Creating Your World’s Religion(s)

The ancient Egyptians, in various forms, worshipped cats.

Most of us know this; we’ve all seen statues, real or reproduction, of Bastet. What we tend to know less about is why. Of all the animals…cats? To which an historian would probably reply: cats are foul-breathed gorgons, yes, but over the centuries they’ve earned the right to our devotion. Especially in a desert kingdom where grain was more precious than gold. At every stage, cats protected the food supply. Crops–of all kinds–could only be grown for a certain period of the year. It was, therefore, vital both to keep them healthy and to keep the fields where they were grown safe for the workers. Egypt isn’t exactly known for its lack of venomous pests. Cats also patrolled the grain silos, ensuring against damage from an entirely different set of pests. Without cats, in short, an otherwise healthy and happy situation could turn very bleak and very quickly.

Cats were guardians inside the home, also. Especially of babies. As we discovered when we had our son, cats actually like babies. Now, none of ours have ever been called on to protect Pubert* from an asp but I can see it. In fact, it was observing Pubert with his cat, Yama, that inspired me to read more about Bastet and possibly include some aspects of Ancient Egyptian culture in some future book.

Which is how you should approach religion, when you’re world building: not from the perspective of belief, but from the perspective of asking why. Most religions, maybe all religions, come from a place of practicality. People have problems, and they want answers to those problems. Now as to those problems, themselves, they might be esoteric or they might be mundane. What happens to us after we die? How should I protect the grain in my warehouse? Which aspects your characters focus on, is going to depend largely on their individual situations. The more hopeless a person feels, generally, the more esoteric their desires are going to be.

Another helpful exercise is drawing parallels. The ancient Greeks worshipped a number of gods, demigods, and other creatures. There were twelve major gods, though, ruling over Mt. Olympus and the world–and each of them, of course, represented different things. Hera, for example, Zeus’ wife, was the goddess of marital and family love. Aphrodite, meanwhile, was the goddess of passion. She hung around with the god of war, ignoring her husband, while Zeus slept around on Hera with literally anything that moved.

There’s some philosophy there.

Today’s pantheon, if we were to make one, would probably look a little different–and who’d be at the top, I suppose, could easily vary on the basis of one’s political views. At the top of my pantheon, though, I’d put Keanu. I, too, think we should be excellent to each other. Mr. Rogers would be on there, too, along with Steve Irwin and Bob Ross. Now none of this is a one to one comparison, of course; Zeus was, for lack of a better term, the right man for the time. Keanu isn’t a replacement, but an evolution.

That being said, there’s no reason not to fill out the pantheon like you’re taking bets. Anthony Bourdain would’ve been the ideal Dionysius, and Rihanna certainly makes me think of sex. However you approach this, though, it’s an interesting thought exercise–as well as, I think, a fairly rare glimpse into how real religions are actually formed.

How many gods, over time, have been inspired by real people? Thousands of years from now, will anthropologists from Mars be debating the historical origins of Steve Irwin worship? Or maybe, going forward, we’ll take our culture in a completely different direction. Maybe we’ll worship war, or go back to worshipping cats (as if we ever stopped). Maybe we’ll decide that religion causes more harm than good and worship nothing at all.

What do you think?

Your answer is the start of your world building.

* Not his real name.