Noted sage and scholar Felis Arn reveals more of his research into the religious lives of the Rovers of the Barrens in this second excerpt from his lecture at Grey College Reaping 19th, 592 CY.
Religion, Myth, and Ritual Among the Rovers of the Barrens, Part Two
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A number of Rover religious rituals stand out from those of other Flan cultures, even those of the Tenha, their closest living cultural relatives.
Ghost Dance – The Ghost Dance is a war ritual which is said to have come to the Rover shaman Tenskatawa in a vision in late 579 CY. Tenskatawa claimed that the ritual would bring back the spirits of the Rover’s ancestors to fight the hated “ironshirts,” as the troops of the Horned Society were called. A year before, the Rovers had overrun the northern border of the Horned Society, which resulted in punitive action. The Society allied with the Bandit Kingdom provinces of Warfields and Wormhall, and began a war of retribution against the Rovers (which soon led to an invasion of the Shield Lands as well). Tenskatawa’s Ghost Dance offered hope to the Rover tribes. Unfortunately, the real Tenskatawa had been slain days before, and his form taken, by a lesser Hierarch named Kolkis, who wished to use this manufactured “Ghost Dance” as part of an elaborate plan to turn the Rover tribes against one another. Fortunately, Kolkis’ plan was thwarted by adventurers recruited by a Rover shaman named Kanowatha, who was divinely inspired to use the slain Hierarch’s notes to create a real Ghost Dance. Kanowatha’s Ghost Dance resulted in a victory for the Rovers in early 580, summoning a sizeable force of spectral Rover warriors which decimated a numerically superior Horned Society army in the Battle of the Fellreev.
The Ghost Dance is unlike other Rover dances, which tend to employ fast steps and loud drumming. The Ghost Dance consists of slow shuffling movements following the course of the sun. It is performed for four or five days and accompanied by singing and chanting, but no drumming or other musical instruments. In addition, both men and women may participate in the dance, unlike others in which men are the main dancers, singers and musicians. Other features of the dance include the use of hypnosis to bring about trances and aid in the communication with the dead, and the Ghost Shirt. Made of buckskin, and often elaborately decorated with fringe, beadwork, and protective symbols, the shirts are said to make the wearer immune to arrows, sling bullets, and other missile weapons.
Unfortunately, the Ghost Dance was not enough to prevent the erosion of the Rovers’ way of life, and has been so heavily suppressed by Iuz that there have been no reports of a Ghost Dance being successfully completed for over a decade.
Sun Dance – This ritual honoring Pelor is rarely practiced since the Greyhawk Wars due to the unwanted attention it draws from Iuz. The Sun Dance, during those rare times when a tribe risks holding one, takes place during the week of Richfest (the summer solstice), and lasts from four to seven days, from sundown to sundown. Celebrating the renewal of life that the Sun brings, participants dance around a central pole (the "sun-pole"—said by some to represent the penis of Pelor). The participants offer up their flesh as a sacrifice, skewering their flesh with pieces of bone or wood, which are attached to the top of the sun-pole by long hide ropes. The dancers then dance about the pole, staring straight into the sun, leaning away from the pole until their flesh gives way. During this time, participants often experience visions. After the dancers all tear free, or after four days, the Sun Dance ends. The exhausted dancers are laid upon beds of sage in order to recite their visions to the priest. These visions may hold new songs, new rituals, or even prophecies of the future. The overall feeling for all present is one of renewal and balance and the relationships between people and nature are once again reaffirmed. The self-inflicted torture of the Sun Dance represents death, the struggle with the Reaper that all must go through. The "breaking away" represents Pelor's victory over Nerull through rebirth and renewal brought on by the ever-rising sun.
Sweat Lodge – The sweat lodge is a low structure which is constructed to let the least amount of light in, and the least amount of smoke out. A pit is dug into the ground in the center of the lodge. Rocks are heated in a fire, then placed inside the pit. Water is then poured over the heated rocks to create steam. Participants, who are almost always naked and separated by gender, will typically stay inside the lodge for as long as they can bear the hot and humid environment.
The two major purposes of a sweat lodge are purification carried out in preparation for a significant undertaking (such as a Sun Dance, Vision Quest, or some other important event), and healing. The lodge represents the womb of birth and of creation itself. This is one reason that a sweat lodge is always dark inside. At its heart, the sweat lodge is a powerful symbol of death and rebirth, and thus has associations with both Nerull and Beory.
Vision Quest – Occasionally, usually before or at puberty, a Rover will go off alone into the wilderness to fast and meditate for a period of several days. The goal is to hopefully receive a vision that will guide one’s development for the rest of their life. A secondary goal is to acquire a guardian spirit who will be close and supportive throughout their lifetime.
Funerals, Burials, and the Afterlife
Rover funerals can be elaborate affairs. Following a Rover’s death, the family and tribe take a number of days (usually about four) mourning the deceased. During this time, the body is transported to one of many traditional burial grounds, which are usually in desolate, hilly regions. The corpse is laid in a tent where the women prepare it for the funeral, while the men construct the burial scaffold. After the corpse is cleaned and any wounds are stitched closed, the deceased is dressed in his finest garb and a lock of hair is shorn from its head. The deceased is then carried outside, where it is hoisted up to the burial scaffold and lain with its most valued possessions, which may include weapons, totems, pipes, or any number of items (true magic items, however, are rarely left with the deceased). Funeral services often include an elegy and blessing of the body by a priest, a “death dance,” and a “death song,” both of which are individualized to honor the deceased—sometimes the dance and song were composed by the deceased in anticipation of his death. Both death dance and death song are accompanied by a softly-beaten drum and other percussion instruments.
In rare cases, an elderly Rover will have prepared his own burial scaffold in advance. When he feels it is time to embrace the Great Bear of Death, he will travel to the burial ground, sing his death song, lay upon the scaffold, and wait to die. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The deceased are believed to spend their first year of death with Nerull in the underworld. After the year is up, the souls of the good, the brave, the honorable, and the innocent are believed to go to the Happy Hunting Grounds, an idyllic land where life is lived much as it was on Oerth in ancient days—the land is wild, game is abundant, and cities, roads, and ironshirts are non-existent. Some of these souls become honored as ancestral spirits, usually for the lifetimes of those who knew them in life, sometimes longer. Not all Rovers go to the Happy Hunting Grounds, however. Those who are cursed or evil remain with Nerull in the underworld, where some are devoured by the Great Bear of Death, while others, like the manitou, are sent into the world as evil spirits.
The Araphi priestly “caste” consists of three main branches, which non-Araphi often confuse, lumping all together as “priests” or “shamans.” The most common are medicine men, followed by priests proper, with the heemaneh being the least numerous.
Medicine Men – Though, technically, all Rover priests can be considered medicine men, not all medicine men are priests. The medicine men/women are primarily concerned with healing the sick, and do not hold regular communion with the spirits and the gods as do priests. Medicine men/ women study herbalism and healing, and are most often members of the adept and expert classes, though rangers and sorcerers are not uncommon.
Priests – Sometimes called “shamans,” Rover priests/ priestesses act as intermediaries between the supernatural (deities and spirits) and the natural (humanity) worlds. Though a Rover priest may have a single patron god or spirit, most of them serve or placate many deities, according to the needs of the tribe. For example, a priest may offer prayers and sacrifices to Beory to ensure healthy childbirths, to Nerull at funerals, to Obad-Hai before a hunt, or to Telchur to stave off the winter’s cold. A number of Rover priests are able to take animal form, and scholars who advocate pan-Flanism are quick to note the similarities to the shapechanging powers found among druids of the Old Faith, which has its origins among the Southwestern Flan of the Sheldomar.
Heemaneh – If a male Rover doesn’t believe he can stand a man's life, he isn’t forced to. Instead, he becomes a heemaneh (“half-man, half-woman”). They wear women's clothes and can get married to another man, if such be his taste. Heemaneh are considered superior entertainers, healers, and herbalists, specializing in love-potions. Heemaneh are most often members of the adept, bard, expert, priest, and sorcerer classes (and never found among barbarians, fighters, rangers, or warriors). Ideally, no Rover war party leaves without a heemaneh. They also serve to give secret protected names to babies. These names were much sought after, and Durishi Great Hound and Vlek Col Vlekzed are examples of extremely influential people who benefited from them.