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I live in a pre-industrial world, very similar to earth, but with very limited access to magic (no flight, only healing very minor injuries, making flowers grow faster, lighting a candle, etc.).

I recently joined a sea sect residing on a vast archipelago, since I wanted to join the worlds strongest navy!

However, upon arrival they dyed my hair and irises. No matter how much I try to change it, it (magically) goes back to the same color. On what (cultural / social) basis would they do this?

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    $\begingroup$ same thing happened to me when I sign up at a monastery but it was my complexion that turn orangish because the abbot likes to grow carrot ;D $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Jan 24 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ @N3buchadnezzar It’s so the members can recognize themselves when not wearing dark robes. $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ This feels like worldbuilding in reverse. You're creating this world. Why would they do this? For what other reason does your story require this plot element? Are you just looking for someone to brainstorm a plot around this oddity for you? Or do you have some deeper purpose that you're not sharing? The quality of answers you receive will improve if you can give some explanation for what you're trying to achieve here. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Jan 24 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ Are new colours different from the general population, i.e. something like green hair and purple eyes that are not present in normal humans? Or are they just a 'normal' variant? Also, is everyone a subject of this treatment or only the mentioned character? $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Jan 24 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @J... It's not unusual here to have questions of the form "I want this to happen in my world - what would make it possible/practical?" Then the OP has a choice of which (if any) answers fit most closely to their plot points. Everything is plot-based in the end, after all. :) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Jan 25 at 11:00

9 Answers 9

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They Own You:

Navies are notorious for desertion. The greatest navy in history, the British navy, had to constantly engage in outrageous behaviors (like kidnapping) just to stay staffed with swabs on the deck. Conditions aboard such ships were epically bad. Food was horrible, water worse. They had to hand out alcohol for the crew to mix into the water just to make it safe to drink.

And being in the navy meant you didn't get a share in a commercial voyage, but instead had to sail around, intimidating people or looking for fights. So as bad as being a sailor was, being a sailor for the navy was worse.

So how do you prevent your sailors from deserting? A sufficiently large navy has a wide range to find people, but it's hard to prove any given person was in your navy. The British didn't care, and would simply stop ships and insist that crewmen on board were British deserters. They did this to a US warship, and it was one of the precipitating events of the war of 1812.

This is simply a way to unambiguously mark who is in your navy. If they run off, EVERYONE knows you were in their navy, and are a deserter. It also means that you can readily identify who is on your side regardless of what country of origin they come from. A pirate can wear a uniform of your navy, but as soon as anyone sees the crew, they know the pirates are lying about being from your side.

  • Another possibility in a world with limited magic is superstition. Green eyes are the "evil" eye, red hair is satanic, and only "normal" hair is acceptable. So they are averting evil by forcing everyone to confirm to social norms.
  • Another variant is that it is like a buzz cut in the army. Enforced uniformity reduces individuality and reinforces conformity. It is the classic tear you down to rebuild you as a soldier" mentality.
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    $\begingroup$ This answer supposes that the hair/iris color pair is unique. If the change were to brown hair and brown irises -- for example, because brown is considered lucky, or whatever -- and such was a common combination in the outside world, it wouldn't help identifying people. $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. or no-one cares about those who are "conscripted" by accident of birth $\endgroup$
    – Caleth
    Jan 24 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM in this case, the obvious answer would be that they do it for discriminatory reasons. "Lefties are bad! Red hair is the devil's work! Green eyes are the evil eye!" $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jan 24 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ This and every other answer assume that hair and eye colour change is something done to all members of the sect. However, the OP did not state it. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Jan 24 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ This is a great answer. Who cares if the OP didn't specify that it's done/not-done to all members? Who cares if the color is unique? This answer reflects what we see in the world today: gang colors, tatoos, boy scout neckerchiefs... Rationalizing the change with membership is the most obvious reason on the planet. Heck, people joining the sect would want the change to set them apart from everybody else. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 19:57
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That magic is keeping you safe!

Everyone fusses about the color. The fact is the magic treatment prevents disease! Lice used to be a big deal on ships and louseborn disease was a significant cause of illness. Also, sailors in tropical areas suffered greatly from fungal and bacterial skin diseases. Worst of all were diseases transmitted by flying insects which sometimes take up residence in the bilge.

No more. Now the magic protects sailors from all of that. You can keep your pretty hair and you don't have to worry about lice. No scratching yourself raw because of fungus. No terrible fly-borne scourges.

Sulky sailors moan "they dyed my hair with magic. Woe woe woe!". OK, effectively we did. But that color (and skin color if you look close; also eye color) is a byproduct of what we really did - keep you safe!

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe the change to hair and iris color also addresses a major problem aboard ship -- scurvy! Perhaps the magic makes the iris produce vitamin C, and presto! your teeth no longer fall out of bleeding gums mid-voyage. $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 14:56
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It is a sign - and proof - of membership. Only the sea sect knows how to create those exact colors, so everyone with this hair and eye color is trusted by everyone to belong to the sea sect.

This means the sea sect's fame as traders/explorers/fishermen/mercenaries/... is extended to all bearing the colors. Even if you and your crew have never been in a given port, most people will treat you better then total strangers.

Also, sea sect members can easily recognize each other even if they have never met in person. Great for helping each other out. And for hunting down those members that try to run away before their duty is done.

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They don't want their secrets out with the wind, and since you are in, they want to be sure you will never be out, telling some outsider what they want to protect as an important secret, be it how to make Greek fire or the recipe of their water-less stew.

You should have listened more carefully to the last verse of the anthem all trainees are forced to learn

Last thing I remember

I was running for the door

I had to find the passage back to the place I was before

"Relax," said the night man

"We are programmed to receive

You can check-out any time you like

But you can never leave!"

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    $\begingroup$ An Eagles reference, nice! $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 6:27
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It shows your rank and function within the organisation.

All novices have the same hair color. When you get promoted to higher ranks within the organisation, you undergo a ritual where your hair- and iris color will be changed to a different color matching your new rank.

This ensures that everyone's rank is immediately visible. It makes it very difficult to impersonate people of a higher rank. When the rank insignia were just a piece of clothing, then any novice could steal a priest robe from the laundry and suddenly they would no longer stand out while snooping around the secret library of forbidden knowledge. But as you said, there are wards against changing your hair color to something else. So anyone with novice-colored hair in an area that's off-limit to novices would stand out immediately.

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It's mermaid repellant.

Mermaids (and all mer-kind) are a widely varied bunch, especially in their relationships with humans. Some avoid humans. Some eat humans. Some are friendly to humans. Some marry humans.

The sect's navy got tired of sailors being killed accidently while being pulled deeper and deeper into the sea for each kiss from playful mermaids. No matter what precautions were taken, sooner or later more sailors ended up drowning.

Some in the navy proposed war, but merkind are fearsome opponents and the navy had enough other enemies to deal with.

Then the solution was found. Yet another member of the sect slipped off an anchored ship to cavort with a mermaid. He was a few kisses away from being dragged too deep when the mermaid let go and quickly swam away. As he swam back towards his ship, she surfaced near him. Still being too distracted to realize how closely he had avoided death, he asked why she'd let go.

"Didn't you see it?"

”See what? A shark? A whale?”

A small, very bright green fish swam by. She screamed and covered her eyes. "It's horrible! Make it go away!"

"It's just a liitle fish. Is it poisonous?” he asked.

"No, it's the color. There's something wrong about that color. I can't bear to look at it. None of us can. I'll be ever so grateful if you chase it away.”

Word of this encounter reached the ship's captain. After a few weeks of searching, a fish like the sailor had seen was captured. Just a quick glance at it sent mer people fleeing. More fish were captured, but keeping fish between the sect's sailors and dangerously playful mermaids wasn't easy.

One day, after a few too many rounds of rum, someone suggested making a hair dye of the exact same shade. It worked, but only lasted for a few days before fading. Something more permanent was needed. Eyes were included to protect bald members of the sect.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the last sentence for explaining why its both hair & eyes. $\endgroup$
    – Dragonel
    Jan 24 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Dragonel - The eyes also ruin the plans sailors willing to shave their heads to try to get a chance to date a mermaid. 😄 $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out. Or close it. Determined sailors could shave their heads and close their eyes. Buuut that assumes that after a few generations they even know why mermaids can't stand to look at them. What started as a practical practice can lose its meaning and purpose to history. Maybe the dangerous merpeople aren't a problem any more, but were a problem several generations ago, and the magic dye is just done by rote now, with few knowing why. $\endgroup$
    – Martin
    Jan 25 at 16:01
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The color change is only the outwardly visible signal. Some internal change has happened, and the color lets certain people know it has properly taken.

Depending on exactly what the nature of the sect is, it could be nice, boring, or nasty. Maybe even nightmarish.

  • Now you taste good to somebody. Or something. When they get hungry you better be careful. This could be that you are literal food, or a host, or subject to mind-control.
  • Now you taste bad to somebody. The color tells them not to take a bite.
  • Now you can see the Fnords! (Yeah, that book is too long to explain, but it's in the Illuminati books.)
  • Now you won't catch certain diseases. So you can act as assistant to the healers when the repeating epidemics happen. Can't give it to everybody because there are only about 50 doses made per year.
  • The Powers That Be are very vain about their hair. Your hair is now the exact right color to make wigs for them. The eyes are a side effect.
  • Now you are a match for forced organ harvesting. Not just eyes and hair, but lots of other parts. You will wake up in several different recipients.
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    $\begingroup$ Why is your third bullet point empty? $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ @CodeswithHammer I don't see what you did there. :^) $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Jan 24 at 21:13
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Preventing Racial Tension

Maybe this is a world where instead of skin colour, eye and hair colour are what people use to divide themselves up. Have the wrong hair or iris colour in the wrong part of the world and you're a target for intense discrimination and abuse. The navy has had so much trouble with crews of different races descending into conflict and violence between themselves, that they've taken the drastic step of essentially making everyone the same race.

Of course, that isn't going to magically fix things, as much as in our world you can't just make a European person look Chinese and that will fool a Chinese person for longer than a few sentences of conversation (or any at all if they don't speak the language!), but perhaps in the regimented and culturally homogenous navy, where individual cultures are cast aside in favour of a unified military culture, it's enough to stop the violence.

It could be seen as analogous to a school dress code or uniform designed to prevent gang violence by students wearing identifying clothing.

You could also flip the narrative, and instead have a navy that believes very much in "assimilating" other races, to the point where they physically change their recruits appearance so everyone looks like their race.

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Superstition or otherwise religious beliefs

Naval combat is not fancy until the modern era. Firing cannon on the high seas won't be effective from long range. The cannon itself is not really accurate. The ship is wobbling. So does your target, wobbling and riding the waves. Usually the ships will try to get closer first before opening fire and raiding/boarding one another.

Surprisingly, your naval sect can fire accurately from long range, making battles with other navies rather easier. It does not guarantee 100% win rate, but often enough to damage the other ship very significantly even before it can get close and return accurate fire.

Some will say that your cannon operators and spotters are secretly very talented. Some will say it's just very high and pure luck. Some will say there's just a confounding variable that no one knows yet.

But your navy, oooh, they believe the gods helped them. Because gods like to see their subjects win fights.

That's why they mandated a magic-locked color change done to some part of your body. To appeal to the gods and praising their likeness.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is missing the connection to the hair coloring? $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ The connection is they color their bodies because they believe the sea cannon accuracy gods and want to appeal to them. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 at 1:09

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