The Cult of Mahara is a religious tradition originating in Samma Valley and widely practiced in the Middleland. The vast majority of Middlelanders identify as Maharans, as well as an increasing percentage of Outerlanders who were exposed to the religion through both cultural exchange and brute force. This religion is deeply enmeshed in the Middlelander culture and government, helping to organize the society into a bureaucratic theocracy.
Basic Tenants of the Religion
Members of the Cult (called Maharans) exclusively worship a supreme goddess called Mahara, who according to traditional mythology, both created the world and continues to create it through an endless birthing process. They also believe that the Earth is inhabited by a collective of unclean demons (called “snakes” or “serpents”), who are the children of the Goddess’s rebellious consort (a mute swan) and can potentially infect all visible matter.
The religion has mystical origins, having splintered off a mystery cult thousands of years before the Middlelanders expanded out of their native lands. Over time, much of the more esoteric aspects of the religion were lost, and the practice fell closer to a type of idol worship as it gained popularity.
By the era of Goda’s Slave, the Maharan religion is highly organized. Their community structure includes a class of priestesses who are worshiped as lesser goddesses (especially after death), temples where meditation and prayer take place, and monasteries to house the clergy.
Generally, laypeople of the Maharan religion pray to images of the Goddess, pay tributes to priestesses, and observe a series of important religious taboos. Among many other precepts, Maharans must:
- Bathe with cold water every single day (ideally in the morning), in order to cleanse themselves of “snakes.”
- Bathe with warm water within one hour of any close physical contact with a non-Maharan or a slave. Cold water is acceptable if warm water is not available.
- Give a percentage of their harvest of yaw (or in modern times, income) every month to the priestesses.
- Never touch the skin of a priestess directly.
- Never desecrate a corpse by purposefully damaging it before it can be ceremonially incinerated.
- Never use certain words to refer to the Goddess or deny Her existence (blasphemy).
- Never worship other idols or engage in spiritual practices not sanctioned by the temple.
- Never knowingly attempt to view the naked face of the High Priestess. (Any layperson who does is no longer a Maharan.)
- Never ingest certain “unclean” plants or animals, especially Samma Flower.
- Never deliberately kill a non-Maharan (both humans and large animals) without reasonable provocation, especially if the body cannot be put to use or eaten.
- Never kill another Maharan for any reason, with the exception of self-defense against immediate mortal threat (or warfare, if the Maharan is a non-Middlelander). This includes a taboo against ritual execution. Middlelanders execute criminals by essentially forcing them to commit suicide, since no specific person can take the role of executioner without sinning.
Importantly, the last precept also applies to killing of the self. Suicide is extremely taboo in the Middleland, and so only those who have already violated a major precept (and are basically going to be punished by the Goddess for all of eternity anyway) are compelled to execute themselves.
The only Maharan who is allowed to break the taboo against deliberate killing is the High Priestess, who can execute (on the spot) any layperson who views her face. Technically speaking, this is allowed because a layperson who knowingly views the face of the High Priestess and uncovers her identity is no longer considered a Maharan. It is the only sin which results in total excommunication. Even murderers are considered Maharans until they die, as long as they have not looked under the veil of the High Priestess.
If a Maharan breaks any of the common precepts, the consequences vary, from being temporarily too “unclean” to receive blessings from the clergy (such as when one fails to bathe for a day) to being permanently barred from entering a temple ever again (such as when one commits murder).
Priestesses themselves follow similar rules as laypeople in addition to hundreds of other, more restrictive ones. For instance, priestesses cannot have physical skin-to-skin contact with any person who is not also a priestess. Priestesses must bathe twice per day, can never touch intoxicants, and cannot engage in certain types of work, such as the killing and butchering of animals or the uprooting of whole plants. (This means they cannot harvest yaw root and rely on a temple horticulturalist to provide most of their food.)
In practice, priestesses also can never have children, though curiously there is no specific prohibition against childbirth or parenthood, nor even against sexual activity itself. Rather, it’s simply a consequence of being unable to touch laypeople. While, in theory, a priestess can engage in sex with herself or another priestess (as long as she follows the standard rules of cleanliness), men cannot become priestesses, so a priestess would have no occasion to become pregnant.
Generally, though, priestesses unofficially avoid pleasure-seeking behavior because it is viewed as disruptive to their meditation practice, so most priestesses are altogether celibate.
Though religious freedom is officially guaranteed by the central Middleland government, more than 98% of Middlelanders identify as Maharans. It is also the state religion. Many laws and social conventions are founded in religious rules, and foreigners living in the Middleland are expected to adhere to the traditional Maharan customs, even if they do not fully convert to the religion.
Since religious taboos protect Maharans from the violence of other Maharans–but don’t protect non-Maharans quite as thoroughly–foreigners living in the Middleland who have not converted to The Cult are particularly vulnerable. Because of this, most immigrants convert shortly after arriving, even though it is not legally required of them unless they are seeking citizenship.
The Maharan religion is deeply connected to the government. All high-ranking bureaucrats, government workers, and political figures in the Middleland publicly identify as Maharans, and those who are secretly atheist hide this fact.
Many government processes cannot function without the reviewing and approval of priestesses. For example, all marriage certificates, death certificates, immigration papers, and schooling certifications must be signed or stamped by a Maharan priestess.
The supreme leader of the Middleland is herself a priestess, known as The Mother or High Priestess. To ensure her anonymity and protect against assassination by enemies to the Middleland, she hides her face under a veil during official public duties and disguises herself as a mundane priestess (with a mundane job) when not on duty. Only the High Minister (a bureaucrat who is considered second-in-command) and a handful of priestesses know her personal identity.
How One Becomes a Maharan
A person–even a Middlelander–cannot be born a Maharan. Rather, all members of the religion must convert after the age of 12. Prior to this, children who are raised in Maharan households are granted a special status as Daughters of Mahara (including male children). Most rules associated with an adult adherent apply to them, but they lose this status (and automatically become non-Maharan) upon turning age 12 if they do not go through the conversion ritual.
In other words, they must opt in at this point. Because there can be a gap between a person’s 12th birthday and when they perform the official ritual, it is a vulnerable time in a young person’s life. Being temporarily not Maharan means that another Maharan could theoretically commit violence against that person and not face heavy spiritual consequences (though they could face legal ones), especially if the person is over the Middlelander age of majority (19).
The conversion ritual is an un-elaborate affair and does not differ whether the person is a Middlelander or a foreigner: A priestess steeps a young yaw root in cold water, then blesses it with the specific intention to use it to convert the next person who bathes in it. Afterwards, either the priestess or a temple assistant splashes this water onto the prospective convert. Traditionally, the converted person will be witnessed by her mothers and have a celebration following the ritual where she is gifted religious paraphernalia, though this is not required.
Most Middlelanders convert on their 12th birthday, but not all. A small percentage follow a different religion and some simply refuse the ritual for other reasons. Goda Brahm, for instance, refused the ritual until the age of 16, when she was converted for her own protection. Prior to this, Goda had been a nonbeliever since late childhood.