Religions of the Discworld
The world depicted in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of novels has a lively and complex religious life. The Discworld has numerous gods, multiple afterlifes, several organised religions and religious orders, and a variety of demons.
- 1 Gods
- 2 Religions
- 3 Priests and priestesses
- 4 Monastic orders
- 5 Afterlives
- 6 Religion-associated characters
- 7 References
The Discworld, being a flat disc supported on the backs of four elephants on top of a giant flying turtle, exists in a region of the universe where reality is somewhat less consistent than it appears in our own, more mundane corner of existence. Because reality on the Disc is so fragile and malleable, belief has a tendency to take on a life of its own, and Gods are far more obvious to the people of the Disc than they appear to us.
Gods are everywhere on the Discworld, a crucial element of the world's peculiar ecology that gives power to belief and demands resolution to any and all narratives. Gods exist in potentia in numbers uncountable, but the moment an event of any note occurs — say, two snails happening to cross at a single point — a god becomes tied to it and begins to manifest in the physical world. Most gods remain small and unknown, but a very few come to the notice of humanity, whose belief then shapes and strengthens them until they gather enough power to join the Disc's vast, unwieldy pantheon.
Gods on the Discworld exist as long as people believe in them and their power grows as their followers increase. This is a philosophy echoing the real-world politics of the power of religion and is most detailed in the novel Small Gods. If people should cease believing in a particular god (say, if the religion becomes more important than faith) the god begins to fade and, eventually, will "die", becoming little more than a faded wispy echo.
The major gods live in an Olympus-like mountain-top kingdom in the centre of the Discworld called Dunmanifestin. They include current "head" god Blind Io, crocodile-headed Offler, Seven-handed Sek, Fate, The Lady, and Errata, goddess of misunderstandings. Other gods are more local, such as the enormous pantheon of Djelibeybi; Herne the Hunted and Hoki the Jokester of the Ramtops; and the numerous gods of Skund Forest. Trolls also have their own gods.
The Disc also has an almost infinite number of small gods, typically spiritual beings with very little power and no followers. Should they acquire followers, they can evolve into larger gods and gain the ability to manifest themselves and perform miracles.
The main religion on the Disc appears to be polytheism. Most inhabitants seem to believe in all the gods, and to worship whichever seems likeliest to help them. This is shown in Going Postal, when the goddess Anoia suddenly gains a large following after she appears to have granted Moist von Lipwig a large sum of money. However some individuals and families worship the same god for generations, regardless of promises or outcome; for example, the Maccalariat family are said in Going Postal to have been Anoians for generations. Most of the Dunmanifestin gods have their own priests and temples, but no organised religion as such. There are, however, several organised religions on the Disc. Some of these, such as the Young Men's Reformed-Cultists-of-the-Ichor-God-Bel-Shamharoth Association, are mentioned only in passing, but a few are discussed in more detail.
Omnianism is the worship of the Great God Om, and appears to be the Disc's only monotheistic religion (in the sense of going so far as to deny the existence of the other gods, although the god himself has never stated so). Until about a hundred years before the setting of most of the Discworld novels, it was an intolerant religion known for attempting to forcibly convert people and torturing supposed heretics. In Small Gods, Om manifested himself and told his followers to propagate the religion through reasoned argument rather than violence. Omnianism became a simple code of non-violence and moral uprightness, with door-knocking evangelical followers. Because Om encouraged debate, the Omnian church schisms on a regular basis.
The religion of Djelibeybi is essentially a parody of that of ancient Egypt and features god-kings and an enormous pantheon of strange-looking deities with overlapping duties. It is heavily ritualised. In Pyramids, the inhabitants of Djelibeybi had the deeply unpleasant experience of all their gods manifesting themselves.
The Way of Mrs. Cosmopilite
This is a belief system followed by a small number of monks from the Ramtops and is based on the sayings of Mrs. Marietta Cosmopilite, an Ankh-Morpork seamstress. Their koans include 'it never rains but it pours' and 'because'. The Way of Mrs. Cosmopolite is evidence of the phenomenon that wisdom is one of the few things which looks bigger the further away you are from it. The most notable follower, and probably its tongue in cheek inventor, is History Monk Lu-Tze.
Probably an Uberwaldaen religion, the Potato Church is split between the Plain Potato Church and the Ancient and Orthodox Potato Church. Moist von Lipwig was raised in it. Its only apparent tenet is that as long as you have a potato with you when you die, you will go on to somewhere better. The religion is first mentioned in The Truth, where it appeared to originate from Mr Tulip's memory of someone saying that they will be all right as long as they have a potato. There is an implication that they actually meant that as long as you have a potato you won't starve, and that this was misunderstood.
Priests and priestesses
Virtually all the successful Discworld deities have priests or priestesses. In the case of minor gods and goddesses such as Anoia, they may share one priest or priestess with several other minor deities, while major gods such as Blind Io have grand temples and a large priesthood. The Discworld clergy are generally portrayed as fat, greedy and prone to bickering amongst themselves. Exceptions include the priests of the Agatean Empire, who are generally poor and beg for a living; and Omnian priests, who were formerly homicidal bigots and are now humble but enthusiastic evangelists. In Ankh-Morpork, the clergy tend to work together when threatened, but will otherwise argue with each other over whose god is the best. The leader of Ankh-Morpork's priesthood is the high priest of Blind Io, Hughnon Ridcully. Priestesses often have priests in their congregation, as this is the easiest way for priests to avoid Mrs Cake.
The history monks organise time and history. They were founded by Wen the Eternally Surprised.
The Balancing Monks
First mentioned in Pyramids as running a free hospital in Ankh-Morpork. The Discworld Companion explains that the Balancing Monks believe the Disc's position on the back of the elephants is precarious, and small weights must be placed in significant positions to stop it tipping over. It is considered they must be correct, since the Disc hasn't tipped over yet. According to Thief of Time they are based in a vertiginous temple criss-crossed with tightropes.
The Monks of Cool
The monastery of the Monks of Cool is found in a laid back valley in the lower Ramtop mountains. They are a reserved and secretive sect and believe that only through ultimate coolness can the universe be comprehended, that black goes with everything, and that chrome will never truly go out of style. To become a fully accepted Monk, a novice is given the following test. Several outfits are laid out in front of him and the tester asks, "Yo, my son, which of these outfits is the most stylish thing to wear?" The correct answer is "Hey, whatever I select". The Monks of Cool have been mentioned in Lords and Ladies and Thief of Time.
The Listening Monks
The Listening Monks are first mentioned in Mort. They believe that, as nothing the Creator made can be destroyed, the echoes of the Word that created the universe must still exist. Their monastery is shaped like an ammonite and built into the exact opposite of an echo valley, funnelling all sound into the main chamber where three monks listen, trying to filter the sound of creation from all the noise of the world. (This could be compared to the real-world study of cosmic background radiation).
A novice is not accepted unless he can tell, through sound alone, if a coin has come up heads or tails. When he has completed his training, he is expected to know what colour it is.
By the time of Soul Music, they have discovered that the sound that brought the universe into being was not a Word, but a musical chord ("the ultimate power chord"). They continue to listen, as they can just make out sound that preceded the creation of the universe, and may put the chord into context. It says in Soul Music that the greatest listeners have determined that the sound before the creation of the universe is "One, two, three, four." and that the greatest listening monk heard a sound before that, going "One, two."
As with the History Monks, the Abbot of the Listeners is continually reincarnated. Unlike the Abbot of the History Monks, however, he does not remember his previous lives (until he dies, when he is in the unfortunate situation of remembering having gone through toilet training several times (10 as of Mort).
The richest sect in the entire multiverse, the Yen Buddhists believe that money is the root of all evil, and therefore accumulate as much of it as possible to prevent it from adversely affecting others.
The nature of the afterlife on the Disc is very varied, and often depends on what the deceased believed in. Anyone who dies, however, will be met by Death, who takes the form of a living skeleton with a black cowl and a scythe, or, in some cases, anyone acting as his assistant, such as Mort or Mort's daughter Susan. The only exceptions to this are rats, who are met by the Death of Rats, and anyone who dies during the occasional periods when Death is unable to do his job. In theory Death does not collect the souls of everyone who dies, but there is no example in the books of anyone entering the afterlife without seeing Death. Once met by Death, the deceased have been depicted as taking numerous different paths, although in most recent books most of them begin with the Dark Desert.
The Dark Desert
The Dark Desert is a transition phase between life and afterlife on the Discworld. It is described as having brilliantly-lit black sand, under a black sky studded with cold bright stars, stretching away to distant mountains (where judgement awaits). Living people can cross into it, however, it is then harder to come back. Thousands, possibly even millions of people cross it at any one time, though totally unaware of each other, though glimpses may be caught of their movement. It is very important not to fall asleep. Initially, the Dark Desert was the afterlife only for those of the Omnian faith, but it seems to have become the default near-death destination for all those shuffling off their respective mortal coils, Omnian or not.
Several Discworld characters have reincarnated. The Abbots of the History Monks and Listeners both perpetually reincarnate in human form, with each new life becoming the new Abbot. In The Truth, Mr Pin and Mr Tulip are both reincarnated, respectively as a potato and a woodworm. Reincarnation is not necessarily serial.
Halls of the Slain
This is an afterlife which some heroes believe they will go to. It is inhabited by valkyries and bears a strong resemblance to Valhalla (which in fact means "Hall of the Slain"). It is mentioned in The Last Hero.
In some cases, deceased people do not technically have an afterlife, but an undeath. These include zombies and vampires. Vampirism is traditionally passed on through the bite of another vampire, but as numerous vampire families are depicted in the novels, it seems that it is also hereditary. Zombies are usually made by practitioners of voodoo such as Mrs Gogol, but the origins of others stem from an inability to realise that they've died (such as Reg Shoe), a refusal to die until some task has been completed (as in the case of Mr Slant) or the failure of Death to turn up (see Windle Poons).
A version of Dante's Inferno is given in Eric with demons and eternal punishments, although rather than "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here", the sign above the gate reads, "You don't have to be damned to work here, but it helps!!" It is approached by steps made of good intentions. As in Milton, its capital is Pandaemonium.
Originally an Omnian novice in the Citadel of Om, noted only for being a simple boy with an apparently perfect memory, Brutha was the main character in Small Gods, in which he found himself Chosen by the Great God Om because he was the only person who really believed in the god. He went on to become the Eighth Prophet of Om and Cenobiarch of Omnia, and transformed Omnianism into a religion of tolerance and understanding. He died 100 years later and some time ago, an issue that has been proven by a passage in Thief of Time. It has been suggested that Brutha is modeled on Thomas Aquinas, whom Albertus Magnus reports having been called "the dumb ox" by other students. Brutha cannot learn to read and write; in the words of his teacher, "he cannot fathom the link between the sounds and letters," but he learned the holy scriptures of Om to perfection by listening. An example of Brutha's memory is given when he says that his earliest memory is that "there was a bright light. Then somebody hit me", referring to the slap a doctor gives a baby after it is born to make it breathe.
At first, Brutha is ignorant like the most of the Omnians, believing that people from other religions deserve to die. However, later on, he discovers that everyone else thinks differently about Omnia, and they think the truth in some respects (that most of the Citadel is rather demonic as opposed to their way of thinking), and that in the end, people are people, gods are gods, gods need people, and that everyone should get along, peacefully and-well, not harmoniously, because people aren't like that, but certainly rather co-operatively.
Brutha's memory is completely perfect (although some parts from Brutha's early years are locked away), but is accidentally misused when Brutha copies down the scrolls from the library in Ephebe into his mind before it is burned, so that whenever Brutha looks at something, knowledge from the scrolls starts pouring into his mind and vocal cords. The only thing that Brutha ever forgot for a time was what Om had said in the desert, whilst they were grabbing at survival (Om had told him that in a hundred years, they'd all be dead, to which Brutha replied, "But here and now, we are alive".) However, Brutha died before the memory could properly come back to him.
Vorbis' character combines a strange mix of apparently religious mania with a fervent desire to spread the Word/Empire across all the Disc. He combines complex logical sophistries and machiavellian pragmatism that transcends mere moral compromise in pursuit of spreading the Word of Om with an iron-hard belief in the rightness of his actions. Vorbis has a reputation for being a man touched by destiny (and perhaps something else) and as being one of the most devout Omnians in the Empire ('Vorbis could humble himself in prayer in a way that made the posturings of power-mad emperors look subservient') yet in the end the reader finds that the only voice Vorbis has been listening to is his own. He is perhaps a Discworld equivalent of Tomás de Torquemada or even Matthew Hopkins. Most worryingly, he genuinely believed that his particular brand of religious practice was what was necessary to bring the Church of Om into line.
The Great God Om, in whom Vorbis supposedly believes, kills the exquisitor by having himself (still in the body of a tortoise) dropped from a great height onto Vorbis's head by (possibly) the same eagle that brought Om to Brutha in the first place, although with a different intention (lunch). In doing so, this created a spectacle that allows Om to reassert his divinity, though in the end, with a better view on humanity.
This incident echoes a story about the death of the Greek playwright Aeschylus in 456 or 455 BC, which claims that he was hit on the head by a tortoise dropped by an eagle or vulture.
Appears in Carpe Jugulum. More properly called The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats (it is shorter in Omnian), he is a priest of the Omnian faith who performs the naming of Esmerelda Margaret Note Spelling, Princess of Lancre. It is his nerves that cause him to mistakenly speak the final two words of her name out loud, although this is not (apparently) the first time this has happened at a royal naming (Nanny Ogg cites a past ruler of Lancre, King My-God-He's-Heavy the 1st). He is also, quite literally, in two minds about everything, much like Agnes Nitt, since he combines a strict religious upbringing with a logical mind that tends to think too hard about such things. He refers to these two sides of his character as the Good Oats and the Bad Oats. At times, he isn't sure which is which.
In the beginning he appears to be very much the stereotypical Anglican priest, constantly ensuring both sides of the argument are heard, and being painfully tolerant of others' views. He allies himself with Granny Weatherwax, Agnes Nitt, Nanny Ogg and at a time, even the castle falconer Hodgesaargh in confronting an Uberwald vampire invasion of the country of Lancre. He risks his life to save Granny's, even when he knew Granny herself was a danger to all around her.
In Unseen Academicals the orc Mr. Nutt reveals that it was Oats who was responsible for liberating him from the people who had kept Mr. Nutt a chained slave, and for "rebirthing" him into the faith. Mr. Nutt also states that Oats continues to carry and use a battleaxe he had taken up during the battle against Count De Magpyr during his mission in Überwald. The battleaxe is called Forgiveness.
High priest of Djelibeybi; largely responsible for its creation, its culture and its religion, not to mention its hundreds of pyramids. Rendered immortal by the pyramid in which he sleeps, Dios remained for hundreds of generations the self-appointed guardian of the traditions and values of his country, most of which he invented. He performed the rituals and rites to the gods so many times that, come their allotted hour, his mind would automatically go through them even if physically doing so was impossible; he's even worn marks into the floors of the palace, as habit has grown so strong that he even takes the same steps every day to do everything. He believed he may be 7000 years old, though by the end of Pyramids his unhappy fate reveals he is actually far older than that, if indeed he could be said to have an age at all (he is something of a living bootstrap paradox.) It also raises the question of whether it was indeed Dios who created the pyramids, or the other way around. "Dios" means "God" in Spanish and his staff is described with two snakes entwined around it, like the Caduceus, though by the end of the novel, when his ultimate destiny is revealed, the snakes form into an ouroboros.
A diminutive spiritualist (or "medium verging on small"), Mrs Evadne Cake is introduced in Reaper Man. A very forceful personality, she doesn't so much dabble in the spirit world as "march in and demand to speak to the manager". She has precognition (which she can use at will) which recently has become recursive, and often answers questions before people ask, unless she remembers not to. When people don't "fill in the blanks", it tends to give her a migraine, so people sometimes try to inform her that she's precognizing so she'll turn it off. She tends to wear a hat almost as tall as herself, with significant numbers of knick-knacks attached to it.
Her daughter Ludmilla is a werewolf. In Men At Arms we learn that after Ludmilla left home, Mrs. Cake opened a boarding house for the undead, and Angua is boarding there at the time of the story. In Making Money Ludmilla has returned. Mrs. Cake believes in the Death penalty: According to her daughter, Ludmilla, Evadne Cake approves of Lord Havelock Vetinari's administration, but she believes that he should have more people hanged.
Mrs Cake is very religious, usually picking a religion and then getting into a huge row with the priests over communication with the dead, and abandoning it. Meanwhile, her daughter bullies her way into complete control of all traditional "lay-woman" work, resulting in chaos when the two leave. Priests of lost temples in Klatch are terrified she might find them, not to mention be able to make her way through many awfully deadly traps. She is listed twice on the sign outside the Ankh-Morpork Post Office as one of the things that will impede these messengers about their duties. When Moist von Lipwig asked about Mrs Cake, he was told, under no uncertain terms, to not ask.