The Mountains of Morpheus
Faith in Drau-Mura
People in Drau-Mura keep a variety of faiths, and allegiance to more than one faith or god is common. Many belong to the organized, monotheist religion of Ashoum, including an increasing number of aristocrats. However, rural communities tend to favor the Old Faith, a druidic folk religion that venerates nature, and is indifferent to questions of deities and the afterlife. Devotion to a loose pantheon of “pagan” deities is very widespread, and often mediates between the first two faiths. Were a census of Drau-Mura somehow taken, perhaps one in three people in human society would identify themselves as Ashoumites, one in three would cleave to the Old Faith, and one in three would fall into some other category, including following both Ashoum and the Old Faith.
Veneration of ancestors is the norm among dwarves, and is popular among halflings, though the halflings who live among humans prefer Ashoum. The Vanir, the displaced elven and half-elven people, are monotheistic; their Godhead manifests as the sun. Pagan deities are popular across races, and even an outlander may come to hold one or two close to her heart. Some people, human or otherwise, belong to small, mysterious, even secret religious societies, their hearts and minds won by spirits, gods, and philosophical teachings that range from the strange but harmless to the downright nefarious.
Among religions, Ashoum has by far the highest number of clerics and paladins in proportion to its laypeople, while not every pagan deity has a meaningful number of clerics. Druids hew to the Old Faith. In Drau-Mura, most warlocks choose a pagan deity — or Upan, the Ashoumite cosmic nemesis that embodies death and evil — as a patron. (Even if they don’t, it is convenient to present oneself as a warlock of a pagan deity, usually Pa Shal, the Great Hart fertility god.)
Drau-Mura’s faith traditions strongly inform morality, and also culture and law, and therefore their importance to Drau-Mura’s people cannot be understated. But because faith is normal, the followers of any faith may hardly be exemplars of it. Impious, hypocritical, doubtful, zealous-to-compensate-for-doubt, apathetic, and unobservant souls are all quite common, but rare is the person who rejects faith entirely.
A last word on religion and mystical reality: Faith in Drau-Mura is a matter of … faith, meaning it’s also a matter of opinion, socialization, and trust in the intangible. The gods do not romp around in this world, manifest and obvious; perhaps they did in some distant mythical age, but today, faith does not feed on miracle and revelation, but on tradition, reason, authority, fear, and hope. This is true, even for those who work divine magic: Clerics, druids, paladins, and the like are all trained in their abilities; their magic powers do not simply fall from the sky. Divine magicians often believe it is arrogant to claim that their magic comes directly from the top — and many would be quite afraid if it did. It is true, of course, that many people claim to have encountered the divine, in whatever shape. Charlatans and lunatics make bizarre proclamations. Travelers visit the Mountains of Morpheus, dream strange dreams, and claim to have spoken with the gods. Children make unverifiable claims. These facts make an uncertain, complex world, with more things are dreamed of in mortal philosophy. Such a world invites not a dull, tepid acceptance that all things could be equally true, but instead a fervent, intelligent faith that despite chaos and ignorance there is a divine order to all things.
A popular religion guided by a dualistic theology, Ashoum teaches that the cosmos, the dynamics of life and death, and the struggle between good and evil, are driven by the deities Asha and Upan, equal in power but opposite in being. Asha is the creator deity, who created the original world as a paradise where men and women enjoyed eternal life and sinlessness. The Adversary, Upan, introduced death, decay, and sin into the world. (Orthodox Ashoum has little truck with other deities, and its hardliners are fond of quoting a particular verse from Book of Making: “You will have no gods before God, and teach your children and followers to have no gods before God.” Ashoumite moderates suggest that Asha simply deserves an Ashoumite’s foremost loyalty, not that other deities don’t exist.)
The followers of Ashoum worship Asha as a matter of daily life, and are seldom shy about sharing their faith. Ashoum, unlike most faith traditions, is a universal faith, and many followers believe that all mortals would be better off converting to it. Churches, shrines, and chapels can be found throughout Drau-Mura, and more new ones are lovingly built with each passing year. Although the churches are not united under a single hierarchy, Ashoumite congregations communicate and cooperate better than those of the old faith. Churches provide a space for common worship, as well as schooling, alms, and healing, and believers will even cross political boundaries to help establish a new church. The churches are most organized among the Arius Kingdoms, where its bishops have come to refer to the body of orthodox churches as, simply, “the Mother and Teacher Church.”
Priests, clerics, and paladins of Ashoum are typically commissioned with the approval of multiple priests from multiple settlements, including one bishop, which is an equivalent of “high priest” who teaches and coordinates the rank-and-file priesthood. There is, perhaps on average, one bishop for every 20 to 40 priests, and experience in serving one’s community is the key criterion for rising to the station. Skill in magic, on the other hand, is regarded as an important, pragmatic asset but not as a direction reflection of one’s faith, knowledge, or virtue. (Indeed, conservative Ashoumites refer to all divine magic, including their own, as “sorcery,” to emphasize the distinction between magic and religious principles.)
Ashoumite theology teaches that the dead, virtuous and evil alike, belong to the clutches of Upan, and will remain there until an eschatological day when Upan will reconcile with Asha, and the world will be restored to its original paradise. Therefore, it is normal for Ashoumites to pay tribute to Upan as a death god. In certain parts of Drau-Mura, Upan is simply seen as an indifferent, albeit dangerous, psychopomp deity who delivers souls to whatever fate awaits the dead. Many people who believe this are warlocks who choose Upan as a patron. Such warlocks may not have malign intentions, but keep a low, low profile all the same. Only in Mercadia do Upanites dare practice openly, where they constitute a guild of funeral and cemetery management.
Ashoum is most prevalent among the Arius Kingdoms and Kala Anar, but its evangelism to the Azna and in the Tesia has been increasingly successful in the last century. The faith is, in theory, open to all races, but the priesthood and leadership are overwhelmingly human. This may change, however, as a number of halfling priests in the Azna kingdoms are petitioning their churches to increase their numbers, that they may better minister to to the halfling race.
The Old Faith
Although their star has waxed and waned throughout the centuries, the druidic Old Faith, also called the Votactii, are longest-lived faith in Drau-Mura. Philosophically, the Old Faith teaches veneration of nature in all its variety, interdependence, and harmony. The religion refers to the permeation of intangible spiritual forces throughout the physical world, but recent druidic orthodoxy explains these as metaphors for the marvelous complexity and connection of being. Orthodox theology shuns adherence to any one key deity, and teaches that there is no afterlife, only the merging of bodies and souls into and away from the world. In theory and practice, the Old Faith can be coldly philosophical, tranquil, and rational, looking to the sacred dance of sun, moon, and star to inspire inner harmony. In theory and practice, the Old Faith can be full of wild exuberance, finding wisdom and release in frenzied ritual dance, blood sacrifice, and the emulation of animals. It’s a religion as diverse as it is ancient, and observers do remark that as a whole, it really seems like a conglomeration of a dozen druidic faiths rather than a single entity.
The Old Faith is organized at the local level, so practices in one area may radically differ from rites in another. Generally, the believing masses are called to participate in several rites throughout the year, such as heralding the winter solstice or celebrating a harvest. Priests are responsible for leading observances and attending to their communities’ spiritual, educational, and medicinal needs. Often, a community patriarch or matriarch takes the role of an officiating priest, which is not treated as a full-time profession. Druids advise communities and lords, teach, preserve religious tradition, provide magic, and at times act as priests. A druid and an important layperson may fight over who merits priestly authority in a community, and there is no standard rule for resolving this dispute.
Some druids are inwardly devoted to the faith in the forms of scholarship, mysticism, and the protection of sacred sites in the wilderness (and in extreme cases, all of the wilderness) from encroachment. A significant number form secretive mystery cults, and may take great pains to conceal the details of their worship from outsiders — even other druids. Throughout Drau-Mura are sacred sites — standing stones, ancient oaks, labyrinthine caverns — guarded by these cults, who deny visitors permission to visit, unless they can sufficiently demonstrate their faith.
The Old Faith is popular throughout society, even in cities, whose followers might take pilgrimages to a rural sacred site to rekindle their faith each year. Like Ashoum, the Old Faith include non-human worshipers, but they are less common. The Eastern Tribes of Drau-Mura keep to their own versions of the Old Faith, which emphasize patron deities, though it is an open question of how their religion will change as they come into increasingly common contact with the rest of the region.
In addition to druids, barbarians, bards, and rangers are likely to keep to the Old Faith. Warriors and magicians of diverse talents are often included in druidic sects.
The various pagan deities represent one of the largest commonalities of faith across Drau-Mura. Two soldiers, an Ashoumite and a believer of the Old Ways, may not see eye to eye on many topics, but they might be found at a shrine to the God of War before a battle. (The opposite is true too: A cleric and druid might team up to stomp out worship of Talos or Hecate.) However popular a pagan deity, its temple or cult of devotees rarely reaches beyond a local scale. Worship of these pagan deities, however, is diminishing with the rise of Ashoum: It seems with each passing decade, more shrines are neglected, rituals become more ornamental, pagan priests win less respect, and more families struggle over how to please several gods.
Numerous pagan deities that fill this or that conceptual niche, and it is difficult to keep a precise count of them all: Some are quite similar to each other, the overlap often explained (when it needs to be explained at all) as one deity being merely an aspect, a “face,” or a family relation of another. Most deities are local, and believers in two areas have be wildly different interpretations of the god with the same name. Folk mythology invents numerous family trees and “how-so” stories explaining the pagan deities, but organized practice and priesthood is scant. Across Drau-Mura, the four most prominent gods are the nameless God of War; Talos, the god of calamity; Hecate, an enigmatic patron of mystery cults; and Pa Shal, the Great Hart. Across Drau-Mura,
The God of War is invoked by soldiers, marauders, conquerors, and just about anyone who finds herself in the midst of violence. The nameless God of War is said to bless fearlessness with strength, and his worship is seen as pragmatic: Tribute and devotion are paid to him to ensure success in a great battle, and to gain absolution after one. Drau-Mura legend holds that the deity’s sword is lost among the Mountains of Morpheus, and the warrior who finds and sheds much blood with it will ascend to take his place in the dawning and dusking sky. Temples of the God of War are small, and function typically as martial schools for the social elite, with clerics and paladins given the temple’s blessing to travel as mercenaries. Indeed, the god’s clerics and paladins have few qualms about putting their abilities up for hire, in ways that Ashoumite and Old Faith priests would find tantamount to prostitution.
Talos is “worshiped” predominantly in coastal areas. Depicted variously as a beautiful boy, a beautiful woman, an ourobouros, or an enormous kraken, the god of calamity, dragons, and the sea is thought to withhold its destruction when appeased with sacrifice. Salt, wine, and livestock are usually offered up, but in the most dire times it is given treasure and human sacrifice — often resulting in the execution of an imprisoned criminal, or the murder of local pariah. Talos worship is associated, when not with the chaotic sea, with the urban, madding crowd: Most of its worshipers swing between indifference and fervor, and their holidays can produce days of Saturnalian revelry. However, its temples are austere, open-sky, seaside places whose priests emphasize martial discipline and the pragmatism of appeasing their god. Clerics of Talos have an intimidating, often unwholesome, reputation — like clerics of the God of War, they are often "priests for hire. The same is true for Talos’s warlocks, who identify him, or one of his bizarre, oceanic, semi-divine minions, as a patron.
The mystery cults of Hecate, deity of wisdom, mystery, night, magic, death, sexuality, and snakes are secretive and diverse. No deity for the common man or woman, the many-faced “Queen of Night” or “Serpent” attracts aristocrats, scholars, some madmen, and magicians. Many warlocks choose her as a patron, though sorcerers and wizards do not shy from her veneration. Regardless of the sort of magic wielded by its devotees, the goddess’s congregations are small, and worship tends to be solitary and contemplative. Theology and faith is extraordinarily heterogeneous, and it can be nearly impossible to recognize two Hecate-cults as worshipers of the same deity: Hecate the Crone, for example, is favored by some rural folk of Cinnamarch as a death goddess, but a wealthy cult of Arius gentry bows down to Hecate the Serpent, pursuing unusual magics of poison and invisibility. Non-magical folk distrust this deity, and it is frequently confused with a corrupted form of druidic faith, or thought to be a guise for Upan worship. In Kala Anar, she is most popularly venerated among the aristocracy, as expectant parents give her offerings in hopes of a sorcerous blessing upon their child. Clerics of Hecate are rare; warlocks are usually thought to bear her greatest favor.
The cult of Pa Shal, a fertility and agriculture god, is a fine example of pagan religion’s decline. Centuries past, worship of Pa Shal the Great Hart was common throughout Drau-Mura, and blended easily with Old Faith traditions. However, Ashoum won converts from the god’s flock, while orthodox Old Faith priests sought to “correct” the forms of his worship. Although Pa Shal’s worshipers survive, most of them also respect the mainline Old Faith, such that Pa Shal is in some places identified as a druidic deity. More subtly, Pa Shal’s religion has survived as its rituals of asceticism, childbirth, and the hunt have been incorporated into both the Old Faith and Ashoum. White stags are considered emissaries of the deity, and many lords continue to forbid anyone to harm them. Warlocks and clerics of Pa Shal also survive; they tend to honor him by collecting unusual, precise concoctions of herbs, honey, and wine, though the more fanatical of them also advocate violence against Ashoumite priests.
The faith of Sha Strigia, the Sacred Owl, is a fine example of a pagan god with a strictly local cult. Particular to the Azna kingdom of Strigis, Sha Strigia is identified as the patron deity of the kingdom, embodying principles of vigilance, loyalty, discipline, and vengeance. Though the faith is popular across city, town, and country, it is a smaller core of adherents who organize festivals and liturgies, chiefly from midsummer to midwinter. The faith enjoys close relations with the Old Faith, enough that Sha Strigia is considered a “druidic god” (a term that orthodox priests would claim is an oxymoron). While rituals are infrequent, the myths and symbols of the owl-patron can be a potent catalyst for action. An outsider’s defacement of a wood carving of the Sacred Owl has provoked his own demise on several occasions.
To most, Morpheus is the pagan trickster deity of nightmares and mountains, though few if any worship him. Just as often, Morpheus is regarded as an evil spirit or, among Ashoumites, a fallen angel exiled by his superiors to the mortal realm. In any case, he is considered to be the capricious and malevolent being that enchants travelers through the Mountains of Morpheus, placing them under the spell of bizarre, transformative dreams.
Priests of Ashoum and the Old Faith caution against treating Morpheus as anything other than a weird superstition, though the former generally take a dim view of pagan deities anyway. Folk belief that Morpheus literally exists, however, is inextinguishable across Drau-Mura, since a number of travelers claim to have encountered Morpheus himself in his mountain realm. Although few believe it possible to literally meet a deity anywhere except in the afterlife, everyone likes a good story, and so Morpheus-tales circulate through the land, their verity as uncertain as dream.
The religion of the elf-blooded diaspora, both called the Vanir, is a monotheistic faith originating in distant lands and influenced by its present conditions of exile and displacement. Their theology holds that the Godhead, creator of the universe, has lost a fragment of his essence within the material world, which longs to be reunited with the Godhead. That fragment, the Khnya, manifests as the sun, which wanders the sky in lamentation over an imperfect creation; reunion with the Godhead will only occur when the Vanir (or in other interpretations, any sapient beings) have built a “Sacred House,” their metaphor for an ideal society. The Vanir and Ashoumites have noticed each other’s theological similarities, but this rarely leads to cooperation between the two.
The Vanir tradition produces skilled wizards and clerics, both of whom are viewed to represent the Godhead in distinct ways. It is common for either to rise to leadership positions.
Faith and Everyday Life
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a pilgrim passing through one of Drau-Mura’s numberless peasant villages surrounded by fields of swaying barley and pastures studded with milling white sheep. On a freezing, rainy evening you seek shelter under one if its modest, mouse-colored cottages: not doing so bad for itself, judging by the barely audible rumble of three apiaries pressed against one side of the cottage, and the two chicken coops behind it. You rap on the cottage door, and your eyes are drawn to a wreath of holly and ivy. This is a symbol of the Old Faith, signifying fertility, life, abundance. Perhaps one of the residents is pregnant. Perhaps one of them wishes to be.
These barley peasants are charitable. They welcome you with thick, itchy blankets and a sack of straw for a pillow. They share with you a dinner of brick-red potato stew with little chopped pieces of garlic and long soft slices of cabbage. Yes, the mother is pregnant. The father utters a short prayer: “Be blessed the soil that sends up our food and the rain that swells it.” This confirms it: an Old Faith family.
Naturally, your hosts steer the dinner conversation toward two topics. First, from where are you coming? Cleverly, you tell them that you hail from a village halfway across the kingdom, ruled by a fiercely strict lord who is also an Ashoumite. The father slurps hot garlicky stew and grunts: “Are you one?” “No, sir, there was also a druid in my village; she taught us the traditions of the Old Faith.” The mother grouses that her village would welcome a druid, one with real magic: the only priest of the Old Faith hereabouts is an old man whose head is filled with superstition, and he can’t work magic; he can’t even properly do the rites for sickness or death or the summer solstice. Pah, forget about giving their children a real education in nature or philosophy or even proper literacy. They’d have to walk fifteen miles to and fro each day. Though I’d like to make sure to have a proper druid in the house when (she pats her belly) my child is born. The birth rites of the Old Faith better be done right for the boy or girl. The father mutters with gloom that it doesn’t seem to likely.
Second, to where are you coming? Plainly, you tell them you’re on a pilgrimage. You’re traveling to the sacred grove near the village of White Hound. You’re a young man, in the flower of your manhood. Though a peasant, you are more than a poor tenant farmer: You have the fortune of being the master of your own little smallhold: a cottage, a few beasts of burden, 25 acres of land, and even one servant, an old woman. You are about to be betrothed to a woman, beautiful but cynical. Your cousin wishes to live with you too: he is down on his luck, and while he has a reputation for being a freeloader he is also family, and has a strong back anyway. Life has presented its serious albeit ordinary choices, and you wish to undertake this pilgrimage not only to testify to your faith, but to meditate upon these matters.
The father nudges his son: Eh, do you hear that? This man is undertaking a real pilgrimage, halfway across the whole kingdom. Over one hundred miles of walking. Son, I expect you to do at least half as much when you’re a man. (Surly and mop-haired, the boy rolls his eyes.) In the old days, men and women would go for pilgrimages two hundred miles long. The mother sighs: That’s not true.
There is a little household shrine at the west end of the cottage. Another wreath of holly and ivy, placed between fat unlit candles and two badger’s skulls, clearly indicates that this is a shrine of the Old Faith. The mother urges her children to pray, briefly, before going to bed: Go do it, you must contemplate, just a little. They resist. You can also see, tucked behind those candles, two simple statuettes carved from (perhaps) maple wood: one an ourobouros, another a man with sword clasped in his hands. You recognize what pagan divinities they represent: Talos the god of calamity, and the God of War. The mother faintly blushes when you notice, perhaps embarrassed thinking that you are a more orthodox adherent. Our son is practicing archery, she says, he bought that believing it would be good for him; he wishes to fight in a battle some day. And Talos, my father lives by the coast. He is a fisherman, he swears by a prayer to the ocean god. (Or is it the goddess? I can never recall …) It’s just pragmatic. We’re not heathens, of course.
You faintly smile. It’s not as if you have any objections to levy. When you rise from sleep, you notice that the pagan statuettes have been removed from the shrine, perhaps stored in the locked chest underneath it. The father, out of respect for your devotion, has prepared a small sack of cheese, dried meat, bread, and two fresh apples. Safe travels, buddy. We wish you well on your pilgrimage.
Afterlife and the Undead
Ashoum teaches that all souls end up in the underworld, the grim and doleful realm of the Adversary, but will be eventually freed to enter Paradise in the future. The Old Faith teaches that death is the end of both the body and soul’s life (or at least of the soul’s personal identity); the only fate after death is the harmonious rejoining with the natural world. Both religions, if they agree on anything, is that their afterlife teachings are not exactly an easy sell. The pagan folk belief in the Dark Forest, an afterlife realm that overlays this one, is held commonly (and privately — it can be embarrassing to believe in what the orthodoxy says is a feel-good fairy tale) across Drau-Mura.
No one understands the animating force behind ghasts, ghosts, spirits revenants, and other undead entities, but it happens often enough without the living’s interference (e.g., necromancy). Cadaverous undead usually rise from their graves to seek out rest in swampy areas, the largest of which are the Ghast Fens, and their travel may take months, even decades (as ghouls don’t seem to have the most efficient sense of navigation). Such ghouls may rise anywhere from an hour or a year after death — sometimes, the urge to travel toward a faraway mire happens to the dying, who after death immediately pursue their goal with renewed vigor. It’s believed that after a good, long rest in the swamps, ghouls rise hungry for human flesh; after feasting, they rest in their swamps until hungry again. Spectral undead inhabit ruins and the wilderness, and can possess the bodies of the living. The specters of the Mountains of Morpheus are said to be the most evil in all the land, driving their chevals toward cannibalism, murder, and suicide.
Desecration of the dead is taboo among most faiths, though some of the Old Faith’s methods of corpse disposal (which include leaving bodies out as carrion) are seen as barbaric. In times of trouble, people are all too willing to destroy their dead to prevent them from rising. Three beliefs oppose the destruction of a corpse: First, it is thought that the threat of it is what makes the dead get up in the first place. Second, it is thought that it may make the deceased’s ghost haunt the offenders. Third, it is thought that it wounds the dead person in its afterlife state, whatever that is.