The Evolution of Faith
It is common that many RPG faiths are either simulations of the Greek and Roman pantheons, or copies of the Roman Catholic Church. The following treatise explores the possible evolution of faith from the worship of local rocks and stars to the coming of the incarnate god among men. It takes into account several factors.
1. Godhood is something that is open to be gained or alternately lost by any number of spirit/elemental/ghostly beings.
2. The Gods jockey for power among themselves in terms of numbers of worshippers and temples.
3. No one talks about Fight Club
4. There are Elder Gods (IA IA Cthulu!) who are actually responcible for making things like creation, time, living things and the gods that followed after them are the gods that are percieved by humanity. The modern gods are their offspring/pretenders/newcomers, etc.
Some readers may find this work blasphemous, heretical, or just plain wrong. To you, I offer sincere apology and say that this is a work of fiction, not intended to challenge or offend any one religious view.
At this stage, often the most primitive stage, humanity worships whatever potent spirit or entity is the most handy and willing to reciprocate the gesture. Totem spirits, celestials, demons, elementals, and ghosts are all very viable choices. The most common sort of Localized Paganism is the cult of Ancestor Worship, followed by totemic and animistic faiths. Demon faiths tend to be spectacularly violent and evil and a scourge to their neighbors.
Ancestor Worship, veneration of the spirits of the dead, is a very usable form of faith. If there are living members, then there are going to be dead members. Through the natural ability or mediums and oracles, communication can be held with the dead. They offer advice, wisdom, guidance in exchange for offerings made in family shrines and public mausoleums. Aside from the boon of their wisdom and experience, the Ancestor Cult lacks the heavy firepower of other clergy.
The Totemic Faith and Animistic Faith deal with similar sorts of beings. The Totemic faith adopts an animal spirit as a guide and protector. More warlike groups often adopt predators, while more peaceful societies choose animals known for their higher traits rather than their hunting adeptness. Thus the primitive orcish war band might venerate Worg, a violent and savage wolf spirit, the most sedentary gathering society of the nutkin Halflings might espouse worship of Brown Squirrel for his cunning and wisdom at avoiding the Children of Worg. The Animistic Faith adopts an inanimate object as the subject of its devotion, such as a sacred mountain, blessed pool, holy river, etc. The spirit of the object, invariably an elemental benefits from the devotion and while there is not much wisdom or hearth advice forthcoming, a tribe who venerate the potent fire spirit of a volcano can expect some pyrotechnics should they be assaulted by outsiders.
The Celestial Faith venerates a particular celestial body, pretty much always the Sun given its regularity, and necessity to life. Many agricultural societies will adopt a celestial faith, worshipping the sun and the passage of the seasons. Some consider the adoption of a celestial patron over a totemic, ancestral, or animistic patron as a sign of progress on the part of that society. Oddly though, if two societies worship the same celestial body through different means, there is seldom any form of negation. If the sun-worshipping Children of Karnak, who venerate a woman clad in gold bearing a brass scythe and an hourglass encounter the Pezzites who venerate Kushluk the Sky Father, who appears as an eagle composed of flame both deities co-exist though there will be visible tension between the two societies.
The Demonic, or Infernal faith is one of the more disturbing of faiths. Espousing a demon, devil, or other highly malefic entity this society builds monuments of blood and bone, offer human sacrifice to their dark god and are violent and warlike. More disturbing is the fact that the demon benefactor offers both wisdom, tainted as it may be, and can manifest its power to defend its people. Demonic worshipping societies flourish so long as they have enemies to attack and sacrifice, becoming wealthy, powerful, and jaded beyond imagination. Only when they are faced with massive opposition, or once they conquer their surroundings does the demonic cult falter. Opposition can cause the retreat of the demonic patron, and once there are no more foes, the demonic patron will expect the faithful to sacrifice their own to appease its hunger.
A Note on Sacrifice - As Manfred expresses, it would not be uncommon for many of the above sets of dieties to accept, or even ask for signifigant or even human sacrifice. Now the question that arises is what would then seperate a little god of a river asking for a criminal to be drowned in her waters once a year and the patron demon who asks that a human be sacrificed in his name on roughly the same time table? Intention plays a large portion of solving said question. While the above mentioned water god asks this tribute for her own reasons, the demon or malefic entity is going to spread misery, suffering, pain, oppress others and do all of those other nasty things demons do. He will have his sacrifice, where-as there might be villagers who would willingly offer themselves to their patron water god in exchange for good fishing, or good weather, or just a potent blessing on their families.
In its core concepts the Unified Pagan faith is not to different from localized paganism. The truth of the matter is that the local system of paganism does not survive regular contact with outside societies for very long. The constant blending of ideas and such inevitably cause a clash between the two interacting societies. In the previously mentioned solar deity, both societies could not claim the primacy of their divinity over the other. In some cases this is simply solved by warfare. This can be a simple as a violent struggle between the shaman, witch doctors and what not for the popular support of the populace to an organized genocide of the obvious heretics, IE the losers. Now less common is the non-violent option in which the two or more associated faiths are fused into a syncretistic pantheon. One god will submit to the other, perhaps taking the auspice of being the divinity of the morning, while the other reigns as god of the sun. In this manner large pantheons can be formed.
There are a few things that are set in the formation of the Unified Pagan pantheon. The spirits of the dead very rarely ever gain enough potence to become members of a pantheon, but it is not uncommon for them to be venerated as heroes and saints of the faith. Demons are antagonistic to other entities and will not willing share their power or worshippers. They will accept the tribute of others and take other deities as subordinates but this is rare. Celestials, totems and elementals have little problem sharing power in these situations but it has been repeated regularly that celestials tend to rise in the power structure while the more apathetic elementals generally only maintain their status quo.
The typical fantasy setting uses the Unified Pagan faith. These pantheons, once formed, can be quite strong and durable, with membership changing on occasion. This roll-over keeps the deities on their feet and dealing with their flocks, rather than sliding back and just letting the prayers and offerings roll in with little in return. These pantheons are also stronger when it comes to facing other pantheons for worshippers and turf, able to resist exceptionally strong local pagan faiths, especially the militant celestial and demonic founded faiths.
The Unified Pagan faith does have several weaknesses. The main is that it lacks a strong central structure, instead functioning as a confederation of temples and priests. When confronted by a powerful monotheistic power, many Unified Pagan faiths begin to fragment as they loose worshippers, temples and turf to the more focused power and organization of the lone deity. Some suffer even worse attrition when confronted with lesser members of the pantheon defecting to the lone deity and assuming secondary positions of power. (Angels and saints, etc)
The Monotheist Pantheon
This is the ascension of a single deity over all the rest, to the point where the other deities are no longer peers to the one. The other gods become subordinate to the will of the one, and are placed as lieutenants within the ranks of the elders spiritual ranks. It is possible for the Unified Pagan step to be completely passed over. A potent divinity might rise in power alone, possibly through lack of competition, or simply eliminating said competition.
The most common sort of Monotheistic pantheon is the celestial patron, most often the sun. The power gained was not easy, so the Monotheist god is seldom aggressive in challenging other pantheons unless it is assured of its success, usually by way of defector or the works of its clergy. The weaknesses of the monotheist pantheon often spring from the authoritarian perspective of the clery and diety. Some monotheistic deities can rule their domains with the sheer terror of suffering the ire of the god, or being expelled from the fold. Many see the celestial deity as becoming powerful to the point of becoming autistic, or emotionally detached from its congregations
While the Celestial Patron is the most common sort of divinity to assume the solo mantle, the venerable spirits of the dead can rise in power, having a connection to humanity (or their own varigated races) that many of the other sorts of spirits lack. The Ancestral God is likely to be bound by very traditional and formal views, holding onto actions and precepts that it held in life and early godhood. The tenets of funeral pomp and circumstance take priority, as do offerings to the spirits of the deceased and a positive view towards the elderly and experienced
Totemic and Animistic lone Gods are rare, as they lack the human (or other race) perspective, being almost alien in thought themselves. Animistic dieties are invariably drawn into the great conflict of the elemental courts, fire against water, earth against air. This distracts them from their duties to their followers, often leaving the door open for new faiths to spring up under the elemental’s heels. The Totemic god, being a spirit of nature, is repulsed by the practices of civilization, the building of roads, felling trees, generally mucking up the enviroment to breed larger and larger numbers. Very similar to the Celtic and Druidic faiths, the Totemic faith espouces connection with nature, something that is diametrically opposed to developing cities, technology, and the other things that allow a population to boom.
The monotheist pantheon has the advantage of a religious caste demanded by the deity, as well as a regimented and hierarchical structure of priests and high priests, clergy and clerics. This can be a boon in terms of alms, and gathering resources to a common good. It also creates an isolated realm where the clergy, and by proxy the god are distanced from the common folk. This is the prime adversary of the monotheist pantheon, the apathy between the god and congregation.
The least common sort of Monotheist faith is that of the Demon-God. This comes from a an internal and external source. As a demon grows bloated on power and the misery and suffering inflicted on the enemies of its followers, it demands more and more. This places a strain on the society that is hosted by the demon, driving them to larger and more violent epics of conquest for more land and more victims for the altars. Consequently, those faiths that border the turf of the Demon-God are much more willing to work together to eliminate such a powerful force of destruction, evil, and chaos. In some places, attrition by conversion weakens the demon-god, and in others bloody holy wars are fought out between the powers involved.
The Chosen One and the End of Time!
A common thread through many real religions is a time of judgement, a reckoning, and end of days. In some cases this is part of a plan to increase the dieties hold over the flock, claiming to destroy the world if the people are unfaithful and the like. Conversely the end of time scenario can be a warning of an eventual showdown between powerful rivals, such as Ragnarok’s confrontation between the Aesir/Vanir, and the giants, trolls, Fenrir and the like.
The creation of a messiah/chosen one/avatar can be a display of the god’s power, be it simply the moon touched daughter of the village wise woman or a fragment of a god born into the world. It creates a living link between the god and his followers that exists outside the structure of the church. This can be a correcting action for the organization of the clergy, a show of force to warn off other dieites looking for a piece of the local action (be it local in the valley, or local in the continent)
The Godless Faith
This form of worship is a highly enlightened faith that does not revere any deity, rather it honors the greater concept of good, often anthropomorphized into the form of a figure who has attained the highest state of enlightenment. Now it is easy to assume that this faith is singularly the province of the side of good, light, etc. That is not the case as there can very easily be faiths who espouse the virtues of nihilism and the void as ascendant over light and materialism. The Godless faith doesnt deny the divinity of other gods, nor does it try to challenge their claims of power and authority, all fall under the umbrella of greater cosmic concepts. The godless faith is often the strongest, and most enduring as it is internalized, and while it does have temples, shrines, and clergy, they are more guides that figures of power.
The Monastic tradition is very popular among adherents of the godless faith. Meditation, exercise and perfection of the mental and physical self as conduits to the greater concept are hallmarks of the godless faith.