Part 3 of 3
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how the handling of spirituality in fiction can push a story into the realms of the fantastic. In Part 2, we considered what it means to have a transcendent aspect of a fictional world, and how its handled leaves room for skepticism even in a world of magic and active gods. Here in Part 3, we finish up with a look at god-crafting as an aspect of world crafting.
The term “gods” means one of two things, and when considering gods’ role in the fantasy world this goes hand-in-hand with two different aspects a world crafter needs to consider. The first area is the nature of the gods themselves. What are they in the world? The second is the nature of the world’s and people’s relationship to the gods. What are they to the world?
In terms of what the term “god” means, let’s consider two broad categories:
- Gods’ nature:
- is a personification of a fundamental force or aspect of a world. A god is inherently part of the innermost metaphysical architecture of the fantasy world. The world depends upon the god for its existence…
- OR… a god is a really powerful being. The world may not be dependent upon the gods continued existence for its own existence–like the Norse gods, they may not even be truly immortal–but the gods are by definition the most powerful class of actors within the world. Nothing equals, or ultimately surpasses their power-level as a class of beings.
- A god is an object of worship, adoration, and deification by people in the world.
As a side note, I recognize that the above categorization is simplified in the extreme. There are varied complexities in real-world beliefs amongst religions and even sects within particular religions. However, this is not a blog about analyzing the intricacies of religion–it’s a blog about fantasy (a playground built out of bullshit).
Category One refers to what gods are unto themselves, independent of people and the world. Category Two is completely dependent on the people in the world. It is not necessary to satisfy both of these to call something a god. A lifeless statue can be a god to a people, in which case others may (rightly) call it a false god. Or maybe the point of the story is that these are true gods… that’s up to the author. A statue can be considered an idol in the sense that it has no power and is a false god–merely an inanimate object of worship whose presence nevertheless has a powerful effect on the characters around it. Disrespecting the object could bear the penalty of death, after all. Of course, an idol could be a lifeless object granted life and magic, and becomes a dwelling for a higher power… thus, not all idols are false gods.
Of course, a god doesn’t have to be an object to be worshipped. It could be an idea, an imagined being, or a world. An invisible god doesn’t have to be real to be worshipped. An entire priesthood could exist to perpetuate a mythology that secures their power–and the priests could even believe in their myths… and it could even have a positive role in the world. There’s an interesting nuance in Buddhism which states that even the Hindu gods are Maya (illusion). They seem to be actors in the world, but they are no more real than the rest of the world. (Buddhism offers an interesting model for the fantasy world crafter: the assertion that all experience, even the self, is just illusion of suffering caused by desire).
Once an object of worship becomes a real actor, a character in its own right upon whom the world crafter grants a personality, goals, thoughts and feelings, then we move into Category One. Most Western religions include both Category One and Category Two: powerful beings who are real in the world and worshipped by their followers. I’ve identified two sub-categories above to acknowledge there is a qualitative gradation here between belief systems. If we consider the following spectrum:
I’m not by any means an expert in Celtic lore (Lugh, Dagda, Macha, Erin, Cernunnos, etc.) My limited exposure to them, however, makes what are called “Celtic gods” feel very different from Greek gods. It’s less clear to me whether they are gods, or legendary heroes in the same way Paul Bunyan is. They are clearly special, powerful, and are certainly heroes, sometimes with immortal or magic power. It’s a very fuzzy line, and of the spectrum above they seem to me to be the least inherently transcendent (although, they might be the most wise). (I’m sure some Celtophile is going to correct me–great. Please do).
Germanic/Norse gods (Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya and Frey, etc.) are interesting. They are practically immortal, magical, and almost like the Greek gods… except they have weaknesses, aren’t really immortal (they must continue to eat the apple of youth), and are ultimately doomed to die defending the world from the giants at Ragnarök (whether the world survives remains to be seen).
Next, we have the Greek gods. They still have character flaws, but they are clearly immortal. They aren’t the oldest beings in the world, because they had first to usurp the Titans (who first had to usurp Uranus), but they are clearly the most powerful. Zeus reigns uncontested as the Father God, and the gods themselves never seem truly threatened, other than by jealousies from the other gods–it is their interests that can be threatened. Of course, there’s a hierarchy within the gods. Zeus as the Ruler of Olympus can punish other gods, but don’t think a mortal is going to punish a god (unless some sort of trickery is involved).
Then we have the Judeo-Christian model. God is so transcendent that there is only One. And his name is God (well, one of his names at any rate). (It’s like finding a man who’s been named Man. What’s your name? Man. Man what? No, just Man.) God is a god, the only god. God with a “G” is a name, but what he is, is a god. And in God’s world, all other gods are but fiction. Here we have a prime example of a god-concept that is fundamentally interlinked with the metaphysics of the world. The world cannot exist without the deity, and anything existing outside of the deity’s will is meaningless–it, by definition, cannot be. God’s attributed name, Yahweh, is said to be a form of the verb “to be”. The name given to Moses as the burning bush, “Eheieh asher eheieh” tranlates as “I am that I am” or “I will be that I will be”. From this perspective, God is existence itself, and nothing exists outside God.
After the J-C model, we get into areas akin to Buddhism where the concepts of gods start to lose meaning, because in these models only the transcendent is real, and the presumably “real” world is but a fabrication of perception. (Perception of what? Well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it?)
These are just a few examples. I recommend that any serious fantasy world crafter take the time to familiarize him/herself with several real-world religions (whether mainstream or presumably defunct). And, look at examples from around the world. One could argue that Egyptian gods are even more transcendent and undefinable than Greek, a step closer to the Ultimate. The above spectrum is, of course, a predominantly Western model (Buddhism excepted)–Eastern, Native American, and other views have entirely different ways of even framing the question.
Finally, there’s the consideration that a god could be Category One (a fundamental highest power of the universe) and not be Category Two (not worshipped). Either the god is hated (an Evil Creator model), or simply completely absent or hands-off (Deist–the cosmic “watch-maker” who doesn’t interfere, but may be at least known about), or simply unknown (outside of the world and choses not to reveal him/herself).
Ok, let’s focus a bit and talk about gods as they often appear in fantasy: a polytheistic pantheon that are more part of the world (characterized personifications of fundamental forces in the world) than transcendent. In fact, I like to consider my gods decidedly not part of the transcendent, although they are the closest one can be to transcendence and still retain the semblance of a personality. (Personalities, by definition, are of the world.)
Gods may or may not have spheres of influence. This is a particularly Greek model. Hades is God of the Dead. Apollo is God of the Sun and Music. Artemis is the Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty and Love. This is all very convenient for magical systems. Magic based on these gods shape which kinds of spells the priests or magicians can get.
When I was young, I got a copy of the old AD&D Legends and Lore. In it, it gave game stats and spheres of influence for just about all the major earth-myth pantheons, from Chinese to Egyptian to Aztec. It assigned of the [X] to all the gods. As I grew older and started researching more into world mythologies, I found this of the [X] was by no means universal. Gods had personalities, goals and interests, but not necessarily clearly delineated spheres of influence. Using the Greek model is convenient from a gaming perspective, because it sets rules for what priest characters can do. However, don’t feel limited by this.
So the first question is, do your gods have spheres of influence? Or, are they harder to pin-down and a little more complex than that? Maybe they just have interests, and their boundaries are cultural rather than philosophical. Or maybe they don’t have boundaries…
So far in my writing I tend to ascribe to the spheres of influence model, but not because the gods are limited. The gods have personalities, and followers in my world gravitate towards the god they prefer. Those followers have tendencies to ask for certain things, and so then the gods become known as solar gods, nature gods, consoler gods, gods of war, etc. The gods grant boons because they want the worship, not because they’re inherently limited (there’s no reason why a god of war, for example, couldn’t bless a crop of grain–it’s just that his followers don’t really care to ask about that). So, this is an example where the gods actions are also shaped by their worshippers.
More importantly than spheres of influence, however, are the gods goals and motivations. What are each gods interests towards each other (this is very important, because this is the sort of thing that causes global conflict), and towards their followers (this shapes the nature of societal life even when not at war)? To give the gods character, how do they usually appear? Are they inclined to appear? What sacrifices or actions do they like? What colors are attributed to them? Scents (incenses and perfumes)? Symbolic animals? Clothing (robes, kingly garb, peasant garb, or just plain naked?). What weapons or tools are they seen with (for example, Thor’s hammer, Odin’s spear, Osiris’ scepter and crook)?
Did gods create people, or did people create gods? In a magical world, there’s no reason the latter cannot be true and the gods still become all-powerful actors in the world after generations upon generations of worship.
Are gods merely vessels for a singular transcendent higher power? This concept is referred to as a God-form. The worshipper invokes a god for a specific purpose or ideal, but Zeus and Yahweh (as a side note, I always thought it interesting that the Classical Latin pronunciation of Jupiter–Jove–is phonetically yo-way) become different cultural ways of trying to describe a higher transcendent god, and Aphrodite and Isis different ways of looking at a higher transcendent goddess–and even the higher god and goddess might be ultimately a different expression of the same Highest Power.
After, or during, fleshing out the pantheon of your world, take the time to develop several key myths. After all, people know and worship their gods through mythological stories. Ultimately, the holidays and liturgical/ritual practices are based upon aspects of the pantheons’ myth cycle. Especially take the time to write the creation myth. It may or may not be “history” in your world, but it’s at least important to specify what your people believe it to be true. And, of course, they may be right. Or wrong. A story where people believe a creation myth that turns out to be just flat wrong should be significant enough to surface and impact the story (otherwise, why make the distinction–it is fantasy, after all, and it’s ok to make the myths “true”).
Intercessors: How does a god spread his or her influence in the world?
How do the gods act in the world? God-characters rarely interact directly, and when they do it’s a momentous event. Oftentimes they take care not to because they don’t want to come into direct conflict with other gods. They’re usually smart enough to achieve their ends through other, less risky means. Here we come to the concept of intercessors. Intercessors could be supernatural servitors (e.g., angels), or special mortals chosen for the role of spreading the god’s message: priests, prophets and shamans. Of course, a god could use both in a hierarchical manner. Both Judeo-Christian and Chinese (Confucian) concepts take an extremely hierarchical/bureaucratic view of heavenly matters. Divine messages don’t traditionally skip the chain of command. Confucianism probably has Christianity beat with its celestial bureaucracy, but even Catholics ask saints to intercede on their behalf.
Of course, a typical fantasy world has priests casting divinely granted magic as miraculous signs of the god’s power. What D&D party isn’t complete without a cleric slinging healing spells at the fighter as he weighs into a band of orcs and goblins?
Religion Building: Customs and Practices
As I alluded to in pantheon building and fleshing out the mythological stories of the world, customs and practices flow from the myths. A religious rite often reenacts the central myth (ahem… for religions practicing today, the central “mystery”) pertaining to the rite in question. Holidays follow a sequence of mythological stories, whether it’s the neo-pagan/celtic year (Yule–Imbolg–Ostara(Easter!)–Beltane–Midsummer–Lughnasadh–Autumn Equinox–Samhain) or the Christian liturgical calendar that, when put together and experienced as a sequence reinforce and echo the mystery the myth conveys.
So what does that have to do with fantasy worlds? Build a sequence of holidays based on some key mythological stories. Tie the celebration of a creation story to a point in the year. Tie initiation into the religion as a worshipper, or as a priest/cleric, to another story. This will provide a structure against which to write and add world detail in narrative scenes set in your world. This creates a backdrop that is more believable, relatable, and helps with the suspension of disbelief. After all, we want to create the illusion for the reader, gamer, or viewer that the crafted world is real–at least in that moment.
Faith and Anti-theists
The idea of faith vs. lack of faith becomes interesting in the fantasy world. When we have magic and visible miracles, it seems that faith should be a given, right?
Faith is more than just mere belief in a god’s reality. Faith implies a trust in the gods, and can also refer to a trust in the fundamental natural order of the world. Of course, an atheist character might be silly in a fantasy world when the priests of the evil god are at this very moment hurling infernal balls of fiery death upon you!
But what about characters who are not atheist (absent of belief in a god), but are against faith (trust) in the gods that do exist? These anti-theists can take an interesting role in the world. They can be case as villains or heroes. They would commonly be villains set against the good gods, but maybe the anti-theist is a hero. If so, are the gods then villains? Or, is the story a bit more complex? Does the anti-theist need to have a conversion experience if the gods are also good?
One could have an agnostic character, even in a world where gods are prevalent. This gets back to the earlier post on transcendence. If the gods are part of the world, what then is beyond the gods? The agnostic would take the philosophical view that the Higher Power beyond the visible gods is unknowable (whether in nature, or whether there is more to existence than what the story reveals). This could then be set against a backdrop of a character who has faith in a transcendent power or destiny beyond the gods (both Greek and Norse gods were bound by the fates). Or, the “atheist” equivalent (an “a-transcendent?”) who would assert that there is nothing beyond the visible gods.
And with that thought, I’ll wrap this up for the week and conclude the series on spirituality, transcendence, gods and religion in fantasy. See you next week!