Greek God Syndrome

A week old post in Cambois’ blog got me thinking about religion and how it is usually handled in roleplay worlds. It is not bad advice to have complete backstories for your various gods written up… but… paraphrasing a roleplayer I know chatting about various worlds at various times…

I don’t like that world. I don’t like the gods. The pantheon feels so cold and out of touch.

(for the record, she was not talking about Threshold as she has never played there)

What she meant is that in the world she was talking about, the religion exists in a vacuum. What do people eat? What do they wear? These two things often have religious restrictions. What are the religious festivals? Etc. Etc. If your religion is just a bunch of god descriptions, then you are only halfway there. I call this Greek God syndrome and Greek God syndrome is a dancing elephant. We know the stories of the Greek gods quite well. What has not crossed the gulf of time so well is the context; and it’s all about context. The Greek gods were part of a living breathing culture. Unfortunately, the details of that culture are not as widely known as the stories of the gods. So our modern mind, the Greek Gods are in a vacuum.

I’m currently spending a year living in India as an expat and one of the most fascinating aspects of my time here is watching a living polytheistic religion, Hinduism, up close. There are a few snippets that really strike me about religion here:

  • It pervades everything.
  • You can often tell how religious someone is – and their favorite god – by the way they paint themselves with ash and red dye.
  • People – even priests – don’t stick to one god. Each village and each person may have a favorite god, but they’ll pay homage to whichever one helps in a given situation. Most cars in this country have an idol of the elephant headed god Ganesh glued to the dashboard and his image is very common among the cubicles of software companies. Ganesh clears obstacles.
  • Many Hindus won’t do business on Tuesdays because it is an inauspicious day to trade money. It is not a Sabbath, but just bad luck.
  • Every little hillock has a temple or shrine on top.
  • River confluences are holy places. Bathing in those waters is an act of devotion.
  • Feeding the fish at such places brings good luck.
  • People will cart bodies of the dead vast distances to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges.
  • Places in the land are tied to stories in scripture; just as with Greece. There is a city in South India called Mysore. A hill looms over Mysore. On this place, tradition says that the goddess, Durga, slew a demon that had cast the gods out of heaven and blotted out the sun. The name of the city is an Anglicization of a word in old Kannada (the language of the area) indicating that he lived there.
  • One every full moon, devotees of Siva will walk barefoot and circle the “holy mountain” (there is more than one) at various religious pilgrimage sites, such as Tiruvannamalai.
  • Perhaps a temple elephant gives a blessing to those who give donations.
  • New ventures are usually kicked off with a prayer ceremony (Pooja) involving chanting, incense and sacrifices. Bringing a new car home is also a good occasion for a pooja.
  • Etc.

I could go on and on, but you probably got the point by the fourth or fifth bullet. Religion is not just a set of god and goddess descriptions, domains and stories (scriptures). By the time you are finished designing your various religions (assuming more than one), you have a complete society defined. The stories of the Hindu gods are as well developed as those of the Greek gods, but they are but a fraction of how the religion touches daily lives.

Which would your players rather have? A warm world where the religion touches all aspects of the society and wearing red on Mondays is bad luck or one where Greek gods live in a vacuum?

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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2 Responses to Greek God Syndrome

  1. Edward says:

    Why not just use a historical pantheon? That of the ancient Indus civilization, for example. Creating a pantheon from scratch would be a lot of work and wouldn’t necessarily produce better results.

    Most fantasy cultures are based on historical cultures. The usual explanation, if one is given, is that their distant ancestors came through a gate from Earth. If that’s the case, then it would be logical for them to bring their gods with them.

  2. Dave says:

    It probably does not matter. My general point is that if you are going for immersion, then the way that religion affects the society matters more than whether it was Ram or Rama who came home from 14 years in exile.

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