Inspiration from this post.
Humans will worship anything, if it’s big or powerful enough. Humans throughout history have worshipped dragons, spirits of nature, and large orange masses of undifferentiated tissue. Humans themselves have ascended to a sort of godhood, either by attaching egos (basically spirits related to human emotion) or mummifying themselves by the roadside. Humans will worship mountains and abstract concepts and gods that probably don’t even exist. Anything with a sufficient air of majesty, anything that could feasibly protect them, anything that takes off the edge of experience. Most gods in my setting can not be verified to actually exist as beings of deific power. If they do, they are distant and mostly disengaged from the lives of their human followers. Or, they really are just a big mountain.
These are not those gods, nor those humans.
Small Places, Smaller Gods
They inhabit areas of great and indescribable energy – a confluence of unknown energies and composition. To you or I, this place seems not much to the casual eye, and would seem even less in description. A pool in a cavern. A thin clearing in the forest. A corner of street, in a city with a thousand other corners. A wide gutter, swallowing storm water. But these places nevertheless catch the trained or contemplative eye, and undeniably glow with importance. To look on them is to catch a glimpse of some forgotten purpose, some great, wide, unfathomable intent inculcated into the architecture of the world. It is to fall into the power of beauty over the human mind, for a beauty no one can describe or intuitively explain. It is the antithesis of pattern recognition, enthrallment in an infinite, unique, sporadic fractal that never once repeats.
These are the places that the small gods choose to inhabit. Their forms are varied; most appear to be nature spirits of some sort, a few are loose egos flying about. Some seem to be undead, and others still defy categorization. They tend to shyness, and universally appear alarming or strange than their depictions in art. What they actually are is a matter of universal indifference to the people who worship them. They are ‘our gods’ to the city-states, and little else. And the godkeeper city states truly have a claim to make these beings ‘their’ gods. Other peoples beg and scrape to the gods, a god, or supplant themselves before great spirits and demiurges in exchange for succor. They worship, but the god is not ‘theirs’ any more than the sky belongs to the mountains, or the clouds. They need the god more than the god needs them.
Not so in the case of the small gods. These gods are distinctly frail, requiring the bodily protection of their people. The city-states and their gods live openly in a relationship of mutual exchange. Protection for favor. Their churches are as much compact as they are ritual organizations.
The Boons of the Small Gods
Godkeepers rarely question their worship, or have crises of faith. Other peoples have cause to question the benevolent intent or even very existence of their gods, but not godkeepers. They know where their gods live, and the promises and blessings of their gods are set down in oral tradition, or even writing. Incidentally, the city states of the godkeepers have made huge advances in constitutionalism, governance, and formal law, owing to the contractualism of their religious practice.
None of this is to say that the relationship between the city and their god is purely transactional, or devoid of ritual. The only cities that have survived this long are the cities that love their gods, and whose gods love them. You could also easily say that, save for the weakness of their gods, this relationship isn’t qualitatively different from most forms of worship. But the ritual and such is much less esoteric and inaccessible than in other religions.
The gods themselves are always clearly magical, and grant a powerful but specific and limited benefit. One god might make the crops grow, another makes the rains come, and that one ensures safe childbirth, but they don’t do much else. A few have taken on government functions like holding executive vetoes or the power of pardon. In general, they can be said to lack the general all around power attributed to gods, in addition to the personal destructive power of goods. People of godkeeper city-states never pray for luck, and they never bargain with their gods. The prices and services are already set, after all. You can think of their gods as a sort of public utility imbued with an inordinate civic pride.
Godkeeper cities are, inevitably, named after their god. They usually only have one god, though some cities in the past had up to four.
Unconquerable Cultural Differences
Everyone thinks godkeepers are weirdos, though. Their forms of worship aren’t really compatible with syncretization with other, non-godkeeper religions. In fact, they aren’t really compatible with other godkeeper religions. These people only form city-states, not empires. Conquering a place their god can’t reach isn’t much use to them, and conquering a city with its own god is considered illegal in the world’s first (consensual) framework for international law and a mutual non-aggression pact, constraining warfare to ceremony or raiding activities. Yet another way in which these city-states have diplomatically surpassed the rest of the world.
In fact, this religious incompatibility extends to politics and geography. ‘Unconquerable’ is quite the apt word – even before mutual defense was a thing, annexing these cities into a bigger empire was a serious chore. Most of their city-states are in isolated regions surrounded by other similar city-states, so you’re already going out of your way. Their governance is inextricable from the priestly duties of their local religion. Vice regal or bureaucratic appointments will be unable to perform this aspect of rulership, and therefore be viewed as illegitimate. For other priest-ruled polities, this can usually be overcome, but in a godkeeper city the god is literally right there, usually saying that no, there will be no changes to the present course of governance.
Of course, you could always simply kill the god, as has happened in the past. But this is going to be a nasty and drawn out affair. The god is the center of civic life – everyone that isn’t a pariah is going to fight to the fucking death to preserve it and honor their contract. Occupying their city isn’t even going to be enough – if they think you’re even considering killing their god, they’ll either shut up the palace (if it’s fortified) or take the godling and run. As many would-be masters soon learned, the city is perfectly capable of retaining loyalty to a god in exile. We know from history that counterinsurgency almost never works without diplomatic resolution, and so these gods return after a decade of interregnum, and the empire withdraws, defeated.
The best you can really hope for is a tributary agreement, and even that is met with reticence. This had led to the stereotype that the city-states are poor backwaters, which is sometimes true, but mostly a misread on a political and social tradition unused to submission to other polities. Indeed, they aren’t big on submission in general, and their governments tend towards democratic or syndicalist affairs. Their philosophy understandably aligns with humanism, and they have an infallible belief in the power of the human spirit that other folks tend to find infuriating.
This obstinate streak is present also in the general disposition of godkeepers. Other peoples stereotype them as excessively pious*, loud, humorless, domineering, impolite, gluttonous, rebellious, optimistic, prideful, earnest, colorfully dressed, and smug. Like many stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth to them, but there are plenty of cynics and brown-nosers amongst the godkeepers. For their part, they stereotype the rest of the world as dreary, sad, and sycophantic. The two peoples rarely mix, and all the fancy constitutionalism of the city states hasn’t caught on outside their cultural sphere. If your system uses different races, I’d consider making godkeepers a human variant.
*The issue of piety is more a result of misunderstanding humor. People of other religions make jokes about their gods all the time, but these fall flat when your god is basically a beloved grandparent.
Some Godkeeper Cities
To-uld, Larval Mother
To-uld looks like a massive hanging glow-worm, pulsating with impossible, clashing colors, usually lamely represented as rainbow coloration in art. When the people of the city die, their bodies are fed to her, and they are born again as infant versions of themselves. They are given numbered names. Theld Fourteen. Co-elt Fifty-Three. Ban-mat Hundred-Thirty-Seven. Their numbering system is highly efficient in both writing and speaking, as are their methods of conception. Death is lightly mourned in To-uld, despite the universal understanding that the new version of the dead person is an entirely new consciousness, with only occasional memories from their previous life, and the potential to pursue an entirely new path. A common punishment for repeated and severe criminal offenses is forcible reincarnation. Only in cases where the body is not recoverable or in a state where resurrection is impossible is a funeral held, outside of the small private ceremonies of the family, who then welcome the newly born into the family. Understandably, the people of To-uld are very averse to potentially disfiguring violence, as this could tell for several reincarnations, or prevent them outright – they bear the scars of war for generations. Sometimes To-uld splits off a bit of herself, and allows her to pupate and form into a large winged-insect. They are poor flyers but have a vicious bite and a powerful psionic attack, and serve as sentries or raiding steeds for the city’s warriors.
Elchusis, Deep Black
Elchusis is a strange quilled creature, the color of deepest void. Any one of its quills can secrete vibrant, unfading dyes, which are used in the production of tapestries, paints, and other artists, dyemaking being the chief trade of the city. In fact, the dyes of Elchusis have gained such popularity in the godkeeper cities that outsiders stereotype all godkeepers as wearing bright clothing. For traditional reasons, they only export finished products to other places, and these goods invaraibly find a high price. Actual inhabitants of Elchusis can be sorted out by their full body tattoos, usually of a single dominant color. In Elchusis, gray and black are the colors of highest honor, completion of civic duty, and governance. The greatest Elchusian heroes have their body tattoos redone in pure black. Lastly, Elchusis is a sort of de facto capital for the godkeeper polities, and considered a neutral ground for resolving disputes, as Elchusis itself is considered the wisest and most impartial of the many gods.
Gylthon, Ebbs and Floes
My homebrew world is a bishop ring, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any volcanic activity, only that it’s rare. Gylthon is a volcano god, a strange little boxy black creature with curving wavelike lines of white across its body and strange, long limbs bending many times at right angles. It controls the flow of lava from a nearby volcano, insuring incredibly fertile soil while preventing serious eruptions. The city also features the only the lava-based irrigation system in the world, carrying the lava out to fallow fields where it will harden and break down over the course of decade, owing to the pelting rains of the region These are also owed to Gylthon’s cloud seeding with specially formed volcanic ash, creating the only regularly occurring rainy season on the ring.
Mohego, the Seeing and Warding
Mohego is a strange flattened lizard, with eyes looking straight up from its black-blue body. It’s capable of consensually riding along in the consciousness of their city-folk, seeing through their eyes and speaking to them. Everyone has a personal relationship with Mohego, and he knows the names of all the people. Mohego can deliver messages instantly, and their society reflects this fantastic convenience. They have no writing and no couriers. Construction projects proceed with speeds utterly fantastic to outside observers. Shops are nonexistent – the goods needed are simply delivered where needed. The city is incredibly quiet – speaking is reserved for lovers and mind games, and no one bothers crying their wares. Lying is still possible, just difficult. Mohegoan armies are nearly impossible to defeat in their homeland – their operational and tactical flexibility is unmatched, even by real life modern armies.
Fryth appears as a bearded, emaciated man, with a frowning mouth and no other facial features, who sits at the bottom of a pool. He hasn’t spoken since the creation of the compact with the founders of the city. Fryth is also the name of a river, in addition to a city and a god. The river and its tributaries are known for their incredibly strong undercurrents, sporadic flooding, and deceptive depth for their comparative (non-flooded) lack of width. For these reasons, the people of Fryth can all breathe the waters of the Fryth and their tributaries. This doesn’t apply to other bodies of water, or other forms of liquid, and in the times of occupation, the dissidents of Fryth were drowned in barrels of water or wine. But that is a story for another time – Fryth, then as now, is famed for its highly developed freshwater aquaculture. Fish schools are herded to and fro, oysters are kept for fine pearls and succulent meat, great fields of water plants are grown and sold as staples locally and staples elsewhere. Caimans are kept as pets as dogs would be, and paddlefish and catfish are yoked to serve as pack animals. The river also has a large number of underwater caves, where gold and silver are found, and in air filled caverns where the current is strong enough, great mills were erected for food-processing and other industries. The river caverns empty out into a great underwater lake, and part of the population inhabits this place permanently. The lake’s bottom is below the salt water layer of the ring** where Fryth’s power does not extend, but some brave pioneers have begun to explore beyond the hazy terminator. Nor does his power stay the floods on the surface, and for this reason, all of Fryth’s above water structures are on stilts.
** the ring has an extensive network of underwater bodies, with freshwater being in the first layer and saltwater being below it.