Religions Part 3: Cosmology and Metamyth

When designing a fantasy world, you should be focused on the areas that will be the stage for your story; the cities, the ancient ruins, the castles and the bustling port cities. But, eventually either your audience or the conditions of your story will beg the question “What lies beyond?” The realms beyond the material and how they connect form the cosmology of your setting. This cosmology will usually be a side note of your worldbuilding, places people rarely go, and maybe only tenuously believe even exist. But, there are a few major questions about a fantasy world that can only be answered through exploring your cosmology. And, for some types of stories the cosmology of your world can become critically important, as your heroes travel the multiverse and plumb other realms for their secrets.


How did your world come to be? Was it created? If so, by who? How? Why? By answering these questions you can create a starting state for your world. The most important cosmic factor in the early stages of worldbuilding can be the story of how your world(s) were created, how they function, and how they’re structured during creation. Aside from setting the stage for your world to come, figuring out how your world was created can inform all sorts of things from how magic works, to what cultural traditions exist, to what the surface of your world looks like.

On the other hand, this is also a question you can leave for later, or simply never answer. It’s okay for the origins of your world to be murky or unexplained, as long as you understand that there will still be theories about creation, even if they aren’t correct. In fact this might even be the more “genuine” way to tackle the problem, as real world people also developed their ideas of creation by observing the world around them and working backwards in this same manner.

Creation myths take many forms, but there are repeating motifs of rebirth and sacrifice that seem to find their way into the creation myths of most if not all people. For example, it’s common in creation stories for various gods to give up parts of themselves, or to be sacrificed entirely to create the world. In Norse mythology the world is built from the corpse of the Ur-giant Ymir. His flesh became the earth, his blood the ocean, his skull the vault of the sky, etc.. If this is the case in your world, the gods that supplied parts of your world may have magical influence on the areas where their body parts lie. Alternatively, there are similar but less gory “egg” myths, where the universe was a cosmic egg which cracked, creating the first life and usually leaving the shell to become some part of the new-born world.

The Roman Mystery god Mithras emerges fully formed from a world egg.
Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other times, a god appears out of the chaos and fashions the world whole-cloth. As opposed to the (re)birth analogy of egg and divine-dismemberment myths, these myths often invoke the archetype of an artist or craftsman fashioning or discovering something. These worlds might be very ordered, as the creator deity can be very picky about how they design the world. In these types of situations Chaos as a cosmic force antithetical to creation may be present, typically represented by a serpent, water or the night sky. It’s similarly common for creation myths to talk of the land being lifted out of the sea, a sort of “birth from chaos” motif halfway between the others. For example the pan-Polynesian folk-hero Maui is said to have lifted many islands from the seafloor using his magical fishhook. In Japanese mythology, Izanagi uses a spear to lift the world out of the primal ocean.

Sometimes a pair of deities are born from the chaos, or from the world egg, and these two populate the world by reproduction. These primordial couplings may be stable, or they may be destined to fail, with the fallout of the breakup setting the stage for the mythologies going forward. In Greek mythology Gaia, the Earth and Oronos, the Sky fell in love and had many children, the Cyclopses, the Hekatonkheires and the Titans. But Oronos hated how ugly some of his children were and locked them away in the Pit, Tartarus. Gaia grew angry and plotted to overthrow Oronos with the help of the Titans, eventually exiling him back into the sky.

Still, other cultures strongly believe that we are not the first world created, but rather one in a series of worlds. Either through a pre-ordained cycle of ages, or simply by bad luck, the earlier worlds were all destroyed one by one, and this one is simply the latest in the chain. In this case, the new world may be built on fragments of older ones, or may be built of a different material entirely, representing a successive improvement or incremental change in the design of the world.

Different stories will have different thematic focuses and needs, so sometimes this sort of background information is unnecessary. It will depend heavily on the scope of your story whether this all remains theoretical background information, or becomes very important plot relevant lore.

Realms & World Structure

Just about every culture has its own version of Hell, or Heaven, a sort of afterlife that exists in another space. Many mythologies feature even more worlds beyond that; purgatorial realms, lands of fire or ice, magical paradises, abodes of the outsiders, holy lands, elemental planes, divisions of the sky, etc.. If these realms exist, or are believed to exist in your world,  they will become richly entwined in the mythologies of your world. They will be the places where the gods and monsters live and were born, and they will be places visited by heroes on their great quests.

Yggdrasil, the Nordic World Tree is probably the most recognizable organizing motif for a world in the West.
Oluf Bagge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How the realms are divided is an important question when it comes time for the gods or heroes to traverse them. In some myths, the other realms are close at hand. They are under the earth just below our feet, they lay at the end of such-and-such river, far-far away in a mythic land, or at the top of a sacred mountain. Sometimes the realms are bound only tenuously; there is a path, like the Bifrost or Yggdrasil, or they must be entered through dream or astral projection. Other times, the realms are sealed completely, save under particular circumstances or to particular deities. Setting up these boundaries and connections will be part of the process as you add new realms to your cosmology.

Paths that provide access to other realms are called Liminal Spaces, and though they are varied in form, essentially every culture acknowledges these spaces in some form as the doors that open into inexpressible realms.

A liminal space can be as simple as the threshold of a door, especially one that delineates a boundary. The door to a church or a temple is an archetypal liminal boundary, which separates the mundane world from the holy realms of sanctuary which can be found within. The transition into this space is usually acknowledged by washing of the body, especially the hands, feet and face, a symbolic cleansing ritual which allows the person to properly breach the threshold and enter into the holy sanctuary, rather than failing the transitory rite and remaining in the mundane world. But, something like a forest or ocean can just as easily form a liminal space. While passing through these places it is easy to become lost, and that sense of dissociation with continuous space makes them perfect catalysts for liminality. Be careful when walking through the woods at night, because you may find yourself somewhere else entirely. If you notice a ship with green lights at night on the sea, kill your lanterns and do not respond to its signals. These are fantastical superstitions, but they are fitting because they acknowledge the mystique of these places, and assign to that feeling a certain power to transport things from other realms into our own. That power which we grant to certain spaces, to carry us away with their mystery or majesty, and with them to manifest things in our own realm, is liminality; and establishing what spaces have this property in your world can be important for all sorts of magical and esoteric purposes, as well as for figuring out what path your heroes have to take to enter your outer realms.

Most ancient people at least tried to develop a sense of how the world was organized. The ancient Greeks theorized that the world was composed of successive layers, beginning deep underground or in the underworld, eventually coming up to the surface of the earth, and then rising into successive layers of air, ending at the dome of the stars. The Norse instead had the World tree, which held the worlds together and kept them stable. The theme of the world requiring a stabilizing force is common, as is the idea that if these forces ever ceased the worlds would come crashing down. For further examples we can look to Atlas holding up the weight of the heavens, or the world-elephants of Hindi mythology. A good organizing principle for your world or for a particular belief system of your world can be a distinguishing aesthetic and thematic choice that helps keep them memorable.

However, these gateways and organizing principles are just frameworks for the really interesting parts, the stranger outer realms of your world. The variety of realms expressed in world mythology really are staggering, but here I’ll try to summarize a bunch of types and give some examples.

The Afterlife or the Underworld

Just about every culture has either an afterlife, or at least a belief in something after death. Afterlives are usually very different cross-culturally, unless those cultures have been in contact long enough to assimilate or syncretize their beliefs. Most seem to make a distinction of sin and punishment, whether it be sentencing to Heaven or Hell by Saint Peter, or having your soul devoured by Ammit for being heavier than a feather. But some dodge the need for an explicit afterlife by the inclusion of a philosophy like karmic-reincarnation, where the dead are reborn anew.

The most common spaces to place the realm of the afterlife are either underground or in the sky. The association with the dead being below our feet may have to do with a metaphorical link to burial rites. Those that bury their dead see the underworld as somewhere “below”, those that burn their dead, or dispose of them in other ways may see things differently. Even those that bury their dead may do it with the idea that one day they will need to rise again, because the grave is not their permanent resting place. Regardless of the thought process involved, when people die, something must be done with the body. Once a preferred method is established in a community and becomes tradition, the culture will begin to enshroud that burial rite in religious metaphor and deeper meaning, and this often involves an understanding of how the “soul” should be directed to receive a healthy, happy afterlife.

Mythologies often directly address the afterlife in their stories. It’s not exactly uncommon for a hero to descend into the underworld to bring someone back to life, though it is uncommon for them to have any success in this endeavor. In Norse mythology Frigg meets with Hel to bargain for the life of her son Balder, and obtains an agreement that Balder would be returned if every single thing in the world wept for him. Frigg was unsuccessful in her quest, and so Balder remained dead. In Greek mythology Orpheus went to Hades to bargain for the life of his wife Eurydike, and by the mercy of Persephone was given the chance to lead her soul back to the surface, but only if he never looked back on the way out. Just like in the Norse myth, Orpheus fails the task set for him by the Lady of the Dead and is forced to return to the world brokenhearted.

Afterlives are often vividly detailed in myth with fantastical elements befitting their importance. Places of punishment are often associated with fire, disease and rot, while places of paradise are bright, warm and full of life. Many mythologies take the time to detail the arrangement of cities and lands in the underworld as well, speaking of places where particular monsters or demons reside, detailing the walls and gardens of the death-god’s palace, and adding districts and realms reserved only for particular classes of people. People are naturally curious about death, and will ask all sorts of questions about what it will be like when they get there.

Realms of the “Other”

Some mythologies have special realms where certain spirits or creatures live. In Norse mythology there are the realms like Niflheim, Svartalfheim and Jotunheim specifically set away for some of the magical races, much like Midgard is set aside for humans. These other parallel realms are very common in fantasy where they frequently form either the ancestral homeland of the elves or another race, or as the place that magic is drawn from. You could even implement another world like this as a way to avoid having multiple countries or continents, instead having a series of sectioned off worlds full of fantastic denizens. While in fantasy these worlds are generally very different from ours, being lands of extreme cold, eternal light, wide oceans or what have you, your versions of these worlds can be very earth-like and full of more conventional characters.

As a sort of extension of this idea, your world may be part of a larger multiverse. Magic: the Gathering, and many comic books have multiverses made up of these other realms which are composed of different sorts of magic or other energy and often have unique creatures inhabiting them right alongside the more conventional races of the setting. In many settings, the multiverse is also an expression of time, fracturing into endless permutations representing all possible timelines for all worlds.

Keep in mind as you add more realms to your world that you are also stacking on complexity. Only add and design worlds that you really want or that you plan to use, and keep everything else in the dark until you need it. Even one world is a lot, and especially in high-power fantasy it can be difficult not to get lost in the weeds on realm design. The details of these places should be among the last things you work out in your worldbuilding unless you have a specific use for the information now.

Mythical Lands

Prior to the understanding that the world was a complete sphere, people had all sorts of ideas of what the world must look like beyond their lands. A common staple of ancient worldviews was the idea that the world got stranger and more mystical the farther you travel from your homeland. Historically, it was easy to make things up or exaggerate things you saw in distant lands, as no one existed to fact check you. Marco Polo’s journey to China returned with stories of dragons, cameleopards and all sorts of other nonsense that was accepted in the West for hundreds of years before global communications finally started to correct the misinformation.

People may also attempt to extrapolate what they know about the world to create an idea of what lies beyond. For example, a common motif in world mythology is a land in the east where the sun physically rises from, possibly corresponding to a setting point in the west. Heroes often journey to the palace of the sun far away in these lands as part of the boon-seeking part of their hero’s journey. Cultures may believe in a frozen land beyond the north, as the Greeks and Romans did, or a land of searing fire in the south as the Norse believed would appear at Ragnarok at the behest of the fire-giant Surtr.

Hercules binds Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Amazonia was a mystical kingdom thought to be in Asia Minor or Libya where warrior women ruled over the men of the society; which to the Greeks was a quite fantastical idea.
Joseph Kuhn-Régnier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The major difference between these lands and the realms discussed earlier is that these places are felt to exist in the physical world, simply farther away than anyone would ever reasonably travel. Gods often live in these lands, if they are physical beings, and monsters are also frequent travelers here.

Elemental Planes

Elemental planes are getting more and more common in fantasy these days. The basic idea is similar to the Nordic outer realms, but aligned to the cardinal elements of the world. D&D and its derivatives assume your cosmology include these planes and reference them in some of the rules, which has contributed to the proliferation of these types of planes. What’s nice about using this type of realm is that they reinforce your elemental system if you want that to be a defining aspect of your setting, and they simplify the design of your outer realms, leaving you more time to explore other, more important parts of your world.

Fire, water, earth and air are the four classical elements of the West, but there are other elemental systems in the world to draw inspiration from. Chinese mysticism assumes five elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Video games, especially CRPGs and Diablo-likes often have a system of three elemental damage types, electricity, ice and fire. Many JRPGs use some combination of these other elemental systems but often add light and dark as well, much like how D&D and similar d20 systems often include positive and negative energies. Which elements you choose to include, and how your realms reflect the qualities of those elements are up to you, but the choices you make will reflect the inspirations and expectations you are bringing into the setting.

Planets and Stars

Among a wide array of native cultures of North America there was a belief that people had descended from the stars, and that the ancestral home of mankind was somewhere among the heavens. In other cultures, planets associated with the gods were sometimes imagined to be their distant abodes, or their bodies drifting through the heavens. And even in ancient times there was speculation about what it would be like to travel to the moon, and what we might find there.

Before the launch of the Mariner 2 probe in 1962, some scientists were of the belief that Venus lay within a habitable zone of our sun, and could support a swampy ecosystem. Modern understanding of astronomy, surface imaging and seismographic data of the planet itself, indicate that Venus likely never had the proper conditions for life to survive there; but, even as late as the 1960’s a mythos of a shared solar-system was alive and well.

Stellar and planetary worlds verge on the realm of science-fantasy, but if that flavor is something your world can accommodate, it allows you to illustrate your cosmology through the things visible in the night sky, which is pretty cool. Your other planets could be mundane realms which are bound to the same laws and functions as your setting’s “homeworld”, or they could be more classical style planes and realms; highly magical and difficult to get to without the aid of a divine being or a liminal portal.

Dream Realms

The closest most of us will ever get to living in a fantasy world is the occasional memories we have of our dreams. Dreams are sort of an enigma, even now with the benefit of modern science. It’s still unclear what, if any, evolutionary pressures led to dreaming, or if it is the result of some sort of convergent coincidence. The interpretation of dreams and their meanings is still a hot topic, but it’s also an ancient one.

Some ancient peoples assumed that dreams were gifts from the gods, and practiced oneiromancy, or fortune-telling through dream interpretation. Others assumed that dreams must take place in another realm, one which is altogether stranger and more magical than the waking world. For these people, it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that if the dream world existed, that the things they experience there must somehow carry over into the real world. Healing through dream journeys was an especially common fixture of societies who for whatever reason lacked robust herb-lore and couldn’t properly medicate through foraging. For those societies with access to psychedelics, there was often a conflation of the dream and psychic realms. For many the medicine-man figure of their community acted as a sort of psychic psychopomp, who would lead them on journeys through these other realms for therapeutic purposes.

The nice thing about dream realms is that be definition they are fluid, inconstant places. Most worldbuilding done here will focus on structure and cosmology, because each dreamer will be subject to the random whimsy of subconscious expression. On the other hand, you could instead make dreams in your world more concrete and consistent, like a parallel set of lives between two continuous worlds. In any case, if your world or mythology has a dream realm, remember that people dream every night. This realm may have a disproportionately larger effect on the thematics of your world than other realms, because people will be interacting with it so often.

Metamyths and Narrative Motifs

Many authors have found that when they construct a world, it benefits them to have that world convey a specific philosophical view-point. Often this is not done as a direct allegory to real life, but rather serves to illustrate a belief or narrative theme of the story being told.

An excellent example of worldbuilding-narrative assonance, is Frank Herbert’s Dune. [Spoilers for Dune in this paragraph.] In Dune, the planet of Arrakis has been designed on a narrative level to help Herbert convey the social and environmental messages he wants to highlight in his narrative. The fact that Arrakis is a desert planet allows Herbert to properly frame the Fremen’s water crisis and ecological management solutions while also reinforcing the message that ecological disasters disproportionately affect the poor and disenfranchised. The harshness of Arrakis in general and the Fremen’s extreme adaptation to the Shai-Hulud and other threats there allows Herbert to make a contrast with the Sardaukar, and illustrate the narrative pattern within Dune that only great adversity breeds greatness, and that success and power conversely breed weakness. He then carries these themes throughout every level of the book, reflecting again and again on the injustices wrought by the wealthy Imperial interests against the people of Arrakis, and repeating the theme of power breeding weakness in his representation of the Atreides line vs the Harkonnen line, and the ultimate displacement of Imperial power by the much more hardened and enlightened Paul.

For people who haven’t read Dune, a historical example is the personae of Roman comedies. The word persona originally referred to the masks worn by actors in the comedies. These masks were iconic. The designs and the characters were consistent enough across the Roman world, that a person from Roman Egypt and a person from Roman Britain would have been able to watch a play together and find that both of them were familiar with the characters almost at once. Aside from the visual element, the mask represented a specific function for the character within the narrative of the play. The roles were so common and ingrained that they had names based on their story function, like the adulescens who is a noble young man who has fallen in love with a woman of lower birth, and through the course of the story will earn her love, and in the end reveal that she is actually through some happenstance a noble woman, fit for him to marry. It’s actually that specific, and there are around a dozen of these which all have similarly complex and oddly specific quirks and character arcs.

A Greek Tragedy mask, probably a leukos aner, meant to be worn by an actor playing an older man, like a teacher or worried father.
George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My point here is that if you are creating a world for a narrative driven work, it will likely benefit you to design your world to reinforce your narrative themes through repeating patterns of settings and characters. This would include in some cases creating stock characters or archetypal character-forms for your world which appear again and again in different contexts, with the purpose of tying disparate narratives into a single cohesive whole. Or it might involve telling the same story structure over and over again with the characters and factions swapped out. When you apply these narrative motifs to your world in a way that integrates them into your in-universe cosmology, you are creating a system of metamyth, or a mythopoeia. When these themes exist only out-of-universe as a tool to help unify your story which doesn’t extend to the internal worldview of your characters you are instead creating a narrative framework, or meta-narrative.

For a modern example of an enormous narrative framework, look no farther than Hollywood. If I say “Racing Movie” or “Spy Thriller” or “Christmas Rom-Com”, you know exactly what films I’m talking about, even if you can’t actually think of an example. In the racing movie you have “The Team”, which consists of at least three people, one of which is a very attractive woman/love interest for the main character, who is either hot-headed young upstart, or an older possibly bald man who “got out” and has now been pulled back to the scene for whatever plot contrivance necessary to kick off the story. Probably a murder. I could go through the rest, but you get the idea.

In Hollywood, these motifs are mostly just a fast way to crank out movies. But, when you take the time to craft your own systems of meta-narrative, you can actually suggest quite a lot about a character very quickly with few words and just a couple overt cues, once your audience is familiar with the framework you’ve constructed.

The most common metamyth in all of fantasy is the Triumph of Good over Evil. The hero, the villain, and the structure of worlds that feature this metamyth are almost so second nature that you almost can’t utilize it anymore without a nagging feeling that you should try to be a little more creative. Part of the reason this narrative feels so stale these days is because it’s based on an older worldview that doesn’t speak to modern audiences as well as it did 100 years ago. Namely, the Triumph expresses the narrative theme that “goodness”, which was often aligned with religiosity in the past, is an absolute and perfect force that contrasts an “evil” associated with a devil or irreligious figure. Good will always win, while evil is a self defeating and doomed force. In the context of a broadly Christian society the metamyth was well accepted, and was a reassuring and powerful message about the strength of faith. In an increasingly atheist society, the message seems childish and undeveloped, because broadly the worldview being expressed seems too simplistic and unselfconscious.

Look at the stories you like and ask yourself why you like them. What about them speaks to you? The themes and struggles of the characters? The way the world feels? The ideas that the author is trying to convey to you? If these elements jive with the world you’re building, you may be able to include them in metamythic constructs of your world. By iterating on these narrative elements you can create a consistent narrative core that runs through your whole world, from bottom to top. It will not only help the setting feel unified and well thought out, it will also provide a seed for all the stories and characters you will produce in your world. And, just like modern Hollywood or ancient Roman Theater, you will want several of these meta-stories and meta-characters so that it’s easier to genuinely mix up the formula while still adhering to the same roots.

Your use of meta-narrative structures can be aided greatly by having a robust symbology associated with your world. Numerology often ties into metamyth as an organizing principle for the world. In Taoism, where the world is viewed as a cosmic balance between the dual forces of yin and yang; dualism is then reflected in the understanding of all lesser systems. If the world is made of two balancing forces, then these forces should be everywhere, and more to the point, nothing will have three or four essential forces instead, the number 2 has to carry consistently through everything. Imagery and symbolism can prop up meta myth as well, acting like the Roman persona masks by using imagery to mark people subject to shared mythical roles. By using common symbols to draw parallels between your characters you create archetypes specific to your world, which just like the “natural” set of character archetypes will help you quickly convey large amounts of information about a character without overt info dumping.


Once you understand your realms, your world’s creation, and its mythic structures, you are basically prepared to answer any of the high order questions about the cosmic echelons of your world. More importantly, these answers may often feel like they come as natural consequences of the systems you’ve set down beforehand. However, developing these features of your world can easily distract you from the more grounded parts of your world and the stories that take place there. Unless you have a particular need for lore on one of these features, your time here is best spent by briefly outlining your bare essentials now, and coming back to tweak these things as your actual story becomes more developed in its themes and needs.

Religions Part 2: Divine Archetypes and Motifs

Religions Part 2: Divine Archetypes and Motifs

In Part 1, I talked about various systems of belief and how to implement them in a fantasy world. However, I didn’t spare much time to talk about individual gods and how they might look. There is an innumerable myriad of gods greater and lesser, and so it’s almost impossible to go over every different permutation of divinity. Fortunately, there are a much smaller number of identifiable archetypes that gods take on. These archetypes aren’t all encompassing, and the archetype itself is rarely very interesting. But, these templates are memorable and they repeat often in world mythologies. Using archetypes to help design your pantheon will help ease your audience into your setting by providing them something familiar to latch onto while they learn more about your world. Don’t take these archetypes as requirements for a “complete” pantheon, and don’t adhere to them too closely. Just let them inspire you and help get your ideas flowing.

Household Gods

Among the most common types of gods in the ancient world were household spirits. These lesser gods were thought to involve themselves in the day to day life of ordinary people. In England alone there were dozens of varieties including hobs (from which we get the words Hobbit, and hobgoblin), goblins, kobolds, alps, brownies and more. Some of these, like kobolds were imagined to perhaps once have been human but were now inhuman spirits. They could be helpful in some cases, or could be hostile. Usually, house spirits were something you lived around, you kept to their customs and gave them small offerings in return for protection and perhaps help around the house. Sometimes these spirits were attached to the family, and sometimes they were bound to the land, and it often depended on the particulars of where the spirit was thought to come from. These types of “small” gods tended to be the most active in the daily lives of people. They will be credited for bringing the family small game when food is scarce, or with returning missing belongings when things get lost. They may help keep away curses, or whatever other spiritual evils people were worried might afflict them, and even help around the farm bringing in the harvest, corralling animals or collecting eggs.

Many cultures held gods and goddesses of the hearth and home as well. In Greco-Roman belief systems, the hearthfire was the heart of a family and home; the fire was sacred to Vesta or Hestia, and was often a propagated flame from one kept in a dedicated temple. In Rome, The Vestal Virgins were tasked with the keeping of the sacred hearthfire, and their Temple of Vesta was one of a few temples that formed a centerpiece of the Forum. The hearthfire would have been the centerpiece of every premodern household, and the task of keeping the flame lit was important. The hearth represents the heat that keeps the family warm and the food that keeps them alive.

Gods of the hearth might be additionally associated with fire, abundance of food, and with the parental figure who manages the home (which will vary from culture to culture). Gods of the home-space might be also gods of good-health, of warding off curses, harvest and luck. Gods of the land obviously have connections with fertility, and possibly also with the animals that live there.

The Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum where the eternal flame was once housed.
Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, if greatly displeased, these spirits become more like demons than gods. Spirits might be able to withhold the waters of a river or well when they are displeased, or blight a crop. Sometimes a ritual similar to an exorcism might exist to drive away the angry spirit, but prior to the advent of Christianity the concept of an expelling ritual would have been less common. More likely the spirit would need to be appeased, an act that would be much more expensive for a farmer than simply paying his local hobs their tax of milk and cream.

In a setting with a large number of these types of spirits, you quickly get the sense that these people live every day in a fantastical land. When even poor farmers are interacting with spirits on a daily basis, you are establishing a world very unlike our own; one that’s steeped in magic and wonder. These are tacit promises to your audience that magic and the particular mysticism of these creatures will be an important part of your story’s tone and narrative. While almost every culture will have something like this in their mythology, if these creatures are actually manifested in your world and interactive you are trending into very high-fantasy territory, and need to conciliate that tonal shift with the rest of your work.

Harvest and Fertility Deities

Similar to home spirits are the rustic gods of the field and harvest. These tend to exist on a more communal level than home spirits. In most climates, planting and harvest are seasonal, and so the windows in which these gods are important are focuses of the year for everybody. Most temperate climates might have a planting period of only a few weeks, which isn’t much when all your work is done by hand and ox-plow. Thus, harvest festivals are usually large production affairs with offerings to match the importance of the season. In places that practice blood sacrifices, only your choicest cow or yak will do when the whole community is depending on the crop to survive the winter. In places that honor gods in other ways, they will also push the envelope, looking to impress the gods and gain their good graces while they can. Some fertility gods, like the Roman Proserpina, goddess of springtime, growth and the underworld, become seasonal deities associated with the times when their help is most needed.

If you have a particularly wide pantheon of gods, you might think of having many of these deities. Each crop and each animal have different needs, as do the farmers that tend them. Your staple crops might be associated with more powerful or prestigious gods, which may in turn give that crop a myriad of ritual uses relating to those gods. Horses might be the domain of your god of war, and perhaps sheep are associated with your divine seamstress. Don’t be afraid if half of your pantheon is associated with the farm and field in one way or another, because more than half your people spend all their time farming.

Another common associated domain with the harvest is fertility, or fecundity. Gods of sex, pregnancy, childbirth and children, not just for people but animals as well, are often connected with the fertility of the land. This may be because metaphorically speaking, cultivating plants and sexual reproduction are mechanically quite similar. A “seed” is planted and it grows, slowly maturing until the result of the labor shows forth. Priapus, a Greek god of the vegetable garden is often depicted as a giant penis with legs (and usually also a smaller penis of his own.), and this is meant, however it might seem to us now, to be a sign of his virility, fertility and mastery over reproduction. Moreover, harvest is often a time of joy, parties, and drunkenness; all of which contribute to a big upswing in the population of the community.

As an extension of this particular function in the community, these fertility gods may become symbols of romantic love and sexual attraction. Many kinds of love may be known to your people, and they may have gods for each of these types of love, or they may have a single god that stands over all interpersonal affection. Worship of love may take many forms, from the writing of love songs, to the maintenance of spousal relationships.

Even sex can be a votive act in these religions. Herodotus, the Greek historian falsely claimed that “The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life.” This was likely an attempt to slander the Babylonians, but it refers to a very real Babylonian custom of sacred prostitution. Culturally, these women were seen as priestesses carrying out important spiritual work, and they were protected legally to the same degree as the priests of other gods. The Romans and Greeks themselves practiced orgiastic religious festivals called Bacchanalia or Dionysia. These were festivals dedicated to religious intoxication and in some cases ritual sex. The mystery-cults of Bacchus and Dionysus held these ceremonies in secret, so little else is known about them that can be backed up with primary sources, but the practice was widespread and well known throughout the Greco-Roman world.

A Roman funerary engraving of a Bacchanalia.
Getty Villa, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tricksters and Wild Gods

Trickster figures are a favorite in almost every mythology. These dynamic characters are elements of chaos who represent the intrinsic randomness of the world. Characters like Loki, Coyote, Anansi, Crow and Sun Wukong are all incarnations of this basic archetype. While some tricksters are at least theoretically good, most of them cause harm and incite chaos everywhere they go, often afterward being made to somehow atone for their misdeeds. The Trickster is usually the protagonist in the context of the story, but is an antagonistic force in the universe at large. This makes them great characters to tell stories about, because they are constantly generating interesting conflicts by being self-serving and lacking forethought. Bugs Bunny is the perfect example of a Trickster. He is, in many but not all stories, the “bad guy” but he’s so dynamic and fun that we empathize with him immediately over the often mean and dour counterpart like Elmer Fudd or Daffy. Bugs has seemingly reality bending powers, which he uses for gags and pranks, seemingly without ever intending to “truly” harm anyone; and this is often how these cosmic pranksters are depicted in myth.

Tricksters are often shape shifters, and so you may or may not have to even give them a set form. The most important part of designing a trickster is giving them good myths which paint them as properly dynamic and unpredictable. I would also suggest that if your trickster god is real, they will almost without a doubt at some point arrive to “shake up” the ongoing story. It’s just what they do. Of all gods these are the most active and interventionist. They are often wanderers either by choice, like Coyote, or by edict of a higher power as a punishment, like Sun Wukong. This puts them in constant contact with the common folk, and their daily lives.

A stone carving of a traditional Green-Man figure from Llangwm, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A variant of this trickster archetype is the Green Man or the Fae, who specifically represent the capriciousness and danger of the forest manifest in physical form. A green-man is a deity which is associated with the forests and woods. They are often a warden or a guardian and will become angry and retaliate against people who break certain taboos, like cutting trees or hunting certain animals. Pan, the god of the wild in Greco-Roman myth would strike panic into the hearts of those who trespassed on his land by making a terrible goatish-bleat.

These can be tricksters, but can also be more bestial and violent figures. Green-men were blamed for stealing away people who disappeared into the woods. And they were thought to bend paths and confuse people until they became lost. However there were also cultures, like those of the Pacific Northwest, who venerated their green-man figure as a protector of the people who provided for them and led them safely through the woods. These vastly different conceptions of what the forest made into a man is like illustrates vastly different cultural views of the woods, one being highly adversarial, and the other, highly cooperative.

The Fae, or Sidhe, or whatever other particular word a culture has for them, are very similar to the green-man, but viewed as a large collection of beings, rather than a single one. They too can shift paths and play tricks on lost people, or save them and lead them home. But only more animistic cultures with larger pantheons may be willing to accept that there are hundreds of little trickster gods living in the forest.

The counterpart of the green-man is the hunter-deity. Where the green-man represents the untamed forest, the hunter represents the ways in which man can master the forest. Particularly in hunter-gatherer cultures, hunt-gods can be as important as fertility deities when it comes to securing food for your tribe. Hunters also fill the roll of protectors where the green-man often does not. Many cultures have charms that can be fashioned or prayers that can be said to ask for such a god’s protection while they travel through the woods.

Geographical Gods

Many ancient people believed in gods that inhabited their rivers, their mountains, and their other important geographical landmarks. River gods in particular were often prolific, as it wasn’t uncommon for every named river to have an associated god. Depending on the belief system in question, and how important these landmarks are, the gods here could be major figures in the pantheon; like Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile and an important fertility deity, or Enbilulu the Mesopotamian god of the sacred Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Smaller streams and rivers may have no gods at all, and if they do, only ones local to the specific area where they live. An exception to this is if locals begin to associate their local river with an already established god, perhaps as a way to link the river to a particular myth.

These gods vary in form from mythology to mythology. In Greece the river gods were the Potamoi or Okeanides, who were represented in art as either men and women, or else as people with fish tails or bull heads. In China, their river gods took the form of serpentine dragons called lóng, as beautiful as they are powerful, and completely untamed. There is a tendency to depict these river gods with animalistic traits or as outright beasts to indicate the intensity and wildness of the waters. As rivers become smaller and smaller, they are more likely to have more humanoid forms as they become relatively more “tame”.

Gods of the fields, mountains, and other wild places are often similar to the Tricksters discussed above. But, this type is more finely tuned to a specific area. These things may not even be true “gods” but more like monsters or even animals. In areas that are known for danger, like wolf-invested woods and deep-running rivers where drownings are common; the danger of the area becomes personified as a way to explain the deaths that surround it. If the danger passes, or people become more cautious because of the folktales surrounding the area, they may believe they have resolved the anger of the spirit by venerating it. Thus these gods may persist in areas where there is no actual danger to be found, but locals still scold their children with stories of the “wood-wolf” or whatever such boogieman. Conversely, holy places may have benevolent protector spirits who may even have established social authority. In many cultures “refuges” exist where guilty people may flee to avoid persecution, as entrance into the sanctuary places them under the protection of the spirit there.

In cultures with a large number of gods, a tradition may develop of building shrines all over the countryside to appease these spirits. The size of the shrines range from full human-sized temples, to small votive shrines, perhaps only large enough to hold a small candle; and this size likely reflects the degree of importance that spirit holds for the community.

Celestial Deities

Solar and lunar deities appear in nearly every polytheistic tradition. And, it’s not surprising, because there’s almost nothing in our lives that dictates our actions more than the passing of the day and night. More than that, solar deities provide warmth, fire, and make the world visible. Lunar goddesses at least in our world are associated with all sorts of monthly cycles due to the very regular passing of our moon’s phases. The moon also draws the tides into their maximums and minimums, and seafaring people will often connect their sea and moon deities as a result, either through syncretizing the two into one, or by giving them some kind of social relationship.

The moon and sun are often interconnected as well, as brother and sister, husband and wife, even mortal enemies. The duality of the sun and moon as they appear from earth can be viewed in all sorts of human contexts. They can chase one another across the sky, or dance together, or be literally star-crossed lovers forced apart by some mythical magic. The relationship is evocative, and so these motifs crop up frequently.

In fictional worlds, even scientifically plausible ones, you might have multiple moons or even multiple suns. In fact, it’s more likely that you would have two moons than one around an earth-sized planet like ours. In fantasy you aren’t even bound to having physical suns and moons. As you change the astrological conditions of your world, keep in mind how this affects your deities. More suns and moons mean the two are no longer so obviously paired as they are in our world, and different myth structures will crop up in response.

Beyond just the sun and moon, your people may have separate gods for day and night, for the stars, for dawn and dusk, or even for the milky way (which is just our galactic disk viewed from the inside, so it might look different in your world!). Think about how these things form recognizable patterns when viewed by your people. What are your people’s constellations? Do they view dawn and dusk as roughly the same or entirely different events? How do they count the days and seasons, and how might this inform the shape of the deities who they count on for those signals?

War Gods

All cultures (except isolated island-bound ones) experience aggression at times from their neighbors. Death, loss, and defeat are all very difficult to deal with, but very common in the life of a soldier; and having a religious outlet for their suffering is very important, especially in worlds where psycho-therapy practices haven’t been developed. War gods might act as heralds of victory, bringing omens of good fortune to those who favor them. But, just as often, war gods act as a sort of underworld-deity who comes to the battlefield to reap the souls of the fallen. Depending on their connections to destruction or death, they might even appear as demons who torture deserters or the souls of the enemy, or whatever else needs to be told to make the men fight. For soldiers simply “knowing” what happens if they die can be a huge weight off their chests. For the vikingr who fall in battle Valhalla awaits them, and so death is not such a worry or a great loss. Your comrades are in a “better place” and you can move on more quickly, knowing you will be going to join them eventually. Being able to couch death in this type of mysticism softens the blow and allows men to resist the effects of PTSD.

Some cultures, like the Old Nordic people, envisioned entire sections of their pantheon as being “war” gods, who had their own unrelated domains as well, but were all warriors in their own right. In fantasy, this suggests a highly war-like culture; though that wasn’t necessarily true of the worshipers of the Aesir, it has still become a cornerstone of the pop-culture view of “vikings”. The Greeks had at least two dozen war gods, all with different purviews and reasons to seek their aid, but we only think of the Spartans as the war-like ones. War gods, real or not, provide soldiers a sense of protection and sense of righteousness that actually makes them more effective in the field. So, if you want your fantasy race to feel really vicious, feel free to make some or all of their gods into dedicated war deities in addition to their other tasks.

Chthonic Gods

Underworld gods come in a wide variety of forms, and are shaped heavily by the underworld presented in the cosmology of your religion. Most of us can think of numerous underworlds with different power structures, rulers and contexts for people to enter there. In some mythologies, entrance into the underworld isn’t even guaranteed. The death rights of the Egyptians, the Greco-Romans and even Christians suggest an understanding that the soul can “fail” to move on to the next world. For this reason, the most common type of underworld deity is the psychopomp, a spirit tasked with guiding the dead on to the afterlife. The word psychopomp comes from the Greek deity Hermes Psychopompos (”Hermes, Guide of Souls”), but the most readily recognizable psychopomps in the modern era are probably Santa Muerte of Mexican folk Catholicism, and the Grim Reaper of European folklore. These figures are important parts of funeral art and funerary practices in the cultures that house them, and so knowing your psychopomps will tell you a lot about how people bury the dead.

Hermes Psychopompos watches as Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) carry away the dead Trojan hero Sarpedon.
Jaime Ardiles-Arce (photographer). Krater by Euphronios (painter) and Euxitheos (potter)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In many accounts, the afterlife is complex and sometimes even bureaucratic. To this end, many traditions include a sort of “servitor” race that serves to keep the underworld functioning properly. Christian devils are a familiar sight, but angels serve much the same purpose, simply reversed. This group may serve as psychopomps for the gods they represent, or may have another purpose entirely. Punishments are often meted out by this group to the damned based on what they have done wrong, or services done for the good who have lived out respectable lives.

The word chthonic means subterranean, and describes beings of literal under-world, but your gods of death don’t have to live under our feet, deep down in the earth (though it’s certainly the most common arrangement). Instead your afterlife could be under the sea, somewhere in the sky, or even on another plane of being entirely. Generally your god of death will also be master of whatever realm you place your afterlife in, and this will in turn inform the vibe of your underworld. Many underworld gods that are associated with living underground are also gods of things like metals, springs and gemstones, which are pulled from their domain. A god of death and the sea likely also includes storms in their purview, and a god of death and the sky may be associated with lightning or carrion birds. Changing the visual aesthetic of your underworld by shifting its location can go a long way to making your gods of death less one dimensional, but you can achieve the same effect with an underground underworld, as long as you are thinking critically about how your culture perceives death.


Christianity has systematically placed their devil into the mythologies of every pagan culture they’ve converted. From Loki to Hades to Baron Samedi, early Christians loved to take earlier unrelated religious figures and make them into “the bad guy” to match their view of the world. But even without this intentional contamination, local traditions usually did have an opposition figure whose role is to represent calamity, suffering and evil in the world. Satan is of course the archetypal Western example, viewed as the antithesis of God’s benevolence. But, others had creatures like Typhon, Fenrir and Tiamat who represented the same destructive and chaotic forces. Antagonists like this provide a framework to tell compelling myths through, and also serve to explain the frequent suffering of humans without assigning blame to the gods themselves. Giving bestial or draconic elements to these forces connects them to the primordial chaos from which most creation myths rise, and it’s also not uncommon for these things to be described as “half-formed” or “always changing” to further cement this association.

You have a few options here. The first is not to have a direct antagonist at all, as your cosmology may not feature this sort of archetypal evil. Another option is to take one of your existing gods and heighten the negative aspects of their purview and personality until there is a division between them and the other “good” deities. You could choose to have one or more dedicated antagonistic gods, dedicated to things like sins, violence, chaos or destruction. Or, you could design your world with a baked in antagonistic element, a Satan figure, Lovecraftian nightmares, another tribe of gods, or what have you. Depending on your choice, worlds with direct divine interventions will look quite different, though in less fantastical settings the difference will mostly be restricted to the philosophies, art and mythology of your people.

Messianic Figures and Heroes

The last important divine figure I’ll talk about is the messianic figure. Jesus Christ is the one that jumps to mind as the capital-M “Messiah”, but the word comes from Hebrew, and the Jewish speakers of Hebrew today don’t view Jesus as their messiah. Originally the term meant “the anointed”, but messiah has come to refer to any prophesied savior of a people. Though the Abrahamic catechisms are very specific about what their idea of this savior entails, other cultures have their own versions of the same basic idea. One day, a holy person will arrive to save us. From what? It could just be the ails of life and the world, but it could be from slavery, from hunger, from war, or any number of other persecutions. The important part is that there is a religious belief in a coming upheaval structured around this one person or god.

In Hawaiian mythology the god Lono i ka makahiki was said to have told his people that one day he would return by sea and bring great fertility to the islands. When the Hawaiians saw the European explorer Captain James Cook arrive in an enormous ship, they mistook the ship as the canoe described in their legend of Lono’s return, and believed for a short time that the Captain was their messianic figure, there to fulfill his promise. Unfortunately, Cook abused the Hawaiians’ hospitality and was eventually put to death for attempting to kidnap a chieftain. So, the shape of the savior and what their agenda is entirely dependent on the culture and the situation of the people. But the idea of a coming golden age, or age of freedom is very appealing, and can help bare people through difficult times, so this type of story, while not universal, is very common.

A ki’i or tiki of the Hawaiian fertility and agriculture god Lono.
Musée du quai Branly, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

Historic people who filled a messianic role, or mythological figures from popular cycles of story may in time come to possess hero cults. This may be viewed as a sort of apotheosis, or as a revelation of divinity that was always there. Mythological characters receive this treatment most often, and this can be seen in the deification of Herakles, Maui and Aeneas. But, real people living and dead are also occasionally chosen as the target of this process, like Augustus Caesar who we discussed earlier, or the Egyptian priest Imhotep who was not deified until over a millennium after his death.

Hero cults are an excellent way to neatly tie together your history and religions. This makes info dumping a little easier because you can provide context for other parts of your world at large while still staying on topic. Hero-gods also make your pantheon feel very active and participatory in the world, which can help reinforce a particular flavor of high-fantasy.

Identifying Motifs

So, you have all of these gods now, but how do you make them distinct from one another? How do you make them immediately visually identifiable? What about in spoken language and written text?

In real world religions each god has their own set of identifying symbols or motifs. These can be very physical objects, like the winged caduceus staff carried by the god Hermes, or Thor’s hammer mjolnir; or, they can be highly abstracted as in the Book of Revelation which makes several reference to God speaking: “with the voice of many waters.” What exactly that means is probably intentionally unclear, but presumably if you ever did hear it you would know immediately that you were hearing the voice of many waters. These identifying motifs are important because they allow worshipers to communicate using a shared symbology. The most prominent and practical purpose of these motifs is making icons and idols immediately recognizable. But, these motifs also make it easier to shorthand very complex ideas into simple symbols. For example; in the way that the crucifix represents not just the death of Jesus, but also the sum of the very complex Christian philosophies of sin, redemption and martyrdom.

Hand-held objects like the mace and noose of the Hindi god Yama, or the crook and flail of Egyptian pharaohs are one of the most common types of visual motifs. From the far east, to Europe, to the Americas and Africa, you can find examples of idols and votive artwork depicting the gods carrying identifying instruments as the primary means of indicating their status. Some of these come from myths, like the caduceus given to Hermes by Apollo in exchange for the first lyre. Others are born from the real life uses of objects, like how the crook and flail is meant to symbolize the pharaoh’s role as a shepherd of his people.

Associations with specific animals are also a common way to identify certain gods. The Egyptian gods might be the most iconic example of this, with most having the heads of animals in at least some of their depictions. But holy animals are attributed to all sorts of deities, like the crows of Odin, the peacocks of Hera, the elephant head of Ganesha, or even the lamb symbolism associated with Jesus. These animals are often chosen because the culture assigns them an attribute aligned with that god; peacocks are regal, elephants are wise, lambs are innocent, etc.. Plants get a treatment very similar to animals in this respect. Ceres is depicted holding a sheaf of wheat, the Buddha is often depicted sitting or standing on a lotus flower. Again, these have a symbolic sense, Ceres brings forth the bounty of the earth, and wheat and its related grains were the staple crops of the Romans who worshiped her. Gautama Buddha compares his enlightenment to a lotus flower rising out of a swamp.

Another common set of motifs are hand and body positions in artwork and sculpture. In particular the various mudrā of Hindi and broader Buddhist iconography, whereby certain positions represent signs of peace, different moments in the Buddha’s life, and can help aid in meditation. One form is called the bhūmisparśa mudrā, a common pose given to statues of Buddha representing the moment that the earth recognized his enlightenment. This pose is made while sitting, with the left hand resting upward in the lap, and the right gently touching the earth. In this case the form of the pose relates directly to the myth that spawned it, but others have more to do with the symbolism of the act itself. Most cultures have poses they associate with prayer, like the Christan clasping or steepling of the hands, Muslims prostrating toward the qibla (the direction of Mecca), or the still meditative poses of many eastern traditions. Sitting in certain places or in certain positions may indicate authority, for the same reason most thrones and altars sit on raised daises; no one may sit higher than the king or the gods.

You can make almost anything a motif, from a color, to a name, a specific direction, a material, or even a particular narrative arc that plays out repeatedly. The point is that these motifs must be clear icons that the faithful can use to parse their religious art more quickly, and to make even crude icons recognizable. By melding motifs and archetypes, your gods will not just be easier to understand, they’ll be easier to remember, which is an important factor if you’re going to be feeding a lot of this information to your audience. Moreover, your gods will feel more authentic because they fit into the patterns we’ve come to expect from real world religions, while also preserving some of the mythological strangeness.

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

Cultures Part 2: Fantasy Races and Ethnicities

In the fantasy genre the term Race has come to refer mostly to the species of the character in question. Whether they are elves, dwarves or orcs, these are understood to be “fantasy races”, intelligent creatures that live in your fantasy world. But the English term “race” has a lot of negative and potentially inflammatory associations. I will continue to use the term race throughout this article to talk about these differences, but I want to make it clear that technically what I’m talking about are better termed as species, genetics, ethnicity, or nationality, depending on the context. Okay, cool. Let’s move on.

“Traditional” Fantasy

Elf, dwarf, halfling, human. These fantasy races existed long before the lands of Middle Earth were conceptualized, but it wasn’t until the publishing of The Hobbit in 1937, and then the Lord of the Rings in 1954 and ‘55 that these races were presented together, in this particular style, that absolutely changed the face of fantasy. Prior to and contemporary to Tolkien’s works, there were authors like C. S. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft who presented fantasy worlds with talking animals, lizardmen and aliens as their inhuman fare. These races remain common in fantasy as well, but nothing tops Tolkien’s Big Four in terms of frequency of use. We could speculate endlessly about why these stuck, but we probably wouldn’t get anywhere. Instead, let’s just acknowledge these four for what they are; classics. No one will ever call your setting inventive for having elves, but everyone you talk to about your setting will know right away what tone you’re trying to evoke and what types of characters they might see from your elven races. This might be part of why these are so common in tabletop RPGs, because these comfortable and familiar forms give players a solid ground to stand on as they develop their characters in an otherwise alien world.

So, if you want something easy and quick to feed your audience, these races are your fantasy bread and butter. But, there’s more to all of these races than Tolkien, they all have roots in ancient beliefs of real world people, and by acknowledging these roots you can deviate from the default in a way that still embraces the core aspects of these races. Let’s examine the origins of these races to understand what exactly an elf or a Hobbit is.

The word elf comes to us from the albiz or alp of Proto-Germanic mythology. These were envisioned in many different ways over the years but were primarily thought of as a sort of malevolent spirit or goblin that would frequently accost people while they slept. These attacks might include nightmares, vampiric blood sucking, or “wet-dreams”. Norse elves were markedly different, and were presented more as powerful beings similar to giants. Unfortunately very little of the Norse canon remains to us, and the sources we do have rarely expound on the exact nature of their alfar. It’s likely that Tolkien meant to conjure images of the Norse elf here, rather than the horrifying monster that is the alp. Most of his readers would be familiar with Norse mythology given that Bulfinch’s and similar anthologies were standard reading in English language schools at the time.

But, he may have also wanted to evoke the word alp in the sense of a goblin or fae-like creature. Certainly Tolkien’s elves have more in common with the faeries of English folklore than they do with vampiric night spirits. However, Tolkien may have been deliberately avoiding the term faerie or fae, which at the time had the connotation of being part of children’s “faerie stories” which were not considered respectable literature. By the early 1900s faeries had been reduced to pleasant little people who dance on toadstools, a far cry from their own mythological roots as wardens of the mysterious woodlands. Tolkien loved these faerie stories, and wrote extensive essays on the subject, but also understood that using the term faerie would appear rather childish to his audience. Regardless of what Tolkien’s exact reasoning was for choosing the term “elf”, in doing so he effectively wrote elves into the fantasy canon and spawned endless works that use the term in emulation of his vision of the Quenya.

Luis Ricardo Falero, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Understanding this gives us a number of different options for any elves we design to give them some additional flare while remaining true to their roots. Your elves may be dream-eating night spirits, wise and ancient immortals, or mysterious forest sprites, all without modifying the core of what makes them elves. But, you also have an infinite number of options to consider beyond these more traditional elvish styles. In the 70 years since the publishing of Tolkien’s works, the popular interpretation of elves has shifted, with many authors discarding Tolkienian elvish immortality and bringing them more in line with the power level of humans. Another common trope now is the division of elven races based on an elemental system of some kind, or the environment they choose to live in. Terms like High Elf, Wood Elf and Dark Elf are common enough in fantasy to qualify as archetypes of their own. It’s clear to see that the concept of what makes an elf an elf is adaptable. The inherent wishy-washiness of the term allows you to make all sorts of changes, and as long as they remain humanoid, magical and long eared, most people will know what you’re getting at.

Dwarf, a little magical man associated with stone and mountains. These creatures have been a part of broad Germanic folklore for well over a thousand years, appearing in Old Norse, Old English and Old High German all with roughly the same basic form. Use of the plural dwarves instead of dwarfs was started by Tolkien to bring the word more in line with English words like wolf/wolves and of course, elf/elves. Reading older sources will show you that they consistently use dwarfs prior to 1937, and many dictionaries still list the original as the standard spelling.

In Scandinavian mythology dwarves, like elves, are immortal magical beings of comparable power at times to the gods. Famously, the greedy dwarf Fafnir became a poison breathing dragon to guard his horde of gold. Dwarves are often depicted as being greedy or at least very self-serving in these myths, while also being craftsmen or at least collectors of artifacts. In another myth, the dwarves Fjalar and Galar murder a man created by the gods and boil his blood with honey in a magical cauldron to make the “mead of poetry” which makes any drinker into a wise poet. In English folklore, dwarves are again, dream-like creatures who come in the night to cause nightmares. The Germans however tended to view dwarves as the Norse did, as little men of the mountains. The Germans were the first to make beards one of the defining characteristics of dwarves, and the Germans further expanded the canon of dwarves with stories like the Nubelungenlied which feature dwarves as prominent characters.

In modern times, dwarves are mostly defined by their iconic appearance. The beard, the stocky build with a barreled chest, and the often ornately crafted armor or clothing are all part of what makes a dwarf a dwarf by modern standards. Most people will expect your dwarves to live underground or in the mountains, but this expectation is slowly vanishing as people move toward more integrated settings where all the races live together. Craftsmanship has also persisted as a mark of the archetypal dwarf, and many dwarves in fantasy settings will be featured as smiths or masons, hearkening back to their roots in Norse mythology.

Lorenz Frølich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dwarves are a great traditional fantasy race. They’re evocative without being over the top and fit in even in low-magic settings as an alternative to stock-standard humans. You can make them very mundane, essentially just a genetic offshoot of humanity, or you can make them wildly magical with shapeshifting powers, invisibility or the ability to craft magical wonders. Neither seems too out of tone for dwarves. And unlike other fantasy races, there aren’t really expectations for the role that a dwarf plays in a story (perhaps aside from “gruff”). A dwarf seems equally at home as a knight, a priest, a barbarian, or a hunter. Dwarves are basically the tofu of fantasy races, they readily absorb whatever sauce you decide to put on them. They will work with basically any world you throw them into, and you can spice them up and people will accept just about any odd detail you choose to give them. If your dwarves eat rocks people will roll with it. If your dwarves are all sailors and fishermen who live on floating sea-mountains, people will roll with it. If your dwarves turn into solid gold statues in the sun, people will just accept that fact, even though they would definitely raise some questions when presented humans with the same traits. Personally, I think if you were going to choose one fantasy race aside from humans to include in your world, dwarves are a strong contender for their versatility and simultaneous simplicity.

Halflings are sort of the odd man out here. Tolkien invented the word Hobbit himself, borrowing it from the Middle English hob or gob. Halfling was a “mannish” term for the hobbits in the stories and was used extensively by humans in the books when talking about them. But, when TSR decided to add hobbits to the list of standard races for Dungeons & Dragons, they were forced to use the more generic term halfling instead, because Tolkien and his estate actually own a trademark on the word Hobbit. Now the words are basically interchangeable in the general parlance of fantasy, but you’ll never see a published author with hobbits in their stories other than Tolkien and this is why.

Moreover, while tiny people who can easily hide or disappear are common in mythologies all over the world, the specific image of a halfling is certainly distinct enough that we can say that Tolkien “created” the idea, though he did so by iterating on well tread narrative ground. Unless you really reach, it’s hard to say directly where the concept of the halfling comes from. They could be partially based on leprechauns who have the same ability to hide from sight and the same stature, but halflings clearly lack the other magical abilities of leprechauns. Halfings strike me as being more similar to domestic spirits like brownies, tomte and kobolds: small local humanoids tied to homes and lands who are content to do house and fieldwork in return for offerings of dairy products and food. Regardless of their origins in mythology, the halflings of most fantasy settings today are most similar to their Tolkienian ancestor, the hobbit.

Because of this I think halflings are by far the weakest of what I consider Tolkien’s Big Four, and the most likely to be left behind in favor of other options. The problem with halflings is that they are often too specific to fit into a setting while remaining distinct. When does a halfling become a gnome? Or a Santa’s-workshop-style elf? If you tweak them too much they lose what makes them distinct, and they get lost in the malaise of mythology. This isn’t a problem, just a reminder that people will have expectations for your races based on the names you use for them, so be deliberate with the names you choose for your races.

Including halflings solidifies your place in the Tolkeinian/D&D realm of fantasy. If this is what you want for your setting, these guys are a big comfy and friendly flag to let people know what to expect. If you do make changes to their formula, make them subtle, or be a little more creative with your names for them to highlight the changes you make.

Humans are almost a given. We’re human, so we like to read stories about humans. We see ourselves in them, and their appearance in an unfamiliar fantasy world gives your audience some understanding to work from. You don’t need humans, but I would recommend including them in every setting unless you have a specific reason they can’t be there. The big exception seems to be stories like Watership Down and Redwall with anthropomorphized animals. I think that between the anthropomorphism, the cuteness of the animals, and the often still very down to earth settings of these types of stories, people can suspend their need to directly empathize with the characters by appearance. Other than this and a few other exceptions, humans are a crucial part of making fantasy worlds connect with the audience of your work.

 Humans are often the most diverse ethnically of all the races in a fantasy setting. While elves may have a few varieties, humans will invariably have dozens of cultures in a fleshed out setting. This should extend to other races as well, and I encourage you to make all of your races at least as diverse as your humans, if not more so. The following sections will try to cover how wide the range of ethnic and genetic diversity can get, and while most of this will be spoken of in terms of humans, you should keep all your setting’s races in mind when it comes to developing independent ethno-cultural groups.

Mythological and Personalized Races

For many of us elves and dwarves will not suffice. Maybe you want even more variety, or maybe you want something with a different flavor than the blanket Germanic pseudo-history of Tolkien. Once you look beyond the familiar tropes of contemporary fantasy, the next place to look is at the original fantasies: myths. World mythology provides us an endless list of demi-humans all with a prewritten set of abilities and limitations. Reaching for mythological inspirations also allows you to quickly suggest huge amounts of information about the culture of your races without giving much more than their name. “Giant” might be the name of a generic fantasy race, but Jötunn suggests a Norse inspired culture, while names like Nephilim or Fomorian would suggest Hebrew or Celtic inspiration.

Using mythological races can help you define the scale of your world in a few easy steps. Consider these two lists of races from two theoretical settings; 1) Satyr, Dryad, Human, Cyclops, Centaur; and 2) Oni, Jötunn, Deva, Human, Menehune. The first setting has clearly defined its thematic scope as being set in fantasy Greece. The second setting is worldly, with cultures differing vastly from country to country. Both of these work, but for very different sorts of settings, and the familiar names help to quickly solidify the aesthetic and feel you want to portray.

There are too many different magical creatures that work well as alternate races for me to cover them all. Instead, I would suggest that if you plan to go down this route, that you read as much of your favorite world mythologies as you can. Especially try to find original sources, because you will often find very strange and evocative imagery that has not survived into the popular view of those myths. In some versions of the myth of Perseus and Medusa, the Pegasus is born from the neck stump of Medusa’s corpse after she is decapitated. This detail is often omitted in modern retellings in favor of the version of the myth where Perseus rides the Pegasus after receiving a magic saddle from Athena, which is much more heroic and quite a bit less gory. Details like this one are hidden throughout older and pre-Christian versions of myth, and I encourage you to go find them in your favorite mythologies. There are all sorts of strange monsters, magical races and odd rituals that our ancestors believed they shared the world with that would fit perfectly into your story.

Edward Burne-Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, Perseus watches as the Pegasus and the god Khrysaor are born from the neck of Medusa.

Maybe even mythologies aren’t original enough for you, and you want something completely personalized to your specific world. In sci-fi, almost every writer that includes aliens feels obligated to do something new and inventive. I’d even argue that it’s a faux pas in modern sci-fi to copy someone else’s aliens; you have to at least change the names around or you might at worse be accused of plagiarism. In fantasy we’re a bit more lenient depending on the situation. You obviously can’t take someone’s original race that’s unique to their setting, but otherwise, and especially as it pertains to mythological reborrowings, it’s kind of the wild west. Dark elves are forever and inextricably linked to spiders and other insects thanks to D&D. Even though that specific detail came later than the mythological inspiration, it’s still stuck pretty hard in the modern consciousness, to the point that some people just can’t help themselves but add at least one drider. And, that’s fine, but it might be too simple for you.

So, you’re gonna make up your own fantasy race. My number one suggestion is; KISS, keep it stupid simple. When you present people with your homebrew fantasy race, I’d say you have about ten seconds to explain them before people’s eyes will start to glaze over in boredom. Your race must feel like it’s a fixture of your world that belongs and is firmly set there, and you have to give people this sense quickly. Develop an elevator pitch for your race, I’m serious. “These are the X, they live in Y and they Z.” That’s it, one long sentence and you have to be able to convey the basic spirit of your race or people will not give you the time of day.

Now, once that foundation is laid, go wild. People love to discover things in fantasy, it’s one of the perks of the genre. And, as long as people are bought in on your world and its characters, they will accept and even clamor for you to feed them the bread-crumbs leading into your “deeper” lore for the race. One of my favorite fantasy settings is Elder Scrolls for this exact reason. They have the stock standard fantasy races on the surface. But then as you dive deeper, they give you reasons to doubt everything you’ve been taught upfront. They set up a very simple world that satisfies your preconceptions, but once you start paying attention everything becomes a bizarre facade overlaying a lot of cosmic horror and confusing metaphysics. By structuring your races with a simple-up-front but a deep backstory, you will be able to maintain engagement with your world and stories much easier.

Remember not to info-dump unless you’ve got the investment from your audience to sustain interest in the information you are giving them. There’s a reason the villain always monologues right before their plan is complete, and not at the beginning or after. Before you’ve seen the villain’s plan in action you might not really care, and once he’s defeated it doesn’t really matter what he has to say. So the best moment for the dramatic monologue is right in that sweet spot where you care enough to give him the time. Info-dumps are exactly the same. And also much the same, they should usually be cut a little short at the end, just to keep people wanting more.

Antagonistic Races

In some settings, creatures like goblins, orcs or vampires might be intrinsically evil. They have no choice in the matter and though they may have intelligence it will always be bent and twisted toward hatred and suffering. I don’t like this style of race in my settings because I like complex characters with good justifications for the things they do. Which isn’t to say you couldn’t develop a character like that for a race like this, but the overwhelming majority of your evil race’s members will have to be evil for the sake of being evil, and that just kind of rubs me the wrong way.

But, maybe it’s necessary for your setting, or you like having a henchman race your main characters can go around killing without remorse. In a fantasy world evil may be a literal cosmic force in the universe, and if that’s the case it’s not surprising that there would be evil creatures of some sort. You could pull the old “evil is a matter of perspective” card, with hive minded ant people or aliens. Their goals and morals may simply be beyond our understanding and lacking empathy for humanity. Vampires and similar “converted” evil races may struggle with their previous persona coming into conflict with their new nature.

Evil races are relatively common in both fantasy and historical belief. The demons of Christian mythology serve as the devil’s eyes, ears and hands in the world, inflicting curses and diseases on the living; and of course torturing the seas of the damned in hell. Orcs in Tolkien’s stories were evil creations of Morgoth who made them by torturing and corrupting elves into new twisted shapes. The 15th century concept of a witch or wizard was often accompanied by an infernal familiar or homunculus which they believed would have been granted by the devil. The semi-divine Erinyes or Furies of Greek myth, much like demons, were given the task of tormenting betrayers and murderers and thus were universally aggressive and unpleasant. The skinwalker or yee naaldlooshii of Navajo belief was an evil witch made into an animalistic shapeshifter by committing heinous acts like murder or necrophilia. Skinwalkers in particular are a great example of how to plausibly create an entirely evil race. Because all new members choose to become skinwalkers, they self select only for those people willing to sacrifice their humanity for power. Any of these “evil” races could easily be adapted into antagonists for your fantasy stories, and there are tons more examples out there of this trope being played out well.

Evil races can serve a purpose in your story. They can provide a morally black and white antagonist for your noble-bright setting. They can provide you an opportunity to explore inhuman intelligences in your stories and introduce moral quandaries for your readers to consider. Maybe you just chuckle at the idea of goblins being goofy little murder machines. Whatever your reason, I encourage you to think twice before making a race 100% evil. It’s easy enough to frame your enemies as evil regardless of whether they really are or not. Instead give your people vastly conflicting cultural values or goals, or pit them in a war against one another and allow tribalism to do its work of alienating them from one another. You will have more freedom as a worldbuilder to create characters atypical of their home culture if you aren’t grappling with this hard moral limit.

Culture and Ethnicity

So far I’ve been talking entirely about the species aspect of what constitutes a fantasy race. But the interesting aspects of these races are set much more in their culture and traditions. Culture covers every aspect of how a group of people live from how they eat, to what they find attractive, to what they believe and everything in between. An ethnicity is a group of people who identify with one another based on shared aspects of that culture. Each of your races can, and in my opinion really should, have several ethnic groups among them. How many of these exist will depend highly on the scope of your setting. If you plan to focus only on a small part of your world, or have a literally small world, there may be only a few ethnic groups who exist. In an Earth sized world it is very strange to not at least suggest that the world is as diverse as our own.

So this poses a conundrum, because we can’t feasibly build hundreds of unique cultures to populate our world with, instead we have to do a little worldbuilding smoke-and-mirrors to make everything seem a lot deeper than we actually have time to make it. If you have a small scope of focus, you do this by making the small part you focus on deep, and merely suggesting “there’s more out there”, to your audience. Harry Potter pulls this off very well. By giving a lot of focus to just one small part of the world for the whole series, we are led to presume that the larger world is just as filled with quirky creatures and people as the part of the world we’re familiar with. A few offhanded comments on foreign affairs or world history serve to remind us that there is a whole world still out there, even if we never see any of it directly.

On the other hand if you have a large scope, like a whole world, especially a “realistic” world, you have your work cut out for you. You still have to focus your attention on the stories you plan to be telling about your world, but in order to make each area feel unique you are going to be spread thin. My suggestion is to have a small number of ethnic-forefathers, a few progenitor races if you will, or at least ancient ancestors of your people. Develop this smaller number of ancestors and then imagine how they might change over time. As the years go by there will be wars and disasters that divide these people until they represent a larger number of ethnic groups. These new, smaller, groups will be similar to their parent culture, and will share some of these similarities with their neighbors, but can also be given unique traits that specifically align them with their new culture. This is essentially how ethnic diversity develops in the real world (with a lot of cut corners), and it will be an ongoing process at all times. Wherever you decide your “modern” era is, you pause that development and if you’ve done your job right the world will feel cohesive and complex. By simulating a history you’re introducing natural complexity while also producing the families of related cultures that we frequently see in the real world.

You will have to borrow some of your cultural cues from real life. Even if you staunchly plan for your people to be absolutely unique with their own incomparable culture, you will recreate the wheel, and ten months later you will learn about how so-and-so culture in real life does that already. Don’t “Simpsons did it,” your setting, borrow the things you find evocative about real world cultures, and if it still bothers you that you aren’t being “original” enough, just hide your work by obscuring your source culture under some unfamiliar aesthetics and terminology. Even as you shamelessly pillage history and your favorite media for ideas, also keep an eye on things you want to be unique about your setting. Your personal history and experiences can be just as rich a resource for worldbuilding as Wikipedia or another novel. You are looking to put something together from all these familiar pieces, and that end result will be the unique thing, not the steps you took to get there.

In real life, cultures are rarely distinct in the sense that there are no clear cut boundaries that divide, say, Portuguese culture from Spanish culture. If you were to map the cultures of the world, you would have to blend a lot of the edges to represent how culture bleeds across national and international borders, or at times simply ignores the borders set by nations entirely. While a few sharp divides exist in culture across certain borders in the real world, these are usually formed either physical impediments like mountains, or by military intervention that prevents the exchange of ideas. Otherwise, any groups living near each other will eventually adopt and borrow things from one another over the years until they begin to look similar. This is great for worldbuilding, because it gives you a good reason to blend your cultures and create some really inventive combinations. Think about how distinct Caribbean cultures are from any of the African, European or Native American cultures that they were formed from initially. But you can still see the similarities if you know where to look, like the ties between the spiritual practices of west Africa and the various vodoun religions. Cultural intermingling like this is very interesting, and goes a long way toward making your world feel like it’s constantly in the process of changing and developing.

The patterns of subsistence that we talked about in the last part will take you a long way toward forming the basic shape of your culture, including deciding what they eat, their social hierarchies, their population size and the way they organize their lands. But there are a myriad of other factors in culture like how they dress, speak and express their faith. These in turn will be influenced by their cultural neighbors, their oppressors, their environment and the twists and turns of history. Culture could be broken down into hundreds of different full length articles of its own, and it will be one of the biggest topics of discussion in this series going forward. For now, suffice to say, worldbuilding could be properly described as “culture-building” at least half the time.


Once you have hierarchical societies with the surplus resources to wage war, nations will begin to form. Unlike ethnicities which are defined by shared culture and beliefs, nationality is determined by a shared central power structure. Nationality can become at odds with ethnicity during times of war, when refugees and colonizers frequently find themselves in unfamiliar places, placing cultural and military pressures on one another. A shared power structure means some kind of government be it a monarchy, a democracy, a theocracy or whatever else you like. The government will implement taxes, levies and laws which will heavily impact the lives of the citizens in ways they cannot control.

With the birth of nationality and government, ethnicities may be promoted or marginalized based on who is favored by those in power. The decision to make a distinction based on genetics, religion or bloodline will lead to implicit bigotry within the power structures perpetuated thereafter. This sets the scene for culturally motivated violence and racism, which are unfortunate but consistent factors in the development of real world societies. For this reason, nations often find it productive to foster a shared cultural identity among its citizens, promoting internal cooperation and external suspicion. This is the reason that cultural boundaries are often most sharp at the borders between nations. Not because the people themselves are different, but because their power structures are encouraging differentiation between “our” population and “the other people”.

Additionally, if a nation becomes powerful or isolated, and remains free of outside conquests for a time they may develop a truly shared ethno-culture confined to their nation state. These situations are rare, and more likely to lead to further divisions into ever smaller groups, than to true harmony. Island nations and Empires in particular tend to develop a strong shared culture, at least within their “core” territories. Regardless of how united a society is, they will always experience periodic upheavals and schisms.

A strong shared identity can also be born from shared suffering. The unity born of a shared memory of oppression can be even stronger than the shared bond of an idyllic homeland. Communities in exodus or living through wartime must learn to help one another or perish. This fosters a strong sense of trust and communalism that might be lacking in more privileged societies that don’t rely the same safety net.

National boundaries are based on the geography and history of the surrounding areas, and they will shift to accommodate the changing political landscape. As empires rise and fall they will push at their borders and attempt to seek new lands. The native people will resist and the end result are borders that are either in constant motion or stabilize around a geographical element like a river or mountain range. The shifting of borders will contribute to the blurry divisions between the cultures as people on the border are forced to live in a nation-state to which they are not native, bringing their cultural practices and belief systems with them. Look at the border towns of the American southwest where bilingualism has become the norm, while food and music culture have also adapted a distinct Latin American flare. This comes in a part of the US that has historically had tensions surrounding immigration, illustrating that even out-and-out racism will not stop the exchange of culture across borders.


To put this all together, your steps are generally going to be this; Choose your races and their physical characteristics. Determine the environment they live in and how they sustain themselves. Then decide on the cultural inspirations you want to borrow and how you want to work them into your world. Establish the heartland cultures of your major empires and independent ethno-states, and then work outward creating new traditions through cultural diffusion. Remember to focus most of your efforts on the parts of the world you plan to actually use. Then finally, consider the nations of your world and their histories. How might conquests and changing borders affected the culture of the local areas? And how might this have an impact on the political situation going forward?

Once you have this outline for your race, revise things as necessary. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate decisions you made earlier with your new expanded view of the world. Maybe you have too many races, or too few. Or you don’t quite like how one of the cultures turned out in the end. These sorts of changes are easy to make now, but might be heart-wrenching later if you have to throw out a bunch of lore because you want to make changes. I encourage a good night’s sleep, or putting the setting down for a few days and coming back if you’re unsure about anything. I’ve often found that ideas I hated initially were great choices looking back, and I’ve just as often gone back to something and thought “How did I think this was a good idea?” Your mileage may vary, and sometimes you just have to put pen to paper and get the idea out, no matter what.

Cultures Part 1: Subsistence Strategies

The art of designing fantasy cultures is incredibly complex. From art to language to technology, belief and magic, there are hundreds of factors that should probably be considered when trying to create a culture that feels self-complete. Most of us don’t have time to do all of this, so we take shortcuts, focus our attentions and keep our audience looking at the parts that are finished. Today, I want to talk about a single aspect of culture, but one which informs so much else about how a group of people live and think; Where do they get their food? This may seem like an easy question that could be a footnote in the tomes of ancient history and epic quests that you want to be working on. But, focusing on how your culture eats will tell you a lot about what their days look like, what their years look like, and what their outlook on life might be.

Anthropologists have identified five of what they call patterns of subsistence. These are; Hunting-and-Gathering, Pastoralism, Horticulturalism, Agriculturalism and Industrialism. Each of these strategies is indicative of significant social trends, like the development of class divisions, the distribution of labor and the overall health of the people. By using these patterns as guidelines we can make strong predictions about our people based solely on the methods they use to feed themselves. I can’t speak directly to the science of this; but even a simple understanding of these categories provides an excellent set of basic templates that can guide us toward making fictional cultures that feel grounded in our experiences with real world cultures.


Rawpixel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All of the very earliest human cultures were hunter-gatherers. Of all of the patterns of subsistence this one is the least like a technology and most like a “default” state for humans, though this pattern still relies heavily on inherited knowledge passed down through the generations. Hunter-gatherers are small tribal bands of 70-150 people who do not domesticate plants or animals for food. Some are nomadic, moving to follow the rains or the migrations of game animals. Others, especially those in abundant environments may live in a single village for generations. In these societies long term storage of food is difficult or impossible, and so they live mostly hand to mouth. Hunts might only take place once a week if large game like elk, moose or buffalo are available, or a few times a week if only smaller game is present. Large tribes can afford the high energy, high risk hunts for enormous game like the mammoths, elephants and rhinos which can feed the entire tribe for days. Gatherers, who often work alongside the family or tribe’s young children, can produce enough food from the local vegetation to feed their families in only a few hours a day. The result is that hunter-gatherers have the most free time of any of the subsistence types. While some of this free time will be spent mending things and improving the campsite, most of this time is spent socializing, resting for the next day of work, or creating art like textiles or songs. Doing extra work is inefficient, because it burns calories and can only provide a short-term benefit due to the lack of storage. In a fantasy world, things like frost magic for consistent food storage or plant growth magic may alleviate these limitations and allow uncharacteristic population booms among hunter-gatherer tribes.

In the real world, these groups almost always have extremely elaborate poetry, or textile work, or word games; things to pass the time while they rest. Stories, especially parable, myth and oral histories are also usually highly developed in the sense that they are usually remembered verbatim and sometimes involve elaborate performances like dancing, singing or audience participation. Some linguists even theorize that the emergence of “click” consonants in the Khoe languages of southern Africa may have come from a word game involving the replacement of certain sounds with clicks that eventually became the dominant way of speaking. Even if this theory doesn’t hold out in the end, the fact that it’s a consideration should illustrate just how important some of these practices can become to a culture.

Another interesting commonality of these societies is a tendency to be highly egalitarian. Even in groups with “chieftains” or similar figures, there is usually no one with absolute authority over the group as a whole. Discussion takes place for every major decision and generally nothing is done without a broad or unanimous agreement. Even medicine-men and similar medical-religious figures will generally live as normal members of the tribe, hunting and gathering with the rest, and only assuming their “higher” role when they are needed to help with a ritual or cure.

Hunter-gatherers are also deeply in tune with their environment. In fantasy, it’s easy to perceive this as a sort of magical attunement with the natural forces; but in the real world, it comes down to deep knowledge of the local flora and fauna. When tasked with naming local plants, children in hunter-gatherer communities can often name hundreds of different varieties, and can identify the edibility of most of these. By adulthood, they will likely know every single plant that grows in their range by name, and will know most of their properties and uses. Hunters can identify animals by tracks, smell and sound, and will be tuned to even slight changes in the area, like the stirrings of birds or unusual motions in the brush. These aren’t magical talents, these are simply people who have been practicing these things in a single environment all their lives and who have become experts at their craft.

The size of these communities is self regulating. The more people there are in a village the farther people must go on foot to meet everyone’s needs, and at a certain point they will burn more calories looking for food than they gain from eating. At this point there will either be a famine that drives down the population, or some or all of the tribe will be forced to move on to new lands. In the early days of your world, there will likely be plenty of places to move to. But, as the years march on and your map fills in your tribes will increasingly be driven to conflict over expansion and emigration to new lands. War for tribal communities is devastating, as their populations often cannot sustain the loss of so many people. The death of a single generation of men in a population of 100 could leave only a few young boys as the stock of the future tribe. A genetic bottleneck like this could easily lead to the death or assimilation of the whole tribe in just a few generations. The result is that many tribal communities will avoid war at all costs, even staging mock battles and intimidating performances to ward off their enemies instead of fighting them directly.

When designing hunter-gatherer societies for fantasy, you can tweak all of this to your liking. If a tribe lives in a magical garden-like land, then maybe food is never a struggle for them and they can support a vastly inflated population. If your people can teleport, this presents a new style of “nomad” that could jump around a few well established camps, or even teleport abroad to hunt and be back for dinner. The specific conditions of your world can provide endless variations on this lifestyle, just like the specific conditions of our world produced thousands of unique cultures that lived this way and continue to live this way.


Shepherds are a familiar sight in many places all over the world. In highly developed agricultural and even industrial societies pastoral communities exist on the periphery to provide important resources to the cities. But, for some people herding is the only way they have to provide for their families. Pastoralism is a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, wherein the family group travels with their flock to keep them in fertile grazing grounds year round. This lifestyle requires a vast amount of open, unoccupied land for the nomads to travel, but this land can be fairly non-arable as long as there are a few edible grasses around. Thus, this lifestyle is most common in extreme environments where the land doesn’t support agriculture or gathering. Or, it might be more accurate to say that pastoral communities are often pushed out of more favorable lands by agriculturalists, and forced to subsist on the lands that don’t support farming.

Pastoralists almost always have a home range, a territory that they mostly adhere to, which they are familiar with the seasonal shifts of, and which they can protect from outsiders who might try to move in. Defense of this territory, even in the off seasons, is very important. If another clan comes through and grazes your winter pasture in the summer, you may very well starve when you get there and find too little has grown back. To make this worse, the enormity of these territories make them difficult to defend especially with such a low population density. Thus disputes over land and water rights are common for pastoral cultures.

These people may either be entirely nomadic, or semi-nomadic. Nomadic tribes likely live in some kind of sturdy and easily movable tent, which they strike and rebuild as they move from pasture to pasture. Semi-nomadic people will have one or more static sites where they stop for some part of the year. Usually these static sites will have a small group that lives in the area year round, maintaining it for occupation when the herds return. These static sites might have some gardens with a few domesticated plants, but if they ever develop into full-scale fields, the community is set down the path of conversion to agriculturalism. A common pattern of semi-nomadic living involves a single wintering site which is occupied year round by the women, children and elderly of a clan, while the men drive the herds around their spring, summer and autumn pastures. These arrangements are usually highly weighted in the favor of the matron of the home. As the master of the house year round, the woman-in-charge is usually the defacto or even de jure matriarch of the whole clan. This arrangement is somewhat more common in cultures that ride animals, as life on the trail and constant riding can be harsh enough to lead to miscarriages or other natal problems which could easily become fatal in a pre-modern society. Of course, people find a way, and many cultures manage just fine dragging every member of the extended family along on their endless march from camp to camp.

Photo by Tomu00e1u0161 Malu00edk on

A fun factor of pastoralism as a worldbuilder is getting to decide which animals your culture keeps. Usually keeping flocks of wildly different animals is much more difficult than having a single staple animal and perhaps a few working animals like dogs and horses. In the real world there were pressures to domesticate certain species over others; mainly milk, wool, meat, leather and value as a draft or pack animal. But, it’s more or less arbitrary which specific animals were chosen when as a worldbuilder you have the option of hand-waving what wild stock was available to your original people. Some default options for herd animals include cows, goats, sheep, yaks, horses, llamas, elephants and camels. However, in a fantasy world you could choose giant pigs, deer, birds, bugs, or even some magical monstrosity. Real world pastoralists to my knowledge never domesticated predators as their stock animal, but who’s to say your people can’t have herds of bears or dragons that “graze” on the local wildlife of an area before moving on to let the prey replenish itself.

Pastoralists are frequently just as technologically advanced as their neighbors (unlike hunter-gatherers who often suffer from a disparity in technology). But, pastoralists often lack the population to effectively fight against larger groups. Pastoral lands have the lowest population density of any sustenance strategy. When other cultures come knocking, pastoralists are often left with no option but guerrilla warfare. Their land’s enormity suddenly becomes a way to obscure their position, and their advanced knowledge of the geography puts them in an excellent position to ambush attackers. Depending on the environment in question, pastoral communities may be able to simply slip away deeper into the mountains or canyons and be lost forever until they choose to be found.


Horticulture is usually a catch all term for labor intense small-scale cash and food cropping; namely, gardening. But when anthropologists use this term, they mean something a bit different and more specific. Horticulturalism as a survival strategy is the process of scouring and burning wild spaces to encourage the quick growth of certain favorable crops. Horticulture in this sense differs from agriculture because no planting is taking place. Instead areas are burned and left ashen to replenish on their own. This requires less labor than agriculture, but also requires more land, as most plots must be left empty for years before they are productive again and will have lower yields overall. However, slash-and-burn horticulture is also much less harsh on the soil than large scale repeated mono-cropping, thus more sustainable. Horticulture requires long growing seasons or perennial growth in order to have a high enough turn over to remain effective. For this reason it is most common in tropical or equatorial climates.

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When it comes time to harvest the land, the people go through and gather all the edible plants from the area in much the same way a hunter-gatherer would. They pay no mind however to the sustainability of their harvest, as they plan to burn it all soon anyway and start over. What they gather will depend entirely on their environment but will likely include fruits from trees and vines, edible tubers, berries and other plant matter. Burns are also an excellent opportunity to hunt, as all the activity leading up to the burn and then the fire itself will drive any creatures from their hiding places. Once a burn is complete, the soil might or might not be turned to help the ashes permeate the topsoil and to promote root-growth.

Horticulturalism is relatively rare in our world compared to other survival strategies. It was practiced by some Austronesian cultures, and brought to several of their island nations as they traveled across the Pacific. The indigenous people of Madagascar still practice these controlled burns in some communities. Some theories are that Horticulturalism is uncommon because of its inefficient land usage relative to agriculture, specific environmental requirements, or because horticulture has a tendency to quickly evolve into the domestication and planting of crops.

Like hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists are masters of their environments and are capable of identifying essentially every plant available to them. However, they are more likely to have gaps in their knowledge, as some of these plants may not be common in burned out land, or may not necessarily be useful. These gaps will be small, and they will be made up for in a deep knowledge of seasons and the passage of time. Keeping seasonal time helps them plan and time burns properly to coincide with peak periods like the driest and wettest parts of their year.

From a fantasy perspective, there are all sorts of ways to take such an evocative lifestyle. Perhaps this is the way your elves express their close bond with the land, by keeping it young, healthy and fruitful through rejuvenating fire. Maybe you have dragon-kin who ritually burn their forests for a yearly hunt. The exact realization of these burns and how the land recovers could be very interesting in a world with pyromancy or bio-magics to aid in the re-growth.


Fulcran Vigouroux, ed., Dictionnaire de la Bible, 5 vols. (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1912)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Agricultural societies have been the norm in the Western world for the better part of three millennia now. We are all familiar with agricultural societies and their quirks, but they’re still worth examining in detail. Agriculturalism is the practice of domesticating plants. Wild grasses become grain and hard crab-apples become delicious fruit through the process of selective breeding over generations. But, agriculture isn’t born fully grown. Simply domesticating plants is only the tip of the iceberg, and the real social changes arising from agriculture come from irrigation, plow technology and storage techniques. These things allow the production and storage of surplus goods, and thus of material wealth. Pastoralists have material wealth as well in the form of herd stock, but unlike a herd of cattle, grain and gold in a vault do not need to be fed. Almost as soon as the surplus arrives, feudal systems, fiefs and clans pop up to seize and centralize all the wealth. This centralization of wealth leads to the development of social classes, and also (if they haven’t already arrived) of cities.

People move to cities to find economic opportunities not available in the countryside. Skilled laborers like blacksmiths and potters can find enough clientele in cities to keep their business afloat, and their presence there in turn makes the city a destination for people from the country to come in for supplies. Markets form around the craftsmen and the center of wealth in order to capitalize on the business they drive into the area. People can only go so far to get to market before the added cost makes the journey unprofitable, and this effectively creates a gradient of value around the city, where nearby land is highly valued, and more distant land less so. Only relatively rich people can live in the city at all, and the richer one is, the more central they can afford to be. Meanwhile, people with poor-paying and menial jobs will be moved as far to the periphery as possible, creating a smooth grade we are still familiar with today; urban → suburban → farmland → pastureland.

Social classes develop from disparities in power between those who have wealth and those who don’t. And the economic factors that drive farmers out of the cities function to also segregate the population by wealth. The people with surplus grain can leverage their wealth into favorable deals and better equipment going forward. Continued investments of excess wealth compound and eventually elevate one or more families above the rest of society. With the subtle or overt threat of force of arms, and the direct power granted by control over the food supply, someone will eventually declare themselves “king” or whatever local title is roughly equivalent. At this point it’s down to personal preference and worldbuilding how exactly the culture develops. But, the class conflicts caused by agriculture must be dealt with because at least in our world they appear to be universal.

The types of crops employed by agricultural societies will heavily shape the appearance of their populated areas. Think of the ubiquity of Japanese rice-paddies or the sprawling corn fields of the American Midwest. Mono-cropping, the practice of maintaining large fields of a single plant, has a specific look to it for each crop and this will change the appearance of your countryside in a dramatic way. Additionally, specific crops require different processing techniques which will inform other visual aspects of your world. Traditional grain crops must be milled, meaning wind or water mills will be present in just about every settlement. Excess chaff from grain production will be going somewhere, either to be eaten by domestic animals or to be made into roofing material like thatch. Food must be stored, meaning silos, grain-houses or caves dotted here and there, and often manned by guards since in pre-modern times a grain silo may as well be a bank. Most obviously, staple crops become the foundation of the food culture in an area and will determine what and how your people cook and eat.

Fantasy worlds raise many possible options when it comes to agrarian societies. Magic can make anything viable as a staple crop if you want. Maybe you have bird people who primarily eat peppers because they can’t taste the capsaicin, or a group of halflings that only eat giant pumpkins because you find it goofy and fun. Lots of people get very up in arms about what crops are and aren’t available in certain periods, but unless you’re writing historical fiction, your people can farm ornamental flowers for nectar if you really want them to. The important takeaway is that whatever they choose to grow, it will be a monolithic presence in their culture, and will absolutely drive the shape and vibe of your settlements.

Sea Cultures

Okay, this one isn’t in any textbooks, but I would feel like I left a gap if I didn’t at least mention it. Most anthropologists consider fishing a type of hunting when talking about subsistence. The two practices differ in technique, but don’t shift the distribution of labor all that much. Most cultures still live on land, and whether they’re gathering or farming on that land will determine if they are classed as agriculturalists who supplement their diet by fishing, or hunter-gatherers who happen to mostly hunt fish. But this leaves a few options unexamined.

Some people, like the ancient Hawaiians, would build large artificial lakes or gate off lagoons from the ocean. Fish could swim into the lagoon through the gate, but upon feeding and growing there, would become too large to fit back through the bars. By keeping their schools fed, and only culling the proper number of fish, they could effectively farm fish in these ponds. For our purposes, this strategy of subsistence looks different enough from the others that it’s worth mentioning. Aquaculture like this prevents overfishing of the wider waters, but it requires vast tracts of sea-front or land set aside for flooding, and will never produce the same sizes or types of fish as deep sea fishing. Fish farming this way was almost never the only food source available to a people. Agriculture was a common partner to this system, as fish could be supplemented on overproduced crops, and each of the systems could serve as a buffer if the other had a bad season. If your people grow rice or wetland potatoes, they could even keep their fish in their flooded fields, allowing the fish to fertilize the crops as they grow.

The ‘Ai’opio fishtrap, Kailua Kona, HI
W Nowicki, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nutritionally speaking, you can almost survive on just fish alone. But there are a few vital nutrients unavailable from fish that have to be supplemented somehow. The big one is vitamin C, which causes the infamous piratical disease, scurvy. Many navies of the world are known to have supplied their sailors with citrus fruits to cure the disease. But the natives of North America found that pine-needle tea would cure scurvy as well, in fact it was a better source of the vitamin by far, and was easier to pack and store. This little quirk of dietary requirements is what caused the British to be called “Limeys”, and is the reason that the word for orange is some form of “la naranja” in almost every place the Portuguese and Spanish navies visited during their explorations.

If you wanted to take another step further, you could create a completely seafaring people. Maybe they grow plants on their ships somehow, or they just trade for their vital supplies at some landlubber port. Fishing can easily provide food for a crew’s worth of people indefinitely. Another big consideration if you go down this route is repairs. Your people must be able to drydock somewhere, unless magic somehow allows them to replace or mend wood without sinking the ship. Floating islands solve all these problems in one go, as they provide a place to grow plants and would already be self maintained by whatever magic or ecological system you’ve worked out for them. Plausible seafaring cultures in fantasy are totally possible, and exploring them can lead you to some interesting conclusions for your world.


Industrialism came along in our world with the advent of chemical fertilizer and new irrigation techniques. The ability to artificially replenish the soil allows massive yields, and inventions like the combine harvester did away with the most intensive portions of labor. These factors combined transformed the shape of our society in the blink of an eye. We went from 90% of every person alive contributing in some way to food production, to the polar opposite; Less than 10% of the population does all of that work, and they’re doing it on less land, in shorter growing seasons. Suddenly our society didn’t have to spend all of its effort on meeting its basic needs. So, what did we do with our new found freedom? We expanded empires, colonialized, and had some of the most devastating wars to ever occur in human history. However, once this era of instability died down, technology granted the new world powers a new golden age of thought, science and art.

Industrialism only really developed once in our world, though it did so on a global scale, with the sharing and capture of technology between nations fueled by the birth of globalism. Because of this, it’s hard to say much about post-industrial societies. There seems to be a trend of heightening class disparity already seen in agricultural societies. Likewise, the exponential growth of population and the proliferation of new ideas and technology also seem to be core factors of industrialism. The defining characteristic of industrial societies however is that shift in the portion of the population involved in subsistence. Arguably any society that has a very small percentage of its population involved in primary production is industrial, even if you don’t see the typical signs we associate with the word, like factories and smokestacks. Elves who have attained an attunement with the forest to provide for them, and thus spend all their time reading and singing, have entered a sort of pseudo-industrial state, and will likely reap the benefits and dangers of that change. Perhaps such a society decides that the world would be better off all living under the auspices of the forest, even by force; Or, the additional freedom to pursue philosophy leads to division and ultimately a rebellion against the old social order. Maybe tree-gods don’t like science, and so when the first great thinkers appear among the upper classes of the elves during this golden age, they are exiled for their “heresy”.

The point is that while industrialism has a certain look in our world, this doesn’t mean that every industrial society needs to go through the same exact stages of development as ours did. In fact, the development of many of our core technologies in the modern world, like antibiotics, vulcanized rubber and internal combustion engines likely wouldn’t develop or at least would look very different in any other world. Keep in mind that industrial techniques often spread easily, and it is likely that any culture that encounters these sorts of technologies will try to copy them if they can. Give a very good reason if you plan to have a single industrial culture that never spreads to its neighbors.

An interesting thing to note is that industrialism can fail. Before the bronze age collapse, which saw the death of every major Mediterranean empire in the span of 60 years, there were signs of a coming industrial revolution. Scientists, or early thinkers at least, were studying subjects like steam propulsion and chemistry, which given the time may have led to the same sorts of fertilization and plowing techniques that wouldn’t actually develop until almost 2000 years later. Though historically speaking, this is mostly just an interesting “what if?”, for a worldbuilder it suggests some options for how you plan out your history. Maybe you did have some sort of industrial society in your world’s past, but before they could really get going something came and wiped them off the map. It’s a common trope, but it’s based in real events, and provides lots of detail that makes your world feel like it has an extended history.


So, with these five or six subsistence strategies, you can categorize almost any method your people use to feed themselves. Figuring this out can tell you about what your culture’s priorities are and what things they spend their time doing. Societies structured around a specific way of life are a very good starting point for a fantasy race, as the structure gives both you and your audience a core idea to orient around. You might choose not to use this list for all of your races, but at least something here probably got your worldbuilding gears turning, and that’s what I’m here for.

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