Random Thoughts on Renaissance “Clerics”

I’ve previously written about how I’ve found it helpful to think of worldbuilding in terms of RPG game mechanics. I’ve shared with you a little of how the magic of my current WIP can be quantified in terms of the Fate Core RPG rules, not because it’s necessarily the best system out there but because the rule set seems rather intuitive and well-suited to what I’m aiming for as a writer. I’ve described the rules for faery magic as well as (human-centered) arcane magic. With both systems, I’ve attempted to stay reasonably true to beliefs about what magic could or could not do as perceived in the late Medieval and early Modern periods, circa 1350–1700.

Old-school D&D nerds might well be wondering about divine magic: the realm of those characters that Gary Gygax dubbed “clerics.” And the truth is, I don’t foresee the need for any “clerics” in my WIP. But if I did, how might one go about quantifying the religious-oriented magic of this time period? I don’t have any suggestions for actual game mechanics here, just a few random notes about how I might proceed.

Arcane Magic, Re-skinned

The first thing to note is that the boundary between “arcane” and “divine” magic is blurry and often contentious. What one person may describe as “sacraments” and “prayers,” another might perceive as “spells” and “incantations.” Much of what I’ve already described as arcane magic could simply be “re-skinned” and applied to divine magic.

In rural areas especially, the practices of old religions often live on beneath the veneer of orthodox faith. The parish priest, for example, might well be called upon to perform rituals that mix “magic” or “superstition” with orthodox rites. For example, they might perform a ritual of sympathetic magic to make fields fertile. In general, these kinds of folk magic were permitted as long as they were used to help people and never to harm.

So, in keeping with what I previously proposed for mages, clerics might take levels of “Arcane Magic” skill, but instead of specializing in “Folk Magic,” for example, they might specialize in “Sacramentals,” minor rituals or prayers that vary in flavor depending on the specifics of the religious tradition.

In Judaism, for example, the “practical kabbalah” related to mystic contemplations of the divine names of God would be an appropriate template. Instead of an arcane ritual, the kabbalist might simply recite a divine name or formula, or perhaps inscribe it on a piece of parchment or some other surface.

For a parish priest in the Highlands of Scotland, the prayers, incantations, charms, and poems of the Carmina Gadelica might be an excellent place to start in depicting the flavor of such a re-skinned system.

Healing rituals would pretty much be a no-brainer for clerics of nearly any tradition. One might also propose “Insight” or “Prophecy” as a re-skinned version of “Divination.” Note, however, that the actual practice of divination through horoscopes, tarot cards, crystal balls, etc., is generally forbidden in the monotheistic religions. If you really wanted a high-powered divine magic system (which I don’t think would be period-accurate), you could allow a cleric to specialize in “Miracles” as a re-skinned version of “Theurgy”—though definitely impose limits on what sorts of miracles are possible based on the specific spiritual tradition the cleric follows.

Arcane Magic and Orthodox Faith

Christian and Jewish clerics in fact pursued certain disciplines of arcane magic during the Renaissance. Leonardo de Candia Pistoia and Marsilio Ficina, responsible for bringing the Corpus Hermeticum to the West, were a Byzantine monk and a Catholic priest, respectively. The Baal Shem of London was both an alchemist and a rabbi.

The great monotheistic faiths generally drew lines to distinguish “permitted” and “forbidden” arcane magic. Depending on the specifics of each religious tradition, the forbidden category generally involved magic that summoned supernatural entities (demons, angels, etc.) to do a mage’s bidding as well as magic intended to harm others in any way.

The Power of Faith

Divine magic, the kind of things that D&D clerics can do but D&D wizards can’t, works on the principle of faith. Rather than bending to the will of the practitioner, these forms of magic bend the practitioner to the will of his or her perceived ultimate reality—God, the gods, the universe, or what have you. Divine magic can only be practiced by someone of amazing piety and upstanding morals (as interpreted by the faith community). It can only be performed to advance the agenda of the highest values and aspirations of the practitioner’s spiritual worldview.

Different spiritual paths manifest different divine powers. In general, divine magic in the monotheistic religions should be quite rare, with the most spectacular displays of power tied to saints or bearers of sacred relics.

Indigenous Religions of Europe

Some spiritual paths followed in Renaissance Europe originated in indigenous traditions that predate the coming of Christianity. Sometimes, these faiths have themselves been re-skinned as Christian: gods or spirits have been made into saints, for example, or rituals have been recast to incorporate Christian iconography and patterns of belief. This spiritual “makeover” is more thoroughgoing in some cases than in others, and in at least one case never happened at all. Here are two examples:

Benandanti

The Benandanti or “good walkers” were the Christianized remnant of an older pagan fertility cult from the Friuli region of northern Italy. Rather than a learned skill, they believed their magic was something bestowed upon them at birth. They regarded themselves as Christian, fighters in service of Christ against malevolent witches to preserve the well-being of their lands. The Inquisition accused some of them of being witches or heretics, and benandante remains a regional term synonymous with stregha or “witch.” They were closely associated with the arcane specialties of “Spirit-riding” and “Healing.”

Vadilos

The vaidilos or pagan priests of Lithuania are probably the closest to ancient Druids to be found in Renaissance Europe. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania only formally embraced Christianity in 1387, and the new religion was not accepted by its various states until the fifteenth century—and only then for political reasons.

The modern revival of Lithuanian paganism is called Romuva, meaning “temple” or “sanctuary.” The old religion apparently emphasized the sanctity of nature as well as ancestor worship. The divine is represented by fire, and ceremonies are performed before a fire altar.

For the most part, Lithuanian pagan priests can be “re-skinned” druids with maybe a few tweaks.

The Larger World

Of course, other systems of divine magic could be identified and quantified for this period. This was an era of growing global trade, and the mages and divines of Europe were coming into more frequent contact with other spiritual traditions.

Someone who can do it justice might work out how “magic” might work in terms of practitioners of Vodun, Santería, or the spiritual traditions of other indigenous groups. But such a project should only be attempted by someone with the necessary sensitivity and permission from the relevant groups, who must be the final arbiters of what is an offensive appropriation and what is an acceptable depiction of their spiritual traditions.

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