The Rhûnnish lands cover roughly half of the Rossberan continent, and as one might expect, the cultures of those lands vary widely. Religion is but one aspect of culture, and while there is some consistency in the mythology, as discussed in the previous post about the rise and fall of Gobb Kilrog the Goblin King, there was no unifying religion until the rise of the Rhûnnish Empire.
In order to explain the religious transformation of the Rhûnnish lands, it is necessary to begin with the oldest of all Rossberan religions. Its “deities” are known as the primordial powers, but the religion itself is more commonly known as Chaos. From the Great Void that was everything and nothing, the universe emerged untold eons ago. While, for the most part, the activities of the natural world progress without influence from that which still remains in the Great Void, every now and then, the void spits out something new, or otherwise influences the natural world. Generally speaking, chaos worship is the archetype for all religions of “that which has no natural explanation can be explained by the supernatural.” In the most ancient times, sometimes referred to as Rossbera’s Golden Age, nearly all of the continent’s inhabitants adhered to one form of chaos worship or another, and the religion’s clergy were winged creatures called chuyinka. Though the chuyinka were mortals, they did not evolve naturally, and also possessed remarkable abilities, leading many, including the chuyinka themselves, to speculate that their creators made a dark deal with the primordial powers.
Disorder and the great unknown are so deeply feared in the mammalian psyche, that once the chuyinka were no longer around, knowledge of chaos disappeared almost entirely. The few traditions that may have persisted had long since lost any meaning by the time that the Church of Rhun arose. Only in the farthest reaches of the northeastern part of the country, a land once known as Durkuz, did any remnant chaos cults remain. Throughout most of the Rhûnnish lands, ancestor worship, shamanic traditions, and nymph worship were the norm. These were eventually replaced by a more consistent and cohesive religion known as the Faith in the Crystals. While there were already some beliefs in the power of crystals in the shamanic traditions, no true “crystals of power” were ever used. The initial discovery of a bizarre crystal called neticine was what eventually gave rise to a new religion. Unlike quartz, opal, or corundum, one could not claim that neticine was “just a pretty rock.” Neticine did not heal, in fact it some claimed it had only the power to destroy. Wearing it as everyday jewellery would make a person ill, sometimes even driving them mad. Other than that, however, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what the crystal did. Chaos worshippers, of which a few remained, proclaimed that neticine was not natural, and was one of those strange things spat out by the Great Void, perhaps because the primordial powers were getting bored with the natural world, and wanted to make things interesting. Others, however, believed that all crystals inherently held divine power, and that neticine crystals must be the shards of a particularly powerful deity. Since ice is a crystal, albeit one that melts easily, the ice-nymphs, which were once abhorred, became deified, whereas the worship of other nymphs (water, wood, and snow) declined. Regarding the wood nymphs, for instance, while it still remained a tradition among hunters to leave offerings of arrowheads to the forest, within a few generations, most did not know where that practise came from.
For adherents to the Faith in the Crystals, the size and type of one’s “sacred” crystal, their most prized heirloom, was their main status symbol. Neticine, for example, was a royal crystal, such that anyone who possessed a substantially-sized crystal probably bore the title of “tsar” or “tsaritsa.” Many of them had their crystals mounted to their sceptres, and a few even carried them into battle. Since neticine was sensitive to certain sound frequencies, it would glow, sing, or even levitate if exposed to the proper notes. The tsars’ war chants would activate the crystals, and frighten most enemies into a rout, fearing what powers the tsar might manifest if he could not be silenced then and there. There was one faction, however, that remained entirely undaunted by these displays – Skhara.
Though the Rhûnnish people were connected by both folklore and grain (rye, specifically, which is where the name “Rhûn” comes from), they were divided into two main ethnic groups, the slavs and the easterlings. The easterlings, as the name suggests, are those who lived in the eastern Rhûnnish lands. Unlike the slavs in the west, the easterlings were not strangers to raiders from the far east, a land called Skhara. Following a period of great decadence in Skhara, the country fell into decay, and in order to sustain their lavish lifestyle, the Skharans turned to raiding the surrounding lands, travelling farther and farther in search of riches. One warlord even proclaimed that he “would scour all the lands of Rhûn to find the next Sing-Yat-San, and become the next Kazímir,” an obvious reference to General Kazímir Skharnov, who famously sacked the capital of the Minkutian Empire. However, no such treasure trove of gold and jewels existed anywhere in Rhûn. The fanciest baubles that the Skharans ever stole were the sacred crystals. Deprived of their idols, the easterlings were not nearly as strong in the faith as the slavs. This history had ramifications that reached all the way to the very end of the Rhûnnish Empire.
After the fall of Skhara, the woman who was once destined to rule the country, Alexandra Skharnova, fled west with a handful of warriors. They knew that they would be recognised among the easterlings, and there would be no safe refuge there. The slavs, on the other hand, may have heard tales about Skharan raiders, but would not have known what they looked like. The short, rounded ears and long, prehensile tale that all druorns possessed may have drawn odd gazes in a land where everyone had pointed ears and short tails, but Alexandra was confident that she would be able to live in peace among the slavs – at least, until she made her move to forge her own empire. She was most certainly a “my destiny is to rule” type. Her first move, while tactically sound, drew far too much unwanted attention. She captured the town of Vyskie Rodniki, or High Springs, which, while very easy to fortify and defend, was a site that was sacred to the Faith in the Crystals. It was there, or, more specifically, in the caves in the mountains behind the town, that neticine was first discovered in Rhûn.
Alexandra’s conquest is a subject for another day, but the ultimate result was that many crystals of power were taken from those she had defeated, either given as an act of surrender or plucked from the corpses of their owners. As a sign of her power, Alexandra had a throne fashioned out of all the crystals that she had collected, most of which weren’t neticine, but it made no difference, as the point of the Crystal Throne was entirely symbolic. Many crystal priests proclaimed this act an affront to the gods, and that the self-proclaimed Empress of Rhûn would be struck down as soon as she sat upon the throne. When she didn’t, those same priests then proclaimed her to be a divine being, a proclamation that ran counter to the Faith’s idea that gods do not interact directly with mortals. The idea that the Empress was divine created a rift, one which Alexandra took advantage of.
As a Skharan, Alexandra held to a totally different belief system. She never once believed that she was divine, merely favoured by divine beings. Unlike most druorns of Skhara, she was extremely devout, primarily because she had regular interactions with a being she believed was a god – the chuyinka Veyra Blackwing, better known as Jenůfa Nószimål. When the crystal priests bowed before her and proclaimed her divinity, Alexandra could have easily corrected them, but it would have potentially undone her entire conquest. Instead, she chose a more shrewd approach, and allowed the priests who believed this proclamation to create a new sect of the Faith, one which had the full support of all imperial organisations. The Empress created three high offices, and each high officer would answer directly to the monarch. Those offices were those of the Grand Marshal, First Minister, and Grand Inquisitor. Their functions would be to oversee the military, general civil matters, and political dissent, respectively. At least, this was the original intent. Shortly after the foundation of the Church of Rhûn, it became clear that if the Empress were to be the empire’s spiritual leader, both de jure and de facto, then she would have to spend all of her time attending to religious matters, rather than dividing her attention evenly among all matters of governance that concerned her. Therefore, she appointed a fourth high officer, the Ecclesiarch. The Ecclesiarch would be the head of the church, and before anyone could object, the Empress declared “the object of a religion’s worship cannot lead the religion itself, it is for the most devout leader among you to do instead.” In this way, the Empress absolved herself of having to micro-manage the inevitable religious tension that would result from this schism.
The imperial sect of the Faith in the Crystals thus became the official religion of the Rhûnnish Empire. While it was the only organised and unified incarnation of the religion, it wasn’t particularly popular. The idea of erecting a temple with a roof and gathering inside to listen to stories in a solemn fashion was completely foreign to the Rhûnnish people. Churches, which were paid for with taxes, were regularly vandalised, as the people viewed their construction as theft from their communities. Church attendance was also quite low, and rituals that the Church strictly forbade were regularly practised out in the open, in some cases just to spite the clergy. The members of the imperial clergy were too few to enforce the imperial religion, and initially, the Church begged the Imperial Inquisition to lend aid to enforcing the religious doctrine. The Grand Inquisitor said that he had enough to worry about with purely secular dissent, and would have no time to investigate legitimate political threats if the inquisitors were busy enforcing religious doctrine. In time, the Church had to find new and inventive ways of recruiting its own religious enforcers, eventually leading to a parallel inquisition. The Ecclesiarchy operated in a nearly identical manner to the Imperial Inquisition, but concerned itself entirely with spiritual loyalty to the monarch, rather than secular political loyalty.
The Ecclesiarchy was something of a shortened table leg in the Rhûnnish government. The Ecclesiarch was never held in the same regard as the Grand Marshal, First Minister, or Grand Inquisitor. In common parlance, most Rhûnnish people referred to the “three high offices” beneath the Emperor (or Empress), and never the “four high offices.” Throughout the Rhûnnish lands, organised religion was always seen as something of a joke, and compliance with the dictatorial Ecclesiarchy was simply a path of least resistance necessary for a peaceful existence. In truth, the Church of Rhûn was doomed from the start, as its de facto deity never even believed in it to begin with, she simply saw the creation of the Church as politically expedient.
As the Rhûnnish Empire expanded over the next five centuries, the Ecclesiarchy spent most of its time attempting to evangelise conquered lands, neglecting to enforce religious orthodoxy in the regions that were already brought fully into the imperial fold in all other ways. Their ability to propagate the doctrine was stretched far too thin to be effective, and few emperors were devout enough in their religion to consider providing the Church with the same resources as the Inquisition. As far as most were concerned, as long as political compliance was achieved, religious compliance was unnecessary. Furthermore, among the devout emperors, most did not believe that they were divine beings, nor did they wish to propagate such a belief. The very founding principle of the Church of Rhûn was thus tossed aside at the whim of the monarch.
When the Rhûnnish Empire broke in half, the Imperial Inquisition was disbanded. Naturally, if the Inquisition couldn’t survive that event, then the Ecclesiarchy stood no chance of survival. Churches were still built, monasteries continued to operate, and the religion continued to spread, but with no central organisation, and little to no help from either the Karamzov or Votavko families.