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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 Ilúvatar 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 Ilúvatar." And yet, Ilúvatar 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 '14 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 '14 at 13:04
82

Tolkien deliberately omitted 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 '14 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. – user8719 Jan 16 '14 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 '14 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. – user8719 Jan 17 '14 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 '14 at 17:40
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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.

18
  • 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 '14 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 '14 at 18:49
  • "To the average human, beings like Galadriel are nearly as remote and mysterious as the Valar themselves." -- an insightful point! Other than, perhaps, the rare scholar the deep past is utterly remote from everyday life. Likewise Galadriel, even to most elves other than perhaps a few who were in her company. Even Galadriel and Elrond must have so many memories from so long a life that the events of 6000+ years ago were remote. – Mark Olson Aug 17 at 17:46
9

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

From: Lord Of The Rings Wikia (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.

  • The same temples, human sacrifices and burning are mentioned in the Athrabeth. – user8719 Jan 16 '14 at 19:45
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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 '14 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 '14 at 11:39
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    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 '14 at 13:51
5

There are a few other examples of religions in Middle-earth.

  1. The Dwarves may worship Aulë as their primary deity:

For they say that Aulë the Maker, whom they call Mahal, cares for them, and gathers them to Mandos in halls set apart

  1. The Blue Wizards may have founded new religions in Middle Earth:

I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and 'magic' traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.

  1. The Númenóreans were for a time considered gods by some groups of Men:

And they revered the memory of the tall Sea-kings, and when they had departed they called them gods

  1. Some Men of the east and south worshipped Sauron:

To them Sauron was both king and god; and they feared him exceedingly, for he surrounded his abode with fire.

  • "There are a few other examples..." Is this in response to another answer (i.e. the flagged-as-correct answer by Rand al'Thor)? – Vanguard3000 Jul 24 '17 at 14:15
3

A note on the theological knowledge of Hobbits.

The Prologue, 1 Concerning Hobbits, to The Fellowship of the Ring states that by the time of the War of the Ring the Hobbits in the Shire were very used to peace and prosperity.

They forgot or ignored what little they had ever known about the Guardians, and of the labours of those that made possible the long peace of the Shire. They were, in fact, sheltered, but they had ceased to remember it.

So the troubles that came to the Shire during the War of the Ring could be considered a punishment from Eru for the Shire Hobbits' complacency and lack of gratitude, and/or a natural result of the course of events during the War.

The Rangers, remnant of the Dunedain of the North, were the ones whose labors made possible the long peace of the Shire.

The Guardians were the Guardians of the World, the Valar and the Maiar. So the Shire Hobbits had been taught by Men, Dwarves, and/or Elves something of the theology of Middle-earth in or before the early centuries of the Shire history, but in the latter centuries of the Shire, by the time of the War of the Ring, the hobbits either didn't know about the Valar or didn't often care or think about whatever they might have known about the Valar and the theology of Middle-earth.

At least a few Hobbits knew something about the First Age, possibly including theology, during the war of the Ring, the very end of the Third Age of Middle-earth.

In The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter Eight, "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol", Frodo and Sam rest and compare their situation to that of Beren and Luthien trying to steal a silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth.

'I wonder,' said Frodo. 'But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. Take any one that you're fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to.'

'No sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it --- and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why sir, I never thought of that before! We've got - you've got some of the light of it in the star-glass the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?'

'No, they never end as tales,' Said Frodo. 'But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended. Our parts will end later -- or sooner.'

So Sam and Frodo have heard or read the story of Beren and Luthien at least once each, and also know how the Silmaril came to Earendil and became the star called Earendil.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 8, "Farewell to Lorien":

'And you, ringbearer.' she said, turning to Frodo. 'I come to you last who are not last in my thoughts. For you I have prepared this.' She held up a small crystal phial: it glittered as she moved it, and small rays of white light sprang from her hand. "in this phial,' She said. "is caught the light of Earendil's star, set among the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out. Remember Galadriel and her mirror!"

Galadriel doesn't tell them that the light of Earendil's star is the light of the Silmaril that Beren cut from the Iron Crown of Morgoth. Frodo and Sam must have learned that somewhere else at another time.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 1, "Many Meetings", Bilbo sings a song he composed about Earendil, mentioning many strange names that meant nothing to me when I first read them, and mentioning that the light of Earendil was a Silmaril, though not its history with Beren. When Frodo says he won't try to guess which parts of the song were written by Bilbo and which by Aragorn:

"You needn't,' Said Bilbo. 'As a matter of fact it was all mine. Except that Aragorn insisted on me putting in a green stone. He seemed to think it important. I don't know why. Otherwise he obviously thought the whole thing rather above my head, and said that if I had the cheek to make verses about Earendil in the house of Elrond, it was my affair. I suppose he was right.'

So clearly Bilbo knew something of the history of Earendil, enough to write the song. If Frodo asked about the many strange names, or why it was cheeky to write about Earendil in the house of Elrond, Bilbo might have told him, and so told much of the story of Earendil and of the Silmaril. So Bilbo could have told Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin much of the story of the Elder Days, and thus some of the theology, in Rivendell.

And it is possible that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin had already learned some or all of the much or little information they had about the theology of Middle-earth.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter 11, "A Knife in the dark", Aragorn tells the Hobbits at Weathertop the story of Beren and Luthien.

"I will tell you the tale of Tinuviel,' Said Strider, 'in brief--for it is a long tale the end of which is not known; and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old. It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.'

Aragorn then chanted a song about the meeting of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel. Then Aragorn gave a brief synopsis of the story of Beren and Luthien, ending with:

...There live still those of whom Luthien was the foremother, and it is said that her line shall never fail. Elrond of Rivendell is of that kin. For of Beren and Luthien was born Dior Thingol's heir; and of him Elwing the White whom Earendil wedded, he that sailed his ship out of the mists of the world into the seas of heaven with the Silmaril upon his brow. And of Earendil came the Kings of Numenor, that is Westernesse.'

So Aragorn did tell Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin that Earendil's Silmaril was the one that Beren cut from the Iron Crown.

This might not have been the first time that one or more of those Hobbits had heard stories about the First Age. After returning from his trip to Erebor Bilbo had become friendly with Dwarves, Rangers, Gandalf, and Elves, and associated with such exotic people whenever he had the chance. So Bilbo had many opportunities to learn stories about the Third, Second, and First Ages of Middle-earth, and the theology contained in those stories, and to pass on those stories and their theology to younger hobbits like Frodo, Sam, etc., depending on how interested they were. At least Frodo and Sam were certainly interested.

2

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-on-Ahch-To Jan 17 '14 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 – The Fallen Sep 24 '14 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 '14 at 19:07
  • Read the Unfinished Tales, there are many commentaries to the fact that Tolkien rewrote the story of Arda over the years because his philosophy evolved, and as years went by, it became more and more christian. As for allegories... well... user23715 sums it up pretty well. It's true that Gandalf exhibits some of the traits of a christ-like figure, but Frodo also, again like user23715 said. Anyway, in my mind, the real hero of the story is Gandalf. He's the chief organiser ;-) – Joel Dec 5 '14 at 5:35
  • @DVK: here's an exact quote from Christopher Tolkien, in the Foreword to "The Silmarillon" supporting what I'm saying: ""...became the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections. In his later writing mythology and poetry sank down behind his theological and philosophical preoccupations: from which arose incompatibilities of tone." And from JRR himself... "I think that many confuse "applicability" with "allegory"; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." The boundary is a bit blurred between the 2. – Joel Dec 17 '14 at 22:48
1

The line "I have not put in, or have cut out" implies the possibility of mentions or allusions to "everyday knowledge of the Valar/Eru Iluvatar" in earlier versions of his writings, which may possibly be found in "The History of Middle-earth".

  • The only real such allusion is that the Valar are frequently called (and acknowledged as) "the Gods". – user8719 Mar 14 '15 at 18:44

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