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:
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.