the_norseman (the_norseman) wrote,
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World Building: How to make Pagan beliefs more than Christianity with more gods - Part I

I was going to write a piece about arbitrariness in world building, and there is a lot of that going around. Then I got into a debate about religion.

I seem to have a big sign on my back saying, "please debate me about religion," but for some reason I'm the only one that can't see it. That's the only explanation I have as to why religious debates seem to pursue me.

So I've decided to make this rant about religion, pre-Christian religion to be precise. I'll use the word Pagan to describe them and their followers, it's simply for my convenience. Believe it or not, these religions were very different from Christianity, in many cases their followers didn't even see them as religions.

Interested?

I've written two more parts: Part II and Part III

1. Reified Religion

Let me talk to you about reified religions, that is religions that see themselves as religions, and distinct from other religions. At this point you may go "Huh? Isn't that part of the definition of religion?"

Well no actually, but I'll let someone else explain it. In this rant I'll make two quotes from this thread from soc.history.what-if. It's a newsgroup that deals with Alternate History and What-Ifs and it's a very informative place. Quote is from a poster on the thread I linked:
Reified religion, at its simplist, is when people start thinking of their religion as a thing. My thesis is that before Christianity, people didn't have "faiths" or "religions" as we know them. They were aware of their cultures' spiritual beliefs, but they didn't understand them as monolithic entities requiring ideological commitment.

For them, it would be like, hmm, maybe like saying one can be a fan of British sports OR American sports but not both. So if one likes Ice Hockey, it goes with liking Baseball, Basketball, American Football, AND Lacrosse, while if one likes Field Hockey, than one must also like Cricket, Netball, Association Football, and Hurling. Imagine if, in some alternate world, it was taken for granted that sports fans would be Americanists or Britainnists, and the thought of liking both Baseball and Soccer was as weird as someone saying "I'm a Christian and a Hindu." To them, it might even be apparent that we clearly have such divisions: most baseball fans are probably going to have much more appreciation for American football than soccer, after all, and probably like basketball too...
So what does all of this mean in practical terms?

I'll give you an example using the Roman Empire. They had an official state religion, or rather a state cult, complete with priests and temples supported by the state. As the Empire grew, this religion incorporated gods and rites from all parts of the Empire.

Meanwhile the local areas generally retained their own rites and gods, and didn't necessarily participate in the official Roman rituals and celebrations. That didn't mean that they wouldn't revere various foreign gods, Isis for instance was very popular.

No one saw anything peculiar about this, they mixed and matched as they saw fit. The areas that everyone went to, e.g. the Imperial core, wound up with a very eclectic religious system. Meanwhile the outlaying areas retained their old religious systems, with a few borrowings and new prohibitions; e.g. no human sacrifices.

There were some unifying aspect such as the Imperial Cult. In short was the organised worship of deified Emperors and the current Emperor's genus.

It was unifying not in the sense that it was above or beyond the local religion, but in the sense that everyone participated in the rituals. Everyone would sacrifice some incense to the genus of the Emperor.

From a pagan point of view this made perfect sense, after all they were all part of the Empire, and they wanted the Emperor to govern well.

The difference between sacrificing to the Emperor and refusing to do so was in many ways the difference between saluting the flag and burning it. Or between rising for the national anthem, or turning your back on it.

To a lesser extent this was true of other religious practises; by participating you showed that you were part of the community. Or at least that you respected the customs and beliefs of the community, and could be trusted to abide by them. So foreign merchants would cheerfully sacrifice to the local gods, thus appeasing both the locals and their gods.

For that matter a priest dedicated to one god or cult wouldn't see anything wrong, or peculiar, about offering a sacrifice to a different god, or in participating in the rites of a different cult. Unless of course doing so would clash with a ritual taboo, or violate some strongly felt belief; e.g. it involves something he thinks is immoral.

There were recognised exceptions to this, like the Jews, but they were considered very peculiar because of it. Moreover their refusal to participate in local rites didn't endear them to the locals. To them it seemed down right rude, and a bit suspicious too; e.g. "what are those people hiding?"

2. Religious Organisation

We have to ask what having a non-reified religion means to the clergy. For instance the Priest of the Temple of Mars in Athens and the Priest of the Temple of Mars in Massilia are not part of the same organisation. One of them works for the city of Athens, the other for the city of Massilia.

Certainly there were official, traditional priesthoods with a long and illustrious history. However even the Roman College of Pontiffs were in the main restricted to the city itself. Certainly powerful priests had political influence, and generals would bring augurs with them on campaigns. However there was no system of bishops, priests, deacons, etc, etc.

In general every region and every city had to provide their own priests and temples, with occasional state support. They were free to continue their old rites, and to hold on to their old mythology. There was no overarching organisation, no one to say, "this is a true legend, and a true practise, but that isn't." There was just mythology, tradition, and a shared overall culture.

In some areas there was no organised clergy at all, among the Old Norse for instance the local chieftain would often be the local priest as well. After all the religion was based around the community, and promoting the health of the community. It makes sense that the greatest man in the community, is in charge of this.

As for temples a lot of people seem to think that every pagan city had a temple to every god their worshipped. That's not necessarily so, many cities had temples to various individual gods, but they also had one Pantheon Temple, a temple dedicated to all the gods. Smaller cities could make do with just a Pantheon Temple, where all the gods were worshipped equally. Indeed one Spanish city was noted for being unusual because it had individual temples for all its gods.

In a similar vein in ancient Scandinavia many Hovs had images of all the gods, even if the Hov was mainly dedicated to a particular god. Nor did they mind adding a god to their collection of images.

Naturally there are some exceptions; like the Egyptians. They had an organised clergy, a hierarchical system centred in Memphis, and lower clergy were interchangeable enough that they could move between different temples.

Egyptian temples were generally devoted to one god, and the higher clergy had been initiated in the specific traditions of their temple and/or region. Thus they'd spend most of their life in the service of their god.

This is about as close as you come to the stereotypical temple and clergy. Then again Egypt was a highly organised state that had lasted millennia, Rome, Greece, everyone else had by comparison only recently left the city state stage.

So you can have an organised temple system, clergy, etc, but you have to ask yourself this: Why is it here? Where does it come from? What practical benefit does it have?

Most fantasy worlds fail that test.

3. Syncretism and Borrowing Gods

I won't be using Syncretism in its strict academic meaning, by syncretism I'll refer to attempts to fuse two religious systems or two gods into one. By borrowing gods I mean very simply that you keep your old system, but you also worship these other gods.

There was a lot of syncretism in the Roman Empire, the whole Greco-Roman pantheon is an enormous example of syncretism, where they tried to match the Roman gods one to one with their Greek counterparts. There were of course differences in rites, alleged personalities of the gods, and mythology.

This didn't really bother anyone, since mythology was sort of an intellectual foundation for the cult. It wasn't something you took all that seriously.

Then you have borrowing gods, like the Romans borrowed the Magna Mater, or the way the worship of Isis spread all across the Roman world. If you got some legend that says you need to worship this one god, or there's a hole in your pantheon you just build a temple and hire a priest. More often you'd just install a statue in the local Pantheon Temple.

This would work for a lot of cultures, as I'm sure the Old Norse would have borrowed Dionysius, and there'd probably be some myth about how he first came to visit Asgard.

Before you decide on which approach you will use for your world ask yourself two questions: Who are the gods, and how active are they?

If the gods are the same wherever you go, except that they use different names and guises, then there's no problem with syncretism. If on the other hand there are several families of gods, and they're all fairly distinct, then you'll need other approaches. The most likely one is that each area worship "their" gods first and foremost, but the main city might have temples, shrines, or statues to other gods.

4. Regional Variation

Another pet peeve is that a lot of books have the rituals to a god be the same no matter where you go.

The question is why?

Did the god pass down a manual of rituals that you must follow precisely? Does the god make sure that human agents don't mess up the manual of rituals? Or does the god just make sure that the priests don't mess things up?

If so why?

The gods as picture by most pagan cultures wanted worship and reverence, but they weren't too peculiar about the details. Or if they were picky about the details it was generally a regional thing.

For instance the Romans were very finicky about certain rites being done just so, to the extent that you had to start all over again if you coughed. That sort of thing occurs in other cultures too, and in magic rituals. Basically the belief is that to get the good effect you want you have to do things exactly the way you did them before.

Thing is the precise ritual tends to change quite a bit from place to place. E.g. leave the city you're in and go to a temple in the country, or one in the next city, and you may find a completely different set of finicky rites.

You may argue that if the gods are active they may be pickier, and more specific about what they want. However that brings up the question of how specific; specific as in "Say this prayer when you sacrifice a sheep at this date," or specific as in "Here's a fifteen volume manual of rituals describing every single possible regional variation."

Let's look at what is often thought of as the icon of monolithic thought, the Roman Catholic Church! The popular view is that this is the McDonalds of Churches, where you could always be sure to get the exact same ritual no matter where you went. At least before Vatican II anyway.

The only problem is that this view is entirely wrong, there are a great number of Catholic Liturgical Rites and before 1570 there were even more. In addition the Catholic Church has autonomous ritual churches like the Eastern Catholic Churches which are self governing even though they recognise the primacy of the Pope.

This is a reified religion with a great emphasis on church hierarchy, correct theology, and it positively requires that certain rites be within certain bounds.

Before easy travel and printing technology anything more than this was simply impossible, it wasn't feasible to micro-manage everything from Rome. This is with a proper church hierarchy and an established chain of command, now picture a group of temples without one, or with a greatly reduced one.

So unless your gods come down regularly to specify exactly how the rites should be done, there would have to be massive regional variation. At best a group of pagans that believe in the same gods would share a mythology, a few prayers, hymns, and feast days.

5. Conclusion

Obviously I've glossed over a lot of details, so don't write me angry notes about that. I may go into greater detail if there's any one area you want me to elaborate on.

I've also used Pantheon Temple instead of just Pantheon, but the word pantheon can be used for both a family of gods (more or less) and a temple dedicated to all the gods. I wanted a quick and easy way to differentiate between the two.

I hope you've enjoyed this, and I'll be doing my rant on arbitrariness soon.
Tags: fantasy, religion, worldbuilding
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