Rose Hill's Writing Grove

A Fantasy author in the Twin Cities

Month: December, 2015

Religion in Fantasy – Afterlife and Other Realities

Generally, the afterlife is thought of as another realm where the spirits of the dead (and sometimes their physical bodies) go after death.  However, that is not the only realm that may exist outside the mortal one.  Some religions have other realms where not-quite-human/mortal creatures live.

There are two major components when creating an afterlife or other realms of existence for your religion.  First, what do people believe exist?  Second, what actually exists?  The following questions can be utilized for both questions.  And, this being Fantasy, the next question is: how can magic manipulate these other realms?



Helping people manage death is seen as one of the main components of a religion.  If the afterlife people believe in doesn’t give them comfort about death, it is entirely possible people will come up with an addition or alternative that will comfort them about death.

So, what happens after people die?  There are a variety of options you could choose from.

  • Pleasant afterlife realm/paradise
  • Bleak/nothing afterlife realm
  • Punishment realm/hell
  • A continuation of normal life
  • Union with deity
  • Guardian spirits
  • Reincarnation
  • Nothing

If a pleasant afterlife is promised, what form does it take?  What do people think of as paradise?  Is there a golden city?  Untouched wilderness?  A picturesque pastoral existence?  Does paradise vary per person, or is there a unified vision throughout the religion?  If there is a unified vision of paradise, are any deviations from the standard allowed, or are they treated as heresy?

Is paradise allowed for all people, or is it specific to certain individuals?  Is anyone guaranteed entry into paradise?  If so, can their entry be revoked?  For people who are not guaranteed entry, can entry be earned?  What actions are required?  How do those actions relate to the values, virtues, and taboos from previously?

Are there multiple pleasant afterlife realms a person could go to depending on their actions in life or devotion to particular deities?  Think of the division of dead between Freya and Odin in the Old Norse religion.

If paradise is not the automatic result for your average good person, where does the average person go? For a number of religions, there may be a large realm of what is essentially nothing where the majority of shades remain.  This could also be a temporary area where souls are judged before being sent to one afterlife or another.

Punishment is another very common component of afterlife.  Sometimes there is a punishment realm where all or some souls might go permanently or for a limited amount of time.  Other times, specific well-known offenders (perhaps from mythology or history) will explicitly be called out for punishment.  If someone is being specifically punished, than it is highly likely that the punishment will be unique either to their crime or to the person in particular.  (Consider Tantalus being tempted by both food and water after serving his own family to the gods.)

Punishment, like paradise, can consist of multiple realms as well.  Offenders might be divided by offense, or length of time needed in the punishment realms.  Or, they can even divided by which deity they’ve offended, and be personally punished by that deity (or its minions).

The ways the punishment realms are described will related to what the originating culture found unpleasant or deadly.  Hot, dry cultures could have deadly heat in the punishment realm.  Cold climates might have an unending winter.

The afterlife might not be anything special, especially for your average person.  It could well be that the afterlife is seen as a continuation of a person’s daily life.  In this case, grave goods (if they are provided) will likely be things that people used in their everyday life.

On the opposite spectrum, afterlife could mean a union with (a) deity, either basking in their presence or actually merging with them.  The afterlife could also mean ascension to godhood, especially for rulers, demigods, or those who have done great deeds (as your protagonists likely have).

Then again, dying might not mean a person’s spirit goes to any other realm at all.  A person could stick around, either as a ghost causing mischief or as a protective guardian spirit.  If you have a form of ancestor veneration in your culture, this might actually be the most logical afterlife.

Alternatively, the person’s soul could be reincarnated.  They could be born again in another animal or person, either immediately or sometime after death.

Another option that does not deal with an actual afterlife is that nothing happens at all.  When people die, their existence ends.  There’s nothing left of them.  This could work well if it is what actually happens to your people, in contrast with an elaborate religious practice.  Or, this could work with an atheist society that cares little about the afterlife.



If there is magic in your society, how does it relate to the dead and the afterlife?  Classically, necromancy was a form of divination that relied on asking more knowledgeable spirits for information.  Recently, necromancy has been portrayed as raising the dead (in one form or another).  If there is necromancy in your world, what form does it take?

  • Incorporeal spirits/ghosts
  • Banshees (depending on your mythology)
  • Mindless zombies
    • Sentient zombies tend to fall closer to the lich category of undead
  • Skeletons
  • Ghouls
  • Wights (depending on your mythology)
  • Ghasts
  • Wraiths
  • Liches
  • Mummies
  • Vampires

Does necromancy remove a soul from the afterlife?  If so, it is likely a related skill to summoning.  Does it simply manipulate dead bodies?  If so, it is likely a related skill to healing or compulsion magic.  Is it a blend of both?

What do the religions of the world make of necromancy?  Is it a skill that is sacred to the church, and heresy for anyone else to use?  Is necromancy restricted to the followers/priests of certain deities?  Is it utterly banned as a perversion?

If necromancy is allowed in your world, what practical forms does it take?  Can the testimony of the dead be used in legal trials?  Is necrophilia still illegal, or does it not count if someone’s consciousness has been raised and they can consent?  Can marriage continue after death is someone is raised?  Can a living person marry a dead person?  What happens to inheritance and property rights if life can continue after death?  Can the dead be used as messengers or spies?  Can they be captured and used as power sources?


Other Realms

What other realms exist in your cosmology other than afterlife realms?  Do particular mythological or fantasy species have their own designated realm the way that humans do?

Many portal fantasy stories go back and forth between Earth (our world) and Fairy/Faerie/the Other World/etc (the magic world).  What is the cosmological connection between them?  What if there are more realms than just the two?

As an example, consider the multiple realms of Norse mythology.  There were two realms for the gods, since there were two different tribes of gods.  Two different realms for elves, and another for dwarves.  A human realm, a giant realm, and others.

Or, you could simply go with a multiverse option.  There are different realities, yes, but each reality has its own planet and solar system and continents and a wide variety of cultures (and religions!) that your person could end up in (or summon from).



If you have other realms of existence where creatures live and your world has magic with the ability to summon creatures to a person’s aid, are the creatures coming from a person’s actual realm, another realm of existence, or are they being created on the spot?  Do mages think it’s one when it’s actually another?

What do the summoned creatures think of the human mages summoning them?  If they’re of animal intelligence, their emotions will be fairly basic and likely ruled by fear and the spell compulsion.  If they’re intelligent and self-aware, their reactions may be more mixed.  Do they resent being pulled from their lives in to this strange other world?  Do they like the chance to explore some place new?  Do they pretend to cooperate just to lash out at the first opportunity?  Do they meekly obey so they can spy on humans and report back home when the summoning wears off?  Are the leaders of their race considering a war against the humans for kidnapping their people?

Or maybe the physical creature isn’t taken into the human realm, and just their spirit is.  In that case, what happens to the body left behind?  It could slip unconscious or die or fall into a deep sickness.  Think of the ancient practice of shamans calling souls back to their body when someone falls ill.  Perhaps there are rival groups of shamans who bring souls back and summoners who steal them away.


Religion in Fantasy – Multiple Religions


Religions are very closely tied to culture. If there are multiple cultures in your world (and if there aren’t, you better have a damn good reason for your monoculturalism other than laziness), chances are there are multiple religions too.  Now, if the gods are extremely active in your world, this might not be the case. Depending on the activities of the gods, it is possible that different cultures (even every culture) share one religion.  But, that is the exception rather than the norm.


Depending on the age of your religion and the open nature of your culture, it is even possible to have multiple home-grown religions in a given culture.  Think of Buddhism’s origination in India or the growth of Neo-Pagan and Polytheist religions in the West.


Depending on how much people migrate (and it is very hard for a given country not to trade with at least some neighbors), there could be long-standing (or recent) religious groups within a particular country.  If the recent arrivals (or converts) are populous enough to approach the majority numbers, do the majority feel threatened?  Feeling threatened is a natural reaction in such a circumstance, but how soon and how badly they feel threatened can be related to how difference in values systems are between the dominant religion and the up-and-coming one.


Before we get too far into this, I want to introduce the idea of syncretism.  Syncretism was touched on briefly in “Forms of Theism.”  At its base, syncretism is a blending of two culture, beliefs, religions, or practices into one.  A clear example of this is the blend of Ancient Egyptian deities with Greco-Roman deities.


There are a couple of key differences between syncretism and cultural appropriation: power differentials, acknowledgement of sources, and respectful use.  Cultural appropriation almost always comes from someone with more power (economic, social, political, etc) taking aspects from a culture with less power.  The person doing the taking does not acknowledge how they gained the knowledge; it is often viewed as free for the taking, or may simply be considered theirs once they have it.  The actual people who practice that culture are not credited by the person who cherry-picked aspects of the culture that they found appealing.  Lastly, cultural appropriation is more likely to rely on stereotypes and cultural aspects that have been completely stripped of their relevance to the culture.  There’s nothing respectful about their use.


Syncretism, on the other hand, appears most often with people who are living with two cultures.  Inter-faith families who celebrate both religions with their children might have children who blend both religions into a personal, syncrestic faith.  People who live in a border region between two cultures might blend them both together.  Oppressed peoples forced to dance to their masters’ whim might hide their religion beneath trappings of the masters’ religion.  Syncretism happens when the power levels are equal, or even when the person syncretising is at a disadvantage.  Syncretism is organic, and comes from people already straddling those cultures and trying to find a home for themselves.  Syncretism is a sincere attempt at making a home for oneself within cultures or religions, because nothing appropriate otherwise exists.


Basic Reactions to Other Religions


In general, any religion that does not exist in a vacuum is going to have an opinion about the existence of other religions.  It may be an exclusivist position: only our religion is right.  It may be an adversarial position: those gods are evil (for reason X, Y, and Z) and thus must be defeated.  It may be a neutral position: each group of people have their own gods, who largely don’t interact with each other.  It may be a syncristic religion: they must all be the same gods viewed through different lenses, so let’s figure out who corresponds to who.


Once you’ve determined the basic reaction of your religion to other religions, think of how that reaction comes into play.


If you have an exclusivist religion, is the focus on conversion and proselytizing?  Are non-believers slated for death?  Are they simply refused citizen rights?  Or are they simply all ignored as being wrong, because the chosen few are born into the right religion, and there’s no other way to join?  People from exclusivist religions are likely to be the most hostile to other religions, because the sheer existence of other religions causes theological problems.


Adversarial positions between pantheons are popular in Fantasy.  Certain deities are labeled “evil” and questing groups are gathered from stereotypical Fantasy races in your pseudo-medieval Europe to take them down.  (See “Developing Deities” for reasons not to paint your deities in such broad strokes.)  Maybe the deities of X race hate the deities of Y race.  If the gods are real, they could be feuding over real slights, which their mortal chosen then have to act out.  In those situations, what do the mortal chosen think of playing out the gods’ arguments?  Are they even aware of the history between the feuding gods?  How much ability to refuse the gods do mortals have?


Neutral positions are common among polytheist religions.  Each culture has their own pantheon.  Just like the cultures are different, the deities are different, and that’s all right.  This is a good position for a religion to take if it’s conflict between religions is not a part of your plot.


Syncristic positions are also common among polytheist religions.  This one is particularly prevalent among conquering empires: the pantheons of the vassals are folded into the pantheon of the conquering nation.


Parent/Sibling Religions


If the religion you’ve created grew out of another religion that is still around, what does the child religion think of the parent religion?  Does it demonize the old religion?  Respect it, but still think it’s misguided?


Are there multiple religions that grew out of one parent religion?  If they’re all still active, consider not only what each child religion thinks of the parent religion, but also what the parent religion thinks of each of its branches and what the child religions think of each other.


Part of this will depend on what position what position it takes towards other religions in general, but related religions often have a particular history that inspires particular feelings.  Think of classical Islam, which had special provisions for Christians and Jews (as opposed to pagans and other sorts).

Religion in Fantasy – Values

Today we’re going to discuss the values of your religion: the virtues, vices, and taboos.  This ties in very closely to your greater cultural worldbuilding, especially if the religion is the dominant or controlling one in the culture.  What matters to the religion, both positively and negatively?


Virtues, vices, and taboos may be explicitly laid out–such as the Seven Deadly Sins or the ancient Hawaiian kapu system–or they may simply be influences within the religion, guiding people towards certain behaviors and away from others.




What traits does your religion value?  There are a wide variety of positive traits you can choose from, but your religion will be diffuse and unfocused if you try to pull in too many of them.  When choosing virtues, think about how the deities/saints/other important religious figures behave.  Think about the climate where the religion originated, and what virtues that might prompt.  (For example, many places with hostile climates had a strong culture of hospitality, because to deny a traveler hospitality might condemn them to death.)  Think about the social class this religion was born from, and what values it might import from that.


Think about how these virtues might influence people in their day to day life–is it actually possible for a person in your society to live a virtuous life?  Are certain virtuous qualities effectively limited by class/social/economic status?


Potential Virtues:

  • Prudence/Wisdom
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Courage
  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Charity/Generosity
  • Purity
  • Humility
  • Honesty/Truth
  • Diligence/Discipline
  • Fidelity
  • Honor
  • Hospitality
  • Self-Reliance
  • Industriousness
  • Perseverance
  • Familial Piety
  • Obedience
  • Joy/Mirth
  • Curiosity
  • Vigor
  • Love
  • Beauty
  • Strength
  • Power
  • Compassion
  • Reverence
  • Balance
  • Inter-Dependence/Community
  • Law-Abiding
  • Magic*
  • Tolerance




What does your religion see as a flaw in people and in the society at large?  Again, some of this may originate from the culture the religion was born of, if it is not a local religion.  Vices may be dark shadows of the virtues, or they may be completely separate issues.


Are there moral tales that exhibit why these virtues are a bad idea?  This can tie into the myths of a culture.


How strictly are the vices regulated?  Is there a moral authority in the culture that actively forbids such activities/behavior by law, or is it simply societal influence that warns one away?


Potential Vices:

  • Lust
  • Greed
  • Gluttony
  • Pride
  • Envy
  • Wrath
  • Sloth/Laziness
  • Weakness
  • Cowardice
  • Guilt/Regret
  • Dishonor
  • Solitude
  • Magic*
  • Dishonesty
  • Flightiness
  • Disrespect
  • Irreverence
  • Cruelty




Taboos can range from the common to the extremely specific.  If you have a particularly strict religion/culture with a lot of taboos regulating a person’s life, you will need to come up with a wide variety of taboos.  That will be far too many to offer here.


Also, keep in mind that taboos might be things outlawed by the state or things avoided purely by social pressure.


Common Taboos:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Theft


Other less common taboos may be grouped under such topics as cleanliness, sex, food, magic, methods of worship, etc.


*=Consider the acceptance of magic in your religion and in your culture.  Is magic restricted to priests?  Is it taboo?  Is magic seen as sacred, and thus highly valued?  Is relying on magic seen as a weakness?

Anthology Submissions

A periodic feature listing random calls for submission that I find appealing.


NOTE: Vitality has put out calls for themed submissions of their regular ezine.  Since this is a monthly call, there are multiple deadlines and subjects.  Check out their website for the theme each month.

THEME: Varies; genre fiction with queer protagonists

DEADLINE: 15th of every month, starting January 2016

WORD COUNT: 1K-5K for short stories, up to 1K for flash fiction

PAYMENT: $25 for short stories, $10 for flash fiction



THEME: Erotic horror anthology

DEADLINE: March 1st, 2016 or until filled


PAYMENT: $.03 per word

Book Review – War for the Oaks

We’re taking a break from our Religion in Fantasy series to bring you a book review from a book I just finished Friday.

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull was published in 1987.  Its age is the excuse I give for not having read it before.  I heard about it at CONvergence a few years back, when the author panelists described it as kicking off the urban fantasy genre.  I thought to myself, how have I not read this?  Urban fantasy set right here in my home town?  Yes, please.

But…  This book just isn’t my thing.  It’s not bad, per se–I can see how it could appeal to a lot of people.  But I am not one of them.  I am not remotely one of them.  And that made me sad.  I really wanted to like this book.

The biggest drawback for me is the writing style.  It’s heavy on description, it’s heavy on poetic metaphor, it’s heavy on technical musical jargon.  For highly visual or poetic or musical studies people, this could be a wonderful book.  For someone (like me) who just wanted to read a cool urban fantasy set in my home town, I found myself skimming pages at a time.  (I have this same problem with fantasy authors like Tolkein and Scott Lynch; I’m just not a description fan.)

I was also not nearly as enthralled by the urban fantasy Minneapolis setting as I thought I would be.  Part of the problem is that it’s almost 30 years old.  The book didn’t describe the Minneapolis I know and love; it described something long since gone.  That, I suppose, is the major downfall of urban fantasy.  As it ages, it gets further and further out of date.  For those who aren’t as familiar with the modern locations being described, it would probably be far less jarring.

I couldn’t quite get a read on the MC.  She was just sort of there.  And I fully admit that part of my problem was that I just couldn’t get into the writing style, which likely made it harder to get into Eddi’s head.  But I have problems with a book where I’m not rooting for the MC.

I did root for the phouka.  He was the best part of the whole book.  The phouka made reading this book worthwhile.

The plot twists were predictable, which was honestly more satisfying than annoying.  The dialogue was hard to follow, which was annoying.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book that I thought honestly needed more dialogue tags, but here you go.  Eddi and her best friend sounded too much alike.  Without dialogue tags, I couldn’t distinguish who was speaking in half of their conversations.  The other characters all had far better distinguished voices.

Overall, would I recommend this book?  Absolutely.  I might not have liked it, but what I disliked was specific to my tastes in fantasy.  Happily, we have a wide ranging genre, and this might be perfect for someone else’s tastes.

Recommended for: musicians, fans of description in fantasy, visual readers, and fans of urban fantasy.

Religion in Fantasy – Holidays

The word “holidays” comes straight from “holy days,” but don’t let that fool you.  There are more to holidays than just days sacred to a religion–or at least, there can be depending on your worldbuilding. Holidays can be secular or religious or some combination thereof; they can shift from one side to the other and back over the course of time. Secular holidays are likely to be country or culture specific, shared by people even if they have different religions. Religious holidays will be specific to each religion, and are unlikely to be shared outside of the religion (though this can still happen in blended families or if a particular religion has a lot of influence in the society).

Today, we’re going to be talking about developing religious holidays.

Holidays can vary wildly in subject, tone, timeframe, and methods of celebration. Some subjects are common (though not universal) across cultures: seasonal markings, ancestor remembrance, New Year celebrations.  But one need not be limited to only these celebrations, and if these things are not important to your cultures, they might not be considered holidays. Similarly, parties are quite common for holidays, but there can also be reflective or mournful holidays as well. As many similarities as there are across holidays, there are differences too. Create what fits for your society and your world.

Holidays needn’t be celebrated by all the people of a religion.  It is entirely possible to have group specific holidays that don’t let all people participate.  Perhaps a goddess of fertility has a holiday that’s just for mothers.  Maybe a deity of youth has a holiday that’s just for children.

Holidays can be of varying importance, both to your characters and the culture at large.  A country that has a long, hard winter might have a particularly large and festive spring festival to compensate for that.  An agricultural country might have a massive harvest festival, because that’s the holiday that’s sacred to their patron deity.  Maybe the solstices are minor holidays because the light changes aren’t that drastic in your setting.  Maybe your character’s favorite festival is the one with a baking competition, where they can try lots of new food.  Maybe they have fond memories of the holiday when they met their first lover.  Maybe they just love any excuse to wear costumes.


A brief list of subjects in case you need ideas:

  • Seasonal markers
  • Harvest and planting markers
  • Animal birthing/spawning/breeding markers
  • Ancestor remembrance
  • New Year
  • Historical event commemoration
  • Opposite day
  • Romance day
  • Deity reverence

As I said before, seasonal markers are very common.  Part of the reason they’re common is that they often tie in nicely to harvest markers, and everyone needs food to eat.  However, if you have a society that has harvests year round and a fairly mellow change in seasons, your people might not have any need to mark such changes of the year.  A society which doesn’t value romance likely wouldn’t have a day to celebrate it.

Deity reverence is possibly the most common holiday people think of.  They go “oh, if I have a deity of X, I should have a holiday relating to that.”  This isn’t necessarily the case.  A single deity could have multiple holidays associated with them.  The holiday/year cycle could even follow the myths of a specific deity or set of deities, such as the Wiccan myth of the Goddess with the Holly/Oak King, or the ancient Greek myth of Persephone’s travels between her mother and her husband.

Some deities might not have a holiday at all.  They might be too minor, they might be officially shunned, they might simply have a different sphere of influence.  If you have a deity that is honored with every little thing a person does throughout the day, they might not need a holiday to celebrate them because they’re already constantly honored.  Or, they might have the biggest holiday of them all.  It all depends on what works best for your society.

Opposite days show up the most, or are at least most popular, in societies that have extremely stringent social enforcement.  If there are strict rules governing the interactions between the social (or any other sort of) classes, an opposite day might develop.  They function as a sort of release valve, so that a particularly hidebound society doesn’t go mad from lack of options.  It’s a socially acceptable time to be transgressive, which might be the only time people have to express themselves.


What is the tone of your holiday?  Part of this will relate to the subject, but it can also vary quite a bit.  Is your ancestor remembrance somber and mournful, or do people laugh and drink and tell funny stories of the dead?  Is New Year a party, or a thoughtful look at the year past?  Is the blooming of flowers a joyous time, or a reminder that the summer famine will be quickly approaching when the stores run out before the harvest begins?

The tone of a holiday can also be different between families and between individuals.  Holidays can easily bring back bad memories.  Consider: what is your character’s favorite holiday?  What is their least favorite?

Some possible tones for your holidays:

  • Celebratory
  • Silly
  • Romantic
  • Flirtatious
  • Somber
  • Generous
  • Mournful
  • Reflective
  • Playful
  • Competitive


Many holidays last a day, but they can last longer.  Two days, three days, a week, a month, even more.  If the holidays you have last longer than one day, are the specific activities that go along with each day?  If you have a longer holy season or month, is there a specific festival or activity that marks it off?  Does the tone change throughout the duration of the holiday season?

When does the holiday officially start and end?  Is it from midnight to midnight? Sun up to sun down?  For the duration of the rainy season’s first storm?

Methods of Celebration

There are countless ways to celebrate holidays, and they will depend largely on the subject and tone that the holiday has.

How do people decorate (themselves, each other, their homes) for the holiday?  Are there flowers or plants that people hang?  Are there special clothes people wear, or significant items that are displayed?  Are there any symbols that would automatically conjure the thought of the holiday in a person’s head?  (Think a pine tree and wrapped presents for Christmas, or a menorah with candles for Chanukah.)

What do people do during the holiday?  Any number of things can be combined, but think of the major occurrences that might be standard.

  • Share food
    • Are certain foods traditional at each holiday?
  • Gather with family
    • How large of an extended family is one expected to gather with?
  • Flirt with romantic interests
    • How far beyond flirting is acceptable/one expected to go on this holiday?
  • Compete in games
    • Races, triathlons, etc…
  • Play games (no winners)
    • Scavenger hunts, etc…
  • Visit cemeteries
    • Do people just stop to visit? Do they tend the graves? Do they raise the dead from the graves for a chat?
  • Go to religious services
    • How long do the religious services last? Is there a common topic to the holiday?
  • Dress in costumes
    • Do the costumes have a theme? Are the costumes for a competition, a masquerade, trick-or-treating?
  • Dance
    • Are there traditional dances?
  • Sing
    • Do people go caroling? Are there solo performances? Are there traditional holiday songs? Are there parodies?
  • Perform in/watch plays
    • Is there a particular myth that is reenacted in plays for this holiday?
  • Watch/set off fireworks
    • If your society doesn’t have access to fireworks, illusion magic and fire magic could put on similar performances.
  • Light bonfires
    • Does everyone light their own bonfire, or is there just one per town that has to feed out to others?
  • Paint/color each other
    • Ink, colorful powder, henna, markers, coal, body paint, etc…
    • Are particular symbols/images/patterns particularly popular for this holiday?
  • Pray
    • Any common or standardized prayers special to this time?
  • Give gifts
    • Who is expected to give gifts, and who is expected to receive them?
    • What level of reciprocation is expected?
  • Make treaties/alliances/betrothals
    • Good for days whose subject is peace-making


If ever you get stuck when making holidays, just look to current examples of holidays.  What do you celebrate, and how do you celebrate it?  What do others in the culture around you celebrate, and how do they celebrate their holidays?  How can you change what you see in the real world to fit the cultures and species you’ve created?