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This is probably the first question I’ve asked so sorry if I get anything wrong this time.

In this world, there is a goddess, and she is very, very real. She’s functionally omniscient: whenever a problem, even a highly complex one, is brought to her attention, she can figure out the answer in a matter of minutes if not seconds. She also has the capacity to create gateways between habitable worlds to allow people to explore new lands as well as standard god stuff, i.e. the ability to smite people at a distance, the ability to make seas spontaneously safe or dangerous for ships to travel, etc. Using her abilities puts a lot of mental strain on her, so she can’t use them very frequently (usually less than three times a day), but she’s the only person in the world who actually has god powers.

She also can’t directly communicate with people who aren’t her “priests”, people who undergo rigorous training to be able to hear her voice in their heads as a whisper, and she can’t directly observe the world. She can effect godlike miracles and magic on anyone or anything, but she’s only able to speak or see or hear through her priests. The priest’s connection is also two-way: the priests can hear the goddess and the goddess can hear the priests. This telepathy isn’t constant and requires both parties to actively participate; both the goddess and the priest must be willing to allow the connection to happen in order for it to work.

Her priests themselves also get the bonus that they get special prayer priority: by praying to their goddess for something to happen, they can (almost) always get that thing to happen fairly immediately. Sort of a repayment for being the goddess’s voice; transactionally, the priests relay the goddess’s word to the world and relay the world’s happenings to the goddess, and in exchange, the goddess effects the priests’ will on the world. The result is that the priests effectively have the power of the goddess behind them: try and stab them and they quickly spit “my Goddess protects” and all of a sudden your knife is butter and your heart stops.

At this point in time, a good chunk of the world is ruled by the goddess’s empire, of which she is the Holy Empress. Unable to directly communicate with her empire, she chose the priests to act as liaisons between her and her own empire; other than the goddess herself, the priests hold the highest positions of authority as “one step away” from the goddess. In the absence of communication from the goddess, the priests become the de facto rulers of the Empire, their word effectively law, but are always superseded by anything the goddess says. After all, the priests’ god power is a privilege, not a right: if the goddess learns of a priest’s defiance of their Holy Empress, they lose their priesthood status and are subsequently smote.

The priests themselves serve for life (it’s the highest honor in the land, so everyone’s always eager to accept a life sentence of being a goddess’s puppet half the time), and are selected from the population based on who attracts the most of the goddess’s attention: peasants who do nothing with their lives and idly sit as cogs in the machine and regular criminals are overlooked, and passionate orators preaching the goddess’s infinite wisdom and compassion and selfless caregivers are more likely to be selected. There are rules to being a priest, though:

  1. Priests may not EVER directly disobey the goddess. Obviously. If it comes to the attention of the goddess that a priest has deliberately done something that she explicitly forbidden, or has deliberately failed to do something that she directly ordered, or has falsified her word, the priest has committed heresy of the highest order, and the heretic priest has their powers revoked and is killed either by the goddess smiting them or by whatever guards happen to be around. If the heresy was committed in the presence of another priest or if there are a substantial number of surviving witnesses, then the evidence is considered substantial enough for the heretic priest to be executed. If there’s a very major conflict of interest somewhere, i.e. having to disobey the goddess to save thousands of people, the goddess might decide that the heresy was in good faith and let the priest go free.

  2. No priest can be selected from the same (ideological) section of the Empire as another. Since they’re the only ones who can directly hear from the goddess and the goddess might not always be able to monitor what they’re doing (after all, the telepathy between the goddess and priests depends on the priest allowing it), it’s important that none of them be able to pass off their own words as the words of the goddess. If every priest were selected from the same town, then they all might share common ideas and morals, and then they might conspire to cut off their telepathic connection with the goddess to keep from being caught and then just pass off whatever they want as a Holy Decree. If priests are selected from wildly-varying parts of the Empire (as is required), then it’s less likely for them to be able to agree on anything, so any priest can always tattle on any other for falsifying the goddess’s word, and the heretic priest can then be prosecuted.

  3. Priests can’t engage with regular society except when absolutely necessary. Having the knowledge and power of a god behind them creates a huge power imbalance between them and virtually every other Imperial citizen: were a priest allowed to go about their regular life, they could start committing crimes with immunity, saying that “I’m a priest, you can’t arrest me, our Holy Empress works in mysterious ways”; denying a priest is considered heresy, and if the priest doesn’t actually directly disobey the goddess, then they can kind of do whatever they want. As such, priests are separated from the rest of society in their own palaces with dedicated servants, leaving the palaces only when they need to communicate with the goddess or relay something important to the Empire.

  4. There must always be exactly 25 priests. This is because, uhm… uh…

Therein lies the question: Why must there always be exactly this many priests, never more and never less? One might argue that having more priests would be advisable, since it would make it harder for a group of priests to conspire to falsify the Holy Empress’s word, and it would also allow for the goddess to more efficiently communicate with her Empire: if there were more priests then each priest would have to visit fewer towns in order to communicate a decree to the entire Empire. But for reasons, there has to be a finite and very small number of priests. Why is this?

Note: 25 is a fake number; the number could be higher, could be even lower, but the point is that it’s very small compared to the population of the Empire, less than 100.

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    $\begingroup$ You might not realize that you've already answered your own question: dealing with more than X priests produces too much mental strain and her omniscience knows what X is. After admitting that (and admitting that she wants her beneficence to be available to as many as possible), X is any number you, the OP, wants. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 10 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ Millennia after millennia I’ve had to deal with all kinds of petty squabbles. I’m just sick and tired of it. I only accept big issues now, so have a limited number of priests. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 10 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking two questions? There's the low number, and there's the exact number. $\endgroup$
    – Dohn Joe
    Apr 10 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ Anyone who asks "why does a god(ess) do X?" questions needs to watch Futurama S3E20 Godfellas. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Apr 10 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ Just a phrasing nitpick: your goddess does not actually seem to be functionally omniscient. If she was, no communication from anyone to her is needed, since she already knows whatever that person wants to tell her. What you describe sounds more like "omni-smart": given all relevant information she can always deduce the best possible solution. $\endgroup$
    – datacube
    Apr 11 at 6:53

14 Answers 14

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Having exactly 25 priests at all times only works if you have the royalty principle, "the king is dead, long live the king!"

That is, priesthood is automatically conferred on the next candidate when the previous priest has lost the priesthood. There are quips that formally, royalty propagates at faster-than-light speed. When normal people are involved, then de facto royalty propagates at less than FTL speed. In medieval ages, perhaps at the speed of a riding messenger.

Say there are 25 dioceses with 25 bishops. Only a bishop may communicate with the deity, and all bishops must be able to do so (or resign). For a lesser priest, trying to call upon the deity would be sacrilege. So you have up to 25 communicating priests, and speedy processes to fill any one vacancy.

Alternatively, there is something like reincarnation in your world, probably with a complete memory loss between incarnations, and the 'souls' of the 25 original believers are granted the right to communicate. An omniscient deity makes this easier than the Tibetian real-world precedent. One priest dies, a child is conceived, and the deity sends clear instructions how to retrieve the infant. She might even make a point of letting the 'soul' grow up with a normal childhood, and only later send emissaries to get the adult. (You could make it the original 36, and the next adult candidate gets called if an old one dies. "Hello, I'm the new priest." "But we are 25." "Count again ...")

Either way, you have assured the geographical diversity. Ideological diversity would be a matter of luck and training.

Alternatively, the deity is omniscient but not omnipotent. You mentioned that using her abilities tires her. So assume that 'tuning in' to different people is stressful. She can only 'contact' people who learned how by meditation in a snwo-swept monastry far above the treeline, and she expresses her displeasure if the monks there train too many.

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    $\begingroup$ "There are quips that formally, royalty propagates at faster-than-light speed. When normal people are involved, then de facto royalty propagates at less than FTL speed. In medieval ages, perhaps at the speed of a riding messenger." -- that is true not just of royalty. The law has many such provisions, where things are assumed to happen instantly, simply so there is no ambiguity. The law also accepts that - due to real-world limitations - you may be ignorant of the new thing, but nevertheless the new state comes into effect globally and instantly. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Apr 12 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Tom No. Since the information of the death of the king cannot travel faster than the light, the king is alive for longer the further away you move. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Apr 13 at 0:13
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    $\begingroup$ @SJuan76, I don't think medieval legal theory and relativity fit into the same reality. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Apr 13 at 3:55
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. this is very much modern legal theory. For example, in my home country, a new law comes into effect when it is published in the official publication of new laws. Legally, in that moment. Doesn't matter if you live on a remote island and (ignoring the Internet) your first chance to actually receive said publication would be a day or two later. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Apr 13 at 6:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Tom: There are also legal jurisdictions that (Rather recently) had laws on the books that said "This law will not take into effect if a jurisdiction above it rules it unconstitutional, but will take effect the moment that it's not considered unconstitutional."; so-called "Trigger Laws", as they were called. And then, the moment one court ruled that a previous ruling was unconstitutional...the laws kicked in faster than anyone had time to notify any of their clients that it had, in fact, kicked in immediately. If we're going by modern legal theory, that...well, it can happen. $\endgroup$ Apr 15 at 10:38
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The limit of 25 priests is due to your goddess' bandwidth limits. The connection necessary for the priestly benefits takes too much attention for her, and any greater number of priests means that she just can't handle.

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    $\begingroup$ Prayers are answered via MS-DOS. The goddess is drive A. That leaves B-Z for the priests. Sounds legit. $\endgroup$ Apr 10 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ @RichardKirk This made me chuckle. $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ She could upgrade her bandwidth but doing so is to expensive for her. As she just can't afford the monthly fee. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 10:29
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No priest can be selected from the same (ideological) section of the Empire as another.

There you have it. There are 25 ideological section of the empire, so every section gets exactly one priest to represent them.

Why not more than one? Because if you have two or more priests who are supposed to share the same authority equally, then they will be in a constant power struggle. Priests have power, and power is serious business. So there would be constantly disagreements about which of them actually speaks for their ideological section and whose interpretation of the goddesses will is actually correct. So they would either keep fighting among each other until all but one had "tragic accident", or settle on a (formal or informal) rank order with one of them being the boss.

So again, the end-result would be one head-priest per section. Just with a lot of unnecessary intrigue.

And a lot of annoyance for the goddess herself in form of constant prayers to "smite the heretic" who happens to be a priest as well. I could actually imagine that the goddess herself once allowed multiple priests per section, but after being fed up with constantly being prayed to to sanction or even perform political assassinations of priests on behalf of other priests, decided to put a stop on this and settle on a "one priest per section" rule.

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  • $\begingroup$ After smiting aaaaall the priests who asked her to smite a fellow priest, just to make sure that doesn't happen again $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Apr 12 at 13:55
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There are many reasons for such a limit a lot of them could for cultural reasons or limits on how her religion/empire is structured.

I will focus on possible physical limitations that will work regardless of the ones mentioned above.

  1. Rigid Limit:
    There are limits to your goddess's power; she is limited to 3 major acts of power a day. Why should it be different from the priests she can have a connection to? You could easily say that the goddess's power limits her to only 25 priests she can have a connection with at any giving time. It's her physical limitation and she can't go any higher.

  2. Flexible Limit:
    Basically like 1. but a range and not a rigid number. Her attention or power is limited and the more priests she has the more she is physically strained. This would make it necessary to keep the number of priests limited to a certain range which still allows some variation.

  3. Keeping Order:
    Her attention is limited and she wants to keep the priests on a tight leash. This is to prevent one from going rouge and torching the countryside in the name of the goddess. This is due to her not being able to control every priest at the same time as maybe even her attention is limited. Maybe it happened in the past, leading to her limiting the number, or we can explain it thanks to her foresight.

  4. Limited Power Reservoir:
    Maybe your goddesses has a limited daily reservoir of power. Every priest she has under her command drains this reservoir. This means if she has too many priests she cannot use her power reservoir for other stuff. This would limit her power, so she keeps the number of priests low to be able to do more magic on a daily basis.

  5. Keeping strict Control:
    This one is more sinister so I don't know if will fit your narrative. If the goddess wants to remain strictly in control of her empire, it would make sense to keep the number of priests low to have more direct centralized power over her empire. This would help her to prevent people from acting out of her control due to having strict hierarchical structures with her on top of it all.

Note:

It's important to note that all of these solutions rely on her not being completely omnipotent otherwise only the cultural factors would work. The reason I even considered these options was due to your proposed limits of her power.

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it’s the highest honor in the land

scarcity makes anything even more precious.

What's the point of being a baronet or a knight if one can get the title just collecting 3 stamps for drinking water?

Additionally, you want society to work properly, so

Priests can’t engage with regular society except when absolutely necessary

you don't want a good chunk of it being un-engaged.

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The holy matrix has 25 vertexes, or the mental house of priests has 25 doors, or whatever. The idea is that there is some sort of metaphysical framework that the priests fit into, and there are a fixed number of positions in that framework. It's like a 25-dimensional balance scale; any other number, and things get out of whack and start shifting around.

Too few priests? Some get overloaded with attention and their minds heat up and explode, probably figuratively. Too many, and they start time sharing the goddess's attention, causing the communication to get erratic even when the priest is willing, which could make priests unable to depend on the goddess's attention.

Or maybe when the priest matrix is off kilter, nothing works at all because the presence of all the priests is required for the whole network to be activated.

As a slight variant, perhaps the goddess's powers are not innate but the result of an artifact created by a prior divine being, and that artifact has a fixed number of priest "positions" available. (It could physically be a 5-pointed star, or something like a 5-pointed star in more dimensions. Or a 5-pointed star where each point is a star with 5 points. Or whatever.)

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Simplest answer:

The Number 25 is pleasing or sacred or holds significance or otherwise (insert lore justification) to the Goddess.

There are many cultures and fictional dieties that like specific numbers - Khorne from WH40K likes the number 8, 666 in Judeo-Christian Mythology etc.

Having X number of priests or priestesses because that number holds significance is a simple and well-founded reason.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure 666 is specifically Christian; it's from the book of revelations, which is part of the Christian bible and not part of any Jewish holy text. $\endgroup$
    – Hearth
    Apr 11 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Hearth - it's akso very much the opposite of liked .... $\endgroup$
    – deep64blue
    Apr 12 at 10:22
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She is a moon goddess, and the month on her planet lasts for 25 days. Each priest is the priest du jour once a month...

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Parkinson's Law holds that membership exceeding a number "between 19.9 and 22.4" makes a committee manifestly inefficient. This seems well justified by the evidence proposed from this history of the Kings Cabinet, the Exchequer, The Admiralty board, and the Cabinet of the House of Commons. If you get too large, the group is hard to assemble, people prepare speeches, and the actual business may then be secretly done by a sub-group of six people or so outside the meetings. So committees grow, and sub-committees form within them.

The communion with the Goddess is not a committee meeting, and so not necessarily subject to the same rules. Less certain is the optimal number of members, which must lie between three (a logical minimum) and 20. There is probably no opportunity for a sub-committee to grow if all is known to the Goddess. There is no problem in convening a meeting. So, it is possible that the ideal group may be close to or slightly exceed the Parkinson limit.

Why a fixed number? Because She Said So. The number is twenty-five. I am not creating a new post because people want to get in. I am not going to shuffle people in and out in response to pressure. If you have a justified complaint against a particular member, then we may listen. But I don't want to waste time on petty politics when I have God Stuff to do. Deal with it. [ this last statement accompanied by the Descent of the Miraculous Sunglasses ]

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The Goddess has 26 licensing keys, and she's using the Administrator licensing key

There's a few different ways you could take this - whether the Goddess is an A.I. that is able to affect the world, or the world being a simulation that she administrates, but probably one of the more interesting ways to take it in my opinion - she's actually using a high-tech-level software to affect the world...and it's costly. So she was able to buy 26 licensing keys, but no more, and has been using the software to control the world. I'm focusing on the last option, as it has additional implications as to where you could take conflict, for example, or goals for the Goddess.

With 26 Licensing Keys, that gets her enough for herself and 25 others. Therefore, since it counts that she is able to boot others off the divine power, it's a bit like just revoking an account with a license key, and just passing the license key to someone else. It would also explain why she focuses on giving her power to those who are most likely to be active participants of her power; she wants more value to be gotten out of the license key that she paid a lot for. Or perhaps she's paying for it continuously - and that's what the donations to her go towards. If she doesn't get enough donations, a region might be unfortunately taken offline as she can't afford to keep the license key renewed.

This may have been a gradual build-up too - originally she had 2 licensing keys, then 3, and then 4, and that's how this ended up happening:

At this point in time, a good chunk of the world is ruled by the goddess’s empire, of which she is the Holy Empress.

That wasn't because of her domain, but because every time the Goddess's Empire expanded, it was because she had an extra licensing key, and felt that she could expand her reach through by appointing another person to her priesthood. And that's when she ends up pulling stuff like this:

She also has the capacity to create gateways between habitable worlds to allow people to explore new lands

Expansionism on her terms, and when she's ready - and not a moment sooner.

Why is the Goddess being Expansionist then?

Not really part of the original question, but focusing on that last statement, it's worth noting that she can be expansionist, and given that she's only got "A good chunk of the world", there's a decent chance that she wants to have her Empire cover the "The rest of the world not included in that chunk".

This is where there's some interesting plays to be made:

1.) Are there other deities that are in these other chunks of the world?

2.) Are there rival deities that are gaining power that she's focusing on trying to stop?

3.) Who does the Goddess go to in order to get more licensing keys?

She’s functionally omniscient

Implies that she isn't fully omniscient, so is there someone else out there with Super Administrator access to the system? Is she trying to overthrow them? Or is she intended to succeed them, and take on their role eventually?

4.) Does she want to remove/replace the existing system? Is the Goddess annoyed at the capability of her priests to effectively shut her out if they don't agree to tell her about the world?

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    $\begingroup$ My first gut reaction when I read the question was that this doesn't sound like a goddess but like an algorithm. The computer science base of your answer resonates with that hunch. $\endgroup$
    – user110034
    Apr 12 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Ben: Yeah, it did seem like something that could be algorithmic, but I wanted to try and steer away from the "The Goddess is actually an A.I." or "The world is a simulation" because those are tropes that sometimes show up - whereas I tried to make my answer something that could be more aligned with the religious premise, but very analogous of the algorithmic explanation as to why she's limited, and where one could go with that. The "High-tech software" that she uses? "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.", effectively allowing it to still be magic. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Ben: On that note too - while I did reference the idea that she buys the licensing keys with money, it could be not money, but souls, for example. Something that the Goddess doesn't have enough to splurge on, at least. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 23:20
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Frame Challenge:

The Goddess does not empower the Priests, Priests empower the Goddess.

The Goddess is not a separate entity, but a godlike "imaginary friend" created by the subconscious telepathic gestalt of the Priests. The shape, will, personality and goals of the Goddess are thus a consensus of the subconscious desires and deep beliefs of the Priests themselves. It is possible that the Goddess "thinks" she is real, or at least acts as if she was, but this is just the Priests layering their Freudian and Jungian ideas of a "Goddess/Mother/Lover/Whore/Virgin" on top of the gestalt. More so if the Priests are supposed to be celibate, and their culture sexist: they likely give the Goddess attributes they think a female power-figure would have, not what actual Goddess would be like.

Why 25 then? This is because the Gestalt is self-correcting. More than 25-ish priests, and the "Goddess" becomes erratic, her divine messages cryptic, and she appears to be "angry" with Priests; this is because too many telepaths layering their thoughts on top of each other leads to chaos and errors. Much fewer than 25, and the Goddess will appear to be both weirdly weakened, and suspiciously biased towards the majority faction of the priesthood.

So by unconscious trial and error over many, many centuries, the priesthood decided that perhaps 25 Priests is the "Holy Number", because it seems the Goddess is most pleased with them and answers prayers most often if there are 25 of them, no more, no less.

So when a Priest dies, the other Priests despair that their number is too low, which causes them to pray to the Goddess to find a new candidate, which she promptly, and graciously does, and it just so happens that the new candidate is miraculously the kind of a man the Priests would chose themselves if they just interviewed candidates and voted.

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Perhaps whatever method is involved in choosing a new priest requires a certain amount of training or "settling in" time as the goddess gets used to their unique mental pathways, and she simply doesn't want to have to deal with juggling too many minds.

More prosaically, there's 25 separate priestly palaces, and nobody wants to spend time building any more, or the empire wouldn't logically divide into any smaller chunks.

This might still mean that on occasion there's fewer than that, when one dies and a replacement hasn't finished training yet. That could be mitigated by having a pool of ready candidates, but they might age out or not be the best use of citizens if they don't get called. (It sounds like your goddess is not truly omniscient in that she cannot know precisely when a priest will die in the future in time to prepare exactly one replacement ready at just the right instant.)

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There are 25 provinces in the empire

Using her abilities puts a lot of mental strain on her

This explains quite adequately why there is a limited number of priests. Too many priests would mean too many requests and would be too much for her to handle.

But why 25?

Well you also say:

the priests become the de facto rulers of the Empire, their word effectively law

As it happens, there are 25 regions or provinces in the empire, so each priest is a sort of holy dictator of each one - think of a cross between a president / monarch / pope in each land. There may still be a regular secular government to handle the day-to-day law-making, but when it comes to decisions handed down from the goddess, the priest reigns supreme.

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Because she is omniscient, not omnipotent.

She has a limited ability to do miracles and doesn't know the answer to knowledge questions. The priests are essential for asking the right questions to let her more cheaply enact her divine will on the world. As such, each priest is a representative of one of the x divine domains of knowledge that she has, and is the smartest person of that knowledge domain in the world.

She could have more or less, but the people are there for her not the other way around, so she has exactly whatever number so that she can have all the best advisers for each domain of knowledge.

For example, the best politics adviser is able to ask her the question "How do we best balance making machines for grain exports with iron production" because they know that's the most important question and so get the most bang for the goddess' limited bucks, while an inferior one might ask "How do we improve politics most" which gets a complex answer that doesn't narrow down on the true problems.

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