Sunday, November 1, 2009

Writing Religion

One aspect of life that inevitably crops up in reading or writing historical fiction is religion, the beliefs, practices and rituals of faith in the world and time surrounding the characters. Many writers manage to avoid the religious aspects of life in their work, and who can blame them? Religion adds a whole other layer to a story that could threaten to overtake things. But why would one want to ignore such a deep and personal connection to a place and time, a connection that could draw the reader closer to the people populating a particular age? It may be easier to ignore religion but the story will definitely be lacking in a sense.

Part of the problem is that many of the people inhabiting this modern, quick-paced world of ours have lost touch and can not relate to the feelings of faith that were felt by our ancestors and which were, for the most part, part of the every day.

This might not apply so much to religions that are still in strong existence to this day such as Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism or the younger religions of Christianity and Islam - when writing about these, the problem for the writer is more about being accurate and careful not to offend anyone simply because they still have large followings. There should always be a deep respect for people's beliefs.

When writing about the ancient polytheistic religions of Greece, Rome and Egypt there is a two-part conundrum. Firstly, depending on the sources available, it might not be very easy to attain a level of accuracy regarding a particular religion. Secondly, how can a writer overcome the barrier that is the modern mind in order to draw a reader in and make it believable?

On the first point, research is essential as well as visiting the sites about which you are writing. If written sources are scant, then going to a place to "feel the vibe" can sometimes help to give texture to your scenes. The ancient religions had been around for much longer than, say, Christianity and Islam have to date. The faith of many thousands (millions?) of believers over the centuries leaves an indelible, if not intangible, mark on a place. In my own experience, the sanctuaries of Olympia, Delphi and Elefsis in Greece, or even the temples of the Forum Romanum in Rome still resonate with the faith of ages and in some of these spots flowers are still laid for the powers that were. However, when the sources regarding religious practices are scant and when it is impossible to visit a site, it is the writer's job to fill in the gaps as best he or she can. This can be an extremely fun exercise and usually, your characters will help you along.

The second part of the conundrum, of drawing in modern readers to make your characters' religion believable, is slightly more tricky. For many, the past is the past and as such has no legitimacy, especially ancient religions - although, those who think like this will probably not be reading historical fiction. Sadly there is a degree of arrogance in the modern mindset that tends to dismiss ancient, near extinct, religious beliefs as false and completely misguided. This is an unfortunate and close-minded point of view because it closes people off to understanding the past and well, exprencing some very exciting stories that in fact influenced and shaped the world we live in.

One thing about ancient religions is that they were very human religions with gods and goddesses that represented all that was beautiful and terrible in humanity be it Love, or War, Wisdom or Vengeance. There was a god or goddess for every aspect of life, every emotion, and as a result the gods and goddesses were an influence on and a part of everyday life. You can see it in ancient art and architecture, in a roughly carved figurine gathering dust in the corner of a museum, the wind-worn columns of temple ruins or a few lines from a sacred hymn whose utterance carried great weight long ago.

A writer should not shy from religion, the way we so often do in conversation these days, but rather show it for all that it is, drawing in the reader to open their mind and eyes and make the characters and story come to life in an infinitely more human way.