Dispatches from the Word Mines: An Exercise in Creating a Polytheist-Friendly Fantasy by Rebecca Buchanan

Dispatches from the Word Mines is an irregular blog series about literature and writing from the perspective of writers themselves. This entry comes to us from Rebecca Buchanan, editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She has been published in a wide variety of venues, with most of her work featuring Gods, Goddesses, spirits, witches, and the occasional nereid. In this dispatch, she discusses polytheism in the context of fantasy by walking us through the creation of Gods and Goddesses for fiction. Many thanks, Rebecca!

I love fantasy. I love fantasy. I read more fantasy in its various sub-genres than I do any other genre of literature: epic, sword-and-sorcery, urban, feminist, eco, you name it. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many other genres of literature, there is little fantasy that can be described as polytheist-friendly (at least in the West). Sure, Gods abound in in the genre as do spirits of every sort; hungry ghosts, ancestors, faeries, elementals, et cetera, but that doesn't automatically make them friendly to polytheism. Doubly unfortunately, most of the fantasy out there is based on a pseudo-Christian cosmology, or the Gods and other spirits are interpreted through a pseudo-Christian lens. In these stories, the Gods are 1) treated as flat caricatures (e.g., lusty sex Goddess, brutal war God); 2) cosmic jokes (e.g., dim-bulb Deities easily manipulated by mortals); 3) super-powered temperamental children (e.g., worship me or I’ll smite you); or 4) under-developed window dressing (e.g., mortal characters speak of the lower-case 'G' gods but never pray to them, hold festivals, set foot on sacred ground, or interact with clergy of any kind). Further, stories are often set in a pseudo-medieval European landscape with strongly heterosexual characters (that is changing; I am seeing more gay and lesbian characters). Finally, Gods come in stereotypical boxes, with the Gods of wisdom and peace cast as the heroes while Gods of death and war are cast as the villains; they want to rule the world, destroy the world, wipe out humanity, conquer humanity, blah blah blah.

Booooring.

Also, insulting. I can’t say whether real Gods are insulted by the portrayal of their fictional brethren or not, but I can certainly say that I as a reader am insulted. For pity’s sake, fantasy authors, give me some credit! I want complex mythologies and multifaceted Deities. I want rites and hymns and prayers and temples that are beautiful and awe-inspiring. I want religious systems, governments, socio-economic forms, and gender constructs that all grow organically out of one another.

And those are very hard to find…

Wanna write a fantasy? Good. Wanna repeat what’s been done in a thousand other stories? Of course not. So let’s engage in a writing exercise here. Let’s start by building the core mythology, the ur-myth if you will. Let’s use real mythology — the stories that feed our souls — and extrapolate a whole fantasy culture from there. I’ll grab my copy of Michael Jordan’s The Encyclopedia of Gods1 off the shelf and randomly flip to three different entries.

Buk. River Goddess. Nuer [Sudan]. A guardian against attack by crocodiles, she is invoked by the sacrifice of a goat. Known as “the daughter of the fireflies.” p48

Lendix-Tcux. Tutelary God. Chilcotin Indian [British Columbia, Canada]. The so-called transformer known by different names among many Indian tribes. He is a wanderer who can change shape from human to animal and who educates the human race. He often appears in the guise of a raven, or as a dog, and has three sons. pp144-145

Rosmerta (great provider). Fertility Goddess. Romano-Celtic [Gallic and British]. Consort to the God Mercury. Probably locally worshipped and often depicted carrying a basket of fruit, purse or cornucopia. She and Mercury frequently appear together. In addition to her purse, she may bear a twin-headed ax or, alternatively, she may carry Mercury’s caduceus (snake-entwined staff). p221

Based on the above, let’s add information from one more entry.

Mercurius. Roman. Messenger God. One of the twelve major deities of Olympus, Mercury is modeled closely on the Greek god Hermes. In Roman mythology he is the son of Jupiter and the plains goddess Maia, born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. He is attributed with the invention of the lyre made from a tortoise shell, and with various misdemeanors, including the theft of cattle from Apollo, an allegory on the blowing away of the clouds. Mercury also personifies the wind. Apollo presented Mercury with the gift of his winged baton, the caduceus, which had the power of resolving conflict and dispute. The gods also presented Mercury with the winged sandals or talaria, and cap or petasus. Originally he was a god of riches, but became a patron of travelers and thieves. The French for Wednesday, mercredi, derives from his name. His main annual festival, the Mercuralia, took place in Rome in May and his statues were frequently placed as boundary markers. As Psychopompos, he leads the souls of the dead into Hades, and as Oneicopompos he oversees the world of dreams. p163

There's a lot of information in those short entries, more than enough on which to base an entire fantasy and the cultures and peoples which inhabit it. Let’s start by working out the nature of the Gods and their relationships to one another; from that, we can build geography, government, art, gender, et cetera.

This fictional mythological system centers around seven primary Deities and is set in a large grassland criss-crossed by deep, wide rivers. The edges of this grassland are bordered by mountains to the north and east, and desert to the south and west.

Buhannah is the Goddess of the Rivers which flow out of the mountains; she is the mother of all that lives within the waters. Crocodiles are her favored children, but she will protect people against them when properly honored, especially with the sacrifice of a goat (the first goat was actually a gift from her to the first people to enter the grassland). She will allow her rivers to flood for different reasons; she may be angry or sad, or she may be blessing a parched land. Fireflies act as her messengers. Once the lover of Hiirtan until he left her for Shyrrha. She appears in many different forms, but most often as an old woman with water for hair or as a young woman with a crocodile tail and teeth. She will more rarely manifest as a swarm of fireflies holding human form.

Hiirtan is the God of wind and cattle and music. Husband of Shyrrha and father of Nenthalan. He often runs from his desert home in the west across the plains, the grasses rippling in his wake. The souls of the deceased dance with him in the heavens until they are reborn except those few who have committed terrible wrongs (particularly rape and murder, though they are rare). These souls are forced to wander the grasslands as angry spirits until such time as those they harmed have been reborn three times. Once the lover of Buhannah, his winds carried clouds which fed the rivers of her mountains and the grasslands. They parted on good terms, but he then killed a turtle to make a courting gift for Shyrrha, earning Buhannah’s wrath. He presented the first humans with great-horned cattle. Often appears as a virile young man playing a turtle shell instrument, or as a turtle himself, or as an old man with great curving horns.

Shyrrha is the Goddess of all growing things; all the grasses and fruits and flowers which Nenthalan taught humanity to harvest and use. Fruiting and flowering shrubs grow in the shallows and rich mud of Buhannah’s rivers; many of the grasses and seeds of the great plains can also be harvested as can the roots of many wild vegetables. Wife of Hiirtan and mother of Nenthalan. Usually appears as a matronly woman with a basket or knife. 

Nenthalan is the wanderer, a shape-shifting, pan-gendered Deity who can assume any form. The terms E and Hir apply to Nenthalan, Hir child Linia, and mortal aale (which is the word for transgender individuals). Responsible for teaching humanity everything from cattle herding to hunting to weaving to writing, e.g., all the civilized arts. Parthenogenetically produced three children — the Goddess Naina, the God Thais, and the God/dess Linia — who mated with one another in various pairings and produced the first humans, dark of skin, dark of eye, white of teeth, red of blood.  

Naina, as the daughter of Nenthalan, watches over all women from conception through death, presenting their souls to Hiirtan. Any woman can call upon Her for guidance, healing, and so on at any point in her life. Thais, as the son of Nenthalan, similarly watches over all men, while Linia watches over all aale.

The first humans birthed by Naina, Thais and Linia spread out across the grasslands. Those who settled along the banks of Buhannah’s rivers, fishing and hunting waterfowl and harvesting fruits and flowers, came to call themselves Beni. Those who preferred to wander, driving their cattle and goats from one place to another and harvesting the grains and roots of the open grasslands, came to call themselves Rhenah. Though they live differently, they are united by a common language and common Gods. Both the Beni and Rhenah recognize three genders and are largely egalitarian; Beni villages are presided over by councils of elders, while Rhenah tribes each have a single leader with an advisory council. Cattle and goats are their most important animals, providing most of their meat, milk, horn, and hide, wild bird and turtle eggs are a delicacy, crocodile teeth and hide are worn as talismans of strength and power, and a (very labor-intensive) bioluminescent paint made from crushed fireflies is used in special religious ceremonies. Both communities make use of bow and arrow, spear, and stone and bone knives, create art from clay, plant dyes, and the bits of gold they find in Buhannah’s rivers, and create clothing from hide and plant fibers. Trade and intermarriage between Beni and Rhenah are common, with disputes settled by contests of strength and song. For the most part, relations between the peoples are peaceful2.

Then …. Aaah, then. That is where your story comes in; this is the story you want to tell. But what is it? How does this groundwork shape the tale to come? Who are your heroes? Who are your villains? Are the lines clear? What motivates them?

Let’s suppose the story begins at a festival, say, a sacred festival in honor of Hiirtan and the ancestors. Beni and Rhenah gather together to celebrate those who came before and the God who watches over the yet-to-be-reborn along with the cattle which sustains them all. It is a holy rite but also one of great frivolity and ecstasy. 

Among the Beni is one Emesh, an aale who excels at hunting waterfowl with hir bow and arrow. E is happily, but recently, wed to the man Rhoa. Emesh awakens the morning after the festivities to discover that the Rhenah woman Nuun has carried off hir husband during the night, determined to claim him for her own. Emesh vows to get him back, even going down to the river to ask for Buhannah’s blessing and aid. The Goddess agrees. Accompanied by hir brother Laish and hir close friend Medaith, Emesh sets off across the grasslands, battling dangerous predators, deprivation, terrible storms, angry spirits, hostile tribes, and tests by Nenthalan to rescue hir love.

Rhoa, meanwhile…Ah, of course there is a meanwhile. We can’t forget Rhoa. He has to be worthy of all the trials that Emesh is (attempting) to overcome to get him back. How does he prove his love for Emesh? Is he tempted by Nuun? Does he try to escape? What does he think of the Rhenah tribe, and what do they think of him?

Nor can Nuun be a one-dimensional villain. What was her motivation for taking Rhoa? Is she, perhaps, a dream priestess who is forbidden to marry one of her own? Is she following the vision given her in a dream, or has she misinterpreted it? What are her flaws and her virtues? If she is admired by her tribe, why? Do they all support her claim to Rhoa?

See? Complex, rich mythology with complicated Deities which, in turn, gives birth to a polytheist-friendly non-traditional fantasy.

Give it a try. You’ll be pleased with the results. And so will your readers.

  • 1. The Encyclopedia of Gods by Michael Jordan is a handy reference. The entries are very short, though, so I recommend the book only as a starting point for further research into real-world mythology, or as inspiration for your own fantastical mythology.
  • 2. Notice a pattern here with the language; lots of hs and ns and as and es. Keep that in mind when constructing a language for your fictional culture. It should sound organic, with words related to one another, evolved from one another.