Strange Rites

One of my pet peeves about RPGs is that they reflect the ethnocentrism of a culture where we take for granted that religions are based on ethical monotheism with an essentially congregational structure. Sure, it’s a conceit of RPGs that religion is polytheistic, but look at the maps of any kind of temple in a module or collection of battle maps and you’ll see there are pews. Pews! As if the serpent cult are assembling to listen to sermons about the scaly transformation that awaits them.

If you read history or anthropology, you quickly learn that real paganism is far more bizarre than anything you can imagine if your thought process is “start with Episcopalians, except they’re all dwarves and they worship Moradin and there’s an anvil where the altar should be.” You know the phrase “Viking funeral” and probably think it means pushing a rowboat as floating coffin out to sea then shooting a flaming arrow at it. This is an invention of pop culture. The truth, as we know from the Abbasid ambassador to the Rus, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, is like something out of a particularly gruesome horror movie.

New world cultures provide lots of extreme examples. Everyone knows about meso-American human sacrifice, but fewer people know that the same cultures would also perform sacrifice via self-mutilation like piercing your own foreskin with a fish barb. Other American Indian cultures had a fascination with excruciating pain as a transcendent religious experience as well. George Catlin’s ethnography of the Mandan nation includes descriptions of a coming of age ritual that involved boys being starved, crucified, and beaten.

Or consider the reconstructed proto-Indo-European institution of the kóryos. Teen boys would be sent out from the tribe to live as a wolf pack and re-entry to society as young men involved them ritually sacrificing their pet dogs.

Anyway, the point is that religious rites can be really strange. I created these tables to let you create something strange, but consistent with the ethnographic and archaeological record, the next time your player-characters encounter a religious ritual.

Roll on each table

What’s the occasion?

  1. Funerary
  2. Astronomical (eg, solstice, equinox, new moon)
  3. Agrarian (eg, harvest, planting)
  4. Wedding
  5. Coming of age
  6. Diplomatic (eg, signing a peace treaty)

What is the nature of worship? Roll twice.

  1. Orgy
  2. Human sacrifice (1d4: 1. Strangulation, 2. Immolation, 3. Ritual combat, 4. Heart removal)
  3. Animal sacrifice (1d6: 1. Cattle, 2. Goats or sheep, 3. Horses, 4. Doves or chickens, 5. Birds of prey, 6. Dogs or wolves)
  4. Feast
  5. Bonfire of trade goods
  6. Fasting
  7. Hallucinogenic drugs
  8. Self-torture
  9. Poetry recital
  10. Athletic games

How long does it last?

  1. An hour
  2. Several hours
  3. A day and a night
  4. Three days
  5. A week
  6. All month

Who or what’s presence is propitious/taboo?

Roll once for each. If you get the same roll for both, invent some distinction. For instance, flying insects are propitious but crawling insects are taboo or recently enslaved people are taboo, but vernae are propitious.

  1. Insects
  2. Birds
  3. Scavengers
  4. Lightning
  5. Nobility
  6. Commoners
  7. Slaves
  8. Foreigners
  9. Boys who have yet to kill
  10. Menstruating women
  11. Post-menopausal women
  12. Third gender people
  13. Anyone who has killed since the last (1d4: 1. solstice, 2. full moon, 3. rain storm, 4. harvest)
  14. The kinship moiety opposite those holding the rites (eg, in a patrilineal culture, the priest’s mother’s brothers)
  15. Anyone who was born (1d4: 1. with a caul, 2. to a widow, 3. during the new moon, 4. to a slave mother)
  16. Flowers
  17. Mushrooms
  18. Meat
  19. Root vegetables
  20. Roll twice

What supernatural entities are invoked or propitiated?

  1. The ancestors of their lineage
  2. Minor gods who are the special protectors of a particular lineage (eg, lares)
  3. The fey
  4. Nature in an animistic sense
  5. A 6HD or higher monster (a dragon, a mind flayer, etc) which the worshippers believe to be a divinity
  6. A Deities & Demigods style pantheon of gods
  7. A Lovecraftian entity
  8. Foreigners whose visit two generation ago is still misremembered as a visit from the gods

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