Creating Effective Pantheons for Fantasy Stories
by Sarah N. Snyder
Welcome! If you're reading this, you're probably writing a fantasy story, and you thought, 'Let's create a pantheon of gods for my characters to follow!' Problem is, you have no idea how to do this. Well, if you don't mind me borrowing heavily from Greek, Egyptian, and Japanese mythology, then let's get started!
First, think of what kind of image you want your gods to project. The Greek gods, for example, were extremely childish, feuding amongst each other, having affairs with humans, wreaking vengeance for the oddest things. You could have a certain image for them to portray, or you could decide on their ethnicity (in a fantasy setting, of course) as a factor for their behavior.
If you really don't want to put a lot of effort into creating a religion for your world, you could always fall back on Christianity (or something similar to your own religion). The problem with this is that, in my opinion, mythical creatures and races don't seem to fit into a Christian setting, especially if you're using stereotypes. Elves are highly magical beings, so they would be considered witches; dwarves are kind of materialistic (why do you think they spend so much time in mines?), so they'd be sinners too; and dragons, minotaurs, and any other creatures would probably be considered demons. So, unless you want those perceptions of such creatures in your story, Christianity would probably work well only for the humans.
That's not to say that you can't get away with a monotheistic religious view. It may be harder to pull off, but it certainly isn't impossible. Say we have a god, Bob. (Pardon the lack of creative names, please.) Bob might be omnipotent, which means all-powerful, and omniscient, which means all-seeing; this is already close to the Christian/Jewish God. But Bob's not just a big eye sitting in the sky, is he? He needs a bit of a personality; he could be an angry, jealous god, or a loving god, or a neutral god; is he evil or good? Does he favor certain races over others? Where is he located? Does he have a heaven/hell system, or is reincarnation how he deals with death?
Personally, I believe a polytheistic god system is easier to pull off. Your gods will all have different personalities (or they should), different powers, different realms... and different preferences regarding race. A pantheon is actually easier to use if you want each race to have one specific god assigned to them, since that deity will have attributes that compliment the ideals of that race or culture.
But how many do you create? And what kinds of attributes do you give them? Well, that's where ancient mythology comes in. Let's look at some of the archetypes to determine what kind of deity is necessary, shall we? Please take note, you can add as many as you like (the Hindu gods number anywhere from 300 to 3,000,000).
The Earth Mother and the Sky Father
This isn't really a single deity, but they do go hand in hand. Some examples of this pair are Uranus and Gaea of Greek mythology, Nut and Geb of Egyptian mythology, or Izanagi and Izanami or Japanese mythology. They are usually what the name implies; Earth and Sky, who mate and give birth to other gods (sometimes, like in the case of Nut and Geb, the roles are reversed; Nut is the sky mother, and vice versa). They do not give birth to all of them, since many gods have a tendency to mate amongst themselves and have kids. (It does seem a bit like incest, doesn't it? But for some reason it isn't, and I have no idea how that works.)
Sometimes the mother/father pair is killed, or one of them is. Tiamut, from Babylonian mythology, was defeated after she tried to kill all her children for making too much noise, and they used her body to create the Earth. And sometimes, the father is jealous of his children; Uranus locked away their first children, the Titans, until Chronus broke free and castrated him, creating land and, inadvertently, Aphrodite; he then pulled the same stunt on his sister/mate Rhea, eating all their children until she tricked him with a rock and had Zeus depose and banish him.
The Head Honcho
Zeus. Osiris. They were in charge of everyone and everything else, and however else their personalities were directed, they did have a sense of responsibility. They generally are credited with creating the earth and such.
You have to be careful with the personality here. Is he jealous, righteous, destructive? Is he interested in the affairs of his creations? (Hint: they all should be, but he should be the most interested.) Is he monogamous, or is he like Zeus -- willing to sleep with any person in sight? Does he help people out, and how often?
The Leading Lady
Hera and Isis are prime examples. This goddess is the life mate of the Head Honcho, and she is sometimes also viewed as a goddess of fertility, or of childbirth. This isn't written in stone, since a lot of goddesses are considered fertility goddesses, but it is a possibility.
There are two main personality types for her. There's the jealous raging type, like Hera, who loves her husband but who gets pissed at him for every single affair he has (I'm not blaming her). Or, there's the loving type, like Isis, who searched for and reassembled her husband's body. In fact, the story of Isis and Osiris is considered one of the greatest love stories of all time. You don't have to try to create something quite so grand, but do try to keep their relationship believable.
There's always someone in history who's ready for a good old-fashioned brawl; Caesar, Alexander the Great, Longshanks, Hitler, George W. Bush… And of course, there's always a god or two who loves to be in the middle of the melee. Ares, for instance, is the Greek god of war; his Roman counterpart is Mars, who I think was aptly named, as the planet IS a bloody red.
Your Warmonger should be a bit reckless, since he/she is in love with the clash of swords and the spilling of blood. They "live" for the battle; it's their adrenaline rush. Most of them are perceived as young, bold soldiers, and not seasoned warriors.
The Love Muffin
Ah, yes, the goddess of love. Of course, your Love Muffin could be male, and it would be a nice break in the cliché. This deity is definitely the most included entity in any pantheon. Most often, she's also interpreted as something of a whore.
Usually she shares love and fertility as her area of patronage, and is almost always in charge of sexual love. This does make sense, but it doesn't always have to be that way. Sometimes she's also the Leading Lady.
Now, I'd like to dispel a tall tale that seems to travel everywhere; the Underworld is not always hell, and the Undertaker is not some sort of counterpart to the Judeo/Christian devil. In many cases, it is the only place where the soul goes after the body dies. There are designated places for souls that are deserving of eternal torture, but it's mostly just a waiting place.
That said, the Undertaker doesn't necessarily have to be scary. It all depends on the population's attitude toward death. There can also be another person involved in delivering souls to the Underworld. It's usually only a ferryman, like Anubis.
The Green Thumb
Your god/goddess of agriculture is especially important to rural communities, who depend on farming to survive. This is probably their chief deity; they see them as the main provider of conditions to support their crops.
The Green Thumb is generally a woman, and they are sometimes the god of fertility as well. To grow crops, the land needs to be fertile, doesn't it?
There is a noticeable difference between the Hunter and the Warmonger, though they may share some of the same values. The Hunter usually does not participate in battle, and their use of weapons is generally kept for, well, hunting.
Women can make pretty good Hunters, actually. Take Artemis. Not exactly the kindest goddess around – she once changed a man into a stag after accidentally seeing her naked, and had his own dogs attack and kill him – but she was an effective goddess.
This one is close the to Muses of Greek mythology. It doesn't matter if it's only one deity assigned to all forms of creativity, or if there are multiple gods focusing on certain aspects of what is considered art. They should all focus solely on that section of life; I've never come across an art-related god who was also worshipped for different reasons.
There is usually some sort of protagonist in mythology; Osiris had Set, Amaterasu had Amatsu Mikaboshi. For whatever reason, they usually hate the Head Honcho (or Leading Lady) with a passion, and they fully enjoy throwing down obstacles in their enemies' plans and the lives of their favored mortals. They're usually worshipped by, well, evil creatures, since they themselves are evil. Usually they're associated with some kind of destructive force that exemplifies Chaos; earthquakes, storms, fire, volcanoes, even creatures like dragons, minotaurs, or draconians.
The Sun, the Moon, Weather, and the Elements
Ancient peoples used the gods to explain many natural phenomena; the rising and setting of the sun and moon, storms and natural disasters. I'm not going to expand on this much. Just remember, it doesn't matter if these attributes are coupled with others or left to just one god.
So, now that you have these gods, where are they going to live? You could create your own Mount Olympus, or they could all have their own domain. The Underworld is always apart from any other realm. Er, if they all have their own place, they should probably reflect their attributes and such.
Demigods, Angels, and Demons
Gods aren't the only "celestial" beings. A demigod is someone who is half god, half mortal. Demigods, angels, and demons all (usually) have superhuman powers.
There's also the matter of hierarchy, in regard to angels and demons. Personally, I really don't think it matters if you rank them or not, though it might help to have some higher-ups for them to answer to.
You don't need any of these creatures unless you really want them. Many successful sagas don't have creatures like this, and many do. It all depends on if you are willing to work with them. Don't force yourself to create these characters if you hate using them.
Yes, you do have to come up with a back-story. All you really, really need is a creation myth, and perhaps a few tales that tell how the world's history was manipulated by the doings of your deities. It would probably be wise to add in, somehow, the relationships between the gods; who's the mother of whom, who's in love with whom, etc.
It may seem like a lot to create, but a pantheon doesn't have to be a big hassle. All you really need is a Head Honcho, a Leading Lady, a Villain, an Undertaker, a Green Thumb, a Warmonger, a Love Muffin, someplace for them to reside, and a back-story at the very least. This doesn't mean that you should just throw together a few characters, stick them on a map, and say, "So-and-so shaped the earth from a pile of mud and used his earwax to create all the people." Hard work will benefit you in the end, even if it doesn't seem like it.
That being said, let me help you out a little more.
Your Handy-Dandy Deity Creation Form
Deity type: (Head Honcho, Undertaker, etc.)
Attribute(s): (elements, childbirth, love, war, etc.)
Preferred method of worship: (sacrifices, offerings, prayer, healing, etc.)
I hope this tutorial has been helpful to you. If you're confused by any of this, feel free to email me. Good luck!