Feb 16 2011 2:51pm

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

1. Ajbcool
I like how in Sanderson's books (at least those that involve gods, which is most), the gods aren't perfect. Not by a long shot, some of them are outright evil. But still necessary.
Bill Siegel
2. ubxs113
Seems like a strong argument, and I think I know why. You (and I, and presumably most of the people reading this post) read books written in English by authors who's first language is English and grew up predominantly in an English (or western) tradition. So almost everything we read is going to be more heavily influenced by that, even subconsciously, than other non-Western cultural influences.

And Terry Pratchett is hilarious!
3. John Burridge
Here's two examples from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans that seem to refute the notion that dualistic pantheons are more apt to meddle (I think there isn't much difference):

One aspect of ancient pantheons (I'm thinking Greek and Egyptian ones) that sticks out in my mind is how humans had to wheedle with pantheon members. In some ways they weren't divinities so much as genii for a particular phenomenon - you touch on that a bit with the reference to "fickle gods." Take, for example, spell 125 from the Egyptian New Kingdom edition of The Book of Coming Forth by Day, which sort of goes like this: "Hey, old heart of mine, let's keep some things our little secrets; make sure you tell the gods, 'No, I haven't taken food from orphans' and 'Nuh-uh, I have not oppressed widows.'" Now contrast that with St. Peter looking for one's name in the Book of Life and tossing one into the Lake of Fire if one's name isn't found.

Granted, my example shows divinities working in the afterlife. But still, it seems that the pantheistic system allows for more (post-death) intervention requring more agency from the (dead) human spirit; whereas St. Peter is more a kind of divine accountant.

Another example: ancient Egyptians and ancient Romans (judging from Roman curse tablets found on graves and buried in the Hippodrome) seemed to think that either the proper utterances or written spells could be used to command the gods -- at least to the extent that the gods could be commanded to bind, cripple, or kill an enemy or competitor.

A spell-bound god who meddles in the lives of others is still a meddling god. I'm not sure if this is the same as praying to Jesus for a parking space and then getting one or not.

Maybe it's not so much that the gods are apt to meddle so much as it is what form humans use to ask them to meddle.
4. Gerry__Quinn
A large fraction of fantasies involve good versus evil. I guess that any gods getting heavily involved in such struggles are apt to be both dualistic and meddlesome, so the combination is inevitably going to be pretty common.

For an interesting example of SF with gods, I recommend Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun. It features something pretty much like the classical pantheon of gods as digitised personalities running in the control centre of a gigantic starship... nor are they the only gods involved in the story.
Rikka Cordin
5. Rikka
If you want to talk meddlesome gods... what about American Gods by Neil Gaiman? I don't know if there's another fantasy book that names/mentions as many gods... and if you're going to tell me that Wednesday isn't meddling....

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