Reading Kameron Hurley’s guest post earlier this week has set me thinking about the way I’ve created and used religion in my own fantasy writing.
When I wrote The Thief’s Gamble, I didn’t want gods or prophecies or anything similar playing a part in the action. I wanted this to be a story about people risking themselves for other people, for friendship and duty and similar personal motives. So there were definitely going to be no gods on stage, no holy inspiration or edicts from on high. Most especially, and absolutely, magical power, whether that was elemental or aetheric, was not going to stem from divine favour. I also know people of genuine personal faith, who find fantasy fiction with gods playing an active part in the narrative problematic. Given the stories I aim to tell, there’s no need for me to give such offence to folk of sincere belief.
On the other hand, if I was creating a believable fantasy world, I knew there would have to be gods. There have always been gods, and plenty of them, and throughout human history, that’s caused all manner of strife. I find fantasy worlds with a sole religion with everyone believing in it, unquestioning, as problematic as Kameron.
So I sketched out the Einarinn pantheon, drawing on my studies into ancient Greece and Rome and what I’ve picked up here and there about sundry other cultures. Anthropologically speaking, the impulse to create deities seems driven first and foremost by the human desire for explanation and comprehension of the world around us, and then by hope for some sort of control over the unpredictable shocks of nature and whatever terrors might be lurking beyond the circle of light from the fire. So Einarinn has a sky god, Saedrin, a sea god Dastennin, a harvest goddess Drianon, and a god of death, Poldrion, to mention just a few.
But just as I didn’t want to use a single deity and default to a religion that might just as well be Christianity, Judaism or Islam with the serial numbers filed off, I didn’t want these invented deities to default to being Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter or Hades with a shave and a different haircut or new dress. So I invented more deities; Ostrin, god of hospitality and healing, Arimelin goddess of dreams, Halcarion, goddess of luck and love, Raeponin god of justice, Larasion goddess of the weather, Talagrin, god of the hunt and wild places, Misaen the Maker, god of artisans, and Maewelin the Winter Hag. Oh and Trimon the Wanderer which was useful when I came to allocate the different gods and goddesses to the seasons and festivals of the Tormalin calendar and found I had one left over. It seemed fitting that the Traveller’s God wouldn’t be tied down like that.
As I wrote the books, I drew on classical customs with regard to shrines and priests and local cults to create rituals and religious observance that doesn’t rely on any centralised system or hierarchy. I drew on the wide variety of degrees of faith among people I know day to day; to give some characters sincere belief, while others are variously sceptical to a greater or lesser extent while the rest simply adopt unthinking observance without ever really questioning the faiths of their fathers and mothers – and that’s all fine with me. As far as I am concerned, religion should always be a matter of personal exploration and private conviction.
What I found particularly interesting and rewarding as I wrote successive books was reverse-engineering the cultural history of these different gods and goddesses, as the various races of lowlands, uplands and woodlands blended in the Tormalin Empire. As it turned out, Saedrin, Ostrin, Poldrion, Dastennin, Raeponin, Drianon and Arrimelin were originally Old Tormalin deities while Halcarion, Larasion, Talagrin and Trimon were from the Great Forest, one for each season. Maewelin and Misaen are the original Mountain deities and that’s interesting, isn’t it; a dual vision of the divine. Once I had all that clear in my own mind, I could add depth and interest as the Tales of Einarinn unfolded by having different characters’ attitudes to different deities drawn from their varied cultural backgrounds.
But what about the Aldabreshi? They have no gods at all, and that was a conscious decision I made to mark them very firmly as The Other as far as the mainlanders are concerned, to make a central tenet of their lives completely incomprehensible to those who’ve grown up with the Tormalin pantheon.
On the other hand, the Archipelagans would still have that universal desire to find order and as measure of control over the natural world. So I drew on another tradition from my classical studies; belief in omens and portents. Once again, that worked better and better as I developed the concept, most fully in The Aldabreshin Compass. For instance, I wanted the Archipelagans to have some skills and talents well in advance of the mainland, because Other definitely wasn’t going to mean Lesser, not in my world. So as I developed the customs and practise of Aldabreshin stargazing alongside the many, many other systems of fortune telling I discovered, it became plain that the Archipelagans would be the foremost mathematicians of this world, as well as notable craftsmen with lenses, gears and other skills needed to make astrolabes and similar instruments.
As with the Tormalin deities, the effects of what I’d invented on my characters’ everyday lives soon became apparent in unexpected ways. The power of prediction became a significant aspect of the absolute authority of the Aldabreshin warlords. That was a sharp, two-edged sword, open to manipulation and abuse as well as laying obligations for all to see, on these supposed all-powerful rulers. Especially as the cultural imperative of belief in omens and portents offered up similarities with oppressive nature of the worst of medieval Catholicism. Wasn’t that intriguing? So wouldn’t it be fascinating if a central character lost his faith? Especially if he was someone who absolutely couldn’t let that apostasy become known. That added a whole further dimension to that particular series.
Religion continued to be one of the elements I used to enrich the background of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and The Hadrumal Crisis. One thing that became more and more apparent was that mages are by and large, godless. When I realised that had become so, I had to work out why it might be. Well, the mageborn mostly come from other places as teenagers, sent to Hadrumal to get their dangerous talents well away from ordinary people. Some might bring familiar religious observance from home but I guessed most wouldn’t.
Add to that, when you have real, demonstrable power over the elements that make up the world, when the Cloud Masters and Flood Mistresses can control the weather as they wish, while the Stone Master and Heath Mistress can reshape the very land itself with earthquakes and eruptions, there’s not much room left for wistful wishing for divine intervention. And that becomes interesting of itself, considering the arrogance that can make wizardry so dangerous.
Then there’s another element in Hadrumal’s godlessness which I’ve barely referred to. It’s one of those bits of world-building which an author always knows but since it’s not directly relevant to any particular story, there’s been no great need to mention it. The wizard city of Hadrumal was founded by the first Archmage, Trydek. He was from Mandarkin, a harsh country with a brutal culture that’s never even been seen by anyone reading my stories. It lies to the north of Solura, which is another very different culture to the Tormalin Empire, which has become more familiar, most particularly in the Hadrumal Crisis books. What do readers know about Soluran religion? Very little so far. They don’t have gods or goddesses either, but they do have religious orders, centred on houses founded by notable practitioners of Artifice, the aetheric magic that scholars and rulers in the lands that once made up the Tormalin Empire are keen to rediscover. The aetheric magic that the Sheltya, the guardians of lore in the Mountains dividing Mandarkin and Solura, are determined to control.
What does all that mean? Well, if I get the opportunity to write a series focusing on these as yet unexplored regions and peoples, no doubt we will all find out!