The Old Gods, Passing On

Years and years ago, in a happier time, Saturday at Gates of Vienna was either Ranting Day or Poetry Day, depending on my mood. I still like to rant, and I still enjoy poetry, but I usually don’t have time to do either on a Saturday. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to post the poem below, which was lost to me many decades ago.

It was written by the late science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp. I read it when it was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the issue of December 1966. I was fifteen at the time, and it made a profound impression on me, so much so that I could remember chunks of it verbatim more than fifty years later.

The intensification of the Culture Wars over the last ten years or so brought this poem to mind, and I wished I had the text of it so that I could post it. Since the advent of the Internet I have searched for it occasionally, but to no avail. Then a few days ago I finally found it in an online archive. There were a few transcription errors resulting from the scanning and OCR process, but those were easy to fix.

As G.K. Chesterton famously said: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

That’s why we should fear the gods to come:

The Gods

by L. Sprague de Camp

The ghosts of gods were marching down the hallway of the past;
The shuffle of their footsteps woke me from my sleep at last;
I stared into the darkness, and I shuddered as they passed.

A grim and one-eyed Odin strode, and hammer-wielding Thor,
And there were golden-bearded Zeus and Ares, god of war,
And Mithra, Ler, Ganesha, Ra, Shamash, and many more.

I looked on Quetzalcoatl’s plumes and Loki’s hair of fire;
Along with Krishna’s flute I heard Apollo’s twanging lyre;
I caught a wink from Pan and witnessed Ishtar’s fierce desire.

Just then a funny, ibis-headed godlet caught my eye.
“Come here and tell me, Thoth!” I called. The bird-head wafted nigh.
“What means this rout of deities? Where go they hence, and why?”‘

“As you create us, you destroy us,” said the long-billed wight,
“And those that you’ve discarded here have yielded up their might;
“They’re bound for non-existence in the quiet lands of night.”

“And what of those who stand aloof — the four with beards?” I cried.
“They’re Christ and Yahweh, Marx and Lenin,” Thoth the Wise replied.
“Although these four are worshiped now, they will not long abide.”

“Will earth be godless, then?” I said, and Thoth responded: “Nay!
“You’ll make more gods, in name of whom to burn and maim and slay.”
“What sort of gods? Abstractions pale, or bloodless theories, say?”

But Thoth of Egypt turned away and went in silence dumb.
I thought of Venus’ bosom, heard afar Damballa’s drum.
And wept the old gods, passing on, and feared the gods to come.

10 thoughts on “The Old Gods, Passing On

  1. Very nice poem. Thank you.

    L. Sprague de Camp was a keen observer of the human condition, and a tale teller of renown.

    I am rereading his The Reluctant King, and am struck with the depth of his understanding of different governments, and the skill of his fantasy story telling.

  2. Covid is the new god and religion. It is so funny to hear those who mock God and religion while they have Marxism and the global Coviet serf plantation.
    If God didn’t intend for them to be shorn then he wouldn’t have made them sheep.
    As H.L. Mencken said they are about to get it good and hard on the road to the utopia that won’t be happening.

    “We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

    Charles MacKay

  3. So according to L. Sprague the gods have ‘deCamped’. BTW, Lenin did not have a beard. At least deCamp’s musings were Thothful.

      • only if you are a goat. ;=)
        ps, I have tried to raise a beard and the best I could do was a scraggly goatee, which I have kept shaved ever since. A beard is supposed to go from ear to ear and fully cover the cheeks and jaw, as in Karl Marx’s case.

  4. Compared to what there was 200 years ago, we already live in a Utopia. We got here by the forthright march of Christian values against all the odds.

    But in their malicious ignorance, those who worship the gods to come, think they can tear it all down and let the ‘gods to come’ build something better.

    I am sure the tear down will work well, and will be easy to achieve. But by past experience, a lot of people will die, and the ‘Utopia’ itself will be elusive, and slippery with spilt blood. Beria, Yakuda, Comey – who comes next? Clinton?

    • “But in their malicious ignorance, those who worship the gods to come, think they can tear it all down and let the ‘gods to come’ build something better.”

      #BuildBackBetter … you see it on “progressive” backdrops everywhere now. It’s like a (not-so) secret handshake.

  5. Fine poem. However, it’s worth recalling that while many horrendous deeds have been committed in the name of Islam, with the endorsement of Allah according to Mohammed, a fair number have in the name of the Christian God, without the endorsement of Jesus.

    I think we may conclude that a benign belief system, sacred or secular, inclines people to good (and vice versa), but is no guarantee.

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