If you’re inventing a fantasy religion for a story or game, you’ll probably want more than just buildings and rituals. Who uses those buildings? Who performs those rituals? Not just the everyday believers but the people whose job it is to carry out the functions of the faith. For many of the stories we tell that involve imagined religions, knowing something about the people who have expertise in that religion is important.
There are many different kinds of religious experts, even within most religious traditions, and their roles and lives can vary enormously, from the highest priest of a central temple to the attendant who sweeps the dirt off a rural roadside shrine. Some cultures have complex hierarchies of religious people or divide them into many different roles, while in others all people who follow a religious life are the same. Some religious traditions have no special personnel at all.
To try to list all the possible variations of religious people would be overwhelming and unhelpful. Instead, I’d like to offer a way of thinking about different kinds of religious experts that is flexible and practical, especially for worldbuilding. To that end, consider this question: what is it about a person with a special religious role that makes them special? Here are a few possible answers, and bear in mind that more than one of these can apply to the same person.
Some religious experts are believed by the adherents of their faith to be endowed with a special ability to invoke divine aid, at least under certain conditions. Historically, it is common to refer to religious experts with such special powers as priests, but different traditions have their own terms.
A familiar example in the modern west is the priests of Catholic Christianity who have the power to, among other things, invoke the miracle of transubstantiation. Many other religions practiced today also have priests who perform important rites, such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto, and Ifa. The priests of most historical religions with an organized structure also fall into this category, including those of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, the Aztecs and the Maya. Many traditions require specific circumstances, locations, and rituals in order for the invocation of divine aid to be effective, but others hold that every act of a holy individual is imbued with divine force.
There is an important distinction between religion and magic (for those who believe in both): a magician may be able, under certain circumstances and with the correct rituals, to compel a divine power to act, but a priest or other such religious expert cannot. A priest has a special relationship with the divine, understood as a promise by the god or gods that when the priest invokes their aid in the correct way, they will answer. The priest does not force the god or gods to act, rather they call upon them to honor their promise.
Not all relationships with gods allow a person to invoke divine action, but some people are believed to have a special ability to act as conduits for communication between humans and gods. The term prophet is often used to describe such people. While today we tend to connect the word with seeing the future, the original Greek word means “someone who speaks on behalf of someone else,” i.e. someone who speaks to the divine on behalf of mortals, to mortals on behalf of the divine, or both.
In some traditions, the role of prophet is one that many people can take on. The oracles of the ancient Mediterranean, including the famous one at Delphi and its counterparts at Dodona, Cumae, Siwah, and elsewhere, were tended by prophets who took questions from visitors and relayed the gods’ response. These oracles often had many prophets who worked in shifts and who could be replaced upon death or retirement. In other traditions, prophecy is a rare gift granted only to singular individuals in time of need. All three of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—recognize prophets who brought messages from God at key points in history, while Islam has a special focus on Muhammad’s role as the final prophet after whom there will be no more.
Traditions also differ widely on how precise and detailed prophetic messages are and whether people can initiate the discussion with the divine or whether messages only come through at the gods’ instigation.
Some religious people have no special connection with divine powers but instead are masters of arcane lore. These experts are not just scholars who have devoted more time and effort to studying sacred texts and images that are accessible to all (see below for them); they have access to knowledge that is not available to other followers of the faith. There is no common term for such experts, but for convenience we might call them sages. The distinguishing feature of these sages is their monopoly of sacred knowledge; it is not that other people lack the wisdom, discipline, or spiritual strength to know what they know, but rather that other people are not allowed to know what the sages know.
Some religious traditions embrace the idea of sacred secrets and others reject it. In the ancient Roman state religion a board of ten priests kept a record of oracular predictions about the future that they consulted in times of crisis. In many Mediterranean mystery religions, such as Isis worship, Mithraism, and Manichaeism, the higher orders of membership learned special lore. Priests of Zhengyi Daoism similarly learn new lore as they advance through the orders of the religion. Keeping secret knowledge seems also to have been part of the function of the druids in Britain, Ireland, and Gaul. In certain native North American traditions, Midews guard secrets of spiritual healing. The priests of the western medieval Christian church were de facto sages because of the liturgical use of Latin, although most other Christian traditions used the vernacular for religious purposes.
These religious experts are also masters of knowledge, not because they were let into a secret but because they put in the time and effort to learn things that other people could have, but didn’t. This knowledge can be explicitly religious, such as detailed study of sacred texts, objects, images, and places, but it can also be of a more secular nature, such as knowledge of medicine, law, or history. This category also applies to those whose training is in caring for the social and spiritual health of a community. There is no standard term for this group, but for convenience, again, we can call them scholars.
Scholars of this sort are important in all of the Abrahamic faiths, including rabbis in Judaism, priests and pastors in Christianity, and imams in the Sunni traditions of Islam. Gurus in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism play a similar role, acting as teachers and spiritual guides. In some branches of Taoism, fashi practice healing and rites of spiritual cleansing.
Some people devote themselves to religious lives that differ greatly from the lives of their secular compatriots, sometimes even cutting themselves off from the secular world. Some live solitary lives while others live as part of a similarly devoted community. Some live according to rules and strictures while others seek divine inspiration to guide their lives. Several different terms are used for such people, including monk and nun, for those who live according to a structured rule, mystic for those whose lives are devoted to seeking a transcendent connection with the divine, and ascetic for those whose lives emphasize simplicity and separation from the secular world.
Monks and nuns living according to an organized religious structure feature in Buddhism, Jainism, and Christianity. Sufi mystics in Islam follow a similar ordered life, as do some communities in various religious traditions not traditionally identified as monastic, such as the Shaker movement. Individual ascetics living outside of organized structures are well known in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, though many other religious traditions have also inspired people to seek lives of solitary devotion.
Some religious people have a more practical role to play in the life of the faith. They sweep out the shrine or clean up the burnt incense sticks. They keep the sacramental wine stocked or prepare meals for the monks and nuns. They help the priest put on his ceremonial garb and keep the ritual implements clean. There are many different names for such a person, but the term custodian is often applied to them.
Such helpers are found in religious traditions all over the world, from the mikos who assist Shinto priests to the altar servers of the Christian church. In general, any religious tradition which requires the use of certain special places, objects, clothing, or food requires custodians to care for those things, although other religious officials, such as priests or sages, may take on the duties themselves. Religious traditions that are centered in the home or in natural spaces are less likely to employ custodians.
In some cases, custodians earn a high degree of respect, especially if the places and things they tend to are of great importance, and what began as practical duties may become more ceremonial over time. In other cases, they are treated simply as servants and keep doing the practical work of the religion. A period of custodial service may be part of the training for another kind of religious expert.
Thoughts for writers
Just like religious buildings, cultures have many different kinds of religious people. Many such people combine different aspects of religious expertise and perform multiple functions. When your characters interact with religious people, there are many different possibilities for how that interaction can go.
Maybe your heroes needs guidance in their quest so they head for a temple where they can find a prophet to communicate with the gods for them. Maybe they need to be purified by a priest after battle before they can enter the city again. Maybe they need to consult a scholar on some vital point of history related to their mission. Maybe they come across a custodian who saw something they shouldn’t have while cleaning up a roadside shrine.
Sometimes one person performs many different religious roles. The priests who offer sacrifice to the sun goddess might also chop and carry wood to keep her sacred fire burning. The prophet who speaks for the river spirits might also be trained in treating wounds. The mystics who live a life of rigorous simplicity in their mountaintop retreat may also be initiated into secret lore forbidden to outsiders. The possible combinations and permutations are nearly endless.
Other entries in Fantasy Religions:
Images: Aztec priests making an offering against drought, from the Tovar Codex via Wikimedia (currently John Carter Brown Library; c. 1546-1626; paint on parchment; by Juan de Tovar). Pythia with tripod, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (currently British Museum; c. 330 BCE; red-figure pottery; by Python). Ojibwa midewiwin preparing herbal medicine, from J. W. Powell, Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology via Wikimedia (1891; illustration). A discourse between imams via Wikimedia (c. 1630; paint on parchment; by Govardhan). Buddhist nun via Wikimedia (c. 1805; painting; by Shin Yunbok). “The Acolyte” via Wikimedia (1842; painting; by Abraham Solomon)
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