Religion in Fantasy – Prayer and Sacrifice
by Rose Hill
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:
- Votive offerings
Disposal of sacrifices:
- Recursion of offerings
- 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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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?