Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saintly Saturday: St. Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland

Unlike so many other of the feast days that I have written about, today is a feast that is not only widely recognized outside of the Orthodox Church, but might be seen as anything but an Orthodox feast — St. Patrick’s Day. Also known as the Enlightener of Ireland, Patrick was born about the year A.D. 385 in Roman Britain, in a village called Bannavem Taberiae (possibly at the mouth of the Servern River in Wales). His was a Christian family (his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon). At the age of sixteen he was captured by marauders and sold into slavery in Ireland.

During the next six years, he not only learned the Irish language but learned to take great solace in prayer — something he would come to do up to a hundred times a day as he wandered the mountains as a swineherd. Subsequently, he had two visions: one telling him he would go home, the other telling him that his ship was ready. Therefore, he escaped, walked some two hundred miles to the coast, where he boarded a ship and was returned to his family.

His experience had stoked a fire within, however, and he was soon off to Auxerre in Gaul to study to be a priest under the tutelage of St. Germanus. Eventually, he was ordained and sent to Ireland around A.D. 432 to continue the work of missionaries that went ahead of him. Due to his familiarity of the culture and language, he was very successful (thus the monicker Enlightener of Ireland). Eventually (around A.D. 444), he established a see in Armargh. He died on March 17, 461 (or 492 depending on the source).

One of my favorite stories of St. Patrick is his use of the shamrock leaf, something he is often depicted as holding. He used it to help explain the doctrine of the Trinity — three persons (represented by the leafs) in one essence (represented by the stem). Modern English speakers might be tempted to say that the shamrock is a symbol or symbolic — it is a substitute or metaphor for the Trinity.

Interestingly, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, this is an incorrect understanding of the word symbol. It comes from the Greek συμβάλλω, which means gather/meet/join together or more literally to throw together. From a religious perspective, the two things joined or thrown together are the mundane and the divine. In this sense, the Body and Blood is a symbol — from the Orthodox understanding it is both the mundane (bread and wine) as well as the divine (the presence of Christ Himself).

This is a hugely useful understanding for anyone running an FRPG. When seen in a symbolic way, magic items take on a whole new life. As symbols, they bring together the mundane with either the arcane or the divine. For example:

  • A Cloak of Protection allows for a guardian angel to physically manifest protective wings around the wearer.
  • A Ring of Invisibility has an Invisible Stalker bound to the ring.
  • A Helm of Telepathy has some kind of psionic creature bound to it.

Not only does this allow magic items to become magical again, but also a tad bit dangerous. There is a passive alignment associated with an item, depending on how the magic manifests:

  • Would a Cloak of Protection work for someone who is actively working against God and His Church? 
  • What happens to a character who subjects themselves to either the Ring of Invisibility or Helm of Telepathy for long periods of time? 
  • Can the bound creatures ever escape and how much can they affect their bearers to provide them the means to escape? 
  • If the Helm of Telepathy has a vile or cunning psionic creature bound to it (such as a Brain Lasher), is the information gathered by the Helm 100% accurate?

Suddenly, every single magic item can have a backstory that can be explored and have an impact on the campaign as a whole. I will grant that this is not necessary for every magical item to work this way, but even the presence of just one or two can shape an entire campaign.


Necropraxis said...

I've really liked this approach ever since I read your session report about the elf maid in the sword and I've been trying to apply it to my game, though there have not been all that many magic items found so far.

Devin Parker said...

That is a fascinating idea about magic items. I really want to give that a try in one of my games.

Additionally, I've always appreciated St. Patrick's use of the shamrock as an illustration of the Trinity, as well. A simple way to provide illumination regarding a rather complex concept.

Anthony said...

So, in this instance, "symbol" becomes "synthesis?" Very interesting. In both my AD&D and WFRP games, I had decided that clerical magical items, mostly weapons, were actually the bound soul of an ardent exemplar of the cult --a "saint"-- who had chosen to continue serving in this world, rather than proceeding to the afterlife. It made even minor items memorable in the game.

AndreasDavour said...

That is the way magic items works in Stormbringer, something I always found quite intriguing.