Pantheons and Henotheism

James over at Grognardia made an excellent post about the background of a certain religion in his campaign, and in the comments made the following observation:

I always found the quasi-medieval society of D&D a poor fit for the kind of religion we see in most fantasy settings. Likewise, such religion is rarely pantheonic, tending more toward a kind of weird henotheism.

Now, for the benefit of those who might not be as up on henotheism as I am (it’s really weird how it’s come up in two completely unrelated blogs I frequent in two days), henotheism is essentially the practice of worshiping only a single God, while acknowledging the existence of others.

While I would vehemently disagree with James on his first assertion about the suitability of quasi-medieval societies for polytheistic religions, I agree wholeheartedly with his point that most fantasy RPGs (or, at the very least, D&D and its derivatives) encourage a certain henotheism by positing a world with many Gods, but requiring clerics (and, by implication, encouraging other characters) to worship a single “patron deity”. AD&D was particularly rife with this idea, and it is apparently to be found in the very original Greyhawk campaign as well, with the Gods Pholtus and St. Cuthbert only being invented so clerics in the campaign would have some sort of deity upon which to hang their spiritual hat (or, perhaps in the latter case, chapeaux). The original AD&D goldenrod character sheets even had a box for “patron deity”.

Historically, of course, there is a certain precedent for such a thing. Ancient Egypt toyed with the idea, and there are some indicators that the pre-Biblican Hebrews had a similar arrangement (hence the “thou shalt have no other Gods before me” in the Commandments; it is difficult to have other Gods if no other Gods exist). The ancient Romans certainly had folks who worshiped a particular God to the exclusion of all others (although, in a key distinction between themselves and the Jews (who had an official exemption from the practice) and the Christians (who, originally, did not), they found themselves capable of making pro forma offerings of incense to the deified Emperor (and, presumably, other Gods as well). We are told that, among the ancient Norse, certain individuals were known to be especially close to certain deities, but it is unclear whether that precluded them from attending a sacrifice on behalf of another. One imagines not, but their private practice was almost certainly henotheistic.

Anyway, to the gaming point here; James made a good point about the lack of historically authentic polytheism in many (if not most) fantasy RPG settings. Greyhawk is no exception to this, although it does have the seed of a solution, originally presented in the gold boxed set. Therein, on pp. 63-64 of the Guide, we have a list of deities that includes, among other things, their racial origin (common, Oeridian, Suloise, Flan, Baklunish, and unknown).

This, I think, provides the kernel for the development of a pantheonic approach to religion, vis-a-vis Greyhawk.

When we break down the Gods listed there by pantheon, assigning the “common” deities to each, we come up with a much more interesting breakdown. Some of the more immediately notable points:

  • All of the Flan Gods are common. They have been absorbed by all the other cultures in the Flanaess. Presumably, this is because they were present when the invading Suel and Oeridians came into the Flanaess.
  • Oeridians have some unique deities, as do the Suel and Baklunish. Some of them cross over, but not all.

The listings do bring up a few questions that, as far as I know, have never been answered. Some of the “common” deities are listed with a specific racial origin, and some are not. I might speculate that this means they have retained some of their “foreign allure” even though they have been otherwise assimilated into other religions. The others, presumably, each appear in identifiable form in each religion, albeit wrapped in a completely culture-appropriate bundle.

Three Gods are listed as having “unknown” origins; Tharizdun, Wastri, and Ulaa. Tharizdun and Wastri make sense; they are not part of any pantheon, and I can easily see how their worshipers would have an exclusive bond with their Gods. However, Ulaa is also listed as being “common”! If I am following the “foreign allure” concept from above in such cases, it leads me to the conclusion that she is present throughout the three cultural pantheons, but her presence is discordant. She’s universally alien; obviously an import from someplace, as she doesn’t fit in to the normal pattern of worship, but her cultural foreignness is truly foreign. Where Pholtus speaks with an Oeridian accent, nobody can quite place Ulaa’s.

In the next day or two, I’ll post the specific breakdowns by pantheon as it relates to the World of Greyhawk, along with a few thoughts on the implications of each.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

4 thoughts on “Pantheons and Henotheism

  1. Another thing that never seems to be addressed is how having different pantheons for different cultures works in a game world where the gods are real. Does each pantheon have influence only over a specific region? Or do the various pantheons occasionally duke it out with each other when there’s a conflict? Does a cleric lose his magical abilities if he moves to a region under the influence of a pantheon not his own?

  2. Just taking the real world as an example, I would say that geography is irrelevant when it comes to the influence of a God. The Romans went far afield, and their Gods came with them. So too the Vikings, who brought the worship of Odin and Thor to the very shores of North America, to some effect (if we are to believe the Vinland Sagas).

    The question in regards to Greyhawk is somewhat more complex. Most of the nations of the Flanaess have populations of mixed racial stock. Almost all have some Oeridian blood, most have Suel, while still others have Baklunish or Flan, all to varying degrees.

    This becomes another piece of the puzzle. If, say, Almor, which has a predominantly Oeridian folk with a strong admixture of Suel, is to be considered, does this mean that the Oeridian or Suloise pantheon should be said to hold sway there? Do some follow one, and others the other, or is there an admixture of the two? The fact that some states, such as Almor, Medegia, the Pale, and Velua are explicitly theocracies only adds to the mix.

  3. In my homebrew I reuse the primary pantheon of gods across various races. For example humans, elves, orcs, goblins all worship the same gods – they just behave as if those gods are there own. The races project their own biases onto their view of the gods.

    There is a god who rules over fire, destruction, luck, chaos, evil, vengence and lust. To the orcs he is Grummsh One Eye. To the elves he is Turanar dark god of fire. To the humans he is Drakka the vengence taker. To the red dragons he is Draco the father of the species. Each behaves as if he is 'their' god. It might be understood by some that this is case; but to the players encountering different races or cultures those creatures act in a way like the god is unique or at the least favors them. Polytheism is common in my campaign as well.

    This has worked out well for me in both story background and to reduce work of creating loades of gods for each race.


  4. Don't have any specific comments, but the pantheons series of posts has been great reading. Thanks for posting them.

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