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.

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