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Submitted on
October 15, 2012


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I'm not looking for a religious discussion. If someone starts one, I will rip your face off and block your comments.

1. How involved a deity is affects religion. At least in fantasy, anyway.  Now of course there are plenty of fantasy religions that don't bother to clear up whether a god actually exists, and the driving elements of the story or more about religion and power rather than spirituality. So considering whether god or gods actually really do exist at all in your story is a perfectly cromulent question. However, if a god does exist, and is constantly involved in the lives and well-being of its worshipers, enemies or non-believers might think twice before some serious smiting ensues.  For that matter, followers of an attentive god might watch their mouths.  (Look at the Greek Gods and what they did for slights!) A god may be protective, but that doesn't necessarily mean benevolent.  In fact, a god or gods may have the attitude of "No one messes with my people but me!" Ancestors and spirits may replace a full-on deity, but how involved they are with the real world still needs to be addressed.  (I think that Starclan from the Warriors cat series might as well not be there at all, since they are never helpful and at times downright deliberately confusing and obstructive. The overthrow of them would make for the best Japanese RPG ever, though. Get on that, Warrior fanfiction people, I'm throwing you a bone, here.)   If a god is distant, and never involved, it obviously leaves more room for interpretations, like popes and priests.  Often there are magical quotas for gods, that by worshiping a god one gains particular magics or some other boon.  If this is so, pay attention to what that god likes and what it wouldn't tolerate.  (If a god likes babies, for example, and your character accidentally kills one, I'm going to take issue when the god pats him on the shoulder and says, "Eh, that's okay, buddy.") Very few people like the full-on attention of gods.  Heroes tend to have miserable lives, ditto prophets and martyrs.  A god nitpicking all the time creates a tyrannical heaven, especially if they're petty. The angle of gods sneering at poor, pathetic humanity has kind of been done to death; sometimes I wonder how people would behave towards a god that could care less if it was worshiped, or even gods that are at mercy of mankind like in Princess Mononoke. That also begs the question of whether a god or supernatural being needs worshipers in the first place, because that at least can give mankind some pull.  Gods may well operate on their own level of rules, and be forbidden from directly interfering with the mortal realm because it creates chaos.  Indirect contact from the gods is another grey area that can be misinterpreted, even usurped by false prophets.  Of course, the definition of what a god even is opens up all kinds of thematic ruminations (again, Japanese RPGs might kill god all the time, but the argument could be made that the god killed is not God god or what have you, just a super-powerful denizen.) Either way, the role of gods as watchers, judges, or directors of fates needs to be established, even if they don't play a major role in the story.

2. What is exchanged for religion needs to be addressed. Religion either forms or is an extension of morals and ethics, especially in primitive societies. It is often the first attempt of mankind to make sense of that which makes no sense.  While myths are the first science, often attempting to explain phenomenon as-yet undiscovered, religion and spirituality attempts to answer the questions science never can. Do people pray just to exalt their god or gods, and obey heavenly laws in the hopes of being granted a reward?  Or do characters pray for power, for magic, or other favors?  And which ones do the gods agree to?  Why does the religion exist in the first place?  Many times, religion strikes a chord by addressing the major problems people have. If you are a warrior whose livelihood depends on not dying in battle, you're probably not going to be thrilled at praying to some namby-pamby god of peace. You've got to get the attention of the not-dying-in-war god! Honoring one's ancestors might be important for obtaining past histories, or even so one can be welcomed as a proper family member when one dies and joins the spirits on the other side.  Note that the reality of these things existing is not as important as the beliefs they instill: odds are, to your characters, the god or gods exist. I also have to point out that if miracles like smiting and the like occur, that's gonna do an awful lot for convincing people the god or gods are real (provided the miracle is specific enough, but again: false prophets can jump all over that.)  If there are multiple gods fighting over worshipers, things would definitely get interesting. People usually embrace religion because it fulfills a need.  Note that this is not necessarily the presence of a comforting deity, but may well be allowing one to become a part of the community surrounding that religion.  You might all be headed to be circumcised and dance in a drum circle, but damn, you're part of something bigger than yourself!

3. Environment and cultural values affects religion. People in the desert might worship rain.  But then again, people in a river valley might, too, because the annual river flooding means their crops are good this year. However, in the desert, I bet the storm god is always a good guy, while in the river valley, the storm god has a reputation for being wrathful if he's not appeased. An abundant agricultural society might put gods of fertility and crops first, while a nomadic warrior tribe might value a god of war. What the society values as ethical is influenced by AND influences religion. When mankind is living-hand-to-mouth, expect to see a lot of tribal totems, polytheism, and morals that make no scruples about killing. The less time spent worrying about a full belly is more time to contemplate one's navel.  To put it another way, civilization and morality only goes as far as one's ability to eat.  Talk to anyone who has known real hunger. Day three, you might be willing to steal and break a law you'd never conceived of breaking.  Day five, you might be willing to kill.  A society facing this constantly would have a god, a belief system, or a set of mores that are okay with this.  Conversely, a society where hand-to-mouth is not a reality for the majority would shake a finger at such primitive behavior.  Having said all that, there's nothing worse than a slap-dash religion that makes no sense within the context of the established civilization.  I have to invoke Paolini's "Religion of Ebul" here for a second, with the priests cutting their limbs off just cause. I don't wanna say no one would join that religion, because there's always someone desperate and sad enough to joint the most obvious idiot-cult, but cutting one's limbs off serves no purpose in the world as Paolini has presented it.  You'd be useless to your society in just about every sense of the word, and religion, largely, is about making connections within society.  Please realize that while belief systems can influence and control society, they can't utterly gum up the works of society's operations, because when they do, people tend to do two things: rebel (Henry the 8th, Lutherans, Protestants, Puritans) or become fundamental (the Spanish Inquisition). The medieval churches of Europe grew crops and bred dogs and had a lot of economic power.  They were useful in other ways to society aside from just the whole "Yay God!" thing, and a believable fantasy religion takes this into account.

4. The role of ritual is one of the most important. Ritual is a huge, huge thing in human lives.  Lack of ritual almost always guarantees a lack of civilization. Rituals reflect or symbolize what the society holds as important, what a culture values.  That is why judges wear black robes, why there are ceremonies for inaugurations or military awards, and why we have funerals. For example, a society that promotes death as the most meaningful act ever, one more meaningful than birth or marriage or anything else, is probably going to have warriors sculpted in ritual to believe that with every ounce of their being (and will probably make you wet yourself.)  If you like life, but it's meaningless to them, would you wanna face a warrior of theirs?  How about a thousand of them?  Rituals of birth, coming of age, courtship, bonding, and death exist in just about every culture.  Disregarding a ritual or doing it wrong can be quite the faux pas, especially if cultures are colliding.  (Throw vengeful opposing gods into the mix and watch the sparks fly.) Depending on how stringent that culture is, it could mean exile or even death (blasphemy laws in Pakistan carry the death sentence, for example.) Modern day disregarding of ritual in say, dating (courtship) might not be that big a deal.  But try spitting on a coffin at a funeral, and someone's head is gonna roll. A friend told me once  that the surest sign of a society on the brink of collapse is a society that tolerates everything.  Rituals dictate what society tolerates. As creatures of habit, we like rituals.  They are comforting, and can be personal habits or hugely communal events.  Ritual gives significance to the insignificant. They are the infrastructure of a society, the software of our brains; they can change, but if they crumble altogether, everyone's in trouble. Ritual is heavily tied to what defines a culture's values and morals, and surest way to become outcast or insult someone is to screw with their rituals. If a god is involved, and says "Do these rituals right or I'll smite you" the pressure gets even worse. For more on the role of ritual and its resonation in religion and culture, I highly recommend The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell.

5. Religion is highly structured, so don't be stupid about it. Fantasy religions can kind of say anything; you just have to be consistent about the message.  If you've taken the time to establish that the Sky God says don't touch a woman until she's married to you, and you have rituals that constantly reinforce this message, and everyone who considers themselves upright moral citizens agrees that not touching women is the fair and right thing to do: don't have an ethically-minded hero touch an unmarried woman and not think twice about it. Or, have an unscrupulous bastard do it and not get in trouble when someone catches him. There'd better be some punishment on the way. Otherwise, why'd you bother telling us Sky God no likee the touching? Also be aware of iterations within the taboo.  Is an accidental touch or the brushing of fingertips just as bad as full on canoodling? Because if so, that tells us a lot about the society, especially if it involves a rich noblewoman/chief's daughter versus a peasant girl.  Conversely, if a guy kisses a girl and is subjected to three days blackballing, that says a lot, too.  (Blackballing is one of the most incredibly hurtful and powerful tools a primitive culture has at its disposal.) Taboos within religion trickle into secular life as well.  The biggest offense fantasy religion tends to do is take all this time to establish religion, and then not make it matter one bit outside of the church/synagogue/mosque walls. Religion and spirituality are powerful, powerful forces, because they affect beliefs. If people in the real world can blow themselves up or set themselves on fire because they believe a spiritual text, what the hell do you think could happen in a fantasy world where magic and dragons and gods might have the same spirit of conviction?
  • Mood: Tired
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Konnono Featured By Owner Apr 2, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I might be wrong, but for the Japanese kami (or what we call gods) aren't on the same par with omniscient beings like a God that the Western world is used to. Any spirit can be a kami if it's powerful enough and has enough believers. Without believers, they just fade away and stop being gods.

Since I'm more used to these kinds of stories, that's the kind of god the one in my story is haha (oh wow original much?)
Droemar Featured By Owner Apr 3, 2014
Yes, Shintoism usually puts things into a hierarchy (I think Amaterasu is at the top?) but as a religion it had its local or hearth deities that were kami.
I do like the idea that belief demotes godhood, though. That's neat!
Konnono Featured By Owner Apr 3, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
It's one of my favourite divinity ideas, to be honest. There's just a lot to explore!

It's interesting to note that even Ancient Greek gods aren't omniscient in the truest sense of the word. The very idea that a god can bleed, even if they bleed ichor, is just so human. When you think about it, their worshippers probably have the same relation to them like subordinates under a very capricious and demanding boss. Not all-powerful, but powerful enough to make your life miserable when in a bad mood.
TheWhiteJewel Featured By Owner Sep 20, 2013
Fascinating work. I'm beginning to love your writing, if the large number of tabs holding your other journals has anything to say about it.
DasTenna Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2013
"If there are multiple gods fighting over worshipers, things would definitely get interesting."
Thatīs why I like the transition between the later days of the Western Roman Empire and the Early Medieval so much. There were so many changes not only in politics, when borders collapsed and emperors fell like the literal ephemera (ephemerae? O_o), but especially in religion with the declaration of Sol Invictus as the highest god and the emperor as the living sun god especially in the 3rd century, with the cult about Mithras, with Constantine the Great announcing Christendom a legal religion, with Arianism, etc.
The clash of religions can be fertile, though, as many "adopted" gods and goddesses of Greek, Oriental, Celtic or Germanic origin in the Roman pantheon proof as well as many holidays in Catholic church which originate from non-christian feasts.
One could show how the different gods or religions react towards another, how they influence eachother and how one of them or maybe both vanish after a while and make way for something new.
DasTenna Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2013
Another aspect instead of religion could be tradition which often comes from a mixture of sacred and practical laws. In my Space Opera, I havenīt shown religion so far, but tradition and rituals coming from that play an important role on most worlds. They define their culture in contrast to another.
Great blog, as always, and very helpful. Iīll keep those points in mind and do my research. Thank you.
Devinital Featured By Owner Oct 26, 2012  Hobbyist Artist
Not going to lie, this was one of the most confusing and intellectual reads I've ever had. But it brought up a lot of good questions and I while definitely start asking myself those questions when it comes to creating my fantasy religion and the world it is involved.
akeli Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2012   General Artist
Never read Paolini, so I can't comment on how good or bad his story is, but I just gotta say... ""Religion of Ebul" sounds like someone is saying "Religion of Evil" in a weird accent.
RedVioletPanda Featured By Owner Oct 18, 2012   Digital Artist
The whole "Religion of Ebul" thing I think was basically Paolini trying to saying "religion and ritual in pointless!" kind of thing, which falls apart because it really doesn't make any sense at all, even if you have had studies in anthropology. Other than that, it never really makes sense if the religion doesn't serve any purpose other than for the author to stand on a soapbox and "religion is a barrier, we don't need rituals because I never completed anthropology blah blah blah!" And I'm not trying to apologize for Paolini, I feel like this is a subject that happens in places where they shouldn't.

Other than that, I have had a feeling, even before I graduated high school in the long ago to really build upon the religious and spiritual aspect of Ferne. In it's earlier incarnations and as it is now, a good deal of the gods and spirits are in animal form, and when I first made them, I made them somewhat like the forest gods from Princess Mononoke, but they were a little more powerful. I've kept their power to a point, in that it's really, really not wise to fool around with them, especially not the ones who assume and ONLY assume animal shape; i.e. in real life, it would not be wise to go up to a grizzly bear and slap it across the face and expect to live, nor would it be wise to meddle and destroy a shrine/tree/spring that a certain spirit pocesses without some form of consequences. I've been a fan of Joseph Campbell ever since I was in high school and found out about that whole "Hero's Journey" thing, so he's helped out in creating the whole spiritual and religion aspect of the various worlds I have. And it doesn't hurt to take two religion classes, especially American Religions; the Seventh-Day Advents actually started the whole health food vegan craze.

Also, I don't know if you need to cover this, but I always find it strangely bizare how some authors approach human sacrifice, or ANY sacrifice. Likewise, I believe there's a book by Eddings where there's a pseudo-Aztec civilization in which THOUSANDS (or a number close to that) of people are sacrificed EACH DAY to some blood-thirsty god or so. I'm not going to go too much into the whole aspect since I neither a scholar on Aztecs or an expert on their religion, but when I find the mention of human sacrifice in any book, or sacrfice period, it seems like the author didn't do much research on it and went ahead and put their own assumptions into it; likewise, we get priests sacrificing virgins or a bunch of people who sacrifice a sacred cow but don't do it without offering the worshippers the meat and the gods the burning fat/entrails/essense of the sacrifice.

Sorry for the huge block of texts, but I was pretty happy about this set of tips.

Droemar Featured By Owner Oct 18, 2012
I think human sacrifice is a huge leap for people to have to make, because even something as extreme as the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were tumultuous. Whereas human sacrifice was an ingrained part of the Aztec culture. I did a little research on it for Mark of the Conifer and found that the heart of the sacrifice was literally about keeping the world intact for another day. I was really struck by that, and really tried to incorporate that element of how intimate it must feel to believe you're dying or sacrificing in order to keep all life intact. Having said that, the Aztecs were pants-shittingly terrifying, and when the Spaniards came every other culture near them was like "Kill those guys." So obviously the middle could not hold forever, and the opportunities for corruption and abuse of power must have been massive.
One of my favorite exchanges with a good friend of mine actually came when we were discussing Aztec gods and sacrifice over the phone, while she was in a grocery store. I remarked that there was a god of butterflies and dreams that needed not just children sacrificed to him, but crying children. My friend tried to rationalize: "Well, I might be able to understand that. You've got a kid you can't feed, what's better, let him starve, or send him to be ritually sacrificed?"
Right in the vegetable aisle, near some nice old ladies.
Apparently the looks she got were pretty awesome.
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