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Aug 022011
 

How do you find a gift for the deity who has everything? Sure, it’s the thought that counts, but there’s still something mildly embarrassing about offering up a glitter-and-macaroni thank-you card to a being that magicked up the entire world from formless chaos.

It’s a good thing, then, that our deities had the foresight to populate the earth with nature’s foremost spiritual currency. I speak, of course, of the humble goat.

Sacrifice takes many, many forms. Its most common face is a ritual of thanksgiving; of offering up to the spiritual world the gifts it’s bestowed upon us, to show our appreciation and – more importantly – to keep those gifts flowing. A sacrifice can burn or bleed or be spilled. It might be a goat, a prisoner of war, a sheaf of wheat, or a plate of cookies for Santa. Whatever the case, it must be valuable – it’s not a sacrifice, after all, if we’re not giving something up.

Animal sacrifice was the most common, and the oldest, take on this practice. It certainly predates people writing about it, but they have done, at length. There practically isn’t a holy book out there that doesn’t, at some point, discuss best practices: a hecatomb for the harvest, a goat for good health, conscious or unconscious, bled or burned.

Such rituals were not always wasteful. After all, once you’ve knifed a goat, something needs to be done with the body (sacrifice via immolation was somewhat cleaner, but more commonly practiced with wheat and other such bloodless rituals). While it was frequently the case that priests would, by complete coincidence, dine on goat for a week or two following a festival, it was also common to share sacrificial meat with the laity or distribute it to the poor.

Animal sacrifice, and the related sacrifice of other foodstuffs – most commonly grain or wine – are a sort of sympathetic magic, like for like. Give food that we may get food.

Human sacrifice was somewhat more wasteful. In a fantasy context, it conjures up images of demonic magic, or of princesses tied to posts that the dragon may eat them instead.

Mesoamerica is human sacrifice’s poster child. Aztecs were offered up en masse to this god or the other, and for the strongest reason of all: to stave off the inevitable end of the world. When prisoners of war weren’t available, they sacrificed their own people, and they were serious about it: the wiser or more beautiful, the better. As a symbolic measure, that’s pretty powerful stuff, but one imagines that killing off your smartest and strongest creates some governance issues.

Usually, though, human sacrifice was far more boring than that (except, one presumes, for the sacrifice). It was frequently just a two-birds-one-stone scenario: a way to rid oneself of pesky out-groups and please the gods with one thrust of the dagger. Prisoners of war and criminals were the most common targets in this context.

But there’s another face to human sacrifice, and one that’s more pleasing for pharaoh than Osiris. Burial sacrifice was not an offering up to deities, but rather a rite to ensure that the dearly departed had every possible advantage in the afterlife. And since our nobility has historically faced challenges such as inbreeding of such magnitude as to make even the most minor tasks impossible without help, that meant slaves (and even government functionaries, on the off chance that one might need help preparing one’s spiritual taxes) in addition to horses, boats, food and coin.

Echoes of this practice can be seen in many different cultures. Coins for the boatman were at once a sacrifice and an anti-inflationary measure (no, not really). Sati was retainer sacrifice for the masses, and makes for catchy slogans like ‘Bring your wife to the afterlife!’ A burial with weapons was not merely symbolic: Torstang the Mighty’s gonna need those swords when he gets to Valhalla.

Of course, human sacrifice eventually ran afoul of goddamn activist lawyers, and the prevalence of animal sacrifice began to decline as well. They were replaced by wishy-washy post-modern symbolic sacrifice. Now, instead of offering up a goat, you give up eating chocolate for a month. Odin wept.

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Jul 262011
 

An interesting set of Open Yale lectures on the Old Testament make the argument that the evil ball didn’t find its way into Mesopotamian humanity’s court, philosophically speaking, until the development of Judaism.

The Jews demystified evil. Before their belief system came along, it was an animate force, a thousand little devils on shoulders, a thousand gods and malign spirits doing their thing for the greater bad. But when Simon’s brothers schemed to kill him for his coat, they weren’t possessed. They were just greedy, jealous assholes.

Certain branches of Christianity then went and remystified evil, of course, but it was never quite the same again. In the belief that there’s a devil lurking about, whose greatest joy in life is coaxing people into knocking over a convenience store, we see in some ways a return to one of the oldest human beliefs: that every human phenomenon is indeed a spiritual one, and that good and evil are constantly at war for our souls. Still, the cat of agency had already been let out of the bag of tortured metaphors, and even at its devil-made-me-do-it-est, Christianity stressed that there was a choice involved. It was possible for people to resist the supernatural lure of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The nature of evil is one of those questions that pops up everywhere. If the gods are good, we wonder where all the wars and famines come from. If the gods are not so good, we wonder how best to buy them off. If it’s a mixed crop, we can’t help but wonder if they’re at war, and if we should bet on bad or good. It’s so common a question that you need to have an answer for your own writing.

Supernatural Evil

At long last, an excuse for all those Dark Lords and Forests of Woe and Killzor, God of Evil! Toss all that shit in there. It’s okay!

A society with a belief in tangible, spiritual evil is a superstitious society. It propitiates a hundred not-so-nice deities to look the other way. It prescribes exorcism and two aspirins for migraine relief. When the crops go bad, it accuses brownies, witches, or convenient foreigners. It has laws about ‘the evil eye’, and countless folk rituals to avoid it. Got a haircut? Burn the hair, or it might fall into the hands of a witch. In this sort of worldview, luck and simple coincidence are the sorcerous mumbo-jumbo. When weevils infest your favourite cigar, it’s because you pissed off the weevil spirit. Sacrifice a goat, and do better next time.

A world where this sort of belief system represents reality opens up some of the oldest fantasy cliches. If evil is an animate force, after all, perhaps it can be fought. Perhaps it makes sense, all of a sudden, to gather three dudes, an elf and a dwarf to head through the Vale of Darkness to the Mountain of Grim of Deeds, swords in hand. The orcs they butcher along the way can be cheerfully forgotten; they’re just mindless servants of the Dark Powers, after all.

If the Dark Lord can be killed, our dear adventurers will strike a blow for good, and it doesn’t seem quite as hokey as it otherwise might (well, it does, but in a good way). We depressing existentialists know that offing a Dark Lord really just takes out one of a thousand threats (and banking regulation would, frankly, save more lives at lower cost), but the Free Peoples of the World live in a different context. Their accomplishment is very real, and may have dramatic consequences. Evil might actually scurry back to its hiding places. There might be a happily ever after. Dwarves and elves will live together in harmony.

The Anthropogenic Theory of Evil…

… is one we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on, I don’t think. Should we want to see a society that believes people and chance are responsible for the bad things that happen in the world, we can look out the window.

Perhaps the only thing that needs pointing out, here, is that the tropes of high fantasy are not modern, and that they don’t fit well into this sort of context (unless you’re playing at deconstruction). Sure, there may be a Dark Lord out there, and maybe he needs some offing, but he’s really not much more than an unpleasant dude who gathered a big army. We know full well that stopping him may do some good, but it’s not a panacea. And if we believe that evil is a reflection of choices made and not in some way inherent or supernaturally powerful, all those butchered orcs start to look a little bit like a war crime.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that beliefs are a spectrum, and that it’s perfectly feasible to have a society that believes garden-variety bad things are just boys being boys, while famine and natural disaster are matters of pissing off the wrong god. Moreover, as with any belief system, it won’t be universally held. Those pesky evil deniers have been lobbying pretty damn hard.

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Jul 192011
 

Last week, we discussed some of the basic concerns a fantasy author ought to keep in mind when designing a religion (or just filing the serial number off Zoroastrianism).

This week, we’ll dip into our grab bag to pick out a pair of religious/metaphysical questions whose answers can lend some cultural weight to your setting.

Standards of Proof
The biggest difference between a standard fantasy setting’s approach to life after death and our own is … well, zombies, really. Fantasy is so thick with the things (and ghouls, and vampires, and…) that it’s amazing necromancers aren’t unionized. Throw in a seance and a few resurrections, and you can potentially have entire societies with a strong, practically first-hand understanding of what precisely happens after they verb the noun*.

*I’m fond of the nonsensical ‘buy the farm’.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t really that big a change. Our earthly neighbours have managed to fervently believe all sorts of things without the need for proof, or indeed have chosen to disbelieve things that are staring them directly in the face (the blithering insanity of credit default swaps, say). So in one sense, you can keep on keeping on. Do note, though, that while skepticism is part of the human condition, it may look a little bit different in a world where answers exist. If you can climb Olympus to visit Zeus, “Are the gods real?” is not a question that’s going to get a whole lot of traction. But “Are the gods truly divine, or just really powerful magicians?” might, and I can’t wait to see what sort of animal Zeus will turn that little doubting Patroklos into.

The Afterlife
While we’re here: a belief in (or understanding of) the afterlife shapes a society. An afterlife belief can be a source of comfort: don’t worry how things are going in this life, because it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. It can also be a source of wine-swilling life-is-finite terror: what do you mean I get to spend infinity in some grey
morass with a bunch of depressed ghosts?

One of the first things to bear in mind is that burial rituals may have very real effects in a fantasy world. A shoddy burial might keep someone from moving on, and perhaps very real spiritual problems arise if one’s buried according to a different religion’s playbook. Or perhaps proper burial rites can keep somebody from a long unlife of brain-eating. If the local necromancer is known to pop by and raise the occasional army, you can bet even the cash-strapped kingdom will find a way to shell out for incense.

The afterlife may not be for everybody. Perhaps most of us just die, and only the beardiest and killiest get to swill mead with Odin. If that’s the case, I’d think pretty seriously about investing in blacksmithing and life insurance, because there’s going to be a lot of swords swinging about. Perhaps the afterlife is means-tested. If you can’t pay the boatman because somebody pilfered your coins, sucks to be you. If you can’t get buried with your slaves and enough food for the journey, well, maybe you should’ve been a pharaoh. Such limitations on who gets to play at forever are perhaps the clearest reflections of a society’s values.

Perhaps there isn’t an afterlife, because infinity takes place right here. Reincarnation can also have a moral element. Do well, and you come back as a mighty eagle. Kick a nun, and it’s horsefly time. Interesting questions for fantasy sorts might include: “How much memory do people have of their past lives?” Eternal lovers or enemies are an ancient story, but they’re not the only possibility. Want to be rid of a particularly meddlesome courtier? Send him in search of a particularly Bob-looking eagle.

Finally, perhaps there’s no afterlife because we die and… well, that’s that. That hacking sound is a weeping necromancer. Won’t somebody please think of the necromancers?

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Jul 122011
 

There’s an awful lot of atheists in fantasy’s foxhole. It’s somewhat rare to see religion playing much of a role (outside the antagonistic, which is quite well represented) in the behaviour or thoughts of our various characters. Yet there’s something bizarre about setting a novel in a medieval Europe with no friars or monasteries, or in a Rome without constant propitiation, or in an Imperial China without the Mandate of Heaven.

I understand this. There’s a question of ‘write what you know’, and while many of us certainly are religious, the question of faith is approached very differently now than it was even five hundred years ago. If we’re writing a priest, we’ll send him to church now and again, job well done.

Of course, there’s also the controversy. No matter how you incorporate religion, there’s a decent chance you’ll offend somebody. I’m sure readers of faith are a little tired of seeing organizations superficially like their own brought out only when it’s time to burn a witch or two. Readers of a more skeptical bent can’t help but cock an eyebrow when we come across The Irreproachable Order, who in between opposing the Dark Lord at every turn organize bake sales, run a puppy shelter and heal the sick without any compensation or the smallest division in the ranks.

Today, we’ll discuss religion in fantasy writing, with an eye primarily to organized ‘modern’ faiths (i.e. 2000BC and on; we have an interesting relationship with your newfangled ‘modernity’ here at crow on a wire). Animism, ancestor worship and the like will wait for another day.

The cardinal rule

Any organization – religious or otherwise – is capable of doing great good and great harm, often at the same time, and sometimes in the exact same context. To take a simple example, Dominican friars were one of the earliest forces to speak out against slavery, and indeed the abolitionist movements in Europe and in North America owe a lot to them, to Quakers and, eventually, to the Papacy… but it was a much earlier Papal bull that legitimized European enslavement of African colonies in the first place, by convincing the laity that it was totally cool as long as you did it to Saracens and Moors (who themselves had a rocky relationship with slavery, of course).

This sort of thing is inevitable. Faith organizations are just as prone to infighting and politicking as everybody else. The seizing of temporal power with protestations of Deus Vult started when the very first shaman realized people were really keen on doing what the spirits told him, and it hasn’t let up since.

The important thing: this is not, in any way, shape or form, a condemnation of or an argument against organized religion. It’s simply the game of power disparities being played in yet another arena, and the religious part of it is practically incidental. It’s as human as the big monkey chasing the little monkey away from his stash of nuts. And faiths have been – and will continue to be – both monkeys.

Religion has inspired great men like Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s also brought us swine like Ted Haggard. Or, perhaps more accurately, great men like MLK find beauty in religion, while venal men like Haggard go straight for the ugly, the divisive.

Religion is complicated, it affects people differently, and organizational behaviour doesn’t always intersect neatly with the principles for which that organization stands.

So, rule the first: don’t write a polemic. A religion whose every priest is a money-grubbing hypocrite or a fire-and-brimstone moral crusader is exactly as believable as Standard Fantasy Monoculture. I think we’ve moved past the land of every-dwarf-is-a-Scots-drunkard.

This isn’t some sort of bid for ‘political correctness’, nor is it the exultation of verisimilitude for its own sake. It’s just writing. Different characters can explore different approaches to religion, and that can be really, really interesting.

What religion is

A religion is equal parts philosophy and metaphysics. It’s a group identity and a set of behavioural guidelines for said group. It tells us what its adherents value, what they profess to value, and what punishments and rewards – if any – are laid out for good and bad behaviour. It explains how things came to be, and where they’ll end up, through the medium of metaphor (which, in the absence of Hubble telescopes, was most of what our forebears had to work with).

Every religious story about how something came to be is also a moral lesson. Abrahamic faiths will tell us that we speak in different languages because their god cursed the builders of the Tower of Babel. That’s an explanation of a natural phenomenon, but it’s also an injunction against hubris. If those pesky humans hadn’t tried to build so close to heaven, we’d all be speaking… er, Aramaic, I guess?

But did people actually believe all that?

That’s a thorny question. We like to pretend that our ancestors were credulous buffoons who accepted everything at face value, and that we enlightened sorts know it’s all just fable and metaphor.

In reality, the literalist/interpreter divide goes back quite a long way, as do prioritization questions – how much of this do we really need to follow?

The Protestant reformation, let’s remember, was in large part about that. Paul Veyne’s ‘Did The Greeks Believe Their Own Myths’ goes back even further, and addresses the issue with the argument that truth hasn’t always been about verifiability, which makes the scientists among us twitch, and those of us who pay attention to politics say “Duh” (also, twitch).

People are very, very capable of picking and choosing what exactly they want to believe in. The traditional-unto-the-point-of-cliche example is mixed fibres or shellfish. Leviticus hates ’em, but we don’t much care. But lordy, when two men want to marry, all of a sudden a poorly translated treatise on proper ritual behaviour for Levite priests becomes Holy Writ.

Do they actually believe this? Short answer: Yes, no, both, neither. Work out the details of belief character by character.

Spiritual distance

The idea of an ineffable, distant and omnipotent deity is a new(ish) one, in the grand scheme of things, but certainly appropriate for the medieval context in which most fantasies find themselves set.

If you’re looking further back, to Rome, or to the Celts, or to Egypt, you may wish to reevaluate this. Religious conceptions that predate Christianity (some might argue Judaism, for which see below) generally involve deities who are more likely to get their hands dirty down in humanland. They can be bargained with, they can be tricked, they can be bought off. They squabble with their co-deities. They’re prone to fits of god-sized jealousy and love to give insufficiently respectful worshipers a chance to cavort about in animal form, or roll boulders uphill forever.

They’re less like the modern conception of deity as Cosmic Dad, and more like royalty whose heads have swollen with power. And, importantly, this is frequently how they were treated by worshipers. Certainly, the gods were propitiated with sacrifice and people generally acted respectfully towards them, but it wasn’t a respect born of any great love – it’s just, if you don’t play nice, they’ll fuck your shit right up.

But even the Abrahamic faiths had their genesis (haw haw) in this religious context – the G*d of the Old Testament could just as easily be Odin. He appears to worshipers directly, makes bargains with them and is held to these bargains by his worshipers*, tricks people into demonstrating their loyalty, and alternates without warning between the magnanimous fellow that leads the Jews from slavery and a brooding, vicious sort that visits collective punishments on humanity.

*Okay, that last bit’s not very Odinly.

Who is worthy of speaking to the gods? Will they visit anybody? Can one interpret their words without the help of a qualified professional? These questions of spiritual distance can shape entire societies. If meeting a god is as simple as climbing Mount Olympus, or if they constantly and visibly intercede, that has implications on society far different than: “Yeah, he’s out there somewhere, being ineffable.”

Polytheism, monotheism, monolatry

Definition time! Polytheism = worship and recognition of many gods. Monolatry = recognition of the validity of many gods, but worship of only one. Monotheism = worship and recognition of one god.

After a few millennia of you-don’t-believe-what-I-believe strife, it’s easy to forget that, for the most part, earlier conceptions of religion generally made room for other people’s gods as perfectly valid – if, of course, lesser – spiritual options. In fact, when this whole organized religion thing was just finding its feet, there was a lot of “My dad can beat up your dad” going around. Conversions were common after losing battles, because hey, the other guy’s deity protected him better than ours protected us, so nuts to this weakling.

Cyrus, Persian imperialist extraordinaire, was the other side of that coin. When he took Babylon, he made a point of praising and publicly worshiping Marduk, that city’s god. Because why piss off the people you’re gonna rule, y’know? Ich Bin Ein Babyloner.

As monotheism became more common, this sort of your-god’s-cool-too approach faded in the Western world, until the Enlightenment and more modern times. Today, Unitarians are the foremost champions of the old ways: worship whoever you want, but stay for tea and cake.

Next time:

Religion in writing is an enormous topic, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Join us next week, when we continue on in this vein but get into some specifics – ritual purity, animism, apotheosis, and how beliefs in the afterlife shape the now-life.

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