So on February 1st I talked about creating fictional religions. There I discussed a couple of different ways to develop the basic list of deities and mentioned needing to ask “how” and “why” those gods are worshipped.
I won’t get into specific holidays and rituals for these deities (partly because I don’t need that detailed of a religion for my story right now), but I will briefly talk about legends and origins.
The primary goal today is to explain the how and why of a religion.
If you remember from last time, the list of deities looks something like:
- Lady Daylight
- Lord Midnight
- The Twins
- The Moons
- The Stars
- Evalidae & Spiritens
You might be wondering how much more detail you actually need for a fictional religion. Baias is worshiped by thieves and criminals, and Empolus is worshipped by merchants and shopkeepers. That’s pretty self-explanatory. What more do you actually need?
Well, like I’ve mentioned a few times, you need the “how” and “why”. That above only covers the “who”. If you’re still confused, just stick with me for a bit. I promise it’ll make more sense once I’m done!
First I want to point out that there a couple of ways to approach this problem. Like most world building tasks, you can go big-to-small, small-to-big, or randomly. I usually go big-to-small, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best method or the one that you should use.
So I’ve already established that Lady Daylight is the Queen of the Gods (and mother of some of them). To me, that means she’s the logical place to start. So the first question, “how”, means I need to figure out how she a) came into being, and b) came to be recognized as a god. The answer for (a) could explain (b), and vice versa. Don’t think you need to have two totally separate answers.
So the story of Lady Daylight starts how many creation myths start. At first there was nothing. From the nothingness, light formed (traditionally it is darkness or chaos that forms first). In the presence of light, the nothingness collapsed in upon itself until only a tiny seed remained…
But in my novel the gods are actual beings of immense power. And there are multiple different pantheons, so is that really how she came to exist? No. That’s the story told to make it seem like Lady Daylight and the pantheon she leads is the “true” religion. (Which, let’s be honest, every religion on Earth does to some extent)
This starts getting into strange territory, so let me just summarize and say that the gods are effectively immortal beings from another dimension/plane of existence that “feed” on human souls/belief. Their powers are due to their extraplanar nature, which interacts with the “real” world in strange ways.
Lady Daylight (real name unknown) is genuinely the mother of many of the deities in her pantheon, and is given the position of power over the pantheon because she was the first to approach the people of Obroth. The archipelago she first went to had many superstitions about the sun, moons, and stars, so those aspects were appropriated by her and her family. Originally it was just her, Lord Midnight, Wash and Mudd. As they found new niches of human belief, they brought in other family members to fill them.
Now there was no burning bush or rumbling voice from on high. The four gods took on mortal form and claimed to have received prophetic visions. Using their own powers (diminished in mortal form), they convinced many humans that they had been touched by the gods. At the end of a mortal lifespan, they ‘died’ and chose real prophets to continue spreading their religion. Eventually it had spread enough that they no longer required prophets, and the gods sat back to take in the belief…
Obviously this is a very specific way of looking at gods, and you want something general that you can apply to your own fictional religion. So let’s break down the above information.
- There is a legendary beginning to the gods (often taking the form of a “there was nothing, then there was something”).
- There is an actual beginning to the gods
- If the gods aren’t real, then the concept of them had to have developed from somewhere. Usually because someone is convincing when they say they’ve seen or spoken to a deity. Often developing out of generic superstitions about the natural world.
- The religion spreads because of the dedicated efforts of people and/or gods.
- Eventually the religion/belief system is so ingrained that it takes minimal effort to perpetuate. (When was the last time you heard someone claim to have spoken with a god and didn’t immediately dismiss them as having a mental illness or an ulterior motive?)
- This is different from beliefs that the god(s) in question is/are taking an active role in the day-to-day lives of believers. Those can be classified as superstitions. By “effort to perpetuate” I mean prophets, grand displays of power, and “word of god” type occurrences.
So that leaves us with the “why”. Why did the gods approach those specific peoples? Why were they able to convince them to follow that religion? Why was there a need for those gods? Now in my above story I mention that the archipelago had superstitious beliefs. It’s believed that the development of religion is one of the key aspects required to turn people from a loose set of hunter-gatherers into a civilization. So it would make sense if, in my example, the people of the islands had no unification prior to this religion coming in. They roughly all believed that the sun, moons, and stars had some sort of power, but there wasn’t a core belief set.
So why those people? Because the extraplanar beings, just like humans, have unique personalities, skills, abilities, and temperaments. The islanders were naturally similar enough to the original four that their mortal disguises would be able to easily blend in.
Other reasons that you might want to use:
- A series of natural disasters or events had primed those people for a shift in beliefs.
- A major change (political, geographical, economical, etc.) has primed those people for a shift in beliefs.
- Unification of a diverse group of people led to a combining of superstitions into more concrete concepts.
- A hero-cult around a local person grew into religious belief.
Why were they able to convince them to follow that religion? To me, this is tightly linked to “Why was there a need for those gods?”
The islanders (if you haven’t figured it out yet) developed into the Chesnians and Eswalders. When the gods first approached them they were many different small tribes scattered across the islands, constantly at war with each other. By offering a cohesive set of beliefs, it gave the different tribes a common ground to form peaceful alliances with each other. It wasn’t 100% successful (as Chesnia and Eswald still hate each other), but it allowed for a level of stability in the region that had been unknown prior to the development of that religion. Lady Daylight satisfied the need for a just, but kind, ruler. Lord Midnight satisfied the need for a protective but non-restrictive figure. Mudd and Wash filled the need for food, shelter, and safety from the natural world.
Other needs that gods might fill:
- Strength and success in battle.
- Reassurance that natural events (such as storms) will not kill them.
- Love and companionship.
- Financial, political, or artistic success.
There are many more reasons how and why, but hopefully that gives you a better idea of how to flesh out your fictional religion.
Developing holidays and rituals is going to have to be a personal experience that combines the gods you’ve created, the hows and whys, and the civilization that worships them. For example, a sea-faring people (like my above example) are going to place more importance on moon phases and tides than a landlocked civilization. Similarly, they probably don’t have need of a ritual to prevent earthquakes (to them, it’s probably one to prevent tsunamis).
The important thing is to remember that beliefs and civilizations influence each other, rather than one forming the other.