Religion, Myth and Folklore
I’ve been fascinated by myth and storytelling for as long as I’ve been able to read. So when I was thinking about trying my hand at Dungeon Mastering I knew it was going to be to explore storytelling, both literally at the table with my friends, and figuratively, within the game world. As I began developing Telisar, questions about the function of religion, myth and folklore in a world where larger-than-life figures and literal gods actually exist felt like a great place to begin. In many ways my campaign is about stories: the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell (or don’t tell) to others.
These are some notes about how religion works in Telisar. Some of it I brought to the setting, but most of it was discovered at the table as we played.
When the Dwarven explorer and iconoclast Ereland Wavebreaker and his followers arrived at Wodenshore at the start of the Modern Era, they found in the Dragonborn tribes’ tales close parallels to several cults of the Old Era they brought with them: gods and goddesses of Law, War, Knowledge, etc. In the Dragonborn tradition the five progenitors deities are literal dragons: beings of immense power that sired the Draconic race, who in turn are considered the progenitors of the Dragonborn tribes. In Draconic they are named Syf-ur-Potec, Mim-ra-Teloc, Wod-em-Coatlec, Toru-sa-Matec and Frei-ya-Narlotec, of which the modern-day Common names (Syf, Mimir, Woden, Thorus and Freya, respectively) are corruptions.
Over time the Dwarven cults and the Dragonborn traditions merged, as the indigenous cultures were conquered and assimilated Though doctrine and organized structures have evolved significantly over the course of the ensuing three millenia, today temples of “the Five” attract a great many worshippers from all races, and few now are aware of the mongrel origins of their faith.
Over the centuries there have also been several more transient religious orders, usually lasting a few hundred years at most before splintering and losing popularity. The most notable of these is probably the Knights of Bahamut, a fanatical order of paladins dedicated to Bahamut worship most active in the second millenia ME. They rejected the Five as the irrevocably evil (as they were the offspring of both Bahamut and Tiamat), and led a military coup against King Dwalin in 2263 ME. (The short, disastrous reign of General Bahamutian I resulted in the destruction of the Kingdom of Telisar, and marked the last time the land was ever united politically.)
Outside the more cosmopolitan city-states a wide array of religious affiliations may be found, usually (though not always, and rarely exclusively) along racial lines. The Elves of Telisar in particular are polytheistic and recognize a number of deities, though it is common practice to devote oneself to a particular member of the pantheon. Rillifane Rallathil, Labelas Enoreth, Corellon Larethian, Vandria Gilmadrith and Zandilar the Dancer all enjoy significant followings, with several monastic orders dedicated to each.
By contract, Human religious practices are as varied and changing as the wind. Perhaps due to their relatively short lifespan, there seems to be as many forms of worship amongst humans as there are humans! In every hamlet and field it seems you will find believers venerating everything from a God of War to a God of Small Insects That Protect Three-Leaved Houseplants. It is virtually guaranteed that no two human settlements will agree on anything, and will frequently engage in vigorous martial contests over the interpretation of a single minor subjunctive clause in a shared religious text.
And there are a dozen other traditions not yet even touched upon; the Halflings, Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Goliaths, and Tieflings all have their own religious and spiritual practices, to say nothing of the pantheons of the monstrous races – Goblins, Orcs, Trolls, and so on.
Humans aside, most denizens of Telisar tend to be pragmatic, and spend little time questioning whether it was Rillifane who planted the first oak tree, or Freya, in her Nature aspect, content simply to climb the oak tree and leave its fundamental aspect to arguments of religious scholars.
Religion Among the Dragonborn
For Telisaran Dragonborn, spiritual matters are inextricably linked to tribal affiliation; most have no concept whatsoever of “organized religion,” because there is no concept of the secular in Dragonborn culture: each tribe sees itself as the direct descendants of a particular dragon, whom they venerate as ancestor and progenitor, and everything that is done for the tribe (which is to say, everything that is done) is done in accordance with their teachings. It is not known how many tribes existed at the apex of Dragonborn culture, nor how many still remain, so it is difficult to know just how many of these Draconic divine ancestors there are.
Worse, we must rely on transcriptions of the tribes’ tales by less-than-trustworthy scholars for what sources we do have. There are records of Draconic divine ancestors, for example, but the names are often confused with more contemporaneous texts. So while tales survive of Aegir-na-Xutlec and Kar-ix-Coatl, to take two examples, both Aegiraxus and Karixus feature prominently in orthodox texts as two of the Sisters, Tiamat’s chromatic offspring. Is this coincidence? Are these, like the Five, corrupted forms of the Draconic ancestors’ names? Or mere laziness on the part of translators?
On Myth and Folklore
There are comparatively few actual myths in Telisar; most orthodox scholars assume that scripture is a (edited, abstracted) record of events that literally occurred, and the comparative lack of divine engagement in contemporary life is a result of the Five’s sealing the ways between realms with the Celestial Gates. So the history of Telisar is as much the history of its gods as its people, and thus few religious traditions actually pass over the threshold from oral history into myth; either they remain part of the orthodoxy or are forgotten (or suppressed) entirely. Though it is worth noting that labelling something “myth” is a popular mode of suppression; consider for example the “myth” of Moradin Kinslayer, a story soundly rejected as apocryphal by contemporary Dwarven orthodoxy.
But folk tales are another matter. There is a rich tradition of tale-telling in most corners of Telisar and telling well-known stories about gods walking the lands is a popular past-time. This body of story constitutes a sort of folklore only one or two degrees removed from scripture, but nevertheless serves a very secular purpose: to limit the authority of the scripture. By prominently featuring religious figures with a sort of knowing, almost blasphemous irony (Woden is a weak old man; Mimir is a liar, etc.), these folk tales undercut the autocracy of the Five Temples and prevent the rise of fundamentalism. Religion is all fine and well, these stories seem to say, but let’s keep it in the Temple where it belongs.
Indeed, the preeminence of storytelling not just as entertainment but as the Telisaran zeitgeist is reflected in a variety of ways; consider for example the common greeting “Tell me a tale,” (generally thought to be derived from the more ritualized “Come by my fire and drink of my ale, and for this kindness tell me your tale”), or the practice of qualifying a story as my god tells it. This qualifying is rich with subtext, depending on which deity is invoked. One might begin “As Anansus tells it,” to signal the story you are telling is a tall tale, or joke. Similarly, one might respond to some specious declaration with “Or so Anansus says!” meaning, “I don’t believe a word of it.”
Among the Dragonborn, the telling of tales is a ritualized, central aspect of tribal culture. Telling the story of the tribe is the primary mode of instruction for adolescents; every member of the tribe is expected to know its history, and be able to recite it from memory. This recitation is often full of fanciful abstraction, which has been at various times misunderstood as fiction or allegory. But the Dragonborn do not have the concept of allegory, and understand these stories to be literally true. So when Yi-na-Hotep puts out 4 suns with her arrows, as in one tale, contemporary readers might mistake this as a recording of some great environmental shift that resulted in a more temperate climate, where to Dragonborn hearing this tale, it is historical fact: there were five suns, now there is one. Indeed it is likely the Dragonborn do not distinguish between scripture, myth and folklore at all.