Worldbuilding, Part 3: Religion and Mythology
I’ve always loved reading about ancient mythologies, and creating religions and mythologies of my own is probably my favorite part of worldbuilding. However, like government and social structure, mythology and religion are very complicated, and very easy to do wrong. I still remember the time several years ago, when I was first starting to write my stories down, when I was frustrated by the fact that all the mythologies I created were flat, dull, unrealistic, and nowhere near as cool as the mythologies I was always reading about. Eventually, after a while of looking more closely at those mythologies, I was able to figure out what I was doing wrong and break down the basics of mythology and religion.
The first and most important part of any mythology or religion you create is that it must do what all mythologies and religions attempt to do: It must answer at least some of the big questions of life. Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where did the world come from? What comes after death? These are questions that everyone asks, at some point or another, and in the absence of an answer, people will come up with answers of their own. Even if, for example, in your world, even the gods don’t know what happens after death, people will still come up with answers to believe in. It’s human nature to want to answer questions. A religion that doesn’t at least try to answer any of those questions doesn’t make sense, and a society where people are content to sit back and make no attempt to answer those questions isn’t going to be realistic.
When creating a mythology or religion, you need to come up with answers to the big questions (a creation myth, an afterlife), you need to create the gods, and you need to figure out what roles the gods play and how they are worshiped. It can also help to come up with a few myths and stories about the gods, if they’re going to play a major role in your story.
First off, creation myths. You have a fair bit of freedom when it comes to creation myths, as they tend to differ quite a lot from mythology to mythology, though there are some similarities. Generally, it involves some sort of void, and then life suddenly springing from the void. After being born, these beings then somehow created the world and either found or created the other gods, and then life was created.
The afterlife is another major thing that you have to figure out in religion. There will almost always be alternate afterlives depending on what you did in life. Usually this takes the form of a judgment in the afterlife, like the traditional heaven and hell. There are also mythologies and religions that believe that the soul is reincarnated, and I’m sure there are plenty of other, less well known ideas.
As far as the gods themselves go, one major thing that you need to keep in mind is that people worship gods that represent things that are important to them. Death, for example, is important to all cultures, so many cultures have a god of death. Other common themes are wisdom and knowledge, war and battle, things like the sky, earth, and sea, fertility and motherhood, love, weather, fire, and trade. Most cultures will have gods representing one or more of these things. Depending on the culture, different gods will be more prominent. For example, Odin is the god of war (among other things) in Norse mythology, and he’s also the king of the gods, which indicates that war was important to the Norse culture. Another example would be that a god of water would likely be extremely important and high ranking in a sea based or desert nation, but less so in other cultures. If, for example, you wanted to write a sci-fi story involving gods, the gods would probably be completely different from the gods in a fantasy story. You might have gods of spaceships and FTL, or gods of big organizations, or gods of stars, or gods of things like fusion and entropy. It all depends on what’s important to the culture.
Another key factor in creating a pantheon of gods is figuring out what roles the gods play, relative to each other. Some pantheons might be very structured, with a clear leader and stable, unchanging hierarchy. Other pantheons might change constantly, as old gods die and new gods are born, and as one god usurps the rule of another. Others might have a sort of council where everyone has equal say, and still others may have no order to them at all. Just make sure that you understand how the gods relate to one another, and that their society makes logical sense.
You also need to figure out what relationship the gods have with mortals. Do they regularly walk the earth, or do they stay in their own divine realm? Do they ever speak to their high ranking priests or the leaders of the nations that worship them? Do they care about their worshipers and help them when they can, or are they ambivalent? Do they ever have children with mortals? Do they choose who will rule their worshipers? Are the gods themselves truly immortal, or are they merely ageless? What happens when a god dies?
One last, important thing you need to figure out if gods are going to play a large role in your story is why they need worshipers. A lot of people seem to forget this. Why do the gods need worshipers? Why can’t they just do everything themselves? You need to somehow put limits on the powers of the gods. There’s the common explanation that gods need prayer, and they get stronger the more worshipers they have, but that still doesn’t explain why the gods need worshipers to do things for them, and it’s been done a lot. This doesn’t mean you can’t use it, but there are other ways. Maybe the world was nearly destroyed in a divine war thousands of years ago, so the gods made a pact not to interfere with the world anymore, so they need mortals to do their bidding. Maybe the gods are simply unable to manifest in the mortal world very well. Maybe they’re vulnerable in the mortal world, so they don’t like to manifest there unless they really have to. Or maybe there are no such limits, and the world is torn by divine war, and it’s all the mortals can do to try to hide and pray for their gods to protect them from the other gods.
And that’s it for the worldbuilding posts. If you have any tips of your own for creating mythologies, let us know in the comments!