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Basic Information

A cult specifically is a discreete body of religious practice within a more general religion - the word derives from the latin cultus meaning "care" or "tending"1 and encompasses a complete body of ritual, practice and possibly teaching or scripture. A cult is not necessarily an innovation or heresy within its parent religion as many of the most cultic religions have no orthodoxy for them to deviate from - wherever a given deity is worshipped there will be a local cult of veneration. This was normal practice in the ancient world - and remains normal in some religions to this day - see, for example, the entry on Zeus for the list of cults related to various aspects of this deity. Even where an orthodoxy is present, local cults may exist within it - for example, within the Church of Rome it is entirely normal to have local cults for specific saints, with their own traditions and celebrations additional to those of the greater church.

Any cult which restricts the knowledge of its practices to members only - such as Mithraism or the Eleusian Mysteries is known as a mystery cult.

In modern times, especially amongst religions with a central orthodoxy, the word cult has taken on implications of heresy and unacceptable religions practice and become increasingly pejorative. In general discourse "cult" will now refer to a mystery cult and, given modern sensibilities, will be expected to be up to something sinister by virtue of their desire for secrecy … like many cliches, this one often turns out to be true, but sometimes isn't.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • PCs may be offered initiation into a prestigious mystery cult as a reward - in the ancient world these were almost as much fraternal societies as they were religious ones. All sorts of benefits may accrue.
    • For example, look at the role played by Mithraism in Bernard Cornwell's Arthur cycle.
  • They may be required to join a cult for some purposes - such as entry to a sacred precinct or to consult an oracle. This may or may not conflict with their existing religion.
  • A mystery cult may very well be up to no good - or be a good false lead.
  • In a polytheistic campaign, local cult may just be local colour.
    • The RuneQuest setting Glorantha deals extensively in primitive religions and most characters should expect to become members of a cult if they have any social links at all…
  • Where PCs are charged with investigative work - say as Inquisitors of the Roman Church - the details of a local cult may be all important: what is harmless local accretion and what constitutes a heretical deviation from canon? From where does the heresy arise - simple ignorance? The remains of pagan superstition or something darker? Telling an innocent mistake from, say, an infestation of Shan, is an important skill and - historical cliches aside - an inquisitor who burns anything that moves probably won't prosper.
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