Adventures in World-Building: Fantasy Religions

Religion is a staple in any fantasy world. And although our society is filled with worshipers of various faiths, creating a new religion for a novel, short story, or even table-top game is bound to be challenging. Here are a few elements to consider:

Pantheon or Solo God?

Your characters may worship a single god, but that doesn’t mean there has to be just one. A pantheon is the collection of all gods in a religion or of a set of people. The Greek pantheon includes the deities of Olympus, yet cities would often worship specific deities. If you go the polytheistic route, your characters home city may worship one god while acknowledging the others. Or, if montheism is your goal, your character may believe in one god and denounce any “supposed” gods worshiped by minor characters they meet. Determining your god/s and whether or not they exist among others is important. Cities will fight over whose god is the true god.

Source: Flickr/ Darren Johnson

Source: Flickr/ Darren Johnson

In addition, you should also determine the relationship of the gods. Are your multiple gods brothers and sisters? Is power distributed evenly? Do the gods fight or declare war on one another? These are things you’ll need to know. You should also decide how much intervention the gods have in the lives of your characters. The Greek gods are often written into ancient stories. Just think of Athena in Homer’s The Odyssey (although modern readers might by slightly put off by that sort of deus ex machina).

Dogma

What are the tenets held by the people following your religion? What do they believe to be true? Have a set of principles for your people to follow is essential; it also gives great opportunity to define characters on the spectrum of good and evil. Those who don’t follow your principles will come across “bad” to the readers. Those who do will appear inherently good and just, if your religion is just, that is. Perhaps your religion is rather cult-like. Your tenets should reflect this fact. If a principle is to kill for the sake of the one true god, then all those resistant to comply will be frowned upon by the other characters. Dogma defines how your religion is approached by outsiders and how it is managed by insiders. Take the time to decide what your people believe and how they aim to live their lives.

How do they behave? (Not well, I’d imagine)

Are your gods mischievous? Are they well-mannered? How a god behaves will greatly influence the world of your characters. If a rebellious god with the power to control weather feels like sending a raging hurricane towards your inland city, your protagonist is going to get stuck fighting against elements out of his or her control. And sometimes that’s a good thing. However, if you’d prefer less intervention on the part of your gods, you may write well-behaved deities who see human beings as the misbehaving kind.

Purpose

Your gods should have purpose. If you have many, they may each work to control a certain force of nature in your fantasy world. Maybe it’s their duty to keep evil from manipulating their people. In other scenarios, they may be there to guide your heroes to victory. Some gods may intervene more than others. You need to decide why the gods play a role in your story. That will allow you a reason to introduce them.

Myth and Legend

This is perhaps my favorite part of creating a religion. Myth and legend are highly important. How were your gods created? How did the gods create man? DId they create man? How have the gods been intertwined with the history of your world? Do you have stories that explain the past and how the gods came to be worshipped? These are things you should be thinking of. The best way to accomplish this part of the process is to create a concept for the religion’s histories. You can choose to come up with a sacred text or set of scrolls (think The Bible, but don’t be constrained by the one-book structure). You can also leave a lot of myth up to oral tradition. Do your people like to tell stories just as much as you do?

What is the end result?

And finally, is there a heaven? Is there a hell? You need to give your characters a reason to worship gods. There may be some earth-plane rationale: the gods control the weather, and therefore, men must appease the gods for bountiful harvest seasons and safe fishing trips. Or, the heaven/hell afterlife concept may come into play. Believers will want to make the gods happy or at least impress them so that the afterlife is kind rather than wrathful. You might also consider playing with ideas of death. Perhaps the dead do not go to any heaven like paradise if they’re good. Perhaps the good remain on the earth-plane  to walk among the living as guides, friendly shadows, or wisps of good energy. The real punishment may involve being taken from the world.

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