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Jun 21 2013

Where is the Graveyard of Dead Gods?

So begins HL Mencken’s brilliant essay Memorial Service, first published in 1922 and republished in A Mencken Chrestomathy. He compiles a very long list of all the gods once worshiped and now long dead and rarely remembered.

Memorial Service

Where is the grave-yard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter to-day? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year-and it is no more than five hundred years ago-50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today [in 1921] Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha, and Wotan, he is now the peer of General Coxey, Richmond P. Hobson, Nan Petterson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler, and Tom Sharkey.

Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother, Tezcatilpoca. Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful: He consumed 25,000 virgins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quitzalcontl is? Or Tialoc? Or Chalchihuitlicue? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or Ixtlilton? Or Omacatl? Or Yacatecutli? Or Mixcoatl? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard of hell do they await the resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jack-ass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods as violently as they now hate the English. But today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.

But they have company in oblivion: The hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Axona, and Vintios, and Taranuous, and Sulis, and Cocidius, and Adsmerius, and Dumiatis, and Caletos, and Moccus, and Ollovidius, and Albiorix, and Leucitius, and Vitucadrus, and Ogmios, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshiped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose-all gods of the first class, not dilettanti. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them-temples with stones as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, wizards, archdeacons, evangelists, haruspices, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: Villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence. Worse, the very tombs in which they lie are lost, and so even a respectful stranger is debarred from paying them the slightest and politest homage.

What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley? What has become of:

Resheph
Anath
Ashtoreth
El
Nergal
Nebo
Ninib
Melek

Ahijah
Isis
Ptah
Anubis
Baal
Astarte
Hadad
Addu

Shalem
Dagon
Sharrab
Yau
Amon-Re
Osiris
Sebek
Molech?

All these were once gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Jahveh himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:

Bilé
Ler
Arianrod
Morrigu
Govannon
Gunfled
Sokk-mimi
Memetona
Dagda
Robigus
Pluto
Ops
Meditrina
Vesta
Tilmun
Ogyrvan
Dea Dia
Ceros
Vaticanus
Edulia
Adeona
Iuno Lucina
Saturn
Furrina
Vediovis
Consus
Cronos
Enki
Engurra
Belus
Dimmer
Mu-ul-lil
Ubargisi
Ubilulu
Gasan lil
U-dimmer-an-kia
Enurestu
U-sab-sib

Kerridwen
Pwyll
Tammuz
Venus
Bau
Mulu-hursang
Anu
Beltis
Nusku
U-Mersi
Beltu
Dumu-zi-abzu
Kuski-banda
Sin
Abil Addu
Apsu
Dagan
Elali
Isum
Mami
Nin-man
Zaraqu
Suqamunu
Zagaga
Gwydion
Manawyddan
Nuada Argetlam
Tagd
Goibniu
Odin
Llaw Gyffes
Lleu
Ogma
Mider
Rigantona
Marzin
Mars
Kaawanu

Ni-zu
Sahi
Aa
Allatu
Jupiter
Cunina
Potina
Statilinus
Diana of Ephesus
Nin-azu
Lugal-Amarada
Zer-panitu
Merodach
U-ki
Dauke
Gasan-abzu
Elum
U-Tin-dir-ki
Marduk
Nin-lil-la
Nin
Persephone
Istar
Lagas
U-urugal
Sirtumu
Ea
Nirig
Nebo
Samas
Ma-banba-anna
En-Mersi
Amurru
Assur
Aku
Qarradu
Ura-gala
Ueras

You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity-gods of civilized peoples-worshiped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.

33 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    And one day shall too be added Allah and Yahweh to that list.

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    That is an excellent essay.

  3. 3
    David Hart

    At the risk of excessive pedantry, Mictlan was the Aztec land of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli was the god in charge of it. And the Aztec gods are not entirely forgotten, as this lego enthusiast
    demonstrates
    (Mictlantecuhtli is the skeletal dude second from the right).

    Also, quite a lot of those dead gods crop up in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s odd but compelling vocal performance piece Stimmung. Worth checking out if you fancy something odd and hypnotic with lots of overtones and deities.

  4. 4
    gshelley

    They’re around. Driving taxis, working as prostitutes, running funeral homes.
    Just not doing much of the god stuff any more

  5. 5
    doublereed

    They’re around. Driving taxis, working as prostitutes, running funeral homes.
    Just not doing much of the god stuff any more

    Dammit, beat me to the reference…

  6. 6
    Gregory in Seattle

    @Katherine #1 – “And one day shall too be added Allah and Yahweh to that list.”

    It is a common meme in theology that new gods destroy the old, killing them, cast them down or rebuild them. Odin, Vili and Ve murdered Ymir and built the Nine Worlds from his corpse. Marduk does the same to his grandmother, Tiamat. Kronos murdered his father Ouranos by first castrating him; Kronos was murdered in turn by his son, Zeus.

    The gods are dead. Long live the gods.

  7. 7
    richardelguru

    Graveyard of the gods?

    Of course!

    Go east on New Oxford St, turn left onto Coptic St and it’s to your right at the end of the road in the British Museum.

  8. 8
    Sastra

    A fair number of theists think they have the answer for this question: ALL gods are simply human interpretations of a Higher Consciousness which does not care what you believe about it. Many paths to the same Truth, in other words. None of the details matter. The most important thing — the really significant thing — is that every version of god somehow places the physical world below the spiritual one (in power, in authority, in virtue, etc.)

    It’s not a bad defense strategy. Throw out the particular divine corpses and try to go for the general divine essense. You agree that all the gods are false gods and yet at the same time they were all true enough — that is, true enough to keep people from being rational material naturalistic atheists. You get to picture yourself as above the theological battles and credit yourself for your ecumenical tolerance.

    It won’t work, though. For one thing, the details really do matter to a lot of people — the meaning of life eventually gets specific. And for another thing, that vague and blurry concept-god you imagine (the one which doesn’t care how people worship it) is actually just another version of god in the battlefield. You still think YOU are right about God and other people are WRONG about God.

    Nice try, but the answer won’t do.

  9. 9
    Reginald Selkirk

    The Greeks who worship the ancient gods
    By Matthew Brunwasser, BBC, 19 Jun 2013

  10. 10
    Alverant

    Pluto is still worshiped and has more worshipers than ever. It’s just that now he’s an orange dog at theme parks.

    Also the names of the old gods live in on sci-fi as aliens and names of ships. In real life, they are used as names of dwarf planets and moons which spread their names to more people than when they were initially worshiped, if only because there are more people now than then. So it would seem the graveyard of gods is in the stars. We should be so lucky.

  11. 11
    oranje

    A little bit of early 20th century kicking of the Irish there, eh?

  12. 12
    d.c.wilson

    “Graveyard of the Dead Gods” would make an awesome title for a D&D campaign.

  13. 13
    steve oberski

    Sam Harris has said that in Letter to a Christian Nation he used Poseidon as an example of a god not very likely to have a present day following and thus not likely to offend when used as an example but received enough letters from irate followers that he had to conclude that there was a small but devoted following.

  14. 14
    dingojack

    Mencken clearly is totally ignorant about the subject of Astronomy.
    Dingo

  15. 15
    macallan

    What, no Perun, Veles, Dazhbog etc.?

  16. 16
    Owlmirror

    El

    Technically, El — the chief of the Caananite pantheon — was syncretized with Yahweh.

  17. 17
    Artor

    There is a not-large, but growing number of neo-pagans who have revived the worship of many of the above mentioned gods. Some of the more obscure ones have indeed been forgotten, but the gods of the Celts, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, etc. all have their modern-day followers. My own town is the home of Ninkasi, a craft brewery. Ninkasi was the Sumerian goddess of beer, and I don’t doubt that some of the local pagans sincerely offer libations to her, of the brew that bears her name. She’s not doing bad for a lady of 3500 years…

  18. 18
    Trebuchet

    Pluto is still worshiped and has more worshipers than ever. It’s just that now he’s an orange dog at theme parks.

    Pluto is also worshiped by people who disagree with the IAU and think there are still nine planets.

    “Worshiped” is a funny word. Why aren’t there two p’s?

  19. 19
    raven

    New gods are being created all the time.

    Most of them don’t have the style and power of the old ones though. Rather mundane really. Maybe they will grow with age.

    The Free Market
    Saints Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan
    The US dollar
    Elron Hubbard
    Communism
    Guns and the Second Amendment
    Media
    NASCAR
    Soccer (ex-USA)
    Football
    Supply side economics

    I’m sure in the future there will be more new ones. Humans create gods for their own purposes.

  20. 20
    Anneliese

    The Cat who owns me wants to point out that Bast is not mentioned.

  21. 21
    iangould

    I like how reading down the first letter of each name on that list spells out obscenities.

    (Not really but made you look.)

  22. 22
    caseloweraz

    Mencken: “Or that of Mullo, the celestial jack-ass?”

    I think he was resurrected and elected to Congress… /snark

    Doctor Who reanimated Cronos — and then dealt with it severely. Likewise with Sutekh.

    And Marduk became the villain in a very funny parody of Enter the Dragon called Kill and Kill Again. Such is the fate of defunct deities: to be cultural icons in some Hollywood flick (or, as David Hart reminds us, in video games.)

  23. 23
    lldayo

    @Artor #17 – Any god that’s in charge of beer should not be forgotten. Bless your town!

  24. 24
    hunter

    Which is why I always ask, when some “Christian” starts ranting about God-this and God-that and God’s law — “Which god are you referring to, specifically?”

  25. 25
    JustaTech

    I’m just reading a book where the goddess Hectate doesn’t understand why not only she isn’t worshiped anymore, but everyone has forgotten all about her. (The book is set about 1400-1500, with magic.)

    What about Loki? Why isn’t he on that list?

  26. 26
    Modusoperandi

    gshelley “They’re around. Driving taxis, working as prostitutes, running funeral homes.
    Just not doing much of the god stuff any more”
    & doublereed “Dammit, beat me to the reference…”
    “Ooo! Look at us! We’re so cool! We like a book that’s really good!”

  27. 27
    aldenutter

    @12: In Planescape, dead gods float through the Astral, watched by the former god of the dead Annibus.

  28. 28
    Johnny Vector

    Needs to be reorganized into an order that scans properly to the tune of the Major-General song.

  29. 29
    baal

    Wait, Menken eulogized me back in 1922?

  30. 30
    CJO

    What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley?

    Er, well, the Delta, maybe, in the Second Intermediate Period. Doubt you would have gotten agreement from priests at Thebes that an Asiatic syncretized version of Set was their “high god” too. Amun-Re has a better claim to the title.

  31. 31
    busterggi

    Yahweh already has one foot in the grave. Christians just drag him out occassionally to justify the polytheism of the trinity and and their roots in Judaeism, they don’t actually worship him.

  32. 32
    David Marjanović

    Lots of OCR mistakes (Tezcatlipoca becoming Tezcatilpoca twice, Quetzalcoatl becoming Quitzalcontl, Tlaloc becoming Tialoc).

    Also the names of the old gods live in on sci-fi as aliens and names of ships. In real life, they are used as names of dwarf planets and moons which spread their names to more people than when they were initially worshiped, if only because there are more people now than then.

    Fun fact: check out the names of the planets in the Nāhuatl wikipedia.

    “Worshiped” is a funny word. Why aren’t there two p’s?

    There are in British spelling.

    Such is the fate of defunct deities: to be cultural icons in some Hollywood flick (or, as David Hart reminds us, in video games.)

    Heute heilig, morgen Frevel, übermorgen blanker Hohn.
    Today holy, tomorrow sacrilege, the day after bare mockery.
    :-)

  33. 33
    laurentweppe

    It won’t work, though

    It works very well: Ancient Gods are the dinosaurs of culture: we call the seconds exctinct despite the thousands of bird species still around: Allah Yahweh may make it to the list of dead names one day, religion will just keep on evolving like it has always done and there won’t be any “Great Atheistic Triumph” ever: expect priests to come and bless humanity’s thousandth Dyson Sphere

    ***

    Soccer (ex-USA)
Football

    There’s no soccer, and stop pretending that your armored Handegg games have anything to do with Football, Heretic!

  1. 34
    TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Quantum Wampum Essential to Navigating Ragnarok

    […] hundreds in which whole populations have believed for extended periods (Graveyard of Dead Gods In: Memorial Service, […]

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