MIND MELD: Gods by the Bushel

Where would Fantasy be without gods to bicker, argue, and meddle with the fate of mortals? We asked the following of this week’s panelists, who responded with less bickering and meddling.

Q: In a created fantasy world, gods can proliferate by the hundreds. When building religious systems for fantasies, what are the advantages/disadvantages of inventing pantheons vs. single gods, or having no religious component at all?
Marie Brennan
Marie Brennan holds a joint B.A. in anthropology (archaeology) and folklore & mythology from Harvard University. Her short story “Shadows’ Bride” appeared in the 2006 Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology. Her novels include Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, and the soon-to-be-released In Ashes Lie.

“No religious component at all” is an unlikely option, to my mind. Religion is, among other things, a way to explain the world around you, to render it comprehensible, and that’s a pretty fundamental human need. We see evidence of numinous explanations going back to the origins of writing and before; the purely mechanistic view of the universe is a fairly recent intellectual development. And — not to go off onto a tangent — but in certain senses, fantasy may be incompatible with a purely mechanistic cosmos. At that point everything’s science, not magic, no matter what costume you dress it up in, and magic is almost always a component of fantasy.

So let’s presume you’re going to have god(s). Which route is best? One of the advantages of polytheism is that it creates some flexibility. The Romans did this with conquered peoples; they assimilated local gods into their own pantheon, often by tagging them as aspects of whichever Roman deity they looked the most like. (Sure, that’s just . . . uh . . . Jupiter, by a different name!) Multiplicity allows for diversity, mutability, the representation of many different concepts and even contradictory perspectives. A single god is more totalizing, and also more abstract; he/she/it/whatever isn’t the god of anything, but rather the god of everything. Which has its own flexibility — there’s nothing in the cosmos your all-encompassing Creator doesn’t cover — but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that spawns some particular theological minefields, especially with regard to theodicy (aka “the problem of evil”).

From a writerly perspective, though, there’s one special appeal to having a pantheon, and that’s its narrative potential. Whether it’s weirdly symbolic tales of anthropomorphic forces, or the soap-opera dramatics of the Greek pantheon, you can make up lots of stories about the gods in conflict and cooperation. Monotheism isn’t story-less — the scriptures are full of stories — but those are all about humans interacting with God; polytheism gets to have those, plus a whole separate set about the gods interacting with each other. And you can stack the deck to suit your purposes, too, creating a situation or highlighting a theme that works with the story you’re going to tell.

Watch out how far you let your polytheism go, though — or you’ll end up like the Romans, with so many gods they start being assigned to things like door hinges.

Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick has received the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards for his work. Stations of the Tide was honored with the Nebula Award and was also nominated for the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. “The Edge of the World,” was awarded the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award in 1989. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. “Radio Waves” received the World Fantasy Award in 1996. “The Very Pulse of the Machine” received the Hugo Award in 1999, as did “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” in 2000. His most recent novel is The Dragons of Babel (2008, nominated for the Locus award this year), set in the same universe as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. A forthcoming non-fiction book, Hope-in-the-Mist, will cover the life and writing of the early fantasy author Hope Mirrlees.

I don’t work with pantheons much in my fantasy, and when I do they’re not tidy, codified systems like you get in Edith Hamilton’s books, but more like the riotous confusion of gods the ancient Greeks had to deal with in their everyday lives, where it was assumed that all worshipped deities were real and that many were worshipped in foreign lands under different names. We’re all at the mercy of the same forces the ancients were, and wake up in the morning not knowing if we’ve somehow managed to tick off the god of airline reservations or the goddess of infectious disease. So a little structural sloppiness and confusion goes a long way toward reflecting the messiness of our own lives.

In my own writing, there are two chief advantages to pantheons. One is to alert the reader that the book isn’t going to go wandering into God territory. In The Dragons of Babel, Will le Fey may prudently sacrifice a goat to the Nameless Ones or meet a child who has sold her youth to the Year Eater, but nobody is going to expect serious theology in a book where the gods and goddesses have names like Ereshkigal and Mother Night. They have extraordinary power. . . but they don’t represent anything. So you can have the plot advantages of the supernatural without the responsibility of explicating it.

Conversely, the other advantage to a pantheon is that it bestows distance when you are going into God territory. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter was all about the struggle to find meaning in life and the proper way to live when God (or, in my book, the Goddess) won’t say what is expected from you. It also dealt with the possibility or fear that Whoever or Whatever rules the universe may not necessarily be benign. Jane Alderberry was not only trying to find a place for herself in a world that had none to offer, but also an explanation for why the world is as it is.

To pose such questions in our own world is to invite proselytizing from religious missionaries. To posit them in a fictional universe with a single Deity is to risk offending sincere believers who will (quite rightly) reason that if there is only one god, it can only be God.

Both of which responses miss the point, mind you. The fantasy writer has been given special dispensation to tell lies in service of the Truth. But if we’re to get a fair hearing, sometimes it’s necessary to disguise the nature of the enterprise.

David Anthony Durham
David Anthony Durham has written both historical novels (Gabriel’s Story, Walk Through the Darkness) and fantasy (Acacia: The War With the Mein). He has won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award and the Legacy award for fiction. He currently teaches in the MFA program at California State University, Fresno.

I can only address this question from my individual perspective, which somehow feels quite limited. I’m quite attracted to the idea of having no religious component at all in fantasy, but I’m not sure how to swing that. When have people not had a religious component to their lives? It seems hard to imagine creating a credible world without dealing with people’s belief systems. It’s perhaps a limitation of my creativity, but I think one of the disadvantages is that rarely can our fictional efforts improve upon the real world mythology that cultures have come up with collectively. On the other hand, there is the advantage of having real world mythologies on hand to consult.

The few times that I dealt with polytheistic gods in Acacia: The War With The Mein I was directly inspired by Sumerian models. I loved reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example. There was something so strange about it, so foreign and ancient, funky and bombastic and yet… terribly familiar as well. There is an undeniable energy to it, and it engages with questions of mortality and meaning that we grapple with just as much today. Its narrative logic often denies logic, but does so in wonderful ways that I think can inform contemporary storytelling. The rhythms of it were still very much in mind as I wrote about the eagle goddess Maeben and her vengeful love for Vaharinda.

When I dealt with a more monotheistic god-figure, the Giver, I looked to the Judeo-Christian traditions. The Giver’s power comes through words. He speaks (or sings) the world into existence. Language – his language at least – has amazing power. Before he’s even done creating, though, an upstart human is learning his tongue and trying to create things on his own, trying to be God. Messes things up considerably, and because of it the Giver turns his back on the world and abandons it. The details are different, but it’s not far from what Adam and Eve got up to in the garden.

I’m not sure how we’d be able to improve upon the material ages of collective human thought (see also: fear, inspiration, paranoia, exploitation) have already provided us. I have been fascinated by what some authors do with god-like figures – like Frank Herbert in Dune. Thing is, when I read things like that or other material with gods as characters I don’t really think of them as gods. I think of them as… characters with god-like powers, like superheroes or villains.

Which leaves me a question instead of an answer: do writers of fantasy really mean to create gods in their work – with all the ramifications of what that means to the world and the mortals involved – or are gods convenient casting choices to create super powered characters?

Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. This, coupled with a childhood tendency to read the dictionary for fun, led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, the mispronunciation of common English words, and the writing of speculative fiction.

I dunno about advantages and disadvantages–I think they serve different purposes. Deities tell you a heck of a lot about a culture: what’s important to them, how they view authority, how the social controls are enforced–all sorts of things. So, for example if you have a patriarchal god-king, you probably have a patriarch system in family and government, as well. If your pantheon is more complex, say you have two competing factions of deities, laid over an older, animist pattern, that tells you a lot about the social evolution of the society: maybe not-Buddhism came along and supplanted not-Shinto. Maybe one religion is a conqueror’s religion, and the old faith still flavors the way it’s practiced. Maybe you have a situation where the not-Aesir and the not-Vanir are allied uncomfortably against a greater menace–the not-Giants, we’ll call them–but the allied partners don’t get along so well, and there are tensions and betrayals and pranks. Maybe there was a patriarchal system and it’s broken down into something more low-key with the collapse of the state religion–and the state. Are there schisms, heretics, competing sects? Different offshoots of the same world religious tree? Folk beliefs that vary from town to town?

All this stuff informs the worldbuilding, I’d say.

Gregory Frost
Gregory Frost is most recently the author of the fantasy duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, as well as the short story collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants.

The possibility of a proliferation of gods certainly existed with Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet. After all, the premise underlying it (like the hidden machinery that makes the Disney rides run) is that the world is an accretion of mythic, folkoric, and other fantastical material from our world, but that this material has run along on its own and blended, redefined itself, and taken on new guises. The gods exist both as local manifestations and as a higher, unseen force (aka “The Gods of Edgeworld”). Someone reading the books might suspect there’s a pantheon in there somewhere, but as it wasn’t at the core of my story, these forces exist around the edges. Nevertheless, religion must be considered by the author before the world can be seen as fully realized.

My first novel, Lyrec, did have a pantheon of gods being worshipped. The villain of the piece, masquerading as one of them, manipulates a priest into doing his work for him. No other gods show up to do anything about it, just as our variously believed-in deities don’t drop in and smite anybody here, either, outside of stories.

So, while I don’t feel that the religion of the world has to be front and center or in your face, you can only use what you know as you research and develop societies for your fantasy world, and you’d be hard pressed to find a historical precedent for a society with no religious component. Plus, using my own example above, it can greatly benefit your story to be aware of it, to have worked it all out so that it’s there for you to use if you should want it.

You the author will always know more about your world than shows up on the page, as you will, finally, know more about your characters. Your characters are expressions of the world you’ve created and if you fail to fully realize that universe, then you will fail to fully realize the people you want me to care about who live in it. And that can’t be a good idea.

This is all my long-winded way of saying that I don’t feel you should try not to have a religious component. Whether it’s just living in the background and not bothering anyone, it still should be there. And it has to make sense in the context of the society you’re creating. If there’s a pantheon, then there might well be household gods such as the Romans had; multiple temples to multiple individuals; natural phenomena explained as an action of one of these gods, etc. What do they believe, these people you’re creating? If you don’t know that, then you aren’t done shaping them. But the art, architecture, even clothing and furniture of the place will likely show some influence.

Whether it’s a pantheon or monotheistic or a triumvirate–that’s going to be determined by the world you shape and should conform with where that society came from, how they arose, what earlier social order existed, whether or not they were invaded and their god(s) appropriated, and so forth, and I can’t tell you that; that’s for you to discover. You the author are always going to be the real god of the place.

Kate Elliott
Kate Elliott is the author of the Crown of Stars fantasy series and the Jaran science fiction novels. Her most recent novels are Spirit Gate and Shadow Gate.Besides having her own blog, Kate is one of the co-bloggers at Deep Genre.

I stared at this question (at short intervals, I admit) for several days before realizing I can’t answer it. I can’t think of religious systems in terms of advantages and disadvantages. A religious system or belief system or cosmology in any society goes hand in hand with the ecology, language, history, technology, and other elements of that society: the one informs the others, and all is so tangled together in the understanding the characters have of their world that it doesn’t really matter, in terms of their world view as developed in the narrative, what their cosmology is, only that it can illuminate, validate, restrict, and/or explicate their way of looking at the world.

If the religious component (or lack thereof) in a created fantasy world is not thoroughly interpenetrated with those other elements, then it is just a stage set or an ornament. Beliefs have to have roots in the culture, and the culture has to reflect on and interact with the beliefs, and things will have changed over time anyway as beliefs evolve or new influences enter or old beliefs wane or are superseded by others . . . .you get the picture. As a world-builder, that’s the effect I’m after.

Gail Z. Martin
Gail Z. Martin is the author of the Chronicles of the Necromancer fantasy adventure series, with The Summoner (2007), The Blood King (2008) and Dark Haven (2009). (See the series website at www.chroniclesofthenecromancer.com.) She’s also the host of Ghost in the Machine fantasy podcast.

In worldbuilding, whatever rules you set up are the rules you (and your characters) have to live by. If you are going to create pantheons of gods with dozens or hundreds of deities, then you’d better keep a scorecard to know who is whom. I would think it would be really easy to get tripped up by one’s own cleverness in a system that is too complex. On the other hand, some writers and readers really enjoy that level of complexity, so to each his own. A single god system is pretty hard to pull off also if you’re speaking for an entire world. A tribe, a country, an ethnic people may adhere to just one god, but historically speaking, never the entire world. What usually happens is that a new god or pantheon supplants the old gods or pantheons, usually at the hand of a conqueror. Practices for the old gods get a coat of paint and a new name and they co-exist with the practice of the new god, flying under the radar. A complete lack of religion also goes against human history. People seem to have an innate need to believe in something bigger than themselves. This might be a nature-based system, a vague spirituality, or a structured religion with one or many gods, but every culture seems to have had something to worship. As a writer, this whole messy, complicated dynamic presents ways to get inside the characters’ heads, and also to illustrate the values and priorities of a particular kingdom, nation-state or people. For worldbuilding, religion is an element of culture, just like language, history, economics, geography, climate and politics.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr., is the New York Times best-selling author of more than 50 novels – primarily science fiction and fantasy, a number of short stories, and numerous technical and economic articles. His novels have sold millions of copies in the U.S. and world-wide, and have been translated into German, Polish, Dutch, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, and Swedish. He has been a delivery boy; a lifeguard; an unpaid radio disc jockey; a U.S. Navy pilot; a market research analyst; a real estate agent; director of research for a political campaign; legislative assistant and staff director for U.S. Congressmen; Director of Legislation and Congressional Relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; a consultant on environmental, regulatory, and communications issues; a college lecturer and writer in residence; and unpaid treasurer of a civic music arts association. Along the way, Mr. Modesitt has weathered eight children, a fondness for three-piece suits [which has deteriorated into a love of vests], a brown Labrador, a white cockapoo, an energetic Shih-tzu, two scheming dachshunds, a capricious spaniel, a crazy Saluki-Aussie, and various assorted pet rodents. Finally, in 1989, to escape nearly twenty years of occupational captivity in Washington, D.C., he moved to New Hampshire. There he married a lyric soprano, and he and his wife Carol Ann relocated to Cedar City, Utah, in 1993, where she directs the opera program at Southern Utah University and he continues to create and manage chaos. His first story was published in Analog in 1973, and his latest book is The Lord-Protector’s Daughter. His brand-new fantasy series debuts this month with Imager, the first book of The Imager Portfolio.

I’ve written one novel with what might be called pantheons of gods, an entire fantasy saga with no effective mention of or acts by any god, science fiction novels with cultural conflicts based on differing, if monotheistic, gods. In only two of my novels, however, are the gods direct physical players, and in one of those, there’s a definite question as to whether the god is God.

It seems to me that, when gods take sides or act arbitrarily, such acts reinforce the ideas of the uncertainty and possible unfairness of life, but for a writer to create and use a pantheon of gods in such a fashion also, in a sense, changes the role of a deity away from being a moral force and merely becoming a supremely powerful being. In turn, a thinking believer in such a deity cannot help but become somewhat more fatalistic and less sanguine about life and the future.

Certainly, having a pantheon of gods can add greater complexity to otherwise simpler plots, and various gods can act against others for comparatively minor reasons that can create havoc for mere mortals who have to deal with the results of such acts. The disadvantage, of course, is that such divine meddling can end up with the gods looking petty, and the more technological a society becomes, I suspect, the less the people wish to believe in such pettiness as a facet of the divine. It may be just historical happenstance, but it does appear that monotheism, even atheism, tends to go with the wide-spread development and use of higher-level technology.

Then there is always the question that, if gods in a pantheon can destroy each other, are they really deities, or just powerful beings? If they can’t destroy each other, then what is a stake? The manipulation and/or destruction of lesser entities to prove a point? Although I haven’t seen much direct commentary on these points, Roger Zelazny addressed many of them in both Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness.

John C. Wright
John C. Wright is the author of The Golden Age Trilogy, The War of the Dreaming, Chronicles of Chaos and the upcoming Null-A Continuum, the authorized sequel of A.E. van Vogt’s World of Null-A books. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best SF 3, The Night Lands, Best Short Novels 2004, The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21, Breach The Hull, and No Longer Dreams.

Very interesting question. I can answer both in the abstract and from experience.

In the abstract, the means to judge the utility of any element in a story is to assess the ends (the desired effect on the reader) and the means (the costs and benefits of employing a particular craft on the reader). What is your destination, and which road are you taking to get there?

If we were writing jokes rather than SFF, this assessment would take the form of asking: Well, is it funny? If it ain’t funny, leave it out.

In SFF, this assessment takes the form of asking: Well, is it fantastic, speculative, wondrous, sad, striking, memorable, horrific, elevating, impressive, edifying, sublime, etc., etc. (depending on what effect we want to achieve)? In SFF, if it ain’t scientifictionalistically fantastical, leave it out. At that point it becomes a judgment call, and no advice I can give will apply to all cases. I can, however, speculate about the general case. The topic is too deep and rich to treat fairly in his space, so I will treat it shallowly. Brace yourself for imprecise and unqualified statements.

In general, there are three types of fantasy fiction and two types of science fiction. (Obviously there is overlap and overbroadness to these categorizations, but bear with me).

The three types of fantasy are:

  1. Sword and Sorcery, also called Low Fantasy, as in Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs
  2. High Fantasy, as in J.R.R. Tolkien or E.R. Eddison
  3. Dark Fantasy, as in H.P. Lovecraft or Darrell Schweitzer

The two kinds of science fiction where god or gods crop up are:

  1. Cargo Cult stories, as in Fritz Lieber’s Gather, Darkness!, where God turns out to be a fraud;
  2. Gnostic stories, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, where the devil turns out to be the good guy.

The point of low fantasy is to watch clean-limbed fighting men from Virginia clash flashing blades against surly yet brawny barbarians from Cimmeria during the last days of Rome on Mars or something, and maybe rescue a half-naked space princess from eldritch evil priests, eldritch chthonic demons, eldritch undead, eldritch pirates, eldritch highwaymen, eldritch encyclopedia salesmen of darkness. It does not matter what menace you are rescuing her from, so long she is half-naked and the menace is eldritch.

Low fantasy stories are not concerned with historical or theological accuracy: if you want to have your hero rescue his space-princess from an opulent cult of serpent-god worshipping warlocks from Stygia, it is better to have them practice human sacrifice than ascetic meditation as their primary form of worship, in so far as fighting a giant snake makes better drama than cutting down a bunch of meditating greybeards in saffron robes. Again, if you have your stalwart hero burn down the Temple of the Evil Spider-God of Evil in your first yarn, you need to knock over a new and different cult in your second.

Low fantasy is about spectacle, and polytheism lends itself nicely to spectacle, especially if the local temple also maintains the civic circus where gladiatorial duels against drug-maddened fighting slaves, ninjas, or dinosaurs are fought. Especially if the city is older than time, built on the slopes of an uneasily slumbering volcano, atop murmuring catacombs, and the eldritch ruins where men fear to tread loom over the unclimbed and unclimbable far side of the volcano, and strange musics or shrieks of nonhuman laughter ring across the ashy slopes when the moon is dark, or, in the case of Mars, moons.

If the gods and goddesses are actually real in your tale, and one of them is the antagonist, polytheism is easier thematically to handle than monotheism. The problem in a story when God fights Man is that it is rarely an even contest: it is sort of like ant versus boot.

But if you have a pantheon, this gives you some elbow room plot-weaving-wise. For example, if Juno, the Great Queen of Heaven, is angry (or, more poetically, wrathful) at your main character, and curses him with a divine curse, and stirs up winds and sea and monsters of the deep against him, if your hero is the son of divine Venus, the Mother of Rome, and therefore is half-divine himself, maybe he can get help from his side of the pantheon, or Mercury can slide him a stash of Moly plant or something.

High Fantasy is more about mood and atmosphere than it is about color and action. There is a melancholy in the modern world which looks with nostalgia to the days when magic ruled the world, and sunrise was a time of aubade, dusk a time for the canticles of evensong, when the elfin ships can be glimpsed by those with second sight against the fiery clouds, setting sail away from the mortal shores for worlds beyond the sunset, beyond the seas we know. Monotheism lends itself nicely to a mood of magic, for then the whole world is the artifact of one divine craftsman, a stained glass window meant to catch the sunlight of supernal things beyond. If the world is made by one maker, it is easy to portray the earth and sea and sky as magical, an enchanted sword hammered by a divine smith, a magical garden planted for our use. For the mood of melancholy, monotheism also is useful, for then the beautiful world as it was meant to be, if you are not setting your tale in a utopia, is imperfect: hence the earth is not an unfinished creation, a fetus not yet achieving to human beauty, but a wonder that fell, a majesty betrayed and marred.

(Whether or not the world is actually this way, is not my point. In a tale of wonder, such a portrayal of the world evokes a mood of high and antique magic, the sorrow of wisdom, the reader can glimpse as if in the evening star the last lantern that hangs in the towers of the twilight.)

If you want to have knights and princesses and priests in a hierarchy in a high fantasy, it is always jarring (to me, at least) to have your make-believe world have all the forms and rituals and particulars of the Roman Catholic Church, and have them worshipping the Seven Gods of Crystal Dragon Jesus or whatnot. It is sort of like having ‘ninjas’ in the Old West attacking a wagon train, or aboard the Pequod hunting the Great White Whale with shuriken and kusarigama. If you can get away with it, more power to you, but you have a jarring note to overcome. If you want a faux-Arthurian atmosphere, you would do better to bite the bullet and put in things of Arthur’s world, including Popes and priesthoods, smells and bells, holy hermits and the whole nine yards. A ‘knight’ is a Christian artifact from a Christian culture just as much as a ‘Kirtle Friar’ is. If you want to have Friar Tuck and Sir Lancelot and El Cid and Ivanhoe in your epic, you have to take their monotheism along with them, because the mental architecture of knightly oaths and vows and fealty and courtly love and smiting paynims and all that jazz does not make sense outside the Christian worldview.

You will have trouble to produce the melancholy and magical mood of High Fantasy if your story does not harken back to a real past the modern world has betrayed and forgotten.

If you are going to have a Paladin, complete with oaths and spurs, the marvelous horn of Roland at his hip and the enchanted sword of Hector in his hand, but then have him not serving the God of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, but instead serving Lord Lighthost, Lawful Good God of Lawful Goodness (located peacefully across the street from the cathedral of Lord Vile, Chaotically Evil God of Evil Chaos, which happens to be next door to the true neutral Druid Grove, all living in civic harmony together like a Burger King next to a McDonalds), don’t try for the mood or majesty of High Fantasy. Call your fighting-man Grayhilt the Grim, keeper of Dragonsword of Darkborn, give him a plus-five wand of fireballs, put him in a haunted labyrinth with a Beholder, rev up your typewriter, and let ‘er rip! But don’t try for a High Fantasy atmosphere unless you know what you are doing.

Like Tolkien, or like the anonymous poet who wrote Beowulf, you can keep the monotheism in the background, and merely display a sacramental attitude toward sacred things, starlight, sacred fountains, the seven stars, the one white tree, which might please your Christian readers without being so obvious or Aslan-like as to offend your non-Christian readers. They read fantasy too, remember, and their imaginations thirst for the wine of poetry, if not the water of life. Now, you can set a High Fantasy with bags of romantic melancholic magical half-familiar majesty with a pantheon in the background, but they would have to be gods that lend themselves to that sort of thing: think of majestic Roman Mars as opposed to craven Greek Ares. In his monumental masterwork The Worm Oroborous, E.R. Eddison has his Witchlanders and Demonlanders of Mercury worship the classical gods of Rome; but in his sequel, Mistress of Mistresses he wisely segues to a singular worship of Venus, and has his main character embroiled in a world created by his divine lover to bring out his heroic stature. No other goddesses or divine beings are mentioned: so we can assume this conception of Venus is a monotheistic avatar of the Divine Love that makes the sidereal universe.

Dark Fantasy lends itself nicely to monotheism, because we all know Christians are creepy: either they look like spooky Puritans, dressed in all black, a la Solomon Kane, or they have spooky gothic Cathedrals, complete with gargoyles and graveyards and torture chambers, not to mention ritual cannibalism and what’s not to like about that?

It is important if you put monotheism in a Dark Fantasy to have the monotheistic god be Dark.

You can have crucifixes drive back vampires in a dark fantasy, but there can be no hint of where or why crucifixes have that power. There can be no adumbration of all this joy and love stuff the Christians talk about, unless it is the Grand Inquisitor doing the talking, preferably while burning Galileo, buggering an altarboy, or hiding the bones of Jesus (who should, just to make it Dark, turn out to be a vampire or something). For example, the Magisterium of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials makes no mention of all about Christ or Redemption: it is simply an Evil Church Of Evil(TM) in a world ruled by dust and lies. Likewise, in Darrell Schweitzer’s We Are All Legends, God is a bloodthirsty madman, and Sir Julian is merely a helpless babe stumbling about a cosmic battlefield between the forces of an admittedly evil evil (Hell) and a hypocritical and inhuman goodness not one iota less evil (Heaven). Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon have similar unsympathetic portrayals of Heaven in Swamp Thing, Sandman, and Angel, all of which I would categorize as dark fantasy.

The point of Dark Fantasy is to let your imagination dwell on unpleasant possibilities that the world is other than it seems, and much darker (hence the name). Monotheism lends itself to this possibility simply because of its suffocating character: if there is one almighty and all-bloodthirsty god, be he named Jehovah or Azathoth, then there is no escape.

If you make the Christian God the bad guy (which is popular these days) you have to be careful not to betray an abysmal ignorance of what Christians actually say or teach, or else the cool kids will laugh at you.

Science Fiction that deals with God or gods generally falls into two groups: Cargo cults stories and Gnostic morality plays.

A Cargo Cult story is one where the gods are always bogus, and turn out to be computers, high-tech aliens, or whatnot. Think of Vaal or Landru or Apollo from Star Trek, or the dudes with no faces from Beneath the Planet of the Apes who lived underground and had way-cool Mind Powers and worshipped a still-working atom bomb. The point of these stories is to have Captain Kirk blow up the machine, or Charleton Heston blow up the planet.

I suppose we could also count one chapter of Asimov’s Foundation saga as a Cargo Cult story. Like the sinister priests in Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness!, the priests of the Great Galactic Spirit of planet Terminus are puppeteers who use forgotten high technology to terrify the peasants of the Second Dark Age, but unlike them, they were the (nominal) good guys. Ditto for or Heinlein’s Sixth Column. The point of these stories is to show how fun it is to fool the superstitious natives. See Man Who Would Be King for a more cautious take on how well that works out.

Cargo Cult stories can please both atheist and Christian alike, since Christians hate idolaters, and atheists hate religion, and each can read into it whatever interpretation he likes. In these stories the god is always the Wizard of Oz, a humbug.

In Gnostic morality plays, the God is real, but he is EEEEeeevil. Gnostics preach that the world is false, God is an oppressor, and the Devil is a hero trying to engineer our escape from God’s universe to a higher reality, the Pleroma, where we will be like gods. Hence in their tales, the story is about escaping from a false world into superhuman power. The movies The Matrix and Dark City are in this mood, even though they use science fiction style evil computers or evil reality-control machines rather than fantasy-style evil divine beings as the source of the cosmic deception.

In Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, or in Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon, however, the Gnostic God is real, and comes on stage as a character, and even speaks dialog. In Lindsay, we are told to embrace pain and foreswear joy in order to escape the evil and degrading trap of the material world, and in Stapledon we are told to embrace pain and foreswear joy because God is good (even though the story makes him clearly evil) and love Him even though he hates us. The drawback of penning a peaen to Gnosticism that is too obviously Gnostic is that non-masochistic people will recoil. Note the relative obscurity of these two works.

Better to savor the sauce with only a hint of Gnosticism. In Clarke’s Childhood’s End, for example, the promised escape into godhood is only adumbrated, as the Union with Overmind served by the Overlords might be interpreted to be psychic rather than supernatural, and evolution rather than Gnosis is the mechanism. But, true to form, the Devils are the heroes, the old religion shown to be a fraud, and the (false, materialistic) world is destroyed as the disembodied superhuman children soar off to their godhood.

A story like Island of Dr. Moreau contains even subtler Gnostic hints, but also Cargo Cult elements. It portrays the eponymous doctor as being just as much of a humbug as the Wizard of Oz, lording it over his half-finished creation of animal people, but if read as a criticism of humans, it condemns religion as a product of deceptive priestcraft, which modern Gnostics are urged to flee, escaping to the safety and sanity of secular humanism. It is in other tales that the Wellsian promise is spoken that, thanks to technology and secular humanism, the things to come will make men like gods, as in such as in books called, by no coincidence, Things to Come or Men Like Gods.

HP Lovecraft, uniquely, falls in none of these camps and overlaps them all. His ‘gods’ are extraterrestrial and exodimensional beings and superbeings, which, when one escapes from the false and illusionary world of deception which you and I call normal life, we do not become godlike, as the Gnostic faith promises, we become aware that we are less than insects: a boiling abyss of infinite and transinfinite horror surrounds us on all sides, and presses in on us from all higher dimensions. Lovecraft represents that sense of disorientation that the modern world suffered when Relativity knocked down Newtonian clarity and Quantum Weirdness made everything uncertain and approximate. He is the one who leaves religion out of his fiction entirely, and to dramatic and memorable effect, since everything that looks like religion (inbred Louisiana cultists worshipping primordial devil-gods) turns out to be both real, and reality-destroying, and something no human mind can contemplate without going mad. The proud figure of Lucifer from Milton’s Paradise Lost seems almost like a long-lost cousin compared to that.

Let me now turn to my personal experience. Since I, in my craft, like to have both a sense of dreadful supernatural powers hostile to man in my fantasy stories, (as when Juno hates Aeneas), and have some hint of supernatural hope and objective moral order underpinning the despair of the universe (as when Dante meets Virgil in the dark woods), I just mix both monotheism and polytheism to suit my taste, with the polytheism in the foreground, and ambiguous hints of monotheism in the background. In my duology Last Guardian of Everness, for example, I had both Hyperion, the Titan of the Sun, and Uriel, the Archangel of the Sun, put in an appearance, and perhaps even be the same guy. In my trilogy Orphans of Chaos, Saturn, who is described as the creator of the universe, is a Gnostic god, An Evil God of Evil, who rebelled against High Heaven, called by the Greeks Ouranos or Uranus: but I also have a plethora of lesser gods running around in the foreground stirring up trouble for my characters. They escape by playing one part of the pantheon off against another: which is another reason why pantheons are useful for low fantasy.

David Langford
David Langford is a British author, editor and critic, largely active within the science fiction field. He publishes the science fiction fanzine and newsletter Ansible. He has won 28 Hugo awards.

I turned this question over to Thog the Mighty, who says: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Yet those who fail to honour Thog may be condemned to the ETERNAL TORMENT of seeing their beloved prose writhe in agony upon the blazing racks, griddles and comfy chairs of Thog’s Masterclass! I, Thog, have spoken. So watch it.”

The editor of Ansible wishes to disclaim all responsibility.

9 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Gods by the Bushel”

  1. Having a single supposedly all-powerful god has the advantage of being easier to relate to for readers in most English-speaking countries. It has the disadvantage that your single deity can’t actively intervene in the story, since such a deity could reduce the struggles of all the humans and other creatures to meaninglessness pretty quickly, either by righting all the wrongs and defanging all the threats, or by smiting everyone in a fit of wrath.

    A pantheon gives the story a flavor of the exotic/archaic (again, for most English-speaking readers) by association with foreign or ancient cultures, plus the opportunity for conflict among gods allows them to become more actively involved in the conflicts of the human characters, as in the Iliad. The downside is that too much active involvement by the gods can end up making the story resemble a super-hero comic, a precipice that some great works like much of Zelazny or the Malazan Books of the Fallen are always skittering along and threatening to plunge off. On the other hand, a huge pantheon where the gods don’t intervene or show themselves as real raises the question of why enough worshippers would prefer one god for whom no evidence existed over another to keep the crowded pantheon differentiated over a long period of time.

    “No religious component” doesn’t really belong as an option for building religious systems for created fantasy worlds, but you could have some religious components that aren’t explicitly described in terms of one god or a pantheon. Something like what Aldiss does with the ancestral spirits in the Helliconia books, or in books where the spiritual is approached more on the basis of a lived philosophy or mental discipline (as in martial arts, say). Or where gods are not mentioned but various lower level supernatural creatures stand in for them (demons, angels, djinns, embodied archetypes, energy creatures, etc.).

  2. I prefer the idea of polytheism as it helps keep some of the moralising out of the story.  Stories with an all powerful father figure, inevitably end up mirroring christianity and then of course have some sort of binary opposition.  The sentiments of clear good and evil start to leak through and generally good will win (this is not to say the christianity is a bad thing, simply that the all powerful god is overused, and that it takes a lot of the surprise out of the story).

    With polytheism, there is ample opportunity to create a more morally ambiguous setting and gray areas, as the gods (and goddesses) interact.  Powers can be varied, and diminished sufficiently that there is a plausible reason for anyone to feel threatened, and all and all there is much fun to be had.

    The concept of a text with no religious undertones seems unlikely.  Whether the author intends it or not, moral issues will arrise within the  story and readers will read religious undertones (based on their own belief, or disbelief, systems) into any and every situation.  While there are many texts with no overt religious components, even in the fantasy genre, it seems religion (or its notable absence) are fundamental to the human conditions explored in most stories, particularly fantasy stories.

  3. “I prefer the idea of polytheism as it helps keep some of the moralising out of the story.”

    Heh heh. You must not know the same polytheists I know. Socrates and Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, not to mention bards and skjalds of older, northern works, had pleanty to say about piety and morality.

    I wonder if stories set in Hindu or Shinto backgrounds are necessarily less filled with moralizing than something like A THOUSAND AND ONE ARABIAN NIGHTS, which, presumably, has a monotheistic Allah as part of the mental atmosophere of those tales.

    While not quite on this topic, for your entertainment and edification, allow me to quote a poem by the scholarly C.S. Lewis, who knew a thing or two about ancient polytheist writers:

    Cliche Came Out of its Cage
         
          1

    You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’.
    Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
    Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
    And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
    Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
    To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
    Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
    The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
    Tended it By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
    Domum servabat, lanam faciebat… at the hour
    Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
    Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
    Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
    Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
    Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
    Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
    Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
    Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
    Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
    Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
    Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
    Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
    You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

    2

    Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
    Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
    Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
    Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
    Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
    But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
    Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
    Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
    To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
    For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
    His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
    Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
    And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
    Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
    Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
    Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
    Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
    Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
    You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
    Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

     

     

     

  4. The Romans did this with conquered peoples; they assimilated local gods into their own pantheon

     

    This is not exactly a peculiarity of the Roman.  Syncretism is common among — well, among polythestic religions.  Conquest does not have to enter into it:  it was officially handed down by a Shinto oracle that Buddhist priests are the proper ones to carry out funeral rites.

  5. This subject is something that I’ve been thinking about in terms of Battlestar Galactica and a very big missed opportunity (and, given the finale, a huge failure). The show had a civilization of people who worshiped multiple gods, but, other than a few shallow nods (the Sons of Ares, the anti-medicine Sagitarians come to mind), viewers got Baltar mumbling cliche, watered-down monotheism. No one argues with him from a religious standpoint.

    There are many things wrong with that finale, but when you have a people worshiping different gods–presumbably for very different reasons–it strains credibility to the breaking point that this same people would unanimously agree to shed their technology or unanimously do ANYTHING. Not just because of the loss of creature comfort (or safety for that matter), but as a direct result of having competing theologies/philosophies.

    That, I think, is the benefit of a polytheism in writing–the basis for forming cultures and competing ideas and thus the basis for conflict. Sometime we call it war.

  6. What a fascinating spectrum of essays. Marie’s point about gaining an extra arena of potential conflict (gods v. gods) with polytheism is an interesting one–also interesting to see some people address the question of whether or not the religion(s) of the tale are true, within the context of the tale. I was also interested in the issue a couple of responders touched on: whether there is a distinction between deities and extremely powerful beings.

  7. Tend to agree you can have as much moralizing as you want with polytheism, if there are human characters involved (not so sure about the elves/giants/dwarves/orcs/etc.). The in-group allegiances, status consciousness, airs of superiority, sitting in judgment over others, etc., come from human psychological needs as much as from anything inherent in how many gods there are in a religion. Jack Vance has invented some pretty creative examples in his larks, where the psychology is obvious. Sad to say, and contrary to Dawkins and his crowd, people would find some other excuse to be bigoted, violent and hypocritical if they didn’t have religion to justify their mean-spiritedness with. You could probably come up with some evolutionary “Just So Story” to explain why, if that’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like a prize pupil. But this also gives the fantasy/SF writer an opportunity to present some really exotic moralities being lived by the people in a story, where the psychology is not obvious at first, but is still there (and consistent with what we know about humans) underneath it all.

  8. Just quickly. Intense emotional and psychological conflict is certainly possible under one God. Just because you have an absolute truth or an absolute truth or moral good does not mean that people, or in this case characters in a story subscribe to it. Other gods are interesting and do allow for different kinds of dramatic conflict, and humour for that matter but discounting one almighty God on the grounds that he will ruin the story by intervening is based on erroneous thinking. The almighty God who billions of people believe in, can intervene in hiuman affairs but often choses not to. Why? Talk about excellent grounds for emotional conflcit.

  9. Superheroes Pagans & Deities:  Evolution of the Eastern Mediterranean’s Great Faiths by Karl C. Hendrixsen is a wide-spanned look at the legacies of ancient Egyptian mythology upon modern religions of that region.

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