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 Arie Farnham, author of The Kyrennei Series, an epic dystopian thriller. In this dispatch, she discusses building fictional Pagan gods and religious systems. Many thanks, Arie!
The moon goddess is a warrior maiden. The crescent is the edge of her sword and the full moon is her round, shining shield. She is capable of brilliant attack, tactical defense and healing retreat. She comes to the aid of those who must fight their own temptations and those who fight for justice alike.
That is what bubbled up out of the cauldron of a story.
She isn’t a “real” moon goddess--not one honored on the waking Earth by the ancestors of anyone living today. I had to make the Pagan gods of my story different enough that I would not appear to be pointing at any particular traditional Pagan or neo-Pagan religion because of the nature of the story I was telling. Not only did I want to avoid arguments about the authenticity of my portrayal, part of the point of the story is its universality.
Still, I worried when I started. Shouldn’t I write about real Pagan gods? Surely, we have enough of them and too little serious representation in literature. But on the other hand, if I tie the story to a specific real-world culture, how can I create a story that speaks to many different kinds of Pagans, those from different continents with vastly different beliefs? And what is the point of including religion in a fictional story of suspense and heartbreak anyway?
These are just some of the issues writers of the new realm of Pagan fiction have to wrestle with. Some of us write stories rooted in a specific tradition, whether historical or contemporary, realistic or fantasy. Some of us use Pagan ideas to come up with completely new worlds in which to explore Pagan ideas. We dance among the gods and bring legends to life, or we simply write stories in which the characters are Pagan.
The way writers tackle these issues primarily depends on what their goals are in writing Pagan fiction. Here are some (though not all) of the goals writers have when writing stories with overt Pagan themes:
- To have fun and make light of serious subjects
- To educate readers or preserve information about specific traditions
- To instill a sense of belonging through characters who share our values
- To find hope in a way that is true to a Pagan worldview
There are a fair number of stories out there by both Pagan and non-Pagan authors that make light of Pagan gods or beliefs. Some people are annoyed by this. Others believe that can be a beneficial method of imparting information without resorting to dry and dispassionate lectures.
I started out writing a story that is part fantasy and part science fiction—an alternative history dystopia in which the world outwardly appears just as it does today, but the social undercurrents and power dynamics are darker. It’s the contemporary world, except that a mind-control cult secretly controls politics, economics and social elites, keeping most people in an apathetic daze of the daily grind.
I planned--at first just for fun--to make my protagonists be Pagans. I like slipping things that are close to my heart into books. It gives a story heart. But when I did this, something strange and even magical happened. The background of my fictional Pagans expanded to create a realistic culture as well as a vibrant history reflecting the longing of many Pagans for an ancestral connection.
This religion of the characters doesn’t take over the story, but it is a continuous thread played out in the background and according to reviews it awakens interest in a wide variety of readers, not just people with specific earth-based spiritual identities.
In the process I learned a few things about making up fictional Pagan pantheons and traditions. Here are my tips:
- Have a clear idea of the atmosphere and values of the culture you want to create before you start. All other details of your fictional religion will stem from that. Is it individualistic? Pacifist? Warlike? Ecologically oriented? Socially supportive? Is beauty, honor, strength, compassion, truth or some other attribute most valued?
- Special consideration should be given to your fictional religion’s take on environmental and social issues. Are there commandments or guidelines that followers are supposed to honor? How closely do they generally reflect their religious values in daily life? Perfect adherence may seem honorable in theory, but when described in detail it may make your characters look like zealots. On the other hand, if they are supposed to be sisters of the earth goddess and they never consider environmental implications of their actions, they may look like hypocrites.
- Consider the linguistics of your fictional culture before you start making up the names of characters and gods at random. Even if you don’t want to make up a fictional language, the common sounds of the names should plausibly come from the culture of your setting.
- Consider carefully to what degree you are making up a completely fictional world and to what degree you are basing your names, language, gods, traditions and culture on existing or historical settings.
- Consider where any magic in your world comes from. Does it come from inside witches or shamans? Do all people have the ability to use it if they learn or is it a gift only for some? Does it come from the gods? Is it present in nature or in some universal source? What rules or implications does use of magic have? The answer should say a lot about the philosophy of your fictional religion and pantheon. (I’m not going to go into all the rules of developing fantasy magical systems, because my focus here is on the magic that many Pagans use.)
- You can map out the specific traditions of your religion as you go, but be sure to keep notes on them. If your characters celebrate holidays, when do they occur and what are the common traditions? What do rituals look like in your fictional religion? These things should reflect the atmosphere and values you decided on in the beginning, and they should be consistent unless your culture clearly changes in the course of the story.
- Consider: Does everyone in your world share the same religion? How do different religious groups interact? Are there any groups that are not Pagan? How do the conflicts and struggles of your fictional world reflect on our own times?
- When coming up with a fictional pantheon, it’s worth looking at several pantheons from different parts of the world. Unless you specifically want to reflect one particular culture, it’s good to go beyond one continent in your research. Consider how different Pagan religions approach their gods, what the attributes of the gods are, how they interact and how they appear. That way you can make conscious choices about whether or not your fictional religion is similar to a real-world religion without accidentally falling into copying those of a specific area.
- Today the idea of “dark gods” is popular. When researching the topic further, you will find that many gods that are portrayed in popular texts as benign and gentle also have a dark or frightening side. Consider how different characters in your stories may see different sides of a single god or goddess, or one character may experience both sides.
- You don’t need to explain all of this background to your readers. It should be like an iceberg. Bits of it will come into the story at various times, but you should avoid having a point where you or your characters sit the reader down for a lecture in theology. Simply create the whole in background, so the parts that do appear in the story to have cohesion.
The resurgence of Pagan spirituality in Western countries has come at a time when we are in dire need of a stronger interconnection between humans, the Earth and other living things. Writers, poets, musicians and artists have always been essential in times of cultural shift.
That’s why I’m delighted to see more and more Pagan writers employing Pagan ideas and themes of interconnection, rebirth, honor and empowerment in their work without resorting to overt preaching or lecturing at readers. These are concepts best absorbed as stories, just as they were thousands of years ago in the stories of our Pagan gods.
Arie Farnam is an eclectic Pagan, an American living in the Czech Republic and the author of The Soul and the Seed and three other books in The Kyrennei Series, an epic dystopian thriller. You can find her work at www.ariefarnam.com/tsats.