The Old Ones
Before Vorn became the dominant religion of The Empire, the continent was mostly pantheistic. One city-state would worship Magnificent Yakul, while the neighboring one would worship Grandfather Count-the-Days.
It is important to realize that, prior to the Advent of Holy Vorn, religion, ethnicity, and location were all tightly interrelated.
Every Land had a People, and every People had a God.
Some People had several Gods, sometimes People worshiped their neighbor’s God, but each God was localized. Each one had a home.
It is also important to realize that a temple wasn’t just a place that you go to worship your god, but is literally where your god resides.
Every temple has an inner sanctuary where the god lives, and from which the entire religion flows. And while a People/City/Relgion might have smaller, satellite sites of worship, there is never confusion that these are just shrines to the god, but not actual connections to the godhead.
In those days, most people didn’t know what sort of land was over the next mountain range. It was understood that each land was a new one, with a new people and a new god. And each city’s clerics performed miracles, so how could the divinity of their god be denied? And so most people were pantheists.
Religion wasn’t something personal. There was no such thing as one’s faith informing one’s morals. Worship was a matter of politics and politeness. When in the city of Yakul, you worshipped Yakul. When in the city of Grandfather Count-the-Days, you worshipped him. And if a common man abandoned his city, his land, and his people, he rarely took his gods with him. How could he, when Yakul lived in his shrine in the mountain? And even if he did insist on worshipping Yakul in his new city, he would be far from the mountain, and Yakul would have difficulty hearing him. And so immigrants would always adopt the religion of their new city, at least partially, so as to avoid offending the god.
Likewise, old religions didn’t have much truck with ontology. Although they often include creations myths or divine lineages for their people, they almost never attempt to explain the creation of the earth, nor what came before the world, nor the the afterlife. A religion was simply a formal system of observances that formalized the interaction between the god and the people, usually based on respect.
Old gods did not want worshipers. Why would they? What worth is the chatter of a few monkeys? Old religions did not proselytize, did not seek new converts. Your religion was your skin color. Your religion was your home.
And that was the state of the continent until the Prophet received the Command.
Honor the Authority, Holy Vorn, the God of Gods, from Whom all Truth flows.
The Authority does not caution us from a sin because it is harmful for our souls, but instead a sin is harmful because the Authority has cautioned us against it.
Most gods are jealous gods. Conquering a neighboring city-state invariably involves destroying their temple and destroying the idol in which the god lived. As you could expect, this was dangerous business. Genocide requires swords, destruction requires fire, but killing a god requires another god. And even then, the iconoclast is at risk from curses, infirmities, insanity, and death.
Vorn was remarkable because the Prophet taught that all gods were merely aspects of the Authority. Competing gods should be conquered, subsumed, and worshipped, rather than destroyed. It was a sin to kill a god, even one that opposed the Authority.
This isn’t to say that the early church was tolerant (their paladins filled many mass graves) or that they assimilated all the gods they came across (the Hammer of Iconoclasm has supposedly killed hundreds of separate gods by smashing their idols). But tolerance was the rhetoric, anyway.
The plains surrounding Vornheim was where the Prophet saw the truth, and now it has become a metropolis of its own, an economic and military powerhouse. No Emperor is crowned except with the Vornish Pope’s permission. There is a street in Vornheim called the Street of Lesser Gods. This is where all of the defeated gods reside.
When a city/people/god bends its knee to Vornheim, and swears eternal loyalty to the Authority, the Church consolidates that pledge. The god’s church is taken apart, stone by stone, and shipped to the capitol of Vornheim. There its stones are added to the impossibly towering edifice of the Eminent Cathedral. The defeated god’s idol is taken into the city, where it is honored. It is paraded through the streets and anointed with oils. Huge banquets are held, and at the head of the table is placed the idol (and therefor the god who lives inside it). Even the patriarch of Vornheim bows to the least idol.
And then a temple is rebuilt on the Street of Lesser Gods, and the idol is returned to it’s place inside the sanctuary. The temple is reconsecrated.
But there are still people that say a god belongs with its people, and that it is blasphemy to remove a god from his land. Those people are quietly executed and buried in unmarked graves far from Vornheim.
The purpose of this is political as well as religious. The defeated god has become a hostage. If the defeated city wishes to worship their god, they must come to Vornheim to do it. Aside from the taxes and levies imposed on the client state, the Patriarch can now keep a close eye on the lesser priests.
And in the space of a few generations, the priestly family of their client states became urbanized. The priests dressed, spoke, and socialized as if they were from Vornheim. Any further rebellions from the outlying cities would have no support from their own churches.
In the long years of history of Vornheim, the city has managed to collect quite a number of gods. The Street of Lesser Gods contains no less than 1404 “official” gods.
But years are long, and memories short. As incredible as it may seem, entire temples and gods seem to have disappeared over the centuries. After a bloody war with Vornheim, after thousands of young men have been laid in the earth, after noble speeches about pride and patriotism, entire cultures have vanished without so much as a whimper.
And the idols turn up in the most unlikely of places. If you go into the Lucky Duck tavern in Vornheim and sneak into the basement, you’ll find a small shrine to Devonura, Who Makes the Green Things Grow. And at the intersection of Konigstrasse and Banleit, you’ll find a snow-white boulder whose surface has been carved out into a maze of alcoves and short tunnels filled with figurines. This boulder is the home of Rashimar, a river god associated with towers and poisonous fish.In Vornheim, lesser gods are respected, and they are sometimes even honored by ritual or song. It is even permissible to pray to a lesser god, with the understanding that the lesser god will act as an intermediary. But only the Authority has the authority to grant prayers, and only the Authority of Vorn is worshipped.
The religions of these client gods have withered. Their priesthood has atrophied. Sometimes, a lesser temple will be tended by a shriveled old man and his inbred nephew. Or it will be tended by a toothless immigrant, who doesn’t speak a word of Common. But just as commonly, the lesser temple will sit empty.
But every god must be worshipped. This was the covenant that the Patriarchs made so long ago. And so the empty shrines are tended by least priests. Their job is to go to an abandoned temple, perform the rituals, pray to that forgotten godling sincerely and fervently, and then go on.
Least priests are bit like those home care workers, who go around bringing groceries to retirees too fragile to leave the house. It’s a tough job. They need to clean the place up (no one else will do it) and explain to the god that it’s okay, your grandchildren are probably just very busy—it doesn’t mean that they don’t love you and think about you.
It’s a bit sad, but it’s also a bit weird, because of the diversity of gods involved. It’s also sometimes exhausting.
On Monday, you spend ten hours imbibing hallucinogens and writhing in ecstasy beneath Hakum-Keth, the snake god. You spend your day’s earnings on a massage afterwards.
On Tuesday, you cover yourself in honey and walk figure eights between the stone hives of the Nameless Insect. Although there are no insects (apparently), you still wake up with bites covering your body in auspicious patterns.
On Wednesday, you meditate at the bottom of a well while tolling a bell every six minutes, for three hours. You would have finished quicker if you didn’t fall asleep and have to restart.
On Thursday, you meet up with your partner to glorify Hasdrubal the Pugnacious with five hours of valiant combat (with padded swords). By nightfall, you’ll have a new crop of shiny bruises.
On Friday, you meet up with the same partner for six hours of tantric sex atop a wooden elephant. You curse the priest who decided that sex-day should come after combat-day.
On Saturday, go to the Grand Cathedral to worship the Authority directly. Before you can go to sleep, however, you must light six candles made from six different substances for six different forest spirits.
On Sunday, you want to stay in bed, because you’re exhausted. But what can you do? The gods must be honored.
Among the clergy, becoming a least priest is considered a bit like being exiled. There’s not much to look forward to, except being put in charge of more forgotten godlings. Quite a lot of them don’t last very long, and no one would consider them be an honored dinner guest in high company.
While cooperative gods are given places of honor on the Street of Lesser Gods, and rebellious gods are shattered by the Hammer of Iconoclasm, sometimes neither of those solutions is ideal. Every god is unique, after all.
Sometimes the Church fears the retribution that would arise from destroying the god’s idol.
Sometimes the Church wishes to punish a god for rebelling, or for heresy.
Sometimes the Church wants to keep a god isolated until it can be convinced to join more willingly.
Whatever the cause, there is a place beneath Vornheim called the Place of Chains, Desmoterion. It has been built in secret over the centuries, bits and pieces. Some parts are precise and carefully engineered. Some parts are haphazard and chaotic. All of it was built under the orders of different Patriarchs, in different eras, in order to imprison gods.