Angels and Pinheads

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? For many of us, this is our go-to example of a pointless question. It is often used to ridicule the Middle Ages as a time of naive religiosity still mired in darkness and ignorance before the coming of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is one of the most important and consequential questions in western intellectual history.

The key is that the question isn’t really asking for a number. The number is irrelevant. The answer that matters is: finite or infinite?

Angels, according to the traditions of the western monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are God’s agents in the world. They are how the divine will is enacted in the physical world we live in. For believers in those faiths, therefore, understanding angels is a way of understanding how God acts in the world.

If the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is some finite number, then two angels cannot occupy the same space. It doesn’t matter what the number is; if there is a point at which you just can’t fit any more angels on that pin, then angels must have volume and mass. If they have volume and mass, they necessarily have other physical properties derive from those qualities like density and velocity. In other words, angels are bound by the same physical laws that operate in the rest of the world and which we humans can observe, study, and understand. On the other hand, if there is no limit to how many angels can dance on a pin, then they must not have these same physical properties and therefore cannot be understood or described by analogy with anything that exists in the material world.

What this all adds up to is: if the number is finite, then we can understand the workings of God’s will through mathematics, physics, and observation of the natural world, but if the number is infinite, then those studies are of no use and we can only comprehend God through the study of revealed texts and the writings of inspired individuals like prophets and saints. To understand those texts, however, we have to understand not just the languages in which they are written but the literary genres in which they were composed and the historical and philosophical references they depend upon to convey their messages.

Or to put it in even more familiar terms: science versus humanities.

As human beings, we often rely on symbols and shorthand to discuss important questions. Those symbols draw on the cultural context that surrounds us and they can seem nonsensical without that context. In a thousand years, people may think 20th-century Americans had an odd obsession with arguing over whether donkeys or elephants are better animals, and their 21st-century descendants were no less ridiculous with their fights over whether red or blue is a better color, but we today know the weight of complicated ideas that lie behind those convenient symbols. In the context of medieval scholastic thought, angels and pins served a similar purpose.

Thoughts for writers

The “angels and pin heads” debate is a fine example of how important cultural context is for both research and worldbuilding.

When doing research, it is crucial to remember that people in past societies had thoughts and arguments that are just as complicated as we have today, but they often expressed those ideas in shorthand references that are not transparent to us. If you’re doing research or reading primary sources and people seem to be hung up on arguments that seem pointless or silly, chances are there’s something much more serious behind it and you need to get a handle on their symbolic vocabulary in order to understand it.

(Of course, sometimes people do have pointless and silly arguments, and that’s just as true in the past as it is today. Looking at you, Star Wars vs. Star Trek folks.)

For worldbuilding, think about the kinds of symbolic shorthand people in your fictional world use for their important debates. Symbolic arguments are useful. When everyone around you already knows what the symbols mean, they save time and energy. If the big question for people in your world is whether hereditary monarchy or military aristocracy is a better basis for government, most people aren’t going to go around talking about “hereditary monarchy” or “military aristocracy” all the time. Those are long and cumbersome words to be throwing around. They’re more likely to argue about crowns and helms, or the hunter and the fawn, or some other metaphor. The arguments will also probably turn around seemingly insignificant questions, such as whether one should eat sitting at a table or on the ground, or what color shoes women should wear. Part of your worldbuilding is understanding how the symbols connect to the serious questions.

Whether you explain things for your audience or not is up to you, but layering in symbolic arguments like pin heads and dancing angels is part of the depth that makes a fictional world feel real.

Image: Five dancing angels, photograph by Jebulon via Wimikedia (Musée Condé, Chantilly; c. 1436; oil and gold on wood; by Giovanni di Paolo)

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.


Keep Out

The image above is a papyrus sign found near an ancient temple complex at Saqqara, Egypt. The original is 36 cm (a little more than a foot) wide. The text is in Greek and reads:

By order of Peukestes:

No entry.

This is a sacred enclosure.

My own translation

What does this sign mean and why was it posted in Greek somewhere near an Egyptian temple?

The name Peukestes helps us towards an answer. There is one important Peukestes we know from the sources with a connection to Egypt. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt with his Greek and Macedonian army. The Egyptian people had lived unhappily under the rule of the Persian empire for generations and they greeted the newcomers as liberators. When Alexander moved on the next year to continue his conquest of Persia, he left Egypt under the charge of two of his commanders, Balakros and Peukestes. (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 3.5.5)

The Greeks and Macedonians of Alexander’s army had Egyptian good will on their side and they did not want to lose it. At the same time, Egypt and its great monuments were a source of endless fascination to foreign visitors in antiquity, just as much as today, and not all foreigners knew how to behave with respect. Centuries earlier, Greek mercenaries in the service of the Egyptian pharaohs had carved graffiti into the stones of ancient temples. Balakros and Peukestes, trying to hold onto a valuable province through the turmoil of liberation, certainly did not want any of that going on.

The sign was probably originally posted outside of the temple complex at Saqqara as a warning to any Greek troops indulging in a bit of sight-seeing that they had better be on their best behavior, including staying out of places that were sacred to their Egyptian friends.

Multicultural and cross-religious encounters are nothing new in the world. People have been thinking about the problem of how to get along peacefully with those whose ways of life are different from ours for thousands of years. Respecting other peoples’ religious traditions isn’t just polite, it’s sound policy.

Reference for the papyrus: Eric G. Turner, “A Commander-in-Chief’s Order from Saqqara,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60 (1974): 239-42.

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.

Fake News in Ancient Athens

170109athenaThere’s been a lot of talk lately about fake news and its effect on politics, but the phenomenon is not a new one. Consider this story about how the tyrant Peisistratus seized power in Athens in 556 BCE.

There had been long-simmering unrest between three broad groups in Attica: the wealthy farmers of the plains, the fishing and trading people of the coast, and the poor villagers of the hills. Peisistratos organized the hill people as his base of support, promising to represent their interests if they helped him take power. After a first attempt that fell apart when the plains and coast factions organized against him, Peisistratos made a second bid for power a few years later when the coastal faction switched sides and backed him. Here’s how Herodotus tells the story of how Peisistratus managed to take power the second time:

In Paeania [a hilly region of Attica] there was a woman named Phye who was very tall and beautiful. They dressed her in full armor and put her in a chariot, decking her out to make her the most impressive spectacle, and drove her to the city. Heralds ran on ahead and when they reached the city they proclaimed: “Athenians! Welcome Peisistratus, whom Athena has honored above all! She herself is driving him to the acropolis!” They went all around saying these things and the rumor spread at once throughout Attica that Athena was returning Peististratus to the acropolis. The people of the city believed the woman to be the goddess herself, so they worshiped her and received Peisistratus as their tyrant.

– Herodotus, Histories 1.60

My own translation

Were the people of ancient Athens really that gullible? We shouldn’t doubt that most of them believed that the goddess Athena existed and could intervene in human affairs, but it’s still a bit of a leap from there to believe that she would show up in person to deliver a controversial politician back into power. The idea of dressing up a woman like Athena and having her ride into town in a chariot was nothing strange, either. The Panathenaic Festival, one of the major holidays in the Athenian year, featured exactly that. In fact, many historians believe that Peisistratus was actually using the festival as the occasion for his comeback. In that case, everyone knew that Phye was not really Athena, just playing a role in the procession. It may actually be Herodotus who is the gullible one and the “fake news” is the story that anyone was fooled by Phye at all, as opposed to participating in a well-orchestrated bit of political theatre.

We know from modern research that people tend to change their beliefs to suit their politics, not their politics to suit their belief. If anyone in Athens really did believe that Athena was bringing Peisistratus to town, it’s more likely that they were already a backer of his faction and so were willing to accept the story than that believing the story made them back Peisistratus. Similarly, Herodotus was a firm anti-monarchist, so he was disposed to believe that the Athenians must have been tricked into welcoming Peisistratus rather than willingly choosing him to be tyrant.

Either way you cut it, there’s nothing new about people believing false reports that happen to suit their political outlook.

Image: Athena carrying Heracles in her chariot, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin; 420-400 BCE; red-figure pottery; by the Cadmus Painter)

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.

Fantasy Religions: Faith and War

160808ReconquistaReligion often becomes involved when people are in conflict. Many religious traditions provide points of identity around which people can rally when they feel threatened or can offer reassurance and justification to those about to enter combat. Extreme circumstances, like war, have often led people to embrace their own religious traditions (or new ones) more firmly. All of this is undeniably true. Popular history, however, often makes a further claim: that religious differences cause violent conflicts. A careful look at history shows us a different picture. Religious differences have rarely, if ever, caused wars on their own, and where they have been involved in starting hostilities, they have played only a partial role alongside many other forces.

When we look at history, it is easy to find conflicts between people of different faiths, but these are unusual interruptions in a world history that is mostly about people of different faiths getting along reasonably well. Religious differences on their own don’t drive people into conflict. Protestant and Catholic Christians, for example, have been engaged in a bitter conflict in Northern Ireland for most of the past century, but during that time Northern Ireland has been pretty much the only place in the world where Protestants and Catholics have fought a sustained violent conflict. Nor is religion the only thing that separates the sides in Northern Ireland: differences in religion, language, political inclinations, popular culture, and social life are all wrapped up in the thousand-year history of English colonialism in Ireland. Catholic and Protestant denominations in Northern Ireland have provided a structure in which people can organize to pursue their causes and have been markers of identity around which people rally in difficult times, but if all the people of the territory were of the same religion, the conflict there would still have happened. Blaming religious differences for the Northern Irish Troubles is like blaming the US Civil War on a disagreement over what color Army uniforms should be.

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Fantasy Religions: Religious Experts

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.

Special powers

160620priestSome 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.

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Fantasy Religions: Sacrilege, Blasphemy, and Heresy

160321SibylWhen creating religions for our stories, one of the things to think about is how the people who follow that tradition respond to offenses against its rules and principles. Is your character running the risk of torture and death if they question the accuracy of the sacred texts, or are they just going to get a stern glare from their grandmother for using the wrong hand to swirl the incense at the family altar?

Just as there are lots of different religious traditions that people practice in many different ways, there are lots of different ways of disrespecting religious ideas and offending the people who hold them. I’m going to talk about three kinds of religious transgression today that are often confused with one another. The differences between them are important, though. Which of these kinds of transgression a society recognizes and how it responds to them reflect important things about its history and religious traditions. These three are: sacrilege, blasphemy, and heresy.

(Or, as we call it my house, Saturday night.)

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Fantasy Religions: Religious Sites

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.

Grand Mosque, Djenne, photograph by BluesyPete via Wikimedia
Grand Mosque, Djenne, photograph by BluesyPete via Wikimedia

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Fantasy Religions: Interacting With the Divine

151130sacrificeIn 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.

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Fantasy Religions: The Divine Presence

151012DionysusDown the crimson marble steps of the temple of Zurukh, god of blood, came a bald priest in the red robes of the Order.

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.

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