A Genealogy of Stories

So you’ve got a world in which religions grow and flourish for a while, and then die down (usually, one of those places where the gods and the religions aren’t joined at the hip). And you have to wonder, just what happens to the gods of the religions that are left behind? Are they remembered but only because they made interesting stories, doing the metaphysical equivalent of hanging around the breakroom talking about the good old days? Are all the old stories scrubbed into nonexistence, leaving them like a bunch of tchotchkes in a box in someone’s attic at best? Turned into something they weren’t? If the latter, how can you tell?

In some cases, the original religion and its original stories are a thing of the past, patently false according to modern wisdom but kept around as a way of understanding the cultures to which they belonged. We’ve all seen this, if in a somewhat selective form; everyone here who hasn’t had at least one Greek mythology unit in school, please stand up. I’ll wait. (My count is somewhere in the four to five range, depending on whether it counts when the Odyssey is taught on its own or not.) There are a lot of things that can affect how well the old religion’s gods and stories are remembered, including whether the new culture wants to admit to having come from the old one, how well their morals match up (sort of), how good the stories are on their own merits, and which ones are quoted most heavily in other stories already.

Other religions are just scrubbed, or only kept around for a very few trappings—or even reinterpreted into something else. I’ve talked before about the appropriation of holidays, and how little people tend to remember the original sources; similarly, some stories tend, amoeba-like, to engulf their predecessors and recolor them a bit to fit the new patterns. Then you get the ones that seem more plagiarized than anything; to claim that the Romans borrowed a few gods is rather like claiming that politics these days are a teeny bit contentious.

And then there are the ones where you really can’t tell what came originally, because all the propaganda points in one direction. I actually had something of an adventure with that, not long ago. For game-related reasons, I’d been backtracking the references to an entity cameo’d in Secret of Kells, an old Irish deity by name of Crom Cruach. (Part of the challenge was actually getting to where I could do the research, since he’s one of the few named characters not appearing on the movie’s website’s cast page, and I still have trouble with spelling in Gaelic languages.) I went straight to Wikipedia, since while it’s not always the most accurate of sources, it tends to be good at distilling the average of common knowledge, and was looking through it. Not too savory an individual, it seemed like—first-born sacrifice for the harvest and all that (Blood makes the grass grow! Kill! Kill!); then one of my friends suggests I look at the references, so I did—and of the six sources listed, one was a website for a landmark, one was a dictionary used to try to etymologize the name (it’s actually rather ambiguous), and the remaining four were all Christian books from various centuries. I wouldn’t say that ensures that the original information is false, per se, but the probable bias does incline me to take the whole thing with a pinch of salt. (It having been a long research session to begin with, this is about the point where I decided to just make something up for the purposes of the game I was designing a character for.)

What happens to a religion replaced in your worlds? How does it vary depending on who’s replacing whom?

2 comments

  1. UZ says:

    A lot of the obsolete religion we hear about comes to us through fiction – fantasy in particular has a long habit of reviving (at least in part) old stories and forgotten times for entertainment. Yeah, Medieval Times and all, but also:

    - Robert Howard’s Hyborian Age, which had some degree of anthropological research (deliberately made Conan an ancient Welsh guy – see Cimmerian/ Cymru)

    - Creepy Howard’s Egyptology (see Imprisoned with the Pharaohs – http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/imprisonedwithpharaos.htm – which he ghost-wrote for Harry Houdini of all people)

    - Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and its references to Babylonian religion

    - Neil Gaiman’s syncretic American Gods

    It’s easy to do a little reading (on Wikipedia, fount of terrors) and find some authentic-sounding bit of creepy lore that has a name and a couple of vague details. Czernobog, for example:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czernobog

    turns up in American Gods (and several other works), but if we look at the Wikipedia article we find out that this is a guy mentioned once in a Christian priest’s “Chronica Slavorum”, a description of his travels in countries where he didn’t speak the local language. (Sadly an online version of the Chronica isn’t available through casual Google search.) Was this ever a story in the first place? We don’t really know. It’s certainly worth noting that the largest part of the article is “Czernobog in Popular Culture”.

    I can’t find it now, but there used to be a wikipedia article on the notion of “strolling players” – not as a bunch of people putting on a show, but as a bizarre old rigidly role-bound European tradition intended to preserve pagan concepts and modes of worship that were no longer considered acceptable. For an example of some similar material, have a look at the article on Punch and Judy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punch_and_Judy

    Notice in the “History” section – second sentence – that Punch is equated to much higher concepts – the “Lord of Misrule” and “the Trickster”, both of which have their own articles. Here also you can make your own choice – pagan god? Or Jungian archetype? Both have dark forests of fantasy to wander in, either the pan-European wonderland of cultural relics and their real or imagined connections, or the fog-bound meadows of the subconscious where everything is possible but nothing can be tested. And all of this out of a puppet show where a guy in a funny hat hits a policeman with a stick.

    Now, in Wikipedia the links are obvious – or some of them are, anyway, because they’re hyperlinks and you have to click on them. All the same, the fact that something’s linked doesn’t mean it’s related. Does Punch really relate to a Jungian archetype? How about if you don’t believe in Jungian archetypes in the first place? Is it then OK to link religious figures (Loki, Raven &c) with a disused branch of psychology when they have nothing to do with each other? It’s a fiction, except that people believe it because they read the two things in one place.

    When it’s in a fantasy book I have no problem with it – then it’s actual fiction, and I don’t really care if Hermione Granger and Anubis Guardian of the Dead have a studious, dog-headed kid together. But I’m interested in how untrue things become powerful and loved by way of fiction, because I think it’s a real force for stupidity in the world.

    And so it may be with Cromm Cruach. Misremembered as more exciting by Christians who intended to make him distasteful? Or correctly recalled as the double-edged deity of a people who had a stronger sense of their own welfare and mortality? By this point it may be difficult to tell…

  2. Michael says:

    Sadly, I don’t think there *is* such a thing as a Greek mythology unit in school in this country; it just gets subsumed under “Ancient Greece” in history, which of course is a very small part of the history curriculum. Nearly all my knowledge of the subject comes from my own reading….

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