Friday, June 30, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #4: How to Make a Pantheon

Making a pantheon is something that almost every fantasy writer does. It's right up there with making a cutting board in woodworking shop or painting a landscape.

The easy part of making a pantheon is creating lists. The hard part of making a pantheon is figuring out what it all means.

Copying a Pantheon

The easiest method of creating a pantheon is by starting with something that you know. Copying works. Somebody else has already done the hard thinking for you. We'll start with the Greek gods. We have the leader (sky), the sea, the underworld, the smith, love, the hearth, and so on. These are all social and physical phenomena that people found important. These aspects of religion cover the most important parts of life and civilization for the Greeks. Note what's important.

Most people rename their gods, but you don't have to rename them if you don't want to. They'll stay purer if you keep the Greek names, but drift of on their own directions if you given them different names. Once you rename the, you'll find that each god or deity increasingly takes on a life of their own.

Now that you have your list, change something. Change anything.
  • Increase or decrease the status of a god.
  • Change the leader.
  • Combine two gods.
  • Eliminate a god.
  • Add a new god.
Once you've changed something, ask yourself, "What does this mean? How would society react to this?"

For example, let's combine Poseidon with Aphrodite. The goddess of Love is now the goddess of the sea and the most powerful of the gods. Did Poseidon die? Did he never exist? What does this combination say about the nature of love?

We can explain this in a little story. When Poseidon tried to rape Hera, she showed her terrible powers and proved herself more powerful than Poseidon. Don't mess with Hera. Having risen from the sea, Aphrodite was best situated to replace him. Aphrodite's love is like the sea, tempestuous and unpredictable. Historically, Hera had issues with Aphrodite. The sea now sits in opposition to the hearth.

Now, let's make Hephaestus the King of the Gods. What does that say about what's important? It tell us that machining and craft skills are now the highest virtues of the society.

The most difficult question of all to answer is, "What does mean?" To answer, that, you write a book. Your book becomes the means by which you explore the nature of these proposed relationships.

Eliminating gods can prove equally as fun. What does it mean if the Greeks had never recognized Zeus and Poseidon as gods? Who would be the chief god be? What hole would it leave in both religion and society?

Tacking on extra ideas to gods helps makes a god your own. Hephaestus is not only the King of the Gods, he's the Lord of NASCAR racing. In fact, the NASCAR racing season is a multi-city festival in honor of Hephaestus.

That idea suggests another way to vary your religion: change the time and place of the people who have the religion. We are used to worshipers of the Greek pantheon being in ancient Greece, but how would that religion look and act in Tsaris Russia? The American revolution? In a far-future military SF?

Originating Your Own Pantheon

Originating your own pantheon allows you to go even further afield. What's important to your fictional society? The answer here determine who the gods are in a pantheon.

If we look at elves and ask about their gods, we would find trees, architecture, bows, art, music, harmony, and light as important elements of their society. Using that as inspiration, we could create a god for each of these endeavors. Some of these ideas we could combine together, while others we might split apart into more detailed deities, either as distinct approaches to ideas or as ideas clustered together as a subgroup of gods. The Medicinals could be a set of minor goddesses who created plants to help the elves.

Don't feel that you need to detail the entire pantheon. As you write, you'll come up with more ideas, realizing that you have more to add more in. Do you create new gods for these new ideas or do you tack them onto the existing gods? Each direction has implications.

The hard work of creating a pantheon is thinking about the people who worship those gods. Religion isn't a one-way street. Man creates religion, then religion creates man. Once you accept something as true, then sooner or later, your characters must live as if that thing is true. (That doesn't keep people from being hypocrites.) Given a truth, society will live into that truth.

Because these gods are real, what influence to they impart onto their societies? If you accept that Light is the greatest and holiest of gods, what does that mean for the society that worships them? There's a saying, "As in heaven, so on earth." There should be some correspondence in organization between the gods and their people. The gods should embody the best idea of how society should be run as conceived of by that society. In this example, the elves are egalitarian, so they don't have a ruler, they sit on council until they reach a decision on united action. However, in times of crisis, the gods elect a War Leader to manage pressing affairs.

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