Amoral religions & irreligious morality

It is absolutely clear in the World of Isles that powerful supernatural beings (eg. daimons and exemplars) exist. But their power and supernaturalness are not thought to convey any moral authority. Their might is not held to make them right.

Perhaps it helps that they obviously have weaker relatives (heroes and minor ,i>daimons). Perhaps the foibles and sins of the greater daimons, and the almost psychotic subordination, in the greater exemplars, of all other aspects of personality to a single cardinal attitude make people painfully aware of their lack of moral profundity. Be that as it may, the people of the World of Isles know that there are powerful supernatural beings, and they do not (in general) hypothesise other such beings to validate their ethical systems.

People, communities, do worship daimons, heroes, and great exemplars. They give them tithes and sacrifices, appoint priests, build temples. They sing hymns, offer prayers, pleas, and promises. They conduct ceremonies, dance out legends, and call on their gods to enforce their oaths. They enter into compacts and bargains with daimons, and reward them with gifts and praise in return for good fortune. This may look like religion. That depends on your definition, but unlike true religion it does not address profound issues such as the origin and purpose of existence, the fate of the soul after death, and the question of how a person ought to behave and why. If it is religion, it is religion without a moral dimension.

In Gehennum, at least, these issues are addressed by philosophy. Reason, argument, and the direct perception of Truth by the intellect, rather than divine revelation, determine Gehennese moral systems. There are inspirational reformers and moral leaders, of course, and sometimes their influences are as powerful as those of Buddha, Gandhi, Zeno of Citium, Karl Marx, or John Stuart Mill. But in Gehennum they tend much less to appeal to divine authority. Their histories attract fewer mythological accretions. Their teachings less often get hijacked by hierophants. And they are less commonly (but more convincingly) turned into gods. This is morality without a religious dimension.

In the Classical Period and later separate branches of philosophy address different issues: in particular, ethics addresses the question of what one ought to do and why. The most influential ethical systems are discussed briefly below.

General reverence of geists

Daimons can and do affect the material world. Some of the older and greater ones have some control over the things that constitute their bodies: volcanoes, for instance, can promote or retard their eruptions, islands can cause local earthquakes, fields and forests can affect the health and vigour of the crops and trees growing in them. Many, especially if they have accumulated mana (for instance through receiving sacrifices over many years) can work miracles appropriate to their natures and characters. Daimons sometimes practise mystic disciplines. Daimons can dream, and in appropriate circumstances, affect the dreams of others, for instance in leaving angry or terrified ghosts behind them. And the simple ability of daimons to collect and convey information can be very important.

Because of these facts, large, old, and apparently numinous things throughout the World of Isles are accorded the reverence usual in an animist culture.This is no superstition. The Daimons are real. If they are pleased, satisfied, flattered, cajoled, or in many cases, placated or bribed they can arrange good fortune for their suppliants. If they are offended, slighted, insulted, or wronged they can arrange ill fortune for those who thus irritate them. Some can even directly harm or destroy their enemies.

People will often address objects unaffectedly, and make offerings to the geist of their houses every day. A sailor never sets out on the water without little offerings to Pontus (Daimon of the ocean), the particular geists of the waters he will sail on, and his boat. Icons and shrines are everywhere, and nearly every act is accompanied by an invocation.

Before one destroys anything that is likely to be powerful it is well to anaesthetise or tranquilise it. Even if a daimon has no capacity to defend or avenge itself, and has no friends who might act for it, to allow a geist to experience agony or mortal terror in one's presence is no joke. Before demolishing an old building, or consigning an old and decrepit boat to the flames to end its agony, it is well to dose it with opium or bhang. Timber-getters and charcoal-burners even do this for the trees they fell. To be haunted by the ghost of one tree is rarely troublesome. The accumulated ghosts of a lifetime chopping down trees can make a man's sleep quite unbearable.

Temples, priests, & sacrifices

The offerings of food and flowers left in little shrines and otherwise given to the lesser daimons are generally distributed as largesse to the ants, birds, and animals. Important daimons, even those of purely local import, on the other hand, often receive gifts of durable valuables, and large quantities of food, drugs, and drink. They gain trifles of mana from the ritual sacrifice of living things and the discharge of emotional energy in various ceremonies, but on the whole their receipts are mere wealth, useful to them only for what they will bring in exchange.

Daimons distribute food, prepared by their priests and servants, to participants in their ceremonies, to the poor, and of course to their priests. Some daimons use their income of offerings and sacrifices to support a 'religious' community of monks and such, after the manner of the agema and retainers of a mortal potentate. Really, though, there is not much of value in this for a daimon, and such monasteries only flourish when the members have some other reason for existence, such as appealing traditions, or control of valuable assets such as 'sacred' fields and farms.

Important geists in populous parts require servants to collect, guard, and account for their treasure, conduct such sacrifices as they receive, and distribute their charity. They also need storerooms, granaries, kitchens, treasuries, and receiving stations. These facilities and services are provided at temples, which are usually built by the community to facilitate venerating and doing business with their daimons, but which are sometimes paid for by the geists with their own money.

Temple complexes often include facilities for performing ceremonies and dancing legends, as well as the strictly necessary slaughterhouses, granaries, kitchens, refectories, treasuries, and counting-houses. Most also include a large shrine with a statue or other cult image, as a place for prayers, pleas, offers, and imprecations.

The area in a temple precinct provided for the performance of ceremonies and cult dances is pretty simple in small temples, but at important temples and large communities it soon becomes necessary to construct a theatre to accommodate the large audiences.

The priests who officiate at Gehennese temples are public officials. They have a fiduciary duty to the daimons whose temples they tend, whose wealth they guard, and whose charitable gifts they distribute. But their essential duty is to the community: they are charged with ensuring that the particular daimon for who they are responsible receives its due, and is neither slighted nor offended. If they fail in this duty the geist might bring harm to, or withhold benefits, the community.

Thus Gehennese priest are very different from priests in our world. They are intercessors, representatives of the community to the divine, not representatives of the divine to the community. If they exercise any moral authority, it is because of their own age, wisdom, and good reputations, not because they are a conduit of divine grace or divine moral authority.

Mysteries, initiation, & ceremonies

Daimons are often flattered with ceremonies, at which the stories of their great deeds and past benevolences are danced. These ceremonies are often given mythic form, so that their symbolic content co-ordinates the local community. Secret stories, dances, and compacts with daimons form local mystery-cults, initiation into which can define membership of the community, adulthood, or status. These cults fill an important social role, but the rituals of entirely secular organisations (such as military societies, hunting lodges, criminal gangs, and fraternal associations) are equally effective. The association with a daimon is almost incidental.

Ethical philosophies

The ethical philosophies current in Gehennum are often founded upon, even logical extensions of, different metaphysical doctrines, ranging from Nominalism (extreme empiricism, holding that absolutes and abstractions are mere names for categories of things, nothing more than words), through Idealism (which holds that the platonic ideals are the fundamental reality, and the material world a projection or shadow of them), to Subjectivism (belief that the entire world of phenomena is an illusion, and that the subjective, inner, life is the true reality).

The details and subtleties of a philosophy of course vary from teacher to teacher. The broad schools are as follows:

The subjectivist position that one ought to eschew the pleasures, and even the comforts of the flesh, and pursue Truth through meditation and the practice of austerities.
The nominalist position that all forms of supposed 'higher good' are pure sophistry, and that everyone is free to have a good time. Some later developments claim that if everyone would just look after their own interests, everyone would be lead to do what was best for all, "as if by an invisible hand".
The idealist position that all men are born with certain rights, and that right conduct consists of observing and defending the rights of all. Various legalist teachers have differing opinions of what rights people have: the essence of the school is the belief in natural rights.
The idealist position that passions, appetites, and enthusiasms are an essential part of human nature, and that to really live one must not repress them, but 'live' them.
The nominalist or idealist position that compassion is the root of all morality.
The idealist position that human nature is essentially rational, and that to be any better than an animal one must quench one's passions, live moderately, and practice virtue, considering others as much as oneself, doing right, speaking only the truth, and acting rationally, unswayed by triumph or disaster.
The nominalist position that pleasure and the absence of suffering are the only good, but that the pleasure and suffering of every other person are as important, and deserve as much consideration, as one's own.


Unsupported belief that there is some hidden order in things, that 'everything is connected', and that everything is part of an 'organic whole' is as common on the World of Isles as on Earth. Gehennese mysticism consists of a vast and arcane collection of symbolic systems, theories of correspondence between supposed 'levels of reality', numerological theories, divinatory systems, and supposed paths to mystic power, transcendence, and other arcane goals.

Gehennese mysticism draws much from the theory of symbolic magic, but most of the goals and wider claims of mysticism attract guffaws from practising magicians.

Copyright © 1988-2004 Brett Evill. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1991 by Brett Evill. All rights reserved.