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Are Pantheons Overused/Cliched?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by D. Gray Warrior, Jan 2, 2018.

  1. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    Despite being a fantasy worldbuilder for years, I have not used polytheism or pantheons much as the primary religion of my worlds, mainly because I think they are overused and cliched in fantasy worlds, to the point that if there is no clear mention of a religion, I just assume that a pantheon exists, or is the primary belief system the people adhere to.

    I did make one world with a pretty tiny pantheon of only three gods. One was a sun deity and creator of the human race, one was a moon deity/war god, and the other was the god of death.I don't remember why I was pretty insistent on there being only three gods.

    If I go with polytheism as the primary religion, I think it will be a soft version where it is unclear whether the gods are completely separate individuals from each other, or are all different aspects/personas of one god, like multiple personalities. I also like the idea of the gods having contradictory or complimentary domains. For example, I think the Mayans believed in various gods that could both create and destroy. The sun god could bring light and warmth, but could also summon droughts, and the god of rain (which helps food grow) could also destroy with floods, and the god of war could bring either victory or defeat. I'd do a variation where the god of war is also the god of peace. I have studied a little bit of Hinduism (there seems to be no clear consensus on whether or not it is actually polytheistic), and Shiva is usually regarded as the Destroyer, but in a way is also a Creator. You create sand by destroying rocks, for example, and Shiva creates through destroying,

    What are your thoughts?
  2. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    It all comes down to the story and the theme I want to give when picking a pantheon or religions(s) for a setting and what purpose you would want the religion to have in your story. If you don't intend to let the pantheon in some capacity have a role, then just refering to "the gods" should work perfectly well. But religion can absolutley be useful like using mythology to provide informaiton on the metaplot, to use the worship of gods to illustrate the setting's socities norms and values etc.

    Removed some unnecessary text.
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2018
  3. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Are they cliche or overused? Simple answer: No. Could a particular pantheon be cliche? Sure. Polytheism in general isn’t going to be any more or less cliche than any other -ism. One god, a thousand gods, no gods... it’s all “cliche” at such a base level. It is specificity which creates a break from the routine into the new.
  4. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    I think that's a bit unfair. The author may very well have intentionally left out religion and assuming it is there and assuming its nature is doing them a disservice.

    TBH, this type of "pantheon" is extremely common. I've seen it so many times.

    I think pantheons are both overused and underutilized.

    Overused because a lot of fantasy writers default to the Greek style pantheon as the easy way to construct a religion for a fantasy world. Thus it often becomes very formulaic. "Blank" god of "blank". "Blank" goddess of "blank". Like old school formula fantasy book titles. I feel that this happens because very few fantasy writers actually understand the nature of religion or know anything much about different types of religion from across the world throughout history. They seem to feel that religion is necessary, because it's something people do, but it ends up being mostly a stereotype because they don't care to try and understand it.

    Underutilized because once said pantheon is constructed, more often than not it becomes mere background noise and has nothing to do with the story. There is no actual presence of the pantheon in the world that can be felt. They are little more than colorful names. In my opinion, this is rather boring.
  5. TheMirrorMage

    TheMirrorMage Scribe

    If you feel polytheism is cliched, check out this chart which shows the development and connectivity of religions over time. Monotheistic and polytheistic religions seem to dominate, particularly in Europe and West/Central Asia, with much of the rest of the world following some form of animism. This is probably where the cliche stems from.

    I'd also add that cliches aren't necessarily bad. Cliches in worldbuilding work to convey a complex idea as quickly as possible - look at the plethora of elves, orcs and dwarves in post-Tolkien literature/media. The way around it is to work to make it different as you have. Denominations can also be worked in to make the variety within a polytheistic religion more interesting. For example, cities and individuals in Ancient Greece adopted or worshipped only a few of the gods or focused on a single one. Besides the core fourteen or so core Greek gods there were many, many more deities and deified mortals throughout Ancient Greece (there were 12 goddesses for different times of the day, for example). Similar models of polytheism could be adopted, maybe with a little less complexity.

    Your idea about using multiple personalities sounds like a fresh take on the pantheon-style of polytheism. The idea of having a god represent two opposing ideas or forces could be pretty cool - I imagine a religion like that would adopt some form of reincarnation, especially if the god of life and death exists.
  6. Russ

    Russ Istar

    You mean like the Valar etc in Tolkien's work? Pure window dressing for the LOTR trilogy.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I've been cautious in my use of religion because my books are not about religion, they're about people and events. Religion forms part of the background, like climate or gravity. But, like climate and gravity, that doesn't mean it's unimportant.

    My humans are polytheists, because the Roman Empire never fell. It's a mistake to think only of the pantheon of gods in the Roman state religion; the polytheism of the Romans was more complex and nuanced than that, leaving room for any number of religious practices (Romans were more interested in practice than belief) while at the same time leaving room to be fussy and even oppressive if they encountered things they disliked. It was complicated.

    My elves are not exactly atheists, but while they have philosophies, they do not have gods. I have only that as a base principle right now. I need to write some elves into stories in order to flesh that out. Certainly no pantheons there.

    Orcs are monotheists. They do not evangelize. They conquer. They have one emperor, one god, one religion, and if you get conquered then that's your religion, end of story (or else end of you).

    Dwarves believe in spirits. They sort of understand the human system of gods, but they think it's rather off the mark. Everything has a spirit, and those spirits should be understood, and one way to understanding is through reverence. Their belief system appears complex and even contradictory to outsiders. A dwarf can at one moment speak of spirits as if they were individual entities dwelling within objects or living beings, and at another moment speak as if there were some universal spirit of this or that type of stone, or the spirit of a clan. This troubles dwarves not at all, but it sounds like nonsense to an elf.

    Gnomes share the dwarf belief system, but the emphasis is more on ancestor reverence.

    A couple of things are pretty universal to religions. They explain the origin of the world, and they say what happens after you die. They also provide a moral and ethical map.

    Elves say the world is eternal. It's always been here, always will be. When you die you die, that's it. Ethics are transactional, not eternal, to be worked out by the individual and the community.

    Dwarves (and gnomes) say the world grows in a cycle--stone to dust to stone, birth death re-birth. The world is not eternal, but the cycle is. Spirits don't so much die as they dissolve and re-form. Take two cups of water and spill them. Scoop up the water. You now have something that is still a cup of water, but it is not the same cup of water. Never will be. It's all water; every cup unique. Morality is what the community says it is. Traditions are terrifically important to dwarves and change only through consensus.

    Orcs believe the world was created by their god, who laid out a set of rules to follow. Orcs reach their true selves by following the law. The reason for discord in the world is exactly the extent to which the rules are not followed. There is a second world that is perfect. If you have followed the law, that's where you go. If you flaunt the law, willfully disobey it, you are punished. Orc religion is not about beliefs; they do not care what is in your heart, they care only about external observance of the law. All this applies only to orcs. All other creatures merely die.

    Trolls have a religion, but it's simple animism. No priesthood.

    I'm still pretty sketchy about religion in Altearth, but those are some general parameters. If I fill out anything, it may be to come up with variations. After all, humans manage to create a thousand religions. I hope that doesn't mean I have to come up with a thousand more for dwarves, elves, etc.
    Ban and DragonOfTheAerie like this.
  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Elves as static universe non-spiritualists, interesting.
  9. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Sigh. No. First, because the Valar are only questionably "gods". Second, because they are not worshiped. At best, they have lots of songs sung about them and the name of Elbereth is a name of power against evil. And even then, that's not very different from any powerful and legendary Elf. Songs are also sung about Luthien and Earendil in LOTR and Frodo also calls on Luthien's name. Third, because the "Valar" are only referenced offhand twice in the story with no explanation and not even called gods or anything similar. Only Elbereth's name comes up often, but it is also never said that she is a goddess. The closest you get is "Queen of the Stars". Orome is mentioned twice by two different names but there is no indication that he is a god or what his nature is or that he is one of the Valar.

    To the point, the "Valar" do not really feature in LOTR at all. There is no "pantheon" in LOTR. There is no worship or religion. There isn't even enough for window dressing. It's a different thing entirely from writers who make a point of spelling out a pantheon and then using it mostly for people to swear with.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  10. Dark Squiggle

    Dark Squiggle Troubadour

    Watership Down has a complex pantheon, with mythology, heros and many gods. It adds another layer of perfectly handled complexity to an already intricate book. Frith and El ahairah (no idea how to spell his name) are characters even if they only appear in stories the other characters tell each other and in the other characters' minds.
    Discworld also has a pantheon, which is used to add running commentary on events in the series, as a social commentary, and sometimes just for an excuse to inject a little more humor. I enjoyed Blind Io, Lady Luck and Company.
    I have read books that would have been much better had their Pantheons been tossed. It depends on the book.
    I am not sure I am answering properly because I am not sure what being cliche means.
    Will readers hate a Pantheon because they've seen too much? I've never heard of that happening about anything.
    Will a Pantheon impress everyone with your originality? Probably not. Is that the point?
  11. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Shiva being a destroyer and creator isn't a contradiction. Keep in mind: Hinduism generally believes in cyclical time rather than linear time. There's no beginning and no end, only change. Time is a wheel and Shiva is the moment when the wheel completes its rotation.
    That's the trick: the gods need to reflect the people and their worldview. Otherwise, it's just Classical/Norse Mythology lite.

    Anyways, I got a pantheon thing going in my WIP. It's pretty cool. My story is more-or-less about godhood so there's a practical, narrative purpose to it.

    Also, Watership Down has the best fictional mythology.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  12. Cliched? I mean...there are plenty of pantheons in real life religions. Is real life cliched, then? Writers often worry a lot about cliche when there is no need. If a pantheon serves your story well and fits with the culture of the people whose society you are building, create one.
  13. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    God[desse]s rarely feature directly in my tales. I think they are too powerful for the stories I try to tell. But they are there to some extent. So I favour a slightly greyed out view of them. I frequently have more than one Deity in mind if not actually written in to the story. A God[dess] of the Soldier reoccurs in different guises in almost all my stories. Someone to pray to, when know one else will listen...
    What I don't like is the [fairly] undisguised renaming of an existing Pantheon to create a "new" set of Deities. I’ve read a few too many books that take the Norse or Greek Pantheon and just give them new names [Rabbits called Smeerp sort of thing]...
    I do like it when the God[desse]s reflect the needs of their faithful. I read a story that included the Gods of Trolls. There were five; fire, hunting, weather, the earth, and of [ahem] procreation. That was what the author made important to the Trolls so there were gods involved in the Trolls’ view of the world... It was so simple but fitted perfectly.
  14. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

    I have five pantheons fairly well developed and others mentioned in passing, with the implication that there are, in fact, an infinite number of them out there among the planes of existence. Some gods are more inclined to interact with humans, others tend to ignore us. Some like to interfere, usually when they are bored. Some are not averse to the occasional sexual encounter with humans (or whatever). Power varies, but none (so far) are anywhere near omnipotent—and they themselves argue as to whether there is a supreme deity.

    I have stipulated that when a deity steps into the/a mortal world, it has to leave some of its power behind. Otherwise, they could influence things too much. No dropping in and performing miracles—if they want to work magic, they have to follow the same rules as a wizard and, in human form, may be no more powerful than one. Incidentally, the five I have developed do derive in part from those we know in this world (as the humans came from this world or one much like it). Three are loosely based on Austronesian and Polynesian models, the others with hints from early Indo-European pantheons. I am not at all strict about any of that.
  15. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I’ve multiple pantheons but the gods have been banished from physical contact with the world. They do have spiritual contact, hence priests with varied powers. The world-story within which all other stories are told revolves around the effort of the gods to return to the world (at all costs) in order to seize a power unique to the universe... but that power doesn’t want to be seized.
  16. Peat

    Peat Sage

    To me, this is like asking if Clothes or Food are an overused fantasy cliche. Everyday staples of life aren't cliches.

    But they can be done in a cliched way.

    For me, the pantheon/religion cliches aren't being a Norse/Greek version with the serial numbers filed off, but

    a) Basically Christian churches but with God turned into multiple Gods
    b) D&D style pantheons
    c) Pantheons of 3 gods with broad purposes or 7 with slightly less broad purposes.

    Actually, I suppose when you come to it, real life mythic pantheons with the serial numbers filed off is pretty cliche too, but I don't see it enough personally.
    Dark Squiggle likes this.
  17. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    The plot of my WIP is so dependent on the pantheon of multiple deities and their alliances, the story would fall apart without them. The deities interact with mortals within the story, sometimes threatening, sometimes offering protection against other gods. The gods / goddesses keep each other in check, but they are also kept in check by aggregate mortal beliefs. If they do not act according to how mortals in general believe they should, they lose status. If they wish to gain status, they must make a large majority of mortals believe they deserve it. Taking direct action against another deity is typically not viewed by mortals as appropriate behavior. Successfully executed actions taken by mortal followers against opposing deities, on the other hand, are a surefire way to increase one's own status as a deity.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  18. Dark Squiggle

    Dark Squiggle Troubadour

    If we are talking about Pantheons, why not bring up the Illiad and the Odessey? Gods are played quite effectively there, creating a kind of second parallel plot, which is quite effective. There is no reason why it won't work in a new book.
    TheCrystallineEntity and Gurkhal like this.

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