Monday, July 31, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #19: Uniting and Dividing

Religion is a unique institution because it can cross international boundaries, cultures, languages, races, and time. Religion takes disparate people and gives them commonality, a shared way of interpreting the world. I don't know any other institution that does this so effectively, even empires.

At the same time, many religions reinforce boundaries. Local religions, or religions belonging to a specific people, increase distinctions between themselves and others. In this sense, religions become divisional, seeking to distinct identity rather than intermingle with others.

Religions both unite and divide.

Most religions divide. These religions are the core of a group's identity. Their purpose is to show who's in and who's out, who understand and who doesn't. That doesn't mean that an outsider cannot join into the religion, but that outside must first learn. That outside must become an insider. In this way, all the insiders know that they belong to one group, one ethic, one set of values, one set of laws, one set of traditions. Because everyone is inside these circles, assumptions can be made about behaviors and norms, reducing the cultural burden of operating. Division means that any group gets an idea of who 'us' actually is and what 'us' actually means. Exclusion means that you know who is on your team.

For an outsider to seek to become an insider is an odd thing. Who would want to leave their own insider status behind? Even if the person is sincere, the work ahead of them will be substantial, if not daunting because the process makes no sense to the insider.

However, when a group of people begins conquering others, they find themselves in the opposite position. Through force, they have incorporated others into their group, into their team. Once included, the enforcement of norms must come. It become obvious, then, that the conquered must learn to speak and operate among the gods of the winners. They are outsiders who want to be insiders again, or at least give the impression that they want to be insiders.

If the conquered resist too fiercely, then the winners must seek to break the cultural unity of the conquered. The losers must come to altars of the winners, forcing them to acknowledge the winning gods, and therefore forcing them to acknowledge the superiority of the winners.

In many cases, the winners just go straight for knocking down the altars of the losers. Break the religion first, then work on the niceties.

Over time, the gods of the winners become known. Their stories become known. These stories give a common vocabulary to all people, no matter their language. A knowledge of religion gives everyone an idea of the ideals and ethics are of their age. Religion then becomes a unifying factor, helping to make interaction more predictable. And how do people know who know? People do all the right public rituals, showing off their religious knowledge, showing that they understand.

Ever see a politician who messes up a traditional moment? People get upset. People at the top are expected to know the religious rituals and uphold them. This is a proxy for their desire to uphold the laws and keep their responsibilities. Following rituals declares to the people, "I find our common unity important."

When rulers break with religion, that causes trouble. Everyone becomes the outsider, nobody gets to be the insider, and nobody knows what anything means. It's no wonder that rulers who change around religion don't last long in office. Few rulers are dumb enough to pee on the third rail.

A classic fantasy trope of a religion that divides is a dark cult. These people meet in secret, worshiping some dark god that normal people wouldn't approve of. When they're eventually discovered going about their dark worship, people get murderously upset, and pretty soon revolution starts. By default, dark cults are closed because those inside will get power while those outside will get conquered.

A prophet is a person who both unites and divides. He waltzes into town to tear down those in power, those who do not deserve their place, while he unites the outsiders, those pushed aside, into a new and stronger political group.

The classic paladin also unites and divides, although on a more interpersonal level. By being purer and better than everyone, he winds up more alienating, more alienated. Nobody can meet his measure, so people divide from him. Meanwhile, a paladin seeks to unite those of good character, to bring them together into a force capable of opposing evil. He may even rally people to older says, forgotten because of some conqueror, ready to reassert itself, to unify the old believes while dividing from their conquerors.

Consider the idea of a rightful ruler. Many fantasies work on this idea, yet who decides who rules? This idea of a rightful ruler boils down to a religious idea, the goal to have your insider in office who you understand, and get rid of the blasphemous person who isn't rightful and who doesn't understand.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Silmarillion (1977)

Neither fish nor foul, uncategorically other, and perhaps the most abandoned book in the western fantasy canon, The Simarillion (1977) by J.R.R. Tolkien, published posthumously, continues to divide and muddle fans to this day.

When I mention this book to many fantasy readers, their response is usually, "I couldn't finish it." This book, this collection of stories, provides a detailed background and mythology to Middle Earth. Part history, part short story, part epic poem, part legend, part myth, the collection resembles nothing published before or since. For the reader, it either provides more of what they so desire, the details of Middle Earth, or provides what bores them to tears, the details of Middle Earth.

I first read this back in high school, 10th grade, and even back then, as earnest as I was, I found the work hard reading. I could toss off anything else, but I could not toss off this. By the end, I confess that I wasn't paying much attention as I pushed towards completion. Decades later, I came back to the work on audiobook, listening through it as I played endlessly with my then kitten, who needed lots and lots of string. I got more of it that time, but I forgot almost as much.

If you're a deep Tolkien fan, this book has what you want. This is distillate from which the literary tales were created. If you aren't a fan, this is exactly the part of the novels that lost you, equally concentrated.

While I appreciate many of the ideas and tales in the book, they lack the engagement of actual stories, the one that most fantasy readers enjoy, where they form attachments to heroes and learn to despise villains. Due to the structure of the tales, there's little to attach to unless it's Middle Earth itself. Because of this, all these stories feel a bit remote, far away, uncompelling unless its Middle Earth itself that you love.

Even though this book was published in the 1970s, it wasn't a product of the 1970s. In every way, this is an older work salvaged from previous decades, making the best of assorted and often inconsistent source materials.

In my most recent attempt to reread it, The Silmarillion escaped me. There are many who can sing their praises of this work, but I am not one of them.

Religion in Fantasy #18: Religion and the State

Religion has a long history of politics, and politics a long history of religion. The two have always proven inseparable, even where history has tried.

In most beginnings, the gods give laws to the people. This makes the laws themselves divine, sacred, sacrosanct. The gods provide order to the universe, and then they provide order to the people. If it's not the gods who give the laws, it's their representatives, their divinely chosen. The point is clear, that these laws are given by those better than you for  your own good.

Once you have rules, you also need rulers. Who rules? Those better than everyone else. Quite often, these people are reputedly living gods, descendants of gods, or the most favored of gods. King and conquerors take on the trapping of religion to reinforce their hold on powers while alive. And in death, they continue to live on. When these rulers die, their divinity gives them a place in heaven while the ordinary person faces a darker afterlife because they aren't gods, they aren't divine.

While religion and state may be one, that doesn't necessarily make the state a theocracy. In a theocracy, the religion is dominant over the state, where in most temporal kingdoms, the state is dominant over religion. It's about who's driving the bus.

Rulers cement their rights to rule through religion. The most common right is birth, that they are literally born better than everyone else. They trace their ancestry directly back to that of a god, usually the most powerful god, and by that, eclipse all other claimants. This works pretty well, except for daddy king's tendency to produce many children in order to guarantee an heir. Now you have lots of siblings, all with the same claim. Some societies solve this dilemma by choosing the next king, some solve it by using the first born as king, but most solve it through vicious civil wars. The first job of every new king is beating down the other claimants to the throne.

In India, the caste system added interesting dimension to who gets to rule. As they believed in rebirth, and that your position in birth demonstrates your spiritual quality, then those born into the upper classes, by virtue of having been born upper class, have demonstrated a measurably higher state of being, so they get to rule their lessers.

In the Roman Empire, new emperors played seven degrees of godhood, whereby they paid a genealogist to connect their ancestry to a god. These connections were worthless, of course, but divine blood was a prerequisite for the throne and a little lying never stopped anyone.

By the middle ages, blood relations to a god had ceased and divine right had appeared. You were king because God wanted you to be king. Because you were king, God didn't want anyone else to have the throne. This worked pretty well once a king killed off his competition, but with each new generation, there were more siblings to fight it out.

In China, the gods favored those who won, resulting in centuries of all-out blood fights for the throne because winning meant favor. Everyone believed, or at least claimed with some measurable proof, that their victories meant that the gods now smiled upon them. Everybody likes a winner.

Sometimes it's not who you are, but what you have, that matters. Who controls the special McGuffin that let's them claim the kingship? In England, the monarch sits over the Stone of Scone, which gives them a claim on Scotland. Essentially, it's a sacred stone, which is why it gives rulership. There's also the One Ring, which besides being evil, will give Sauron effective dominion over all Middle Earth. As he's already evil, no harm, no foul.

Controlling the capital goes a long way towards asserting your dominion. Religiously, the capital is the center of the world, the place where all your gods are, the place where the temples are the thickest.

Getting control is one thing. Keeping it, that's another good place for religion.

Once a state exists, it creates ceremonies and rules about itself that greatly resemble religious rules. Flags, banners, and symbols of the state represent the divine ruler, and because they represent divinity, they are divinity, they are idols. How one treats them is a direct substitute for how one treats the throne. Emperors and kings used to touch banners, giving them divinity, giving them to their troops. These banners would therefore be sacred, important, and worth protecting. To lose a banner, a symbol of your divine ruler, is a shame beyond reckoning, and for the victors, a prize worth displaying. The defense of a banner is therefore religious fervor.

When states win battles, they often send gifts to temples commemorating those wins, and by extension, thanking the gods. Symbols of the enemy are particular prized as they represent a victory of your gods over their gods. Objects worn by the enemy rulers and kings are especially prized. Symbolically, your god now has dominion over their gods.

When conquering a foreign country, toppling its gods was a frequent action, but not always. The victors sought to symbolically display the destruction of their opposition's political sovereignty. In the place of the losing god there would be raised the victorious god. In this sense, a temple becomes a victory trophy. Whoever wins gets the trophy. It's sorta like the Stanley Cup.

Sometimes gods weren't toppled. In the Roman world, where the Greek gods were well known, it made no sense to topple the gods because Zeus and Jupiter were equated as the same god. In that case, it was politically foolish to change one god for the other.

In most kingdoms and civilizations, the rulers didn't directly control the religion or temples. Religious institutions acted independently, managing and supporting themselves through outside support. Because religion wasn't centralized, taking over religious would require putting in an infrastructure, and the only people capable of doing that ran the temples. This meant that religions tended to keep independent of the state, which simplified the state but sure did complicate politics. The kings ruled, but they had to avoid offending the religious establishment.

Rome was odd because the temples themselves were seen as parts of the government, like a Department of Temples. The people who ran the temples were political appointees, and the state directly funded the temples. It should come as no surprise then that the Roman Catholic Church would later run itself on the same principles, where the local rulers dictated the clergy.

A trope found in many films is the tribal chief supported by his witch doctor. Essentially, the ruler and the religious professional are a team. If the local priest disapproves of you, then everyone disapproves of you. Because of this, the witch doctor is feared by everyone as he can turn the state to his whim.

Of course, the gods could just skip the whole human thing and rule themselves, which they do in a number of work. However, this is rare unless it's a god against god story, or the stage is set lower down.

The problem of basing the state on religion is that the state is tied to religion. A new religion or atheism constitutes a threat to the state, undermining its political foundation. If the ruler is no longer seen as religious or religiously favored, then his replacement goes from unfathomable to very possible. When this happens, the rulership has no choice but to eliminate that which threatens it. This was the very problem that early Christians introduced into the Roman Empire.

At a local level, religion and the state is usually well separated. Nobody is special, even the mayor or the town headman. The closer to a locality, the less divine a person seems, the more likely that they need the favorship of their friends and neighbors to rule, and the more likely that the rulership consists of actual work and coordination. Running a locality means meeting the needs of your constituents because you aren't divine and you are replaceable.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #17: Religion and the Individual

"How do I fit into the world?" Answering that basic question is one of the most important jobs of religion. Society is made of individuals, and these individuals must each find their way within their society.

In most societies, although almost everyone is religious in some way, most of them are not professionally religious. They may seek and experience religion, but they have other jobs and concerns that engage them on a daily basis. While they may have religious experiences, ones to share with others, they are not the ones with the deep understanding of rites, of passing down traditions, of knowing the stories, of knowing all the right things. For most individuals, religion is part of their identity, but not more so than everyone else.

Most societies with religions have experts, people whose job or privilege it is to be the expert. They are the ones who know the right things to do, the right things to say, the right way to approach a problem. Because these jobs are so few, yet so important, matching the right people up to the jobs is usually part of the job. While an individual may seek such a position, and even get training, it's the community who does the accepting.

Some experts aren't experts to the whole society, they're experts within the family. The oldest male may act as priest to his ancestors. One of the women may be an expert in the female gods, overseeing childbearing and household welfare. While these positions are not as noteworthy as a true religious professional, they are still positions held in importance by the societies and families.

Yet, who should these experts be? That depends on the nature of the position, the society, the family, and the individual.

In shamanism, there are personalities recognized as better for the duties. Although anyone can be a shaman if they put the work into it, the strongest ones will be those who have the natural aptitude, the calling to the position.

A High Priest may need more of a managerial temperament, organizing all the facets of what's essentially a religious franchise. The high priest isn't there simply because he believe more, but because he understand how to run the complex operation that is a temple.

Some people go into religious life temporarily. In some Buddhist countries, everyone spends some time living in a monastery. While for some this was a spiritual time, for others was little better than slavery under the cruel hands of their monkish masters.

Not all religion is about ceremony. Some of religious life is about how your live. Retreating from the world, monastic orders arrange themselves different from the outside world, living by a different routine, seeking something other than the profane pursuits of daily humanity. Because living in these communities requires so much, most of these communities have a getting to know each other period, a time when the applicant gets to know the rules, and the community decides whether they want the person.

People who wander off to the wilderness to live alone with religion are hermits. Nobody has to approve of them. They make their choices and they go. It's their living far away from civilization which puts them closer to the divine.

Many people don't pick a religious life at all. Their families need them in religion, so they are placed into religious life. In the middle ages, many families sent their younger sons into the clergy, creating person who would be able to take over powerful clerical duties, thus extending their family's powers. Noble families also sent daughters into nunneries to limit procreation. While that sounds awful, family fights were solved by the sword, so fewer claimants to a title meant less social instability.

Getting called is a frequent theme in religions. It's not that these people chose the divine, it's that the divine chose them, whether they be prophets, priests, or madmen. Whatever the nature of their calling, they find it impossible to walk away no matter who extreme the consequences seem.

Some religion is associative. It's not that you live a particularly religious life, it's that you enjoy helping a religious cause. I heard a minister say, "If there were no women in the church, we'd have to close up shop." Women clean the church, decorate the altars, fill out the choirs, run the fundraisers, organize the parishioners, and do a thousand other things to make sure that the religious experts can do their jobs. While some of these women would become professionals if they could, most are doing what they want, finding value in religion with the skills that they possess.

Within any religion, individuals have duties to their gods and their society. Whether these duties are followed or not is another decision by the individual. Do you adhere closely to the religious laws or are you rather lax?

As a person ages, their relationship to religion changes. How a young person feels about tradition and sees the world is different than how an old person feels about tradition and sees the world. As perspective changes, so does the religious experience.

In times of stress, religion can prove an emotional anchor, giving the distressed something to hold onto, a place of certainty amid the emotions, even a means of processing grief. 

In fantasy literature, how a characters comes to religion greatly informs us about the character. Whether they be reformed criminals, guided by voices, mad for infernal power, forced into vows, or dutiful servants, their perspective must come out. These characters then bring religious questions and answers to the people around them who, hopefully, also wrestle with religious questions.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #16: Religion and Variation

A brief look about the world reveals that religion isn't consistent. Even today, while religion may seem consistent, any investigation will reveal huge disparities within the same group.

Religions transcend many boundaries. The ancient Greek city-states regularly warred against each other, but they shared a common language and they shared common gods. Despite their constant fighting, their religion and language united them. Europe provides an even more extreme example, where they barely had any language in common, as most people didn't speak Latin, but their religion still united them. Many religions literally claim a worldwide reach.

Most religions are not worldwide. They belong to a specific people or culture. For the most part, you are born into your religion. Your birth literally defines you. These religions don't merely act as a faith, they act as an identifier, a group marking where no other grouping exists. Religion and community are one, especially for minorities. Your religion may vary markedly from your rulers, your subjects, or your neighbors. Your religion may also be mostly similar, but you have your own particular gods, institutions, holy places, or stories.

Even though a religion is supposedly one group, regional variations abound. They way that one culture or region worships a god differs from another region. This variation is seen as normal, with uniformity seen as unusual. As the Christian church as shown, establishing uniformity is rather a difficult and divisive policy, with multiple council meetings sorting out exactly what Christians believed, but having limited power over any group who split away.

Bad continuity is the norm, not the exception.

As different societies are invade, are invaded, meet other, and move about, they take their gods with them, and they adopt other gods along with way. This mixes things up, creating quite the mish-mash of beliefs and relationships. In the course of years, some gods rise in popularity while others fade. Some gods can't find space in crowded cities, so they move in with other gods, forming an alliance. Other gods get toppled or redecorated, re-purposing their physical depiction into a new god while saving a substantial amount of money on the part of the temple.

Most religions never stop developing. Philosophers ask new questions. Travelers come along with foreign ideas perfect for cultural appropriation, or maybe too destabilizing, because they are too perfect for cultural appropriation. Gods speak to their worshipers, revealing new things. Somebody gets invaded, and are now forced to sacrifice to the winner's gods. The wheels of history never stop turning.

Even while religion changes, it offers continuity. Most religions don't change every few minutes. Most provide an experience that all generations share. This acts a a bedrock to their culture and their shared values. Religion provides everyone in a community a common understanding of the world, a common vision, a common understanding. Those tend to not change. Two thousand years after the ancient world, people still throw coins into fountains because that's what you do.

So while the religion in each area shows cultural changes over time, like a tree growing to fit into its own environment, the religion itself, in the present, will resist any effort to change it around. Like pulling own on the branch, its natural spring will seek to return it to a known shape. And also like a tree, you can prune it or graft something onto it, but moving those roots is nearly impossible. The only way to really fix the whole thing is to start a whole new religion.

New religions are the ultimate in variation. Whether it be a new god or a new understanding or a new paradigm, new means new, but it also means unknown. Both the people inside the religion need to learn it and answer all sorts of questions as they wrestle with implications, while outsiders won't understand it at all, and quite reasonably, don't even know how to start trusting it or understanding its motives.

Given variation, limiting variation is one of the biggest challenges of a new religion. All those stuffy, old, inflexible rules of the old religion helped keep its shape. Without that, the new religion grows wild, forming splinter groups, arguments turn friends into enemies, and lots gets said which can't be taken back. A charismatic leader may be able to form and hold the group coherent through his own vision, but on his death, even with succession, conflict can and will loom. Few religions survive this phase, usually bursting apart into fragments.

Given this, it's amazing that anybody believes anything at all, let alone sit down together and worship at the same time.

But sometimes, a new religion rolls around when everyone is upset at the old religion, one that doesn't work for people any more. As time and technology changes, as needs change, and as the world changes, people find themselves in need of something more appropriate, a religion that works for them rather than just offers a soulless performance of piety. In those cases, the old religion declines while the new one rises.

While change from one truth to another is often viewed as simple an easy in fantasy novels, in truth, it's not. That's where you'll find a story, from communities hanging on yet needing to change, to individuals struggling with new ideas, to others rejecting the new in favor of the old.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Monday, July 24, 2017

Writing Update

I've sent both Maid of Shadow and Maid of Memory off to my editor for a final round of cleanup editing. Meanwhile, she's hammering through her primary edit of Maid of Hope. I'm months late getting this trilogy out, but I've not stopped.

After this, my new series is quite a change in both tone and pacing. Inspired by the JRPG genre, Crystal Hope follows the exploits of five teenage girls determined to save the Great Crystals by gaining powers and abilities, fighting bosses, and most importantly, learning to value each other.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #15: Religion and Rules

You can't get religion without rules. Put another way, the lessons learned via religion become rules. Because you are dealing with real and powerful forces, developing rules to safely interact with those forces is a very smart idea. Taboos, rites, catechisms, theocracies, investitures, and organizations are all aspects of these rules.

The most important of all rules answer the basic question: who gets to say what the rules are? While sometimes this boils down to a single person in a single place, most of the time this decision making power gets split up, with different rights going to different people at different levels.

The indisputable top dog in setting the rules is the gods themselves. Humans don't get to rewrite the laws passed down from the god. Breaking those rules is a good way to get onto a god's bad side, and once you're their bad side, everybody suffers. Keeping the rules passed down by the gods keeps the community safe, or at least prevents it from wandering into unsafe territory too much or too often.

Once you have rules from the gods, you need to understand them. Scholars, experts, priests, and other wise folks get the job of knowing and interpreting these rules. They may even create additional rules, but ones not ones so universal as those of the god. They also oversee those things that are holy or divine, creating rules and procedures for interacting with that divinity. 

The problem in a world with active gods is that the gods can go talk to somebody else, giving them special rules and dispensations. Now you have two sets of rules, with one individual or group able to break the rules of another. Revelation, the revealing of new knowledge, allows for the rules to change, or sometimes simply shatters the rules.

All religions contains rules forbidding certain actions, whether this is called taboos or sins or offenses. No matter what they're called, a community is likely to hold these rules close to the heart, if nothing else but for their own safety. When an individual breaks a taboo, this reflect on the community as a whole, so the entire community must respond to the action.

The thing about divinely given rules is that a society often bases all its laws on those divine rules. There isn't a clear distinction between governmental law and divine law. Both intertwine. 

Rules answer such things as:
  • Who do you worship?
  • When do you worship them?
  • Who performs the rites?
  • Who do we pass on the rites?
  • Who interprets the rules?
  • What happens when you break the rules?
  • How do they decide what they decide?
  • What rights and duties do religious professional have?
  • How does religion get paid for?
  • What is public knowledge?
  • What is secret knowledge?
  • What is pure?
  • What is impure?
The thing about religions is that they organize themselves, and that brings rules. They may have overarching control, regional control, local control, or most usually, a mixture of controls which results in a patchwork of rules and governance. 

Enforcing the rules means that you need someone to enforce them, whether they be a locality in general or someone specific, such as the local priest or expert. These people have special right to enforce the religious rules, and the communities recognize those rights. Somebody else, someone from outside the community isn't recognized.

When we talk about enforcing religious rules, especially here in the West, we'll tend to think of inquisitions and witch trials. Fortunately, the reality is often more mundane. In a Catholic church, the usher may come over and ask you to remove your hat. You've broken a religious rule, but there's a quite a few gradations between a slap on the wrist and instant death, so take heart, all your religious people don't have to be head-bashing extremists. In general, most societies seek to resolve most religious issues with a minimum of muss and fuss. If there is muss and fuss involved, they seek to make it hard for you to cause the muss and fuss in the first place. Places get fenced. Guards get posted. Dangerous things are kept hidden away.

Being an outsider means that you don't know the rules. This is why most societies are careful about outsiders interacting with religion. They can see trouble coming. This doesn't mean that the outsider can't interact with their religion, it just means that the outsider needs to get tutored, and the insiders need to learn to trust the outsiders, before they can proceed.

The upshot of having rules is that everyone gets to know what's going on. This gives society a measure of peace and security knowing that their daily lives aren't upsetting the divine. They understand how to live in a world surrounded by gods and unseen spirits, and need not fear offending them. With this psychological security, people can then focus on the daily challenges before them.

While many religions don't have a set of rules written down, some do, and those rules and documents are likewise treated as special. The rules of divinity are divinity, so the books of rules become holy as well. Because they are holy, they are afforded special place and treatment within the society. 

Rules often reflect lessons learns. That is, rules have stories attached to them because humans remember stories. Rather than just reciting a rule, tell the story behind the rule, and your readers will not only better remember it, the story will help give the rule innate sense. 

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #14: Religious Times and Places

Religion doesn't just exist randomly throughout the world. Some place and times are more special than others. There are sacred times and sacred spaces.

Our oldest glimpses into religion are the great solar calendars found all over the world. People needed to know when it was in order to track herds, plant food, and head south in order to avoid the snows. The earliest known record keeping astronomers were the Sumerian priests who studied the movement of the stars in order to better understand the influence of the gods. (They also invented the 24:60:60 timekeeping system.)

In the Western world, we're familiar with the holy days of the week. Christians hold Sunday as holiest, while Jews hold Saturday as holiest. Even some hours are holier, or unholier, than others. The witching hour is when the powers of dark magic are the most potent, and presumably, noon is when holy is mightiest.

Holiday derives from the word "holy day," days of the year which celebrate certain holy times. These are the same every year, based on whatever calendar that you're using. There's a theory that the Celtic holidays, centered around the equinoxes and solstices, acting as an informal calendar for ordinary people, giving the year a reference, a shape. While most holy days celebrate important times in a religion, and are generally a big deal, other memorialize more curious times, such as Halloween, the day when the walls between life and death are weakest, leading to ghost and goblins roaming the world.

While some holy days may be somber religious events, others are held in deep affection by the people. These holidays give the people some fun or pleasure that they don't have otherwise, including special foods, drinks, dances, and music. For other days, the events are more solemn, as people stop their normal routine and take on different routines to commemorate the events remembered for that day.

Because a sacred time can be memorialized any way that a culture find appropriate, the nature of time varies wildly. Festivals, prayer services, sacrifices, music, dance, war, weeping, games, feasting, and any other human activity can express this time. The start of the new year in many cultures corresponds with the gifting of new clothing.

Sometimes sacred times sneak up on you, that's why there are astronomers studying the stars, learning and predicting the sacred events. A surprise comet or eclipse announces a big change in the heavens, and rulers need to know what that means.

Time can be cyclical or linear, depending. Cyclical time repeats endlessly, always in the same form, from the day, to the year, to whole ages of the world, cycles within cycles. In other traditions, time is linear, aiming for some end point where times comes to the end. Whichever a culture picks, the outlook of that culture will be shaped by their perception of time and what time means. The end of the world to a culture with cyclical time is a non-issue as the world is religiously destroyed and recreated every year. The world ending means far more to someone believing in linear time.

Because kings are often sacred, recording their births and deaths becomes very important. Without a universal calendar, time is reckoned by rulership. The year of rulership becomes the time, with time restarting with every new ruler. 

Of course, if you have a special time for religion, you want to get together with your other religious folks, and that requires a space. The spaces where religion expresses itself is held as special, holy, or otherwise significant, usually because sometime in the past, something holy happened there, or something is holy there. As you might guess, there's a story behind that.

Religious times and places are tied to stories. Equally true, religious stories are tied to times and places. Ceremonies are tied to stories, and so tied to time and place as well. The story of Christmas is told before Christmas, but not after. Stories of a religious moment are told at the designated celebration of that moment, and not others.

Even more complicated, because the stories and the ceremonies go together, the actions and words of each add to the understanding of the other. Each is part of the ceremony, but only when taken as a whole can you really understand what's happening in the ceremony. It's like one part is the words, one part is the soundtrack, and one part is the moving picture. While each is informative on its own, combined together, they give your a complete story, one where the pieces create a story bigger and more powerful than the individual elements.

Holy only comes from holy. It's the presence of holy that makes an area holy. Naturally, once an area is holy, it's marked as holy, cordoned off, fenced, or otherwise kept separate from profane reality. Entrance to the place is through known gates, regulated, and assured. The holy must be treated as special.

Once you have a holy place, you need people whose job it is to see to that place, whether it be a shrine, a temple, a church, or some random spot in the woods. The fate of holy places is not let to chance.

As anyplace can be holy, anyplace can be holy. The most commonly seen in fantasy is the temple, a place where sacrifices happen to gods and the people keep up their relationship with a particular god. People visit, conduct their business, then leave. A shrine is where people go to pray or otherwise handle their own sacrifices. It may or may not have a caretaker of some sort. Think of temples are full service and shrines as self-service kiosks.

What makes a church in the Catholic Church is not the building, it's the holy artifact embedded in the altar. Without that artifact, it's just a chapel, a place to pray but not otherwise holy. A holy object makes a place holy because it is holy.

Likewise, the graves and bones of holy people make a place holy.

Cemeteries are funny in that they are either unholy or  holy place, clean or unclean, depending on the religion. Where digging graves is a lowest caste job in some culture, in Christianity, which believed in the literal resurrection of the dead, proper internment fell to specialized minor clergy. Thus, cemeteries are sacred ground. As ghosts can't pass through iron in English culture, graveyards were fenced with iron to demarcate them.

Of course, anytime a god shows up someplace, that places becomes sacred because the god is sacred, which means that you have a new holy place.

To remove the sacredness of a place, if that's even possible, is to profane it. Profaning is the act of treating the sacred as ordinary or turning the sacred ordinary. It's the equivalent of throwing the king's new cloak in the mud. It's a career limiting move under ordinary circumstances. On the other hand, if you are beating down another people, profane away.

Down through history, sacred times and places had a way of sticking around between religions and cultures. Places with temples to one god became temples to another, with the victor getting the best temple on the block. Times stick around even more strongly because they are part of the culture of the year, part of what makes the year seem right, or at the very least, insurance against anything going wrong.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Dolphins of Pern (1994)

The Dolphins of Pern (1994) by Anne McCaffrey is perhaps the beachiest beach read of all her Pern books. It turns out that the Pernese people have yet another thing that they've forgotten about, the intelligent speaking dolphins that came with the orignal colonist. Why the dolphins just didn't shout out, "Hey, you stupid two leggers. How about some fish?", I don't know, but Pern folk are mighty dense, so I rolled with it.

The story itself wanders all over the place, swaps between main characters a few times, and even has a subplot with no relationship at all to the main plot. (It's Toric again. Same stuff.) It won't hold its place as one of the best dragon rider books, but it's a relaxing read, the characters are generally pleasant, not too stupid, and everyone goes about the same songs and dances as always. If you like the Pern books, this book will itch all the right places.

At this point, I believe that Anne's overall cognitive skills are showing decline. For her career at Del Rey, she'd had great editorial support, but her novels contemporaneous to this one show far weaker story, sometimes to the point of having no actual plot arc. From here, the amount of outside support that she needs increases steadily, even if their names are not shown on the cover, putting this book on the tail end of the pure McCaffrey Pern novels. From here on out, she will write novels with co-writers.

In many ways, this book is Anne McCaffrey's greatest hits. You see all her favorite story ideas collected into this narrative, and you'll be able to identify which books they come from. There's nothing really new here. We see many of our favorite characters walk in for a chapter or two, making for nice visits from old friends, although some of these possible plots get dropped as the story progresses.

While the book threatens to fail as a narrative, Anne's Pern has enough internal conflict and stubborn characters that's there more than enough plot to sort out. It's all done rather pleasantly, with some ups and downs along the way. All said, it's a beach read. Nothing about it is difficult. It's distracting enough to be distracting, but not so engrossing that you forget to check whether your kids are still alive.

Religion in Fantasy #13: Religion as Formal Relationships

If the gods are real, if spirits really do flow around, if the divine does have impact on ordinary life, then your relationship with these beings determines how well you prosper in this world. Thus, leaving those relationships to chance is a very bad idea.

Most societies form some sort of formal relationship with the divine because heading off trouble beats living through trouble. The idea behind forming these known and regular relationships is to keep the physical world predictable. Nobody wants surprises.

When man crosses the divine, a being gets angry and aims its anger at humanity, be it thunder and lighting, earthquakes, disease, flood, fire, lack of game, drought, or some other situational challenge. These disasters, large and small, tell the community that it's relationship to a powerful being has turned sour. When things go bad, it's the job of the religious professionals to set things right.

The most familiar sort of relationship is the patron. The people give gifts to the god in the form of sacrifice, praise, buildings, and whatever else would appease the ego of a powerful person. In exchange, the patron protects his people, sees to their best interest, or restrains from harming them because he likes them. Ingratiating yourself to the divine works.

While cities and have a more impersonal relationship to a god, an individual might have a more nuanced, more interpersonal relationship. There is usually more give and take between individuals. The superiors knows the abilities and limits of their servants, so the servants are usually used according to their skills, but sometimes the servants have to take on responsibilities outside their normal expertise. The servant, meanwhile, is dedicated to the best interest of their god, and unlike a slave, has some degree of discretion on how to accomplish his goals.

Sanctuary is where someone enters a holy area with the idea that others trespassing against a god's territory would be worse than letting the problem person stay safely in that holy area. Sanctuary only work where there's sufficient respect between state and god. If the god is not sufficiently respected, then sanctuary as a strategy will naturally fail.

Some people seek deeper association with the gods. Because of when or where they were born, some unknown quality inside themselves, or even happenstance, they go out and expose themselves to the divine, go on a spirit quest, and through doing so, discover their powerful association to the divine. Here the relationship is sympathetic, as both share some primeval feature.

Often enough in stories, there's more than one group of gods. Even though characters may not have a personal relationship with the divine, they know that they play on the same team. When the gods conflict in the heavens above, people do the same below. Good fights evil. Law fights chaos. Each side seeks to win today's battle. Which team that you're on matters, and switching teams is a major plot point.

Not all associations are free. Good gods may punish by inflicting service on the penitent or unrepentant alike. Evil gods may seize servants, be they good or evil, forcing them to do their bidding. Not everyone loves or even likes their gods.

People interact with some gods only as necessary. When somebody dies, only then are the gods of death interacted with. When people go hunting and kill an animal, only then are the great spirits of those animals interacted with. When dangerous gods know vital information, only then are those gods interacted with. Whatever the reason, characters must tread carefully.

Some gods want to establish relationships. These unknown or forgotten gods make themselves known. A prophet may wander out of the wilderness, explaining the sins of the world, or a new god may show up, demanding worship. These demands drive a story because society may be unwilling or unable to accept these changes.

Some gods skip the whole intermediary thing, setting themselves up as a theocracy, the rule of religion. The god rules, his representative rules, or the ruler declares himself a god and rules. Religion and state become one. There is no difference between government and religion.

Not everyone likes formality. Quite purposefully, they seek informality, inspiration, transgression, and unreason. There will also be those who throw off the ever increasing, ever complexifying array of religious rules to find the rawer, less predictable, more essential powers of the world. While formality makes the world more predictable, it also obscures other truths in its tendency towards rigidity. Formality may fail to see the changing world, fail to adapt.

Formality can also forget. In its quest to make the world predictable, old information can be cast aside as irrelevant, such lost information being necessary to solve the next divine crisis. Yet, the religion itself can be so large as to contain all the lost information, stored away in some corner or some temple for the day when it's needed again.

There's familial relationship. Some gods associate with some families. One inherits a relationship. This is especially true with ancestor worship, where you don't get to choose your ancestors, but you need their influence in the heavens to make events work out here on earth. Often, one particular person is chosen to be primary representative of that relationship, changing their lives, and usually sending them off in unwanted directions.

Some gods are forbidden. That's the formal relationship. They are kept at bay. Kept away. Whispered about as bad. Nobody speaks of them. Yet, there are those who break with tradition and seek the power that the forbidden gods hold. It may be an individual, or a secret cult. They transgress the religious barriers to interact with gods who are bad for the community, with the communities nearby almost always bearing the brunt of that cost one way or another.

Many people interact with religion fairly apathetically. They don't care one way or the other. They'll go through the motions or not, as they please. For these people, religion is pro forma, social theater, or obligation. Even in a world of gods, they may not believe, or don't believe enough in anything to care. Like a small fish, they see themselves and overlooked, and therefore free of most religious obligations.

For some, religion becomes a substitute for family. They join a religious order, adapting to its ways, living their lives in a religious routine sequestered from the world. Even brief forays away from civilization, a group of people will form themselves into a temporary group, with individual taking on roles just for that occasion. Monasteries, nunneries, religious communities, and other such institutions operate on a permanent basis, taking on new members, either temporary or permanently. They'll usually have a trial period, so that they'll know if you'll work out, and leaving those communities is usually a major life turn.

A pilgrimage is a very common religious act, where somebody travels somewhere else for a religious reason. Here, the relationship is expressed as travel. The divine is so important that a person takes on hardship and expends wealth to go someplace far away. Like a quest, it requires travel and hardship, or at least some exposure to the different. In many epic fantasies, somebody has to go somewhere to talk to some holy person in some holy place.

A crusade is a war for a religious cause, for a religious objective. Where religions conflict, war occurs. The military becomes the direct expression of the divine, and force of arms acts as the might of gods. In a theocracy, the army is part of the religion. If the king is divine, a demi-god on earth, then the army sees itself was working directly for a god. If the gods fight in heaven, then any earthly force knows that it fights one one divine side or the other.

Because the relationship with gods is based on human relationships, these relationships are as varies and as complex as all human relationships. In most religions, there isn't only one relationship, but a variety of possible relationships available to everyone in the society. They all exist at the same time, usually at a level so familiar that nobody even bothers thinking about the relationships. Putting in these varied relationships helps make a religion feel real far beyond the statement "we believe."

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Friday, July 14, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #12: Religion as Magic System

Because gods are real, and because magic works, religion constitutes a magic system. The exact expression of this magic system is dependent on the nature of the religion, the nature of the gods, and the nature of humanity's relationship to the gods. I could easily write a book on this topic by itself.

The important thing to keep in mind as you think about religion and magic is that magic can be anything seemingly fantastical. The nature of magic extends far beyond ceremony and spells. Any aspect of religion which has a supernatural effect on the world, or prevents a supernatural effect upon the world, can be interpreted as magic.

While it seems as if the gods can do anything, in practice, most magic deriving from religion is limited. Magic exists as an aspect of divinity and not as a wildcard. Even in monotheism, where God can do anything, God usually chooses his miracles from a fairly short list.

The act most usually associated with gods, especially good gods, is healing. This comes from the monotheistic tradition where healing is among the most favorite of miracles. Because healing and faith are intertwined, he who is holiest, who believes and acts closest to the ideals of the religion, healing not only provides benefits to the healed, but demonstrates the fundamental holiness of the healer. This was not necessarily true on the pagan world, where temples weren't very interested in healing or helping anybody. When Christianity showed up in Rome and and began out-competing the old pagan religion, the temples were slow in realizing that Christianity had built a community that helped itself, that aid and assistance were fundamental to its expression. The temples were more akin to business, money harvesting schemes over the populace. Thus, we see Jesus's scorn of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Ceremony and religion go together like cooking and fire, so integral as to be assumed. Through ceremony, things happen. The ceremonies must be right. The timing must be correct. The words must be performed without flaw if the gods are to be propitiated, if the sun is to arise again in the morning, if the dead are to go to their rest, if the king is to rule strongly, if the crops are to thrive. In ceremony, nobody is special, it's the words and actions themselves, independent of any single person, that creates the result. These ceremonies can be simple or complex, or they may be religious theatre with some other driver behind the magic.

Oracles have been associated with temples since forever. Some of the oldest archeological structures known are solar observatories, allowing the tracking of stars. Shaman used their magical powers to travel the world of the gods to learn answers needed by their tribes. The magi of the middle east were priests who studied the stars, to learn something of the god's will. Prophet were people gifted to speak for the gods, be it in plain words or glossolalia. Oracles seemed to be everywhere. Roman armies even marched with their own herds of sheep so that their entrails could be read. The list of ways to determine the future is staggering.

Warrior powers were another area of favoritism. Every armed man wanted an advantage, seeking some special way, be it talisman, blessing, animal spirit, or internal perfection to win the day. For some warriors, such as in the Germanic traditions, how you died determined your place in the afterlife. Many went into battle expecting to not live, literal human self-sacrifices.

You can't divorce the seasons from religion. With the growth of crops being such an uncertain and hazard prone endeavor, good relationships with the powers of the world proved prudent. In this case, one sought to prevent the expressing of magic, such as locusts or pests, and well as encourage other expressions, such as rain.

Then there are the dead. Almost every religion has somebody who's good at solving the problem of ghosts and spirits. Through whatever combination of powers that they have, they save the ordinary person from the extraordinary. These professionals are often not associated with the biggest parts of religion, such as the temples, but more associated with the ordinary person.

Where do these powers manifest? Place matters in religion. Holy ground indicates a place that is literally different than everywhere else in the world. Holy places grant access to powers that would ordinarily be inaccessible.

There are holy objects, like holy places, except more portable. Holy objects have power to them, and those who have them have access to those powers. The Ark of the Covenant is a very famous example of a miraculous holy object.

Vows before the gods gain a special place, as you've made a promise before a god, and the god will hold whoever breaks that promise as guilty, or at least a failure.

Crafts and skilled professions often have magic-like characteristics. A smith uses fire and water to transform rock into iron. In many society, this process begins with a sacrifice, because they perceive this act as partly or wholly divine. You are literally transmuting one material into another. For those societies, smithing is magic, and the practitioners protect their craft as if it were a religion.

If the gods are part of the fundamental fabric of the universe, so are their children. Quite a few heroes, villains, and monsters trace their awesomeness back to their divine parentage. In this case, the fantastical is acquired through bloodline. One has literally been born to power, such heroes often strangling dangers in their crib as an omen to their awesomeness. Meanwhile, other creatures are born far more disastrously, monsters from the very beginning, their powers and appetites offensive to civilized society.

Mind-alternation, whether self-induced or chemically induces, provides access to both information and other-worldly experiences. Whether it be by mediation, magic mushroom, or out-of-body experiences, these experiences grant humans access to realms and perceptions otherwise unavailable.

The dead makes up some part of every magic system, as people who don't stay dead cause problems for a living, be they ghosts, vampires, or other sorts of restless spirits. Proper burying of the dead is vital, and when that doesn't happen, you need an expert who can straighten that out. Psychopomps make sure that the dead souls get where they need to go, while a variety of professionals deal with restless spirits.

Beyond real life, the power of gods in fantasy is real, so the power of priests in fantasy is therefore significant. Such priests can summon otherworldly creatures, beg a miracle from a god, and at time even discover the foundations of the universe. The power that priest represent is not merely hubris. Their labors ensure that society remains favorable to the gods, which helps keep everyone prosperous. Once you're in a bad way with the gods, they'll surely turn against you, everyone's fortunes will fail, and your society may just fall to the forces of anarchy called your neighbors.

It's important to note that a world created by the divine is divine. The world is a direct magical expression of the gods, in some way or another, depending on the theogony. Therefore, delving into the secrets of the world is delving into the secrets of the gods themselves. In this respect, there is no difference between magistry and religion. One is an aspect of the other. "Mage" derives from "magi," the middle eastern professionals who studied the stars in a effort to understand the gods.

Naturally, fantasies have gods quite unlike those found in real life, and the gods have powers quite unlike those found in real life. The nature of what's worshipped and the powers that grants bends what's possible to any degree desired.  Elemental gods would grant elemental powers, for example, or not, depending on what you want. A priest might be able to command fire, or a priest might just be a bureaucrat while only prophets can command fire.

Because gods represent what is most important to a society, scaling downward as importance lessens so the magic that these gods represent will also be important to society. In a world of fire, where humans barely get by, worship of fire and the ability to keep fire at bay, enough to grow crops and not burn like a crisp, the magic gifted by those gods of fire would would most guarantee that survival.

Who gets which magical powers is the most interesting question in setting up a divinely based magical system. The people who have these abilities might be easy to find but hard to get to, such as in a temple downtown, or hard to find, because they live on top of a mountain. They might wander, like a gypsy fortune teller, or be world famous, like the Oracle of Delphi. This simple fact of deciding who can use these powers, and what it takes to access those powers, will provide the biggest impact on the overall feel of your work, because that determines what your characters need to do and why they need to do it.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #11: Faith vs Religion

In the Western world, we use faith and religion fairly interchangeably because for us, they are interchangeable. That's not always the case.

Religion describes everything religious about a religion, including beliefs, building styles, clerical clothing, iconography, traditions, and so forth. Whether one believes in religion is irrelevant. One doesn't need to believe in Santa in order to wear a Santa suit.

Faith refers to beliefs, especially the beliefs of an individual or group. Both Anglicans and Catholics are arguably part of the same religion, the Christian Church. Outwardly they look very similar, but their faiths, the particulars of their belief, differ greatly. Faith, the adherence to belief, or the depth of that belief, matter a great deal in the Christian world.

In the pagan world, before monotheism and Christianity, faith wasn't really a thing. How sincerely you believed didn't matter. You were not assumed to have a personal relationship with a god. Worship belongs more at the community or family level, where groups established relationships with the divine. The maintenance of ritual mattered more than your own feelings or convictions. You don't have to like your superiors in order to make nice to them.

People were also free to engage in religion at whatever level that they pleased. They could add or subtract various aspects of their culture's religion because there were so many pieces, nobody did them all. Some people may sacrifice often while others never bothered. Some people joined many mystery religions, seeking more than the dominant religion could offer, while others only bothered with the feast days. Others didn't believe in gods at all, finding the whole idea of literal gods silly. In this way, religions more resembled a smorgasbord than a complete package, an approach that we see more of today in the West.

Paganism freely contradicts itself, and that's not a problem. The continuity editing was atrocious but nobody cared. The temple in one city believed one thing, with one set of stories, and a temple over in another city believed a different thing, with a different set of stories, and they both accepted each other in their worship of the same god. Differing beliefs were assumed because you came from different places.

The only thing that really mattered with paganism was not screwing up the community's relationship to the gods. If you went around doing blasphemous things, the gods wouldn't just blame you, they'd blame everybody, so the community had to shut down any stupidity fast.

In the world of hunter-gatherers and tuber culture, faith doesn't matter. Religion isn't distinct from culture in any meaningful sense. Religion, culture, history, law, and wisdom are simply not differentiated for those people. Faith in that context makes even less sense, because for those people, what is is. What is is obvious. There's no need for faith.

The question of faith itself is fundamental to Monotheism. In a pagan world, where you worship everything, your individual belief or non-belief in a god didn't matter. In a monotheistic world, where there is only one divine, and he knows what you're doing, the relationship between god and humanity changed radically. A personal relationship with God was now directly affected by your belief, or lack of it.

Monotheistic religion also came in a more tightly integrated package. You didn't get to add and subtract with equal enthusiasm (but that didn't keep early Christians from trying). The contents of the religion were more regulated, which resulted in more people splitting off from the main body and forming their own congregations. Because keeping a widespread religion believing the same thing was much harder, figuring out who believes what became a big deal. Monotheism spent a great deal more time organizing itself because faith was shared between people, so you need everyone to believe more or less the same things.

One place where both paganism and monotheism agree is on whatever new religion is showing up. They ain't for it, whether its Dionysus worship in ancient Greece, Buddhists in China, or crystals in the Fundamentalist south. That new stuff is crazy and it'll corrupt the youth. You can guarantee some religious conflict when the new worship with its radical notions comes to town.

So as you place your characters in your stories, take a look at how they think about religion. Does belief matter? Is non-belief even possible, especially in a world where gods walk among the people? Does faith provide anything? Do some people have faith while others don't? To what extend can someone adopt or not adopt pieces of the dominant religion? How much is known or certain? How much room is there for growth and revelation?

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #10: Religion-Like Culture

What belongs inside the umbrella of religion? What does't? Every culture and civilization asks that question. Because every culture answers that differently, that means that things that one culture considers religion aren't religion in another culture and vice versa. Simultaneously, both civilizations may have phenomena that technically fit the idea of religion, but for some inconsistent reason, and no good explanation, these things aren't considered religious even though they follow all the rules of religion.

Religion gets complicated, like polyamory dating gets complicated.

A great example of something that is religion and isn't religion at the same time is Confucianism. With great care, native Chinese have explained to me that Confucianism isn't religion, it's philosophy. At the time time, the culture creates statues of Confucius which look just like their gods, have shrines set up to Confucius, and traditional stories about Confucius. So which is it? Is it religion or isn't? And which tools are best to understand the cultural tradition of Confucius? Can you truly understand Confucianism without a good understanding of Chinese religion as a whole, especially as the gods uphold and depict Confucian values?

Another example is flags. In the English world, when speaking of flags, you use the same language for flags as you use in religion, words like honor, sacred, and profaning. For all intents and purposes, flags are holy objects even though they aren't holy objects. The line is fuzzy. One does not worship the flag, except that one does. Go hunting for your local flag flame war, and you're bound to find some enthusiastic differences of opinion.

Rather than thinking of religion as a binary, think of it as a spectrum. Many parts of society are influenced by religion without being formal parts of a religion. They may be associated with religion, have been associated with religion, or be held in such respect by society uses the structures and rituals of religion to express those ideas.

Even if a religion disappears, the meanings and ideas of a religion remain. If all Christians were to suddenly become Muslims, they'd still celebrate Christmas and hold Christmas parties, because that's what you do over the winter. Because people have a certain set of understandings of the world, they will use their present understanding to understand their new religions. The Germanic tribes brought their ideas of evergreens into Christianity because they already understood evergreens inside the culture, and these worked well as a bridge to understand the newly introduced religion of Christianity.

Many institutions have their own traditions and rituals. Masons, universities, and municipalities all have traditions, as firm, fixed, and loved as any belonging to religion. Universities have graduation ceremonies, complete with specialized clothes for everyone. Government have inaugurations and transfers of power. Crafts and guilds have their own internal, secret traditions associated with their crafts. In many cultures, you sacrifice an animal before you start smelting iron because that is seen as a sacred act. Crafting digs into the secrets of the universe to change one thing to another, and so religion and rites matter when doing so.

Even in modernity, we have things are religious like. Psychic palm readers are barely divorced from 19th century spiritualists who spoke to the dead, and they are barely divorced from divine oracles. The psychic readers work in a defined space, wearing a specific costume, requiring from the visitor a specific sets of actions and behaviors, deferring to powers or spiritual interference, all to access the other.

Minor wonder workers bring a sense of religion with them. Rain makers and dowsers each use their ability to help the community. While nobody looks upon them as religion, objectively, they are very religious in scope. What other person can influence the heavens or interact with nature?

When looking at your society, where are special times, places, and ceremonies that have a religious-like feel? Are there any roles which have the trappings of religion without the formality? Are there elements of other religions that have come into the society and been adopted non-religiously, sort of as a popular belief? Are there parts of religion that get more interesting if split away from religion? Are there group or association based beliefs? Superstitions? Rites?

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Monday, July 10, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #9: What is a God?

What is a god?

There's no good answer to that question. The closer that you look at the question, the fuzzier the distinctions become because the concept of gods has changed so much depending on time, place, culture, and language. The exact borders are different because the exact borders are different, the definitions are different, and the array of god-like things that are similar to gods but not gods is different.

At a minimum, gods seem to be beings that care whether humans worship them. In return, they either return benevolence or restrain themselves from acting like complete assholes. Either way, humanity benefits.

Gods seems to be associated with civilization and culture. Founding elements of our laws, morality, customs, food, traditions, and knowledge derive from these supernatural sources. Indeed, we are civilized precisely because our civilization derives from the gods while those other barbarians out there, their civilization doesn't, which is why they're barbarians.

Gods exist independently of humans. Generally, they existed before humanity and often had a hand in creating them. Once humanity existed, they took in an interest in those hairless monkeys and got them car keys and golf club memberships. Now fully civilized, humanity invented slaughtering large animals in the name of worship and cookouts at the same time.

Being primal forces derivative of primordial chaos, the power of gods derives from their fundamental awesomeness. They really did put the universe in order by beating the crap out of the forces of chaos. With the gods around, chaos is kept at bay and we humans have a chance at a good quality of life, death, taxes, and copious version of barbecue for their cookouts.

Fantasy loves the idea of chaos overwhelming civilization, retelling that story again and again. As the gods drove back chaos in myth and legend, so do the heroes of today. It's always politically correct to beat on chaos.

For a while, fantasy took on the opinion that gods were powered by belief. The more belief that a god possessed, the more powerful it became. Thus, all religions vied for followers as a means of dominating the universe. The idea has merit as it creates a religious metaphysical physics that's easy to understand, and gives religions the motivation to spread proactively. It's enough to move a plot along, and that's grand.

Sometimes gods are powerful humans (or other beings) who've risen so high in power that the people no longer remembers their humanity. Because they've come to resemble gods, they get worshiped by a superstitious and ignorant population. They get da powa!

Being responsible for the general good running of the universe, gods have jobs, areas where they are the supreme experts. In the Indo-European tradition, the leader almost always coincided with he who bashes chaos the best. With death being such a popular human activity, somebody has to deal with the constant flow of dead into the afterlife, so gods of the dead have proven understandably widespread. Meanwhile, with so many people dying, you need more humans, so goddesses of procreation have proven even more popular than gods of death as there is an expanding population. You can't have death and taxes without more babies.

The exact set of jobs that gods maintain depends greatly on the human culture that worships them and what they value.

While gods do sometimes get this idea of destroying humanity to the last man, that's usually in the past. Gods love barbecues, so getting rid of those pesky humans soon proves itself a short-sighted idea. Everyone makes up at the end, the world gets repopulated, and humans get back to putting dead cows over coals. Yum.

In fantasy, most gods are usually remote. Like the President, we hear a lot about them but they don't actually show up for dinner. However, their policies trickle down like bad economics, and humanity gets the less than enjoyable job of sorting out the implications. Where the gods do show up, it's usually as a cameo. More often than not, they don't show up at all, instead delivering their words through unreliable narrators in the form of obscure poems, prophecies, or vague advice.

The best place for an bad god to show up is at the end because that's the climax. Enemy gods always get top billing, and the audience expects the heroes to shut them down. Sometimes the bad god works as a stream of advice to the main villain. In those cases, you may see a representation of the bad god, but not the god himself.

The worst place for a good god to show up at is the end, giving rise to the term deus ex machina, but it's okay after the climax so that they can congratulate the heroes. Good gods can work in the beginning, giving a hero a quest. Another good place for a good god to show up is just before the climax, giving the heroes a  high five before sending them off to their certain doom against the bad god.

The relative good and evil of gods is directly proportional to the good and evil in the setting. Where morality is clear and distinct, so are the gods. Where morality gray and muddled, so are the gods. Even the ones who are supposed to be clear and distinct eventually reveal their muddledness, because in a conflicted setting, nothing is more powerful than cynicism.

In the end, a god is a powerful force inside a story, but should not be a substitute for the primary characters.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Freedom's Ransom (2002)

Freedom's Landing (2002) by Anne McCaffrey tacks onto the more or less completed story of Botany, the forced colony. With book #3 having wrapped up the major plot points, this work doesn't so much as explore life after empire as gently stroll through it while drinking iced coffee.

Like the Cattini books that came before, this book lacks any tension in it whatsoever, so you never have any doubts that our heroes will succeed, while failing to provide any character growth or challenges, while also dwelling on filler where everyone is agreeable but nobody gets any character moments.

While the work reads well, the lack of momentum or tension or anything leaves the book wanting. What SF that there is comes across as rather tepid, which is something of a feat as Earth is rebuilding after their occupation by the Cattini and you would think that would be an interesting and challenging story. Instead, Earth seems to have everything in hand, nobody seems to be fighting anybody else, and instead of riding this terrific setup into a challenging and engaging story, sips coffee and sets up an Irish coffee bar.

While I can't call this McCaffrey's worst book ever (because book #2 in this series already did that), the book does demonstrate a stunning degree of banality in the face of a terrific setup. Most of what's here is wasted, its premise completely unexploited.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #8: Gods of All Shapes and Sizes

When I say god, you think BIG. You think ALL POWERFUL. If a being that is immortal but minor, you think of as a spirit. That's a relatively modern, western notion. In other times and in other cultures, immortal beings were considered gods and each required respect and consideration. Local gods, household gods, city gods, and gods of special interests were all such examples.

Because the West has an omnipotent, all knowing, all seeing god, we tend to export that notion to everyone else's ideas of a god. A quick look around other religions of the world shows us that the size, power, and nature of gods varies greatly. While communities respected the great gods, they often had deeper relationships with the local gods, who weren't quite so powerful, and being local, had quite a bit more impact.

Among the Greeks, you can see this in action with all the daughters of Poseidon, who where the goddesses of rivers, streams, lakes, and springs. Being the daughters of a powerful god, they were just as immortal, but their purview was far more limited. Given the importance and power of water, keeping a good relationship with your local goddess seemed wise.

China is the premier example of minor gods. The Divine Emperor had a full court, with each position filled with some god or another, from the great heavenly generals to the lowly gardeners. Indeed, it seems like China's heaven was filled with more gods than people, with more showing up all the time. In addition to gods, the Chinese had immortals, who weren't gods, but who were wise and cared about the fate of men.

That doesn't even touch on the subject of ancestor worship, where your ancestors become gods, or godlike, or something other enough to get the godlike treatment. It's complicated.

Some beings are like gods, but not gods, such as the Bodhisattvas of Hinduism. These beings have attained Nirvana, but delay to help mortals, such as Guanyin. Inevitably they are shown as godlike with godlike powers, but their relationship to humanity is quite different. This differing relationship is enough to place them into a different category.

The Catholic Saints perpetuated the ancient Roman patron system. In that system, you attached yourself to a patron, a powerful or wealthy person, doing him favors. In return, the more powerful patron would help you out. Translated into heaven, you establish a relationship with a known saint, with the idea that the saint will represent you to God. When a saint intercedes for you, they move between you and God, arguing on your behalf.

The Greek titans were akin to gods, but not gods. Although the great titans were godlike in every way, they had no relationship with men. They were forces without relationship. The Greeks saw gods as having a ruler-like relationship to men, while other powerful beings, though god-like, existed on their own merits.

The Germaic peoples saw divines similarly, with the gods having a relationship to men, while the giants represented forces of natural power, of fire and ice.

Great spirits fall somewhere between. Because hunter-gathers killed animals, especially those that they needed for survival, they established relationships with the spirits who had relationships to those animals. While these spirits are essentially gods, they don't resemble gods in any Western sense, so we Westerners call them spirits instead, acting sometimes like gods, sometimes like saints, and sometimes like forces of nature.

Many cultures have divine humans, whether they be considered full gods or demi-gods. They are gods by birthright, gods incarnate, gods by declaration. Almost inevitably, powerful kingdoms wind up deifying their ruling families. These families by divinity itself. To move against them is to move against the gods. This is entirely political theatre, of course. In a decentralized power structure, rulers want their subjects hesitant in their defiance, so religion is used as propaganda tool.

The Magdelines of the Middle Ages traced their ancestry back to Jesus, because Roman rulers used to trace their lineage back to the Roman gods. These rulers of the Roman Empire were worthy to rule because they were literally better than the common rabble. The Magdelenes kept up that tradition, but instead of tracing their ancestry back to Roman gods, traced their ancestry back to Jesus. After the Vatican nixed the whole idea of descendants to Jesus, the European kings turned to divine right, the favor of God, a virtual birthright rather than a literal birthright.

I think it fair to say that each culture, in their own time and place, recognized the divine in their own unique way. At best, we can draw equivalences. Its this infinite spectrum of divinity that makes the study of religion so fascinating.

When designing you own religion, look at how big and how small the gods are, how intimate and distant. What does it mean to be a god? What is like a god, but not quite? Why isn't it a god? What is the basic relationship? Even subtle variations can create huge effects.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #7: Sub-Genre

When placing religion into a fantasy story, sub-genre matters. Different sub-genres expect different levels of depth. A sub-genre valuing action and adventure will interact with religion differently than a literary fantasy, an epic fantasy, or an urban fantasy.

Generally, most speculative fiction genres include characters who have particular beliefs. These beliefs may or may not be religious, but if the belief is held dear, enough, then they behave like religion. These beliefs acts rules for a character. 

In most sub-genres, religion exists at a very literal level, behaving very simplistically. (That isn't a bad thing.) The rules of the religion can be summarized easily enough for the reader to understand, the gods are straightforward, and you can easily predict what sort of situations would give that character pause. Get enough characters with enough beliefs together and you will get conflict. When a conflict comes to a head, a story or story arc will explore aspects of those clashing religious beliefs, and the nature of that clash will contribute directly to the conclusion of the conflict. That literalness can later be read metaphorically, giving the story an added dimension.

In the sword and sorcery genre, religious beliefs often devolve into whose side you are one. The gods may be good and evil, lawful and chaotic, or mechanical and natural. The exact nature doesn't matter. As long as the reader knows who is on what team, and which team that they're rooting for, they'll will be happy. Often, a priest is just a different magic guy, focused more on summoning and otherworldly things. In sword and sorcery, the literal clash of blades and magic stands in for the clash of religions. When the forces of good overcome the forces of evil, good literally wins the day.

Because epic fantasies are larger than other genres, there's more time in the story to engage in religious conflicts, exploration, and explanation. Because there's so much more attention paid to world building, religion has many more opportunities to show up in the world. Religion isn't just beliefs, it's buildings, festivals, locations, and groups. Religion almost always shows up in politics, as a reason for action and as factions vying for power.

Literary fantasy takes religion to its most complex places. Because literary fantasy pays so much more attention to a character's inner journey, the meanings and symbols used in that story become extraordinarily important. Similes and metaphors matter. Therefore, anything that conveys these symbols and meanings becomes a critical tool to the story. Religion is one such powerful tool. In this context, religion becomes the key to understanding every level of the story, because the story makes the most sense when read against these religious meanings.

In contrast, science-fantasy makes no assumptions that gods are real. However, that doesn't mean that religion or religious-like beliefs are not parts of the sub-genre. Quite the opposite, most human and alien cultures seem to have beliefs that serve in the place of religion. These ethics shape both good and evil into what they are. Heroes rise over their embracing of friendship, law, freedom, or the Force. Villains rise from greed, revenge, desire, and selfishness. These characters are no more capable of walking away from their ideals than a primitive is able to shake his fear of magic.

In horror, religion is usually subverted. What should be comforting becomes disturbing, what is powerful is shown as ineffective, and what is truth is shown as a lie. The trappings of religion strangle the characters far more than it helps them.

Yet, this isn't the last word. Stories have a way of defying their genre, and writers have a way of delivering surprises. Nuance can fill swords and sorcery just as well as literary fantasy, and religion can fail in epic just as much as in horror. In the end, you as a writer need to decide what's best for your story in your sub-genre.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Monday, July 3, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #6: Origin Stories

Religion is filled with origin stories. How did the world begin? How did the leader of the gods gain his or her position? What is the relationship between man and god? How did we come to live in this place? Why is that hill named Starlight Peak? These stories may explain the entire universe, a single god, or who created today's problem.

An origin story takes ideas or ideals, turns them into characters, then places them in a story where they act out their positions. In this way, a listener can learn a complex set of relationships simply by learning a story. Because people remember stories far better than long explanations, very complex ideas can be transferred from one person to another with relatively few errors.

In a fantasy novel, an origin story communicates a complicated but relevant set of relationships to the reader. It shows the fundamental tensions within characters, societies, religions, and beliefs. Once the reader knows these tensions, they can better understand the basic forces at work between the characters and through the story.

Because an origin story tells the reader what's important about the universe, it acts as a promise to the reader that the themes and conflicts inside the origin story will mirror the themes and conflicts in the main story. The origin story's purpose isn't only explaining where a conflict came from, its purpose is to demonstrate the shape of the conflict taking place right now. Because the readers better understand the rules, they can now anticipate the nature of the conflict, and anticipation raises the tension.

Meanwhile, the characters now have a boundary to their behaviors, ones that shape their decisions. When a time of crisis comes, do they work within their understandings, do they find a need to break out of their system of understandings, or do they reconsider what they know, coming to new understandings? This is the heart of the story. Resolving that problem gives the story a new energy, sending the characters off in a new yet understandable direction.

The origin story also gives us a glimpse inside a character and their decision making process. We don't need long explanation behind each possible position because the origin story already explained that. Freed from the explanation, the character can then dig deeper into the underlying conflict, deeper into the morality, giving even further weight to their decisions.

Origin stories which don't affect the plot or give us insights into characters might be useful as flavor text, but they can easily mislead the reader about what's important. If you don't have a strong connection between the main story and the origin story, then you should consider cutting the origin story or moving it to a later book where the origin story matters.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Freedom's Challenge (1998)

Freedom's Challenge (1998) by Anne McCaffrey brought an apparent trilogy to a close. Anne took three books to tell a story that any lesser or better author would have taken only one book to write.

I've spent a while trying to figure out why I care so little for the books, and so little for the characters these books. From my point of view, Anne skips over all the interesting bits, instead focusing on the uninteresting bits. Our lead character, Kris, is so forgettable that I had to look up her name. She does little worth talking about, is often left behind, and only later hears about all the interesting missions and development. We don't follow the story as it happens, we follow the story as it gets reported to Kris. This breaks any reader engagement.

Her best cat friend is Zainal, who I never built an affinity with. I don't care about him any more than Kris. So if I don't care about her, or him, or their relationship, then there isn't really very much to talk about with these books.

One bit about Anne's writing that drives me crazy is her childhood development gaffs. Perhaps her children were extraordinary, but most likely, she no longer has any idea of what children under 5 years old are like. These children have no relationship to reality. Don't base any of your ideas on childcare on anything that Anne has to say.

What aggravates me most is that there's a story in there, but she's not brave enough to tell that story. I see so much of what could be done with the setting merely by showing us the episodes that she tells us about. Show us the story, Anne. Show us. That's the interesting bit.

The entire series sails to easily through its own story. The characters rarely see any setbacks or plan complications. They make a plan, fret for a bit, then see the plan succeed. Anne shy's away from any moments of drama or doubt, which means that we don't see the characters tested to any large degree.

This book is no better or worse than the one before it. If you liked the last one, this one should work out fine for you. If you didn't like the last one, this book has nothing to offer.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Religion in Fantasy #5: How to Make a Religion

A religion is a set of beliefs, shared by people, about their relationship to the world, both physical and spiritual. All aspects of expression are part of this religion.

Is It Possible to Make a Religion?

While it's possible to build an entire religion, in almost all cases, you will be better off creating the illusion of a complete religion rather than a complete religion. Not only will this take less work, but by concentrating on the interesting parts, you'll keep your story interesting.

How much time can you put into a religion? Go to the book store and look up the books on prayer. I did a search and came up with 100+ pages of books with "prayer" in the title. If religions today are still examining such basic topics as prayer, and still finding new things to say, then there is no hope of fully creating a religion on your own. That's actually good news. By avoiding all the complexities of a full religion, you avoid all the boring stuff.

How Do You Build a Religion?

To build a religion, you begin with a few basic ideas or values. These ideas don't have to be related, and often work better if they are unrelated. You then use religion as a way of uniting those ideas into a cohesive whole. Your basic ideas should center around basic societal questions. What does your society value? Why does your society value this? What does this belief it bring to society? What does this belief call society to do?

Once you have your ideas, you put them in a story which explains how these ideas came to be united. That story becomes paradigmatic, which is a fancy word for creating a pattern or template. This paradigmatic story acts as an example to build other structures within society, or to provide a general understanding of why certain relationships and social structures exist.

Once you have the basic big idea of a religion, you need at least one character who believe in it. How would this new religion express itself through the character? The important part of a religion are entirely expressed through character motivation and character conflict, sometimes externally via dialog or character conflict, but internally at other times, through soul searching and thought.

Note that a religion is different than a deity. Religion is the entire corpus of beliefs in relationship to the divine that a society holds, while a god is only a part of that.

Never Done

You will never be done with a religion. You'll always find something to have fun with. Something will pop out at you. Something obvious will smack you in the face. Some new piece of information will alter how you understand something. As the character's situation changes, different aspects of the religion will demand development.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy