Monotheism and Competing Divinities in Norðlond

Over on the forums, a poster asked a question that probably seeks to tie the Norðlond setting in with real-world history. He has very specific goal in mind for his musings.

I’m not going to address that.

But the question of “hey, I want to introduce competing religions into this setting” is a close cousin to “I already have existing religions in my setting, but this part of the map over here would make a very handy viking-inspired realm.”

So here are three thoughts I have on the matter, which blend the two.

Delusion

Let’s get this one out of the way. I’m going to quote from a not-subtly-worded reminder in Hall of Judgment (p. 5):

The religion of Norðlond is one of worship and veneration for the pantheon (really an extended family) headed by The Allfather and his wife The Queen of the World. It is a truly polytheistic practice, and the worship of any one particular god indicates that one has an affinity with that deity’s realm or area of influence, or the deity’s demeanor and attitude towards life and conflict. It does not indicate a disavowal of the power or existence of the other gods. It is not considered polite (or wise) to speak ill of another’s affiliation. Doing so can result in a challenge to judicial combat as a matter of honor; extreme cases might invite the gods themselves to intervene.

Those that share a common affinity to a particular god gather together to form a Braeðralag, or Brotherhood, to share in the Guðrun: “God’s secret lore,” communicated by the gods to their followers through the clerics.

The worship of the Norðlond gods is a personal and immanent connection. The gods are real, occasionally walk the world, and converse with their followers and their clerics. To be an atheist in Norðlond is to be deluded, blind to the reality of the world. The brotherhoods exist to provide connection between those with a common interest in advancing the cause of the gods with which they feel an affinity.

I’ve highlighted a few things of particular relevance here.

Here’s another one, an excerpt from the upcoming Hand of Asgard (by Kevin Smyth), which I quote selectively to emphasize the point about how the Norðlondr behave in the face of such beings that physically walk the earth.

The divinities of Norðlond are a true pantheon; worship of one does not deny the existence of the others, and doing so is more than simply rude – it’s delusional. These mighty beings walk the Realm of Midgard and interact with the peoples and creatures there. As such, a cleric who serves several Aesir, or all of them collectively, is plausible. As such, the interpretation of some common disadvantages in the Adventurers’ templates needs clarification within the Norðlond setting.

Intolerance (All Other Religions) is rare, but still crops up from time to time; someone who worships the God of Law might have it in their head that all of the other gods have transgressed, or a devotee of the Trickster might feel the other Aesir have treated his patron unfairly. These sorts of fanatics tend to get the side-eye even from other members of their own order: if a priest of the Thunder God is badmouthing other Aesir, the Thunder God himself might just decide to get offended on his brethren’s behalf and smite the impious fool!

So that’s the thing. If the Allfather and the Aesir really did create the Nine Realms – and in the Norðlond/Etera setting (for those playing Dragon Heresy), they did – then any competing religions are going to have to deal with the fact that if they deny the existence of Skaði or Donnar (The Snow Queen and The God of Thunder), said gods might just show up and smack ’em down.

But what about clerics of other religions? Well, the simple answer is there aren’t any. 

This runs into worldbuilding and portability problems, and is rather less interesting in a polyglot fantasy world where  you might want to have fully functional cultures that serve as foils and counterpoints to each other (“oh, Vikings vs. Samurai, eh?” “Well . . . yeah.”). Even so: make no mistake: when the creation “myth” of a world is neither myth nor legend, but ‘yeah, this is how it actually happened, and the Creator(s) sit right over there, go have a chat’ then the concept of “religious skeptic” is likely not going to fly.

Manifestation

There’s an easy way around this. Or if not ‘easy,’ then at least plausible. It’s actually more direct in the Norðlond version of the setting, because rather than be given actual names – Woden, Donnar, Skaði, Heimdallr – the gods are presented as archetypes. The Allfather, The God of Storms, The Snow Queen, and The Lord of Warding. While “hey, Woden, over here!” isn’t quite as portable, “The Allfather” rather is. In many of the religions humanity practices, there’s an overarching chief deity who varies between supreme and first among equals. Zeus. Odin. Amun-Ra. Po. This is most explicit, I think, in Hinduism, where the supreme being is Brahman, who appears in different guises depending on what they’re doing at the time.

That basic Hindu concept of manifestation, which gains even more traction combined with “and the gods manifestations reflect the beliefs and the needs of the humans who attempt to give words to the divine concepts” allows a set of basic truths (there are Realms, in which there are holy or divine beings, who created the world(s) for Reasons) to be fairly universal, but reflected in many different ways.

This allows for different cultures and geographies to each have their own “pantheon” or even a monotheistic religion (“the One God,” “the God who is Many and One,” “The White God,” etc) while maintaining a consistent creation myth for the world or universe.

In truth, in order to eventually expand into other regions of the world in which Norðlond sits, as a world-builder, I am nearly forced to take this path.

One other possibility here is that the gods themselves are real, but given form by the Will of their worshipers. This provides for all sorts of mayhem, as if (say) the Goddess of Death gets a whole lot of followers, she will eventually be supremely powerful. This starts to look like actively proselytizing competing belief systems, which of course isn’t anything our modern world has in great supply (*cough sarcasm cough*). If you want to check out a source where some of that is referenced while still feeling the viking love: read Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword.

If you want to go all “There’s a War in Heaven,” this is probably the most self-consistent route to take. A strongly monotheistic belief could eventually “force” all of the disparate facets of a One-as-Many being into simply the One Being. If folks are worshiping only the Allfather, eventually not only will the Allfather subsume the other gods, he’ll sort of stop being the Allfather. Talk about being self-conflicted.

Invasion

One last possibility, which also has some truth in the Norðlond setting. The Nine Realms were created by the Asgardians to protect that creation from . . . something ELSE. In the Dungeon Fantasy RPG, these are the Elder Things. In Dungeons and Dragons, the Aberrations. They are outside creation, and if there’s a plan for the Nine Realms, they disagree with it. A lot.

Frequently, these beings are portrayed as Cthulhoid tentacled horrors, showing the origins of the type in Lovecraft. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, since it’s used to varying degrees of awesome in media from Monster Hunters, International to Hellboy to some versions of Aquaman. It’s a fact that “Squid Cults” are part of the canon in Norðlond, inherited from the parent Dungeon Fantasy RPG, which has Elder Things as one of the more interesting things to fight.

But what if the “squid” was a powerful entity from beyond the universe that wasn’t a tentacled horror. What if that being simply disagreed with the Asgardian purpose for the Nine Realms? Then, the new “squid cult” might be the “cult of the white god” and the magic and power flowing through the believers would be quite real. Or not: A new monotheistic religion where followers were granted Magic Resistance and could create No Mana Zones and were really enamored of technology instead of channeling divine power, as the new being put their stamp on the world in a very non-Asgardian way.

Parting Shot

As noted, the cosmology of Norðlond, and because it’ s a growing setting from a company that wants to do not just vikings, the broader world that it’s in, will take more than a few notes from the first two (Delusion and Manifestation) in the Dungeon Fantasy RPG version of the setting at least, and then the first paragraph from Invasion, as the guiding canon for worldbuilding. Since the Etera/Dragon Heresy version has Morevel (based on Macedonian Greece) and Inthriki (with history influenced by Kamakura-era Japan), I need something to allow proper development of those areas in ways that aren’t just silly.

But while the particular request of the original poster isn’t something that I’m going to explore, the underlying question of “how do I introduce a competing or parallel religious belief system or culture,” and the neighboring “but my campaign world already has gods and a cosmology, how can I fit Norðlond into it?” are valid questions. And not to put too fine a point on it, not only do they impact the game world, they impact my game company: A portable setting is more salable then a “you play my way or not at all!” version of such.

So: that’s three ways of looking at it. I’m sure there are more!

I’ll also note that, for example, dropping Nordlond into Cidri, where the cosmology is very much not the Gods are Real, but rather the Mnoren are top dogs and physics is their plaything, would require some different kinds of gyrations, since none of the Norðlond assumptions are really true!

3 thoughts on “Monotheism and Competing Divinities in Norðlond

  1. “… since none of the Norðlond assumptions are really true!”

    And that last line is how I tend to flavor. Regardless of what a worshipper believes, the Gods can, and have, and probably still will /lie/.

    If I port Nordlond into my world, as far as the Players are concerned, every pantheon has it’s creation myths, is one real? That’s for the Characters to decide.

  2. The way my world works, its seems a lot like the manifestation route. Same gods in different lands but viewed differently by the cultures there. The gods themselves may even interact differently than how they do in Nordlond.
    As an example, perhaps the Thunder God is very unhappy with the people on the continent south of the one Nordlond lies within. Known as a vengeful and evil god on the southern continent because he regularly smites those who offend him, unlike the love he shows the people of the northern realms.

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