Rose Hill's Writing Grove

A Fantasy author in the Twin Cities

Month: October, 2015

Religion in Fantasy – Developing Deities

So, you’ve decided you want to have at least one deity in your religion, maybe lots.  Now you are asking yourself, how many gods do I need?  What should they be the gods of?

For the love of whatever you hold holy, do NOT do deity=x.  Or, in D&D phrasing, deity has x/y/z domains.

That is very explicitly not how polytheism works.

In most forms of theism and very specifically in polytheism (which I’ll be assuming you’re using for the rest of this essay), gods are functionally people.  They have histories, families, personalities, and personal quirks.  They are NOT divided into good and evil deities.  The same deity you call upon for speechcraft might mark you for death on the battlefield.  The deity who drives fish into your nets might drown you in a storm.  The deity of healing and the deity of sickness may very well be the same deity.  The underworld deity is more likely to be the benevolent caretaker of souls than any sort of evil creature.  Unless death is specifically considered evil in your world, there’s no reason to make the deities dealing with death maligned.

Your gods should have as much nuance in their personalities as your characters do, especially if they are actually characters in your story.  Even if they’re not, they’ll still be characters in your culture’s myths, and their personalities should come through in there.

How many gods?

As much as you might hate to hear it, this is entirely up to you.  Most polytheist religions have a handful of major gods and numerous minor gods.  What you need to develop are the gods that will be relevant to your story.  Maybe that’s all the major gods of the pantheon, because they have a large influence on the culture.  Maybe that’s just one minor deity your MC is personally devoted to.  It’s up to you and your world to make that call.

The rest of this essay will focus on how to flesh out each deity.

Brief Description

I find it best to start with a brief description.  Who is this deity?  What is unique about them?  What function do I need them to serve in this pantheon/in the story?  How are they typically viewed by the people who worship them?  This should not be more than a sentence or two.  If you find you need to write more than that, break it in to a separate section.  Knowing lots of details about your creations is a good thing, but this section is just the overview.

Name and Titles

Names will, of course, be dependent on your worldbuilding and whether you have created a conlang.  If you have a religion that spans multiple languages or dialects, there might be multiple names for the deity.  Also keep in mind that your everyday worshipper might not know the name of a deity.  The name might be held sacred, and limited only to priests (or High Priests).  It might be considered too fearsome to speak.  It might be seen as profaning the sacred to speak the name in any but the most holy context.  In all of these cases, and also for the sheer poeticism that religion tends to inspire, you may want to create titles for your deities.

Titles are also great for showcasing the different aspects of your deities.  Some titles might be specific to that deity in a specific area.  Others might be about their personality, or the activities they cherish.

The ancient Greek gods are an excellent example of this.  Athena Ergane was Athena of the workshop, who craftsmen looked up to.  Athena Nike is victorious Athena, who warriors would pray to for victory in battle.  Athena Parthenos is her virgin aspect.  Athena Polias is the defender of the city.  She was also simply called the martial maid, the queen of war, the gray/bright-eyed goddess.  By these names worshippers could call upon her in the specific way that they needed or refer to her poetically without using her name.

Sacrificial Offerings

What does this deity like to have offered to them?  It should be connected to them personally.  A fertility deity might appreciate fruits or flowers.  A deity associated with a specific animal might want all or part of that animal sacrificed to them, or even images (clay tablets, statues, paintings, etc) of that animal sacrificed.  A deity of alcohol might want wine, mead, or vodka sacrificed to them.  A deity that protects classes of people might want images of such people (so worshippers might commission a statue of their young daughter to offer to a deity who protects young women).  Maybe these cultures are in the habit of dressing the statues to their deities, so making and donating the clothing might be an appropriate sacrifice.

Maybe the gods generally like food or wine sacrificed to them.  Maybe a lit candle and a devout prayer is all that’s needed.

What is done with the offerings after they’re offered?  Wine and other liquids can be poured into the earth.  A plate of food might be left outside or placed in a specific location as an offering.  Otherwise, food and drinks are sometimes poured into a fire.  Another option for food and drink is what’s called recursion of offerings.  This is when the offerings (of food and/or drink) are consumed by the people after the gods have had their share (typically spiritually, though if the gods are physically present in your world, that may change).

Non-food offerings might stay with the temple, or might be ritually destroyed.  If the deity is associated with a natural feature (such as the ocean or a volcano) offerings might be tossed into said feature.

In most ancient cases of animal sacrifice, some portion of the animal went to the deities and the rest went to the temple/worshippers to eat.  In some cases it was the blood that went to the gods; in other cases it was the bones and skin.  It almost always meant meat for the mortal worshippers.  However, there were some cases where the animal was sacrificed whole to the gods, such as driving a horse into the ocean as a sacrifice to Poseidon.  Having both forms of sacrifice in the same culture are not mutually exclusive.  Some sacrifices might be specific to location or deity. Others might vary depending on why the sacrifice is being offered–the importance of the petition.

What is the perspective on human sacrifice?  Is it banned or allowed?  Does an entire person have to die?  Is it tears (perhaps of children or another special group) that are necessary?  Or maybe bloodletting to feed the gods is a standard of the religion?  Are the people sacrificed seen as honored and going to a better place than the average person?  Or is it a condemnation?

Symbols

What symbols is this deity associated with?  Eros had arrows tipped in gold and lead.  Apollo had a golden sword and a silver bow.

Some things to keep in mind when thinking of symbols:

  • Is there a weapon this deity is associated with?
  • Does this deity favor a particular creature?
  • Does this deity shapeshift into a particular creature?
  • Is this deity associated with natural features (clouds, rain, moon, stars, sun, specific trees, etc)?
  • Is there a specific color this deity is associated with?
  • If someone wanted to wear a symbol of this deity what would they wear?
    • Would their station in life change what symbol they wear?
      • Does their station in life dictate what symbol they’re allowed to wear? (That’s getting deeper into worldbuilding and sumptuary laws than is strictly covered by religion.)
    • Does this deity favor a particular food/drink?
    • Does this deity favor a particular flower/tree/plant?
    • What shows up in myths with this deity?
    • Who shows up in myths with this deity?
    • How is this deity portrayed in visual art (if at all)?

Connections Within the Pantheon

Does this deity have parents? Children?  A spouse?  Lover(s)?  How does this deity fit into the cosmology of your pantheon?  Have they gotten divorced/broken up?  What did the other deities think of their change in relationship?

Who do they answer to?  They may be a deity, but does anyone outrank them?  Is there anyone who argues with them on a regular basis and acts like they outrank them?

Who do they get along with?  Who do they fight with?  How often are these the same person?  In mythology, Thor both fought against and worked with Loki at various times.

Who holds a grudge against who?  Who will always be loyal to who? Who stands on the outside and watches with complete neutrality?

This ties in very closely with the mythology of the religion.  Basic familial connections are a good place to start.

Holidays

When thinking about holidays keep in mind that a culture may have both secular and religious holidays, or only one or the other.  Secular holidays can become religious holidays, and religious holidays can lose their impact and become secular holidays.  Living cultures change, and you’ll want to keep that in mind as you develop your culture.

It’s up to you to pick how many holidays a religion has, when they are, how long they are, whether they are secular or religious, and what they celebrate.

But, since this is an article on developing pantheons, we’re going to tackle the religious nature of holidays in the specific way they are celebrated.

When is this deity honored?  What days are set aside for their edification?  Is it one day?  One night?  A week?  An entire holy month?  How is the sacred time marked?  (A particular moon, sundown on a certain day, the rising of a constellation, etc.)

How is this deity honored when that holiday arrives?  Is it a somber occasion or a party?  What activities occur?  How much focus is on the deity, and how much has turned into a secular celebration?  What sort of symbols are common at this celebration?  What foods are traditional at this celebration?  Is the holiday for a particular title of this deity, or the deity as a whole?

How widespread is the holiday?  Is it universal across all people?  Standard across this religion?  Relegated to a specific area of the country?  Only for a certain class of people?

Is this deity honored singly, or together with another (or multiple)?  If this deity is honored with others, why is that so?  Is there a specific myth being celebrated/re-enacted?

Mortals

This section is all about how your deity connects to the people worshipping them.

What is this deity’s connection to mortals?  Does it watch over them, prey on them, or a bit of both?  Are they inspirational or terrifying (or both)?  Do they favor a particular type of person?  A wide variety of deities across the world have been protectors of women, pregnant women, mothers, children (sometimes gender segregated, sometimes not), warriors, scholars, etc.

Maybe this deity is a psychopomp, who leads the dead to their final resting place.  Maybe this is your leader of the underworld, who watches over all the dead.

Maybe this deity likes to take mortal form and walk among the common people.  Maybe they take mortal lovers, or are themselves born to mortal women.  Maybe they present themselves as a savior to humanity (or whatever race you have).

How popular is this deity among its mortal worshippers?  Does their popularity vary between cultures/locations?

Does this deity dictate any specific behavior/clothing for its mortal followers?

World

How does your deity interact with the physical world?  This touches not only on creation myths, but also the location of temples, shrines, and other sacred sites.  This will also be expanded upon next week when we get into Places of Worship.

What is this deity’s connection to the world?  Did they help create it?  Were they born in a particular location? Are they personified in a particular natural feature?

Do they like their temples oriented a certain direction?  Placed near certain natural features (a spring, a valley, a grove, an underwater fissure, etc)?

Is the deity said to originate from a certain place?  Do they value a certain city/location in particular?  Think of Athena with Athens, Apollo with Delphi, Artemis with Ephesus, Aphrodite with Cyprus, etc.

Many of the answers you come up with will relate to the later essays in this series.  Keep reading for more detailed investigations of the various topics.  Next week we return to our regular list with Religion in Fantasy – Places of Worship.

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Religion in Fantasy – Forms of Theism

One of the first things people think of when creating a religion is gods.  Many fantasy writers default to a psuedo-polytheism that looks like D&D, or monotheism that looks like pseudo-Catholicism.

As people who work in realms of pure imagination, we can do better than that.

This post is going to break down various forms theism that one might find.  It is intended to give you a wide range of ideas, so you are not limited just to polytheism or monotheism.

Keep in mind that religion is closely tied to culture, especially in places where the religion in question is the state religion.  A monotheistic culture will have an emphasis on one right way to do things for everyone, whereas a polytheistic culture may be open to wider possibilities.  A duotheist culture might have a very either/or perspective on things.  Keep culture in mind when developing every part of your religion.  How does religion affect culture?  How does culture affect religion?

This post is about what the society believes at large, though it could also be used for what individuals believe.  This is not about what is what is true in your world.  That is for you to decide.  Keep in mind that what is true about deities in the world may not be what people believe about deities in the world.  It’s okay for people to be wrong.

This post is not intended to be a religious debate.  There are obviously far more layers to the types of belief I have listed than their extremely brief descriptions here.  This is to help writers and other worldbuilders build better religions in their worlds. 

Atheism

Atheism, at its base, means without gods.  This can take two basic forms: soft atheism and hard atheism.

Soft atheism means there are no gods, but there may be other forms of spiritual beliefs.  One might not believe in gods, but they might have a pantheon of angels.  Soft atheism might also be combined with animism, believing that everything has a spirit but nothing reaches the power level of a deity.  (This, of course, leads into the question of what makes a deity a deity in your world.  That is a question only you can answer.)

Hard atheism means there is nothing supernatural going on.  No gods, no spirits, no afterlife, nothing.  One might think this is a strange option in Fantasy, but that is not necessarily true.  If magic is an accepted part of the world, than it’s not exactly supernatural, is it?  In a hard atheist Fantasy society, one might expect to see a fair bit of magitek–the scientific method applied to magic, magic powering technology, magic as technology.

Atheism could also be used as a political convenience.  If you have the sort of world where the gods do not take an active hand, a secular society that privileges no gods or religions would be a sort of functional atheism.  If you have a world where the gods physically walk the earth, then a sort of practical atheism might apply if the laws of the world apply to the gods as much as they do mortals.  (Of course, this would require a way to control said deities, but that’s what worldbuilding is for.)

Agnosticism is more of a philosophical position than a matter of belief.  It says that one does not know the gods exist, but it does not touch on belief.  If the gods take an active hand in your world, chances are people know the gods exist, though what they believe about them may or may not be correct.  If the gods do not take an active hand in your world, however, you can have all matter of belief and assumed knowledge about the way things work from the perspectives of your characters.

Animism

Animism is the belief that everything has a soul.  This takes two common forms.  First, that everything has a soul: rocks, animals, cars, pens, books, plants, people, etc.  Second, the belief that organic objects have a soul: rocks, people, plants, and animals but not man-made objects.

Animism is often combined with other belief systems.  Animism doesn’t speak about gods so much as it does about spirits, so it is entirely possible to combine animism with just about any other belief system.

Animism is often combined with ancestor veneration, though that is not a requirement.  It depends on the form of afterlife that people believe exists in the religion.  (Afterlife will be a later essay.)  If people believe the souls leave and go on to some other realm, or are reincarnated, then any remembrance of the dead is unlikely to connect with souls (unless the souls return, such as on the Day of the Dead).  If all or part of an ancestor’s soul remains to watch over the family, then it is likely the family will continue to revere the ancestor.

Monotheism

Monotheism is the belief that there is one deity and only one deity.  This is common in religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  One need only look at the many forms there are of each of these religions to see how many different ways one could create a monotheistic society.

Monotheistic faiths in the real world are typically revealed faiths with a focus on orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy.  They are created by a prophet, and the focus is on correct belief over correct practice.  That’s not to say that practice isn’t also important–incorrect practice might get one excommunicated.  But the focus is on belief, first and foremost.

Duotheism

Duotheism is the belief in two deities.  Dualism is the belief there are two opposing forces in the world.  Duotheism takes two basic forms: ditheism is two gods in opposition; bitheism is two gods in harmony.  Do you want two deities locked in eternal battle, or two deities that balance each other harmoniously?  Or some combination thereof?  Remember, none of these categories are necessarily hard lines.  Peoples’ beliefs grow and shift throughout their lives, and beliefs may shift among location and/or cultural lines as well.

No matter what form of duotheism you choose, there is likely to be some level of duality in the culture itself.  People might strive for balance, they might have a strict division between good and evil, they might be extremely heteronormative looking for balance in a relationship.  It’s up to you to decide how that dualistic thinking makes itself apparent in your culture.

Polytheism

Polytheism is the belief in many gods.  Modern polytheism distinguishes between hard polytheism, where the each god is a distinct, individual entity, and soft polytheism, where similar gods from different pantheons might be the same deity.

One of the defining traits about polytheism, whether hard or soft, is that it is open to many possibilities.  There is less emphasis on orthodoxy, right belief, because people might believe many different things about many different gods.  There may still be some measure of right or wrong to beliefs, but typically all gods are recognized as existing, even if one does not worship all of them.  (And depending on the multitude of deities, it may well be impossible to worship all of them.)  Polytheism isn’t a matter of “either I’m right or you’re right, but not both” and more a case of “I have my gods and you have yours, and it’s ok if they’re different.”

Related to soft polytheism, but present in many places where religions touch, is syncretism.  Syncretism is the merger of discrete traditions, particularly in theology and mythology.  Syncretism was particularly common around the ancient Mediterranean (see the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, especially in the Classical period).

Syncretism relies on multiple religions touching, which assumes there are multiple religions on your world.  Many people take an easy route of just developing one.  Your world will be much more fun if there are many.  (We will dive into this deeper in Reactions to Other Religions.)

Henotheism

Henotheism is the worship of one deity in a polytheistic setting.  This is not monotheism in a polytheistic culture.  This is choosing to worship a single deity while acknowledging that others exist.  This is also not monolatry, which is the worship of one god in a polytheistic culture, while believing that the one deity is the only one worthy of worship.  One might believe that many or all deities are worthy of worship, and still choose to focus only on the one.

Henotheism is a particularly common set up in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).  In most D&D settings, there are many gods that exist, but clerics (the priests of the world) typically only focus on one deity to the exclusion of all others.

Monism

Monism is more often a philosophical belief than a belief that shapes practice.  Monism is the belief that all things in the universe arise from a single substance.  From a theological standpoint, this often means that mortals, animals, plants, and deities all have the same sort of soul inside.  Often, this becomes they all have a related soul inside, or are parts of a greater whole.  Monism is closely connected to a variety of pan-isms.

Pantheism is the belief that everything is a part of god/the divine (often capitalized), and that all gods are one.

Panentheism is when deity is both immanent and transcendent.

Pandeism is when the creator deity merges with the world and ceases to exist.

Deism

Deism is the belief that deity(-ies) created the world, and then either died or left.  Either way, they are no longer influencing the world as it is.  This is the classic sort of “god in the gaps” theory for people who see no divine influence on the world but don’t know how it was formed.

Depending on the influence of deities in your world, this could easily work in Fantasy.  Perhaps deities used to walk the earth, but were killed off in some epic war.  What would that do to people looking for comfort in life?  What would the death of gods do to the afterlife?  Do people still swear by deity names?

Transcendence

Transcendence is the belief that the deity is beyond the world.  It resides in heaven or hell or some other plane, but not in the physical world.  Transcendence can be a part of any religion that includes a belief in gods.

Immanence

Immanence is the belief that deity is embodied in the world.  This might take a form like pandeism, where the deity is the world.  This might mean the gods are flesh and blood creatures who walk the earth.  This might mean a deity is a particular mountain, or tree, or river.  Like transcendence, immanence can appear in any religion with deities.

Next week we will pause before going in to Places of Worship to have a brief essay on how to create that polytheistic pantheon that is so popular in Fantasy.

Religion in Fantasy – Introduction

People often ask about how one goes about creating a religion for their fantasy world.  Often the advice focuses on gods and their domains, as though polytheistic deities function exactly as described in D&D.  There’s a lot more to religion than just deities, and we’ll touch on that in these essays.  However, this is just an introduction to the topic: why you might want to include religion in your fantasy world, why you might not, how much you actually need to include, and a very basic run-down for religious building for those who would like to get started.

Why include religion in second world fantasy?

Second world fantasy is fantasy that is not set on earth.  It is something you–the author–creates.  This involves a lot of worldbuilding.  Many people think of worldbuilding as creating maps, and sometimes languages.  Very Tolkein inspirations.  Just as important–if not more so–is the creation of the cultures that populate that land.

Religion is a huge part of culture.  It shapes the way people think, the values they hold dear, the people they find acceptable, the language they use, the clothes they wear, and how their own family is treated.  Religion can touch every part of a person’s life.  It can inspire someone to keep living and others to take their own lives.  It can give someone a cause to fight for and another a cause to fight against.  Religion can provide rites of passage, always useful when coming-of-age stories are so popular in the genre.

Leaving religion out of worldbuilding creates a noticeable hole.

Reasons not to include religion.

What if you’re building an atheist culture?  What if there is a sharp divide between what people believe in private and how they act in public?

It is entirely possible to build a society that does not look to any sort of higher being for guidance.  (It’s even possible to build a religion that doesn’t look to any sort of higher being for guidance.)  You see this more in sci-fi than fantasy, but it can happen.  You still will want to know basic things about what society believes (about the universe, about humanity/other races, about people as individuals, etc) and how people act, but these do not need to be tied to religion.

What if your character/s is/are atheist?

If they’re atheist in a larger theistic setting, you’ll want to know how they get along around the religious nature of things.  If they’re an atheist (or even agnostic or apathetic) in a largely secular society, it is possible to ignore religion almost entirely.  If it’s not relevant to your plot or your characters, then even if it exists it’s not something you need to include.

Which brings me to my next point…

How much religion does one actually need to develop?

Short answer: As much as your story requires.

Long answer: It all depends on how much religion influences the lives of your characters.

If your story takes place amid a religious backdrop (say a religious festival, or a monastery, or a specific ritual), you’re going to need to do a lot more religious worldbuilding than if your story doesn’t touch on that at all.

The more you want religion to influence the lives of your characters, the more you have to develop.  How do they pray (if they do at all)?  How often do they pray?  What do they pray about?  What sort of formal religious gatherings are there?  How often do they occur, and what happens at them?  How do the values/vices intersect with the characters’ goals and fears?  How much power does the priestly class have over the characters’ lives?  What do the characters think of the religion?  Do they believe it wholeheartedly?  Do they just go through the motions, assuming it’s all correct?  Are there any atheists who think the whole thing is stupid, or agnostics who don’t care and would rather not be bothered with this whole thing?

Develop an idea of how closely you want to tie religion to everyday life.  That will give you an idea of how much you have to build.  All you really need to know before writing is what will be relevant to your story.  If the gods/religion will play a major part in your story, then keep working on it.  If it’s just background flavor, focus on the few things that actually will show up in-story and leave the rest for later.

Very basic religious worldbuilding.

In future essays I will take apart each of these topics at length.  For now, here are the basics you might need to create a religious background that you don’t delve into deeply.

  • Forms of Theism
    • Do they have deities? If so, how many?
  • Places of Worship
    • Church? Temple?  Grove?
  • Organizations/Institutionalization
    • Is each temple independent? Is the religion a nationwide or international organization?
  • Daily Rites
    • What do people do every day that ties to their religion?
  • Other Rites
    • What larger rites of passage are there in the culture?
  • Holidays
    • What are the holidays and how are they celebrated?
  • Prayer
    • Do people pray? Often or rarely?  Structured or free-form?
  • Sacrifices
    • What is offered as a sacrifice? Money?  Time?  Flowers?  Food?  Animals?  People?
  • Taboos
    • What does the religion view as absolutely abhorrent?
  • Vices
    • What does the religion discourage?
  • Virtues
    • What does the religion encourage?
  • Reactions to Other Religions
    • How many religions are there in this setting? What do they think of other religions?  What do they think of syncretism?
  • Other Realms/Realities
    • Is belief in other realms/realities a part of the religion?
  • Afterlife
    • What happens after people die?
  • Theological Traditions
    • Do scholars debate theology? Does the average person?  Are there distinct theological traditions or schisms?

No more than a sentence or two is needed for each of these.  Even that little amount of prep will give you a solid basis to have a religion in the background of your world.  It will add more color and more flavor to the interactions of your characters.

Remember – above all, what matters is how religion affects your characters and plot.  If it affects neither in any way, than none of this matters.  But if it does, give these questions some thought.  Consider not only these questions on a culture/religion/society-wide level, but also for each of your individual characters.  Characters grow out of the world you build for them: if they’re raised in a certain religion, how has that shaped them?  Are they still in that religion?  What do they think of their birth religion now?

Anthology Submissions

A periodic feature listing random calls for submission that I find appealing.

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