Worldbuilding: Religion and Mythology

Discussion in 'Tips and Tricks' started by Lauriam, Jun 17, 2018.


What would you like the next Worldbuilding Guide to cover?

Poll closed Jul 1, 2018.
  1. Environment

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  2. Magic System

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  3. Races

  4. Diversity

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  5. Economy, Export, and Trade

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  6. Science, Technology, and Medicine

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  7. History

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  1. Lauriam I hope I didn't keep you waiting...

    Jun 4, 2009
    Nonbinary she/he/it?
    Hi guys, so this time, the requested topic for my Worldbuilding series was Religion and Mythology! There's a LOT to unpack here, so let's dive right into the gritty details, hmm?

    If you're creating a fantasy world from scratch, religion and mythology of the cultures inhabiting it are very important. Religion and Mythology can define art, politics, music, language, history, the understanding of science, cultural and racial diversity, and architecture, and can be defined by environment, magic-systems, politics, and again, history, cultural and racial diversity, and the understanding of science.

    Now, I'm going to try and keep this short, but since Religion and Mythology are so involved and pervasive into every corner of culture, don't be surprised if it runs a bit long, lol. To try and shorten it as much as possible, I'm going to just go into the process of creating one religion and its' affect on the world it's placed in, but bear in mind that the thing about religion and mythology is it's diverse. If you want a believable world, you have to have multiple systems of belief, and realistic relationships between the followers of each one. There should be no All-Encompassing one-world religion. Even in futuristic societies or dystopian works where science is well understood and people don't believe in gods, morality in general will always have multiple ways of interpretation and application, and will provide a central theme of conflict that you, as the writer, will need to clearly understand in order to represent your characters' motives and actions sufficiently.

    In getting into the creation of a religion or mythos, you're going to end up drawing heavily from the other aspects of your world. Starting with, and you're probably sick of hearing this but I'll say it again, the environment. XD

    The environment is crucial to religion and mythology, especially if your story is set in a time of little to no understanding of science. In fact, it might actually might be the single most important factor in the creation thereof. Most religions, after all, are an attempt at understanding and explaining the world around them. What is this thing called 'the sun,' and why does it rise and set every day? What is thunder? Why does it rain? Who built the mountains? Why are spiders a thing? Seriously though why are spiders a thing?? People who have no understanding of science still need to know why things happen the way they do: it's a fundamental part of human nature. And if there is no known answer, they'll find one. So the environment is a big part of things because without the need to understand thunder, there would be no such thing as Zeus.

    When you're creating a religion for your world, look at the environment you've created and ask yourself "If there were no such thing as 'science,' how would I think this worked?" And let your imagination supply you with the rest. This is especially fun if you've got a noticeable environmental factor that separates your world from earth, such as the two moons in my own fantasy novel. When I set out to build one of the polytheistic religions in my world, I looked at the two moons and just started writing as if they were actual people; what their backstory was, what their relationships were to the sun and the sea and the stars, why they 'behave' the way they do, etc. Turn the environment into your own cast of characters and write stories about them, and you have the foundations of a polytheistic religion already now in place.

    Now that the gods themselves are set, it's time to determine the relations they allegedly had with the people in the world. Are your gods benevolent? Malevolent? Ambivalent? Do they visit the earth frequently or infrequently? Where do they live? What 'gifts' would they have given the mortals in their care? What's their physical relationship with mortals? Are the mortals descended from the gods, or are they two separate races? Do the gods and mortals ever have romantic relationships? Are demigods a thing? How do the mortals show respect to the gods? Are the gods worshiped or feared? Do the gods require sacrifices? What sort of moral code do the gods have, and do they enforce this code on the mortals in their care? What happens to mortals who deny or abandon the teachings of their chosen god?

    Once you establish the way the gods interacted with people in their stories and mythology, you can start delving into the religion's impact on society. Are the religious or political leaders of your cultures determined by something like 'divine intervention' or 'godly birth?' Are the laws of your society based on the moral codes of one or more of the gods? Are the worshipers of one god at odds with the worshipers of another god due to a conflict in these moral codes? How do the followers of the religion treat outliers? If the gods require human sacrifice, how are the victims determined? Are there any festivals or fasts or periods of worship dedicated to important spiritual events or anniversaries?

    The next thing to consider when making a religion in a fantasy world is your Magic-System, and how it's interpreted to relate to this specific religion. It's important to note, when building a magical world, that every single religion within the world has to have some sort of sign that their religion is tied to the magic, and is in fact a far superior tie than any other religion in the world. You don't have to make it true, but they have to have a reason to believe in their religion over the other religions that also explain the way the world works.

    And if you want to, you can make their religion be 'the true one.' The beauty of adding magic to your world is it does allow for the divine to be possible. You could have your group of gods be real, physical beings that visit with your people throughout the course of the story. Perhaps your MC is a demigod, or even a real god that hasn't discovered their birthright yet, or they could be a mortal who's been given a divine task or gift to serve some purpose of the gods. But if you choose one religion to be real, you still have to give the other religions in your world a valid reason to believe they're real. Which, will be pretty tricky, considering multiple religions might depict the 'sun' as a different being, and unless your sun-god is playful and mischievous, they might not indulge the silly mortals by acting out a different role every time they visit a different part of the world.

    I mean, they might though, it really all depends on how you choose to portray said god. But that's the good thing about a magic system in fiction. It could really be whatever you want it to be, and as long as you're careful to make your magic system make sense in relation to itself and the fictional world, anything goes.

    Now that you've got the gods, the stories, the moral and political influences on society, and their place among magic, it's time to work this into the language of your world. Spiders are Arachnids because of Arachne. Narcissism is a term because of Narcissus. Thursday is Thursday because of Thor. I could go on, listing words, names, idioms, phrases, expletives, etc. that originated with religion and mythology. If your world is completely, 100% separate from ours and there is no concept of our religions within it, you need to purge your work of real-world religious terms and instead pepper it with your own expressions and words. Now, this isn't to say you should replace every 'hell' with 'my name for the underworld,' but rather, be mindful that the term 'hell' as an expletive would never have even come into being in the first place, and make your character express his current emotional state in a new way. I've heard common complaints from reviewers of popular books that "the author made it clear Christianity never existed in this world, why is everyone always saying 'oh my god' all the time?" Remember that, when writing fantasy, you're already requiring massive amounts of suspension of disbelief from your readers: Don't push it by breaking your own rules.

    And now we come to a topic already partially covered in my "Music, Architecture, and Art" guide, which is... well, music, architecture, and art. How are your gods depicted in their nations of worship? Are there massive temples dedicated to them? Are there sacrificial sites? Are there statues of the gods? Paintings or tapestries depicting some of the stories regarding them? Jewelry that's supposed to contain divine properties? Songs that are supposed to summon them, or even just songs that, again, depict things that supposedly happened regarding them? Songs of praises? People like pretty things, and people like faith. There's gonna be a lot of crossover there.

    Now, if you have a world that does have a good understanding of science and they know why volcanoes erupt, that doesn't mean you have no need for religion. Especially if there is still magic in your world as well as science. It is possible to blend a faith system with science, although extremely difficult. In order to do this, you'll first have to completely understand your magic system and how it interacts with nature and science, so once you have that figured out, you can create a believable world in which a god might be associated with the sun, but not be the sun itself - unless you literally make them the sun somehow, because, as I said, in fantasy fiction, anything goes as long as you set it up correctly.

    And... then you have a religion that permeates and defines a culture, and is in turn defined by it as well.

    Now just do that six or seven or a hundred more times, and you've got a diverse, believable, conflict-ridden world you can subsequently do your darnedest to destroy/save. XD

    Briefly, I'll go over other types of religions, though I won't be building any for you today, rather just noting their existence and some perks or drawbacks to some of them.

    Setting up a monotheistic religion is a bit different because in most cases, this god created nature as opposed to many polytheistic religions where the gods are nature. If you have a monotheistic religion in place, that can make it easier to explain the bridge between scientific and magical world elements, but isn't necessarily any better than making up a polytheistic religion - if anything just because it's more fun to write about why the sun and moon hate each other so much lol. XD

    But yeah, monotheistic religions deal more with tiers as opposed to relationships, so when creating monotheistic religions, your stories will usually include some form of angel vs. demon, both under the single god, as opposed to god vs. god on semi equal footing. These tiers could also include beings such as reapers, seraphs, cherubs, etc. Monotheistic religions are also traditionally more... intolerant, as in a polytheistic religion, serving a different god is not wrong, just different, while in monotheism, it's either the One god or it's evil.

    And then there's atheism, which is the rejection of a god of any sort, pantheism, which usually refers to the belief that a deity is the universe or alternatively, the universe itself is a deity, and therefore the universe itself is worshiped, henotheism or inclusive monotheism, which is the worship of one god while not denying the existence of multiple others, and deism or agnosticism, which are variations of the belief in a distant deity or deities that are responsible for creating the universe, but don't actually have any interaction or interest in it and are therefore an absent god. And then there are still other types of religion that don't deal with the concept of a deity at all, and life itself is treated as sacred.

    All in all, try and make your religions diverse, not just in characteristics of the gods themselves, but also in the kind of religion being practiced. And if you want to make one or more of your religions true to your world, you can - but you don't have to. If you've done your job well and have crafted multiple religions that are believable enough, in the end, it doesn't really matter which one is right: only which ones your characters believe to be right. Because religion is, in my opinion, a far greater force with which to drive your plot than simple greed, power, or lust. Yes, sometimes those vices can be a great source of conflict, but they're no match for a hero/villain who does what they do out of a sense of divine right or moral superiority. Belief is a stronger motivator than wealth, faith is a reason to fight when material or emotional factors might cease to be. Give your characters faith, and they have the strength to power through whatever comes their way in the name of all that is right or holy. Call their faith into question and watch them fall to pieces as they struggle to make sense of a suddenly-inexplicable world. Faith is an excellent plot device, and also incredibly relatable to most audiences.

    But, I'm starting to ramble. XD To try and wrap this up, religion and mythology are the core of the human experience, even if the end result is a denial of the whole thing. They shape history, write languages, inspire creativity, and provide either hope, peace, and security - or torment, fear, and uncertainty. If you don't have some good religions or mythology in your world, you're cutting yourself off from what might be your greatest asset as a writer, and it would be well worth it to reconsider the option of including some.

    As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below and I'll get back to you when I can, and if you want to follow me on twitter for more writerly thoughts as I have them, my handle's PlushChrome. Poll for the next topic is up!

    Happy writing! <3
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2018