Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. James the Great Martyr of Persia

This saint was a noble from the city of Bythlaba in Persia. He was the beloved friend of Isdiger I, King of Persia (399-420). Though the King was hostile to Christianity, out of his desire to spare his friend, he lured James with gifts and flattery. The King was successful and James renounced Christ; however, the year that Isdiger died and his son Bahram V (421-438) came to power the rumor that James had become apostate reached the ears of his Christian mother and wife. They wrote him a scathing letter, declaring that if James had chosen temporal glory over the love of Christ then they wanted nothing to do with him. James was stunned and was brought to his senses. Tears of repentance poured from his eyes and he once again attached himself to Christ.

Upon hearing this news, King Bahram (who also considered James a friend), following the successful actions of his father, tried to lure the saint with gifts and flowery words. St. James, however, was better armed for the fight and refused renounce his true King. Angered, Bahram condemned St. James to a brutal death.

The Orthodox Church gives the title "Great Martyr" to those that suffered particularly nasty or prolonged deaths. St. James certainly qualifies. His body was dismembered one joint at a time. He survived having both his arms and legs cut off in this manner. Finally, he was beheaded in the year 421.

I'd like to make three observations: two historical and one RPG related. First the historical:
  • This reminds me that until the rise of Islam, Christian Rome's biggest rival was the Zoroastrian Persian Empire.
  • Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic (though dualist) religion. I won't belabor the point, but, contrary to the synchretistic and PC impulses of modern man to insist that all religions (especially monotheistic ones) all want to go to the same place, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism are radically different.
Now to the RPG stuff. The story of St. James reminds me that the concept of the Patron is often neglected (especially in fantasy RPGs). This is, in part, due to the nature of the source material where most characters in pulp fantasy were Grey Mouser and Fafhrd types who were tied to no one. When used correctly, however, Patrons can be exceptionally useful tools.

Most obviously, they are a source for adventures. They can give characters "missions" that, if not over used, can serve as "palette cleansers" for normal dungeon and wilderness exploration. Patrons can also give life to the world beyond the characters. By representing their own agenda, they imply agendas that run counter to their own goals. Without much effort, this can lend depth to an otherwise sketchy world. Finally, this background noise can become a major campaign theme/conflict should the Patron disappear/die/get replaced.

In my own campaigns, I try to take advantage of both magic users and clerics in order to insert Patrons into the game. Clerics are more natural for this — bishops make great Patrons. With magic users, they have to get their spells from somewhere. The story of St. James reminds me that there will probably be a major change in store for my players in the near future...


  1. I'm enjoying your Saints posts. I have the Golden Legend on my reading list, along with Augustine, Aquinas, Eusebius, Athanasius, and a selection of the early Fathers. (It's obviously a long-term reading list.)

  2. Scott,

    Sounds like an excellent list. I can especially recommend Athanasius. He is a personal favorite (and hero) of mine. Speaking of hagiographies, his account of the life of St. Anthony the Great is well worth the read.