Religions Part 2: Divine Archetypes and Motifs

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

Household Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvest and Fertility Deities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tricksters and Wild Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographical Gods

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

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

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

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

Celestial Deities

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

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

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

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

War Gods

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

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

Chthonic Gods

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

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

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

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


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

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

Messianic Figures and Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

Identifying Motifs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultures Part 1: Subsistence Strategies

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

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


Rawpixel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Photo by Tomu00e1u0161 Malu00edk on

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea Cultures

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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