Monday, 27 January 2020

Rethinking clerics and religion, part 1

This was to be a post about clerics and religion, but it turned out I had much to say on religion in the first place. Clerics will come later on.

Theoretical stuff

This may surprise you, but in daily life I'm doing my master in religious studies.

Now, the most surprising thing to come out of religious studies in the past decade or so is the discovery that "religion" actually doesn't exist. It cannot be defined.

Certainly the things, places, people, and acts that we call "religious" exist. But there's nothing that connects them all that can clearly be called "religious".

Religion, for example, isn't "belief in a deity" -- Buddhism doesn't make that cut. Even if some types of Buddhism do, those deities are so irrelevant it seems misleading to make that the criterium. It also isn't "worship", because what does worship even mean? It also isn't "ritual behaviour", because state ritual is something we don't call religion. It also isn't "emotional or ritual ecstacy", because then we would need to include music performances.

The concept of "religion" as we use it today has its roots in Christian belief and in colonialism. Before the colonial era, "religion" could not be pluralized. It always meant Christianity. The pluralization of "religion" into "religions" and the universalization of the concept -- the notion that all peoples have "a religion" is actually a way of mapping a Christian view of the world onto non-Christian peoples. For more info on this read The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa.

In other words, "religion" *actually* means "kind of like Christianity but something else". Christianity is the model of all things called religion. But Christianity may very well be extremely weird, a historical outlier, not something universal (I think this is the case).

Despite my society (and yours probably) being highly secularized, the concepts we use to think our way around the world - such as good and evil, but also this category of "religion" - are lifted wholesale from post-Enlightenment Christian thinking.

We really do believe there is such a thing as "religion" and that it has primarily to do with faith in Gods. But what is faith? I *believe* there might be some beers in the fridge. I *believe* I'm gonna wake up again tomorrow. But those aren't the kind of beliefs we're talking about. Religious faith is belief that is strongly and proudly affirmed.

Except for a large part of humanity, that isn't true. In many types of African and Asian ancestor cults for example, the ancestors aren't an article of faith, or supernatural. (The supernatural is another post-Enlightenment Christian idea.) The ancestors are just *there*. They believe they are real. But this belief is on par with the belief that there may be beers in the fridge. It isn't an emphasized kind of belief like faith.

In light of this, our fantasy religion needs reworking.

The cross has been used as an apotropaic symbol
in almost all Christian contexts.

Religion in fantasy

Granddad Tolkien never wrote much about religion in Middle-Earth, which is odd considering that he was a devout Catholic. Faramir and his boys do some praying to the "Lords of the West" before dinner and one time Sauron got an entire civilization to worship Satan but that is about it.

D&D type religion seems largely based on pre-Christian Mediterranean religion. As in, polytheism. (Also polytheism and monotheism is one of those fucky terms. I mean in what way exactly is Christianity polytheism if you've got three gods who are one AND EVEN if we want to overlook that one you've got a whole bunch of angels, saints, and demons. Just because a deity is evil and dangerous doesn't mean it isn't a deity!)

But I kind of suspect D&D doesn't really understand what Roman and Greek polytheism was really about. 

If we look at how religion is treated in D&D we see again a very Christian focus on *belief*, on intellectual things. Who is this god, what is their sphere (which always makes sense), and what is their symbol. Ok, so now we know some things, okay. And all these gods have organized cults and temples and priests and attendants. All these gods are real and all these gods can be supplicated to.

But its too neat. Look at actual polytheistic history. In the time the early Old Testament stories were written, deities had a very strong ethnic/national character. Sure, your god is real. But my god can beat up your god! But the reality of this god also implied that if you were in *that* god's land, you would have to sacrifice to him/her for good fortune and safety in those parts.

Pliny the Elder describes that Rome had a Temple of Fever, a Temple of Bereavement, and an Altar of Bad Luck, where you could come to supplicate these forces and keep them away.

Shiva, one of the most powerful and awe-inspiring Hindu deities, is also a dangerous and unpredictable madman. He's covered in the ash of cremated bodies, and his name, meaning "the auspicious one", is actually more a desire than a description, an attempt to supplicate him. Back in the Vedic times, the distant past of what would come to be known as Hinduism, Shiva was called Rudra, "the screamer", and rituals to him consisted of throwing a gift into the woods in the hope he'd stay away.

Similarly, Jorg Rupke in his book Pantheon writes that early Roman and Greek religion didn't have clear conceptions of the gods as *people*. Rather, they had a *ritual infrastructure*, rituals they could use or resort to in order to address certain problems. Many of these rituals included gifts of objects or statues or animals - but to *whom* this gift was, wasn't clear in the early days. To some unseen, mysterious power that lived at that spot. Then came the naming. Then came the images and statues.

This kind of weirdness isn't caught by the neat, clearly identifiable gods of D&D.

Shiva and his wife Parvati as one

Doing religion reverse

What if, coming up with the religious world of our settings - and by extension the "clerics" of our settings - we don't start with the gods at all? What if we start with acts - with rituals? What if rather we start with what people *need* here? What are they likely to develop and use their *ritual infrastructure* for?

Step 1: What do they need?

This will determine your group's *ritual needs*. Broadly, this can be spliced up into these questions. Go through every question and note down the words in CAPS that apply to your group.
  1. How do they eat?
    1. Do they farm rice or grain or other crops? -> CROPS
      1. Do they depend on rain? -> RAIN
      2. Do they depend on the river? -> RIVER
      3. Are there crop diseases? -> CROP DISEASE
    2. Do they farm cattle?
      1. Are there predators eating the cattle? -> PREDATORS, CATTLE
      2. Is the cattle fertile enough? -> FERTILITY OF CATTLE, CATTLE
      3. Are there cattle diseases? -> CATTLE DISEASE
    4. Do they raid others? -> BATTLE, WAR
      1. On foot, by animal, by ship? -> WAR ANIMALS, SHIPS, WEATHER
      2. What weapons do they use? -> WEAPON TECHNOLOGY, WEAPON STRENGTH
      3. How do they feel about the other's gods? -> CONQUEST OF OTHER GOD
  2. How do they live with each other?
    1. Do they have a king or chief? -> AUTHORITY, OBEDIENCE
      1. Does the king demand huge respect? -> ROYALTY
      2. What gives him this power? -> ORDER OF THE WORLD, WISDOM, WAR...
    2. Are they sedentary or nomadic?
      1. If sedentary; see most of question 1
        1. Are they a city-state -> CITY, WALLS, PROTECTION, TRADE, STRANGERS
        2. Are they a state -> GOVERNMENT, STATE, LAW
      2. If nomadic -> PACK ANIMALS
        1. Are they dependent on oaths and honour in maintaining good relationships with other groups? -> OATHS, HONOUR, FRIENDSHIP, STRANGERS
        2. Are different clans in essence different nations? -> THE CLAN, ANCESTORS
    3. Is it important to have many children? -> FERTILITY, MENSTRUATION, SEX, PREGNANCY, BIRTH
      1. What tends to kill young children? -> CHILD DISEASE, PREDATORS, LOCAL CLIMATE, FAMINE, WAR, SPOILED FOOD
      3. Matrilineal or patrilineal? -> MOTHER, FATHER, ANCESTOR, ACCEPTANCE INTO FAMILY
    4. What determines social status?
      1. Honour in battle -> HONOUR, WAR, NOBLE DEATH IN BATTLE
      2. Place in feudal/caste structure -> ORDER OF SOCIETY, CASTE, BIRTH
      3. Learning and wisdom -> KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM, SCHOOLING, OLD AGE
      4. Wealth and money -> MARKET FORCES, MONEY, SUCCESS IN BUSINESS
  3. How do they live with the world?
    1. Are there earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, natural disasters, monsoons? -> GOING AWAY OF NATURAL DISASTER / WATER / FIRE, ORDER OF THE WORLD
    2. Are there forests, plains, deserts, mountains? -> SAFE PASSAGE THROUGH FOREST / PLAINS / DESERTS / MOUNTAINS, PREDATORS
    3. What are animals to them? 
      1. Dumb machines? -> SUPERIORITY OF HUMANITY
      2. Dangers? -> DANGERS OF WILD ANIMAL
      3. Mysterious other beings? -> MYSTERIOUS LOCAL ANIMAL

Step 2: What do they do?

Now take all the things you wrote down and consider which of the following rituals should address which *ritual needs*.

  1. Big, collective rituals
    1. These are rituals that concern things that are of paramount importance to the community at large. Feast days.
  2. Big, individual rituals
    1. These are rituals that concern things that are of paramount importance to a person or his family.
  3. Small individual rituals
    1. These are rituals that concern every-day things or that are done in reaction to something and can't have a big response.

Step 3: How do they do it?

Anything can be made ritual. A sacrifice is a ritual gift-giving. Ritual hunts are also a big thing. Perhaps oaths are a big thing in your society. Ritual war, ritual battle. Perhaps they mortify themselves, fasting or going away into the wilderness for a while. Feast days in which the normal structure of society is suspended in lieu of the theme of the ritual need. (Sex, for example).

Go crazy. If you have no inspiration:

Take the theme of your ritual need. Now put the word "ritual" in front of it. Now think about it. For some ritual needs it will make sense to have big collective (BC), big individual (BI), and small individual (SI) rituals; for others only big collective ones will make sense.

RITUAL [X] will in many cases already make sense, like "ritual hunt", "ritual war", "ritual fertility", "ritual law". But in many others you may be at a loss. Then a quick way of making something intelligible is to consider 2 big points: mimesis and exchange.
  1. Ritual through:
    1. mimesis
      1. Ritual for [x] by imitating [x]. Ritual for cattle by imitating cattle.
    2. exchange
      1. Ritual for [x] by exchanging [x]. Ritual for cattle by sacrificing cattle.
      2. Ritual for [x] by exchanging [y]. Ritual for cattle by sacrificing crops.
Now you might think: "wait, but this can't work for all. Ritual for child disease by imitating child disease?" So in ancient Roman religion you could sacrifice to Fever so it would stay away; similarly in medieval Europe people would donate a small silver imitation of the organ or limb that was cured after prayer/sacrifice (in thanks, after the fact). But in certain Native American cultures, if a baby was sick, you could hold a mock funeral for the baby, in order to trick the disease into thinking the child was dead. So imitating the death of a child can prevent the death of a child. This also has a bit of exchange in it, since you exchange a doll or fake child for your real child.

Depending on the ritual need, you might have these on individual and/or collective scale.

Here are some examples.

B C: The women of the village gather buckets of water from the well and go around the fields splashing them with their hands, singing songs that call the rain down.
B I: If a farmer is worried about the rain, he may sacrifice some crops or cattle as gift to the rain if it will come.
S I: If a farmer is worried about the rain, he may call down the rain through the same songs.

B C: Cattle is sacrificed. Cattle must be given so that cattle will continue to be given to you. BUT ALSO: A ritual dance in which the men of the village imitate the fights of cattle in the mating season. 
B I: A farmer may draw a glyph saying "WOLF" on his cattle to keep the wolves away.
S I: The cattle looks sick! The farmer puts some earleaf herbs through their feed, since these leaves look like the ears of cows and is thought to be beneficial to them.

I throw some money into the sea so that the ship carrying all my trade goods will not be swallowed by the sea.
Here's a cow for you, wilderness, keep the predators away!
Here one man dresses up as a wolf and is defeated in a ritualized dance-battle by the young warriors.

Big and collective rituals are probably calendar feasts that occur every year.

Keep in mind that people do these things *because they work* either *actually* or because they are *effective in addressing those worries*. So people do them not out of doctrine or belief, but because they are effective. So people will do the rituals that they think are effective, perhaps because someone else did it - their neighbours, their enemies, traders from away...

This Maasai dance was originally part of a celebration for killing a lion

Step 4: Where do they do it?

This is dependent on *ritual infrastructure* and is probably decided by people imitating other people. Big collective rituals are likely to take place on some sort of central square. Especially in terms of EXCHANGE people will probably go to a specific place, likely associated with the power to be the receiving end of the exchange. The sea, the mountain, the forest, a weird-looking hill, a strange rock. This is where your temples will be.

Step 5: Who do they think is behind it?

Now you have a ritual need, a ritual, and a place where the ritual is done. Now it is possible that the forces behind the ritual are understood not as beings with a mind, but as some sort of hidden world order, like the Hindu Dharma or the Egyptian Maat. In a clan-based society, the ritual need of clan identity and success may very well be mapped onto the dead ancestors (not technically gods, but for all intents and purposes, yes). Perhaps these dead ancestors and local mysterious animal are mapped onto each other: bam, totemism. "Our ancestor is the owl".

But if these forces are understood as beings with a mind - THESE ARE GODS.

But be sure you know what a god is. The Norse and Egyptian gods were very much mortal and could be killed. In fact the Ancient Egyptian word for god is the same as the word for soul of a deceased person. It's fine if you want to go with "immortal beings who govern certain aspects of the world" that's fine, but keep in mind that all those things could be changed for your gods.

What do these gods do? Is the same ritual place perhaps used for different rituals? This is how you get real, muddy gods, not the thought-out, overly systemic gods of D&D. Treat the ritual needs addressed at this place as the portfolio of the god residing there.

Cheat it a little. Throw in a ritual need that is unconnected to the rest. Athena is goddess of wisdom... but also war, after all. Don't be afraid to give the gods paradoxical forces as well. You would go to the same place for cattle-ensuring rituals, but also to address cattle diseases. So the goddess of cattle might well also be the goddess of cattle disease.

So in keeping with all the cattle things we've been doing, my group might have a goddess of cattle, fertility, cattle disease, and auspicious marriages.

But also keep in mind that this goddess may well be *just* a goddess. It is a mistake to believe that every god has to be the god OF something. Thor is the "god of thunder", but what is Odin the god of? Nothing specifically, or rather: so much that it can't be easily said. He is the god of wisdom, cunning, trickery, the dead, war, the gallows, runes, magic. 

I already said that you should not be scared to give the gods paradoxical forces. But the gods can also be paradoxical in that they can be positive and negative at the same time. Shiva, like I said, is one of the most revered gods in Hinduism, but is also a dangerous madman. The same can be said for Odin. Odin's magic (seidhr) is even something that was considered feminine in this society, something that only an unmanly or homosexual man would engage with, strongly frowned upon for men. Yet Odin practices it and is perhaps the most important god. The gods are always far beyond the laws and attitudes of the society that worships them.

Then name 'em and stuff. Keep in mind that the name is pasted onto a mysterious force that is supplicated there, so there will be many different names, many titles.

Step 6: Do some association work.

Now comes the weird stuff. Say your society has a real problem with snakes. Snakes are very dangerous, but also kind of sacred because of their power (to kill, scare, transfix). The people believe that snakes live forever because every month they shed their skin. What else sheds its skin every month? The moon. What also happens every month? Menstruation. Now you have the framework for a lunar snake deity associated with (snakes and the moon of course) fertility, sex, and (in a male-dominated society, perhaps) the secrets of women.

That's a bloody weird god. But it is good weird. It has texture. I believe it.

So with your WIP deities (cattle, fertility, cattle disease, auspicious marriages), go back through your ritual needs and see what else could be mapped onto this deity. But live in *their* world. They don't understand microbial biology, gravity, or why some babies are stillborn. Interpret those things through the lens of association with your deities, but also the world they live in: the moon, the mountains, thunder. Perhaps the deity is a cow. Perhaps the deity is the mother of the great mountains to the south. This way she could be associated with the South in general, and people might offer her prayers or touch her amulets every time they travel to the South. Perhaps she is the sun, and the stars are drops of the milk of her udders.

If you live in a tent, your god also lives in a tent. A very big one, made out of clouds perhaps.
If family is most important in your society, then your gods are a family (or families). Perhaps they are YOUR family! (Ancestor worship)
If the king is most important in your society, then the gods have a king.
If government is most important in your society, then the gods have a government.

Step 7: A new ritual need

Now you have a new ritual need: communicate with the god(s). Is this done through sacrifice? Prayer? Are there statues or images of her? Perhaps you sacrifice those, giving them to her? Perhaps you must abstain from touching cattle for a week before invoking her? Do people wear amulets invoking her power?

Perhaps... you can get someone else to do all this difficult business for you. Voilá, the ritual expert is born. Call him shaman, priest, medicine man, godspeaker, oracle, sacred virgin; you now have to some extent organized religion.

Step 6: Iteration, and decide how far you want to develop this. 

Both in terms of pantheon and institutions you can stop anywhere you like.

Perhaps the gods are still nameless and mysterious. Perhaps anyone can engage with them as well as any other.

But if the pantheon develops onward; how does it react to foreign gods? The gods of other peoples? Are they both understood to be real, will people forever speak of two families of gods? Are they incorporated into it? Or do they forever remain foreign demons?

Does it remain many gods for many needs? Or do a couple of gods become so important that the others have more or less vanished except from the local theater - the god of the village, the god of this tree. How are their ritual needs subsumed into the other deities? ("War" was important in Medieval Europe, but the Christian God is hardly a god associated with war. So saint Michael the Archangel assumed the ritual need for war, and could be prayed to for battle.) Has perhaps *just one* become so important, thus laying the groundwork for monotheism?

Who has access to the gods? The ritual place develops because ordinary people imitate each other, but perhaps authority will develop. Is it the spontaneous authority of the knowledgeable and old? This is likely at first. Authority that derives from ritual knowledge. Your child has broken his leg? My dear, you must do such and such.

But perhaps authority becomes structured and institutionalized. Perhaps there are priesthoods, perhaps there is dedication to one specific deity. Perhaps such dedication is also expected of those who come for the ritual. You cannot serve two masters, one might say.

This is really a matter of taste. And there is much more than might be done. Perhaps the king is a god. Perhaps there is one god in many forms. Perhaps there are monastery orders dedicated to all gods, or to the god-above-god.

But that is all extra stuff, stuff that you can come up with because it's cool. This whole post was more about rethinking the basics of religion; letting the gods be born organically out of ritual and association, not pre-determining them as having sensible and intellectually determined portfolios.

I hope it's useful.


  1. It was a useful reading, thank you.
    But my question rather how would you see clerical magic this way, and if traditional DnD magic fits/could fit at all into this (I think it doesn't, too much Christanity-based). In the world where clerical magic exists, won't any ambiguity about gods be even possible?

    1. Thank you for reading!

      Yeah, that will be part 2 of this post. I was trying to rethink clerics for my own campaign, but it turned out I had to rethink gods and religion first.

      A "cleric" is of course way too Christian. But many historical societies have a type of "holy man"-like figure, be they Islamic saints, Siberian shamans, caretakers of shrines, "holy fools"... There's definitely room for a religious class.

      How that class would work (definitely *not* like wizard magic IMHO) is something I'm still tinkering with.

      On the ambiguity of the gods, I think "divine magic" doesn't need to remove the mystery.

      Look at A Song of Ice and Fire. Melisandre's rituals work, but the Red God is and remains an inscrutable mystery, a hidden god. Perhaps he doesn't even exist, and the rituals are unrelated.

      In the film Noah I quite like how they dealed with God. In the reality of the film, God, the garden of Eden, angels, all of it is literally real. But God never speaks and is never shown, and his message to Noah is a terrifying fever dream about drowning amidst a sea of corpses.

      I think the ambiguity of the gods in the face of actually effective worship can be maintained in the ambiguity of the effect. IMHO you should NEVER have a god show up and say something in plain old human language.

    2. At the same time I've been thinking of democratizing clerical magic. So yeah, you're an assassin. But you might also worship Tahur, the sea-dwelling goddess of the good catch, fair weather, and twilight - since that is when you do most of your business. Or just Carahir, the great ancestor of your clan. So why can't you have a clerical-like ability to invoke your god?

    3. "So why can't you have a clerical-like ability to invoke your god?"
      Pretty sure who lights a candle for saint Anthony doesn't impact the success rate of finding the item you are looking for afterwards. But whether it helps or doesn't help in reality, if you were to play it in an RPG, you'd have to link an effect to the ritual, otherwise players will hate doing the "useless thing" even if characters would firmly believe in it and do it every time.*

      Now, if it works, but you want to make it ambiguous whether there is a deity like saint anthony, it must work independent from saint anthony. Why? Perhaps it's just a psychological effect (lighting the candle allows you to calm down and concentrate from scratch on where you saw the item last) or some similar, natural phenomenon. Which certainly restricts the types of effects possible - certainly no burning hands or holy flames.

      Another possibility is that everybody has, in principle, the ability to perform all kinds of magic, but is mentally blocked from actually doing it. Hence the notion of a ritual to have a God do it allows them to channel their own potential unknowingly. Clerics would just be people who believe their Gods like them more and give them more abilities, which in turn allows them to perform them through rituals. The very same thing a wizard has to learn - what they learn is not the spell, but how to circumvent their own mental blockade and perform it at will. However, that basically just means "Clerics can perform any spells as long as they Believe, while Wizards have to learn them" - the very thing in the rules books, just with extra steps no average player cares to hear.

      However, in a world of magic, there is another option. Perhaps some rituals came first, but once the people associated Gods with those rituals, these Gods came into existance through the willpower of their belivers. If we accept that as a possibility, they are simply that neat through reinforcement. Whenever there were enough people believing in something to manifest, it existed and showed itself to people, which in turn strengthens the believes of the population. Do that long enough (DnD worlds are typically very old) and the concept presented in DnD makes perfect sense with no need to change it.

      Personally, I go with this concept: Any prayer to a God powers the Holy Symbol of that God with the latant magic of the praying populus (that does not perform magic itself) and can than be harnassed by those in posession of those symbols. Clerics believe that power is bestowed by their God, and they use is accordingly. [As in: Perhaps a Cleric could cast way more spells, but would he dare to try and anger his God?]
      With this, it really doesn't matter anymore who or what the gods are, whether or not they exist, and whether or not the rituals associated with them make sense.

      *I mean... you COULD give them the option to light the candle and say it increases their chance, then roll with two die behind the GM-screen on their success - but simply ignore the candle roll, even if it's better. Players might fall for it and be just as convinced as the character they play, but that requires blatant lying and just isn't worth it.

  2. Thanks for this. Great resource. Lot of fun. Gonna bookmark it.

    You would need a special player to reverse-engineer all this and really get into character. I find that Christianity works fine. Four cults plus a Jewish cult (yes change the names of course) and people are pretty happy.

    1. Yeah this may be more trouble than it's worth. I mean, how unlikely is the standardized monetary units all RPGs use. But can you imagine the hassle? Still, I find these religion systems fun to tinker around with.

  3. I find it incredibly ironic that we both are unhappy with the cleric as presented in (later) D&D (I am much more copacetic with early editions). We both agree that the "religions" are really pagan trappings hung upon a generic kind of Christianity. Whereas you are attempting to strip away the vestiges of Christianity from our concept of clerics, I have always gone in the other direction and embraced the Christianity buried underneath all the trappings (although I do still have pagan religious magic, I just represent it all with arcane magic rather than divine magic).

    Of interest: the concept of "religion" out of which Christianity emerged was that of the sacrificial religious act. Give the concept/deity/agent/god something to placate it so that bad things don't happen. Christianity is therefore the end of "religion" because that sacrifice is made once and for all. We are no longer required to placate anything in order to prevent bad things from happening. In fact, something as horrible as crucifixion can be transformed into eternal life. Thus, your observation that Christianity is an outlier in spot on. I would go so far as to say that it is unique.

    1. You and I are very close on this issue, Father Dave. The OD&D cleric spell list is essentially a list of miracles performed by Moses or Jesus. He is a Christian figure. While turning undead may come from the Republic serials of the 60s Jesus also cast out the Devil.

      Clerics are Christian. Religions in D&D are essentially Christian despite the polytheistic bent that developed over (a short period) of time.

      I don’t think it’s ironic that the Christianity has been stripped from Clerics. Popular culture disdains and denigrates Christians and Christian beliefs, while relying on the fabric of Christian culture to prosper. Outside of Catholic school, Christianity has been chased out of the building - and even Christian churches less and less resemble the Eternal Church.

      Rather than being ironic I would say it’s by design. Not just at WOTC (#rainbowampersand) but throughout the public sphere. Everyone can come to his own conclusion about why.

      I call the cleric’s boss “God” whatever sect he’s in. The exception is Demi-men who worship the Norse pantheon and druids, who are outlaws. This milieu creates a much more Medieval feel to the world. Try it next time.

    2. I've run several campaigns where clerics are Christians in everything but name, and even then I describe the various iterations of clerics in Christian terms for those new to my stye of play. I have also insisted that druids are monsters, not a PC class, for years. While it can provide a very Medieval feel, it also works for a world more influenced by sword & sorcery and HPL (which is how I tend to roll).

  4. I really like the idea of starting with ritual needs - the way I created religions started with questions (where do we come from? what happens when we die?) which didn't make them very important in play, because there wasn't anything you really could do to interact with them.

  5. This is something I've thought about but seemed too big to get into, so real glad someone better read and schooled is doing it.
    Also weird with d&d having "clerics" and "wizards" with their completely separate power sources . You don't really get a neat division like this in any culture. Any magical act is evoking a supernatural intervention in reality , and that super-nature is always tied back to the metaphysical concepts of said cultures "religious" beliefs.

    1. Thanks!

      Yep; but also realize that what anthropologists recognize as "magic" in other cultures is often not thought of as being "supernatural" at all. Like, casting oracle bones. Why does it work? What supernatural force is involved?

      Nothing. It just works on its own.

      The division between natural/supernatural isn't really there in many cultures. Perhaps understood/mysterious is a better division. Like, if an Australian Aborigine talks about the ancestors, I sincerely doubt the category "supernatural" will be used. But, the ancestors are still unseen, unheard, and mysterious. But they're definitely not above/beyond nature or anything - they're as natural as trees and rocks. In fact often they ARE trees and rocks.

  6. This absolutely slaps. Best article of 2020 so far. Extremely fun to read, very useful for worldbuilding, and because of the pure reality of human tendency towards faith and supplication presented here it evokes the sense of wonderment and awe and fear that old religion had, before humankind had so many answers in science. I always enjoyed when adventure books - REH Conan, etc - had truly fearsome, alien, strange cults to local, unknowable, confusing "deities". I am really glad Ram and Scrap pointed me here!

    1. Thank you! That's precisely what I set out to do. I WANT the gods to be mysterious, and I want religion and ritual to be rooted in daily life. That rules out big cosmological systems because then you remove all mystery and when was the last time a struggling bloodrice farmer had time to think about the celestial spheres?

      (Actually I think rice farmers might think more about the celestial spheres than one might think - for the largest part of Islamic history, the most popular type in all stratas of society was Sufi mysticism - but I can tell you a rice farmer will NEVER miss an opportunity to do farming-related rituals.)

  7. I think is article also provides a great framework to maximize utility out of the PETTY GODS book.

    1. Petty Gods has some very good ideas and a few duds, but there's definitely a lot of inspiration and a lot you could just throw in wholesale for "locally important minor deity".

  8. I'm currently doing some world-building. I've been thinking about the source of magic, gods, clerics and magic-users (yes, it's for AD&D) for a while. This is a great framework for building a set of precepts or catechism for a pantheon.

    I really like the idea of a (shared?) public space for the "Big Collective Rituals". I can envision an entire community (a small hamlet or part of a village) celebrating in a public space (like a square or a grove or a meadow) for the Planting/Harvest, health of the herds, weddings and funerals.

    Imagine the power and focus that could be generated by hundreds of people, all dancing and singing or chanting the prayer/incantation. It might take hours to complete, but is there any reason it couldn't be the basis for powering a Control Weather spell at 20th level?

    This kind of fervent activity, on a regular basis, may be enough to bring an avatar of the god to the people, inspiring them to build a temple or shrine for it to dwell within...

    1. It may be interesting for you to know that in Hinduism, statues of the gods (especially big, bronze ones used in parades and such) are also *actually* the gods. So "an avatar" doesn't even need to be a person.

      It could of course also be a person, buuut because I value mystery in my gods I don't think I'll ever have them pierce the veil in such a clear way. That's a matter of taste.

    2. There's also the possibility of the "avatar" being a person possessed by the god- like the ideas of loas, or a person being "full of the Holy Spirit". This might be something that only lasts for the ritual, or an irreversible loss of self.

  9. I disagree with your assertion in the beginning.

    "Now, the most surprising thing to come out of religious studies in the past decade or so is the discovery that "religion" actually doesn't exist. It cannot be defined."

    Geertz has a definition, and one that works quite well:

    “A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

    Not to throw shade, but you should probably reexamine some of the core assumptions underlying the beginning of this article.

    1. There's serious issues with Geertz' definition - not in the least that it would also capture things like nationalism and thus not really define "religion" as people actually use it.

      I also do not like "system", because, well, it implies a logical structure that is often absent. It's very theological.

      Notice also that Geertz's definition assumes that the symbols come first, which forms the order of existence, and then the moods. It's again an overly intellectualized idea of religion: acts and objects are made BECAUSE of systems and symbols, not the other way around. Why assume so?

      What basically blew Geertz' out of the water in anthropological circles is Talal Asad's in *Genealogies of Religion*, so if you're interested in someone smarter than me dissecting that definition, you could look for that. To totally summarize: "He insists on the primacy of meaning without regard to the processes by which the meanings are constructed."

  10. You make such a large number of extraordinary focuses here that I read your article two or three times. Your perspectives are as per my own generally. This is extraordinary substance for your perusers. Religion

  11. Hey, wanted to say "Thank you" for this. Been on my mind every since I found it; just got around to turning it into something practical. Looking forward to seeing more.


Table of a Thousand Cults

I'm preparing a location for my next foray into actually getting players together. Kogo Hnennis, City of a Thousand Cults, City of a Tho...