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Playing Dice With The Universe

The Jupiter in Zeus

by Bill Kte'pi
Mar 03,2005


Playing Dice With The Universe

The Jupiter in Zeus

We're not talking about heresy this month per se (next month will be a little closer), but we are talking about the way religions overlap and interact with each other. Consider it a sidebar if you like, or an interlude before we get back to those heretics.

In the real world, religions don't emerge from the void and reside in neat little boxes color-coded by alignment. Early Christianity and rabbinical Judaism both originated in first-century Palestine under Roman rule, and bear the marks thereof; just as they were formed in a particular time and place, so too were they defined in opposition to each other. Early Christians debated whether the God who was the Father of Christ was the God of the Jews and their scriptures; Jews considered what to do about Christians who said they worshipped the same God but followed none of the ritual practices or proscriptions (and, for that matter, about those who did). Islam, later, both rejected and embraced different parts of both faiths, while Mandaeans rejected nearly all of it and claimed John the Baptist as one of their number.

Practitioners of Voodoo, Santeria, and Candomble blend African religion with Catholicism instead of replacing one with the other -- incorporating African gods as Catholic saints, much as Rome had incorporated Hellenic gods into its Etruscan-Italic tradition, finding Jupiter in Zeus. Both Caodaists in Vietnam and suburban Catholics in the United States mix Buddhism with their Catholicism, in very different ways.

This isn't a modern phenomenon -- if anything, it's less common now -- and it isn't an inevitable one, either. Despite somewhat syncretic origins -- syncretism is part of what we're talking about, but its stitches don't quite cover the whole baseball -- Islam has proven nearly invulnerable to further processing, either in syncretism with other religions or by giving rise to new faiths from its roots. (Some consider Islam a syncretic influence on Sikhism, and there are a number of groups we might count as having grown out of Islam, so the "nearly" there is needed -- but the numbers are pretty small when you're talking about a thousand year stretch of Western history.) Likewise, both Christianity and Judaism have become much more likely to denominationalize than to provide the historical background for separate religions: the differences between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and mainline Protestantism are, to many, as great as those between early Christians and their Jewish contemporaries. But while some Christians challenge the LDS Church's identification as a Christian denomination, there is no serious pressure to define it separately.

One of the ongoing themes of this column is realistic portrayals of religion -- all the elements of religious practice, belief, and institution which are usually left out of games (and sometimes fiction in general) -- and this is one such. Religions relate to each other. They come from or respond to each other. Not always, not exclusively, and not just for the sake of it -- but often enough that there are a lot of campaigns out there where it would make sense for the campaign religions to do the same thing.

We're talking about two main things here: syncretism (which for the purposes of this column is the process by which two separate religions are combined), and a new religion being formed with ties to beliefs, figures, or institutions in the old one. There's no easy name for that latter one that I can think of, I'm afraid, so we'll call it Fred. A rose by any other name, and all that.

The number of hypothetical situations involving fictional religions in fictional worlds is so great that I'm reluctant to codify guidelines as to how and when and why they'd interact or overlap, so I'm not gonna: but the main thing to remember is that in the case of syncretism, the two (or more) religions must have significant contact with one another. The New World syncretic faiths mentioned are the result -- to oversimplify -- of African slaves being brought into a strictly Christian culture; Cao Dai was founded when Vietnam was under the rule of Christian (French) colonial government, after generations of missionary efforts; the popularity of Buddhism among mainstream American Catholics began in the 1950s, when the aftermath of World War II had increased awareness of and interest in Japanese culture, dovetailing with a wave of religious literature in which religion was boiled down to its simplest and least controversial elements.

You would have to bend over backwards to come up with a convincing history of a syncretic faith revering both Takhisis -- from Krynn, Dragonlance's setting -- and Mystra, from the Forgotten Realms. Please don't do it.

As we've been doing lately, let's look at how all this works through examples. This month we'll deal with syncretism; next month, Fred. (Yeah, it's a shorter column than usual, but I was out of town for two weeks.)

Syncretism: The Changeling Church and the Dreamtime

The Changeling Church: Growing slowly out of folk belief -- oral legendry and regional traditions first, later recorded by scribes and codified, redacted, and interpreted by the scholar-chiefs of the republican period -- the Changeling Church is the national religious institution of the mythical kingdom of Bostonia, located at the heart of all the worlds, the hub of the universe. The core of the Changeling Church is a belief in unseen fairy creatures who influence minor events -- there are various tales of the creation of the world and of Man, and a vague belief in deity or deities, but such supernatural beings are far removed from the concerns of the world, and do not traffic in its affairs.

In the earliest days of Bostonia, changelings were believed to bring babies to their mothers, playing much the same role storks do in nursery rhyme. It was because of this prenatal contact with "the other side," the fairy realm, that humans were different from other animals -- and likewise, this contact formed a bond between each person and the fairy who ushered them across the threshold of birth. The bond not only made humans susceptible to fairy influence -- necessitating a host of arcane superstitions and complex rituals to avoid accidental offense of those strange people -- but it gave each human power over his own fairy, if he could only find it.

Sometimes, though, the fairy responsible for bringing a child across the threshold would take its place instead -- which is, of course, where the Changeling Church gets its name. In primitive times, children born with defects or developmental problems were considered changelings -- and in some parts of the world, they were put to death, feared as spies for the fairy realm.

In time, though, the Bostonians rejected those beliefs, at least in the main -- many do still feel that miscarriages, problematic births, and deformed children are caused by fairy influence, but the children are not considered literal changelings. It was the so-called Changeling King -- who as a newborn prince had survived a beating intended to put him to death for his withered left arm and misshapen head -- whose death at the hands of Bostonian rebels inspired the founding of the Changeling Church. The name was chosen as a reminder of the kingdom's darker days, and to reflect the queer, amoral nature of the fairy realm, the actions of which are neither good nor evil but may result in either.

The Dreamtime: Southwest of Bostonia, across the riverlands that lace across the black mountains, are the Auslands, where the Auslanders have lived for thousands of years -- they were the first to stop the expansion of the Old Empire, and were therefore responsible for its first failure, the chink that led to its eventual implosion. Living in a mineral-poor land -- the obsidian-ridden rock of the black mountains wasn't useful to industry -- the Auslanders never caught up to their neighbors technologically, but took excellent care of what metal goods they traded for, and made heirlooms and prized possessions of even the simplest cast-iron cookpots and steel daggers.

Although they spent much of their lives travelling, the Auslanders didn't consider themselves nomads -- because they never left their lands. The Auslands would always be theirs, they had been taught: must always be theirs, because nowhere else could be their home. Everywhere else, the Dreamtime would feel wrong.

In the Auslander creation stories, the great slumbering gods -- as their last act before embarking on their voyage of sleep -- created the Dreamtime, a silvery pool floating above the formlessness which became what we know as creation. Some say the gods drift on the surface of the Dreamtime, far above us, and that their dreams sink down to us; whatever the cause, the known world is the sediment which has settled at the bottom of the Dreamtime, the hills and valleys and plants and animals which make up the stuff of our lives.

Everything in the world came into being because of something that happened in the Dreamtime -- what we know, what we see, is like the scuffs and stains left on a kitchen floor. Priests interpret the world to better understand what lies above, and the sleeping gods who gave it form -- and the Auslands have been home to the Auslanders since the first days of Man. As each man and woman dies, their spirits take their places in the Dreamtime, and add to the story.

Syncretism: When years of drought and hot summers led to the wildfires that destroyed much of the forests in western Bostonia, the refugees fled by river -- many of them dying along the way, as their ships were besieged by the enemies whose borders they skirted, and by the sicknesses carried by some of the fish they were forced to eat. Those who survived a winter in the black mountains made their way to the Auslands, where they built a rough lakeside settlement before encountering their first roaming clan of Auslanders.

Things went as these things do. There were wars and intermarriages and treaties and misunderstandings, trade and hatred and fascination and fetishizing, and eventually -- as time passed, as a locomotive-based trade route opened up and brought affordable ore and metal to the Auslands, as the native Auslanders and the Bostonian immigrants banded together to prevent the invasion of their lands by the New Empire -- the cultures became more or less meshed together.

Certainly, most of the roaming clans themselves remain pure native Auslander; and likewise, the northern cities are almost entirely Bostonian. But between those two extremes are many greys, and the language spoken in the Auslands uses Bostonian subject-verb order and Auslander adjectival phrase formation, just as the average man on the street has both the dark skin of the native and the early-onset grey hair of the immigrant. Religion has developed along similar lines: although the Auslander Changeling Church prospers, and has both native and immigrant followers, and traditional Auslander homes still practice the same rituals their ancestors have done for thousands of years, the so-called New Church thrives as well.

The New Church emphasizes the similarities between the religions, which both sides found remarkable in their early days of contact: both involve absent creator gods, "a world beyond the visible" (the Dreamtime, the fairy realm), and supernatural intercessors who influence the world and can be appealed to (ancestor spirits, changelings). There is a complicated theological explanation for the nature of changelings -- they are, as perhaps fits their name, neither fully human nor fully fairy, but rather human spirits which have been transformed by contact with the fairy realm and persist beyond human death.

Many old-fashioned Auslanders are upset by the New Church, because they feel that essentially calling the ancestor spirits "fairies," and ascribing magical powers to them beyond their existence in the Dreamtime, is disrespectful. So, too, are some ethnic Bostonians uncomfortable with the New Church's use of old Auslander rituals, even if they have been "easternized" a good deal. Both sides see the New Church as too close to magic for their liking -- too odd, too occultish.

The majority simply take no notice of it, mind you -- the New Church isn't as geographically widespread as its "parents," and so it tends to be found only in towns or neighborhoods where it is the dominant faith.

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