Friday, February 28, 2014

Demi-Gods & Gods

I have discussed this subject before, but not for a long, long time, and at any rate it gives me an opportunity to cease tearing people down.  About time, huh?

I don't know what I can do about making people more familiar with my world.  Fact is, the world is so deep, so extensive, and incorporates so many different philosophies, as I write them out on the blog they steadily disappear into the backlog of time, until they're so lost in the hundreds of thousands of words I've written that I can't find them, either.  I suppose what I should try to do is write a single, encompassing overview of everything ... a few sentences, then a link to an argument I've made.

Sounds dull, though.  I shall give it some thought.

Yesterday, to update the sage study descriptions I'm adding to the new work blog, I had to make a distinction between "demi-gods" and "gods."  It's not a distinction that many would feel the need to make, and for most, it is a reference to importance.  Zeus, for instance, would be a 'God' while someone minor, like Atlas, a titan, would be a 'demi-god.'  Or something along those lines.

My world, however, being based on earth history, culture and geography, includes the notion of the Christian God and Allah, formless deities that don't fit the Zeus appearing as a Bull to sleep with Europa type myths. From my perspective, the dividing line between demi-gods and gods is divided between supernatural type beings that have form and resemble living creatures (demi-gods) and omnipresent entities without form that comprise everything that exists in the world (gods).  Once I wrote about how one tear drop of Isis was said to be the source of the Nile, giving the sense that the Goddess Isis was of such incomprehensible size that a mere tear could form the mightiest river in the Egyptian universe - that is, too big to lust after the cute girl on the riverbank.  This is what I mean by 'god.'

A better distinction might be found, however, in the motivations of a demi-god versus the motivations of a god.  After all, quite reasonably the Christian god was a mere demi-god, particularly in the days when he was called Yahweh and was the son of a Sumerian goddess, Ana, the Mesopotamian counterpart of Isis, that was - according to the Sumerians - the mothergoddess of all that exists in the world, and from which everything and everyone comes.  The Sumerians perceived that the birth of the universe would obviously come from a woman, and to facilitate that myth created a rather strange tale about how the mother gives birth to a son (Ana to Yahweh) who then matures and impregnates the mother, who then kills the child before giving birth to the same son, over and over.  The reader can find this myth appearing again and again, for it was very popular.  Ana, incidentally, is the root of In-anna (also nin-anna), the same Goddess that's mentioned in the Dieties and Demigods, a 3rd millenium BCE goddess that was a re-incarnation of the original Ana that goes back to around 8,000 BCE (usually associated with white, hence the 'white goddess').  The name pops up all over, in the Irish Mother Goddess Anann, in the Greek mythology as Di-ana (where she's downgraded as the opposite of Greek Apollonian male-dominated pantheon to be goddess of the Moon), in Britain as Brit-anna, mother goddess of the island, and pleasantly as St. Anne, the mother of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus (I can't resist giving a 'religious' link to that last, since it always shows how little research believers do).  Polytheism is so much fun.

So supposing that Yahweh was once a figure such as Thor or Odin or any of the other figures that people like to think of has having an appearance and personality, how was it that Yahweh broke forward to becoming the omnipresent, omnipotent entity without fault or substance, that no longer needs to speak to Moses's in this world?  Today, he's got Jesus' mother for that stuff.  Well, my theory, as it applies to my game world (and what matter does it have otherwise, it's all make-believe anyway), would be that enough people believed in him hard enough, putting him over the top of God status.  Allah is really just another name for him, and the Jews were the group that gave him his grand start, so most of the time where it comes to one great god, Yahwah, or Jehovah, or just 'God,' is the top being.

Of course, another 'god' might be Shiva, if we want to recognize that Krishna is the demi-god in the mythological salt-mines, and Buddha can probably be said to have made the grade, and for my money I'm prepared to grant major status to the old gods of Cthulhu, being that they haven't actually appeared yet on this plane of existence.  Perhaps they made this plane of existence, and Yahweh is a recent player on it, getting credit for another god's work.  Still, Yahweh is certainly a god now, for there's very little chance (in the 17th century at least, when my world occurs) of his belief structure being toppled.

Now, a demi-god has trouble in that department.  If we stipulate that a god's influence, power, strength, survival even, is dependent upon the number and dedication of that demi-gods worshippers, than certainly there are some supernatural figures in the world that are just getting by on the local interest of a village or two in New Guinea (and elsewhere, obviously).  Heck, it is tough going for these demi-gods.  They can barely get enough food and blood from the paltry sacrifices the villages can afford annually.  And there's always the danger that the next villages over will rise up and kill everyone in the valley, and where is the demi-god then? Existence hanging on a thread, that's that real deal.

Given that all you've got to grant your immortality is the survival of a few crummy villages, are you really going to refrain from talking directly to a shaman or two?  No, you're going to talk to those boys every day, and give them a lot of direct intervention.  Thing is, you don't have much power, so your intervention is pretty low-key, but you do what you can.  You stir them up against threats, such as a party coming over the hill, and you talk to the party as straight as you can in the off chance that the party might get on your side.  Then again, if you see that damn cross, the one that says that Yahweh johnny come lately bastard who's been getting all the hoopla lately is loved by this bunch of interlopers, you're going to get your people hopped up and freaked out pretty damn quick.  Screw reasoning with these strangers ... just kill them.  Kill them all.

And maybe, maybe if you luck out, and some genius gets born inside your religion, who can work as a crackerjack missionary, drawing together a lot of villages in your stead to worship you, you can pick up some extra powers and knowledge, and start aiding that fellow in conquering enemies and spreading your message throughout the countryside.  Maybe, just maybe, you might build yourself up to the point where a world-wide expansion could occur, because people from your personal bailywick set up colonies in the new world, or conquer their way through Africa ... but that's not likely to happen.  Chances are, you'll have your hey-day, then you'll experience a long, long demise as you watch areas you once mattered in disappear, and your shrines are torn down or buried, and the books telling of your greatness are lost and rewritten so badly that some other demi-god gets the credit, until finally there's just one old grandmother of 80 dying in a hut somewhere in the jungle, that no one listens to any more, with whom you have long conversations while you both wait for her to die, and you too.

Perspective.  D&D and gaming is all about perspective.  Not yours, but the potential perspective of any entity you can imagine.  Want to build your world into something stunning?  Gain some perspective.


Jomo Rising said...

My Christian friends and I have had enough Ancient History, and are secure enough in our faiths, to have lively talks on the genealogy of the Judeo-Christian God. We've played around with An, possibly the first of the Sumerian gods (starting as monotheistic.) I like the various forms of El, myself. As our understanding of Yahweh is comparatively late, we accept that the name of a single, father-god entity, that has existed eternally, could be any assortment of things. Going deep and playing with this stuff is SO much more helpful in creating a pantheon for your D&D world, much more helpful than a D&D book or supplement, complete with stats and fixed motivations. Worship is also fun to play with. Is there a god if it is not worshiped? How does worship 'power up' a god?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, no mechanics for it at this time, since I don't game run gods .... but generally, they must power up according to how many peoples they can bring to the table, and how much talent those peoples have. More cultures, more people; but gods think in massive time scales, and my longest campaign has run just 3 and a half years of game time ... so the gods seem fairly static in comparison, and therefore how they power up isn't a concern.

I only meant to help explain their motivations in the here and now.

And ... yes, if a god has no worshippers, the god evaporates.

Jomo Rising said...

The difference in god and god-like. If a god ignores worship, like some of the Great Old Ones, then I guess they would be less than gods, even if, by their nature, they are more powerful than gods... Interesting dynamic.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The great old ones would have uncounted numbers of worshippers, wouldn't they? Just not on earth.

I should clarify. The worship needs only to go one way. The god does not need to reward worshippers, so long as the god absolutely has them; only a god needful of worshippers may willingly court them. Gods like the all-seeing God have plenty, and can afford to be aloof.

James said...

Sounds similar to the AD&D setting Planescape (or, on the literature side, American Gods), where beliefs created realities and all that, though on a more direct level. It is an interesting idea, and one I have always thought was fun to play with.

A question, though: why would you need a distinction between "demi-gods" (your definition, such as Zeus and Thor) and "gods," as wouldn't that serve to obfuscate the difference between your version of demi-gods and actual demi-gods?

If you merely abide by the premise that a god's power is roughly equivalent to the strength of his following, wouldn't the obvious differences in how widespread the worship of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god versus other gods fulfill the same role in-world, without the need to use labels that may only cause confusion?

Alexis Smolensk said...

The reason for the distinction is because of the sage abilities, which I have been recently posting on my work blog. Clerics may know more about gods than demi-gods, or vice versa, depending upon their interest.

James said...

I see, that makes a bit more sense. Your work makes me wish I had any knowledge of AD&D, as I sometimes find your systems difficult to follow due to this deficiency (that and the fact I read your blog less often than I'd like).

Giordanisti said...

Picture: a party of mercenaries finds an isolated village, worshipping a minor deity. A cleric in the party notices the local shaman communing and performing miracles with this deity. The mercenaries, through the conduit of the shaman, threaten to massacre the village, the entirety of the deity's worshippers, if it does not turn its powers to their cause. And on that day, men held a (demi) god hostage...

The image of the old woman alone with her god is wonderful, by the way.

Jhandar said...

This provides an interesting potential view of intelligent magical items as well. The possibility that a dying/fading god/demi-god would infuse their essence into an item in an effort to try and stay alive. This is somewhat like Sauron and the one ring, minus of course the entirety of Mordor still serving him.

But I think this could present an interesting challenge to PCs to find something in a long lost tomb or deep in a jungle ruin that when picked up begins to stir a long dormant god who begins whispering to them much like the Shaman example above.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yeah, Jhandar ... I think that's a really good idea.

kimbo said...

mind blown re Anna in all her many forms!! I must re-read J Campbells myths.

the mutation of deity stories over millenia reads like fan-fiction complete with shipping.

To what extent in your world is there direct godly intervention. Are there miracles or appearances?

A thought:
the levelling-experience mechanics of your world could be seen as the path of deification. Spill enough blood (yours or others) dedicated to you and you gain siddhis. The (martial) monk progression is the most blatant siddhi gain with level.

Perhaps: To grow, a god need Sacrifice (blood (hp), last rites of the dying and dedication of stuff ($)). To have access to this world the god needs Devotion (mental focus of followers (INT, WIS, CHA)). Shrines/churches are a place of focusing devotion and attracting awed followers.

The thing is, with the right social technologies available (monotheism, evangelism etc) the deifying-up process need not be over millennia. The conquest of the new world, reformation period and Taiping Rebellion saw a lot of blood spilt in relatively short periods.

Scarbrow said...

Since Alexis doesn't run gods with rules, I'd like to share some of mine.

First, a disclaimer. I came to the concept of "gods fueled by belief" through Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods". I'm forever indebted to him for that.

Given that, and without details about my system, the god would "court" their worshipers in a manner according to the grade of faith each worshiper had.

The most powerful gods (Allah/Yahveh/Christian God) would be effectively unreachable except by absolute saints, people who devoted their full life to reach the divinity, enough to stand out from the masses. But oh, those ones, would wield an enormous power. They would be the ones able to make things like rains of blood and/or fire happen. And through sheer power and number of followers, they would keep reaching more and more humans, to the point this scenario it's rather like a monopoly of faith, rich gets richer, etc.

On the contrary, lower-grade gods, like the ones from Alexis' example, worshiped in just a couple of villages, would actively intervene in the world, in an ad-hoc basis, and listen to just about every believer, since they need every shred of faith they can muster. Those ones, yes, could be blackmailed, negotiated with, and even recruited. I envision such demigods/small gods going hand-in-hand with powerful adventurers (if not ascended powerful adventurers themselves) to further their faith. For, who does say that the cleric cannot try (as historical figures often tried) to gather worshipers for herself, instead of another entity? Those would be many, each of them of little power, and generally unable to climb the ladder of power due both to competence from their peers and from the higher-ups.

Interesting times, when gods collide.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'll try to be polite about it, Scarbrow. I've never been a fan of other people posting extensively about their way of doing something in their campaign on my blog. That seems like the kind of thing you ought to post on your own blog. I don't mind a few relevant comments, but when people rush off entirely in their own direction ... that seems like someone else coming into my house and using my stove.

Scarbrow said...

You're completely right, Alexis. Worse still, I probably used time from a few (or many) of your followers, who read my answer. I crashed your party to chat about my things. Luckily I wasn't advertising myself, that would have been the height of impoliteness.

I should really start my own blog, that's right. Not going to excuse that. It's just that it's so darn convenient to be able to put forth a few sentences in a comment, about a topic breached by another person, and not having to produce anything more on the matter. Plus, I know fully well that if you don't want it, you don't publish it. No guilt, no problems, your blog, your rules, and I like that. Feels like every time you choose to publish you're in some way acknowledging that contribution was somehow valuable, even if minor.

Anyway, I'll try to reign myself in a bit more.

Maximillian Boii said...

Re: Jhandar's great idea; if I'm not mistaken, a storyline quite like that has been building in the online blog for years. Search for nine-ray star, and reference to the hydra of Lerna. We don't know where that's going yet, but it's certainly similar.

I also remember hearing about an intelligent weapon relating to one of the spikes from Christ's cross in one of Alexis' regular campaigns. I don't think we ever heard any more of that story here.

(Alexis, I know you don't like posting those, but I for one enjoyed reading them, particularly when they served as an example of what was possible, for example the cavalry portion of the attack on that fortress.)