Fantasy as a genre is the domain of gods, daemons and the personification of natural forces. In many stories, divine power fulfils a vital role in the story. Gods may play an active role in the lives of mortals, either indirectly through intermediaries such as priests or 'touched' individuals. In other stories, gods may act directly, manifesting in the world through avatars or other mechanisms.
Active pantheons are modelled heavily off Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, all of which are rich with stories where gods acted directly in the affairs of mortals. For the world-builder, these myths provide an excellent source for ideas and conflict, pitting good gods and their followers against evil gods and their lackeys.
The pantheon, or group of polytheistic gods, is another trope of fantasy. I surveyed my own collection of fantasy novels, and this trope far outweighs other forms like monotheism or even animism. It's also generally a given that the divine exists, and I've yet to read a fantasy novel were characters even question their existence (maybe I need to read more). It's also common that a world's established pantheon is universal. People, even those in different societies, worship the same gods, even if they give them a different name.
We also find the familiar trope of a war amongst gods, or between gods and other forces. Again you see this in historical sources, Greek Gods vs the Titans, Asgard Gods versus the Giants. These titanic struggles, even those occurring eons ago (usually in the prologue!), lay the foundation for the problems faced by their story's protagonist. A protagonist, I might add, who's called upon to fix these mistakes or restore balance to the universe. You know how it goes, you've read it a million times.
Creating a pantheon
Though it looks like a lot of work, creating a pantheon isn't hard, if you use a model from the many examples in our own world.
With many ancient religions, the spiritual or divine world was modelled off the observable universe. For example, in our solar system, we have seven observable bodies visible to the naked eye: the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Five of them are still named after the Classical deities the Romans worshipped them as. We can think of these as our celestial gods. Those seven deities conveniently give us our days of the week.
Then we have Earth. Most ancient societies worshipped our home planet as a mother goddess. Within Earth, we have other observable features and phenomena, along with the mysteries of life. For example, the sea or water, wind, fire, life, and death.
So, right there are 14 deities ready to go. Give them names, map relationships between them, define their domain (like agriculture, love, lust, hunting). Make them patrons of places, or vocations, give them shrines, temples and cults.
Maybe the celestial gods are the elder or superior. Perhaps your gods are split along gender lines, or make them gender-neutral. The domain of Gods can overlaps. Where there's overlap, there's potential for conflict and cooperation — both otherworldly and earthly. Of course, there are all sorts of phenomena you can cherry-pick, not just the ones I listed. Picking up any decent book about world mythology will yield lots of ideas.
Don't like the 7 greater/7 minor deities pattern in my example? Use the zodiac, or elements, or even appropriate a historical model and simply change the names. The possibilities are endless.
Creation myths explain how the people in your society understand the beginnings of their world, society or some other significant event in their earliest history. Pretty much all religions have them — think of Genesis in the Abrahamic religions or the Rainbow Serpent in Aboriginal mythology.
Creating, or least describing the crucial myths in your constructed world can tell you a lot about how people think. The exercise can also provide story fuel for those of you who like writing prologues set 3000 years before the story actually begins.
Often overlooked in creation mythology, and mythology in general, is the importance of geography. Not only does geography shape society's view of the natural world, but it also shapes how one perceives the supernatural world.
For example, creation myths in Egypt and Sumerian are very different, despite being centred on the life-giving rivers central to their civilisation. The Nile inundated and receded gently almost like clockwork each year, leaving behind fertile soils. Egyptian creation myths echo this gentle rising of fertile land from the waters. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, by contrast, flooded in a violent deluge, ripping up the soil and irrigation channels before crashing violently in the Persian Gulf in an explosion of salt and sweet water. Consequently, Sumerian creation myths are all about chaos and destruction.
Create deities with a template
Ah, the magic of world-building, the unlimited creative power wielded by the author or DM! From our fertile imaginations, we can bring forth the very gods themselves!
Once you have the general structure of a pantheon established, it's time to create the individual gods themselves. For this purpose, I've developed a template, similar to my Character template, to guide me through the process in a question and answer format to provoke the muse.
I'll make this template available to my subscribers in the next couple of days. As with my previous template pack, I'll include Word, Rich Text, Apple Pages and Markdown formats. The Word and Rich Text documents are compatible with Scrivener. If you are interested, be sure to sign up.
Theology in my setting
If you're still reading at this point, you might be interested in the religions of my world.
In my setting, I elected to create a bunch of religions whose deities are not active in the world. I don't like the trope — it's often severely mangled Deus Ex Machina. I am also an atheist, and I don't believe in any form of deity. That's not to say that religion isn't essential in my setting. Quite the opposite, in fact, religion and religious organisations are central to the lives of my characters, just as the Catholic Church was to the people of Medieval Western Europe.
I also like mixing things up because it creates conflict, that most essential story ingredient. So, I've created three different religious systems running in parallel, for each of the three major cultural groups in my stories.
The Venyk people, who belong to the most organised and centrally controlled kingdom, worship a form of monotheism tightly coupled to state and theocratic rule. This religion grew out from the teachings of a prophet, Lazar, who created a movement that galvanised into a unifying national force and started a rebellion to kick out foreign rule by the Oskoi. However, this movement and the religion itself was quickly subverted into an instrument of political power. After Lazar's Ascension, his brother became the first King of Vengorod, and he established control over the fledging Lazarite church, making it the central institution of the kingdom.
Meanwhile, the Oskoi, the principal rivals and once rulers over some of the Venyk tribes, practice a more classical polytheistic religion. Oskoi is a confederacy of city-states rather than a centralised kingdom or empire. In a similar fashion to the Classical Greeks, each city-state has a patron (or matron) deity from the pantheon. Their religious practices, therefore, lack centrality, and its allowed other ideas and practices to flourish much like philosophy was able to thrive in Classical Athens.
The Oskoi also have the notion of a mythologised war amongst the gods. They attribute this to a cataclysmic volcanic event in what was my world's Bronze Age. This event was of an even greater magnitude and devastation than the Santorini eruption that wiped out the Minoan Civilisation and ushered in a dark age.
Finally, the religion of the Prenig people of Ilza Kranneg (which I mapped yesterday), is based on animism and ancestor worship. While there are gods (mostly introduced and assimilated through contact with the Oskoi), they are strongly associated with sacred sites. A person's gods to a Prenig are their ancestors, and the spirits of the groves, streams, burial mound, and mountains.
This is a vast topic. It's also one I love to explore, not just for world-building, but also my academic interests still hanging by a thread from my university days.
As I penned this exercise, I realised why authors often fall back on standard tropes and ready-made historical analogues. Creating a fully fleshed out religion and pantheon takes work and through. I also realise I've spent most of the article talking about how to create a pantheon, rather than describing my own.
No matter; it helped me to get those loose ideas rattling around my head onto paper. Maybe it will help others too!
For you dear reader, I hope there's something to gain from reading how I go about constructing a pantheon and the religions that make up my world. As you've likely guessed, I cherry-pick readily from history, archaeology and comparative mythology. I throw the ingredients into a bowl, then mix and bake until I've got an exciting pudding.
Well, that's day 2 done, 28 to go!