Sunday, February 24, 2013

Building Religions 32: Michel Foucault

There is nothing overtly religious about Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish. It's primarily a history of penal systems, but although its focus is almost entirely secular, it enjoys some popularity among scholars of religion for the theories that he develops out of that history. Foucault's larger body of work does address religion more specifically (there's even a collection of his essays on the subject), but here, I would like to look at this one book as an example of how tangentially-connected material can inspire new ideas for worldbuilding.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Building Religions 31: Esotericism

I've written a few things here before about the Western magical traditions that often provide a foundation for the magical systems of fantasy settings. I am about to do so again, although this time from a different perspective. The study of Western esotericism (which I'll define below) has emerged over the past few decades as an academic discipline in its own right. Although its focus tends to be on modern (post-mediaeval) texts, those texts often look back to the past for inspiration and legitimation, making a consideration of esotericism useful for anyone interested in this particular strand of Western thought. What I plan to provide here is a brief survey of the subject, with the hope that it can clarify some ideas and introduce readers to others for the first time.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Building Religions 30: Relics

Only two of our world's major religions include relics as objects of devotion: Buddhism and Christianity. Despite that fact, however, they seem to appear in a number of fantasy settings as an unquestioned part of religious practice. What I would like to discuss here, following up on my post on how to deal with death and the dead, is an overview of what relics are, their perceived status in the religions that focus on them, and the kinds of religions that might incorporate their veneration into their rituals.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Building Religions 29: Handling the Dead

Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are.
—Octavio Paz

When considering what rituals are found in the world you're creating, you may find those surrounding death to offer the most helpful snapshot of a culture. By describing how a community treats death, you are also providing your audience with insights into an entire worldview: the relationship of humans and gods, the purpose of life, the nature of the afterlife (if there is one), and so on; even questions about the handling of the dead can help illuminate ideas about family, social status, or religious purity. Today's post, then, is aimed at covering some of these issues, with the goal of inspiring authors to consider a broader range of possibilities in their representation of death.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Building Religions 28: Asceticism

We get the English word asceticism from Greek, where it referred to the training of athletes. How it became associated with practices of self-denial largely has to do with the ways that accounts of early Christian hermits described them: as athletes competing against the temptations of the world. That metaphor, in turn, may have been applied in response to the descriptions of the martyrdoms of certain saints, particularly those who died in the Roman arenas. Even though the narratives all ended with the deaths of the martyrs, they were often represented as defeating wave after wave of animal and human opponents before the Roman authorities finally had them executed. They were, in short, superior athletes.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Building Religions 27: Priesthood

A little while ago, my friend Mike asked if I'd go into a bit more detail here on the varieties of priesthood and how they might be used in created worlds. Since I'm always willing to take requests, here's my answer.

Because 'priest' is a word whose meaning is primarily drawn from European Christian experience, it can be difficult to apply completely to other religions without bringing along certain expectations and baggage. You can, though, establish a minimum definition and use that to decide whether or not it's the best word to use to describe a type of practitioner, so that's what I'd do here: a priest is a religious specialist whose primary function is the performance of ritual in a fixed location.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Building Religions 26: Secularization

To recap my last post: according to Peter Berger, the functions of religion are to legitimize social institutions, provide continuity, and create meaning by connecting the human nomos with the sacred cosmos. It's not a stretch, then, to argue that these functions work best in communities in which the religion in question operates as a monopoly. But what happens when that's not the case, and how could such a situation occur? The second half of The Sacred Canopy addresses these questions. By considering Berger's theories on secularization, you can not only add depth to secularized cultures that you create, but also develop some interesting ideas for more traditional fantasy worlds.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Building Religions 25: Peter Berger

This isn't the post on asceticism that I promised; that will have to wait until I can do a little more reading and dig up some good sources. In the meantime, I'd like to present another sociological interpretation of religion, namely that found in Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy.

Berger is the scholar who (along with Thomas Luckmann) gave us the term "social construction," and with it, the idea that the world as we experience it is not simply a given, but perceived according to the rules and structures of society. In The Sacred Canopy, he focuses on examining the religious components of that idea, but before getting into those, it's best to go through some of his basic assumptions about how humans experience their world.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Building Religions 24: Orgy and Ecstasy

"There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts; and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other. Animal fury and orgiastic license here whipped themselves to daemoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstacies that tore and reverberated through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell."—H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Building Religions 23: Sex and Gender

In my post on Mary Douglas, I described some of the ways that religious societies create and enforce categories of thought, as well as their reactions to phenomena that transgress the bounds of those categories. My post today, which examines how to approach questions of sexuality as a worldbuilder, is to some degree an extension of that. Obviously, it's an enormous topic, and one that I won't even attempt to cover completely; instead, I'd like to focus on a few basic ideas.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Building Religions 22: Defining Religion

When you're creating a world in which you want religion to play a significant part, it's good to take a moment to ask yourself what you mean by 'religion' to begin with. The definition of religion that you use as your starting point can help you shape the questions you want to ask about its role in your world, so what I'd like to do in this post is lay out some classic ways of defining it and consider what they could offer.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Building Religions 21: Phenomenology

One of the challenges in approaching the subject of religion, whether creatively or academically, is that of recognizing one's own presuppositions about what religion is. In my post on the work of J. Z. Smith, I brought up the example of Spanish explorers in the New World who failed to recognize signs of religious life among native islanders because they couldn't see anything resembling a temple. They took their own experiences with religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and perhaps some knowledge of Classical paganism—and used those as the map by which to interpret the new situation in which they found themselves.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Building Religions 20: Presenting the Past

I'm working my way through Sadakat Kadri's Heaven on Earth, which is a history of shari'a law from the beginning of Islam to the present day. While I'm still early on in the book, part of Kadri's thesis—that shari'a has never been monolithic, and has been shaped by numerous political and religious pressures—got me thinking about the idea of how religions present themselves.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Postscript on Orientalism

I don't often write about my own work here, but the post on orientalism put me in the mood to discuss some practical worldbuilding. Not long after I started as a columnist for Royal Archivist Publishing, I was given the job of writing the Guidebook to the Wàiguó Liánméng, an overview of one of the setting's major factions. I started with only a rough sketch, based on what had already been written: I knew that it was a world-spanning alliance of nations; and, based on the names of those nations, that some of its influences were Chinese, Korean, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Indian cultures.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Building Worlds: Orientalism

It was Saladin Ahmed's article on the issue of race on Game of Thrones that made me think I should add Edward Said's Orientalism to my collection of posts here. When a piece went up on the Tor website about racial diversity in Dungeons & Dragons, it pretty much solidified it for me. Neither of them have to do explicitly with the subject of Said's book, but they touch on part of his thesis: that literary representations of 'the Orient' are part of a discourse that's shared with academic disciplines devoted to its study as well as to the exercise of Western political power. To put it another way, fiction isn't exempt from the political or social attitudes of its day; it can serve to reinforce those attitudes, whether the author intends it or not.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Building Religions 19: Joseph Campbell

The long break between posts happened because I wanted to reread Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces before writing anything. It had been about twenty years since I opened it, and realized that I couldn't remember a thing about its contents. The impressions that I had of Campbell's work were intermingled with memories of his interviews with Bill Moyers, his televised lectures on myth, and references to his influence on George Lucas, so I went back to the source.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Building Religions 18: Mysticism, part 2

Having a definition for mysticism doesn't do much to help you incorporate it into your stories, unless you're planning to write The Untold Adventures of William James. This week, I'll cover some examples of the kinds of experiences that have traditionally been called mystical as well as a few ideas on how you might use mystics in your creations.

I've picked four basic examples: mystical union, cosmic perspective, divine love, and direct revelation. The first is a good example of the experience itself; the second, of an insight into the nature of the world that comes from mysticism; the third, of the experience of the mystic in relation to the deity; and the fourth, of visionary experience. These are my own categories rather than any academic arrangement, by the way. If you go looking for books on the subject, you'll likely find them organized differently.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Building Religions 17: Mysticism, part 1

If you want to see a religion scholar twitch, try using the adjective 'mystical' as a catch-all descriptor for anything vaguely religious. The effect is about the same as you'd get if you asked a physicist to listen to a New Age devotee talk about 'energy.'There's probably even a small crossover population that you could drive into complete fits by putting the two together as 'mystical energies.'

Mysticism, like religion, is a term that's both problematic and necessary. It's necessary because it does seem to describe a category of experiences and practices that appear in many religions. It's problematic because that category is fuzzy enough that authors have to spend a great deal of time explaining and defending the specific definition that they're using before they can go on to talk about the subject.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Worldbuilding with Themes and Principles

Mike McArtor's most recent post on telling stories in games over at the Story Papers blog have brought back to mind a worldbuilding technique that I used for a game a few years ago. Before I go into it, I'll suggest that you hop over there and take a look around; both his and Ann's articles are well worth following.

Back? Okay.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bibliographic Addendum

I generally don't include bibliographies, but for anyone who wants to follow up on my descriptions of mediaeval and Renaissance magic in my last post, here's where I'd recommend starting:

Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages and Forbidden Rites
D.P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic (more for the Renaissance approach)

These books might give you a few ideas as well:

Owen Davies, Grimoires (a bit light on thesis, but absolutely full of interesting trivia)
Ioan Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (his conclusions are debatable, but his argument is intriguing)
Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (very influential, although her thesis rests on extremely shaky foundations)

(I can provide plenty more for anyone who's interested. If you're going to pick one to start with, get either of Kieckhefer's books.)

In terms of online resources, Twilit Grotto is probably best, though I see it hasn't been updated recently. The Alchemy Web Site is also quite handy, if you're fond of that sort of thing.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Short Note on Magic in History

This article has been on my mind for the past few days. It's not that different from any other piece of advice out there on how to make magic systems for fantasy worlds: decide who can use magic, set limitations, think about the mechanisms of spells, and include some sort of cost to using it. It's all quite reasonable, and provides a good set of principles to follow whether you're designing for fiction or for games.

It did, however, get me thinking about historical magic—specifically, the ritual magic of Europe's late Middle Ages and Renaissance—and why it would be terrible for fiction. You'd think that it would be a nice fit for someone who wants a bit of authenticity in their fantasy: the genre is already filled with grimoires, spells in Latin, wands, talismans, Solomonic spirits, and all sorts of similar trappings of historical ritual magic. Why not go all the way?

Well, let me explain.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Building Religions 16: Interpreting Scripture, part 2

Let's say that you've decided that your fictional religion doesn't adhere to literal interpretations of its scripture, or at least that it doesn't only read its texts in a literal way. Your alternative is the allegorical approach, which takes the text as the starting point for moral, theological, or eschatological statements. If you do, you can open up a whole new range of options for yourself, as well as introducing new complications to the matter of interpretation.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Building Religions 15: Interpreting Scripture

If you've decided that a fictional scripture is going to be an important part of your world, the next set of questions to ask yourself has to do with the way that it's interpreted in that world. Is there a single reading of the text to which everyone agrees? Are there obscure passages that have given rise to conflicting interpretations, and if so, what are their effects on the way that the religion's followers act? Do the leaders of the religion teach multiple interpretations to different subgroups of followers, one for the masses and a different one for the initiates?

You're certainly not required to complicate scripture in your setting, but it shouldn't be any surprise by now that I'm a fan of making religions messy, so I'd like to spend the next few posts providing an overview of some historical approaches to scriptural interpretation.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Horror Plots

I've been distracted for the past few weeks by something I half-remember reading two decades ago. It was a breakdown of the types of common tropes in horror, including isolation, alienation, invasion, mutation, and possibly one or two more; I'd come across it back in my gaming days, when I was going through a phase of running a lot of horror-oriented games. The frustrating thing is that I can't remember where I first read it, whether it was an academic source or not, or even whether the whole idea is something that I'd put together myself from different books that I'd read.

I am miffed. I may even become vexed.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Most of what I wrote in my last few posts was fairly abstract, and while that shouldn't be a tremendous shock for anyone who's been following this blog, I want to show how some of those ideas can be turned into something more practical for worldbuilders.

So let's talk about monsters.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Building Religions 14: Mary Douglas

In my last post, I wrote something that wasn't entirely true, namely that a society's categories are "arbitrary." That was not only inaccurate, but it gives the impression that people create systems without putting any thought into them, and that they only adhere to them out of some irrational attachment to tradition. It also does a disservice to the scholars who've put a great deal of work into explaining the internal logic of these systems. Consider this post to be an extended mea culpa.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Categories: an Overview

Early on in Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life, there's a detour into philosophy as he considers the question of how human beings organize their experiences of the world. He starts with two possibilities: one, that we order them according to pre-existing categories, some sort of transcendent framework by which we intuitively arrange the things that we know; two, that we each create our categories ourselves, building them up piece by piece until we have a more complete system. He dismisses both of these choices, though, once he's explained them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Building Religions 13: Scripture

Building Religions 13: Scripture

There comes a time for most worldbuilders when they want to drop a passage from a sacred text into their world. It could be a bit of flavour text to open a chapter, an account of some significant myth, or the ever-popular prophecy fortelling the rise of dark forces, but whichever way you decide to use it, it's good to have a general understanding of how scripture is and how it works.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Building Religions 12: New Religious Movements

Building Religions 12: New Religious Movements

Whether you're writing about a secretive order pursuing occult mysteries, the disciples of a modern-day prophet, or a utopian quest to found New Jerusalem on Mars, you have to ask yourself what kinds of forces can work to usher in a new form of religion. There's an abundance of literature out there on new religious movements, whether cataloguing their varieties or exploring their social and historical causes, and I'm not going to try to present a complete summary of the scholarship. Instead, I'd like to offer a short list of possible reasons for a religion to come into being.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Building Religions 11: Authority

Building Religions 11: Authority

My last few posts were a little light on the practical side for anyone designing a religion, so I thought I'd move back in the other direction and offer something that could be fit more easily into the worldbuilding process. It means going back to Max Weber's work again, particularly his discussion of how religious institutions develop over time. Most of this, I've drawn from Weber's The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, but a little is from Sociology of Religion.