G is for Gods
“In the beginning, all was emptiness and Ko’vi.” O’bek’we reached out to tap T’aki, who had hunkered off by himself and looked bored. “And Ko’vi commanded light and set it apart from darkness.” –Cottonwood
The Morathi’s face grew solemn. “With gods, there is always equal trade. Always. Even with those gods we perceive and name as evil, there must be equal trade. Mortals may recant, may lie, may even kill to prevent an accounting, but gods are bound and their honor may never be broken. So the whim of Quiabe can never rain too heavily upon we who serve him, for if we have met him fairly, he cannot dissemble.” He leaned over his table, putting his eyes closer to a level with Taryn’s, to add, “But you do not serve him, human, and whether that renders you armored to his whim or bared to it, I cannot say. And ‘tis not for me to ease your mind in any matter, but I will put to you this question: If Quiabe were to meet with you this night, to stand before you in the flesh of the immortals, how would you answer his expectations?”
“Gods don’t have expectations,” Taryn said. –The Wizard in the Woods
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Let me just start out by saying that I am not a theologist and it is not my intention to preach or condemn any faith (or lack of same) my readers may have. The purpose of this article is to talk about religion as it pertains to the creation of a fantasy world or alien culture, not as it pertains to anyone at all here on Earth. If I use real-world examples, it is strictly to illustrate a point, not to proselytize.
Today, boys and girls, we’re going to talk about gods. Little g. In the general sense.
I hardly think I need to explain why you should consider religion an important facet of any culture, so we’ll skip that part and move on to how I’m going to do it. Having given the matter my attention whilst diligently crushing candies for several hours, I have decided the best way to begin is with a quick runthrough of the various religious structures. Keep in mind, this will be done in the broadest possible terms. I realize each category can be divided down into numerous specific definitions, but I have a doctor’s appointment in eight days and I don’t want to miss it. So here, in no particular order, are the most basic categories of religion.
Atheism and Agnostics. Now, I can’t think of a single society which has no concept of deities or an afterlife, but I imagine that for as long as those concepts have been around, individuals have removed themselves from it. In fact, the word theism, which has come to be used as a stand-in word for religion, was invented by ancient philosophers so they could debate religion in an abstract way without having to acknowledge the validity or even the existence of any particular god. Not all of those men were atheists; simply questioning God or denying a church’s authority does not make you an atheist.
Atheism is not a lack of belief; on the contrary, it is a very firm belief that there is no God, no spiritual plane and (usually) no soul. This differs from the oft-confused agnosticism, which implies an openness to the idea of gods or soul, provided they are presented with evidence of existence. (An agnostic friend of mine used to be fond of saying that, like Bigfoot, God might actually be out there, but Bigfoot at least left footprints.) Also to be considered here is deism, which can be described as believing in God, but not in church.
Naturalism. This is a handy word for summing up those religious practices which incorporate more magical or ritualistic elements, rather than dogmatic principles. Here, we find fetishism (the practice of making inanimate objects and imbuing them with power), shamanism (the practice of certain people acting as intermediaries for a greater and largely unseen spirit world) and totemism (the practice of taking strength or guidance from a guardian source, primarily spiritual, but which may manifest as a physical being), but perhaps the best known is animism, which is the belief that everything has spiritual properties and a soul. We get the notion that owls are wise and foxes are sly from animism.
Naturalistic practices also blend together nicely, forming the backbone of a belief system which may or may not include an overarching god or gods. If you’re interested, you can find a ton of information on animal symbolism, as well as other good stuff at www.whats-your-sign.com. If you’re like me and would rather turn pages, I recommend Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer (beautiful but pricey) or the Pocket Guide to Spirit Animals by Dr. Steven Farmer (brief entries but lots of critters). For the spiritual side of plants, check out http://www.earthwitchery.com or read The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Magical Plants by Susan Gregg. If rocks and gems are more your wizarding world’s thing, read Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem and Metal Magic (or, heck, any of his naturalistic magickal reference books).
On the flip side of the animism coin (all things have their own individual soul), we find pantheism (all the universe is one soul). Fundamental pantheists do not believe in a personal, man-like, divine being, but more of an omnipresent, transcendent force. Frequently, the idea that this force alone exists and all the rest of what Man perceives is illusion accompanies this belief. Communing with this force often forms the backbone of pantheistic faiths, through meditation or ritualized forms of exercise, breathing or sex designed to alter mortal consciousness and bring the practitioner closer to God.
One God or Many? When it comes to organized religion, most of us imagine something that fits in one of the following categories: monotheism (There is only one religion. Ours. Yours is demon-worship.), henotheism (We worship our God, you worship yours.) and polytheism (You have some nice gods over there. Mind if we borrow a few?).
Dressing up the basic cut of your belief system are theological accessories—concepts that are not religions in themselves, but which can be found adorning all the most fashionable dogmas. Little things like an immortal or perhaps mortal soul, reincarnation, heaven and/or hell, divine judgment and/or punishment, sin and repentance, saints and martyrs, prophets, priests, a theocratic hierarchy, angels and demons and ghosts, oh my.
Now that you’ve settled on a belief system for your world, it’s time to populate your pantheon with gods. This can be a daunting task. Of course, you could always go the omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient creator god route if you want to. It’s easy and relatable. Or you could flesh out (so to speak), your pantheon with some archetypes—a trickster, a seer, a lover, a warrior, a deity of the hunt or harvest. www.godchecker.com has what I consider the ultimate database which you can browse by region or by archetype, although they present little more than names and attributes (with tongue firmly in cheek). There are far more in-depth resources available if you already know what you’re looking for, so my usual technique is to browse godchecker to find a promising lead and then google for the real research.
Which brings me to my favorite way to use deities in a fantasy world: reinvention. In my Lords of Arcadia series, my gods originated on Earth from a variety of pantheons before coming to Arcadia as refugees. I changed their names (very slightly; I wanted them to be recognizable) and gave them new approaches to their old duties—Anubis, as Anu, is still the god of death, but in his Arcadian aspect, he ferries souls to the afterworld rather than weigh their worthiness. I like to see fresh takes on old myths (If you have not read American Gods by Neil Gaiman, stop reading this immediately and go read that), provided they are handled with respect.
One last point to ponder and then I’ll put religion to rest: There are dozens of major religions on Earth, each of them with hundreds of distinct subsects. The idea of a whole-world religion is bizarrely commonplace in fantasy and science-fiction, but profoundly unlikely. Depending on the god in question, worshippers may be more or less tolerant of other faiths.