The key concept behind Bithrael or “fivefold worship”, the main religion of Irthiron, is quite simple. Wherever one lives, one is tied to the main five deities who have made their home there. One prays to the gods for justice, for success in conflict, for health, for industry–and for respite from the unknown, and these are generally shared one way or another between the gods. If there’s a shrine nearby one goes occasionally to pay one’s respects. If you live near a temple then one does the same, maybe leaving alms for the priests and priestesses (who receive government funding for temple upkeep but are expected to earn their own living). And then one gets on with life.
(It’s not like the gods will be able to help if you don’t give them something to work with.)
The Origins of Bithrael
The gods may be totems from the noble clans, or genii loci, or nature spirits, or (rarely) even deified ancestors. Some deities, like Balas the queen of the gods and Dalibythe the rain-star, were once part of the Royal Pantheon, and as such garner a lot of respect if not outright worship across Irthiron. Others were never blessed in this manner, but because of the strength of local clans or cities they’ve spread far beyond their original location and displaced in primacy one or more of the gods elsewhere. But all are equal, in the eyes of the viewer, and must be given the same respect–others’ gods as well as one’s own.
Bithrael had its official start at the end of the 42nd Century LC (early 7th Century AU in the Ithironian Calendar), when the queen at the time, Coar, settled the civil war that had been slowly breaking out across the country by placing all priests under the control of the royal government. But the country had had its fair share of religious upheavals in the centuries prior, during the Arrival. Warruka spirits–rainbow serpents, wandjina, and the like–had reacted to the conquest of their friends’ lands by morphing into terrible monsters, the dragons and termagants of many a myth. As famous as the knights who fought and vanquished them were the witches who sought to disarm them by less conventional means, including their incorporation into the ceremonies of the local priests. So it came to be that clans might have shrines to two or even three deities, which could be sourced to specific areas (the Warruk were very big on local spirits along the paths across the islands).
Coar really only formalized a system that had been in existence for some time, but with it came the implications of a new theological and philosophical movement starting from Kewez in the southwest. This was φiβám (Irthironian Fhifam), a theory that compartmentalized each aspect of life into a balance of the Five Substances (φirúm). The theory stated that a balance of each was needed–Void for detachment, Heat for bravery, Water for versatility, Wood for kindness, and Bone for industry–in order to create a stable person and a stable society, and if one was out of balance then the rest would fall to corruption and ruin. In the aftermath of the local wars, then, it seemed prudent to introduce the worship of various gods into other households, particularly those of neighbours. One god apiece for justice, war, death and chaos, fertility and health, and industry; it seemed a good way of rounding out the personalities of the locals, getting them more in line. To this end Coar commissioned a massive undertaking, the Bithirc or “Five Songs”, five enormous texts gathered from oral histories and shrines around the kingdom–including in the Warruk enclaves–to produce a definitive list of all the deities and categorize them according to function. These functions, the codices went on to say, were only representations of greater embodiments. Five all-powerful elements, of which the cosmos was constructed, gave the deities their power and positions. To this day they are sometimes called the Thircwed i Goar, “Coar’s Songs”–appropriate, really, as her name means Dream.
It took some time to get used to, but Coar had fifty years to put her plan into practice. She decreed first that no god or goddess would rank higher than any other; they might hold more power in some places than others, but none were to be deliberately excluded. There was free worship. But people had already been crossing back and forth to seek favours of particular deities other than their own–all Coar did here was extend the bar a little bit, make the festivals public and general instead of private and specific. She also insisted on there being royal representatives (rhayned a yamm, “eyes of the queen”) at these festivals, both to remind others of the Queen’s power and to ensure orthodox methods were being used. Over time these simply became members of the establishment, an upper class of priests that it would take until the 52nd Century LC to fully dislodge (although their siding with the Ashenacom during the Occupation didn’t do them any favours). The thernad, the spirit gates, built all across the island as a boundary for the supernatural, were given consecration and decreed as holy in their own right; Coar used revenue from the recent boom in the wool trade to fund temples across the country. Finally, around the middle of her reign, she insisted that the texts be the definitive source for all the religious rituals in the country. Mostly this was just a confirmation of pre-existing religious practices, but it also brought into the fold new beliefs from across the island, and ritual practices from all walks of life.
The new religion was very much a public affair, and people continued in private to worship single deities. It was only during the reign of Coar’s grandson, Hamman IV, that the idea of the thernell or “little spirit gate” began to rise in popularity, giving families a means of worship within their homes. (The necessity of this was brought about by a plague of camel-pox making its way around the Shallow Sea, requiring that families take at least most of their religious practices indoors.)
Under the Ashenacom Occupation in the 50th and 51st Centuries LC the rhayned a yamm still played at being top of the hierarchy, but general public opinion favoured more private worship, not tainted with obsequiousness to the new religion of their conquerers. The last queen of Irthiron, Maerie “the Defiant”, organized her rebellion partially on the principle of religious commitment to Bithrael and the practices of fhifam, but mostly she and the other Rebellion leaders sought to emphasize the importance of the individual Irthironian. They had been nobles and peasants, kings and commoners before; under the Ashenacom they were all little more than slaves, she said, except for the cronies in the priesthood. Even her own family was trapped in that world. (Actually her uncle didn’t have much choice in the matter, but that’s a story for another time.) But the idea of Irthiron–all islanders, all bound together under the power and duty of the monarchy–that they could rally behind. Her death at the climax of the rebellion only made this conviction stronger–the royal family of Irthiron, their living gods, were gone now. All they had were the beliefs they had ushered in, and the power vested in the people of Irthiron to be their own kings, and treat all as they would their rulers and subjects alike.
Under the Empire this was further relaxed. The state, science, the advancement of humanity and the abandonment of magic–all of these were essential, public duties, things all citizens should aspire to. The gods were now little more than markers of origin, important for cultural reasons but only guides. The gods could help you focus, might bend the world your way, but it was up to you to learn how to take advantage of those bends.
Interactions with Other Faiths
One result of this tumultuous history is that Irthironians are both more and less tolerant of outside religions. Their entire religious history has been about a slow but emphatic movement away from zealous belief, and into the realm of more comfortable issues. So while they’re perfectly happy to offer a quick prayer and a coin or two to deities in the colonies, they’re rather less fond of all the associated superiority complexes–and how, quite frequently, worshipping foreign deities is a gateway to magic use, largely discredited thanks to the Ashenacom mind-eaters. It’s also made them rather unpopular, as a whole, with monotheistic religions like Ujerazo, Waqqola, and Quiramic Emperor-Worship, because they don’t understand not being able to hedge your bets. (Besides, Emperor-Worship is an concept they had for quite a while themselves, believing their Monarchs to be divine beings in their own right, and the differences in method make them feel as awkward as the similarities.) They also don’t much like Salvian gods much, not because of the whole pantheism thing they have going on but because the rewards for worship are immediate and come at the cost of one’s own free will.
Actually they don’t mind Zanguenese gods too much, despite their multi-limbed animal-featured fusions, and even the antitheist Soborn of the Qolmur is palatable on account of its emphasis on human agency. But Hercuan monotheism they reject for its unscientific approach and quasi-monarchical structure, and Salvian pantheism they see as crippling the spirit.
(To be fair, Salvians view them as a bunch of stuck-up weirdos who make half-hearted attempts at total atheism, and the Hercuans view them as blasphemous hubristic heathens, but then the Hercuans view a lot of people like that.)