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Which Mountain Goddess?
Some words on realistic polytheistic worldbuilding on the eve of my book's publication.
There are a few deities mentioned in this story. Lilinbaðụ, for example, is the Queen of the Underworld, and her sacred festival is important to the story’s setup.
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I’ve mentioned previously that the Mountain Goddess in the work is inspired by a Goddess whom I actually worship, the Mother of the Gods, who is Rhea, Magna Mater, and Cybele, and I gave you these lines from the Orphic Hymn to the Mother of the Gods, as translated by Thomas Taylor:
Mother of Zeus, whose mighty arm can wield th’ avenging bolt, and shake the dreadful shield.
Drum-beating, frantic, of a splendid mien, brass-sounding, honor’d, Kronos’ blessed queen.
Thou joy’st in mountains and tumultuous fight, and mankind’s horrid howlings, thee delight.
War’s parent, mighty, of majestic frame, deceitful saviour, liberating dame.
Mother of Gods and men, from whom Gaia and lofty Ouranos derive their glorious birth;
Th’ ætherial gales, the deeply spreading sea goddess ærial form’d, proceed from thee.
The ambiguity of the Mother of the Gods being Cybele, Magna Mater, Rhea, and so on, is something that is deeply present in many of the prayers and in the philosophical exegesis of the Goddess. And the ambiguity doesn’t even end there. In scholars who study Proclus, for example, much is said about what the difference is between Rhea and Hekate.
A lot of advice exists online about how to write polytheistic cultures. Some of it is very good. Some of it just lists out “Gods of …” and asks authors to put names into a correspondence table. I ran into someone once who told me that they’d worked out their entire fictional pantheon, and all of the Gods in that pantheon fit into neat boxes with rivalries and all of that. It was heavily myth-focused.
The way I tend to write puts the relationship with people first. For example, my protagonist, Keð Teðqawo Qamalin, works in a job where she is very concerned about her safety and protection — she goes into dangerous situations. To whom does she turn when she prays about this and why? Did she learn who should receive prayers for this from her parents, or did she acculturate into praying to this deity (or these deities) as part of her job? Is there another deity whom she worships that she might ask for protection even if it’s not a typical part of their myths? She prays to Bamonkam, a very typical deity for people exposed to dangers, especially at the hands of other people. Bamonkam has the epithet “He Who Wards and Protects,” which expresses an important thing about the relationship he has with society. He does not have any epithets related to waging war. Samaðrem is a foreign deity imported from another planet, Ameisa, shortly before the Blackout. You will note the strong similarity between ler name and the name Saämatsra, a deity in Ịgzarhjenya culture on Ameisa. It doesn’t matter that Keð “already has a protective deity” — she chooses a yes, and, which is very common in polytheistic societies. Saämatsra’s connections to beginnings and ends (from ler myths), physics, and spacetime make lim very significant to a young woman who used to dream of what it would be like to be in a spaceship. Saämatsra will not displace Bamonkam. There are different ritual structures and holidays for each of those deities.
Starting with people and asking about their habits when they want to engage with Gods is also how I end up writing quotidian-cozy religion. The festival in The Village of Strong Branches is experienced from the standpoint of festival-goers, not festival organizers. In the next novella (probably coming out in the autumn), more time is spent noting the small setting elements of how Tilōno engages with ritual and shrines as part of her life as a busy new professional librarian. No festival makes an appearance in that work. Throughout other works, I pause on folk practices and visits to shrines (large and small) and temples.
The Village of Strong Branches features three named Goddesses who are fused together under the term “the Mountain Goddess”:
Amnðem, the Goddess who gets the “official” state-backed worship and to whom all of the various mountain Goddesses are syncretized/equated for administrative purposes
Aċeðe, a Mountain Goddess worshipped in several of the mountain cities in the upper-latitudes
Tltinðab, worshipped in the terraced farmland regions, usually in the mid-latitudes; she’s the one with all of the small village shrines that appear later on in the work
Are these Goddesses all the same person, then, or are they different? It’s a very different situation from the example I mentioned of Bamonkam and Samaðrem, who have very distinct histories with human beings and who are obviously not the same deity. Keð syncretizes Amnðem and Tltinðab. This is likely obvious based on what comes out in the narrator’s close contact1 with what is going on in Keð’s head. All three of the Goddesses come out of a similar cultural setting based on relationships with the mountains that define so much of daily life and infrastructure in Mamltaqal. We run into similar questions that people have on Earth when thinking about when to equate and when to avoid it. I furrow my brow at the equation of Hekate and Rhea because I know they’re not the same even though they have some connected activities. Someone else may go “yikes” when I’m like “yesssss Rhea-Cybele 🙌” and quietly just back out of the room for Reasons.
And that’s what makes it natural — the multiplicity and unity and question marks and messiness of what life is like. The idea that Keð could go into a lecture and watch theologians arguing about this very thing while citing oracles and reported theophanies and so on! The ambiguity of who is meant by “the Mountain Goddess” is itself a nod to the complexities with Rhea, or Cybele, or Magna Mater, and so on: Who do we mean when we say the Mother of the Gods? Who has that mountain vibe? Who is the liar-savior-redeemer?
I’m taking a few minutes tonight to pause on this — and to avoid answering that question definitively — because I want to welcome the novella into the world in the spirit of the book’s dedication. I want to thank the Mother of the Gods — in my own way — for inspiring the story.
The next novella, A Matter of Oracles, will be dedicated to Seshat, the Mistress of the House of Books.
Almost everything I write is first person omniscient. This is not a spoiler, but it’s not salient yet. You can call the narrator Awiðeab, but honestly? She’d be OK with Septima because she tends to translate her name into whatever language.