Why settle for just one god when you can have a bunch of them? That’s right, this week we’re talking about pantheons, the divine clubhouses where a bunch of different deities hang out. We discuss how pantheons often work in mythology and then talk about how you can use those dynamics in your fiction. Plus, a discussion about whether theology is easier when you know the gods are jerks.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Mouse Bowden. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m finally back, and my name is Wes, and with me today is…
Oren: Oren. Yay, Wes is back!
Wes: Guys, I’m back. Finally. Life happens.
Chris: Life happens. Good to have you back, Wes.
Wes: But fortunately, I got through it by making the proper obeisances at the many shrines of the many gods that meet the many needs in my life, and I feel like we should talk about all of them today.
Chris: Is this what you offered them in tribute? You were like, hey, if you get me through this, I’ll dedicate a podcast to you.
Wes: I will do a podcast on the majesty of pantheons, yes.
Oren: I pray exclusively to the god of podcasting. That’s my entire game.
Wes: If there’s a god of rocks, there’s a god of podcasts.
Chris: There is now.
Wes: Yeah, we just spawned this one into existence. So welcome, new god, be kind to us. We are talking about pantheons today, probably a little bit of pantheons that have existed throughout time and history and mythology, as well as how they appear in stories and maybe role-playing games and anything in between. So with that, let’s get started. Most of the world – that I could tell – at one point has, or currently has, active worship of pantheons. And then I was just thinking maybe a first basic question is: how many gods do there have to be for it to be considered a pantheon?
Chris: That’s what I was wondering, because we have a lot of settings where there’s a duality, where there’s order versus chaos or good versus evil. Is that a pantheon, or do we not count it as a pantheon until we have at least three?
Oren: All right, guys, I have a secret for you. In terms of fictional world-building, it’s almost always going to be a pantheon, because even if you only have two guys who you call gods, if they’ve got other divine beings around, those are effectively also gods, even if we don’t use the word. They have the same relationship that a minor god would have to a major one. So unless you have a really weird setting where there is exactly one divine being with nothing beneath them – it’s just them and humans – then you have a pantheon. Congratulations.
Wes: Fascinating. So, for all the Christians out there, Oren has just deemed your faith pantheonic because there are multiple divine beings.
Oren: I mean, if you want to make that connection, you can. I’m only talking about world building and fictional fantasy settings here. If people want to extrapolate what I’m saying to the real world, that’s on them, not me.
Chris: I will say that perhaps you could have a setting where you’ve got a pantheistic god that’s just everything. But there’s not that many settings, though, because once you try to add novelty to your divine, you inevitably give a god a characteristic that makes that god stand out. And then, that really just brings up the question: what about the god of not-that?
Oren: Right. I mean, you could do something like what A Song of Ice and Fire does where the seven are technically one – but they’re seven. They’re technically one god, but they’re seven aspects of a god. So for all practical intents and purposes, they are seven different gods.
Wes: But I think we like the idea of having things that we revere specialize, in a way. It’s something about that, being targeted. Whether or not – I was talking about this in prep for this podcast with a friend of mine, and she was raised Catholic. And she talked about how you would always pray to the patron saint of this particular thing, even though it’s a monotheistic religion. There’s god; god is all-encompassing and over everything – but they would still target prayers to particular saints, and maybe that was incorporated from polytheistic, pantheonic traditions over time. But I think maybe what we like about that is, if there’s a god of a thing, there’s probably a story of how that god got that thing. Or we could at least make one up. And we like stories, so I think that’s more interesting.
Oren: It makes your deity a little more personal. If it was just Zeus, that would be boring. I could just pray to Zeus, but I’ve got some wine, I would like there to be a wine god that I could pray to, because Dionysus, he’s a chill dude, he has a different outlook than Zeus. He really fits my mood when I’m drinking wine or would like wine. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable sending those prayers directly to Zeus, even if I know at some level, Zeus is going to see them eventually.
Chris: I think the key is that prayer is, in some – in essence, socializing. You want to feel like you’re talking to another person you can relate to, and if you have a large, pantheistic, all-powerful, all-encompassing god, it’s really hard to feel like you’re talking to a person.
Wes: And if you have a specialized profession and you know that there’s a god that looks over that particular profession, maybe that feels like you’re being validated and supported, in a way. There’s lots of – so many sea gods show up as patron gods of sailor types and things like that. “Well, you know, I’ve left land, and I want to be cared for by this one god in particular because I’m in that realm now; it’s transitioned.”
Chris: Also, if you, say, have a podcast, and you want your podcast to go well, it’s hard to believe that a large pantheistic god would care about your podcast or listen. Whereas if we have the god of podcasting, well of course the god of podcasting wants our podcast to go well. We get together every three weeks to worship this god.
Oren: Another thing to consider is that once you start making gods of things, that’s a genie you can’t put back in the bottle. Once there’s a god of podcasts, it just follows that there is also a god of YouTube videos, and a god of MP3s, and a god of USB connectors—
Chris: I don’t know if I’m up for this YouTube video god. I feel like that god should be disconnected from the brand name; I think that’s an unfair advantage that YouTube has.
Oren: That god is not a great god. But it exists; we can’t just pretend otherwise.
Wes: The new gods in American Gods – I think that there was a god of media. It’s still a god of a thing. Maybe the media god then has lesser gods that pay particular attention to podcasts.
Chris: The podcast is one aspect of the media god.
Oren: I mean, are you prepared for my beef with American Gods? ‘Cause I have one. I am prepared to deliver it unto you.
Wes: If there was a podcast for it, it’d be this one.
Oren: Okay. So, American Gods, what it’s doing is it’s actually pulling some sleight of hand in introducing two very separate forms of god – two different themes with the way its gods work. And it’s really hoping you won’t notice. The old gods are actual gods who were worshipped by the names they go by, and in some places, different names. But they were actual people who we prayed to with real prayers that we acknowledged were going to a god. And then the “new gods” are just concepts. As far as I know, nobody actually, seriously prays to the god of, I don’t know, the technology god, I think, one of them was?
He was this kid, he was the god of tech. We don’t do that. I mean, I’m not going to say no one in the world does, there are seven billion people, but nobody on a large scale does that. So these new gods get their power not from actual prayer, but just from a concept of being important and being a real thing that people use a lot. And American Gods is kind of like, okay, these are two kind of different themes – the old gods work one way, the new gods work another way, okay, that’s fine. Please don’t ask me about Jesus. I’m not prepared to answer your question about why Jesus isn’t here. I don’t know why, but he just isn’t, he just doesn’t exist in this book. Please don’t ask me about Jesus. That’s what Neil Gaiman sounds like every time anyone asks him why Jesus isn’t in American Gods.
Wes: Minor spoiler, if anybody has not watched the show, or if you don’t care: there’s several – no, more than several – there are lots of Jesuses in the show.
Oren: Maybe the show does a better job. In the book, they just try to handwave it.
Wes: No, I just think it’s kind of funny. They handwave it in the book, but in the show, they went to so many different Jesuses, because Christianity is spread across the world.
Wes: Yeah, it was.
Oren: I like that better than the hand-waviness of the book, or rather, I like it in concept – I haven’t seen the show.
Chris: Well, I’m guessing that the book is probably just trying not to piss off Christians. Does the show succeed in doing that by having multiple Jesuses? I suppose maybe. I mean, that’s not that different from Narnia, where Jesus is a lion.
Oren: The book is really, I think, just trying to avoid the problem, because if Jesus was around, that would pose some very significant storytelling issues and would mess with the plot. I don’t think that that was a choice Neil Gaiman made to avoid angering Christians. I think he just made it because having Jesus around would have sabotaged his story, and he just didn’t want to deal with that. It was just too many worms, and so he wanted to keep them all in the can. And it sounds like the show runners are taking a different tack, which is fascinating and makes me way more interested in the show than I was before, to be perfectly honest.
Chris: Yeah, we’re going to have to look into that.
Oren: How does Jesus work? Which is the big question.
Chris: So yeah, I think the more you have a developed pantheon, the more the divine just start feeling like people, like a bunch of folks. You have a society; you can give them conflict; they can have upward and downward mobility, using, oftentimes, the belief mechanic – the idea that god is more powerful the more people believe in them.
Wes: To Oren’s point about concepts: yeah, I think we’re more familiar with pantheons that have named gods, but those gods, like Zeus, get ascribed to a particular realm. (I’m not calling the realms concepts.) But there are certainly types of gods that probably show up across pantheons. There’s probably a god of the ocean, the earth, life, death. Maybe you get more specialized and do a god of magic, a god of war, then major deities like the forests. I don’t know – it’s ad infinitum, but the broad ones, like thunder and lightning, or weather gods, are common too. Any others that come to mind?
Wes: Right, yes. Definitely that.
Oren: Death is pretty common.
Chris: Or variations on that.
Oren: One thing to consider is that when you’re looking at actual pantheons, in most cases, actual pantheons are way more complicated than what you want for your story.
Chris: Oh, yeah.
Oren: They are really complex and convoluted, and they contradict each other, and they have so many layers. Sometimes the Greek gods are associated with physical things, like the ocean or the sky, but sometimes they have concepts, like war. Sometimes multiple gods are also the god of war. War is not just one god – it’s a bunch of them. And it gets very confusing.
Chris: I do think to a large degree, when you have a whole pantheon, you need to start treating the gods like characters and applying all the same rules. Especially when it comes to, don’t have more characters than you need in your story. Which doesn’t mean you can’t have a large pantheon, it just means that you should leave the god in the background and not really mention them too much unless that god is actually going to be involved in the story in some way.
Wes: Yeah, and Oren nodded at this earlier, that if it’s important in your story that it involves the goddess of travel, that’s great. And the fact that you’ve named – that you talked about this goddess of travel that’s important to this story – readers’ minds will start world-building for you in a way. They’ll just consider that there are other things going on that you don’t need to take time to spell out.
Chris: The other thing, of course, that gets complicated is, gods are always casting magic. That’s kind of the idea, otherwise they wouldn’t— They’re basically really powerful mages that are sort of on high. So then you get into complicated questions like, what are the limits on their powers? Or you can also have it like they just don’t feel like helping most of the time. But again, you have to set some boundaries. Otherwise, why isn’t somebody just praying to whatever god they want and getting whatever they’d like from that god all the time.
Oren: Most fantasy settings, in my experience, are best served by adopting what I call the real life rule, in this instance, which is: the gods can maybe do these things, maybe they do them, but they should just be arranged in such a way that they are functionally the same as if they did not exist. Because that way, you don’t have to answer weird questions about why some guy can’t get the magic miracle by praying real hard, and why this other guy can. Now, that’s not to say that that never has a place; there are some books where that works really well.
The Chalion series is the one that really comes to mind that has actual, literal gods that perform miracles in a way that really supports the plot and works super well. But in most stories, the ideas of divine magic are just very hard to bring across properly, and they raise all kinds of very strange philosophical questions that most stories are not prepared to answer. So you’re designing your religion; I usually recommend thinking about it in terms of people and how people view these things, rather than what the gods literally do.
Chris: Usually, it’s easiest to control access to magic in the connection between the god and the person. Give rules for when the person is able to access god-magic, and make sure those are limited, so you don’t have to worry about what the god can or can’t do. But there are sometimes exceptions, and if you get more god-like characters … . I do think one of the advantages of a pantheon is instead of just having one benevolent god, then you can at least have an opposing evil god, which could theoretically stop the benevolent god from helping.
Oren: Yeah, that’s a good way to deal with the issue of, how do I have a nice god but still have bad things happen in the world. Solves that problem pretty handily. Although, again, you still have this issue: if the gods grant magic, then you have to consider this from the point of view of a magic system, which is largely another topic. But you get into the same problem. If you can get magic by living like a good person and worshipping the good god, most people would do that. There are always going to be some people who won’t. But the vast majority of people, if behaving well rewards them with magic, they’d be more than happy to do it. So that’s what you’ve got to think about in terms of other limitations. To get magic, maybe you have to go through a really extreme lifestyle of dedication that most people just aren’t willing to do. Yeah, I mean, magic sounds great, but I’m not willing to climb a mountain every day and shout my praises to the god. I’m just not that into climbing. I’m just not.
Chris: Yeah, for sure.
Wes: And another consideration is if your god has decided to pick a champion, then the magic that they would bestow on the champion would be used to further their particular objective. Pantheons invite all kinds of options for political intrigue, as it were. I think this show has talked about Greek stuff plenty of times before, but how Athena treats Odysseus – that she helps mask him or make him really strong and at times, super sexy, for just reasons. But she has a goal there, and that’s weighed against Poseidon and the other things that are happening up there on Mount Olympus. But she’s very – she doesn’t give him magic, but she enhances him at times. She doesn’t give him a fireball spell. He still has to use weapons.
Oren: She does give Diomede fireballs though.
Wes: That’s right.
Oren: I think it was Diomede, anyway. At one point, she makes his shield and helmet spew flame. It’s not clear if that actually has any effect or if it’s just a cool look that he has, but it’s certainly very spectacular.
Chris: Yeah. The idea there being that there’s very often competitions between the great gods, and they would use their magic to manipulate reality so that they would win against the other gods. They were pretty petty, which, that could be fun for a setting. Not always what you want, but it can be fun.
Oren: Yeah, if your gods are just doing stuff for their own reasons, and they’ll give a human magic if it suits their purposes, that can work. That poses its own challenge, which is, how do you make this not look like it’s just super random and arbitrary? ‘Cause even if you, in your head, know exactly what the gods are doing and why, communicating that to a reader can be a real trick. Especially since most stories don’t do well with the extreme omniscient view of the Iliad. In fact, the Iliad does not do well with it. It’s boring. I said it. Most of the time, it does not serve your story well to be like, hang on a minute, we’re going to leave our human characters and give you a ton of exposition about the gods, and why each god decided to give magic to the people they did. That’s just not a viable option for most stories.
Chris: Right. It’s like having a bunch of characters with agency behind the scenes, affecting the story, but then making it really hard to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what their motivations are, which is what you need for all of your regular characters in your story.
Wes: I would argue that a pantheon invites a little bit more forgiveness if the gods are doing random things, because – I don’t know, this is perhaps just my perception on it. But if you’ve chosen to include one god in your world that is all-powerful, all-seeing, everything happens according to its will, then if that divinity plays a role in the story, there’s far less wiggle room. But if you create a pantheon – and we’ll just stick with Greek, just ’cause it’s here – Zeus is a dirtbag that serves his own whims. Story after story is him doing what he wants at random and then smiting people for slight, insignificant things. So if your divine pantheon are basically just children that only serve their own egos and also have magic … I’m not saying that you should embrace that, but I feel like you’re not dealing with omnipotence in that respect.
Chris: I think that can work okay. The key thing is to never use their whims to solve problems.
Wes: Right, yes.
Chris: That’s where it gets really tricky, ’cause it becomes literally a deus ex machina if you have a random whim that then fixes a problem. Granted, if you have a character that cleverly figures out, okay, this is what this god is about, now I’m going to trick the god or persuade the god, and then get the outcome I want from that god, you could potentially still solve problems. But in general – it still has to be understandable, what happened, at some level – but if they are making trouble, I think you will get a lot more leeway than if they are doing the opposite.
Oren: Yeah, Pillars of Eternity does a pretty good job with that, actually. It’s a video game, not a book, unfortunately, if you’re not into video games. But it does a really good job with having a setting where the gods are doing their own thing and have their own motivations and reasons and goals, and the humans are kind of left trying to figure out what those are, so that they can best capitalize on it and not get stepped on. And it’s an interesting premise, it’s – after a while, you do start to feel like, how could anyone actually worship these gods anymore? But then again, at the same time, your character has more knowledge of how the gods work than the average person does. So it works pretty well. Once you start to peel back behind the curtains, you’re like, eugh, the word is run by a bunch of overpowered wizards. I’m not into it.
Chris: And it’s also worth knowing with anything that’s happening behind the scenes, one way of coping with that is having a protagonist that is actively trying to figure it out. It has to be, obviously, plot-important for your protagonist to be spending time doing that. But that is a way to deal with a lot of types of information that are somehow important that you’re not sure how to incorporate them, is make the protagonist care about them and give the protagonist a reason, because then you take the audience along for the ride. So, what might be some ways? Because I really like small gods. I want to believe in the god of podcasting. So the question is, how do you keep them in check? I mean, got a good point, if you’ve got a god of podcasting, then there should be a god of videos, and a god of … I mean, I guess if they’re not very powerful, then it doesn’t really matter if there’s also a god of videos, and a god of blog articles …
Wes: Yeah, it makes me wonder, how would you check them. Some stories talk about how, if a god of a small thing suddenly acquires power and becomes a god of a slightly bigger thing, then perhaps there’s a correction, where other gods come and destroy that one and reinstitute another one at that level. But that still relies on a divine check – checking another divine, and who watches the watchman, right? Unless Zeus, in that case, overpowered the Titans, and then it’s just a wheel that keeps turning. And the Norse myth does that: Ragnarok eventually happens, and then they start again. So I don’t – yeah, that’s a good question though. Maybe the small gods, by being so localized, there’s a finite amount of power that they could get. If there’s a god of a stream, unless global warming really helps, that stream’s not going to change size.
Chris: I kind of like that idea, actually, because most of the time, the mechanic for gods getting powerful is people believing them. I kind of like the idea that well, it’s a small god of a small stream, and if it physically gets larger, then the god gets more powerful. Let’s dump a bunch of – this is my – I’m going to make this god really happy, and I’m going to dump a whole bunch of water in this stream. I’m going to route another stream to this stream. So now, I’ve gotten…
Oren: Well, now you’ve accidentally combined two gods, and now you’ve got a different god. It’s a fusion of the previous two gods.
Chris: It’s like gems?
Oren: You’ve either created a beautiful new being or murdered two gods, depending on your philosophy.
Chris: This is Tuvix, from Voyager?
Oren: I’m a big fan of – again, coming back to Chalion, which is one of the only books I’ve read that had gods that could literally affect the world with magic in a way that I thought actually worked. And Chalion, the way they do it, is instead of having an evil god – there isn’t really an evil god in Chalion – instead, the issue is that the gods can only affect the world in very specific ways at very specific times. And as a result, they are working to try to do that, but the characters have to facilitate it. The characters have to do things to make that happen. Otherwise then, the god could love you as much as they want; their power can’t reach you except under very specific circumstances that are hard to repeat. And that’s a good way to do it.
Chris: And then there’s basically the gods give humans direction and have saints, and that’s how they enact their will, is honestly through people.
Wes: That’s true. There’s a long tradition of – I heard of a reading about this. I was rewatching some Good Place, a great starting point, and then I decided to dig into things with moral philosophy and got down a rabbit hole. And it was kind of interesting to learn that when we were largely observing polytheism around the world, the role of religion in that respect was more tradition and ritual based. You mark this observation at this time. That’s what you do. But they don’t prescribe a way of living for people, and that’s why people invented philosophy back in the day. The gods, they’re there for ritual, tradition, and they kind of have their own thing, so it’s our job to figure out what we owe to each other and how we operate on this world. But then, when you got monotheism, that coopted a lot of that philosophy, and suddenly you started getting, “This god is all-knowing, and so it has told us how directly to live out our lives through commandments,” or whatever have you.
Oren: So sometimes that’s definitely true. And that’s a feature of a lot of the more well-known monotheistic religions, is that they also come with lifestyle rules. But I do want to point out that that’s not always a monotheistic thing. In particular, if you go back to pre-Christian Rome. Rome was all about setting religious restrictions on lifestyle, back when they were all polytheistic and thought Jupiter was the best. They had whole lists of priests that were in charge of deciding what you could and could not do according to their religion. And, in fact, I would argue that part of the reason Christianity is so big on restricting behavior is because Christianity had to adapt, to become Romanized so it could convert the Empire. That’s just a pet theory or hypothesis, really; I don’t have a lot of evidence to back that up. It just fits with the base of what I know of pre-Christian Rome and what I know of Christianized Rome.
Wes: I guess it’s just tough because we don’t necessarily have as many codified tomes. We have folktales and myths of Thor fighting the Jörmungandr – the sea serpent – and that caused this thing to happen. It’s more talking about the way things are, rather than the way we should be.
Oren: Right. And I mean, it’s also especially hard if you’re trying to talk about how people in an area that is now Christian did things before they became Christian, because as a rule, Christians tended to not want you to know about that stuff. There’s a shortage of information. Also, I don’t have a theology degree. I’m making a lot of guesses here, and I’m trying to confine my theorizing to fiction and world-building, because the real world is very complicated. Because we’re almost out of time here, one thing that I would recommend is – and again, unless you’re going to go into a lot of detail – I recommend giving your gods descriptive names rather than people names. I’m a big fan of calling your god the Smith, and the Mother, and the Sister, rather than Hephaestus and Hera and Athena. Because those are cool names, but unless you have a lot of time to really build up the world, it’s going to get confusing. Okay, which god is that? Which one is Athena? But if the god’s name is “the Smith,” it’s like, ah, okay, I know what that god does. It’s the smith god. It smiths things.
Chris: Yeah. Certainly takes off that burden of complexity if people have to learn a lot less names.
Oren: I just recommend that. That’s just a little piece of advice, unless you are planning on going really in-depth with your gods.
Chris: You can name them hybrid names. Podcastia is my new god of podcasts.
Wes: Oh my gosh, yes.
Oren: Yeah, I do that. I cheat a lot. I’m a big fan of naming my gods after natural figures. So gods like Sol and Luna show up in my settings a lot because it’s super easy to remember what those are and what they do. Alright, well, Wes, do you want to add anything before we close?
Wes: No, I think we covered quite a lot. There’s tons of books and resources, if you’re interested, to draw inspiration from. And even pick up a roleplaying handbook and look at character creation; there’s probably something in there, if there’s a divine element. Source out and get ideas.
Oren: Alright, well, thank you very much for that topic, Wes, and welcome back to the podcast one more time.
Oren: Before we go, I just want to thank two of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. The second is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week.
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