When fantasy authors attempt to build the mythology of their world, they often rely on religion or religious belief, usually on pagan or Christian beliefs (but for this particular post we will be focusing on the pagan beliefs). Norse, Greek, and Roman mythologies are some of the other favorites used by authors. Using these beliefs is not a bad thing in fantasy writing. What is a problem is when these religious aspects are utterly forgotten or confused in the world building. As someone who both studies theology and is an avid fantasy fan, one of my biggest pet peeves is when religion is introduced into a show, but only as “magic” and never as actual religious beliefs.
One recent example of this is in Teen Wolf. In
Seasons 1 and 2 there is no mention, hint, or indication of any type of religious belief in the show, but come Season 3 we are introduced to a whole host of mythologies. We learn that werewolves are descendants of Lycaon, who was cursed by Zeus after Lycaon attempted to feed him human flesh. Lycaon was trying to humiliate Zeus because he was actually a worshiper of the Titans, but Zeus turned Lycaon and his people into wolves as punishment. Later, according to Teen Wolf’s mythos, Lycaon’s people met the Druids who they begged to help turn them back to humans, but the Druids were only able to help them partially transform, thus creating the werewolves.
So in Teen Wolf we now have both Greek and Druidic religious beliefs being represented, but these beliefs are used simply as a way to explain how werewolves exist and how the emissaries like Jennifer Blake, Deaton, and Morrell have powers. In this, mythology is an implication of actual religious beliefs, but that is never explored by the writers of Teen Wolf. For example, we learn that the first werewolves worshiped the Titans and some are still named after the Titans, like Deucalion. Deucalion, however, never shows any indication that he actually worships the Titans, and furthermore mocks Jennifer Blake for sacrificing to “her pagan gods”. Even if Deucalion doesn’t worship the gods of the Druids, those gods are the ones responsible for the werewolves having their awesome shapeshifting powers to begin with, so it makes no sense for him to mock her for her beliefs. Plus, the rituals she was using actually gave her power, so mocking her gods seems silly if her beliefs are proven to work.
On top of this, despite Jennifer Blake having a connection to the Druids, in one episode she primarily references and discusses the Norse gods. She tells Derek the story of Balder and how Loki used mistletoe to murder him. So… do the emissaries worship the Druidic gods or the Norse ones? It’s never explained. In fact, everything in the Teen Wolf universe could really just be written off as “magic” with no rhyme or reason. It seems almost like the writers incorporated these religious beliefs just to explain the magic, but didn’t follow through with what this would mean in their world building. If some type of gods are responsible for the magic in the Teen Wolf universe, it would then make sense that people would worship them. But the gods that create this magic are almost written off as if they are just some other magical creature and not beings that shape the characters’ entire universe.
Why is it that born werewolves, like Derek or Deucalion, don’t worship the Titans or the Druidic gods? You would think most werewolves would be Pagans of some kind, with their own traditions and beliefs developed because of their powers and culture. But no mention of such beliefs is ever made. Furthermore, confusing religious beliefs just makes the storytelling more confusing. Is Jennifer Blake a Druid or does she follow the Norse gods? There is a large difference between all these religions, but yet all are thrown into the story without, it seems, much thought as to how they all work together. There is a good way to do religious syncretism, which I have discussed before, but if the religious aspects aren’t even a concern, well then, that doesn’t exactly help the world building and storytelling in general.
Religion can only help, not hinder, the world building and storytelling. A lot of writing, especially in TV shows, can lack structure in their world. TV show writers try so hard to come up with new ideas that this means they often add several religions to one story in order to draw on various beliefs that they may find interesting. However, this can get confusing unless correctly explained. But diving into these religious beliefs and really drawing on them and acknowledging them can actually add well-needed structure to the writer’s universe. Every religion has rules and beliefs for why things work the way they do. Drawing on that to explain the rules of one’s own universe can only be beneficial. Yes, it can also limit where writers can go with the story, but while writers shouldn’t feel completely hindered, having some rules and guidelines for how the universe works keeps things clear for both the writers and the viewers.
If the Teen Wolf writers are going to draw on these Pagan beliefs to help explain their world, then they have to actually acknowledge that these are religious beliefs in some way. For example, werewolves were cursed by the Greek gods, but saved by the Gods of the Druids and now, because of that, have powers. The Druidic gods are also the ones that give people like Jennifer her magic and power.
So if Teen Wolf characters get their powers from these religions, are they the correct religions? Do, for example, all religious artifacts work or just certain ones? Currently in Teen Wolf, Stiles is possessed and Deaton has suggested using an ancient Japanese exorcism to free Stiles from the nogitsune. Now this makes sense because a Japanese spirit is possessing Stiles, but would a Christian exorcism not work? Would it not work just because the spirit is Japanese? Or would it still work? If Stiles was possessed by a Christian demon, would the exorcism work? Or would it fail because Christianity is actually wrong and only the Pagan religions are correct? Or are all religions correct and different magic in the Teen Wolf universe comes from these various religions, and if so, how does that work? (Again I refer you to my post on syncretism.)
Whether you like it or not, religion is an important part of culture and often a source of inspiration for magic in most fantasy universes. If shows like Teen Wolf are going to create creatures with their own social structures and mythologies on how they came to be, then they have to have religion too. Furthermore, religion can be used as a tool to create a structured and interesting understanding of magic or magical creatures in the universe. To ignore that just hurts the world building and is, at the very least, a missed opportunity.