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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

Antagonists

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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en, 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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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

Conclusion

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 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.

Hunter-Gatherers

Rawpixel, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

Pastoralism

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.

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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.

Horticulturalism

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.

Agriculturalism

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 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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

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.

Conclusion

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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