Saturday, January 14, 2012

Religion in Aerde

A reader recently made a comment in passing about religion in fantasy stories, which reminded me that I actually have "Religions" in my list of potential blog topics - and thus inspired today's post.

I've seen religion treated many different ways in fantasy novels, from being a core piece of the world's culture, to being basically non-existent. I've seen polytheistic worlds with hundreds of gods, and I've seen monotheistic worlds. From my admittedly limited experience with modern fantasy and fantasy authors, it appears that religion is mostly ignored or treated as a footnote in both the story and the society at large. I suspect this has more to do with the author's lack of interest in the topic than anything else, and yet it seems to me that any author who overlooks such an important piece of human culture and the human world-view, especially if one purports to be modeling their world on a medieval or pseudo-medieval society, is creating a fantasy world of limited dimensions (and the characters will likewise lack an important dimension).

Consider just how important religion was in Europe, from the time that Christianity was first introduced by Roman missionaries, right up through the Enlightenment period. Even before the arrival of Christianity, there is plenty of evidence that the pagan religions were equally important to the peoples of Europe. And if you look at classical Greece or Rome, or go further east into Mesopotamia and the empires of Babylon and Sumeria, you find the same thing. Wherever you go in human history, you find that religion is not merely a side-dish that a few people choose to partake of, but rather a large part of the main course of life which practically everyone believes in and experiences. It is, in fact, the non-religious people who are considered the odd ones, the atheists who are outcast and mocked, even attacked in some societies (the Greek philosopher Socrates was accused of impiety [not believing in the gods], among other crimes, and sentenced to death).

Given that I have chosen to model my world Aerde on historical Earth and its cultures, how could I reasonably do so, or claim to do so, without also including religion? Clearly I cannot, nor do I have any desire to do so. In fact, I do consider religion a core part of my world and its cultures.

Of course that begs the question, What religion? In this, I am taking a degree of poetic license with history. I view Aerde, and its religions, through a sort of Old Testament lens: that is to say, I believe that there are many gods, but only one Creator who made them all. The definition of "god" in Aerde, therefore, does not require omnipotence, omniscience, or omnipresence. What it does require is some sort of supernatural being who is more powerful than the people who worship him, who is able to at least occasionally grant petitions (prayers), and who can at least occasionally perform miracles through his believers.

In a way, the Roman Catholic Christians of medieval Europe, praying to the saints, were closer to the polytheists of Aerde than the polytheistic and pagan Vikings. But with that said, I have directly borrowed the names of the gods from Norse and other myths - you will find Wodin (Odin), and Thror (Thor), among others. But in my view of Aerde, these gods are created beings, much more powerful than Men, and perhaps even worthy of worship, but still subservient to the one true Creator.

There is also a newer religion, basically monotheistic but not militant about it: the worshipers of the One. Though it hasn't yet taken much of a hold among the nations of Aerde, there are small conclaves of these believers scattered here and there. They would tend to have a similar view to my own, where the One is the sole Creator of the universe, and the other gods, though perhaps still gods, are lesser beings and not necessarily worthy of worship. There may be a few radicals who would go so far as to claim that the other gods are not even truly gods but only daemons in disguise, but those people are minorities, even among the minority of monotheistic believers.

I could say a lot more on the topic, but this will do for now. It gives you an idea of the flavor of Aerde and its religions, without overly specific details to spoil the surprise when you finally read one of my stories.


  1. So if Aerde is a sort of ancient or pre-historic earth, then would these lesser gods be what we now call angels? Or have they become extinct? Or did they simply go away or somehow disappear? Or is that just a mystery to which we don't know the answer?

    Do the people, being polytheistic, tend to be followers/worshippers of a particular god of their choice even though they believe in the existence of all of them? Or do they worship them all?

    1. I would classify the gods as a higher order than the angels, but no mortal knows the hidden mystery beyond that truth. ;-)

      People will do as they wish, so the answer about worshiping will be different for everyone. I suppose there is truth in the statement, "No one can serve two masters," so most people will have a preference for one particular god over others. And while each nation typically has its own local gods, which have primacy within the culture, some amount of syncretism would take place causing gods to be shared between nations and cultures.

      Even with syncretism having taken place over a long period of time, not everyone knows of every god that is worshiped. In fact most people do not - they know only the local gods of their land. Even in their local pantheon, they will probably tend to have a preferred family god, like a "patron saint" who watches over them. They may still honor the other gods, but would make more sacrifices and prayers to the one than all the rest.