Religion has always been a fascinating subject to me, and when I play Dungeons and Dragons (or build adventures for my kids), I spend a lot of time thinking about it.
By default, religion in Dungeons and Dragons is polytheistic, and mostly just a vehicle for clerical players. As a teenager, I remember way back in 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons reading the Deities and Demigods in my local gaming store, and thinking how cool it was that so many different deities from world cultures were represented, including Lao Tzu and such. The idea, I believe, was to allow characters plenty of options to choose which deity to follow, but this also tends to increase breadth while reducing depth.
For most players, this probably isn’t a big deal, but as someone who’s always been interested in religion, I often think about how to improve the depth and flavor of D&D religions so that players can delve more if they want to. Much of what you see in D&D represents a somewhat shallow understanding of ancient, polytheistic religions as seen through the lens of Western-Christian culture.
Coincidentally, I recently picked up another course from the Great Courses on pagan religion in ancient Rome and Greece (mostly Rome)1 for my birthday. The course is pretty dense, and Professor Muller really gets into some deep details about Greco-Roman pagan religion, which taught me a lot, and also deflated some false assumptions I had about such religions. Needless to say, religion, culture and politics are very complex subjects, but some fascinating things that I’ve learned so far:
First, contrary to modern understandings of the ancient Greek gods, ancient Greek deities were not represented universally. For example, Apollo had many epithets, not just in the Iliad, but across each of the different city-states and cult centers. Each epithet represented a specific Apollo for that place and time, and something he did there. The same could be said of Artemis, Athena, etc. For the Roman god Jupiter, he had a ton of epithets, including (source Wikipedia):
- Jupiter Fulgur (“Lightning Jupiter”), Fulgurator or Fulgens
- Jupiter Lucetius (“of the light”), an epithet almost certainly related to the light or flame of lightning bolts and not to daylight.
- Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“the best and greatest”). This was the Jupiter venerated in Rome’s most sacred temple.
- Jupiter Pluvius, “sender of rain”.
…and by location:
- Jupiter Laterius or Latiaris, the god of Latium, a region of central Italy.
- Jupiter Parthinus or Partinus, under this name was worshiped on the borders of northeast Dalmatia and Upper Moesia, perhaps associated with the local tribe known as the Partheni.
- Jupiter Poeninus, under this name worshiped in the Alps, around the Great St Bernard Pass, where he had a sanctuary.
- Jupiter Solutorius, a local version of Jupiter worshiped in Spain; he was conflated with the local Iberian god Eacus.
- Jupiter Taranis, Jupiter equated with the Celtic god Taranis.
While there was one commonly-understood and venerated deity, each cult center worshiped that deity somewhat differently, with different rites, epithets, etc. As there was no central religious authority for a given deity, the variation was amazing, and no cause for concern. This may also help to explain why Greeks and Romans were not adverse to linking their deities to similar deities of other cultures (Egyptian, Roman, Anatolian, etc). In the context of D&D, this would mean that a popular deity like Lathander, for example, might have many cult centers across Faerun, but each place would worship him in a very region-specific way, might call him different epithets, and hold different festivals, etc. Obviously, from a game-design standpoint, this would be hard to encapsulate in a reference guide, but DMs might be able to lean into this in their world-building.
Second, both the Romans and the Greeks (among others) had the notion of “state religion” and “family religion”. The particular city-state worked hard to maintain a healthy relationship with its deities and there was a lot of focus on both cultivating this relationship for success of the state, but also averting disaster if the gods were thought to be displeased (plagues, earthquakes, defeat in war, etc). Anything that could be perceived as a threat to this relationship, such as “renegade cults” (Bacchanalia, Christianity, etc) was also seen as a threat to the state. Obviously, when building settings in Dungeons and Dragons, a similar tension might apply.
Similarly, each family traditionally maintained their own family deities, rituals, etc. The head of the household (usually the father or oldest son) was the “chief priest” of the household religion, and each household might have slightly different rituals, deities, etc, from each other household. For the household deities, one might often see the same gods as the public, state religion, but their role/epithets were for mundane issues: Zeus of the storage grain, Zeus guarding the doorway, etc. It seems odd that the king of the gods also served as a “mini deity” for all kinds of mundane needs. Again, depending on the role, time and place a deity may take on many aspects, both big and small. The state only cared about the macro-religion vs. the micro-religion. In the case of D&D, characters could similarly adopt a background or “flavor” in character’s daily religious rituals, family obligations, etc.
Thirdly, another thing I learned about ancient pagan religions was the myriad of ways that people employed divination. For example, augury, interpreting the flight patterns of birds, was a particularly popular form of divination among both Romans and Greeks. This would seem silly to modern audiences, but it was taken very seriously back then, and one could not start a senate meeting, or march the army without having consulted such things first. Oracles, such as the Pythia, among other places were also highly revered, but not always feasible to ask on short-notice.
Finally, the relationship to the gods was much more “transactional” than what modern audiences would be used to. This means that notions like theology, or deeper moral meanings weren’t clearly defined as they would be in modern religions. It’s not that people didn’t have any concept of morality, but the gods were part of this, not necessarily the source. So, for example, Isis was an extremely popular goddess across the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period, but Isis’s cult didn’t necessary have a strong theological component, and as she was adapted by different cultures, the teachings varied somewhat to fit the parent culture where a particular cult center existed.
But what this means is that people would revere and petition a particular deity to address their needs: illness, success, warding off misfortune, etc. And, if the deity hears their petition, and provides the aid request, the person making a petition vows to repay the deity with a special offering of gratitude, or some other vow. This means that the typical relationship with a deity was, in order:
- petitioning the deity
- a vow if the deity meets their end of things, and
- offerings and veneration if they do
This “transactional” approach might seem strange to us, but also presumably had the affect of building a deeper relationship with such-and-such deity.
Also, thought we might not want to admit it, modern people still do this. We might pray to God if we want our football team to win, for comfort if we’re in a jam, etc. It’s just that for ancient pagan religions,2 this was a perfectly normal thing to do, and not subject to embarrassment or shame as might be the case now.
Thus, when determining how to flesh out your typical polytheistic religions in a Dungeons and Dragons setting it helps to use ancient pagan religions as a source of inspiration and consider how relationships with a deity were more transactional in nature, varied considerably by locale, the importance of divination, and how it was often tightly-knit with state power (to say nothing about family religion).
None of this is required for the typical D&D player or DM. However, for any DM who likes to integrate more authentic polytheistic religions, or for player characters who (like myself) like to flesh out their character’s religions more, check out the awesome Great Courses class above, and spend some time learning about Roman and Greek religion from historians. There’s a lot of genuine interesting stuff, and much of it not obvious to modern audiences today.
1 The Great Courses often has flash sales and other deals, so if you can’t afford it now, keep an eye on it. 😉
2 Even some modern religions still tend to be transactional in nature, such as Japanese Shinto.