Monday, February 29, 2016

Ethereal Things Lurk in the Wilds

The wilderness is a scary place, filled with deadly animals, poisonous plants, and teeming with spirits of nature. I've always loved the innate dangers of exploration beyond terrible monsters. Diseases, natural disasters, and the elements make for great dramatic encounters that the players have to contend with. One can always fight a chimera or bandits, but how does one swing their sword against a flash flood, or a tornado? But that's a good post for another time.

Spirits need to be used more. I love reading about tribal religions, animism, and paganism. There is something more personal yet alien about spirits of natural objects watching you as explore the wilds, or animal spirits racing along side you, hunting their own ethereal prey. Just because they are nature spirits doesn't mean they are inherently good or nice. They aren't a commune of hippies singing koombayah while becoming one with nature. The wilds are brutal and uncaring and cruel and so are many of the spirits. Anger a wolf or a lion and it will just initiate combat with you. Anger the spirits of the wilds, and you have to fight something both intangible and elemental.

Spirits lie in the Spirit World, or the Ethereal Plane, or whatever name one wishes to call it. Here lie spirits of all shapes and types. There are spirits of trees and rivers whose names you can hear as whispers in a forests. Many times these spirits coalesce into a greater consciousness of the land that protects and serves the domain as a genius loci. Animal spirits roam the realm, hunting and playing in the wilds of the ethereal. There are ghosts and all kinds of spirits here. The Spirit World is separate, yet within the Waking World. It intertwines itself around the Waking World and the Dreamlands like a creeper vine over a great oak. There is no separation between our world and the world of the spirits, and these spirits can walk freely between realms. If you find the right area in a secluded grove in a forest, or an isolated peak in the mountains, or a lost oasis in the desert, you too can travel to the Spirit World. These are ley lines that are a bridge and are where the Spirit Realm bleeds into the Waking World the most. It's dangerous to enter physically, so many simply go there spiritually. This requires putting your body in extreme stress to work. Starvation and thirst are common, but a faster (though still dangerous) approach lies in using hallucinogens to achieve a spiritual connection to the Ethereal Plane. Because of the closeness of the Spirit World, the Waking World, and the Dreamlands, dreams can be a convenient way for spirits and people to communicate.

Ghosts and phantoms are trapped here, their emotions and nostalgia for the living world binding them in an eternity of torment, waiting to be freed. Alongside these ghosts are ancestor spirits. These are ghosts of your parents and theirs and so on, who have chosen to stay behind and protect their kin, granting their wisdom of the ages, good fortune, or strength in conflict. Many say that after centuries of good service and reverence, they ascend to heights of power like that of a demigod.

Too spooky!
Canny and clever animals that live beyond the venerable age of their species ascend spiritually and become one with nature and the spirit world. They become smarter, like a human, but still retain ties to their survival instincts. The animals no longer live in nature, but simply are nature. They can live out an eternity in nature until something disturbs their homes. Like spirits of nature, they can call upon animals and plants to attack intruders and their enemies. Many animal spirits become genius loci of their home after centuries of protection. Like ancestor spirits, they can decide to safeguard a person, a clan, or a tribe. In this way, they morph into totems, protectors lending their guidance and strength to overcome life's obstacles. In my setting, the best of these totems ascend spiritually again into the tonalli, creatures that defend people born on a certain day or month.

I swear I don't own a shirt like this!
Most spirits are primal in nature and transcend our own morals, usually helping anyone that gives them the right offering. This depends on the spirit. Some love tobacco or hallucinogenics, others love luxurious items, like jewelry and fine clothing, and more love less tangible treasures, like knowledge or secrets or even a good joke. A spirit always tells the person what they want, and once they receive their offering, spirits always honors your requests. Some spirits lean more to benevolent or malevolent attitudes, but all honor the offering system and honor a spiritually charismatic speaker.

Anyone can try and talk to a spirit, but without any form of spiritual connection, things can get bad very quickly. Spirits love the Waking World, but many are ignorant or apathetic to the people that live there and their customs. As such, they can be easily angered. Imagine two people speaking to each other, but they speak different languages. Each one tries in vain to make the other understand them, and it becomes one big awkward shouting match. That's where spirit talkers come in. Unlike the religions of more reformed, ecclesiastical religions of larger cities, whose deity(ies) is personal and can understand all prayers and worshipers, more tribal religions of the frontier require spirit talkers to handle diplomacy with the spirits of nature and ghosts. Shamans are the common term, but so are witch doctors, witches, mediums, channelers. These people are priests that help connect us to the ghosts and apportions that would vex the uninitiated. Shamans play a large role in tribal and frontier societies where nature is unforgiving, and anyone that can tame the wilds (or at least bargain with them) become highly respected advisers and in some cases, leaders. Sadly enough, the shaman leaders of tribes find that the more they delve into human politics and issues, the harder it is to connect to the Spirit World. This is because to speak with spirits, one much have an incredible amount of discipline and some disassociation from worldly concerns.

Channelers from the old Pokemon games were creepy, but cool.
The spirits in the setting I run are called zemis. Each zemi is a nature spirit of some aspect of the wild. Trees, rivers, rocks.. each one has a zemi attached to it. Zemis love idols and always ask that a shaman creates an idol based on the material they love most. A zemi of the mountains would want a stone idol adorned with rare metals and gems, while one from the forests would want one made of logs and vines, with beautiful flowers decorating them. Each zemi has a different personality and it is up to the bohique, the locals' shaman, to parley with them for safety and good fortune. Some also act as psychopomps, guiding the newly departed into caves that lead to the underworld, or towards ley lines that lead to the Spirit World. Zemis and bohiques are a much needed ecosystem that helps the living, even long after they have passed.

Of course, who says that spirits are only for nature, the frontier, and tribesmen...