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.
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.
Down 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.