Rose Hill's Writing Grove

A Fantasy author in the Twin Cities

Category: religion in fantasy

Religion in Fantasy – Other Resources

My last entry on religion in Fantasy is a page of further resources for your research.  I am only one place to look among many.  I can’t speak to the accuracy or knowledge bases of other suggestions, but I want you to know you have other ideas you can review.

Let me know if the links don’t work.

 

Creating God: Religion in Fantasy – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

 

Worldbuilding a Religion:

Part 1: Religion vs Cult

Part 2: How Religion Shapes Culture

Part 3: How Religion Shapes Characters

 

Holidays in Fantasy Fiction

 

Patricia C Wrede’s Worldbuiding Questions – Religion and the Gods

 

Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide

 

Magic and Religion in World Building

 

World-Building: Religion

 

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Religion in Fantasy – Theological Traditions

This is one of my very last essays in religion in Fantasy, and truthfully it is very much icing on the cake. If you’ve been following along thus far, you already have a solid religious background on which you can build. You have more than enough to color the world for your story.

 

But maybe you want more.  Maybe you want controversy.

 

This controversy doesn’t need to be related to your plot, sub-plot, character development or anything else.  It can be merely colorful background information.  Or, it can inform key parts of your story development. It’s up to you.

 

What sort of things might cause a schism in the beliefs of your people?

  • A conflict of orthodoxy vs orthopraxy
  • Varying degrees of literalism in the religion
  • Multiple people claiming to lead the faith
  • A rejection of church authority
  • The acceptance of outcasts by certain sects
  • Prophets
  • Contradictory teachings or emphasis
  • Monism or shifts between polytheism and monotheism

 

Distinguishing whether a religion will emphasize practice or belief is an important part of all new religions.  It is also something that can prompt schisms within a religion.  A religion which has previously emphasized right practice and behavior might have a sect arise that focuses entirely on belief and religious devotion.

 

Similarly, while many religions do believe their myths, there are those who recognize a difference between a mythic view of history and a literal view of history.  If a sect arises that views myth as myth, instead of literal history (contrary to popular belief), that could cause a split in theology.

 

If you have a centralized religion (with a particular person or institution as the official head of the religion), any challenge to their/its authority can create a schism.  This can also lead to a variety of reactions from the head church.  Sacred rites might be withheld, notable personages in the new movement might be excommunicated, practitioners could be faced with legal trouble or be shunned by their friends/coworkers/family, etc.

 

Prophets and other counter-cultural leaders are also a prominent factor in leading a change away from the majority opinion.  These are people who are good at pointing out flaws in the system; they often come from the margins and recruit there as well.  How would the majority people of your religion react to a religious movement among the marginalized and outcast?

 

How might this schism look in your world/story?

  • Debate among scholars
  • Laws/edicts aimed at suppressing unwelcome behavior
  • Fighting in the streets
  • Declarations (maybe even counter-declarations) of heresy
  • Social shunning
  • Friendly debate
  • Non-friendly arguments

 

The main thing to consider is how any theological differences show up in your world.  Maybe it’s just a passing comment from a scholar, because the differences are purely high-level debates that have no impact on the common person.  Maybe certain people are labeled heretics.  Are heretics hunted down, or just ignored and banned from the main religion’s rites?  Maybe there are many different types of a particular religion, the way Christianity has many different branches.  Maybe the schism is relatively small yet, and the people who follow that way are just considered weird; maybe they’re mocked or thought a bit silly.  Maybe they’re simply considered misguided.  Do religious or secular authorities try to pass laws or edits limiting the type of behavior the sect practices or encourages?

 

This sort of thing is going to be very specific to your world and the religion you’ve developed, which makes it a bit difficult to offer generalized questions.  Instead, I’m going to share some theological differences from a couple of my stories.

 

My tropical setting has three different races; each one with their own religion and each religion with its own theological dispute.  The humans are divided over a trickster deity who is also recognized as the god of magic.  On certain islands, he is condemned, and so are mages.  Opinions differ on whether it is best to kill mages or simply exile them to the wilderness.  On another island, he is actually the primary deity and mages are raised to positions of power.  There is little actual debate between these priests; instead, the differences affect the culture of each island.

 

One of the races of fish-people are divided over how best to follow their deity of love, one of their primary deities.  There are those who believe love should be followed to all people, regardless of race.  Others point out that the deity of love was the one who gave their race the ability to shift sex; since half-breeds lack that ability, clearly their deity doesn’t approve of such unions.  This debate has a direct impact on the lives of the numerous half-breed characters in the book, and is a large part of whether or not they feel welcomed at home.

 

The third race (another group of fish-people) is less of an actual debate and more of a shift in theology.  They are slowly transitioning from a polytheistic race to a monotheistic one.  Veneration in a number of the “lesser” deities is declining, while the emphasis on their primary warrior god increases.  Only one tribe truly goes against this trend, and that’s because they already have a near-obsessive devotion to a different deity.  (And they’re already considered a bit odd by the others.)  There is not currently religious conflict between the tribes, but the set up is there for the future.

 

Theological Limits

 

You may have some limits in what sort of discussions are possible depending on your cosmology and magical worldbuilding.  If everyone knows that the gods are real, you’re not likely to have atheists.  (Though you may still have people who dislike the gods, or who are unclaimed by the gods.  The former would more properly be anti-theists, though the latter technically be atheists.)

 

If the gods involve themselves in your world, do they sort out these theological differences, or leave it to the mortals to worry about?  For example, I have a world where the gods will send dreams to their worshippers to fix something that has offended them, and will send an avatar to the mortal realm if things get so bad they feel they need to step in.  But when one country decided to go from polytheism to state-sponsored monotheism (finally settling on henotheism)?  The gods stayed out of it and let the mortals deal with it themselves.

 

If your magic has a way of recording exactly what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago, there might not be any difference between history and myth.

 

Or, if the gods/magic choose the next leader of the religion, there’s not likely to be many arguments about that.  Typically in Fantasy, Chosen Ones are pretty clear, especially if they’ve been marked by a deity in some way.  (Unless you’re playing with the Chosen One trope, which is perfectly valid.)  If it’s traditional for your religion to be led by divine choice, not many people are likely to fight that (unless they’re fighting against the religion as a whole).

 

Even if the gods in your setting are real and do tell their worshippers exactly what they want, there can still be theological conflict.  For example, two deities in the same pantheon might have differing opinions on a particular subject.  Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena are likely to have very different views on sex.  People can have different opinions without fighting over it.

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?

 

Afterlife

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.

 

Necromancy

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).

 

Summoning

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.

 

Virtues

 

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

 

Vices

 

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

 

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?

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.

Subjects

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.

Tone

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

Timeframe

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?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.

 

Money

 

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).

 

Service

 

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.

 

Contests

 

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

 

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?

 

Warding

 

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.

 

Weddings

 

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.

 

Coronations

 

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?

 

Initiations

 

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?

Cults

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?

Churches/Temples

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?

Shrines

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?