Saturday, August 4, 2012

Holy Insecurity, Batman!

You'd think being a god is one of the sweetest jobs out there. Incredible power, tons of perks, the ability to shape the future... a person could feel good about themselves if they were a god, right?

Wrong. Gods are some of the most insecure beings ever created. From Greece to Alaska to Egypt, gods across pantheons just can't stop showing off the extent of their power and control over every other living thing. It's as if, divine and omnipotent as they are, they still have something to prove, either to themselves or to us. I would make a "compensating for something" joke, but I'd probably get turned into rock if I did. Because the one thing gods can't stand is a lowly mortal pointing out their flaws.

Take Arachne. Granted, she was a moron for willfully engaging a goddess in a contest of skill; the barometer of stupid probably shattered when she challenged Athena. But her prideful idiocy doesn't change the fact that she was also right. Athena's entry into their weaving contest is a complacent pat-on-the-back to herself and her entire extended family; Arachne had the guts to depict the gods' ignoble moments and reveal how ridiculous and petty they often are. And sometimes the narrator even admits that Arachne's work, if blasphemous, is also better than Athena's.

What does she get for shining an irreverent but honest light on the less-than-glorious lives of the gods, via a contest she technically won? Turned into a spider. Athena is so embarrassed that she throws an appalling and uncharacteristic hissy fit: she rips up Arachne's superior tapestry and erases all evidence of the crime by disposing of the accuser. Clearly the mob missed out on a fantastic hit woman. But even in high dudgeon, Athena remains sensible enough to phrase her anger in terms that no other potentially challenging mortal could mistake: this is Arachne's punishment, not for being humiliatingly right, but for her arrogance. The message is clear: do not piss off the gods. Even if you're better. Just don't do it. We don't want to know.

Sedna, Antony Galbraith
Sedna, in comparison, gets a much better deal. But her story is still very troubling in what it says about the capricious willfulness of gods. Sedna starts out as a beautiful mortal who refuses all her suitors, until a mysterious and skilled hunter comes to town. She's interested; more importantly, her father wants her off his hands. He drugs Sedna and hands her over to the hunter, who takes her back to his "home" - an enormous nest on a clifftop. Surprise - your new husband is actually Raven, turned into a human because he spotted Sedna and fancied her!

Sedna, Tara Borger
In a shocking twist, this freaks Sedna out. (I have to wonder if Leda had a similar reaction when she was accosted and assaulted by a damn swan. What is it with randy gods and birds?) Sedna escapes from the nest, which in turn offends her putative husband's pride and dignity. Determined not to let his new bride escape - whether he's more concerned about having his disguise revealed, or losing face by losing Sedna, is rarely clear - Raven whips up a storm to drown the girl he went to such lengths to obtain. In hopes of making amends, Sedna's father kayaks over to rescue her, but only until his own life is threatened. When the storm nearly flips his boat over, Sedna's father pitches her straight into the god-sent waves, sacrificing his daughter again for his own sake. And when the poor girl, probably now thoroughly pissed at men in general, clings to the side of the kayak, her paragon of a dad cuts her fingers off so she can't hold on. Luckily karma takes a hand at this point; Sedna's severed fingers become whales and seals and fish, the creatures of the as-yet-unpopulated sea, and Sedna herself becomes a sea goddess. It's a much-deserved reward for her seriously crappy run of luck.

But having been the firsthand victim of a god's fickle pride, Sedna has a hard time learning the lesson of good behavior. She throws temper tantrums when her hair gets tangled underwater, requiring tribal shamans to travel to her ocean home to comb out the knots (since they, after all, have fingers). Only when she is appeased will she release the sea creatures for humans to catch. On one hand, yes, the lack of fingers and the inability to attend to her own personal grooming would get on someone's nerves; on the other, you'd think someone so shabbily treated would know to be helpful rather than coercive. The only lesson Sedna seems to have learned about divine-human relations is the one that led Raven to kidnap her: humans exist to serve the will of gods.

And lest you think this is just a hormonal female thing, we haven't even gotten to the most appalling divine exhibition of power.

Back in the bad old days before the Ten Commandments, Yahweh was a Mesopotamian thunder god with a lot to prove. His chosen people go nomad for a couple generations, essentially run the richest country in the known world, and then promptly get enslaved when a trigger-happy Pharaoh thinks they've gone too far. When Yahweh finally wakes up to the less-than-ideal state of his worshipers - and the affront to him implied in the subjugation of his chosen ones - he seriously loses his cool. He snags a passing Moses and makes him a divine mouthpiece for Yahweh's over-the-top display of vindictive power.

Who does he unleash this power on? The Pharaoh who enslaved his people? The overseers and taskmasters who make their lives hell? The priests who deemed him so helpless?

How about everyone?

The Plagues of Egypt, John Martin
Yahweh's reputation and career are on the line. He's up against the far more experienced and entrenched might of the Egyptian pantheon. And he is not happy with being ignored. So he makes damn sure that no one will ever forget what happens when you make him angry. He systematically ravages the entire country, forcing every single Egyptian to pay literally in blood for the insult to his prowess. His opening act is to turn Egypt's only source of potable water into blood. Once dehydration sets in, Pharaoh relents and calls Moses back. "Okay, I'm sorry, you guys can go now, but for the love of Hapi, can you get me a freaking drink of water?"

The Plague of Locusts, James Tissot
To recap: Yahweh has brought a country to its knees with one stroke. The most powerful king in the world is begging with his chosen spokesman, acknowledging Yahweh's superior might. But this is not enough. Yahweh's just getting started on his revenge. Exodus explicitly states that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart," and proceeded to unleash the other nine Plagues on the population of an entire country, just to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was awesome. He does it again and again, bringing Pharaoh to desperation and then refusing to let the king's own admission of Yahweh's power stand. He kills all the cattle; he withers all the crops; he plunges the entire country into permanent darkness. And ultimately, as his master stroke, Yahweh slaughters the firstborn of every single Egyptian family. When this is depicted, the dead firstborn are nearly always children. Innocents. Noncombatants. Some of whom had probably never met an Israelite in the whole of their short life.

Death of the Pharaoh's Firstborn Son, Lawrence Alma-Tadema
They die to prove a point. They die to show that Yahweh is not a god to ignore. They die because of a god's authority crisis. They are collateral damage in a war of divine attrition, because a couple of powerful humans wondered what would happen if they poked a sleeping dragon.

Gods are not nice people. Gods are primordial creatures, wearing a sheen of civilization over the basest impulses known to man. They exist to be worshiped. And if you forget, they will be more than happy to remind you - brutally, savagely, in a triumph of self-conscious insecurity - what happens when you don't give them their due.


  1. I mean, to be fair, the plagues on Egypt are probably one of the best remembered parts of the whole Bible, so I guess he proved his point pretty effectively. It's tough being the new god. Seriously though, Exodus is a *great* story.

    You have awesome pictures in this blog, btw.

    I think a lot of the trouble with gods being insecure comes from the fact that the gods need humans just as much as humans need the gods. I think this is clearest in pantheons like the Greek one, where the gods require sacrifices. Sure, the gods might give humans water or fire or language, but humans give gods their existence: if we forget them, or think we don't need them anymore because we're superior, then the gods die.

    I think this sort of dynamic is particularly clear in Exodus, actually, where the plagues are clearly a competition between the Egyptian gods and Yahweh. It's not about helping people. Like you said: it's about proving he is worth worshiping. More worth it than the entire pantheon of the strongest empire of the time. That's a hard argument to win, but ultimately, he won it big time.

    1. Oh lord, why am I only just now getting around to replying? SORRY.

      Extra sorry because I love what you're saying here. The whole gods-need-humans argument is one of my absolute favorites. (Speaking of which, have you read "Small Gods"? The whole thing is this brilliant meditation on who needs whom more, and it's Terry Pratchett, so it's hilarious as well.) It really is fascinating to think of all-powerful beings needing humanity in all its frail indecision. Maybe that's part of why Zeus flips out when Prometheus brings fire to humans; he's given the lesser but desperately needed race a bit of godliness, which might in turn make them less inclined to worship.

      For extra fun - and I didn't even get into this in the actual post, because it basically just occurred to me - the Plagues are also about Yahweh proving himself to his own freaking people. They've lived in Egypt for generations, and he's gone AWOL at their moment of greatest need. They might be wondering what use is an indifferent god, and here are all these other gods, why not worship them? So Yahweh's not only fighting the gods and priests who thought they could brush him aside, he's fighting his own worshipers' doubts of him. Which is yet another reason the Plagues are so spectacular and terrifying: "Were you thinking about not worshiping me? BAD IDEA."