SFF and the Classical Past

SFF and the Classical Past, Part 5—Meddlesome Gods

Let’s talk thunderbolts.

Or, to be slightly less flippant—being atheistically inclined, I find it difficult to speak about gods of any stripe with the appropriate respect—let’s talk about how the Classical pantheon(s) have influenced the idea of divinity in fantasy.

The last science fiction novel I read that incorporated explicitly religious elements was Zelazny’s Lord of Light, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I stick to fantasy. And since it’ll be a little difficult to talk about the influence of the Classical pantheon without at least mentioning the intervening influence of (Approximately: ingredients may vary by location, contents may settle during transit.) seventeen hundred years of official European monotheism, some digressions may occur.

Caveat emptor, as a Roman might have said.

Now that the prolegomenon’s out of the way, we can get down to the interesting questions. What constitutes a god*? What kind of gods crop up in fantasy, and how do they work? And (my point of interest here) which ones can reasonably be said to stand in the classical tradition?

*In fiction. There’s a reason I’m not a theologian, or a metaphysicist, nor ever wish to be.

There seem to be a number of different ways of constructing fictional pantheons. Some are distant yet benevolent, occasionally intervening in mildly helpful ways (take, for example, the gods of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, or Tamora Pierce’s Tortall); some operate within a dualistic paradigm of good and evil, like the gods in David Weber’s Oath of Swords or Elizabeth Moon’s Paksennarion books; some are decidedly less effable, as with the deities of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series, or Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange. And some, while they might be effable, have their own opaque and egoistic concerns, like the gods of Steven Brust’s Dragaera—or, to use an example which takes egoistic deities and makes of them hysterically amusing parodies,** Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

**I understand that some people do not find Discworld hysterical. I remain baffled by this.

(And some fictional pantheons are just background noise. Which, since many of us live our lives without experiencing any imminent godly manifestations, is probably to be expected.)

When it comes to personified forces of complex natural and symbolic relations—better known as gods—it often seems as though those fictional pantheons which operate within a dualistic universe reflect a greater portion of the classical attitude towards deities.

Surprising, perhaps: for the Greeks and Romans there was no such thing as a bad god—it would be the grossest impiety to suggest such a thing!—but only fickle ones. (Ancient philosophers liked—perhaps modern ones still do—to argue that gods are by their nature perfect, and thus the myths with all their examples of imperfect godly behaviour could not be true: your average Greek or Roman citizen, it must be assumed, responded to this about as well as your average Christian today does to a theological explanation of the Trinity.)  But the gods of the dualistic pantheons seem to have much more active personalities than in the other cases I’ve mentioned***—and if there’s one thing that stands out about classical deities, it’s the fact they’re decidedly active personalities. One might call them downright meddlesome.

***I leave aside opaque, egoistic gods, who can’t really be treated as a class due to being so individually varied.

Gods who actively meddle, rather than nudge, appear more common in dualistic systems. The binary opposition between Light and Dark, Good and Evil, and the conflict of interest this creates, nearly requires they do so. (In such a system, meddling in human destinies—mucking about with free will—is often framed as an evil which “good” deities intervene to set right, rather than as something that gods do just for kicks—which would be my reading of the classical myths.) Add that meddling tendency to deities with visibly delimited areas of responsibility—war, say, or love, or weather—and you get something that on the surface resembles the pantheons many of us recognise from Europe’s longstanding debt to the classical tradition.

(I have this riff about importing moral dualism onto fundamentally amoral sets of relationships. Polytheistic systems don’t map neatly into the kind of Manichaeistic dichotomy that draws sharp lines between Good and Bad beings—but that’s likely not terribly relevent to the matter at hand.)

Statue of Zeus or Poseidon depending on who you ask

Distant and ineffable gods may also admit of some influence from the classical world. Very little consideration of the divine in the history of European philosophy has escaped the long arm of Plato and, after his medieval rediscovery, Aristotle: when Descartes wrote his Meditations in the middle of the 17th century, or John Locke his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding near the century’s end, or David Hume his Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding in the middle of the 18th, whether they or not they agreed with the classical philosophers, they nonetheless used them.

Am I wrong? I invite you to point out the flaws in my case (which are undoubtedly many) and, since I’m a blinkered Classicist, if anyone chooses to chime in with a less Eurocentric perspective, I for one would be glad to hear it.

[Read the other posts in the SFF and the Classical Past series.]


Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime SFF fan, she also reviews for Ideomancer.com

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