Polytheism is common in fantasy fiction, likely due to its roots in the mythology of cultures that worshiped a pantheon of gods. Not all fantasy worlds include deities (or spirituality, for that matter), and those that do have their own unique twists. This series will look at the use of gods and religion in fantasy fiction I’ve read and written.
I recently finished Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series. One of the defining traits of the setting is its religion. Most of the inhabitants of the world worship the Five Gods (one culture considers the fifth god, the Bastard, to be the king of demons and not a true deity). The other four deities–Father, Mother, Son and Daughter–represent the four seasons: winter, summer, fall and spring, respectively. They are also associated with certain virtues and professions. Typical fare for pagan-influenced dogma.
Bujold’s Five Gods distinguish themselves from generic polytheism through the religious rituals performed by their faithful, in the organization of their followers, in the way the gods interact with the world, and the fate of souls after death.
Of spirit and matter
One of the central tenets of Chalion religion is the dual nature of the world and its inhabitants. They are equally and simultaneously spirit and matter. However, while these two natures exist side-by-side, they cannot affect each other. The Five Gods are entirely spirit beings. Therefore, they cannot interact with the physical world unless an individual submits themselves, creating a gateway via their soul. Such individuals are called saints, and the acts of divine power they perform are called miracles.
Miracles are the primary source of magic in the world of Chalion. Some individuals submit themselves to possession by demons and become sorcerers for as long as they can control the demon. The third book in the Chalion series introduces another source of magic, the absorption of others’ soul, a practice that appears to fly in the face of the rules of magic established in the previous novels.
The church and its practices
The church of the Five Gods exhibits another unique trait. Unlike pantheons in classic mythology, where the gods often scheme against one another, the Five Gods work in harmony. Sure, there’s the occasional ribbing, especially from the Bastard, but they tend to support each other in their efforts to maintain a balance between the physical and spiritual worlds. This relationship is reflected in the construction of the temples. All Five Gods are represented in every temple, each with their own apse and altar (the Bastard has a tower generally located just beyond the primary temple structure).
The rituals and practices of the faithful, while not terribly unique, do add flavor to the religion of Chalion. Many of the celebrations are seasonal. One ritual that plays a significant role in each of the novels is the death rite. When a person dies, a holy animal–one for each god–is brought to the body. The animal’s reaction is an indication of which god accepts that soul into the afterlife. If none of the gods accept a soul, it is doomed to a ghostly existence in the physical world, fated to eventually fade into oblivion.
I appreciated the depth that the religion of the Five Gods adds to the world of Chalion, and the obvious thoughtfulness Bujold put into it. As a person of faith, I often find myself attracted to stories that use religion in an honest way (i.e., the author isn’t pushing an obvious anti-religion agenda) to flesh out their worlds and characters. Have you read any of the Chalion books? What do you think of the Five Gods and the dogma Bujold has built around them?