I had a long conversation with a friend the other day about worldbuilding, the cultures for his world, and the gods. During the conversation I was in the somewhat awkward position of being asked how I approached my own gods/world building and how it worked with the cultures of the world. I say awkward as while I've wrote this blog for 10 years now, I never think of myself as an authority or source someone would go to for information on the bigger tools of GMing and writing. I'm an enthusiast, not a master. Still, the conversation had some points that may be helpful on the larger scale. They helped me at the very least.
Gods Reflect Their Cultures, And Vice Versa
The first thing to remember when making gods and cultures for a fantasy universe is that gods and cultures reflect each other. A culture big on fighting and war will have a lot of warrior gods - look at the original Shinto gods of Japan where even the god of love has warrior aspects to them, or the Irish and Norse gods for more western examples.
When world building this means you can approach two ways: you can make some gods, and then figure out what culture would come from a place with those gods active in it. OR, you can make a culture and then figure out what types of gods would stem from that culture, or be accepted and nourished by that culture.
Gods Answer Questions
Gods, Religion, and Science all stem from a place of the same desire for humanity. We want to know how to explain things we can't explain. Scientifically I can tell you that a river forms from erosion of water as it carves through the earth and makes a path for itself through the land. An older river is straighter because water wants to go one way, and over time it will get that wish. A young river has curves as parts of the earth that are harder to carve through will make it easier to go around all the while being worn down by the river.
To a society without science - or one with active gods - this is where the spirit world and gods take over. Someone made the river. Someone formed it. Someone made that crater. There are stories there. And maybe an individual river wasn't made by a god, but instead by a hero. This river came when the hero dug an irrigation ditch for some grand king, and that is why the land is so fertile and the river comes through in such a great defensive posture for the city by it.
The Events of History Modify Culture
If it hasn't been clear to you just from shifts in global cultures from a few months of Covid19 pandemic, the events of history will modify cultures. This is how you get from the base culture - what the gods made, or what made the gods - to what you present in your world/game/work.
Wars will slam cultures together, and as they slam together bits of each other will break off and spread through the other. People near borders will see a blending and merging of their opposed cultures as their proximity to each other enables interaction and over time makes them more alike to each other than they are to the people of their kingdom that live 50 or more miles away.
The Details Of Stories Can be Contradictory Depending On Region And View
When it comes to gods and the stories we tell about them, there really is no one set way of doing it. Even modern Christianity has dozens if not hundreds of variants of the bible and the stories in them. And in a fantasy world, traveling 50 miles (or less!) can change the story of what happened with a god depending on how it impacted those people.
This happened in the real world as well. In a Greek Mythology course I took, the teacher pointed out that it was common for researchers to find similar but different stories of gods and heroes around certain exploits all the time. Neither was "right" or "wrong" but just how the story went there.
One of the examples that always stood out the most to me is the story of Actaeon and Artemis. Actaeon was a hunter and a devotee of Artemis. One day he came upon her and her handmaidens bathing. In one version of the story Actaeon immediately backs away and apologizes for his slight. In another version of the story, Actaeon moves in on Artemis and her hand maidens (all of whom are sworn to be virgins) and attempts to force himself on them. In both versions the response from Artemis is to turn Actaeon into a stag and have him ripped to pieces by his own hounds.
So which one of those versions is true? Did Actaeon try to force himself on a goddess and her maidens while they bathed? Or did he back away and apologize? Which version of the story you heard depended on where you heard it and where you grew up. And the same can be true for gods all over. Maybe there is a true event, but the story will still go around and in that you can have different aspects of your god.