Wednesday 18 August 2021

Local gods and the spiritual technology of rulership

There's a legend about the Battle of Brunanburh, at which King Aethelstan confronted the allied kings of Scotland, Dublin, and Strathclyde in 937 AD. Before the battle, one of Aethelstan's soldiers was lying sick: he happened to be a Devonshire man, so in his sickness he prayed to his local saint, the martyr St Nectan, to heal him. That night he had a vision of St Nectan, and in the morning the sickness was gone and he was well enough to fight.

The interesting bit isn't the healing: it's what happened next. The Devon man told everyone about his miraculous recovery, and soon word reached King Aethelstan. Aethelstan was understandably nervous about the coming battle, so he asked the soldier which saint it was who had proven so receptive to his prayers. The soldier told him about Saint Nectan, and assured him that Nectan was always swift to intercede on behalf of those who had faith in him. Aethelstan prayed to St Nectan, won the battle, and was a generous donor to the cult of the saint thereafter.

Just think for a moment about what this sequence of events implies about Aethelstan's mindset. He's king of a sparsely-populated nation made up of hundreds of scattered communities, each with their own local shrines and saints and martyrs and holy wells, most of which have never been heard of by anyone outside their local area. He takes it as given that these saints are capable of interceding with God on his behalf, and that some of them are more likely to do so than others, but crucially he doesn't know which ones. The obscure hermit-saint revered in some provincial village might turn out to be exactly the guy you need to pray to in order to resolve a major national crisis. Working out who to pray to under which circumstances isn't a matter of set dogma, established long ago and handed down by recognised authorities: instead, it's a work in progress, to be figured out by trial and error. Building up a working knowledge of all your national saints, and cultivating suitable relations with their respective cults, becomes a potentially important element of kingship. 

This is a mindset that would, I think, have made intuitive sense to the Tengriist and Shamanistic cultures in the history of Central Asia, for whom the question 'which spirits have authority here?' was one that every nomadic people had to confront regularly as they roamed from place to place. It would have made sense to the Romans, for whom working out which set of local gods to buy off was an integral part of the process of conquest. It is, however, a mindset that seems to be very rare in D&D and associated games, where most fantasy religions seem to have completely codified understandings of the sacred rather than the more experimental approaches that have historically been so commonplace. This strikes me as a bit of a pity - there's so much more gaming potential in the latter!

Imagine if, instead of being a fully worked-out institutional religion like counter-reformation-era Catholicism, your cleric's faith was something closer to Aethelstan's version of Christianity, a hacky work-in-progress always subject to revision based on the latest discoveries. A huge amount of your adventuring could be motivated simply by the desire to learn more about different local gods or saints or spirits, which you would do by visiting lots of different shrines and making lots of different offerings just to find out which ones work best. In a world where most people stick close to home, worshipping their local gods, an adventuring cleric who's been all over the place could become a real asset simply because of their breadth of spiritual experience. ('Actually, my liege, over the mountains they have a saint that they pray to in exactly this sort of situation...') 

Probably the easiest way to represent this mechanically would be to have knowledge of certain spiritual practises grant access to new cleric spells. In most cases these spells might only be available to clerics who'd actually gone to the trouble of visiting whatever remote shrine they are associated with, but sometimes just knowing the name and rituals of the associated god or saint might be enough. Imagine the prestige to be gained in being the cleric who brings such knowledge back to their cult centre and thus unlocks a new spell not just for themselves, but for their entire religion!

And it works for quest-givers, too. Obviously every ruler is going to want to have the latest, sweetest spiritual technology on their side. Obviously they'll want to aggressively investigate rumours of holy sites, obscure shrines, sacred springs, and so on, in the hope of giving themselves and their clergy an edge over their rivals. Everyone knows about all the most famous gods and saints, so they just cancel out: the real advantage is to be gained from being the first one in on a hot new discovery, and they're almost always going to come from way out in the hinterlands, or someone would know about them already. Of course it's going to fall to your party to make the long, dangerous journey through the wilderness to the half-ruined shrine of some obscure local spirit or hermit, so that your cleric can check whether they have enough spiritual mojo to be worth adding to the national liturgy.

Just think of the adventure opportunities!

1d10 local god adventure opportunities

  1. The king wants to develop a new industry, but because it's not been historically practiced in his kingdom he doesn't know who the appropriate gods/saints/spirits are who oversee these things. Your job is to go to some foreign land where this trade is already established and surreptitiously steal all their knowledge about how best to honour, petition, and placate the relevant spiritual beings, all without giving away the secret of the king's economic plans. You'll get a bonus if you can learn the secret rites their guildsmen carry out behind closed doors!
  2. In your grandfather's day there was a weird old hermit living in the mountains. Now people are claiming to see him in their dreams and there are rumours of miracles occurring near the remote cave where he once lived. Your job is to get out there, try to work out if he really has become a legitimate god/saint/spirit, and - if he has - find some way to integrate him into the local religion. (Maybe a shrine could be built in his cave? Or maybe you could find his bones and take them to the local temple as holy relics?)
  3. The king is trying to integrate a recently-conquered frontier region into his kingdom, and he needs someone to do a spiritual survey. Your job is to roam from shrine to shrine among a resentful and rebellious population, cataloguing their local gods/saints/spirits and working out which of them, if any, might be worth adding to the national cult. 
  4. Old chronicles speak of a god/saint/spirit who once bestowed powerful blessings upon their worshippers, but its cult centre has long since fallen into ruin, and no-one remembers the rites by which it was once honoured. Might there be something out there worth salvaging? You'll have to voyage though the wilderness to its abandoned shrine and start making experimental offerings to find out!
  5. The king has a major project planned and he needs as much sacred mojo as possible. Your job is to visit the shrines of the relevant gods/saints/spirits, obtain their sacred items and holy relics by whatever means necessary, and bring them to the capital to ensure the project's success. Naturally, you can expect the locals to violently resist the removal of their treasures.
  6. As 5, but from the other side. A bunch of thugs with a royal warrant just rode into your local shrine and carried off the relics of your local god/saint/spirit to the capital, claiming that the king needs them more than you do! Now your community looks to you to steal them back, and to establish a new, secret shrine where they can be safely kept in future.
  7. The king is planning to hold a major religious festival to bring the blessings of heaven upon his newly-built navy. It's going to cost him a fortune, and he needs to be sure that he's getting the maximum bang for his buck. Your job is to roam the remote storm-wracked islands and pirate-haunted headlands where all the best gods/saints/spirits of the sea seem to have their shrines, and find out which ones are most worth honouring in the festivities. Expect every single priest you meet to try to hustle you about this.
  8. There's been a disaster - but all the priests insist that they've been carrying out their ceremonies perfectly! Clearly some unknown god/saint/spirit is offended - but which one? Your job is to divine which obscure spiritual entity has been neglected, make a pilgrimage to their remote place of power, and make whatever offerings they require in order to slake their wrath before the kingdom suffers even further calamities.
  9. Sometimes the god/saint/spirit you need to pray to has their holiest shrine in a really inconvenient place, like the other side of a monster-haunted wilderness or the middle of an enemy kingdom. Your job is to undertake the perilous journey there to make offerings on behalf of your king, so that he can win their favour for his latest scheme.
  10. Out in the wilderness the remains of some forgotten shrine to a god/saint/spirit have been discovered, but no-one recognises the names carved on its ancient stone. Is it holy or unholy? Does power still reside here, and if so, is there enough of it to make it worth re-establishing whatever vanished cult once built this place? Best do your research first: trial-and-error offerings may risk causing offence that your kingdom can ill afford...


  1. "Probably the easiest way to represent this mechanically would be to have knowledge of certain spiritual practises grant access to new cleric spells."

    I don't know if you ever played the 1992 computer game Darklands ( but a big part of that was learning about saints at universities or monasteries; once a character had learned of a saint they could spend divine favor to invoke them (if their Virtue stat was high enough for that saint) and gain various buffs or other effects.

    1. Indeed. I was also reminded of another old game, Albion. A crucial mission in the game requires you to eavesdrop on a ritual by a certain faction of worshippers of the earth goddess, so that you may deliver their exclusive method of placating her wrath to your backers.

    2. No, I never played either game, but that sounds about right...

  2. Garth Nix' Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz stories take a very different approach with the local gods idea, though one that might bear fruit with some cross-pollination with this...

  3. Long comment! Quoting from Huzinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages.

    "Every saint, by the possession of a distinct and vivid outward shape, had his own marked personality,112 quite different from the angels, who, with the exception of the three great archangels, were never given personalized images. The personality of each saint was strongly accentuated by the special function that each one had. People turned to one saint for a certain emergency and to another for recovery from a certain disease. Frequently a detail of the saint’s legend or an attribute of a depiction was the source of the specialization, as in the case of St. Apollonia, who had her teeth pulled during her martyrdom and was thus appealed to in case of toothache. Once the functions of saints became so specialized, it was inevitable that their veneration became somewhat mechanical. When the cure of plague was attributed to St. Roch, it was inevitable that too much stress was laid on his part in the healing and that the chain of thought required by sound doctrine, namely that the saint worked his healing by interceding with God, was in danger of being left out altogether. This was notably the case in regard to the fourteen holy martyrs (sometimes five, eight, ten, or fifteen) whose veneration was especially important towards the end of the medieval period. St. Barbara and St. Christopher are the most frequently depicted of this group. According to popular tradition, God had granted to the fourteen the power of warding off any imminent danger through the mere invocation of their name.

    Ilz sont cinq sains, en la genealogie,
    Et cinq sainctes, à qui Dieu octria
    Benignement a la fin de leur vie,
    Que quiconques de cuer les requerra,
    En tous perilz, que Dieu essaucera
    Leur prieres, pour quelconque mesaise.
    Saiges est doc qui ces cinq servira,
    Jorges, Denis, Christofle, Giles et Blaise.

    [There are five saints in the genealogy,
    And five female saints to whom God has granted
    Benignantly at the end of their lives,
    That who ever invokes their help with all his heart
    In all dangers, that God will hear
    Their intercedence in all disorders whatever.
    He is wise who serves these five,
    George, Denis, Christopher, Giles, and Blaise.]

    In the popular imagination, any notion of the purely interceding function was bound to be entirely lost by virtue of this delegation of omnipotent and spontaneous effect. The holy martyrs had become prefects of the Deity. Various missals of the late medieval period that contain the office of the fourteen holy martyrs clearly express the binding character of their intercession: “Deus qui electos sanctos tuos Georgium etc. etc. specialibus privilegiis prae cunctis aliis decorasti, ut omnes, qui in necessitatibus suis eorum implorant auxilium, secundum promissionem tuae gratiae petitionis suae salutarem consequantur effectum.” ["O God, who hath distinguished Thy chosen saints, George, etc., etc., with special privileges before all others, that all those who in their need invoke their help shall obtain the salutary fulfillment of their prayer, according to the promise of Thy grace."]

    1. After the Council of Trent, the church abolished the mass of the Holy Martyrs because of the danger that faith would attach itself to them as to a talisman. In fact, it was already the case that a daily viewing of the image of St. Christopher was considered sufficient for protection against any fatality.

      As to the reason that these fourteen were turned into a welfare company, it should be noted that their depictions all had sensational attributes that stimulated the imagination. St. Achatius had a crown of thorns, St. Giles was accompanied by a hind, St. George by a dragon, St. Blaise was in a den with wild beasts, St. Christopher was a giant, St. Cyriac had the devil in chains. St. Denis was carrying his own head under his arm, St. Erasmus was in his gruesome torture being disemboweled on the rack, St. Eustace was with a stag carrying a cross between his antlers, St. Pantaleon was depicted as a physician with a lion, St. Vitus in a cauldron, St. Barbara in her tower, St. Catherine with her wheel and sword, St. Margaret with a dragon. It cannot be ruled out that the special attention given these fourteen arose from the characteristics of their images."

      -Huziinga, the Autumn of the Middle Ages

    2. One more quote.
      "There is yet another case that provides evidence illuminating the relationship between court circles and saintliness: the stay of Saint Francis of Paola at the court of Louis XI. The particular type of piousness of the king is so well known that there is no need to describe it in detail at this point. Louis [...] shows all the qualities of the most overt and complacent fetishism. His veneration for relics and passion for pilgrimages and processions seems to lack any of the higher impulses and any shadow of awed restraint. He treats sacred objects as if they were expensive home remedies. The cross of St. Laud that was kept in Angers had to be brought to Nantes for no other purpose than to have an oath taken on it. An oath on the cross of St. Laud counted more to Louis than any other oath. When the connétable of Saint Pol is called into the presence of the king and asks the king to swear to his safety on the cross of St Laud, the king responds, any oath but that one.

      When his end, which he feared above all other things, approaches, the most precious relics are sent to him from everywhere. The pope sends him, among other things, the corporale of St. Peter himself; even the Great Turk offers a collection of relics that were still in Constantinople. On the buffet next to the king’s sickbed is the sacred Ampoule itself, which had been brought from Reims, from whence it had never been removed before. Some said that the king wanted to test the efficacy of the container of ointment by having his whole body salved. Such religious impulses are usually found only in the history of the Merovingians.

      It is hardly possible to draw a line between Louis’s passion for collecting exotic animals such as reindeer and elands and his passion for precious relics. He corresponds with Lorenzo de’Medici about the ring of Saint Zanobi, a local Florentine saint, and about an “agnus dei,” the plant-like growth also known as “agnus scythicus,” which was regarded as an exotic rarity. In the strange household in the castle of Plessis lès Tours during Louis’s last days one could find pious intercessors and musicians wandering about together. “At this time the king had a large number of musicians come with their strings and wood-winds. [...] He also summoned a large number of bigots, both male and female, and devotees, hermits and saintly people, to come and pray to God without interruption that the king might not die, but go on living."

      Even Saint Francis of Paola, the Calabrian hermit, who managed to outdo the humility of the Minorites by founding the Minims, became, in a literal sense, the object of Louis’s collecting mania. During his final illness, the king summoned the saint with the expressed intent that the prayers of the saint might prolong his life. After several messages to the King of Naples had not borne fruit, the king, through diplomatically intervening with the pope, managed to secure the arrival, very much against Francis’s will, of the miracle man. A noble entourage accompanied the monk from Italy. But when he arrived, Louis was not convinced of his authenticity, “because he had been cheated by several persons operating under the pretense of saintliness.” Following suggestions from his personal physician, he had the holy man kept under surveillance and had his virtue tested in a variety of ways. The saint passed all tests with distinction. His asceticism was of the most barbaric kind, reminiscent of the practices of his countrymen of the tenth century, St. Niles and St. Romauld. He flees at the sight of a woman. He has not touched a coin since he was a boy. He usually sleeps standing up or leaning on something; he never has his hair cut or his beard shaved. He never eats meat and is served only roots. The king is still personally engaged during his last month in writing to secure proper food for his strange holy man."
      -Huziinga, the Autumn of the Middle Ages

    3. Wow. They don't write 'em like that any more.

      The full-blown high medieval cult of the saints is full of great gaming opportunities: stealing relics, faking relics, swapping relics like baseball cards to get the one you really need, etc. What interested me about the Nectan story is what it implied about the era *before* that, when even a question as basic as 'which saint do I pray to for this' didn't yet have an official answer, and *your PCs* can be the first ones to discover the gods / saints / spirits who will go on to play important roles in their nation's religious culture in centuries to come...

    4. This translation of Huizinga (1996) is superb. It's like sitting in an armchair across from an extremely passionate and slightly distracted lecturer.

      The discovery of saints is a very cool aspect. Eminently gameable. There question of an improper saint - that is, a saint who is venerated but not beatified - vexed the medieval church. Beatification is the church saying "Yes, we are 100% sure this person is in Heaven", but plenty of saints were revered for decades or centuries without anyone checking if they were in the right afterlife to whisper in the divine ear (as it were). Could a prayer addresssed to someone sincerely believed to be a saint, but who wasn't actually in heaven, have any effect?

      There's a wonderful bit (if you can dissect the language and train of thought) in the first story of the Decameron, the tale of the false Saint Cepperello. It helps if you read it in the most syrupy sarcastic tone.

      "It is proper, dearest ladies, that everything made by man should begin with the sacred and admirable name of Him that was maker of all things. And therefore, since I am the first and must make a beginning to our storytelling, I propose to begin by telling you of one of His marvellous works, so that, when we have heard it out, our hopes will rest in Him as in something immutable, and we shall forever praise His name. It is obvious that since all temporal things are transient and mortal, so they are filled and surrounded by troubles, trials and tribulations, and fraught with infinite dangers which we, who live with them and are part of them, could without a shadow of a doubt neither endure, nor defend ourselves against, if God’s special grace did not lend us strength and discernment. Nor should we suppose that His grace descends upon and within us through any merit of our own, for it is set in motion by His own loving-kindness, and is obtained by the pleas of people who like ourselves were mortal, and who, by firmly doing His pleasure whilst they were in this life, have now joined Him in eternal blessedness.

      To these, as to advocates made aware, through experience, of our frailty (perhaps because we have not the courage to submit our pleas personally in the presence of so great a judge) we present whatever we think is relevant to our cause. And our regard for Him, who is so compassionate and generous towards us, is all the greater when, the human eye being quite unable to penetrate the secrets of divine intelligence, common opinion deceives us and perhaps we appoint as our advocate in His majestic presence one who has been cast by Him into eternal exile. Yet He from whom nothing is hidden, paying more attention to the purity of the supplicant’s motives than to his ignorance or to the banishment of the intercessor, answers those who pray to Him exactly as if the advocate were blessed in His sight. All of which can clearly be seen in the tale I propose to relate; and I say clearly because it is concerned, not with the judgement of God, but with that of men."
      -Decameron, Penguin trans.

  4. This would also work well with a proficiency-based or spell point-based system, with knowing the right saint/spirit/kami/genius loci/whatever granting a bonus to spellcasting rolls or making spells cost fewer points.

  5. But the funniest thing to me - as I read a lot about Indo-European mythologies - is that Saint Nectan must be nothing else but the "Christian" form of the Celtic God Nechtan, the god of waters, especially wells and rivers. Wikipedia doesn't make the connection, but this website has it :
    Nec(h)tan is indeed a cognate of Latin Neptune, but while the latter was made a God of the Seas under influence from the East, the Irish God remained closer to its IE origins. The Farsi (and hence Arabic) name for petroleum, "naft" must come from this *Neptonos of Indo-Europeans.

    1. Yes, nice catch! In which case the story about him ringing a silver bell to warn ships in storms is probably an echo of some kind of pre-Christian weather omen...

    2. Playing devil's advocate, Nectan/Nechtan was also used as a personal name, with three of the Pictish kings being named Nechtan (the fifth most common name on the list, after Drest, Bridei, Gartnait, and Talorc), and the Scottish clan MacNaughton is a modern spelling of MacNechtan. I agree it's probable that it's a syncretization with the Celtic deity, but it's not impossible that it's from a living person.

    3. That's literally the opposite of being a devil's advocate. Saint's Advocate?

      That's actually another good point, the Christian/Jewish/Muslim avoidance of directly naming children after God is not the norm. You should probably have more Tyrs, Cuthberts, Pelors, and Moradins in your world.

  6. For further reading about relic theft:
    "Consider the case of St. Foy. The monk who brought her relics to Conques, a French commune, went undercover for ten years at the Agen monastery there, before seizing the chance to make off with St. Foy’s skull."
    Most interesting part is that if the relic was stolen, it means it wanted to be stolen, which is a real clever post-hoc "mandate of heaven"-type justification, but also - very very gameable - you can use diplomacy, lies and flattery to convince a relic to be stolen!
    See also the drow's practice of god-theft here:
    The drow are, quite simply, far better at religion than anyone else. They do not compromise and they do not hesitate in religious matters. They have resolve. Whereas the elites of any society will nearly always barter and compromise with their religions to maintain their positions of power or comfort, the drow have no such allusions.

    1. 'Talk this skull into accepting that it wants to be stolen' does, indeed, sound like a great pitch for an adventure!

  7. I was half-way through reading this post and thought to myself 'This would fit well with medieval relic theft.' Sure enough......

    The other thing that occurs to me is the numerous hermits in the Grail Quest. You might be a good knight, but visiting hermits for guidance or interpretation of supernatural events is necessary for the refinement that leads to the Grail.

  8. Awesome post. I was immediately reminded of the agbajigbeto from the early modern Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa - Dr Edna Bay's Wives of the Leopard describes them as engaging in what is pretty much the offensive version of spiritual tech as you describe it here:

    " Enemies' powers were said to be neutralized  through the use of spies, known as agbajigbeto (agbaji == verandah. reception room; gbeto = hunter-literally, hunters in the reception area). Agbajigbeto were sent to enemy territory to seek out the roots of enemy power and dismantle it...the oral traditions that Hazoume records emphasize the actions taken by  spies to destroy the power of protective gods and other forces. Then, "the  victory of the Dahomeans no longer depended upon the bravery of the army, for the god no longer protected the city." Spies, say Hazoume's traditions, would try to link themselves as "brothers" to the enemy  through swearing oaths in order to learn the supernatural strengths of  the town. Then, they would go out at night to bury charms that would bring discord among the enemy or generate calamities that would leave them weak and exhausted. They would feed the city's protector deities substances that were incompatible with their natures, unleashing divine anger that caused bloody internal battles and burned whole sections of town."

    The Agbajigbeto also performed normal espionage, quite effectively at that, but it was always seen as a role secondary to their talents at disrupting the ties that bound peoples to their divinities. Definitely feels like it fits the vibe of this post.

    1. Great stuff - and a perfect job for a party of PCs if ever there was one!

      'Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to infiltrate the enemy temple and turn their gods against them on the day of our attack...'

  9. Hi Joseph, this post motivated me to write out a post on Ann Leckie's "The Raven Tower". It's a fantasy novel that does a good job of spelling out a similar idea of religion in fantasy fiction to the historical one you discuss here:

    1. Thanks for the link, Alex! I think it's interesting that such an approach simultaneously makes fantasy religion more mysterious (the divine is a largely unknown country rather than something authoritatively mapped out by official dogma) and more empirical (you learn about the divine by getting out there and making lots of offerings at lots of shrines to see what happens) - I note you shift into very scientific language at several points in your post on Leckie's novel. The trick, I suspect, is to keep the two in balance, so that widening one's understanding of the divine retains a woozy vision-quest edge rather than just becoming a 'visit shrine, unlock spell' tick-box exercise...

  10. I've been playing a delightfully culturally distinct video game called "Black Book"; it's deck based magic system draws intensively on a mixture of pragmatic diabolism and saint worship. I'm not sure I can really sum it up that well , so I will just recommend checking it out.
    But it gives me an idea to simplify (possibly overly simplify)
    saint worship ; make every spell the intersection of a particular saint. So locate object is now called Prayer to St Anthony , Minor Benediction of St Raphael The Archangel is cure light wounds etc.
    I'd suggest making the effect of each spell more broader and adaptable to particular circumstance too, so cure light wounds could also allow a diseased child to recover from their ailment, locate object to not have an exact range in feet etc.

    A first level cleric would only know the practices of their local parish and that particular saint , and to learn additional spells they must find and understanding the teachings of each saint in turn, some obtainable via written works, others requiring being accepted into the faithful of a particular sect , and possible the higher level spells needing taboos or purification rituals to be maintained

    1. I've just looked up Black Book, and it looks like it's set in Perm, which means I'm basically obligated to buy it during the next Steam sale...

      But the saints idea is excellent, and I especially like the idea that unlocking some spells is pretty easy ('pray at this shrine'), while others are much harder ('undertake a series of gruelling ritual ordeals and penances'). Each cleric would end up kitbashing together their own version of their religion based on the places they'd been and the things they'd accomplished. I've already included *some* elements of this in my current campaign, but I think I'll lean much harder into it next time!

  11. I know this is kinda old but I really like this post! I've built my own mini system/game around it lol. I haven't run it yet so it might be completely useless but we'll see