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Thread: Fantasy religions

  1. #1

    Lightbulb Fantasy religions

    One thing I always used to completely ignore when writing fantasy was religion. I'm an atheist and don't really think much about religion during everyday life; and in popular culture these days, religion is generally sidelined. It's not part of the everyday lives of TV show characters or film heroes.

    But after studying the ancient world for the last three and a half years, one thing that has struck me is that the ancient Greeks and Romans really made the worship of their gods a big thing. Competitions like the Olympic Games and the Great Dionysia (a theatrical competition) were all about the gods. The Olympic Games took place at a sanctuary; the Great Dionysia was named after the god it was intended to praise, Dionysus, who was the god of theatre (and also wine, grapes, dancing naked in circles, etc). The Romans had shrines to the household gods in their homes. Gods were part of myth and legend, the stories they told each other in the evenings; at parties they poured libations of wine on the floor to the gods before they started drinking; mosaics, vase paintings and sculpture depicted gods and in many cases were dedicated to the gods at sanctuaries all over Greece and Italy. Votive dedications were given to the gods by merchants in exchange for a safe journey equal to one tenth of the profits from that journey.

    In the modern world, religion is the source of both unity and conflict. Even within one religious group there are wildly divergent views on certain issues - condoms, female priests, abortion, issues of sexuality.

    And yet, I realised a little over a year ago, I tend to ignore religious considerations when I'm writing. But religion is something which affects us quite a bit, even if we aren't religious. It can provide a character with a motive for acting in a certain way, create instant conflict or harmony between two characters or groups, or be used to explain a character's prejudices, expectations, hopes or fears. And more than that, it can add believability to a world and can be used to demonstrate precisely how much an event had affected your characters when something catastrophic leads a character to either embrace religion or question it, or change the way they worship.

    So what I want to know is, do you include religion in your novel? What is the nature of that religion - a single god, many gods that all require worship, many gods from which each character can choose which one or two to worship, no gods but certain forces of nature, like Water or Wind, which people worship without personifying them? How does it affect your characters? How does it influence the world, the prejudices of the people who inhabit it, and their attitudes?

    In my current story, I've got a set of seven gods, each linked to certain aspects of nature and human existence - Linsear, for example, is the goddess of water, rain, streams, rivers, lakes, cleanliness, purity and virginity. Shuve is the god of all things ancient - mountains, ruins and old buildings, cemeteries and the dead, and traditions. Six of the seven gods have had an associated prophet at some point in the last 400 eyars before the story (I'm holding the last one for a future story), and this prophet had a profession in some way linked to the god or goddess - so Linsear's prophet was a washerwoman.

    I apply this religion to the story in several ways. Their names are given to the days of the week - Shuve's day, Linsear's day etc. Certain annual festivals crop up, one of them forcing my characters to choose, after a virus has killed three quarters of the population, whether to risk the now unsafe wilderness to go to a pilgrimage site unguarded by the men of the group in order to attend a women only festival, or whether to remain safe at their farm. One character, whose brother, now dead, was a priest, experiences a crisis of faith and questions the very existance of the gods, only to be shunned for expressing such doubts by other characters, who fear the wrath of the gods will follow his disbelief and destory him.

    I also have a whole host of swears and oaths based on the gods and the prophets - Dehbu's breath is one, referring to the prophet of the goddess of light, fire, glass and mirrors, who was a glassblower and is a sort of patron saint-esque figure to people with certain skilled trades. Swear phrases like this are selected according to the pre-virus profession or status of the swearer. Gods names are not used to swear, exactly, but are used to emphasise urgency - "run as though Sernald himself was following you" is something I've used, referring to the god of madness, rabies, beer, cats, and opiates and other drugs, in this case in his role as the god of madness. This way I can avoid using realworld swearwords, I can give greater emphasis to the word "bastard" (which crops up a lot since illegitimacy is a big thing to my characters, particularly if the parents are from wildly different statuses, and one of my characters is the illegitimate son of the dead king and a woman from a skilled trade background), and I can avoid certain phrases which are based upon Christian ideas, such as the phrase "go to hell". Instead, I can have something like "Sernald take you for his prophet" (Sernald being the god who hasn't had one yet).

    And woah what a long post. I'd love to hear how other people deal with religion in their stories.

  2. #2
    Moderator Philip Overby's Avatar
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    I almost always include religion of some sort in my novels. Even if people are praising seeds, praying to their weapons, or worshiping cat statues. It seems bizarre not to since almost all civilizations known to humans have had some religious views, even if sparse. Your world sounds similar to certain Native American beliefs. Their culture was heavily influenced by their crops so it was paramount that they get a bountiful harvest. Sounds like you put a lot of thought into it, so for your particular story it works well.

    I think it is always good to use religion the same as you would use armies or fantasy creatures. If it enhances the story you are going to tell, then focus on it.

    Actually, I take back what I said. I don't always use religion in my stories. If the story is more character driven, then I focus on the characters. There may be a mention of some type of religion, but only in passing.

    All in all, I think fantasy worlds devoid of any kind of religion would be fine, but I think it always enhances your world if it exists.
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  3. #3
    Senior Member JCFarnham's Avatar
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    As far as religion goes I haven't detailed much of it in my setting. Sooo I guess you have a lot more figured out than me really haha.

    What I do have however is that a God [used with the vaguest gender-roles possible], know to the common people as the Divine. This God is the supposed root of the powers of my Nine Stars [aka the mages of living legend] and it is said that the Divine divided its power up between Nine mortals and then swanned off somewhere. That is about it really. I assume that because of this the people of my setting don't really worship deities as such, rather, tend to make oaths like "guardian's protect me" and so on [Guardian here refering to the Nine].

    Yeah I have thought about it so much, but it would make sense for different nations in my setting to take different views on the divine, based on rumour and folkloric vocal traditions andd what not.

  4. #4
    Senior Member Mythos's Avatar
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    In my worlds I enjoy working on the religion and trying to figure out how it would affect the civilization my MCs live in. In one world I have three types of gods: the Clay Gods, the Stone Gods, and the Chaos Gods.

    The Clay Gods are the five gods of humanity. They are called they Clay Gods because the earth, their mother, formed them from clay. The civilization that worships them use golems as parts of their everyday lives. When a golem is created one of the Clay Gods is asked a blessing from. If you are creating a golem guardian you would ask a blessing from Mealren the god of warriors and war. If you want a laborer you would ask a blessing from Peren the god of laborers.

    The Stone Gods are the predecessors of the the Clay Gods, sort of like the Titans of Greek myths. As you may have guessed they were formed from stone. The Stone Gods are the gods of animals and the elements, everything that humanity finds difficult to control. They share their sphere of power with the Chaos Gods who were once Stone Gods, but they betrayed their mother and had their souls ripped from their bodies. They are the gods of natural disasters and negative emotions.

    This makes the civilization that worships, or at least knows about, these gods fearful of of anything they can't control. The rulers of their pantheon, three goddesses in a class all their own, are the goddesses of order, the goddess of death, earth and life, and love. Because their pantheon is ruled by goddesses, the civilization has a matriarchal society.

  5. #5
    Senior Member Ophiucha's Avatar
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    Also an atheist, and I tend to have atheist protagonists and worlds that are at least somewhat modern, modern-ish enough that atheism isn't abnormal. I have religions in my world, and Mordiggian - one of the characters - is often referred to as the God of Death, but while it makes for a good backdrop to the story, I still don't focus much on it. Things are somewhat incidentally influenced by the religion. Holidays and occasionally places are named for the Old Ones, and out of instinct, my main character often calls the Old Ones gods, even though he doesn't believe them to be divine. Much of the artwork and whatnot has religious symbolism, but my characters just view them as paintings, not as holy in some way.

    I think atheism is viewed somewhat differently in my story, and indeed, it reflects my own thoughts on the matter. I think that religion has little to do with belief, but instead reverence and worship. The Old Ones of this world are unquestionably present and very powerful. They created elves, and they created the Earth. My characters are atheists not because they don't believe in them - that would be foolish - but because they do not respect or fear them. They are there, and they are influences in the world, but they would not worship them.
    Last edited by Ophiucha; 3-1-11 at 3:38 PM.

  6. #6
    Moderator Ravana's Avatar
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    I include it when and for the same reasons as I include anything else in a story: when it belongs there.

    There's no special reason to consider religion a mandatory presence for a world. Tolkien had very little of it: the elves occasionally referred to their gods, but didn't always think of them in the same way we do; it was never mentioned at all in relation to humans, dwarves and hobbits; Sauron was a god, but no mention was ever made of whether or not his followers worshipped him. (If you read the Silmarillion, combined with the appendixes in Return of the King, you learn that balrogs were also gods… and so was Gandalf.) In Steven Brust's "Taltos" series, the gods appear regularly as characters—but are viewed as "gods" in the sense we usually employ only by one segment of the populace… and it's not clear what the gods themselves think on the matter. In many other settings (Moorcock and Cook come to mind), gods make appearances but may or may not perform religious functions, and even where they are understood to, the religions themselves often don't receive passing mention, much less detail. Fritz Leiber had considerable fun with gods, treated both as religious figures and as characters… including one story where the gods which Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser formerly followed decide to take revenge on them for straying from their respective paths.

    In the best-detailed of my fantasy worlds, nobody is an atheist, for the same reason you bring up: the gods are active parts of the world, not remote, hypothetical ideals. Everybody knows there are gods, in other words… "belief" doesn't enter into it. Whether or not the inhabitants are theist in the sense of practicing religion is another story. The only question is how the characters interact with the gods, which, as often as not, comes down to what the characters want to get out of the relationship. And what the god wants out of it… something which, in most settings, never gets explored. And of course, one land's "god" is often another's "demon"—very often the next land over—which is no different from our own mythic traditions.

    By contrast, most of the rest of the time I ignore religion altogether. It's just another piece of stage dressing… though perhaps one that can prove more difficult than most, as, unless the religion is transparently similar to something the reader is already familiar with, its effects on the world and what can be expected from the characters in relation to it may either require more delineation than you want to engage in, or else be distracting, even confusing, without contributing anything to the reader's understanding of the action. The reason it's so prevalent in the above setting is because I built that setting "from the ground up," as it were, independently of any use in a story, specifically so that I could use it as a basis for any number of stories should I later care to. (I have in fact started writing bits of a couple stories and a potential novel… on the other hand, my "history"—written as a very conversational, often irreverent narrative—now exceeds 160 pages and 95,000 words. And I haven't even brought it up to the present day.… ) But since the gods were going to be the reason things were the way they were, I felt like trying to work forward through the events that created the setting, rather than filling them in later "as needed." Whether or not it ultimately proves fruitful—or even convenient—it's been an interesting exercise.
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  7. #7
    Senior Member Donny Bruso's Avatar
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    Religion is a major driving factor in my current fantasy project. Essentially the entire conflict is going to come about because of the manipulation of the head of the church. That being said, my personal religious views are complicated, and with the exception of the demon-possessed ones, none of my characters seem to be terribly devout, which is something I need to work on. Every story needs a religious nut somewhere. I have a fairly large document somewhere with the beliefs and religious codes and what not for the church of Yanus, and another one for the cult of Vivendei who opposes him. There is a third religion floating around in the mix, somewhat skin to druidism, but without the magic component of it. One of the things that I've found adds realism to the story is what Chilari mentioned, curses or blessings that are tied to your religion.

    Somehow we got the brilliant idea to name our god 'god' which is utterly unimaginative at the least, but if you look at other fantasy works, where the gods do have names, such as David Weber's Oath of Swords Series, or the tv series Rome that ran on HBO, or Abercrombie's First Law trilogy to a lesser extent, religion is woven into the fabric of the story, and it adds one more element of realism to the world that they create.
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  8. #8
    I've never included religion in anything I've ever written (despite using its tropes as a convenient hook). It has no place in my mythical world, and as I'm automatically biased against it, it has no particular relevance to my characters' world either. It's not a topic to be avoided, though; given its relevance to the development of Western society it will doubtless play a great part in world-creation. I avoid it merely because it has no relevance to my life, and as what I write is invariably an expression of what I've experienced it never appears. It's a rich source, though, and one which deserves to be mined.
    Last edited by At Dusk I Reign; 3-9-11 at 5:02 PM. Reason: Hmm...

  9. #9
    @Donny Bruso: A bit of a chicken-or-egg question- do we call deities "gods" because the Christian god is called God and Christianity played a major role in shaping English, or was the term for a deity "god" and people were uncreative when deciding the name for the Christian deity?

    Anyway, my entire world worships the same pantheon of gods. What differs is how they worship them.

    In Clan Meirales, a major theocratic country, the system is half polytheistic and half animistic. There are many gods, and though some are more powerful than others, there isn't a "supreme" god. In addition, the gods are not all-powerful- they embody a force of nature, and coexist with mortals. In that country, people pray to the gods each day under the belief that gods draw strength from it, and hold them in high reverence as benefactors of mortalkind.

    However, in other areas, though the existence of other gods is acknowledged, most get sidelined in favor of one god. Clan Kanamara, located in the far, cold North, focuses worship on the god of fire. Clan Libranel worships the god of wisdom, Libra, who made their language for them and lifted them from ignorance.

    In addition, not all societies view the gods as benevolent or merciful. Half of the Feralfolk are deer-like beings, while the other half are wolf-tiger-lion creatures who ceaselessly hunt and devour the deer (and keep in mind that all Feralfolk are fully sentient). Their legends hold that once predators and prey were one race- however, one half enslaved the other and began to lay waste to the world. To punish them, the goddess of the earth changed that half to deer and the enslaved to predators, and ordained that the deer would be mercilessly hunted for the rest of eternity.

    As for the actual gods, I only have a few named- the three gods of celestial light, Solael (sunlight), Falunel (moonlight), and Celerel (starlight); the god of wisdom, Libra; the god of healing, Lovani; and the White God, who embodies chaos, birth, and destruction.

    Religion was sidelined at first, but it's gradually growing in significance. The Ancients, who were essentially immortals created by the gods to aid mortals, gained greater roles in shaping the world and linking it together. Some of my short stories revolve around the clash of religions. The cataclysmic event that threw the world into chaos gained a new dimension in religion, when it severely shook people's faith and the gods declined in power. Then there's the end of the world, which takes different meanings for each religion- some see it as a great redemption, when the world will be restored to its former glory and the gods will walk the earth. Others see it as an act of divine vengeance and a literal end to all things, and as a result there's a clash between those who want to hasten the coming and those who want to stop it.

    I haven't figured out which side is correct yet. It's complicated.

  10. #10
    Senior Member Donny Bruso's Avatar
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    @Falunel I don't go in for those types of Philosophical questions much... I understand it's a thought exercise, but one which clearly has no answer. Or rather too many answers. I tend to follow your latter suggestion, that people were uncreative in naming god. I mean clearly you can't just call him 'Bill' that would be weird. But something better than 'god'. My outlook on life, cynical as it is, it to always assume people took the path of least effort and greatest stupidity.
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