The church of the 6 kingdoms (as the archipelago is often referred to) is centered about the great religious complex that dominates the White city, on a small island in the north of the western Isles. Both the worship of the Twelve and the worship of the Forest Man exist side by side.
The worship of the Forest man has no scripture, no dogma, and no concept of sin. It concerns itself with harmony with the universe and one's fellows. The Forest Man himself is sometimes depicted as a leaf-wrapped human figure, sometimes as an animate tree. In general, though his shrines do not contain figures, and his followers do not make images to him, so he has no symbol as such - his followers use whatever seems to best lend itself to their particular inspiration. Although his worship has a sort of hierarchy, based on seniority, it is fairly loosely knit and some religious communities have very little to do with others from year to year.
In contrast, the Church of the Twelve has a clear hierarchy, with the Arcobulon (the high priest) who officiates at the great temple of the White City at its head. Every city and town that has a full temple has a set place in the hierarchy, based on its size and wealth as well as its age (how long since it was founded) and the power of its patrons. Under the Arcobulon is a council of twelve, who oversee the day-to-day running of the church: one selected from each cult, who is generally the Head Priest of the most powerful temple of that cult. The Arcobulon is unique in that he (or she) is not only the chief priest (or priestess) of the Twelve, but also - at least officially - an initiate and priest of the Forest Man. Even though the worship of the Twelve is formally one religion, it has split into many sects, although these generally exist peaceably together. This splintering is due to the tendency of most people will place emphasis on one particular member of the Twelve - so soldiers raise shrines to the Horned one, gamblers swear by the Smiler, and so on. However, although people tend follow one cult, they acknowledge the importance of all and recognize that they are all part of the same religion. Generally, followers of both religions believe that after death the soul goes to dwell with their deity in one of several different parts of a pleasant heaven (depending on which god or goddess they have most pleased). There is disagreement over what happens to those who displease the gods. Priests of the Twelve believe such souls are exiled to dark realms of hopelessness and suffering, unless the priests intercede to "pray him into heaven" while priests of the Forest Man believe such people are reincarnated through different (lower) forms of life until they have earned a chance at another human life. This is why followers of the Forest Man say a quick prayer for forgiveness when they kill an animal - after all you never know who it might have been. A compromise that many people believe is that followers of the Forest man go first to the Dark Places if they have been evil and then are reincarnated, but this is not part of any official cult. Most people - all but the strictest adherents - will follow both religions without conflict, although worship of the Forest Man is strongest in rural districts and that of the Twelve in cities or long-settled villages.
The worship of the Twelve has simple moral code - obey your rulers, don't cheat, don't kill, don't steal, but this is overlaid with a complex of cults each of which also promote various virtues, abhor different sorts of behavior and which also require different services of their dedicated worshippers. Not everyone belongs to a cult - most people simply worship the Twelve in a general way, but anyone who is socially notable will belong to at least one cult and in many places membership of a cult is a social obligation - so all the senior fishermen in a coastal village will belong to the local cult of the Woman of the Tides, for example, or all the soldiers in one lord's service will belong to their own cult of the Horned Man. Cults are often local in nature, holding secrets that are only shared with initiates from the same cult. Such secrets may include special knowledge or professional skills, or magical powers and spells (discussed below, under magic).
The various Cults are:
The New Gods
- The Laughing God. Generally depicted as a robust, red-faced, yellow-bearded man dressed in wealthy clothes and crowned with a wreath of leaves and flowers. He is the husband of The Crying Woman and it is said that he sees all the world and laughs, while she sees all the world and weeps. He is god of farmers and rulers - of growing, and making. It is the Laughing God who made men. He delights in food and drink and it is the Laughing God who is toasted at harvest-time and also among drinkers, Kings set his symbol above their thrones and on their feasting-halls. His symbol is a red sun.
- The Crying Woman is the sister of the Laughing God and she is depicted as a blue-faced woman with long hair and a crescent set above her brow and tears running down her cheeks. Where her husband is a god of solid things, her realm is the unseen: mysteries, darkness and night. She is not an evil goddess, but a protector against these things. She sees all that is hidden in men's hearts, which is why she cries. Her symbol is the crescent moon
- The Butterfly Girl is depicted as a young, fair-haired girl. She wears a key around her neck, symbolizing opening. She is the goddess of summer, of beginnings and of travel and people pray to her when sowing the fields, starting new enterprises or setting off on a journey. She is the protector of youth. Her symbol is the butterfly.
- The Woman Of Tides, her older sister is depicted as a young, pale-faced woman with long dark hair. Her realm is the sea, and like her mother she is mistress of all the secrets hidden under the surface. Because she is mistress of the tides, she is also the woman's goddess. She is prayed to for help in love, for the care of children, but also by sailors and fishermen, or those who seek hidden lore. Her symbol is the full moon
- The Horned Man is depicted as a warrior - red-faced, black-bearded, with a heavy mustache and clad in armor. He wears a horned helmet. Like his father he is a god of making, but unlike his father he does not delight in food and wine or growing things, but in craft - especially castles, ships and swords. He is the smith's god and also the warrior's god. He honors bravery and punishes faithlessness. People pray to him for vengeance or protection and - less often - when creating things. His symbol is a horned helmet.
- The Smiler, his younger brother, is depicted as a ruddy beardless man, wearing a hat, and a skull earring. He is the god of fate and luck and also, like his mother and sister of secrets. His secrets, though, are those of men - tricks, traps and sly ruses. He is the trickster. His worshippers call on him when they need luck. He is the god of gamblers and merchants, but is also called on by people starting difficult or dangerous ventures. Alone of the gods, he has no symbol, but a dice or coin is often used to signify him.
The Old Gods
- The Thoughtful Man is the oldest of the Gods. It is said he thought the world into being . He is depicted as an aged man, without a beard, wearing eyeglasses. He is the god of plans. Like his son, the Laughing God, he is a god of making, but like his daughter, the Crying Woman, his realm is the intangible - thoughts and plans, not enterprises and buildings. He is the god of those who seek wisdom or attempt to divine the future. He is most worshipped by mages and teachers. His symbol is a pair of eyeglasses.
- The Crone is his wife. It is said she is the one thing she did not foresee and she came from far away. She is depicted as a dark-skinned old woman, hooded and cloaked. She is the goddess of death and of endings. She is not malign and does not seek the death of men - she knows they all come to her in the end, anyway. She is also the goddess of the past - of things that have been. People pray to her for release, and pray to her on behalf of those who have died. Her symbol - the sickle - is carved on coffins.
- The Wizard is also a god of knowledge, but of a different sort. He is depicted as a man past middle age with eyeglasses and a beard. He is the patron of miracles and magic and people pray to him when they need either. His symbol is the star.
- The Sage is the god of wisdom. He is depicted as an elderly man wearing a flat cap. He is the patron of scholars and writers and people seeking knowledge pray to him. He is also the God of memory and lost things, so people seek his help when looking for things that are lost. Most libraries bear his symbol - the quill.
- The Dreamer is depicted as a youngish man, often rudely clad, with closed eyes. His is the realm of things that are not or are not yet. He is the patron of art, the god of dreams and story. Poets and singers are his special worshippers, but he is also worshipped by some mystics. His symbol is two eyes one open, one closed.
- The Black Man is depicted as a Keshite: dark-skinned, frizzy-haired and with golden hoop earrings and a nose ring, despite the fact that Keshites are almost unknown in the Six Kingdoms. He is the Outsider, who came from outside of the world and the God of Boundaries. Being outside, he is able to judge impartially and therefore also the god of judgment. People call on him to witness that their oaths are true. His worshippers are those who enforce the law, of course but also explorers - those who go outside the boundaries. His symbol is the circle.
The priests and priestesses of the Forest Man do not build big temples, preferring simple shrines at crossroads, in forest clearings or on lakesides. Where they do build temples they tend to be hidden places - bases for the priesthood, rather than centres of worship. The servants of the Forest Man are permitted to marry and often do. Their children may be raised by their parents, who in many cases are part of the local community. However, children from such marriages are also often fostered by rural communities even if their parents do not live there it is considered a blessing to foster such a child - especially since the cult will usually extend favors to the household in return.
The churches of the Twelve are often part of a complex housing priests and priestesses, but which also contain infirmaries, libraries and shrines. In some cases, such as the White City, they become city quarters in their own right, with thousands of inhabitants.
Priests and priestesses of the Twelve may not marry - although they may have been married. When they enter the Church, they must renounce their families and inheritance. It is traditional for the church to make a payment in return to the family and so many young people from poor families enter the church because their families cannot support them. People from wealthy families in contrast, often enter the church when they are older, although unwanted younger sons and daughters are sometimes persuaded to take vows. In this case, their entry to the church is often eased by a gift from the family. Priests and priestesses are somewhat outside the usual social ladder. While they are not owed respect from title or position, they are often respected for being teachers and keepers of wisdom. Some priests are little better than beggars, and are treated as such while some advise powerful lords. While priests are expected to be humble, they will gain status appropriate to their conduct and reputation. Those priests and priestesses born into noble families normally retain some of their former status when they enter the church and so often become cult leaders.