A Triad of Religion Pieces

A Triad of Religion Pieces

  Faith and Foreboding -- Sarah Jane Elliott
Giving Depth to Fantasy Religions -- Peggy Kurilla
Mother is the Name for God -- Bryn Neuenschwander  

 Faith And Foreboding


Why does the priesthood have to be evil, anyway?


Sarah Jane Elliott

©2001, Sarah Jane Elliott   

Fantasy worlds are ones that lend themselves particularly well to the creation of religions.   The people populating fantasy worlds are usually believers of magic in some form or another, and having no knowledge of this logical science nonsense, are perfectly happy to use gods as an explanation for the world around them.   But dangers abound when building a religion for your fantasy world; there are any number of pitfalls, stereotypes, and clichés that can sneak up on you when you least expect it.

One of the most common religions seen in fantasy novels is simply one of convenience.   In this type of religion, characters don’t seem to hold any beliefs at all.   In fact, the gods really only exist to provide the characters with really nifty oaths to shout in times of great emotion.   “By Krondak’s beard!” or “Great Ephusia help us!” or “Hesperianatha’s three nipples!” may sound great as a character bellows them while plunging into peril, but remember that curses only have power if the god means something to the people.   Throwing the odd statue in here and there isn’t going to make the religion real-- we have to see the role the god plays that makes him or her so important to these people.

Having a well-developed belief system can add a depth to your world, and there are so many really interesting religions to choose from  that you can borrow parts and make your own. Even if your character isn’t particularly devout, knowing how a devout character does act can give insight to your character’s personality.   Why doesn’t your character worship the gods?  Was he somehow betrayed by them, or does the religion keep practices he doesn’t approve of?  

Mind, too, that you don’t go overboard with the clichés.   If you want an example, I strongly suggest you look up “Religion” in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  The Maiden, Mother, Crone triad is one such standard that is in the middle of a severe identity crisis.   This trinity appears in every other book to come on the market, with a new name each time, but they’re rarely any different.  In the end, most of them boil down to aspects of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.  Now it’s true that the Fates are really cool characters, and by all means, go ahead use them.  However, try to put a new spin on things so that they don’t fall back into the same tired cliché that we’ve seen before -- it causes your world to loose some of its believability.   Ditto the nature goddess or the sun god.  Make them new gods, not just old gods popping up in a kind of fantastic witness protection program.

One religious theme that crops up with alarming frequency these days is the evil priesthood.   Generally populated by fat, greedy priests who are more concerned with money than with their deity, the evil priesthood harries and persecutes the poor people of the countryside and casts a pall of fear over anyone within their reach.   The evil priesthood is cruel and unforgiving, and their power often stretches across many kingdoms.   They may be commanded by an evil deity, or they may not hold much faith with their deity at all, having realized that the threat of religious damnation is a really spiffy way to get money out of people.   Whatever the case, they are always evil, they are always a danger to the heroes of the story, and they are usually defeated by the triumphal protagonist.   

Part of the problem lies in the jaded attitude many people have developed toward organized religion in today’s world.  Whatever the cause, it has resulted in a shift in attitude which is reflected in the pages of our fiction.   Several hundred years ago, when Europeans were first learning that there was a world beyond the one they knew, they began to encounter a multitude of religions that seemed strange and primitive to them.  For a long time afterward, most “evil” religions in fiction tended to be the religions of the savage and alien race, while the heroes of the stories were supported by their religious figures.  But recently, there has been a drastic increase of the “noble savage” races practising a “good” religion.  This religion often stands as the preferable form of devotion in worlds in which the hero is forced to battle his way free of his own oppressive, evil religion.   The good religion is rarely practised by the heroes, and if it is, chances are there’s an evil priesthood lying in wait to persecute the heathens.  It’s happening so often that the evil priesthood is quickly becoming laughably cliché.

So rather than fall back on this device, put your efforts into creating a good villain and leave the priesthood alone.  Remember that priests are only human.  They feel the same things your characters do, they just happen to have a vocation as well.  Yes, some may fall victim to greed or delusions of grandeur, which is entirely within the scope of human nature, but  it’s unlikely that this greed will spread like a selective virus to everyone wearing a cassock. 

This is not to say that building religion into your world is a recipe for disaster, because it can be done really well.  Whenever I want a new look at old ideas, I’ll watch Kevin Smith’s Dogma, read Holly Lisle’s Sympathy for the Devil, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, Charles Williams’s The Place of the Lion, and Neil Gaiman’s forthcoming American Gods.  And for entirely new religions, try Diana Wynne Jones’s The Spellcoats, Joanne Bertin’s Dragon and Phoenix, Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan.   Sometimes seeing something done right helps put you on the right track and allows you to come up with brilliant and innovative ideas of your own.

Why not create a hero with a strong faith in a good religion?  That kind of faith is becoming a novelty in this day and age, and new looks at old standards of religion come as a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale religious view. 

Giving Depth to Fantasy Religions


Peggy Kurilla

©2001, Peggy Kurilla    

We live in an agnostic age.  Although 90% of Americans profess a belief in God, actual church attendance is declining, suggesting that religion is not an important part of most people’s lives.  Throughout most of history, however, religion has been the central aspect of life.

In his essay “On Thud and Blunder,” Poul Anderson commented on the superficiality of most fantasy religions.  The hero may swear by some deity, or there may be minor rituals roughly akin to rubbing a rabbit’s foot.  But finding a fully-developed religion in fantasy is exceedingly rare.

Here are some things for you to consider when you’re developing your own fantasy world’s religion(s).

First, how many deities are you using?  One, two, three, or more?  If you use only one deity, that deity has to be a combination of good and evil traits—much like YHVH in the Hebrew Bible.  YHVH is a god of risings and fallings, good fortune and bad fortune.  He thus escapes the “Problem of Evil” so often encountered by apologists who promote an all-good deity.

If you choose a pair of deities, consider making them opposites.  Think of the Yin and Yang principles.  This does, however, present the possibility of a better/worse mindset-—which could be useful, depending on the story you’re telling.  Or it might not be suited to your story at all.

Using three deities brings to mind a couple of models: father, mother and child; or maiden, mother, and crone.  The Christian Trinity is one such, with the Holy Spirit replacing the mother from the first example.

For a truly polytheistic pantheon, first determine exactly how many you want to have.  Are there equal numbers of male and female deities?  Does one or the other gender predominate?  Are they all gender neutral?  In addition, you’ll need to know how they are related to each other, and determine a sphere of influence for each.  Or perhaps all the gods are equally powerful in all spheres, and just choose to specialize in one or another.

Once you’ve determined the number and nature of the gods, ask yourself how active you want them to be in your world.  Distant gods set the world/universe in motion and then leave to do more interesting things.  Deism is one example of this.  Prayers or rituals to this kind of god will be ignored.

It is also possible that a distant god will have left no obvious evidence for its existence.  In that case, people who choose to believe will look for circumstantial or coincidental evidence to buttress their belief.  There will always, however, be a portion of the population that will wonder at the distant god’s existence and be agnostic or atheist.  You should also determine how these doubters will fit into your story (if at all).

Moderately Active gods act through selected representatives.  Some possible representatives might be a priesthood, a messiah or prophet figures, and mystics who have divine visions.  It will be much harder to doubt the existence of these gods, although doubting the efficacy of prayer and ritual will still be possible.

Close gods hear prayers from everyone.  They may or may not answer those prayers, but the average person would feel that he or she has a chance of getting results by performing a ritual.  With close gods, you’ll need to determine the circumstances under which they will answer a prayer.  Will a god who is basically good, for instance, answer a prayer made by a person who is basically evil, if that prayer is for good intentions?  (An example might be the prayer of a murderer that his child have a happy life unmarred by knowledge of what his parent did.)

Next, define the representatives of your god(s) in the world.  Typically, this would be a priesthood of some kind.  How hierarchical is the priesthood?  Is there a pope (or equivalent), complete with attendant lesser representatives?  Or does each community elect its own priest, as was done in the early days of the Christian religion?

Who can become a priest or priestess?  Is that determined by birth?  Does the priesthood have an active recruiting arm?  Does the deity choose its representatives somehow, perhaps by a special birthmark or brand appearing at a certain age?  What does becoming a priest or priestess cost--both monetarily and psychically?  Must they give up worldly possessions in order to concentrate on the divine?  Must they cut all ties to family?  Or is the priesthood a family affair, passed from one generation to the next?

The Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Sybilline Oracles, and the Tao Te Ching have all played their parts in the history of our world.  What kinds of religious writings does your world have?  If the population is literate, are holy books readily available for study?  How well are different interpretations of the text tolerated?  (Generally, the more stable and secure the religion as a whole, the more diversity is tolerated.  Only when the survival of a religion is threatened do you find rigid adherence to orthodoxy---as happened with the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.)  Are the texts considered the literal Words of the God(s), or are they meditations and prophecies written by humans?

If you have a monarchy in your world, does the monarch have any religious duties?  Does he, like Constantine, appoint religious officials?  What is the monarch’s position in relation to other representatives of the gods?

What functions or purposes do the gods’ representatives serve?  Do they heal the sick?  Counsel the troubled?  Call for rain or sun?  Do they punish those who violate the precepts of the religion---both inside the priesthood and outside it?  Do they preside over birthing, naming, marriage, or death ceremonies?

Finally, consider the average person of your world.  What is required of him or her?  Must he consume or avoid certain foods (as Catholics do during Lent, and Orthodox Jews do daily)?  What feasts or services are required?  What is the tone of each feast or holy day?  (Think of the difference between Easter and Christmas, for instance, or Hanukkah and Passover.)  How will he know he is doing what the gods want him to do?  Are regular services or sermons provided for the people?  If so, what is the content and form of them?

The final thing to consider when building your religion is politics.

Whatever the political system, religion will have some effect on politics (and vice versa, of course).  Constantine acted to end differences of opinion between what became the Orthodox and Catholic Churches; in 21st Century America, separation of church and state is a precept as old as the nation itself and religion lobbies the government to get its own agenda approved.

How active are the religions in your world?  Are representatives of different religions jockeying for power and influence?  Or do they stay in the background, quietly performing their rituals and offering solace to those who seek them out?  How informed is the average person about whatever political activity is going on?  What role will a conflict between religion and politics play in the lives of your characters?

Answering the above questions will give you the basics of a religious system that you can follow consistently in your story.  At the same time, you’ll be able to distinguish between the annoyingly devout, the dutifully devout, and the fallen-by-the-wayside devout in your story.  You may not need to answer all of these questions, depending on the role religion (or its representatives) plays in your story.

While religion is rarely rational or logical, it can be consistent and believable.  Considering the points raised here should help you achieve a religious system that Poul Anderson would hail as a welcome break from the norm.


Mother is the Name for God


Bryn Neuenschwander 

You know her; you've seen her a thousand times.  She is young, mature, and old -- a Maiden, a Mother, and a Crone.  She is identified with the moon and the earth, with birth, death, and rebirth.  She is a mother and, sometimes, a destroyer.

But she's not the only possibility out there.

This model of the goddess is a familiar one.  She shows up in a lot of recent fantasy.  Her roots are both old and new; she is a principal figure in modern Wicca and neopaganism, but her origins are commonly placed far back in the prehistory of mankind.

Do you have to use her, though?  Not necessarily.  Nothing says that your goddess has to be all-encompassing.  If you've worked through the theology of your world to the point where you have decided that all divinities are just manifestations of the same Divine, that's fine.  If not, though, why not allow your deities, male and female alike, to diversify?  One goddess does not have to do all the work by herself.

A bewildering array of possibilities exist in the real world; reading outside of the familiar realm of classical mythology will soon reveal them.  They form so rich a tapestry that forming any system to classify them is impossible, but I will try to explore at least a few of the symbolic links that might offer rich worldbuilding and story seeds.

Since childbearing is an activity characteristic of women specifically, I shall start there.  Sometimes childbirth is treated as a supremely holy act, but those hunter-gatherer groups still extant today often view it in a far different light.  For them, the act of birth is powerful, but extremely dangerous.  They form elaborate taboos around the event, and around menstruation as well, designed to contain the volatile and often impure forces thus released.  Archaeological evidence bears out the idea that similar behaviors existed among other such groups in the past.  Childbirth may not be a glorious event; in fact, it may be downright frightening.  This should logically be reflected in the religion; hunter-gatherers may have specific women's deities who must be propitiated in order to avert disaster for the tribe as a whole.

Does this power over human fertility carry over into the agricultural domain?  Not necessarily.  The culture you invent can view the soil as being equivalent to a womb, but it's not at all required.  Some groups associate a goddess with the moisture (rivers, rain, etc.) that makes farming possible.  You can even turn it on its head, if you like, and create a destructive goddess who needs to be kept away from the crops, lest the harvest fail.  I'm not aware of any specific examples of this in the real world, but that's what imagination is for.  You can associate your goddess with water instead of earth, or with air, or fire -- anything that suits your story.  Think about the ramifications this might have for the society, and run with them; the story possibilities abound.

Sexuality need not be linked with fertility, either.  In fact, the African societies that practice female circumcision often do so precisely with the dual goal of promoting fertility (appropriate) while preventing sexuality (inappropriate).  Your prostitute-goddess need not be a mother as well; maybe she stands in direct opposition to the mother-goddess.  And where does the god fall, in that situation?  By setting up tensions between different goddesses, you can create a wide variety of religious dynamics, which may spill over into secular life.  Perhaps the standard for men in your society is to keep a wife for children and a concubine for fun, and the two should never swap domains.  Or perhaps the people devalue sexuality entirely, beyond its necessary use for procreation.

Then there's the other end of sexuality and fertility: death.  Goddesses of this aspect appear in many mythologies, and their association with death can take on any number of forms, from final peace to rampaging destruction.  Hel of the Norse rules the underworld domain, and takes in all the dead save for those warriors that go to Valhalla.  Persephone lives in Hades against her will, and her disappearance is associated with the seasonal cycle.  Ereshkigal imprisoned Inanna in the underworld for quite some time, giving Sumerian mythology two separate goddesses linked with death.  The Morrígan in Ireland is a war-goddess; she is not generally a warrior, but in the form of a raven she oversees and sometimes provokes battles.  Goddesses who actually take up arms and fight are somewhat rarer, but the valkyries of Norse myth were known to swing a blade from time to time, and Kali and Durga in India both slaughtered entire hordes of demons (and would have gone on from there had the other gods not stopped them).  Given appropriate social conditions, a goddess with an axe is not outside the realm of possibility.

She especially might take on a protective aspect.  Although goddesses may not always be associated with the soil in a womb metaphor, they are often linked to the land; both Japan (Amaterasu) and Ireland (Eriu, Banba, and Fotla) are symbolized by goddesses.  It could be entirely appropriate for such a deity to defend her country, by any means necessary -- magical, military, or even political.  The Irish trio are examples of sovereignty goddesses, whose blessing is needed to validate the king's rule.  This can even take the form of a sacred marriage -- an event which offers all manner of potential for interesting ritual.

And then there's art, without which none of us would be spending our time writing.  Brigid of Ireland was a source of inspiration to poets.  The Muses oversaw a broad range of artistic endeavors.  Where does creativity come from in your society?  How is it transmitted?

Returning to the domestic sphere, some less imposing deities emerge.  Certain societies (the Romans in particular) had countless minor divinities responsible for the daily routines of life; these gods and goddesses did not take on the grand mythological status of Jupiter or Venus, but they were an integral part of the way people lived.  From the household gods of the Romans to the nature spirits of Shinto, everything can be embodied with a kind of divinity.  These forces can watch over places (the Russian domovoi and the house), events (marriage or betrothal), items (Cardea, the Roman goddess of door-hinges), creatures (North Eurasian animal spirits) or activities (weaving, cooking, etc).  Worship could take the form of a quick prayer or a song, or perhaps a small offering of incense or warm milk.  Touches like this can hint at hours of painstaking worldbuilding -- including those you haven't done.

There is nothing inherently wrong with an all-encompassing goddess who, in her various aspects, rules over all these domains.  However, such a deity may or may not be the right one for your story.  These symbolic links are just a few of the building blocks you can use to create a colorful goddess who might add more vitality to your society.  They need not remain in total isolation; playing mix-and-match can produce with some vivid possibilities.  Perhaps creative inspiration is associated with sexuality, and there's a whole class of prostitutes who play Muse to the culture's artists.  Or maybe the local tutelary goddess is also a deity of death; people's spirits are assimilated into the land itself when they die.  You can brainstorm spheres of power, write them up on cards, and pick at random, then try to combine the results.  Doing so may strain your brain, but sometimes a stretch is good.