Religion is fascinating, whether you’re religious yourself or not. It influences everything it touches and can have an impact on history, culture, diet, clothing choices, foreign relations, scientific advances, medicine…and so on.
In it’s most basic form, religion is a way of understanding the world. When we realised that the sun kept us alive, many people started to worship the sun. We created stories because that’s how we understand the world around us. We look for patterns and meaning.
Ancient societies were more likely to have straight-forward beliefs where elements of nature were personified and worshiped as deities.
As time went on, more were added, they grew from stories and myths. The gods starting having families, relationships, children, enemies.
Unfortunately in our world where there is religion there is conflict. As religion is part of people’s identities, their methods of understanding the very nature of life, it is incredibly important to people. So when others disagree, everything you have ever known or believed is questioned. Some people don’t like that and it leads to conflict. People not only disagree but cannot stand the thought of someone else thinking they’re wrong. Others are disheartened that people they know aren’t following the same ethical codes that they believe will lead to salvation after death in the form of an afterlife.
When I approached religion in world building, I started with a basic religion in each section of my world, the two empires and the kingdoms. I knew they would all hate each other, not just because of religious differences of course, but then I thought, I want to bring the conflict closer to home.
Not everyone in one country is going to believe exactly the same thing. In the UK, for example, we’re largely secular but we have so many different religions and ideas. Even in Christianity, try and count how many denominations there are, and they’re all meant to follow the same book. People will always disagree on everything so why should that be any different in your world?
Possible sources of conflict in just one country:
- Religious denominations living side by side
- Different interpretations of religious stories
- Ideas on the afterlife and burial
- Expectations of the role of men and women
- Opinions on homosexuality and other sexual behaviour
- Conflict between different types of priests
- How much influence priests should have on law, education, foreign policy (church and state debate)
There is so much you can do with this element of your world.
Religion and the Ancient World
When thinking about religion in my world I based it on history. I based one country loosely on Ancient Egypt and one on Ancient Rome.
With my old empire, the religion is more basic in that the gods represent laws of nature. I have a god of the sun, moon, water/sea, earth/nature, death, life and fertility. I also have a king of the gods. We are pack animals really, we always look to a leader and religion often reflects this. There’s usually someone in charge of the pantheon, whether it’s Amun, Zeus, or Jove.
With my new empire, I added gods that I think would be important to a country focused on empire and wealth and colonisation. So I’ve added a god of good fortune, truth/justice and war.
Animals and Gods
I wanted my gods to be represented by animals. It’s only a bit of stealing from Egypt!
If you want to do something similar, try and pick animals that are a bit relevant to each god. That might be harder than it sounds.
Take a look at climate and terrain so you’re not picking random animals that your people would never realistically come across. So don’t pick a woodland deer in a desert country unless there’s a reason for it to be there. Having animals as gods might seem nonsensical, but for your people it should make sense.
For my old empire, it’s based in a hot, dry climate. For my earth/nature god I picked a Fennec Fox. It’s a small fox with massive ears and it’s quite cute. I picked it because I wanted something that burrowed into the ground to make dens, to represent earth.
You might want a lion as king of the gods, birds for sun and moon gods, sea animals to represent the sea. These are quite obvious choices though, so you might want to mix it up a bit.
Religion and magic often go hand in hand in fantasy fiction so you might want to think about how magic has shaped your religion or even conflicted with it.
Do the gods have powers, do the priests? Is everyone magical, how does that fit into the origin story of the world?
Are religious rituals shaped by magic ones?
There is a lot of room for creativity with this subject. You can go as weird as you want really, you just have to make sure that religion affects everything else for it to be believable. Think about how it can determine every inch of your world.
Have you got any thoughts on religion in your fantasy world? What else would you add? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!