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Monotheism in Fantasy Worlds- Thoughts?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Mindfire, Mar 31, 2012.

Does monotheism have a place in fantasy?

  1. Yes

    30 vote(s)
  2. No

    2 vote(s)
  1. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    I've noticed that fantasy worlds tend to either be polytheistic or make no mention of gods or religion at all.
    While this is reflective of the pre-Christian world that most fantasy has been modeled on since Tolkien*, is there really any reason not to have a monotheistic world?

    I ask because I have a monotheistic fantasy world with four major nations: one of them is largely atheistic, another is polytheistic but their gods aren't "real", and the latter two worship the true deity, who has revealed himself to them under different names. This setup is very different from the approach to gods/religion I've seen in the books I've read.

    Is there some kind of taboo against monotheism in fantasy? Would it be considered (too) political to have a One God in my books? What do you guys think?

    *Tolkien's Legendarium actually does have a One God, Eru Illuvatar, but it also has lesser gods/demiurges, the Valar and Maiar, making it technically polytheistic. His friend C.S. Lewis's books are unabashedly monotheistic, but they're also widely regarded as "exclusively" Christian. While I am a Christian and my beliefs influence my writings, I don't want my books to be seen as propaganda. :/
  2. virtualmayham

    virtualmayham Dreamer

    Ok, well that's true in a sense. There are some books that explore monotheism without becoming "propaganda". For example. A Song of Ice and Fire has multiple gods. Some of the gods are known as the Seven. They are not 7 gods, but seven aspects of one god, like in Christianity. So yeah, that's not completely true, and you can have one god.
  3. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Like anything it can work, but I suggest being very, very careful. I suggest having the god reveal himself to all the nations, and then have the atheist and polythestic nations CHOOSE not to worship 'im. For the polythestic ones it could be just tradition / prefrence, while the athesists ones might think that the god's not a god but simply a being orders of magnitude greater then humans, like an elephant to ants, and they might think that's no reason to worship 'im
  4. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    The main empire on my main world is monotheistic, and can trace a warped descent back to christianity. The church actually weilds immense power; a couple of imperial provinces are effectively church fiefs, the church has its own military, and is authorized to investigate and prosecute certain types of crimes. A few times, there have even been full fledged inquistions. (This situation came about because of weak emperors in the past cutting desperate deals with cunning Patriarchs to save their hides, and became institutionalized since then. And yes, there was a time or two when church and imperial armies did tangle with one another on the battlefield).

    Thats my world.

    Elsewhere...best example I can think of is Kate Elliots 'Crown of Fire' series (also based on a warped version of christianity).

    For that matter, you take a careful read through some of the more bizarre escapades in church history, and you'll have the material for all sorts of tales - like the 'corpse synod', where one particularly odious Pope had the body of one of his predecessors exhumed and put on trial - literally! Or the various Anti-Popes, some of whom are stranger than many fantasy characters. Or the popes who literally turned the vatican into a brothel. Then there are the infamous 'Four Questions' put forth to prospective bishops (can't repeat them here, they fall into the XXX catagory with a side helping of disgusting). That is even before you get to the shenanigans of later day (protestant) church leaders.
  5. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I don't have a problem with monotheism in fantasy per se, but many religious traditions can be more complicated than the Western dichotomy of monotheism and polytheism. Part of the issue is how gods are defined in the first place.

    Take traditional African religions for instance. Many of them could be considered monotheistic in the sense that they teach that there is one single Creator deity, but this Creator is often so distant from humans that most spiritual activity is focused instead on venerating ancestors or clan totems. In some of these same religions rulers such as kings are considered god-like as well. Depending on how you define a god, such African religions can be seen as either monotheistic or polytheistc.

    In fact, if I may go on a slight tangent, what we know as ancient Egyptian religion is probably descended from this widespread African tradition. Most Egyptian gods began as totems associated with specific villages or clans, but some were ancestors believed to have once walked the earth (e.g. Ausar/Osiris and Aset/Isis) and there was usually one Creator (who could be either Ra, Amun, or Ptah depending on doctrine). Pharaohs were also considered god-like and could become actual gods after death. Basically what happened is that once the Egyptians unified into a single nation-state, they combined their various deities into one hulking pantheon.
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I don't think there are taboos against it. I vaguely remember reading a book that had a monotheistic world, but I can't remember the title. Any way, I speculate one of the advantages for a polytheistic world is it's obviously different than the monotheistic western world and sets itself easily apart from it. When you have a fictional monotheistic society many people, including myself, will lean to making a one-to-one association between the fictional god and the biblical one even if that's not what you want.

    Generally, I don't think it'd be considered too political, but I think it depends on how hard the story thumps on any of the similarities between the story god and the one from our world, and how well you go about differentiating the two from one another. Personally, as long as the book isn't preaching, I don't think I'd have any issues with it.
  7. Rullenzar

    Rullenzar Troubadour

    I don't believe it's a tabooed subject, i think it more comes down to the authors stance on the topic. It also depends on the type of fantasy, some may be suited more then others. I myself have seen some type of god worship in the majority of the novels I've read. A dark elf worshiping a dark god, Game of thrones, Tolkein, prince of nothing to name some more common ones. You seem to have your adaptation of it down solid so I don't think you have anything to worry about.
  8. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

    I think by and large, most fantasy writers tend to use a polytheistic approach like much of the D&D stuff where the Gods represent different facets of society. The one I could remember was from Forgotten Realms and was Mystra, goddess of magic (which kind of served to make wizards needing to be "religious", Cyric the Mad, God of Chaos and others. Truthfully I used something like that for my original gaming world, but not for my WIP. I use a single God/Goddess, whose form really varies depending on the worshipping culture so can be male, female, human, animal or whatever.

    For example, the Ruaka (small and furry gnomelike creatures that live in burrows beneath trees) revere Arwauk who takes the form of a large Bear and is often seen walking around their communities. They find bears holy, so never hunt them and also have somewhat of an affinity for them as well thus are never prey to the bears.

    The Talutah Ooljee, or Druids are more for a generalized sense of nature being their deity and thus the Goddess manifests in a warm spring rain, or an orange moon or the mysterious flickering lights often visible in their groves and tree cities.

    The island people generally see their god Ipashur as a bald and bearded sea-farer in brightly colored silks and bedecked in gold and silver jewelry. He protects them with fair winds, keeps them safe from the fierce storms and keeps their families secure when they are out fishing.

    As long as you are consistant within the story, no one should really care one way or another whether you have one God/Goddess or twenty-five. If it isn't preachy and detailed about the inner workings of the religion (unless of course it's important to the story) than just run with it.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2012
  9. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    I absolutely don't see any reason why there shouldn't be a monotheistic fantasy world. I'm quite sure I've seen it in a few books even though I can't really name them anymore. It is true that monotheistic societies in many of those books have been largely made up of misogynist antagonists but that doesn't mean something else can't or shouldn't be done with it. (This probably has to do with the authors' issues with real life religions as well which I generally don't like to see in fantasy books.) With many setups that greatly resemble medieval Europe a similar religious background would actually make more sense than some other things presented. The Church did play an important role in shaping medieval society after all.
    Are the two nations worshipping the "real" deity superior to the others in moral and other ways? Than this will be a clear message from your side. You're free to write you story that way of course. Some people are going to like it and others are not.
  10. Morgoth

    Morgoth Dreamer

    I don't see any reason why a fantasy story shouldn't have a one true god. I haven't read many stories that have only one real god and personally I preffer ones that have multiple deities. I find gods that embody some attribute and interferre with mortal events more interesting.

    Just wondering, why has the true deity revealed himself to two nations and not the others? Surely if this god revealed himself to the atheist nation they couldn't possibly continue to be atheists. Does this god not want them to believe in him?

    If your story has the true god nation better in all ways then the other nations I think some people might see this as saying...I don't know, believers are better then atheists or something. I don't know what your story is about but I'd avoid that.
  11. myrddin173

    myrddin173 Maester

    I really don't think there is a taboo on monotheism. I know I have read a number of books with monotheistic religions, A Song of Ice and Fire has been mentioned. The Ranger's Apprentice series also has a monotheistic religion for the main country but that could be because it is heavily based on Europe/Britain.

    In one of my worlds the three "human countries" all have monotheistic religions based on different branches of Christianity (Anglicanism, Protestantism, and Catholicism).

    That depends on your interpretation. He describes them as "angelic beings." Christianity has angels and its not called polytheistic (well some do, but not because of that).
  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I agree that there is no taboo.

    Also, I would stick with your original conception. I think it will work just fine, and I'd be suspect of advice that tells you, in essence, to re-write your story in the way the person giving advice would write it.
  13. Well, see, this depends. Of course there's nothing wrong with having monotheistic religions, and I wouldn't even say there's anything wrong with having the monotheistic religion be the "correct" one, in that there really is only one God in the universe in question.

    On the other hand, there are going to be more then one religion, and some may very well be polytheistic, animistic, imperial cults, etc. Also, there will be schisms, sects, and people worshiping the same god but under different names. You will have multiple religions that all belong to the same "family", being tracable back to one proto-religion. There will be religions that assimilate other religions, resulting in different customs or enterpretations, or religions that ended up heavily edited or censored to fit a certain political purpose, etc. Religion is ultimately a very human phenomenon.

    A good example of what I find a rather poor take on monotheism would be the Wheel of Time: here we have a world were everyone, regardless of culture and tradition, holds this vague and undefined kind of belief in "the Creator" and the concept of "Light", but there seems to be no real organized religions beyond that. It's like everyone in the whole world agreed that "someone created this universe, let's just leave it at that." Which is pretty unrealistic when you think about it. (Not to mention dull.)

    Even if you only have one god, period, there will be as many different ways of worshiping him as there are different people in your world. And that's a good thing, because it gives your world more flavour and says something about how all those people see their world.

    That kind thing is fun playing around with. One of my settings have a religion closely resembling the Judeo-Christan model. They technically worship a trinity of dieties, but they are all the same god except with three separate identities. (One male, one female and one genderless.) They each represents different aspects of the diety and are prayed to in different circumstances.

    Another major religion in that setting also only has one god, but he actually changes identity from benevolent life-giving god to ferocious war god depending on the state of his patron nation - if the nation goes to war, he actually becomes a different god and remains that god until the war is over. He also has an additional identity that only exists in dreams. (Because the people in question believe dreams and waking are separate existances.)
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2012
  14. Xanados

    Xanados Maester

    I don't see the problem with monotheism in fantasy. The society from which the protagonist of my new short story comes is wholly monotheist.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2012
  15. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

    I lean toward monotheism in my stories, but have plenty of angels and demons. I enjoy having multiple heavenly beings, rather than multiple gods, because--for me--it's more palatable to make angels imperfect than to have flawed gods, like in the Greek Myths. (I mean as a writer. As a reader, I love Greek Mytholgy and its corrupt gods and petty goddesses!)

    I tend to keep The One God nameless and distant when I write. I intentionally keep the truth behind the religion vague and focus more on the moral issues within the story. Not that anything I write is ever all that serious.

    So that's a "yes" on the poll from me.
  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I voted "no," but I don't really mean it.

    If you have a monotheistic religion, you either need to be very careful to avoid your readers reacting to things which they see as being implied real-world connections, or you need to embrace it and intentionally make those implied real-world connections.

    If I were to make a rule, the rule would be to avoid having a clear monotheistic religion. But I believe rules are for people who don't know what they're doing and are made to be broken by the experts.
  17. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    Well, this gets into backstory, but he actually did. Brace yourself.

    The four nations used to be one nation that all worshiped the same god. But they grew arrogant and started abusing their power and resources. This is what created the desert. As they grew complacent, they didn't take care of the land and over time, similar to that Dust Bowl thing, it turned into desert. As a punishment for their negligence, their civilization was destroyed in a sandstorm.

    After this event, they split into two factions: one faction decided to continue in rebellion, left the desert and traveled to better lands in the north, where they chose to go their own way and make their own gods since they believed the One God had abandoned them. The other faction decided to remain in the south and rebuild and remain faithful.

    Eventually the northern faction began to think themselves superior the the southern faction and invaded them, intent on making them into slaves. The southerners were not expecting an invasion and were unprepared. They split into two groups: one group retreated into the desert and their descendants became the Mavarians. The other group retreated in to the dense jungle, and their descendants became the Mako. Their god gave them magic powers in order to help them defend themselves from the invaders and to make life easier for them in their hostile new homes. But he also limited their powers to prevent them from abusing them.

    The northerners realized that pursuing into the desert and jungles would be a bad idea, so they were content to remain in the lands they had already subdued. Most of them returned north, but some of them colonized the southern territory they had acquired and managed to transform it into a fertile country. The resultant agricultural success brought economic stability that allowed them to pursue the arts and sciences and claim independence, seperating them from their northern mother country.

    As a symbol of their independence they abandoned the northern pagan religious system, but they also didn't want to adopt the monotheism of the southerners, because they deemed them inferior. Their rulers decided this would be a good opportunity to grab power, so they wouldn't have to constantly share power with a religious sect. They issued a declaration that the gods did not exist and banned all public worship. They funded the arts and sciences with a bias towards atheism. After a few generations the idea that there were no gods became accepted as fact.

    The southern colonists who abandoned the gods became the Elyssians, whereas the northern faction who retained their religious system became the Beorgians and their priests over time grew in power until their authority rivaled the Czar of Beorgia himself. The Elyssians take this as evidence that they were right in rejecting religion, as they think it creates a dangerous division of loyalties between the gods and the state.

    Thus one nation evolved into two nations and those two nations evolved into 4 nations: two monotheistic, one polytheistic, one atheistic.

    Does that make sense?

    And I'm not at all trying to say that believers are better than non-believers. While I admit I have a bias towards the Mavarian and Mako cultures, sympathetic non-believers are also prominently featured in my main cast.
  18. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    Superior? Well, not quite. The Mavarians and the Mako are kind of my two favorite children as far as my nations go, but I wouldn't say they're superior. Their worship of the One God of this world does not make them immune to corruption, and I've made that clear. Their singular advantage over the other two nations is magic, which was a gift to help them survive in their harsh environment because they live in the most untamed regions of the world, fraught with dangerous bloodthirsty predatory monsters. But their powers have very clear and strict limitations which are fairly easy to exploit when abused. Their powers are also tied to their spirituality and can fade or become weak when they are used improperly.

    In terms of organization they are arguably inferior to the other two nations. They have no organized military, zero naval presence, and as far as governments go, the Mavarians are a largely nomadic, family-centered society. They have a king, but he has relatively little power compared to the family elders. And the Mako are a tribal society with little interest in the affairs of the outside world. The only reason they haven't been conquered is that their environments act as natural fortresses. By comparison the other two nations have strong armies, virtually absolute control over seas, well-regulated economies, and powerful governments. So I wouldn't say there's any "superiority", I would argue that each nation has its own well-balanced strengths and weaknesses.
  19. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

    I wouldn't say there's a particular problem with monotheism, but I do think it limits the fantastic potential of your story. Still, if done right, there shouldn't be a problem with it.

    On a total side note, there's no reason I can think of for multiple nations not to have multiple religions, or have disputes over the proper worship of religions. One of the problems I have always had with fantasy worlds (and this probably stems from D&D requiring it for the benefit of player characters) is that religions tend to follow a fairly strict set up: These are the Gods that are worshipped. This God is evil, this God is neutral and this God is good. It's very simplistic, and while it is something that I think can and should be expressed in narratives and in character dialogue, I think it's something that can and should be explored within the story itself. As C. S. Lewis once laid out, people don't commit evil for the sake of evil - and that should apply to characters as well, especially their religion. Nuances are always better, and part of that nuance can be the perceptions of others towards that religion.
  20. Agran Velion

    Agran Velion Minstrel

    I don't see a problem with it all, when I read about a pantheon of gods, I don't automatically think the author is trying to promote Greek or Egyptian mythology. I'm also leaning towards Legendary Sidekick, as I prefer to have an unclear single god and have flawed angels (or in my story, Saints) take the place of a pantheon.

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