“Heathens!” he cried, pointing with his holy whip at Our Heroes. “Heretics! Blasphemers! You shall bow down and worship Zurukh or burn in the fires of the Scarlet Inquisition!”
“Silence!” answered Inessa, stepping forward from the party and raising aloft her crosier. “Repent of your wickedness! The power of Adnea, Lady of the Pure Light, compels you!”
Religions are tricky to write. If you’ve delved into much fantasy, you’ve probably seen a lot of faiths that seem oddly familiar. In fact, the religions of some fantasy worlds can be charitably described as “Catholicism with the serial numbers filed off.” Even given a profusion of gods with their own temples and cults and spheres of influence, fantasy religions tend to work more like the modern monotheisms than like the actual ancient “pagan” traditions they are outwardly imitating.
How can you make your fantasy religion feel more authentically ancient? There’s no rules to it, but in this and some future History for Writers posts, I’ll share some of what we know about historical beliefs from around the world that may help you imagine a religious worldview that feels less modern.
The Divine Presence
For our first topic, we look at the experience of divine forces in daily life.
The tragedy The Bacchae by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides opens with Dionysus, god of the theatre, wine, and song, speaking directly to the audience. His first line is notoriously difficult to translate. In Greek: “Ἥκω Διὸς παῖς τήνδε Θηβαίων χθόνα / Διόνυσος…” (Hēkō Dios pais tēnde Thēbaiōn khthona / Dionysos…). In a literal sense, the translation is fairly straightforward: “I, Dionysus, child of Zeus, have come to this land of Thebans…” But there is an ambiguity to this line that is very difficult to convey in modern English.
“I have come” is, on the one hand, the character in the play announcing his arrival in Thebes where the action of the drama takes place. On the other hand, it is also the actor announcing his arrival on stage in the role of Dionysus. And here’s the difficult part: actors on the Greek stage wore masks that hid their faces. When someone showed up on the stage and declared “I, Dionysus, have come,” the audience could not be sure whether that was just the actor playing his role or Dionysus himself had decided to step in and play himself tonight. The ambiguity is not accidental. The Bacchae is all about the dangers of failing to recognize a god. Pentheus refuses to believe that the god Dionysus has come to Thebes and ends up getting torn limb from limb by Dionysus’ crazed followers.
A Sámi story with a similar theme (though a much less bloody ending) helps us grasp the point. (The Sámi are a people of northern Scandinavia, sometimes called Lapps by outsiders.) According to this story, three spirits were once rowing along the shore in a boat and spotted a man, Kalle, on shore hunting seals. One of the spirits warned the others: “Our brother Kalle is hunting seals. Do not go too close to him or he will think we are seals and throw his spear at us.” But the other spirits did not listen to her and kept on rowing. When Kalle saw the spirits, he indeed thought they were seals and he threw his spear. Fortunately, he missed and the spirits rowed away from shore out of his range.
Although this story comes from a different people from a different part of the world, it shares with The Bacchae the sense that divine forces are all around us, but we humans are unable to see them for what they are. Their presence is not metaphysical but literal, tangible, visible. We can see them and touch them, but we can’t tell them apart from the mundane world. To the Greeks, Dionysus could look just like an actor in a play; to the Sámi, spirits could look like seals.
This is an experience of the divine that we don’t often see in modern religions. There are some deeply religious people in today’s world who believe they feel the presence of god(s), but they don’t usually experience that presence in a physical, tangible sense. If someone thinks that a stranger on the street might be a divinity or worries that the squirrel in their front yard might be a god, we generally regard that person as crazy. In many cultures, that was simply how people experienced the world.
More on fantasy religions
Thoughts for writers
One of the innovations of the modern monotheisms was to divide the world between the spiritual and the physical. Many of the religious traditions we are most familiar with in the modern west are concerned with overcoming that divide.
For many peoples who lived before or outside of the monotheistic faiths, there was no such divide. The physical world was divine and the divine world was physical. Bringing this worldview to your fiction is one way of helping it feel more authentically different from the world we know.
Image: Dionysus and a comic actor via Wikimedia (Getty Museum; 360-350 BCE; painted terra cotta)
Post edited for clarity.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.