The Gods Remain - Introduction

The Gods Remain book cover

There is something that we no longer have a name for, that the ancients called "the Gods." We no longer have a name for this because philosophers arose and decided that "the Gods" didn't exist, that the world was made of objects, and that anything that was not an object, that existed outside of definition, either didn't exist at all or simply didn't count for anything. They decided that the world consisted only of things that, at least mentally, one could stick in one's pocket and do any self-indulgent thing one liked with. Recently, we have been blest with deconstructionist thinking, which holds that all thought is either straightforward assertion or assertion in disguise. We therefore needn't reduce the world to things we can stick in our pockets; nothing is real but the pocket anyway.

The Ancients did not stick things in their pockets, they had thoughts. They perceived some aspect of the world and, obviously, that expression took a specific form. The Gods are the world that we perceive before we bring our perceptions into form. We can only be humble before this world, and we cannot use it for our own purposes. That is clearly why the philosophers denied it. After all, they were a type of sophist. Through thought, we can get closer and closer to understanding what we perceive, but we can never 'nail' it, have it, encompass or define it. According to its content we call it "poetry" or simply "memory,"or if we are applying it to the natural world, we call it "natural science." It is simple thought. In most ways we have learned to think rather well in regard to the natural world, unfortunately in the human sphere our critical "thinking" has rarely risen to the level of thought. But Homer's thinking did. And so did the thinking that we find in other ancient literature such as that in Sophokles, Aeschylos, and in the Volsungasaga, and the enormity of what we can learn from it is impossible to exaggerate.

I learned what the Gods are from pre-philosophic Greek literature— Homer, Aeschylos, Sophokles— and also from classic Scandinavian literature like the Eddas and the Volsungasaga. Much of this Greek and Scandinavian literature turns out to be a single body of literature that happens to now be in two different languages and that goes back to at least the time of the Chorded Ware or Battle Ax culture, 3000 to 2500 BC. It is the foundation of our humanistic tradition, and it is a statement of human life and human will that is far more profound than anything that has arisen since. I was studing this archaic Greek literature when I began to see the similarities betweenthe Hellenic God Apollo and the Norse God Odin. They are quite different in some ways, but in the Greek and Norse literature I am about to discuss they are exactly the same. While I was following up on that point, I noticed something else: The stories that constitute "Greek mythology" have nothing in common, they are just the stories from all over the East Mediterranean that the Greeks happened to be aware of. But most of the tragedies come from a central core of stories that are very much alike, are different from the others, and that are made in a very specific and well-defined form. Its characteristics are these: (1) A foreigner comes from a distant land and founds a dynasty. (2) The story follows the dynasty for several generations. (3) Each generation repeats the same behavior patterns. (4) These repetitions and the story as a whole are about a God and tell the listener something about what the God is. (5) The story can be about more than one Diety or Sacred entity, but it is always about Apollo. Other Greek stories feature Dieties, but only the stories in this form are about a Diety. (6) The tone of the story and the events of the story are tragic. (7) The stories have a clarity, a lack of fantasy and exaggeration, a realism, a naturalism, a relatively sparing concern with the supernatural, a concentration on local events actually observed that is often not found in other Greek stories. (8) The story always has a principle character, and he is always found in the second to last generation. (9) The principle character makes a decision. This decision is the center of the whole story and tells us fairly clearly what Apollo is.

I have identified three such stories in Greek literature; I call the type the Greco-Germanic Family Cycle. The first is the story of the House of Tantalos (or Pelops); its principle character is Orestes. The second is the story of the House of Kadmos; its principle character is Oidipous. And the third is the story of the House of Melampous; its principle character is Alkmaeon. In this last story, two Sacred objects, a necklace and a robe, are introduced to the family. The enormous desirability of these objects gives them power to destroy, and the rest of the story turns on their destructive power and their eventual neutralization. Now turn to pre-Christian Scandinavian literature and look at the Volsungasaga. (1) A foreigner comes from a far-off land and founds a dynasty. (2) The story follows this dynasty through several generations. (3) Each generation repeats the same behavior patterns. (4) These repetitions tell us about Odin and who Odin is. At a certain point some objects are introduced to the family, a hoard of treasure that includes a Ring. The treasure and especially the Ring are enormously desirable, and this gives them great destructive power. The rest of the story turns on the destructive power of the Ring and its eventual neutralization. (5) The story is about Odin and the Ring. (6) The tone of the story and the events of the story are tragic. (7) The story has a clarity, a lack of fantasy and exaggeration, a realism, a naturalness, a relatively sparing concern with the supernatural, a concentration on local events actually observed that is not found in Keltic literature or in literature found farther east. (8) The principle character, Sigurd, comes in the second to last generation. (9) He makes a decision that is the center of the whole story and that tells us who Odin is. The decisions of Oidipous and Sigurd tell us who Apollo and Odin are, respectively, both decisions are exactly the same, and as we find them in the Greco-Germanic Family Cycles, Apollo and Odin are exactly the same. Apollo's and Oidipous' decisions are dealt with on pages 175-181 and 199-201 of The Gods Remain.

There's more. The Shield Poem was traditional when we find it in pre-Christian Scandinavia, and it was already ancient in classical Greece when we find examples of it in both Homer and Hesiod. This connection has been recognized for a long time, but we find yet a further Greco-German connection in a family of stories found all over the Baltic and North Seas. I am referring to the stories of Kullervo in Finnish Ingria, the Son of Kalav in Estonia, Sigurd in Germany, Starkath in Norway and Denmark, Beowulf in Gautland (now part of Sweden), whose story was preserved in England, and Grettir in Iceland - and of Oidipous whom we find 2,500 years earlier in Greece. Nearly all these characters have intimate and positive relationships with their mothers and destructive relationships with their fathers or surrogate fathers. Most of them, including Oidipous, have impatient and violent personalities. They all have great potency, but that potency is warped and destroys them and all that they would cherish and protect. They are not warped through any fault of their own, they are warped because of their upbringing and their Fate and their relationship with their father-figures, and they all kill or in some way seriously damage their father-figures. All their attempts at sex and marrage, are either not made or are disastrous; in the cases of both Oidipous and the Son of Kalav, their "plowing" specifically creates infertility. These stories are dealt with in "A Baltic Pattern" and in "Oidipous: Devotee of Apollon," in The Gods Remain.

In both classical Greece and medieval Scandinavia we find expressions from the same body of literature, so clearly the people who became the Greeks and the people who became the Germans were once part of the same cultural entity. They shared the same literary forms, the same literary content, they both used the lyre (the lyre did not disappear from the Germanic countries until the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD when oral poetry in the ancient tradition disappeared as well; see pg. 191, The Gods Remain,) and further, as long as the two peoples kept their ancient common tradition, their basic way of looking at the world remained the same.

The Eternal and Sacred was not regarded as something one was told about but as something one perceived. In what we have come to think of as our cultural tradition, the intermediary between the average person and the Sacred is the priest who tells the average person what is and is not Sacred, or directs his reading, and the average person is expected to believe, obey, submit and conform, and religion is simply another form of politics. In the older tradition that we are discussing here the intermediary between the average person and the Sacred is the poet, and the poet's job is to enable the listener to perceive the Sacred as the poet does. His words are not Sacred, they are a means by which he and the listener perceive the Sacred. The poet never expects his listeners to believe, obey, submit to, and conform to his words, because the poet is aware that his words express something Real, and nothing Real can be believed, obeyed, submitted to or conformed to, because nothing Real can be directly stated. That which is Real can only be perceived through stories, analogies, examples, etc., through literature. And so the words are never finished, they are never definitive, they can never completely say the thing that is to be said, they can never’nail’ it, and they are constantly changing. That is why a rendition of part of the Iliad, or part of the story of the House of Kadmos or part of the Volsungasaga was meant to be presented once and then never again in exactly that way. Because each re-creation must be an expression of what the poet perceives, and therefore will be created in a somewhat different way each time. If one worships an object, a group of words in a certain order as do more modern tradtions, then one can possess this object and do whatever self-indulgent thing one likes with it. And that is exactly what people have always done. But one can only be humble and awestruck before the Reality one finds in the Iliad, the House of Tantalos, the House of Kadmos, and the Volsungasaga, and one can’t possess it or be self-indulgent with it. All this is discussed in pages 3-7 in "The Approach," in "The Creation of the Iliad ", in "Gods Jadar" and in "The Enlightenment and the End of the Classic Age" from The Gods Remain.

Our liberal, literary and existential traditions are our oldest and deepest traditions. They go back at least to the time when the proto-Greeks and the proto-Germans were part of the same cultural entity, and the latest that could have been is the Copper Age, the time of the Chorded Ware or Battle Ax culture, about 3000 to 2300 BC. It is clear that what we now call "literature" was our religion then, that we did not conceive of Reality as existing only as cognitively well-defined objects, and that we did not conceive of the Sacred as being contained within a cult that we must submit to. These few precious fragments are perhaps the only accessible and fully developed literature that still exists from the time before the "higher" religions transformed the world.

Their content is Odin-Apollo, and it is the opposite of the content of any of the "higher" religions. I have expressed it as well as I can in "Book II: Tragedy", it is the heart of The Gods Remain, it involves a moral decision we must all make. We must make it any time we choose to know anything whatever, it is the opposite of being saved. Creation comes from knowledge, one cannot know anything whatever and one cannot create anything whatever and seek advantage for oneself at the same time.

Only knowledge and our decision to accept knowledge can make us human. We are leaves in the wind of Nature, we do not have the power to be OK. But if we are willing to be human then we have the power to be human and nothing has the power to stop us. That is the content of the stories of the Greco-Germanic Tradition, and they are the source of what we now call "humanism." This content is discussed in "Book III - Creation" in The Gods Remain.

The heart of each of the ancient Family Cycles is the decision made by each of their principle characters. All such decisions that have been preserved are fundamentally the same, and in the cases of Oidipous and Sigurd the decision is exactly the same. It is the essence of our liberal, existential and humanistic tradition.