Religion in Fantasy – Developing Deities

by Rose Hill

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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