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About 800 years ago, the Great Spirits appeared in the world. As the embodiments of elemental mana, they are extremely powerful beings, and they were willing to help humanity in a time of great disaster. As a result, they were soon worshipped as gods. As other spirits came into existence, this practice was extended to them as well.
Although it isn't quite a religion - there's no unified sacred text or body of religious practices - almost everyone on Empyria practices some form of spirit worship, and the concepts and rites involved have heavily influenced the shape of religion in general. Even completely unrelated religions will often call their gods spirits and use practices similar to those described below.
Existence & Origins
The existence of spirits is not a question of belief - they are visible, tangible beings. However, spirits are elusive and refuse to talk about their origins, so there is a lot of speculation about the existence of specific spirits or the origin of spirits in general. These beliefs are often animistic in nature: e.g. one common belief is that all things, from animals to rocks to abstract concepts, are minor spirits of their own, and can "graduate" into full spirits with all the powers that implies if given enough devotion. There are thousands of spirits across the fullness of human belief, and it's hard to say how many of them actually exist.
Traditionally, the Great Spirits demanded specific rituals and offerings in exchange for their help. When a city needed a favour from a Great Spirit, they would send a hero into the spirit's temple. The hero must make it past a gauntlet of monsters and traps to reach the spirit, make an offering of food or other specific small objects, and ask the favour. In modern times, all four of them have relaxed these requirements significantly; Salamander in particular has completely dispensed with all these formalities, and you just have to arrange an appointment with his secretary.
The Great Spirits' traditional demands inspired the rituals for lesser spirit worship. It varies from place to place, but usually when you want something from a spirit you will state your wish and make an offering at an altar - food is the most common. Physical challenges such as fasting or tests of strength are sometimes taken for bigger favours. All of these are often incorporated into holiday celebrations as well.
Spirits aren't expected to fulfill every little wish the populace makes, but they are expected to do their primary job. For example, a guardian spirit might be demoted if their city suffers natural disasters, and no longer receive offerings or prayers. If it goes on long enough, the populace may abandon them entirely and choose a new guardian spirit.
Death and the Afterlife
When one's gods are tangible, killable beings who reside in the same world as oneself, it is difficult to believe in a full-fledged eternal afterlife. Notions of "heaven" or "hell" are rarely seen; more commonly, people believe in some system of reincarnation or eternal rest.
On the other hand, there are a variety of superstitions about ghosts, inspired by the undead-seeming monsters that appear in former battlefields. The most common belief is that human souls stay attached to the body for a short period of time after death, after which they move on; if during this period of time the corpse is badly damaged or left in unfamiliar surroundings, the soul may forget its identity and become a ghost.
These ghosts are almost invariably vengeful, becoming monsters in order to take their revenge on humanity, so living relatives take great pains to prevent it from happening to their loved ones. Bodies are buried as close to home as possible, with objects and photos of important things from their life. Some even keep vigil over the grave in person, taking shifts until the soul leaves and the danger passes.
Dying in the wilderness is greatly feared, as the soul will be stranded in the open with no anchor. Superstitious people often carry identification tags or sentimental trinkets on their person when they travel, so their soul will have something to hold onto if the worst happens.
Church of Aether
The Church of Aether is a religion founded ~300 years ago by a group of historians studying the First Age. Followers worship Aether, the shattered god, personification of mana itself. They oppose human use of magic, regarding both spellcasting and magitech as heretical.
It is not an official or majority religion in any country. However, due to the church's evangelizing efforts, its basic ideas are common knowledge across the world, and elements of them have been incorporated into the practices of other religions.
See also: history.
During early post-Cataclysm society, mana was an antagonistic force that threatened humanity's survival. It created monsters and rendered most of the land unsafe to live in. This changed with the birth of the Great Spirits, who were friendly to humans despite being made of mana, and the development of spellcasting techniques that could repel monsters. People were left in a strange position where mana was both the greatest threat they faced and the only way to hold that threat back at the same time.
The founders of the Church of Aether wanted to reconcile the contradictory nature of mana with an alternative point of view. It was initially intended to be a simple philosophy, used to guide humans through the tulmultuous world of post-Cataclysm life. However, as its ideas spread, it gradually became an organized religion.
According to the Church, the monster that nearly destroyed the world during the Cataclysm was not a monster, but rather a fifth Great Spirit: Aether, the sentience of mana itself. Aether is benevolent and righteous; however, the Telosians drew its ire by using mana like a common tool, and it caused the Cataclysm as a form of divine punishment.
After Aether was defeated by the Chosen Hero, monsters arose from its remains to remind humans of their sin; this is why monsters attack humans, but are uninterested in other animals. Some branches of the Church doubt the existence of a Chosen Hero at all, believing that Aether, finished with its work, scattered of its own volition.
Mana, as Aether's flesh and blood, has incredible holy significance. Humans' unique ability to interact with it means they are chosen, and more cosmologically important than other physical beings. Some even believe Aether keeps track of humans through the mana in their bodies, and everything they do will be judged when they enter the afterlife.
Despite being monotheistic, the Church does not reject other spirits as false gods. Since they are made of mana, all spirits are aspects of Aether, and should be respected. Followers are allowed to give offerings and pray to these lesser spirits, as long as they do not lose sight of the greater picture.
To followers of the Church, modern society's increasing reliance on magitech represents a dangerous return to Telosian hubris; if humans continue down this path, they will see a repeat of the Cataclysm. Their main goal is to prevent this by spreading their ideology and minimizing the use of magic.
Followers of the Church are forbidden to use magic for personal gain. Though, as magitech becomes an increasingly integral part of modern society, most branches have relaxed the definition of "personal gain". Some keep lists of devices that are acceptable to use, while others sell indulgences that absolve the sin of using machines in exchange for a yearly fee.
Although the Church has grown significantly since its founding days, it has been... less than successful at stopping the march of progress. Magic keeps people comfortable and safe from monsters, after all, and the Church has no suggestions for what could replace it. The past few years have seen a sharp increase in monster activity, though, and Church officials are jumping at the opportunity to finally make their governments see sense...