In fantasy worlds, unlike our modern, Western one, monotheism seems to be quite uncommon. Maybe it’s a way to show the “otherness” of the story, or a method of inserting larger-than-life characters into the world in a way that they can interact with the protagonist. Perhaps the intent is to illustrate a “war of ideas” in a metaphorical way. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other reasons, but they all end with the same result: a pantheon.
Now, there are two different concepts at work here. First is the “traditional” polytheism, like the Greeks, Romans, Norse, and Egyptians. In all of these cases—and others from around the world—you have a multitude of gods. They all have their own niches (Aphrodite, goddess of love, for example) and they have a body of lore surrounding them. This is the idea we’ll be exploring in this post. The other is pantheism, which you’d expect to be related to the word pantheon. It’s not; “pantheism” isn’t the belief in multiple gods, but the belief that (roughly speaking) God is everywhere and everything. From a worldbuilding perspective, that doesn’t offer too much, so we’ll stick with polytheism. We can live with the minor etymological confusion.
As usual, the best way to start creating something is to look at similar things that already exist. Most early cultures in history were polytheistic, and a few have left a large amount of mythology. That’s the key to polytheism: the myth. With dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of gods, stories are the way to keep them straight. Stories bring them to life, bring them into the world. They show why these gods should be worshipped…or even how.
Polytheistic gods, unlike the solitary God of monotheistic religions, are, in a very real way, superhuman. They wouldn’t be gods if they didn’t have some sort of supernatural power or ability attributed to them, although heroic humans can be, and often were, deified. (Castor, Imhotep, and Guan Yu are all examples here.) But gods of a pantheon are unlike a single God in another way: they can be flawed. Zeus is well-known as lecherous, while Hera was the personification of jealousy, and Loki would, today, be a troll in the Internet sense. A far cry from the perfect divinity of the Judeo-Christian God.
This humanization of the divine means that gods can be characters in a literary sense. They can have conflict, both with each other and with outside forces. They can walk the mortal world, interact with living people in more than just visions. But they’re still gods. They can just as easily be unseen, nothing more than the intended recipients of prayers and pleas and sacrifices. They can work behind the scenes as easily as on the stage. And if they’re never visible, then you get to pose the interesting question: did they ever truly exist?
Creating the creators
Of course, no matter how you use the pantheon, you’re going to need one. This doesn’t have to be too elaborate. A list of names will suffice, maybe with a note as to the purpose of each one. If you want to go deeper, though, you can.
One question you don’t have to answer is “how many?” The trick with polytheism is that there doesn’t have to be a set number of deities. You can have two, or twenty, or twelve hundred, and it won’t matter much. If you have a small, set number, it’ll be easier to enumerate them all, but you can always leave room for expansion.
In a way, creating a pantheon is dividing up the universe, decomposing it into its fundamental parts. The exact criteria will depend on the culture—a typical medieval fantasy people won’t have a god of computers, for instance—but a few things are near-universal. Remember that the more gods you have, the less each one has to do. With a vast array of deities, you can get into some pretty fine distinctions.
Creator gods are probably everywhere. Naturally, monotheistic faiths only have (exactly) one of these, but polytheism gives you more authorial options. Creators can be distant, aloof of their creation. Alternatively, they might prefer to be up close and personal with their masterpiece. Maybe there are multiple creators, each given a different element; one god created the land, another the sea, for example.
The creation of the world can be extremely interesting in its own right. Perhaps there was a great battle among the gods. Or the world could have been created by more primordial beings, with the gods as their children. Or maybe the world is a song given physical form by the highest of gods, while the others merely inhabit and protect it.
Local gods exist in many pantheons. These are typically small-time guys, possibly deified humans. Ancient, half-legendary rulers or wise men are good candidates. But it’s also possible that the local god is a “spirit” of a place, like the Roman genius loci. Another possibility is a more powerful god who is intimately connected with a city, such as Athena. Any way you look at it, local gods will have the center of their worship in a particular area. Their greatest shrines or temples will be there, and outsiders may not even consider them true gods.
Elemental deities make up another common type. These are your gods of fire and water and weather and the like. In larger pantheons, especially early on, these will form the bulk of the roll of divinity, if only because older cultures, lacking modern technology, had less control over the natural world. Everything that man couldn’t control, almost by definition, the gods could, so one of them would be given an elemental role. Plenty of overlap is possible here; creators can be elemental. Local gods can, too, especially if a type of weather is strongly associated with a certain place, like snow on the highest mountaintop.
Patron deities come to the fore as a polytheistic civilization develops. Eventually, they will begin to outnumber the elemental gods, Patrons can be of a craft (Vulcan and smithing), an act (Ares and war), or just about anything else. Like some theological Rule 34, if people can do something, there will be a patron for it. (We see this even in monotheism, with the Catholic patron saints.) This is a place where the fine divisions of a vast pantheon come into the spotlight. Why have a single god of agriculture, when you can have one for grain, another for fruit, and half a dozen for different kinds of trees? Patrons can be creators, too; art and fertility work well for these. (Why? Because these are both acts of creation.) Local gods, by contrast, are often patrons of those things the local place is known for.
Antagonistic gods sometimes exist. These don’t necessarily have to be evil—look at Loki—but they can be: Titans, frost giants, etc., feature in many myths. Nor is the god of death necessarily an antagonist. Still, the idea of a god or set of gods opposing the primary pantheon appears very often. Myths are stories, and stories need conflict. Someone with godly power can only be truly rivaled by another such being, and a dedicated foil is quite handy. Any of the gods can fill this role, as can any other being with power approaching godlike. (In many forms of Christianity, Satan has practically become an antagonistic god. This, combined with the elevation of saints, the hierarchy of angels, and so on, might even provide a glimpse of monotheism in the process of becoming polytheistic.)
Once you have a sizable pool of deities, they can be related. Greece shows a nice portrait of the extreme end of this: the Olympian gods are one big, unhappy, inbred family, a very model for the European aristocracy of later centuries.
In a pantheon, gods can marry. (Whether they remain faithful, however, is another story. Or a lot of them, in the case of Zeus.) They can have children, and these will likely be gods in their own right. Some of the deities might be brothers and sisters. They may become lovers. They could even be all of these at once, since gods don’t necessarily have to play by mortal rules.
This fooling around can also extend to the inhabitants of the world. Every culture with polytheistic leanings has a story about a god (almost always a man) having relations with a mortal (nearly always a woman). Sometimes this is simply for love. Other times, it’s out of lust. In a few cases, it’s neither. The many lovers Zeus took are well-known; there are so many of them, we still haven’t run out of names for Jupiter’s moons. But everywhere you look in polytheism, gods and men are coming together.
And these unions, in mythology, often lead to children. A child with one divine parent might also become a god. Usually, there’s a tale as to why they are or aren’t fully divine. They could also be relegated to a separate rank of demigods, immortal beings with less power than the highest deities, but far more than any normal human. These might then go on to develop their own myths, like Heracles. (And don’t think this is limited to polytheism. A divine child is sort of the central figure of one of the world’s major monotheistic religions.)
The more gods a pantheon has, the more opportunity for relation. And the stories become endless. Not only that, but they can also echo the world itself. Children may follow in their parents’ footsteps, taking on similar roles, as with Aphrodite and Eros. Or they could become a blend of their two parents; the son of a sky god and a sea goddess might be the patron of the trade winds…or bringer of hurricanes. A forsaken child may become an antagonist. A city might choose to worship a demigod believed to be the offspring of a god and a local priestess or seer. The only limit is the imagination.
The story begins
Any way you slice it, polytheism has a reason for its popularity in fantasy. In real life, pantheons came about naturally, through centuries of cultural evolution. Fantasy creations didn’t. But they’re fun to think about, and they add a dimension to a world and its peoples. From a storytelling point of view, there’s not that much to be said of an omnipotent deity. But a hundred lesser beings, human in their flaws and faults, breathe a kind of life into a story’s religious backdrop.
That doesn’t mean you should go wild with the idea, though. Unless you’re writing a “mythic” story, where mortal and divine regularly intermingle, multiple gods should probably be just like one—out of the way. But they will leave their mark, everywhere from the calendar (Saturday) to place names (Athens) to any other facet of life. Any kind of religion shapes a culture. In the worlds you create, how they do it is up to you.