Thursday, August 9, 2012

Religion in D&D: Faith in the Forgotten Realm's Shadowdale

It's late and I'm musing on some of the things I did to deepen religion and illustrate faith-in-practice in the Dales.  I was heavily influenced by Walter Burkert's Religion in Ancient Greece and Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane.

Let me zero in on one specific area of the Dalelands--Shadowdale.  It has three temples, one to Tymora (goddess of luck), one to Lathander (the god of mornings and light), and one to Chauntea (the earth goddess).  Each one is a cultic center and each has its own rites, rituals, and means of currying favor with the gods.  In addition, there's a shrine to Mystra (goddess of magic) and Tyr (god of justice) in the village environs.

Let's start with Chauntea, the earth goddess.  This temple is vitally important to the village, as it's surrounded by farms and therefore very rural and agriculturally oriented.  The priests of Chauntea are keepers of agricultural lore and as such, they are called upon by the people to perform ritual cleansing ceremonies and blessings of the soil before it is tilled.  The details are simple in my head, but if the characters investigate, I can make them more complex.  Perhaps a procession around the boundaries of the field is conducted and holy water is sprinkled along the border to ward off evil or blight.  Songs and chants are sung during this procession and incense is burned.  Then, maybe, an offering of last year's harvest is given to Chauntea and burned at the center of the field.  The officiating priest plows the first furrow and sows the ashes into the ground.

Simple.  And yet it creates a deep and powerful meaning for the players.  The gods are real, their favor is curried.  They are called upon to aid the works of their devotees.  Although each NPC and player may have a patron deity, the inhabitants of the world will seek the benevolence of the gods.  Rituals in which sacred time is experienced and sacred events are reenacted may be crucial to the cults of each temple, bringing the celebrants and the god in closer communion.  For example, at the dawning of the sun during the winter solstice, the first rays shine upon a golden disc in the Temple of Lathander.  Before that, the priests may intone drearily that all is primordial darkness and chaos rules.  Once the sun breaches the horizon, the priests will praise Lathander with song, crying out that light is born and order is generated--the sacred reenactment of the first dawn in which the sun is reborn and begins its journey from the southern to the northern skies brings the priests and the people of Shadowdale into closer communion with Lathander.

Each town may have their own traditions and rituals.  In Shadowdale, during the midsummer festival, the children will make small paper or wooden boats, each with a wafer, berry, copper coin, or other minor offering, and set it into the River Ashaba as an offering to the water wizard who died there and gave the river its name centuries ago.  In Mistledale, they throw flowers into the river in the wizard's memory during the festival and ask the wizard to protect the village.  These offerings may, indeed, bear fruit for if Zhentil Keep sends forces to conquer the settlements, the river may remember these deeds and rise up against the Zhentarim and protect those who made the offerings.

Thus, the wizard Ashaba is a saint to the people of both Shadowdale and Mistledale.  Sylune, the Witch of Shadowdale, who fell defending the settlement from a dragon, may also be worshiped and honored as a saint, with offerings of flowers, coins, incense, food, or candles at her grave and shrine beneath the village citadel.  The remains of her hut where she died may be the site of an annual gathering of all the women in the village, who perform a ceremony that reenacts her brave death and commemorates her sacrifice.

When my players enter my worlds, I do endeavor to make those worlds real and breathing, even if I didn't create those worlds myself.  I still want the players to feel that these worlds are alive.  I want them to know that clerics and paladins aren't just character classes with duties demanded by role-playing mechanics.   They are a part of a religious continuum and have social and religious roles to play in the party and the world at large.

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