Building a Historical Game World - Gods & Beliefs

The shrine of the Frisians taunts you to visit. You have spoken to some of the more travelled folks in the village and the odd merchant to find out more, and the news is not encouraging. The shrine you have to visit is a grove of Baduhenna, the ancient battle goddess. Your people do not pray to Baduhenna anymore, she is too bloodthirsty even for your tastes and the old songs tell of hundreds of enemies being sacrificed to calm her anger.
— Chronicles of Úlfarrsted

When I started to define the world of The Great Whale Road, I knew a fair bit about the history of Northern Europe during the Early Middle Ages. But until a few months ago I had not spent much time looking beyond what popular culture has all taught us about the belief systems of that particular time period. Like other social and historical aspects we are including in the game, this was a bit of an eye-opener. 

We know a decent amount about Christianity of that period. There was a Celtic tradition in addition to the Roman one, and Arianism was still around in parts of Western Europe. All these folks liked to write stuff down. Penitentials for example (handbooks on sin and required penance) make an interesting read. There must have been a lot of fornication with beasts, Junius 121 is quite obsessed with it. Farming might have been organic back then, but I am not sure farm animals enjoyed all the attention. 'Innocent until proven guilty' applies for livestock, too:  

"If an animal has been polluted by a man's penis, let it be killed and given to dogs. If there is doubt about this, let the animal live." 

But pretty much anything to do with sexuality was frowned upon, just thinking about it required to do penance. And if something is documented as forbidden it usually means that it was being done a lot. Heathens were still all around, and Christianity must have been hard to sell with its new morality. It would take another few hundred years before everyone had become Christian in many Germanic societies.

But what were these heathens believing? Many different things! Even rock star deities will have had different characteristics from region to region, and even from tribe to tribe. Odin or Woden was not the same god for all the Germanic tribes, it might not even have been the same god for all the Saxons.

There were also many older deities which were worshipped in parallel to the newer gods. Baduhenna was one of them. She was a prehistoric goddess of battle and the Frisians sacrificed scores of Roman legionaries to her in twenty eight AD. Her name means battle matron, which links her to the Celto-Germanic cult of Matres and Matronae in the Roman Empire. There were a few of them, my favourites are: 

  • Nerþuz (Nerthus), 'Mother Earth' 
  • Tamfana, a moon goddess
  • Baduhenna, a battle goddess maybe not unlike the Irish-Celtic Morrigan 

The Matrons were very popular from the first to the fifth century AD, and I am certain they were venerated afterwards as well.

The Germanic belief system was not static and in addition to older and newer gods there were also plenty of spirits and magical creatures to be concerned about. Elves could cause illness with their arrows and people could return from the dead as widerganger. Popular culture rarely mentions that Freyja receives half of the dead slain in battle for her own hall of warriors, but Odin only received half of those picked up by the Valkyries. 

Similar assumptions can be made about Celtic polytheism. Some of the the gods in Gaul, Britain and Ireland certainly had common roots, and 'Mother Earth' was a constant anyway. Celtic Christianity in turn was the amalgamation of Celtic and Christian traditions. Celtic polytheism was more compatible with Christianity than Germanic polytheism, which in turn explains why the adoption of Christianity happened comparably quicker in Celtic regions.

This, in a nutshell, are the religious backgrounds of the different cultures and characters in the game. From a writing and narrative design perspective this gives us a lot more freedom than I expected when I started out on this adventure. For example we can have the Northumbrian settlement follow the old gods, while their king is already baptised and has sent them a priest. Similarly we can use an interesting mix of Celtic Christianity and Irish Celtic polytheistic influences when we create stories for the Picts.

 ~ Joachim @ Sunburned Games