Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Divine Masks: Cultural Context

Aliens ruled the galaxy long before humanity ever set foot on another planet. The race that ruled he galaxy in the epoch before the rise of man were the Ranathim, a race of beautiful psychic vampires driven by their insatiable appetites. They fought off foreign empires and conquered their own arm of the galaxy and then the galactic core and created a long era of ruthless, though cosmopolitan, rule.

The Ranathim, being innately psionic, have a tradition of psionic cults, and many of the most devout had already begun to touch upon the power of Communion (though, being psychic vampires, the Ranathim were limited to Dark and Broken Communion). Each cult had their own beliefs, and as the Empire conquered other cultures, those cultures tossed their psionic insights and morals into the vast melting pot of the Ranathim Empire, including True Communion, which wielded powers alien to the Ranathim. Rather than crush all dissent, the Ranathim Emperor created an “umbrella” philosophy, called the Annifem Lithe or more simply Anala, sometimes termed “the Nifemnic Mysteries,” the Divine Masks, or the Practices, which put forward that all people worshiped the same Gods, but the apparent differences could be explained by the fact that they worshiped aspects of the “true” Gods, that is, that the gods of all cultures were but masks over the true and unknowable divinity beneath. Those who worshiped the brutal and terrifying Ithin-Kor worshipped the same god as those who worshiped the ferocious war-god Thamet Sonostra. At the head of these many cults stood the Domen Meret, the imperial cult, which was the mask worn by the Mystic Tyrant.

The collapse of their home star into a blackhole by some unknown means shattered their empire, and the once proud Ranathim empire collapsed, leaving its people scattered and unprotected. New powers rose up, enslaving many Ranathim, or forcing them to flee or fight to keep what scraps of power they had left. Even so, their metaphysical system, Annifem Lithe, remained in place, as many non-Ranathim had adopted it and adapted their belief systems to its conceits.

As Annifem Lithe as a religious system faded in importance, the powerful symbolism and the effective occult imagery remained in place, and people, Ranathim or otherwise, began to study it for greater facility with psionic powers and, perhaps, to gain some measure of access to and control over Communion. This created a split in Anala between Anala Izathan, or “magical practices” and Anala Ichiva, or “religious practices”, but while the latter tends to be antagonistic towards the former’s wholesale appropriation of their sacred traditions, the metaphysics of both systems more-or-less agree.

Today, Annifem Lithe is mostly a curiosity. Aliens who practice strange, old cults or weird alien warlocks and witches who harrow their enemies with strange psionic “spells” both get accused, rightly or wrongly, of practicing Anala. Anala tend to frustrate imperials who try to impose their Neo-Rationalism on the inherently irrational and mystical values of Anala.

Ranathim Culture and Values

Primal instincts and insatiable desire drive the Ranathim and, in turn, their culture. Where other cultures might celebrate restraint, the Ranathim take it as a matter of course that all species wish to indulge their appetites, and so they celebrate their own decadence, and envy the decadence of others. When they wish to honor one another, they do so by indulging one another's basest desires.

Unfortunately, this comes at a cost, which someone must bear, especially given the Ranathim’s vampiric nature. If one Ranathim is to enjoy a feast, upon whom is he feasting? Who must labor to indulge another, and who enjoys the benefits of those labors? For the Ranathim, life is a zero-sum game, with winners and losers. The winners enjoy the spoils of victory and become masters, or thamara, while the losers become their victims and slaves, or seva. This dichotomy between master and slave informs much of Ranathim culture, and thus they care a great deal about prestige. A Ranathim prince or princess would need to exercise their power, not just to gain access to that which they wanted, but to remind people of their power and, hopefully, to keep anyone from even trying to exploit them. By the same token, a Ranathim slave learns to abject themselves before their masters so as not to be beaten; those who served particularly well might gain the favor of their master and even find their freedom through service; an imperial slave was often more powerful than a free master! Thus, masters flaunt their power with rich jewelry and finery, while slaves bear marks that denote their close relationship to their master. The more richly dressed the slave, the more powerful the master!

For the Ranathim, mystical power is as real as physical power, and they see the two as intertwined. Ranathim with deep insights into the nature of psionic power command the fear and admiration of all Ranathim. Those who command the powers of Communion, of course, command the greatest respect, but reaching such levels of power and self-control requires intense discipline and a ritualistic lifestyle. When a Ranathim, caught up in the throes of channeling Dark Communion speaks a commandment, the Ranathim listen, in part because they hope to gain some measure of that same power, but also because the practitioners of Dark Communion are obviously thamara, powerful enough to crush you, so you must do what they say. Religious edict is typically the only lasting means of checking the rapacious hungers of the Ranathim race, and thus became the ultimate tool for the state.

Calling the Ranathim tolerant might be a stretch. They saw themselves as masters and other races as slaves. But they understood that power is power, and they practiced it in whatever form they could. They also had no delusions about who was powerful. Of course a mighty alien could best and enslave a Ranathim, and of course he would want to! The Ranathim would do the same in his position! Thus, if the Ranathim found themselves under the boot of another race, the wisest Ranathim would borrow from their traditions, seem to empower themselves, and then overthrow their oppressors. The Ranathim Empire enshrined this principle of respect for all forms of mystical power via its traditions of the Divine Masks.

The Divine Masks and the Galaxy

Annifem lithe once dominated the galaxy, but that was thousands of years ago, and today, most races largely considered a curiosity throughout most of the galaxy. It lacks the state sanction of Neo-Rationalism or the Akashic Mysteries and the wide-spread popularity of True Communion. It does inform the basic implicit cultural assumptions of many aliens in the galactic core and into the dark arm of the galaxy, and forms the basis for many existing cults, cabals and religions among more remote alien species. It also contains legitimately powerful psionic secrets, which intrigue imperial archeologists, who often learn of Anala to better understand the artifacts they dig up.

Anala Ichiva cults, or domen, remain popular in the dark arm of the galaxy, in the part of the galaxy where the Ranathim originated, and where their power was strongest. Aliens continue to worship as they did for centuries, and where their cults come under fire (which they often do, as outsiders tend to see them as subversive, bloody and frightening), they’re quick to go underground and take up arms. Anala Izathan, by contrast, is found in many places throughout the galaxy, often in spooky old shops in the underbelly of space stations or in creepy clubs set up by wealthy imperials who enjoy exploring the “occult” ideas of Anala. Anala Izathan has the most non-Ranathim practitioners, as it demands no rigorous worship, just a willingness to explore mystical ideas, and thus even psionically-talented humans might have a few Zathanis works in their libraries.

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