Religions Part 2: Divine Archetypes and Motifs

In Part 1, I talked about various systems of belief and how to implement them in a fantasy world. However, I didn’t spare much time to talk about individual gods and how they might look. There is an innumerable myriad of gods greater and lesser, and so it’s almost impossible to go over every different permutation of divinity. Fortunately, there are a much smaller number of identifiable archetypes that gods take on. These archetypes aren’t all encompassing, and the archetype itself is rarely very interesting. But, these templates are memorable and they repeat often in world mythologies. Using archetypes to help design your pantheon will help ease your audience into your setting by providing them something familiar to latch onto while they learn more about your world. Don’t take these archetypes as requirements for a “complete” pantheon, and don’t adhere to them too closely. Just let them inspire you and help get your ideas flowing.

Household Gods

Among the most common types of gods in the ancient world were household spirits. These lesser gods were thought to involve themselves in the day to day life of ordinary people. In England alone there were dozens of varieties including hobs (from which we get the words Hobbit, and hobgoblin), goblins, kobolds, alps, brownies and more. Some of these, like kobolds were imagined to perhaps once have been human but were now inhuman spirits. They could be helpful in some cases, or could be hostile. Usually, house spirits were something you lived around, you kept to their customs and gave them small offerings in return for protection and perhaps help around the house. Sometimes these spirits were attached to the family, and sometimes they were bound to the land, and it often depended on the particulars of where the spirit was thought to come from. These types of “small” gods tended to be the most active in the daily lives of people. They will be credited for bringing the family small game when food is scarce, or with returning missing belongings when things get lost. They may help keep away curses, or whatever other spiritual evils people were worried might afflict them, and even help around the farm bringing in the harvest, corralling animals or collecting eggs.

Many cultures held gods and goddesses of the hearth and home as well. In Greco-Roman belief systems, the hearthfire was the heart of a family and home; the fire was sacred to Vesta or Hestia, and was often a propagated flame from one kept in a dedicated temple. In Rome, The Vestal Virgins were tasked with the keeping of the sacred hearthfire, and their Temple of Vesta was one of a few temples that formed a centerpiece of the Forum. The hearthfire would have been the centerpiece of every premodern household, and the task of keeping the flame lit was important. The hearth represents the heat that keeps the family warm and the food that keeps them alive.

Gods of the hearth might be additionally associated with fire, abundance of food, and with the parental figure who manages the home (which will vary from culture to culture). Gods of the home-space might be also gods of good-health, of warding off curses, harvest and luck. Gods of the land obviously have connections with fertility, and possibly also with the animals that live there.

The Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum where the eternal flame was once housed.
Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, if greatly displeased, these spirits become more like demons than gods. Spirits might be able to withhold the waters of a river or well when they are displeased, or blight a crop. Sometimes a ritual similar to an exorcism might exist to drive away the angry spirit, but prior to the advent of Christianity the concept of an expelling ritual would have been less common. More likely the spirit would need to be appeased, an act that would be much more expensive for a farmer than simply paying his local hobs their tax of milk and cream.

In a setting with a large number of these types of spirits, you quickly get the sense that these people live every day in a fantastical land. When even poor farmers are interacting with spirits on a daily basis, you are establishing a world very unlike our own; one that’s steeped in magic and wonder. These are tacit promises to your audience that magic and the particular mysticism of these creatures will be an important part of your story’s tone and narrative. While almost every culture will have something like this in their mythology, if these creatures are actually manifested in your world and interactive you are trending into very high-fantasy territory, and need to conciliate that tonal shift with the rest of your work.

Harvest and Fertility Deities

Similar to home spirits are the rustic gods of the field and harvest. These tend to exist on a more communal level than home spirits. In most climates, planting and harvest are seasonal, and so the windows in which these gods are important are focuses of the year for everybody. Most temperate climates might have a planting period of only a few weeks, which isn’t much when all your work is done by hand and ox-plow. Thus, harvest festivals are usually large production affairs with offerings to match the importance of the season. In places that practice blood sacrifices, only your choicest cow or yak will do when the whole community is depending on the crop to survive the winter. In places that honor gods in other ways, they will also push the envelope, looking to impress the gods and gain their good graces while they can. Some fertility gods, like the Roman Proserpina, goddess of springtime, growth and the underworld, become seasonal deities associated with the times when their help is most needed.

If you have a particularly wide pantheon of gods, you might think of having many of these deities. Each crop and each animal have different needs, as do the farmers that tend them. Your staple crops might be associated with more powerful or prestigious gods, which may in turn give that crop a myriad of ritual uses relating to those gods. Horses might be the domain of your god of war, and perhaps sheep are associated with your divine seamstress. Don’t be afraid if half of your pantheon is associated with the farm and field in one way or another, because more than half your people spend all their time farming.

Another common associated domain with the harvest is fertility, or fecundity. Gods of sex, pregnancy, childbirth and children, not just for people but animals as well, are often connected with the fertility of the land. This may be because metaphorically speaking, cultivating plants and sexual reproduction are mechanically quite similar. A “seed” is planted and it grows, slowly maturing until the result of the labor shows forth. Priapus, a Greek god of the vegetable garden is often depicted as a giant penis with legs (and usually also a smaller penis of his own.), and this is meant, however it might seem to us now, to be a sign of his virility, fertility and mastery over reproduction. Moreover, harvest is often a time of joy, parties, and drunkenness; all of which contribute to a big upswing in the population of the community.

As an extension of this particular function in the community, these fertility gods may become symbols of romantic love and sexual attraction. Many kinds of love may be known to your people, and they may have gods for each of these types of love, or they may have a single god that stands over all interpersonal affection. Worship of love may take many forms, from the writing of love songs, to the maintenance of spousal relationships.

Even sex can be a votive act in these religions. Herodotus, the Greek historian falsely claimed that “The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life.” This was likely an attempt to slander the Babylonians, but it refers to a very real Babylonian custom of sacred prostitution. Culturally, these women were seen as priestesses carrying out important spiritual work, and they were protected legally to the same degree as the priests of other gods. The Romans and Greeks themselves practiced orgiastic religious festivals called Bacchanalia or Dionysia. These were festivals dedicated to religious intoxication and in some cases ritual sex. The mystery-cults of Bacchus and Dionysus held these ceremonies in secret, so little else is known about them that can be backed up with primary sources, but the practice was widespread and well known throughout the Greco-Roman world.

A Roman funerary engraving of a Bacchanalia.
Getty Villa, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tricksters and Wild Gods

Trickster figures are a favorite in almost every mythology. These dynamic characters are elements of chaos who represent the intrinsic randomness of the world. Characters like Loki, Coyote, Anansi, Crow and Sun Wukong are all incarnations of this basic archetype. While some tricksters are at least theoretically good, most of them cause harm and incite chaos everywhere they go, often afterward being made to somehow atone for their misdeeds. The Trickster is usually the protagonist in the context of the story, but is an antagonistic force in the universe at large. This makes them great characters to tell stories about, because they are constantly generating interesting conflicts by being self-serving and lacking forethought. Bugs Bunny is the perfect example of a Trickster. He is, in many but not all stories, the “bad guy” but he’s so dynamic and fun that we empathize with him immediately over the often mean and dour counterpart like Elmer Fudd or Daffy. Bugs has seemingly reality bending powers, which he uses for gags and pranks, seemingly without ever intending to “truly” harm anyone; and this is often how these cosmic pranksters are depicted in myth.

Tricksters are often shape shifters, and so you may or may not have to even give them a set form. The most important part of designing a trickster is giving them good myths which paint them as properly dynamic and unpredictable. I would also suggest that if your trickster god is real, they will almost without a doubt at some point arrive to “shake up” the ongoing story. It’s just what they do. Of all gods these are the most active and interventionist. They are often wanderers either by choice, like Coyote, or by edict of a higher power as a punishment, like Sun Wukong. This puts them in constant contact with the common folk, and their daily lives.

A stone carving of a traditional Green-Man figure from Llangwm, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A variant of this trickster archetype is the Green Man or the Fae, who specifically represent the capriciousness and danger of the forest manifest in physical form. A green-man is a deity which is associated with the forests and woods. They are often a warden or a guardian and will become angry and retaliate against people who break certain taboos, like cutting trees or hunting certain animals. Pan, the god of the wild in Greco-Roman myth would strike panic into the hearts of those who trespassed on his land by making a terrible goatish-bleat.

These can be tricksters, but can also be more bestial and violent figures. Green-men were blamed for stealing away people who disappeared into the woods. And they were thought to bend paths and confuse people until they became lost. However there were also cultures, like those of the Pacific Northwest, who venerated their green-man figure as a protector of the people who provided for them and led them safely through the woods. These vastly different conceptions of what the forest made into a man is like illustrates vastly different cultural views of the woods, one being highly adversarial, and the other, highly cooperative.

The Fae, or Sidhe, or whatever other particular word a culture has for them, are very similar to the green-man, but viewed as a large collection of beings, rather than a single one. They too can shift paths and play tricks on lost people, or save them and lead them home. But only more animistic cultures with larger pantheons may be willing to accept that there are hundreds of little trickster gods living in the forest.

The counterpart of the green-man is the hunter-deity. Where the green-man represents the untamed forest, the hunter represents the ways in which man can master the forest. Particularly in hunter-gatherer cultures, hunt-gods can be as important as fertility deities when it comes to securing food for your tribe. Hunters also fill the roll of protectors where the green-man often does not. Many cultures have charms that can be fashioned or prayers that can be said to ask for such a god’s protection while they travel through the woods.

Geographical Gods

Many ancient people believed in gods that inhabited their rivers, their mountains, and their other important geographical landmarks. River gods in particular were often prolific, as it wasn’t uncommon for every named river to have an associated god. Depending on the belief system in question, and how important these landmarks are, the gods here could be major figures in the pantheon; like Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile and an important fertility deity, or Enbilulu the Mesopotamian god of the sacred Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Smaller streams and rivers may have no gods at all, and if they do, only ones local to the specific area where they live. An exception to this is if locals begin to associate their local river with an already established god, perhaps as a way to link the river to a particular myth.

These gods vary in form from mythology to mythology. In Greece the river gods were the Potamoi or Okeanides, who were represented in art as either men and women, or else as people with fish tails or bull heads. In China, their river gods took the form of serpentine dragons called lóng, as beautiful as they are powerful, and completely untamed. There is a tendency to depict these river gods with animalistic traits or as outright beasts to indicate the intensity and wildness of the waters. As rivers become smaller and smaller, they are more likely to have more humanoid forms as they become relatively more “tame”.

Gods of the fields, mountains, and other wild places are often similar to the Tricksters discussed above. But, this type is more finely tuned to a specific area. These things may not even be true “gods” but more like monsters or even animals. In areas that are known for danger, like wolf-invested woods and deep-running rivers where drownings are common; the danger of the area becomes personified as a way to explain the deaths that surround it. If the danger passes, or people become more cautious because of the folktales surrounding the area, they may believe they have resolved the anger of the spirit by venerating it. Thus these gods may persist in areas where there is no actual danger to be found, but locals still scold their children with stories of the “wood-wolf” or whatever such boogieman. Conversely, holy places may have benevolent protector spirits who may even have established social authority. In many cultures “refuges” exist where guilty people may flee to avoid persecution, as entrance into the sanctuary places them under the protection of the spirit there.

In cultures with a large number of gods, a tradition may develop of building shrines all over the countryside to appease these spirits. The size of the shrines range from full human-sized temples, to small votive shrines, perhaps only large enough to hold a small candle; and this size likely reflects the degree of importance that spirit holds for the community.

Celestial Deities

Solar and lunar deities appear in nearly every polytheistic tradition. And, it’s not surprising, because there’s almost nothing in our lives that dictates our actions more than the passing of the day and night. More than that, solar deities provide warmth, fire, and make the world visible. Lunar goddesses at least in our world are associated with all sorts of monthly cycles due to the very regular passing of our moon’s phases. The moon also draws the tides into their maximums and minimums, and seafaring people will often connect their sea and moon deities as a result, either through syncretizing the two into one, or by giving them some kind of social relationship.

The moon and sun are often interconnected as well, as brother and sister, husband and wife, even mortal enemies. The duality of the sun and moon as they appear from earth can be viewed in all sorts of human contexts. They can chase one another across the sky, or dance together, or be literally star-crossed lovers forced apart by some mythical magic. The relationship is evocative, and so these motifs crop up frequently.

In fictional worlds, even scientifically plausible ones, you might have multiple moons or even multiple suns. In fact, it’s more likely that you would have two moons than one around an earth-sized planet like ours. In fantasy you aren’t even bound to having physical suns and moons. As you change the astrological conditions of your world, keep in mind how this affects your deities. More suns and moons mean the two are no longer so obviously paired as they are in our world, and different myth structures will crop up in response.

Beyond just the sun and moon, your people may have separate gods for day and night, for the stars, for dawn and dusk, or even for the milky way (which is just our galactic disk viewed from the inside, so it might look different in your world!). Think about how these things form recognizable patterns when viewed by your people. What are your people’s constellations? Do they view dawn and dusk as roughly the same or entirely different events? How do they count the days and seasons, and how might this inform the shape of the deities who they count on for those signals?

War Gods

All cultures (except isolated island-bound ones) experience aggression at times from their neighbors. Death, loss, and defeat are all very difficult to deal with, but very common in the life of a soldier; and having a religious outlet for their suffering is very important, especially in worlds where psycho-therapy practices haven’t been developed. War gods might act as heralds of victory, bringing omens of good fortune to those who favor them. But, just as often, war gods act as a sort of underworld-deity who comes to the battlefield to reap the souls of the fallen. Depending on their connections to destruction or death, they might even appear as demons who torture deserters or the souls of the enemy, or whatever else needs to be told to make the men fight. For soldiers simply “knowing” what happens if they die can be a huge weight off their chests. For the vikingr who fall in battle Valhalla awaits them, and so death is not such a worry or a great loss. Your comrades are in a “better place” and you can move on more quickly, knowing you will be going to join them eventually. Being able to couch death in this type of mysticism softens the blow and allows men to resist the effects of PTSD.

Some cultures, like the Old Nordic people, envisioned entire sections of their pantheon as being “war” gods, who had their own unrelated domains as well, but were all warriors in their own right. In fantasy, this suggests a highly war-like culture; though that wasn’t necessarily true of the worshipers of the Aesir, it has still become a cornerstone of the pop-culture view of “vikings”. The Greeks had at least two dozen war gods, all with different purviews and reasons to seek their aid, but we only think of the Spartans as the war-like ones. War gods, real or not, provide soldiers a sense of protection and sense of righteousness that actually makes them more effective in the field. So, if you want your fantasy race to feel really vicious, feel free to make some or all of their gods into dedicated war deities in addition to their other tasks.

Chthonic Gods

Underworld gods come in a wide variety of forms, and are shaped heavily by the underworld presented in the cosmology of your religion. Most of us can think of numerous underworlds with different power structures, rulers and contexts for people to enter there. In some mythologies, entrance into the underworld isn’t even guaranteed. The death rights of the Egyptians, the Greco-Romans and even Christians suggest an understanding that the soul can “fail” to move on to the next world. For this reason, the most common type of underworld deity is the psychopomp, a spirit tasked with guiding the dead on to the afterlife. The word psychopomp comes from the Greek deity Hermes Psychopompos (”Hermes, Guide of Souls”), but the most readily recognizable psychopomps in the modern era are probably Santa Muerte of Mexican folk Catholicism, and the Grim Reaper of European folklore. These figures are important parts of funeral art and funerary practices in the cultures that house them, and so knowing your psychopomps will tell you a lot about how people bury the dead.

Hermes Psychopompos watches as Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) carry away the dead Trojan hero Sarpedon.
Jaime Ardiles-Arce (photographer). Krater by Euphronios (painter) and Euxitheos (potter)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In many accounts, the afterlife is complex and sometimes even bureaucratic. To this end, many traditions include a sort of “servitor” race that serves to keep the underworld functioning properly. Christian devils are a familiar sight, but angels serve much the same purpose, simply reversed. This group may serve as psychopomps for the gods they represent, or may have another purpose entirely. Punishments are often meted out by this group to the damned based on what they have done wrong, or services done for the good who have lived out respectable lives.

The word chthonic means subterranean, and describes beings of literal under-world, but your gods of death don’t have to live under our feet, deep down in the earth (though it’s certainly the most common arrangement). Instead your afterlife could be under the sea, somewhere in the sky, or even on another plane of being entirely. Generally your god of death will also be master of whatever realm you place your afterlife in, and this will in turn inform the vibe of your underworld. Many underworld gods that are associated with living underground are also gods of things like metals, springs and gemstones, which are pulled from their domain. A god of death and the sea likely also includes storms in their purview, and a god of death and the sky may be associated with lightning or carrion birds. Changing the visual aesthetic of your underworld by shifting its location can go a long way to making your gods of death less one dimensional, but you can achieve the same effect with an underground underworld, as long as you are thinking critically about how your culture perceives death.


Christianity has systematically placed their devil into the mythologies of every pagan culture they’ve converted. From Loki to Hades to Baron Samedi, early Christians loved to take earlier unrelated religious figures and make them into “the bad guy” to match their view of the world. But even without this intentional contamination, local traditions usually did have an opposition figure whose role is to represent calamity, suffering and evil in the world. Satan is of course the archetypal Western example, viewed as the antithesis of God’s benevolence. But, others had creatures like Typhon, Fenrir and Tiamat who represented the same destructive and chaotic forces. Antagonists like this provide a framework to tell compelling myths through, and also serve to explain the frequent suffering of humans without assigning blame to the gods themselves. Giving bestial or draconic elements to these forces connects them to the primordial chaos from which most creation myths rise, and it’s also not uncommon for these things to be described as “half-formed” or “always changing” to further cement this association.

You have a few options here. The first is not to have a direct antagonist at all, as your cosmology may not feature this sort of archetypal evil. Another option is to take one of your existing gods and heighten the negative aspects of their purview and personality until there is a division between them and the other “good” deities. You could choose to have one or more dedicated antagonistic gods, dedicated to things like sins, violence, chaos or destruction. Or, you could design your world with a baked in antagonistic element, a Satan figure, Lovecraftian nightmares, another tribe of gods, or what have you. Depending on your choice, worlds with direct divine interventions will look quite different, though in less fantastical settings the difference will mostly be restricted to the philosophies, art and mythology of your people.

Messianic Figures and Heroes

The last important divine figure I’ll talk about is the messianic figure. Jesus Christ is the one that jumps to mind as the capital-M “Messiah”, but the word comes from Hebrew, and the Jewish speakers of Hebrew today don’t view Jesus as their messiah. Originally the term meant “the anointed”, but messiah has come to refer to any prophesied savior of a people. Though the Abrahamic catechisms are very specific about what their idea of this savior entails, other cultures have their own versions of the same basic idea. One day, a holy person will arrive to save us. From what? It could just be the ails of life and the world, but it could be from slavery, from hunger, from war, or any number of other persecutions. The important part is that there is a religious belief in a coming upheaval structured around this one person or god.

In Hawaiian mythology the god Lono i ka makahiki was said to have told his people that one day he would return by sea and bring great fertility to the islands. When the Hawaiians saw the European explorer Captain James Cook arrive in an enormous ship, they mistook the ship as the canoe described in their legend of Lono’s return, and believed for a short time that the Captain was their messianic figure, there to fulfill his promise. Unfortunately, Cook abused the Hawaiians’ hospitality and was eventually put to death for attempting to kidnap a chieftain. So, the shape of the savior and what their agenda is entirely dependent on the culture and the situation of the people. But the idea of a coming golden age, or age of freedom is very appealing, and can help bare people through difficult times, so this type of story, while not universal, is very common.

A ki’i or tiki of the Hawaiian fertility and agriculture god Lono.
Musée du quai Branly, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

Historic people who filled a messianic role, or mythological figures from popular cycles of story may in time come to possess hero cults. This may be viewed as a sort of apotheosis, or as a revelation of divinity that was always there. Mythological characters receive this treatment most often, and this can be seen in the deification of Herakles, Maui and Aeneas. But, real people living and dead are also occasionally chosen as the target of this process, like Augustus Caesar who we discussed earlier, or the Egyptian priest Imhotep who was not deified until over a millennium after his death.

Hero cults are an excellent way to neatly tie together your history and religions. This makes info dumping a little easier because you can provide context for other parts of your world at large while still staying on topic. Hero-gods also make your pantheon feel very active and participatory in the world, which can help reinforce a particular flavor of high-fantasy.

Identifying Motifs

So, you have all of these gods now, but how do you make them distinct from one another? How do you make them immediately visually identifiable? What about in spoken language and written text?

In real world religions each god has their own set of identifying symbols or motifs. These can be very physical objects, like the winged caduceus staff carried by the god Hermes, or Thor’s hammer mjolnir; or, they can be highly abstracted as in the Book of Revelation which makes several reference to God speaking: “with the voice of many waters.” What exactly that means is probably intentionally unclear, but presumably if you ever did hear it you would know immediately that you were hearing the voice of many waters. These identifying motifs are important because they allow worshipers to communicate using a shared symbology. The most prominent and practical purpose of these motifs is making icons and idols immediately recognizable. But, these motifs also make it easier to shorthand very complex ideas into simple symbols. For example; in the way that the crucifix represents not just the death of Jesus, but also the sum of the very complex Christian philosophies of sin, redemption and martyrdom.

Hand-held objects like the mace and noose of the Hindi god Yama, or the crook and flail of Egyptian pharaohs are one of the most common types of visual motifs. From the far east, to Europe, to the Americas and Africa, you can find examples of idols and votive artwork depicting the gods carrying identifying instruments as the primary means of indicating their status. Some of these come from myths, like the caduceus given to Hermes by Apollo in exchange for the first lyre. Others are born from the real life uses of objects, like how the crook and flail is meant to symbolize the pharaoh’s role as a shepherd of his people.

Associations with specific animals are also a common way to identify certain gods. The Egyptian gods might be the most iconic example of this, with most having the heads of animals in at least some of their depictions. But holy animals are attributed to all sorts of deities, like the crows of Odin, the peacocks of Hera, the elephant head of Ganesha, or even the lamb symbolism associated with Jesus. These animals are often chosen because the culture assigns them an attribute aligned with that god; peacocks are regal, elephants are wise, lambs are innocent, etc.. Plants get a treatment very similar to animals in this respect. Ceres is depicted holding a sheaf of wheat, the Buddha is often depicted sitting or standing on a lotus flower. Again, these have a symbolic sense, Ceres brings forth the bounty of the earth, and wheat and its related grains were the staple crops of the Romans who worshiped her. Gautama Buddha compares his enlightenment to a lotus flower rising out of a swamp.

Another common set of motifs are hand and body positions in artwork and sculpture. In particular the various mudrā of Hindi and broader Buddhist iconography, whereby certain positions represent signs of peace, different moments in the Buddha’s life, and can help aid in meditation. One form is called the bhūmisparśa mudrā, a common pose given to statues of Buddha representing the moment that the earth recognized his enlightenment. This pose is made while sitting, with the left hand resting upward in the lap, and the right gently touching the earth. In this case the form of the pose relates directly to the myth that spawned it, but others have more to do with the symbolism of the act itself. Most cultures have poses they associate with prayer, like the Christan clasping or steepling of the hands, Muslims prostrating toward the qibla (the direction of Mecca), or the still meditative poses of many eastern traditions. Sitting in certain places or in certain positions may indicate authority, for the same reason most thrones and altars sit on raised daises; no one may sit higher than the king or the gods.

You can make almost anything a motif, from a color, to a name, a specific direction, a material, or even a particular narrative arc that plays out repeatedly. The point is that these motifs must be clear icons that the faithful can use to parse their religious art more quickly, and to make even crude icons recognizable. By melding motifs and archetypes, your gods will not just be easier to understand, they’ll be easier to remember, which is an important factor if you’re going to be feeding a lot of this information to your audience. Moreover, your gods will feel more authentic because they fit into the patterns we’ve come to expect from real world religions, while also preserving some of the mythological strangeness.

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