Whether you are One with the Force, completing quests for the Temple of Waukeen, awaiting the appearance of the Nerevarine, or fighting against the armies of the Dark in the name of the Lady of Victories, religions in high fantasy are as common as Drizzt Do’Urden’s angsty, misunderstood half-brothers and sisters.

But how does one go about inventing a convincing, feasible religion for your characters? Having religious characters can, if handled with grace and tact, give a depth and richness to character, culture, dialogue and even action that isn’t easily achievable otherwise. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s perfectly possible to have a symbolically rich, detailed story without any mention of religion at all; but in fantasy fiction, many writers seem to want to take either the ‘easy’ or the ‘exotic’ path to cultural depth in their world, via religion.

One of the first and most important things to consider when inventing religion is the Self. How does your religion view the ‘self’? As part of a larger whole? As an illusion of existence? A separate, distinct entity in itself? There are many ways of understanding the self, and the way your characters view concepts of individuality and the immaterial consciousness (Whether you choose to call it ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, or a word of your own invention) will ultimately impact other beliefs within the religion, including the language used to discuss the religion, a character’s views on killing and slavery, and the rituals and ceremonies involved.

None of Paolini’s religions address this first issue; the Dwarves skip past it with a vague sense of ‘he self as a ‘spirit’ that encompasses personality, emotions and memory, and can ‘pass on’ after death, but they never try to explain beyond the phrase ‘the afterlife’ (What sort of afterlife is it? Is it a packed mead-hall with an eternal feast with food, mead and dancing women? Some kind of underground antechamber, where they wait for the dwarven equivalent of Ragnarok?). The worshippers of Helgrind (Henceforth referred to as ‘Helgrinders’) are given a passing mention of belief in a spirit world, but only by inference: the detachment from the philosophical opposite, the ‘mortal world’, leads to a conclusion of some sense of a ‘spiritual world’, but it is never expressed directly. The Helgrinders, then, plausibly believe in some kind of distinction or separation between the physical and the mental or spiritual.

The second important consideration, leading on from their understanding of the self, is motivation. Why do they pray? In other words, what happens to the self after death? Does it become one of those glowing orb thingies that appeared briefly in Brisingr? Is it absorbed into a collective group-self? Does it pass on to another world, or does it face judgement, or does it get reincarnated? The problem of what happens to the self after death will inform a lot of the religion’s rituals, celebrations and moral issues, as well as the way people view crime and punishment, and the language that is used to discuss life and death, especially funeral and burial/cairn/pyre/mummification/entombment rituals.

Paolini’s dwarves have solemn funeral rituals, examined in Eldest when Ajihad is entombed (but strangely absent for the dwarven king’s funeral), but these rituals are little more than show; no mention is made of the dead person’s fate, the reason for the particular burial traditions, and very little is said in the way of hymns, rites or anything of real religious significance.

The Helgrinders have it even worse: Almost no justification for their actions and rituals is given. Why do they cut off their limbs? Uh… ‘because they’re insane’ doesn’t work. The thing about religions is that in order for someone to choose follow and remain a follower of a religion, it needs to offer some benefit to them. There needs to be some sense of betterment or fulfilment, or nobody is going to want to follow that religion. Especially if it’s as physically crippling as the Helgrind faith. Are the Helgrinders held above the common folk? Are they revered for their sacrifice, or given money, women, power? Short answer, no. Long answer, not at all. In Eragon, the streets of Dras-Leona were littered with limbless beggars. Apparently the Helgrind priests have absolutely no regard for the sacrifices of their followers, and nor does the general population. So why cut off their own limbs? There is no immediate benefit, a whole lot of immediate, long-term detriment, and only the barest hint of long-term spiritual benefit.

Any religion you look at, in real life or in fantasy, either has or needs to have some incentive for followers. There are two kinds of benefit to be had from following a religion: immediate, and long-term. Immediate benefits include things like a sense of belonging and community, a sense of meaningfulness or purpose, self-worth, and, for some religions, financial and physical security. Long-term benefits are those to be had after death: spiritual bliss, a cessation of suffering, or the reunion of loved ones. Neither Paolini’s dwarves nor the Helgrinders have any real perceived long-term benefit, and the short-term benefits are almost nonexistent.

Going on something of a tangent here, it is important to note that in any society, religion never exists in isolation; it coexists with culture and language, and each influence the others. Religion influences cultural values like crime and punishment, individual freedoms and cultural taboos and morality; language, particular idioms, colloquialisms and turns of phrase (God only knows; speak of the devil; thank God you’re here), as well as swear-words (Goddamn it! Where the hell is my coffee?). Paolini’s dwarves have no such linguistic idiosyncrasies, and we don’t know enough about the Helgrinders to be certain, but I’d be willing to guess that they don’t, either. For the most part, the dwarves almost seem to forget about their religion until it is being directly discussed. It doesn’t appear to inform their values, their culture or most of their language (Although the idea of using the dwarf word for ‘stone’ as the same word for ‘dwarf’ is a curious, but lonely, quirk).

One of the most important points to demonstrating a complex, fully-formed religion in a fantasy story is that the characters need to be influenced by it. Their language, actions and moral justifications need to be motivated, in some small way, by their beliefs. Otherwise the religion may as well be completely absent.

The final point I’d like to make is concerning the survivors of death — the mourners, the grieving relatives. What happens to the Self after death is one thing, but the way the survivors handle it is another. Religions, for the most part, are riddled with outlets for grief, and comforting messages, and coping mechanisms. Whether it’s directing their attention to a more positive result (“They’re in a better place now”), assuming that death is not final and eternal (“You’ll see them again, someday”), or any number of other mourning rituals, prayer, funeral songs, prayer or meditation, affirmations, candle-burning, bell-ringing or something completely different, these coping mechanisms are an integral part of the religion’s philosophy regarding death.

Paolini’s dwarves do not demonstrate any sort of mourning period; Orik, the adoptive son of slain king Hrothgar, barely makes mention of it, uttering maybe two or three lines about how he was like a father, but saying nothing about what he believes has happened to Hrothgar’s spirit. Similarly, Nasuada, who later prays to a praying-mantis goddess (in the desert?) for good fortune, makes no religious comment about her father’s fate beyond death.

And finally, I’d like to make a comment on Paolini’s method for inventing religions:

Dwarves: “[name], god of [element]”
Nomads: “[name], [animal]-god/dess”
Urgals: “[name], [family role]-god/dess”

This is one of the cheapest, easiest and least effective ways to invent a “religion”. This method is favoured by roleplaying games everywhere, including Neverwinter Nights, which includes a list of 53 different “[name], god/dess of [element]” deities to choose from. However, there is rarely any prevailing mythology behind these deities. How do they fit together as a ‘community’ of gods? What’s their philosophy regarding crime or sin, and punishment? What inter-god/dess politics plays out between them? (Mind you, Paolini did at least attempt this last question, albeit rather clumsily, in the dwarf religion).

If handled properly, a fantasy religion can give your characters depth and sincerity, and a framework for their actions and motivations, something for them to fall back on when scared, hurt or in mourning, and a way for them to either justify or take a stand against perceived evil and sin. However, if handled incorrectly or clumsily, you may end up with a shallow mockery of religion which goes no deeper than the surface, and only serves to get in the way of the story.

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  1. Kyllorac on 16 January 2010, 22:17 said:

    There is a typo in the title. :P

    vague sense of ‘he self

    self after death will inform

    Is inform really the best word?

    Overall, this was a useful topic to tackle, but I felt the article was lacking in the examples department. You focused almost entirely on Paolini and just touched on Neverwinter Nights at the end, but they were both examples of religion done badly. I think the article would be stronger if you incorporated a larger variety of examples, including some good ones.

  2. Pearl on 16 January 2010, 22:58 said:

    religion never exists in isolation; it coexists with culture and language, and each influence the others.

    Good point, and very important.

    I enjoyed the article, Taku. Nice job.

  3. TakuGifian on 16 January 2010, 23:54 said:

    Durned typomographical errors.

    Kyllorac: I find I work better with ‘how not to’ than ‘how to’. It’s a weakness, I guess you could say, but that’s how I roll.

  4. Snow White Queen on 17 January 2010, 00:09 said:

    This is an interesting article, Taku, about an issue that I have been thinking about lately, but I’m also curious as to some good examples of religion in fantasy, because the bad ones are everywhere.

  5. Anonymous45 on 17 January 2010, 03:02 said:

    Lord of the Rings?

  6. Kyllorac on 17 January 2010, 16:44 said:

    Discworld. Not so much in the way of religion as religion, but there are gods and powers and prophecies, and these gods and powers and prophecies have a very noticeable impact on the world. It also doubles as a parody and so points out/plays with the more ridiculous aspects of fantasy spirituality.

  7. Danielle on 17 January 2010, 18:41 said:

    The gods and godesses in Till We Have Faces is a good example of fantasy religion done right, IMO. Lewis basically took the ancient Greek system of dieties and modified it to work within a barbarian land. I don’t know if you could say that counts, but I thought it was quite effective.

    In other words, great article. It brought up one thing that really bugged me about Inheritance—religion as a generic system of gods, elements and rituals that exists for no other reason than to add “color” to PaoPao’s colorless world.

  8. LordShadowblade on 18 January 2010, 12:29 said:

    Woot! Hooray for the Nerevarine reference! :D

    Very nice article, btw, I’ve often had to muse over whether to make religions in my own stories, or to make the religion part of the story (i.e. Lord of the Rings, it’s all part of a mythology.)

    And then that just makes me marvel at how delicately Tolkien built his world with that religousness/mythicness fused together in there. Absolutely marvelous.

  9. Repinuj on 18 January 2010, 21:14 said:

    The Helgrinders have it even worse: Almost no justification for their actions and rituals is given. Why do they cut off their limbs? Uh… ‘because they’re insane’ doesn’t work.

    Actually, Paolini gives a feasible explanation. They cut off their physical limbs because it makes them more acceptable and prepared for the spiritual world. A crude paraphrase. The Helgrinders’ religion is reminiscent of several actual religions which draw moral distinctions between physical and the spiritual, and probably the worst charge you can bring against them is their unoriginality.

    Just sayin’.

  10. ProserpinaFC on 19 January 2010, 12:15 said:

    The Helgrinders having “moral distinctions between physical and the spiritual,” that doesn’t explain why they must beg for food and have no one to take care of them. Their worldview only extends so far as to make them radicals we can pity.

    lol… A few months ago, a friend said to me, “Hey, I haven’t seen you eat in, like, days.”

    “That’s because I haven’t eaten in days. I’m fasting.”


    Something can seem radical from your eyes, but I wouldn’t fast without a reason that makes sense to me, some benefit that I get from fasting. Also, she didn’t know because I really believe the point is to be humbled by my mortality. Wouldn’t complaining about it be disingenuous?

    Granted. Specific characters can falter. A young guy, on his first fast, may complain about it to friends at lunchtime. It may take time to get into the habit of praying five times a day.

    But to write that the entire institution of the religion makes rash demands with no support or foreseeable advantage is just making a strawman group, with no respect to what religion is. Even people who killed others for sacrifice didn’t massacre towns or kill important artisans.

    And I start a fast with proper instruction from leaders so that I don’t freakin’ kill myself.

  11. Repinuj on 19 January 2010, 16:11 said:

    that doesn’t explain why they must beg for food and have no one to take care of them.

    I’m guessing he was basing them off the Buddhist monks who must beg for food and live a life of self-denial. What’s the motivation behind the real life monks? Just take the answer, multiply by Paolini’s imagination and, tada!, you have a extreme but plausible religion.

  12. Danielle on 19 January 2010, 17:13 said:

    an extreme but plausible religion.

    I’m not so sure it’s plausible.

    I mean, come on…when was the last time you met a church official who argued like the dwarven priest in Eldest? Who, when asked why they don’t just give their extra money and whatnot to the poor, says “Our sacrifices help the crops grow! THAT’S how we help the poor!” Look at all the major religions of the world. Every one of them assigns some sort of value to human life (which is why each one considers murder such a serious offense). It’s considered a Very Bad Thing to refuse to help someone who needs it, when you have the means to help them. Saying “My giving up lattes helps the poor” is considered a copout and a lie; there is no way giving up lattes could help a starving child in Africa, unless you donated the latte money to a fund that helps children in Africa.

    Essentially, that’s what the dwarven priests did. They gave up their lattes to help their starving subjects, but didn’t redirect that money anywhere else. Now, Paolini could have just been trying to satirize the ancient Jewish system of sacrifice, but he did a poor job of it. In the Bible, the Jewish system of sacrifice was set in place to atone for the sins of the Hebrew children temporarily, until the Messiah came and atoned for everyone (but I’m getting ahead of myself). Elsewhere, God commands the Israelites to help the poor, to give ten percent of all they earn to the poor and foreigners. Was the system of animal sacrifice meant to stimulate crop growth, keep away floods and invading armies? Not by a long shot.

    In other words, Paolini obviously doesn’t understand the nature of religion and religious sacrifice. THAT is why his religions are so implausible.

  13. ProserpinaFC on 20 January 2010, 19:24 said:

    Buddhist monks who live off the kindness of the neighbors DON’T HAVE SEVERED LIMBS.

    Like I said above, the more radical of an idea you present, the more you must work to keep it from being a joke.

    Anyway, this if from the wiki:

    Helgrind… was also the base of operations for the Ra’zac…. The acolytes of this religion practice self-mutilation, believing that the less physical parts you have in this world the more you are linked to the spirit world. They also drink human blood. Brom described it as “terrible”…. Sacrifices were offered to Helgrind, such as human flesh, which were, in reality, eaten by the Ra’zac.

    Since this really does sound like the stupidest ritual ever, it sounds like something the Ra’zac started to get free food. WHY would they think having less of a body made them more spiritually powerful? Was there some teacher who said things so wise that the people would believe it was because he was a begger with no arms? Some great leader who founded the village, so cunning because he could never ride the horse, so he devoted his life to strategy? Is there any logic to this, or was the author too focused on making them disgusting?

    Monks who search for individual spiritual enlightenment are few and far between, even in old times. Chinese alchemists from 1000 AD willingly killed themselves for immortality by drinking the sulfuric potions they created. And they BELIEVED they would achieve it. It wasn’t something done throughout the whole village. The villagers below would get instructions from the alchemist about lesser potions to cure warts, increase fertility and other daily needs that provided benefit.

    They were awesome. :)

  14. Tolly on 24 January 2010, 10:22 said:

    Re: “However, there is rarely any prevailing mythology behind these deities. How do they fit together as a ‘community’ of gods?”

    Faerun is replete with crazy-ass gods, and may I suggest that if you want a good laugh, go dig out the third edition version of Dieties and Demigods. Holy crap. I’m starting to think 4th Editions tactic of smiting about half of them was a good start! …Ahem. I love me some Neverwinter Nights, but dear LORD do they have some insane religions. I like Ilmater and Oghma, though…

    A great article that I’m bookmarking for future reference.