The story is told of when the learned medieval king Alfonso X of Castile was given a lesson in Ptolemaic cosmology, he responded by saying, “had I been present at the creation, I would have given some useful advice on the better ordering of the heavens.”
Many a reader has thought the same when examining the artificial mythologies in any number of fantasy worlds. We blame the creator when the cosmology and theology of their universe is askew, confusing, or haphazard. Some, like Robert Jordan’s gendered, Manichean system, are poetic in their construction and suggest a well-ordered, well-thought-out universe with admirable solutions to philosophical problems.
Let me give a fairly topical example: the pantheon from the vast Elder Scrolls videogame universe. Now, the purpose of this post is not to bash on Skyrim. I, personally, am a big fan, and there is much that a budding fantasy author could learn about how to world-build out of small details from the game. Mostly, I chose Skyrim because its pantheon is lovingly, conveniently catalogued in ostentatious detail on the semi-official wiki. I could easily have picked the stereotyped and haphazard heap of deities in David Eddings’ Belgariad or any number of other authors.
In the Elder Scrolls, the gods are, by and large, divided into the transcendent, benevolent creating deities, the Aedra, and the plenipotent and largely evil Daedra who live on another plane. This is all well and good, but once it goes deeper than that, well…
According to the Elder Scrolls wiki, the spheres of influence of the Aedra include: Kynoreth of the wind, air, and sky; Akatosh of time; Zenithar of work and commerce; Stendarr of mercy; Magnus and Julianos both of magic; Arkay of burials and funerals. No pattern, whatsoever.
The Daedra are even more random: Azura of twilight; Hermaeus Mora of forbidden knowledge; Mehrunes Dagon of revolution; Mephala and Boethiah both of betrayal. There are nowhere close to the same number of Aedra and Daedra.
What’s even worse than a pantheon assembled on the model of a children’s primer of Greek Mythology is the illogical assertion that, somehow, the Aedra can be killed but the Daedra can’t. Forget the vaguely Adoptionist apotheosis of Tiber Septim or the random treatment of the afterlife.
The Elder Scrolls (and other notable offenders like The Warcraft Universe) at least can excuse themselves by having been built by multiple committees over decades. When it is in the hands of a single creator, even your average reader of fantasy is likely to be critical if the author does not produce a cosmology and a pantheon that could stand up to the simplest scrutiny.
What’s worse is that it can even interfere with characterization. While only the most hostile of readers will not accept the givens of an author’s universe, a poorly ordered pantheon interferes if the reader can see philosophical/theological problems that allegedly learned characters blithely pass over without comment. This is where Jordan, and to a degree, the Elder Scrolls, provide a model. They have various parties and characters wrestle with the theological and cosmological paradoxes inherent in any system.
Beyond the above, why these arbitrary pantheons may bother readers, or at least those as anal-retentive as I am, is an interesting question. I think that the dislike of deus ex machina drives the distaste with asymmetrical and haphazard pantheons. When the number of deities or spheres of influence thereof seems arbitrary, as readers, we suspect that the author let the needs of the plot or game mechanics drive the cosmology.
For eccentric spheres of influence, especially, one begins to suspect, for instance, that David Eddings drew a map and assigned his deities based on the number of countries and then based the god on the main character from that country—which is only marginally better than ‘how many gods do I need to keep this plot on track?’—or in the case of Skyrim, the statistical bonuses provided by blessings may have decided what gods were what. Need a bonus to selling prices? Have a god of commerce. Need a bonus to healing magic? Have a goddess of love. This sort of tail wagging the dog bothers us. The author should create a world for the characters to live in, not a world for them. It, ultimately, pings what Aristotle calls the Improbable Fiction.
Why the number of deities being unusual (like the seventeen Daedra in Skyrim) bothers us is a more interesting question. The unspoken assumption, I think, on the part of readers is that a well-ordered universe will have an auspicious number of deities. What numbers are preferred is cultural. One through four are probably always fine, but more than that, and the matter becomes murkier.
Eight is a very lucky number in China, and as such, Chinese mythology has the eight immortals. In the West, we’d much rather have seven or nine than eight—Eddings has seven, and Skyrim has nine Aedra. There are twelve Olympians. Even thirteen, though not lucky, is auspicious, at least—so does Jordan have thirteen Forsaken, generals to his one Dark Lord. When the number is not an auspicious one, we, as readers, begin to think that the author made as many as they could think of or the selection was generated by plot exigencies, which triggers the previous objection.
It may seem odd that the creation of artificial pantheons would be such a fraught affair, but the fact that we think some superior to others suggests that it isn’t merely a matter of whipping out ones artistic license and flinging gods about.