In a created fantasy world, gods can proliferate by the hundreds. When building religious systems for fantasies, what are the advantages/disadvantages of inventing pantheons vs. single gods, or having no religious component at all?
I’m not going to address that question directly, because it’s already been done in that original post by luminaries in a constellation far beyond me, but it did give me a few thoughts to chew on.
Today, for stories set in an age of mythology and heroes, a pantheon of gods has come to be the expected norm–but that wasn’t generally true of the fantasy I grew up with. There were no gods in Middle Earth, Shannara, Pern, Xanth, Earthsea, Landover, or Oz–or if there were, they didn’t make a big enough impact to stick in my memory. The theology of Narnia was Christianity in a lion’s pelt. Some books set in Camelot depicted a lingering folk belief in the Celtic gods, but always in a doomed struggle against the encroachment of monotheism. Low fantasy characters like Conan the Barbarian were always running afoul of some members of the Temple of the Cult of Something-Or-Other, but they hardly ever got developed well enough to be called a pantheon.
But the fantasy shelves of the very late 20th and early 21st Centuries have been packed with gods-a-plenty from a generation of authors raised on Greek mythology in the classroom and after-school sessions of Dungeons & Dragons. Not just polytheistic systems of worship but real dei-ex-machina characters who interact with their mortal followers in the works like The Belgariad and Malloreon of David Eddings or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Even in contemporary fantasy, Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” novels posit the continued influence of the Greek pantheon over Western Civilization; mythological figures pervade the works of Neil Gaiman; Philip Pullman’s multiverse of “His Dark Materials” shows God as a figurehead among a multitude of angelic beings; the alternate universe of Jonathan Stroud’s “Bartimaeus Trilogy” is full of godlike demons; and I’m eagerly awaiting the final book of Garth Nix’s “Keys to the Kingdom” series with its pantheon of godlike Trustees in the House at the center of the universe.
My own personal confession is that I have an epic fantasy in my backburner files that’s probably my favorite story out of everything I’ve ever written, and it’s jam packed wall-to-wall with gods and goddesses. Having an active and intrusive pantheon immediately marks a story world as outside our current experience–which is the aim of any fantasy. The existence of gods influences histories, languages, cultures, politics, and lifestyles, and provides a jumping-off point for potentially world-shattering conflicts.
Part of it is probably that gods are fun to write, but I still like to blame Edith Hamilton and Gary Gygax.