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