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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