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Religion in a Medieval Fantasy world

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Ž.J., Dec 15, 2019.

  1. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    Hey guys!
    In some time now I have been trying to think of a unique religion or belive system for my fantasy world. It's a medieval "soft" high fantasy" setting, where magic is almost non existant. I have a few ideas, though most of them are quite cliché. I wonder what interesting opinions you have in this matter. And the next question I have is: What do you think on religious fragmentation? Almost all of our global religions are fragmented. Would this too be a natural process in a fantasy world?

    Some of my ideas include:
    A faith based around an "eternal fire" similar in some aspects to zoroastrianism.
    A faith based on a mythical tale of three brothers, who founded the given civilization.
    A faith based on the cycle of the sun and the mood and how these two are polar opposites, but together they bring life.
     
  2. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

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    For the sun stuff you could check out Mithraism. Lots of astrological stuff there.
     
    Ž.J. likes this.
  3. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Belief is personal. Even if they follow the same religion, what one person believes and hold most dear will differ [even if only slightly] from everyone else. Given time and the stories being repeated, adjusted and retold, I would be surprised if there weren't theosophical differences. That doesn't mean that there have to be religious wars springing up all the time...
    Unless a faith plays a crucial role in your story, I'd keep it sort of vague in case you need to define it later on...
     
  4. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    There's two main things a religion should address:
    - fear of death and the unknown.
    - belonging to a group
    This is the largest common denominator across religions and the questions you should answer: how does religion explain stuff and what image does it paint for an afterlife. And what rituals do you have to explain what is going on and define who is "in the group"? As long as you answer these then pretty much anything goes.

    I actually think religions are not very fragmented at all at the moment, compared to the rest of history. I think that the better your means of communication become the more uniform religions (and all cultures for that matter) become. Of course there are regional differences even today. But it's a lot easier to have a central vision about what a religion stands for when everyone is a phone call away than when you need a 3 week trip to get together.
     
  5. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

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    Z.J is most likely talking about fragmentation in the sense of the amount of religious denominations present in the world, of which there are certainly more than ever. Besides this, I'd also argue the opposite to what you claim. Greater communication also leads to greater visibility of differences within religious groups, leading to greater internal fragmentation which may or may not lead to new denominations in time, but certainly fortifies the perceived schisms within the community. In the medieval world your neighbours from ten villages over might do their rites entirely different and might hold some views you wouldn't consider your own, but you'd never know about it, thus allowing the illusion of being part of a doctrinally unified religion.
     
    Zander Willmore likes this.
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Although religions are pretty fractured, the degree to which they're fractured is very often overstated. And most religions have a range in which certain "fractures" are kind of built into the system. When religions are viewed from the inside, they're often far less fractured than when viewed from outside them.
     
  7. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    I do agree with your idea of greater central communication=less religious fragmentation, but in a medieval setting where distance plays a far bigger role, religions do tend to be far more fragmented. Now of course that all the smaller fragmented pieces would be called heretics by the central power in the faith and si they wont be recognized as official denominations.
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    There are lots of churches in our modern world, and many religions, but we in the West live in a secular society. That stands in fundamental contrast with medieval or even ancient society, which was profoundly religious. I leave aside the types and depth of personal spirituality, which sometimes gets confused with religion. I mean the degree to which the foundations of society are rooted in religiosity.

    It's difficult to give a sense of this in any sort of encapsulized way, but one missed opportunity I see in much fantasy writing is having the fantasy world, no matter how medieval or ancient the trappings, be essentially modern and secular in its worldview, it's mentalite' as the French word has it. This doesn't mean making the story *about* religion; rather, it means letting religion underpin the society. It's complicated, but there's definitely something there for an author to mine.
     
  9. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    Aye. That is just one of issues I have with A Game of Thrones (and even with A Song of Ice and Fire); religion does not play anywhere close to the major role it ought to play. Even states with a tradition of kinda-sorta secularism (such as Byzantine Empire) were profoundly religious; most other countries were even more so.
     
  10. Ž.J.

    Ž.J. Dreamer

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    Totally agree with you on that. It's strange how in fantasy medieval settings, religion rarely plays a major role, it's often pushed as a secondary tool to further develop the plotline. Judging from our own medieval period (roughly 500-1350) religion was the main driving factor in the lives of the common folk and even in the lower/higher nobility. Kings, dukes, princes etc. often used it as a tool in their own schemes to gain more influences and yet we dont see it playing that big of a role in fantasy medieval settings.
     
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  11. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    I think Ken Follett touches on it in at least a couple of his historical novels. But I've often wondered about how a religious society views the world.
    Do you have any sources discussing this?
     
  12. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Religion is one of the most important parts of worldbuilding. At least equal to politics and well above geography and technology. It determines how people see the world and their motivations. You don't strictly have to call it religion, but metaphysics and values are what really makes a world tick. In most fantasy works, these things are taken for granted and mirror contemporary western culture.
     
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  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    But I wonder how much effect the Roman Empire precursor had on the organization of Christianity during the European medieval period—and whether, without that precursor, Christianity would have had the same sort of role.
     
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  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >Do you have any sources discussing this?
    There is an enormous literature on this--basically, anything to do with the medieval mindset is going to talk about it. I'm not sure I can even point you to an introductory type book. The closest I can come is Marc Bloch's two volume work Feudal Society. It's quite old now, but also quite readable. Many books on medieval mentality are tough sledding.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >But I wonder how much effect the Roman Empire precursor had on the organization of Christianity during the European medieval period
    A tremendous effect on the organization. The formal structure of the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches come straight out of late imperial Rome. That development took a couple of centuries anyway, from the 4thc on into the 6th and 7th.

    Another interesting aspect is the effect the Roman religion had on Christian theology. That is a massively complicated subject. Short version: lots.
     
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    When we do see it, it's either a religion as some powerful and oppressive organization serving as a stand-in for authoritarianism, or else as a tool used by characters to gain influence, just as you said.

    But I see other possibilities. Most people did not go around being religious all day. Rather, religion--and here I mean specifically rites and practices conducted with reference to the religion or using a religious vocabulary--simply was the paper on which was written daily life. As a peasant, mostly you worked and played. But on your farm, the priest came out to bless your crops. The church bell rang the hours. The church helped the poor in your village. The priest attended upon births and deaths. Marriages were celebrated either in the church or on the steps. A stretch of land over there belonged to the local monastery. There are little shrines here and there, not only in the village but along the road as well.

    And so on. This isn't religion as power or plot device, it's religion as setting. And it offers hundreds of possibilities. One need only look at the works of Ellis Peters to see how. One reason why I enjoy her Cadfael mysteries is exactly because the stakes are nearly always local, and because she uses a religious setting (a monastery) for warp and weft.
     
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  17. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

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    You may have seen this coming...

    While not a Christian setting I think that I should mention my favorite author of historical fiction, Mary Renault, whom I think also is successful in making it clear that religion and supernatural influence are important but that ancient Greece wasn't a theocracy by any means.
     
  18. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    Christianity as a religion would have definitely had massive impact. You do not need organized structure for religion to have impact on society, as religion is a set of beliefs (I will spare you the rant about political ideologies being essentially religions as well).

    Church as institution however may not have had that impact. Especially since in Western Europe, influence of the Catholic Church was a consequence of the fact that it was the only Imperial Roman institution that survived a) dissolution of the Western Empire and b) expansion of Islam. In Eastern Empire, however, influence of the Church was - though still significant - much more limited.
     
  19. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

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    A quick OT, we'll have to go to PM if we wish to continue this I would suppose, but I'm happy I am now the only one to think that political ideology and religion fullfill the same basic function.
     
  20. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Whether Christianity would have had the impact it had on Europe, sans a Roman Empire precursor, is debatable. Anyway, I would not use the word definitely; I don't think the influence of Rome can be eliminated so easily.

    This doesn't mean I think Christianity would have had zero impact. My original question concerned the role Christianity would have played in medieval Europe, and it was inspired by @Ž.J.'s comment that "Kings, dukes, princes etc. often used it as a tool in their own schemes to gain more influences and yet we dont see it playing that big of a role in fantasy medieval settings."

    My general thinking is that secondary fantasy worlds set in a quasi-medieval European sort of environment may not have a religion playing the same sort of prominent role as it played in our world if something like the Roman Empire never happened there. The same sort: perhaps it'd still be influential but play a different role.
     
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