When designing a fantasy world, you should be focused on the areas that will be the stage for your story; the cities, the ancient ruins, the castles and the bustling port cities. But, eventually either your audience or the conditions of your story will beg the question “What lies beyond?” The realms beyond the material and how they connect form the cosmology of your setting. This cosmology will usually be a side note of your worldbuilding, places people rarely go, and maybe only tenuously believe even exist. But, there are a few major questions about a fantasy world that can only be answered through exploring your cosmology. And, for some types of stories the cosmology of your world can become critically important, as your heroes travel the multiverse and plumb other realms for their secrets.
How did your world come to be? Was it created? If so, by who? How? Why? By answering these questions you can create a starting state for your world. The most important cosmic factor in the early stages of worldbuilding can be the story of how your world(s) were created, how they function, and how they’re structured during creation. Aside from setting the stage for your world to come, figuring out how your world was created can inform all sorts of things from how magic works, to what cultural traditions exist, to what the surface of your world looks like.
On the other hand, this is also a question you can leave for later, or simply never answer. It’s okay for the origins of your world to be murky or unexplained, as long as you understand that there will still be theories about creation, even if they aren’t correct. In fact this might even be the more “genuine” way to tackle the problem, as real world people also developed their ideas of creation by observing the world around them and working backwards in this same manner.
Creation myths take many forms, but there are repeating motifs of rebirth and sacrifice that seem to find their way into the creation myths of most if not all people. For example, it’s common in creation stories for various gods to give up parts of themselves, or to be sacrificed entirely to create the world. In Norse mythology the world is built from the corpse of the Ur-giant Ymir. His flesh became the earth, his blood the ocean, his skull the vault of the sky, etc.. If this is the case in your world, the gods that supplied parts of your world may have magical influence on the areas where their body parts lie. Alternatively, there are similar but less gory “egg” myths, where the universe was a cosmic egg which cracked, creating the first life and usually leaving the shell to become some part of the new-born world.
Other times, a god appears out of the chaos and fashions the world whole-cloth. As opposed to the (re)birth analogy of egg and divine-dismemberment myths, these myths often invoke the archetype of an artist or craftsman fashioning or discovering something. These worlds might be very ordered, as the creator deity can be very picky about how they design the world. In these types of situations Chaos as a cosmic force antithetical to creation may be present, typically represented by a serpent, water or the night sky. It’s similarly common for creation myths to talk of the land being lifted out of the sea, a sort of “birth from chaos” motif halfway between the others. For example the pan-Polynesian folk-hero Maui is said to have lifted many islands from the seafloor using his magical fishhook. In Japanese mythology, Izanagi uses a spear to lift the world out of the primal ocean.
Sometimes a pair of deities are born from the chaos, or from the world egg, and these two populate the world by reproduction. These primordial couplings may be stable, or they may be destined to fail, with the fallout of the breakup setting the stage for the mythologies going forward. In Greek mythology Gaia, the Earth and Oronos, the Sky fell in love and had many children, the Cyclopses, the Hekatonkheires and the Titans. But Oronos hated how ugly some of his children were and locked them away in the Pit, Tartarus. Gaia grew angry and plotted to overthrow Oronos with the help of the Titans, eventually exiling him back into the sky.
Still, other cultures strongly believe that we are not the first world created, but rather one in a series of worlds. Either through a pre-ordained cycle of ages, or simply by bad luck, the earlier worlds were all destroyed one by one, and this one is simply the latest in the chain. In this case, the new world may be built on fragments of older ones, or may be built of a different material entirely, representing a successive improvement or incremental change in the design of the world.
Different stories will have different thematic focuses and needs, so sometimes this sort of background information is unnecessary. It will depend heavily on the scope of your story whether this all remains theoretical background information, or becomes very important plot relevant lore.
Realms & World Structure
Just about every culture has its own version of Hell, or Heaven, a sort of afterlife that exists in another space. Many mythologies feature even more worlds beyond that; purgatorial realms, lands of fire or ice, magical paradises, abodes of the outsiders, holy lands, elemental planes, divisions of the sky, etc.. If these realms exist, or are believed to exist in your world, they will become richly entwined in the mythologies of your world. They will be the places where the gods and monsters live and were born, and they will be places visited by heroes on their great quests.
How the realms are divided is an important question when it comes time for the gods or heroes to traverse them. In some myths, the other realms are close at hand. They are under the earth just below our feet, they lay at the end of such-and-such river, far-far away in a mythic land, or at the top of a sacred mountain. Sometimes the realms are bound only tenuously; there is a path, like the Bifrost or Yggdrasil, or they must be entered through dream or astral projection. Other times, the realms are sealed completely, save under particular circumstances or to particular deities. Setting up these boundaries and connections will be part of the process as you add new realms to your cosmology.
Paths that provide access to other realms are called Liminal Spaces, and though they are varied in form, essentially every culture acknowledges these spaces in some form as the doors that open into inexpressible realms.
A liminal space can be as simple as the threshold of a door, especially one that delineates a boundary. The door to a church or a temple is an archetypal liminal boundary, which separates the mundane world from the holy realms of sanctuary which can be found within. The transition into this space is usually acknowledged by washing of the body, especially the hands, feet and face, a symbolic cleansing ritual which allows the person to properly breach the threshold and enter into the holy sanctuary, rather than failing the transitory rite and remaining in the mundane world. But, something like a forest or ocean can just as easily form a liminal space. While passing through these places it is easy to become lost, and that sense of dissociation with continuous space makes them perfect catalysts for liminality. Be careful when walking through the woods at night, because you may find yourself somewhere else entirely. If you notice a ship with green lights at night on the sea, kill your lanterns and do not respond to its signals. These are fantastical superstitions, but they are fitting because they acknowledge the mystique of these places, and assign to that feeling a certain power to transport things from other realms into our own. That power which we grant to certain spaces, to carry us away with their mystery or majesty, and with them to manifest things in our own realm, is liminality; and establishing what spaces have this property in your world can be important for all sorts of magical and esoteric purposes, as well as for figuring out what path your heroes have to take to enter your outer realms.
Most ancient people at least tried to develop a sense of how the world was organized. The ancient Greeks theorized that the world was composed of successive layers, beginning deep underground or in the underworld, eventually coming up to the surface of the earth, and then rising into successive layers of air, ending at the dome of the stars. The Norse instead had the World tree, which held the worlds together and kept them stable. The theme of the world requiring a stabilizing force is common, as is the idea that if these forces ever ceased the worlds would come crashing down. For further examples we can look to Atlas holding up the weight of the heavens, or the world-elephants of Hindi mythology. A good organizing principle for your world or for a particular belief system of your world can be a distinguishing aesthetic and thematic choice that helps keep them memorable.
However, these gateways and organizing principles are just frameworks for the really interesting parts, the stranger outer realms of your world. The variety of realms expressed in world mythology really are staggering, but here I’ll try to summarize a bunch of types and give some examples.
The Afterlife or the Underworld
Just about every culture has either an afterlife, or at least a belief in something after death. Afterlives are usually very different cross-culturally, unless those cultures have been in contact long enough to assimilate or syncretize their beliefs. Most seem to make a distinction of sin and punishment, whether it be sentencing to Heaven or Hell by Saint Peter, or having your soul devoured by Ammit for being heavier than a feather. But some dodge the need for an explicit afterlife by the inclusion of a philosophy like karmic-reincarnation, where the dead are reborn anew.
The most common spaces to place the realm of the afterlife are either underground or in the sky. The association with the dead being below our feet may have to do with a metaphorical link to burial rites. Those that bury their dead see the underworld as somewhere “below”, those that burn their dead, or dispose of them in other ways may see things differently. Even those that bury their dead may do it with the idea that one day they will need to rise again, because the grave is not their permanent resting place. Regardless of the thought process involved, when people die, something must be done with the body. Once a preferred method is established in a community and becomes tradition, the culture will begin to enshroud that burial rite in religious metaphor and deeper meaning, and this often involves an understanding of how the “soul” should be directed to receive a healthy, happy afterlife.
Mythologies often directly address the afterlife in their stories. It’s not exactly uncommon for a hero to descend into the underworld to bring someone back to life, though it is uncommon for them to have any success in this endeavor. In Norse mythology Frigg meets with Hel to bargain for the life of her son Balder, and obtains an agreement that Balder would be returned if every single thing in the world wept for him. Frigg was unsuccessful in her quest, and so Balder remained dead. In Greek mythology Orpheus went to Hades to bargain for the life of his wife Eurydike, and by the mercy of Persephone was given the chance to lead her soul back to the surface, but only if he never looked back on the way out. Just like in the Norse myth, Orpheus fails the task set for him by the Lady of the Dead and is forced to return to the world brokenhearted.
Afterlives are often vividly detailed in myth with fantastical elements befitting their importance. Places of punishment are often associated with fire, disease and rot, while places of paradise are bright, warm and full of life. Many mythologies take the time to detail the arrangement of cities and lands in the underworld as well, speaking of places where particular monsters or demons reside, detailing the walls and gardens of the death-god’s palace, and adding districts and realms reserved only for particular classes of people. People are naturally curious about death, and will ask all sorts of questions about what it will be like when they get there.
Realms of the “Other”
Some mythologies have special realms where certain spirits or creatures live. In Norse mythology there are the realms like Niflheim, Svartalfheim and Jotunheim specifically set away for some of the magical races, much like Midgard is set aside for humans. These other parallel realms are very common in fantasy where they frequently form either the ancestral homeland of the elves or another race, or as the place that magic is drawn from. You could even implement another world like this as a way to avoid having multiple countries or continents, instead having a series of sectioned off worlds full of fantastic denizens. While in fantasy these worlds are generally very different from ours, being lands of extreme cold, eternal light, wide oceans or what have you, your versions of these worlds can be very earth-like and full of more conventional characters.
As a sort of extension of this idea, your world may be part of a larger multiverse. Magic: the Gathering, and many comic books have multiverses made up of these other realms which are composed of different sorts of magic or other energy and often have unique creatures inhabiting them right alongside the more conventional races of the setting. In many settings, the multiverse is also an expression of time, fracturing into endless permutations representing all possible timelines for all worlds.
Keep in mind as you add more realms to your world that you are also stacking on complexity. Only add and design worlds that you really want or that you plan to use, and keep everything else in the dark until you need it. Even one world is a lot, and especially in high-power fantasy it can be difficult not to get lost in the weeds on realm design. The details of these places should be among the last things you work out in your worldbuilding unless you have a specific use for the information now.
Prior to the understanding that the world was a complete sphere, people had all sorts of ideas of what the world must look like beyond their lands. A common staple of ancient worldviews was the idea that the world got stranger and more mystical the farther you travel from your homeland. Historically, it was easy to make things up or exaggerate things you saw in distant lands, as no one existed to fact check you. Marco Polo’s journey to China returned with stories of dragons, cameleopards and all sorts of other nonsense that was accepted in the West for hundreds of years before global communications finally started to correct the misinformation.
People may also attempt to extrapolate what they know about the world to create an idea of what lies beyond. For example, a common motif in world mythology is a land in the east where the sun physically rises from, possibly corresponding to a setting point in the west. Heroes often journey to the palace of the sun far away in these lands as part of the boon-seeking part of their hero’s journey. Cultures may believe in a frozen land beyond the north, as the Greeks and Romans did, or a land of searing fire in the south as the Norse believed would appear at Ragnarok at the behest of the fire-giant Surtr.
The major difference between these lands and the realms discussed earlier is that these places are felt to exist in the physical world, simply farther away than anyone would ever reasonably travel. Gods often live in these lands, if they are physical beings, and monsters are also frequent travelers here.
Elemental planes are getting more and more common in fantasy these days. The basic idea is similar to the Nordic outer realms, but aligned to the cardinal elements of the world. D&D and its derivatives assume your cosmology include these planes and reference them in some of the rules, which has contributed to the proliferation of these types of planes. What’s nice about using this type of realm is that they reinforce your elemental system if you want that to be a defining aspect of your setting, and they simplify the design of your outer realms, leaving you more time to explore other, more important parts of your world.
Fire, water, earth and air are the four classical elements of the West, but there are other elemental systems in the world to draw inspiration from. Chinese mysticism assumes five elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Video games, especially CRPGs and Diablo-likes often have a system of three elemental damage types, electricity, ice and fire. Many JRPGs use some combination of these other elemental systems but often add light and dark as well, much like how D&D and similar d20 systems often include positive and negative energies. Which elements you choose to include, and how your realms reflect the qualities of those elements are up to you, but the choices you make will reflect the inspirations and expectations you are bringing into the setting.
Planets and Stars
Among a wide array of native cultures of North America there was a belief that people had descended from the stars, and that the ancestral home of mankind was somewhere among the heavens. In other cultures, planets associated with the gods were sometimes imagined to be their distant abodes, or their bodies drifting through the heavens. And even in ancient times there was speculation about what it would be like to travel to the moon, and what we might find there.
Before the launch of the Mariner 2 probe in 1962, some scientists were of the belief that Venus lay within a habitable zone of our sun, and could support a swampy ecosystem. Modern understanding of astronomy, surface imaging and seismographic data of the planet itself, indicate that Venus likely never had the proper conditions for life to survive there; but, even as late as the 1960’s a mythos of a shared solar-system was alive and well.
Stellar and planetary worlds verge on the realm of science-fantasy, but if that flavor is something your world can accommodate, it allows you to illustrate your cosmology through the things visible in the night sky, which is pretty cool. Your other planets could be mundane realms which are bound to the same laws and functions as your setting’s “homeworld”, or they could be more classical style planes and realms; highly magical and difficult to get to without the aid of a divine being or a liminal portal.
The closest most of us will ever get to living in a fantasy world is the occasional memories we have of our dreams. Dreams are sort of an enigma, even now with the benefit of modern science. It’s still unclear what, if any, evolutionary pressures led to dreaming, or if it is the result of some sort of convergent coincidence. The interpretation of dreams and their meanings is still a hot topic, but it’s also an ancient one.
Some ancient peoples assumed that dreams were gifts from the gods, and practiced oneiromancy, or fortune-telling through dream interpretation. Others assumed that dreams must take place in another realm, one which is altogether stranger and more magical than the waking world. For these people, it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that if the dream world existed, that the things they experience there must somehow carry over into the real world. Healing through dream journeys was an especially common fixture of societies who for whatever reason lacked robust herb-lore and couldn’t properly medicate through foraging. For those societies with access to psychedelics, there was often a conflation of the dream and psychic realms. For many the medicine-man figure of their community acted as a sort of psychic psychopomp, who would lead them on journeys through these other realms for therapeutic purposes.
The nice thing about dream realms is that be definition they are fluid, inconstant places. Most worldbuilding done here will focus on structure and cosmology, because each dreamer will be subject to the random whimsy of subconscious expression. On the other hand, you could instead make dreams in your world more concrete and consistent, like a parallel set of lives between two continuous worlds. In any case, if your world or mythology has a dream realm, remember that people dream every night. This realm may have a disproportionately larger effect on the thematics of your world than other realms, because people will be interacting with it so often.
Metamyths and Narrative Motifs
Many authors have found that when they construct a world, it benefits them to have that world convey a specific philosophical view-point. Often this is not done as a direct allegory to real life, but rather serves to illustrate a belief or narrative theme of the story being told.
An excellent example of worldbuilding-narrative assonance, is Frank Herbert’s Dune. [Spoilers for Dune in this paragraph.] In Dune, the planet of Arrakis has been designed on a narrative level to help Herbert convey the social and environmental messages he wants to highlight in his narrative. The fact that Arrakis is a desert planet allows Herbert to properly frame the Fremen’s water crisis and ecological management solutions while also reinforcing the message that ecological disasters disproportionately affect the poor and disenfranchised. The harshness of Arrakis in general and the Fremen’s extreme adaptation to the Shai-Hulud and other threats there allows Herbert to make a contrast with the Sardaukar, and illustrate the narrative pattern within Dune that only great adversity breeds greatness, and that success and power conversely breed weakness. He then carries these themes throughout every level of the book, reflecting again and again on the injustices wrought by the wealthy Imperial interests against the people of Arrakis, and repeating the theme of power breeding weakness in his representation of the Atreides line vs the Harkonnen line, and the ultimate displacement of Imperial power by the much more hardened and enlightened Paul.
For people who haven’t read Dune, a historical example is the personae of Roman comedies. The word persona originally referred to the masks worn by actors in the comedies. These masks were iconic. The designs and the characters were consistent enough across the Roman world, that a person from Roman Egypt and a person from Roman Britain would have been able to watch a play together and find that both of them were familiar with the characters almost at once. Aside from the visual element, the mask represented a specific function for the character within the narrative of the play. The roles were so common and ingrained that they had names based on their story function, like the adulescens who is a noble young man who has fallen in love with a woman of lower birth, and through the course of the story will earn her love, and in the end reveal that she is actually through some happenstance a noble woman, fit for him to marry. It’s actually that specific, and there are around a dozen of these which all have similarly complex and oddly specific quirks and character arcs.
My point here is that if you are creating a world for a narrative driven work, it will likely benefit you to design your world to reinforce your narrative themes through repeating patterns of settings and characters. This would include in some cases creating stock characters or archetypal character-forms for your world which appear again and again in different contexts, with the purpose of tying disparate narratives into a single cohesive whole. Or it might involve telling the same story structure over and over again with the characters and factions swapped out. When you apply these narrative motifs to your world in a way that integrates them into your in-universe cosmology, you are creating a system of metamyth, or a mythopoeia. When these themes exist only out-of-universe as a tool to help unify your story which doesn’t extend to the internal worldview of your characters you are instead creating a narrative framework, or meta-narrative.
For a modern example of an enormous narrative framework, look no farther than Hollywood. If I say “Racing Movie” or “Spy Thriller” or “Christmas Rom-Com”, you know exactly what films I’m talking about, even if you can’t actually think of an example. In the racing movie you have “The Team”, which consists of at least three people, one of which is a very attractive woman/love interest for the main character, who is either hot-headed young upstart, or an older possibly bald man who “got out” and has now been pulled back to the scene for whatever plot contrivance necessary to kick off the story. Probably a murder. I could go through the rest, but you get the idea.
In Hollywood, these motifs are mostly just a fast way to crank out movies. But, when you take the time to craft your own systems of meta-narrative, you can actually suggest quite a lot about a character very quickly with few words and just a couple overt cues, once your audience is familiar with the framework you’ve constructed.
The most common metamyth in all of fantasy is the Triumph of Good over Evil. The hero, the villain, and the structure of worlds that feature this metamyth are almost so second nature that you almost can’t utilize it anymore without a nagging feeling that you should try to be a little more creative. Part of the reason this narrative feels so stale these days is because it’s based on an older worldview that doesn’t speak to modern audiences as well as it did 100 years ago. Namely, the Triumph expresses the narrative theme that “goodness”, which was often aligned with religiosity in the past, is an absolute and perfect force that contrasts an “evil” associated with a devil or irreligious figure. Good will always win, while evil is a self defeating and doomed force. In the context of a broadly Christian society the metamyth was well accepted, and was a reassuring and powerful message about the strength of faith. In an increasingly atheist society, the message seems childish and undeveloped, because broadly the worldview being expressed seems too simplistic and unselfconscious.
Look at the stories you like and ask yourself why you like them. What about them speaks to you? The themes and struggles of the characters? The way the world feels? The ideas that the author is trying to convey to you? If these elements jive with the world you’re building, you may be able to include them in metamythic constructs of your world. By iterating on these narrative elements you can create a consistent narrative core that runs through your whole world, from bottom to top. It will not only help the setting feel unified and well thought out, it will also provide a seed for all the stories and characters you will produce in your world. And, just like modern Hollywood or ancient Roman Theater, you will want several of these meta-stories and meta-characters so that it’s easier to genuinely mix up the formula while still adhering to the same roots.
Your use of meta-narrative structures can be aided greatly by having a robust symbology associated with your world. Numerology often ties into metamyth as an organizing principle for the world. In Taoism, where the world is viewed as a cosmic balance between the dual forces of yin and yang; dualism is then reflected in the understanding of all lesser systems. If the world is made of two balancing forces, then these forces should be everywhere, and more to the point, nothing will have three or four essential forces instead, the number 2 has to carry consistently through everything. Imagery and symbolism can prop up meta myth as well, acting like the Roman persona masks by using imagery to mark people subject to shared mythical roles. By using common symbols to draw parallels between your characters you create archetypes specific to your world, which just like the “natural” set of character archetypes will help you quickly convey large amounts of information about a character without overt info dumping.
Once you understand your realms, your world’s creation, and its mythic structures, you are basically prepared to answer any of the high order questions about the cosmic echelons of your world. More importantly, these answers may often feel like they come as natural consequences of the systems you’ve set down beforehand. However, developing these features of your world can easily distract you from the more grounded parts of your world and the stories that take place there. Unless you have a particular need for lore on one of these features, your time here is best spent by briefly outlining your bare essentials now, and coming back to tweak these things as your actual story becomes more developed in its themes and needs.
Religions Part 2: Divine Archetypes and Motifs