Writing Excuses 10.28: Polytheism in Fiction, with Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan took a break from her book tour and joined us for this discussion of Polytheism in fiction. (Note: Marie recorded several episodes with us, and we’re posting them out of order.)

We begin by looking at the pitfalls and common mistakes that people make, and then dive into how we can make a polytheistic setting work well in support of our stories.

Liner Notes: The Belief System Generator, by Kate Hamilton


Use the Belief System Generator, and then write a prayer that works in the belief system that it generates.

The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkowski, narrated by Justine Eyre

26 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.28: Polytheism in Fiction, with Marie Brennan”

  1. I’ve been waiting for an episode about this. Thank you.

    A lot of good points were said. I felt a little disappointed that you didn’t cover my big pet peeve about writing religion in stories and that is the stereotypical religious person. In particular, when writers have the main character visit her pastor, rabbi, shaman, cleric, or what have you, that religious leader is one of two character types. The first is the saintly type who seems to do nothing but say kind words and give the characters uplifting wisdom. The second is the self-righteous hypocrite who is looking down on everyone and probably stealing donations or molesting children.

    It’s rare to see a religious leader who is a round character. And by round, I mean religious leader who has or has had doubts and has interests outside of giving speeches over pulpits, but still lives by religious tenets. I feel like giving someone some religious authority shouldn’t be an excuse to make that character flat.

    I think the show, Daredevil on Netflix handled their priest character well. He’s not a main character, but there are lots of hints that there is more to him than just giving sermons and hearing confessions.

    Also, I would love a podcast on how to write characters from real world religions that you don’t belong to. I would like to avoid the Shylock problem.

  2. Jim Butcher did a bit of a running gag with the “what makes a god a god?” question. In the Dresden Files, there are numerous gods, including Christianity’s. There are 3 swords crafted with the nails that held Christ to the cross, borne by three Knights of the Cross. One of these Knights, Sanya, is agnostic, despite the fact that, as a Knight, he associates directly with angels and archangels. He argues that they could be, for instance, merely powerful aliens, or magic creatures of some other type…their divinity does not effect the fact that protecting the innocent is worthwhile. He also argues at one point that he could very well be a hallucinating madman. Its boh funny and interesting whenever it comes up.

  3. In Japanese, most language intended to insult is based around the language’s in-built hierarchy, using words for ‘me’ and ‘you’ that imply that the target’s status is lower than yours. It’s interesting!

  4. For both this episode and 10.26, I have had issues downloading them through my iTunes subscription to the podcast. I eventually got 10.26 to download as an Additional File for Writing Excuses, but have not been able to get it into the normal Podcast feed. I cannot even do that for this episode. Has anyone else had this issue and found a solution for it?

  5. A good example of polytheism in fiction, especially the “lack of distinction between the god and what he/she/it represents” is in The Elder Scrolls series of video games. They also try to address one of the the Dungeons and Dragons problems I’ve heard of, “how does war happen if the gods are actively interventionist and provably real in everyday life?” Sometimes the execution of “weaving in the religion” is off but for the most part they do a great job at representing polytheism.

    An example from the same series of atheists in worlds with manifesting gods and a compliment to the “philosophical question of how you define a god,” the Elder Scrolls brings up a bunch of ideas by characters and cultures: as a sufficiently powerful spirit being, as a being with less power but who took part in creation, as any sufficiently represented symbol of an abstract idea or as something else entirely. While there’s no denying that gods a, b and c exist there is plenty of room to deny their divinity.

    And as for the sense of wonder I find that so enormously important for fantasy in general, and if you have gods, either with a little “g” or a big one, they should be at the apex of the totem pole of awesome. While I could give more Elder Scrolls examples (it happens, that series made me a writer) a good example of magnificent success at this is this guy you might have heard of named Brandon Sanderson. The Shardbearers (or Shards themselves) if you interpret them as the larger gods of the Cosmere always appear with a crazy amount of oomph behind them, and have since the first on-page appearance.

    Either way as this is one of my favorite aspects of reading fantasy I think this is one of my new favorite episodes. Marie Brennan is a fantastic guest with some amazing contributions and all the regular podcasters present in the episode brought their full-bore A game.

  6. A neat way of handling this from our own world: the Romans not only were polytheistic, they adopted the gods of the lands the conquered. So yeah, they had not only multiple gods, but multiple pantheons. There wasn’t just one god in charge of the sun, there were several contenders. You could debate which was better, choose which to sacrifice to, make fun of your friends for backing the wrong horse… The thing you could not do: make fun of a god while in their own country.

    That was just beggin’ for it, dude.

    On a side note: I’m hitting WorldCon, up in Spokane. I saw Howard’s name on the guest list. Howard, I’d love to shake your hand and buy you one of whatever you’re drinking. Writing Excuses really helped me get my agent and my book deal. I owe you guys.

  7. A good resource for worldbuilding religions is GURPS Religion (http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/Religion/). It is for the 3rd editon of the GURPS RPG, but only 2 chapters are system-specific (religious character templates and a clerical magic system). The rest is a discussion of how to worldbuild religions and cosmology. It is not a description of a specific setting but asks questions a worldbuilder should answer and discusses different answers.
    Some examples: If there are different creation myths, is one of them correct? How much do gods interfere in the lives of mortals? Are the gods of some religions real and others aren’t real? What is the relationship between different gods within a pantheon and between gods of different religions? What are the relationships between worshippers of different religions? What are the differences between different sects of the same religion? Is everything mortals believe about their gods true?

  8. Very good podcast. And I would echo an above commenter: Marie Brennan was a fantastic guest. Really. See if you can enlist her into the already excellent rank of Writing Excuses regulars.

  9. Does blasphemy depend on belief? Well, try to say something blasphemous about Odin? You remember, one-eye, runs around with wolves and ravens, rides an eight-legged critter? Three of the Writing Excuses regulars and Marie Brennan take a look at gods in your writing, and how to avoid the dangers of a D&D pantheon. Read all about it!


  10. Great stuff guys , FYI atheists believe divinity is not real, Agnostics believe it exists – but I want nothing to do with it/ or ‘how can we really know’?

  11. I have to say not all religions even have you taking the gods’ name in vain. (Cultural Anthropology major, so it might get geeky–sorry) I asked my friend in Hinduism if you could do something similar in Hinduism and she said no, she’d never heard of it. So be *careful* of imposing Abrahamic religion’s ideals into a separate religion and making a polythesistic religion that is Christianity in another incarnation.

    Do your studying of actual religions and what religion means to the subsistence that the people have, the government system and try to get your head out of doing just polytheism with actual gods, and try to think about other religious systems like animism, Animatism, etc. What about doing Shamanism? Do you know the major features of Shamanism? How do different shamanistic religions differ from each other? And what do those religions *mean* to the people who practice them. (don’t forget the last part)

    What about Totemism?

    Also, I have to point out that many of the Abrahamic religions were non-inclusive. If you were X, then you couldn’t be Y also. Whereas, many of the religions that came into or out of East Asia were more *inclusive* and synchronizing. (Like the early versions of the Abrahamic religions to some degree, though they won’t admit it). So you could, say have the traditional Chinese system of the pantheon, but also practice Taoism, Wuism and Confucianism without knowing it. Often bits of religions would merge over time. For example, Muism and Buddhism, then Taoism also merged over time. (Though Neo-co0nfucianism was too exclusive to allow Muism because men fled like cowards and didn’t like sharing power at that point and time and Neo-confucianism allowed that). In that way, you wouldn’t get blastphemy, but you would sometimes be charged with treason or witchcraft (if it’s sedentary).

    Just saying to expand your mind because fantasy *could* include a wider variety than another polytheistic religion that smells a lot like Christianity. And you can do it so it’s not appropriative, but you need to do the research.

  12. sorry Howard in spite of what Sudder said you cannot have (a) god(s) that overtly manifest and have atheists. What you do then is setting up a straw-man and knocking it down.

    If an atheist is honest (s)he will tell you the only thing that will change their mind about religion is proof. Atheist will claim the burden of proof the god(s) exist is on the believers and believing the god(s) aren’t there is (or should be) the default. When a god overtly manifest itself that’s the best proof of the gods existence you can possibly have. When an atheist character sees a god (overtly) manifest (s)he has his/her proof the only way the character can then proclaim to be an atheist is by lying. this sets up the straw-man that all atheist are lairs, knocking down all validity to their claim.

    Atheist characters can only work if:
    1- From the atheist characters PoV no god ever manifests. this has not happened in the characters back story and can’t happen during the story unless the character admits the existence of that god. the character can retain his/her atheistic position to all other gods that have not manifested in his/her PoV.
    2- The atheist character can logically explain the event of the world never involving a god as part of the explanation. in contemporary fiction this should always work and an author should in this case do the home work to find the explanation. in a fantasy however the magic system allow for many, many loop holes. because then even when a miracle happens the loophole becomes this happens because of magic type X we know to exist. you cannot use that as proof of your god we know the magic needed to do that exist, find me a better quality of proof.

    Atheist: know gods do not exist and require irrefutable proof before changing their mind.
    Agnostics: assume proof of the existence of gods is impossible
    Agnostic atheist: yes they do exists and are probably the majority of people who identify as atheists. they take the position that the existence of a god must first be proven which is impossible to do. to them similar to a court of law gods are innocent until proven guilty of the “crime” of existing.

    there is always the possibility that a character can choose not to worship a god they know to exist. however these characters are not atheists. I could describe them as an apostate or a heretic but not much else. atheism deals strictly whit does a god exist not whit do I chose to worship a god I know to exist. choosing to not worship a god you know to exist makes you an apostate.

    now I do like the polytheistic pantheon that exits in the Magic the gathering game on the plane of Theros. here the gods are creatures of immense power that naturally flows out of the magic system in place on plane of Theros. the god derive their power from the devotion that is given to them. in short the more people worship them the more powerful they are and the more often they can manifest. by overtly manifesting they gain converts whit in turn gives them power. in a sense under this magic system the more people pray to a god the more prays it can fulfill.
    this system doesn’t allow for atheism but it does allow the heretic notion of these being of immense power do not need, want or both my devotion and prayer.

  13. @Lucidity

    1) You’re assuming that your definitions of agnosticism and atheism are everybody’s definitions. They’re not, which undermines your entire argument.

    2) A story in which someone refuses to believe a thing in spite of what appears to be undeniable evidence is not automatically a “straw man” argument. Good stories with that device get told all the time. Sometimes the stories feature reconciliation of some sort. Sometimes they do not, and are powerful statements of the nature of belief itself.

    3) Don’t lead with “I’m sorry, [name], but…” when you begin your lecture. It’s trollish, and removes attention from your point, and calls it instead to whether or not you’re trying to be a troll, or are merely clumsy. Regardless, it has a tendency to derail the discussion, while simultaneously removing you from it.

  14. @Cassandra: You’re assuming (much like @Lucidity above) that your definitions of atheism and agnosticism are the ones everyone else uses.

    The pair of definitions I usually use:

    Agnostic: Etymologically, “not accepting spiritual knowledge as valid.” Essentially, refusing to believe a thing that cannot be shown without reproducible evidence.

    Atheist: Etymologically, “not accepting the existence of God or gods.” Refusing to believe in deity, and believing that evidence supporting the existence of deity will not be found.

    These are *not* everyone’s definitions.

    The problem here is that the folks who really OWN the definitions are the people who say (for instance) “I am agnostic, and this is what that means.”

    This is a very muddy space, not least because a great many believers, agnostics, atheists, skeptics, and a host of other epistemological -ers, -ists, -and ics have too much invested in their own epistemology to argue semantics with a cool head. I think this is probably because our brains are wired to defend the “how” of “how we know things” very vigorously. If that gets upended, everything we know must be re-examined, and that’s expensive.

    It’s also a GREAT story, which is why I raised the question in the first place.

  15. While pantheon building is a fascinating part of world-building, I find that a lot of authors forget to fully develop the varied beliefs of individual followers and how it affects everyday life. Even within a canonized religion, you will find significant differences of belief. Take Catholicism for example – you just need to talk to a handful of people to find that some take the stories in the Bible very literally while others believe they are general metaphors but not literal. In polytheism, you can have people who acknowledge the entire pantheon in general and others who latch onto one god or goddess and devote their entire worship to them.
    It really boils down to personal interpretation. Just look at this comment thread – we don’t even agree over the meanings of agnostic or atheist because each person has their own version in their head. Personally, I’ve always viewed atheists as people who very strongly believe (and adamantly preach) that no god or higher authority exists, while agnostics are people who accept that there may be a god or gods but they have no firm attachment to any particular organization because they either have not found one they agree with or they do not believe it is important. Those are my interpretations from talking to a lot of people who self-identify one way or the other.
    Whatever way an author goes, I think it is important to show characters with realistic levels of faith and/or doubt rather than strawmen or two dimensional people following the same system in exactly the same way as everyone else.

  16. @ Howard

    sorry for that clumsy start I made. I realize in writing thing may come across a lot harsher than they are intended. I wasn’t trying to troll anyone. I purposely wrote a longer post because I felt that if I said what I had to say in just 3 sentences I’d only come across as a troll. that was something i tried to avoid but did not quite succeed in apparently.

    I personally identify as an agnostic atheist as I defined that term in my previous post. to me gods are not proven to be real beyond the reasonable doubt and there will never be proof or disproof of the divine beyond the reasonable doubt. so I default to the position they do not exist. I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether I am correct about this or not. I felt like stating my definition for atheism because that’s the foundation my argument is build upon.
    the post I made was intended to focus on writing the other. to help people who are religious to understand my point of view and properly represent it in a character if they want to write an atheistic character. if a character sees clear evidence of a god that character cannot truthfully sate that gods do not exist anymore. if that character would then continue to claim the gods do not exist that character would have been turned into a liar. that character then does not represent me (and my position) properly any more. effectively the character has then become a straw man for my position.
    I am sure the story is great and I am very interested in reading it some time though for the reasons I’ve stated above I have my doubts about whether or not the atheist character will properly represent my position. that doesn’t have to make the story bad. Many stories have failed to represent the other well and were still good because the plot was still good, the characters still came alive, etc.

    you can write a story about someone who refuses to believe something they know to be true. those can be absolutely great stories about the nature of believe. I have but to turn on the news and I see all kinds of people deny climate change while all the statistical data show it to be true. the nature of believe is not solely connected to religion there are many other thing that people don’t want to believe but are true.
    when a character refuses to believe a god they know to be true, those characters are not atheists or at least I would not recognize them as a fellow atheist. I would say to them:”you still believe in your god but refuse to worship him. that makes you an apostate not an atheist”. apostasy really is the proper term for when someone refuses to believe in a god that deep down they know to exist. they may refuse to acknowledge that god because they are angry whit it, want to be left alone by it, do not want to conform to it, etc. there is however irrefutable evidence for the existence of that god they cannot claim that as their position for their disbelieve but that is what most modern day atheist proclaim. maybe there is a no true Scotsman fallacy in place here.
    in the end I cannot sustain my reason for disbelieve in the divine if there was good quality evidence for it. so any character that does sustain their disbelieve when they have good quality evidence for the existence of the divine would not be properly representing my side of the argument.

    atheistic characters can work as a flawed narrator as you described in your podcast about intrigue. where in their PoV no evidence of the divine has ever been seen. their view of the world can simply not be complete. they can be not aware of the evidence but when they are my reasons for being an atheist cannot be upheld any more.

    I am not willing to further discus my atheism and the nature of atheism. however writing atheistic characters is hard. in a fantasy world where gods do exist it becomes even harder. I am still willing to share insights in how to write those.

  17. After listening to the podcast, several of us were debating that very question: in a story where a god (or gods) is immanent and active, can there be atheists? Eventual conclusion: sure. Instead of denying that god exists, atheism would probably express itself as denying that this person (or persons) are, in fact, gods. Consider the analogy of a country’s leader, and the reaction from those who didn’t want to elect that leader and/or don’t like the leader. They can’t deny the leader exists, but they can deny the leader’s validity, or power, or something similar. In a world where gods answer one’s questions, show up in crowd scenes, protect their chosen people, atheism (or agnosticism) might be expressed as, “fine, but that’s a very small/unimportant/powerless god”.

    And this entire discussion is ignoring apatheism, where gods are neither confirmed nor denied, but simply ignored as irrelevant to the person in question. That’s one mindset that just might translate very well into a world where gods are seen in the grocery store: if the person doesn’t see this as impacting their own life, they might see no reason to care.

  18. Afishtrap — The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a splendid example of what you’re talking about in your first paragraph. Are the Asgardians “gods”? Cap says they aren’t; he doesn’t deny their existence, but he denies their divinity.

    Or, to put it in Hulk terms:

    “Puny god.” :-)

  19. 2nd Congregation Prayer 57
    4th Session To Speak to the Restoration god

    It does me no good, but I have no where else to turn.
    Great Restoration god,
    I ask for you to help me push away the god of Death and to relieve damage done by the Tormentor
    and the Fear-maker,
    May blood show my faith.
    Approved by Vote of 75 to 14:
    For Complete Vote Tally see PRAYER INDEX 2.4 § 15-65-0002

    Re-approved by vote of 75 to 14 (21/33/1013):
    For Complete Vote Tally see PRAYER INDEX 1013.4 § 112-645455-1013 § 15

  20. As a practicing polytheist (Asatru, which @Marie mentioned – belief in the pre-Christian gods of the Germanic people), I endorse pretty much everything Marie said. I was a little skeptic going into the topic because I typically expect the D&D-style polytheism, but this conversation was very on target. Thank you.

    As for the question of atheism, a lot of Asatruar (or Heathens, as we prefer to be called, since that was the origin of the word, coined by Christian monks in Anglo-Saxon England in regards to the Scandinavian vikings that were raiding the coastline) believe that Germanic Paganism is a faith of correct action over correct belief, or orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. This is a matter for debate so you’ll get a wide arrange of opinions, I just wanted to point that out, in case it informs anyone’s mindset or creativity.

    The description of Richard Garfinkle’s book with the Muse settling on the artist as a matter of “divine manifestation” is a lot more accurate in terms of how Germanic Pagans typically view deity, and that even might be pushing things. Most Germanic Pagans leave the gods in myth and feel that if they were to manifest, it would be very very rare. They have their own lives and other things to take care of, and aren’t that concerned with the day-to-day affairs of mortals. For that, there are a number of non-deity, non-corporeal spirits, including Alfar (Elves) and ancestors. These all fall under the blanket term of “wights” – house wights, land/earth wights (also referred to in some texts as dwarves), nature wights, etc. This is where the etymology of these Old English terms come from.

    One last point: Mary mentioned that religion should be so engrained that it is a part of every day life, and I just wanted to add one thing to that. In the older Germanic / Scandinavian texts, there is no word for “religion.” That’s because religion as a concept *did not exist.* Everyone believed in the gods to some extent or another. It was *so* engrained in the culture that there wasn’t even a concept that someone would not be a part of it. The Romans had their gods, the Greeks had their gods, the Hindus had their gods – everyone had gods, they were all just as real and as plausible as anyone else’s, and that’s part of what being a polytheist is even today. You recognize that all the gods are possible, you just only give your offerings or attention to those from your cultural / tribal pantheon.

  21. A fun series where the gods manifest (sort of) and some people are aware that they are in the world is Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series where each of the Incarnations (Death, God, Satan, Fate, Nature, War, Night) are elected in various ways from among the mortal world. George Guidall does most of the audio books and he’s amazing.

    Thanks for the various recs, they sound fascinating!

  22. Atheists, as far as I understand from talking to a variety of atheists don’t believe in anything divine or spiritual, but sometimes slip up by wishing people “good luck” which, BTW, is animatism. I grew up under atheists who surrounded themselves with other atheists. There are varieties of atheists, from the staunch atheists who will call religion the root of all war (*eyeroll from me*) to those who call themselves humanists. And there are atheists who practice religion as tradition. Often Atheist Jews, for example. But the uniting principle is pretty much the same–there is no divine power. When faced with someone who believes they are a divine power, many atheists will fall back on science to disprove the existence of such a thing.

    Agnostics are what theists will call heretics and Atheists will call in my sibling’s own words, “cowards”. But for me, it’s a form of respect to all of the religions of the world, be they god-filled or not.

    And then you have Deists and then Theists.

    This means there is a range between theist and atheist. And if you used something like a number system you’d find people line up in different places. So Agnostic leaning towards Atheist is definitely a thing. But there are also religious Atheists. There are also Agnostics who push their Agnosticism towards only a certain religion, and sometimes they will push it towards all religions.

    But not all “religions” believe in actual divinity, which kinda makes it difficult to define. Early Buddhism, for example, didn’t so much focus on the divine… as it did to personal or group enlightenment and escape from suffering.

    Most religion is a way of life, and was not named. But then when a name had to be chosen, it’s usually “Way of the gods” “Path of the Gods” “religion” “Eternal religion” or simply “Followers of _personage_”

    BTW, I was born atheist, raised kinda atheist, my parents are atheist Ashkenazi Jews who went to a Unitarian Universalist church for 10 years for the music, while my mom complained that the church was too Catholic for her taste… and then I also have a father who is a Buddhist Monk who eats meat, drinks and goes to singing bars.. in his monk clothes. I ended up Agnostic… though no one else in my family is. Yeah. I don’t think anyone has beaten me yet for that kind of mixed religious background. So I managed to learn about Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Methodists, Presbyterians, Unitarian Universalists, Northern and Southern Buddhism and part of academic study, Hinduism (which shouldn’t be called that, but I’m doing it to be understandable, not accurate).

    So pretty sure of the range of Atheism. I personally hate the staunch atheists that go on and on about how stupid theists are, forgetting that much of Christianity helped along science to what it is today, as well as the Islamic state helped invent things like ALgebra. ALgorithms, and things that you, know, help your computer like popularizing things like, the Zero and Arabic numerals and binary.

    Anyway, I do want to repeat that I’m kinda sick of seeing Christianity made into Polytheism, but renamed. We can do better than that. I swear, it does pay off to research other ways of thinking about religion besides your own.

    For example, a major problem I see is people write many of the kami as “evil” and even the yokai as evil, while Japanese wouldn’t view them like that at all. This is because people are stuck in the belief system that all spirits other than humans are “evil” except for gods, but they fail to realize when they are dealing with Shinto, it’s a mostly animistic religion and Japanese tend to view the gods as “misunderstood” and mischievous and what you really need to do is understand them better and what their nature is.

    But yep, there are religions without gods in them. So that’s also something to mull over. Also synchronization.

  23. Overall, I really liked this episode and will need to add the referenced books to my reading list– they sound excellent!
    I do have two questions that I would like to propose for a future episode on religion:

    1. How does one write a monotheistic religion well, especially one where the deity shows up as part of the story?

    2. How does someone write a character’s “conversion” without it feeling preachy? In particular, a character who starts the story as an atheist or agnostic or skeptic, but ends up meeting the deity in person in a vital scene and ends up changing his mind/”converting”? (this is in a high-fantasy realm)

    I really enjoy Writing Excuses and I hope you will consider these questions for another episode!

  24. I suggest the series The Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones as a very close version of gods being the essence of something and not simply powerful beings. If I recall correctly, one “god” lamented they should not have allowed humans to worship them and by doing so became somehow trapped.

  25. Just a note, this episode doesn’t appear in the Season 10 Archives since it was posted in Uncategorized.

  26. I was disappointed that they didn’t reference any of Brandon’s unique twists on diety like in Warbreaker, the Stormlight Archive, or Mistborn, etc.

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