Or religion, part two, I suppose, though this rant was more on religion itself.
1) You don’t have to have gods to fulfill particular roles.
You don’t have to have an earth goddess (though it seems every second fantasist thinks he must). You don’t have to have a sky god, or a sun god, or a moon goddess, or any of the other “staples” of fantasy.
There are three good reasons for avoiding such things:
a) Quite often, those gods are used as shortcuts, the way that the exclusively Christian-based or Wiccan-based religion is, to avoid developing a true religion. The audience is familiar enough with earth goddesses from other fantasy books to know how they could expect one to behave, what kinds of rituals are used to worship her, that it’s probably only priestesses who participate in the rites, and so on. Lazy worldbuilding.
b) Those gods might not fit in your culture. They’re not universal stereotypes, after all. There are cultures to which the sun was feminine and the moon masculine (Tolkien did that, too), and cultures that had no earth goddess. If your fantasy people live in the desert, the frozen north, or another place where the land is much harsher, they might not have any reason to believe in a benevolent mother of all life.
c) If you have a world where the gods do exist on their own, and not just as a reflection of human personalities and desires, then the people have to deal with them as they are. That means that if there’s a goddess of ravens, a goddess of wind, and a god of iron, then that’s just what there is. There’s no gap where an earth goddess should be, since after all this pantheon of gods didn’t coalesce around Earth rules. They’re exactly as they should be, in the fantasy world, without any reference to Earth.
2) Gods need not be omnipotent.
One reason for keeping gods out of fantasy stories that pops up quite often is that they’re all-powerful and will just solve all the heroes’ problems if they show up. This presumes that your gods work on the Christian model, however. There’s no reason they have to.
Of course, then the question becomes, “What is the difference between gods and powerful mortals?” And maybe the answer is: nothing different. This is the basis for some really good fantasy series, like Dave Duncan’s Great Game series.
But even if the gods really are vaster and more powerful than mortals, they’re unlikely to be all-powerful in a polytheistic world. If the sky god is almighty and can also control the sea, why is there a sea god at all? What keeps the gods from intruding into each other’s territories, or taking over the world? The gods might have great control in their particular areas but not be nearly as powerful outside of it. This could lead to good plot developments. Perhaps the mortals are being used as pawns by one god to try and attack another, or perhaps they’re banned from one god’s territory and have to deal with that as a burden.
3) Give your gods a personality other than solemn and enigmatic.
Solemn, enigmatic gods get tiring. Say that you do have a sun god and moon goddess. Would they really be exactly alike, even if they are twins, the way that Apollo and Artemis were? Even if they kept distant from the world and only used signs and portents to communicate with their followers, would those really be the same signs and portents? The symbolic vocabulary of fantasy gods often seems to be extraordinarily limited.
Say that you don’t want the gods directly interfering in the world, so you introduce a barrier, a great charter of rules, that makes sure they can’t. Would they really all sit back and calmly send signs and portents? Any gods that resembled Loki would probably be trying to get around it, or find loopholes. Others might fume and chafe, and complain if they couldn’t do anything else. Still others might obey the letter of the law but try to find some outlet through the spirit. If gods really are complex and powerful beings, then they should presumably contain many human personality variations, not just the ones of annoying mentors who won’t tell you the answers to any question you ask.
4) Know what the divine politics are like.
Sometimes this might be nothing more than the interplay of the gods’ personalities. Other times, the gods might have actual politics, whether those are centered around a monarchy or a chess game or something even stranger to mortals. They should have some way of relating to each other, though, and a good reason behind it. If they all keep to their own territories and ignore each other, why is that? Did they have a huge argument some time ago? If all the good gods are united against an evil god, what did the evil god do to get himself thrown out? Most of this might never enter the story, but on the other hand, it can influence gods’- and through them, mortals’- actions in profound ways.
I’ve read fantasy books before where it seemed as though two gods should certainly take offense at each other, such as a playful one and a stern one, and yet they worked together without trouble. Why is this? What happened in the past that might have influenced them to become like this? Too often the gods act and react in a vacuum, or a vacuum pierced only by mortals, which doesn’t make sense when you consider that most mortals are gone in a few generations while the other gods share time and space and eternity with them.
5) Try making the gods gray.
I think one reason that so many fantasy religions are black and white, which I complained about in the other rant, is that so many fantasy gods are black and white. Rarely do you have a figure like Loki, who was a trickster, cruel, and ultimately evil, but also saved the Norse gods’ bacon several times. Most of the time, the evil god has killed someone, stolen something, or otherwise done some unendingly evil thing for which he will never repent. The good gods have never done anything to be ashamed of. And so their worshippers are much more likely to come out looking spotless or all one huge stain.
Again, try to be more complex than this. If the gods are very human-like in personality, then the evil gods could have “good” traits, and the good ones “evil” traits. (This was certainly the case in Greek mythology, where Zeus, Hera, and Apollo, among others, were not faultless role models). If they’re not, then it’s likely that the evil god hasn’t committed a crime as humans understand it. They might not even have moral laws, in the same way that animals don’t, and the evil may all be human rationalizing.
One really good example of the “evil” god with a lot of tricky motivations is in Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah saga. He can actually be sympathetic and appeal to the protagonist, who comes in determined to resist him.
6) Try introducing some wrinkle into the human-god relationship beyond that of worshipper-master.
Greek and Roman gods regularly took human lovers and had demigod children. This is actually relatively rare in fantasy, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s that impulse to keep the gods distant again.
Another example from mythology is Odin, whose warriors came to Valhalla after their death purposely to help him fight in Ragnarok, the battle that would end the world. This is a more fascinating destiny than most fantasy humans have. Die, and go to lie around in fields of daisies forever, apparently.
Again, it seems to me that the relationship between humans and gods could be a fascinating one, especially if you’re writing a story set in the early days of your world before the religious rituals really get going. How did the humans find out what way the gods like to be worshipped, particularly if they’ve always been as distant and enigmatic as they are now? Why trust them? Why worship these gods, instead of another set? If you have an evil god committing a crime, where were the humans then, and what happened to them?
I don’t think fantasy worlds necessarily have to have gods, but it’s irritating not to see more done with them.