In the previous installment in the fantasy religions series, we looked at how people following traditional religious customs often perceive the divine around them in physical, tangible forms. Today we turn to the question: how do you interact with such divine forces?
There’s an old joke that says a young man went to his priest one day and declared: “I’m an atheist! I don’t believe in god!” And the priest replied: “Do you think He cares?”
It’s a good joke, but in the doctrines of Christianity, as in the other modern monotheisms, Judaism and Islam, belief matters a great deal. Believing in a god and a certain set of ideas about that god and humanity’s relationship to him/her/it is what defines membership in the religions we are most familiar with in the modern west. Not that everyone is in lockstep about their beliefs: modern religions can have enormous debates about what to believe, but belief is still at the center.
In most traditional religions, belief is a non-issue. As we saw before, peoples following traditional religions see the divine presence in the physical world in a literal, not metaphysical way. To an ancient Gaul, Belenus was not just the god of the sun, the sun itself was Belenus. To say to an ancient Gaul: “I don’t believe in Belenus” would be like saying: “I don’t believe in the sun.” Their response would probably not be: “Do you think he cares?” but: “Well, what do you think is shining on you, idiot?” There were no professions of belief in traditional religions, no creeds or catechisms, no inquisitions or doctrinal schisms.
Instead of belief, what matters in most traditional religions is action. The gods don’t care what you think; they care what you do. The gods of many traditional religions are treated as natural forces, like gravity. If you step off the side of the building, gravity doesn’t judge whether you deserve to fall to the ground and go splat or not. Gravity just pulls things down. If you want to step off the side of a building and not fall the ground and go splat, you’d better make sure you’re stepping onto something else, like a scaffold or a fire escape. No one would ask you whether you believe in gravity or not. Gravity is a force that exists and that you can interact with. If you preform the interaction correctly, you’ll get the result you want; if you don’t, you won’t. Belief has nothing to do with it.
Much of what we know about ancient religious practice is concerned with making sure that human interactions with the divine are carried out correctly. Here, for example, is how the Roman writer Cato the Elder advises dealing with a forest spirit when you are cutting a grove of trees:
With the sacrifice of a pig, speak these words: “Whether you are a god or a goddess to whom this grove is sacred, since it is your right to receive the sacrifice of a pig for the thinning of this grove and on account of these things, whether I do it or someone else does it at my bidding, may it be correctly done. Therefore, sacrificing this pig to you I beg that you will give prosperity to me, my house, my household, and my children. May the sacrifice of this pig be satisfactory for this purpose.”
If you wish to till the ground, make a second sacrifice adding the words: “for the purpose of doing this work.” Throughout the work, do this every day on some part of the land. If you miss a day or if public or private festival days interrupt the work, offer a new sacrifice.
– Cato, On Agriculture 139-140
The rules are laid out very precisely and provisions are made to ensure that the ritual will be correct. The spirit, for example, is addressed “Whether you are a god or a goddess,” because addressing a god by the wrong gender would invalidate the ritual. The prayer provides for a sacrifice either in person or by proxy. Questions of faith do not enter into consideration.
Sacrifice, like the pig that Cato prescribes, is a key ritual of many traditional religions. Many different kinds of things can be offered in sacrifice, including flowers, incense, and wood, but the most typical kind of sacrifice involves items of food. Different cultures vary widely in the forms and rituals of sacrifice, but the ritual operates on a common principle: gift exchange. Gift exchange is a widespread phenomenon in which social bonds are created, maintained, and strengthened by the exchange of valuable objects as gifts. Giving a gift to someone creates an obligation upon them to return a gift of equal value. Offering a sacrifice to the gods was understood to function the same way: the sacrificer’s action obliged the gods to return a suitable favor or gift.
It was not just defined rituals that divinities might concern themselves with. Everyday behavior could also affect their response to humanity. The ancient Egyptian texts of the Book of the Dead, for example, prescribe a list of 42 faults that the spirits of the dead must proclaim they have not committed in order to pass the Weighing of the Heart, such as:
I have not robbed an orphan of his property…
I have not abused a servant to his master…
I have not used false measures. I have not used false measuring-lines.
I have not encroached on the fields of others. I have not used false weights….
I have not held back water at its time.
I have not dammed flowing water.
– The Book of the Dead 125
Since the gods were felt to be present in the everyday world, anything that disrupted natural or social order also disrupted the divine world.
We see the same principle in the ancient Greek custom which held that anyone who killed another person was “polluted” and was required to leave their home community and find someone in another community to perform a ritual of purification on them before they could return home. This custom served the practical purpose of tamping down conflict by getting the killer away from the family of their victim for a time—often for a long time, since finding someone willing to perform the purification ritual could be difficult. It did not matter what the reason for the killing was: murder, self-defense, accident, madness—only the act counted. The gods cared about the act of killing, not the intent or the state of mind of the killer. (The one exception to this rule was soldiers in wartime who were permitted to kill the enemy, and even they were purified before their return home.)
The concept of sin, as understood by the modern monotheisms, has no place in such a world. Sin implies a voluntary act of disobedience to the divine will. In traditional religions, the gods can be induced to respond favorably by correct actions or disturbed by incorrect ones, but they are in general neutral forces. They respond to the act, not to the state of mind or moral character of the person performing it.
Thoughts for writers
If you want to create a religion that feels and functions like an ancient religion, focus on actions, not beliefs. What are the rituals that are appropriate for producing beneficial results? What kinds of acts disturb the gods? What rituals are necessary for cleansing the effects of bad actions?
We are so accustomed to speaking of religion in terms of belief that it can be very hard to work yourself out of that mindset. Practice thinking and writing about your characters’ relationships with the divine in terms that don’t invoke belief. Don’t say that they believe in gods or spirits; say that they reverence, worship, or even just acknowledge them. Don’t have them talk about faith; have them talk about behavior. Don’t have them debate differing interpretations of doctrine; have them debate the effectiveness of different rituals. It can help to think about the gods of your world as if they were natural phenomena like gravity, fire, lightning, rain, tides, wind, etc.
Other entries in Fantasy Religions:
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.