Initiatory Societies and Character Class

Lately I’ve been reading Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict, a sort of popular introduction to anthropology. The chapter on the Zuni, one of the three cultures covered, includes an interesting discussion of three superimposed forms of ceremonial practice: the priesthoods, the cult of the masked gods (or kachinas), and the medicine societies.

These three cults serve different purposes. The priesthoods, most distant and sacred of the three, are primarily concerned with communal issues — rain, and the rule of the community.

The cult of the masked gods is more personal; its rites are dances where the kachinas are incarnated by their worshippers. Initiation into one of the kivas of the cult of the masked gods creates a bond with the supernatural which strengthens and fortifies the initiate, but confers no esoteric knowledge. The initiation rites which take place at puberty are complete, and all men (and a few women) participate.

The medicine societies are also personal in nature; their tutelaries are the beast gods, and the societies’ members impersonate their patrons just as the masked-god kivas impersonate the kachinas. The societies, however, possess secret mysteries, into which their members are initiated over the course of their lives. Most interestingly, initiation into a medicine society serves to resolve some major life event. Someone who is healed from a major illness by one of the medicine societies is then obliged to join that society. There is a war society which anyone who kills must join.

As with any social science from the 30s, I take all this with a grain of salt. However, I thought Benedict’s account of the medicine societies provided an interesting rationale for d20 character classes. It can explain the clear distinctions between classes; the accumulation of powers and abilities over time; and even the distinction between PC and NPC classes. In such a world, the town guards who’ve been on the job for years and pummeled many a wrongdoer into submission have warrior levels; only once they kill and join the society of fighters to cleanse the blood from their hands can they take fighter levels. Adepts serve in the universal cults of the priesthoods and the masked gods, while clerics serve the gods of the societies.

It also compels the player to provide some sort of character hook for how they joined their society. Did a cleric join their god’s cult after a plague? Severe injury? Possession? Who did a fighter kill to necessitate his initiation? Benedict also mentions hunting and clowning societies, which seem like clear analogues of the ranger and bard classes; I’m not sure what drives initiation into those societies, though.

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