The Valar and Religion
Few among the Elves of Third Age Middle-earth have ever seen a Vala, and virtually none of the members of the other Free Peoples actually enjoy that claim. Direct visits from the Powers were rare after the Great Battle, and they essentially ended following the Change of the World. Only Ulmo and a small collection of Maïar regularly venture out of Aman. In fact, Ulmo sees and hears much that escapes even Manwë and Varda, for the King and the Queen of the Valar are far removed from life in Endor.
Nonetheless, the peoples of Middle-earth are aware of legends and natural manifestations that arose out of the Valar’s acts. The forces and features of nature — such as the waters, the wind, and the stars — are all tied to the Valar, and they are all part of every society’s experience. For this reason, some folk even deify the Valar. Those who live beneath the boughs of the deep woods and worship the God of the Forest covet the works of Oromë, while those that revere the God of the Sky salute Manwë.
The Valar as (Mistaken) Deities
The Valar are not Gods, of course, although they are often mistaken as such by Men. Countless pantheons include Gods that correspond to some or all of the Powers. Generally, localized labels and trappings apply, but the features ascribed to these so-called deities are usually the equivalent of those embodied in the Valar.
It is a matter of ignorance combined with local perception. Where the weather is harsh, the God who corresponds to Manwë may be viewed as powerful and brutal; while in locales blessed with a fair climate, this God may be weak and/or gentle. In either case, the deity is a misconceived version of the Lord of Valinor.
Certain races recognize only some of the Powers. Coastal peoples who derive all their wealth from the sea may look to a God-variant of Ulmo as a generous and ultimate overlord who has no peers and few servants. While their pantheon might include a lesser Lord of the Stars (some variation of Varda) and a weak God of the Sky (again, a reconceived Manwë), their woodless land might have little use for any deity resembling Oromë.
Monotheism and the Reverence for Eru
Eru is the One God, and some enlightened cultures understand this fact. Most Elves, of course, believe in Eru Ilúvatar, for they recognize that the Valar arose out of the One’s Flame Imperishable (like all lesser spirits). Thus, most Elven groups practice monotheism. Those that do not are usually ignorant Moriquendi (particular Avari) or are corrupt.
Aside from the enlightened Dúnedain, Men are less likely to embrace the worship of one, all-powerful God. Mortals — having short life spans and relatively little written history — are too far removed from the Elder Days to possess the knowledge found among the Quendi. Where monotheistic Men reside, the specific form of their beliefs are rarely accurate; instead, they reflect the culture’s unique experience. These peoples typically view their one God in the same way Elves might look upon their patron Vala or, more commonly, they perceive their one deity as a manifestation of Darkness.
Religion and Darkness
Darkness has frequently plagued Mannish societies. Both Morgoth and Sauron promoted themselves as the King of Men, and each fostered ignorance among their potential subjects. Religion became a great tool of conquest. As a result, cults deifying Morgoth and/or Sauron are commonplace. Either the Black Enemy or the Dark Lord is venerated as the one God, or as the principal God, among numerous ethnic groups and within the many secretive cults that subvert cultures in less shadowy regions.
Unenlightened or impoverished people relish power and oft times idolize magical or physical strength. Naturally, since the Great Enemies employed unrestrained enchanters and overwhelming armies, Darkness usually represented might. This, in turn, provided Men with the two-edged symbol of fear and hope and it is not surprising that a considerable number of races turned to Darkness. Some of the resultant religions converted local Gods to servants of Morgoth or Sauron or abandoned the old deities altogether, while others merged their ancient idols into the persona of the conquering spirit.
The Multiplicity of Religions
Like any world with myriad races, cultures, and sub-cultures, Middle-earth has a seemingly inexhaustible collection of deities, pantheons, practices, and religions. Rites and rituals, couched in the peculiarities associated with particular places and peoples, follow countless patterns and themes. Thus, the folk of each region typically subscribe to their own standards, borrowing and evolving with need and time.
In truth, however, there is a standard. Eru is the Creator and God, and no other deities exist except in belief. The Valar are merely powerful servants, guardians of Eru’s conception.
Dúnadan and Elda Religion
This truth forms the foundation of Elda and Dúnadan religion. Both groups live in the northwest of Middle-earth and practice a non-ritualistic form of monotheism based on the belief in Eru as the One. Having immortality and direct contact with the Powers of Aman, the Eldar know about the relationships of the Maïar and the Valar, the Valar and Eru, and Eru and Eä. Disciples of Elda teaching, the Dúnedain inherited this knowledge.
The Eldar and Dúnedain utilize a very personal form of religion which involves no formal clergy and little in the way of rituals. Personal meditation and communal celebration order their spiritual lives. Informality is the norm.
The Valar serve as patrons of these groups (and of the people they influence), but they are not misconstrued as Gods. Maïar spirits perform lesser roles and are respected as the wise, or revered as spiritual caretakers of the earth. Actual worship, however, is confined to Eru; and while faith is essential and omnipresent, it is not intrusive. This suits the Valar and their Maia people, since it is in keeping with the Balance of Things.
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