Writing Excuses 10.28: Polytheism In Fiction, with Marie Brennan
Key points: Are your gods numinous or just petty people? How much are they involved in daily life? Do they manifest or intervene? Beware the perfectly organized religion — that’s not realistic! Think about how people in this culture experience their religion. How do people speak about their religion? What about atheists or other religions? Give your characters a range of devoutness and interpretations. How do people swear in this religion? What is sacred and profane? Blasphemy, profanity, obscenity? Make your gods numinous, and make the religion part of the characters’ lives. Are your gods characters with goals, or are they the goals themselves?
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 28.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Polytheism with Marie Brennan.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we are going to hell.
[Dan] Or some polytheistic hell of some kind.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m sorry.
[Howard] Joining us again is special guest Marie Brennan.
[Marie] Thank you for having me.
[Howard] It’s a pleasure to have you here. We’ve talked with you about combat, and you suggested this to us, that we talk a little bit about working religions into our book… Or our books, our stories, and doing polytheistic ones and doing them well.
[Dan] Avoiding common problems that you see.
[Marie] Which I think of, and I say this with all due love for role-playing games, but I think of it as the Dungeons & Dragons problem. Where you have these like large pantheons where everybody has their well-defined spheres and it all feels like it’s pasted on [yay?]
[Howard] But do you have a quick list of trip falls, trip ups, tropes and whatever else?
[Marie] It’s… Oy… I mean, well, a chunk of it’s just that the gods end up feeling like they’re very petty people, which is a perfectly legitimate way of doing things, because especially Greek mythology sometimes…
[Mary] I was going to say.
[Marie] Mythology is full of petty people.
[Howard] Well, we’ve done that. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way it can happen.
[Marie] Exactly. Then there’s the question of what is the extent to which the gods are actively being a presence in daily life versus not. I usually feel that the polytheistisms I see in books are too clean-cut. They’re too organized and perfect and… I think that can be interesting, if you actually deal with this being a very kind of perfectly constructed thing, but most of the time, it feels that way just because it feels like it was built out of plastic. I will give an example of somebody that I thought did this very well. Richard Garfinkle has a novel called Celestial Matters that is hard speculative fiction, or hard science fiction, if the science was Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian biology.
[Marie] It’s kind of fascinating. But one of the things he does really well is the way he incorporates Greek religion. There’s a point where the main character is invited to speak at the Academy. He decides he’s going to speak on a topic of history. The way the narration presents him coming up with an idea for his lecture, the inspiration coming to him, and the presence of the Muse Cleo, the Muse of history descending upon him, these are the same thing. But there’s not a distinction made between the divine presence and the experience of inspiration on that topic, which I thought was beautifully done.
[Mary] That is something that I often see as well, that kind of thing where… It… The religion does not feel woven into the fabric of everyday life. One of the things that I’ve become aware of when I’m writing characters from the South… Granted, this is not a polytheistic religion, but people from the South, one of the things, the opening questions that they will ask someone, what do you do for a living and all of that, what church do you belong to. It’s… People from outside the South, this is an incredibly rude and intrusive question. But it is so much a part of the fabric of the society that people don’t even think about it as being odd. So that’s one of the things that I like to see when I’m looking at a secondary world religion with polytheistic is it’s so present in their… In the way they speak that it is… It’s full of… It affects everything about the language, the things that… The days of the week…
[Dan] One of the first… One of those early five novels that I wrote that were terrible and no one will ever read, one of them was…
[Howard] Humble brag.
[Dan] They’re terrible. One of them was a fantasy world that had a polytheistic pantheon of gods that had gone wrong. What I found… Draft after draft, trying to portray this correctly, was that the religion has to be, in order to feel accurate, in order to feel true, it has to be so much a part of their lives that the characters themselves can’t even be aware of how messed up it is. So I had to eventually break down and bring in an outsider in order to notice all the weird things.
[Marie] If you’re trying to present something that is not the way it should be, then the people who are marinating in that environment aren’t going to see it clearly.
[Howard] A really good recent example of polytheism woven through a series of books is Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage novels, which have a polytheistic pantheon and the gods actually manifest themselves from time to time. That becomes… That’s important all the way through. It brings me to a question that I think James Sutter raised with us back at GenCon a couple of years back. When you’re dealing with a polytheistic religion, when you’re dealing with religion in your fiction, is there room for atheists? Is there room for nonbelievers? How do you make that work?
[Marie] It would depend on, I think, how present the gods are in the world. Because you can have a polytheistic religion that does have overt divine intervention all the time. Somebody could absolutely be an atheist. I love the fact that in the… It’s a role-playing game and a card game, Legend of Five Rings, there’s actually a group called the Kolat who… They’re not exactly atheists, they believe the Celestial Heavens exist, they just wish that they would bugger off and stop interfering with things.
[Marie] Which I liked as an interesting twist on the kind of atheism angle of things. It’s not that they deny the existence of it, they just wish it would leave humans alone.
[Howard] Stop messing with us. What Sutter raised was the idea that you could have atheists in a setting in which the gods are manifesting themselves and are doing things. I like that thought because today in the world that we currently living, we have people who insist that there are no gods, and we have people who insist that there is a God and who will ascribe to God or to nature things that they observe. How do we do that in our fiction without feeling like we’re setting up strawmen? How do we make that kind of thing work?
[Mary] I think having… Making sure that you show a range of beliefs within… A range of devoutness within a religion is important. And also making sure, even when you’ve got the polytheistic religion, it’s not going to be the only religion in the world. Even with gods manifesting, different cultures will interact with them differently and prob… I mean, looking at the way historically our own world works, there’s a lot of different interpretations of… You take one piece of doctrine and a lot of people will interpret it very, very differently. So even if you’ve got gods manifesting, and it’s the same three set of gods, like if you’ve got a pantheon of three, not everybody is going to interpret their commands in the same way. Because there’s going to be not just the gods, but also a power structure built around them. People invested in keeping that power, and people invested in trying to get back to the one true… No, this is really the way.
[Marie] I think it’s important to bear in mind, when we talk about the gods manifesting in the world, what exactly does that mean? Yes, you are people who will point to natural disasters and say, “Ah, this is evidence of God’s hand in the world.” The Garfinkle example I gave, that experience of being inspired was, to him, the presence of the Muse Cleo. Whereas somebody else might just say, “Oh, that was your brain coming up with ideas.”
[Howard] People around him would say, “You know, that was a really, really good speech you gave. Those quote
[Marie] Exactly. Or are we talking some glowing figure suddenly appears in the middle of the room? Even then, you run into the interesting philosophical question that I don’t think any of us can really answer, which is what makes something a God as opposed to just a really powerful entity? Where is the line? Is there a line?
[Howard] Hey. Book of the week? Marie, do you have something for us?
[Marie] I do. It is The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkowski. I promise I’m not just recommending it because it’s another Marie. Narrated by Justine Eyre. This is a young adult novel that is amazingly political. For, if you think of young adult novels, “Oh, love triangles, etc.” this is about colonialism and occupying armies and trying to stay alive in a court full of intrigue.
[Howard] It is… My handwriting was very bad there for you. Sorry. It is The Winner’s Curse, The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie…
[Howard] You can get it at audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership.
[Mary] So a book that does this really… Some really interesting things is The Just City by Jo Walton. The premise of this book is that Apol… The Greek gods totally exist, and Apollo and Diana decide to set up… Well, Diana invites Apollo to play along, to set up… Oh, shoot. Philosophers…
[Howard] Plato’s Republic?
[Mary] To set up Plato’s Republic. They bring people from all through the ages back to help set it up. So what they have is that they have, in addition to some Greek and Roman people, they also have Victorian era Christians and modern atheists who are all trying to deal with the fact that they’re talking to Athena and it is obviously Athena. Like, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is Athena. But the thing that they’re having to str… One of the things that the characters… Some of the characters set there and do is try to figure out how these two sets of gods which ought to be irreconcilable actually work together. It’s really…
[Howard] Trying to reconcile the irreconcilable?
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. It’s like… Well, how does… How do the Grecian gods fit into the Christian pantheon is what they’re trying to do.
[Howard] Not having read the book, I suspect that it’s a good book because this isn’t the narrator doing the reconciling, this isn’t authorial voice, we have characters with their own motivations trying to describe these things.
[Mary] Yes, and arguing about it.
[Howard] And arguing about it. For me, it always comes back to characters. How do you guys write religion through the eyes of your characters? What are the touchstones for you? Is there a checklist? Are the things you try and stay away from? Are there things you do first?
[Dan] Well, as terrible as this sounds, usually the first thing I try and figure out is what they are going to swear by or about.
[Howard] Oh, bless you, that’s where I start first.
[Dan] Yeah. You want to curse somebody out, you want to send them to hell… Well, what do they call hell? What is it like? Is being sent there all that bad? That’s just an easy place to start, because it is, to be honest, it’s one of the places that we in our world tend to react most often with divinity, is by taking its name in vain.
[Mary] Well, the two things, when people are cursing, it’s the sacred and the profane, those are the two things.
[Marie] In English, yes. Not necessarily in other languages. That’s the interesting thing.
[Mary] Oh. Do. Speak on.
[Marie] Okay. We should have done an episode on swearing, now that I think of it. Might have been not safe for work, though.
[Dan] That would have been a damn good idea.
[Marie] English, it’s basically like bodily functions and sex on the profane side of things, and then the sacred. I know that in one of my college courses, we were reading some… I think it was in the Zuni stories that we were reading, these like folktales, that they have words that don’t actually even have a semantic meaning that get used for that function. They’re really untranslatable. In Japanese, you have some of the same kinds of things that you have in English, but you also have like the word for beast for example. Like, you could have that angle on it, that it’s more kind of the separation between the animal world and the civilized human world. I love thinking of those angles and saying, “Okay, where are the things that they kind of…” There’s an academic term for this, the abject. What kind of gets like rejected from the symbolic order and kind of exiled from society? So what are the things that they abject, what do they kind of kick out and then use as they’re swearing?
[Mary] Yeah. I guess that’s what I was thinking about when I was talking about the profane. The taboo things, the undesirable aspects.
[Marie] Right, which… I mean, you still get, like those Zuni words that apparently don’t even really mean anything other than…
[Mary] That’s fascinating.
[Howard] There’s a huge overlap between the definitions, and at some point, the late definitions of the words are all the same things, blasphemy, profanity, and obscenity. I like to think of these in my own head as three separate things, where blasphemy is where you are saying something about the gods will say is false and you need to be prosecuted for. Profanity is when you are swearing by the gods in a way that you shouldn’t. Obscenity is when you’re talking about something that’s just gross and maybe you shouldn’t. For me, the fun comes in when I start mixing them up.
[Howard] Mixing the blasphemous and the obscene…
[Marie] I’m glad that you brought up blasphemy, actually. There’s a GK Chesterton quote that I won’t be able to give verbatim, but he talks about how blasphemy is a function of belief and if anybody doubts that, let him try to seriously blaspheme about Odin. Like, in less you’re a follower of like modern Asatru religion or something, you can’t say something blasphemous about Odin because you don’t personally believe that he exists. So belief is a prerequisite for blasphemy to even be possible. Otherwise, you’re maybe just saying something foolish or rude, whatever.
[Mary] That is really cool. That also falls into the thing of… Like when you’re building a polytheistic religion, people are going to have different relationships with different members of the pantheon. So the swears…
[Mary] Well, I was going to say that the words that they curse by are going to vary based on who they are a primary follower… Their own priorities.
[Howard] Bujold’s series that began with Curse of Chalion has an official four god pantheon with a fifth god that not everybody believes in. The folks that only believe in the four gods, if you insist that there is a fifth god, they cut off your thumb. Because…
[Dan] You can’t count that high anymore.
[Howard] Now that there’s only four, you can’t count that high.
[Marie] That’s a nice grisly touch.
[Howard] But the whole series does a really good job of weaving the polytheism through the characters, through the cultures, and letting us… Letting the characters actually interact with the gods in a way that when it happens… And this is, for me, this is why I like religions in books. I want the characters to have a religious experience that is powerful.
[Marie] I want the numinous. That’s when I’m the most disappointed, frankly, is when the religion, when these gods show up or something and they’re just not numinous at all, they just feel petty. Because even the Greek gods, I would say, they kind of act like people, but they act like larger-than-life people. If they’re going to show up on the page, I want them to feel like they are more than just human. I want that moment where I stop breathing. Jacqueline Carey does this beautifully, I have to say, with the first two Kushiel books. I haven’t read past that, but…
[Dan] That’s cool. That goes back to what you were saying earlier, when you talked about it as the D&D problem. The gods in Dungeons & Dragons do not have any sense of wonder to them.
[Marie] None at all. Exactly.
[Dan] This god is just the guy who fills my divine magazine full of celestial badgers that I can summon when necessary.
[Marie] Yeah. Clerics in particular are so disappointing.
[Dan] There’s no sense of awe.
[Marie] The two things that I want out of religion in a story are, if it’s going to show up in a direct fashion, then I want it to feel numinous, and whether it shows up in a direct fashion or not, I wanted to feel like a lived part of the characters’ lives. I want it to be interwoven with what they do, how they speak. The blacksmith who goes into his forge and before he starts hammering on things, does his brief little bit of worship to the shrine of the god of the forge. Whatever. Or else, I want it to be a thing that okay, here’s somebody who does not engage with that. But I want that to be a conscious decision, rather than just oh, the writer forgot to actually incorporate it.
[Howard] The reader needs to see it as such.
[Mary] I’m wondering, as we’re talking, if it’s important for the deities to have goals of their own, if that’s part of what makes them seem flat sometimes. I’m thinking about…
[Howard] In McClellan’s works, they do. It’s critical to that. I don’t know that it’s critical in the Chalion books though.
[Mary] I’m thinking about real-world examples. I mean, Zeus’s goal is to get in everybody’s pants…
[Marie] And he succeeds admirably.
[Mary] Yes. So… Like Demeter wants to keep harvests going and…
[Marie] [garbled] I don’t want them to have goals in the same way that a person has a goal. It’s more… They should be forces of nature sometimes, literally, right? That they are kind of the distillation of a particular impulse. It’s not so much that Demeter really wants a good harvest, as that is what she is. She doesn’t have a personality that desires that as a separate thing.
[Dan] I… The Sword books by Fred Saberhagen have this whole pantheon of gods, recognizable Earth gods, that do have very specific wants and desires, and they are playing a game with mortals. That’s part of the thrust of the story, is that they’re not really divine. That kind of human emotions and human behavior lessens them and they eventually just all disappear.
[Marie] They’re just really powerful entities.
[Mary] So these are all things that are fun to play with, which brings us to your homework for this week. So what we have for you is a toy. This is something that one of my students built. Kate Hamilton built a belief system generator, which is fantastic. It will give you divine myths and origins, major deities, all of these things. It will give it to you for multiple religions existing in the same world, which is great. What I want you to do is I want you to go to this, and the link is going to be in the liner notes, and just generate a religion. You can generate more, because it’s actually kind of fun, but the first one, because this is a random prompt. The first one, what I want you to do is, I want you to write a prayer that fits with this religion. The prayer can be for anything you want. But write a prayer that fits in this religion, and think about how that infuses the rest of the world.
[Howard] Outstanding. You are out of excuses. Now go write.