Culture and Tradition in Fantasy

Culture and tradition are crucially interwoven. Tradition is the means through which culture is preserved and reinforced, which makes it the ultimate tool for exploring fictional worldviews. I’ve talked about building festivals and holidays before, but today I want to focus on how to use both “special” traditions (like holidays) and everyday traditions (like nightly worship) to emphasize and support a cultural worldview.

What is Tradition?

The first definition from Google is as follows:

the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.

Author Max Florschutz goes into more depth about what tradition is in his post on the topic, but the basic idea is that tradition is a repeated action that reinforces a belief. For example, Christmas is an annual reminder of Jesus’s birth. Thanksgiving is a specific day that we set aside to be grateful (its historic meaning having been largely dropped in celebration over the centuries). I’d make a comment on Halloween but I’d make people mad, so I’ll refrain from using that example. The same is true of smaller-scale traditions. If a family does nightly worship, that’s a way of passing on the faith from one generation to the next and reinforcing a family’s beliefs. If someone gives a donation to the same homeless person once a week, that might be an intentional reminder to themselves to be kind and generous, or to slow down and connect with strangers, or to consider the importance of their community. Traditions are repeated actions that reinforce a belief.

How Do Culture and Tradition Connect?

Now you’re wondering, “Okay, but what does this have to do with a whole culture? How are culture and tradition connected?” I’m glad you asked. The biggest examples of cultural tradition are holidays. Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Independence Day… Why do we celebrate these days? Sure, on some level it’s likely because we individually value what they celebrate. But why are they nationally (or even internationally, in some cases) acknowledged? Because, at some point, our culture valued them, as a whole. The United States values freedom (nominally, if nothing else), so we celebrate the anniversary of our independence. Christians all over the world acknowledge Christmas as a reminder of Jesus’s birth; and non-Christians who celebrate Christmas acknowledge it as a reminder to value family, or giving, or whatever the case may be. These traditions are ingrained in our culture and steeped in our cultural values.

Values are just as important for smaller-scale traditions. Families do family worship because they value their faith. Family dinner comes about because we value family. Weekly study sessions indicate we value learning (and likely the friends we study with). The list goes on.

Culture and tradition ought to be just as deeply connected in your fantasy world. What does your culture value, and what traditions do they have in place to reinforce those beliefs? Does a culture that values unity have an annual festival to promote cooperation among differing sub-cultures? Does a faith that values action organize a weekly day of missions, or send new adults on mission trips as a rite of passage? Does a culture that values community have a weekly community dinner?

When Culture and Tradition Gradually Disconnect

As I hinted at when I mentioned Thanksgiving, culture and tradition don’t always line up perfectly over time. Sometimes we begin a tradition for one reason, and then over time it loses its original meaning and takes on a new one. Thanksgiving doesn’t commemorate the harvest or remember Plymouth, in most cases, but simply acts as a generic day of thanks. Even Christmas has become more about gift-giving than about Jesus, in the context of American culture as a whole.

The same can be true on a smaller scale. Let’s take family worship as an example again. Are there stages where this is no longer a genuine reflection of the family’s beliefs, but simply going through the motions? Is a family’s faith evident in their everyday life, or do they only have this tradition as the last vestiges of a dying faith?

How have the traditions in your world lost their original meaning? What meaning do they now hold? Are there any traditions that are simply empty now, and no one knows what they originally meant?

Harmful Tradition

Sometimes traditions come about for more malevolent reasons than to support cultural values. Sometimes traditions are put in place by the elite to control or manipulate those below them, to varying degrees. Consider the era when the Bible was only narrowly available, allowing the clergy to twist its meaning without the knowledge of the laypeople. Or consider how veils have been used by various cultures to dehumanize women. (Yes, wearing a face covering is a repeated action to reinforce a belief. Something as simple as clothing can operate as tradition.)

How do such things occur in your world, and how are they received? When the underlying motivation is revealed, does your culture rear up against it or brush it under the rug? What values were these traditions masked behind in order to be established in the first place?

Historical Events, Culture, and Tradition

“But what about traditions based on historical events? How do those fit in with worldview?” Remember how I mentioned the U.S.’s value of freedom when I commented on Independence Day? That’s a prime example of cultural values and historical events weaving together to create a tradition. Christmas, too, whether a direct anniversary or not, is a mix of historical event (Jesus’s birth) and cultural value (Jesus Himself, Christianity, the Gospel).

What we value determines what historical events we remember in tradition for years and years to come. Sometimes, two different values can lead to commemoration of the same event. For instance, a militaristic culture might remember an invasion as the birth of their strength, whereas a theocratic society might remember it as an attack on their faith that they had to stand firm against.

What historical events have birthed traditions in your world? How do your culture’s values color their interpretation of a given historical event? What historical events have been forgotten because they don’t line up with your culture’s values?

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3 thoughts on “Culture and Tradition in Fantasy

  1. I love reading these types of articles because I learn so much about how world-building works in the context of society. Since my own fantasy series is heavily traditional, I’ll definitely be using these tips!

    I only have one small criticism: With all due respect to you and your beliefs, I have to say that your comment about the Bible in Latin is historically inaccurate. The reason why the Bible was in Latin was because at the time the Biblical canon was standardized, it was the vernacular language. Any educated person would have known it since it was literally part of their grammar school curriculum. This tradition continued until well after the Reformation. Did you know that John Calvin wrote his first tracts in Latin? He did that so that his ideas would spread to other people – which wouldn’t make sense if Latin was truly that inaccessible. There’s a really good article that explains the history: http://shamelesspopery.com/did-the-catholic-church-try-to-suppress-the-bible/

    And, because I know that you have an interest in Biblical languages, you might be interested in this article here: https://blog.logos.com/why-and-how-protestants-should-study-the-latin-vulgate/

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