Prophets, Preachers, and Parasites in Fantasy

Fact in Fantasy Essay

I am honored to have my essay Prophets, Preachers, and Parasites in Fantasy published by Author and Scientist Dan Koboldt on his ongoing series for writers and fans of speculative fiction called Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fiction.

“Always look on the bright side of life . . . .” Hearing that phrase followed by the whistling conjures for me poor Brian during the crucifixion scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Brian’s wordless look of bewilderment and impotent anger sums up his entire story. The poor guy gets dragged around the entire movie and unwittingly becomes the prophet and savior figure instead of Jesus of Nazareth. Blasphemous to many I’m sure, but the absurdity of Life of Brian is a strong lesson not only about the unbridled power of religion and faith, but more specifically, from a writer’s perspective, the importance of character and choices you make for that character’s actions.

Fiction, especially sci-fi and fantasy, is filled with various belief systems and the priests, penitents, and petitioners following said religions form strong foundations for good world-building and typically can drive the story. Imagine Star Wars without The Force and the Jedi, Dune without the Bene Gesserit, The Wheel of Time without the Children of the Light, or the Aes Sedai. All of those religious institutions are important, but what is truly vital in driving each of those, and all stories with said elements, are the character actions and reactions to them.

The Power of History

In the real world, the same holds true and examining factual events and the people that created or impacted such events can be instructive. There’s no doubt The Reformation and growth of the Protestant movement was historically significant. However, let’s not lose sight that the characters involved shaped and drove even that story. Would The Reformation have happened without Martin Luther? Probably. But, did Luther’s actions and reactions impact the final outcome? Most definitely.

The Church, now known as the Catholic Church, was the center of life during the Middle Ages. Control over the religious and political aspects of society were vested in the Church. However, crises such as the Babylonian Captivity (1309-1377) and the Great Schism (1378-1417) had strained the loyalty of the faithful and devastated the unity of the Church for over a century. A number of problems, such as the search for new sources of income and other forms of corruption, plagued the Renaissance papacy. All of these factors came into play as root causes of the Protestant Reformation.

The immediate cause of the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther. His theology, which went against the very foundations of the Church, and his ideas on institutional changes needed within the Church had a great impact on the religious and political sectors of society. In no way did Martin Luther purposefully try to bring about the Reformation or try to break away from the Church. He wanted to change the Church from within, doing away with the corruption that was taking place and stopping the teaching of false doctrine returning to the true doctrine of the New Testament. Luther was the most important figure in starting the Reformation. However, there could have and most likely would have been a Reformation without him.

Real Example: Martin Luther’s Doctrines

The ideology developed by Martin Luther came from his own personal quest for assurance of salvation and his questioning of his righteousness in the eyes of God. The two basic doctrines developed by Luther were justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. Luther’s first doctrine was based on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1:17). He concluded that one could be saved by the grace of God alone through faith in Christ.

Martin Luther nails his theses (Credit: Julius Hübner / Public domain)

Justification by faith taught that good works and indulgences had nothing to do with one’s salvation. This new ideology totally destroyed the basis of the Church’s system of grace given by the Church and questioned the foundation of Christian belief at the time.

Luther’s second doctrine was the idea that everyone is a part of a priesthood of believers. In his address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) Luther states: “It follows then, that between layman and priests, princes and bishops, or as they call it, between spiritual and temporal persons, the only real differences are one of offices and function and not of estate…”

This doctrine basically said that priests and Church officials, including the Pope, had no special powers and weren’t totally infallible.

Luther’s teachings and action had various social and political implications as well. Socially, he advocated the allowance of clergy to marry, which was against the Church’s teachings. Politically, Luther realized his need for support from the German nobles and upper class. He clearly sympathized with the Peasants’ Revolt (1520), but he had to support the nobles due to his need for protection.

Luther felt strongly about stopping the corruption in the Church, especially the sale of indulgences. Luther spoke out about his beliefs that the Church should abandon false doctrine and realize that scripture, not Church officials should be the source of authority for Christians. Specifically, he challenged the Church over the indulgences issue with his Ninety-Five Theses. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were presented as a theological debate, but the Church’s response and public uproar resulted in the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. What transformed Luther from a quiet educator seeking reform into a towering figure of world history was the dramatic image of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the doors of a church has power and remains memorable.

Martin Luther was the immediate cause of the Protestant Reformation in that he filled the leadership role required for it to take place. However, the Reformation could have happened without Luther. A number of other theologians and humanists, such as Zwingli and Calvin, were contemporary forces for religious change as well. Luther’s ideology and actions, which gave the Reformation its personality, came along at a time when conditions were prime for a change in the Church and all religious aspects of society. If Luther had not been around someone else with a different theology would have come along, instituting changes and modern religion would probably look much different today.

Religious Systems in Fiction

In fiction writing and developing fictional religious systems, good writers avoid allowing their characters to be merely swept along like Monty Python’s Brian with good reason. Our protagonists, antagonists, and every character in between shape our stories with their actions, or inactions especially in terms of religion. The truly memorable characters are the ones who struggle and affect changes to their own lives, the world around them, and even the gods.

Locke Lamora was trained as a con artist by Father Chains pretending to be a blind priest in The Lies of Locke Lamora. Rand al’Thor, as The Wheel of Time’s fights against multiple prophecies and expectations from various factions to define himself as the true Dragon Reborn. We love and read all these stories because of the struggles these characters face whether they fail or succeed. Likewise, you can write the most intricate, complex, and original religious system, but nobody will care or read about it if your characters don’t have great reactions and interactions within those systems.


A Brief History of Real World Magic

I am honored to have my essay A Brief History of Real World Magic published by Author and Scientist Dan Koboldt on his ongoing series for writers and fans of speculative fiction called Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fiction.

Real World Magic: Ancient Times to the Middle Ages

Often authors and readers of modern fiction alike believe our modern concepts of magic and mages stems only from Tolkien and the King Arthur legends. In fact, a study of scholarship from ancient Rome, the Medieval, and Renaissance periods reveals modern wizards in fiction are firmly rooted in much older real world works and treatises.

The history of magic in the real world spans far back beyond even Merlin and Gandalf. Writers of Fantasy interested in magic would be well served to look to the works and thought of a collection of real world Medieval and Renaissance “mages” for inspiration.

Medieval and Renaissance Magic

Several great scientific minds originated real-world concepts of magic based in science, medicine, and philosophy. The history of magic in the Medieval and Renaissance periods stems from ancient times, originating primarily from the works of four prominent authors in Roman times: Seneca, Ptolemy, Pliny, and Galen. These thinkers provided a firm foundation for “magic thought” that further developed in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

The most dominant ancient magic themes tended to revolve around divination, dream magic, astrology, and natural magic. Sound familiar? Modern fiction, television, film, comic books, and video games are all variations upon these ancient concepts.

Seneca, an ancient philosopher often cited in the Middle Ages, focused his views on magic around divination and astrology. Seneca viewed the stars as being divine and considered their study as sacred and almost religious. Although he firmly believed in the impact the stars had on future events, his major focus was the divination of the future by thunderbolts of all things.

Astrology and Astronomy

The works of Ptolemy mostly concerned math, science, astrology, and astronomy. His most important contributions were in the fields of math and science. However, he compiled a great deal of information on astrology and astronomy, considering it a very valid science, and placing much more emphasis on the stars than Seneca.

Scenography of the Ptolemaic Cosmography by Loon, J. van (Johannes), ca. 1611–1686.

In Ptolemy’s study of astrology, he believed that each planet, all of which affect the entire world, are affected by four basic elemental qualities; heat, cold, dryness, and moisture. Ptolemy said that each of these qualities are either good or evil, with heat, and dryness being good, and cold and moisture being evil. Note Ptolemy’s elemental ideas don’t correspond directly with Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, but there are similarities, and in ancient times there was also a focus on tying each element to a moral judgment.

Natural Magic

Pliny’s Natural Magic is an ancient encyclopedia covering many topics including magic and astrology. His overall attitudes toward magic are rather complicated to determine because his writings were more or less moral judgments on the times he lived in. However, in mentioning magic, Pliny relates it to the study of medicine and considers magicians to have taken medicine the farthest and into the most detail.

Pliny felt that astrology and magic were closely related and he briefly mentioned divination by thunder. Unlike Ptolemy, most of his criticisms on magic tend to be based on an intellectual basis more than on morals.

Medicine and Magic

The works of Galen, probably the most prominent physician in Roman times, often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and neglected, concentrated mostly on medicine and he felt that there were no real seekers of the truth left in the world. However, he also included his views on magic in his writings.

Galen agreed with Ptolemy’s theory on the four elements and believed to some extent in divination. Galen’s views included very little on astrology. He was accused of practicing magic in his medical practice, though he denied such accusations.

Hermetic Tradition

The most important ideas about magic used by the Renaissance Magus came from the Hermetic Tradition of magic. Works by Hermes Trismegistus concerning magic centered on astrology and the occult sciences. Hermetic magic revolved around the idea of a system of the All, with everything in the universe in relationship. With the proper knowledge, of plants, stones, metals, animals, and images relating to the planets and God, one could create a link with this system by means of sympathetic magic. The Hermetic magic was mostly of a talismanic sort, creating talismans in order to link into the power of the All.

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Hermes Trismegistus by D. Stolcius von Stolcenbeerg, 1624

The Picatrix, based on Hermetic tradition, was a work on sympathetic and astral magic. It went along with the Hermetic ideas of making and using talismans to bring spiritus from the heavens into the materia of the talisman, thus harnessing its power.

Cabalist Magic

Perhaps the best synthesis of magic in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was exhibited by Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola. In his works, Mirandola not only originated the romantic concept of a soulmate, he gave The Renaissance Magus the magic of Cabala, synthesized from the Jewish Mystical Kabbalah practices.

European Cabalist magic was a spiritual attempt to tap into the higher spiritual powers, placing great importance on angels and divine spirits. Cabala was at its core a concept of gaining knowledge of God. The magic derived from it was to be used mystically to aid in contemplation, or to make use of the power of Hebrew, or the angels invoked to perform feats of magic. Mirandola felt that no magic could be effective without using Cabala to complement and strengthen it. Mirandola created a successful marriage between Hermeticism and Cabala. This synergy in concepts ties in quite nicely for the modern fantasy fiction writer seeking to build their own system of magic.

Shared Magical Beliefs

The major similarities in magical beliefs from ancient times to the Renaissance were the beliefs in divination, especially by thunder, dream magic, astrology, and Natural Magic, which came from the Hermetic tradition. Clearly the forces of nature and the heavens played in the magical beliefs of all. Whether those of antiquity and the Middle Ages actually had the knowledge and abilities to accomplish the feats they spoke of is irrelevant.

Those of us building worlds and forging new imaginative systems of magic serving as the engines of our fiction can learn a lot by gazing into the minds of the great magic innovators of antiquity. Even a cursory review of the ideas of Galen, Ptolemy, Seneca, and Pico Della Mirandola offers a better understanding of the history of magic created by real world thinkers and scientists.

The Roots of Modern Magic

The idea of placing strictures on magic derives from ancient real world beliefs. Sympathetic magic, binding magical powers into talismans, and detailed rules all harken back to the conceptions of magic developed in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. From Gandalf and Merlin, to Harry Potter, and The Force, all our most treasured magic in modern fiction can trace roots to the scientists and “magicians” from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. A bountiful harvest of rich conflicts and plot points abound for modern authors if we are willing to dig around in the past.

Influences Uncategorized Writing

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!


A Disturbing World-building Resource

By Jay S. Willis

Cosplay of Monty Python

I was honored to have this essay World Building with the Spanish Inquisition published by Author and Scientist Dan Koboldt on his ongoing series for writers and fans of speculative fiction called Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fiction.

Monty Python and Mel Brooks’s modern portrayals of red-robed men with funny accents exploits the brutality and hatred derived from The Spanish Inquisition for laughs. All joking aside, this powerful Medieval and Renaissance Institution borne of anti-semitism and overzealous religious fervor should never be forgotten, or ignored. A little knowledge about The Spanish Inquisition offers an invaluable resource for any fantasy, alt-history, or sci-fi author in world-building. Want a disturbing way to literally torture your characters and/or build an oppressive regime? Look no further.

The royal appointment of the first inquisitor‑general was Thomas de Torquemada, who had been one of the seven inquisitors commissioned by papal letter in 1482. He was made Inquisitor of Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia by Pope Sixtus IV on October 17, 1483. The appointment of Torquemada was a crucially important event in the development of the Spanish Inquisition.

“Rigid and unbending, he would listen to no compromise of what he deemed to be his duty, and in his sphere he personified the union of the spiritual and temporal swords which was the ideal of all true churchmen. Under his guidance, the Inquisition rapidly took shape and extended its organization throughout Spain and was untiring and remorseless in the pursuit and punishment of the apostates” (Lea, Henry Charles, A History of the Spanish Inquisition, Vol. I p.174)

As the Spanish Inquisition gradually gained independence from the Crown, it started its rise in power and influence that would make it an institution having supremacy to all other governmental bodies and virtual equality with the Spanish crown.

V0041643 A torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition with with suspe
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
A torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition with suspected heretics having their feet burned or being suspended with a rope from a pulley while scribes note down confessions. Engraving by B. Picart, 1722.
By: Bernard PicartPublished: 1722
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The means of which the Spanish Inquisition dealt with heretics were many and quite varied. Under the Inquisitorial Process “the accused was assumed to be guilty and that the object of the tribunal was to induce or coerce him to confess his guilt; that, for this purpose, he was substantially deprived of facilities for defence and that the result, for the most part, depended on his powers of endurance which the judges, at discretion, could test to the utmost” (Lea, History, Vol. II p.465). Basically, the accused was virtually helpless. The individual would be taken to a secret prison, confined to a cell excluded from all outside contacts for days, weeks, or even months, left wondering about his fate. Despite the cruelties inflicted by the Inquisition they were not only attempting to punish the body. The holy mission of saving souls, though the means were quite questionable, was of the utmost importance. An Inquisitional Procedure was to be based on the ideal of the inquisitors being able to judge all cases based on truth, justice, and impartiality.

“The evidence of witnesses is scrutinized in the light of their character and quality and those who are found to bear false‑ witness are most severely punished. The accused, while detained in the prisons, are treated kindly and liberally, according to their condition; the poor and the sick are abundantly furnished with food and medicines, … and are favored in every way…and…as Time is the revealer of truth, cases are not hurriedly finished but are prudently prolonged, as is requisite when there is such peril of the life, fame and property, not only of the accused but of his kindred” (Vol.II p.483).

The inquisitorial ideal remained only that, an ideal that was never truly attained. The holy mission of saving souls was attempted by inhumanely harsh methods including the extracting of confessions by torture and various punishments for recompense.

The crime of heresy was exceptionally hard to prove and the Inquisition’s most effective means of ascertaining the truth was through confessions brought about by torture. “The conditions held to justify torture were that the offense charged was of sufficient gravity and that the evidence, while not wholly decisive, was such that the accused should have the opportunity of purging it, by endurance proportionate to its strength. From the inquisitor’s point of view, it was a favor to the accused, as it gave him a chance which was denied to those whose condemnation was resolved upon.” (Lea, History, Vol. III p.7).

Certain limitations were supposed to be placed on torture. No torture was intentionally allowed to put life or limb in peril. Technically, torture was allowed only to be applied once. However, it was often stopped, suspended for a time and resumed later.

Without going into their gory details, the varieties of torture employed by the Inquisition can often be judged solely on name: Water torture, the Pear, the Heretics’ Fork, the Rack, the Saw and the Pendulum were all methods employed, ranging greatly in severity. The severity of the tortures could be easily seen in the reports kept by the Inquisition.

“The secretary faithfully recorded all that passed, even to the shrieks of the victim, his despairing ejaculation and his piteous appeals for mercy or to be put to death nor would it be easy to conceive anything more fitted to excite the deepest compassion than their cold‑blooded, matter‑of‑fact reports” (Vol. III p.18).

The punishment system the Inquisition utilized was as harsh as the torture system used in gaining confessions. There were several minor penalties implemented by the Inquisition. Reprimands, sometimes verbal, other times as severe as lashings, were used often. Those of minor offenses were also exiled at times. The more peculiar of such lesser punishments included the razing of the house of a heretic, and such spiritual penance as requiring fasting and pilgrimages.

The harsher penalties used usually resulted in severe wounds or death. Scourging was when a public lashing took place while the victim’s charges were read aloud. Some of the unfortunates who were convicted by the Inquisition were sentenced to man the oars of the Spanish fleet’s galleys. Others were imprisoned permanently.

The harshest of all punishments were the burning at the stake and the auto de fe. Those that were burned at the stake were the heretics who were turned out by the Church and handed over to the secular authorities who took over the criminal’s punishment.

V0041640 An auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition held in a church. E
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
An auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition held in a church. Engraving by B. Picart.
By: Bernard PicartPublished: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The auto de fe became the Spanish Inquisition’s largest show of authority and it generally went to all expenses to insure impressiveness and vast amounts of public attendance. Most, but not all auto de fe ceremonies were held as public exhibitions. Some private ceremonies were held in churches away from the public. During the auto de fe the sentences of those heretics to be punished were read to the public after a procession of those condemned, the inquisitors and all officials involved into the public square. A sermon was preached by the inquisitors and a general celebration would commence. The burning of the condemned would take place at the end of the day after all of the minor penalties had been administered.

The Spanish Inquisition gradually came to an end due to European political factors, internal corruption, and general public hatred. It was officially abolished on July 15, 1834. Yes, it officially lasted that long.

The Inquisition’s fanaticism grew in Spain out of the enmity between Christians and Jews. However, over the years of its operation it gradually became a completely independent body functioning, not to oppress the Jews, but, to finish the holy quest of saving the world from heretics of all sorts. It was efficiently organized and became quite effective in accomplishing its purpose.

The memories of the horrid accomplishments of the Spanish Inquisition are often selectively forgotten. Such atrocities should never be justified or allowed to continue by society, whether committed in the name of religious fanaticism, politics, or individual prejudices. Alas, we all need to learn from the past so as not to repeat it. Substituting fantasy, or alien races, and/or practitioners of magic, or other forbidden arts as the driving forces behind an Inquisition in our fiction offers an untapped wealth of conflict for any author and opens wide meaningful opportunities to memorialize and learn from man’s extensive inhumanity against man.


Lea, Henry Charles. A History of the Spanish Inquisition. Volumes I, II, III, IV, London: Macmillan Company, 1907.