Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Thoughts on Clerics in D&D: Polytheism, Monotheism, and other False Dichotomies

One of the core tensions people seem to find in the D&D oeuvre is that between Clerics as crusader-types straight out of the monotheistic religions of the middle ages and the notion that the world assumes a vague polytheistic mish-mash of beliefs, courtesy of Appendix N. Further, people often express doubt about the likely hood of priests going off on adventures of conquest, pillage, and exploration.

I think these tensions are in fact illusory.

1. Polytheism vs. Monotheism, 
or, A Guide to Recognizing Gods & Saints
Much hay can be made of the cultural and material differences between monotheistic and polytheistic religions/societies (see this post by Alexis on Polytheism), but the reality is that human beings  are too messy to be easily and cleanly fit into such pigeonholes. Or, at least, into what most people seem to think those pigeonholes entail.

This may seem like so much nonsense; after all, clearly a person can’t both believe in only one god and in multiple gods. “A or not-A has to hold, right? Well, of course it does. But that’s not the point on which the argument turns, rather, the essential pivot is: “just what do you mean by god, anyway?”.

There are two ways to think about this (well, actually, there are a lot more ways than that, but I’m gerrymandering for the sake of argument):
  1. A god is any entity with really big medicine.
  2. God is the unique entity that possesses god-making qualities (omnipotence, etc.)
Now, clearly, it’s possible to believe in both a god¹ and a God² at the same time. My contention is that most of the time when people say “polytheism” the theo root they’re using means god¹ and when they say “monotheism” the theo root means God². Given that, it should be possible to be both monotheistic and polytheistic in the specific sense that I’m using the words. And, in historical fact, many if not most people believed in both without much problem.

The upshot is that the transition between, say, traditional Roman polytheism and monotheistic Roman Christianity isn’t as big a deal in certain areas of practical effect as one might suppose. After all, there is still today a Pontifex Maximus on the Palatine Hill (or near enough) making regular offerings of praise and blood (or near enough) to the Best and Greatest (Optimus Maximus), just as there has been for the last 2500 years or so since we can establish some historical record of religion in the Roman republic. And, at the same time, most people living under that official religious order believed in lots of other things besides the Best and Greatest that had enough medicine to make a difference in their lives if properly approached, whether they be called Saints or Olympians. The transition in names from Jupiter Optimus Maximus to just God or from Diana to St. Anne isn’t that big a deal across a few generations of believers.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t a great deal of important theological differences that believers live and die for, but that you shouldn’t sweat it so much in dreaming up a D&D campaign world. In real life people have had wildly heterogeneous beliefs, and not just in the modern era, but amongst the ancients and medievals as well. Names and doctrines change while beliefs and institutions adapt and endure.

So, don’t worry too much about the weird place D&D Clerics are in. The real-world English priests at the Church of St. Anne and the Church of St. Brigid might, as a matter of official propaganda, be priests of the One True God, but they’re arguably also just priests at the temples of the goddesses Diana and Brighid, whereas the Flamen Martialis and Flamen Quirinalis might officially be the head priests of Mars and Quirinal, but they’re arguably also just priests of particular temples in a single religion that says Jupiter is the Best and Greatest. Further, through medieval history you often had pagan and monotheist kingdoms side-by-side and in practice saying their prayers to gods and saints with the same names. So, throwing what seem to be vaguely monotheistic-style Clerics into the roles of priests of diverse polytheistic gods whose cults have strangely similar hierarchies and oddly cooperative attitudes with one another may look weird to modern eyes, but it actually has a fair verisimilitude to the history that inspired it.

2. Priests as Adventurers, 
or, a Flamen, a Goði, and a Bishop Walk into a Dungeon
So, these Cleric guys might not be so out of place in the setting after all, but, allowing that, why are they out delving into dungeons, exploring the wilderness, and setting up strongholds in conquered lands instead of staying in their temples and doing their sacred duty? Well, two reasons:
  1. It’s more fun that way.
  2. Lots of the real priests we know about did the same kinds of things.
Augustus Caesar fought a half-dozen wars, winding up in an impressive ship-wreck a time or two, formed a military junta that ruled Rome, put down a long series of rivals and rebellions, founded and expanded the Roman Empire, rebuilt half the city, tooled around with redesigning the coinage and calendar, and still found time to be Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Jupiter and the head of all Roman religion. I mean, he may not have been quite as regular at services as some of his predecessors, but who was going to complain about it to the most powerful man in the world so long as the gods seemed satisfied?.

Ingólfr Arnarson sailed to Iceland around 874, becoming the first vikingr (which, more or less, translates to “adventurer”) to settle there permanently, founding and naming what is now the city of Reykjavík. According to the sagas, he left home to get out of a blood feud, set out for an island that he heard had been found recently by some guys sailing around the North Atlantic, settled where the gods carried the wooden pillars that represented his chieftainship (having thrown them overboard), and later  sailed out to the western islands to hunt down the slaves that murdered his best friend.Along the way, he became the prototype of the Allsherjargoði, the prima inter pares sacral chieftain (goði) that blessed the meetings of the Althing, and thus laid the foundations of a Comonwealth based on a polycentric legal order that would endure longer than the United States has been around.

Odo of Bayeux was one of the chief lieutenants of the Conqueror, even his right-hand man, and certainly one of the most powerful men in the newly established kingdom, at least until he got up to something that lead to him being tried and imprisoned as a traitor until William’s death. In between, he also became Earl of Kent and likely commissioned the medieval world’s greatest comic book, the Bayeux Tapestry, gained renown in battle, accumulated great wealth through robbery, plunder, and extortion, built a cathedral, and founded a school for young men. Incidentally, he was also named Bishop of Bayeux by his first cousin Duke William (the later King of England) while still a teenager, and carried his crozier with him on the conquest. It’s probably also worth noting that the bishop and king were only fourth or fifth generation Christians, William’s namesake and great-great-grandfather William Longsword having converted a about 150 years earlier, on or about the occasion of his marriage to a local noblewoman in order that he might cement his conquest of what would become Normandy.

So, don’t worry to much about what irresponsible shenanigans player-character Clerics get up to. They’re in good company. Sure, these examples are extraordinary men that did extraordinary things and so get a pass, but that’s the point: adventuring just is doing extraordinary things.


  1. It may also be worth pointing out that one of the reasons that the the idea of chastity was instituted among the priesthood was because many priests were building up land, money and wealth and passing it down in their families.

    Needless to say, with the added strength of both god(s) and God(tm) behind them, this enabled them to raise armies, fight battles and influence politics with just as much, if not more authority than local lords or even Kings. Shenanigans indeed!

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