Sarah Jane Elliott, Associate Editor, Fantasy
Issue # 3: 04/01/01
A Theory of Alternate History
If one whishes to form a true estimate of the full grandeur of religion, one must keep in mind what it undertakes to do for men. It gives them information about the source and origin of the universe, it assures them of production and final happiness amid the changing vicissitudes of life, and it guides their thoughts and motions by means of precepts which are backed by the whole force of its authority.
A Philosophy of Life (Lecture 35)
Faith and Foreboding -- Sarah Jane Elliott
Sarah Jane Elliott
worlds are ones that lend themselves particularly well to the creation of
religions. The people
populating fantasy worlds are usually believers of magic in some form or
another, and having no knowledge of this logical science nonsense, are
perfectly happy to use gods as an explanation for the world around them.
But dangers abound when building a religion for your fantasy world;
there are any number of pitfalls, stereotypes, and clichés that can sneak
up on you when you least expect it.
of the most common religions seen in fantasy novels is simply one of
convenience. In this
type of religion, characters dont seem to hold any beliefs at all. In fact, the gods really only exist to provide the
characters with really nifty oaths to shout in times of great emotion.
By Krondaks beard! or Great Ephusia help us! or
Hesperianathas three nipples! may sound great as a character
bellows them while plunging into peril, but remember that curses only have
power if the god means something to the people. Throwing the odd statue in here and there isnt going
to make the religion real-- we have to see the role the god plays that
makes him or her so important to these people.
a well-developed belief system can add a depth to your world, and there
are so many really interesting religions to choose from that you can borrow parts and make your own. Even if your
character isnt particularly devout, knowing how a devout character does
act can give insight to your characters personality.
Why doesnt your character worship the gods?
Was he somehow betrayed by them, or does the religion keep
practices he doesnt approve of?
too, that you dont go overboard with the clichés. If you want an example, I strongly suggest you look up
Religion in Diana Wynne Joness The
Tough Guide to Fantasyland. The
Maiden, Mother, Crone triad is one such standard that is in the middle of
a severe identity crisis. This
trinity appears in every other book to come on the market, with a new name
each time, but theyre rarely any different.
In the end, most of them boil down to aspects of Clotho, Lachesis,
and Atropos. Now its true
that the Fates are really cool characters, and by all means, go ahead use
them. However, try to put a
new spin on things so that they dont fall back into the same tired
cliché that weve seen before -- it causes your world to loose some of
its believability. Ditto
the nature goddess or the sun god. Make
them new gods, not just old gods popping up in a kind of fantastic
witness protection program.
religious theme that crops up with alarming frequency these days is the
evil priesthood. Generally
populated by fat, greedy priests who are more concerned with money than
with their deity, the evil priesthood harries and persecutes the poor
people of the countryside and casts a pall of fear over anyone within
their reach. The evil
priesthood is cruel and unforgiving, and their power often stretches
across many kingdoms. They
may be commanded by an evil deity, or they may not hold much faith with
their deity at all, having realized that the threat of religious damnation
is a really spiffy way to get money out of people.
Whatever the case, they are always evil, they are always a danger
to the heroes of the story, and they are usually defeated by the triumphal
of the problem lies in the jaded attitude many people have developed
toward organized religion in todays world.
Whatever the cause, it has resulted in a shift in attitude which is
reflected in the pages of our fiction.
Several hundred years ago, when Europeans were first learning that
there was a world beyond the one they knew, they began to encounter a
multitude of religions that seemed strange and primitive to them.
For a long time afterward, most evil religions in fiction
tended to be the religions of the savage and alien race, while the heroes
of the stories were supported by their religious figures.
But recently, there has been a drastic increase of the noble
savage races practising a good religion.
This religion often stands as the preferable form of devotion in
worlds in which the hero is forced to battle his way free of his own
oppressive, evil religion. The good religion is rarely practised by the heroes,
and if it is, chances are theres an evil priesthood lying in wait to
persecute the heathens. Its
happening so often that the evil priesthood is quickly becoming laughably
rather than fall back on this device, put your efforts into creating a
good villain and leave the priesthood alone.
Remember that priests are only human.
They feel the same things your characters do, they just happen to
have a vocation as well. Yes,
some may fall victim to greed or delusions of grandeur, which is entirely
within the scope of human nature, but
its unlikely that this greed will spread like a selective virus
to everyone wearing a cassock.
is not to say that building religion into your world is a recipe for
disaster, because it can be done really well. Whenever
I want a new look at old ideas, Ill watch Kevin Smiths Dogma,
read Holly Lisles Sympathy for
the Devil, Emma Bulls War for
the Oaks, Charles Williamss The
Place of the Lion, and Neil Gaimans forthcoming American
Gods. And for entirely
new religions, try Diana Wynne Joness The
Spellcoats, Joanne Bertins Dragon
and Phoenix, Tolkiens The
Silmarillion, and Ursula K. LeGuins The
Tombs of Atuan. Sometimes
seeing something done right helps put you on the right track and allows
you to come up with brilliant and innovative ideas of your own.
not create a hero with a strong faith in a good religion?
That kind of faith is becoming a novelty in this day and age, and
new looks at old standards of religion come as a breath of fresh air in an
increasingly stale religious view.
We live in an agnostic age.
Although 90% of Americans profess a belief in God, actual church
attendance is declining, suggesting that religion is not an important part
of most peoples lives. Throughout
most of history, however, religion has been the central aspect of
In his essay On Thud and Blunder, Poul Anderson
commented on the superficiality of most fantasy religions.
The hero may swear by some deity, or there may be minor rituals
roughly akin to rubbing a rabbits foot.
But finding a fully-developed religion in fantasy is exceedingly
Here are some things for you to consider when youre
developing your own fantasy worlds religion(s).
First, how many deities are you using?
One, two, three, or more? If
you use only one deity, that deity has to be a combination of good and
evil traitsmuch like YHVH in the Hebrew Bible.
YHVH is a god of risings and fallings, good fortune and bad
fortune. He thus escapes the
Problem of Evil so often encountered by apologists who promote an
If you choose a pair of deities, consider making them
opposites. Think of the Yin
and Yang principles. This
does, however, present the possibility of a better/worse mindset-which
could be useful, depending on the story youre telling.
Or it might not be suited to your story at all.
Using three deities brings to mind a couple of models:
father, mother and child; or maiden, mother, and crone.
The Christian Trinity is one such, with the Holy Spirit replacing
the mother from the first example.
For a truly polytheistic pantheon, first determine exactly
how many you want to have. Are
there equal numbers of male and female deities?
Does one or the other gender predominate?
Are they all gender neutral? In
addition, youll need to know how they are related to each other, and
determine a sphere of influence for each.
Or perhaps all the gods are equally powerful in all spheres, and
just choose to specialize in one or another.
Once youve determined the number and nature of the gods,
ask yourself how active you want them to be in your world.
Distant gods set the world/universe in motion and then leave
to do more interesting things. Deism
is one example of this. Prayers
or rituals to this kind of god will be ignored.
It is also possible that a distant god will have left no
obvious evidence for its existence. In
that case, people who choose to believe will look for circumstantial or
coincidental evidence to buttress their belief.
There will always, however, be a portion of the population that
will wonder at the distant gods existence and be agnostic or atheist.
You should also determine how these doubters will fit into your
story (if at all).
Moderately Active gods act through selected
representatives. Some possible representatives might be a priesthood, a
messiah or prophet figures, and mystics who have divine visions. It will be much harder to doubt the existence of these gods,
although doubting the efficacy of prayer and ritual will still be
Close gods hear prayers from everyone.
They may or may not answer those prayers, but the average person
would feel that he or she has a chance of getting results by performing a
ritual. With close gods,
youll need to determine the circumstances under which they will answer
a prayer. Will a god who is
basically good, for instance, answer a prayer made by a person who is
basically evil, if that prayer is for good intentions?
(An example might be the prayer of a murderer that his child have a
happy life unmarred by knowledge of what his parent did.)
Next, define the representatives of your god(s) in the world.
Typically, this would be a priesthood of some kind.
How hierarchical is the priesthood?
Is there a pope (or equivalent), complete with attendant lesser
representatives? Or does each
community elect its own priest, as was done in the early days of the
Who can become a priest or priestess?
Is that determined by birth? Does
the priesthood have an active recruiting arm?
Does the deity choose its representatives somehow, perhaps by a
special birthmark or brand appearing at a certain age?
What does becoming a priest or priestess cost--both monetarily and
psychically? Must they give
up worldly possessions in order to concentrate on the divine? Must they cut all ties to family? Or is the priesthood a family affair, passed from one
generation to the next?
The Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, the Koran, the Book of
Mormon, the Sybilline Oracles, and the Tao Te Ching have all played their
parts in the history of our world. What
kinds of religious writings does your world have?
If the population is literate, are holy books readily available for
study? How well are different
interpretations of the text tolerated? (Generally,
the more stable and secure the religion as a whole, the more diversity is
tolerated. Only when the
survival of a religion is threatened do you find rigid adherence to
orthodoxy---as happened with the Jewish religion after the destruction of
the Temple in 70 CE.) Are the
texts considered the literal Words of the God(s), or are they meditations
and prophecies written by humans?
If you have a monarchy in your world, does the monarch have
any religious duties? Does
he, like Constantine, appoint religious officials?
What is the monarchs position in relation to other
representatives of the gods?
What functions or purposes do the gods representatives
serve? Do they heal the sick?
Counsel the troubled? Call
for rain or sun? Do they
punish those who violate the precepts of the religion---both inside the
priesthood and outside it? Do
they preside over birthing, naming, marriage, or death ceremonies?
Finally, consider the average person of your world.
What is required of him or her?
Must he consume or avoid certain foods (as Catholics do during
Lent, and Orthodox Jews do daily)? What
feasts or services are required? What
is the tone of each feast or holy day?
(Think of the difference between Easter and Christmas, for
instance, or Hanukkah and Passover.)
How will he know he is doing what the gods want him to do?
Are regular services or sermons provided for the people? If so, what is the content and form of them?
The final thing to consider when building your religion is
Whatever the political system, religion will have some effect
on politics (and vice versa, of course).
Constantine acted to end differences of opinion between what became
the Orthodox and Catholic Churches; in 21st Century America,
separation of church and state is a precept as old as the nation itself
and religion lobbies the government to get its own agenda approved.
How active are the religions in your world?
Are representatives of different religions jockeying for power and
influence? Or do they stay in
the background, quietly performing their rituals and offering solace to
those who seek them out? How
informed is the average person about whatever political activity is going
on? What role will a conflict
between religion and politics play in the lives of your characters?
Answering the above questions will give you the basics of a
religious system that you can follow consistently in your story.
At the same time, youll be able to distinguish between the
annoyingly devout, the dutifully devout, and the fallen-by-the-wayside
devout in your story. You may
not need to answer all of these questions, depending on the role religion
(or its representatives) plays in your story.
While religion is rarely rational or logical, it can be
consistent and believable. Considering
the points raised here should help you achieve a religious system that
Poul Anderson would hail as a welcome break from the norm.
know her; you've seen her a thousand times. She is young, mature,
and old -- a Maiden, a Mother, and a Crone. She is identified with
the moon and the earth, with birth, death, and rebirth. She is a
mother and, sometimes, a destroyer.
But she's not the only possibility out there.
This model of the goddess is a familiar one.
She shows up in a lot of recent fantasy.
Her roots are both old and new; she is a principal figure in modern
Wicca and neopaganism, but her origins are commonly placed far back in the
prehistory of mankind.
Do you have to use her, though? Not necessarily. Nothing
says that your goddess has to be all-encompassing. If you've worked through the theology of your world to the
point where you have decided that all divinities are just manifestations
of the same Divine, that's fine. If
not, though, why not allow your deities, male and female alike, to
diversify? One goddess does
not have to do all the work by herself.
A bewildering array of possibilities exist in the real world;
reading outside of the familiar realm of classical mythology will soon
reveal them. They form so
rich a tapestry that forming any system to classify them is impossible,
but I will try to explore at least a few of the symbolic links that might
offer rich worldbuilding and story seeds.
Since childbearing is an activity characteristic of women
specifically, I shall start there. Sometimes
childbirth is treated as a supremely holy act, but those hunter-gatherer
groups still extant today often view it in a far different light.
For them, the act of birth is powerful, but extremely dangerous.
They form elaborate taboos around the event, and around
menstruation as well, designed to contain the volatile and often impure
forces thus released. Archaeological
evidence bears out the idea that similar behaviors existed among other
such groups in the past. Childbirth
may not be a glorious event; in fact, it may be downright frightening.
This should logically be reflected in the religion;
hunter-gatherers may have specific women's deities who must be propitiated
in order to avert disaster for the tribe as a whole.
Does this power over human fertility carry over into the
agricultural domain? Not
necessarily. The culture you
invent can view the soil as being equivalent to a womb, but it's not at
all required. Some groups
associate a goddess with the moisture (rivers, rain, etc.) that makes
farming possible. You can
even turn it on its head, if you like, and create a destructive goddess
who needs to be kept away from the crops, lest the harvest fail.
I'm not aware of any specific examples of this in the real world,
but that's what imagination is for. You
can associate your goddess with water instead of earth, or with air, or
fire -- anything that suits your story.
Think about the ramifications this might have for the society, and
run with them; the story possibilities abound.
Sexuality need not be linked with fertility, either.
In fact, the African societies that practice female circumcision
often do so precisely with the dual goal of promoting fertility
(appropriate) while preventing sexuality (inappropriate).
Your prostitute-goddess need not be a mother as well; maybe she
stands in direct opposition to the mother-goddess.
And where does the god fall, in that situation?
By setting up tensions between different goddesses, you can create
a wide variety of religious dynamics, which may spill over into secular
life. Perhaps the standard for men in your society is to keep a
wife for children and a concubine for fun, and the two should never swap
domains. Or perhaps the
people devalue sexuality entirely, beyond its necessary use for
Then there's the other end of sexuality and fertility: death.
Goddesses of this aspect appear in many mythologies, and their
association with death can take on any number of forms, from final peace
to rampaging destruction. Hel of the Norse rules the underworld domain, and takes in
all the dead save for those warriors that go to Valhalla. Persephone lives in Hades against her will, and her
disappearance is associated with the seasonal cycle.
Ereshkigal imprisoned Inanna in the underworld for quite some time,
giving Sumerian mythology two separate goddesses linked with death.
The Morrígan in Ireland is a war-goddess; she is not generally a
warrior, but in the form of a raven she oversees and sometimes provokes
battles. Goddesses who
actually take up arms and fight are somewhat rarer, but the valkyries of
Norse myth were known to swing a blade from time to time, and Kali and
Durga in India both slaughtered entire hordes of demons (and would have
gone on from there had the other gods not stopped them).
Given appropriate social conditions, a goddess with an axe is not
outside the realm of possibility.
She especially might take on a protective aspect.
Although goddesses may not always be associated with the soil in a
womb metaphor, they are often linked to the land; both Japan (Amaterasu)
and Ireland (Eriu, Banba, and Fotla) are symbolized by goddesses.
It could be entirely appropriate for such a deity to defend her
country, by any means necessary -- magical, military, or even political.
The Irish trio are examples of sovereignty goddesses, whose
blessing is needed to validate the king's rule.
This can even take the form of a sacred marriage -- an event which
offers all manner of potential for interesting ritual.
And then there's art, without which none of us would be
spending our time writing. Brigid
of Ireland was a source of inspiration to poets.
The Muses oversaw a broad range of artistic endeavors.
Where does creativity come from in your society?
How is it transmitted?
Returning to the domestic sphere, some less imposing deities
emerge. Certain societies
(the Romans in particular) had countless minor divinities responsible for
the daily routines of life; these gods and goddesses did not take on the
grand mythological status of Jupiter or Venus, but they were an integral
part of the way people lived. From
the household gods of the Romans to the nature spirits of Shinto,
everything can be embodied with a kind of divinity.
These forces can watch over places (the Russian domovoi and the
house), events (marriage or betrothal), items (Cardea, the Roman goddess
of door-hinges), creatures (North Eurasian animal spirits) or activities
(weaving, cooking, etc). Worship
could take the form of a quick prayer or a song, or perhaps a small
offering of incense or warm milk. Touches
like this can hint at hours of painstaking worldbuilding -- including
those you haven't done.
There is nothing inherently wrong with an all-encompassing
goddess who, in her various aspects, rules over all these domains.
However, such a deity may or may not be the right one for your
story. These symbolic links
are just a few of the building blocks you can use to create a colorful
goddess who might add more vitality to your society. They need not remain in total isolation; playing
mix-and-match can produce with some vivid possibilities.
Perhaps creative inspiration is associated with sexuality, and
there's a whole class of prostitutes who play Muse to the culture's
artists. Or maybe the local
tutelary goddess is also a deity of death; people's spirits are
assimilated into the land itself when they die.
You can brainstorm spheres of power, write them up on cards, and
pick at random, then try to combine the results.
Doing so may strain your brain, but sometimes a stretch is good.