So, you’re creating a fantasy religion for a story or game. When your characters need to interact with their gods, where do they go—if anywhere at all? Down the street to the local temple? To the top of a windswept mountain? To a corner of their kitchen? Today we look at religious sites in historical cultures to inspire our imaginations.
We can start by looking at religion in today’s world. Look at the religious life of a modern western community and you will find some people attending their local church, synagogue, or mosque, some people praying quietly in their own homes, some feeling inspired by solitary walks in the woods, some debating points of theology over the internet, some participating in celebrations of religious holidays, and some not involved at all. Many people will do more than one of the above. No culture or religious tradition is monolithic, and this is just as true in the past as the present. The history of religious expression is one of incredible variety both across and within cultures.
In this variety, though, there are some patterns that recur in varying forms. People use different kinds of religious sites for different needs. Many different traditions have used similar kinds of religious sites, and within any given tradition different sites are used for different purposes. Today we will look at four common types of religious site out of the wide variety of possibilities: assemblies, temples, household shrines, and natural spaces.
The “assembly” type of religious space will be recognizable to anyone familiar with major variants of the modern monotheistic religions. It is a space where a community of believers gathers to perform collective rituals such as praying, singing hymns, hearing sermons, feasting, and witnessing or participating in ritual enactments.
Assembly spaces are meant to be places for communities to gather and their design reflects this fact. They are designed to welcome groups of people and provide them with suitable places for whatever practices their customs dictate. They often draw on vernacular architectural forms from homes, administrative centers, markets, and other such functional spaces. They can range from the large and ornate to the small and very simple.
Not all religious traditions have a custom of gathering followers together in one place for rituals of worship or celebration. Even those that do may not build structures for the purpose and instead gather outdoors, like the ancient Roman cult of Bacchus. Some of the world’s major religions, though, have made assembly spaces important parts of their traditions. These include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Other religious traditions that have used assembly spaces include those that, though they recognize many gods, are focused on a single leading figure, such as Mithraism and the cult of Isis.
A temple is a building designated for religious purposes but not meant to receive groups of worshipers for regular rituals. It is instead intended to house a divinity and their treasures. Often statues, images, or other symbols of the deity are kept inside and priests may perform rituals with or for these symbols, but those rituals are for the private benefit of the deity, not for the community of worshipers.
Temples are understood as being a kind of private residence for a god and people tend to interact with them in the same way that they interact with the houses of human elites. They are often built and decorated in grand versions of traditional domestic architecture. Priests function, at least symbolically, like the household staff, tending to the divinity’s needs with the ritual provision of necessities like feeding, clothing, and bathing the divine image or symbol. When people need to interact with the gods, they approach them in much the same way they would approach a powerful human patron: by coming to the house, making an appeal to the priestly attendants, and waiting outside for an answer.
Temples like these are often connected with gods who have a public role and are incorporated into the state. They can be found in many parts of the world and include the temples of ancient Egypt, India, Greece and Rome, the Mesoamerican empires, and the honden of Shinto shrines in Japan.
Household shrines are places set aside for interacting with divine forces that are specifically connected to the household and family, such as ancestors or spirits of the house. They can range from just a dish of incense on a shelf to a small version of a temple built on a corner of an estate.
These sorts of shrines are usually dedicated to forces who have some special connection to the family, such as deified ancestors, local spirits, or patron gods or saints. The rituals associated with them are typically simple and intimate, like making small offerings of food or flowers, burning incense, or brief personal prayers. In some cultures it is appropriate for guests in the house to make a small gesture of reverence at the shrine; in others it is strictly a matter for the family.
Household shrines are found in many cultures but are especially well known in China and southeast Asia, as well as in some Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian traditions.
Many traditions revere certain natural places as being sacred in themselves and while some cultures mark sacred sacred places with temples or shrines, others leave them in their natural state or mark them only with the simplest of structures like a cairn or standing stone. Places that are marked as sacred are often those that are different from the surrounding landscape, such as mountaintops, springs, or groves of trees. Such spaces are often held to be the homes of natural spirits or gods.
The reverence of natural spaces often goes with a shamanic tradition in which a shaman is believed to communicate with a spiritual world, but many different kinds of sacred natural space are revered in traditions around the world including Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand, Osun-Osogbo Grove in Nigeria, and numerous holy wells in Ireland.
Thoughts for writers
Part of making a fictional religion feel real and lived is making it specific. People don’t just worship in generic temples. They use different kinds of religious spaces in different ways and for different purposes. Most religious traditions make use of many different kinds of religious site. Some Christians participate in collective rituals in church and make private prayers at their own household shrines at home. Ancient Romans maintained public temples for the great gods of the state, kept shrines for the gods of the household, and also venerated the sacred groves and springs of particular gods and goddesses. In Japan, worshipers at a Shinto shrine can gather for rituals in a haiden while the honden is reserved for the kami, and many such shrines are connected with important natural spaces.
What kind of religious needs do your characters have? Do they want to participate in collective rituals or would they rather worship their gods privately at home? Are their spirits like people who want a house to occupy and regular meals and baths or are they natural forces who stay in rivers and mountain peaks? Even among people of the same culture and tradition, the answers may vary.
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.