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When a person dies, their soul doesn't ascend to the afterlife automatically. The soul builds a connection with its body while alive, and remains attached to that body in death. Through natural decomposition, the soul gradually loses its connection to the mortal realm. At some point, when the body decayed enough, the soul ascends to the next life where it will be judged by god. It will either be allowed into heaven or join the reincarnation cycle to be reborn and given another chance.

The ascension of the soul however, is not always guaranteed. While it is trapped in the body after death, the soul is protected from supernatural forces. However, There are invisible predators that prey on and consume vulnerable souls. These are called wraiths, which are angry spirits that have been unable to ascend properly and remain trapped on the mortal realm. These spirits are in constant pain, and seek to take out their agony and misery on the living by killing them. They are also given to consume other lost souls and grow in power. This has been common enough throughout history to be a real concern.

This is why funeral rites and proper burials are held as sacred, because they guaranty passage into the next life. Priests are used to help guaranty the process of ascension. Through performing the necessary funeral rites and given the deceased a proper burial, they protect the soul while it remains in the body from malignant forces. These are rites only chosen priests can perform, which involve complex magical rituals that are learned through years of study. This has given the church a strong presence, and has made them a powerful force in humanity. Religion and faith play an important role in daily life of people, and priests are held in high regard in their community. Otherwise interfering with a body (cremation, dismemberment, etc) is considered a great crime. If a body doesn't decay naturally, the soul may become more vulnerable.

Individuals who go off to war are given a special place in society. Warriors are given markings, or runes, by priests that are akin to magic tatoos. If they die in war, their souls ascend automatically without delay, so they can go into battle without fear. Being a soldier is a high honor, as is dying in war for your nation. I want to keep these special runes limited to soldiers so that only they can be given them. There needs to be a good reason for priests to not simply give them to everyone. What would be a non-malicious way to justify this?

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    $\begingroup$ Catholic and orthodox priests hear confessions which they supposed are to keep secret. There needs to be a good reason for priests to not simply post them on Facebook. What would be a non-malicious way to justify this? In the real world, priests don't post confessions on Facebook because they are ordained priests and being, you know, priests, they take their religion seriously. You really don't need a reason other than the priests' priesthood. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 30 '17 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ If you are a soldier and you fall on a cactus between battles and die, do you ascend? What if you die of constipation? Still straight up? $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 31 '17 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ I would think the runes function like a coat of arms maybe and that they are received by warriors after completing some form of training and worn until death. $\endgroup$ – Pleiades Aug 31 '17 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ Along with AlexP's answer/comment - excommunication is a powerful thing. If a priest is found to be giving these magic tatoos to anyone then I'm sure the society/church can find a way to ensure that particular priest's soul never makes the crossing... There might even be stories quietly whispered about such things. $\endgroup$ – NotMe Aug 31 '17 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ Lord of Light covers the idea of religious mythology being used by future technology. Reincarnation is just cloning. In any case, corruption is inevitable, see Catholicism and indulgences. $\endgroup$ – user3201068 Jul 13 '18 at 20:36
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The rune binds the armor and weapons of the wearer to their soul. When they die, their soul appears with their combat gear. They can then use those arms to fend off the wraiths and fight their way into the next life by themselves.

But this does not just requires that the person dies while carrying their weapons, but also that they know how to use them properly. Combat between souls and wraiths works just like combat between living people, so their combat training will help them. An untrained civilian would not stand a chance against the wraiths. The best sword won't help you when you wave it around like a feather duster. That would make the runes useless for civilians.

But the runes would still be useful for any skilled fighter who is not technically a soldier: Law enforcement, gladiators, violent criminals, duelists, bodyguards, civil fencing instructors. But those really don't need the runes, because they will most likely die in an urban environment where a priest can take care of their soul (criminals might be an exception when the punishment for very serious crimes is execution without burial rites, which was sometimes customary in the middle ages).

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Because the runes only work when one dies in battle. Possible explanations for this:

  • Minutes before death, the rune must be charged by the wearer's rage, or it won't activate (Negative side-effect: they might also work on people who just happen to be very angry before dying. Positive side-effect: they would only work on true warriors who have the right mindset. No Valhalla for crybabies).
  • The runes only work when a lot of people die in the same area within a short timespan, like it happens on a battlefield (side-effect: they would also work in case of a large-scale disaster)
  • The rune only works when the wearer kills another person the day they die. A civilian would then never wear such a rune, because it means they are potential murderers. This might also raise the ethical question about why killing is socially acceptable when it happens in war. (side-effect: only works on warriors who are skilled enough to score at least one kill before biting the dust themselves. That might be a good motivator, though... or a reason to back-stab a comrade)

Another option might be that the rune works exactly like a proper burial, but is way more expensive and way less personal. So doing the burial rites is usually the preferred way of getting someone to heaven for both sentimental and financial reasons. But when one dies on a battlefield, it is unlikely that they will get the proper burial in time. But warriors are regarded too highly to allow that to happen to their souls. So they get the runes as a contingency measure.

But this might also make the runes popular with anyone who has moderate wealth and a profession where there is a high risk of sudden death without anyone finding their body. For example:

  • Hunters (who could be considered kind of warriors, even though they only kill animals. Cultures who idolized soldiers often attributed similar virtues to hunters)
  • Anyone who travels a lot (who might carry a weapon and learn how to use it to defend themselves against street robbers. So they might qualify as warriors)
  • Sailors, who are constantly at risk of falling over board and drowning in the open sea (but when there is a lot of piracy in your world, then sailors might also be trained warriors who see even more combat than foot soldiers do).
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  • $\begingroup$ What about soldiers who die non combat related deaths, or are killed by artillery/arrows/plague which is clearly a combat related death, but does not allow the soldier the opportunity to strike a blow against the enemy? $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Aug 31 '17 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Thucydides Deaths by plague leave enough time for the army chaplain to perform the normal burial rites, so the rune wouldn't be required. Artillery deaths would be covered by bullet point 2, maybe by 1, but with bullet point 3 these people would be out of luck. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Aug 31 '17 at 8:45
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Runes mark warriors for life. In any conflict, opposing armies will hunt down warriors and kill them, because they will represent the greatest threat. Other castes do not generally participate in conflict and are required to maintain the normal infrastructure of the country - it is in the interest of conquering armies to leave them alone.

Even in ordinary crimes of violence, warriors will be seen as a threat to criminals and will also be summarily killed. They are a threat, because they have to be assumed to not only be able to, but highly likely to, retaliate and to do so most effectively.

Warriors expect to die in battle, anyway, and with the protection of their runes they are most likely to make the most of any opportunity to do so. Civilians do not share this view - they will work hard to earn the money to pay for their burial rites, but do not want to hurry them.

Runes, therefore, are not an advantage to other castes.

This assumes that runes are only effective when applied to a healthy living body before battle, and are non-effective when applied to the dead or dying, but that does not seem to me to be an unreasonable assumption from the OP.

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The rune is only applied before a battle, and when activated drives the enchanted warrior into a berserk rage.

Of course, it can be applied to anyone, but after that you'll have a mad bar-brawler loose in the middle of the city.

Oh, and it's a permanent rune. The enchanted one might not be expected to come back to society. Those who did suffer from societal exile because their uncontrolled rage. A bit sad though.


Why the soldiers won't just refuse the rune and battle normally?

Viking-like society, like described by OP. Warrriors want to die in battle, as brave as possible, so they can have more chance to be judged, and let in to heaven (Valhalla). With the enchanted rune, they are able to fight in equal to 5 warrior, so it's not uncommon to send 100 enchanted warriors to fight 300 warriors.

This way, they maximize their chance to enter Valhalla (even though they don't know whether the gods like how they throwing their lives away), and reduce the potential death (certain death for 90 people and potentially 10 others, as opposed to 300 potential deaths if you send 300 warriors).

If the enchantment is known from the beginning, they might develop the culture to this, so no one actually questioning the practice, and the belief is already instilled to the children mind to follow their late fathers lead.

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    $\begingroup$ /There needs to be a good reason for priests to not simply give them to everyone. What would be a non-malicious way to justify this?/ The only way to justify it is that the runes shorten life considerably or have other large ill effects. If I were a soldier I think I would decline - my hope is to fight smart and come home. $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 31 '17 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Will updated my answer. That took me a while so I updated the answer rather than comment. Nice question :) Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Vylix Sep 1 '17 at 9:53
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priests

If the priest caste is required to create the runes (and drive he rituals that power these runes), then they will be doing so because of the gods. If the gods decree that only warriors get the "go directly to heaven, do not pass Go, do not.." treatment, then the priests will know this better than anyone.

Priesthoods tend to be the source of long-standing traditions and religious laws. They have a vested (pun intended) interest in maintaining that status quo.

the gods

If your gods are the power source for these rituals, then the gods themselves can define punishment(s) for those who break the law.

  • the runes simply don't work if placed on a non-warrior (because the gods know...)
  • the gods curse the non-warrior and/or the priest with disease, a disability of some sort, and/or a painful death
  • perhaps they are cursed to become wraiths by committing such heresies!

society

In addition, society itself may help enforce such rules. If a rich noble is seen sporting a rune he purchased illegally, it's possible the noble will be killed on the spot by a mob of angry peasants who fear the gods' retribution for such a sacrilege. (Though this begs the question of what happens to retired warriors...) Overzealous mobs have been known to do worse for lesser reasons throughout history.

other warriors

Perhaps other warriors consider it a sacred duty to carry out divine retribution against any who would dare commit such a sacrilege. They might first desecrate the rune (ouch!), then see that they suffer and die somewhere far away from the priesthood, ensuring that they never receive proper burial. This, then, dooms them to either becoming wraiths themselves or becoming a tasty snack for other wraiths.

And then perhaps they go after the priest who created it, too...

the rune

It is possible (depending on how you define your runes) that the rune is not the exact same artwork for everyone. Not just a "Everyone gets stamped with the same swirly pattern," but a unique mark. If that mark is unique for each priest who creates it then there's a signature of who did the deed.

That signature can then be traced back to the priest. And that priest can be killed, defrocked, excommunicated, disfigured, etc., for the crime of creating it illegally. This is a built-in incentive to not get caught.

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There needs to be a good reason for priests to not simply give them to everyone. What would be a non-malicious way to justify this?

You already know that there are problems with your premise, and that's why you are asking the question.

But there are more than adequate answers within your premise.

Anyone can ascend, though souls are at risk. Given the proper burial, anyone can ascend. So while runes ON a person are valued, proper burial and such will be much more valued for the common folk.

It is difficult in war to bury people properly. Given the risk of not getting a proper burial, particularly if you are on the losing side, it may well be that the runes were absolutely necessary to sweeten the deal for any warriors. It's actually not unreasonable to not give runes out to everyone, as everyone else is more likely to get the proper rites.

So, why not give the runes to everyone?

  • Resources. It costs something for the priests to do, in energy and time. Governments and rulers give money to the priests to fund this extra effort. It would not be surprising if all of the ruling class would automatically be considered warriors, even if they aren't technically. For those in power there is always a loophole.
  • Culture As others here have pointed out, if the culture is behind it, the consequences for a priest giving out an unwarranted rune should be dire--by law or custom. Fighters are more valued by this society, so they get runes.
  • Because it guarantees an afterlife to those who might not be buried, or who might be defiled by the other side See my point above.
  • As a recruitment tool for conscription Others have talked about it only activating in battle, but, I think that having it be a permanent effect is a great way for lords to recruit. No matter how poor you are, even if you can't afford the best rites, the fact that you served in battle would protect you, even if you survive and die in your bed at the ripe old age of 80.
  • As a way to track & punish your men So the flip side to it always being on--deserters. The runes may do more than just help the soul move on--they might also be unique or fairly unique, and a way to track those who have left. Punishment is the removal of the runes. And you might actually have an entire group whose job it is to track down deserters, bringing them back ALIVE, so that the runes can be removed, possibly a prison sentence, and public humiliation. If you dishonor your nation, a dishonorable discharge includes removal of the rune. Runes are placed on a highly visible area such as the face, and if they are removed, that too is visible. (There's lots of story stuff to mine from this, and you could even have an underground tattoo artist that tattoos the area, maybe putting in a fake rune, or covering the area. Such an artist would be shunned by society, of course.) With this in place, very few would desert and most would rather die or commit suicide than dishonor or desert. (Alternatively, you can remove them remotely through magic, after a military trial, no need to capture them).
  • Never leave a man behind This is the positive side of tracking. If a rune marked is alive, the record of their runing glows. And you could have a compass that points toward the living who are marked. It could let you know to find them on the battlefield and treat them medically, or that they are captured. The loyalty cuts both ways. This society values their warriors, so if possible they never leave a man behind.

Now, you might think my reason of track and punish sounds malicious. But I don't think it is. You get marked, you pay the price in loyalty, as it should be. In this society, that would not seem malicious--it would be just and right. And even if it is malicious, it's not malicious towards someone who has never been marked.

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The first thing that comes to mind is that the runes only work if the wearer dies in battle. They require some degree of passion and pain to activate that can only be achieved in combat. You could give them out to farmers and weavers and whoever else but when they died of old age or natural causes it would serve no use.

Another option would be to say that the rune causes side effects. The most obvious one to limit it to warriors would be a kind of berserk state. So the runes are only applied just before battle and the application of the rune drives the warriors into an uncontrollable frenzy. The downside to this is what happens to the surviving warriors, but you could just say that the runes effects wear off after a while. It also could be applied to people who are dying as the berserk side effect wouldn't be such an issue then, which is not what you want.

Finally you could say the runes are fuelled by the blood of your enemies. Only through killing others can you activate it. Similarly to the first option this means that the runes are only ever useful in a combat situation.

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I think the most natural way would be to limit the priests‘ ability to apply the rune (as already suggested by Erin T), while creating a good reason for them to do it for warriors.

The first part can be accomplished if the application of the rune costs a lot of mana/life force/time/or requires constant maintenance, so that each priest can only tend to a single warrior at a time. My favourite idea would be that keeping the rune active is extremely physically taxing for the priests. Priests have kept everything about it secret. But their true reason for only giving it to the warriors is that warriors rarely live long. If you give the rune to a young merchant, you might have to tend it until you are 70 years old. In the worst case he might outlive you and the rune will keep feeding of your corpse, dooming your own soul!

The second part can be accomplished via connection between the castes. A historically motivated idea would be that the warrior cast holds de facto power „by divine will“. They need the priests to perpetuate that belief and the priests are obviously motivated to cooperate with the top. The tattoos might be the defining characteristic of the warrior class. Obviously they would punish any transgression.

An other idea to motivate the priests to make an exception would be a hostile environment, where the priests depend upon the protection of the warrior caste.

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Built the culture that warrior honor their opponents

Culture:

  • go to afterlife is a common goal of society (both side at war believe so)
  • Warrior fight for honor

How the rune work:

  • The rune need to be active by someone else on the battlefield. Allies or enemy. But prefer by enemy.
  • Murder = no honor = no afterlife

Example: Speaker for the dead

(From wiki)=> When a Brother was considered wise, or had achieved something great, they were to be sent to the Third Life by his greatest friend or his greatest enemy.

You can compare your 'afterlife' definition with 'Third life' in Speaker for the dead to get some idea.

More resource about 'Third life' https://www.shmoop.com/speaker-for-the-dead/third-life-symbol.html

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