Geas or How to tie your character in knots
In my fantasy world Skyss they use geas to control people. Not everyone is under a geas, but those in public office have it as place of their oath of allegiance. Similarly prisoners get a geas of public service compelling them to atone for their offences. Also I had my bad guy put one of my characters under a geas, just because it sort of made sense to the plot.
What is a Geas?
A geas (pronounced gesh) is a sort of unbreakable vow. It’s a celtic thing that appears in Scots & Irish folklore and legends. It’s a bit more than a curse, in the sense that there are positive benefits to accepting a geas. Being under a geas can make you stronger, or give you powerful information about your fate. Most of the time there is a condition attached to a geas that either ends it, or invokes it.
The thing about a geas is that you cannot break it. If someone under a geas tries to wriggle out of the obligations that it puts them under then they sicken and eventually die. Alternatively the universe takes issue with them and they are struck down somehow.
The geas in Skyss
I’ve not just taken the celtic geas and dumped it onto my fantasy world. I’ve amended it and codified it a bit to make it more usable. It’s still generally regarded as an unbreakable vow, bringing obligation that cannot be avoided.
The people of Skyss recognise two kinds of geas, voluntary and involuntary. This is not about coercion to volunteer, the criminals usually accept their geasa voluntarily because it is a lesser punishment than their alternative. The issue is whether the subject has entered into their obligations knowingly.
All magic stems from the gods in Skyss. They’re active at arm’s length, but still paying attention to their worshippers. In theory anyone can call on the gods for a miracle. In practice few ever achieve that notice, and most that do are distant descendants of the gods. The heroes in my story are two or three generations from the gods, giving them the power to use magic directly. This is the same power that binds someone to a geas.
Setting a Geas
Where someone knowingly accepts a geas then the power binds them to the obligations. Often the details of the geas are negotiable, certainly they are expounded as part of the swearing the oath. Most geasa will put limitations on the subject, even if just an obligation to serve as with holders of public office.
An involuntary geas is difficult to do. It needs significant (ab)use of power to achieve. It can only be done on someone that is either unable to use their own power to resist, or who has no ability to call on power at all. Unlike a voluntary geas it’s a significant piece of ritual that needs to be set up properly. No-one does this lightly, and certainly not in a rush.
Releasing people from a Geas
While the geasa aren’t breakable without serious penalty, there is a tradition in Skyss of releasing people when they’ve performed their service. This can happen in one of three ways
- The original obligation had a conditional end as part of it;
- The person that set the geas unbinds the subject from it;
- A god, or more powerful user of magic than the setter unbinds it.
In the last case it would need something similar to an involuntary geas on the original setter that compelled them to release the subject.
Breaking a Geas
It isn’t possible to break a geas and get away with it. For many of those under a geas even attempting to consider action outside their obligations is impossible. Their brain just won’t let them think that way. The more strong willed might be able to get away with minor insubordination that sits within the limits imposed. Part of what the common geas do is to instil a control mechanism to protect people from punishment should they break the oath.