Religion in Fantasy – Places of Worship
by Rose Hill
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?