You can find an absolutely amazing academic resource in Open Yale Courses, where you can download video or audio recordings of all the lectures for some of Yale University’s introductory courses, as well as the transcripts and reading lists of those lectures.
My favourite is RLST145: Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), by Professor Christine Hayes. I’m not religious, but I am interested in the bible as a literary, cultural and social text, and that’s exactly how this course approaches it (as opposed to treating it as scripture). I haven’t listened to all the lectures, but I’ve listened to the first few a couple of times, and they offer a fascinating perspective on the bible, with a ton of surprises. A lot of what I’ve learned from priests, Sunday-school teachers, and the well of Christian common-knowledge turned out to be wildly inaccurate if not completely false, like the idea that Adam was created before Eve and is therefore superior.
Anyway, as some of you will remember, I recently did several fantastic read-alongs for The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin:
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (#1)
The Broken Kingdoms (#2)
and The Kingdom of Gods (#3)
In this trilogy, the gods, their histories, and ongoing lives play a major role. The other day I started listening to the Hebrew-Bible lectures again, and the second lecture kept reminding me of the novels. This lecture – The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Biblical Religion in Context – compares polytheism to monotheism, using the writings of Yehezkel Kaufmann. Kaufman’s theory was that the move from polytheism to monotheism was revolutionary rather than evolutionary because the two belief systems involve fundamentally different ideas about god(s) and the universe, rather than simply having a different number of gods.
This relates very strongly to fantasy, mythology, and the nature of god(s), which is why I kept linking it to Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. It no doubt has relevance for other epic fantasy or other fiction where gods or their mythologies play a role; it’s just that this trilogy was foremost in my mind. In Jemisin’s world, the gods are real. Not only do they exist, some of them live among humans. For the reader, they’re major characters. Kaufmann’s theory isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t fit Jemisin’s world exactly, but it still provides an interesting framework for understanding her worldbuilding and characters.
It’s worth watching/listening to/reading the lecture in full, but I’ve picked out the main points about how polytheism differs from monotheism, and explained how they relate to The Inheritance Trilogy. I’ve kept it SPOILER-FREE, but please forgive any inaccuracies or lack of information as I didn’t re-read the books for this article, since I’d only just read them a few months ago. If you spot anything that needs to be corrected, let me know in the comments.
1. The metadivine realm
In polytheistic religions, there is a metadivine realm, which exists before the gods, and is more powerful than them. This realm can be water, chaos, darkness, fate, etc. and the gods are born from it. The logical consequence of this is that the gods are limited in power and wisdom – the primordial realm will always be above and beyond them. It’s mysterious and unpredictable, the gods can’t control it, and it can thwart their will. Since each god has specific powers and limitations, they can also be thwarted by other gods or even mortals.
In monotheism on the other hand, there is no realm that existed before god, and nothing that is more powerful than him. He just always existed, he’s immortal, omnipotent, and all existence is created by him.
In the Inheritance Trilogy, the metadivine realm is the Maelstrom, and it gave birth to the gods Nahadoth, Itempas and Enefa who then created the universe and lesser godlings. None of them are omnipotent, and in fact Itempas killed Enefa and enslaved Nahadoth, which form the basis of the plot of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Itempas’s actions did not mean that he was omnipotent or became omnipotent; he simply achieved dominance over the world and the other gods.
In The Broken Kingdoms it is mentioned that the gods pray to the Maelstrom. In The Kingdom of Gods, Nahadoth takes his child Sieh to the edge of the Maelstrom, and it is clear that this could destroy them both. It also seems that the Maelstrom has a major role in the plot of this book, which is something to be feared because the gods cannot control this force.
Mythologies are the stories of the lives of the gods, and this is a basic part of pagan religion: “the gods are born, and they live lives very similar to human lives but on a grand scale and then they die”, says Professor Hayes.
This is the essence of The Inheritance Trilogy: we learn about the major gods’ births, their histories and how they made the world, which is our common understanding of mythology. Unlike mythology though, these stories continue to develop, gaining depth and detail across the trilogy as we hear different perspectives on the seemingly static myths. Because the gods are also major characters their ongoing lives are part of the plot. They interact with each other and with mortal characters, and we see them deal with issues of love, jealousy, hatred, revenge, etc. They fight, they have sex, they fall in love. It’s shocking how human they can be, even if they’re contemptuous of humans. In book 1, the human narrator Yeine describes the plot as two family squabbles pitted against one another – the mortal Arameri family who rule the world, and the family of gods. At the same time, the gods’ human problems play out in different ways because they’re immortal, incredibly powerful, and experience the world as such. We also know that gods can die. Itempas killed Enefa, and hundreds if not thousands of godlings died in the God’s War that followed her death. In book 2, the plot kicks off when someone murders a godling.
In monotheism on the other hand, god has no life story. He isn’t born, he doesn’t fall in love or take on any sexual partners, and he can’t die. He does have a son, but that’s in the New Testament (which is not covered in this course), and parenthood doesn’t have any personal consequences for God. For example, God and Jesus don’t have sex (incest is common in mythology, and in The Inheritance Trilogy); nor do they hang out in any kind of social way.
3. Fluid boundaries between the divine, human and natural worlds
In a polytheistic system, all creation comes from the metadivine realm, so everything is made of the same primordial ‘stuff’ and therefore connected. So gods are often inherent in the natural world – things and concepts like the sun, sky, death, fertility etc. might be gods and worshipping them is like worshipping natural phenomena. Because humans also come from the metadivine realm, there is a fluid boundary between them and gods, and you often have unions between gods and mortals, or mortals becoming gods.
In The Inheritance Trilogy, the three main gods are born from the Maelstrom, and together they create the universe. The goddess Enefa creates life. I don’t know if she uses the substance of the Maelstrom to do this, but all of creation can still be traced back to the Maelstrom.
The gods are all linked to the world through their affinities. Itempas is the god of light, day, and order. Nahadoth is the god of darkness, night and chaos. Enefa was the goddess of life and death. I think this is a wee bit different, in that these gods are associated with these concepts and get their power from them but aren’t synonymous with them. Nahadoth is the god of night and darkness, but when he’s enslaved it doesn’t change the night and darkness of the world. However, his power is affected by night/day or darkness/light.
The fluid boundaries between gods and mortals are indicated in the many instances of gods having sex with mortals, and gods and mortals producing children, often as major parts of the plot. There is also an instance of a mortal becoming a god, and a god becoming mortal.
In monotheism, god is separate and completely other to us. He isn’t kin to humans (at least not in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible), doesn’t come down and have sex with humans and we have no hope of becoming like him.
4. Power is material
The monotheistic god has absolute will, and nothing is more powerful than him. His power is inherent in him, it doesn’t come from anything else.
In a polytheistic system, the gods’ power comes from material things, and not because their will is absolute (see no.1). The substance that constitutes the metadivine realms is particularly powerful – water, blood, etc. – because the metadivine realm is the ultimate power.
Jemisin’s trilogy differs a bit here though. The Maelstrom seems to be a completely different place existing beyond the edges of the universe. It created the first three gods, but no one feels any particular connection to it, or at least they don’t tap into it for power or magic. However, the gods can achieve greater power by “living true” to their affinities, whatever those might be. So for example, Sieh is the god of childhood, and he achieves power by acting and looking like a child, embodying the essence of childhood (impulsiveness, cruelty, playfulness, affection etc.). He also feels more powerful when he’s around children or someone who acts like a child, but feels a loss of power when, for example, he forces a child to make a tough decision and lose some of their innocence.
It seems the gods can choose how much effort they put into “living true”, based on the fact that in book 2, the godling Madding explains to his human lover Oree that Sieh is so powerful because he’s devoted to being childlike. In book 3, where Sieh is the main character, we learn that he can behave in more adult ways, but that it weakens or wounds him to do so.
This is a consequence of material power in the polytheistic system. Power resides in things connected to the primordial realm or primordial stuff, so magic involves manipulating those substances. This means both humans and gods can perform magic by tapping into the power of the metadivine realm. Humans can even use this to influence or manipulate the gods, so magic can be a way of circumventing the will of the gods by tapping in to a higher power.
This is impossible in a monotheistic worldview: there is no realm above or beyond god, and god is supreme so humans have no power over him.
The magic system in The Inheritance Trilogy is not really about connection with the metadivine realm per se, although magic can be performed by both gods and humans. Magic is described as communication with reality, not the result of tapping into the Maelstrom, at least as I understand it. And the Maelstrom isn’t ‘reality’ in that sense. You can communicate with reality through words – the gods’ language. Human scriveners do this, but they aren’t as powerful as the gods because they are unable to speak or write the language as well as the gods can. However, there are other forms of communication/magic – in book 2, Oree uses paint, and her father used song. Blood is also significant as a kind of carrier of magic. Gods’ blood acts as a drug on humans. When the gods conceived children with humans, they produced demons (which are dangerous but not evil; it’s just the word used for demi-gods) and through those demons the human race acquired magical skills. The demons were outlawed once it was discovered that their blood could be used to kill gods. Demon-blood would of course give any mortal power over a god.
Magic is most often used by mortals against the gods in book 1. After defeating Nahadoth and his three godling allies two thousand years ago, Itempas chained the four of them to human bodies and gave them as immortal slaves to the Arameri family. The Arameri scriveners gave each family member a special sigil on their foreheads that not only prevented the enslaved gods from harming a family member, but forced the gods to obey their commands.
Cult is defined as a system of rites involving the manipulation of substances – like blood – that are believed to have inherent power. This might be done to influence the god in some way – win their favour, keep them at bay to protect people, provide sustenance to the god, etc. It might also be a re-enactment of an event in the life of a god, and this might be seen to play a role in the preservation of the world (eg. a rite of spring ensuring the reemergence of life).
Rituals in monotheism have nothing to do with sustaining god or the world and they don’t celebrate events in god’s life (there are none). Instead, rituals commemorate historical events.
We don’t learn much about rituals in Jemisin’s world, but there is one very important one in the Sky palace – the Ascension Ritual. The entire plot of the first book builds up to this ritual, in which power is passed from the head of the ruling Arameri family to the successor. This is more than symbolic – power is passed literally in the sense that a force is moved from one person to another. This is in line with polytheism, in the sense that the ritual is important and has tangible magical effects. In book 2, there are also examples of people making offerings to gods to summon them or ask for help.
However, the novel’s approach to cult is also similar to monotheism in that no rituals are required to keep the world from collapsing, and the gods themselves don’t need any. In book 3 there is an “atheist” who honours the gods (you can’t seriously doubt their existence) but does not worship any of them, arguing that gods don’t need humanity’s attention, which is true. In addition, the offerings made to gods can’t coerce them. The gods have free will, so they might help a human because they’re pleased or amused by the offering, or simply because they’re kind, but not because they’re bound by magic.
7. An amoral universe
In a polytheistic system, everything comes from the metadivine realm, and this includes both good and evil. So you get good gods and bad gods or demons, and humans are helplessly caught up in the struggles between them, although they can use magic as an aid. Evil is as much a metaphysical reality as good – both are built into the structure of the universe. Good gods are just as powerful as the bad ones, and every god might have their own standards of morality, so gods aren’t necessarily totally good or totally bad.
In monotheism, god and his creation are good, so there is technically no evil force in the universe (a problem that monotheism has never really resolved). Evil comes from the clash between god’s will and human will.
As with the mythologies discussed in no.2, Jemisin really makes the most of an amoral polytheistic universe. It’s not as simplistic as the universe consisting of good and evil gods. I think Nahadoth is the only god believed to be inherently evil but this is untrue, although he is more dangerous than most gods. There was an epic God’s War two thousand years ago that is related in fairly stark good-and-evil terms, but this is inaccurate. As the trilogy progresses, we learn that none of the characters who played a role in the war were entirely good or entirely evil. All the gods are grey areas. They have good and bad sides but these are inseparable. Enefa created life but she was also a ruthless killer because life and death go hand in hand. Itempas is the god of order, and created very useful things like language and gravity, but he’s also responsible for the cruel authoritarian power of the Arameri family. Sieh can be very likeable as a child, but he also has a child’s cruelty. Even the nicest gods have scary sides, and the creepiest ones can be helpful. Gods might do terrible things to those they love deeply. These kinds of moral complications are one of my favourite features of the trilogy.
I highly recommend the trilogy if you haven’t read it yet, and if you have, do you know that Jemisin’s writing “The Awakened Kingdom”, a novella set in the world of The Inheritance Trilogy? Yeah, I can’t wait to read it either 🙂