For Your Enjoyment, Part 4: Facts about premodern polytheism for more engaging religions

After general society, warfare, and economy, people have been asking for religion. So here we go! Right at the start, I’d like to recommend Bret Devereaux’s “Practical Polytheism” series on his blog, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. That series inspired a lot of this, though I’ve added some insights and resources as well.

Alrighty, the usual conditions: I’ll by trying to hold to things that are true across most premodern civilizations, so there’s a lot of variation to account for. Fantasy magic and cosmology changes a lot, though less than you’d expect for this topic. The usual “most fantasy is early modern” also affects less here. Finally, if my unfortunate European- and Mediterranean-heavy education shows here, please let me know and point me to places to learn.

In addition, while this post focuses on polytheistic religions, almost all the points can apply to monotheistic systems as well. It could be argued that Medieval Catholicism followed most of the following points except for two main exceptions: other gods definitely didn’t exist, and God is morally right. This’ll make more sense once you read the rest of the article.

I’ve realized that these posts are too long for many people to read through, so I’m going to add a brief summary here:

  • Religion was less about beliefs and morals and more about achieving real benefits through rituals; deities and myths were mostly explanations on why rituals worked.
  • Think pantheons, not individual gods; your characters need someone to turn to for every situation. You can use existing pantheons to make sure you’ve got everything covered. Also, alignments don’t matter; people can’t afford to offend a god, no matter how much they disagree with what the god says, does, or wants.
  • For ideas, you can use the Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature; A0-A599 are great for gods, A600-A2599 for creation myths, and everything else for more general myths. (Details on how to use this fantastic resource in the article.)

This article has sections on origins, pantheons, rituals, myths, worldly matters, and religious relations.

Origins

  • The biggest lesson you can learn here is that ancient religion was about practicality, not morality. Religion wasn’t for doing what was morally right, but for keeping the gods on your good side to get real benefits in your life. What follows is the generally-accepted explanation for how premodern religion came to be.
  • B. F. Skinner, the psychology who discovered operant conditioning (basically positive reinforcement) made another, less well-known discovery called “pigeon superstition.” He divided pigeons into two groups. For one group, each pigeon was placed in a cage where they could push a button and a door would open, revealing a treat. As expected from his previous experiments, the pigeons were incentivized to push the button. The second group’s cages had treat doors that would open at random. These pigeons still tried to figure out how to make the door open, but in the absence of reliable feedback, they ended up making incorrect associations about what was working. They ended up creating very complex behaviors (flap twice, hop three times, spin, hop two more times) that they would repeat, trying to make the door open on purpose. Psychologists call this behavior “superstition,” the belief in causal relationships where they don’t really exist.
  • So far as we can tell, this is what happened for premodern religionists as well. They wanted something good to happen (e.g. crops to grow), and started trying things to make it happen (e.g. pour some wine on the ground). If it worked, they would keep doing it; over time, experimentation would lead to very complex rituals. However, because premodern societies are so risk-averse (see my first article), consistency was more important than innovation. Later came attempts to explain why the rituals worked (e.g an earth goddess was drinking the poured wine and she encouraged the crops in gratitude). These explanations were ultimately less important than the ritual results, but they formed an important cultural backbone.
  • This is important: premodern people didn’t have complicated religions because they were stupid. They had these things because they were trying to be scientific in an environment that made progress effectively impossible. These beliefs eventually morphed into the sort of religious fervor that we know and love from relatively recent history, but they didn’t start out that way.
  • Now, a lot of the reasoning behind this section doesn’t hold as well if the gods are actually real, as in most fantasy settings. However, a lot of the results of these forces do apply, so I’m including it anyway.
  • This doesn’t really go anywhere else, but as an aside, atheism didn’t exist in the premodern world. It’s a very recent invention. Without adequate scientific tools, there isn’t a good way to explain natural phenomena without religion. “There are no gods” makes about as much sense as “There is no sky.” We’ll touch on this in the final section, but most religious wars weren’t saying that enemy gods didn’t exist, but that the enemy gods were weaker than yours.

Pantheons

  • I’ve mentioned that gods probably came after rituals in real-world religious reasoning, but since they’re where most worldbuilders begin, we’ll address them first.
  • The most important thing to remember is, again, practicality trumps morality. There are two main effects of this. The first is that the most vital thing your gods can do is solve problems for your world’s denizens. Critically, they need to be able to help your denizens in all areas of your life. Real religions do this in two ways: either they have an all-powerful single god, or a pantheon that collectively can do everything a worshipper could want.
  • Many fantasy settings have individuals or cultures pick a third option that makes no sense: the person or society will worship one or two gods that can’t help them everywhere. It’s all well and good to say your orcs serve Gorshnakh the Bloody, God of Conquest, but what will they do when their crops need rain? When they need to secure an important alliance? When there’s a problematic childbirth? Gorshnakh probably won’t be able to help too much there. Your orcs need to be able to get help for whatever problems they encounter. The same holds true for individual characters. If your paladin worships only the Gentle Lady of Dreams, then they’re sunk if they need anything not sleep-related. Real-world priests still paid homage to other gods.
  • In your settings, it’s perfectly reasonable to have different pantheons for different societies and ancestries. They can even have overlapping domains. Premodern polytheists generally held this view: other gods existed, they were just weaker. We’ll return to this point later.
  • The second effect is that morality is completely irrelevant. Many RPG systems’ deities have alignment restrictions: Gorshnakh will only accept chaotic evil acolytes, while the Gentle Lady only takes neutral good followers. This isn’t at all how premodern religions worked. In the end, it didn’t matter whether you agreed with a god’s ideas or requirements; their power over you meant that you didn’t have much choice but to do what they wanted. What do you do if you’re an Aztec citizen who thinks that cutting out the heart of your neighbor’s daughter is a bad idea? You suck it up, because if that sacrifice doesn’t happen, the moon eats the sun and then teams up with the stars to devour the earth and everyone you ever loved.
  • This isn’t to say that there’s no correlation between a god’s character and a culture’s or character’s morals. For one thing, the explanation that a society comes up with for why its rituals work usually flows from what it values. For another, the power of cognitive dissonance encourages people to rationalize and justify actions they’re forced to take; over time, our Aztec will probably come up with a reason why human sacrifice is fine after all, and then teach that to their children.
  • We now have two general rules: think pantheons, not deities, and alignment doesn’t matter. (I’m placing this as its own bullet to make it easier to find for readers; hope that helps with these text walls.)
  • I have one technique that I use to make sure I’ve covered every need a group has. You can take a real-world pantheon—the twelve Olympians are low-hanging fruit, but they work just fine—and make sure your pantheon can do everything the Earth deities can. That doesn’t mean your gods have to be based directly on the “real” ones, but they do have to be able to accomplish the same things. If none of your gods can help with family matters, like Hera can, you may need to add a new god or give that power to an existing one. You can lump these domains into few gods or spread them out over many, it doesn’t matter. Some civilizations may have different requirements: a purely underground dwarven society won’t need a weather god, but they might need a god of subterranean creatures.
  • One thing that almost every premodern polytheistic religion had was “little gods.” The big guys (like the Greek Olympians) were extremely powerful, but they might have their hands full with big matters. Because of this, polytheistic systems usually had very minor gods over specific domains (the Romans had a god of hinges), places (this river, that hill), people (your family), or events (a god of marriages, business deals, etc.). The premodern person would spend most of their religious attention on these little gods, while acknowledging the superiority of the big ones.
  • At this point, I’d like to introduce a fantastic—and somewhat overwhelming—resource for religious worldbuilding. A folklorist named Stith Thompson composed a massive, six-volume classification for folklore and myths. There’s… a lot there. You can find a summary of the Thompson Motif Index here; you can click the red codes on the left to see the even more detailed sub-classifications. For ideas for deities, I suggest using A0-A599. As an example, I just clicked on A280 for Weather Gods, then scrolled down and saw A287.0.1: “Rain god and wind god brought back in order to make livable weather,” which apparently comes from an Indian myth. I’ve already got two deities and an idea for a myth. It’s great stuff, guys.

Rituals

  • Rituals, or standardized rites of worship, are really what premodern religion is all about. An acceptable analogy would be the average car owner. You don’t really need to know what’s going on under the hood; most of your time is spent driving, not learning about its history or operations. In general, rituals are grossly underrepresented in fictional works. Putting rituals in your setting is one way to really flesh out your religions.
  • The fundamental idea behind rituals is called do ut des, Latin for “I give that you might give.” The supplicant does something for the deity—maybe a sacrifice, or at least an acknowledgement of the god’s power—in the hope that they will receive something in return. It’s a transaction, though an unequal one. This is a good thing to keep in mind for designing your own rituals.
  • A quick note about real rituals: obviously there will be times when a ritual doesn’t work. You pray for rain and there’s a drought. There are two classic explanations: either you did the ritual wrong, or the god just decided that it didn’t feel like accepting the ritual this time.
  • I’ll be using Victor Turner’s ritual categorization system, though I’m changing the names because the original terms seem counter-intuitive to me. In studying African rituals, he identified a few main types that I’ll call regular, irregular, divination, and consecration. If you read the descriptions and decide that other terms make sense, I’ll gladly rename them.
  • When I say that some rituals are regular, I don’t mean they’re ordinary—I mean that they happen regularly. These are rituals that happen consistently at specific times in the year, month, day, or other time increment. Seasonal rituals (solstices/equinoxes, harvest and planting festivals, etc.) fall under here. There might also be rituals for lunar phases, as well as daily events like sunrise and sunset. Cultures could come up with rituals associated with other times that are more arbitrary in their calendar, like the Sabbath in Abrahamic religions.
  • Irregular rituals are those that are brought on by specific events in one’s life. Turner further divided these into life-event and affliction rituals. Life-event rituals are used in key points of transition in a person’s life: birth, puberty, marriage, pregnancy, death, etc. Affliction rituals are used when people have a very specific need. A general needs success in an upcoming battle, a husband seeks aid for an ailing wife, a lovelorn teen needs a divine wingman, etc. One important variety of affliction ritual is exorcisms, where the ritual focuses on banishing a wicked being responsible for the problem.
  • Divination, when it comes to ritual theory, does not refer to seeing the future (although foreknowledge might be one result). Divination is when people want to learn what the gods have to say. “Is this marriage a good idea?” “Should I attack today?” “Why is my horse sick?” There are a lot of ways to let the gods speak. Classic divination uses random phenomena (the flight of birds, the appearance of animal organs, etc.), though drug- or trance-induced visions from oracles work too. Romans would sometimes overturn consular elections based on the results of a divination ritual; as Bret Devereaux says, “The gods get a vote, too.”
  • The final kind of ritual is consecration. We’ll be discussing this in greater detail in the “Offerings section, but the essence of these rituals is to dedicate something to the god in question.

Myths

  • Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say here. In the real world, myths are the results of people trying to explain things: why rituals work, why natural phenomena exist, where a civilization came from, even the origins behind place names. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur seems to be an attempt by the Greeks to explain why ancient Minoans liked bulls and had a labyrinth-goddess. Other myths may be for trying to come up with fables to justify the society’s values. This is anthropologically interesting, but generally not too useful for worldbuilders, since myths are usually supposed to be things that actually happened, not invented stories.
  • All I can really offer here is another callout to the Thompson Motif Index. It’s useful for deity ideas, and you can get some creation myths from A600-A2599, but it goes all the way to Z356. There’s just… so much there. Another random click (H1250, “Quest to the other world”) and scroll brought me to H1252.4, “King sends hero to otherworld to carry message to king’s dead father.” That could even be a real historical event or a quest hook.

Worldly Matters

  • (I struggled with a name for this section; if you think up a better one, let me know.)
  • In premodern religions, the gods could own things just like everyone else. The gods could claim things on their own (Mount Olympus is a very real mountain that the Greeks decided the gods owned), but most of the things the gods possessed were the result of worshippers giving them willingly. Temples, for example, were places the gods genuinely lived in (in premodern societies’ perspective) when they weren’t in their normal homes.
  • The term for something owned by a god is “sacred.” Technically, the word “sacrifice” comes from the act of giving the offering to the god (sacer facere, “to make sacred”), not the act of killing the victim or giving something up in general.
  • One very important category of property the gods owned was people. The priesthood—the group of priests—were usually considered to be sacred themselves. Religious workers belonged to the god for as long as they served (not always for life; even the famed Vestal Virgins of Rome only had to be devoted virgins for 30 years, which isn’t that bad compared to what Christian monks dealt with).
  • The act of offering something—person, place, or thing—to a deity usually involves a ritual of its own. These are the consecration rituals I mentioned earlier.
  • Two brief notes: there are a lot of ways that cultures handle their priesthoods. It can be a full organization with a developed hierarchy, like the Catholic Church; it can be a diffuse group of actors, like the stereotypical medicine man; it could even revolve around people who aren’t actually offered to the god at all, like household leaders. There’s too much variety here to establish general trends.
  • The other thing I’d like to address is the idea of state religions. Given the amount of power that gods were understood to have in the premodern world, it’s understandable that governments almost universally sponsored religion in one way or another. The degree and nature of integration with the worship in question varies a lot, but “state cults” are everywhere.

Religious Relations

  • To simplify things dramatically, we can say that there are two basic attitudes one religion can have about another: friendly and hostile.
  • When one polytheistic religion is friendly towards another, this can create some significant cultural merging. Remember, what’s important for premodern peoples is results, not “truth.” If another group’s gods seem to be more powerful—maybe their civilization has been around for longer, or they’re more successful in battle—it’s perfectly reasonable to start worshipping their deities. They’d usually add their own touches, since their gods clearly weren’t worthless; they’d gotten them this far, hadn’t they?
  • Hostile relations are generally easier to understand, with one caveat we’ve mentioned before. Usually, polytheistic cultures acknowledged that other gods existed, but they were certain their gods were stronger. There might be contests to see which god was better; one classic example is the Biblical story of Elijah and the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Elijah challenged the opposing priests to get Baal to accept an offering of a bull; when no divine event occurred, Elijah mocked that Baal might be powerless, saying “Maybe he’s asleep? Shout louder!” When Elijah made the same offering, holy fire consumed the altar and everything around it. In response, the government put the offending priests to death in an attempt to appease the clearly-stronger God Elijah served.
  • Religiously-motivated wars and violence were often justified by similar logic. Our gods might be offended by those who worship others, so we’d better stamp out the heretics. Interestingly, if wars were waged for secular reasons, then there was plenty of room for the religions themselves to be friendly to each other. The Romans had a ritual before they attacked a large settlement where they would invite the enemy’s gods to switch sides and join the Romans; if they won, it was a sign that the gods had indeed changed allegiances and could reliably be worshipped.

And that’s what I have for you guys! Let me know if you have any additions or corrections, and if you have something else you’d like for me to talk about next. Have fun!

About Benjamin

I am: 1) a Mormon; 2) an aspiring social entrepreneur; and 3) a lover of knowledge everywhere.
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