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July 26, 2006 10:38 PM   Subscribe

Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman both mused on the idea of ancient gods who continued to exist despite their waning popularity. Who came up with this idea first? Either of them? Someone else?

It's a central idea in the Sandman mythology, and Adams introduces washed-up divinities in both the later Hitchhiker books and the Dirk Gently series. Both bits written around the same time. Both dealt with the theme in similar ways. Kind of an interesting postmodern idea. Anyone know where it comes from?
posted by es_de_bah to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Thor and Hercules, from Marvel Comics? This mythos explained it away that these characters were real and had inspired the ancient religions, but their waning popularity didn't affect their actual power.

Lovecraftian mythos also deal with "elder gods" that have been long forgotten...
posted by frogan at 10:43 PM on July 26, 2006

Response by poster: To clarify, Adams and Gaiman describe these god's as deriving their power mainly from human belief and popularity. The implication, I always felt, is that gods are man-made and therefore, even as supernatural beings, rely on the natural "real world" to give them power. This was the interesting and novel bit for me.
posted by es_de_bah at 10:52 PM on July 26, 2006

Oh thanks. This will be keeping me up. I don't think this is original with either Gaimen or Adams but I have been reading SF too long to remember where I first came across it....
posted by pointilist at 11:04 PM on July 26, 2006

Tom Robbin's Jitterbug Perfume had a similar idea as well.
posted by muddylemon at 11:18 PM on July 26, 2006

posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:34 PM on July 26, 2006

I'm reminded of the second-season (1967) Star Trek (TOS) episode Who Mourns for Adonais?* Similar premise:
[The alien claiming godhood] is indeed the real Apollo, who was part of a group of powerful aliens that once visited Earth. Eventually all but Apollo realized that humanity had outgrown them.** They spread themselves "upon the wind" and faded away.
*From Stanza 47 of the Shelley poem "Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats."
**Apollo's injunction to the earthlings, "You will gather laurel leaves, light the ancient fires, kill a deer! Make your sacrifices to me! Apollo has spoken!!" didn't go over too well. That shoulda been his first clue that not much had changed.

posted by rob511 at 11:34 PM on July 26, 2006

posted by rob511 at 11:35 PM on July 26, 2006

Something like this idea comes up in Harlan Ellison's wonderful Deathbird Stories, though it's more about the new gods who come to replace them.
posted by moss at 11:37 PM on July 26, 2006

To clarify, Adams and Gaiman describe these gods as deriving their power mainly from human belief and popularity.

This is a conceit of the rather older Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, where the strange little gods Issek and Mog generate power from their one heroic worshipper apiece; so it probably dates from pulp SF/fantasy of the '20s and '30s at least. My gut says there's a much older incidence, possibly as far back as Enlightenment-era poetry, but I don't have a strong enough background in that area to say for sure.
posted by furiousthought at 11:42 PM on July 26, 2006

Not an answer, since it doesn't preceed known examples, but possibly of interest to you: Terry Pratchett wrote a novel focused directly on this concept (Title: "Small Gods"), where the mechanism is explicitly that a god's power comes entirely from the number of believers and how much they believe. Interestingly, he paints a wider scale of godness - a full-on god and a forest spirit are the same supernatural "stuff", the difference is in the base of belivers, and a change in the believer-base could make either one much like the other. (ie, supernatural stuff we normally wouldn't think of as washed up gods, or rising-star gods)
Pratchett and Gaiman often collaborate too.

posted by -harlequin- at 11:50 PM on July 26, 2006

I don't want to be crass, so please excuse me if I come off that way but...who cares? Or maybe better yet, is there even a "right" answer? It all sort of comes back to the saying "there are no more original ideas left". It's not LITERALLY true, but when you think about it artists (literary or otherwise) are always influenced by the ideas and creativity of their peers and environment. My answer is, no one came up with it first. ;)
posted by crypticgeek at 11:53 PM on July 26, 2006

Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods" centers around this idea.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 11:59 PM on July 26, 2006

"God Stalk" by P. C. Hodgell has a similer theme. It was writen around 1982.
posted by Axandor at 12:08 AM on July 27, 2006

Fred Saberhagen's first swords trilogy also contain some deities subject to similar rules. Written in the early 80s, I believe.
posted by weston at 12:31 AM on July 27, 2006

Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch - this was a staple idea of pulp horror in the 1920s and 30s. Weird Tales features several such.
posted by A189Nut at 1:37 AM on July 27, 2006

Well it's a pretty damn old idea. The notion that a god's power is derived directly from the intensity of belief and correct execution of rituals an old, old idea that goes back at least to before the Greeks. Ancient cities in the past each adopted particular gods and the fortune of both the god and the city were seen as intertwined. That was the common rule until relatively recently. Then eventually you get Nietzsche proclaiming that God has died because people no longer believe and since then the idea has been planted deeply in the modern conscious.
posted by nixerman at 2:18 AM on July 27, 2006

Best answer: It all goes back, really, to the story that Plutarch tells, of a group of Greek sailors who heard a voice calling from one of the islands: 'When you get to Palodes, tell everyone that the great god Pan is dead'. In later Christian tradition, it was believed that this had occurred at the moment of Christ's birth (or, in some versions, at the moment of his death), the moment when the pagan era ended and the Christian era began.

There are many retellings of this story. (Do a Google search for "Pan is dead" or "the gods are dead" and you'll find some of them; or, if you want a more detailed scholarly discussion, see the article by C.A. Patrides, 'The Cessation of the Oracles: The History of a Legend', in the Modern Language Review, vol. 60 (1965).) Writers in the late nineteenth century were particularly fascinated by it, because it implied that Christianity itself might eventually fade and die away, just as the pagan religions had done.

One of the best-known imaginative retellings of the 'gods-are-dead' theme is the title story in Richard Garnett's short-story collection, The Twilight of the Gods (1888), a witty and cynical little fable in which the last priestess of Apollo meets the god Prometheus. The Twilight of the Gods is one of the earliest works of fantasy fiction (before the 'fantasy' genre had even been invented), and probably has something to do with the popularity of the 'gods-are-dead' theme in later SF/fantasy stories.

The full text of The Twilight of the Gods is available here, if you want to read it; but you might prefer the charming little essay by T.E. Lawrence (=Lawrence of Arabia) in which he delights in the paradox of Garnett, the sober and scholarly Superintendent of the British Museum Reading Room, spending his leisure hours writing a work of romantic fantasy.
posted by verstegan at 2:18 AM on July 27, 2006 [4 favorites]

J.M. Barrie? The part of "Peter Pan" where you have to believe in fairies in order to keep Tinkerbelle alive.
posted by hermitosis at 5:28 AM on July 27, 2006

Here is the full text of "The Exiles Club" by Lord Dunsany. Both of the authors you mention have UNDOUBTEDLY read it. It was written in 1915, and totally riffs on the exact idea that you mention: the old Gods suffering as belief in them wanes.

It's also a damn fine tale.
posted by Topkid at 6:13 AM on July 27, 2006

Funny, I'm reading Americain Gods these very days, and it indeed reminded me of Pratchett's Small Gods. Knowing that the pair wrote "Good Omens" together, I just came to the conclusion they built ideas together...
posted by XiBe at 7:06 AM on July 27, 2006

It's worth pointing out that old gods living among us is a recurring theme many of Gaiman's works: The Sandman, American Gods, Anansi Boys, The Eternals, just off the top of my head. However, he's played their origins both ways.

In The Sandman, for example, Dream has always existed, and presumably always will, in some form or another. His family is even called "The Endless". People don't play a part in his powers, or his life. He mostly treats them like insects, unless they do something (usually bad) to warrant his specific attention.

In American Gods, the gods exist because people believed in them, and their power came from that. Odin is pissed that people made him, but he doesn't get any respect anymore, saying people "don't sacrifice rams or bulls to me. They don't send me the souls of killers and slaves, gallows-hung and raven-picked. They made me. They forgot me. Now I take a little back from them. Isn't that fair?"
posted by Gamblor at 7:54 AM on July 27, 2006

In The Sandman, for example, Dream has always existed, and presumably always will, in some form or another. His family is even called "The Endless". People don't play a part in his powers, or his life.

We are also explicitly told that the Endless are not gods--they are more powerful than gods. But the Sandman series also features gods, whose power does indeed rely on the number and belief of their worshippers. Most notably Ishtar in Brief Lives.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:04 AM on July 27, 2006

To throw an extremely geeky example in the mix: I believe the 1st Edition AD&D Dieties & Demigods touched on the idea of 'Lesser Gods'. Where lesser gods do not have as many followers in the AD&D world.

Moving forward, this idea was completly fleshed out in the Planscape AD&D 2nd Edition realm books. Where portions of the Planes( and sometimes an entire plane) are constantly growing and being absorbed depending on the amount of followers on both the Prime Material and the Outer Planes.
posted by mnology at 1:07 PM on July 27, 2006

The current comic book series Fables hinges on a similar device. For example, they'd all like to get rid of Jack from the Beanstalk, but he made a series of films about himself in Hollywood and now he's too well remembered.
posted by yerfatma at 1:24 PM on July 27, 2006

The idea has been around for ages, as others have pointed out. I independently came up with it when I was about 5, for what that is worth.
posted by QIbHom at 1:25 PM on July 27, 2006

And also in Sandman, one of the Endless goes through a transformation as human society changes in nature - from Delight she becomes Delirium, representing a sea change in the world.
posted by phearlez at 5:24 PM on July 27, 2006

This is literally an ancient idea, and is not by any stretch some sort of clever modern inversion of anything. In fact, in some ancient city-states, the worshippers did not make a distinction between the idols and the gods. In other words, the gods were literally man-made, and it wasn't a secret.

The Endless aren't just about humans. Remember the story about the world ruled by cats, or the relatively recent story about the gathering of stars? Dream et al are perceived differently by different species.

Also, I didn't interpret Delight's movement to Delirium as representative of a change in humanity, but as a reflection of the weight of having to say happy for so long, and as a foil for Dream's own increasing gloom.
posted by bingo at 7:07 PM on July 27, 2006

Response by poster: there're way to many good responses here for me to mark anyone as a winner right now, but thanks everybody! This is great!
posted by es_de_bah at 11:05 PM on July 28, 2006

Response by poster: And for those of you who poo-poo that there is anything knew about this idea. From a postmodern (and generally anti-theistic) point of view, this is an excellent metaphor for multiple, interactive truths.

The idea might be old but it may be time to put it to good beard-stroking use.
posted by es_de_bah at 12:12 PM on July 29, 2006

I've somehow always considered Gaiman to be the inheritor of the British speculative-fiction-with-humour throne from DNA, so I'd say, DNA came up with it, Gaiman perfected it. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 3:36 AM on July 31, 2006

And for those of you who poo-poo that there is anything knew about this idea. From a postmodern (and generally anti-theistic) point of view, this is an excellent metaphor for multiple, interactive truths.

Dude, you're the one who asked the question. It's not "poo-pooing," it's telling the truth. Nobody is saying that there isn't room to do something fresh with it, but don't blame us for answering correctly.
posted by bingo at 6:52 PM on July 31, 2006

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