Theoretical stuffThis may surprise you, but in daily life I'm doing my master in religious studies.
Now, the most surprising thing to come out of religious studies in the past decade or so is the discovery that "religion" actually doesn't exist. It cannot be defined.
Certainly the things, places, people, and acts that we call "religious" exist. But there's nothing that connects them all that can clearly be called "religious".
Religion, for example, isn't "belief in a deity" -- Buddhism doesn't make that cut. Even if some types of Buddhism do, those deities are so irrelevant it seems misleading to make that the criterium. It also isn't "worship", because what does worship even mean? It also isn't "ritual behaviour", because state ritual is something we don't call religion. It also isn't "emotional or ritual ecstacy", because then we would need to include music performances.
The concept of "religion" as we use it today has its roots in Christian belief and in colonialism. Before the colonial era, "religion" could not be pluralized. It always meant Christianity. The pluralization of "religion" into "religions" and the universalization of the concept -- the notion that all peoples have "a religion" is actually a way of mapping a Christian view of the world onto non-Christian peoples. For more info on this read The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa.
In other words, "religion" *actually* means "kind of like Christianity but something else". Christianity is the model of all things called religion. But Christianity may very well be extremely weird, a historical outlier, not something universal (I think this is the case).
Despite my society (and yours probably) being highly secularized, the concepts we use to think our way around the world - such as good and evil, but also this category of "religion" - are lifted wholesale from post-Enlightenment Christian thinking.
We really do believe there is such a thing as "religion" and that it has primarily to do with faith in Gods. But what is faith? I *believe* there might be some beers in the fridge. I *believe* I'm gonna wake up again tomorrow. But those aren't the kind of beliefs we're talking about. Religious faith is belief that is strongly and proudly affirmed.
Except for a large part of humanity, that isn't true. In many types of African and Asian ancestor cults for example, the ancestors aren't an article of faith, or supernatural. (The supernatural is another post-Enlightenment Christian idea.) The ancestors are just *there*. They believe they are real. But this belief is on par with the belief that there may be beers in the fridge. It isn't an emphasized kind of belief like faith.
In light of this, our fantasy religion needs reworking.
|The cross has been used as an apotropaic symbol |
in almost all Christian contexts.
Religion in fantasy
Granddad Tolkien never wrote much about religion in Middle-Earth, which is odd considering that he was a devout Catholic. Faramir and his boys do some praying to the "Lords of the West" before dinner and one time Sauron got an entire civilization to worship Satan but that is about it.
D&D type religion seems largely based on pre-Christian Mediterranean religion. As in, polytheism. (Also polytheism and monotheism is one of those fucky terms. I mean in what way exactly is Christianity polytheism if you've got three gods who are one AND EVEN if we want to overlook that one you've got a whole bunch of angels, saints, and demons. Just because a deity is evil and dangerous doesn't mean it isn't a deity!)
But I kind of suspect D&D doesn't really understand what Roman and Greek polytheism was really about.
If we look at how religion is treated in D&D we see again a very Christian focus on *belief*, on intellectual things. Who is this god, what is their sphere (which always makes sense), and what is their symbol. Ok, so now we know some things, okay. And all these gods have organized cults and temples and priests and attendants. All these gods are real and all these gods can be supplicated to.
But its too neat. Look at actual polytheistic history. In the time the early Old Testament stories were written, deities had a very strong ethnic/national character. Sure, your god is real. But my god can beat up your god! But the reality of this god also implied that if you were in *that* god's land, you would have to sacrifice to him/her for good fortune and safety in those parts.
Pliny the Elder describes that Rome had a Temple of Fever, a Temple of Bereavement, and an Altar of Bad Luck, where you could come to supplicate these forces and keep them away.
Shiva, one of the most powerful and awe-inspiring Hindu deities, is also a dangerous and unpredictable madman. He's covered in the ash of cremated bodies, and his name, meaning "the auspicious one", is actually more a desire than a description, an attempt to supplicate him. Back in the Vedic times, the distant past of what would come to be known as Hinduism, Shiva was called Rudra, "the screamer", and rituals to him consisted of throwing a gift into the woods in the hope he'd stay away.
Similarly, Jorg Rupke in his book Pantheon writes that early Roman and Greek religion didn't have clear conceptions of the gods as *people*. Rather, they had a *ritual infrastructure*, rituals they could use or resort to in order to address certain problems. Many of these rituals included gifts of objects or statues or animals - but to *whom* this gift was, wasn't clear in the early days. To some unseen, mysterious power that lived at that spot. Then came the naming. Then came the images and statues.
This kind of weirdness isn't caught by the neat, clearly identifiable gods of D&D.
|Shiva and his wife Parvati as one|
Doing religion reverse
What if, coming up with the religious world of our settings - and by extension the "clerics" of our settings - we don't start with the gods at all? What if we start with acts - with rituals? What if rather we start with what people *need* here? What are they likely to develop and use their *ritual infrastructure* for?
Step 1: What do they need?
This will determine your group's *ritual needs*. Broadly, this can be spliced up into these questions. Go through every question and note down the words in CAPS that apply to your group.
- How do they eat?
- Do they farm rice or grain or other crops? -> CROPS
- Do they depend on rain? -> RAIN
- Do they depend on the river? -> RIVER
- Are there crop diseases? -> CROP DISEASE
- Do they farm cattle?
- Are there predators eating the cattle? -> PREDATORS, CATTLE
- Is the cattle fertile enough? -> FERTILITY OF CATTLE, CATTLE
- Are there cattle diseases? -> CATTLE DISEASE
- Do they hunt? -> HUNTING, PREY, PREDATOR, WEAPON TECHNOLOGY, SAFETY IN WILDERNESS
- Do they raid others? -> BATTLE, WAR
- On foot, by animal, by ship? -> WAR ANIMALS, SHIPS, WEATHER
- What weapons do they use? -> WEAPON TECHNOLOGY, WEAPON STRENGTH
- How do they feel about the other's gods? -> CONQUEST OF OTHER GOD
- How do they live with each other?
- Do they have a king or chief? -> AUTHORITY, OBEDIENCE
- Does the king demand huge respect? -> ROYALTY
- What gives him this power? -> ORDER OF THE WORLD, WISDOM, WAR...
- Are they sedentary or nomadic?
- If sedentary; see most of question 1
- Are they a city-state -> CITY, WALLS, PROTECTION, TRADE, STRANGERS
- Are they a state -> GOVERNMENT, STATE, LAW
- If nomadic -> PACK ANIMALS
- Are they dependent on oaths and honour in maintaining good relationships with other groups? -> OATHS, HONOUR, FRIENDSHIP, STRANGERS
- Are different clans in essence different nations? -> THE CLAN, ANCESTORS
- Is it important to have many children? -> FERTILITY, MENSTRUATION, SEX, PREGNANCY, BIRTH
- What tends to kill young children? -> CHILD DISEASE, PREDATORS, LOCAL CLIMATE, FAMINE, WAR, SPOILED FOOD
- Polygamy or monogamy -> MANY WIVES / HUSBANDS, GOOD WIFE / HUSBAND, CHEATING, GOOD MARRIAGE
- Matrilineal or patrilineal? -> MOTHER, FATHER, ANCESTOR, ACCEPTANCE INTO FAMILY
- What determines social status?
- Honour in battle -> HONOUR, WAR, NOBLE DEATH IN BATTLE
- Place in feudal/caste structure -> ORDER OF SOCIETY, CASTE, BIRTH
- Learning and wisdom -> KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM, SCHOOLING, OLD AGE
- Wealth and money -> MARKET FORCES, MONEY, SUCCESS IN BUSINESS
- How do they live with the world?
- Are there earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, natural disasters, monsoons? -> GOING AWAY OF NATURAL DISASTER / WATER / FIRE, ORDER OF THE WORLD
- Are there forests, plains, deserts, mountains? -> SAFE PASSAGE THROUGH FOREST / PLAINS / DESERTS / MOUNTAINS, PREDATORS
- What are animals to them?
- Dumb machines? -> SUPERIORITY OF HUMANITY
- Dangers? -> DANGERS OF WILD ANIMAL
- Mysterious other beings? -> MYSTERIOUS LOCAL ANIMAL
Step 2: What do they do?Now take all the things you wrote down and consider which of the following rituals should address which *ritual needs*.
- Big, collective rituals
- These are rituals that concern things that are of paramount importance to the community at large. Feast days.
- Big, individual rituals
- These are rituals that concern things that are of paramount importance to a person or his family.
- Small individual rituals
- These are rituals that concern every-day things or that are done in reaction to something and can't have a big response.
Step 3: How do they do it?
Anything can be made ritual. A sacrifice is a ritual gift-giving. Ritual hunts are also a big thing. Perhaps oaths are a big thing in your society. Ritual war, ritual battle. Perhaps they mortify themselves, fasting or going away into the wilderness for a while. Feast days in which the normal structure of society is suspended in lieu of the theme of the ritual need. (Sex, for example).
Go crazy. If you have no inspiration:
Take the theme of your ritual need. Now put the word "ritual" in front of it. Now think about it. For some ritual needs it will make sense to have big collective (BC), big individual (BI), and small individual (SI) rituals; for others only big collective ones will make sense.
RITUAL [X] will in many cases already make sense, like "ritual hunt", "ritual war", "ritual fertility", "ritual law". But in many others you may be at a loss. Then a quick way of making something intelligible is to consider 2 big points: mimesis and exchange.
- Ritual through:
- Ritual for [x] by imitating [x]. Ritual for cattle by imitating cattle.
- Ritual for [x] by exchanging [x]. Ritual for cattle by sacrificing cattle.
- Ritual for [x] by exchanging [y]. Ritual for cattle by sacrificing crops.
Now you might think: "wait, but this can't work for all. Ritual for child disease by imitating child disease?" So in ancient Roman religion you could sacrifice to Fever so it would stay away; similarly in medieval Europe people would donate a small silver imitation of the organ or limb that was cured after prayer/sacrifice (in thanks, after the fact). But in certain Native American cultures, if a baby was sick, you could hold a mock funeral for the baby, in order to trick the disease into thinking the child was dead. So imitating the death of a child can prevent the death of a child. This also has a bit of exchange in it, since you exchange a doll or fake child for your real child.
Depending on the ritual need, you might have these on individual and/or collective scale.
Here are some examples.
RITUAL RAIN ->
B C: The women of the village gather buckets of water from the well and go around the fields splashing them with their hands, singing songs that call the rain down.
B I: If a farmer is worried about the rain, he may sacrifice some crops or cattle as gift to the rain if it will come.
S I: If a farmer is worried about the rain, he may call down the rain through the same songs.
RITUAL CATTLE ->
B C: Cattle is sacrificed. Cattle must be given so that cattle will continue to be given to you. BUT ALSO: A ritual dance in which the men of the village imitate the fights of cattle in the mating season.
B I: A farmer may draw a glyph saying "WOLF" on his cattle to keep the wolves away.
S I: The cattle looks sick! The farmer puts some earleaf herbs through their feed, since these leaves look like the ears of cows and is thought to be beneficial to them.
RITUAL SUCCESS IN BUSINESS
I throw some money into the sea so that the ship carrying all my trade goods will not be swallowed by the sea.
Here's a cow for you, wilderness, keep the predators away!
Here one man dresses up as a wolf and is defeated in a ritualized dance-battle by the young warriors.
Big and collective rituals are probably calendar feasts that occur every year.
Keep in mind that people do these things *because they work* either *actually* or because they are *effective in addressing those worries*. So people do them not out of doctrine or belief, but because they are effective. So people will do the rituals that they think are effective, perhaps because someone else did it - their neighbours, their enemies, traders from away...
|This Maasai dance was originally part of a celebration for killing a lion|
Step 4: Where do they do it?
This is dependent on *ritual infrastructure* and is probably decided by people imitating other people. Big collective rituals are likely to take place on some sort of central square. Especially in terms of EXCHANGE people will probably go to a specific place, likely associated with the power to be the receiving end of the exchange. The sea, the mountain, the forest, a weird-looking hill, a strange rock. This is where your temples will be.
Step 5: Who do they think is behind it?
Now you have a ritual need, a ritual, and a place where the ritual is done. Now it is possible that the forces behind the ritual are understood not as beings with a mind, but as some sort of hidden world order, like the Hindu Dharma or the Egyptian Maat. In a clan-based society, the ritual need of clan identity and success may very well be mapped onto the dead ancestors (not technically gods, but for all intents and purposes, yes). Perhaps these dead ancestors and local mysterious animal are mapped onto each other: bam, totemism. "Our ancestor is the owl".
But if these forces are understood as beings with a mind - THESE ARE GODS.
But be sure you know what a god is. The Norse and Egyptian gods were very much mortal and could be killed. In fact the Ancient Egyptian word for god is the same as the word for soul of a deceased person. It's fine if you want to go with "immortal beings who govern certain aspects of the world" that's fine, but keep in mind that all those things could be changed for your gods.
What do these gods do? Is the same ritual place perhaps used for different rituals? This is how you get real, muddy gods, not the thought-out, overly systemic gods of D&D. Treat the ritual needs addressed at this place as the portfolio of the god residing there.
Cheat it a little. Throw in a ritual need that is unconnected to the rest. Athena is goddess of wisdom... but also war, after all. Don't be afraid to give the gods paradoxical forces as well. You would go to the same place for cattle-ensuring rituals, but also to address cattle diseases. So the goddess of cattle might well also be the goddess of cattle disease.
So in keeping with all the cattle things we've been doing, my group might have a goddess of cattle, fertility, cattle disease, and auspicious marriages.
But also keep in mind that this goddess may well be *just* a goddess. It is a mistake to believe that every god has to be the god OF something. Thor is the "god of thunder", but what is Odin the god of? Nothing specifically, or rather: so much that it can't be easily said. He is the god of wisdom, cunning, trickery, the dead, war, the gallows, runes, magic.
I already said that you should not be scared to give the gods paradoxical forces. But the gods can also be paradoxical in that they can be positive and negative at the same time. Shiva, like I said, is one of the most revered gods in Hinduism, but is also a dangerous madman. The same can be said for Odin. Odin's magic (seidhr) is even something that was considered feminine in this society, something that only an unmanly or homosexual man would engage with, strongly frowned upon for men. Yet Odin practices it and is perhaps the most important god. The gods are always far beyond the laws and attitudes of the society that worships them.
Then name 'em and stuff. Keep in mind that the name is pasted onto a mysterious force that is supplicated there, so there will be many different names, many titles.
Step 6: Do some association work.
Now comes the weird stuff. Say your society has a real problem with snakes. Snakes are very dangerous, but also kind of sacred because of their power (to kill, scare, transfix). The people believe that snakes live forever because every month they shed their skin. What else sheds its skin every month? The moon. What also happens every month? Menstruation. Now you have the framework for a lunar snake deity associated with (snakes and the moon of course) fertility, sex, and (in a male-dominated society, perhaps) the secrets of women.
That's a bloody weird god. But it is good weird. It has texture. I believe it.
That's a bloody weird god. But it is good weird. It has texture. I believe it.
So with your WIP deities (cattle, fertility, cattle disease, auspicious marriages), go back through your ritual needs and see what else could be mapped onto this deity. But live in *their* world. They don't understand microbial biology, gravity, or why some babies are stillborn. Interpret those things through the lens of association with your deities, but also the world they live in: the moon, the mountains, thunder. Perhaps the deity is a cow. Perhaps the deity is the mother of the great mountains to the south. This way she could be associated with the South in general, and people might offer her prayers or touch her amulets every time they travel to the South. Perhaps she is the sun, and the stars are drops of the milk of her udders.
If you live in a tent, your god also lives in a tent. A very big one, made out of clouds perhaps.
If family is most important in your society, then your gods are a family (or families). Perhaps they are YOUR family! (Ancestor worship)
If the king is most important in your society, then the gods have a king.
If government is most important in your society, then the gods have a government.
Step 7: A new ritual need
Now you have a new ritual need: communicate with the god(s). Is this done through sacrifice? Prayer? Are there statues or images of her? Perhaps you sacrifice those, giving them to her? Perhaps you must abstain from touching cattle for a week before invoking her? Do people wear amulets invoking her power?
Perhaps... you can get someone else to do all this difficult business for you. Voilá, the ritual expert is born. Call him shaman, priest, medicine man, godspeaker, oracle, sacred virgin; you now have to some extent organized religion.
Step 6: Iteration, and decide how far you want to develop this.
Both in terms of pantheon and institutions you can stop anywhere you like.
Perhaps the gods are still nameless and mysterious. Perhaps anyone can engage with them as well as any other.
But if the pantheon develops onward; how does it react to foreign gods? The gods of other peoples? Are they both understood to be real, will people forever speak of two families of gods? Are they incorporated into it? Or do they forever remain foreign demons?
Does it remain many gods for many needs? Or do a couple of gods become so important that the others have more or less vanished except from the local theater - the god of the village, the god of this tree. How are their ritual needs subsumed into the other deities? ("War" was important in Medieval Europe, but the Christian God is hardly a god associated with war. So saint Michael the Archangel assumed the ritual need for war, and could be prayed to for battle.) Has perhaps *just one* become so important, thus laying the groundwork for monotheism?
Who has access to the gods? The ritual place develops because ordinary people imitate each other, but perhaps authority will develop. Is it the spontaneous authority of the knowledgeable and old? This is likely at first. Authority that derives from ritual knowledge. Your child has broken his leg? My dear, you must do such and such.
But perhaps authority becomes structured and institutionalized. Perhaps there are priesthoods, perhaps there is dedication to one specific deity. Perhaps such dedication is also expected of those who come for the ritual. You cannot serve two masters, one might say.
This is really a matter of taste. And there is much more than might be done. Perhaps the king is a god. Perhaps there is one god in many forms. Perhaps there are monastery orders dedicated to all gods, or to the god-above-god.
But that is all extra stuff, stuff that you can come up with because it's cool. This whole post was more about rethinking the basics of religion; letting the gods be born organically out of ritual and association, not pre-determining them as having sensible and intellectually determined portfolios.
I hope it's useful.