling from place to place. This division is not absolute, and exceptions exist in both directions, though isolated wise women are rarer than hags living in settlements. Often, more than one wise woman lives in a settlement, though in such an instance, one is the settlement’s wise woman, and the others are her apprentices and assistants. This practice is maintained partly to ensure wise women have the necessary experience before taking responsibility for a settlement and partly to provide insurance against the sudden death of a wise woman.
The wise women recruit all girls chosen by the spirits. In practice, that means all girls with the Sight (the Magical Sense). These girls are taken while young from their parents and spirited away to be trained with the other wise women. Among the Ungols, this practice is accepted, albeit rarely with good grace. Among the Gospodars, the wise women sometimes have to abduct candidates, which only adds to their reputation as child stealers.
The Tzarina is widely believed to dislike the wise women (also known as hags). To begin with, they are strongly associated with the Ungols, and Katarin is the heir of everything the Gospodars stand for. Further, the wise women seem utterly indifferent to the Ice Queen’s authority and have even claimed not to be subject to her laws and commands. While the Tzarina does not accept that, she and her agents have occasionally had to concede to specific demands or risk riot and rebellion in the oblast.
It is certainly true that the wise women have no legal privileges, and people who have killed hags have been allowed the defence that they were destroying a servant of the Dark Powers. However, the Tzarina has not taken any direct actions against them yet, possibly for fear that doing so would alienate the Ungols and possibly out of fear of their magic. On the other side, very few wise women, and none of the influential ones, have counselled outright rebellion or even resistance. Rather, they suggest doing as the Tzarina requires, at least as long as the spirits say no differently.
Most knowledgeable observers agree the Tzarina would prefer to have the wise women on her side and is looking for ways to convert them. Individual wise women willing to openly support the Tzarina and advise others to do the same would receive significant patronage. The few who have done so, however, have lost their status among the wise women in return, and so, the promise of patronage has not been effective.
At present, the wise women do not have a single strong leader; a number of hag mothers share the influence. If that were to change, the Tzarina might come to see them as more of a threat. Of course, if a potential leader were a supporter of the Tzarina, the Ice Queen would be very likely to support her.
- Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd ED -- Realm of the Ice Queen (pg. 27, 42-44, 107).