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.