If you had asked me years ago whether I would ever include pagan gods and goddesses in my fantasy stories, I would have said “probably not” and felt a little astonished that you would even ask a Christian writer such a question. Today, my answer is different. In fact, I’m currently writing a series in which the gods figure prominently in the action.
But let me explain how I got here, because this foray into pagan realms is actually driven by a desire that is deeply Christ-centered.
First, religion is part of the world’s cultures.
One of my biggest pet peeves with fantasy is that it often transplants very modern ideas and attitudes into some fantasy setting, and in no case is this more evident than in the lack of religion.
Religion is the giant of history. It is only in the last century or so that modern man has attempted to avoid the worship of any deity figure, but for thousands and thousands of years, the world’s wars, emigrations, and cultures were shaped by religion.
In science fiction, it makes sense to exclude gods or goddesses. Science fiction is based on a technological society grounded in reason-based philosophy. In fantasy, however, lack of religion makes very little sense, because fantasy often borrows from some real-life historical time. And in real-life history, worship motivated people.
For the Christian, the lack of religion in fiction, even pagan religion, is a loss.
The main reason?
We have an opportunity to show people how very different our God is from a pagan god.
Pagan Gods in Christian Literature
Pagan gods have, in more recent years, been treated very cautiously in Christian speculative fiction. C. S. Lewis probably gave the most daring exhibition of pagan deities in Till We Have Faces, in which the entire plot revolves around Orual’s accusation against the gods and in which the cultural mindset of the characters feels pagan. Some readers might struggle with the fact that the gods are plural and there is no clear “this god equals the true God.” Fair enough. Personally, I got a very strong Christian message from the book. “The gods” to me are a representation of the various facets of God’s character, and the interaction between Orual and the gods gave me a lot to think about.
Most Christian authors, however, tread much more cautiously. I see two main trends.
First, most authors pits monotheism against monotheism, and during the course of the story, there is usually at least one character who makes the spiritual journey from the camp of Pagan God to the camp of Analogous True God.
The problem with this is that, with the exception of a few rare cases, almost no historical non-Christian culture was monotheistic. The majority of pagan religions in the world have been polytheistic. I’ll explain later in this post why polytheism sets up such a great contrast with the true God.
The second trend is to make the pagan gods powerless. That’s a grave mistake, because the Bible makes clear that our enemy has never been powerless. We are called to be wary, not ignorant, and to represent pagan gods as though they are impotent reinforces to uneducated readers that the enemy is no one to fear. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Egyptian magicians were capable of turning water to blood, staffs to snakes, and dust to lice. When they reached the end of their enchantments, that’s the moment when they realized they dealt with a god much, much bigger than they had first realized. That is the moment when a reader should be in awe of the true God.
Even today, demons and the powers of the devil are active. I won’t go into the details of the people I personally know whom God has rescued from lives of witchcraft and sorcery, and of the very real evil powers they witnessed, but trust me, our enemy is still very much at war.
I personally believe Christian writers are much better off depicting the power of the enemy (in whatever manner best suits the writer’s conscience before God), then afterward revealing the mind-blowing reach of the true God’s power. Don’t demonstrate God’s supremacy by making His enemy pathetic. Demonstrate it by making God devastatingly preeminent over even the most potent evil.
There are two main ways that pagan religion can be portrayed in fantasy in order to facilitate better understanding of the true God.
You see, people today are fond of putting God and Christ in the same category as Osiris or Zeus or Allah. He’s a god, right? All gods are the same. People categorize all gods as relics of a bygone age that today’s enlightened souls have relegated to their proper place in history as laughable superstitions.
And nothing could be further from the truth.
If people today understood what an ancient pagan understood about gods, the truth of God would blow their minds. They would never again assume that our God was on the same plane as one of the pagan gods.
Pagan gods must have a form.
Over and over, God tells the Israelites not only to worship no god but Him, but also not to make any graven images. The image is important, because, to the pagan, every god had a physical form, like the jackal-headed Anubis of the Egyptians. Yes, in mythologies, the gods can take various human, animal, or plant forms in order to interact with humans, but the form always had to be something physical. To possess a statue of the god in one’s house was to gain that god’s protection, and one offered food and wine to the god because all physical beings require sustenance. Amulets and charms all had their place because worship of the god required some measure of physicality.
Imagine, then, what it would have meant to the pagan mind to discover a god that had no form. He could be a burning bush. He could be a pillar of fire or a column of smoke. He could be thunder on a mountain. He could be completely invisible. Christ, for example, is identified as “the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)
Not only that, but He needs no care. He owns the cattle of a thousand hills and His required sacrifices are not for His needs, but for His people’s good.
Furthermore, His worshippers do not need anything physical of His (a charm, an amulet, etc.) in order to achieve victory. They need only to come in His name, as David did against Goliath.
For a pagan, this kind of god was mind-blowing.
Pagans had many gods because no one god was all-powerful.
Every god had his own sphere of influence. That’s why you had to pray to the god of fertility if you wanted to have a large family, you had to appeal to the god of war for good fortune in battle, and you had to sacrifice to the god of crops to ensure a good harvest. Gods had limitations and you had to understand those limitations in order to know how to best go about gaining the good fortune that you wanted.
In 1 Kings chapter 20, we get a first-hand glimpse of how pagan minds thought. The Syrians come against the Israelites in Samaria in battle, and the puny Israelites epically beat the Syrians. The Syrian wise men come to this conclusion:
Their gods are gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.
So the Syrians come out against the Israelites again, this time on the plain.
And the children of Israel pitched before them like two little flocks of kids; but the Syrians filled the country.
And there came a man of God, and spake unto the king of Israel, and said, Thus saith the Lord, Because the Syrians have said, The Lord is God of the hills, but he is not God of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand, and ye shall know that I am the Lord.
And the Israelites destroy a hundred thousand footmen of the Syrians in one day.
The pagan Syrians are terrified. They do not even have a category in their minds for a god that is so powerful that He can defeat his enemies anywhere He pleases. Not only that, but it was only one god who did all this. Not a pantheon of gods coordinating victory on behalf of their worshippers. ONE GOD.
Imagine what Christian fantasy might be if the war of gods was portrayed in a way true to history and to the real, spiritual life.
Yaasha Moriah lives in rural Vermont and grew up with adventures both in the outdoors and in the pages of a book. In 2015, earned Silver Honorable Mention (top 50 internationally) for her story "Wings Beneath Water" in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, and has published four speculative fiction novelettes. Many of her short works and interactive stories are available to read for free on her site. Website | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Pinterest