What is called The Old Faith does not possess a specific name by which even its most ardent practitioners called it. It is called the Old Faith simply because it is a set of traditional beliefs, stories, and rituals that the majority of the Noriki adhered to prior to the establishment of the True Confession. People who adhered (or continue to adhere) to it assert that the Old Faith was practiced by people, and not only humans, since time immemorial, or even since the beginning of time. It is not even so much a faith as a set of relationships between humans (or mortals, generally speaking) and other, very powerful beings in the macrocosm. These beings, though not always directly evident to most people in most situations, are nevertheless very real, no less than distant oceans, words in foreign tongues, or smithing techniques are real, even though most people are but dimly aware of them, and may regard them as mysterious, magical, or even non-existent. Since awareness of these powers, and knowledge about their effects and how to use them greatly impacts human life, interaction with these beings greatly affects the structure and shape of human communities. Groups of mariners, herders, warriors, farmers, merchants, smiths, weavers, speakers of particular languages, residents of certain locales, claimants to descent from specific ancestors, or, more generally, women and men, can form distinct groups because of their interaction with such beings, who help will these groups into existence (if it suits their needs and corresponds with their natures).
There is a wide variety of such beings of distinct levels of influence and importance in the life of human communities. The most powerful of them are referred to as “gods”. In the Labdy tongues (of which the Noriki language is one), the word for “god” is bog (pronounced “BOag”)– a word related to the word wealth (bogatsvo) or which underlines their capacity for deeds of great might (and is thus related to the word bogatyr – the doer of great deeds). These gods are the sources of great might and wealth for those whom they favor, and those who conform to their wishes, because they concentrate within themselves important elements of the universe – earth, or fire, gold or iron. The association of these elements with particular beings is their own fate, their lot, and they may similarly impart their fate or lot onto others, such as certain humans.
The multiplicity of lots or fates in the world is ultimately the reason why the Old Faith is polytheistic. Its polytheism, or acceptance of many gods, is not really an article of faith that must be adhered to by all who claim to adhere to it. It’s simply a reasonable inference from the reality which presents itself in a variety of different guises composes of different elements, and which deals such different hands to the creatures that populate it. Some people are blind, while some can see. Some people are stronger or smarter or more fortunate than others. Water douses fire, but fire burns flesh. All of this means that different forces are active in the world, at different times, and with different impact. Whether these forces are all aspects of a single, supreme being or not is regarded as a rather academic question. It is debated by volkhvy or other sages seeking to learn the most deeply-hidden secrets of the universe, but for most people, it has little practical meaning. The universe is imperfect, and will likely perish (only to be reborn again), so any notion of absolute power is seen as highly abstract. It seems obvious that many powers act at cross-purposes to one another – just as the gods contend with one another, as do the various gods’ followers.
Similarly, the question of which god reigns supreme is difficult, if not impossible to answer. Stones are harder than water, and hurt much more if thrown, but if left sitting in the sea, the water wears them down into sand with time. Which element existed first? No one knows for sure, since no one (no human, and not even most gods) were there. Lots of theories abound, and all gods promote their own elements. But the universe has changed since its birth, and some elements may lose their dominance over time. In just the same way, giants and serpents have lost status as the gods’ favorites, whereas humans have gained it. Most of the great gods have claimed the title as a king of the universe. But just like there are many tsars, many universal rulers in the human domain, it seems safer to assume that there are many universal rulers, and to give each one his (or her) due.
And in the same way, there is no easy way to establish the names of particular gods, or a definitive list of existing gods. People may enter the same sea, but in different places. For some, it is frozen over, and they walk on top of it, for others, it is warm, and they wade in it. Similarly, different people will experience gods differently, and they will call them by different names. For the Labdy, the Lord of Thunder is called Perun, while for neighboring Galindy people, he bears a similar-sounding name – Perkunas, while the Rovers of old called him Thor. Different stories were told of them, but typically, a traveler from Nor’ to Birma knew that when his hosts spoke of Thor, they were talking about Perun. It is not entirely clear whether all gods have such correspondences in foreign lands. Sometimes, people bear new powers and new skills to their neighbors. The Noriki taught some of the Kuz’ agriculture and smithing, and with these new practices came new gods (or rather, the new gods effected the imparting of this knowledge to neighbors). It is not clear how many unnamed gods are out there, and how many may need to be named in the future. But the notion that gods are grouped into distinct pantheons is widely recognized as a human convention. Prince Bogumil, before he abandoned the Old Faith for the True Confession, erected several idols on Prut’s hill in Dubno. They were gods of different peoples, and they became his pantheon (literally “all of the gods”). But gods who were not included did not thereby cease being gods.
Finally, the great gods are the most powerful beings, forces or fates – for particular groups of people at particular times. But as we have seen, their power can wane or wax. Less powerful beings can become more powerful, and vice-versa. There are spirits that are less powerful than the gods, but that do not differ from them fundamentally. They may also be immortal, and may gain power to become truly godlike. Creatures can be made by the gods from different materials, and can be immortal, like serpents, or mortal, like humans. But humans are formed from distinct elements, like spirits or gods, and they can learn about the structure of the universe. They are clearly weaker than gods, but they can approach the gods with their requests, wishes, and desires, hoping to get from the gods what they need. That is, in certain instances, gods and humans come together as equals. In their striving for power to rule the universe undivided, and to know it absolutely, that the humans are also like gods. But the gods are formed of purer stuff, and they have been around longer, and so have accumulated enough wisdom to know that this is a futile quest.
The Divine Host, and volkhv circles
As neither the gods nor the universe as a whole are static, they are ever acquiring new forms, new aspects, and new powers. There is suspicion among certain volkhvy that distinct aspects may in fact have been divinities in their own right that are absorbed, through some sort of incorporation or consumption, into other gods. Thus, at times, these complex entities may evolve into singular gods with multiple faces or names. Another school of thought, however, holds that individual gods may, over time, develop separate selves that ultimately split into individual divinities. The following catalog takes the first interpretation as its point of departure, because the retreat of the Old Faith has left the old gods weakened, and more apt to attract as many supplicants as possible by combining multiple aspects. But the GMs can feel free to opt for a more numerous divine host if it suits their setting.
The Old Faith is a very old and fluid religion grounded in tradition and ritual rather than in a clear doctrine. The worship of particular gods, therefore, is no exclusive. Peasants, for instance, may sacrifice to Yarilo on the New Year, or to Mokosh upon the birth of a new child without being considered a follower of one or the other exclusively. At the same time, people belonging to distinct occupational, regional, or even ethnic groups may have special relations with a patron that claims a domain for their own. Thus, Svarog is certainly invoked by smiths, whereas Veles presides over markets and harvests. Since the ancestors of the Noriki used to live more compactly in the area between the Khavzai and the Great Ruud rivers, most locales had cult centers to all the great gods and goddesses of the host. As large groups began to migrate into the forests of the north and the east, they would promote a tribal divinity that would claim tutelage over the residences of the tribe’s princes. When these residences grew into towns, and when the country fell under the control of a single dynasty, each town would uphold its specific patron. But in each town, the hilltop, grove, or forum dedicated to the gods would feature idols to all the major deities.
Finally, despite the obvious dualism suggested by the rivalry between Perun and Veles, the Old Faith does not typically divide the divine host into good and evil gods. Most people feel an instinctive and genetic kinship with Perun and the powers that serve him, and are revolted by the unclean, verminous offspring that slithers forth from the Lower Realms. However, the secrets for attaining wealth and power, whether for individuals or the species as a whole, are made available as gifts from Veles, who is given his due as well. Long ago, the duties of priests and princes were combined in the same person, who recognized the necessity to balance between the two great gods. But today, when the celestial deities have been largely replaced by the saints of the True Confession, the most important keepers of the Old Faith are primarily volkhvy with no access to political power, who therefore lean heavily toward the cults of Veles and Mokosh.
Since the establishment of the New Faith, humans have been forgetting the Old. In cities and other places where the church is strong, many have forgotten the names of the old gods. But the old ways are kept alive through the absorption of old celebrations into Gaalite holidays, the placement of churches on the sites of old shrines, the telling of stories about powerful beings who may be the Old Gods in disguise, the production of textiles embroidered with the symbols of the Old Faith, and so on. The performance of divination rituals, trafficking with nechist', and, on occasion, blood sacrifices keep the Old Faith alive as well. Secret shrines, and underground circles of volkhvy and bards (less frequently, warlocks and sorcerers) keep the embers of the old religion glowing as well. Most people who keep aspects of the cult alive are, however, also baptised into the New Faith, to which they sincerely adhere.
As with the precise character of divinity or a clear enumeration of their names, there is no clear answer as to their origin, and the origin of their world. Some volkhvy say that the birth of the universe resembles the birth of a cosmic egg. Others speak of a divine animal diving beneath the waters of the primeval chaos to fetch a clump of dirt that they then delivered back to the surface, and that grew to become the first land. Others still tell of a world that came into being from the body parts of a primeval being primeval being – the sun and moon came from its eyes, the mountains from its bones, the forests from its hair, and so on. This is likely a more recent narrative, for it is suggestive of another, earlier story of how this creature came into being, how it was killed, and how its body parts were fashioned by other beings into the present world. A variant of this tale, however, speaks of a kind of spontaneous generation of this being from elements of chaos, perhaps by means of a dance of creation, though which an original being gathers together or brings forth the stuff of the universe though a pattern of wild, though ultimately pattern-generating gyrations. Subsequently, the autopoetic birth of this being (through self-organization) became a prototype for the formation of other divinities, heavenly bodies, and ultimately for the mortal creatures of this world (including humans).
Among the most popular creation narratives are those that feature a demiurge – an artisan that fashions the universe through purposeful work. The precise nature of this demiurge depends on whose followers are telling the tale. Sometimes, the artisan is a weaver, who creates the world by intertwining the threads of a colossal tapestry. Sometimes, it is a potter or a baker, who shapes the universe out of clay or dough, and then bakes it (a procedure he or she later follows again when making people). Sometimes, the demiurge is a smith, who hammers out the universe on top of his anvil. The smith Svarog, for instance, is regarded by certain vokhvy as the original being (of this universe, at any rate), who drew upon the fire and water of a disordered world to make the heavenly vault, the stars which he hammered in to hold the vault in place, and his children – various spirits of air and fire. The popularity of this tale is underlined by the mysterious character of Svarog. Though he seems to be the original being, and the maker of later generations of gods, he does not seem to be the supreme being (much less the sole god). He is certainly not the ruler of the universe he fashions. In fact, after his work is done, he largely disappears from the legends. A somewhat greater role is played by Svarog’s anvil, named the Alatyr Stone, which is later broken into numerous pieces and flung down, each apparently to become the center of the earth, or the cornerstone of creation.
With the disappearance of the Demiurge, generations of gods arise to try to tame and dominate this still rather chaotic world that has not finished cooling, or settling. Among the first to do so is Stribog, Lord of Winds. His attempt to proclaim his paramountcy is revealed by his name, which contains the word bog – an attestation of his might and divine status. While Stribog assembled his heavenly host near the top of the vault, he set his brother, Svarozhich (literally “Son of Svarog”) just below, to illumine this world, Svarozhich, the embodiment of fire, and the sun, flies through the air in his chariot, lighting up the world below. But the ferment within the heavenly host is still strong, and a bolt of lightning shoots out at Tsar Stribog, and ends his reign. Whether he is killed, rendered impotent, or simply sent to an honorable retirement into one of the heavens above the vault is not clearly explained. But a lesson is drawn: can even a god rule the whole cosmos without sharing or parcellizing power? The removal of Stribog also shatters the Alatyr stone, removing the possibility of unity, for no being can now reassemble its pieces (though perhaps, the very act of telling this story suggests that it can be done, or at least, should be attempted).
The interregnum following Stribog’s ouster concludes with the emergence of one champion, who steps forward to claim credit for the coup. It is Perun, the Thunderlord and wielder of lightning who now asserts his right to rule. But Perun wisely divides the young world between himself and other gods who either supported him, or simply need to be stakeholders who would legitimate Perun’s rule. The heavenly tier he takes for himself and his servants. The middle tier, or plane, becomes the domain of Mokosh, who, as a weaver, has some claim to being the original Demiurge. She is also the Moist Mother Earth, and her Garden – Irii - takes root from the place where Perun’s thunderbolt struck the Alatyr Stone. From a piece of this stone, a mighty oak tree grows, Its branches reach up to the heavenly vault, and it is here that Perun and his airy companions make their home. His uncle Svarozhich, who did not challenge his brother’s forced retirement is left in his place, circling the sky in his sun chariot. And beneath the garden, where the roots of the oak tree wind their way through the moist earth, is the realm of Veles, the Subterranean Lord.
But this division of the world does not guarantee stability. Perun feels that as the vanquisher of Lord Stribog, he is entitled to take Mokosh as his queen. But it is a political marriage, as Mokosh finds Perun’s warrior habits uncouth. She is soon seduced by Veles, who offers her a gift of cattle and grain, harboring desires to not only take her for himself, but to gain control of the world from Perun. When the Thunderlord learns of the twain’s faithlessness, he strikes Veles down. But in his own underground realm, the serpentine Veles can shed his skin, and thus escape death. Neither does Perun’s act of vengeance win back his wife’s love, though their marriage is never formally dissolved. The three of them remain locked in an uneasy truce, while the world becomes filled with the human progeny of Perun and Mokosh, and the monstrous progeny of Veles and Mokosh. Rod becomes the progenitor of humankind, though it is not entirely clear whether he is born of a divine union, or shaped from clay, dough, or some other material in a process that recapitulates the creation of the universe. His offspring establish themselves in hilltop forts, and eventually, sire a line of warriors from whom the Labdy and the Noriki are descended. At first, they are pressed and isolated – the world is dominated by Veles’ multifarious brood. These creatures - serpents, giants, vermin, and hybrids are almost certainly born of his union with Mokosh, and they engage in manifold kinds of intercourse with one another – intermarriage, trade, and communication of knowledge which they keep secret from the children of Rod. With time, helped by their heavenly patron, the humans expand their domains. But as they grow in strength, he grows concerned that they will remove him from his throne, as he once removed Stribog. Perun’s fear is especially stoked by the possibility that Mokosh will share the Spindles of Destiny with them, and that Veles will teach them the magic that will allow them to conquer death. So he conceals the Garden of Irii from them, and surrounds it with a fiery moat, and calls on Svarozhich to fan the flames of strife, so that humans don’t unite behind one ruler. Secretly, however, Mokosh and Veles share forbidden knowledge with their favorites, who become volkhvy, striving to enlarge the human domains, while also keeping their people safe from the wrath of the Thunderlord.