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The gods created the earth and the humans that live across it. Mankind developed their civilizations and cultures, worshipping various gods related to different aspects. Humanity worships the same gods, but in various ways and are attributed different personalities and images. A god of war for the Aztecs can have the form of a humanoid bull, be extremely violent and demand human sacrifice. In another culture, the same war god can be a woman who values strategy and tactics in battle and emphasize honor and protection of the weak. Every god has different representations and images around the world, but this is unknown to the majority of the population.

Religious leaders of these nations eventually discover this and realize that the gods can be shaped and crafted to fit a certain profile. Once this is realized, they can lead their congregation in specific ways to mold the deity to their own purposes. A god can be completely changed over the course of many generations, but stays within its portfolio. This presents a contradiction. The gods are all powerful and created humanity in their image, but they have no control over how they are represented in society, as well as their personalities. This cedes a great deal of power and authority to worthless and insignificant mortals, specifically to priests.

How can this be the case?

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd like to tell that the way of the gods cannot be known, but that doesn't really answer the question, right ^^? $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Feb 8 at 8:53

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It is only a representation

Gods are simply on a whole other level. They can't be fully comprehended by mere mortals. The way we worship them just gives access to a small representation of their power. Although we see a different entity and think we've manipulated the god, we just see a different part of the same vast unendingly complex entity. They already are the representation we worship them as, but they are equally so the others we don't worship them as right now.

Do we really have control, or are we just fooling ourselves? Do we just unlock a portion of power with our worship? I would go with the fool scenario. We can't control, understand or manipulate a deity. Maybe we're more idle playthings and we don't know.

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This is how gods work in the real world!

Consider the New Testament god vs the Old Testament god. Could they be more different? Consider Christian churches - all follow Christ, but the political views backed by some churches are diametrically opposed to the the teachings of Christ in the Bible; Christ must be modified to fit, and is.

It is ok. That is how it has to work. Gods are creations of humans and being such, can be influenced by operators such as you describe. I do not mean any of this in a pejorative way: gods and religions serve important cultural roles and need to be flexible or they will be obsolete.

In your world, even the the gods have objective existence apart from their devotees their nature will be flexible according to those devotees. American Gods by Neil Gaiman does this up so well - gods need devotees or they cease to exist. The Odin of America is not at all the same as the Odin of the Old World.

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    $\begingroup$ The customer is always right. Don’t tell the people who believe in you that they’re believing in you wrong, or they might start shopping around for a deity that fits them better! $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Nov 28 '20 at 11:31
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    $\begingroup$ It helps in American gods that gods don't really know anything more about human behavior than humans do, if anything they are worse at it. so attempting to steer their followers belief would be very unreliable. "lets make them more engaged in spreading my worship, oh shit now they are killing people instead of converting them, no, now they are killing each other other over who is a "real" worshiper, damn it there goes all of the last few hundred years of gains. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 28 '20 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ This is especially true for polytheist and pagan religions, where a god = a function (or more, if they're really important). Function which is determined by people needs then transformed into beliefs. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Feb 8 at 11:02
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The gods work on a slower time frame and don't really understand humans that well.

Why would they understand human? They have very different need, a completely different upbringing, and a completely different social organization. Terry Pratchett plays with this a lot. Gods are not naturally that clever, and they are even worse long term planners. Why would they be? They don't need much problem solving. Once they are powerful enough to be intelligent, want something poof there it is.

Maybe they tried steering their believers but kept failing miserably.

The adventures of the god Odin:

Ok lets try dropping this commandment to make them start actively converting outsiders.

Wait no, now they are killing them instead of converting them.

Hmm, here is a commandment about being peaceful.

Shit, now they aren't fighting back against other tribes.

Ah here is one about pride, there, now they are defending themselves.

Wait now they are starting to kill each other over who is worshipping me properly.

Uh uh, [Thou shall not kill fellow Odinites] that should work.

@#E*, now they are killing each other even more, accusing each other other of not be true Odinites.

[Smite smite, commandment] You know what screw it, I give up. You people do what you want.

And now I'm Santa Claus, what the $%#@& is going on.

Why would this lead to them letting their priests call the shots? Because their priests DO understand humans and they understand changes in society. The god of a thousand years ago will not do as well in today's society. So they are giving up some control in return for better results. They created a competitive market and you need marketing that understands the buyer and just as importantly can adapt with the times.

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There are self-imposed rules and balances among the gods

While powerful toward the mortals, obviously a god's power is on the same level of his colleagues.
In the past, if a god saw his worshippers screwed by another god, he took the thing as an ingerence on his properties and a personal offence. This brought a lot of infighting and animosity among the gods which eventually resulted in an all-out war in the heavens.

When the gods realized that this situation was unbearable, they decided to join a gentleman's agreement: every god has a limited set of actions that he can perform on the land of mortals. Say, for instance, in a month every god is allowed 3 direct manifestations, 5 enhancement of mortal warriors, 2 lighting bolt on other worshippers and so on... Contavening to these rules would cause all other gods to join the forces against the transgressor, so they are usually respected.

Because of this, the gods must try to optimize the impact of their direct actions on their worshippers, in order to have them thrive (usually at the expenses of the followers of other gods).
Among the others, this implies:

  • it's a waste to correct some trivial mistakes in the cult: if the worshipper think that the god of war has the shape of a bull or a sabre-toothed tiger, it is ok to let them think so. The god of war has no point to waste an action to manifest himself only to explain that he looks like a bunny in reality
  • the societies, now less influenced by their gods, are more free to follow different paths of civilizations. This means that what they ask to a god of war or of knowledge can differ a lot among different populations. For a god is less costly (in term of actions) to give them directly what they ask, rather than trying to influence their societies as a whole
  • for the same reason, the gods, needing to keep their followers, are more compelled to give what people ask them, since they have less options to recover in case of unsatisfied worshippers.
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A great deal of power and control? How could anyone gain a great deal of power and control by dictating to a small group of worthless and insignificant mortals?

Does the king on his throne care what the urchins mutter about him? Does it matter to him that one says that he's a tyrant, and another that he's all-good and would do something about their plight if only he knew?

The difference being that the mutters might actually spell trouble for the king, whereas for the gods, the worthless and insignificant mortals can not possibly cause any trouble at all. Let some of them lead their flocks into error. Perhaps the consequences might be slightly amusing. And if, for any reason from slight annoyance to boredom, you dislike the result, you can send plague, famine, destruction and disaster on the worshippers, and give signs that you are angry with their worship. They'll straighten up REAL quick. Or you could just wipe them out.

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Gods are otherdimensional entities of such flipping power that they can't interact directly with the material world, because the material world would probably not survive the experience intact, so instead of interacting with their full, pure, power, they interact through fragments of themselves, basically avatars. These avatars have a mere miniscule amount of their larger self's true power, but it is still enough that the avatars have godlike levels of power in comparison to mere mortals. A god may have a number of avatars running around, but the more avatars, the more limited each is.

Thing is, these deities don't operate on quite the same level as humans and have trouble relating to humans much like a human would have trouble relating to a bee or an ant. In order to be able to interact, their avatars are amorphous, changeable entities, created to reflect the views and values of the humans who worship them, as restrained and modified by the basic nature of the deity the avatars are part of. People then see the avatar, which the initial worshippers have molded in their own image of what their god(dess) is, and conform their own worship to that of the avatar's apparent personality, which is then reinforced or changed by the greater number of worshippers, and so on into a feedback loop.

This happens enough and the avatar becomes associated so specifically with one particular part of the deity's overall aspect that it creates an opening that another avatar (or the same deity, or perhaps another) can then fill.

To use your example, the deity of war has an avatar that eventually becomes associated with violence and bloodshed and the glory of combat, leaving an opening for a deity that represent strategy, just causes, and smart victories. So that war deity sends another avatar that fills that role. And eventually you have the stereotypes of Ares and Athena.

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I don't see a problem with the situation you present, I think you just need to make a couple tweaks to how you interpret what's going on.

Every god has different representations and images around the world, but this is unknown to the majority of the population

So far you haven't actually mentioned that the god's real shape actually changes. Then perhaps it doesn't. What I mean is, what changes is only the image of the god that the mortals have. The true form of the god is something more general and abstract, a concept, a mind. They still have their intents and personalities but aren't really tied or changed by the way the mortals portray them, and may have their own true or favored forms.

Gods can be worshipped in different forms because they all ring true to the god's core ideal. The bull and the female strategist you gave as examples can both represent the God of War, as they both carry the idea that "You and I have a disagreement and we are solving it in the field of battle". That is how that God thinks things should be settled, and as long as those forms ring true to this, they will hold some power.

So, why is it relevant how the mortals portray the gods?

Well, the gods are real in your world, so I assume they have some effect in the world. The blood sacrifices the Bull War God receive will confer the warriors some boon in battle. In turn, the generals being inspired to find better solutions and strategies will have to attain to that manifestation of god's honor code. No backstabbing, no backing down from someone who affronts your honor, or you lose your god's favor. There is a cost and there is a reward. Different forms will have different rules for this, that all fall in line to how they are represented.

They all work cause they are all true facets of that particular god, the god doesn't care which one is being worshipped and believed in at the time. Why not worship all at the same time then? Well, perhaps some mortals could hold and accept all those ideals in mind, but most would not hold on to and believe each facet as strongly. The same way they couldn't comprehend the true form of the god. That's why simpler, defined manifestations that take on ordinary, worldly things are generally more effective.

With this knowledge, priests (at the orders of a ruler for instance) could sway the impressions of the worshipers to get the aspect of the god that better suits the kingdom's needs. Do you want to subjugate neighboring tribes? Make the Bull form of the War god gain believers. As you consolidate your power and control more land and face stronger adversaries where brute force doesn't cut it, transition to the General aspect. This works more smoothly if it is planned beforehand.

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Well, we are created in their image, yes?

Highly simplistic, but a lot more philosophical if you think that way. We are but the faintest image of the very-powerful deities that spawned us. As such, we as a race have the tiniest shards of that power. On its own though, this does nothing. But the priests, who know a bit more of the true nature of the deities, and the congregations that follow them, pool the reflected shards of power together. And once enough shards of reflected power join together in a common task, the can perform the barest act of creation. It takes so long because there's a million faint points of light as opposed to a single sun. That creation is the image of their deity.

The gods created mortals, and in reflection the mortals maintain the gods. The mortals changing the image of their deity in turn changes the deity that they see.

After all, that bull-headed deity did not create literal bull-headed humans -- that image is the reflection on what a god of war is to those people. So their image of themselves and war reflect this bull-headed deity. As they change as a society and their views on war change, so too does the people reflected image of a deity of war.

The true mystery is in fact the true nature of a deity. My suspicion is that the image that we see is a form that we are comfortable with, we reflect back something that we understand relating to the domain.

My suspicion would be that they are a higher-dimensional being that we could not hope to comprehend and stay the same once we do. The images that we humans give them are almost like us putting on a costume and acting a part, but that is our human mind trying to attribute human justifications to their actions (or non-actions as the case may be). Of course, this is not something that we will ever fully understand, because if we were to ever truly understand, that would be ... Interesting. Likely in the cursed sense of the word.

In short, to us mortals it's a philosophical conundrum.

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Gods need to increase and keep their core constituency

Gods get power from their worshipers. The more worshiper they have, the more power they have. Therefore, they accept to be seen diferently as long as it brings more followers.

Take the example of a politician, that need to maximize his votes, the town A which is for a law, and the town B which is against. He can go to town A, and make a speech telling how this law is wonderfull and how he will pass the law if he is elected. Then, he goes to town B, and make a speech about how this law is evil, and how he will fight it if he is elected. As long as there is no contact between the two towns, he will be elected in both, despite being contradictory. He don't mind beeing view diferently in two towns, as long as he is elected in both.

Your Gods are like this crooked politician, and the towns are like your civilizations.

A god of war for the Aztecs can have the form of a humanoid bull, be extremely violent and demand human sacrifice. Because this fits the culture and core values of the Aztecs, and therefore make this god popular. In another culture, the same war god can be a woman who values strategy and tactics in battle and emphasize honor and protection of the weak. Because this fits the culture and core values of this other culture, and therefore make this god popular.

Society changes, and Gods just change according to this in order to stay popular. They trade control of their representation in exchange of power.

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The gods where bored

The Gods have created humanity to use their collective psychic consciousness to become stronger for their own reasons. The only drawback is that this must happen out of the free will of human society, this means they cannot interfere with human society. The power they get from humanity is more than worth the trouble it brings with it.

Via this way of gaining power the god changes in a myriad of ways other than gaining more power. Different societies believe in the same gods in different ways and as a side-effect the gods split into multiple personalities. All these personalities are all part of the whole metaphysical god. When the priests find out about this and use their processions to change the god to their liking, the power of that god also changes.

Although a nuisance, the gods are far to busy with their own powerplay and competition for dominance to be bothered with those worthless and insignificant mortals and their priests. The gods might even practice the rule of "fair game" as a way to get through the eons without getting bored.

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Automation. Slick desing. 7 continent processor. Multi-tasking.
Gods created earth as we create machines to make our lifes easier.
You need to put heavy weight on top of the stack? Use crane. Strenght.
You need to find fastest route? GPS. Strategy.

The human think they can shape gos like THEY want but in reality they just make electric plane. Work just like regular plane just faster. And need electricity. Provided by the believers.

The gods have planted the seed and now they're picking the fruits. Oranges! Apples! Bananas! From the same tree!

Yeah, sometimes you get that useless twirling spaghetti fork instead of a cool thing but it's a price gods are ok to pay. After all, it's not their power that is wasted.

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