Fantasy Cosmogony 101


Any good fantasy setting needs a sense of religion, be it largely implicit, as in Tolkien's Middle Earth, or a major part of the action, as in Moorcock's Elric tales. With the possible exception of Arthurian Legend and the Gaelic Myth cycles that influenced it, there is no "default" conception of how religion works in a fantasy world. This ambiguity leaves GMs a great deal of latitude in creating settings that are unique in flavor.

cosmogony \Cos*mog"o*ny\ (-n?), n.; pl. Cosmogonies (-n?z). [Gr. kosmogoni`a; ko`smos, the world, + root of gi`gnesthai, to be born: cf. F. cosmogonie.] The creation of the world or universe; a theory or account of such creation; as, the poetical cosmogony of Hesoid; the cosmogonies of Thales, Anaxagoras, and Plato.

Any good fantasy setting needs a sense of religion, be it largely implicit, as in Tolkien's Middle Earth, or a major part of the action, as in Moorcock's Elric tales. With the possible exception of Arthurian Legend and the Gaelic Myth cycles that influenced it, there is no "default" conception of how religion works in a fantasy world. This ambiguity leaves GMs a great deal of latitude in creating settings that are unique in flavor. That freedom can be a great burden. To many GMs, conceiving an original and memorable pantheon of deities may seem like too much work.

Some GMs rely on pre-made fantasy pantheons such as the one found in the d20 D&D Player's Handbook, or the one associated with the popular Forgotten Realms setting. If all you want is a deity to fill a role, such as a healer god for the party cleric to worship, there's nothing wrong with populating your divine planes with one of these pantheons. I don't think they're very conducive to memorable campaigns, however.

As is the case with all NPCs, players tend to remember the characters they feel strongly about. If you want to make religion a distinctive aspect of your setting, you must develop gods that characters will love, hate, and even find inspirational. Your gods should be the best-drawn NPCs of all... they help define your universe and how it works.

The key to getting your players to care about your gods--one way or the other--lies in developing a cosmogony for your fantasy setting. More than a simple description of your gods and their attitudes, a cosmogony is a story, or better yet a collection of stories, that describes the origins of your gods and their relationship to the universe.

Where to Start

No matter who you are, I'm pretty sure you like gaming because you respond to myth and mythical archetypes. The monsters, heroics, and supernatural powers found in gaming possess some degree of mythic resonance. To be memorable and capture the imaginations of your players, your fantasy pantheon must utilize some of that resonance.

While brainstorming about your pantheon, stoke your love of the mythological. Do a few hours' research into your favorite myth cycles. If you don't have a favorite, pick one you don't know much about but find interesting. A good starting point is Encyclopedia Mythica. But don't stop there. If you have the time, become an amateur expert on your favorite mythos. That's not as hard as it sounds; you're not defending a doctoral thesis, you're just looking for a few aspects of mythology your players don't know about.

Myths are not falsehoods!

Every major religion has a wonderful cast of heroes, villains, and mythological creatures. If you are a practitioner of a religion yourself, don't neglect to study your religion's mythical characters and lore. Some people associate the word "myth" with "falsehood"; a few months ago, I inadvertently offended a very nice lady by referring to Judeo-Christian parables as "mythology." Myths are not falsehoods! Mythic tales have persisted because they contain some fundamental truth to which almost any listener will respond on an intuitive level. Sometimes the truth contained in myths is a symbolic truth, but sometimes it is a faithful, if distant, recollection of historical events.

The purpose of research into mythology is to find sources of inspiration. When in doubt, however, take your favorite gods and myths and steal them without apology. If you love a character or a tale so strongly that you become fixated on it, put it in your campaign! You may find that your enthusiasm for it is contagious.

Cosmogonic Essentials

A fantasy pantheon can have any composition you desire, from no gods at all to thousands upon thousands. However, it is my experience that the most memorable mythoi have the following things in common.

A recognizable cast of characters. This is the most important element by far, and it has two requirements: resonant archetypes and a small number of important figures. When fantasy myth structures fail to captivate players' imaginations, they usually fail because they do not fulfill one or both of these requirements.

First of all, your mythological characters must be resonant: your players must recognize them on some level. For this reason, you should stick to archetypes when designing the personalities of gods. It's ok to twist the archetypes a little, especially where the roles of the gods are concerned, but the personality must be recognizable as an archetype. If your gods don't have archetypal personalities, your players are less likely to recognize them... and therefore less likely to care about them. If you're not sure what an archetype is, think about stock characters in stories: the conflicted hero, the wise mentor, the artful seductress, and the wily trickster are all common archetypes.

Secondly, you must restrict the number of major roles in your mythological drama. Trust me: nothing confuses players like a five-page list of gods and their functions. Remember, you're looking to create a mythical story that your players can remember and reference while they play. Even if your world includes many thousands of gods, you should still be able to identify the key actors in the mythology. A manageable number of major gods is a dozen or fewer.

When you've drawn up your first list of gods for your campaign, look it over. Which ones are your favorites? Which ones don't seem very original, or even very necessary? Try to boil down your mythos to the most essential characters. Even if you end up retaining the other, more minor deities, this process will help you immensely in developing your cosmogony.

A brief history of time. Every good mythology needs a creation myth. This story need not be more than a few sentences long to be memorable: in this case, brevity is truly the soul of wit. It doesn't even have to explain everything. All the same, your players need to have some context for the religions of their world. Give them some idea of where mortals think the universe came from, or where they think the gods came from, or both if you can manage it. Also remember to use mythical symbols: light, darkness, and water are all prominent motifs in creation mythology, as are fire and blood.

A source of conflict. A moment's reflection should tell you that all mythologies feature some kind of divine conflict. Christian teachings portray the struggle between the heavenly host and the followers of the rebel angel Lucifer. Norse mythology tells of the final battle between the Aesir and their allies from Asgard against the forces of the Rokkr, or "Jotuns." The Greco-Roman gods fought for dominance against an ancient, mysterious group of gods known to us as Titans, and later squared off against each other in their partisanship of the Trojan War. Whether it is a war, a betrayal, a murder, or a lie, there must be some kind of strife in the history of your gods. Certain gods should be opposed to others, and the two sides should be easily recognizable and clearly defined.

Myths aren't just stories.

A divine family tree. This need not be a literal family tree, even though it is in many pantheons. It's helpful to your players if they can remember who is the spouse of whom, who is whose progeny, and so on. If you don't use a family tree, you at least need to develop a hierarchy that explains the power relationships between the various divine entities.

Reasons for the way things are. Myths aren't just stories. They attempt to explain, whether symbolically or literally, why the world is the way it is. If your fantasy mythology is too full of details such as "And the god Slarkibor slew the god Ningadek, and then he slew the giants of Fuminor, and then the blasphemers of Kodred," your players probably won't be able to retain these details (and they might laugh at your inability to come up with good names!). If, however, you tell them that Slarkibor slew Ningadek and used his spine to create the Ningadene Mountains over which they are now traveling, they're much more likely to remember Slarkibor and his deeds: they can see how the god's actions influenced their world.

Systemic consistency with your theme. A real weakness of the high fantasy gaming genre as popularized by D&D is that it integrates a bewildering mish-mash of mythic sources, some of which are quite jarring when included side-by-side in the same cosmos. Identify the theme of your mythos, and strip down whichever game-system you're using to match that theme. Be ruthless. If your players can see how the world they live in is defined by the nature of the gods, they will identify more strongly with both the world-setting and the gods themselves. Echo the theme of your mythology through the choice of available character races, skills, and classes; the spell list; the bestiary; and the equipment list. If, for example, you were aiming for a classic Greco-Roman mythological setting using D&D rules, you might prohibit players from selecting the bard and monk classes as well as all the standard non-human races (gasp! NO ELVES?!?); you would remove all spells that felt too "medieval" to you; you would use only classical beasts such as the centaur, the medusa, and the chimera from the Monster Manuals and Fiend Folio; and you would restrict the level of armor and weapons technology to that of the Bronze Age or the early Iron Age. The more I mature as a GM, the more I feel that less truly is more. Don't despair of all those cool monsters, spells, and classes you decide not to use; there are always other campaigns, and keeping your theme distinct from "generic" fantasy is likely to pay considerable dividends.

The Nature of the Divine

What separates mortals from deities? Are mortals the way they are because the deities made them that way, or have the deities' natures been skewed by mortal worship? The answers to these questions will profoundly impact players' perceptions of your campaign setting.

It seems typical for a fantasy setting to give little thought to the origins of the gods, and to tack on additional gods and pantheons piecemeal as necessary. For example, I can't think of the god of the Lizardmen in the generic D&D setting, if there even is one. If a need for such an entity arose, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that one could be added with little trouble.

This mode of thinking troubles me. In our world, the existence of the divine is open to question: whether or not you believe in divinity is often a matter of personal choice. But in a fantasy world, the actions of gods could affect the world directly, and demonstrations of their power--through the vehicle of priestly magic--would seem to be commonplace. Denying the existence of the gods would be madness. So why didn't we know about this Lizardman god all along?

While D&D writers seem to have been content thus far to assign non-human sentients their own pantheons, I think some interesting possibilities are being missed. Are these gods of the Orcs really different gods, or are they only the different names the Orcs give to the same gods? It's possible that divine entities are the same everywhere, but that their manner of worship varies strongly from culture to culture.

Alternate Perceptions Of The Religious Theme

I have recently begun to experiment with the idea that the differences in fantasy religions within a fantasy setting are cultural differences rather than reflections of a disparate reality between fantasy gods. I used familiar philosophical approaches to distinguish the ways that different observers could report the same phenomena.

in our world, the existence of the divine is open to question

Monotheism: The monotheists acknowledge the existence of all the gods, but argue that only one of them is actually a God (or Goddess). Monotheists see the other "gods" as powerful celestials, infernals, or other outsiders.

Polytheism: The polytheists worship all the gods, regardless of any disparity between the alignment of the deity and the worshipper. To a polytheist, the gods are the gods; you might have a favorite or "patron" among them, but you worship them all. Even if the God of Magic is good, for example, evil mages still pay him homage and attempt to curry his favor. This mode of religion may be unfamiliar to the mentality of modern players, but can be very enjoyable to those who manage to get the hang of it.

Atheism: The atheists agree that the gods exist, but argue that the gods are not really gods. Atheists claim that any being of sufficient power can pose as a god, for how would an ordinary creature be able to disprove its claims? In a world where magic can prolong life almost indefinitely, bring people back from the dead, and so forth, the atheists have a strong case. If you want to bolster their claims, have the player characters encounter an atheist cleric who casts "divine" spells through the force of will in an attempt to demonstrate that anyone can cast divine magic (in D&D terms, you can rationalize this as a WISDOM-based form of sorcery).

"Metatheism": The metatheists believe that the gods exist independently of, and beyond, the material universe. An interesting variation on this theme is that the gods manifest in different forms in different universes.

These varying modes of perception allowed my campaign setting to have rich cultural differences between nations and races, all the while preserving the notion that everyone essentially worships the same entities in different ways.

Recommended Reading: Where To Steal

  • Leiber, Fritz. The Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser stories. These tales have a wonderful pantheon of diverse, original, and memorable deities.
  • Moorcock, Michael. Moorcock's epic stories of the struggle between the gods of Law and Chaos had a huge impact on the creators of D&D, and they provide an instructive look at how a mythos can contain countless deities, identifying only a few by name, and still tantalize the imagination. The Elric stories are my favorites, but the theme runs throughout Moorcock's work.
  • Kay, Guy Gavriel. A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of al-Rassan, and The Sarantine Mosaic. Kay has a talent for taking real mythic systems and reinvigorating them with a bit of fantastic flavor.
  • The Bible, the Apocrypha, and the myths of Islam. Judeo-Christian-Islamic myth is an oft-overlooked source of inspiration, but contains numerous interesting tales and a host of supernatural entities. Pick a favorite character and see where your research takes you: you might be very, very surprised where you end up!
  • Price, Robert M., and Tierney, Lawrence. "The Throne of Achamoth." This superb little short-story mingles Zoroastrian/Gnostic mythology with the cosmic horror of the Cthulhu mythos. A highly entertaining primer on how to construct an entire cosmology in only a few pages.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A bit dense, but a must-read for any serious cosmogonist.
  • Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Goddesses in Everywoman and Gods in Everyman. Though I would dispute these books' utility as psychological treatises, they provide an entertaining examination of the Classical Greek archetypes and how they relate to modern personalities. A great source of inspiration for those desiring to create resonant, memorable deities.
  • Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman. Neil Gaiman may know more about mythology than any other living person - almost certainly more than any other living comic-book writer. These comics masterfully weave all myths from all lands into one memorable cosmology. Go on, read them: once you're done, I'll bet you couldn't forget the Seven Endless if you tried.
  • Hesiod. Theogony. As far as primary myth sources go, this is one of the better reads. Cosmogony 101 in a nutshell.

I don't recommend researching the existing D&D mythoi or becoming an expert on Tolkien. These myth-systems seem tired and thin to some readers, and there's a good reason for that: they borrow heavily from other myths! Go to the source, and craft your own visions of the cosmos. If you must delve into Tolkien's Middle-Earth lore, check out Tolkien's Ring by David Day, an examination of the source myths that inspired our beloved master of fantasy world-building.


The key to building a myth-system your players will enjoy is to keep your work comprehensible. Weave creation stories, focus on your theme and the most interesting gods in your pantheon, and never forget that your deities are a living part of your world. If you put thought into how your gods relate to your setting, rather than tacking a few more divine residences onto the Outer Planes, your players are likely to notice your effort. With a little research and some genuine care, you can create a mythology that your players will still be remembering fondly for years to come.

How interesting. I've recently realized that my fantasy games lack religion as a whole. I've been working on creating a new fantasy world that is based on religion and it has opened up a lot fo doors for me. One thing that I found pretty surprising is that the Greek, Roman, and Norse Gods are all pretty much the same. This is the same pantheon of gods in three different regions, one quite distant from the other two. Outside of a name change and some minor differences in the details of each god, they are the same.
I would like to note that while all three pantheons have the same gods, the creation myth and conflict are different for each one.

"Next time someone asks you if you're a god, say YES!"

Fabulous article Coyctus!

Perhaps you could expand your religous perceptions to also include something about the kinds of worship -- mystery religions such as the cults of Dionysius, Isis, or the Masons exist within the deme of their particular pantheon in stark contrast to other expressions of faith -- Ecclesiastical, evangelical, chthonic. The rituals and methods of worship reinforce the archetype while also giving clues to the mysteries behind them -- why do the followers of so-and-so always lift their right hand to heaven and their left to the ground. Colours, symbols, language, epithets, and even names change from region to region. The ancient Roman Gods in their groups of three were almost totally subsumed by the more popular Greek Gods. It is very interesting to have two Gods operating differently under the same name. Unless your players are more clever than mine it could be years before they figure it out.

Myth is so incredibly powerful and can serve so many purposes. It teaches about culture; it explains natural phenomenon; it instills morals; it warns about moral and physical dangers; it predicts the future.

Thanks for the topic. I'm going to save it as reference material for the next time I am working on a setting.

What I've found and dislike is that often in fantasy, religion tends to fall into exactly two possibilities.

The evil opressive Church and the randomly transplanted Wicca.
The diffirence between the two is that Wicca is oh-so tolerant and they love NATURE and shit like that.

while the roman pantheon is the greek one with name changes (the romans simply took over that pantheon for themselves, same as they did later with christianity), the norse pantheon, although sharing similarities, is deifferent indeed. from the creation myths, struggles and creatures, to the gods themselves.

There are difference in the creation myth and so on. However, if you look at the gods themselves, especially Odin, you'll see the similarities. I don't normally study religion, this just happens to be something that I noticed while working on a new world for my groups...

"We shall rise up in the cafeteria and stab them with our plastic forks!"

while the roman pantheon is the greek one with name changes (the romans simply took over that pantheon for themselves, same as they did later with christianity)

This is a little simplistic, if essentially accurate. The Romans identified a lot of their own gods with the Greek gods, but they weren't the same in all respects. Before I get into deep water here talking about things I'm not 100% sure about, I believe certain Roman gods, especially Jupiter, Mars, and Pluto, had cults that predated the near-wholesale appropriation of certain aspects of Greek culture by the Romans. The differences between the Roman gods and their Greek analogues are slight, but very interesting.

Thanks, Gilgamesh. Coming from you, that means a lot.

I like the idea about ritual variances; I'll be working that into my next campaign for sure.

The evil opressive Church and the randomly transplanted Wicca.
The diffirence between the two is that Wicca is oh-so tolerant and they love NATURE and shit like that.

Ugh! Join the fight against cliché! Don't let people push religious systems like that on you. Protest, or better yet -- give the GM a decent book to read.

Yes, that is my understanding too. The Romans began with Gods of Latium and fused them with the Greek Gods. Not a lot seems to be known about the early Latium Gods. They also believed in lares and penates (spirits who protected houses -- hence larder).
I think it is also important to note that they didn't just borrow from the Greeks. Egyptian and even Persian dieties were also honoured by the Romans.
I have a suspicion that the Romans weren't the only ones "borrowing" from other cultures. Myth was mostly and oral tradition; and a good story, like a good joke, tends to be re-told. The teller will also put their own spin on it. Every little town in Greece had a story about Heracles and their particular town.

Regarding the oppressive church comment: that's one of the more intriguing aspects of Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series... it is the church which is in some ways oppressed by royalty.

Where can one find more information on these "expressions of faith--ecclesiastical, evangelical, chthonic," etc.? What do these things mean? I thought I knew a lot about religions but I'm not grokking this. Thanks bunches!

In which a little blowing smoke ensues until Gil comes around to answer:

My interpretation of Gil's comment was that ritual expression often varies quite strongly with the underlying mythological basis.

Ecclesiastical ritual is centered around a church or temple; the organization of the church is literally the most important thing in the religion. All key rituals (e.g. baptism, communion, confession, absolution, marriage, etc) are controlled by the church as an institution. Ecclesiastical traditions have some tradition of "lineage" -- for example, the Catholic doctrine of Apostolic Succession, the basis for establishing the papacy, traces the "lineage" or right to govern the spiritual institution to Peter.

Paul told Timothy, "[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2).

It's easy to learn more about the doctrine of apostolic succession, but a starting point may be found here:

Evangelical ritual is harder to define, but is definitely less church/temple-oriented than Ecclesiastical tradition. In evangelist traditions, spreading the faith is paramount. Examples of evangelist traditions would be early (pre-Catholic) Christianity, early Islam (with its famous confession of the divinity of God and the authority of Mohammed), and 19th-Century tent revivalism (elements of which can still be encountered the world over). Evangelist traditions tend to center around confessions of faith. For early Christians, this was baptism; for early Muslims, it was the famous confession ("there is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet"); for pentacostalists and tent-revivalists, it is the so-called "baptism of fire," which supposedly promotes the Holy Spirit-inspired "speaking in tongues," also known as glossia, xenoglossia, and (less charitably) glossolalia. Unlike Ecclesiastical traditions, Evangelist traditions can utilize but by no means require a centralized place of worship. The mythological basis for the Christian evangelist tradition of the 19th Century was the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in the Second Chapter of Acts. Few evangelical traditions require a central "priest" authority figure; in many cases, one who has been initiated may initiate others.

Chthonic traditions are usually defined as the ancient, pre-Aryan (or pre-Olympian) religions of the Mediterranean. These gods were primarily gods of the earth: the Earth Mother Ge is the best-known of these gods, and had numerous incarnations including the "Bee Goddess" of the legendary Greek "Golden Age," the serpent goddess of Minoan Crete, and (a bit later) the titaness Rhea and the Olympian goddess Demeter. Other chthonic divinities include the tripartite goddesses (the Fates in their benevolent aspect, the Eryines ["Furies"] or Eumenides in their punitive aspect, and the feminine trinity in their mystical, moon-based aspect [Selene/Kore/Persephone, Rhea/Demeter, and Hecate]). This tradition was quite widespread in the Mediterranean in the third and second millennia BCE. Chthonic traditions often involved blood sacrifice (which would be sanitized and remembered by later traditions) and a matriarchal social order: the mysteries of motherhood and the feminine cycle made women the keepers of mystic ritual, though later civilizations (such as the Minoan) would eventually recognize the equality of men and the role of men in childbirth. These traditions extended to Babylon and ancient Israel, though not a lot of folk like to hear about that nowadays, and deities such as Astarte, Asherah, Al-Lat, and Lilith are usually demonized when they are remembered at all.

I may be getting a little off-base here, but I believe the mystical traditions of the Chthonic gods informed the ritual bases of turn-of-the-Milennium "mystery cults" such as the cult of Isis, the cult of Mithra, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and Pythagorean (pre-Christian) Gnosticism. Whether they did or not, the mystery cults centered around initiation into a central "Gnosis" or revelation. These initiations ranged from the relatively philosophical (Pythagoras) to the psychotropic (the Eleusinian Mysteries and their putative use of psilocybin).

Unless I am very badly misinformed, the Chthonic traditions (along with imported Sumerian/Babylonian myth and ritual) formed the basis of European "magical theory," starting with the Greco-Roman practices of "magic" and continuing in fits, starts, and "eras of rediscovery" into the Middle Ages and even the modern day.

For a brief rundown on Chthonic gods, this is a good start:

Also check the related link:

Elements of all these traditions may be found in nearly every religion worldwide: even Buddhism has had Ecclesiastical, Evangelical, and mystical phases.

Gilgamesh can come along and bat me around for my shoddy pretensions to scholarship, but I think this can at least get you started on your own. Google is your friend!

Thanks for the response. I apologize for my silence -- on top of a big project at work I am teaching three evenings a week. I'll try to post more later.

Let me just insert a note of caution about overdoing religion in FRPGs, because a game that ignores religion only shuts itself off from one of many possible avenues of exploration, while I've literally seen badly handled religion kill otherwise beloved campaigns.

And by handled badly, I mean taking all this cosmogony stuff and gaming it like it was established, scientific fact instead of religion.

Religion, like any other form of magic, requires an air of mystery in order to inspire wonder. If you want people to ooh and aah over the stars of your mythology, the best thing you can do is keep them the hell off-stage, and always leave some seed of doubt as to whether any miracles they work might not just be spectacular coincidence.

So what if the Greek gods regularly walked the earth, blatantly toying with the lives of mortals? The ancient Greeks felt helpless and put upon by the forces of nature, and your players are not choosing to spend their time playing your game instead watching a movie or reading a book just so they can feel like hapless victims of circumstance. Playing an RPG is about feeling empowered, stepping into the starring role of a story. So if you want your campaign to feature the glory and thunder of divine wrath, make sure it features the PCs as some of those divinities.

No, I'm not saying PCs need to start (or even end) every campaign at the top of the food chain, but there's a huge difference between challenging them and victimizing them and/or stealing their thunder.

So: mythology, good for adding theme and flavour to a campaign. Bad when it's viewed as a factory for deus ex machina or a constant source of melodrama.

And by handled badly, I mean taking all this cosmogony stuff and gaming it like it was established, scientific fact instead of religion.

Obviously, my experience has been different. Hence the article.

In all seriousness, I think you've got an unpleasant uphill climb if you want to suggest that the miracles of clerics and other religious casters aren't "fact." In nearly any D&D campaign, the matter isn't arguable in the slightest: the power of clerics comes from gods, period.

Other systems allow for greater flexibility, of course, but the article wasn't written primarily to address the approach a given GM wants to take to religion or its workings (though there is one section that addresses different approaches). The article was written to help other GMs develop unique, interesting pantheons and religions as backdrops for their campaigns. How those pantheons are used is a side-issue, and varies widely from campaign to campaign.

I guess my main problem with this remark is that it assumes every GM will be heavy-handed in presenting the gods. There is such a thing as subtlety, you know.

If you want people to ooh and aah over the stars of your mythology, the best thing you can do is keep them the hell off-stage, and always leave some seed of doubt as to whether any miracles they work might not just be spectacular coincidence.

I see your point, especially as you develop it later on in your remark, but let me be clear -- to assert that there's much room for "spectacular coincidences" of a magical nature in a fantasy campaign with clerical magic is pushing the internal logic of the fantasy setting to its absolute limit. If your players buy it -- if your ambiguity is skillfully handled -- then well and good. But what you suggest does not follow as a matter of direct logic from the rules of clerical magic as presented, say, in the D&D Player's Handbook. Other systems, as noted, may often more flexibility -- or not. GURPS can offer ambiguous mechanics of clerical magic, but it does not have to by any means: it's up to the GM's taste. Palladium is no different from D&D with regard to the interpretation of clerical magic.

When you say that keeping the deities offstage is the best thing you can do to make people ooh and aah over your deities, I must respectfully disagree. Your experience may have led you to believe that, but my experience has been different--very, very different, from the sound of things.

The ancient Greeks felt helpless and put upon by the forces of nature...

Except for the heroes! Even if defying the gods meant an eventually untimely end, it by no means precluded a long and illustrious heroic career! When you say that gods walking the Earth means that PCs must play some of those gods to have a good time, I have to say I think bad experiences have clouded your judgment. Odysseus, Heracles, Theseus, Orpheus, Perseus, and many others interacted directly with the gods, and they were by no means deprived of agency in their stories. It's entirely possible to have the gods interact with your player characters without making the PCs feel marginalized. I only say this because I do it all the time.

No, I'm not saying PCs need to start (or even end) every campaign at the top of the food chain, but there's a huge difference between challenging them and victimizing them and/or stealing their thunder.

So: mythology, good for adding theme and flavour to a campaign. Bad when it's viewed as a factory for deus ex machina or a constant source of melodrama.

No arguments here. I don't mean to sound vehement with you above, but neither do I think the options are quite the stark extremes of black and white you make them seem.

Perhaps this is an issue of perception. Without putting words into GiacomoArt's mouth I think that he is concerned about the dominance of a structured ruleset over a ambiguous mythical background. Correct me if I am wrong.

Structure in the wrong hands leads to sterility. Freedom in the wrong hands leads to chaos. In order to be consistent a GM must have a structure from which to arbitrate and show the mysteries of the world. Without this structure the players cannot enjoy any mysteries because there is nothing to figure out. If the GM is prone to making mistakes on rulings the players cannot deduce or induce any meaningful knowledge about the "truths" or mysteries of the fantastic world. If the GM lays out the mysteries of the universe at once (as we are here) the players loose interest because there is nothing to discover. No matter how interesting your Cosmogony is -- the players won't be interested if you import it wholesale and drop it in their laps.
The problem is that we are talking from the top-down perspective -- the perspective that the GM must understand to make the game credible. The players play from the bottom. Their maps aren't accurate or complete. Their information about the gods comes from fallible priests, prejudiced laypeople, and inaccurate records. Their experience needs to be rich with mystery and controversy, human drama and emotion, chance and fate.

Two priests of the same diety can disagree about aspects of faith that lead to schisms. Both of these priests understand (have wisdom) enough to call upon the energy (spells/prayers) of their god(s). If you want to inject life into religion in your world remember one thing. People's greatest strengths can become their greatest weakness. You should have complimentary errors of faith written into your framework and let that develop the story.

My point in a nutshell: don't let the danger of the right path steer you onto the wrong path. You need structure. You need mystery. Shunning one does not land you in the lap of the other. You have to persue both inspite of the fact that it is a daunting task.

Well said, Gilgamesh. As always, your insight is appreciated. It is a daunting task to incorporate such things as "ultimate truth" (perhaps only known to the GM) with complimentary "errors of faith." But it's doable. And it doesn't have to be done perfectly to be done well.

Thanks. How do we edit a post to remove errors due to loose spelling? Do we lose the opportunity to edit the post after a response? Oh well, I will have to live with the last post in spite of the errors.

You should see a link below your post that says 'edit.' If you don't see it, email morbus. Then you just click the link, and you'll see your existing post in green, and the text of it below in the 'Comment' box.

I see the edit if there has been no response. After that it goes away. Thanks.

I'm an idiot. I guess it does go away...oddly, I never noticed that before.

...collect jaw off floor....

wow, Cocytus...I mean WOW.
you really are an expert.
lots of long words for me to look up in a dictionary :)

Actually, I never noticed that either...oh, well.

Anyway, I guess the "edit" button is removed to prevent deletion/massive changes to posts that might dirupt thread continuity....
Or maybe it just fell off.

You are quite literally too kind, zip. I hope my post above is interesting and informative to others, but I must emphasize that I am an amateur in the truest sense of the word. I study myths and religious traditions as my pastime, because they are things that interest me on many levels. My conclusions, and many of my statements, should not be taken for actual scholarship. Were a true scholar of comparative religion to dissect my post, I have little doubt I should be taken to task on a number of points.

As a fingerpost for interesting things and starting points for the research of other GMs--as a gaming resource, in other words--I hope it is adequate for the time being. I'm not trying to teach a class here, only to help out fellow gamers who share my interest in such things.

heck, i probably wouldn't want to go to a class on this subject anyway...i just dabble,i'm just here for the cheap thrills :)

Wow, this is really helpful, I have been GMing for about four years, and I still have a really shitty Pantheon, I am now trying to build anew, perhaps with a better or more stream lined system, my old one was quite Greco-Roman, this will be more open to amendment

anywho, great help, perhaps you could go further in depth for as to what might be a decent group to have in a Pantheon, such as what dominions should be represented? (Thunder, Time, marshmallow-Fluff)

Yes. Give me a few days, and I will see what I can throw together.