Heartbeasts and ancestor spirits

A player in the new saga that I am currently planning wants to have a Bjornaer magus. I have just read the Bjornaer chapter in 'House of Hermes: Mystery Cults' and I am still puzzling as to how a Heartbeast can be an expression of some kind of ancestral spirit. Sorry if this post betrays my ignorance - this is the first time that I have run a saga and I am only now reading the fifth edition supplements properly.

I can understand how a Heartbeast is an expression of a spirit self which itself represents our animal passions, instincts and fears. I might think of this spirit self as something like the Freudian Id - a primal, inchoate animal nature that lies just under the surface of all of us. What I am having trouble understanding is how a Heartbeast is also the manifestation of an ancestor spirit.

In the real world, surely ancestor spirits are thought to be shared and revered by a community who literally have the same ancestors (and can probably recite genealogies which demonstrate this). This would make the animal spirit behind a Heartbeast something like a tribal totem, of deep spiritual significance to the tribe, and which the tribe identifies with closely. But what tribes do magi of House Bjornaer belong to that share the same ancestor spirits? We are told (HoH: MC, p.18) that 'These ancestral spirits are inherited through the line of the father' but not much is made of this. Should we assume that all Bjornaer magi who have descended from the same paternal line have the same Heartbeast? All the magi of Birna's bloodline have the bear Heartbeast (p.36), although she was a woman, while magi looking to initiate into the mystery of the Inner Heartbeast need to avoid ancestors who have 'inappropriate heartbeasts'. The matter seems rather unclear.

If an ancestor spirit lies at the heart of a Bjornaer mage's magic and philosophy, surely their relations with kin who share a common ancestor spirit should be rather important? And indeed it is clear that clans are important to the house, but these clans are the house clans. We are told that, after the Ritual of Twelve Years, the new initiate's 'parens is now equivalent to a true parent, and sept-brothers and -sisters are as close as true relatives following the rite.' So is the Heartbeast spirit the ancestor of the sept or clan following their magical lineages? No, because septs generally don't share the same Heartbeast, and the sept can not even be sure what Heartbeast will emerge before the ritual.

I am tempted to reach the conclusion that the Heartbeast represents the totem for a tribe that has long been forgotten, but is reawakened in a Bjornaer magus. Given that Bjornaer magi are clearly very interested in the stories of their ancestors (e.g. during the Gathering of Twelve Years some perform 'songs, sagas, or mystery plays that revolve around famous ancestors') I imagine most magi in the house are interested in recovering the largely forgotten myths and legends around their Heartbeast / ancestor spirit, and also visiting significant places in these tales. This could be the basis of interesting stories.

I wonder also whether some magi at least would want to reawaken awareness of their ancestor spirit amongst other of that spirit's descendants, whether that be the mage's actual siblings and cousins, or people far removed but still sharing that same ancestor. One can imagine a Bjornaer mage as a cult leader, as some kind of shaman. They would not reveal Bjornaer mysteries to this re-created tribe, but they would use their connection to the ancestor spirit through their Heartbeast to provide guidance to members of their community. This could also make for interesting stories.

But it could be argued that we are looking so far back that we can say that everyone shares the same ancestors. We could imagine that magi of House Bjornaer have a origin myth like the Adam and Eve story, where perhaps there was something like Eden shared by all the ancestor spirits (in animal form) and then some dramatic event occurred which shattered this primal state and set history in motion. This could also be an interesting direction to take things.

Comments on any of this would be very welcome.


My main comment is that I like the way you think :slight_smile: You raise some very nice options - seeking out the ancestor's tale and sites, re-gathering and awakening the tribe, the shattered harmony... these are all great story leads.

The idea of animal ancestors was possibly influenced by the old supplement Mythic Places, specifically the "The Animal Powers" chapter. Here is the pivotal quote:

""Welcome, mortal," the Spirit says, "long is the time since we last met." The Spirit refers to a time before the character's existence, when the character's essence was true to its bestiality."

So it appears the Animal Powers' mythology includes a past where the characters' spirit were beasts, roaming together with (under the leadership of?) the Animal Power. Something like your Eden scenario. This mythological past is not dwelled upon, but is somewhat implied.

I also would interpret the ancestry to be in the Mythic i.e. magical influence sense, not necessarily in the mundane i.e. bloodline sense.

My own approach is to forgo the ancestor cult. Great Beasts are basically the True Essence of the character - the Magical creature the character is at heart.

Hello David

I am in your same situation, since I'm setting up a campaign and reading the 5th edition supplements for the first time. I had your very same doubts regarding the ancestors and I'm glad you brought the issue up. My take was that these ancestors could be shapeshifters of the past which reached their inner heartbeasts and became mythical figures to look upon. But the inheritance part is puzzling indeed.

Having a magical animal as an ancestor is entirely plausible within the Mythic Europe setting. Given the propensity for things like shapeshifters and lycanthropes and the like, there's every possibility that a lineage will have a little bit of bear or lion or wolf or whatever in it somewhere.

With characters like Romulus and Remus being raised by wolves, or Alexander the Great having a lion's mane for hair and golden eyes, it's very possible that such characters have wolf or lion blood in them somewhere. A Bjornaer magus descended from such a figure would likely have a wolf or lion heartbeast, and ancestor spirits that are wolves or lions too.

First of all; I like the idea of what DavidCastle came up with. It is a legitimate interpretation that still honours all the previous published material. Though, I think it is technically possible to initiate the 're-created tribe' into Heartbeast Ability...so if you really wanted, you could easily let your Cult into the House Mysteries....

But since the 'meat' of this thread appears to be sharing the various ideas on how to present the Followers of Birna, I'm going to point out that you can use all of these ideas at the same time. Individual magi may subscribe to one idea over another, but the House shares these philosophies amongst it's members. This creates more poetential stories (as well as a way to run more intra-House conflict without the Wildest-Harmonist movements).

Many thanks for all the comments. They have been a big help to me in thinking things through. The Bjornaer section of 'Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults' is full of compelling ideas, but to my mind they don't all sit comfortably with each other, and in particular the idea of Bjornaer drawing on an animal nature does not fit perfectly with the Bjornaer being an ancestor cult. I was tempted to go with YR7 and forego the ancestor side of things entirely, but I like the idea of an ancestor cult just as I like the idea of Bjornaer drawing on primal, animal forces, so I am trying to come up with my own fix. This is my take, as of today:

The magi of House Bjornaer believe in a body of stories relating to a mythic past, before human civilisation emerged. The stories describe a world of untamed nature populated by wild animals. Each animal has a spirit particular to its species, which represents the peculiar qualities of that species. When the animal dies, the spirit departs from the body, but will appear again within another animal of the same species when it is conceived.

The Bjornaer myths concern how the first humans emerged from these wild animals - not through a slow process of evolution, but through sudden transformation, and not from one species but from many. To begin with, these first humans could transform back and forth from animal to human effortlessly, and they remained fully part of the pack or herd from which they emerged. Some of the myths recount how these first humans and their animal companions interacted with each other (where they largely followed the behaviour patterns of their origin species). So the wolves hunt the deer, and sometimes the deer gets away and sometimes it is killed and eaten.

Over time, the humans from different animal species start communicating with each other, and they begin to be drawn towards working together and living together. Perhaps the wolf-man makes peace with deer-man, or perhaps the wolf-man scares the deer-man to do his jobs for him. But somehow or another some form of early human civilisation begins to emerge and most humans forget their origins as animals. They lose touch with their animal spirits, they lose touch with nature, they lose freedom and through this they lose much of what is good and sacred in the world.

But there are exceptions - those humans who retain a link to the animal spirit inside them, and who remain connected to the natural world. The most impressive examples are the Great Beasts, Bjornaer heroes who go beyond simply being able to become the animal spirit they inherited at birth, to actually forging (or discovering within themselves) a new Heartbeast with supernatural powers, which becomes a form which they inhabit permanently. The early Great Beasts would have begun their lives as shamans of their communities, but in the end most people turned away from these shaman heroes and followed a different path towards agriculture, permanent settlements and more complex societies.

The reality may be that the Bjornaer myths are derived from legends held by the Gothic tribes from which Birna and many of the early Bjornaer came from, and originally concerned the origins of these tribes in particular rather than humanity in general, but this is not how the Bjornaer cult understands things.

Today, Bjornaer magi believe that all people continue to be born with ancestral animal spirits inside them - spirits which have inhabited many generations of people before them, and before that actual animals. These ancestral spirits are nameless, primal clusters of drives, capabilities and instincts. While all experience these drives as passions or fears, only the Bjornaer and maybe some others come to a full understanding of the animal spirit within them.

The ancestors which are the subject of the stories and songs of the Bjornaer are particular individual characters with a self and intellect as well as a primal, bestial spirit. Some are Great Beasts, but not all are. Most of the subjects of the stories come from such a distant time that they are understood to be the common ancestors of the entire human race, although the exact lines of descent remain a mystery. Likewise, the exact reasons why someone may be inhabited by a crow spirit and has a crow heartbeast rather than any other animal is not clear - it may be as a result of paternal bloodline (because the animal spirit is meant to be inherited from the father), astrological correspondences at the time of birth, active selection by the animal spirits or God, or a combination of factors.

Exact lines of descent apparently becomes more important when looking for a Great Beast so one can become become initiated into one of the inner Mysteries of the House. 'Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults' states 'a Bjornaer magus may have many potential ancestors to learn from' (p.28) - this suggests they couldn't learn from just any ancestor. As I see it, this is because many Great Beasts have emerged through history as shaman in either Birna's tradition and other traditions from other parts of the world, or indeed as Bjornaer magi, rather than from the distant, mythical past. With these later Great Beasts, genealogy becomes significant.

Cool stuff, David. I will use your interpretation in my saga as well, maybe leaving the very distant past foggy enough to be actually mythical.

Not only communicating, but also mating. In human form the different animals could make love and give birth to trans-species babies. After a number of generations this mixing would result in a fully developed human personality, where all the qualities from the original animals converged into a complex brain.

I have been fascinated by the Bjornaer section in Mystery Cults myself (hence my screen name).

I like the way you're planning things out to answer those questions in game... it shows you're putting a lot of effort into making the character elements and story hooks satisfying and engaging to the player.

I do think there needs to be some caution, though. A mystery cult, though involving initiation and secrecy by nature, is likely to have some elements that are accepted as inexplicable in its doctrine and practice, and House Bjornaer is perhaps second only to House Criamon in its contradictory, confusing, obscure (and obscured) elements. Trying too hard to make sense of how animal spirits could be the ancestors of humans enough to create bloodlines (some of which, such as the Heron, are apparently tremendously rare) takes away some of the mystery (and perhaps gets a bit squicky).

I like to think of the Outer Heartbeast as a representation of the character's nature (both as opposed to his/her demeanor and as opposed to nurture, in the same way that I inherited a love of gooey peanut butter and caramel and country music from my maternal grandmother, despite being born after she died) and the Inner Heartbeast (or Heartbeasts? I was always wondering if one could undertake the ritual of the inner heartbeast multiple times to make a creature that combines Epitome, Chimera and Anima forms, or if one would end up with three separate inner heartbeasts as a result) represented the character's idealized dream-self, both of which were colored by multiple ancestors both genetic and hermetic. I'm playing on the idea of a Swan heartbeast for a magus descended from Odile, the Black Swan and daughter of the sorcerer in Swan Lake, for instance, though I'm not sure whether to make Olor a black or white swan in heartbeast form.

Yes, I do completely agree with this. I think I have given a semi-plausible story, and any ambiguities and obscurities that remain are to be welcomed! Also, it is of course worth remembering that this origins story is completely different to that of Genesis which will be believed by the vast majority of people in Mythic Europe. And so while this origins story is very important to Bjornaer magi, it may or may not actually be true. Indeed some Bjornaer may even understand it to only be true at some metaphorical level.

I rather like this idea - the Outer Heartbeast as a character's nature, and the Inner Heartbeast as an idealised dream-self. Perhaps the Inner Heartbeast can travel into some kind of shamanistic dreamworld of magical animal beings, which Bjornaer magi believe to be a central part of the Magic Realm itself.


Yes, nice one :slight_smile: