Divisions of faith in the worship of Jad had led to burnings and torture and war almost from the beginning. The doctrine and liturgy of the sun god, emerging from the promiscuous gods and goddesses of Trakesia during the early years of the Empire of Rhodias, had not evolved without their share of schisms and heresies and the frequently savage responses to these. The god was in the sun, or he was behind the sun. The world had been born in light, or it had been released from ice and darkness by holy light. At one time the god was thought to die in winter and be reborn in the spring, but the gentle cleric who had expounded this had been ordered torn apart between calvary horses by a High Patriarch in Rhodias. For a brief time, elsewhere, it had been taught that the two moons were Jad’s offspring– a belief more than halfway to the doctrines of the Kindath, who named them sisters of the god and equal to him in disturbing ways. This unfortunate fallacy, too, had required a number of deaths to extirpate.
The varying forms of belief in Heladikos— as mortal son, as half-mortal child, as god— were only the most obdurate and enduring of these conflicts waged in the holy name of Jad. Emperors and Patriarchs, first in Rhodias and then Sarantium, wavered and grew firm and then reversed their positions and tolerance, and Heladikos the Charioteer moved in and out of acceptance and fashion, much as the sun moved in and out of cloud on a windy day.
In the same way, amongst all these bitter wars, fought with words and iron and flame, the rendered image of Jad himself had become a line of demarcation over the years, a battlefield of art and belief, of ways of imagining the god who sent life-bringing light and battled darkness every night beneath his world while men slept their precarious sleep.
One of the things that sets Guy Gavriel Kay apart from most fantasy authors that I’ve read is that in his novels religion isn’t just a colorful backdrop. Kay writes about religion like there is something at stake for the people who believe and for the whole society. It’s a mature viewpoint, where so much fantasy seems to view religion as a silly game or a cynical tool for manipulation. Religion in Kay’s fantasies operates like religion does in the real world; it is often sophisticated and nuanced, and not all practitioners of a given religion approach it in the same way. There are different sects and various orthodoxies and heresies and the individual believers can be more and less observant, more and less pious. Religion and politics are often entangled in complicated ways— the clerics often get caught up in politics and the ruling classes often have deep-seated religious beliefs. This was true in The Fionavar Tapestry and in Tigana— whose religious worlds I hope someday to write about at length— but Kay’s religious world building reaches its height in the world of The Lions of al-Rassan, Sarantine Mosaic, and The Last Light of the Sun.
The two elements that I find most appealing about Kay’s serious religions in The Sarantine Mosaic are, first, the way faith is incorporated in the daily life of the characters and, second, the depiction of characters undergoing a crisis of faith. It’s not just that characters debate theology in the same way they debate the merits of their favorite charioteers or dancers, it’s that they live out their faith not only at major plot points, but in ways that seem incidental to the main story: they stop and pray, they participate in the sunrise liturgy that happens every day.
In this fantasy universe— whose unity across the novels is marked both by the presence of two moons, a blue and a white, and by the continuity of the primary religious faiths— there are a multiplicity of religions, as many as there are in our world, which it parallels. Most of all, there are analogs of the three great monotheistic religions. And yet in Kay’s world these three big faiths are not just renamed versions of those monotheistic faiths, but are each a wholly new thing which borrow elements from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but are in other ways dramatic departures. In fact, with the possible exception of the Jaddites, they aren’t monotheistic at all.
The Jaddites, whose culture, history and theology parallels those of Christianity, worship Jad the charioteer, the god of the sun (and sometimes worship his son, Heladikos who stole light and brought it to men). The Kindath, whose history and culture parallel that of the Jews, worship the two moons as sisters of the sun. The Asharites, whose history and culture parallel that of the Muslims, worship the stars. But in this novel, whose setting is unmistakably meant to parallel that of Byzantium at the time Justinian and Theodora, Kay focuses primarily on the faith, culture, and history of the Jaddites (though he also touches on that of the pagan tribes who surround them and we also see smatterings of the faiths of other cultures.) If Sarantium is meant to be an almost-Byzantium, then the worshippers of Jad are almost-Christians.
Jaddism is hard to pin down because there seem to be so many different versions of it, and that’s one of the things I like about Kay’s novel. His religion is complex enough to have heresies and theological disputes. What Kay has created in the Jaddite faith is a fascinating amalgam of Christian and pagan. Jad is the god of the sun. Like the Greek Helios, he drives the chariot of the sun across the sky each day. But unlike Helios, Jad is also a creator God, like the Christian God. And there is the interesting wrinkle that Jad evidently fights with the powers of darkness as he travels under the earth to get back to his starting point in the east. And yet Jad is unlike the Christian God, because he does not seem to be omnipotent or transcendent. (Though Leontes’ conception of Jad does seem to be reaching toward that idea of transcendence. He says, “Jad is ineffable and mysterious, entirely beyond our grasp. For a mortal man to dare picture the god behind the sun is a heresy.”) But in all understandings Jad does somewhat parallel the Christian idea of a father-like God and of an incarnate God who struggles and suffers for the sake of his children. Moreover, when you considered the sometimes heretical belief in Jad’s son, Heladikos, you see more parallels with a Christian worldview: a son who brings light to mankind, and who dies in the attempt to save them.
Also, what is notable is that the practices and language which surround the Jaddite faith are distinctively Christian. They worship in chapels not temples. They light candles to the Blessed Victims, a parallel to martyrs? The sun disks seem to parallel the use of crosses and crucifixes, the sign of the sun disk is like the sign of the cross. They don’t sacrifice animals. They build domes and put mosaics of the god in them. They fight over heresies and have patriarchs. The culture of Jaddism is like the culture of Christianity even if the theology is very different and they worship every day instead of having one holy day a week.
Heladikos combines elements from the Greek stories of Prometheus, who steals fire from the Gods, Icarus who flies too close to the sun and crashes into the sea, and Helios, the god of the sun who in later days was identified with Apollo in a syncretistic way, or maybe with Helios’ son Phaeton. Perhaps Helios is Jad and Heliadikos is Phaethon? Of course his sonship also echoes that of Jesus the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who also died bringing a great gift to mankind. Interestingly, though the worship of Heladikos is officially heretical, condemned both by the emperor in Sarantium and by the patriarchs of Rhodias and Sarantium, many of the main characters are his devotees. Vargos the Incii, the Batiarians, Scortius the charioteer, the Empress Alixana, who is obsessed with dolphins, an animal associated with Heladikos (and therefore art depicting them is forbidden). Most of all Crispin himself is working on a mosaic of Heladikos when we first meet him and includes a reference to Heladikos in the mosaic on the dome of the sanctuary in Sarantium, a blazing sunset whose rays suggest a torch, an emptiness that seems unbalanced, demanding a figure to match that of Jad on the opposite side of the dome.
And then there are the pagan faiths. In the Sarantine Mosaic the Inicii, who live in the northern woods, worship Ludan, the god of the oak grove, who has a physical manifestation in the form of a giant bison, the zubir. Ludan’s worship involves human sacrifice at the autumnal equinox and Crispin becomes acquainted with it when he meets Kasia, the slave girl at the inn, who when she first meets him tells him she is going to be killed the next day. Crispin’s understanding of the world is shaken by this encounter with this numinous being who accepts sacrifices offered to Ludan. If Jad is a sky god then Ludan is an earth god. The zubir is fleshy, hairy, smelly, covered in crawling vermin. And yet it is at the same time otherworldly. And that presence demands to be acknowledged. Crispin and the others must find a room for it in their understanding of the universe. And this encounter is the turning point, the climax, of the first half of Sailing to Sarantium.
Crispin, and the two Inicii, Kasia and Vargos encounter the zubir, while fleeing from the inn, trying to save Kasia from being killed. Seeing it they realize they cannot escape this deity who demands sacrifice. Yet the zubir does not kill Kasia. Instead, it claims another victim on the road and then seems to demand the return of Linon, the artificial bird that Crispin carries that is animated by the soul of a previous human sacrifice that the alchemist Zoticus stole from the oak grove years earlier. For all three of the travelers fleeing the inn this encounter becomes a defining moment. It shakes their faith in Jad.
“We saw Ludan, or his shadow, today…. How do we worship Jad and his son after this?” Vargos asks.
“We worship them as the powers that speak to our souls, if it seems they do.” He surprised himself. “We do so knowing there is more to the world, and the half-world, and perhaps worlds beyond, than we can grasp. We always knew that. We can’t even stop children from dying, how would we presume to understand the truth of things? Behind things? Does the presence of one power deny another?”
Crispin’s faith, such as it is, is not predicated on certain knowledge about the gods, but on the fact that Jad speaks to his soul. He is a mosaicist, he sees himself as a worker in light. Light, he later tells the emperor Valerius, is his true medium, glass and domes are merely the tools he uses to shape light. And Jad, the god of the Sun is the god of light. He doesn’t give Crispin the answers he desires, but an opportunity to meld art and worship into one glorious whole. It is Crisipin’s grand mosaic on the dome in Sarantium that helps him reconcile the known and the unknown, the loved and the feared, the past and the present, the east and the west, Rhodias and Sarantium. What Crispin creates is a vision of order and completeness, of the bounty of creation and the goodness of the light. How could he even serve Ludan with his art, who is worshipped in the oak grove with primitive rites of sacrifice? No, clearly Jad is the god for Crispin, even if he is bitter and angry about the deaths of his family. Yet though he does not worship Ludan, yet he is compelled to grapple with his power and the zubir has an unusually prominent place in Crispin’s mosaic in the great sanctuary in Sarantium.
If Crispin’s faith in Jad seems partly habitual, partly pragmatic, and sometimes quite ambivalent, Vargos, his hired servant, on the other hand, is unquestionably devout.
Vargos’ conversion to the sun god’s faith— along with a contentious belief in the holiness of Heladikos, the god’s mortal son— had been a real one, as it happened. He prayed each dawn and sunset, lit candles at chapels for the Blessed Victims, fasted on the days that called for fasts.
And yet Vargos is perhaps the most shaken by the encounter with the zubir:
His ideas of faith and power crumbled in that cold muddy field.
He had adopted the teachings of the sun god, had worshipped and invoked Jad and Heladikos his son almost from the time he had first come south, forsaking the gods of his tribe and the blood-soaked rituals as he had forsaken his home.
And perhaps it is because he had turned his back on Ludan, who he grew up worshipping, that his faith in Jad is so shaken. Is Ludan calling him back? Is the zubir a reproach from the god for his defection? How can Vargos worship Jad, whom he has never seen, when he has had a face to face encounter with the zubir of Ludan in the holy wood on the Day of the Dead?
The faith of the slave girl, Kasia, is harder to pin down. It doesn’t seem very well developed, being defined more by what it isn’t than what it is. She’s a true worshipper of neither Jad nor Ludan.
She couldn’t pray. Certainly not to Jad, though she’d been brusquely converted with the others in a roadside chapel at the orders of the Karchite slaver who’d bought them and taken them south. And prayers to Ludan of the Wood were hopelessly beside the point, given what was to happen soon.
She wished she could pray, but she hadn’t been raised believing in Jad of the Sun, and none of his invocations came easily to her. On the other hand, how did the sacrifice pray to the god to whom she was being offered? What could she ask of Ludan?
Brusquely converted. Was there anything about her conversion for faith to take root in? A slave girl forced into it by the dealer who has purchased her? It doesn’t seem Kasia ever really believed in Jad. She had no true free choice. Her experience is a contrast to Vargos, who was not a slave. She’s as out of place in the spiritual world as she is in the physical world, unable to go home and yet not really fitting in to Sarantine society. Crispin has his work, he has been summoned. Vargos attaches himself to Crispin. But Crispin doesn’t have a place in his life for Kasia. He’s still grieving his lost family and, frankly, Kasia is not his match. So Kasia seems to be homeless in And it is almost as if in refusing to accept her as a sacrifice the zubir had cut her free from any obligation to Ludan.
The question of Kasia’s faith arises again in Lord of Emperors, but it seems Kasia simply is limited by having been a slave. Will she ever be truly free to worship? Perhaps in time her marriage to the soldier Carrullus will give her roots? Kasia seems to have no choice but to be a pragmatic survivor, clinging to whatever she can find to grasp hold of.
And now back to our protagonist, Crispin, again. In this universe a modern agnosticism about spiritual matters hardly seems possible. The spiritual world is intrusive and while it can be ignored like the mysterious flames that appear on the streets of Sarantium, it doesn’t seem like anyone can truly believe that there is nothing out there. There are no Dana Scullys in this world.
He knew— everyone knew— that Jad’s mortal children lived in a world that they shared, dangerously, with spirits and daemons that might be indifferent to them, or malevolent, or sometimes even benign, but he had never been one of those who let his every waking moment be suffused with that awareness. He spoke his prayers at dawn, and at sunset when he remembered, though he seldom bothered to attend at a sanctuary. He lit candles on the holy days when he was near a chapel. He paid all due respect to clerics— when the respect was deserved. He believed, some of the time, that when he died his soul would be judged by Jad of the Sun and his fate in the afterlife would be determined by that judgement.
The rest of the time, of late, very privately, he remembered the unholy ugliness of the two plague summers and was deeply, even angrily, unsure of such spiritual things.
A though, sort of an aside: in Lord of Emperors we see an example of a man who does let his every waking moment be suffused with that awareness: Rustem the Bassanid physician for whom every action, even which foot he steps with into a room, has amazing significance. Rustem doesn’t appear to be an overly scrupulous person; it’s more that he’s a very conscientious a physician and that his training included paying attention to spiritual as well as physical factors in pursuing treatment of patients. He is a man of faith and his faith informs his work and his life completely.
Another thought: Crispin had already had a crisis of faith when his wife and daughters died. His grief caused him to be angry and to have profound doubts. So when he meets the zubir in a way it’s a correction, putting him back on track– to a deeper faith and trust in Jad? Does he become more devout? Where is Crisipin’s spiritual life at the end of the novel? We don’t have many clues.
But back to the encounter with the zubir. Crispin’s immediate reaction is to turn back to what he knows, and he finds his worship of Jad to be comfortable.
There would be comfort in the well-worn rituals, he realized. A returning to the customary, where people lived out their lives. Where they had to live their lives. The day, he thought, had done all it could do, the world had revealed all it would just now.
Faith in Jad for Crispin seems comforting and familiar, a part of daily life. Well-worn rituals are a far cry from the encounter with the numinous zubir. But of course, things don’t always turn out as planned. What Crispin finds in the roadside chapel is far from comforting. And the revelations of the day are far from over. And what happens next is one of my favorite moments in the novel:
Men, when they think this way, that the crisis, the moment of revealed power, has passed— are as vulnerable as they will ever be. Good leaders of armies at war know this. Any skilled actor or writer for the stage knows it. So do clerics, priests, perhaps cheiromancers. When people have been very deeply shaken in certain ways they are, in fact, wide open to the next bright falling from the air. It is not the moment of birth— the bursting through a shell into the world— that imprints the newborn gosling, but the next thing, the sighting that comes after and marks the soul.
Crispin’s encounter with the zubir leaves him open to an encounter with Jad. Tellingly, this encounter is mediated by art, it’s an experience of being blown away by a work of religious art, and especially by the art that is Crispin’s own: mosaic. While the cleric Crispin talks to seems familiar with artists having a strong reaction to the mosaic, the narrative asserts that Crispin’s experience is also a direct result of his meeting with the zubir. Crispin’s soul has been marked. But has it been marked only as an artist— inspiring what work it is he will do on the dome of the sanctuary in Sarantium— or is it a more profound marking? Is this a religious epiphany or an artistic one? Or is there a difference? Is faith mediated by art for the artist? Does it matter?
I have some further thoughts about Crispin and art and what it reveals, but those I’ll save for another post. For now, one final thought:
‘The numinous,’ the philosopher Archilochus of Arethae had written nine hundred years ago, ‘is not to be directly apprehended. Indeed, if the gods wish to destroy a man they need only show themselves to him.’
Crispin struggled to barricade his soul behind ancient learning, a desperately conjured image of a marble portico in sunlight, a white-clad, white-bearded teacher serenely illuminating the world for attentive disciples in the most celebrated of the city-states of Trakesia.
He failed. Terror consumed him, asserting mastery, dominance as he followed the girl and the stupefying creature that was… more than he could grasp. A god? The showing forth of one? The numinous? Upwind of them now, it stank. Things crawled and oozed through the thick, matted fur that hung from its chin, neck, shoulders, even the knees and breast.
Philosophy isn’t much consolation when faced with an actual deity manifesting in front of you. With the stink and physicality of it that cannot be denied. It must be grappled with. The mind seeks to make it a part of the pattern, the narrative. And since Crispin is a mosaicist, his way of dealing it to make the zubir a part of his mosaic. Not just by including it in his design, but by doing so in such a way as to make it stand out, different, in a way that makes the viewer, too, have to grapple with the question of what it means in the context of a Jaddite understanding of creation.