This Query is part of the Worldbuilding Resources Article.

This is a follow up of this question: Creating a realistic world - Spreading languages

When it comes to spreading a religion, is it the same dynamics as spreading a language? Or is it different?

For example: Why would the local population stay true to their religion even after several centuries of domination by a "foreign" religion? Why would a population convert pacifically, abandoning their original faith without threats? And how can several religions come to coexist in the same country?


This is part of a series of questions that tries to break down the process of creating a world from initial creation of the landmass through to erosion, weather patterns, biomes and every other related topics. Please restrict answers to this specific topic rather than branching on into other areas as other subjects will be covered by other questions.

These questions all assume an earth-like spherical world in orbit in the habitable band.

See the other questions in this series here : http://meta.worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/2594/creating-a-realistic-world-series


7 Answers 7



So, what ultimately happens is:

  1. Religions born as a localized small set of beliefs, cults and tales.

  2. Religion became an important affair of kings and emperors.

  3. Religion differences leads to wars.

  4. Wars makes people be forcefully converted, or killed, or expelled or enslaved or simply marginalized.

  5. Missionaries spread their religion, and the most well-structured religions tends to overthrow less-structured religions.

  6. Religions that teaches and rewards people who act being good and just are more successfully than religious who tells something different.

  7. People from different religions might be kept in the same country because this might be useful or because eliminating one of them might not be worth the trouble.

  8. In advanced cultures, ideology might replace religion or be a complement over it.

The long detailed answer

In the initial stages of evolution, religions became a series of small, inconsistent and highly localized set of beliefs, cults, doctrines and tales, possibly being passed orally from one generation to another. Most of them are polytheistic and tends to personalize things from human psychology or from nature as god-like entities. Many of them tries to provide a divine explanation to otherwise unexplainable phenomena.

Some religious tends to be more monotheistic, although there is no 100% monotheistic religion as far as I know. Those religions features a fully-benevolent almighty creator god, but also features lower classes creatures like angels, devils, demons, saints, spirits, semigods, etc.

Religions tends to be deeply entrenched in politics right from the stone age to the present time and the foreseeable future. In the initial stages, kings are devised as godly or semigodly creatures or perhaps as humans chosen by some divinity, and this is useful to ensure their authority over the people they rule (this is what happened in ancient Egypt and in many Mesopothamic city-states, for example). However this also motivates a lot of bloodshed and wars.

You ask why would a population convert pacifically. Mostly won't. Human history are full of religiously-motivated wars and crimes right from the stone age to present day everywhere in the world. All the major religions existing today had at least on some part of their history motivated marginalization, killing, expelling, enslaving or somehow persecuting non-followers. Also, all of them always had been deeply entrenched with the politics of kings and emperors.

This is also why many people abandon their original faiths. Many of them are killed after being defeated by the enemy who have a different religion. Others are enslaved or marginalized to an extent where it is hard to pass their older religion to their children, especially if priests are killed or expelled and if practicing the older religion becomes forbidden in the favor of newer one. Some people also endure forcedfully conversion.

Sometimes a country might have more than one religion. This might happen when the practitioners of some religion X are more useful alive to a king that practices religion Y, but they can't be converted. For example, this happened in Egypt during the Jewish Exodus and also happened to Christians in many (but not all) Muslim countries. However, the followers of religion X are still unlikely to have full citizenship, being possibly marginalized, persecuted, overtaxed or enslaved. Sometimes, the absence (possibly due to death) of the king in a kingdom where there are more than one religion and neither one is dominant over the other might lead to religiously-motivated civil wars.

This issue advances even in modern times. There are cases of violence between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Muslims in the USA may be marginalized and discriminated by the predominantly christian population. The abominations that Jews suffered in Nazi Germany are a clear example of religious intolerance. The Israel-Palestine problem is also something that could be defined as a long-lasting case of a religiously-motivated civil war. The rise of ISIS/Daesh is also a case of faith-motivated war.

And, ISIS/Daesh is also an example of what happens when an area and the people living there are dominated by a group with different religious beliefs which are intolerant to other religions: war, killings, forced-conversions, marginalization of non-practitioners and a lot of people fleeing.

On the other hand, in many places, like Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey), even if the rulers were officially Muslim, Christians were tolerated because persecuting them too much would only create a mess that would make the country too unstable for the king/emperor/sultan be able to rule it peacefully. They were much more useful being tolerated instead.

So, one of the major ways that religions spread is by war. Other is by religion-based politics that favors one religion over the other. Still another way is due to the work of missionaries.

Religions may also be able to grow by missionaries and by propaganda. In the case of missionaries, this was what spread Christianism in the first, second and third centuries despite the roman persecution. This was also what spread it to the indigenous Americas centuries later. Also, in this case, the complex and highly structured and highly traditional Christianity easily overcame many (but not all) of the simpler poorly-structured endemic orally-passed indigenous religions. This happens because those more complex religious are more likely to have more determined and well-trained priests, which are more likely to convert people. This also is the main mean in which people might be converted pacifically.

Also, most successfully religions tell people to be humble, good, merciful, forgiving and generous. This is because most of them promises rewards for people who live like that in afterlife, while promising punishment for people who live against that. This works better to convert people who are poor and helpless, and also makes the states and their rulers more safer than religions that tolerate evildoers. This is one of the causes why Christianism eventually overthrown Paganism in the Roman Empire. The nature of the afterlife rewards also matters, which allowed Islam to prosper in the Arabic desert and easily overthrow Judaism, Christianism, Zoroastrianism and polytheistic religions present there at the time. And again, afterlife rewards and the orientation of being good also was successfully in converting people from less-structured religions, which was what happened in many indigenous places in the Americas.

Also, the tone of propaganda and the speaks of the missionaries is very important to what potential believers want to believe for their our lives. Again, this was important for the spread of Christianism and Islamism, but can also be seen even in Scientology, Pastafarianism and even some crazy flying-saucer-venerating history-channel-like cults.

As a counter example, this explain why Christianism was not successfully in China, since its teachings seemed to be alien-like and strange for most Chinese people who already had a very complex set of different beliefs. This also shows why Islamism failed to spread to Europe since they were not desert people and the already present Christianism made much more sense for them. I.E. the alien-like nature of the foreign religion and the complexity of the already established religion made the foreign religion unable to penetrate.

Also, some religions may be derived from other older religions due to innovations by preachers and by importing traditions and cults from different religions. This is what made Christianism evolve out of Judaism. Also was what motivated Protestantism split off Catholicism. Religion mixing is what gave the rise to Spiritism and Mormons.

And of course, if a king have different religion thoughts than his predecessor or changes its own religious thoughts during his kingship, this might affect the state religion. This is what made the Anglican church split off the Catholic church. This also happened sometimes in ancient Egypt. This was also a reason that made the Roman Empire turn into a Christian empire and ultimately cemented Christianism in Europe and North Africa (although North Africa would become predominantly Islamic a few centuries later).

Also, sometimes an ideology might replace religion. This is something that leads to:

  • Totalitarism - the belief that the state is responsible for everything as the only way to ensure survival against an hostile world. This is what happened in Soviet Union, in Cambodia with Khmer Rouge and happens in present day North Korea. A weaker form of this flourished in China but was already replaced by a still somewhat authoritarian but definitively non-totalitarian regime.

  • Social-Darwinism - the belief that weak countries should subdue to global powers, which was used by the UK to justify many of their actions messing with other parts of the world in the 19th century.

  • Nazism - the belief that a particular race is superior to some other inferior race which is responsible for all the problems, needless to say how horrible this was and what was the result.

  • Colonialism - The belief that some territory should be exploited for the benefit of some other territory. Practiced by Portugal, Spain, Netherlands and some other countries from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

  • Exploitative imperialism - A newer form of colonialism, which is the belief that weaker countries are inferior and should serve stronger superior countries, which is what USA made to Latin America during most of the 20th century and arguably still does or tries to do and also what Japan was trying to achieve in WW2.

  • $\begingroup$ Relative to the bit about ideology replacing religion, it's because they were religions. Just because you don't believe in God/gods/the flying spaghetti monster doesn't mean you are completely irreligious; it just means that your religious belief about the nature and existence of a higher power is that there is no God/gods/flying spaghetti monster. Some of the most religious people I know are atheists. Because of that, if a society drifts away from their traditional religious beliefs, something else will fill the gap.. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2023 at 1:09
  • $\begingroup$ (cont'd) In the case of the various political ideologies you mentioned, notice that they all came to prominence as mainstream culture shifted to atheism, rendering its old beliefs about the nature of the world order unfounded. The exception is colonialism, which came about due to an earlier shift, the Enlightenment. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2023 at 1:15

The Type Of Religion Matters

There are various types of religions and some of them simply can only spread in certain ways. In particular there are various "chosen people" religions which start from the belief that a particular cultural group are chosen by a deity or pantheon and that nobody from outside that cultural group can ever belong to this religion. This type of religion, as you might expect, can only be spread by the growth of that population - if the intent is for it to spread then it may have certain rules towards that - polygamy, rejection of all forms contraception and so on.

In terms of the spread across different populations, we can broadly ignore these types of religion for those that seek to bring new people in. These often favour two broad strategies:

Embrace And Extend

As the Roman Empire extended its reach, the world they were conquering was divided into many small tribal realms, often with their own polytheistic religions or with very localised deities. Being polytheistic ( and pragmatic ) the Romans were happy to accept the cults of other deities and sometimes these would even become central to the empire. They would also identify deities as cognate with local ones so we get Sulis-Minerva and Apollo-Cunomaglus here in the southern UK. In this way a flexible polytheism can easily assimilate and include other existing belief systems.

Note that this approach extended into early Christianity as well- obviously it is a monotheistic religion, but when you look at regional saints, many of those are clear throwbacks to previous religions in the areas where they built up their basis of followers. A way of saying "you weren't wrong to be worshipping them, because they have a place in religion, but they are a servant to this higher god."

Convert Or Suffer

Another approach, one familiar to later Abrahamic religions, is one where refusing to convert to a religion will result in suffering. This may be spiritual suffering in an afterlife or it maybe immediate physical suffering or death unless they chose an immediate conversion. The latter is more dramatic and something that finds it's way into stories a lot, but often there are theological technicalities around duress in both directions ( as in someone may be excused for renouncing their religion under duress and it is not a "true" conversion ) and practically people will strongly resist what they are forced to do.

More effective over time is the more subtle difficulties imposed on people of a different religion - higher taxes, being forced to live in certain areas, being forbidden from holding government posts and so on. Those alone won't force a person to change their religion ( as the survival of Judaism all over the world attests ) but the less committed may well find reasons to convert rather than live under onerous and difficult conditions.

Lead By Example and Educate

Some religions take a different approach to attracting followers - these typically maintain that they represent an underlying truth of existence and that everyone is on the path of that truth whether or not they choose to acknowledge it. If this is the case then there is not necessarily a drive to 'convert' people as such, but by following the path of the religion they believe they can help people towards that truth. In this case two core approaches come from offering a good example and from education.

If your religion's members are seen to be happy, relaxed, charitable and pleasant to be around, people will notice that over time. People who are looking for ways to live a good life will begin to seek them out and as long as the precepts of the religion are well taught and they learn to exemplify those principles, they will continue to propagate it.

Education is core to the teaching of new converts, but if a religion takes it further and is able to set up schools, they will have access to the minds of a generation of children. In the long run, the generations they teach will be raised in the principles of that religion and there is a good chance many of them will choose to continue that path. It has been argued that part of the rise of Christianity was that it was a slave religion in Rome ( it worked well for this as it promised reward in the next life for suffering in this, so slave owners were happy to accept it ) but noble families children were supervised, tutored and raised by slaves, so after a couple of generations it was becoming a religion of the nobility as well.


The question is too broad to answer in such a short space. Here we are talking about:

interaction of religion with science

interaction of religion with social values

the political influence of religion

I will try to address these issues briefly.

The Primary Driving force - Psychological Effect

All religions of the world (as we know them today) are based on a central theology. This theology generates a code of conduct and a system of afterlife-judgement. This system has a direct profound effect on the believer of this religion, and is the main driving force for that religion.

Example (Islam): God is One. If you live your life according to His orders, you will receive paradise after death. If you don't, you will burn in tormenting hell.

(Hinduism): There are a lot of gods. Your action in this life will determine what form you will attain in the next carnation. Heaven and hell aren't permanent and same souls return to this world in different guises over and over again.

(Buddhism): Life is a perpetual process of evolution and enlightenment. Suffering is the essence of this worldly existence. If you stay within Buddha's teachings, you can keep yourself from suffering, if you deviate, you will suffer.

This psychological effect (and the intrinsic message attached to it, thereof) is very strong in today's leading religions. People of certain psychological types are attracted to religions which transmit corresponding psychological effects. In China and Japan we find a clear majority of Buddhism which lays maximum importance to perpetual effort and concrete hardwork. These traits have now become genetic in people of these countries. It is possible that religion has shaped the overall mentality of these people and it is also possible that these people might have shaped their religion to suit their overall psychology.

If you transmit a religion with favorable psychological message to a region, it will be an immediate hit. If the psychological message is contradictory, the religion will never succeed, no matter how hard you try.

Religion And Science

Since religions are mostly formed in days of obscure scientific knowledge, it is not uncommon that with scientific progress, many aspects of religion(s) are later known to be faulty.

Some church ordered some astronomer to be exiled because he said that the earth revolves around the sun and not the sun revolving around the earth. Another one was burned alive ... This is one reason christianity has a lower conversion rate now than in the past.

Most people today don't believe that the earth is around 10,000 years old and that early men used to live with dinosaurs.

Religion And Social Values

These days it is prevalent in most areas of the world to distribute equal shares of a dead man's property to his sons and daughters. This wasn't the case back in time when inheritance issues were dealt under religious laws. For example, Muslim law of inheritance specifies a much smaller share of property for the daughters than the sons.

I'm not arguing that religious laws about social issues are incorrect or anything. I am just stating that some religions might have social structures which are replaced with time. A pro-feminist person in the west would find it hard to convert to Islam due to Islam's male-centric social structure, even if that person is satisfied with Islam's theological structure and psychological effect.

Political Influence

Islam spread quickly around the world during days of it's glory. This was the political influence. More than 3 million people converted to christianity during one year while India was under british (christian) reign.

It is important to note that political influence is one driving force for a religion. You CANNOT overwhelm a religion with a strong psychological effect with the one that has a weak or negligible psychological effect, no matter how scientifically accurate the invading religion is.

For example, Persia (Iran) transformed from a Zoroastrian state to a Muslim state very quickly while christianity's acceptance in India was generally very slow.

The Age Effect

Like physical creatures, religions (and philosophical structures as well) age and weaken with time. If you pick up the history of any religion, you will find that it has a time of infancy, a time of youth and a time of age. An aged religion is easy to sideline with a fresh one.

Christianity found its way into pagan Rome and Islam quickly exiled the pagan religion of Arabia and Egypt. However we do not find any (at all) instance where an old religion overcame a fresh one.

Like physical creatures, religions (and philosophical/political systems) have a mysterious "life force" of sorts. It depends mostly on the zeal and vigor of it's followers, but it encompasses something else, too. Something that you can feel, but not express.

Hindrances To Conversion

Sometimes despite a strong psychological influence, vigor of freshness and social/scientific correctness, a religion cannot overcome a predominant religion of an area.

For example take the case of China and Japan where almost all efforts of Muslim and christian missionaries have failed. This could be due to several reasons:

a- social taboo. self explanatory

b- national unity. sometimes a religion is the only thing that keeps a vast nation unite which is otherwise composed of multilingual and multiracial peoples. these people will either all convert to a religion or none (very few) of them will convert. a long history of civil wars and anarchy keeps haunting them and sticks the society to one religion. here if the prominent figures of the community convert to the new religion, the masses follow.

There are several other (minor) factors in transmission of religions. Some are easier overcome than others and others are strong in a specific region or regions. Those are detailed issues. This overall summary should get you started building your virtual world.

  • $\begingroup$ If you feel the question is too broad, then please do not post an answer (and certainly not an answer that starts out saying that). Instead, flag the question for closure (as whatever reason you feel is most appropriate, such as "too broad") and our experienced community members will take a look at it. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – user
    Sep 11, 2015 at 7:17
  • $\begingroup$ Two things to add. 1. You may wish to mention that Buddhism in Japan is recognised on the basis that Shinto is seen as a way of life and as such does not elicit responses of religious affiliations when asked. 2. Christian Missionaries didn't fail in Japan so much as currently about 3% of the population identifies as Christian and at one stage had converted Nagasaki to a Christian way of life. What exactly do you class as failed? $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2015 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ If the population of a region is n and there are m religions with active missionaries then the missionaries of any religion would be considered successful if they can get 100/m percentage of the total populace to convert to their religion. That is equal to n/m people practicing that religion. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2015 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ It is generally accepted among professional scholars of religion that "a central theology" is emphatically not requisite to classification as religion. It is in fact relatively unusual in the total set of known religious systems. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Mar 8, 2016 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ Can you present some religious systems which lack a central theology? As in, the divine system running this world and the lives of the people? $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2016 at 5:32

This is not a complete answer, but it was too long for a comment.

It seems like the answers you got focus on the spreading of religions by "brute force" and government decrees. You shouldn't forget that religion (like any aspect of a culture) can spread in more peaceful ways.
For example, Islam spread to Indonesia at first through commerce and cultural exchanges.

When designing your world, try to draw the main commercial ways and make culture and religion spread along them. Expect to see cities built on the crossing of commercial roads to have several religions.

There is a lot of example in History of religions having cohabited peacefully, especially in time of peace and economic growth. Problems between groups appears with economic troubles, famines, political instability, etc.
It's not a coincidence if antisemitic feelings rose in Europe in a time of economic crisis, or if Islamism thrives among the poorest fringes of a population or in the chaos left behind a fallen government.

Another point you should remember is that even if religion is regularly used as an excuse to declare war, it's often not the real reason. So to make your religious wars more realist, add an underlying reason for governments to declare them (Do they want to conquer territories? An access to the sea? Get rid of an annoying neighbor?)


Deconstruct what religion is a little; I like Daniel O'keefe's approach in 'Stolen Lightning'. He defines:

  • Magic: A body of superstition, myths and tradition passed on verbally, old wives tales, dieties dating from prior to establishment of religion. Magic is a loose assembly of shared beliefes traditions and archtypes that are not rigidly scripted and thus open to interpretation by the individual allowing shamans and mystics to perform their own individual miracles/magic. Magic is closely associated with language and the spread of language. Here we talk about magic in a 'social science' sense, not a D+D or stage magic sense!

  • Religion: Some elements of the magical aspects of the society are combined with some new ideas with the main difference being that relgiion is rigidly scripted (hence scripture) and magic is not. O'Keefe suggests that the general interpretation of religion is as the social collective conciousness projected on the sky. The definition of religious scripts enable reliable repetition and transmission of the rituals of religion and it thus has a longer potential range and coverage than magic, with the latter only able to propagate organically and mutating along the way.

  • Science: While magic and (although to a lesser extent) religion may be modified tomorrow (via 'miracles' and re-interpretations) to suit shifts in the collective zeitgeist, science does not offer this flexibility.

    The general social science assumption is that societies develop in a magic-religion-science sequence. In reality of course any religion incorporates and subverts local magic. For example considerthe way local rituals get incorporated into Catholic ritual - especially the tendency to indentify the cult of Mary with other more ancient magical rituals, or the way African American christianity incorporates aspects of African pre-religious magic including voodoo. In a similar way, a religion that covers diverse populations will likely exhibit local differences and deviations from the script due to the incorporation of local magical traditions into the rituals of the official religion, such that veneration of ancestors or other dieties can co-exist with monotheism for example.

    The rigid scripting of religion allows it to cross lingustic borders accross which the less well defined magical ways cannot, but as it crosses these barriers the religion itself is modified and may bifurcate as a result. For example, when Christianity crosses the border between southern and northern european languages/traditions we end up with the reformation. As other posters have observed the differences between nations that lead to war are actually likely to be differences in the magical practices and aspects of those societies with the common religion merely used as a Cassus Belli. The Thirty years war of the reformation was only nominally a mater of religion, protestant soldiers were found in large numbers in catholic armies and vice versa. That is an indication that the 'magical', individual phase of societal development is more prevalent during the reformation that might otherwise be thought.

    Its also worth looking at a modern religious phenomenon - that of neo-classic economics - supply and demand, "Says law", the concept of time-preference etc etc as being a modern religion - because it certainly is not a science. Its easy to see mainstream economics as a collective conciousness and official script projected onto the sky, even while various heterodox schools of economic thought including Austrian Economics, marxism, 'Modern Monetary Theory' and various others exist on the margins and indeed get treated as 'magical thinking' by the mainstream whose scripture is found in ecomomics textbooks and the media.

    Likewise science is not complete and room remains for gods to live in the gaps of knowledge, into which both religion and magic can and do attempt to insert themselves.

The way religions spread via war, migration and trade is of course important but what is most important for religion to take root is repetition sufficient to generate a re-usable script. For this to happen a sufficient portion of the population must engage in said repititions to both generte and validate the script. This is of course more likely to happen when local magical customs are condusive to the invading religion, or where the invading religion actually quashes local magical traditions and customs that are socially harmful but have not been displaced because there was nothing of sufficient power to do so.

So the point of all this is to say that you should draw your map of magical boundaries and then draw the spread of religion over the former and consider how the former subverts and diverts the latter down different paths, and perhaps where a new religion extingusihes forever some aspect of local magic. In the final anaylsis a religion can only invade new territory and establish itself where it can kill off incompatible local magic or where the religion itself is flexible in the right areas to accomodate those local practices. In turn this comes down to achieving a sustainable balance of the individual means of expression (magic) and collective means (religion). Any society needs a bit of both.


Temporary, still need editing

Summary of the answers

I decided to make a community wiki because all the answers have good points but none covered all the aspects.

Religions are born as a localized small set of beliefs, cults and tales. Any religion will incorporate local customs/magic. A religion covering diverse populations will likely exhibit differences due to the incorporation of local magical traditions into the rituals of the official religion. Too many differences in local customs make the diffusion of a religion less likely because it contradicts too much the local traditions.

To figure this out, draw your map of magical boundaries and then draw the spread of religion over the former. Consider how the magical rituals makes the religion divert on different paths and where some aspects of local magic are extinguished. A religion can only establish itself where it can kill off incompatible local magic or where it can accommodate the local practices. It comes down to achieving a balance between the individual means of expression (magic) and collective means (religion). Any society needs a bit of both. For example, Christianity is a monotheistic religion, but with saints. Many of those are clear throwbacks to previous religions.

Religion became an important affair of kings and emperors. The organization of religious bodies was appealing to rulers as it allowed them to maintain order and unity while gaining authority from the leader of the church. They also had more legitimacy from the people following that religion. Furthermore, the promulgation of a new state religion can become a good incentive for people to convert to the new religion.

War: Religion differences are often used as excuse to go to war. Wars makes people be forcefully converted, killed, expelled enslaved or simply marginalized. War is a major factor in spreading religions.


Trade/cultural exchange:Try to draw the main commercial trade-routes and make culture and religion spread along them. Islam spread to Indonesia at first through commerce and cultural exchanges.

Missionaries spread their religion peacefully. The most well-structured religions tends to overthrow less-structured religions. More complex religious are more likely to have more determined and well-trained priests, which are more likely to convert people. Complex religion are less likely to be replaced.

Promise of an afterlife: Religions that teaches and rewards people who act being good and just are more successful. They promise people living with these principles a good afterlife, while promising punishment for people who live against them.

Tolerance: People from different religions might be tolerated because they represent a large part of the population/play an important role in the society and getting rid of them would cause too much harm. Religions can cohabited peacefully especially in time of peace and economic growth. Problems appears with economic troubles, famines, political instability, etc.

Incentive to conversion: higher taxes, being forced to live in certain areas, being forbidden from holding government posts and so on.


A number of useful answers have been proposed. Significantly lacking thus far is any consideration of what the Greeks called "syncretism." (Note: this is in some respects distinct from the traditional anthropological use of that term, which is now heavily contested and largely irrelevant to the present discussion.)

Within the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, it was very usual to encounter the religious phenomena of other cultures by means of a kind of translation. Egyptian and Mesopotamian "god lists" are the strongest but hardly the only evidence.

In essence, people from Egypt (for example) would say, "Okay, in the city and lands of Ur and Babylon, they worship many of the gods we know, and some different ones. Isis, for example, is known there as Ishtar. In that place, Isis (that is Ishtar) has somewhat different rites and sacrifices than she demands here at home."

A few important effects and implications are worth enumerating:

  1. "Here at home" in most of these civilizations, a "given" deity would manifest in different ways and with different local practices in different places. For example, worship of Athena in Athens worked differently than in Sparta. How "foreigners" thought of Athena might be considerably stranger, but people were used to the idea of highly particular cults.

  2. Local rulers might embrace a "when in Rome" sort of policy: while you are here in Ur, you worship Ishtar our way, because she (whom you know as Isis) prefers worship here in that fashion.

  3. Rulers might alternatively embrace the alternative: while you Egyptians are here, you may worship Isis in your preferred fashion, so long as you do not interfere with our worship of Ishtar, and so long as the demands of your cult do not infringe upon our laws.

Contact among tribal peoples in the Americas can in many cases be understood to partake of this kind of thinking. Myths, for example, drift from place to place over centuries and millennia, but there is no sense in which one tribe normally claims to have "the right answer" or "the real story"; rather, it is a matter of, "that's not how we tell that story."

How religious systems drift and spread in an environment like this is highly complex and unpredictable. In essence, once system A is in contact with system B and the translations are made, you may have a situation in which aspects of A gain popularity among nominal B members. There could be any number of reasons for this: a charismatic figure's espousal, miracles, good luck, political fortune, etc. In any event, the older B system becomes something of an admixture. Since such contact is very often mutual, operating through ordinary trade and communication, you might well end up with a common AB mix, or A, A', B', and B, or any number of alternatives.

In some cases, such mixed or semi-imported cults may take on a mystery-cult, initiatory aspect, in which the "true" knowledge about the divinity is claimed to be older, purer, or whatever. Again, there is no particular reason to think that any one way this might run is most likely. For instance, the Greek mystery cults were heavily inflected by Egyptian material because of the incredible age and prestige of that civilization, but this is not to say that the Orphic or Mithraic cults were "really" Egyptian and more than they were simply "Greek."

Perhaps the best advice I can give, concretely, is that one sheer off from the notion that people are or are not really members of this or that religion. That kind of strong identification traditionally happened only when there was some kind of exterior political pressure to do it. For instance, in the third century CE, in Egypt, census information makes clear that the vast majority of ordinary Alexandrians and such thought of themselves as Christians. (Note: there is no special reason to think that people would identify themselves falsely in this instance.) And yet, it is also clear from the archaeological record that these people made extensive use of adapted ancient spells, essentially, "Please, O Mary and Isis, help me get through this pregnancy well," with ritual actions again a mixture of Christian and Egyptian usages. If asked, I suspect these people would genuinely say what they said with the census: they're Christians. But they don't see any reason why this means they shouldn't keep calling on Isis as well -- why not?

Remember: strong exclusionary measures (believe what we say and only what we say) are very much the exception rather than the rule in the history of religions. The problem is that we live in an era dominated by such thinking, and thus we assume everyone always thought that way. They didn't.


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