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In my world, the religion is polytheistic. However, one of the gods has inspired a crusade/excuse to invade the rest of the world. This is a "the gods have disappeared from the world a few hundred years ago" type fantasy situation. The followers of this god acknowledge that some of the others have merit, but in other countries, by sea, their god is vaguely known but not followed. Your standard paladins and clerics found in the D&D world are very rare except in places where magic is prevalent--it is not prevalent in the crusading country. Each god had their area of expertise: home and hearth, success/victory, law and order and so on. Given that the god they follow is about virtue, and law, with no texts concerning killing or wiping out the followers of others gods (and the other gods in question are not considered evil), how would such a crusade be justified by the rulers in a religious context?

Edit PLEASE READ IF YOU ANSWER: Just to be specific and clear, this is not about establishing monotheism (it may become that in 100 years time, but this is not what's current). This about one god within a pantheon--as if followers of say, Athena, began a religious crusade against a country that largely followed Hera. If you are going to answer the question, please place it within this context, and do not trot out any monotheistic examples OR anything that is pantheon vs. other deity system.

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    $\begingroup$ Look at catholic crusades. Catholic God is close to following virtue and law, with no killing including. Only change the infidel to following other god. Or even let infidel, still shoudn't be bad ;) $\endgroup$ – Elas Aug 4 '16 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby Political leaders are often viewed with similar fervor to deities, and people are perfectly willing to accept multiple political leaders running around. You could easily adapt this mindset of "Yes, they exist, but they're unquestionably wrong" to a polytheistic society. The devoted followers of Hitler, Stalin, and a couple of the non-Russian allies didn't exactly see eye-to-eye with one another. $\endgroup$ – Ranger Aug 4 '16 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby They you should look at the history of Marduk. The wikipedia page doesn't have much, you'll need to do more research. Marduk started as a minor god, not important in the mythologies of the Sumerians or Akkadians. However, as Babylon increased in power after the ~1800s BC, Marduk increased in importance and began to usurp the holy places of other gods like Nippur, city of Enlil, who had been the Sumerian/Akkadian king of the gods. In this case, the power of the gods reflected political power of the worshippers. Also Hammurabi's Babylonias were into laws, you might have heard :) $\endgroup$ – kingledion Aug 4 '16 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby: I don't see a difference for the scenario you describe, because I don't think what you're describing is properly polytheistic. As you're saying 'each god has their area' - exactly like western Europe is largely Christian, while the middle east is largely Muslim. Polytheistic would for example be the Greek/Roman/Nordic pantheon, where the same people in the same region pay homage to a multitude of gods. $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Aug 4 '16 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ As far as I can tell, this is how ancient Mesopotamian religions evolved into monotheism as we know it today -- one particular war/sky god Yahweh had a particularly devoted following. There are also numerous examples from antiquity of cults developing around specific gods, like Apollo. $\endgroup$ – shadowtalker Aug 4 '16 at 14:23

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Monotheism leads to intolerance. Instead of travellers asking “what gods rule here?” and politely fitting in and leaving their own religion at home, or merging cultures swapping and combining gods like old friends, “oh, you have a god/prayer just for stubbed toes? I'll remember that!”, you have now a culture that demands a single specific god is for everything, everywhere, for everyone. They will be taught, perhaps as a highest commandment, that no other gods exist and not to tolerate those who would disagree.

Once this meme set takes hold in a culture, crusades are inevitable. If that culture gets benefit from expansion and conquest as well, it will just create a positive feedback loop.

Note that the meme set and psycology of intolerance needs to be combined with success and power and some initial impitus of expansionism. If these people are powerless and instead are the ones eing conquered, then sticking to their idea of a single god will instead prevent them from assimilating to the other culture. They will retain a strong cultural identity which will keep these ideas alive, but will keep the group separated and oppressed rather than blending in after a few generations.

So, you just need the culture in question to be able to conquer others, and have some other reason to get started. Regardless of what they have previously said about killing and virtue etc. the reality will be bent to enforce the political situation and the people will naturally gravitate to true intolerance even if scripture doesn't actually say to kill all infidels. The reality we see in the actual world is that scripture of successful main religions is complex and something can be found to justify any position, rather than the other way around. If the bulk of it is oral tradition and later interpretations and commentary, it is even more amenable to that.

I think what you are looking for is the ways in which the real docterine is extended from or even contradictory to the most central standards document. I suggest looking at real history for the many ways in which this happens.

Off the top of my head,

  • choosing which texts to canonize. The one that says worship is a private thing and people should do it alone and many do it anywhere will get left out by an organizing priesthood caste wanting central public stuff and a priesthood caste!

  • cherry picking the readings. A huge amount of conflicting material will be boiled down and presented by the priests and government to support whatever view they want. Even in a day when people are literate and could read the whole thing, people seemingly do the same thing on their own!

  • tiered scripture: besides a small most-sacred text, you can have part that is written, part that is oral, and a body of secodary work that “interprets” the original. This makes it even easier to direct as needed and shift with the times.

  • teach the secondary material as primary. You say “this is what the diety wants/this is what we must do” and trace it back to interpretations in the main scripture only as advanced study.


OK, with full monotheiem the very existance of other gods can be seen as herisy, so that makes things easy. When the expansionist culture acknowledges the existance of other gods, we have to look at what aspects make it so.

The panthon can be arranged in a strict hierarchy, mirroring the political system of the culture that goes conquering. The one particular god is the boss, his area of speciality being to be the cosmic emporer. Other gods have specificy duties and areas, but now there is also an area of command!

The particular traits can be expanded in geography, so that god X isn't just the god of this valley but is a harvest god in general and applies everywhere.

Just as different regions have their local leaders who now need to be subservent to the new empiror, the other people’s gods mirror that structure and are local subservent gods.

Over time, the culture can shift gradually toward a monotheistic mindset by classifying the boss god as a different thing, so the others are no longer gods but go by a different name such as archangles. Different original gods can be rolled up into different faces of one. Gods that are not part of the new system can be called demons and the culture refuses to admit them as gods even though they have the same properties—just a different label.

The gods may parallel the political structure and sgrugles of the larger region. One true king, even though that other guy seems to be governing over the mountains… so it is with their respective gods.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, a couple of anonymous downvotes with no comment as to how this post is “egregiously sloppy, no-effort-expended post, or an answer that is clearly and perhaps dangerously incorrect”. I have to assume the action has more to do with the reader than with this post. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 6 '16 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think the down votes could be because you have answered with a monotheistic culture. The question asks about a polytheistic culture. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Aug 7 '16 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't down vote you, I upvoted because once I dug into it it was helpful, however, you lead with monotheism as justification and I am asking specifically about how a holy war would work in a polytheistic system. So far, the comments here on my question have been more fruitful and helpful than the answers have been. Just two answers have come at it from a polytheistic/pantheon perspective. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Aug 9 '16 at 18:36
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This seems fairly standard justification for any political or religious war:

  • Country X does not follow our ideas of virtue and law, they are sinful dangerous!
  • Country X's disregard for virtue and law has caused crime and corruption and is the cause of the same sins in our country! (fill in any societal problems that plague the crusading country)
  • The only way to stop this is to root out the evil at its source bring Law and Order to country X!
  • The good people of country X will surely accept our Wisdom, but anyone that resists Virtue and Law must be an evil criminal and country X must be liberated from their corruption!

I've adapted the wording to apply more to the situation described in the question.

Another option is specific to the disappearance of the gods: The leaders of the country can proclaim they have discovered why the gods disappeared, and it was because people didn't lead virtuous lives anymore and didn't follow the law.

The messengers/prophets they sent to other countries were ignored or locked up and now there's only one way to restore the rule of law and redeem humanity in the eyes of the gods: Crusade!

This crusade has a simple win condition: The return of the god(s). Until that is achieved, the claim will always be that people are not following the laws closely enough yet, leading to more draconian measures.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with this, if your world is by chance some medieval world with low literacy and education rates then the above answer works easily. It's amazing how foolish humans can be when they wholeheartedly believe in something. $\endgroup$ – Skye Aug 4 '16 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ As I said, the other gods generally followed are NOT considered evil. These include a goddess of hearth and home, the god of success and victory, and the god of luck. As to the concept of sin, that's a pretty Christian ideal, though every belief system does have a list of Thou Shalt Nots. Not saying sin isn't universal, just saying it's not the same in this context. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Aug 4 '16 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby I think you're missing the point - no matter how good or virtuous the gods, you can twist them to your ends. Christianity started as a peaceful (violent, but not in the "let's kill others" manner) religion, and yet, with no outright perversion, it was used to justify holy wars. Islam has an omnipotent, omniscient god who "loves mankind" and rewards people for piety, and yet it is used to justify holy wars. Sure, it needs a lot more cherry picking than starting a war based on outright wargods (though note that e.g. Ares/Mars was all about justice), but it happens all the time. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 4 '16 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby I don't think gods matter in this context, if they have no way to directly impose upon the world then they are 'spectators'. The Leading party is the one responsible for everything by warping their original ideals of their religion. $\endgroup$ – Planarian Aug 4 '16 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby As this answer points out, even in our world in the era of polytheism, just worshiping the same gods doesn't excuse you of being slaughtered under religious pretenses. You might just not be pious enough. Even if the gods of the aggressor are those of "Justice", "Good", "Light", "Sun" etc. $\endgroup$ – Ordous Aug 4 '16 at 17:44
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A good real-world example of this is ancient Egypt. They had a polytheistic religion, and several gods were directly associated with particular regions of Egypt. The regions would then fight, and the winner would indicate whose god was stronger. This often made it into the mythology; for instance, the domination of Set by Horus.

Basically, as long as the gods of your world have conflict with each other, conflict among their followers is not only possible but inevitable. And if the gods are gone... Well, all it takes is a charismatic leader to convince people that, no, really, you have to kill those heathens for your own good, for their own good, it's what Our Lord would want, would require of you. And since our Lord isn't around to dispute it...

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  1. Start with St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas' Just War Theory.
  2. Decide your enemy meets the criteria. Another god's followers holding one of your holy places is a good start!
  3. Restore the holy places! Deus Vult!
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Justice demands punishment of evil, or it is not justice. Law without enforcement is advice. No matter how good and kind a police officer or judge is, if they don't do their job in condemning lawlessness, they have become the antithesis of their original purpose. That being said, your religious texts should include something about punishment of wickedness, whether done by a special class of priests or the god itself through natural consequences.

But I still prefer to think in another way. The gods disappeared hundreds of years ago, so there's plenty of time to have different sects and denominations spawn with beliefs that weren't originally in the religion - see Mormonism and the Jehovah's Witnesses in Protestant Christianity. The thing is, whether the god would condone it or not, it just has to be justified in the minds of the followers. And humans can rationalize quite a lot of things when it works to their advantage.

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There is no contradiction or problem. Polytheism means a multi-god theology, but it does not mean that people are prohibited from being a devotee of one of the deities. In fact, typically in a polytheistic society many people gravitate to one deity out of the pantheon and might focus most of their effort behind that one. In present day Hinduism there are people who basically focus their efforts on one of the deities. A country or society could get behind one and go against those who don't.

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    $\begingroup$ Yep, there is no issue at all. Look up the Thuggee cult on Wikipedia, a Hindu/Muslim organization of India which was ultimately responsible for many thousands of deaths: "...Thugs considered themselves children of Kali (a Hindu goddess), created from her sweat. However, many Thugs who were captured and convicted by the British were Muslims. According to colonial sources, Thugs believed they had a positive role in saving human lives. Without the Thugs' sacred service, Kali might destroy all humankind..." And so for 450 years, they embarked on a campaign of murder across all India. $\endgroup$ – Adam Wykes Aug 6 '16 at 17:30
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Here's how it should go:

"These [insert people name here] heathens don't follow the rule of Virtue and Law, and we're going to bring them in the path of Virtue and Law by pillaging their cities and indiscriminantly kill them. Who's with me?"

You're worried your justification will not stick, but in reality, and since you are about to wage war, you presumably have influence, wealth and an army. What else are going people to do? Question you?

Crusades are geopolitics, not religion. Religion is the excuse you have to rile up the troops, because you yourself are some form of religious power. They may not understand why god suddenly wants to start a crusade but they're not the ones in charge, and it's not to them that god speaks. They can't doubt your word, because they'd be doubting the religion and god itself. And that's just ludicrous, god is so virtuous and lawful that it, and transitively you, can't be wrong.

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Crusades are launched by nations because the target country has resources and property they want to acquire, or the crusaders want to extent their territorial sovereignty. Their monotheistic religion is merely used as the basis for the political propaganda to rally the population behind the campaign.

Since their religion is all about virtue and law, your average skillful propagandist wouldn't need to do much to find egregious examples of the failures of virtue and law in the target nation. Lo an behold! You have poor benighted people in the target nation who need saving from the heinous of their rulers or they are all evil sinners who should be put to the sword. Whatever!

Once your populace swallows your propaganda, it's time to mobilize your forces and set off to claim what is rightfully yours. Crusades are land and treasure grabs wrapped in the finery of outrage and branded with religious ideology. Religion, irrespective of whether monotheistic or polytheistic, is nothing more than the fuel for a political campaign to justify plundering the wealth, resources, and real estate of the target lands.

Historically the Crusades were intended to reclaim the religious heartland of Christianity, but they worked quite well as a means of plundering the territory they were supposed to liberate. It's all about who benefits from the crusade and how much they can carry away. The religion is only there for ideological justification, thus granting the crusaders the stamp of approval from their deity (or deities, as monotheism doesn't have a monopoly on crusades).

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Your gods sound like the angels of Greek paganism, or the Ainur of Middle Earth. This is a good starting place. This means that--forgive me if I presume too much--your gods are superior to humans, but not really divine. They cannot create something from nothing and do not exist outside of nature, yes? These are important questions because you must decide what your gods actually are and what motivates them.

The answer to your question depends on knowing some things about two of your main characters. Is your god of virtue really virtuous? What about the guy who's starting the war? Your answers will set the limits that determine how the war could start.

Since virtue is the standard, we must also learn what is a good reason for going to war. You need to know what the good reasons are in order for your characters to choose good reasons or bad reasons. The standard to use for a western audience is called Just War Theory. Just war theory has permeated our political discourse for thousands of years. Most of your audience uses these principles to form opinions about war, even if they don't know what they are called.

The practical question is whether you want the crusade to be legitimate, or just a pretense for war. If your virtue god is truly just, the war should be fought for good reasons. Is the war leader a good man? Or does he only want a pretense for war?

Just to use Christianity as an example: Christians believe that coercion is forbidden (indeed impossible) in matters of religion. This is a core principle, but has been violated by political leaders who claimed to conquer in the name of the faith.

This brings us to another question: could your crusade be justified by a metaphysical reason? Other commenters have already mentioned several famous polytheistic civilizations. Those religions tended to believe that a human's job was to serve the gods. Perhaps your god of virtue has something he needs to accomplish, and doesn't mind spilling human blood to do it. Maybe he has a paradise prepared for those who die for the cause.

If you want something that doesn't require so much research, here's a quick and dirty shortcut to get your story moving:

  • You may always fight to defend yourself against an imminent threat.
  • A false flag attack can give the appearance of imminent threat if you want your war to start under false pretenses.
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Ok, firstly, "Crusade" is a specific thing that happened, not just a war fought on religious grounds, and that specific thing is over access to "the holy land".

Secondly, more often than not, the "The my god decreed it" thing wasn't actually a thing, but there are 2 ways that gods were usually involved with warfare...

  1. We are going to kill those guys and our deity supports us, because we are their town. Athens for example, the local god was Athena. Victory in war was an honor to her and she would support them, but she never "decreed" go kill the Spartans because their local god is, I think, Ares.

  2. Our god has decreed that x is evil, you do x, therefor you are evil and we must kill you. More often than not, when this came up which is hardly ever, it was an actual thing and not "You worship some other deity".

Thirdly, The Abrahamic, "You worship other deities so we gonna kill you" thing seems to have been an evolution that happened due to 2 things.

  1. The first is that in the caananite mythology Ba''al and El were rivals where Ba''al's people "the Babylonians" dominated El's people constantly and this lead to a down trodden people with intense hatred of their rivals. If you read the bible knowing about this connection you will start to see just how much the Israelites hated Babylonia and this transfered to their local deity Ba''al (who was the ruler of their Pantheon btw)

  2. At some point, the YHWHists came into power and started erasing references to other deities in their local traditions mixed with the "You shall have no other gods before me" (which came from the rivalry in 1) lead to the spreading of Monotheism and where the Israelites went from taking that commandment as "Pay hommage to me first as you're local deity" to "All worship of other gods are forboden and evil".

Combine the "rivalry" and the "Monotheism" and you get the attacking of others based on them having other gods.

But it's not like monotheism changed how things were thought of in the deity world sense. In the polytheistic world view, the deities whose tribe lose were subsumed into low rankings of the winning side. If Athens won then Ares was considered lower on the totem than Athena and vice verca. When Rome defeated Egypt the Egyptian gods took on a lower ranking or were seen as the same deities with different names. Zeus and Ra for example were considered the same. In the monotheistic world view, it is very much the same. When Christians took over a place their deities were subsumed as either angels or different names for the same relgious figuresm such as Isis and Mary. Likewise, as Rome was advancing they started becoming monotheistic and the view of other deities was just that they were just eminations (Lower order parts of Zeus) of Zeus or Zeus with a different name.

There is only one time when there was a legit deicide order from a religion and that was from the crazy Egyptian Pharoah who went monotheistic and tried to change the religion of Egypt... and he was eventually assassinated if memory serves.


Now that was he have that as background, how can you get a deity decreed war in a polytheistic world. That would be through that rivalry that I mentioned earlier with the Israelites. If the YHWHists never eradicated references to other deities in their writings abrahamic faiths would be polytheistic and still have that hatred of Babylonia which if noone tried to get rid of polytheism would eventually lead one of their priest kings to decree Ba''al and all who serve him as the enemy... Think of it as a kingdom divided between 2 sons. All those who view one son as the leader the other would decree as enemies. Thats the same situation you got with these gods (literally if you know the mythology), and wars fought in the name of destroying the enemy for their deity/king would be a thing.

Remember, unlike how many religious people act today, the deities in the past were real, had lives, had kingdoms, and had enemies and they would fight wars and demand their follows fight for the same reasons any ruler would.

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Every God has a particular virtue but takes it to extremes - for example a god (or its followers) of justice might not like a god of mercy/love/charity. That may work because even the followers could vaguely acknowledge the value of another god's virtue (and be tolerant), but as their god's virtue would take precedence, specific events could make them less tolerant.

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