Most of the religions I see GMs make (& even myself) are basically just rehashed Greek pantheon-esque religions. Several gods, each one governing a specific thing, sometimes different regions have different gods governing them. They are all still (pretty much) the same style of religion though. How do I create a unique religion? Some GMs have themselves as one god, & that is fun to experiment with, but it is also very modern-catholic with monotheistic religion & all that. Sometimes godless religions are interesting but I'm not sure how to go about those either. (This is not strictly for RPGs btw, it's just where I have most experience.)
Mythology is not religion. Mythology and religion are two very different things.
Funny thing is, the ancient Greek mythology we all know and love was not the actual ancient Greek religion. For an introduction to the subject, I recommend:
For a simple example, consider that the Hebrew, Christian and Islamic religions share more or less the same mythology. But the religions themselves are quite different, aren't they? Not to mention the striking differences between the mainstream variants of Christianity and the modern interpretations prevalent in the USA.
No, the Greek mythology does not feature "several gods, each one governing a specific thing". It features countless gods, the vast majority of whom do not govern anything. They just are. The real ancient Greek religion is not even close to the nice ordered idea of a handful of gods with well-defined responsibilities.
I understand where this idea comes from. Schools teach that Ares was the god of war, Poseidon was the god of the sea, and Aphrodite the goddess of love. Sort of correct, albeit extremely reductionist. But what about Athena, or Apollo? What did they govern? Not to mention the zillion other deities, such as Tethys, Thetis (who married a mortal man and gave birth to Achilles), and, perhaps most importantly, Hercules (who was born a mortal man and became a god by his works and by the good will of his divine father)?
There are other ancient religions which are well documented.
Consider the Roman religion. We know all sorts of details about it, and they are easy to find in this day of universal access to knowledge. A good starting book is Franz Altheim's History of Roman Religion (1938). (The link goes to a free copy at Archive.org.)
Yes, the Romans, in their arts, their poetry and fiction, re-used the Greek mythology. They did not adopt or practice the Greek religion. They continued to practice their own, very different religion. This only reinforces point 1 above, that mythology and religion are very different things. The Roman religion was about as different from the Greek religion as they could be while remaining under the general idea of polytheism. The most important difference is that the great majority Roman deities were purely abstract entities, who did not look like mortal people, did not mingle with mortal people, and did not have adventures with mortal people.
A handful of Roman gods, such as Apollo or Bacchus, are indeed literally the same as the corresponding Greek gods; the Romans borrowed them fully formed. A second handful or Roman gods, such as Jupiter and Aurora, are reflexes of the same ancestral Indo-European gods as the corresponding Greek gods. But the great majority of Roman gods are fundamentally and essentially different from the Greek gods. This includes major gods which were assigned Greek equivalents for purely artistic purposes: Mars, whose association with war is just one of his many facets, is profoundly different from Ares; Venus is only superficially similar to Aphrodite; and Greek Athena was interpreted as Roman Minerva only because they are both very powerful, very wise, and female.
Even their names attest that they are fundamentally different deities. The names of Minerva and Venus are Indo-European (from *menos "thought" and *wenh₁os "desire"), while the names of Athena and Aphrodite are alien; Athena is probably a deity of the peoples who lived in Greece before the Greeks came, and the name of Aphrodite is likely of Semitic origin.
The Roman religion is the archetype of "very many gods, each one governing a specific thing". Consider how many deities were involved with making a baby and raising them; here is a partial list, roughly in chronological order from marriage through conception, pregancy, birth and early development: Jugatinus, Cinxia, Subigus, Prema, Inuus, Janus, Consevius, Liber Pater, Mena, Fluonia, Alemona, Vitumnus, Sentinus, Egeria, Postverta, Diespiter, Lucina, Vagitanus, Levana, Statina, Intercidona, Pilumnus, Deverra, Juno, Hercules, Rumina, Nundina, Potina, Edusa, Ossipago, Carna, Cunina, Cuba, Paventia, Peta, Agenoria, Adeona, Interduca, Catius Pater, Farinus, Fabulinus, Locutius, Mens, Volumnus, Numeria, Camena. (Most of their names are indicating their functions. You may want to test your Latin to guess what each of them was supposed to do, without going to Wikipedia.)
Or consider the ancient Egyptian religion. It is also very well documented; but, since it doesn't interest me in the least, I won't comment on it. Or the Babylonian religion. Or the ancient Vedic religion of ancient India; and of course its successor, the Hindu religion. None of them is similar to the ancient Greek religion, and they feature very un-Greek mythologies.
An easy path towards making up gods and goddesses is to actually learn about the ancient gods and goddesses. I promise you that you will surprise many of your readers or players.
The ancient gods and goddesses were complex characters, with complex histories and complicated cults. Very far from the elementary school introduction "Venus is the goddess of love".
Speaking of Venus. Most people think that they know that Venus is Roman name of Aphrodite and that's about it. The reality is that the Romans used the mythology of Aphrodite in the arts, in fiction and poetry, because, again, Roman deities were abstract entities and they mostly did not have any physical form or any mythology to speak of. The real Roman Venus was indeed a goddes of (physical) love and sexual desire; but she was also, surprise, the goddess of prosperity, success in enterprise, and victory. She was the goddess of nature's generative force. There is a temple of Venus Libitina, the goddess of funerals. The Romans prayed to her to intercede with Jupiter on their behalf.
Alternatively, you may want to consider a completely unstructured religion, such as what pre-modern China used to practice. Archive.org has J. J. M. Groot's The religious system of China (in six volumes!). Look for it..
In general, you may proceed with absolute confidence that if you spend a few days on this you will find one or two sufficiently attractive real-world religions, which can be slightly touched up or mashed up to create a sufficiently surprising religon for your story or game. As a brooding and impractical prince of Denmark once said, "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy".
You have left out the third kind of religion. Many eastern Religions have a nonpersonified Godhead. The fundamental nature of reality is not a big man in the sky. It is the arrangement of the world into tiers, with the lower teirs being closer to nonliving matter, and the upper ones being closer to a state of nirvannah. There is also a cycle of reincarnation and means to move upwards baked into the system.
Some such religions contain beings which are also called gods. But these are just creatures higher on the spiritual ladder. They are not creator deities and do not embody aspects of reality.
Arguably the standard D&D cosmos is already this type of setting. The nonpersonified force contains the "River of Souls"
which governs how souls are generated and where they go after their mortal bodies die.
The "gods" are simply souls that have attracted enough followers that they become divine. They are not creators and will fade from existence if they are forgotten. This "rule of faith" is also part of the nonpersonified force.
Variation is Godliness:
There are so many ways to mix up faith that it is, actually kind of funny:
- Mesoamerica: There have been some good alternatives listed here for alternate pantheons, but Mayan and Aztec religious traditions are messy, complex, and full of great stories waiting for someone to follow up and bring them to life.
- Gods based on nature: A traditional faith might be based on nature. So gods might be gods of trees, plants, the sea, and animals. Or all gods might be represented by a specific animal.
- Eldritch gods: The gods are REALLY alien, with motives we don't really get. So priests and followers don't worship so much as manipulate gods ritually for protection or power. Why does the sacrifice of 144 baby toes revive a dead person to become a zombie? We have no clue, but Zeb-Nusushush does it. Period.
- Gods based on assumed characteristics of things: So the god Yellow is angry but is associated with sunlight. The god of black is calm but also of death. White is associated with both winter and the moon - what does that say about a god?
One option is to have various "gods of", but instead of making them gods of an activity, profession, region or race, get creative with what's being divvied up between them.
For example, take the Myers-Briggs personality test. Introvert/Extrovert, Thinking/Feeling, Sensing/Intuition, and Judging/Perceiving. From that, you can get
- The god of solitude
- The god of companionship
- The god of reason
- The god of passion
- The god of focus
- The god of creativity
- The god of order
- The god of opportunity
These also don't really need to be beings. You could make those aspects of the mind the figureheads of the religion. People could believe that the concept of companionship itself is woven into the fabric of reality in a meaningful and divine way.
It's probably necessary to understand what a god/goddess is, if you want to mix it up a little and come up with a unique deity/pantheon/religion.
Most of the details are lost to prehistory, unfortunately. But we can reconstruct quite a bit about how the concept of a god must have emerged. It goes a little something like this:
Humans believe in spirits. These spirits are intelligent and usually (but not always) intangible. Other humans clearly have spirits, and so too do non-human animals. But then, so does the wind, or the moon. If you see a dust devil blowing around, clearly that's a spirit, and it will be tangible for a short time, but then return to being intangible.
These other spirits, the intangible ones, they are like humans also in that they're neither good nor evil, at least no more than any other human would be. Sometimes they will help, sometimes hinder, sometimes love and sometimes hate. And they might change their minds! You've hunted for many seasons always having great fortune, but then the spirits abandon you and your family is starving.
One might start to wonder, were he in that situation, just what he did to offend those spirits. Humans definitely tried to befriend them, or, if that seemed impossible, to at least avoid offending them.
This is somewhere around where we'd start calling this animism. As some humans specialized in "spirit relationships" we might even get something resembling shamanism too.
But at least so far, none of these spirits are gods! For that, we need a bit more development.
You see, over time, a tribe or a people here or there might come to give names to these spirits, and to favor some spirits over others. Great-grandfather always said that spirit A seemed to be friendly and would help when it could, and spirit B was always being a jackass. Scaring away the game, snuffing out the fire in the cold winter nights.
Now, up until this point, spirits were more or less equal (at least in the way that humans are more or less equal). Sure some were more powerful than others like some humans are stronger or faster than others, some more skillful, just as some humans are more skillful. But as spirits start being named, it is possible for stories to attach to them. And for stories to accumulate.
From that point forward, human psychology kicks in. There might be thousands of spirits (millions, surely, if they could even comprehend that number), but if you only know the names of a dozen spirits, then those will eventually become the most powerful spirits to your great grandchildren, simply because they will accumulate stories where the anonymous spirits can't.
And while offending spirits was always a risky business, you definitely don't want to piss off Spirit X, who your family has told many tales about for many generations, where that unnamed spirit that lives out in the swamp and has one story (if you can even be sure it's about him) isn't some sort of world-ending, existential threat... even if you insult him.
We might call this the "veneration phase". Spirits so powerful as that, you have to practice a bit of diplomacy. You need to be formal with them. They should be greeted. Invited in. Gifts might be given, at least when appropriate. When insult if (accidentally, never intentionally) given, proper apologies must be made.
There is more though, at this point. Those stories? It's not just about them existing in the same world as you do (or, depending on the mythology, in another slightly adjacent world)! These spirits were, in some cases, present at the birth of the world. They were involved in it. They witnessed it. And why not? A human might die, but surely an intangible spirit can hardly be harmed. And if they will persist into the far future, would they not also have already persisted starting some time in the distant past? They're just a few developments away from potentially having created the world.
Soon, the diplomacy, the greetings and invitations, the apologies and the gifts, they will become rituals and offerings (even sacrifices). They'll soon be (lowercase g) gods.
And, they'll slowly become more human-life in appearance. While even Coyote or Rabbit or whomever could always walk among men and appear to be a man (if he chose), that's merely an affectation. But some of these spirits/gods will soon be looking like men even when they're not doing it for any particular purpose. The transformation won't be total, necessarily, especially early on. Some human-like gods will retain animal-like features even as long as the religion itself survives.
In societies which are growing more complex (like the Greeks who, by now, are building some rather large cities), some curiosities occur. They are having quite a bit more contact with foreign societies. Contact that's not just hostile, communication-less warfare. They come to recognize that while some gods of foreigners must be the same ones they know and love, those foreigners definitely don't use the same names as they do (besides, we all know these gods like to keep a low profile and sometimes use a variety of names!).
So they start trying to match up foreign gods to their own. Sometimes the matches don't make alot of sense to us, but surely he can't be the god of the ocean to people who live 500 miles away from an ocean, maybe he likes to dabble with horses that far inland. More so, we're starting to see the emergence of subcultures... cities might have potters and carpenters and so forth. And as their subcultures come to favor particular gods, those gods will of course favor those subcultures. We can now have someone who is the god of soldiers, or the goddess of milkmaids. (And if that sounds quite a bit like Catholic saints to you, then you're starting to get it.)
The rituals have grown more numerous, longer, more complicated. We're definitely at the point where you don't dare deal with them directly yourself, it's far too important to trust to a non-specialist. Priesthoods have emerged sometime in the recent past. Like any profession, one of the first rules is to make their profession indispensable. So the rituals are only going to grow more complicated still, and the risks of performing them poorly will only grow more dangerous.
The next developments doesn't always occur. One of those is monotheism. It requires that a people grow so attached to their god that when forced to leave their homeland (and god) behind, they refuse to allow that to happen. Gods, like the spirits they once were, are mostly intangible, so why is geography relevant? If you can't touch or see something, where is it exactly? You're only one abstraction away from him being "everywhere at once and nowhere".
Now, of course, there are still other gods. But this new portable version of a god can help your people survive enslavement, long stretches in a desert searching for a homeland, and a host of other psychologically debilitating circumstances. And the best part? If you're one of the first to have a portable god, then your god most be more special than most.
He (uppercase H) might be the one true god. Boom, monotheism. Other gods will hang around, but eventually they will become spirits again, lesser evil spirits perhaps. You religion might have trouble reconciling those with the new monotheistic universe. And you might have to try really hard to repress your memories of the other gods in your pantheon too.
The other development isn't entirely compatible with monotheism. Call it duotheism. You live in a land of barbaric wars ravaging through every few generations. You have enough technology, and enough population density, that these are awe-inducing (the old definition of awe, the one that is closer to "fear of god" than "really really cool). There are enemies, and there are good guys.
And so it must be with spirits too. Turns out, these spirits have been engaged in cosmic warfare since the beginning of eternity. And only one side can win. And hopefully it will be the good ones. There is one spirit above all on each side, and these are truly Gods. Uppercase G gods. But don't worship the bad one lest you mark yourself an enemy of the universe itself, and eventually smited for that.
What can we take away from all of this though?
- That instead of gods and goddesses being some distinct category of being, they exist on a wide spectrum of spirits.
- That these spirits, lesser and greater are more defined by their relationships with people than, than any demonstrated power or faculty of their own.
- That they accumulate patronage much the same way the wealthy do, rather than being some incarnation of the concept. The god of thieves wasn't born of some Platonic ideal of thievery, he just helped one out one time, and now he's kind of expected to do so all the time.
So, to make gods and goddesses different, you're going to need to interrupt some of these processes. If you think those interruptions make good backgrounds for the story you're working on, be sure to include that stuff. But if it distracts from what you're doing, jot down some notes and skip that.
Perhaps these gods do not become more humanlike, retaining animalistic visage. Or, for whatever reason, instead of their being millions, it truly seems like there are only 5, or 3, or 111. Monotheism is easily skipped (indeed, it might only have been invented twice in the real world, and the other example may not have developed in the way that I outline that it should, no one's certain!). Duotheism is easily skipped (only one extant example, though there are some elements of it in Christianity, likely borrowed from that example).
Gods might not become patrons of any one thing. They might remain more tangible. They might not develop names. People might be unwilling to accept the existence of gods their own tribe doesn't vouch for.
Any of these mechanisms can help you to develop ideas for what those gods would be like, and they will tend to be quite unlike those described in history of our own planet. You can go out of your way and develop details for those, or just say "X didn't happen" and "Y happened to a far smaller degree" without bothering to explain.
And the best part? This works whether your gods are real, or just the religious delusions of a primitive people.
In the last century, many thousands of 'new religious movements' (aka cults) have appeared all over the world. These are mostly small and short-lived but some have membership in the millions and have persisted for generations. All of these religious movements are based, in some way, around the question you are asking: "how do we create a new thing that is different from this old thing?" Of course, they're cults, so they're trying to claim that their new idea or new way of thinking is literally true rather than fictional.
However, many NRMs involve a fusion of different cultures and ideas. For example, the blend of Islam and Buddhism. These are two entirely disparate ideas where one is monotheistic and the other is non-dualistic. You may ask, "how could anyone combine those two ideas? They're too different." Well, a cult is like a universal translator between them. You can invent pretty much any word-salad justification or convoluted sophistry to explain any relationship between P and Q. For worldbuilding, this can be a fun creative exercise (so long as you don't start believing your ideas are literally true): e.g., find one interesting part of one religion and one interesting part of another and spend a few hours writing about what would need to exist in order for them to be connected / mean the same thing / exist in the same religious framework. For example I might want to write about a culture where something like the Buddhist concept of Prajna (wisdom) arises as a consequence of, say, Catholic mass. There's no right answer, I just made it up, but the point is that someone could make an argument that they are related. You could argue that almost any two things are related. What world would be required for it to be true?
(There are issues about cultural appropriation here, which I could write pages about, and I'm not suggesting just stealing ideas from other religions at random. But using them as a basis for creating new ideas is not a bad thing when it's used as a personal exercise rather than an attempt at exploiting that culture, in my opinion. Others may disagree but in any case that's an off-topic digression.)
To understand religions - and superstitions - it may help to understand how they arise. Put quite simply, they begin as lies to children.
Imagine that you're a parent with kids. You have things to do, but the kids are being kids, and are asking you questions to which you don't have the answer, like "Where did the world come from?", so, when they won't accept "I don't know", you toss them an answer off the top of your head. You make something up, and that shuts them up for a while, during which time they consider it and work it into their view of the world. Then they come back and ask more questions about the flippant lie that you told, and you make something else up. And so-on and so-on...
Now, maybe you're a better story-teller than the other parents. Maybe the other parents couldn't think of anything other than "I don't know", but they heard another parent telling a lie to their kids. Maybe they believed it themselves, maybe they didn't, but your lie shuts up their kids too.
The kids believe your lie,and it becomes part of their worldview, because that's what older people in their community are there for: to teach them things that they don't know. Mostly it's practical stuff, like how to catch fish/kill deer/plant crops/whatever, but kids don't discriminate between useful knowledge and unfalsifiable lies.
Now imagine that you pass away, and then imagine that you are one of the kids to whom you told your lies... one of the more imaginative ones. You have this view of the world that you learned from an elder, and remember it better than the other kids did, and you tell it to the new kids in the community. When they ask a question for which you don't have an answer, you make something up that fits with what you know.
Give it a few generations of this, and if you want to know about all this made-up stuff, you'd need to go to a special school... and now you have clergy.
Of course, not all lies to children are attempting to explain the abstract. Some lies have a definite aim. Take, for example, the myth that cats get into babies cribs and suck away the baby's breath. In actuality, a cat would just be looking for a warm place to sleep, and might accidentally smother a baby who wasn't old and strong enough to move away. Maybe it happened to a mother in your community, and she did the human thing and ascribed evil motive to the cat where none existed, but the story did the trick and made other mothers keep cats away from young babies. If enough other tales of evil are ascribed to cats, sooner or later, people are hunting and torturing cats to death, and then, when there aren't enough cats to control the rats, your community is struck by the black death. Should have been nicer to the cats, perhaps?
There are any number of other cautionary lies to children that had the aim to keep kids away from danger... but they filled the kids world with imaginary fears,which they passed on to their own kids, perhaps not understanding why they were told the story. The story gets passed down through the generations, but the reason doesn't. Maybe a generations-old story still performs its intended function, maybe it doesn't... but it's now superstition.
Now, take a story world... perhaps a ttrpg world. It's a short step for all these lies upon lies told to children to be made into a real part of the world that's being described.
In some worlds, especially D&D worlds, it seems that there are no myths... everything that the world-builder describes is real somewhere. Perhaps the young players get upset if they're told about something that doesn't exist, and they've spent time looking for it.
So... knowing how myths,legends, religions and superstitions arise, you have a means by which these can be created for your world. Just remember that it's an iterative process. Make something up to answer a question. Make something else up to answer a deeper question. Keep making stuff up as required until you're satisfied with the results. Occasionally, you may want to toss something away because it doesn't fit any more... and that's okay. Myths, legends, religions and superstitions are full of places where someone decided that something no longer fit into the story, and it was removed... but left behind bits and pieces in related stories, now without any apparent explanation.
Look at Non Indo-European Religions and Non Mediterranean Religions
Greek mythology is going to share features with those of other Indo-European cultures (Pretty much all of Europe save for the Basque, Magyars, and Finns; alongside with the Iranian and North Indian cultures).
So to properly avoid any sub textual references to Greek deities simply choose religions that are not a part of the Indo-European cultural group or from the Mediterranean region. Consider basing your religion off of Tengriism; a living Central Asian. Consider researching the religions of sub Saharan Africa or the Americas or Oceania
Don't just go meta - go Zoroastrian meta
Your characters have a sense that there is a world beyond their own. They go throughout their lives, but their actions are influenced by Fravashi (players), who have heeded the call of Ahura Mazda (the GM). The Fravashi even get to see their score, called an urvan, the fourth day after the characters die.
The religion of the characters will involve prayers made to the Fravashi and Ahura Mazda. Some of these will be invocations aimed to produce the manifestation of materials from the players' own world so that the characters can learn the Zoroastrian faith and convince their players (Fravashi) to start following the religion. The players may refuse, and the characters could become convinced that some of them are really in league with Angra Mainyu. They may ask the players to ask themselves, are they really players at all or are they just hypothetical entities in an unplayed game posited in a StackExchange answer to a question that, alas, looks like it is about to be descended on by minions of Mainyu who override all our great conversations. Can the players appeal to their Fravashi to avoid that fate?
There is a parallel branch of the religion that phrases all these terms in relation to a "Matrix", but it appeals to a much more limited group of mages I think.
To Build Your Own Mythos, Start With What You Know
There are two jumping off points from our world of the mundane into myth :
mind : also called psyche to Freud, animus to the classic scholar, or soul
mood : team spirit, emotion, or just plain spirit.
There are some big decisions you make regarding these two starting points that can take you into some very different directions
Regarding the "mind" or "soul", is it something unique and eternal, or just part of the body? This is a question with large ramifications
- if the answer is "no",
- What does "resurrect", "raise dead" or equivalent miracles do? Do they not exist in your mythos?
- What, then, are the "gods"? Just powerful players on the stage of life?
- If the answer is "yes", you have a lot of minds doing something after death. What?
- They could be sleeping until awakened by some powerful magic (like a deities miracle).
- They could be reborn after some time (which would imply an upper limit, and maybe not even a long one, on "resurrect").
- They could be hanging out with similar-minded peers, just out of sight of most mortals.
- if the answer is "no",
What is "spirit"? Is something external, an invisible animal or wind that touches the soul without any physicality? When we say we've been "taken captive by a mood" or need to "get a monkey off our backs" do those words have literal truth?
- If yes, you have the possibility of animal spirits.
- Could some of these spiritual animals be of near human, or greater than human intelligence?
- If yes, you have the "genie", "djinn", "ifrit", "geniuses", "angels" and "demons" of some mythologies.
- Do these spiritual animals have an ecosystem of their own that they inhabit?
- If no, everyone is dwelling on the players physical world, asleep or awake, invisible or visible.
- If yes, the how many different spiritual worlds exist?
- One : like the astral plane, there is one world that the spirits inhabit, just a little offset from the main one of your story.
- More than one : there could be realms full of story (like Neverland). There could exist realms in which the gods preside over courts of their spiritual and soul servants and make plans regarding the living (hells and heavens).
- Could some of these spiritual animals be of near human, or greater than human intelligence?
- If no, what is mood?
- Some happy accident?
- Some aura of the divine? For example, does "the power of love" mean something?
- Some power that transcends the divine? Same example, does "the power of love" put even the mightiest of deities in their place?
- In some mythologies there exist certain laws that are immutable, maybe set by the very highest of gods, or just always been there.
- If yes, you have the possibility of animal spirits.
Option: A great filter may be in place, applying some absolute standard of behavior (in your universe). Unambiguously establishing what was "good" behavior, and separating your souls into buckets because of it. Better souls may reincarnate into better next-lives, or souls may align with the god(s) most like them "noble self-sacrificing altruists", or "greedy bottom feeders".
Option: If souls are eternal and spirits are separate, you might have a economy trying to lock down the living's final destination by trying to get the living to "sell their souls", literally selling their living mind (and maybe their afterlife) as a long-term service contract.
Option: If spirits and souls exist, and report to a deity, the deity may posses turf in the real world. Companies of soldier souls/spirits may be encamped within the borders, protecting the city or the nation from outside harm. For immortal creatures such as these, they may be limited to just picking up their colleagues and carrying them across the border. However, it may have literal meaning for a city or army to "lose its spirit" when battling another army -- the battle may have been conducted, first, between the armies of two squaring off deities, and one army has been routed.
What, Then, Are The Gods
Now that you've identified the answer to life's bigger mysteries, how do these beings called "gods" by the living relate to those higher truths?
The answer could be nuanced. Some gods may be "lesser" than others.
- There could be truly omnipotent, omniscient deities. In this case, everything is going according to their plan, or at least is happening with their consent.
- The gods could be kings and queens with private inviolable spaces ("heavens" or "hells") where spirits and souls - working still for the gods - are actively put to work achieving the deities goals among the living (and maybe in the broader cosmos). This means a lot : the god / goddess has armies that can be put to work, when needed.
- The god could be powerful monsters, or very powerful heros. They may choose to pick favorites from the people - help some out, or make life more difficult for others.
- Worse than monsters, the gods could be parasites depending on the living (and unliving, if they exist in your world) for something, and giving little or nothing back.
- The gods could be nigh-nobodies : political figures - mortal kings, and queens, who merely want the devotion from their people.
What Do The People Mean to the Gods?
Knowing everything you've chosen for your absolute truths above, what does this mean to the prayers of mortals for their deities favor?
Are they heard? Ignored? Meticulously answered as often as possible, considering the well-being of all believers?
Option: You might think that it would be pure chaos for every prayer to be answered, but remember that an intelligent creature can answer "no".
- Petitioner : may I have the stuff of my neighbor, please?
- Deity : no.
Even atheism could exist in this scenario - the Petitioner may choose to reject a god(s) that won't give him what he wants. The reasons can be even more legitimate, like, why has the deity allowed tragedy to happen generally in this world, or some terrible atrocity in particular.
Where Do Clerics Fit In?
You've answered those awesome fundamentals, first, then reconciled what that makes the gods. Now (especially if you have a fantasy setting including them), what about the clerics?
If souls exist, the relationship between a cleric and a god may be as simple as a contract for the cleric's soul.
Or, some good deities may refuse to accept that and simply require faithful, disciplined service.
A powerful, but limited, hero/god in a world of no spirits or souls may give a follower a magic token (a cellphone) that helps the cleric keep in touch while the god journeys the material plane. Or a monster god may tear the cleric apart and rebuild the former human into something not-quite human.
Or, a powerful but limited hero/god may just add the cleric's name to an allow-calls-from list. The only interaction between cleric and god may be at the scheduled check-ins. In this case, hitting the appointed prayer time(s) is even more important to the cleric than it might be for others.
Who performs miracles? Who actually grants a miracle that a cleric asks for. It could be :
- The deity personally through his/her far reaching power
- A soul or spirit, working for the god, using powers of their own
- The cleric, tapping some otherwise unknowable power of their own soul/spirit (a capability which may continue and even flower after life). A monster deity may put a cleric through some sort of transformation endowing the cleric with this power.
What About the Church?
The aims of an very-powerful or nearly-all-powerful deity and a regional Baron + Count + Duke + Soverign are rarely going to align. Very likely, these four living people are rarely in alignment with one another.
These well-placed individuals will be the ones (likely) paying the expense of the deities outreach centers (churches) at the village, county, province, and nation levels. The Sovereign or local noble will insist, in return for his or her day-to-day charity in the gods dealings, some right to name who runs these outreach centers. A noble would be likely against selecting for those roles people who have been somehow bound to the deity, preferring instead men and women with loose ties to their gods and strong loyalty to their noble patron.
How do the churches relate to clerics?
- There may be True Clerics (who have sworn themselves in some way to the deity) operating at various levels along the church hierarchy, or roaming as itinerants.
- The deity may tear down churches operating in the gods name without his followers, creating a shortage in religious services (not a church in every town, or maybe not even in every county or state).
- Traveling preachers may be sent into the underserved countryside at some frequency (for example: spring to bless crops and conduct weddings, and again in winter to properly bury the dead).
How Do the Gods Relate to Each Other?
Usually the question that gets the most attention from people, but probably the least impactful in how your mythos runs is : how do the gods relate to one another?
They can be colleagues who work together, but share no other common bond. They can be family. They can not be aware of one another at all (or by reputation alone) - especially if you have very many kind-of weak gods who are just very potent players or monsters.
Skip the gods, and stick with just magic.
Many that believe in Reincarnation believe in "Karma", a form of magic that causes you to be reincarnated either higher or lower; but there is no personified "God".
Witchcraft can also be a form of religious practice without personified good or evil; there is just magic to be learned. You see this in the modern "Attraction" stuff, you do certain things to "attract" what you want, and it will magically appear. Of course confirmation bias plays a big role in this.
One can believe in a magical substance of "good" and substance of "evil" that concentrates into people, making them better or worse, along with rituals to purify people and cast evil out. Also called "spirits", but same idea.
The same reincarnation people are a subset of those that believe in souls and ghosts without believing in any God. The reincarnationists just believe that the soul is reborn; while others may not believe that, or may believe the soul cannot "move on" to a new life until it sees issued resolved in this one.
That kind of thing is represented in the "I see dead people" movie, The Sixth Sense.
You can do a lot in rituals, celebrations and such without ANY gods, but with plenty of Magic as a kind of natural force in the world.
There Are No Wrong Answers, and There are no Right Ones. Use Them All
In our own world, there is a great diversity of religions, almost all of which have some central figure at the foundation of their collection of holy beings. What you said about monotheism is actually wrong, it is not a very modern catholic thing as it is the core of other Abrahamic religions and countless tribal religions before european contact. But whatever the case, your religions will be diverse, so if you simply want diversity, you could just copy and past other religions, but that is a boring answer, isn't it?
Now, when it comes to religions, religions are ultimately about worship. "god" when defined primarily by the role of the concept in religion, is a being worthy of worship; so, in your own worldbuilding when you are asking "who are the gods" you are asking yourself who these people consider worthy of worship. Some may not think about worship. Others may limit their worship to people living on the same plane of existence as them. Some may believe there is only one God worthy of worship, and others will worship many gods. Some may even go to worship themselves. If you want to know who those gods should be, a quick look at the worlds pantheons should tell you that people can think anything can be worshipped, and your fictional humans will be no different. Sure, they may not worship page 22 of nancy's cookbook, but they may be captivated by the beauty of the mathematical realm and see divinity there (like pythagoras) or believe that everything is god (pantheism) or consider all the stars in the sky and the sun and whatever moons and planets you see to be a pantheon of gods giving light to the world, and consider only those literal objects to be distinct personal gods, and so on and so forth. There should be religions of every type in your world, and each of them will produce their own unique cultures due to their beliefs about divinity, history, and morality, and how closely they actually hold to those beliefs.
Also, you should consider the fact that Aristotle and other philosphers came to the conclusion that there was only one God from philosophy alone, and they did so not on the basis of any feature present on earth, but on the fundamental nature of existence. Even if you disagree that these arguments are true, you should note that those arguments are made, and a classically theistic religion, no matter how small or how short lived it is, will almost certainly exist on your world at some point; though they may not have similar claims about revelation that christianity, judaism, and islam do.
Start with the Truth, and Lie from There
Basically, lets say you don't want a religious landscape that parallels the religious landscape of earth, but something completely different. Well, one of the things you could do is start with a completely different foundational truth which all the religions of the world are based on. I know I sound like I am inferring that all the religions of our world are based on some foundational truth, which I am, but I do not feel it to be a good time to open that can of worms. Instead I will merely point out to you that when it comes to religions around the world whose origin story is well within the historical record, we are able to see how these religions, like mormonism, christianity, islam, sikhism, and so on are based on the religions of the region they came from, with certain alterations, and we would expect this same process to have occurred throughout all the parts of history we can't see until we came to some first religion, since religion couldn't exist forever you know, as humans have a beginning. But, that is not the point, the way you should apply religious development to your world is different.
For this section, I intend to point to Brandon Sanderson's worldbuilding. The religions of scadrial and roshar for example have religions which have certain common elements (scadrial: dualism, martyr god, hero of ages, preserving something; Roshar: ten heralds, almighty (or similar concept), desolations, old magic (in the west), lost radiants). The common elements of each of these religions are based on the stories which were at the very foundation of all of these societies, though all of these elements are corrupted. Even seemingly random pieces of religious thought, like some people on Roshar believing stones are holy gods, are actually referencing some ancient event that actually happened at the very foundation of the societies which believe these things. What I mean by "start from the truth and lie from there" is to figure out those events at the very beginning of your worlds history that actually happened, a story of origins, and figure out how those events were misinterpreted at the start, and how the understanding continued to corrupt over time. Their perception of God or gods will also be affected by the beings who are clearly present at the event (or whose presence was inferred).
But Remember the Lies of Immortals
However, one important thing to remember about religion in a fantasy setting, one thing that doesn't apply to the real world, is the lies of immortals. If you have an immortal being living among, or even ruling, over a population of mortals, though those immortals can't make up whatever religion they want immediately, they can actively direct the religious conversation until it gets them where they want. One good example of this in fiction is the Lord Ruler in the book, Mistborn, who, after around a thousand years of rule has been able to make people forget their religions and gods of old and even forget the real reason they let him be the Lord Ruler in the first place, creating a religion called the ministry of steel which nobody really knows much about, except that the slaves know mist is bad and the nobles know they have a right to rule the slaves, and that's essentially it for everyone that isn't part of the ministry of steel. If you do have immortals living among mortals, you could do something very similar, trying to determine what lies would assist the immortal in achieving his goals and what truths he would have to overcome, how long overcoming those truths would take, and what truth would remain after all that time. Religious leaders who live as long as their followers can only change religion to the degree that the conscience of their generation will allow, but an immortal among mortals does not have that limitation, meaning that if they exist you can go essentially anywhere. However, considering that the immortal among mortals is immortal, it's also pretty likely they would claim to be a god.
Monotheistic religions don't have to be catholic-focused, think of Islam, Judaism, Mandaeism, or even other Christian faiths. Alternatively, you can use a polytheistic religion with one (or a small group) being considered the most important. You could also simply not use Gods at all. This isn't unheard of, especially if you want to include lower beings (like spirits) in your religion.
Some dieties are tied to powerful emotions. Some aren't even recognized as dieties even if they have incredibly large numbers of people who have knelt and performed the tradional rituals and sacrifices.
This is the story of one such diety.
It's hard to determine exactly how many people have done the ritual and sacrifice, but based on the best survey evidence available, well over one Billion people in the timeline this information is being shared in have knelt and done it at least once. Millions do it fairly often.
In the modern developed world, the formal version uses a proper offering basin, but even there, impromptu versions of the ritual sacrifice can be done in many settings, even outdoors on a grassy or barren field.
A few those reading this have never made the ritual offering. All of you know people who have.
The god of regret wants a sacrifice. He wants you to kneel before his porcelain throne and offer up your sacrifice into his ritual basin. As you pour forth the contents of your stomach, call out his name:
How about literal mythology and a religion surrounded by it. The chaos created galaxies, milkyway has created the Sun, the Sun has created Earth and mother Earth created the ground, the oceans and the sky from which humans have born. This mythos will stand true even today and will usher a healthy religion. If you want magic to be a part of this, you could easily integrate it. In this religion there will be multiple deities and you may even have wars within the religion itself. Outcast will worship Mars or Sun forbit, different galaxies.
Most of the answers here seem very mainstream if I'm being honest.
To answer the question "How do I create a unique religion" you should just make stuff up and test how it compares to existing religions.
For example, you open a dictionary and randomly select the word "pinecone"; you form a religion around it. Now you test it; you will find it strongly relates to natural religions and thus is not that original.
Example two: "shapes are gods", probably harder to relate to existing religions so might be more original.
Example three: the world is made up out of gods, your nose is a god, etc...
Well you get it...
Whilst mythology is an element of religion, it's role is often dramatically overstated when it comes to worldbuilding.
With that in mind, and observing that most other questions have focussed primarily on mythology, I will focus on the other aspects of religion.
Whilst Christians will generally have at least a passing familiarity with the stories from the Bible (which in a technical Religious Studies sense are mythology) and depending on denomination, maybe some Saints' Lives and apocrypha, for many those stories are a very minor part of their actual practice (readings only make up a minority of most services, with things like prayer, communion, and hymns making up the bulk of the liturgy of the most-attended non-festival services).
So instead of focussing on what your characters believe, or the mythology of their religion, you can focus on their actual practice. Even if the mythology you have in mind is still quite Greek-like, simply approaching it from this perspective will likely help keep it feeling fresh.
So what are some common elements of religious practice, and what questions should you keep in mind when describing them (bear in mind that the distinction between religion and culture is far from clearcut and so this will often reference the culture as well)?
- People may perform certain actions (e.g. the sign of the cross) in various circumstances.
- Is it to protect from evil or impurity?
- Is it to provide the blessing of a divinity?
- Does it mark them as a member of the community?
- Is it to remind the person of their religious obligations?
- Does it foster a sense of community (shared feasts often serve this purpose).
- People may wear certain items.
- This could be a small piece of jewellery (e.g. an amulet), an entire garment, or pretty much anything in between.
- Is it meant to provide some protection from evil or impurity?
- Does it provide a blessing?
- Does it mark them as a member of the community?
- Is it to remind the person of their religious obligations?
- People may perform certain actions (e.g. the sign of the cross) in various circumstances.
- Milestones in peoples' lives are often ascribed religious significance.
- Is the birth itself marked, or does the celebration occur later?
- When is the name given?
- It is common to postpone giving a name until a while after the birth, likely due to the fact infant mortality used to be so high.
- Does it affect ritual purity?
- Are there particular acts that must be performed at or around the birth so that the baby can achieve ritual purity (e.g. circumcision in Islam and Judaism).
- Comings of Age:
- When does this occur?
- Does it vary by gender, class, or is it at the choice of the individual?
- Do any restrictions or requirements change when this occurs?
- Does it affect religious purity?
- Does the person have to undergo an initiation?
- Involve taking on a deeper level of involvement in the religion. This includes becoming a member of the clergy.
- This usually involves some challenge that must be overcome, or is optional.
- An initiate is then usually given extra religious roles, maybe more restrictions, maybe more requirements.
- They may be taught additional secrets of the religion.
- The mystery cults common in the Roman Empire often had elaborate systems of initiations, with multiple levels.
- Who can get married?
- How many people?
- What genders?
- What ages?
- What classes?
- Does one party need to pay another? Do they all?
- Does a wedding require other religious practice (e.g. a sacrifice, prayers, or other ritual acts)?
- Does one or more party take on additional requirements or restrictions?
- Does one or more party need to undergo an initiation?
- How does the religion view family life?
- This is extremely broad, and deliberately so, but a religion that views the physical world as inherently corrupted by sin that humans were unfortunate to be born into (as the Bogumils are purported to have believed) is going to view marriage very differently from one that believes humans are commanded to multiply and that sex within a marriage is good and supposed to be enjoyable (as most Jews believe).
- Who can get married?
- As I'm focussing on practice, I'm not going to address beliefs on what happens to the person themself when they die here, although that will likely influence the answers to these questions.
- How is the body dealt with?
- Is it buried? Burnt? Exposed? Mummified?
- Does it need to be dealt with in a specific timespan, or can it wait?
- Are additional practices required?
- E.g. are prayers said, are sacrifices made, etc?
- Does any of this require a member of the clergy or can an ordinary member of the community do what is required?
- What are the implications for ritual purity?
- Is there an ongoing mourning period?
- Does it have additional restrictions or obligations?
- Is the rest of the community obligated to support the mourners in some way for this period?
- Are there multiple levels of mourning?
- Does mourning affect ritual purity?
- Is one required to take an action at a later date?
- Some cultures rebury their dead after a certain time period, sometimes multiple times. Others require prayers on the anniversary of the death of a family member for a certain period.
- Are there reasons to forego the usual procedure?
- E.g. for criminals, or foreigners?
- How does this affect those they left behind?
- This is one pretty much everyone here will be familiar with, as it's probably the most prominent element of Christian religious practice (as many people who consider themselves Christian do not regularly read the Bible, or attend services and so do not receive communion, do still pray on occasion).
- Prayers are generally about communication with the divine.
- Prayers may be to request something (intercessory prayer).
- Prayers may be to thank for something.
- Prayers may simply be to glorify the divine (in which case their role in strengthening group identity is significant).
- Are the prayers formulaic or spontaneous?
- Are people expected to communicate off-the-cuff with the divine, or are there specific formulae one is supposed to use in prayers?
- Are entire prayers written in advance and learnt.
- Are prayers solitary or communal?
- Is this a requirement or simply convention?
- If communal, how does one count the quorum required?
- If communal, do you need multiple people actually saying the prayer, or is it that you require people to hear it?
- Does it depend on the prayer?
- Are the prayers silent or out loud (and if out loud, are the spoken or sung)?
- Who is able to pray? This ties in to ritual purity
- How many levels of ritual purity are there?
- Is there just one level and you don't have to worry about it? Are things either pure or impure? Or are their many levels of impurity? Can you be pure for one purpose, but not for another and vice versa (i.e. are there multiple axes of ritual purity)? Is there an elevated level of purity beyond normal?
- What are the implications of impurity?
- Does it prevent you from participating in some required practice? Does it have consequences only in the afterlife? Are the consequences social?
- How is impurity contracted?
- Common sources are dead bodies, slaughtered animals, and bodily fluids, but pretty much anything can be a source of impurity, and there is a lot overlap here with restrictions.
- Do you need physical contact with the source to contract it (does it need to be prolonged, or in the other direction, is merely being in an enclosed space with it sufficient)?
- Maybe performing certain acts renders a person impure even if they have not come into contact with a physical source of impurity (or an item could become impure for being used in an act).
- Does impurity spread?
- Once impure, can a person spread that impurity to another person (a theory is that lots of beliefs around ritual purity is that they originate from attempts to conceptualise the spread of disease within the worldview of their day)?
- Can one do something to stop oneself becoming impure when one normally would? E.g. does receiving the appropriate blessing allow you to not become impure when moving a dead boy, must you recite a prayer as long as you are in contact with it, must you wear an amulet etc.
- How can one (or an item) become pure again?
- Most commonly this involves some form of ritual washing, but the specifics can vary a lot, and may also involve things like anointing.
- Items may also sometimes be purified by passing them through fire, or burying them, or passing them through a liminal state in some other way (these may also be possible for people, but are obviously rather less comfortable).
- Perhaps a knife is purified for one god by passing it through fire, but for another it must be washed in running water (maybe one of the two cults also considers the other's purification process to render the knife impure, so you may need to be careful about the order you do them in if you want to use it for both).
- How many levels of ritual purity are there?
- Religions don't just tell you what you should do, they often tell you things not to do.
- As well as usually including some fairly universal moral instructions (e.g. killing people outside of socially accepted circumstances like war, sanctioned duels, executions etc, is bad and shouldn't be done), it can include more arbitrary-seeming restrictions.
- Some restrictions come from extensions of those moral instructions due to the metaphysics of the religion (and so the mythology can be very relevant here). If you believe that a human can be reincarnated as another animal, you might start to extend some of your prohibitions against injuring humans to injuring animals, and may end up ruling that meat-eating altogether is forbidden.
- Some restrictions serve to set your community apart from its neighbours. If your neighbours tattoo themselves, your community are forbidden from tattoos! This is going to be more common a motivation in cases where religion is seen as varying substantially on a local level (e.g. maybe each city has its own patron god, or the community lives as a diaspora throughout a culture that mostly practises another religion).
- Who does the sacrifice:
- Do you need a special member of the clergy to do it?
- Are these the same clergy used for other practices, or are those who perform sacrifices a specific group within the clergy?
- Can any member of the community perform the sacrifice themself?
- If one isn't able to perform the sacrifice, are their restrictions on who can bring a sacrifice to be performed on their behalf?
- Do you need to be ritually pure, or even in an elevated level of purity?
- Is only one gender able to bring sacrifices, and does this vary between gods?
- Do you need a special member of the clergy to do it?
- Why perform a sacrifice:
- To strengthen a prayer.
- To solemnise a vow (these are votive offerings).
- To repair a fault.
- Was the act against an individual, the community & its laws, or against a deity?
- The form of the sacrifice may vary depending on this, and the lines are fuzzy.
- In the first two cases the distinction between this sacrifice and a fine is solely over who is responsible for issuing/managing it (fine by civil authority, sacrifice by a spiritual one, but what if that distinction is not relevant in your society?)
- What is sacrificed?
- It needs to be valuable, but will also need to be accessible to the average person expected to perform it, this likely leads to a sliding scale of sacrifices from small sacrifices a struggling farmer can make, to extravagant displays from the elite of your society (so this interacts with your social structure, are those elites nobles, the high priest, merchants, generals, etc).
- Does it depend on the purpose of the sacrifice or its target (e.g. money solemnises vows, but calves atone for wrongdoing; or the sun god receives sacrifices of grain whilst the earth god rejects them)?
- Don't just think of animal and human sacrifice. Grain, alcohol, and money are all common sacrifices cross-culturally, and pretty much any socially significant object can be used as a sacrifice, and likely is or has been in some society (votive offerings of swords thrown in lakes are essentially sacrifices, even if not performed in a temple or with any clergy.
- How is the sacrifice performed?
- Does it need to be performed in a sacred space (a temple, a sacred grove, any piece of running water, etc)?
- Whilst many people may prototypically think of sacrifices as destroying the item sacrificed (be that by burning, burying, leaving in the wilderness or otherwise), many times sacrifices are distributed amongst the community (after the clergy, if there are any, take their cut of course). For money this is usually distribution as charity, whilst for food and drink it may be consumed by the person making the offering (e.g. the Paschal lamb sacrificed at Passover in Second Temple Judaism was eaten by the family that brought it as a sacrifice), or it may be given to a specific other party (e.g. a sacrifice to expiate an injury to another may end up going to that person).
- Who does the sacrifice:
As you can see, most of these practices (which will be the most visible aspects of the religion in the lives of the people) can happen in extremely similar ways even with wildly differing mythology behind them, and so my tweaking the practice, you can end up with a religion that feels extremely different from Greek religion without necessarily touching the mythology much at all.