Continuing to discuss James Raggi's recent topic of Good and Evil in RPGs, I'd like to support his point about separating morality from divinity by pointing out how unrealistic a battle of Good versus Evil is. No, I don't mean that there is no Good and Evil, or that there has never been any battle between them. What I mean is that the whole concept of a battle between Good and Evil, in their capitalized forms, is not only somewhat inconsistent with a sword & sorcery aesthetic, it's a comparatively recent idea.
D&D and several other fantasy RPG settings are sort of a mish-mash of medieval-era and classical-era ideas. Although the technology, politics, and culture are medieval in flavor, the fantastic elements seem to mostly come from classical myth and legend; clerics and elementals are the most medieval of the fantastic elements in the original rules, with the rest -- magic scrolls and swords, dwarves, elves, most of the monsters and magic -- coming from Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic pre-Christian sources, sometimes by way of later literary works like Tolkein. In particular, D&D chooses polytheism as its religious model instead of monotheism.
And yet, the battle of Good and Evil comes mainly from monotheism. The Zoroastrians are the first to propose a moral battle between supernatural forces as an explanation for events of history and everyday life. The Hebrews absorb this concept into their religion after the Persians liberate them from Babylon; from there, the concept drifts into a couple fringe cults of Judaism, including one that becomes Christianity. This new form of Judaism breaks out into the rest of the world by focusing on Gentiles, and eventually one such Christian of the Arian sect founds a new offshoot, Islam. These two together come to dominate most of the world.
Polytheists, in contrast, did not believe in Evil as a huge, immanent supernatural force. There were terrifying acts of the gods, the same gods who could also give boons. There was sacrilege, blasphemy, oath-breaking, and the breaking of taboos by foolhardy human beings. The closest the ancients come to Evil are embodiments of chaos, such as Apep or Ymir or Tiamat or Typhon; Chaos is not so much immoral as dangerous and destructive and thus needing to be controlled.
Polytheists did not even believe in Good as a huge, immanent supernatural force. The first "good" is lowercase, in the form of good fortune or material blessings. The next "good" is virtue, which stems from piety and respect towards the supernatural combined with social graces that promote good fortune and material blessings, the first "good". The ancients do not talk about aligning yourself with Good, but with leading a good life.
My feeling on this, then, is that if I want to have a polytheistic culture and a more fantastic, classical-style setting, I should stay away from Cosmic Good and Cosmic Evil and instead focus on more mundane versions of good and evil. Of course, there's another side to this coin, which I will deal with my next installment.