Following my previous question,

A King can't go to war

I decided that a power that could oppose a King was facilitated by having a religious component. The idea is to have one of the main land-owner, the local head of a Church, similar to Prince-Bishop of the Holy Roman Empire. Due to the land he controls within the Kingdom, he is one of main "Peer of the Kingdom", and as he is as well a key person in the religion of the country, he has ways to get the support of the local population, which amplifies his opposition to the King.

Now, I am trying to build the said Church and Belief, but due to the examples I referenced above, only the Christian Church come to my mind. However, I don't want to make any statement or judgement on the Christian Faith at all within my story, so I'd like to design my Church not to be too identifiable with any existing Church.

The easiest that come to me, and are quite common in Medieval Fantasy is to set a polytheist religion. Unfortunately, the examples I can think about are typical animist religions like the Norse, Celt or Shintoists religions, which were, to my knowledge, quite unorganised, and the typical Greek-Roman Gods. But there, one had to choose to be a priest of one or another God, and no God were really taking over the others.

Can a polytheist religion be organized in a similar way as Roman Catholic in the Middle-Ages, as far as its relation with power control is concerned?

To clarify a few points, you can see above, that I am interested in a Prince-Bishop-like figure who would hold considerable (open) political power as well as moral due to his position within a given religion.

In principle, the Sevens' Faith from A Song of Ice and Fire is a bit in the direction that I would like to have, but GRR Martin hasn't been always lauded for the realism of his world. And I am not aware of any similar Cult/Religion existing or having existed in our World..?

A note, stemming from one of the anwer, I am interested in a Church as a purely political organisation. That means that they have an influence in the population who believe almost entirely in the presence of some Gods. But I don't want said Gods to go around, strolling the land doing a few miracles here and there.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd like to point out that, almost no matter what you write, there will be someone who will say "<item-in-text> is a commentary on <subject>." Write the story you want to write and let the literature professors interpret your meaning for you. :) $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre, if I get to be read by "litterature professors", that would already be something! :-) I also don't want to bluntly offend friends and relatives, who are more likely to read (if at all) what I write... $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yes it can... Roman religion was not disorganized as you understand it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontifex_Maximus (note that nowadays the "Pontifex maximus" is the Pope). $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ The Pontifex Maximus was the head of the Roman civil religion and rituals, not really the boss of all the temples of Jove and Minerva in the empire. The Popes took the title as a civil one as it was an Imperial title in the Empire. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 22:52

7 Answers 7


Organization of Roman Catholicism

The leader of Catholicism is the Pope, followed by cardinals, then archbishops, then bishops then priests. Authority is divided by geographic area at each level of the hierarchy, where higher positions have larger areas.

Polytheism in Catholicism

The Catholics claim strict monotheism though a brief reading of the their concept of Saints makes it easy to see how a polytheistic religion might maintain a large hierarchical structure and be polytheistic too. Catholics pray to God, the Saints, Jesus and the Virgin Mary depending on a person's beliefs, upbringing or specific need (Saints usually have some specific jurisdiction. St. George is the patron saint of England.)

Strict Polytheism in a hierarchical religion

On the surface, it would appear easy to just state that a polytheistic religion would have a strict hierarchical organization but there are some problems. Monotheistic religions tend to have strict rules around getting into heaven and keeping God happy. Polytheistic religions are more relativistic and less concerned with eternal rewards. It's possible to have many gods in a hierarchical religion but it takes a unifying core to maintain organizational cohesion.

Organizational Cohesion

If organizational cohesion doesn't come from veneration of a single diety then it must come from something else. A couple options are (but not limited to): ethnic cohesion, tribal cohesion, militaristic influences, cultural inertia, or belief in a charismatic leader.

Political Interactions

The Catholic Church managed to maintain a distinction between spiritual power and earthly political power. It kept absolute power over spiritual affairs till the Reformation broke its strangle hold. If this distinction doesn't hold then the king will see the religion as a competitor and take action to minimize the religion's power.

In your world, as long as you can maintain a distinction between earthly and spiritual authority, then the religion can be monotheistic or polytheistic independent of a king.


Egyptian religion was:

  • Polytheist (except for 20-year aberration of heretical Aten worship)

  • Quite powerful and state-integrated, with the head of religion being pretty much 1-2 steps below the deity/Pharaoh.

Seems to fit your requirements.

  • $\begingroup$ I actually thought about it after writing the question. I have to read more about the Egyptian religion. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ This seems the best fit to me. The Pharaoh was considered a deity walking among us and worship was built into the public sector, think pyramids...temples yeah the Pharaoh was a big deal. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 14:13

If you structure the polytheistic religion appropriately there's absolutely no reason you couldn't have a "poly-pope". In many of the theologies you've listed there is a "king" of the gods (Odin, Jupiter/Zeus), and it's a pretty easy handwave to have the prince-bishop say "the King of the gods is the only one who we can talk to, and I'm his representative".

Add in a few thousand years of church infighting resulting in the Prince-Bishop being all powerful and you have your powerful polytheistic church :)


If you want division of power with polytheism, I suggest studying the history and religion of Sparta. Sparta invented the division of powers in government. They had a complex interaction of different focuses of worship with a large set of holidays, rituals and required consultations clearly intended to keep either of the Spartan kings or anyone else from getting to much centralized power. It's not much of stretch to see the same system spread over several kingdoms.


The neo-Paganism that the feckless Emperor Julian the Apostate wanted to create was just about exactly what you want. He was trying to replace Christianity with a Pagan equivalent and wanted to create just such a hierarchy.

He was killed in battle before much could come of it, and has been a subject of what ifs by College Sophomores ever since. I think that even without his death, his aims would have been thwarted by pagans themselves. His imposed rank ordering of gods was just as alien as Christianity to them.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you have ny reference? Or will wikipedia tell me all I need to know? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ The Wiki article is fairly good - remember this is all extrapolating from a few years of acts. It does give more detail in how what Julian wanted did not fit traditional Paganism as much as create an "anti Christianity" which in my view would also have failed even without the Christian opposition. If you scrub out his anti Christian stuff and also the Christians you might have a good start at a different take on things. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 22:48

I would have an Ascendant Priest/God at any one time. So for a very simplistic example, let's say you had, very roughly speaking, five gods, each representing primarily the following:

  • War
  • Love
  • Farming
  • Travel
  • Bananas

The major priest of each of these gods would make up a conclave, and from those they would select a central figure - your Pope-Prince - who would then represent the polytheistic church and wield temporal power.

You could have this figure rotate for multiple ways. "For Life" is probably the must unlikely. I think the most common two would either be electing a Pope-Prince for a set term (5-10 years), after which that god can't repeat, or rotating through the gods, so you always go War -> Bananas -> Travel -> Farming -> Love -> War, for example.

In addition, it might be possible for the conclave to meet and remove the Pope-Princess from her position and replace her with another cardinal-level person from the same church.

This allows your church to have a centralized figure, while still over time representing all gods of the church.


The way I understand your requirements, you want a polytheist structure that can oppose a king but that does not completly dominate him. (He needs to be able to "beat" the church opposing him without having to destroy it, which could be a problem with the Egyptian religion).

The roleplaying game DSA (Das schwarze Auge - translated: The black eye) has a polytheist structure you might find a good inspiration. There you have 12 main gods (ok, 13 but that's a story for an other day) that all embody different traits (Rondra is the godess of war and honorable combat, Phex is the god of merchants and thiefs, Hesinde the god of knowledge and mages and so on). Chief among them is the god Praios who embodies Law, order, righteousness. (There are also many minor gods who are mostly the children of 12 main gods).

There is quite a lot of conflict between the gods (Phex wants to steal everything there is and put it up on the night sky as stars, Praios wants people to obey the law and hence not steal...) They are siblings and as such can be played against each other, but when the shit hits the fan they will set their squabeling asside and band together.

Most of the time the local heads of the churches do not intervene much in the political decisions. But when they do, their words have a lot of weight and can not easily be dismissed. Hence, when your King wants to start a war, he definitly needs to get the head of the Rondra church on his side and for that, the war has to have an honorable reason, so your King needs to fabricate one.

Be carefull however: The gods are very active within the country, so it is close to impossible to find a head priest who only "belives for show" and hence can easily be bought.

True miracles are "normal" but rare. Example: The god Effered is the god of water and the sea. He might grant his priests the ablitiy to walk on water.

(btw: recently the creators of DSA started to publish books containing liturgys of the gods. It is also possible to play as a priest so there are quite a lot of rules and additional information about the pantheon available - From the way an acolyte is accepted and raises through the ranks, what the temples normaly look like inside and out, all the way to the miracles a god might grant and why. I am just not so sure, that all of it has been translated to english yet)

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for that reference that I did not know. I was more looking for real-life examples, but the DSA case is interesting. However, it seems to me that the heads ot the different cults are more concerned with their own cults than the Kingdom's politics. So it isn't exactly what I am looking for. Furthermore, I don't want too many effective miracles around the story, but that might not have been clear from my question. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ This was mostly meant as an example, you can of course pick and choose to your liking. It is true, that the different heads of the churches are most concerned with their own church, but the poeple living in the Kingdom are all belivers as well (As a merchant you might follow Phex but that does not mean, that you don't also pray to any of the others, neither does it mean that those others would not answer either). Hence, if the ruler does something that in the eyes of the church(es) is bad, the priests would do something against the ruler. (as has happend often in DSA History) $\endgroup$
    – Salavora
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 11:10

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