Monday, March 14, 2011

Mythic Monday: St Patrick

Last week's column focused the spotlight on the idea of Dueling Clerics.  Fantasy literature has given us plenty of dueling wizards; clerics don't typically feature in fantasy literature.  But in the myth and folklore of the western tradition, there are plenty of fighting priests that challenge their rivals in other religions in dramatic priestly showdowns, and then rise to the level of legends.  As I pointed out last week, "This town ain't big enough for two gods" seems to be a fairly common sentiment.

One of the greatest figures in this style of legendary clerics is St Patrick.

His biography itself is larger than life - son of Romans living in late 4th century Britain, he was kidnapped by pirates, sold into slavery in Ireland, learned the native culture, and escaped quite a few years later.  He traveled from Britain to Gaul, where he studied to become a priest, and was eventually sent on a mission back to Ireland as a bishop.

His legendary deeds are even more amazing.  In numerous showdowns with the pagan druids or in audience with the Irish kings, he's attributed with amazing feats like flinging opponents (magically) up into the air, building unquenchable fires,  creating food and water, raising the dead, healing the sick, causing enemies to be swallowed whole by the earth, controlling the weather, and even shape changing he and his men into deer(!).  In addition to contests with the druids, there are stories that involve confrontations with demons and showdowns with pagan gods themselves, like Crom Dubh and the 11 idols*.

St Patrick in a D&D Game
I like the idea of having legendary figures like St Patrick in the campaign setting, and certainly would like to build a similar figure for the church of Pholtus or the Eternal Spirit in Gothic Greyhawk - like an early champion of the faith that carried the church's beliefs south from the Theocracy of the Pale towards places like Keoland when they were still pagan and Suel.  Powerful legendary figures like St Patrick left behind a wealth of places and items that gained mythic significance in the ensuing centuries; pilgrimage sites like the mountain of Croagh Patrick, or his burial site at Down Patrick, or the various churches and monasteries erected at places where the saint is attributed with performing great deeds.  There are relics, like the bell of St Patrick, and the lasting symbols, like the Celtic cross and the shamrock.  (Granted, the shamrock likely had pagan significance as well, but it's been long since preempted).

When building this kind of mythic figure for a game, here is a short list that comes to mind when placing churches, monasteries and shrines:
  • Great battle sites
  • Sites of miracles
  • The saint's burial site
  • Location of relics
  • Famous artifacts related to the saint
  • Symbols
  • Feasts and festivals that persisted to the modern day
  • Founder of a clerical order
Hope this spurs some ideas!  Oh, and for the Irish amongst us and all those who will be wearing some green this Thursday, Happy St Patrick's Day!  At the Beedo place, we'll definitely be having our Guiness, corned beef, cabbage and soda bread.

*For a neat movie with Crom and medieval Irish Christianity, check out last year's excellent animated feature  The Secret of Kells - about the making of the book of the Kells.


  1. Good stuff. I like the bit at the start of Acallam na Senórach ("Tales of the Elders") when St Patrick meets Caílte mac Rónáin and his companions (giant, 200+ year old, pagan warriors).

    "Then Patrick arose and sprinkled holy water on these great men, for, until that day, a thousand legions of demons had been above their heads. The demons fled from them in all directions, into the hills and rock-clefts and off to the far reaches of the country."

    Two thoughts: Firstly, a thousand legions of demons! That's quite some Turn by our cleric there. Secondly, notice that the demons aren't destroyed. Rather, they flee into the wilderness. If I had a legend like this in my campaign, I think I would be in dereliction of my DMing duties if some of those demons weren't still lurking in remote hills and caves, nursing their grievances...

    Word verification: beheaddl - ancient Celtic wargame.

  2. @Beedo
    Book of Kells is an awesome movie.
    I do have a quibble with the term "legendary," though. Understandably, our scientific 21st minds have a difficult time accepting the various miracles ascribed to saints, especially some of the fantastic ones like those of St. Patrick; however, having witnessed my share of miracles in these modern, scientific times, I cannot bring myself to dismiss them so easily.

    The wilderness is the natural habitat for demons in a Biblical geography. Note that even when Christ exorcised Legion (they were so many) out of the demoniac, He did not destroy them — they merely shifted over to a herd of pigs. So, you better believe the wilderness in my campaign worlds are just crawling with nasties.

  3. I think it's fair to differentiate between things that are historical and legendary. I'm using the term historical loosely - 'attested by a historical source of the same time period'. I'm sure there are some history majors in the blogosphere that would have a formal definition of what defines whether something is historically attested.

    But it's a fair point to say not to discount myth or legends just because they're not "historical". Something doesn't have to be factual or tangible (or historical) to be true. There's a quote from Black Elk that's stayed with me, something like "I don't know if this is how the story really happened, but you know the story is true". Getting hung up on facts can cause us to miss the point. It can be like that with many religious stories; a secular example would be George Washington and the cherry tree. I don't care if the real George Washington never cut his dad's tree down - it's a powerful story about truth and honesty that's grown through the telling; kids continue to learn from it today and parents continue to use it to teach (at least I would hope so).

    Well - getting a bit away from gaming - I'll hop off the soap box. Thanks for dropping in!