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Crafting a unique pantheon

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Tom, Jan 28, 2015.

  1. Tom

    Tom Istar

    As much as I love Greek mythology, I've never been able to figure out the mechanics of a pantheon. As a result, my one and only pantheistic culture has a poorly developed religion and a pathetic pantheon (heh, alliteration) that is shallow, generic, and all around sucky.

    I'm not looking to copy-and-paste the Greek pantheon with changed names--I'm looking to create my own, with its own history and personality. I'd love any suggestions for making a pantheon that has a unique structure, a character all its own, and different relationships--whether between the gods themselves or between the gods and their human worshipers.

  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    In my setting I have a very large number of gods of varying power: most of them I'm not even aware of myself - I just know they're there.

    Out of these gods the inhabitants of the world have created two major pantheons: The Mahradian Pantheon and the IITA Pantheon. The Mahradian Pantheon is used in the empire of Mahradia and in the nations surrounding it. Most of the rest of the world use IITA (International Independent Theoiogian Association), but there are parts where completely different pantheons dominate.

    It should be noted that the Mahradian Pantheon is the basis for the religion in the empire, while the IITA is just an attempt at cataloguing all known gods.

    For the most part, the gods in both major pantheons are the same, and it's just the names that differ. However, there are cases where what is one god in one pantheon is represented by multiple (or no) gods in the other. There are also cases where what's considered a major god in one pantheon is classified as a lesser one in the other.

    The world holds large numbers of different religious groups devoted to one or more of the gods of the pantheons, including several groups devoted to gods that aren't recognised in any of them.

    Now, all of the above doesn't answer the question about how to create a pantheon. What it does do is exemplify how it's not necessarily the god themselves that matter, but what the inhabitants of the world make of them. Of course, this doesn't work for all settings, but it's something that may be worth considering.
    Tom likes this.
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I really hate the way D&D has shaped our vision of a pantheon and the way that every single setting has a "God of Death," a "God of War," and so on.

    I'm a big fan of giving your gods personalities, instead of "domains."

    For instance, instead of a god of war, think about a "belligerent god" and how he or she might tackle different situations. Sure, it's the god you might pray to if you were waging war. But maybe not the only one, and that might not be the only time you would turn to a belligerent god for help.

    More importantly, that might not be the only part of this god's personality. And I think that's key. Create your gods like characters, and don't just match name-and-domain thinking that's a good set up. If a halfling ranger describes himself as a "Shoeless God of WAR!", you don't normally take that to mean he's this and only this and nothing else. Neither should you take the pantheon that way.

    That said, the pantheon in my own setting looks very different from all of this. I use "domains," but they're very philosophical, and they shape the nature of magic in the world. It's an Asian-type setting, so I have, for instance, a goddess of beauty who determines what rules of feng shui are effective or not. If you follow the rules on a big enough scale you can generate a guardian spirit. But her opinion has changed over time, which at times has shifted the whole history of the setting. That kind of thing lets me give the pantheon a real impact on the world.
  4. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    Well, most pantheons will have overlap between the roles of their gods. You can see this across cultures. What you could try to do to be more unique is to break away from the personalities that are typically associated with certain roles.
    Delwyn and Tom like this.
  5. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I was asking myself the same thing a few days ago.
    Have you read Hero with a Thousand Faces? The first half is the whole Hero's Journey crap you've heard a million times before but the second half is about how mythologies are structured.
    After reading the book, I realized that mythology was all psychological. So, I read some Carl Jung, William Blake and W.B. Yeats and built a mythology out of their poetry and philosophy.

    My mythology started with a singular being (let's call her Total) who was divided into "gods". In truth, they're not gods. The "gods" each embodied different qualities of Total's psychology: her animus, her id, her ego and so forth. Time itself has a will and that "will" is Total's thanatos.
    The "gods" have a specific purpose, they exist to guide Total's creation. Reality as a whole is a Hero's Journey that Total made for her creation - the only thing in existence that was created out of nothing. The universe and all the mortals are an side-effect of Total's division, an accident.

    Basically, the mythology should have an underlying theme. Duality is a popular choice in theme. The gods would then be aspects of this big theme. As long as they fit the greater theme, they'll feel "right". Originality doesn't matter all that much as long as it feel right.
    Also, it sounds like Devor is on the right track.
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2015
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  6. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    It should go without saying that your setting's nature, and ultimately the story you're trying to tell, will affect how you design your pantheon.

    When it comes to our world, I believe that pantheons, like everything else associated with religion, reflect their native societies' culture and evolution. If you're willing to dig deeper into world-building, perhaps consider how your deities developed and how they mirror the society following them. For instance, a goddess of war could represent a culture of all-female warriors. Alternatively, a more traditional army of all-male warriors might carry her iconography with them because, hey, what straight male soldier wouldn't want female eye-candy around when they're far away from home? They might even believe their goddess, um, provides some form of personal consolation when they feel lonely at night.

    If you know how your society works and how it evolved over time, it might help with pantheon development.
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  7. BronzeOracle

    BronzeOracle Sage

    I think pantheons represent a connection with things that people care about, the important things that affect them in their lives. Whether its Egypt or Greece, or the Hindu aspects of God, these are things that people see in life that they want to understand, deal with and attract prosperity and good things from.

    So gods may help people to understand baffling or frightening aspects of nature, like natural disasters, storms, the seas, the seasons, the sun or moon etc. These things are so different to the human scale that they defy understanding and its no surprise that gods were a way of connecting with them. Gods may also represent deep desires and needs that people want in their lives, like fertility and health in themselves, their animals or crops, or the wealth that comes from mining, crafting, or the joy that comes from wine, a home cooked meal or children. And they may represent things that people fear like death, war and disease, that may be beseeched for mercy or may help with people accepting such things in their lives.

    You can see this in Zeus or Thor with their frightening thunder, or Demeter/Isis going into the underworld and hence the seasons, Poseidon who rules the seas that drowned countless sailors. Also you can see it in the Hindu theology with their many aspects of the divine - Ganesh the remover of obstacles or Siva the aspect of change/destruction.

    I read an article recently about the Egyptian pantheon and in it the researcher argued that ancient Egyptians did not think that their gods had animal heads, but that they were attempting to represent the aspect or quality that the god represented. There was even one god that had straps/reins coming out of his head because he represented constraint.

    Pantheons get complex because one god may have several aspects or qualities that they represent, and also the pantheons can include new or old gods from different societies - whether foreign or ancient. So old gods may be relics of worship from hunter gatherer days when the forests were larger, the animals more fearsome etc. Then there are the new gods of technology or agriculture or seafaring etc etc. When I was in India I saw a lot of taxis having religious statues/shrines on their dashboards, often lit up with LEDs or silvery bling. One guy had Ganesh on one side and Jesus on the other - I'm assuming he wanted both bases covered, so Ganesh would prevent accidents and Jesus was there in case one happened!

    So what I try to do when thinking about a pantheon is to think what would be important for the people/societies in my story given where they are at, their environment etc - then group these qualities into conceptual groups and work from there. Of course you may well end up with the qualities that are in the real world pantheons, but that may say something about human beings!! :)
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2015
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  8. Shreddies

    Shreddies Troubadour

    Out of curiosity, are the gods in your pantheon intended to have an active role in your world, or are they invented by your world's cultures in order to explain natural phenomenon? And if they're active, do the people know it or just believe it?

    Anyways, if the domains are designated by humans, then you'll probably get the big ones first, such as: Weather, natural disasters, prosperity, fighting, fertility, famine, etc. the ones linked to survival. Then once those are established some smaller ones may pop up, like artistry, hunting (for a nation not built on hunting), sailing (likewise), general accident prevention, and so on.

    On the other hand, if the jobs are defined by the deities or come from their personalities, then (depending on how well they understand humans or how much they even care) you may get unusual ones right off the bat. Like, the most powerful god in the pantheon, the one in the foremost leadership position, is the 'God of Punctuation!' exclamation mark included. (Don't you dare leave out that exclamation mark, lest ye face the wrath of the diaeresis!)

    You could also have small-time unemployed gods who haven't hit it big yet. And these unemployed gods would be looking for any position they can take. This would give you thousands of odd deities, depending on their actual numbers (and their creativity).
    'I am Hirofusticus! God of Running-out-of-toilet-paper!'

    Granted, those types of gods wouldn't be worshiped out of anything more than respect (or pity). But hey, it's something. :)
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2015
    Tom likes this.
  9. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

    I totally agree/love everything in this post except for the part I bolded, and I mean this is a good way—a way that's good for Devor.

    It sounds like your pantheon already has the personalities thing going, or is set up for that if it hasn't already been established. I mean, your goddess of beauty seems to have a personality that matches her domain. Of course a beauty goddess changes her opinion. She needs to keep up with the latest fashions… or maybe command them:

    "I. Thou Shalt wear minis and tube tops this summer.
    II. Thou Shalt wear earth tones come autumn.
    III. Thou Shalt Not wear Frozen-themed Attire come winter, for that Shalt be Deemed soooo two years ago.
    IV. Thou Shalt Not attend a party wearing the same dress as another woman.
    V. Thou Shalt tonally match thine Plus One's attire, provided that thine Plus One's tones be Deemed In-Season, even during a black tie affair, in which case ye Male's corsage Shalt tonally match ye Female's gown…"

    …and she displays her commandments on an iPad rather than a stone tablet for easy editing.

    Uh, sorry. That post was meant to just be a "hey, you're doing two awesomes at the same time" post, then I… I did that^. But if you stop at the first ellipsis, I think I make a valid point. Yep.
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  10. Tom

    Tom Istar

    My writing style is very anthro-centric, so the gods are usually not shown to be active in the world. They may or may not be real...I don't really know myself.
  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Ha, close. The six gods have a development arc that takes place before the story begins, and it's a big part of the story, for the characters and the plot. She used to be kind of like that, but the world got shaken up, and she toned it down a lot.
  12. Delwyn

    Delwyn Dreamer

    I am currently using deities from a variety of pantheons in the sequel to my first novel - and had the same kinds of questions you posted here. My issue was - there are so many deities for any particular realm, power, situation etc - so how do I choose one over the others, especially when you have readers who might say, "Oh why didn't she choose so and so?" - in relation to personal preference and so on. I find - when creating my own realms, mythologies, characters etc - I can take poetic licence, because - let's face it - it's all make believe, isn't it?

    As long as it's believable and makes sense to the reader - AND - as long as it moves the story along, enhances the story and doesn't come across as contrived, then anything goes. I don't see any reason why you can't create a pantheon from existing deities - as long as they are aligned with the story and the circumstances they are involved in. I am aligning the deities I'm using in my story, with the energies, events and realms according to the overall story line as well as individual character dilemmas and situations.

    When I'm finished with this first draft - after having done a ton of research - I will be paring it down to what makes sense to me, the characters and the readers. However I'm sure there will be a lot of people coming up with rules about why I shouldn't have borrowed from this or that pantheon - or why I shouldn't have mixed deities - or how I should've created some of my own. (Which I have!)

    The bottom line is - do what is right for you and your story. Questions you should ask are - what are the imperatives? What are the desired outcomes - therefore - how will the rules and actions of the deities affect those outcomes? Reverse-engineer your story to get a better idea as to what kind of pantheon, rules etc - will enhance the story.

    Sorry about the rambling - but I hope something I've shared here is helpful. Good luck!
    Tom likes this.
  13. Velka

    Velka Sage

    It's also important to note that the deities a people have usually reflect their priorities. If it they're nomadic herding people, they are going to be concerned more about weather and animals than they are about crops. If they're a seafaring people, they probably won't care about animals or crops, but be more concerned with wind, weather, trade, and fish.
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  14. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

    Apparently, so is Nimue. Check out the gods and goddesses in her RPG. She has one that's known as "Smiling Gerta." A goddess with a nickname! I love it!
  15. The way I like to start with developing deities is asking some pretty basic questions-

    How did they come into existence?

    What is the extent of their power?

    What are their motivations?

    Can they be killed?

    If you can answer all of these, then you should be able to make a few gods that have interconnecting paths and have their own relationships. My current work involves gods that realize they can be killed by mortals and how they react to that realization.
    Tom likes this.
  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I have to admit those are well written.
  17. Tom

    Tom Istar

    Wow, have I just had a breakthrough.

    I figured out the concept of gods for the Yianlai culture: the sun, moons, and stars! It was under my nose this whole time, as I've written that the stars are guardians/messengers of the gods, but it wasn't until I wrote the star legend for my Q&A with General Ilaryu that I realized the stars could be gods in and of themselves. This certainly opens up new directions to take the religion in, and fits in well with some old ideas I didn't think would make sense with the old pantheon.

    Awesome! I love it when ideas just coalesce like that.

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