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One thing that is notably absent in Middle Earth is any mention of temples, churches, priests or religious rites. There are passing mentions of Men who would "worship" Sauron, but generally the world of Middle Earth seems much less religious than medieval Europe, or even classical antiquity. One never hears about "the cult of Aule" or "the cult of Yavanna," although historically there were many "cults of Athena" or "cults of Poseidon." Aragorn doesn't (to my memory) make an offering to Tulkas before battle, nor does he pray to Eru Iluvatar for victory, and all the holidays and solemnities seem to commemorate historical figures, not religious ones.

This is especially strange in a world where there are still living witnesses, like Galadriel, to the actions of the Valar and other "divine" beings, and where there are still Maiar wandering around talking to people and putting on flashy firework shows.

Now, a lot of people talk about how Tolkien didn't want the Valar to be considered "gods," but at the same time he did use phrases like "the gods of old" numerous times. Clearly, these beings would have qualified for worship in most cultures. And even without the Valar being considered a true pantheon, there is still Eru, a closer analogue to the Christian God of Tolkien's beliefs, and we know the denizens of Middle Earth knew of him (Him?) because of the line "Eru, who in Arda is called Iluvatar." And yet, Iluvatar seems not to be terribly important to anyone on a daily basis.

So my question is this: how familiar with the "theology" of Middle Earth were the citizens of Middle Earth? Would the average merchant in Rohan know about the Valar and the Maiar and Iluvatar and the Music of the Ainur? The average noble in Minas Tirith? The younger Elves, like Legolas? The Dwarf Lords?

Were the theological truths about the formation of the world, the Valar and the Maiar just so well known that they weren't worth commenting on, or had they been forgotten by most? And if they had been forgotten, why wasn't the knowledge (whether through deliberate teachings or casual conversation) re-invigorated by witnesses like Gandalf or Galadriel?

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If the "gods" are your grandparents or live around the corner, why would you need a shrine? –  Raphael Jan 17 at 8:01
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All of our holidays would seem to commemorate historical figures, not religious ones if you looked at them with the eye of a Middle Earth inhabitant. Jesus et al were only 2000 years ago, that's hardly an Age! –  Plutor Jan 17 at 13:04

6 Answers 6

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Tolkien deliberately ommitted references to "religion" in his works; see Letter 142:

I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world.

Letter 153, which he wrote to a reader who one must feel took many things entirely too seriously, elaborates further, and it's worth quoting the entirety of a footnote to it, although I'll break it up to avoid a "wall of text".

First a general overview:

There are thus no temples or 'churches' or fanes in this 'world' among 'good' peoples. They had little or no 'religion' in the sense of worship. For help they may call on a Vala (as Elbereth), as a Catholic might on a Saint, though no doubt knowing in theory as well as he that the power of the Vala was limited and derivative. But this is a 'primitive age': and these folk may be said to view the Valar as children view their parents or immediate adult superiors, and though they know they are subjects of the King he does not live in their country nor have there any dwelling.

On Hobbits:

I do not think Hobbits practised any form of worship or prayer (unless through exceptional contact with Elves).

Numenor, both before and after Sauron's arrival, including other Men who didn't go there:

The Númenóreans (and others of that branch of Humanity, that fought against Morgoth, even if they elected to remain in Middle-earth and did not go to Númenor: such as the Rohirrim) were pure monotheists. But there was no temple in Númenor (until Sauron introduced the cult of Morgoth). The top of the Mountain, the Meneltarma or Pillar of Heaven, was dedicated to Eru, the One, and there at any time privately, and at certain times publicly, God was invoked, praised, and adored: an imitation of the Valar and the Mountain of Aman. But Numenor fell and was destroyed and the Mountain engulfed, and there was no substitute.

And the Dunedain in Middle-earth:

Among the exiles, remnants of the Faithful who had not adopted the false religion nor taken part in the rebellion, religion as divine worship (though perhaps not as philosophy and metaphysics) seems to have played a small part; though a glimpse of it is caught in Faramir's remark on 'grace at meat'.

Letter 156 covers High Elves:

The High Elves were exiles from the Blessed Realm of the Gods (after their own particular Elvish fall) and they had no 'religion' (or religious practices, rather) for those had been in the hands of the gods, praising and adoring Eru 'the One', Ilúvatar the Father of All on the Mt. of Aman.

There are many other mentions of religion in Middle-earth scattered throughout the Letters, but the general outcome and completely consistent observation is that Middle-earth has no religion as we would understand it today.

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Excellent answer! So it seems they did know/remember, they just didn't worship. I'm particularly interested in the line "I have not put in, or have cut out..." One can only wonder what earlier drafts might have contained... One final detail: did Tolkien ever explain WHY no religion was incorporated? Did he just not want to "go there," or did he attempt it and find that it distracted from the story, or maybe he hadn't finished crafting the theological specifics so he never got around to developing their rites and practices? Any info as to his motives? –  Nerrolken Jan 16 at 19:29
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@AlexanderWinn - re: "cut out", the only major one is the use of the term "the gods" in the really older works, which was substantially reduced. As for the why, Tolkien noted that "The odd fact that there are no churches, temples, or religious rites and ceremonies, is simply part of the historical climate depicted", which I read to mean (1) he was a Christian, but (2) he was writing about pre-Christian times, so (3) he considered it inappropriate. That's a guess, an informed one but still a guess, so it doesn't really belong in the answer. –  Darth Satan Jan 16 at 19:35
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I think it likely that Tolkein curtailed any explicit religion in large part because the whole of Middle-Earth and its stories was an allegory of the Christian/Catholic religion. Mixing the explicit with the allegorical causes all kinds of potential confusion and literary tar-pits, and could be regarded as an over-arching "mixed metaphor". Easier to just cut out the explicit and focus on the allegorical, which was hard enough. –  RBarryYoung Jan 17 at 17:15
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@RBarryYoung - Tolkien has denied any allegory in his works on multiple occasions (most publicly in the prologue to LotR itself); if there's any allegory it's in the eye of the reader but not in the intention of the author. –  Darth Satan Jan 17 at 17:21
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@JimmyShelter Right, Tolkien choose to call his referential symbolism "applicability" rather than allegory, but the issues remain much the same. And as far as I know, Tolkein only denied "determination" on his part, not that he had no intentions in the meaning of his work. –  RBarryYoung Jan 17 at 17:40

When you know that there is a God, you do not need a religion to worship Him.

And it is known that Ilúvatar exists, since there is living people (well, elves) that has seen the Valar, and even talked to them.

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Your statement is fairly offensive. There are religious believers who place more credence in the existence of the divine than they do the word of any mortal being, and many of them either partake of religion regularly or lead services. –  DougM Jan 17 at 19:23
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@DougM They place more belief in it yes, but this answer is about proof. If we on Earth had proof the same as there is on Middle Earth, we would not have the multitude of religions that do exist. –  Izkata Jan 18 at 0:44
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@jwodder Why do you call my answer nonsense? You may dislike it, but it isn't nonsense. It is just true, both in the general first sentence, and in the In-Universe second sentence. –  Envite Jan 18 at 2:34
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@DougM I wrote "@jwodder" because I was addressing his comment, which said "nonsense", not yours. If you get offended, that is your problem. In Middle Earth, Valar existence is known, not believed, and through Valar's word, Eru Ilúvatar's existence is known as well. Besides, addressing your comment, those believers you mention have faith, not knowledge, so the comment is out of the point, which is about knowing God's existence instead of believing on it. When you know, you do not need to believe. –  Envite Jan 18 at 3:10
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You really need to make it a question in Christianity Stackexchange because this is utterly inaccurate. –  Jorge Araya Navarro May 22 at 6:15
  • As I recall, the only thing resembling a prayer in LOTR is when Faramir shouts, "May the Valar turn him aside!" in relation to the Mumak (giant elephant). Assuming that Faramir expected his men to know what he was talking about, the average resident of Gondor would know who the Valar were. (Edit: Not actually Faramir's line, see comment below.)

  • It appears that Illuvatar and the Valar do not want to be worshipped. There is no mention of them telling anyone, "You there! I want you to say prayers and build temples to glorify me!" So not only do the inhabitants of Middle Earth know for a fact that godlike beings exist, they know that these beings prefer for them to just get on with their lives.

  • To the average human, beings like Galadriel are nearly as remote and mysterious as the Valar themselves. Galadriel might well have gone for centuries without even speaking to a human. Gandalf got out and about a bit more, but was very discreet about his origin and powers. He never went into the Prancing Pony and told Butterbur over a pint of beer, "Oh, yeah, I'm an immortal spirit, and I've personally spoken to the creator of the universe." (I must admit it would have been funny, but totally out of character.)

  • So for most humans, knowledge of the Valar would have been from legends handed down since ancient times. Elrond was well known as a master of wisdom, and appears to have had regular contact with travellers passing through Rivendell; he was not personally around at the beginning of the First Age but he might have helped keep the stories accurate.

  • I agree entirely with Jimmy Shelter's points.

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I've just remembered that Frodo also called on Elbereth while he was facing Shelob. There may be one or two other "prayer-like" instances I've forgotten. –  Royal Canadian Bandit Jan 17 at 11:59
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Having checked the source, the "May the Valar turn him aside" line is actually spoken by Damrod, one of Faramir's men. So even common soldiers in Gondor knew of the Valar. (Source: The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 4, "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit") –  Royal Canadian Bandit Jan 17 at 18:49

This is especially strange in a world where there are still living witnesses, like Galadriel, to the actions of the Valar and other "divine" beings, and where there are still Maiar wandering around talking to people and putting on flashy firework shows.

Maybe this is already the key to your question? Religion in the sense we know it does not work particularly well when the entities-to-be-revered are literally walking among you. Religion requires aloofness, mystery, uncertainty, and, most of all, belief. Praying to Gandalf does not really make a lot of sense from a theological point of view - you can ask for help, in which case he may or may not help you. In any case, you will know which one it is. The entire mystical "was that God's doing?" dimension is completely absent, as you can quite clearly see whether Gandalf is helping you (or not).

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Gandalf is right there to talk to, but plenty of others (like the Valar or Iluvatar) would be plenty aloof and unknowable, and history would have reinforced the belief that in times of great need, the Valar do intercede. Seems like as good a reason to pray as any. And regarding Gandalf's lack of mystery, for those who truly believe in a religion, seeing only reinforces belief: if a Christian met an angel and went on a journey with them to defeat a great evil, do you really imagine they'd pray less because of it? –  Nerrolken Jan 16 at 19:05
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"if a Christian met an angel and went on a journey with them to defeat a great evil, do you really imagine they'd pray less because of it?" ... yes, I believe this would be the case. –  xLeitix Jan 17 at 11:39
    
This answer makes a lot of sense compared against the current context (ie. the way the world is now), but then I think about ancient civilizations and I wonder. Like, I'm no scholar of Egyptology but my understanding is that pharoahs were viewed as gods (something like they were children of gods who just happened to live on the ground instead of in the sky) –  jhocking Jan 19 at 13:51

I found this answer by googling religion and middle Earth..

From the LOTR wikia

http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Religion

Religion in Middle-earth is generally divided into two mutually exclusive factions: The worship of Melkor and the Worship of Eru Ilúvatar.

Ilúvatarism- The worship of Eru Ilúvatar is the religion of the Good Peoples of Middle-earth. The specifics of this religion is largely unknown and unspecified by Tolkien, as there is no mention of temples or holy men. An altar to Ilúvatar was atop Meneltarma in Númenor but was for the most part secluded with no buildings or shines. Any additional religious sites are never mentioned and it is unknown if they exist or what they look like.

Melkorism- The Worship of Melkor is also not elaborated much by Tolkien, but if the worship of Melkor by the Númenóreans are any indication, than Melkorism has apart of its service human sacrifice. The Temple to Melkor in Númenor was described as being domed with a hole in the top to allow smoke from the fire below to exit as wood and human sacrifices are burned. The humans under the domain of the Enemy worship Melkor as God, denying the existence of Eru Ilúvatar, Sauron told the Númenóreans that Ilúvatar is a lie told by the Valar to keep the Númenóreans from power. Sauron, since the downfall of Melkor has had himself worshiped as a god by his subjects, it is unknown if other dark entities such as the Witch-king of Angmar are also worshiped as deities in Melkorism.

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The same temples, human sacrifices and burning are mentioned in the Athrabeth. –  Darth Satan Jan 16 at 19:45

Really interesting discussion with everyone bringing in good points. And particularly thanks to Jimmy Shelter for his deep knowledge and insights of Tolkien history.

For myself, I also think that maybe Tolkien decided at one point in his writing career on putting anything religious that ressembled his own beliefs aside because they had changed many times through the years. Remember that he started writing on middle-earth and Arda around 1915, still only a young man, but a young man confronted to a world that was afire with war. Then, in the 1920's and 1930's, he changed many times the stories he had elaborated in his youth, because, like he said himself, he had changed his views of the world.

The sentence "I have not put in, or have cut out" seems to support this.

If you add to this that Tolkien was a man really respectful of differences in people, I guess that by the time he started to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, in the late thirties, he had just decided to cut off all direct religious allusions from his stories to avoid non wanted reactions or understandings.

That said, he still portrayed and forwarded with much strenght his own religious values and beliefs throught the storylines. But he just didn't need direct allusions to religion to do so, his world was already full of gods and mythology. Anyway, being such a devout christian, any "good" religion he would have depicted would probably have looked like christianity.

In the end, isn't Frodo a kind of Christ, the chosen one that accepts to suffer to save the world ?

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" because they [religious beliefs] had changed many times through the years" - do you have proof of that? As far as Frodo and Christ, Tolkien hated allegories and clearly stated LOTR wasn't any kind of allegory. Christ included. –  DVK Jan 17 at 18:25
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And if there was allegory, if anyone was "Christlike" in Lotr, it would have to be Gandalf, not Frodo –  SSumner Sep 24 at 1:00
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@SSumner - Can't speak to this religiously but philosophically any number of characters can be considered "Christ-like". All that is required is to exhibit, to a marked degree, one or more personal attributes of the main character in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. –  user23715 Oct 17 at 19:07

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