Rose Hill's Writing Grove

A Fantasy author in the Twin Cities

Month: November, 2015

Religion in Fantasy – Prayer and Sacrifice

We touched on prayer a bit last week with daily rites, but now let’s delve deeper into prayer.  We’re also going to discuss sacrifice, which can go along with prayer in many occasions.


Types of prayer:

  • Petitionary prayers
  • Adoration/praise prayers
  • Offering prayers
  • Thanksgiving prayers
  • Silence/listening prayers


Types of sacrifice:

  • Libations
  • Food
  • Incense
  • Flowers
  • Votive offerings
  • Money
  • Service
  • Contests
  • Animals
  • People


Disposal of sacrifices:

  • Earth
  • Fire
  • Recursion of offerings
  • Feast
  • Temple/other decoration


Prayer, at its most basic form, is reaching out to a deity.  It might be free-form, standardized, or scripted.  It might be at specific times of the day, or whenever a worshipper feels it’s necessary.  Prayers may show up as a part of daily rites, holiday functions, larger rituals, or whenever a specific character feels the urge to pray.


When thinking about prayer in the context of your world, consider who your characters are praying to.  The most obvious answer is deities, but this is not the only answer.  Depending on the cosmology of your world/religion, a character could pray to: gods, angels, demons, fae, ancestors, spirits, elements, land wights, fate, archetypes, or even their own higher selves.  Some modern Pagan religions regard prayer as a way of tapping into one’s Higher Self, and aligning one’s actions accordingly.


Also, consider whether there is a difference between who a character is praying to and who they think they’re praying to.  Can one spirit/deity intercept prayers directed to another?  Could a person (read: mortal) do it?


Is there a standard physical position for prayer?  Does one stand, kneel, or bow down?  Is there movement?  What are the hands doing?  Are there prayer rugs or beads or other accoutrements that go along with prayer?


This being Fantasy, what is the metaphysical effect of prayer?  Do the gods/spirits use it for food/status/power?  Does it actually function as communication on their end, or do people just think that it does?  Do the gods care about answering the prayers of their supplicants?  Or is prayer an entirely mortal concern?


Peitionary Prayers


An exceedingly common type of prayer is a prayer asking for something, a petition to the deity in question.  (NOTE: For convenience sake, I will be referencing deity as the object of prayer throughout the rest of the essay.  This may or may not be accurate to your cosmology; feel free to generalize.)  One might ask a deity to do something for any number reasons: healing (oneself or others), money, job, romance, conversion of someone else, clarity with a problem, aid in a problem or battle ahead, victory in a problem or battle ahead, etc…


If the deity being prayed to has multiple titles, do the titles used change depending on what a person is praying for?  Consider the difference between Poseidon Eupolia (giver of good sailing) and Poseidon the Earth-Shaker: one draws upon his power as the god of the sea, and the other as his power as sender of earthquakes.  If you’re calling on him for a safe sea voyage, you probably don’t want to remind him about earthquakes.


Adoration/Praise Prayers


Sometimes a worshipper isn’t asking for anything.  Sometimes they are so filled with love for their deity that they pray to express that love.  This type of prayer is most common among those with a deep devotion to their deity (though not necessarily to their religion).  This is particularly common among mystics.  (Does your religion have a mystical vein?  If not, what happens to those who are inclined towards mysticism?  If it does, how acceptable are mystics in the religion?  Are they exiled to the fringes, or continually seen as new prophets?)


Praise prayers could also be a standard part of a worship service, or a normal and expected part of prayer.  Perhaps adorations are spoken at every dawn/dusk/full moon.  Are there standardized adorations within your religion, or do people make them up on the spot?  Are there any songs that serve the purpose?


Offering Prayers


Related to sacrifices below and adoration above, sometimes a worshipper wants to offer something to their deity, without necessarily anything in return.  In some modern Pagan circles, regular devotional actions are seen as a way of establishing a relationship with a deity.  In that case, an offering is a way of saying “hey, I’m here and thinking of you.”  For different things one might offer, see the sections on sacrifice below.


Thanksgiving Prayers


When something has gone well, one might want to offer a prayer of thanks to a deity.  This can get interesting in a polytheist context.  Does one pray to their patron deity (if they have one) or the deity typically associated with whatever problem has been solved?  For example, if someone’s patron deity is Phoebus Apollo and they win the affections of their beloved, would they give thanks to Apollo or Aphrodite (or Eros, depending on the genders involved)?  Depending on who one offers thanks to, might the other deity get offended?


Is a prayer to say thanks after a petitionary prayer that works out favorably a requirement of the religion?  An expectation?


What about if things are going badly in a person’s life?  Is a person still supposed to give thanks regardless?  How much gratitude is one expected to show to the deities/spirits?  Some of this will relate to the relationship between the gods and their worshippers.  If the gods are viewed as all-powerful or wrathful or petty, more thanks might be given to appease them.  If the gods generally encourage their worshippers to stand on their own two feet (or four, or tails, or whatever your species in question has), then thanksgiving prayers may be less common.


Silence/Listening Prayers


Sometimes, a person simply wants to commune with a deity/spirit/Higher Self without saying anything at all, and listen to what it has to say.  While this is another that is common among mystics, it also shows up quite a bit with petitionary prayers asking for guidance.


This could also be the common form of prayer for the religion.  There are those who see certain forms of meditation as such prayers.  This sort of prayer can also be common among those whose religion does not have a personalized deity; as such one would listen for guidance from one’s Higher Self, fate, or the universe at large.



Next, we’ll be moving on to sacrifices.  At its most basic form, a sacrifice is something offered up and made sacred.  Sacrifices can be made to all sorts of creatures, whether corporeal or otherwise.  We will discuss what can be sacrificed and how each item might be disposed of in each section.




Libations are drinks poured in offering.  This is commonly wine, milk, or water, but could well be any matter of drink as long as it is sacred to the person it is being offered to.


Libations can be poured into fire or into the earth.  As long as the fire is large enough, it will not put it out.  Be aware that pouring alcohol into fire will have an effect on it, and the fire can flare to burn the person pouring the libation.  Alcohol poured into fire should be done carefully.  Pouring a libation into earth will soak into the ground, but depending on what is poured, can also sour or spoil over time.  If there is one standard place where libations are poured, it is very possible that the priests/others tending the area would turn the soil and add other ingredients to kill the smell.


It is also possible that one might want to pour a libation indoors, either in one’s own house or another interior building, one could have a bowl on their altar that the libation is poured into.


Where the libation is poured and what is poured can depend on who/what is being sacrificed to.  Chthonic deities often have libations poured directly into the ground–possibly even a depression in the ground.  Deities associated with fire are likely to have something poured in fire.  Deities associated with a particular drink will likely prefer that as an offering.  Ancestors who had a favorite drink in life would probably enjoy that as an offering.


It is also possible for the offering person to consume the drink after it has been offered.  See the discussion on recursion of offerings in the food section below.




Food is another big one when it comes to offerings.  Sometimes, a portion of the food everyone is eating is given as an offering, usually the best part; sometimes a specific food item is offered up, depending on the preference of the spirit/deity in question.  Does a deity have a particular fruit they are associated with?  Does an ancestor have a favorite food they always used to make?


Food can be burned in a fire, offered on an altar then buried outside, or set outside on a plate for wild creatures to eat.  There could also be what is called recursion of offerings, which means that after the gods have had their spiritual part of the food, the worshippers consume what is left.  Another metaphysical way of looking at it is that eating the offering after the gods have had their part, eating the offering bring some of the energy of the deity into the worshippers.  Or, if you have literal gods that walk your setting, food could simply be an offering that they consume.


If an animal is being sacrificed, it was common for part of the animal to be burned for the gods, and the meat kept as a feast for the people.  We’ll delve deeper into this further down in the section on animal sacrifice.




Incense is traditional offering to the gods.  Even in the most ancient religions, sweet smelling herbs offered in fire to please the deities would not be uncommon.  Other societies might use incense burners, or sticks or cones of incense that are lit directly.


On the same topic of scent, was there an ancestor who had a favorite perfume or cologne?  Maybe a descendent would spray a bit in the air to help invoke them.


If incense is used in your religion, what scents are favored?  Are these locally produced, or are they expensive scents that have to come from afar?  What connection does the church have to the merchants who transport such goods?  Don’t forget to tie your religion back into other aspects of your worldbuilding.




Flowers do not last long, but they work well as an impulse offering (say someone if just walking along and picks a flower to offer) and they are also quite popular among particular spirits/deities. Agrarian and spring deities were often associated with plants and flowers.


Flowers might also be sacred to the religion as a whole.  Think of the association of the lotus with the quest for enlightenment.  What virtues does your religion hold?  Are there any flowers or plants native to the origin region of the religion that relate to that virtue?  Are there any flowers or plants called out in myths of the religion?


Flowers may be placed directly on an altar or shrine (or even any other holy place) or on a plate or offering tray on the altar/shrine.  They are typically disposed of on a daily basis, though depending on the flowers and how long they last, this timeframe could vary.


Votive Offerings


Votive offerings are (usually small) items made to give to a deity/saint/other spiritual figure.  Such things can be made or bought, and are dedicated to the deity–this means even if they stay on a household altar, they do not belong to the mortal whose altar it is, they belong to the spirit/deity it has been offered to.  In places that have a formal temple or church organization, a votive offering typically goes straight to the temple to use or dispose of as they choose.


The votive offerings are likely to be used as decorations, either within the temple they’re donated to, or on one’s own altar or local shrine.


Magical or enchanted items could also be offered as votive offerings, depending on what the religion you’ve created thinks of magic and magical items.




Instead of offering items (or in addition), one might offer money directly to the church.  This seems to be more common in places that have an organization behind the churches and temples, in which case the money goes to help support said institutions.


Donating money could be a requirement or expected part of the religion of the religion in the form of tithes.  If that is the case, is everyone equally encouraged to give, or are the wealthy encouraged to give more than the poor?


Fake money can also be sacrificed.  If the money is being burned in offering (as opposed to buried or entombed with ancestors, for example), chances are your people would not want to lose actual money.  That would wreak havoc with the economy.  Additionally, you’ll probably want your culture to clearly establish the difference between real money for spending and fake money to burn  or give as offering to the dead, so that you don’t have a counterfeit problem (which could crash your culture’s economy).




Maybe the deities want action over items.  Maybe they like a bit of both.  Maybe there are no deities, and service to others is a requirement of the religion.


What sort of volunteering is available in your culture?  If there is no volunteerism, what can a person do to help others?  What sort of service is expected?


Maybe the deity of merchants demands that a certain amount of money is donated to the homeless or hungry.  Maybe a religion that values hospitality would donate food to the hungry.  Maybe a person dedicated to a deity of learning goes to poorer areas of the city and helps tutor children.  Maybe all (or those of a certain social status) people are expected to serve in the temple proper for a limited time.


And the nice thing about service as an offering is that there is nothing that needs to be cleaned up on afterwards.




In ancient Greece and Rome, certain deities would have contests held in their honor.  Races and other athletic feats were the most common.


Think of the activities your deities value.  Think of the activities your religion values.  Are there baking contests for a deity of hearth and home?  Surfing competitions for water deities?  Footrace competitions for a deity of youth?  Horse racing competitions for horse related deities?


Contests are another sacrifice that don’t require anything to be cleaned up afterwards (except perhaps trash from spectators).


Animal Sacrifice


Animal sacrifice can take a couple of different forms.  As a living sacrifice, an animal could be released into the wild (think a dove into the air), dedicated to a temple sanctuary, or placed in a temple-run zoo.  If killed, the animal could be offered to the deity in whole or in part.  Splitting the animal between the deity and the worshippers was particularly common: the deities/spirits might get the blood or bones or fur, while the worshippers get the meat to have a feast.  Depending on the socioeconomic status of your character, this might be the only time they eat meat.  An animal offered whole to the deity might be one tossed off a cliff or into a volcano, or other natural feature associated with said deity.


If an animal is released into the wild, little to no clean-up would be required afterwards.  Same if the animal is dedicated to a temple sanctuary.  If given to a temple-run zoo, then the temple will need to have attendants that tend the animals on a daily basis.  Also consider why a temple might do such a thing.  Are they preserving the animals from hunters?  Is the zoo a practical concern that brings in money for the temple?


If the animal is killed and shared as part of the sacrifice, there is much more clean-up that would need to be done.  Typically, the animal has to be calm before the sacrifice, or the sacrifice does not proceed.  Some of this is out of respect to the animal, and some of it is a practical concern–the meat is better when it has not been soured by stress.  Priests are also trained to kill the animal quickly and generally as painlessly as possible, for much the same reason.


If an animal is killed and shared as a part of the sacrifice, who gets what part?  Do the priests lay claim to the meat, or does that go to the family who brought the animal?  Is the fur/feathers saved and repurposed or burned for the gods?  What about the bones?  If only the blood is given to the gods, quite a bit could be saved to be used by the worshippers and/or priests.


The whole sacrifice of an animal is typically a less common practice, if only because it’s a waste of resources.  Animals take time, space, and money to feed and take care of.  That means that the whole sacrifice of an animal is typically saved for more important occurrences.


Human Sacrifice


Does your society practice human sacrifice?  Is it legal?  If it is, how common is it?  This could vary anywhere from extremely rare and only in times of great need, to extremely common because the sun needs blood to survive.


Who gets sacrifices will depend in part on who they’re being sacrificed to, what that deity has a preference for, and why they’re being sacrificed.  Tlaloc, for example, was typically offered young boys with injuries or illnesses because their tears helped bring the rain.  The rains were absolutely necessary for the crops (as they are in most places).  A deity of sovereignty might demand only those of royal blood.  Why might they want a royal sacrifice?  Perhaps something has gone wrong with the country, and lesser offering have all failed to provide guidance.


Does the deity in question have a preference for age?  Profession?  Health?  Gender?  How often does this deity get sacrifices?


How is the person sacrificed?  What method of execution is used?  Does this method relate to traditional method of execution in the society, or is it something explicitly tied to the religion?


What does the person being sacrificed think about it? Are they going to the sacrifice willingly?  Are they fighting it?  What does the deity in question think of their willingness (or lack thereof)?  Is there a special heaven/afterlife promised to those who are sacrificed?


Religion in Fantasy – Daily and Other Rites

Now we get to the meat of what the religious adherents in your world actually do.  Daily rites are the sorts of things most likely to show up in your story, because they will be the sort of things so completely normalized it would be odd not to show them.  Similarly, the other rites we will touch on tend to mark larger events and accomplishments, such as those your characters may be completing in their quests.


Daily rites might include things like:

  • Cleaning/tending the family altar
  • Cleaning/tending a local shrine
  • Prayer
  • Warding
  • Possibly even regular worship services, depending on the location of your characters


Other rites might include:

  • Baby blessings
  • Coming of age ceremonies
  • Weddings
  • Death rites
  • Coronations
  • Soul retrieval
  • Initiations


Daily rites get to the heart of how the religion you’ve created affects your characters on the day-to-day basis.  If you have a fairly secular society and/or an atheist character, there might not be anything for your character to do daily.  If you have a society where religion has permeated every facet of their life, there might be small rituals for all sorts of little things.


The rituals that you show in-story will also be ones related to your character.  An extremely devout character will be dutiful when completing their daily rites.  An apathetic character who is just keeping up appearances will get by with the bare minimum necessary, very potentially offering mental commentary on the ones they have to do.  If certain rituals are restricted to certain classes of people, then your character is unlikely to participate in the ones they are not allowed in.  It’s a good thing to have more worldbuilding than is shown in your story–readers will pick up on a fleshed out world even if it’s not all shown.


Tending the Family Altar


Is there an altar in your character’s home?  What is on it?  In modern Paganism, there may be altars for gods, ancestors, seasons, or local spirits.  How is the altar arranged?  Must it be in a specific arrangement, or is it more free-form?


Who in the house uses the altar?  Who is responsible for cleaning up any left-over items?  (See the entry on sacrifices next week for what might be left over and how it could be disposed of.)


Is tending the family altar seen as a sacred duty, a familial duty, or both?  Is it viewed as a chore or an honor?  Is there a difference between how it’s viewed culturally, how it’s viewed in the family, and how your character views it personally?


Tending the Local Shrine

Perhaps there’s a shrine in your character’s neighborhood.  It might be your character’s duty to tend it.  This could include things like cleaning away debris, cleaning any statuary, cleaning graffiti, dressing any statuary, etc.


If your character does tend a shrine, consider why.  Did they set up the shrine, and choose to tend it?  Is it family tradition?  Is it the tradition of the village that everyone of a certain category (age, gender, etc) tends it?  Has the character been assigned to tend it as some sort of punishment?




Prayer will be delved into deeper next week, with our entry on Prayer and Sacrifices.  For now, consider a few questions.


  • Is prayer a requirement of the religion?
  • Who is being prayed to?
  • How often do people pray? Is this dictated by the religion, by custom, by something else?
  • What physical position are people in when they’re praying?
  • Are any physical accoutrements required to pray?




If your characters live in a particular fearful society, or are fearful themselves, consider what might develop to keep bad luck/evil spirits/other malicious entities at bay.


  • Are there specific totems people carry to avoid harmful entities?
    • Certain stones, colors, flowers, small pouches of things, religious symbols, etc.
  • Is a warding gesture made?
    • Crossing oneself, mudras, etc.
  • Is there a certain saying (or multiple sayings) that are supposed to appease angry deities or keep bad luck away?
    • Sayings to keep away nightmares, or prayers to calm a deity during an earthquake, etc.


Worship Services


Worship services could occur at a wide variety of intervals, including not at all.  Worship depends greatly on the relationship between the populace and the deity in question.  If adoration towards the god(s) is the expected emotion, then worship will be more common.  If mutual respect and cooperation is the standard, worship would be less common.


When are worship services held?  Christians and Jews both hold worship services on the Sabbath, though they mark the date differently.  Worship in that case is the day God rested.  Wiccans often meet at the full moon, which is related to a line from the Charge of the Goddess.  If your religion does meet on a regular basis, no matter how often that is, how is the day of the week/month/year picked?  What makes it sacred and special, without rising to the level of a holiday?


What do people do at worship services?  Consider song, dance, prayer, sermons, sacrifices, etc.  Is it the same structure each time, or are there different activities on each day of the week? Are there any constants that are always present?



Other, less common, rites are largely those involved in various rites of passage.  These will more than likely be long, involved ceremonies, lasting for potentially hours if not days.  These are also ceremonies that are far more likely to require the aid of a priest/ess.


Baby Blessings


Is there a ceremony for officially welcoming a child into the family and/or religion?  What age does this happen?  Is this at all related to how the child is named?


What happens at the baby blessing ceremony?  Who is allowed to be present?


Coming of Age Ceremonies


Does your culture have an official coming of age ceremony?  Is it at a specific age, or at a particular life milestone?  If there is not an official coming of age ceremony, is there an unofficial one?  Think of the American traditions of getting a license, getting a car, or going to prom.


If there is a coming of age ceremony, does the ceremony have legal standing in the culture?  If so, what happens to someone who does not go through that ceremony?  Can it be refused to a person even if they have reached that age/milestone?  What are the legal differences and protections between someone who has gone through their coming of age ceremony and who has not?


Are coming of age ceremonies dedicated to any particular deity?  Does it change depending on gender or social class?


Are there any physical marks to distinguish a person who has gone through their coming of age ceremony with one who has not?  Think of an object people wear, a particular haircut, ritual scars, etc.




Who has the authority to marry people in your culture?  If it’s any sort of religious figure, chances are there will be a religious component to weddings.  Additionally, if weddings are sacred to the religion, a religious component to weddings is nearly guaranteed.


Who is allowed to marry?  Are people allowed to marry more than one person?  Is it dependent on their potential partner’s gender and/or sex?  Is it dependent on wealth or social class?  Is marriage restricted by astrological sign or magical ability?


Who arranges marriages?  Can people choose their own partners?  Are they chosen by parental figures?  The government?  Religious figures?


What happens at a wedding?  How long does one last?  Who (besides the participants) is invited?  What religious components are there?


Death Rites


Who tends to the dying?  Are there last rites given to the dying?


Who presides over funerals?  Can any priest/ess do it, or must it be someone connected to a death and/or underworld deity?


Part of this will relate to the afterlife beliefs that you have developed for your culture and the body disposal method for the dead.  If the dead are believed to go down to an underworld and the bodies are buried, then that will be a very different funerary ceremony from a culture that believes in reincarnation and cremates the dead.




Historically, priests were often the people to officially coronate rulers.  This is especially true in places where kingship is seen as a divine right.


Are particular deities/ancestors/heroes called upon in the coronation ceremony?  Is there a particular patron deity of the new ruler/country that is called upon?


What happens at the coronation?  Are other nobles required to be present to swear fealty?  What about members of priesthood(s)?  Is just the monarch coronated, or is it both monarch and consort?  Are any myths of royal deities called upon or acted out in the coronation?


Soul Retrieval


Some cultures believe that illnesses and some other afflictions are caused by loss of a soul.  If this belief is present in your culture, think of who calls the souls back and what ritual is gone through to get the soul back.


Is the ceremony religious, magical, or some combination thereof?  Does it actually have an effect, or do people just believe it has an effect?




What initiations are available to your average person?  What about to someone wealthy?  What about someone on the margins of society?


Initiations are common for members of priesthoods, but among some ancient cults, they were also available for your average person.  The Elusian Mysteries were open to anyone but murderers.

Religion in Fantasy – Organizations and Institutions

When people think of “church,” they typically think of one of two things: first, the building, which we covered last week; second is “church” as an organization, which we will be covering today.

Institutions are large, overarching networks of people who work together towards a common goal.  Institutions not only work within themselves, but reach out to other organizations and individual people.

In religions, organization can take a variety of forms:

  • Involvement with lay people
  • In-temple hierarchy
  • Organizations across temples
  • Political influence
  • Economic influence
  • Cloisters
  • Cults

Involvement With Lay People

This may seem like an obvious first step, but consider how your clergy interact with the lay people of your culture.  In general, clergy are the ones responsible for various life marks: birth blessings, death prayers, marriage ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, etc.  But in addition to these specific occurrences, what else do clergy do in your world?

Do they lead worship services with sermons and prayer?  If so, how often does this occur?  Why does it occur at that interval?

Do they handle the sacrifices, to make sure the sacrifice is performed correctly and the gods are pleased? Do they read auguries for their constituents?

Do the clergy act as middle-men?  Do they interpret the ways of the gods for the lay person?  Do they keep the gods appeased so they do not kill everyone in their anger?  Do they invoke the gods into their own person to bring the holy down to earth?

Do they wander from place to place, offering blessings and cleansing demons where they go?

Do the majority of dedicated priests spend their time in solitude and contemplation?


In-Temple Hierarchy

What does the personnel structure of one individual temple or church look like?  Is there a head priest/ess?  If so, what is their job?  Who serves underneath them, and in what capacity?  Are people there willingly?

How devout are the people who serve in the temple?  Are they fervent in their belief, or is this just a job?  Does serving in a temple bring honor/status, or does society denigrate such people?  Are there any people who serve the temple, but not the religion directly (cooking, cleaning, accounting, correspondence, etc)?

Organizations Across Temples

Is there a large, overarching structure between the temples in your world?  Each temple could be independent, like the majority of temples in Ancient Greece.  Or they could all be a part of a unified structure like the Catholic Church.  Or you could do something in between.

If each temple is independent, each one’s individual influence in society is likely to be small–unless are strategically located or have the ear of a ruler (or two).  Heresy is likely to be smaller concerns, since such considerations are unlikely to go beyond the bounds of the temple.  Blasphemy might get one banned from the temple, but just that temple.

Certain temples may be connected, but not all.  Maybe all the temples to a particular deity are part of the same organization.  In that case, certain practices are likely to be standardized across the temples: religious rites, requirements for priesthood, standards of behavior, symbols and messages of the deity, etc.

If temples are connected, what happens when one disagrees with official practice?  Do the other churches try to bring them back into the fold?  Are they allowed to have their deviant practice?  Are the gods or other divinatory practices consulted in mediation?  Are they branded heretics?  Does it form a schism in the organization?

If temples are connected, do they all work together equally, or is one temple seen as the dominant temple?  Does an individual person head the temple organization?  If so, how closely do both priests and adherents have to listen to this person?

If all the temples of a particular religion are connected, they are likely to have a higher degree of standardization.  In addition, they could have a hierarchy all the way up the chain of command.  Depending on the religion’s spread across the population, areas could be divided within the church hierarchy like a political map.  Person X reports to person Y, who has a dozen or so Xs under their command.  Person Y reports to Person Z, who has a dozen or so Ys under their command.  And so on and so forth.

If there is more than one religious organization in the world, how do the organizations interact with each other?  Do they see each other as allies, enemies, or completely unrelated?  Do they work together to solve common social ills, or wage war in the streets?

Political Influence

How prevalent is the influence of religion in society?  This could range anywhere from a theocracy to a completely atheistic society (one of these days I’ll have to work on my godless theocracy again) with potentially hundreds of permutations in between.

If you have a theocracy:

  • Is there a god-king that rules?
    • How is this person selected?
    • Do they rule in truth, or are they a figurehead?
    • What are their political and religious responsibilities?
  • Is there a Chosen One of the gods that rules?
    • How is this person found?
    • What if someone tries to fake it?
    • Have there ever been competing Chosen Ones at the same time?
    • Have there ever been no Chosen Ones?
  • Do the priests rule?
    • Is it a council, or is there just one head ruler?
    • How are the priests in power chosen?
    • If there are priests of different gods/religions, do they have equal power?
  • How are competing religions handled?
    • Syncretism?
    • Forced conversion?
    • Loss of citizens’ rights?
  • Do the gods themselves rule?
    • If they’re immortal, what does their immortality mean for technological and social advances?
    • If they’re powerful, what do these powers mean in a war situation?
  • Who counts as a heretic?
    • What is the punishment for heresy?

In a theocracy, religion will affect every part of a person’s life, from their laws to their clothes to their food.  There will likely be no difference between religious laws and secular laws.

You could also have an official state religion while not being a theocracy. The ruler could still be a secularly selected individual, whether king, president, dictator, or anything else.  In a state religion, the laws of the religion are still likely to be the laws of the land.  There may also be additional secular laws that are not religious laws.

With a state religion:

  • Is there an official head of the religion?
    • If so, how close is this person to the ruler of the country?
    • Does this person dictate who rules a country?
  • What happens to people of other religions?
    • If they allowed to live in the country, are any of their rights restricted?
    • Does it even matter, as long as they respect the state religion?
    • Are religious minorities ever persecuted?
  • How do schisms within the religion affect the politics of the country?
    • Are multiple sects within one overarching religion acceptable?
    • Are countries particular about which sect they allow?
    • Are people of one schism or another branded heretics?
  • Are there any secular laws which are not explicitly religious?
    • Are they extrapolations from religious laws or completely separate?
    • Are the punishments for breaking secular laws different from the punishments for breaking religious laws?
  • Who runs the legal system?
    • Who has the authority to condemn a person?
    • Who, if anyone, has the authority to execute a person?
    • Who has the authority to absolve someone of a crime, or offer them sanctuary?
  • Is the police/state security force part of the religion, or separate?
    • If separate, are there ever conflicts?
    • If combined, what is there to keep the religious organization from taking over entirely?
  • How much are the laws of the state religion actually enforced?
    • Are they religious in name only and act more like a secular country?
    • Do people just give it lip service and think little of the actual religion?
    • Is the average person particularly devout?
    • Is the religious enforcement being imposed on the people by the government?
  • Are people allowed to build/use temples to other religions?
    • If no, are they even allowed to worship in their home, or with a small group of other adherents?
    • If yes, are there any limits to the building which can be built?

With a dominant, though unofficial, religion, you start getting a bit more acceptance towards other religions.  Negative reactions towards other religions are more likely to come from social pressure than laws against them.

A country that treats all religions equally could go one of two ways: first, they could try keeping religion out of politics entirely, to make everyone’s life easier (but that provides less drama or your plot/game); second, they could try appeasing all religions.  If you do not have exclusivist religions, this is not as hard as it seems.  Religions could be entirely focused on their own gods and promoting their own temples, in which case religious freedom laws and respect for holidays and other religious requirements are all that’s needed.  If you have religions that encourage fighting, killing, or forcing conversions on non-adherents, that is where the conflicts come in.  A country that treats all religions equally may still have devout rulers, but a fair ruler would still try to keep from privileging their beliefs over other people’s.  (Which is not to say your rulers need to be fair.  Worldbuilding is about creating a world for a story, and unfair rulers creating better drama.)

A country that is strictly secular could vary anywhere from being completely neutral when it comes to religion to banning all religions, certain religions, or parts of religions.  When it comes to a government that bans certain parts of religions, think of why such things are banned.

  • Is slavery banned, despite being allowed in religions?
  • Is male and/or female circumcision banned, despite being a requirement of certain religions?
  • Are certain garments banned, despite being a standard of the religion?

Conversely, is there anything that is legally required despite being banned by the religion?

  • Vaccines?
  • Medical procedures?
  • Education?
  • Military training?

Keep in mind that people have very strong opinions about these things in real life, and will take those opinions with them to your story. Unless you have characters of competing opinions that are treated equally and given equal weight, people will assume that the dominant character’s opinion is YOUR opinion, as the author.  It is very easy for the intersection of religion and politics to turn into a morality tale, especially if that is the plot of your novel.  That is not to say you should avoid such things–just be aware of what you’re writing.

Economic Influence

Churches can make a lot of money, especially if donations or monetary sacrifices are a requirement or standard of the religion.  The next question becomes, what do they do with this money?

Supporting the people who work in and for the temple seems to be the obvious first step.  After that (or possibly even before) is keeping up physical maintenance of the building itself.  If there’s still money after that, what do they do with it?

  • Do priests get a bonus?
  • Are the temples continually being improved and expanded upon?
  • Are more shrines/temples/churches in the organization built with the money?
  • Is it held in reserve as an emergency fund for the constituents?
  • Does the money to go support other services?
    • Feed the hungry?
    • Shelter the homeless?
    • Clothe the cold?
    • Pay for cloistered organizations?
    • Support refugees?
    • Support missionaries (if a proselytizing religion)?
    • Bail money for religious protestors?
    • Bribes for political officials?

Cloistered Orders

Are there any cloistered orders in your religion?

If so, how are they supported?  Does a rich financier pay entirely for their funding?  Are they supported by another temple structure?  Are they a self-sufficient community?  Do they make and trade goods with the outside world?  Such things might include beer (particularly common in the Middle Ages), textiles, artwork, pottery, or really anything else they can sell.

How is the cloister organized?  Are they segregated by gender, magical ability, or other qualifiers?  Who heads the cloister, and how do they relate to other temple heads?  Who determines who is allowed into the cloister?  How is the safety of the complex maintained?

If not, what happens to the people who want to spend their lives in religious contemplation?  Do they simply become hermits?


There are two different meanings of cults used in religious contexts, with very different implications.

The first is a veneration of a particular religious figure, such as a deity or hero of a religion.  One could talk about the cult of Demeter in regards to the Elusian Mysteries.  The historical cult of Isis could be thought of as part of the broader Egyptian, and later Roman, religion.  This is the sort of thing you’re likely to see with a henotheistic culture.

The second is the more modern usage of the word cult: an abusive religious organization focused on or around a charismatic leader.  This might include a complete devotion to the cult leader, cutting off cult members from outside groups or help, emotional and occasionally physical abuse, the belief that only the cult is the right way, the belief that the cult leader can do no wrong, etc.

If you’re going to use the word cult in your novel/world, be very clear which meaning of the word cult you’re referring to.

Religion in Fantasy – Places of Worship

Today’s entry in the series focus on places of worship.  There will be a bit of overlap between this entry and the next one on Organizations/Institutionalization.  Today’s entry will focus on physical locations, whereas the next entry will focus on the sociopolitical/religious organizations that staff potential structures.

When most people think of places of worship, they think of church structures.  While this is certainly a possible option, it is not the only one.  There are many places that may be sacred to a religion:

  • Church/temple/other man-made structure
  • Specific natural locations
  • Shrines
  • Monasteries/convents
  • Holy cities
  • Pilgrimage sites
  • Personal altars

Also consider why a place of worship may be located where it is.  Is the church built in that location because people congregate there, or because a famous historical person is associated with that location?  Is a particular cave associated with the underworld or visions?  Is there a shrine where an avatar of a deity once rested?

How can a sacred a sacred place be defiled?  Will the touch of a particular type of person do it, or is a more calculated destruction necessary?  Can a sacred place be defiled, or is it always sacred?


Large structures typically call for large infrastructure.  Who paid for the structure to be built?  How old is it?  Who staff it?  Who funds it?  Who uses it and how often?  Do those who tend the temple live on site, or commute to work?  Are there normal living quarters?

Is the structure in the middle of the city?  Out in the wilderness?  In a small town?  What is it made of?  How is it decorated inside?  Is it decorated outside?

Also consider what the structure is used for.  Are there weekly communal worship ceremonies?  Do people with petitions make a regular stream of offerings?  Is a deity thought to reside in the holiest of holies (or, if deities literally walk your world, does one reside there)?  Is it a temple for all the deities of the religion (if there are multiple) or just one?  Or maybe a pair/trio?

The design of the temple will change depending on what the religion values and how it is worshipped.  A religion venerating a sky deity might have structures that reach high into the sky, so as to get closer to them.  A temple to an underworld deity might be located in a cave, or have worship in the basement.  A temple to a water deity may have a pool or stream running through it.  If the people sing in worship, acoustics may be more important than architecture.  If people dance, a room filled with pews or other seating is unlikely.  A religion that divides its worshippers by sex or other categories may have a separate tier or divided rooms for worship.

The question of whether you want to call the structure a church or a temple or some other term is entirely up to you.

Natural Locations

Many locations may be sacred simply because they are an awe-inspiring natural feature. A temple or shrine may or may not be present on or near the natural feature for worshippers to come pay their respects.

Consider why the location is sacred.  Is a deity said to have been born in this location?  Or did a deity’s actions cause this natural feature to occur?  Is the site said to be particularly blessed?  Is a deity said to reside in the natural feature (such as a spring or a mountain)?

How do people pay their respects when they visit said feature?  Do they bathe in the spring?  Urinate off a cliff?  Hike up the mountain?  Offer a rock from home as a sacrifice?  Meditate under a waterfall?

If you have a religion that considers everything/where sacred, are there any places that are more sacred than others?  Or is there a sense of reverence for all locations present?  Can a place be defiled if all places are sacred?


Typically, shrines are an image of a deity that offerings get left around.  Someone may or may not tend it.  If it is a larger shrine or in a populated area, chances are someone will.  If it’s in an isolated area, a tender is less likely (though still possible).  Shrines may be as small as a hand-sized image of a deity (or their symbol) and a place for offerings, or they could be a massive statue with offerings scattered around its feet.

What does the shrine consist of?  What sort of offerings are left?  If someone tends the shrine, what do they do with the offerings?  If no one tends the shrine, what happens to the offerings that are left out?  Do people typically leave things that can biodegrade, or are there offerings that last for a long period of time?  Is there anyone that steals from such offerings? What does the religion think about this?

Why is this shrine here?  Who built it?  Why did they build it?  Who comes to it now?  Is it still being used for its original purpose, or has that shifted over the years?  Has the shrine always been in use, or did it fall by the wayside for some time?

What image is present?  Is it an image of the deity?  If so, is it a typical image of theirs, or a less common depiction?  Is it a painting?  A statue?  A relief carving?  A weaving?

Monasteries and Convents

Perhaps your religion has cloistered orders.  Where do they locate their monasteries? Are they segregated by sex or other characteristics?  Are such places dedicated to one particular deity, or multiples (if there are multiples)?

Cloistered orders not only have living quarters for themselves, they also likely have their own personal temple/church and a way to support themselves.  Do they brew beer to sell?  Make cloth?  What industry is available to them will depend on their climate and what, if anything, is prohibited by the religion.

Holy Cities

Are any cities seen as particularly holy to your religion?  If so, why?  Did something happen in the past to make it sacred?  Is there a particularly important or powerful city there?  Is it holy because that’s where the gods are said to live?  Or is it simply a city filled with temples?

On the flip side, are there any cities that are considered cursed?  What makes them so?  Was it a person or deity who cursed them?   Do people know whether there is a literal curse, or do they just believe there is one?  Are the cursed cities abandoned, or do people still occupy them?  How long ago were they cursed?

Like anything else, remember that your religion does not necessarily need a holy city.  Do what is appropriate to your religion, whether that is including a holy city or not.  That is true for all such questions in this series.  This is designed for worldbuilding purposes, and only you know what is best for your world.

Pilgrimage Sites

Many different places might be used as pilgrimage: particular temples, holy cities, natural features, rare shrines, grave sites, birth sites, pretty much any place with a strong importance to the religion.  That’s not to say that all religions will have pilgrimages.  While people may travel for various religious purposes, it may not be recognized as a pilgrimage.  But, if the religion of your world/culture has pilgrimages, think of where the people are going, and why they’re going there.

In ancient times, people would travel to particular temples to sleep under the altar to be healed or receive dreams and visions.  In Islam, pilgrimage to Mecca is a requirement of the religion.  Among modern Pagans, travel to Salem, MA and Stonehenge are viewed as something akin to pilgrimages.  Santiago de Compostela is such a famous pilgrimage site that there are songs and stories about people travelling there.

Also, think about your everyday people who live in towns near pilgrimage sites.  It will likely be similar to people who live in tourist locations.  What do people sell to the pilgrims to help them remember their trip?  Are there items specifically marketed as religious artifacts?  What are such items, actually?

If there’s magic in your world unrelated to religion, are there non-religious magical pilgrimage sites?  Perhaps a well of magic, or a particularly powerful ley line.

Personal Altars

Do people keep personal altars in their homes? If so, is this a common thing (like the laraium of ancient Rome) or is it specific to a particular character or religion?  Are the altars for deities, smaller spirits, or ancestors?

What does a person include on their altar?  Modern Pagans typically include an altar cloth, representation of the deity (statue, image, or symbol), a candle, a cup for liquid offerings, a plate for food or other offerings, any necessary purification items, and other appropriate paraphernalia (depending on the season and deity).

If it is a family altar, who is responsible for tending it?  How often is the altar cleaned?  Is it changed out seasonally, or monthly?  Who is allowed to make offerings at it?  How often do people make offerings at it?

Temporary Sacred Space

Wiccans are noted for creating sacred space within a circle.  In D&D, there are clerical spells that create a sacred space that both heal and repel certain types of enemies.  Are there priests or mages (or a combination thereof) who can create temporary sacred space?  What effect does this have on your religion?  What effect does this have in your world?

Burial Sites

How are the dead disposed of in your culture?  If they’re buried, are the graveyards/cemeteries considered sacred locations?  If they are cremated, is there a particular location they’re burned at?  Are there any sites designated for ancestor remembrance?