Religion in Fantasy – Daily and Other Rites
by Rose Hill
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
- Possibly even regular worship services, depending on the location of your characters
Other rites might include:
- Baby blessings
- Coming of age ceremonies
- Death rites
- Soul retrieval
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 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.
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?
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?
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.