Religion in the Known Lands
I will start this post by stating up front that I profess no faith in real life. My reasons for this are plenty and complicated and I hope that those who do profess faith are not offended by my lack of it. Because of this, I do not intend to discuss WHY people have faith in this article, but simply describe the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of religion and the mechanical structures involved and the historical precedents in our world which may inform one as to how the system works in this fictional universe.
That being said. . .
Religion in Arcanis is a complicated thing, and it shows itself to be something of a mixture of faiths and practices from around the world and throughout history mashed together in new ways. In a lot of ways, there are aspects of religion in Arcanis (primarily that of the Mother Church of Coryan) which in my mind do not adequately fit with the setting of the world which calls heavily on pantheonistism and early-Roman equipment. In other ways, it does not need to. Religion in our world has been constantly evolving for as long as it has existed, a point which has caused many religions such as Christianity and Islam which both make claims of a ‘final prophet’ (or a functional equivalent) stating the “true and final” word of God problematic. Whenever a religion enters a new area, it will inevitably fall victim to synchrotism with previous religions, forming faiths and practices which combine earlier practices and beliefs with the newly introduced ones.
Overall, the faiths of Arcanis follow many of the tenants of Abrahamic religions within our own world, with a heavy focus on Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity (though with some strong elements of traditions such as Islam and Judaism). Leaving aside all judgements on the relative merit of these faiths, it is understandable that this basic framework would be chosen by Henry and PCI in general as these traditions are the dominant religious practices of North Americans generally, and those specific individuals specifically. However, these practices are not the ‘natural’ state of religion, especially in the relative technological and cultural setting that of the Arcanis universe in relation to our own world.
Let us start first with gods. For the overwhelming part of human history, the concept of gods as far-away, omniscient, all powerful beings simply did not exist. The concept of gods (according to all of the anthropological works that I have consumed) originates out of shamanistic practices of spirits. Basically, everything in the world has a spirit, from the animals around us, the trees, rocks, the clouds, and even us. Whenever something happens involving these beings, it is because of the spirit. When lightning strikes the ground, the spirits of the sky and the earth are fighting. When one is sick, the spirit of the person is either lost or beset by other spirits. Many shamanistic cultures do not have a specific creator deity, and do not look beyond the immediate presence of these spirits when practicing their beliefs. Eventually, people began honouring certain of these spirits over others. As certain spirits became more honoured, the shamans which intercede between those spirits and the rest of the people became more important. Eventually, these spirits had temples and shrines built to honour them and the shamans focused on them became the first priests.
Yes, this is an overly simplistic view of the evolution of religion. However, I only have some 4000 words for these so I have to condense somewhat.
Because of their origins in ‘simple’ nature spirits, it is not difficult to understand why gods of the ancient world are portrayed in the way they are. Most gods (such as those in Arcanis) are granted ‘dominion’ over certain elements of reality associated with the thing that they were originally considered to be the spirit of. Thor the god of Norse myth evolved from the ancient Scandanavian spirit of thunder which became honoured for various reasons (in fact, the German word for thunder is donner, which is also the ancient Germanic name for Thor). It also explains why many ancient gods were basically “humans, writ-large” in their personalities and motivations, for the spirits of natural things were considered to be generally equivalent to human spirits, and therefore all the needs and motivations of people. By this logic, if Cadic was an evolution of spirits in our world, He would likely have started out as a spirit associated with darkness, and then accreted to include murder (which often happens in the dark), and music (which often is played at night after the work day is done).
Now, leaving aside all judgements on the existence of gods (or God, proper noun) or debates about what qualifies under that title or if all of these conceptualizations of spirits is just humanity slowly becoming enlightened to the true meaning of those words, we come to Arcanis Gods. These creatures are, simply put, proven divine creatures. In our world, since few people have witnessed any but the most mundane of miracles (most of which can, and have, been argued as something else) there is no doubt in the minds of any in Arcanis to the existence of powerful supernatural creatures. Spirits indisputably exist as people can bargain with them (Primal Casters/Shamans), ‘angels’ exist as people have witnessed Valinor and casters can summon celestial creatures to aid them, and gods (both with and without capitals, per Arcanis style conventions) indisputably exist because of massive acts like the raising the God’s Wall or the Curse of the Dwarves. While Dungeons and Dragons (at various points) have included mechanics on how to ‘become a god’, there exists no such conventions within official Arcanis Canon. Because of this, Arcanis does not have any instances of people seeing little things and forming religions around it to the same extent.
While you get cults dedicated to individual spirits or powerful Infernals (such as the Cult of the Thousand Eyed Man), few can truly compare them to THE Gods like Illiir or Kassegore. Where a lot of these cults seem to gain their power has less to do with the objective and recognized power of these creatures and more the immediacy of them. An Undine spirit can directly affect you if you travel by a river, while there has not been a recognizable act of a God for centuries on the grand scale. Because of this, you are going to put more effort into honouring the undine than a distant god, even if objectively you know that the God is more powerful. However, the lack of obvious presence of the Gods on Arcanis allows enough people to doubt their CONTINUED existence and power over them, leading to cults and groups like the Mourners in Silence. After all, while it is indisputable that Illiir existed and walked among humanity, where is he now? He isn’t stopping me from venerating this nature spirit, so maybe he’s dead? It is because of this that almost every religious organization in Arcanis maintains some equivalent of an Inquisition in order to keep the doctrine of faith among the people. You have priests constantly telling the people of the power of the Gods and reminding them of the importance of their veneration while demonizing these lesser powers which, while obviously less powerful, are more tangible.
On that note, I shall proceed away from theological debates on the nature of God(s) and onto the exact mechanics of the religion, starting with the Temple. In modern Arcanis, we think of temples existing as individual county churches, run by a single priest with maybe a few under-priests helping them, with people attending services on a specific day. However, this does not represent how non-Abrahamic religions work, and does not even represent how Judaism works within the Abrahamic traditions, at least during the time of the Temple of Jerusalem. For the entirety of human history (including the modern day outside of the Abrahamic traditions), temples fell into one of two categories: they were either shrines where you would go if you needed to appeal to the Gods but otherwise would not enter regularly, or secretive compounds run by the priesthood which were closed to all except the most consecrated. Either way, these facilities were not like a modern Christian church, and more like a Hindu temple (outside of predominantly Abrahamic regions, anyway) where people go to on holy days or to appeal to a specific god for a favour similar to how people would go to Delphi in ancient Greece to receive an oracle prediction. Even Temple-era Judaism did not follow the ‘weekly schedule’, as the Temple itself was closed except to those offering sacrifices to Yahweh (the Hebrew God’s true name, though it is rarely if ever supposed to be spoken aloud).
Arcanis, however, is something of a mishmash of this, and I am probably as much to blame for this as anyone else. Reading mods written primarily by Henry Lopez, you find that you rarely have more than a single temple in any specific city. This temple is not used for weekly services, and acts more as a headquarters for the priesthood (of the God it is dedicated to) within that city. Larger cities like Savona may have multiple temples dedicated to different Gods, and truly large cities like Naeraanth or Grand Coryan may even have a single “Grand” temple dedicated to the entire Pantheon. In this case, religious services are not performed regularly, and most people’s individual dedications are performed in the home or as part of public holidays and rituals. There may be smaller shrines dedicated to the Gods around the city, and these are tended to by priests, but they are not official churches and may even be a statue or idol in the middle of square which is maintained by a small group of individuals.
As a quick aside, I would like to describe the concept of a Cult Statue. For effectively EVERY religion except Christianity and Islam (and their offshoots) that I know of, they all focus their worship upon what is known as a cult statue. This object, typically an artistic and anthropomorphized representation of the deity, acts as a focus for peoples religion that they can touch and even appeal to. In religions like that of Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia these statues are often considered to house the god in question, or at least act as their physical connection to their people, and are often directly appealed to in prayer or for questions. Because of this, individual gods became associated with specific geographical regions where their statues were found, and temples typically sprung up as homes for “the god” (the cult statue), and it was this reason why there were sometimes thousands of gods honoured in small regions instead of just a few worshiped in common. If the cult statue was ever removed from its ‘home’, many people would refuse to live there any longer and follow their ‘god’ to its new home. This happened when the ‘god’ of Babylon (Marduk) was taken by the Assyrians when the city was sacked, and the city could not properly be rebuilt until the god was returned. Also for reference, this also occurred in Temple-era Judaism as the Temple on the Mount was built to house the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments. While not a statue representing Yahweh specifically (as the Hebrew conceptualization of Yahweh was that of the God of the Universe who couldn’t be contained in a single representation), it served the same function as they were honouring items directly associated with that God.
Near as I can tell, no religion in Arcanis directly makes use of cult statues (or their equivalents), but they do maintain the fact that there should not be more than a single temple to a specific God located within a given community which acts as the centre of devotion of that God. This has broken down in many other adventures (some of mine included) where references are made to ‘auxiliary temples’ and the like, but a review of the ‘official’ adventures and works of PCI shows that at best these ancillary temples are nothing more than larger shrines and do not warrant being called temples. After all, Ansharan priests may operate dozens of soup kitchens in a city, and each may have a shrine dedicated to Her, but they are not themselves temples any more than a post office is a centre of government. They merely are buildings or facilities owned or run by the specific Church in question to facilitate a role or aspect of them. Maybe over time they may overshadow an existing temple, or become a temple in their own right if one did not previously exist, but it is not THE temple of that God.
Following this up is the role of the priest. In many ancient cultures, there was no real vocation of ‘priest.’ If you look at ancient Rome or Greece, priest was at best a part time job or even an elected official rather than a job requiring training for. Even in ancient Egypt where there was a large and established priesthood, you typically only ‘worked’ as a priest for a specific amount of time, and when not ‘on shift’ you were not expected to follow your own vocation. This was true even in Temple Judaism, where while being a priest you had to maintain perfect purity (per documents like Deuteronomy), but when not working you were allowed to ignore these (as long as you repurified before being a priest again). Having men (and women) who dedicated their lives to the priesthood as a vocation, based on faith and not simply secular desires is a relatively new concept. Near as I can tell, it really evolved in its modern form from Rabbinic Judaism following the Jewish Diaspora following the Roman destruction of the Temple when Rabbi’s became the primary religious officials of the Jewish faith after the official Priests of the Temple were lost with its destruction.
In Arcanis, however, effectively every religion that I can see uses dedicated and consecrated priests of their respective Gods. This is mechanically represented by the Anointed Priest Path, and is common among any religion which is applicable for Divine Spell Casting (aside to 5e players, this would be represented by the Cleric class specifically, as well as the Acolyte Background). The ‘traditional’ role of a priest as per societies like ancient Greece simply does not exist outside of minor cults such as the Ghost Scale worship of Herka. Do not get me wrong, there is still a large amount of politics involved, and unlike some religions the moral practices of the priests of the various religions are (depending on the God in question) more lax than what we often expect from, for example, Catholic priests, but they are not simply Julius Caesar being elected to be the High Priest of Jupiter despite not having any particular religious training.
In fact, the ‘organization’ of individual priesthoods within the world of Arcanis goes far and beyond that of almost any religion I can think of even in our world. One good example of this are Templars/Paladins/etc. In Crusade-era Catholicism, there existed many “Orders Militant” which were officially controlled by the Church, but in reality these orders were mostly independent of their parent body which is why groups like the Knights Templar were so easily targeted by secular powers. In Arcanis, however, the templars are literally the private armies of the various Temples of which they are dedicated to, guarding the various temples and shrines and serving as the strong-arm of their specific Church and Temple. The Holy Champion Orders are somewhat more independent and would be more akin to the various Catholic Orders in our world, but even then there seems to be a much tighter leesh on them than existed in our world. Hell, it is know that Temples in the Coryani Empire specifically sponsor entire LEGIONS of non-Templars, which while officially dedicated to the Emperor and to Coryan in specific, should the Emperor ever break faith with the temple in question there is some doubt as to if that legion would side with the church or the Emperor.
Moving onto actual examples in canon, the most detailed religion in the Arcanis setting is that of the Mother Church of Coryan. This religion is a polytheist faith in a group of twelve specific gods. The actual religion (the mechanical organization, not simply the presence of faith) has specific consecrated priests whose entire vocation is the practice of religion. Actually, polytheist is probably not the best word, since unlike the First Imperium Church and (officially) the Khitani Kalindruhl, each temple is effectively its own unit. As such, it would probably be best to refer to the Mother Church as HENOTHEIST as each temple acknowledges the existence of the other Gods, they are typically viewed as lesser compared to their own patron. This is strongly seen in that each temple has its own clergy, infrastructure, and followers distinct from the other Gods, all while officially recognizing the Mother Church as their sovereign body, similar to how the Holy Roman Emperor was the titular ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, but practically each fief was an independent body.
As stated before, the First Imperium Church (as far as we know) and the Khitani Kalindruhl (officially, at least) are true polytheist Churches, and this also probably held true for the ssethrics during the days of the Empire of Yahssremore. Nowadays, however, few churches except for the Milandisian Orthodoxy Church among the ‘Known Lands’ of Onara match the level of integration seen in the Mother Church of Coryan (and even then the Milandisians are a bit picky with Nier, Neroth, and Sarish). In cases of the Church of the Dark Triumvirate in Canceri, it never seems like any of the other Gods of the Pantheon of Man seem like they are acknowledged, and definitely not as equals to the Big Three. The Varn gods in Ssethregore also are ‘officially’ a Pantheon (or a polytheon, I guess), but from what I can read it does not look like the worshipers of those gods overly like each other, so it may be a similar situation to Coryan, with maybe only the Naga Emperor being the ‘glue’ which ties four separate religions together.
The elorii represent a big question mark for me in this analysis, since I cannot say we know enough about their religion to call it one way or another. Officially, during the Golden Age Belisarda and the Elemental Lords were all worshiped, suggesting a polytheistic religion. However, the more that is revealed of ancient Eloran culture suggests that the different races of elorii were much more divided from one another than we previously thought, so that might not be the case. Additionally, while the elorii venerate the Elemental Lords, my read of their religion basically says that they always considered Belisarda to be the ‘senior partner’ of that relationship as she is a God and the other four were merely gods (notice G vs. g), which would push the elorii into henotheistic territory. That said, all of our perspective on that comes from a time when only Belisarda was still alive, so this may be a modern interpretation and re-evaluation based on reality.
We also know that there is a certain amount of syncretism between religions the further away you get from major population and political centres. For example, like the Turks and Mongols of our own history, the Yhing Hir of the Hinterlands maintain their own religious traditions which incorporate shamanistic practices common of tribal people with more settled religions. Tribal peoples typically live ‘closer’ to the land, and as such would be more likely to appeal to the spirits of the land for boons rather than far-away gods (especially if those are the gods of settled people in their territory). We know that the Coryani and Milandisians have long tried exporting their religion to the Yhing Hir, and there are many aspects of ‘normal’ Pantheon of Man worship that exist there (especially Hurrian as the Storm Lord). However, like the Mongols of Genghis Khan’s time, a Yhing Hir who officially worships Hurrian would be just as likely to prey to or offer sacrifices to nature spirits of the plains before planting or harvesting crops, and likely would not see much of a contradiction. After all, why risk angering one set of ‘gods’ to appease another?
The only real exception to this that we know of is the Temple of Aii. All other societies that we know have various mixes of poly-, heno-, and pantheism, but Aii is the only truly monotheistic religion that we have. While we know very little about its actual theology (for more info, please look at the Appendix in the Blessed Lands book!), one thing that is clear is that the followers of Aii consider Him to be the All-Powerful God, and all other Gods being simple aspects of the One True God. While this looks like a Judeo-Christian view, and in some ways it is, this almost seems to me to be almost more true of the Bahai faith, which is an offshoot of Islam. In this religion, the followers of Bahai believe that (from my understanding) that all prior faiths maintain PART of the true nature of God (in this case, the One True God), but for various reasons they cannot see the whole truth. It is only by looking at ALL religions that man can truly see the reality that is God. I am not sure if this is an accurate view of Aii and His worshipers, but some of the traits of The Prophet seen in “Vexing Priests” led me to equate the two religions together more than the Hebrew religion (the first ‘real’ monotheistic religion) or any of its other successors (Christianity and Islam).
So what does this say about how people in the actual world of Arcanis treat religion? Well, for that we can look easily at our own world. Throughout history, the overwhelming majority of humanity was officially a member of a given religion, and would honour their gods as appropriate. However, only a tiny fraction of the followers of the religion actively LIVED the religion at any given time, with priests and shamans and such usually squirreling away power among themselves. It was through these people that divine power flowed, and this is seen strongly in Arcanis with both Divine and Primal spell casting (even though in our world it was often literacy and knowledge, especially in Egypt). The common person would not know more than the myths of their respective gods, but they would constantly have the existance of that god proved to them by its priests (or shamans) casting miracles before their very eyes. To the uneducated person, this would be enough to constantly reinforce belief in the gods, even if it does not mean that they are zealous followers of that god. For those who are more educated, however, knowledge of the metaphysics of magic would probably dilute the ‘power’ of these magical miracles somewhat, which leads to groups like the Mourners in Silence.
It is (in part) because of this that the Mother Church of Coryan takes such a dim view of arcane casters. For them, these people are playing with the powers that should only be done in the name of the Gods themselves and bending it to their will. More cynical priests, however, would probably admit that a bigger worry for them than ‘the abuse of the Gifts of the Gods’ is that these casters prove to the common folk that these miracles are not the exclusive domain of the priesthood, or divinely gifted groups like vals (psionic magic). As with our world, the proliferation of knowledge and power has an effect of eroding the powerbase of the people who have long monopolized that power. However, unlike things like literacy in our world (and the spreading of the bible though the use of the printing press and translations into vernacular languages), magic is more difficult to casually pass on, so the priesthoods have the power to use the literal ‘fear of God’ to demonize the people who wield the Arcanum outside of their control.
I have tried to end this essay in a few different ways up to this point, but all of them started devolving into arguments about Church and State, and honestly there is still more than enough of these arguments for me to risk raising them here. In fact, it was for these very reasons that this essay has sat on my computer, unfinished, for literal months. As such, I will just leave this here for your enjoyment, education, or at least thought-provoking reading (even if those thoughts are negative). I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong about this, but it continues to be my hope that it will spark discussion and interest in these topics both in and out of the universe.
Legends of Arcanis Campaign Staff
Initial Author Contact/Adventure Vetting
Haakon Marcus val'Virdan, Divine Holy Judge of Nier
Ruma val'Vasik, Martial Crusader and Master of the Spear
Jorma Osterman, Arcane Coryani Battlemage