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Making Cultures: Chapter 1

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Mar. 27th, 2007 | 12:26 pm

Chapter 1. First Principles: Sacred and Profane

I notice that religion is relatively often added late to fantasy worlds. It also seems to have consistent institutional and mythological forms: priests with temples dedicated to particular gods in a pantheon. Sometimes there is a significant attempt to integrate these into the game-world; more often, they seem tacked-on, something primarily the concern of religious professionals (clerics, druids, etc.).

All of this depends on a number of fundamental assumptions that are stunningly difficult for most modern Westerners to get around. And because these assumptions are so deep, and because they in some sense run right to the core of what we think culture is in the first place, I think the best way to start building something new and different is to challenge those assumptions.


From the perspective of RPG culture-design, it is actually exceptionally useful to start with religion. This is because that undefinable congeries we like to point to and call “religion” is essentially always bound up with a vast range of ideas and ideals that cannot be separated from the rest of cultural life. As a result, if we start with religion, we are intrinsically starting with core elements of what the culture is really like, deep down, rather than starting with trivia. To put it differently, we are starting with the why rather than the what. This goes back to my point about not constructing cultural elements as explanations.

The big assumptions are, first, that religion is basically about faith in divinities. Ritual is, as a rule, secondary, and often pragmatic: do ut des (I give so that you give) and so on. Very often people are identified with divinities, or what amounts to the same thing, pantheons. Hrorg the Barbarian is a worshiper of Krark the God of Steel—you can tell, because when he’s mad he says “Krark!” And if he follows The Way Of Steel, he may get special powers, especially against servants of Krark’s mythological enemy Gwanna, Goddess of Lizards. And so on—you know the drill.

The thing is that this is an exceedingly poor definition of religion.

Faith was largely introduced as a fundamental principle with the rise of Christianity. Go back and read Exodus, for example: God doesn’t say anything about the Hebrews believing in him, but rather that they should obey him and his laws. If they break those laws, they must be purified or punished (or both). And if you look around with open eyes, you will start to notice that if you read up on world religions (and don’t get it all from an apologist like Huston Smith or Joseph Campbell), faith is really not especially common as an important principle. Furthermore, faith is usually balanced against ritual, as sides of a single coin—at least, until the Reformation, with Luther yelling “sola fide” (faith alone) and all that. So nowadays it seems pretty much everybody is a Protestant, including Jews and Catholics. I always enjoy prodding undergraduates about ritual, because you can always get the Jews and Catholics to tell you that ritual is much less important than faith, which just goes to show you that Luther won in the end.

Divinities, in which category we can include various gods, spirits, and ancestors, certainly are pretty common, but they are not universal. And, as everyone in the business has been saying for a hundred years now, there is no proper reason to exclude this or that tribe from the broad category of “people with religion” just because they don’t happen to be interested in divinities.

Ultimately, there is no decent definition of religion, and there probably isn’t going to be one. I do not want to get into the details of the issue—it’s one of those nightmares that scholars of religion mostly avoid these days, because everyone knows it’s unsolvable.

So the first thing to do is to undermine this. We start by thinking about religion, broadly speaking, but we do not do this in terms of faith or divinities. The place to begin is with the brilliant division, first proposed seriously by Émile Durkheim in his 1912 Elementary Forms of Religious Life, between the sacred and the profane

Nota Bene: I am going to maintain this division in Durkheimian terms for as long as I can in this series, because it makes everything much, much easier. In the end, it will have to break down, but for reasons that we cannot seriously discuss as yet.

The Division

People look at the world through eyes conditioned very largely by the cultures in which they were raised. It is true that significant structures of thought come embedded in the brain; it is also true that other structures are personally constituted in reaction to what one has encountered of the world on one’s own. But that said, it all really comes together in a framework primarily determined by culture. That framework is classically described (by Aristotle and so on) in terms of a number of categories of thought: force, number, genus, time, space, and so on.

Now most of these categories have analogues here and there in the world around us. So when we look around and say, “Well, obviously there are basically four directions, because front-back, left-right, and furthermore north-south east-west, and so on,” we see how the category matches the world, which confirms us, and so on. But at the same time, the particular structures and terms of these categories seem to vary wildly. There are societies which do not map the world in four directions, for example. And I don’t mean that they think that the four-direction system is a weak one or whatever: I mean that they cannot imagine the world that way. To them, it is perfectly obvious that there are X number of directions, because obviously you look around you and you see A, B, C..., and so what kind of moron doesn’t know there are X directions?

The point of this little sketch is really twofold.

First of all, the broad categories of human thought, i.e. the framework or lenses or whatever through which we think about our experiences, can often be so deeply molded by our societies that we simply cannot see that there is any other way to think. Very often, in fact, we project such certainties onto nature: obviously such-and-such because it’s like that in nature.

Second, those categories and those analogies to nature may be, from someone else’s perspective, quite bizarre, illogical, and plain wrong. The outsider may not even be able to see the distinction or parallel to which the native refers as obvious, natural proof of the right way to think.

Which leads us to what Durkheim considered the most basic division of all, the one that is actually the foundation of all the others: the division between sacred and profane. It is a kind of abstraction, a meta-division that sets the pattern for all the others. And that division has its roots in, and supports in its turn, religion.

The division between sacred and profane is (thought Durkheim) the purest and simplest division. We cannot say anything about this division in general, except that it is absolute. What is sacred is not profane, and vice-versa. To cross the line is very often blasphemy, a criminal act; at the least, it is exceedingly dangerous, and must be handled with extreme caution. But there is nothing else we can know in advance: everything depends on the particular culture.

The sacred is not necessarily superior: the Devil is a sacred being. The sacred is not necessarily awesome: a little personal talisman may be highly sacred to the one who wears it, but he may treat it with no especial reverence. The sacred is not necessarily old: a new event or object may be seen as miracle.

Apart from saying that the sacred isn’t the profane, we can say that, as a rule, the line or barrier between them is largely in one direction. That which is sacred is hedged off, protected from the profane. Only very rarely will we find the reverse. Normally we expect to find that the thing one cannot approach, cannot touch, cannot look at, and so on is sacred.

Now getting back to categories of thought, the distinction here is wholly cultural, just like the others, except that it has no clear natural base. To be sure, the natives may say it does, but there is no categorical parallel in nature.

Let’s be clear about this. At base, we can pretty much agree that time is going to have a relatively limited number of basic cultural structures, because the formulation is largely constrained by how the sun and moon move. So the analogies to nature, however varied, always have some basis.

But when a visitor totally unfamiliar with the native culture arrives, he has no way whatever to know what is and is not sacred. It is possible, of course, that exterior circumstances may help: a serious lack of a true necessity may make that necessity sacred. But let’s note that Islam does not especially mark water as a sacred substance, despite the desert. If there were water-worshipers in ancient Arabia and Persia, there weren’t many. Fire, yes, but not water. So although Frank Herbert in his Dune series makes the religion of the Fremen very plausible in its limited way, note that there is no intrinsic reason they should treat water with that kind of reverence—but nor is there any reason they shouldn’t.

(Incidentally, this is what I mean by explaining things: Fremen reverence for water “makes sense” once you know that Arrakis has no water; in real life, various ancient Arabian forms of fire-worship “make sense” once you know that… hang on. Yes, exactly: it’s not something you can find a singular answer for.)

Distinguishing the sacred and the profane, the objects and acts chosen and the reasons for them, is always and everywhere an arbitrary cultural system. And this system can be very useful for beginning to design a fantasy culture.

The Division in Action

Durkheim argued that the distinction between sacred and profane maps the distinctions between social and individual, ideal and real. Sacred things are representations of society’s ideal conception of itself. Profane things are individual, everyday, real-world things.

Now the point is that society is greater than the sum of its parts, if we take those parts to be the individuals and the institutions that constitute it. Society is, argues Durkheim, an entity of its own, with its own power and nature. And sacred things are representations of that abstraction.

People do not normally think in broad abstractions like Asociety,” you see. Mostly, they get on with their everyday concerns. But that doesn’t make society not exist. When a lot of people get together in agreement about something, whether it’s a war or a rally or a big party, we see this power of society manifest strongly. And sacred things are representations of that power.

For example, when a soldier crawls across the battlefield to rescue a flag, what is he doing? And why does his society single him out as a hero (and perhaps a martyr)? It’s a bit of colored cloth. But it represents the society, and thus it is a sacred object. When the soldier risks his life to save this representation, he is placing the concerns of the sacred over and above his everyday, profane concerns. And his society, which at some level understands what this representation is and means, salutes him for it.

Consider what happened in the U.S. right after the 9/11 attacks. Note the tremendous surge of patriotism: people flew flags who would never normally do so. Practically speaking, this is silly. Does it really help deal with Al Qaeda to fly a flag? What it does is to assert, very strongly, social identity. We are Americans. We were attacked—not just New York, not just those who died. Durkheim would have looked at all that surging patriotism and said, in essence, “You see? The attack on one symbol of American society prompted enormous displays of another such symbol. The flag is a representation of the society, and is a sacred object.” And the various discussions of Constitutional amendments against flag-burning and so on are further demonstrations of this principle.

Thus Durkheim argues that life is normally divided into two rough modes. Most of the time, we focus on our everyday, private, non-social, and profane concerns. We have to go to work, get food, and live our lives. But sometimes, under certain circumstances, we shift our focus to our society, and suddenly the symbols burst forth. In America, think of July 4, or the various displays during a baseball game (the “national pastime”). Here the collective trumps the individual, and the sacred manifests through symbols.

The final point is about the ideal and the real, and once again a baseball game is a nice case in point. When we salute our society by standing up and singing the national anthem, then by watching these guys play the national pastime, we aren’t saluting the real-world, bloody-minded and basically rather stupid society in which we (and everyone else in every country) really live. Let’s face it: the world is not made up of a lot of wonderful, saintly societies getting along and being decent. When we salute our flag, whoever we are, we aren’t saluting the reality: we’re saluting the ideal.

In America, this ideal is about a lot of things (as it is everywhere). Apple pie, mom, Superman, freedom, Ellis Island, baseball, picnics, kids with bikes playing stickball on quiet suburban streets—all that. Listen to politicians sometime: they argue, publicly, in terms of symbols of the ideal. The point is that you, the electorate, are supposed to stand up and say, “Yes, those symbols are true, they represent the society we love and honor, they are sacred, we will vote for you because you support these things.” Sure, we all know that politicians are up to something else, most of the time—if they weren’t, they wouldn’t get anything done, to say nothing of the various less savory parts of what they do. But talking in symbols like this is very powerful, because they hook up to the ideal, and thus they are really about the sacred.

Now how on earth are we going to make something concrete out of this? That is, how are we going to use this to start desigining a fantasy culture? Now that the basic principle of sacred and profane is clear, we can get started.


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Comments {8}

Blue Gargantua

(no subject)

from: bluegargantua
date: Mar. 27th, 2007 05:17 pm (UTC)

First off -- yay! thanks for taking the time to write this.

Second -- direct benefits to my education and vocabulary have already accrued!

Apparently I was unclear on what "profane" meant. I figured that sacred == "good ideal or utopian" and profane == "bad ideal or dystopian" so the whole "the Devil is sacred" part really threw me for a bit. I'm pretty sure the disconnect comes from church with it's frowning on Profanity and profane things.


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from: rodlox
date: Mar. 28th, 2007 12:02 am (UTC)

a lot of this, I didn't know.

one that I did, was that "profane" comes from a word meaning "outside the Temple," which is an extreme example of the distinction you made.

please, continue these good works.

and have nice days.

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from: jiituomas
date: Mar. 28th, 2007 08:09 am (UTC)

Chris, I disagree with your idea about starting with religion. While that is indeed a far superior method than the typical "plastered pantheon" system, it lacks credibility and the necessary (semi-)mutability of dogma.

So, instead, I'd recommend first getting a general, very elementary idea about what the culture originally was like, and then following the guidelines you set here. For example, "they started as an agrarian culture on a river delta that occasionally flooded", leading to, say, either a single agricultural and/or river divinity that would occasionally punish communal sins through violent rage, or a pantheon of competing (or cyclic) gods who sacralize these aspects of the people's lives.

This has the additional advantage that later on, as the culture's history gets developed, it's much easier to track historical changes in religion, up to and including the god(s) developing new traits, and new divinities arriving on the scene. The society changes, and so do its gods. The "origins" decision will also give hints as to how the society will make those changes: if we compare the roots of cultures like the Romans and the Aryans, it's quite easy to understand how they both ended up with wide, expanding pantheons but with very different ways of appropriating foreign divinities into their religious systems.

There's one exception to this: If you decide that the god(s) were primordial entities that pre-existed the soicities that worship them, it's indeed often best to start with the religion.

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from: clehrich
date: Mar. 29th, 2007 03:16 am (UTC)

Well, there are two reasons for starting where I do.

1) If you start with a historical development from a concrete basis, as you suggest, I think you run into a whole lot of hidden semi-evolutionary things. You get people saying, "Well, if they're basically agrarian, then...." But Japan is basically agrarian, and look at them! And actually, so is Europe, and compare the differences. My contention is that religion is a great place to start because religion is one of those places at which everything comes together in one place.

2) People normally don't start with religion; as you say, they tend to plaster on a pantheon at the end somewhere. By starting in a radically different position and thinking outwards to what the culture looks like, I think you undercut a lot of the more dubious problems.

That said, you could start a lot of places. I am starting where I do also for theoretical reasons, which is that I think starting with Durkheim is a really important move toward a plausible community, and he thinks community depends upon and arises from religion. He's wrong, but my idea was to start by tracking some of the best in the study of culture from the start.

There is also the other question you raise at the end, and in a later article I will have to deal with this hellish question: yeah, but what if the gods are real and everybody definitely knows it because they show up every now and again? That's fantasy, not reality, and it's terribly important.

Anyway, just a clarification of why I'm doing it my way. But I don't claim it's the only way -- far from it!

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Blue Gargantua

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from: bluegargantua
date: Mar. 28th, 2007 01:13 pm (UTC)

Oh, one follow on question about Faith:

Isn't some level of Faith important? At least, isn't it important to have faith in the rituals that you're carrying out? If I don't believe/have faith that there's any benefit (even purely social ones) to this rain dance I do,
why do I do it? Or does Faith here carry some meaning I'm not getting.

Thanks again,

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(no subject)

from: clehrich
date: Mar. 29th, 2007 03:22 am (UTC)

Yes, well, this is one of those nightmares. I'll come back to it, but basically let me put it like this.

Let's suppose we have a culture in which men do not normally watch their wives give birth. It is normally accepted, in fact, that men are supposed to pace up and down outside the birthing room and do some irrelevant action, like chain-smoking. I say irrelevant because it doesn't really help with the situation at hand: whether I chain-smoke or not doesn't do a damn thing about my wife. In fact, I could go drink with my friends and have her call me when she's done, but that's not cool in my culture. You with me?

Now here's a guy pacing up and down outside the birthing room chain-smoking. So does he do what he does because he thinks it helps? Helps who: him or the wife? Does he do it because that's what's expected? If he is actually hoping his wife is going to die, and he'll get all her money, he's going to do this action anyway, because he doesn't want people saying, "He hated her anyway, and he shouldn't get her dough." If he adores her and is praying desperately, he will do the same action, because that's what his society tells him is the appropriate response. So from an exterior perspective, we have no way of knowing what he believes -- we only know what he does.

This is one fundamental reason why scholars dealing with ritual have traditionally sidestepped the question of belief: it's non-demonstrable. That said, we presume that most people pacing up and down chain-smoking do not do so because they hate their wives.

As to faith per se, yes, well, it does carry a specific Protestant (and more broadly Christian) meaning that is distinctive. I think after a few articles this will be sufficiently undermined or called into question that it won't be necessary to fight about it: you'll see at that point why "faith" as a central or necessary principle isn't either central or necessary, and we will be on common ground to discuss belief or whatever in a broader sense.

Something like that, anyway. Does that make any sense?

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Blue Gargantua

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from: bluegargantua
date: Mar. 31st, 2007 05:11 pm (UTC)

Um, yeah, that makes sense. It'll tide me over for a few articles anyway.


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Can't wait to make a contribution

from: anonymous
date: Apr. 13th, 2011 08:16 pm (UTC)

Hi - I am certainly glad to find this. Good job!

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