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