Religions Part 1: Systems of Belief

When creating or imagining a fictional world, one inevitably is faced with the question; “What do these people believe?” It’s an open ended, but also important question to ask, because as we’ve seen through history belief systems can shape the development of culture in massive ways. Christianity in the West, Islam in the Middle East, and the now neglected practices of innumerable indigenous populations all shaped their host cultures’ lives. For many people in the pre-modern era every story, every song and every holiday had a pointed religious or cultural significance which in turn informed their values and the general “vibe” of their art, architecture and clothing.

So, let’s relate this more directly to worldbuilding. There is a trend in modern fantasy to fill out pantheons of gods like a checklist. God of Fire, check. God of the Sea, check. Goddess of Fertility, check. Of course, effort is often made to hide this box-checking through the melding of multiple domains into a single deity. If you like this system, great, it’s very easy for people to digest these sorts of roles. And, if all you want are a set of gods to staple domains to in a D&D campaign, it might behoove you to lean even further into this by making your gods very small in number with very wide purviews. You see this frequently in RPGs where there may be one god for each of a handful of classical elements, and that’s it. You can establish one god of a single element, and people experiencing your world can fill the rest in for themselves: “Yup, that’s the Fire God, so there’ll be Water, Earth and Wind next.”

However, there are more holistic options for establishing what a religion or belief system looks like in a fantasy world. Here I’ll address my most common approaches to designing different types of pantheons, trying to establish their benefits and drawbacks as tools in your worldbuilder’s toolbox.

Plausible Polytheism

When designing fantasy worlds, it’s easy to simply say your gods are real, physical beings, thus doing away with any sort of secular belief. Because obviously the gods are real. I think this line of thinking ignores how messy secular belief systems can get once people begin rejecting anything and everything that was a part of the previous orthodoxy. But, more importantly, I think it also misses the opportunity to really dig deep into how your fictional culture came to have a particular understanding of their gods. In our world, religions and cultural belief systems evolve over time in tandem with the culture that holds them, and times of cultural upheaval almost always coincide with religious tensions and shifts in belief as well.

Polytheism in the real world likely developed from a perceived connection with natural features by native peoples. The Spring-time is often a welcome release from the cold of winter, and so is characterized as a benevolent force of some kind, which must be incredibly powerful to effect such wide-reaching changes on the earth. Rivers bring water that nourishes the land, rains bring water to the river, winds drive the rain storms. Without a modern scientific perspective to point out the greater forces at work, it makes more sense to assume that something is out there affecting changes in your environment. At this point, people start giving these forces names, and trying to reason with them. They start doing the things they might try to curry favor with a Lord or new neighbor. People bring the forces food, talk to them, treat them fairly and with respect. How this all works out is dependent on how the culture contextualizes their interaction with these gods. Some Meso-American peoples believed that their gods needed the life-energies of their blood, and so would make blood-offerings as a way to empower the gods, who then might favor them. The Greeks believed that the gods would become angry from time to time and might be appeased with the burning of a portion of a choice goat or bull. Romans believed that their dead ancestors became divine spirits called Lares which would live in a shrine inside the family home to keep them safe from sickness and the wrath of other gods. The Romans treated the Lares like present members of the family in many ways, insisting that they must be included in certain social gatherings, and fed food and wine to keep them happy.

In all cases, we see something important here, reciprocity. The people offer the gods something, because the gods have something to offer the people in turn; even if all that’s up for grabs is “I won’t flood your town and kill everyone in it.” This is the reason that some gods fell out of fashion in the Greek and Roman world as the centuries progressed. If the god wasn’t a threat to anyone, and didn’t have anything to offer, what good are they? The thought process probably wasn’t as callous as that, but it’s true that if a god was seen as having less to offer than another, people often drifted away from that god, or else blended the two together and called it a day. Thus, we get late Hellenistic gods like Hermes-Osiris or Isis-Aphrodite who had become completely mashed together (or “syncretized”, to use a more scientific term) with an Egyptian counterpart and now was recognized as mostly a separate entity. These syncretic gods represent a stepping stone between a pair of older gods, and a new vision for the deity.

An idol likely depicting Isis-Aphrodite, exposing her genitals as a symbol of fertility.
Einsamer Schütze, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All of this is to say that ancient peoples were really thinking hard about this stuff, and they continued these practices for millenia because from their perspective these rituals were actually effective strategies for navigating a very dangerous world. In a fantasy world, these ritual patterns will develop in the same way, but unlike our world, your gods may have an active role in shaping how those practices form. It all depends on what you want from your world and how you want it to form. But, if a god is too vicious or demanding, people might well forget them, or remember them only as a fragment of a myth attributed to some other spirit now. Because people don’t just worship their gods for fun, generally they want to get something out of it.

Now, how do you develop something like this yourself?

First, start with an older version of the culture you’re trying to get to. How did their ancestors live, under what conditions, and where? If they live by a river, they will likely have a god for that particular river, as the Egyptians did for the Nile and the Romans for the Tiber. If there are major seasonal shifts or flooding, the regularity of these events may eventually lead to a personification of the event. Shepherds who view their flock as people like them might make sure their animals have gods too, to keep them healthy and safe. You should come up with more gods than you need or want in this step, you’ll be merging and discarding some later. Make sure that everything you make is somehow important to the people whose culture you’re developing. Resist any urge to add a god because it feels necessary to cover your bases. Leave gaps if you have to, you can always widen a god’s purview or borrow a foreign god later.

At first these deities will be very flat and one-dimensional without much life to them. What rituals and festivals do your people practice in honor of these gods? What might begin as a yearly offering to say thank-you for sending rain, might eventually evolve into a week long festival with rituals dedicated not just to thanking the god, but also for other “maintenance” of their relationship, with votive dancing, physical cleaning of the river, or contests in the god’s honor. What myths are told about the god? Origin myths, for the world or the gods themselves are popular, but often memorable myths will involve the gods interacting with mortals and other gods. Stories like Thor staying among the Giants, Athena and Arachne’s weaving contest, or the antics of Coyote are memorable, but say nothing about where these deities originate. Write yourself some outlines for these myths.

A Roman mosaic of the nine muses and the poet Homer.
Tom Lucas, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Once you have these early deities worked out, look over your list. Anything you love, keep, everything else, either toss or incorporate into your favorites. Maybe your god of the River can pull double duty and be the Fertility god too. Now he gets all those myths, those rituals, those festivals, you had planned for that other, boring, harvest god. If it doesn’t make sense? Not a problem, mythological systems are frequently inconsistent and messy if you try to apply timelines or real-world logic. This process will simulate people’s faith changing over the ages, and might be guided by their collective experiences. A long period of war might draw a War god to the most prominent position in the pantheon; a golden age or renaissance might cause numerous new deities devoted to crafts to suddenly appear or diversify out of a single older god (as the Muses proliferated in number over the course of Greek history, from as few as 3 to as many as 9). Your people will be changing too, into whatever “modern” looks like in your world, and these changes may be massive enough to drive gods in and out of favor in turn.

Once you’re done blending and cutting your pantheon together, look to this culture’s neighboring cultures. Now is the time to pull in some of those gods too. Only grab the ones that make sense obviously, a desert culture usually won’t need a goddess of winter or snow. But, there will always be this sort of cultural blending, especially on borders or in areas where there have been conquests. Maybe the new god comes in and completely usurps the old one, maybe they mix evenly and you end up with an Aries/Mars situation where even with different names and different prominence in the pantheon of the culture that worshiped them, they are recognizable enough that even to outsiders it looks like they were “stolen” from one or the other. Obviously, people will be resistant to gods from cultures other than their own, but conquest or even simple generational immigration and bi-culturalism will eventually cause people to forget a god was ever anything other than what they believe in now.

Now is the point where you have to add your own flare. Get in there and put your personal mark and flare on it and make these gods the sort of characters someone could build a belief system out of. Personal philosophies of yours and your writing style will heavily guide this part of the process. Other details of your world might inspire specific decisions as well. Maybe you need to divide your pantheon in a specific way; or you want some of these gods to have literally died off, like Pan and Tyr.

When you like how your pantheon looks, you have a choice. You can either say that the gods will continue to change in this way over time, or you can set these forms in stone and say these are how the gods “truly” are. For fantasy with interactive gods who live in the physical world, the second option usually will make more sense. A hybrid option where people’s ideas of the gods continue to change, but the gods don’t actually change much from this point on seems the most plausible to me in a world like this.

The Elder Scrolls games do things like this all the time, with gods like Anui-El, Auriel, Akatosh and Alkosh, who are variants of the same god separated by temporal, cultural and linguistic boundaries. The Dark Souls series also play with this, with the Lord Souls containing enormous god-like strength that eternally passes on to the next generation of mythical figures, who for better or worse will come to rule over the world and then fade out themselves. These examples also show how you can twist this system around. Perhaps your gods are molded by their believers, and thus physically change as people’s faith does. Or, your gods might only be puppets for larger more invisible forces, meaning the cultural practices and stories don’t reflect their reality at all.

So, what are our Pros and Cons?

This system gives you gods that have a sort of veracity and grittiness to them, that for worldbuilding junkies can be fun to learn and figure out. Your pantheon will be unique to you, and specific to the culture you’ve constructed for your people. But, this is probably the most difficult method of pantheon generation, as it creates a lot of background information that might never see the light of day, and that realistically you are looking at making dozens if not hundreds of gods before the end.

I cited video games for both of my best examples of this style of god-building, and I think there are a few reasons for that. Games allow you to control your level of engagement with the lore, meaning that if you don’t care about a piece of information you can usually just not look at it and move on. In more structured mediums like books and movies, time spent explaining anything is time spent un-focused on the plot, with no easy option to just return to the matter at hand. Thus, this detail oriented system requires a lot more investment from anyone consuming the media you produce. If they can’t actively control the focus of their experience, you have to be very careful with where you focus your forced narrative perspective. This adds another layer of workload where editing has to balance oversharing with undersharing of background information.

In summary, this system is the highest effort, and produces something unique and deep, but may actually hurt you when it comes time to info-dump all of this lore you’ve created. For people who are just having fun building worlds, this is a great exercise to add depth and get you fleshing out your history and culture while you build your religions.

Artificial Polytheism

I mentioned at the beginning that there is a tendency in modern fantasy to make gods as “check-boxes”, building them to serve an almost mechanical function in the world. While this is fairly shallow when compared to the historical depth of real world religions, it can be perfectly plausible in the right context. Sometimes in fantasy, the world is not a complex biological system born of billions of years of development. Instead the world is literally fashioned by a Creator and is impossibly young by our standards. In this case, the artificiality of the world is a part of the design from the outset; and this is where I think these types of gods can shine; by reinforcing the recent creation of the world.

If your world was designed by a Creator-deity, it makes sense for them to also add powerful curators to the world, to help facilitate the proper conduct of everything. Each god was literally created for the express purpose of safeguarding and maintaining an aspect of the world. And, because of this their roles are not socio-cultural, but mechanical in nature.

Designing this sort of pantheon is “easy” on the surface, but is more difficult to make feel distinct from settings that use a similar technique.

To start with this type of pantheon, your first step will be figuring out who your creator (or creators) are and what their goal was in designing this world. It’s worth noting that “because they were lonely or bored” is actually a very common justification for the creation of the world in myth, and is a valid option if you don’t feel like narrowing this purpose down. For others, perhaps your world has a concept like Nirvana, or some other cyclical pattern the completion or continuation of which is the ultimate “goal” of the world. Maybe your creator is evil and just wants to make things suffer, this is all really up to you.

Once you have this, think about what sorts of gods your creator might find useful to them. A god of the sea to work the tides, a god of the sun to manage the days, a god of the forests to make the trees grow. It might be helpful to think of your creator as a director making a film, your other gods are the people in the credits, the stagehands and actors that make the whole thing real and manage the day-to-day minutia that the director can’t be bothered with. Alternatively, your creator might only fashion a handful of gods and then leave or die, allowing their “children” to finish the work of populating the world themselves.

These gods will be inherently more simple than the gods made with the system discussed above. At least they will be at first. Because now they are essentially just workers doing a job they’ve been assigned. However this already suggests opportunities to complicate things. What if one of the gods doesn’t want to do their job? Like Melkor in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, who rebels against Eru Iluvatar in much the same way as Lucifer rebels against God in the Bible. If the gods are so important in maintaining stability in the world, a single rebellion like this will have vast implications for your wider world. Even without open rebellion, what if one of the gods doesn’t like their job? A god of death or war who hates killing, or a god of the sun who would rather sleep in some mornings. Gaps between the gods’ roles and their personalities can be a great way to spice up this type of religion building.

This way of viewing your world also suggests another option; If the world is created by divine magic, why does it have to resemble the real world at all? If there has to be a god to make the trees grow and the sun shine, there could conceivably be a god doing anything that the creator decided they liked. Maybe a god of the sky has blessed the world with magnificent flying islands, that he maintains much like the sea god maintains the islands of his domain. Maybe each god also maintains a servitor species, and various non-humans crowd the setting with new and different cultures.

Tabletop settings like Forgotten Realms and Golarion often use this style of deity building. There must be a god for everything, so that the game mechanics can freely allow clerics and paladins of any alignment to select their domains and powers in a way that fits with the setting. Settings with elemental magic systems frequently break up their pantheons so that their gods are also elemental. This is particularly common in non-western RPGs like Final Fantasy, where powerful entities like Tiamat and Ifrit are tied directly to particular elements, and thus represent the sort of powers a high-level user of their magic might attain.

The biggest Pro for this system in my opinion, is that your gods become, at their core, very simple. “This god is in charge of X,”, “This god only does Y,”. You can, and should, mix it up beyond that, but it makes your gods very easy to digest when first introduced. This is great for table-top RPGs, books and movies, because these are mediums where time and attention must be managed very carefully. A name and a basic domain of influence gets your audience most of the way toward understanding what your gods are about, and an offhand remark about their personality can complete the image almost immediately.

The major Con of this system is that your pantheon will feel artificial. It will feel game-y, caricatured and incomplete, and it will in many cases be hard to imagine who would worship these beings, or why. A big trope of this style of world building is the inclusion of an evil cult of some type. However, under closer examination it’s often difficult to see why anyone with a brain would worship the God of Betrayal, knowing that obviously they too will be betrayed in the end. This can push your villains into Saturday-morning-cartoon levels of idiocy and murky goals. But, hey, if you want that tone for your bad guys, and you embrace the hokey-ness of the premise, this can be an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.

In the end, there are a lot of reasons to use this system for creating your religions. First, if you need to be able to dump all of this information all at once, this streamlined style of god-building will make your gods easier to digest and identify with. Secondly, if you have a particular world that calls for a high degree of “intelligent design” these types of gods subtly reinforce the idea that these gods were directly manufactured. Further, you may decide that this is your favorite way to make your gods because it allows you to focus more of your energy on other parts of the setting.

Monotheism and Henotheism

Henotheism is an often overlooked style of religion in modern times, but it is an important stepping stone between traditional polytheistic religions and monotheism. Henotheism is the belief that while there may be many gods in existence, there is only one god that the practitioner chooses to venerate. The earliest parts of the Bible make clear allusion to there being other gods than the God of Israel (Genesis 2:22 “And the Lord God said behold, the man is become as one of us…”). Though it’s also made very clear that they should not be worshiped; the First Commandment is after all “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. What I’m getting at here is that even in a fantasy world with tangible gods interacting with their worshipers there can be plenty of reasons to only acknowledge the authority of a single god, or a smaller pantheon.

In the real world, Henotheism is most common in minority communities who experience religious pressures to convert to the faith of a hostile culture, and in places where familial or clan specific gods are kept. Though henotheistic religions do crop up in other places as well, even casual relationships with outside communities will often lead to religious influence which in turn usually leads to the adoption of outside gods. Prior to the development of writing and dogmatic religious prescription, it would be much harder to convince a community that there is only one god worth worshiping, and so other spirits and gods are frequently adopted in.

In the case of colonialism, we might think of religious pressure as coming from missionaries, sent to a place with the express intent of converting the populace. But in fact, most historical faith systems weren’t interested in directly converting others. Certainly, rulers used restriction of local religions to force compliance, but this was usually a more ethno-cultural conflict than a truly religious one. The goal was not to force them to see the “light of truth”, but rather to force social integration and quell dissent. Instead of proselytizing, the primary source of pressures to convert were social (access to higher social classes will usually be restricted to the in-group of highly culturally integrated families), and a simple matter of shaken faith. If your people lose a war, then their freedom, and their land, at least some will start to question if their gods are still watching. The gods of one’s enemies seem much more powerful and “real” in these moments. Surely, the gods wouldn’t allow heathens to win, and so the winners of a war must always be the most favored, at least by some logic. This can evolve into philosophies like the Mandate of Heaven or Manifest Destiny, which basically justify any and all Imperialist conquest under the justification that if the gods didn’t support the Emperor’s actions, they wouldn’t allow them to have power in the first place.

As some people convert to the new religion, others more faithful, will hold on even harder to the old ways, even if they are forced to acknowledge these new gods to some degree. This conflict can often lead to groups choosing to acknowledge other god’s existence, but firmly refusing to worship them.

The other possible origin of Henotheism is familial gods. Cultures with tight-knit family groups or clans may have a guardian spirit, possibly even an ancestor spirit that watches over them. If this spirit is viewed as very powerful or grows into prominence for some reason, these families may discard other religious figures altogether and instead focus their efforts on appeasing the spirit of their clan. This rejection is similar in form to the colonial-response Henotheism, but often comes from a less bloody, or at least less one sided history.

Monotheism is the most familiar style of religion in the modern West. But, this is a relatively uncommon way to view divinity from a historical standpoint. When monotheism does develop, it often does so as the last step in a chain of developments from a more broadly inclusive sort of deisim. Fantasy changes this, you can choose to have monotheism from the get go, or you can choose to prevent its development altogether. Contrary to modern portrayal, monotheism is usually quite insular, and mostly develops in very isolated places that make free exchange with outsiders uncommon. These culturally insulating features might be vast mountains or deserts, but monotheism could just as easily develop in the heart of an empire where their “isolation” is borne of the fact that their homogeneous surroundings shield them from outside influence.

The biggest Pro of implementing these types of religions in your setting is that they are going to be familiar to a western audience. In pure monotheism, you will only need to develop a single god, though you may want to introduce a few schisms to shake things up.

As for the Cons; your audience may equate your religion immediately with Christianity or another modern religion, and bring their pre-existing ideas and opinions from the real world and directly conflate them with what you’ve created.

As always your own worldbuilding style and your particular project will decide if you can ignore these Pros and Cons as you develop your faiths. Monotheism is tricky in particular, because if you have only one god, they likely have a heavy hand in every part of your setting, and will be deeply intertwined with the other stories you create. I think these are better suited to the role of minority religions among a sea of other faiths in a world, but you may have different tastes, and that’s cool too.

Animism and Ancestor Worship

There are still a few loose ends to discuss as far as world religions go.

The first is Animism, the belief in a plethora of souls or spirits that inhabit every object in the world. The most familiar example for many these days might be the Yokai and Kami of Japanese folk-lore which exist in the tens of thousands and often have very small, hyper-specific jobs or practices. There are some cultures that require the permission of a tree’s indwelling spirit before it may be cut, and there are many examples of cultures extending human rights to animals who are thought to have a soul. All of these cultural beliefs stem from the idea that life and nature in all their forms are basically equivalent. This is not as common of a belief in modern societies, because our understanding of the world through science has given us a pretty thorough understanding of just how “dead” things like rocks really are. But, classically, without the benefit of geology or biology to tell us different, most found it better to err on the side of caution and be extra respectful to everything in their environment.

Koshi-no-mushi, a flying disease spirit depicted in the Harikikigaki, a c.1568 Japanese acupuncture instructional. This spirit causes diarrhea, sweating and chest pains, but can be driven away by licorice root.
Source Kyushu National Museum

If you want a world crawling with spirits at every crossroads and wayshrine, Animism is a great option for you. Animistic cultures always have a huge variety of interesting monsters and spirits with different properties, and these can eat up a lot of your time as a worldbuilder, and are super fun to design. The sheer craziness of a setting like this can be a little overwhelming, but especially in visual media it can offer some stunning views of your world.

Developing animistic religions for fiction will be easier the more mythology you have read. Stories of these sorts of every-day magical creatures and spirits are salted liberally throughout the fables of human history. Even familiar fantasy creatures like goblins and kobolds have their ultimate roots in the animistic house spirits of English folklore. The important thing to remember is that if a person believes that everything is alive, it will vastly impact the way they conduct themselves in the world. The Greeks and Romans often placed shrines to Janus above their doorways; even the simple and very common act of passing through a doorway was contextualized as a sort of mini-prayer to one of their little gods. Think about the things everybody does everyday, like eating, drinking, traveling, sleeping; and make sure that your people have a context for these actions. Do they pray to the food spirits before eating? Do they worry that by snuffing out a fire they are “killing” the fire spirit? Do they avoid certain places because the god there is angry or territorial? There is a lot to think about when working with these sorts of traditions, but they are very lore rich as a result.

We touched earlier on how ancestor worship can become the seed of monotheism. But ancestor veneration in one form or another is much more common than monotheism. Some cultures explicitly worship their ancestors, but even the keeping of grave sites indicates an ongoing commitment to the relationship between the living and the dead. In cultures where ancestors are explicit objects of worship, they will usually have a shrine in the home and a separate burial site somewhere (occasionally also in the home). At these shrines there will sometimes be depictions of the deceased, if any are available, and votive gifts given to the spirits. It is not uncommon to feed dead relatives, either with the same food the family eats, or a substitute like wine, honey, cakes, or anything else the living assume the dead might like. The assumption among those who directly worship their ancestors is that all this gift giving and feeding keeps the spirits happy and strong so they can protect the family from other spirits, intruders and misfortune. Therefore a failure to show the necessary reverence could spell doom for not just the offender, but their whole family. It’s not difficult to see why this type of worship is most common in cultures with strong and more importantly, large family groups who can enforce these practices on their extended relatives, and also keep the practice alive for the centuries that it takes to develop a lasting tradition.

Again, this is rarely going to be the entire story of a culture’s spirituality. Ancestor worship is frequently coupled with other gods or spirits to create a cohesive world view. Ancestor worship is a great addition to tell your audience subtly about the importance of family and relations in your setting. In order to incorporate this type of worship into your world you will likely need to work out the social structure of the family in great detail. Decide who the “core” family is, and how it’s determined when and where the family “branches”. You may also need a genealogy for some of your major clans; to work out who a person’s most powerful ancestors might be, and thus who these offerings are being made to. However, unlike other forms of religion, your mythology and history are more or less merged. Your myths may read more like a biography of major figures than a fantasy story, but that’s okay. This is what this type of religion is really good at: grounding your myth in real world situations and people, directly involved in the ongoing history of your world.

Atheism and Deification

So far we’ve been talking about gods and religion as part-and-parcel. But, let’s take a step back and remember that there are absolutely religions that don’t have gods. Buddhism (in some forms) requires no belief in anything other than a particular view of the afterlife. Modern Satanism, though perhaps not what we might think of as a “proper” religion, is recognized as a religion by the US government and is explicitly anti-theist. These vastly different belief systems share at least one commonality, there is a core philosophy that inspires and unites their adherents to a common goal. These atheistic religions are very difficult to design by yourself, as they require a consistent, believable philosophical worldview, which usually requires someone very wise to structure in the first place. You may have better luck adapting your non-theistic religious ideology from existing sources. Or, hell, go crazy and invent your own religion, no one’s stopping you.

Aside from the above type of atheism, there is also the more familiar type. Modern atheists usually believe that there are no gods or spirits of any kind. This atheism or something like it has existed almost as long as the idea of gods. Around 300 BC, Epicurean philosophy was developed in Greece, on the grounds that, among other things, the gods either didn’t exist at all or at the very least had no power to intervene in the material world. So, atheism wasn’t absent in the ancient world, though it remained a minority belief for a very long time.

I earlier described how even with gods intervening in the world, it could sometimes make sense to only worship a single god. However, in such a world, atheism becomes much less defensible. Perhaps your atheists acknowledge the gods’ existence, but split hairs about the nature of divinity and view them more like people on a power-trip. Maybe your atheists come from a place where the gods have no power, and have no idea of the miracles your other cultures have been experiencing. I think you would be more likely to develop at least a small group of antitheists instead. Antitheists may fully believe in a god, but also insist that they are not worthy of worship. Perhaps these people see the suffering that still exists in the world and blame the gods for their hand in making it. Perhaps they believe the gods have a darker purpose that they want no part of.

On the other hand, some mortals at some point in life or after death may rise to become gods themselves. After the death of Julius Caesar, his son, the new Emperor Augustus, had him deified, saying that he was Divus Iulius, The Divine Julius. Temples were built in his honor, and there were religious festivals and a priesthood dedicated to Caesar that continued to operate until paganism was banned in Rome hundreds of years later. In every meaningful way, the man Julius Caesar had been elevated to divinity. Augustus himself took the title Divi Filius (son of the divine) for himself, and was granted godhood according to the new Imperial Cult while he was still alive. The elevation of not just Kings, but any historical figure to godhood is called Apotheosis, and was practiced by many cultures throughout history. Both the Chinese and the Egyptians also believed some of their Emperors achieved apotheosis after death. Examples of hero figures receiving the elevation to godhood also exist, but are relatively more rare. In some Buddhist faiths, there are a number of semi-divine bodhisattvas who are men and women who are firmly on the path toward becoming a Buddha. These bodhisattvas are thought to have originally been regular human beings before a prediction is made of their fate to become enlightened.

The Temple of Divus Iulius in the Roman Forum.
Rabax63, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In short, maybe your fantasy world doesn’t need gods at all, just people, power and faith. Perhaps there is a schism in your world between “classical” theists and these new hero-worshiping people. Maybe all of your gods are ancient wizards who found the path to godhood. Of course, it’s one thing to declare a person a god, but quite another for that worship to spread far and wide. Caesar’s deification came on the heels of his assassination which was broadly viewed as a tragedy that subverted the rule of law and stole Rome’s favorite princeps away from them. When Caesar’s heir took the throne and declared his divinity, people were still in mourning and were willing to accept this new god as a return to normalcy. For this sort of deism to work, you need a powerful founding figure with the popular support to make it a reality. Even after a literal apotheosis, a new godling could easily struggle to make their case to the populace until they can start pulling down miracles


Making religions that don’t break your audience’s suspense of disbelief will depend heavily on the tone and purpose of your setting. The goal here was to present options and real world scenarios that can help inspire you. Most of these systems don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and most real world religions require a lot of explanation and deep examination to get to the heart of what they’re about.

I leave you with these small words of guidance as you step back into building your world.

Make it bigger. Whatever you decide for your gods, make them bigger, more expressive, more extreme. Gods should feel like a force of nature. Your god of the sea should seem like the type to throw a ship full of sailors against the rocks at the slightest provocation. Your god of fire should escalate, burn people, live hard and fast. Making your gods feel extreme, and ultimately more than a human ever could be, is an important part of reinforcing how powerful they are supposed to be. Keep your setting’s general tone in mind as you do this, a darker setting will draw out different sorts of extreme behavior from your gods than a lighthearted one.

Don’t strive for originality. Your setting will be original because it is yours, even if it’s your version of something else. Instead, in the words of Tom Lehrer “Plagiarize! Let no one else’s work evade your eyes.” Read. Mimic. Copy. Obviously we all know that real plagiarism sucks and will ruin any reputation you have; but, the borrowing of themes, ideas, and even whole characters and plotlines can be done without being blatant. As long as this is all done in the spirit of rigging together something of your own, and you are careful to make the necessary personal touches, mimicking the style of other worlds and stories you like is crucial to becoming a better creator. Never let “X already did this” be a reason to remove something you like from your setting. Gods especially are often very similar cross-culturally because every human on the planet has similar basic needs and suffers in the same ways.

Remember the people. Heroes and myths are cool, but most people are farmers and shepherds. These are the people that will be doing most of the worship, and they will be raising the next generation of faithful. Depending on how active your gods are, the people in the fields might have no idea what they even look like. Some will be blindly faithful, and others will doubt and ask questions. Make sure you have answers for these people, because they are carrying the culture on their shoulders.

Previous: The World of Eis: Modern Cultures

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