The Gods of Redundancy

Eric Lis

Gods of healing tend to be a little bit repetitive in fantasy. Much of fantasy tends to be a little bit derivative and repetitive, for which nobody is to blame (with the possible exception of Tolkien), but the religions and deities of fantasy tend to be especially consistent with each other, and few more so than the gods of healing. Consider some of the most popular game settings. In good old 3rd edition D&D, the classic god of healing was Pelor, champion of sunlight and good deeds. This aspect of Pelor was downplayed in 4th edition, but Pelor arguably remained the deity most linked to healing magic. The fine folks who write Pathfinder didn't deviate much from this basic concept when they created Sarenrae, also a sun-deity and still very much preoccupied with things like redemption, honesty, and swift justice to the evil-doer. In the Forgotten Realms, few gods are especially associated with the portfolio of healing, but the first ones that may come to mind include Lathander (yet another sun-god), Sharindlar (mercy and fertility), and perhaps the Orcish deity Luthic (much the same as Shandlar, but greener). Dragonlance has its Mishakal, who represents restoration and motherhood, while Eberron makes do with Olladra, who is at least a little bit of a non-conformist in representing feasting, luck, and pride.

This repetitiveness is doubly a shame, because if you browse through human history, the gods associated with healing have actually had a huge degree of variation to them. Fantasy seems to have borrowed largely from a relatively restricted view of the healing gods, while actual human cultures, with their innumerable differences both subtle and extreme, have shown more creativity than any number of big-name game designers. Here are a handful of my favourite gods of healing from Earth mythology to give you some ideas of how you can create a god that your players (or storytellers) may not expect.

I've long been fascinated by Slavic myth, and in particular, Veles, their god of healing. Veles is an interesting god in that he's associated with a complicated array of concepts, some of which seem like odd combinations to our sensibilities. In medieval fantasy terms, Veles would be associated with the portfolios of earth, water, the underworld (which may or may not include death), dragons, snakes, cattle, magic, musicians, storytellers, wealth and trickery. Rebirth is often a concept which is considered to be associated with Veles, as in the classic myths, Veles is killed each year battling the thunder god Perun, and rises again as a snake shedding his skin shortly thereafter. Veles suggests a number of interesting ideas for fantasy gods. His association with snakes is far from unique amongst healer gods, but his association with bards and entertainers extremely unusual. We can see the logical connection, though; ancient Slavs understood how the health of the spirit is inextricably linked to the health of the body in a way which modern Western people often forget. Veles is also one of the very few examples of a god who simultaneously represents both healing and death. I'm sure that someone could find an example that I'm unfamiliar with, but to my knowledge, no fantasy setting has a deity which simultaneously embraces health and death; the closest example I've ever heard of is the video game Bastion, where all of the gods represent two more or less opposing concepts, including Jevel, god of health and atrophy. To many doctors, death is seen as the ultimate enemy and the failure of the healer's art, but just as modern medicine has been gaining more insight into the importance of palliative care, so too does Veles potentially remind us that death may be an inevitability, but it isn't necessarily the enemy. Priests of a deity inspired by Veles might be masters of soothing pain, or might preach that death isn't something to be avoided, but rather to be delayed until the wisest possible time.

Another (much more famous) god can point us in interesting directions: Apollo, Greek god of the sun and father of Asclepius, who is often identified as the Greek god of medicine. In Greek myth, the gods were almost always associated with certain concepts, but didn't tend to have jealously-guarded portfolios the way they do in most campaign settings, so it would be perfectly appropriate for Apollo and his son to share the portfolio and/or domain of healing, just as each of Asclepius' own children are today considered to be the gods and goddesses of different aspects of healing. Whereas Asclepius was an unambiguous god of healing, however, Apollo could have fit well into Bastion; he was also seen as the god of plague. Like many Greek gods, Apollo was temperamental and quick to anger, and it was far from unusual for him to punish entire nations with plague for seemingly small infractions. As a bringer and curer of sickness, he was prayed to, not merely to heal the sick, but to spare the healthy from becoming sick. Clerics of a fantasy deity inspired by the duality of Apollo would probably be welcomed very ambivalently when they came to town, since on the one hand, they save lives, but on the other hand, the common folk probably fear their wrath as they did few others'. Apollo furthermore reminds us that the god of healing isn't necessarily the god of mercy, forgiveness, or fair-play; for all their flaws, Pelor and Sarenrae aren't known for flaying people alive.

Another of my favourite examples comes from Egyptian myth, albeit not from the Ennead who most people know of. Imhotep is considered one of the most important physicians in human history; had he lived in an era where history was better recorded, he would likely today be seen as more important than Hippocrates. Imhotep is believed to have lived somewhere around 2600 BCE. He was an architect as well as a healer, and records survive which attribute to him an astonishing array of scientific discoveries. As often happened in ancient Egypt, he was elevated to godhood a few thousand years after his death, and was subsequently worshipped as their god of medicine. While it technically falls under the power of some of the more famous gods, Imhotep is sometimes considered to be a (not "the") god of mathematics and scribes, things which are certainly associated with modern medicine but which weren't as closely linked for much of history. Imhotep combines a number of different disciplines which suggest that a fantasy god inspired by him might end up as a sort of god of scientific advancement, in its most humanistic and benevolent sense. His clerics in a fantasy world would likely have a mastery of non-magical healing techniques and operate out of some of the grandest temples around.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and doesn't even cover some of the most unusual healer lords. Health gods were often associated with divination, as in the cases of Agwu Nsi of the Igbo and Alaunus of the Gauls. Babalu Aye, from the Yoruba tradition, is another god who embodied healing, sickness, death, and rebirth, arguably covering pretty well the whole of human experience. Fufluns of the Etruscans is one of the rare health gods associated with wine (though the Aztec Piltzintecuhtli is pretty clearly the god of healing and hallucinogens). And speaking of the Aztecs, although many cultures associated healing with their sun gods, the Aztecs clearly held Ixtlilton to be a god of darkness and sleep.

For further reading and inspiration, I strongly recommend the Wikipedia page on health gods, which contains an extensive list ripe for the ambitious storyteller to pick from.

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on February 08, 2014. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system