Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Ephrem the Syrian

Today is the feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian. He was born in Nisibis about the year A.D. 306. In his youth he was a disciple of St. James, Bishop of Nisibis who was one of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. Around A.D. 363 he was forced to flee his home in the wake of the death of Julian the Apostate. When the pagan emperor died fighting the Persians, they were able to conquer Nisibis. St. Ephrem settled in Edessa where he flowered as a poet and a hymnographer.

At the time, a form of Gnosticism preached by Bardaisan was very popular in Edessa. Much of this popularity was due to Bardaisan’s skill with hymns, which became very fashionable. St. Ephrem set about writing a multitude of hymns with correct Christian dogma to combat the gnosticism of Bardaisan. Interestingly, they were meant to be sung by women. His writing became so popular that it was translated into Greek from the original Syriac.

Eventually he came to be known as The Harp of the Holy Spirit. His prayers and hymns influenced later hymnographers and are still used today. The most readily recognizable prayer for Orthodox Christians is the following, because it is a central prayer in our Lenten services:
O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother,
for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

There are two things that suggest themselves to me through St. Ephraim:

  1. Firstly, he wrote in Syriac. This might surprise some, but Syriac is a very important language in Christianity, particularly in the East. In fact, it is arguable that it is as, if not more, influential than Latin. I mention this, because one of the things that has emerged from my Lost Colonies campaign is the relative importance of Goblin. Besides Common, there is no other language that has had a greater impact on the campaign — something not lost on my players. Intellectually, I might be tempted to have Elvish or (to borrow from the 3e era) Celestial, Draconic or even Abyssal a centrally important language. These (at least to me) are the fantasy equivalents of Greek and Latin. The importance of Syriac in Christianity, however, suggests that we can throw a curveball in our campaign worlds where languages like Goblin can be just as, if not more, important.
  2. Secondly, St. Ephrem, being a hymnographer, brings up that old bug-a-boo the bard. Roger of Roles, Rules & Rolls has a very nice iteration of the bard as a hireling. This has me thinking. The influence of St. Ephrem was not in his singing or his performance. Rather, it was from other people learning and singing his hymns. To put it in another context, drinking songs and school fight songs do not depend upon their performance, but rather in the very strong emotions that they give those who know and participate in singing them (however badly). This suggests that mechanical effects normally associated with bards need not actually need a bard to be present. Rather, players can attempt to get their exploits popularized by song. Base price can be 50-100gp with a base chance of success derived from Charisma. Extra cash can be spent to increase the chance of success. That success represents the tune, the song and the exploit becoming popularized enough that anyone singing/reciting it will induce an emotional response. Mechanically, this can be played out as simple battle cries such as Remember the Alamo! or Spoon! When appropriate, the Referee can make something like a Morale Check for the party. If successful, the battle cry based upon the successful song can give the party a +1 to hit, AC or damage for the battle. Of course, this is entirely dependent upon the whim of the Referee — but this prevents such things from being overused or abused.

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