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The Natural and the Supernatural Part One: Religion by Charles Mossop


~~ Worlds Apart ~~ Editor ~~ Charles Mossop ~~

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The Natural and the Supernatural Part 1: Religion


The supernatural has been one of humankind’s most fundamental preoccupations over the last quarter of a million years.  Beginning, or so the evidence suggests, with the Neanderthals, our remote ancestors asked questions about life, death and the unseen powers which are believed to shape the natural world and influence the course of events. 


Contrary to popular belief, Neanderthals were not lumbering, beetle-browed sub humans.  They were as intelligent as modern humans are, and millennia ago it was they who conceived of a supernatural world.  Neanderthals buried their dead, arguably a sensible thing to do, but they placed objects in the graves: tools, weapons, even food.  Necessities for the afterlife.  And in some graves, there is evidence that the dead body was covered in flowers before being buried. 


These burials demonstrate the major question that was dawning upon human consciousness all those thousands of years ago.  It was not only a matter of knowing about the supernatural world, the big problem was how to get along with it and prevent it causing too much trouble–which it obviously had the power to do.


There are two major cultural constructs in human society designed to help people coexist with the supernatural.  They are religion and magic.    


Religion and magic are not mutually exclusive.  Features of each are to be found in the other.  Broadly speaking, though, religion can be viewed as a set of beliefs and practices focussed on requesting the intervention of the supernatural in human affairs.  Magic, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs and practices focussed on ensuring supernatural intervention.  Put another way, religion involves prayer, which may, or may not, be answered, while magic–if performed correctly–guarantees the desired result. “I shall pray for rain, and it might rain,” versus “I shall perform a rain dance, and it will rain.” In this column, we will consider religion and leave magic until next month.


As we have observed so many times before in these monthly articles, your task, as a writer, is to create a setting for your story and show why your characters behave as they do.  Whether you are telling a story set three hundred years ago, or designing a world of pure imagination, the world you build must be understandable, consistent and believable, and your characters must look and sound as if they belong there.  Beliefs about the supernatural are among the most powerful forces influencing human behaviour, and so if you are building a historical or fantasy world as a setting for a story, the supernatural is a rich source of detail.  Describing the religious beliefs people hold is one way of adding authenticity to your world and explaining the behaviour of its characters.


Take the example of ancestor worship in traditional China.  The human soul was believed to consist of several parts, and after death, those parts went their separate ways–one of them to take up residence in the deceased’s tablet in the ancestral hall or household shrine.  The tablet was a rectangle of wood, often painted red, with the name of the deceased written on it in black or gold ink.  Offerings of food were left for the spirits of the dead ancestors, and the spirits of the departed were worshipped and revered on a regular basis as well as on numerous special festival days throughout the year.  It was important to treat the ancestors well.  They could intervene in the lives of their descendants and help them, but not if they were ignored and forgotten.  In Chinese families, the young were subordinate tot he old, and this could be justified by pointing out that the old were subordinate to the ancestors. (Next month, we will discuss the other side of ancestor worship, which is pure magic and involves fung shui, the winds and waters.)


In addition to ancestor worship, animism existed in the form of Daoism (or Taoism), a reverence for the Dao, the way of nature, and after about 50 CE, Buddhism began to spread through China from India via the Silk Road.   Through reference to these three major schools of religious thought, you can bring a feeling of reality to a story set in old China, and confer an authenticity on the behaviour of your characters.  I’ll try to show you what I mean.


Consider the following sentence about a man in fifteenth century China:


Gau Lisan tried to decide what he should do, and eventually concluded he should give the jade carving away.


This is a perfectly straightforward statement, but does not tell us anything about the character, or how he made his decision.  If we add a little more detail, it begins to be clearer.


Gau Lisan prayed to be shown what he should do, and eventually he came to believe he should give the jade carving away.


This second sentence shows us that Gau Lisan makes his decision by turning to divine help of some kind, but far greater insight into the world that Gau lives in and the relationship he has with the supernatural is shown in the expanded paragraphs below.


Gau Lisan went to the ancestral hall in his village and left offerings of oranges and rice cakes before the tablets of his forebears. He begged them to give him some sign as to what he should do.  He touched his forehead to the floor in kowtow before the calm faced statue of Lord Buddha in the village temple, and beseeched the Gracious One to give him direction.  No answer came, and so Gau made his solitary way into the forest and there contemplated the trees, stones and streams, and appealed to the spirits of that place to help him.


 As he sat by the bubbling, laughing waters of a clear, cold  stream, a golden kingfisher darted down arrow straight from a branch high overhead and seized a fish in its long, sharp beak.  The brilliantly coloured bird soared upward with its glistening silver prize, and flew to a nest in a nearby willow tree.  As Gau watched, the bird gave the fish to its mate who sat on the eggs in the nest, and in that instant, Gau was given his answer.  The kingfisher did not keep its treasure, but selflessly gave it away, and Gau now knew that he must give the jade carving away also.  He stood and bowed deeply to the birds as they perched high in the willow, and thanked their spirits for their generosity.


How much more these paragraphs tell us about the character, his world and his consciousness of life.  We know the relationship between Gau and the world of gods and spirits, and we understand how this character, and others of his time, saw themselves as a part of nature.


Of course, it may not be necessary for you to introduce the subjects of the supernatural or religion into your story, but a great deal can be shown if you do.  Since religion is ubiquitous in human societies, you can add to the realism of your world by finding opportunities to mention it.  It will help bring both your historical and your fantasy worlds to life, and will contribute depth and richness to your characters.


Write on,



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