Electronic Arts and BioWare won many game of the year awards for their latest installment of the Dragon Age (DA) series: Dragon Age: Inquisition. The video game, released in mid-November of 2014, was a smashing hit among role-playing game fans and DA series fans alike. BioWare, with its emphasis on deeply developed stories and characters, both subtly and outright challenged conventions inside and outside of the video game world. In addition, they created a realistic dialogue that discussed parallel truths of real world beliefs and issues to do with religion.
The first thing to understand is the differences in religion within Thedas.
Many of the religions, one may argue, are similar to real world religious institutions and beliefs.
For example, the elves of Thedas are polytheists — similar to the believers of Celtic deities and Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. They believe in a pantheon of gods and goddesses and refer to them as “the Creators.” Like the Celtic, Roman, and Greek polytheists, elven worshippers are subject to the wiles and whims of their deities. The elves also have a respectful and fearful connection with nature that is almost sacred. Familiar folklore, such as tales about werewolves and enchanted mirrors, also makes appearances among the elven storylines in the DA series. True to some polytheistic religions, oral stories and warnings are used to indoctrinate the next generation of elves.
Due to the silence of the pantheon in recent Thedas history, the elves have been frantically struggling to preserve their lore. There is division among the clans, however, leading to different versions of the same stories. Clashes with other religious and cultural groups of Thedas — such as human Chantry followers — have brought even more division and confusion, leading to mixed feelings and muddled accounts of the past. This has caused a significant number of elves, like the Greek and Roman polytheists, to reject their belief in the pantheon and sometimes convert to other religions entirely.
The main monotheistic religion of Thedas, the Andrastian Chantry, naturally clashes with elven religious views. Chantry followers — predominantly human — believe in one god, called the Maker, whom they worship and convince others to worship. This is similar to other monotheistic religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. While there are quite obvious differences, the Chantry’s complex structure and politics are notably similar to modern monotheistic religions.
The Chantry is arguably most similar to Catholicism in structure. Like the church believes in God as the creator of the world, the Chantry believes the Maker created Thedas and all of its different lifeforms. Unlike the Christian God, however, the Maker is much colder and unforgiving toward its creation. Unfortunately for Chantry followers, a few Tevinter magisters had the audacity to challenge the authority of the Maker. This “original sin,” similar to that of Adam and Eve in the Bible, caused everyone to be cut off from the Maker. It was through the intervention of Andraste — the prophet, the heroine, and eventually the bride of the Maker — that Thedas dwellers had a chance to reconnect.
Andraste was a heroine of ancient times who possessed many similarities and differences to Catholic saints and a Christ-like figure. She gained the favor of the Maker with her voice, which is why the people of the Chantry sing in worship. The Maker empowered her, and she devotedly began Exalted Marches (somewhat similar to the Christian Crusades) against Tevinter. In the end, she was captured by Tevinter and burned at the stake (like Joan of Arc). Her ashes have cleansing powers that can cure illness, which is distantly similar to the healing powers of Jesus.
Although the Andrastian Chantry is the most powerful organized religion of Thedas, it is not without problems. Similar to the Great Commission in the book of Matthew, Chantry followers must spread the news of the Maker to the four corners of Thedas. Like real-world Christian missionaries, the messenger is not often a welcome newcomer. Many missionaries are met with verbal and sometimes physical hostility. This issue is complicated by the Chantry’s own aggressive history of continued Exalted Marches against Tevinter and the elves. Political pollution of the clergy also led to power struggles in many forms, including the acceptance of elven slavery and subjugation for a time — somewhat parallel to African slaves in North and Central America.
Tevinter, despite being an enemy of Andraste, has its own division of the Chantry. In the Tevinter Imperium, mages are glorified, not feared. Thus, the Imperium claims that Andraste was a powerful mage — heresy by the mage-fearing Andrastian Chantry. While mages are subjugated to severe policing and punishments by the Andrastian Chantry templars, Imperial Chantry mages often hold powerful clergy positions.
The Tevinter religion is further complicated by the fact that it was Tevinter magisters who entered the Fade (or the realm of the Maker, spirits, and demons) and committed the original mistake of trying to usurp the Maker. These ancient Tevinter mages worshipped the old gods, or dragons. Many of the symbols and practices allude to theistic Satanism and modern witchcraft (magic rituals, winged serpents, defiance of God). As punishment for this, the Maker converted the bodies of the magisters into hideous monsters and set them loose in Thedas. Thus began what is known as the First Blight. Like real-world evil, only through great toil and loss may the Blight be temporarily overcome.
Another group of people opposed to the Tevinter Imperium are the qunari: invading giants from the tropical north who believe in a more philosophical religion. In some ways parallel to Confucianism, the qunari live and believe in their social ethics, known as the Qun — which doubles as a societal structure. The ideas, described by the philosopher Ashkaari Koslun, are not the same as Confucianist beliefs, however. The Qun focuses primarily on what each qunari was predestined to do and therefore does not tolerate deviance or questioning of authority. Those who reject the Qun are shunned by the qunari, similar to excommunication from the Catholic church or shunning by the Amish, but harsher. The qunari value strength and power, order and devotedness. They are also conquerors and sometimes seek to forcibly convert new followers to their beliefs.
The qunari clash with the Tevinter Imperium mainly because of magic. The giants of the north are wary of magic users and believe in its strict control. They enslave any qunari with magical ability and often show little mercy to mages of other races. While this is more of a cultural clash, there are religious undertones. The qunari’s way of life doubles as their religion, so magic is not tolerated within their religious beliefs. Because the Imperial Chantry upholds Andraste as a powerful mage, it makes them the natural enemies of the qunari.
Wary of all religions are most dwarves, who are followers of “The Stone” and may be compared to atheists (although others argue deists). Dwarves cannot dream, so they are disconnected from the Fade and the Maker. Most are skeptical of other religions. Refusing to believe in gods of any kind, most dwarves instead believe in their own individual power and that of the earth. The greatest contributors to society are elevated to the status of a Paragon (think of a hall of fame for short, stocky, incredibly talented engineers). Paragons have nearly legendary status among the people and are revered like many Americans idolize pop culture icons. Ingenuity, competitiveness, and strength are also valued by the dwarves.
The religions of Thedas are so similar to real-world religions that the characters within Thedas deal with issues that echo real-life dilemmas. Hypocrisy, doubt, abuse of power, superiority complexes, and division are all problems within the game that often directly or indirectly affect the main character. The thing that the DA series teaches us about religion, however, is that it is a complicated matter, neither wholly good nor wholly bad. There are many non-player characters of all beliefs that exhibit integrity, faith, courteous and careful management of power, attempts at equality, and attempts at unification. Further, acknowledging and understanding the religions of Thedas (and the real world) help the main character (and you) better understand culture, history, government, and different organizational groups.
Merrill from Dragon Age II acts as a good example of how religion influences Thedas elves: