I know I said I was going to be writing about Fallout – and I have some more content to come – but I’ve also been trying to work on another project involving a fantasy game and… well… I want to talk about mythology and religion.
I’m a big proponent of internal consistency. It’s a problem. I see holes in everything and often can’t stop myself from pointing them out… much to the dismay of those around me. But it’s also a problem because it makes me a perfectionist with my own work. I need stuff to come together. It has to make sense.
In the real world, myths and legends just don’t do that. I mean, sometimes they do… but they don’t really have to; internal consistency isn’t a requirement. Just look at the Bible. But I digress. Myths serve a lot of purposes in those cultures. Often tied to religion and identity, they were established as a means to form a common identity, lore, standards of behavior, and ritual practices. They also served to explain the parts of the natural world that seemed unnatural or difficult to explain in the absence of advanced science.
But ultimately, when you find out that a giant is holding up the world or that coyotes are smug bastards… you don’t question it. It’s just a story. Zeus didn’t actually rape and impregnate women all across the ancient world because… you know… he didn’t actually exist. The turning of the seasons has nothing at all to do with an angry mother because, again, Demeter didn’t exist.
And since it was relatively impractical to do experiments on thunderstorms or volcanos, well, people can be forgiven for personifying them. Even creation myths are a mess – because all it needed to be was a good story. It didn’t have to hold up to close scrutiny. “In the beginning” was all you needed. Much like no one ever asks what comes after, “And they lived happily ever after;” most don’t ask, “Well, what was before the beginning?”
But all this is to say that looked at through the lens of modern society, it is easy to dismiss the inconsistency of ancient myths because we know that they weren’t actually true. Gods, demons, etc. aren’t real. And even if you do believe in a religion in the modern world… you have the convenient out that none of those religions spend much time saying that their gods actually talk to them anymore. Jesus is conspicuously set up so that we won’t hear from him again until the literal end of the world. The ocean might be on fire, but there are no burning bushes telling you what to do.
And the problem with this for a fantasy world like, say, D&D is that the deities in those worlds are active, grant powers to their followers, and have ongoing agendas that affect the universe. So, your shit needs to hang together. You can’t just ramble out a mythology where your people worship the volcano because they don’t understand it and so they think it’s a god… it actually is a god. So it has stuff going on. You can, in fact, appease it by doing certain things. Your clerics get fire powers from it if they do certain things. Worship isn’t an act of faith, it’s an act of obedience (or at least obeisance). I mean, maybe the volcano god is just crazy and spits lava at random intervals… but that’s not really conducive to worship and people are going to leave the area.
Which is how I got into this mess in the first place. I started thinking about my universe, the ideas it is based on, the mythology that shapes it. And the problem I quickly realized is that the mythology isn’t mythology in this world. It’s history. Real history. And assuming that you have long-lived races like immortal elves or some such… there might be creatures around who actually remember that history. So it has to be cohesive. It has to blend together with the tapestry of years in such a way that your world remains consistent and the stories have to be more than just moral tales that attempt to prove a point about your society (though they can also be that too).
Oh, and they should also still strive to maintain some sense of wonder. Good luck with that.
As always, thanks for reading.