This may end up being a long post, but there was no way I could pull these four items apart from each other, they’re just too intertwined. We’ll go over picking a cultural stage, fine tuning the details of the cultural, choosing a level of technological advancement, picking a religion and fine tuning the details of their practices, and deciding on the rules of magic.
So, lets say you’ve picked two sentient races – both are humanoid and will share the same magic (so in essence they’re the same, like all humans here on Earth) but the Southern Race will all have blue-green hair and the Northern Race will all have brown hair. They are mostly isolated from each other and have evolved separate cultures, religions, etc.
The Southern Race lives by the water (we don’t know what the coastline looks like yet or if it’s an ocean or a lake because we haven’t made the map but water plays a huge role in their culture). What cultural stage are they in? I always start with a stage from here on Earth and then tweak it, so are they comparable to hunter/gatherers, or agriculture based, are they pre-Roman empire, Roman empire, Colonial, Shakespearean, Victorian, industrial revolution?
For this example I’ll combine hunter/gatherer with agriculture. They’ll be a settled people, living in permanent villages and farming, but still rely heavily on fishing, hunting, and gathering. This probably means they have domesticated plants like wheat or corn but no domesticated animals, or very few domesticated animals, like cows or sheep. From this we can discern that they’d probably wear animal skins and you can choose the style from among the various examples provided by the North American Natives, the Australian Aboriginals, and the African tribes.
With this information we can begin to shape their culture – let’s start with gender roles. The men are stronger, physically, so they would do the physically intensive labour like cutting down trees to build new homes, plowing the fields, and hunting. Women then would be responsible for the planting and tending of the gardens, making and caring for the clothing, looking after the children, and gathering extra foods. Preparing the meat and skins and harvesting the crop would be a joint effort. Teaching the young males would be the job of the village elders – all males. Young girls would learn by working along side their mothers.
Technology would include the type of tools they use for building, hunting, and farming. It would also cover the style of their buildings. They obviously have simple tools since they are able to cut down trees and plow land, but are they bone, stone, or metal? Moving from bone and stone to working metal is always a big step, but doesn’t mean the culture has to evolve past basic huts and hunting/gathering/farming. It does determine how effective they are at feeding themselves and protecting themselves.
Religion – again, I base mine loosely on something we already have on Earth, polytheistic – male dominated, polytheistic – female dominated, monotheistic – male or female, ancestor worship, nature worship, or abstract (such as Confucianism which follows principles for harmony with the Universe but no specific deity). Trust me, you have a lot of room to work within those options.
We’ve already sort of established a male led society by making all the village elders male. This means the spiritual and intellectual leaders are male. This doesn’t mean the deities will all be male. Just because the women don’t hold positions of power doesn’t mean they aren’t respected. If you look at most polytheistic religions the darker gods or trickster gods were male (Loki, Raven, Hades, Seth). In the Greek and Roman traditions many goddess played important roles as patrons of wisdom, the hunt, the moon, and seasons. In pre-Roman society the female deity was most often associated with fertility, childbearing, and the health of crops.
So, for this example, let’s go with the most basic of polytheistic religions – one god, one goddess. The god represents strength, the hunt, success in war, and is responsible for the overall protection of the people. The goddess represents success of crops, prosperity, health in childbirth, and is responsible for the well being of mothers and infants. They are both good deities so to have good things happen worship must be offered in some way. Neglecting this worship would result in the deities neglecting their duties to the people and bad things happening. Choose a method of worship, the form of prayer, type of ceremonies, type of sacrifices/offerings and how they differ based on intent (is the offering to the god for success in battle different from the offering a husband would make the goddess when asking his wife be protected during childbirth?)
With good or benevolent deities offerings of crops, hunted animals, or crafts is usually enough. Sometimes the “deities” lay out rules that the society has to live by (like the 10 commandments) and breaking these rules can result in disaster unless penance is made. With a dark deity the people generally make offerings to the “bad god” to appease him and prevent his wrath from falling on them.
I almost forget – priests. Is there a set person, or group of people, responsible for making the offerings? Are they male or female? Can it be either, or, or both? And is religion connected to the magic.
Okay, magic. You’ll need to decide how much magic, how complicated it is to use, and how many people get to use it. You also need to know if it is taught, innate, or a combination of the two. Since the culture we’ve chosen leans towards the Medicine Man, a person chosen by the spirits at a young age to learn from the elder all the secrets of the gods and people, I’m going to spice things up by choosing something else. The ability to use magic is innate, control is learned, and it appears in 20% of the females and 2% of the males. The magic is connected to the land, things like divining wells, finding rivers, helping crops grow, finding animals, etc. The village elders are responsible for offerings to the god and goddess and magic and religion aren’t tied too tightly together.
Congratulations, you now have the basics of a society. Placing them on a map will help determine more about them. This is already a long post so I’m going to split it here and tomorrow we’ll do a second example with the Northern Race because there’s so much left to explore and by changing just one detail you can spin a whole new web of possibilities.