To make it perfectly clear what today’s topic is about –I’m going to discuss how to develop a fictional religion for use in a story, game, or whatever other thing you have/do that requires a fictional religion.
I just really love that particular Pratchett quote (“If complete and utter chaos was lightning, then he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour and shouting ‘All gods are bastards!’”), and feel it is fairly appropriate for the creation of fictional deities. Y’know, seeing as many fictional deities do turn out to be bastards of one sort or another.
Now the first thing you’re going to need to do is decide how many religions your world contains. In a lot of fantasy novels they use polytheistic religions and say that everyone in the world follows that religion. On the surface it makes sense. After all, there are several different gods to choose from within the religion, so why would other countries or cultures have need of their own religion? They can just pick a different god.
But… that’s not really realistic. If you look at the Mediterranean in antiquity, every culture had their own set of gods. Sure there was some cross-over, and popular gods got adopted into different pantheons all the time. But despite what your high school teacher may have told you, Zeus and Jupiter, Mars and Ares, Heracles and Hercules… they are not the same people/deities. There are many similarities, sure. And in some cases we can even trace how a specific deity was adopted into the fold. But that doesn’t mean they are the same. (Long story short, the Romans weren’t as lazy about their deities as you think)
So why should your fictional world share a single religion, even if it is polytheistic? The modern world doesn’t have a single religion, and it seems like a growing number of people in the modern world are non-religious. (Though… the statistics do not seem to agree on world percentages, so I can’t say that definitively) Which makes me wonder why fictional worlds are so religiously uniform.
Okay, not really. I know why they do it. It’s why most people do most things. It’s just simpler.
Once you start getting into religious diversity, you start getting into the issue of how people of different faiths interact. This doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t get along, but a lot of history has been driven by the struggle of different faiths. On the other hand, there’s been a decent amount of history driven by conflict within a religion. And in some cases, these conflicts have resulted in a “new” religion forming as an off-shoot of the original. You can see why many creators of fictional religions don’t bother with all that headache, can’t you?
But I want you to seriously consider whether your world would benefit from the extra complexity or not. Note that just because you know that country X has a different religion than country Y, that doesn’t mean you have to fully develop the religions for both X and Y. You might, but you might just need a brief outline of Y and some of the key differences between Y and X.
Let’s look at my world Obroth.
It has 64 countries, and I’m pretty sure that there are going to be at least a couple of different pantheons. Knowing who settled where can help with figuring out just how many. Using Paint.Net I made a quick(ish) mock-up of the major religions and where/how they spread.
In the image you can see that I’ve identified 10 different religious areas (the black circle-ish outlines). These roughly correspond to how the various countries/religions spread out (as indicated by the arrows and colours). In addition to knowing that I need 10 religions, I can also see which areas influenced each other. Clearly the most “pure” of the religions are going to be 1, 4, and 8. This is for a number of reasons.
- These areas show very little “bleed” or cross-over with other countries.
- These areas are primarily self-contained, and/or spread outside their borders, rather than having areas move in.
- A lot of the inter-country connections stay within the same religious zone.
For these reasons, I can assume that those three pantheons are fairly distinct. The rest of them are going to borrow from their neighbours (and may borrow from the “pure” pantheons) to some extent. In most cases, religions don’t consciously acknowledge “yep, we totally copied this deity off of somebody else’s god” so they may not recognize (or admit) that god X is the same as god Y. Even when they do notice that the gods are very similar, they often have different interpretations based on their cultural needs, expectations, and traditions.
But, other than knowing this areas and who influences who, I don’t actually need to come up with ten different religions (at least, not for the novels that I’m writing at the moment). My novel is set primarily in Elgovina (book 2 goes to Asdarant, 3 comes back to Elgovina, 4 goes to Chesnia, and 5 returns to Elgovina), so I know that I have to come up with religion #3. Additionally, 1, 2, 4, and 7 have impacted this area and both areas 1 and 2 have important connections to and in the novel.
So I’m going to additionally develop (fully) religions #1 and #2, and just outline #4 and #7. The rest of the religions will wait until such a time as any novels set on Obroth require them.
Realistically, zone 6 is pretty close to my ‘home zone’ of 3 (because the world is round not flat), but for right now I’m going to assume that any religious “contamination” went from 3 to 6 rather than the other way around. (Zone 3 is pretty naval dependant, so it makes sense that they would spread out more than in)
Okay, now that I know how many religions I need to develop, I need to decide how to build my pantheons.
Basically, there are a couple of ways that you can approach this. You can create an alignment axis (like you would see in D&D), choose core professions, pick specific morals, or choose some other kind of concepts. Each of these provide you with a basic list that you can generate your deities from.
The axis alignment grid looks something like:
|Lawful Good||Neutral Good||Chaotic Good|
|Lawful Neutral||True Neutral||Chaotic Neutral|
|Lawful Evil||Neutral Evil||Chaotic Evil|
While choosing core professions might generate a list that looks like:
- Soldiers, warriors, guards, fighters, mercenaries
- Teachers, scientists, healers, librarians, doctors, inventors
- Artists, musicians, writers, orators, designers, craftsmen
- Labourers, builders, workers
- Children, orphans, the ill, the disabled
And morals might give you a list like:
- Bravery, honour, courage
- Wisdom, intelligence, curiosity
- Creativity, dedication, patience
- Determination, hard-work, obedient
- Kindness, compassion, love
Finally, other concept ideas might leave you with the following:
- The Sun and/or Moon
So what can you do with those lists? Well, you create one (or more) deities that “covers” each. Basically, you design a deity that people who identify with those occupations or morals would want to worship. In the case of the alignment and other concepts, you create a sort of “generic” deity based on that theme and then develop ideas about who would worship them and why afterwards.
What if you want to create a monotheistic religion? Well, the same sort of thing applies, but you have to figure out what the core beliefs, occupations, etc. of the culture is. If it’s a farming community that has never been to war before, it doesn’t make sense that they would worship a blood-thirsty soldier deity. Instead they would probably worship a “Mother Earth” type, or perhaps a musician trickster, or some other deity that better identifies with the people in that community.
For Obroth (and specifically for zone 3), I already know that they view their deities as personifications of celestial bodies and abstract concepts. There are three moons, and they are the daughters of Lord Midnight –who is married to Lady Daylight. LM and LD are the King and Queen of the deities (with LD being of slightly higher rank than her husband). Additionally two demi-god/saint type figures became a pair of stars, and are the patrons of star-crossed lovers (which is weird, but I’ll get to that later).
All of that was developed during NaNo as I wrote my novel. Now that it’s time to do the edit and rewrite I’m not too concerned if I have to change things up, but I like the general premise I came up with.
We have a (quasi) sun deity, Lady Daylight who is supreme over all the gods.
Her husband is Lord Midnight, and his daughters are the three moons that orbit the planet. They roughly correspond to the three-faced moon goddess of some pagan Earth religions. Roughly. (Aviva is the youngest, she brings rain, grants life and health, and is quite energetic. Hafwen is the middle daughter and she is prayed to for guidance, compassion, and wisdom. The eldest is Soyala; she brings death, but also grants peace, freedom, and knowledge).
The star-crossed lovers started out as a cursed princess and a ghost who quested to break the curse, but fell in love instead. That story also shows that their afterlife is a loose mirror of the living world where the dead kill time until they are reincarnated. True loves will find each other in each life, but if they aren’t reincarnated at the same time they may not be able to actually be together.
So far I’ve got a bit of a mish-mash of a religion. Some things are covered, some are not. When I made the map of Chesnia and Eswald one of the islands is kidney-bean shaped and called Moon Island. This references the fact that Aviva is a kidney-bean shaped moon. And if that’s a neutral island between the two warring countries, it must be because Aviva is particularly sacred to them. But they’re primarily sailors. I mean, their islands add up to a decent amount of agricultural space, but the Chesnians and Eswalders are known as sailors and explorers.
Clearly Aviva has some extra dimensions I haven’t figured out yet.
How I get from this loose collection of ideas to a finished product is hard to explain. Basically at every step I ask myself how a deity would be of use to the culture in the story. Why would that deity be worshiped over another? Whether your deities are “real” or not, I tend to be of the opinion that if nobody worships them then they have no power. So despite any supernatural/godly powers they might possess, if the god doesn’t serve a tangible function for a culture then that god will not be worshipped.
To give you some ideas (hopefully), here is the completed religion of zone 3:
- Lady Daylight
- Associated with the sun, morning and afternoon, and summer and winter.
- Ruler of the gods; mother or creator of many of them; was the first god (created the Twins, see below)
- Prayed to for mercy, justice, the truth, creative endeavours, inspiration, and protection.
- Lord Midnight
- Associated with darkness, shadows, the night, and magic
- Father of the gods; was the second god (self-created); governs in the absence of light
- Prayed to for protection, prophecy, insight, dreams, desires, wishes, and magic
- Prayed to during investigations/research, to guide Lady Daylight’s attention to the task.
- The Twins
- Associated with the earth, dawn and early morning, the spring, and plants animals
- Co-creator of the world; master of land; in charge of all living things that walk or fly
- Prayed to for good harvests, food, clothing, shelter, strength, and long life
- Associated with the sea, evening and twilight, the fall, and sea-life
- Co-creator of the world; master of the sea; in charge of all living things that swim
- Prayed to for safe sailing, good weather, trade, food, strength, and long life
- The Moons
- Associated with the first moon (youngest), beginnings, youth, and water
- Creates rain; eases births; stirs the winds; purifier of souls; wife of Wash
- Prayed to for good weather, safe sailing, safe birth, good health, and forgiveness
- Associated with the second moon, harvest, marriage, and air
- Ripens crops; calms the winds; unites couples; grants life; wife of Mudd
- Prayed to for good harvests, happiness, love, good health, and all family matters
- Associated with the third moon (oldest), endings, death, and fire
- Brings freedom; giver of peace; guardian of knowledge; mother of Adria; protector of souls
- Prayed to for a good death, long life, wisdom, protection (from magic), and forgiveness
- Associated with white, death, the spirit, and the afterlife
- Guides souls to the afterlife; decides fate; brings change; mother of Nemit
- Prayed to for change of fate, destiny, prophecy, and change
- Associated with grey, trickery, shadows, and wealth
- Luck-bringer; fortune-maker; trickster; brings laughter
- Prayed to for luck, wealth, protection, relaxation, frivolity
- Stars (saints/demi-gods)
- Associated with beggars, the poor, and lack of wealth
- Associated with healers, doctors, herbalists, and alchemists
- Associated with thieves, criminals, assassins, and refugees
- Associated with merchants, traders, shopkeepers, innkeepers, and moneylenders
- Associated with children, childbirth, youths, and parents
- Associated with wealth, power, nobles, and statesmen
- Evalidae & Spiritens
- Associated with lovers (especially star-crossed lovers*), couples, and families
- Associated with fishermen, hunters, trappers, shepherds, and herders
- Associated with artists, musicians, orators, curators, and other creative types
- Associated with soldiers, mercenaries, guards, warriors, and fighters
- Associated with sailors, ship builders, swimmers, pirates, and navies
- Associated with judges, lawyers, executioners, guards, and peace-keepers
- Associated with mages, scholars, inventors, scientists, and researchers
- Associated with craftsmen, labourers, builders, and workers
- Associated with messengers, diplomats, envoys, scouts, and explorers
- Associated with farmers, winemakers, bakers, brewers and butchers
- Associated with misfits, outcasts, and the edges of society