As readers might be aware, one reason I like historical or real-world settings for tabletop RPGs is that it means that there’s a wealth of material out there in non-gaming reference works ready for you to adapt for your game. In this occasional series, I review things which have caught my eye as being particularly useful for adapting to RPG purposes.
The Isles of the Many Gods by David Rankine and Sorita D’Este
Put out by Avalonia, this is primarily aimed at a pagan audience, but is particularly aimed at what’s sometimes called “reconstructionist paganism” – as in people who are not so much interested in constructing new forms of paganism as they are in figuring out how older forms of pre-Christian spirituality may have been practiced.
Specifically, it is an attempt to provide as comprehensive as possible a list of the deities with some form of recorded worship or recognition in Britain, prior to Christianity becoming predominant. The growth of Christianity in Britain went in fits and starts – the Roman Empire converted, but people didn’t exactly forget their older traditions overnight, and outside of Wales the Romano-British territories were largely taken by the incoming Saxons.
As Rankine and D’Este note in one of their introductory essays, by the time Alfred the Great compelled Guthrum, ruler of East Anglia, to convert to Christianity as part of a peace deal in 878 CE things were on the wane. They note that from the tenth century onwards, any pagan practice had to be clandestine; they don’t note, possibly to avoid offending that section of their readership who buy into Wiccan myths about their religion being a survival of an ancient pagan faith and other such legends, that by the time of the Norman era pagan worship in Britain was basically done.
Sure, perhaps some folk practices had survived – but even those who venerated sacred wells and the practitioners of folk magic (such as would develop into the “cunning man” tradition and similar) basically thought of themselves as Christians and incorporated these things into a Christian worldview. In terms of persecutory situations, the Christian population was far more inclined to go after their Jewish neighbours, or heretics within the ranks of the faith; actual pagan adherents of non-Abrahamic religions do not seem to be in evidence (and yes, sure, you can claim they were just hiding, but you’d think that if there was any significant number of them then at least one of them would have screwed up, disclosed their faith to the outside world, and become the centre of a scandal, and there isn’t really evidence of such a thing happening).
Prior to this, however, a staggering variety of deities were venerated from place to place in Britain, ranging from local deities to those imported by Celts, Romans, or Saxons in their successive waves of invasion. In compiling this listing of deities, Rankine and D’Este carefully look the surviving historical and archaeological sources. In some instances, like the mythology of Ireland and Wales, what they are largely dealing with are accounts by later Christian monks of local folklore which include heroic figures which perhaps are specifically cited as being deities but in other instances (in the Welsh stories in particular) have a more ambiguous nature, but have sufficiently superheroic feats attributed to them that they probably were deities recast as mortal heroes to make the stories more acceptable to the Christian monks chronicling them.
Here I think of how the Prose Edda begins with a preamble theorising that the Æsir were Trojan settlers, much as how Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that Brutus of Troy led a settlement of Britain – come to think of it, Brutus is rather reminiscent of Hu Gadarn, recorded here as a likely deity, and some of the other Welsh legendary figures recorded here are cited more directly by Geoffrey as legendary heroes, such as Bran and Ludd.
In other instances, Rankine and D’Este do not have to speculate as to which figures in these chronicles are euphemistically concealed deities; old altars and other cultic items dedicated to them have been turned up. Indeed, there’s a great many gods listed here for whom the only evidence is some altar inscription or another in some part of Britain; this might be evidence of them being local deities, or it could be – as the authors concede – that some deities were simply worshipped under different names in different locales. Still more Roman-era deities have as their main evidence carved gems depicting them, though of course in these cases it’s ambiguous as to whether there was any established local cult or whether these just represent deities that visitors from far-flung part of the Empire venerated (perhaps carrying the gems with them to their posting in far-off Britannia precisely because there’d be no temple there for be the focus of their worship).
The listing is not as comprehensive as it could be, since Rankine and D’Este make the decision to exclude deities who were deified mortals – both legendary figures born to entirely mortal parents (so Heracles makes it in, but there’s no consideration of whether some of the stories attributed to King Arthur suggest him as a deity reframed as a mortal), and wholly historical figures such as the Caesars who were deified by the Roman state cult. This, I feel, is a mistake; it comes across as though either Rankine or D’Este don’t consider such figures to be “proper” gods, or they don’t think their readers will. For a project like The Isles of the Many Gods, I feel like such considerations should be wholly besides the point – the bar for entry should be “were these individuals venerated as deities in pre-Christian Britain?”.
Still, the book does a great job of getting across Rankine and D’Este’s main point, which is that Britain was home to a truly multicultural range of religious practices right back to time immemorial. It is also, in keeping with the theme of this series, a rather neat resource for anyone intending to run RPGs in genres ranging from historical fantasy to folk horror to urban fantasy. Let’s say you want inspiration a bit off the beaten path for your Scion character, or more meat on the bones of the pagan religions living side-by-side with Christianity in Pendragon, or want to add more historical flavour to a Cthulhu Invictus campaign set in Britain, or want the name of some obscure deity whose altar some fusty old antiquarians might have uncovered in a classic 1920s-period Call of Cthulhu game – this book can cover all of that.
Granted, some of the deities are more detailed than others; the Irish and Welsh ones are given a fair amount of detail, but the famous Roman ones are not given that much (most likely because their legends are well-covered in other sources), and a bunch of the more obscure gods have very little detail about them at all (because little detail has survived). But precisely because of this, you can probably find an entry which suits your purposes – whether it’s a little-understood deity to hang some legends you’ve made up on, or a more well-established god whose myths you want to take inspiration from.
For similar reasons, the book is likely to also be useful to fiction writers in mediums beyond tabletop RPGs. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the book is that whilst it is undoubtedly written for an audience of believers, it’s of great use regardless of what you believe (or disbelieve). It probably isn’t such a good book to use if you want to have a very pulpy, sensationalistic, or unrealistic take on such subject matter; better in such instances to come up with your own myths that don’t have the historical baggage and burden of expectations that hail from real history. But if you want to treat the subject with more respect for the history (and for modern-day practitioners), this is a good port of call.