New Worlds: Religious Sites

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Religion is one of those topics that’s almost impossible to address because it’s too big. You can hit it from a shallow angle — “Is your religion monotheistic or polytheistic? What do they call their god or gods?” — but religion is pervasive, many-layered, potentially reaching into almost every corner of life. We’ve touched on it numerous times already, in discussions of everything from marriage to folk magic to the afterlife, but this month I’d like to buckle down and address certain aspects of it more directly — starting with religious sites.

We have archaeological evidence to support the idea that religion stretches back well into pre-history, with even the Neanderthals engaging in cultural practices that suggest a belief in something more than the material world. Because of that, it’s safe to assume that the earliest religious sites were natural features of one sort or another: lakes, caves, mountain peaks, and so forth.

You can see this in many religions past and present. In Shinto the spirit of a kami is sometimes said to reside in a stone, a tree, a waterfall, or some other natural object. In pagan Celtic religion, springs seem to have frequently been associated with deities; many of those associations persisted after Christianization, reassigned to saints instead of Celtic gods. (Or Celtic gods repurposed as Christian saints.) The Ganges is a locus of worship for Hindus, while the Romans saw Lake Avernus as an entrance to the underworld. The mountain Kangchenjunga is sacred enough that the first men to successfully climb it, Joe Brown and George Band, promised the Sikkimese monarch they would stop a few feet short of the summit; in checking that fact, I’m delighted to discover that every expedition since has respected that pledge.

When a landmark is sacred, it’s common for people to build some kind of structure either at the spot or nearby, to provide facilities for religious practices — more on those next week. This might be anything from a simple altar to a huge temple, depending on circumstances. Over time, that structure can come to eclipse the landmark proper, such that a church might be known for the “healing waters” of a nearby spring, with few people remembering that originally the spring itself was the holy site.

But not all religious sites are based in the natural landscape. Sometimes it’s events that make a place sacred. Take the structure now known as the Dome of the Rock, formerly the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter Capitolinus, formerly the site of the Jewish Second Temple, formerly the site of Solomon’s Temple. The stone inside is variously said to be the first thing on earth that came into existence, the place where Adam was created, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac to God, where Jacob dreamt of angels, and where Muhammad traveled to during his Night Journey.

That’s a particularly complex example, but smaller ones occur all over the place. Martyrdoms, the birth of holy figures, miracles and visions, victories in battle attributed to divine favor — many kinds of events can lead someone to commemorate the occasion with a marker or building. Sometimes they’re based in recorded history, but they can also be events from the mythic past (like the creation of the world) that get attached to specific locations.

Not everything has that kind of history, of course. Many religious sites get built simply because they’re needed: there’s a population of people, and they have to have somewhere to worship. My husband grew up outside of Boston, and I’ve seen in the local church the Bible used to found the town — because back then, you needed a church with a Bible in it to be a town. You can often see the footprints of this in urban geography, with some kind of shrine or temple or church near the original center of the settlement, and then new structures built elsewhere to accommodate population growth or the presence of dissenting sects or different religions. Alternatively, they may be created to house sacred objects like saints’ relics or items associated with miracles, and then people journey to those sites — even if they’re far away or difficult to reach — in order to visit those objects.

Some religious sites are purpose-built, but by no means all of them. Many of the Buddhist temples in Japan started life as aristocratic estates, donated to one sect or another after the owner died or took monastic vows. In poor urban areas especially, you may find religious gatherings taking place in gymnasiums or rec centers — anywhere the worshippers can find space. Similarly, you can find chapels tucked into the corners of castles, palaces, even salt mines.

One thing I find particularly interesting about religious sites is the different dynamics that arise when religion is or is not tied to specific points in the landscape. A Baptist megachurch near my childhood home eventually moved to a new location after they outgrew their old premises; that was no big deal (theologically speaking), because nothing about the original site was considered particularly holy or historically important. But think of the centuries of struggle over Jerusalem and its many holy landmarks: you can’t just suggest to Jews or Muslims or Christians that they shift the site of the Holy of Holies or Christ’s crucifixion to somewhere else. There were many reasons why the forced relocation of Native American tribes was horrifically destructive, but one of them is the loss of their sacred landscapes; countless myths and practices were suddenly torn loose from their roots, and could not be transplanted to a new home.

I’m also fascinated by the way that religious practices and beliefs fit into their sites, and vice versa. The practices themselves will, as I said, be next week’s topic — but for now, consider the east-west orientation and cross-shaped floor plan of many Catholic (or formerly Catholic) churches, or the mihrab in a mosque, or the honden in a Shinto shrine. The way people interact with the site shapes the site itself (or the site shapes the interaction — chicken and egg), as does the theology underpinning the whole affair, with certain directions or numbers or shapes being favored. In most cases it’s still possible to worship even if those features aren’t present . . . but from a worldbuilding perspective, you can reinforce the ideas of your invented religion by making sure they’re reflected in the space and how people use it.

For use, tune in next week!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Religious Sites — 11 Comments

  1. I’ve been exploring spirituality in some of my books. What makes a place sacred, or a person holy? What happens when humanity moves into space and leaves behind the sacred places?

    And that leads me to wonder about the human NEED to have sacred places. Good topic.

    • Oooh — that reminds me of something I read about once with Mayan temples, which is the idea that when sites got abandoned the temples had to be spiritually “decommissioned.” And of course many religions also have traditions for sanctifying a space, too.

      More essay topics! 😀

      • Marie, some of the history I’ve read talked about the Spanish colonists erecting their own chapels on top of Mayan or Aztec temples, so they could claim the sacred site. Part of the pattern of co-opting existing deities in other colonized regions.

  2. Where I currently live (rural Eastern North Carolina), I’m starting to notice a lot of religious re-purposing of buildings left behind after the recession. The old Home Depot? It’s a church, now. The Pizza Hut? Well, that’s a church, too. I’ve not been inside either building so I don’t know what their worship spaces look like, but I find it interesting that from the outside you can tell exactly what they used to be, while their new identities hang over them too. There’s probably some interesting connections to draw about the failures of capitalism, but I’m too tired to make them right now.

    • There’s a whole blog someone created for documenting former Pizza Huts: their (exterior) architecture is so distinctive, but as the chain has declined there are lots of them being used for former purposes. I wonder what they look like on the inside!

  3. The first question to be answered about any fictious religion is whether it is, or has been, the only religion in its culture (Hinduism, Shinto), or whether it grew in contrast to another religion (Christianity, Buddhism).

    I discuss why (and other stuff) here:

  4. A big question — what makes a site sacred? Maybe the concentrated energy of people over hundreds or thousands of years worshipping there? I talk about these questions in my Rambling Writer Returns to Greece blog series here at Book View Cafe, especially the posts about Delphi.

    • So, sites *become* sacred through repeated (and frequent?) use of them as sites of worship?

      Makes sense…though part of me is whispering to the rest of me, “but why did they go there to worship back in the dawn of that site’s use?” (sorry)

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