If one peers back into history, be it ancient or recent, it becomes evident rather quickly that the vast majority of developed civilizations have congregated around, and thrived because of, major bodies of water. Whether it takes the form of rivers, lakes, streams, or oceans, water provides transportation, recreation, renewable energy, and sometimes protection for those that know how to harness its power.
Most importantly, water sustains life. It cleanses, it hydrates, and it irrigates. It washes away harmful organisms, and purifies wounds. It can be collected and prepared for drinking, both for humans and their livestock. It makes for more fertile farmlands and more plentiful harvests. Modern science believes that all organisms were born from it. While many religions may disagree with this assertion, water still features prominently in many spiritual rituals and traditions.
It should come as no surprise, then, that major bodies of water have been viewed as all-powerful and mysterious by cultures throughout our world. Many have gone so far as to deify their names, or worship them outright as divine natural beings. These potent traditions of water worship offer many opportunities for your role playing campaigns; I’m going to focus on a powerful few here today that venerated famous rivers.
Old Father Thames
London’s famous river is truly the cradle of civilization for the British Empire. What was to become a globe-spanning superpower started as an ambitious Roman port on the River Thames. The location was almost perfect; the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across, but deep enough that ships could pass through on their way to the sea. The power to give life, and to bring it new to the edge of the empire, resulted in a sacred devotion to the Thames.
Not that this practice was new to the Romans, who regularly deified the Tiber River that flowed along the west edge of their capital city. Likewise, excavations show that the indigenous tribes who populated the countryside before the Romans arrived regularly made sacrifices and offerings to the Thames. In fact, history records a folk god that personified the life-giving powers of the river: Old Father Thames. Up and down its banks, one can still see sacred places and ground hallowed to this river-god. Recent news stories may even point to continued rituals taking place to appease and petition Old Father Thames.
While I developed the following faction for a game based in our physical universe, the concept could just as easily be stolen for use in an original setting where the Thames does not exist. Instead, it may be replaced by a different mighty river from wherever your campaign is taking place. Names should be changed, to protect the innocent.
Mission: “Maintain the protective power of the River and preserve our way of life- no matter what it takes.”
Rituals: Individuals or couples commonly offer personal gifts of valuables, heirlooms, or coins; group offerings may involve the sacrifice of a sacred animal, a willing supplicant, or a villain who has despoiled the waters
In Brief: For centuries, those who have sought the blessings and protection of the River have made sacred offerings to show their devotion and gain its favor. Over time, the River’s ability to preserve life and protect its people has been polluted in the name of modernity and progress. The Temple of the First Sacrament is a fellowship of believers who have banded together to feed the once mighty spirit of the Thames and grow its divine power.
Danu, the Divine Source
In a curious case of supernatural synergy, there may actually be multiple incarnations of a goddess called Danu. Her name has taken other forms in other languages, and her origins vary with the continent on which her name is spoken.
In the Celtic tradition, the goddess Danu is a universal mother, eternally tied to rivers and streams. Some writings call her the “Divine Waters” that fall from heaven and bring life to her children. She is also regarded as the mother of all the gods. Finally, the goddess’s name lent itself to our modern name for another influential river in Europe: the Danube, originally called ‘Danuvius’ in Latin.
In the Hindu tradition, Danu- or Asura, as she is also known- is a goddess of creation. From her original teeming waters all of life emerged, including mythic beings and divine figures described in ancient texts. The Hindu language also uses the common noun danu to mean “river” or “rain.” While she shares a name and many themes with the Celtic Danu, it is unclear if they were inspired by the same being.
The Danube is the most prominent river tied to these deities; others include the Don, Dneiper, Dniestr, and the Danu River in Nepal. With all due respect to these different religious traditions, I’ve created the faction below as devotees of a synthesized and universal Danu, the Divine Source. As such, they may deify the Danube itself, or all waterways as emanations of those ancient heavenly waters.
Mission: “Restore life to the innocent and health to the afflicted.”
Rituals: Sufferers are carried to a sacred spot by three adherents and submerged in the healing waters; the longer one stays under, the deeper their devotion and the greater the healing. Rumors persist that worthy followers have stayed submerged for a whole day, rendering them almost impossible to harm
In Brief: Tired of feeling powerless against the tyranny and war waged by men, the Daughters at the Well looked to the Divine Source. By placing their faith in the healing waters that shaped our world, these women found themselves able to heal injured soldiers, remove curses, baptize the innocent against disease, and even prolong life. So dedicated are they to the care of their charges that the Daughters strictly forbid their members from being submerged themselves.
The Nile, River-God of Egypt
The Nile is a twist on the above deity; while Danu seems to be two goddesses sharing a name, the Nile has different names for the same god. Worshiped by the Egyptians for its sustenance in a harsh desert land, and the Greeks for its endless doorways into an exotic oasis, the Nile is perhaps the most famous and mysterious river in the world.
In the kingdoms of Egypt, the River Nile was personified by the fearsome god Sobek. Possessing the head of a crocodile, one of the gods’ most powerful protectors, Sobek directed the flooding of the Nile that made agriculture- and therefore life- possible. The Egyptian people felt a very personal connection to Sobek, especially in areas where fertile farming was a way of life.
When the Greeks arrived, they too saw the unending power of the River Nile. As the Egyptians before them, they also venerated the Nile as the god that brought life to the deserts of Egypt. They called the river-god ‘Neilos,’ and he shared a place of honor next to the only other river to achieve godhood in the African continent: the Khrementes River of western Libya.
As in the above instance, I’ve combined these multiple faiths into a single faction for game use. However, the Nile is always the Nile.
Mission: “Clothe the face of the earth in the holy waters that feed us.”