Revisiting religion in writing

(I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing a bunch of “woe is me” posts about depression, anxiety, and the like. Outside of release announcements and the Summer Reading List Challenge, that’s all PPC has been for months. Sure, 2020 sucks, but…I’m tired of wallowing in the mire. Let’s get back to worldbuilding and theory-crafting. “I do not wish to evade the world, but I will forever build my own.”)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since I wrote a post titled Faith and Fantasy. In that post, I talked about how the fundamental assumptions of “generic” fantasy (that it’s a feudal pseudo-medieval Europe, but with magic) are incompatible with the religious framework that authors insist upon. In other words, you can’t have Middle Ages Europe without Christianity. Change the faith of the people, and everything else changes, too.

All of my worldbuilding posts, that one included, come from my personal beliefs about creating a setting in any genre of speculative fiction. I have a “hardcore” worldbuilding mindset, in the vein of Tolkien and Sanderson, and I believe that the benefits of a cohesive setting far surpass the cost of research necessary to create it. I also practice what I preach, as you’ll see.

Recap

To summarize the previous post, the structures of the medieval West stem directly from Christian orthodoxy. Serfdom and the divine right of kings both come from Biblical interpretation. Other religions, if put in the same situation, would create different societies.

We see this in a few historical cases. During the same period, Islam tended to be more autocratic, for instance, without a hierarchy of kings, princes, dukes, counts, and barons. But the changes are even more subtle than that. To take one example: Islamic beliefs prohibit idolatry, which was quickly extended to any depiction of Allah or Muhammed, any engraved lettering on the Koran, and so on. Thus we find the elaborate geometric mosaics in mosques, as opposed to the crucifixes, frescoes, tapestries, and portraits in contemporary Christian houses of worship. Religion influenced art, and this was by no means confined to sacred spaces.

Likewise, the East had, at times, long periods of stability and hegemony. Chinese state religion has always been…hard to pin down, especially for those of us on other continents. Suffice to say, though, that the emperor was believed to have a divine mandate to his rule. (Except those times when he didn’t, which just so happen to coincide with periods of rebellion. But that’s a different post.) But there wasn’t the same faith behind that mandate as Rome had, so you don’t see the same results. The Chinese people didn’t have a belief system based around salvation from sin; while Buddhism, for example, does have recognizable concepts of heaven and hell, it emphasizes actions more than beliefs. Therefore, you don’t see Chinese cathedrals. They don’t go on a pilgrimage to Nanjing or Chengdu. And so on.

Out of this world

Take a fantasy setting, now, and you can see the problems arising. Even the best authors tend to “make something up” for their worlds’ faiths. In some cases, that’s because they’re trying to make a point. The Prince of Nothing series I used as an example in the previous post is intended to evoke the Crusades era, so it almost has to have analogues for Christianity and Islam. A Song of Ice and Fire has a number of religions, from the animist Old Gods of the north to the heptatheistic faith of the majority in Westeros, and their conflict ties into the overall plot.

Others don’t even bother with justification. The stereotypical D&D settings (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms) are built around polytheism. Gods are active in the world, and they’re really just beings who have a very, very high character level. Okay, but then how did they end up with a social structure that’s so close to the High Middle Ages? Clerics of Mystra aren’t going to be chaste because of the words of Christ. Call 4th Edition non-canonical if you like, but its lore has it that the Raven Queen was a witch who killed the god of death, Nerull, and took his place. If people can aspire to that in this life, they’re not going to be satisfied with a society where the greatest rewards for most will only come in the next one.

Games are games, of course, but some novels also take things that far. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, for example, follows the RPG tropes. The former emperor ascended to become the new god of shadows. His henchman/fixer, appropriately enough, became the patron of assassins. That happened within the books’ current generation, so there isn’t enough time to show any direct social evolution, but the unnamed world of the series shows a number of similarities to Earth. You have a mercantile empire, an island where the warrior caste is all but worshipped, desert-dwellers fighting a jihad…

Fantasy religions are as varied as their creators, but few authors go to the trouble of truly analyzing the effects their made-up belief systems would have on the societies housing them. I am not always immune to the lure of the cop-out, I’ll admit.

Introspection

Ignoring those novels and shorts set in the “real” world (including paranormal stuff like “Fallen” and the Modern Minds series), my fantasy worlds have religions with varying degrees of depth.

The Hidden Hills books do fall into the polytheistic feudalism trap, I’ll admit. The people of Stada (the primary kingdom of the books) follow about twenty different gods, each overseeing a different segment of life. Despite this, they have a Europe-like system of lords—one of the main characters is the son of a viscount. I justify this in the text by not justifying it at all. That’s the way things are, and nobody really bothers to think otherwise. Speaking as the author, however, I can say that the polytheistic faith derives in-setting from a combination of ancient tribes’ animist beliefs and the guiding principles of an advanced civilization.

That’s much the same as for Otherworld. There, the primary character focus is on the Virissea, descendants of Native Americans (Paleo-Indians, technically) transplanted from Earth at the end of the Ice Age. Going to another planet didn’t entirely disrupt their beliefs—not that we know much about them—but some came to glorify, then outright worship, the creators of the mechanism which took them there. In the present day setting, the Virissea are monotheistic, but they consider those “Altea” to be of a higher level than common human beings. Not quite demigods, but even modern Christianity posits that some people have greater rewards than others. Look at St. Peter, for example.

Otherworld has other races, however. And these are physiologically distinct, far more so than what we consider races. One such people has a kind of spiritual pantheism. Another follows a dualist good-versus-evil faith somewhat similar to Zoroastrianism. A third uses meditation and strict moral codes derived from what they believe to be the rational principles of nature itself. And that’s not counting the distinctions outsiders gloss over or just don’t notice; not all Asians are Buddhists, after all.

My other fantasy setting where religion plays an important role is the unreleased Occupation Trilogy. Here, the crusade is the start of the story. The Hevestine peoples follow the dictates of God’s chosen prophet, who has been slowly deified over the course of nine centuries. They have a central church, a collection of saints who are believed to have performed miracles, and a lot of other Catholic trappings. And their society reflects that, though it’s more of a post-feudal Baroque Europe.

Against them are the Ihneti. They’re…pagan, for lack of a better term. They believe in magic, don’t follow the right teachings, and they’re just all around bad people. Well, they aren’t, but they’re the target of a six-year war and decades-long occupation because, hey, that prophet said to carry the light of God to every corner of the world. And if they would just listen, they’d realize the undeniable truth, and they could be saved, too.

I’m consciously aware of the contrasts in these settings. In a way, they represent three “levels” of worldbuilding. Hidden Hills took the easy way out, as religion isn’t a fundamental part of the plot. The whole point of Otherworld is to explore the interaction of our modern American culture with one alien, but still recognizably human, so the beliefs of the natives are important, but not pivotal. And the Occupation Trilogy is meant to make you think of the Crusades and colonialism, so I emphasized the faith of the believers and how they see their foes as heathen.

Any one of these approaches can work. You don’t have to explore every nuance. There just isn’t enough time, and I know you’d rather write the story. But a little bit of extra thought when you need it, and this aspect of a fantasy society can become so much more real. Five years ago, I stated this as a hypothesis. Now, I can confirm the truth of it.

Building theocracy in fiction

Ask a lot of Americans (and other Westerners in general) what the scariest form of government is, and you’ll probably get the same answer from most of them: Islamic fundamentalist. We’re constantly bombarded (no pun intended) with all kinds of news about ISIS, Iran, the Taliban, sharia law, and the like. Some of it is exaggerated, but not all. For many people, a legal system constructed around strict Islamic principles is indeed a frightening prospect. (Funnily enough, some of those same people wouldn’t mind a strict Christian code of laws, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Islamic government and law form a subset of the general notion of a theocracy: government by religion. Although we strongly associate it with the Middle East today, it has always been around, in many different guises through the ages. The Vatican is essentially a theocracy, for example. Many medieval European nations, where kings were considered to rule by divine will and church law was sacrosanct, could be said to have theocratic underpinnings. The Puritans who came to America did so because they wanted a utopia where everyone followed their interpretation of the Bible. And that’s just in the West.

Theocracy is also one of those forms of government that appears often in fiction. Especially fantasy, where there’s the very real possibility of gods walking the earth; here, the literal translation of the term, “rule by god”, can be entirely accurate. But theocracy can pop up in historical fiction, too, and even sci-fi. Religion is a fact of life, as long as we live in modernish human societies, and there’s always the possibility that someone decides to invert the American ideal of separation of church and state.

Now, by our standards, theocracy is quite obviously a bad thing. We see ISIS lopping off heads, we hear tales of women being stoned to death because they were raped, we listen to talking heads speaking of the evils of sharia law, and it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that, hey, this isn’t a good idea.

On the other side of the aisle, we then see members of a different faith arguing that the Ten Commandments should be posted in courthouses, that Muslims should be banned from entering our country just on account of their beliefs, and that it’s okay for children to be forced to recite an oath calling the US “one nation under God“. Those are theocratic trappings, as well, and they’re no more wholesome than requiring a woman to wear a burqa in public.

Of gods and men

But enough politics. Let’s talk about theocracy as an institution, and how you can use it in your fictional worlds.

The basic idea, obviously, is that the government is constructed in such a way as to give primacy to religion. That can come in many forms, however, ranging from token to suffocating.

First, a “lighter” theocracy exists in places like Elizabethan England or the modern United States. Orthodoxy is paramount. Heresy and apostasy are denounced, possibly outlawed, but only outright persecuted when they reach a critical mass. Laws show deference to religion, and government quite clearly favors the majority or plurality, but there is also a significant secular code that must be followed. These theocracies can almost be considered benign, especially if you’re one of those who follows the “favored” faith.

Second are the medieval-style theocracies. Here, it’s not that church officials run the country, or that scripture is considered the first and last word in justice. No, this “medium” theocracy has religion as subtle yet pervasive. One sect is explicitly established as primary, and its teachings are used as a basis for law, but it is open to interpretation, and there stand some (such as kings) above the law by divine fiat. Following a different religion will mark you as an outcast in this style of theocracy, but it’s not an automatic death sentence. There may even be enclaves for non-believers, much as Jews often had their ghettoes in medieval times (and much later).

Higher on the scale are the “hard” theocracies like Saudi Arabia, and these, when they appear in fiction, are almost always of the “evil empire” sort. This is where beliefs have the power of law…but only if they don’t simply replace it. Not only is scriptural text the basis for the law code, it is the law. Violating holy precepts is considered a crime, ranging from a petty misdemeanor all the way up to high treason. Worse, it’s usually the faction in charge who gets to decide how the holy books are interpreted. Heresy is effectively rebellion, etc.

Last is the “literal” theocracy I mentioned above. This one can’t possibly exist in our natural world, but it’s doable in fantasy fiction. Here, a divine (or presumed divine, or just divinely inspired) being actually rules a nation. His word is both law and holy writ, and there’s no way that can be good. Usually, this type is more a foil for the protagonists, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Ian C. Esselmont’s Stonewielder, or Brian McClellan’s An Autumn Republic. Another option is that it’s a kind of utopian facade, where it looks like the godhead is benevolent and peaceful, but there are deeper strains; this one is especially good for polytheistic theocracies, and you could make an argument that that’s the case in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

In the shadow of the gods

Depending on how heavy the theocratic leanings of a government, living can be essentially normal or worse than Communist Russia. It’s not that theocracy implies a police state or tyrannical overlord; that’s just the natural tendencies of mankind. There’s nothing stopping a theocracy from being something great, except that old maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely. And what more absolute power is there than godhood? We see something similar with autocratic nations like North Korea, where the leader isn’t necessarily deified, but he’s the next best thing. Making government infallible (as a strong theocracy does) also makes it unimpeachable.

But a lot of it depends on the religion. Not merely what the holy texts say, but how they’re read. Moderate Muslims despise ISIS for cherry-picking verses, using them and only them to justify their ways. It’s no different from would-be Christian theocrats in America, quoting Leviticus as an argument to make homosexuality illegal while ignoring all the other awful stuff that book (and the rest of the Bible) contains. And it’s not limited to the Abrahamic faiths. Buddhist governments have done some pretty awful things. The Romans tolerated other religions until their followers got too uppity. Look through history, and you’ll see the same thing repeated everywhere.

That’s the bad, but is there good? Can there be good in theocracy? As a writer, I say yes. Maybe not in the way actual humans would do it, but I can construct a plausible chain of events that would lead to a relatively benign faith-based government. It would almost have to be a polytheistic faith, I think, one involving multiple “parties” of gods who often face off against one another. One probably without a lot of written scripture, maybe, or where that’s mostly limited to mythological tales. Something where “good” qualities are similar to our own. Imagine, for instance, a theocracy based on the Greek pantheon.

Getting to that point

But it’s those in-between events that I find more fascinating. How does a theocracy arise? How does it end?

Charisma, I believe, plays a factor in developing a theocracy. It doesn’t have to be individual, though that’s certainly an option, but charismatic religious leaders could convince the populace that theocratic rule is a good choice. Another possibility is a converted king, because converts are always the most zealous adherents of a faith. And then there’s the force option, as theocracy is proclaimed as a result of a revolution, but that again takes a certain amount of diplomacy to get the general population on board.

Ending a theocracy is a bit harder, particularly if it’s one of the harder varieties. Of course, a literal gods-among-us fantasy theocracy has an easy solution: kill the god. When you’re dealing with his subordinates, however, that doesn’t quite work; there’s always more to take their place. So, you need something stronger.

Outside influence can work, and that can take any form ranging from propaganda to direct interference to invasion. (“It’s not invasion, but liberation,” the outsiders would say in that case.) Popular revolt is another method that has been shown to work in the real world, but that implies two things. One, there really is support for overthrowing the priesthood—not always a given, especially on the eve of rebellion. Second, there’s a plan for replacing the theocracy itself, not just those at its head. It’s one thing to talk about turning, say, Iran into a democracy. Doing it (and not making the people there hate you for it) is another matter entirely.

The future of theocracy

Last, let’s talk about the idea of theocracy in science fiction. Now, that’s something that may not seem like it makes much sense. The future is supposed to be humanist, agnostic, or irreligious. Maybe all the people aren’t, but the setting itself typically considers religion to be, at best, a character quirk.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re dealing with a spacefaring humanity, then there’s the potential for having colonies (planets in other solar systems, local asteroids, O’Neill habitats, etc.) that are designed for one specific culture. For example, a generation ship designed and built for the Mormons figures in James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes (and the TV series The Expanse). One could just as easily imagine an orbital ring inhabited entirely by displaced Palestinians, or a literal Plymouth Rock in the asteroid belt, where next-century Puritans could build their new Eden. And once aliens get involved, then you have their religions to think about; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shows one way that could go.

These futuristic theocracies will have much in common with their modern or older ancestors. How much, of course, depends on many factors. First, how did they arise? “ISIS in Space” is going to be an entirely different sort of theocracy than some billionaire resurrecting the Levellers on a kilometer-long spin station as a social experiment. Second, how deep are the theocratic roots? Are we talking about a serious attempt at “a Biblical way of life”, or just “I want to live in a place where everybody goes to church on Sundays”? These factors, among others, will determine the character of a theocratic culture. That, in turn, will give you a good idea of where it stands on the utopia to tyranny axis.

In the real world, theocracies are justifiably frightening. For people who are tolerant or even nonbelievers, they show the worst that religious thought can offer. But in fictional settings, they can be a valuable asset. Whether ideal or idol, the mixing of church and state can bring about interesting social dynamics, conflicts, and character growth.

Building the pantheon

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.

The pantheon

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.)

Family matters

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.

Holidays: reality and fantasy

Today, for me, marks the winter solstice. (Officially, it happens just before 5AM tomorrow morning, going by UTC time. I’m in the US Eastern Time Zone, which is 5 hours behind that, so it’s a few minutes before midnight locally.) As the days grow shorter and the year runs out, thoughts naturally turn towards the holidays, of which there are so many right now. Christmas, of course, is only a few days away. Hanukkah isn’t too far behind us. New Year’s Day is on the horizon, bringing 2015 to a close. And that’s not counting the not-so-holy holidays this time of year, like Pearl Harbor Day (and the birthday of one of my uncles) back on the 7th or Boxing Day (and the birthday of a different uncle) on the 26th.

Indeed, in our modern, Western calendar, every month is chock full of holidays. (Except August, much to my brother’s delight; it’s totally bare, so his birthday is all by itself.) But that’s one culture, in one time, and nothing says that everybody has the same holidays. It’s common knowledge that Jews and Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, for example, while Thanksgiving is an American tradition with no counterpart across the Atlantic. Many countries celebrate Independence Day, but only the USA has it on the Fourth of July.

And what about fictional cultures? What holidays do they have? Tolkien’s hobbits were good English folk, and they essentially used our calendar and our holidays, just with the Christianity filed off. That’s good enough for a lot of stories, but we might want to go deeper. To do that, we need to understand the origins of holidays.

For every season

For a “traditional” pre-industrial society, whether agrarian or hunter-gatherer, life is sustained directly by the earth itself. Food comes from nature, and it is the single most important facet of life. And food follows the seasons, whether the growing seasons of plants or the mating or hibernating or migrating seasons of animals. Life, living, is governed by the calendar. That’s where most of our traditional holidays come from. As it turns out, they might have different names, but almost every culture has a similar set.

Imagine an analog clock face. Now, imagine that this represents the year. Summer, the season with the highest temperatures, can go at the top, with the solstice at the 12 o’clock position. Winter, conversely, will be the low point: 6 o’clock. The spring and autumn equinoxes then fit in at 9 and 3, respectively. And time passes like this in its eternal cycles. Simple, right? Each of those four points I identified are important markers in the year that are recognized by most cultures. (Tropical cultures are a bit of an exception, since they don’t have the most obvious distinction of the seasons, the changing length of the night. But they can still tell the seasons by patterns in rainfall, winds, and the natural behavior of plants and animals.)

For a lot of places in the temperate zones, the spring (vernal) equinox marks the point in the year when temperatures are warm enough to make planting viable. In the same way, the autumnal equinox is a good sign that cold weather is moving in soon, and it’s time to start thinking about harvests and preparing for winter. Since temperate locales tend to show a big difference between hot and cold seasons, this is a very important part of the calendar. Freezing weather kills many plants, including most of those a pre-industrial society depends on for food. Planting too early and harvesting too late are both very real dangers that can, at the worst, lead to widespread famine. (Look up the Year Without a Summer for a fairly recent example of this.)

In a similar vein, the solstices are milestones in the calendar. Among older cultures, the winter solstice has been historically more important, whether as a time to look forward to the spring ahead or to celebrate the passing year. Summer, in temperate regions, is a relative time of plenty already, so it gets less attention. Besides, no one who lives a pastoral life looks forward to the lean times of winter.

So, for many cultures that haven’t reached the Industrial Age (where advances in technology allow food yields to increase faster than the population), these four times are some of the most likely suspects for holidays. And we can add to them four more: the midpoints between each pair. On our imaginary clock, those are at 1:30, 4:30, 7:30, and 10:30; on the calendar, they’re around the beginning of February, May, August, and November. Indeed, some calendars—the Celtic calendar is one example—use those to determine the seasons, while our familiar equinoxes and solstices become their midpoints.

Altogether, then, we have eight days that make obvious sense for agrarian holidays. On our calendar, roughly, they are: February 1, March 20, May 1, June 21, August 1, September 23, November 1, and December 21. And true enough, the Western world has seasons for just about all of them:

  • Early February: Groundhog Day is a modern spectacle that hearkens back to actual folk wisdom regarding the coming of spring. The Christian feast day of Candlemas probably replaced many of those “pagan” traditions. And America’s bloodsport of choice has its biggest day around this time, too: the Super Bowl.

  • Late March: Essentially everybody celebrates the first of spring. (If you’re a Celt, then that was in the last section, as Imbolc. Otherwise, it’s probably right here.) Most of the European rituals were subsumed into Easter, but the pagan origins are still evident. Look elsewhere in the world, though, and you’ll find planting holidays and end-of-winter feasts aplenty.

  • Early May: By the middle of spring, lots of flowers are blooming, and that’s the basic idea around these holidays. Nowadays, May Day celebrates workers in industrialized countries, but the floral connection still exists. The US has never really been a big May Day place, so Mother’s Day pops up here. It’s not a traditional festival-type holiday, though, so we’ll get to it later. The Celts, by the way, started counting summer here, calling it Beltane.

  • Late June: Again, we don’t really have a lot going on this time of year, but that wasn’t always the case. Midsummer was celebrated by plenty of cultures, and it’s a very big thing in northern Europe to this day. Christianity appropriated it as St. John’s Day, but find somebody in America who knows that. Of course, we have the nearby Fourth of July, so it’s understandable. Anyway, midsummer holidays tend to celebrate the long days, maybe even with bonfires that try to further drive back the night.

  • Early August: By August, summer is starting to run out, and fall is approaching. The earliest harvests start around this time, and the traditional Anglo-Saxon calendar marks August 1 as a “first harvest” festival for wheat crops, called Lammas (Lughnasa by the Celts). The timing doesn’t work everywhere, nor does it work for every crop, so not everybody has a harvest holiday around here, although they’ll have one somewhere.

  • Late September: Traditional harvest festivals tend to fall around the first of autumn. In other words, right here. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the equinox, and its light can be seen as a blessing to those working the fields, giving them a little extra to see by. Harvest, of course, is a time of hard work, but also of feasting. Before modern food storage techniques, people had to eat what they could, lest it go to waste.

  • Early November: Celts have Samhain, Christians have All Saints’ Day, and children have Halloween. These are all connected, as the Church took over the pagan festival, then the people took over the holy feast. Some other cultures have something here, but this one isn’t that big a time to celebrate, as it means that winter is coming. Maybe if you’re a Stark…

  • Late December: In modern times, we’d see it as ending the year with a bang. For a lot of people (not just Christians, for that matter), Christmas is the holiday. But it has its pagan origins, too: traditional Yule and Roman Saturnalia. All of them have the same general idea, though. A feast to get through the long winter nights, a time to look forward to spring, a day to reflect on the year that was and the year that soon will be, all of that fits this time of year. So does gift-giving, that most popular of Christmas traditions. What better time to give to those in need, if not the shortest day of the year?

Getting religion

So that’s it for the agrarian calendar. Add religion to the mix, and things get hairy. For Christianity, it’s mostly simple, as the Church subsumed the pagan holidays into its own, sometimes only by changing their names. They did add some of their own, like Ash Wednesday or the feast of the Assumption, that don’t match up to the seasons. Judaism and Islam, which keep their own calendars, have their own holidays, like Hanukkah and Ramadan, and the same would be true even for fictional religions.

Here, it’s hard to give guidelines. Religious observances that aren’t anniversaries of known events can fall anywhere in the year. They can even be movable, and not in obvious ways: calculations of the date of Easter drove centuries of Christian astronomy. And those that are annual commemorations don’t necessarily need any connection to the actual date the event happened. After all, there isn’t even Biblical evidence that Jesus was born in December. (That he was crucified in spring is pretty solidly confirmed, however.)

My best advice is to think about the religion. What days are most important? Those will likely be the ones most celebrated. Then look at the rest of the calendar. People like feasts, but they don’t want too many too soon. That gets expensive. So the next most celebrated holidays will likely be those far from other holidays. It’s not an exact science—it doesn’t explain the American August drought—but it’s a good start.

Also, if your story involves a polytheistic religion, think about the different gods and their functions. Gods of agriculture and nature are going to be more tied to the seasons. Death and winter are often linked, for obvious reasons, so a death god might have a holiday in or near winter. Spring is seen as a time of love, fire goes with summer, and I’m sure you can find other relations.

Inventions

As states become more centralized, especially once industrialization comes about, the nature of holidays begins to change. Sure, the usual suspects are still there: harvest feasts, planting festivals, summer bonfires and winter gifts. But these are increasingly accompanied by a new set of holidays, and we should spend some time on them.

Many of our “secondary” holidays originally had a religious significance, largely stemming from the Catholic saints’ days. Valentine’s Day is one of these, though it also falls on the day of a Roman feast (Lupercalia) that had many of the same romantic connotations. Saint Patrick’s Day is another, but it’s also a “nationalist” holiday, with its strong Irish connection. For these, as for Christmas and Halloween, it’s a case of the secular overtaking the religious. Likewise, Thanksgiving originally had some religious overtones, but these are all but forgotten.

Other holidays are directly nationalist, and these obviously depend on the country. But they all have in common the idea of commemorating a person or group. In the US, for example, we have holidays to honor Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King Jr., veterans (originally of World War I, but later expanded to all of them), mothers, fathers, workers, and presidents. The specifics will differ, but a fictitious country would likely have its own set of honored people. This would depend on history, societal norms, technological advancement, and the circumstances around the formation of that country, all of which are good topics for future posts.

Elsewhere

On other planets, the seasons still work the same way. A terrestrial planet with a year like Earth’s will have a natural calendar like Earth’s. The names and dates will be changed, but the broad outline will remain the same.

We don’t even know what kind of life can arise on less-familiar worlds, but it stands to reason that they’d have similar ideas about the calendar. Of course, around a red M star, a habitable world’s year only lasts a few weeks, so things will likely break down at this extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, habitable planets around F stars might have years 3 or more times that of ours, meaning longer, more extreme seasons. More holidays would appear in a longer calendar like this, if only to break up the monotony.

Now, a society spanning multiple worlds has a conundrum. Most of the holidays, at first, would be those of the homeworld. But colonies would soon become like nations on Earth, each developing their own set of observances (for the same reasons, no less). Almost all of these would be purely local, but some would rise in prominence, as St. Patrick’s Day has done here.

Conclusion

However you do it, holidays add flavor to a world. They’re an important part of life. They have been for thousands of years, and they will be as long as we continue to observe them.

Most of a culture’s holidays are going to come from its roots, and each will have a story. Some are religious, others entirely dependent on the whims of the seasons. A few started out as movements for political or social change, or to honor the leaders of such. And today, every day of the year has been claimed in the name of some organization. (My own birthday of October 16, for instance, is Boss’s Day, which would be great if I had employees. It’s also World Food Day and World Anesthesia Day, because of historical anniversaries.)

As I said before, most stories won’t need this level of detail. But it can find a place in worldbuilding, and it’s always good to have the answers to the kinds of questions you never thought to ask. So, consider this a gift. And whichever holiday you happen to be celebrating over the next week or so, I hope you enjoy it.

Death and remembrance

Early in the morning of August 16 (the day I’m writing this), my stepdad’s mother passed away after a lengthy and increasingly tiresome battle with Alzheimer’s. This post isn’t a eulogy; for various reasons, I don’t feel like I’m the right person for such a job. Instead, I’m using it as a learning experience, as I have the past few years during her slow decline. So this post is about death, a morbid topic in any event. It’s not about the simple fact of death, however, but how a culture perceives that fact.

Weight of history

Burial ceremonies are some of the oldest evidence of true culture and civilization that we have. The idea of burying the dead with mementos even extends across species boundaries: Neanderthal remains have been found with tools. And the dead, our dead, are numerous, as the rising terrain levels in parts of Europe (caused by increasing numbers of burials throughout the ages) can attest. Death’s traditions are evident from the mummies of Egypt and Peru, the mausoleums of medieval Europe or the classical world, and the Terracotta Army of China. All societies have death, and they all must confront it, so let’s see how they do it.

The role of religion

Religion, in a very real sense, is ultimately an attempt to make sense of death’s finality. The most ancient religious practices we know deal with two main topics: the creation of the world, and the existence and form of an afterlife. Every faith has its own way of answering those two core mysteries. Once you wade through all the commandments and prohibitions and stories and revelations, that’s really all you’re left with.

One of the oldest and most enduring ideas is the return to the earth. This one is common in “pagan” beliefs, but it’s also a central concept in the Abrahamic religions of the modern West. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” is one popular variation of the statement. And it fits the biological “circle of life”, too. The body of the deceased does return to the earth (whether in whole or as ashes), and that provides sustenance, allowing new life to bloom.

More organized religion, though, needs more, and that is where we get into the murky waters of the soul. What that is, nobody truly knows, and that’s not even a metaphor: the notion of “soul” is different for different peoples. Is it the essence of humanity that separates us from lower animals? Is it intelligence and self-awareness? A spark of the divine?

In truth, it doesn’t really matter. Once religion offers the idea of a soul that is separate from the body, it must then explain what happens to that soul once the body can no longer support it. Thousands of years worth of theologians have argued that point, up to—and including—starting wars in the name of their own interpretation. The reason they can do that is simple: all the ideas are variations on the same basic theme.

That basic them is thus: people die. That much can’t be argued. What happens next is the realm of God or gods, but it usually follows a general pattern. Souls are judged based on some subset of their actions in life, such as good deeds versus bad, adherence to custom or precept, or general faithfulness. Their form of afterlife then depends on the outcome. “Good” souls (whatever that is decided to mean) are awarded in some way, while “bad” souls are condemned. The harsher faiths make this condemnation last forever, but it’s most often (and more justly, in my opinion) for a period of time proportional to the evils committed in life.

The award, in general, is a second, usually eternal life spent in a utopia, however that would be defined by the religion in question. Christianity, for example, really only specifies that souls in heaven are in the presence of God, but popular thought has transformed that to the life of delights among the clouds that we see portrayed in media; early Church thought was an earthly heaven instead. Islam, popularly, has the “72 eternal virgins” presented to the faithful in heaven. In Norse mythology, valiant souls are allowed to dine with the gods and heroes in Valhalla, but they must then fight the final battle, Ragnarök (which they are destined to lose, strangely enough). In even these three disparate cases, you can see the similarities: the good receive an idyllic life, something they could only dream of in the confines of their body.

Ceremonies of death

Religion, then, tells us what happens to the soul, but there is still the matter of the body. It must be disposed of, and even early cultures understood this. But how do we dispose of something that was once human while retaining the dignity of the person once inhabited it?

Ceremonial burial is the oldest trick in the book, so to speak. It’s one of the markers of intelligence and organization in the archaeological record, and it dates back to long before our idea of civilization. And it’s still practiced on a wide scale today; my stepdad’s mother, the ultimate cause of this post, will be buried in the coming days.

Burial takes different forms for different peoples, but it’s always a ceremony. The dead are often buried with some of their possessions, and this may be the result of some primal belief that they’ll need them in the hereafter. We don’t know for sure about the rites and rituals of ancient cultures, but we can easily imagine that they were not much different from our own. We in the modern world say a few words, remember the deeds of the deceased, lower the body into the ground, leave a marker, and promise to come back soon. Some people have more elaborate shrines, others have only a bare stone inscribed with their name. Some families plant flowers or leave baubles (my cousin, who passed away at the beginning of last year, has a large and frankly gaudy array of such things adorning his grave, including solar-powered lights, wind chimes, and pictures).

Anywhere the dead are buried, it’s pretty much the same. They’re placed in the ground in a special, reserved place (a cemetery). The graves are marked, both for ease of remembrance and as a helpful reminder of where not to bury another. The body is left in some enclosure to protect it from prying eyes, and keepsakes are typically beside it.

Burial isn’t the only option, though, not even in the modern world. Cremation, where the body is burned and rendered into ash, is still popular. (A local scandal some years ago involved a crematorium whose owner was, in fact, dumping the bodies in a pond behind the place and filling the urns with things like cement or ground bones.) Today, cremation is seen as an alternative to burial, but some cultures did (and do) see it or something similar as the primary method of disposing of a person’s earthly remains. The Viking pyre is fixed in our imagination, and television sitcoms almost always have a dead relative’s ashes sitting somewhere vulnerable.

I’ll admit that I don’t see the purpose of cremation. If you believe in the resurrection of souls into their reformed earthly bodies, as in some varieties of Christianity and Judaism, then you’d have to view the idea of burning the body to ash as something akin to blasphemy. On the other hand, I can see the allure. The key component of a cremation is fire, and fire is the ultimate in human tools. The story of human civilization, in a very real sense, is the story of how we have tamed fire. So it’s easy to see how powerful a statement cremation or a funeral pyre can make.

Burying and burning were the two main ways of disposing of remains for the vast majority of humanity’s history. Nowadays, we have a few other options: donating to science, dissection for organs, cryogenic freezing, etc. Notice, though, that these all have a “technological” connotation. Cryogenics is the realm of sci-fi; organ donation is modern medicine. There’s still a ceremony, but the final result is much different.

Closing thoughts

Death in a culture brings together a lot of things: religion, ritual, the idea of family. Even the legal system gets involved these days, because of things like life insurance, death certificates, and the like. It’s more than just the end of life, and there’s a reason why the most powerful, most immersive stories are often those that deal with death in a realisic way. People mourn, they weep, they celebrate the life and times of the deceased.

We have funerals and wakes and obituaries because no man is an island. Everyone is connected, everyone has family and friends. The living are affected by death, and far more than the deceased. We’re the ones who feel it, who have to carry on, and the elaborate ceremonies of death are our oldest, most human way of coping.

We honor the fallen because we knew them in life, and we hope to know them again in an afterlife, whatever form that may take. But, curiously, death has a dichotomy. Religion clashes with ancient tradition, and the two have become nearly inseparable. A couple of days from now, my stepdad might be sitting in the local funeral home’s chapel, listening to a service for his mother that invokes Christ and resurrection and other theology, but he’ll be looking at a casket that is filled with tiny treasures, a way of honoring the dead that has continued, unbroken, for tens of thousands of years. And that is the truth of culture.

Faith and fantasy

Religion is one of those things that, as an author or game designer, you have to treat very carefully. The risk of offense is too great, especially in the politically-correct, offense-first world of today. It’s easy to fall into a trap of pigeonholing real-world religions. “Evil, Arabian-looking bad guys that act like Muslims” is practically a genre trope at this point; two examples that I’ve read include the Fanim of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy and the Krasians of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. “Evil, hierarchical church that looks Roman Catholic” isn’t exactly uncommon, either.

But that’s not really the subject of this post. Sure, the popular religions in the world are the way they are, and they’re easy to relate to, easy to understand, because we see them every day. But different cultures, especially in different worlds than our own, are going to have different ways of looking at religion, faith, philosophy, and the supernatural. And their beliefs will shape their society, just as ours, historically, have shaped our own.

Of God and gods

In the West, there are three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In addition, there are a number of others that have significantly less popular appeal. The East, conversely, gives us the trio of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto, along with a host of minor faiths. (And by “minor”, I mean they have fewer followers, not that they’re less important or less valuable.) And, of course, we also have the “non-religions” of atheism and agnosticism, as well as a number of systems of belief that might better be grouped under “philosophy”.

Even the largest of religions is not monolithic, however. Christianity has a whole spectrum of sects (“denominations”), and many Americans have become familiar with the major divisions of Islam (Sunni and Shia). Some can even spot the difference between some of the different sects of modern Judaism (Orthodox, Reform, etc.). We know comparatively far less about the other side of the world, though; most people in the US probably think of all Buddhists as Zen, for example.

In fantasy literature, religion—when it is mentioned at all—usually only gets a passing nod. There might be the occasional oath, prayer, or swear, but a story where the beliefs of the people are not the focus often ignores those beliefs. And that’s fine. If it’s not an important worldbuilding detail, then there’s probably not much reason to put it in.

Conversely, games, especially tabletop role-playing games, make religion an integral part of the story. D&D (and its offshoots, like Pathfinder) has lists of deities, each with their own domain, and these almost always function like the pantheons of old, except with added benefits for certain believers. (In D&D, for example, clerics and paladins usually must follow a deity, and they receive divine blessings and spells in return.) In a way, despite there being a very detailed summary of religion, it’s abstracted away into a game mechanic.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Players shouldn’t be forced to study theology just to play a game. But fantasy, both literature and gaming, has a problem understanding the link between religion and society, and that link was a very real, very important part of the period of history favored by fantasy.

One to many

We all know the “origin stories” of the major Western religions, whether creation, crucifixion, or revelation. But all of these, as well as those less-familiar faiths of the world, had a major impact on the development of society. The Middle Ages, that favorite era of fantasy literature and games alike, was shaped by religion. In many ways, you could even say it was defined by religion.

When fantasy posits a pantheon (like D&D), that actually breaks the world for their other main assumption: the feudal monarchy. Feudalism, serfdom, the divine right of kings, knighthood, and all those other conceits of medieval Europe are based on a thousand years of Christianity.

“The end is coming soon, so get ready,” goes the common Christian refrain, and that’s largely been true since the 30s. No, not the 1930s, but the 30s, as in 30 AD. Christianity has always had a strain of the apocalyptic—the last book of the Bible is, after all, supposed to be a vision of the End of Days—though it has waxed and waned through the ages. In the medieval period, it was mostly waxing. Plague, famine, pestilence, and war were facts of life, especially for the lower classes, and there wasn’t much they could do about it. “The meek shall inherit the earth” was the closest thing to hope for the future that many people had.

If you replace the strict belief in God (whose eternal good was countered by the increasing influence of the Devil) with a nebulous—if effectual—pantheon, then things change dramatically. Get rid of the Church, the Pope, and all the other trappings of medieval Christianity, and all of society will develop differently.

Changing the game

In medieval Europe, the Church had supreme power, and all of it was centered on the Pope. He could make kings (or break them), crown emperors, canonize martyrs, or call crusades. His announcements of doctrine, the papal bulls, were regarded as nothing less than official interpretations of scripture. And he had one ultimate, terrifying weapon: excommunication.

All that it did was ban a person or group of people from Communion, effectively ostracizing them from the Church. But in a world where the eternal soul was seen as infinitely more important than its mortal frame, this was enough to turn even the most hardened of hearts. Rebels, heretics, willful kings, and political enemies all faced the threat of excommunication, and almost every one of them quailed in the face of such a punishment. Rebellions could end entirely once word came from Rome that their leaders had been cast out of the Church, no longer able to receive the blessings of Christ and thus condemned to Hell for all eternity. Even whole cities (such as Florence) were put under that threat simply to scare their rulers into complying with the Church’s wishes or dogma.

Besides the Church’s chief weapon (I’ll spare you the Monty Python jokes) and its total control of doctrine, it also changed Europe by bringing in its own social structure. Monasteries, hermitages, nunneries, convents, and abbeys all had their roles to play, and they were all part of the Church. And these weren’t always what you’d think from movies. Monks could be rich, nuns literate, and hermits not always loners living in caves. One of them even got elected as pope: Celestine V, who quit after a few months. (Every other pope from 1294 onwards ruled until he died or was cast out, until Benedict XVI not long ago.)

The Christian church and faith was the single largest influence on the development of the Middle Ages. Because of it, the Black Death was asserted as a sign of coming Armageddon, as was the famine that preceded it, and the Mongol horde that may have brought it. Without the church, the culture of monasticism wouldn’t have been so prevalent, nor would the orders of crusading knighthood, such as the Templars, Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Order exist.

Indeed, even the period’s systems of economy and government are indebted to Christianity. Feudalism lasted as long as it did mostly because people were taught that it was the natural order of things. Serfs were born to be serfs, and nobles to be nobles, and there were shelves full of books explaining all the ways you could see how that was true. Nobles, for instance, were taller, heavier, and healthier. Nobody bothered to note that this was because of nutrition and the often harsh working conditions of the peasantry. Rather, it was taken as part of the divine plan.

The realm of fiction

Fantasy likes to take the feudal society of Europe (especially the later, post-plague society where feudalism began to falter) and make it its own, without taking along the religious aspect that made it possible. In essence, you could say that medieval, feudal Europe came about because of Constantine, the emperor of Rome who converted himself and then his empire to Christianity.

Without a strong, central Church, you lose most of the foundations of the setting. If every city or nation can make its own doctrine, then you have very little world unity and shared culture. With more than one deity to worship, with no fixed scripture proclaiming the end of the world and the promise of a utopic afterlife, then there is no motivation for serfdom, for the glory of crusade.

Even technology is affected by the change in faith. Cathedrals, the defining monument of the Middle Ages, were built because of religion. Sure, a polytheistic culture might build great temples, and they would likely come to many of the same discoveries about building, but would they have the same styles? Likely not. They certainly wouldn’t be laid out in the shape of a cross, like the European cathedrals.

Some areas might become more advanced if you lift the strictures of Christianity. Machinery that could aid in work was often overlooked, simply because there were always more laborers to throw at a problem. The science of astronomy was held back by the belief that the stars were the realm of God, thus unknowable to man. And how would banking develop if the Christian constraints on usury didn’t exist to create a niche (and a stereotype) filled by Jews?

Magic, of course, is an obvious addition to any fantasy world, but it also existed (not really, but in people’s minds) in the Middle Ages. It’s something that was well-known, but totally forbidden. Fireball-wielding mages would have to be fit into the religious world-view, and where would they go? The sorcerers of the aforementioned Prince of Nothing series are excommunicated by default, but it’s easy to imagine a setting where the wizards are seen as messengers or even avatars of God or the gods.

Like so many other topics in worldbuilding, a few decisions change the outcome completely. Monotheism, logically speaking, probably leads to one of the same outcomes as it did in our world. Polytheism is reflected in ancient Rome and even modern India, as well as most fantasy. A lot of other ideas require more thought. If God is everywhere, in everything, then who needs temples or churches? If the world is full of spirits that inhabit every living thing, how can you eat and still live with yourself? (Yes, that means an animist world could have even stricter dietary laws than Islam. Think of Hinduism’s sacred cows.)

The length of time that a religion has existed will also play a role in a society’s development. The older something is, the more likely it is to change. Faiths fracture, sectarianism grows, especially if there is no central authority. A polytheistic culture is prone to develop “local” gods; Athena, patron of Athens, is a good example. New religions exist in a state of flux, as everyone vies for the right to be considered orthodox, often with disastrous consequences for those that lose. (How many Gnostics do you know?)

Rituals, prayers, and even the calendar can also be affected. The word “holiday” literally means “holy day”, and that’s where the oldest of them come from. Christmas and Easter are the ones everybody knows, although few know that they’re replacements for “pagan” holidays celebrating the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. But Lent and Ash Wednesday were far more important in the Middle Ages. All Saints’ Day, another pagan substitution, has become so marginalized that we celebrate the night before it instead: Halloween. Different religions, though, will have their own holy times: Ramadan, Hanukkah, and so on. As for prayers, who do you pray to when you have a hundred gods to choose from? Who is the one to memorize all the appropriate rituals?

End of this day

As always, there’s a lot to think about, and your choice is one of how deep to go. Obviously, if religion isn’t a major part of your world, then there’s not too much you have to do. But religion might be a significant part of your characters’ world, and it might show in the way they act, think, talk.

Faith and logic don’t always have a lot in common, it’s true. This is one place where the latter makes the former possible. It’s not your faith you’re worried about. Presumably, you’ve already decided that, and it shouldn’t have any bearing on your created world. Logically working out the beliefs of your world and their effects, though, can make for a deeper immersion into your story. It might even make some people think.