Heads of Pantheons

Historically, most pre-Christian polytheist religions had pantheons that were led by some sort of all-father, or a mother-father pair. In the Indo-European pantheons, this was often a sky father and an earth mother type deities.

Given the division of the pantheons of the Flanaess into their racial origins, it seems interesting that we never really get a designation for which deities are the “leaders” of their respective pantheons. This is complicated by the existence of “common” deities that span all four pantheons found in the Flanaess.

For the Baklunish pantheon, Istus is the obvious choice. Not only is she the only greater deity in the Baklunish pantheon, but her portfolio as a goddess of fate and destiny (indeed, she could be seen as the incarnation of destiny itself) makes her a good choice.

For the Oeridian pantheon, there are only two deities identified as greater deities of Oeridian origin; Procan and Zilchus. Interestingly, most of the Oeridian deities are also common (with the exception of Delleb, Kurell, and Velnius). Neither Procan or Zilchus seems to have a domain that lends itself to leadership of an entire pantheon. I would go to the lesser god level and name Velnius as the chief deity of the pantheon. Not only is he a sky-god and presumably the father of the four sky-deities of the Oeridians, but it’s not impossible for a titular head of a pantheon to be eclipsed by a deity of greater power, as we see with the Germanic Wotan/Odin, who gradually took over the position of chief god from the sky/thunder god Donar/Thor in the real world.

The Flan deities give us an easy choice; Beory, the Oerth Mother. I’d also add the possibility that the Flan pantheon has a sacred couple consisting of Beory and Pelor, the sun god. It’s also interesting to note that all Flan gods are also commonly found across the Flanaess.

Finally we have the Suel, which are a tough nut to crack. Of the three Suel greater deities, Wee Jas might seem a likely choice, as both magic and death are fairly universal things (and would give an interesting parallel with Wotan/Odin as noted above, who is not only the god who seized the secrets of runic magic, but who also guides the dead as a psychopomp astride Sleipnir). Lendor is another possibility, but the way he’s portrayed seems to argue against the idea, as he seems to not be as energetic as such a figure might need to be.

What do you think? Do you distinguish between pantheons enough for such a thing to matter? If so, do you use it to explain rivalries and intrigues between the various priesthoods?

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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.

6 thoughts on “Heads of Pantheons

  1. I’ve most definitely struggled with this. It always ends up with me down a rabbit hole of “but what are the Oeridians modeled after?” Which leads me to “maybe just a general Indo-European group?” Then I can’t get past their zeal for following the paths of the sun to the sea, which strikes me as a fairly Celtic type thing to do. But then what is the Flan pantheon, really? And the tail chasing goes until I give up.

  2. Hail, Greyhawk Grognard! Thank you for another interesting article. This is a really good point. I’d not considered Pelor and Beory as a mother & father figure before but it makes sense. Right now, my players have been lured into the steaming, cannibal-infested Amedio Jungle and have unknowingly stumbled into the “Dwellers of the Forbidden City” (I transplanted it from Hepmonaland). This gives me the idea to include ruined walls & buildings with creepy bas-reliefs of Beory & Pelor being subjugated by the ancient Yuan-Ti gods as a symbol of their deep, profane blasphemies before they encounter the horrifying Yuan-Ti themselves. Just a bit of atmosphere to imply that they were indeed a mother & father figure for the Flan. Thank you for always having something that I can add to my games. 🙂

  3. I agree that the pantheons leave a little to be desired, in being further fleshed out. As Tree Mallin says above, it ends up in a rabbit hole trip. Heh.

    I would love to see a more fully fleshed out/retroactively done treatment of Oerth’s deities (at least, the Flanaess since people differ on what the rest of the Oerth looks like).

    Reading The Unseen Realm by Dr. Michael Heiser has helped me better understand pantheons. Deuteronomy 32:8, as understood by the Essenes in Qumran, unmuddied those waters for me, who at age 10 wondered over such things thanks to a reading of Deities & Demigods (sadly, the truncated version).

  4. This article inspired me to do a deep dive into the Suel pantheology, and I made the decision to go with a strong dualism featuring Kord and Wee Jas as the yin-yang of the pantheon. The ultimate “opposites attract” power-couple-who-split-up– him to father countless scions on random mortal hotties, she to take up with the sneakier Norebo.

    The deeper I dig on this the more I think Lakofka had the duality in mind, if not the marriage/split aspects: apart from their alignments and spheres of influence, Wee Jas has the special power to summon dragons… Kord’s sentient sword has the special purpose to kill which kind of creatures again? 🙂

    I really like what this does for Suel mysticism… male-female as primal forces of strength/independence vs mind/society, perhaps even as metaphor for what happened to the Suel peoples as their empire broke up… neither force of arms nor the greatest of sorcerers could ultimately defend the Suloise from the Rain of Colorless Fire, and both aspects blamed each other… some Suel going on to found nations in the northwest which emphasized “Kordian” virtues, others choosing Jasian, more feminine (from a Suel perspective) cunning and even Noreban stealth (think the Scarlet Brotherhood’s focus on thieves and assassins in its pursuit of Suel supremacy.)

    Naturally no latter-day Suel society has abandoned the other pole of the gender magnet entirely, but we can see the general disdain the more Kordian societies have for the feminine in their barbarian rejection of magic and the fact that they prefer ugly hag Syrul as the embodiment of the female rather than seductive Wee Jas. I could go on. This was a very inspiring article for me!!!!

  5. I think the idea of a human racial pantheon breaks down somewhat in the modern Flanaess, given that its major human cultures have been intermixing for so long. Here’s my take on what their pantheons now look like:

    -Baklunish: IMO, the Baklunish kept much more of their traditional culture and identity after the Twin Cataclysms than the Suel did. Their pantheon remains much more culturally consistent in that it’s remained mostly the same and most Baklunish people know and recognize the same set of deities, even if they don’t worship them. So I agree with Joe that Istus is their top goddess.

    -Flan: I’d consider Beory to be the Flan’s top goddess, given their strong orientation towards nature. However, there’s a lot of crossover between the Flan pantheon and the Oeridians and the Suel due to the latter picking up some of the former’s culture after the Great Migrations. It’s similar to how both the U.S. and Canada have adopted numerous place names from the First Nations (Dakota, Manitoba, etc.)

    -Oeridian: I’m really not sure the Oeridians even have a top god among their pantheon. The Oeridians were wandering tribes before the Migrations, and only started organizing themselves into centalized states after they came to the Flanaess. I don’t think they had the same cultural unity than the Suel or the Baklunish did before the Twin Cataclysms, so while they had a number of deities in common they may not have had a unified one.

    -Suel: The Suel don’t have a top god among their pantheon like the Oeridians, but for the opposite reason. I see the Suel Imperium as having been a lot like Melnibone from Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, being decadent and sorcerous, not to mention having been cruelly racist and spiteful towards the lower classes. The Suel identity was fractured far more than the Baklunish after the Twin Cataclysms, so that only the Scarlet Brotherhood retains a lot of the original mentality. A lot of the downtrodden lower classes who escaped the Imperium’s destruction so thoroughly rejected the Imperium’s tendencies towards intellectualism, stoic reason and sorcery that they adopted a much more “he-man” image based on passion, athleticism and physical combat. They went as far from the Imperium as they could both physically and culturally, becoming the modern Frost, Snow and Ice Barbarians. I really don’t think deities like Kord were popular in the old Imperium, and they were only adopted by the lower-class Suel as part of their massive cultural shift.

  6. Great topic. I mostly agree with your suggestions, but for the Oeridians I think that Zilchus would actually be appropriate for the head of the pantheon.

    The Guide to the World of Greyhawk describes Zilchus’ area of influence as “Power, Prestige, Influence, Money, Business” (p. 63). This sounds like it could be an interpretation of a god associated with kingship and rulership, similar to Jupiter. In later centuries after the Roman era, Jupiter became associated with worldly power and prestige, and you can see this in later astrology, and in astrologically-themed interpretations of the Tarot (IIRC).

    In fact, if you look at the greater Oeridian gods, two of them are analogous to ruling brother gods of ancient Greek and Roman religion: Zilchus and Procan. Zilchus is the god of power, and Procan is the god of the sea. Zilchus is analogous to Zeus (Jupiter), ruler of the heavens and of the surface world, and Procan is analogous to Poseidon (Neptune), ruler of the seas. As you know, in ancient Greek and Roman religion, there was a third kingly brother god as well, Hades (Pluto/Dispater), ruler of the underworld. Perhaps Incabulos would be a Greyhawk near-equivalent of Hades, at least with regards to his underworld kingship.

    The Guide lists Incabulos as a “Common” god, rather than Oeridian, but this raises the question of how to classify the Common gods in terms of their ethnic origin. One interpretation is that the Common gods are not associated with any particular ethnic group, but are worshipped equally by all, and have always been so worshipped. Another interpretation is that each of the Common gods was originally part of one of the particular ethnic pantheons, but then later became adopted by other cultures due to their interaction through trade or migration (similar, perhaps, to how the worship of Ishtar was adopted by Greeks and Romans, or indeed how the worship of Yahweh was eventually adopted by most of the people of Europes and the Middle East). I favor the latter interpretation, because it more closely emulates the spread of historical religions. In that case, it would make sense that many of the Common gods were originally from the Oeridian pantheon, because of the fact that the Oeridians migrated all over the Flanaess, and over a wider area than the other migrating groups (the Baklunish and Suel–see the map in the Guide, p. 10).

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