That had to hurt »« As usual, it’s not the message, it’s the mere existence of atheists

Thor

thor01

Thor stopped by for a visit late last night.

I was deep in sleep when I heard the sharp crack of a sonic boom, and a loud thump from the side of the house. I jumped out of bed and into my clothes and a pair of warm slippers — noticing that my wife had somehow slept through all the noise — and went outside to see what had happened.

There in my yard was a large cart with a pair of goats hitched to it, and a man standing before my ash tree. He was about 6’4″ tall, broadshouldered and muscular, with a full red beard and wearing mail armor and iron gloves. He was also wielding a hammer, and before I could protest, he swung it at my tree…and there was another loud thundercrack, and my ash shattered as if lightning-struck. My visitor gathered up some of the burning fragments and tossed them into a pile, and threw down a massive remnant of the trunk as a bench.

He said, “Hello. Care to join me in a late night snack?” and scooped up one of the goats by the hindlimbs. A quick slash of a knife, and the beast was disemboweled, the guts splattering in a messy lump on my lawn; a deft twist and tear and the carcass and skin were separated. The skin was tossed down in a bloody bundle next to the guts, and the meat was skewered on a branch and staked out over the fire.

Yeah, Thor. There was no mistaking him.

What are you going to do? I said I’d be happy to, and that I just needed to grab a few things from inside.

I brought back salt and rosemary, and a fifth of Johnnie Walker Black. Thor grinned at that; the old customs of hospitality were not forgotten. We shared a swig, he rubbed down the goat with the spices, put it back over the fire, and we sat down on the log and enjoyed the warmth.

It’s not easy starting a conversation with a god. We sat in silence for a while, sharing the bottle. A police car ghosted up the road, a spotlight flicking from house to house; it dwelt on us for a bit, the car paused, and then the engine revved and it quickly accelerated away. Nothing happening in this neighborhood tonight, no sir.

“You know, you’re right,” Thor suddenly said, “there is no supreme being, no cosmic intelligence. All of the gods are atheists, too, and we’d know.”

That was too funny to pass up. “The gods don’t believe in gods? If you don’t exist, what are you doing in my yard then, shredding the shrubbery?” I replied.

“Nah, come on, you know better than that. You’re playing games with the language — this sloppy, ambiguous language.”

“I wield vast powers; I can rive my foes with a thunderbolt, I’m well nigh invulnerable to anything any human could throw at me, I travel between worlds at will, and I’m over 5,000 years old,” he said. “To you, I’m like a god, a being of powers you can scarcely imagine. But I’m not the kind of god most people nowadays chatter about: an omnipotent omnipresent will that knows everything and can do anything. That kind of thing just doesn’t exist.”

“But how can you be so certain?” I asked. “Ten minutes ago I would have told you the Norse pantheon was nothing but a myth, and now here you are, a piece of evidence showing that I was wrong. Perhaps another bit of information will reveal that the Christian super-god is also real.”

“Let me tell you a story,” Thor said. “Imagine that it is midnight, the long hall is dark, and you’re told that an enemy lurks invisibly in the darkness. You would advance with great fear, because it is entirely possible that someone is stalking you.”

“Then you are given a candle; a feeble light that lets you see in a dim glow things that are nearby. It’s possible still that the danger is there, but that it scuttles about beyond the edge of your light, seeing you clearly, but you can’t see it at all — it dodges detection at will.”

“You find a box of candles. You move cautiously through the hall, placing lights in all the likely hiding places. At first you only illuminate a few places and it’s still possible that something hides beyond, but as more and more candles are placed, you become increasingly confident that no other person is in the hall other than yourself.”

“And finally you have lit enough of the hall that you can see the full shape of the room, the furnishings, the doors and windows. There are shadows still and much that could be better illuminated, but no place for an enemy.”

“Perhaps a mouse. You can’t rule out mice. But mice weren’t what you were warned about.”

The goat was ready. Thor hacked off bits of the greasy meat with his knife, and handed me a chunk. I nibbled, he tore into it with gusto.

“You know, you’re nothing like how you’re portrayed…” I started to say.

“Don’t you dare bring up that garish clean-shaven dandy from the comic books! I swear, he’s blonde and speaks like some Elizabethan fop!”

“No, no, of course not — I mean, the old myths, where you’re kind of a brute, not given much to thoughtfulness, and you seem to solve everything with a good solid bash of the hammer,” I said. “Not exactly the type to sit down with a peasant and talk atheism and knowledge.”

“Please. I’m an intelligent being,” Thor said, “perhaps not one with the greatest reputation for philosophizing, I’ll agree, but I’m thousands of years old. You cannot exist as a being responsive to its surroundings, with a capacity for any kind of ability to react to and interact with its environment, and fail to change over time. ”

“This is one of the great failings of the human imagination. They may blithely postulate immortal beings, but they don’t think it through: stasis is death. Change is life. You cannot have the ability to change and grow without also having the possibility of failing and dying; and a life of unchanging constancy is not worth living, and isn’t really a life at all. No being can live except with the possibility of death.”

“Right,” I said, “and the Norse myths predict your death in the coils of Jörmungandr — immortality isn’t even a necessary property of a god.”

Thor smirked at that one. “Yes, but keep in mind that prophecies are nothing but promises, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be kept. I’ll someday cease to exist, that’s a certainty, but the how of it is unknowable. It’s safe to predict I die a hero’s death at the end of the world, because if I don’t, who’s going to complain?”

The whisky was running low. Thor had drunk most of it — with no complaint from me — and didn’t show the slightest sign of an effect. Another of the advantages of godhood, I suppose.

“I’m wondering,” I said, ” why you gods have been so scarce lately. In the old stories you’re constantly meddling in the affairs of humans, yet now god-news is unheard of, and rather ridiculous when people do make claims. Did you tire of us? Is it like some people say, that you all faded away with the loss of worshippers?”

Thor sloshed the last of the whisky in the bottle, and then downed it all in one gulp. He took his time answering.

“I suppose that, as an atheist, you won’t take this the wrong way, but…the gods were never into you humans at all. The few instances where we did meet were inflated by the self-centeredness of you people into grand events. We’re powerful beings with our own goals and ideals, and most of what engages us doesn’t intersect with your interests at all. Why should you expect a god to care about the outcomes of your battles, or even more absurdly, the outcomes of your sports and games? Your dogs probably think your whole world revolves around them, but you know it doesn’t — much as you may enjoy their company, they aren’t the purpose of your existence.”

“People are also so ephemeral to us. Your lives flit by as you struggle for transient glories that will be forgotten after your deaths. There’s no point for us to get invested in your concerns.”

“But don’t take it badly. Just as you might go to the shore and find contentment and joy in watching the waves crash against the rocks and wind and the clouds and the rain scud by in changing patterns, and watch the sun rise and set over the sea, we also see the beauty in the endless motion of humanity. You are what you are, it is our love for you that lets us stand aside and savor your existence as it is.”

He set the empty bottle aside, and rose up. He gathered the leftover goat bones and scooped up the pile of guts, wrapped them in the bloody skin, and in a move so swift I couldn’t follow it, suddenly held in his arms the resurrected goat. Thor tied the goats in their traces, waved goodbye, and in a flash of light, vanished to the east.

The sun rose. I sat a little longer and enjoyed the view.

Damn, I’m going to miss that tree.

Comments

  1. Dick the Damned says

    PZ, admit it, it was you who polished off the bottle of whisky. Then you engaged in your drunken reverie. You might wanna check what it was you got out of the fridge & ate – check that you really barbecued it, instead of eating it raw.

    Nice tale though.

  2. dexitroboper says

    Thor’s a bastard, he’s letting Durkon get vamped. (And Yngvi is a louse.)

  3. Ulysses says

    Next time, instead of rosemary, may I suggest you try thyme and curry powder when cooking goat.

  4. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Had to stop the Pullet Patrol™ from planting a baseball bat to replace the ash tree.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    I just finished reading the latest Harry Dresden novel. Odin has a brief role in it, he works as a demigod security consultant in Chicago. The Elrlking, although technically not a god, is far more scary.

  6. raven says

    The old gods have another problem

    Thor might be mistaken for an enemy plane and someone might go after him with an F-18 and a few missiles. In the not too distant future, the anti-airfcraft defenses might be a laser or particle beam weapon.

    We all know the ice giants are gone and if someone wants to credit the Aesir, well, why not.

    These days, an ice giant would probably get melted by a tac nuke instead.

    PS I know how Thor feels. In the old days, Raven was a powerful supernatural being. Now we spend a lot of time sitting on street light poles, waiting for someone to run over a squirrel.

  7. cm's changeable moniker says

    (I have ash trees front and back, though. So if either is subsequently and mysteriously explodes, I’d like to retract #8, and furthermore affirm that Thor is my totes favorite god!)

  8. otrame says

    In the old days, Raven was a powerful supernatural being. Now we spend a lot of time sitting on street light poles, waiting for someone to run over a squirrel.

    The Athabaskan tribes in Alaska say that Raven is always watching. So you won’t get away with breaking taboo even if there are no people around to see you do it.

    The story is given considerable credence by the fact that in the winter every light and telephone pole in Anchorage has it’s own raven, who watches.

    It’s intimidating.

  9. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The story is given considerable credence by the fact that in the winter every light and telephone pole in Anchorage has it’s own raven, who watches.

    Dana Stabenow, Alaskan writer, does make use of the raven as something watching her heros/heroines.

  10. MetzO'Magic says

    So, no goats were harmed in the making of this tale. Sorry, PZ, that’s just too tidy to be believable.

  11. Jacob Schmidt says

    Thor’s a bastard, he’s letting Durkon get vamped.

    Damn, I’ve missed a lot of OOTS updates. Thanks.

  12. Ichthyic says

    Thor’s a bastard, he’s letting Durkon get vamped.

    OTOH, as you just heard tale of, he still smites evil trees with a vengeance!

  13. Ichthyic says

    In the old days, Raven was a powerful supernatural being. Now we spend a lot of time sitting on street light poles, waiting for someone to run over a squirrel.

    …and making way too much racket outside my window at 5am.

  14. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    and making way too much racket outside my window at 5am.

    Here that was a dove. Who I suspect became lunch for the neighborhood ferral catz…

  15. coyotenose says

    Thor’s a bastard, he’s letting Durkon get vamped.

    Now now, just a few strips ago, everyone was certain that prophecy was finally being fulfilled, and that hasn’t happened yet.. Thor could still pull his head out of his ass and learn to multitask.

  16. Shawn Smith says

    raven said,

    The old gods have another problem
    Thor might be mistaken for an enemy plane and someone might go after him with an F-18 and a few missiles. In the not too distant future, the anti-airfcraft defenses might be a laser or particle beam weapon.

    This reminds me of The Salvation War, written by someone in the government nuke industry. It postulated a very similar scenario. It opens with some greater heralds of Satan (25′ tall demons with large bat-like wings) getting ripped up by an F-18, and the legions of Hell just taking it on the chin after that.

    It was written in 2008, before the election and the revelation of Petraeus’s infidelity, so the lionizing of him just seems off, now. A warning, it also shows George W. Bush to be a reasonable guy, and Rove is really the only one who is portrayed as a monster.

  17. jnorris says

    he swung it at my tree…and there was another loud thundercrack, and my ash shattered as if lightning-struck

    That’s Thor alright, the reason we can’t have nice things.

  18. GodotIsWaiting4U says

    YOU LET DURKON DIE YOU USELESS HAMMERSWINGER.

    At least he’s going home.

  19. Nemo says

    You have goats?

    Yeah, even Jehovah is much too small a god to be Creator of the Universe. Creationists know that. It’s the deeper reason they want to shrink down the cosmos, in terms of time and often in terms of space: not so much biblical literalism, as terror at the scale of reality, at the way it dwarfs us. You can’t know that the universe is over 14 billion years old, and still think that we’re the center of it all.

  20. broboxley OT says

    reminds me of “American Gods” PZ, Thor cannot be as stupid as portrayed, his 1/2 brother Loki would have p0wn3d him eons ago. Goats, really? Couldn’t find a blue ox anywhere?

    Ravens in Alaska make good hunting companions, here in Georgia the occasional murder of crows who come strutting in the trees around my house get the flying greasies when I practice my raven calls on them. A Raven is a good companion, especially in winter as they will lead you to a meal you can share if you discuss it with one

  21. says

    Like the earlier post, grab the Thyme instead of rosemary, Or both. That’s a hard lesson learned. At least we’ve all learned from someone else’s mistake. nice story.

  22. chigau (違う) says

    My experience with ravens in the bush is that they follow you for hours and talk about you the whole time.
    and they’ll it your sammiches, if you are careless.

  23. broboxley OT says

    #33 chigau well if you don’t invite them they get insulted and will eat your grub uninvited. Pick one out that seems sociable, talk to it and leave a share that you clearly indicate that it is theirs. Ravens were socialized in the distant past in europe and america. They can be “taught” to mimic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZyBNWVD70w, well I have a raven bias and it shows :-)

  24. says

    Now you sound like a Heathen, rather than just a heathen. You have a talent, sir, for thoughtful theology. A theology that a pagan might have a hard time disagreeing with.

  25. says

    Cool story, bro.
    (Never thought I would actually say that, but it is appropriate, that *was* excellent storytelling.) I like that Thor’s developed more of an intellect over time. You’re right, a couple thousand years or so, and you would expect a more mature, profound viewpoint.

  26. birgerjohansson says

    theophontes,
    Ravens. And horses!

    Yes, it is unsettling when you have a flock of horses sitting on the telephone poles, keeping an eye on you.

  27. Gen, Uppity Ingrate. says

    The Elrlking, although technically not a god, is far more scary.

    Oh my, YES. Ever since I studied Schuberts Erlkönig as a child as part of my studies in music, he totally freaked me out and features in many of my nightmares still. I’ve just started the Dresden files (first book) so I had no idea this boogeyman of my childhood would make an appearance. Yay for intertextuality and “gods” who are not omnipotent or omniscient.

  28. David Marjanović says

    *raises glass in a toast* To the ash tree.

    Seconded.

    Thor’s a bastard, he’s letting Durkon get vamped.

    …But he’s blond in that comic.

    The story is given considerable credence by the fact that in the winter every light and telephone pole in Anchorage has it’s own raven, who watches.

    It’s intimidating.

    The Birds?

    OTOH, as you just heard tale of, he still smites evil trees with a vengeance!

    Now that explains things!

    before the election and the revelation of Petraeus’s infidelity, so the lionizing of him just seems off, now.

    Isn’t it good to be king?

    GOAT ON FIRE!!!!

    Day saved – again.

  29. UnknownEric is just a spudboy, looking for a quantum tomato. says

    He was useless when he came to my house. I asked if he’d help me move the picnic table and he said, “Sorry, I’m a little too Thor today.”

    /ba-dum-hisssssss

  30. Ichthyic says

    Somebody shouldn’t sit up and listen to Wagner into the late hours.

    somebody?

    nobody should!

    :)

    yeesh, there are always the good and bad to any particular era of music, and in the Romantic era, Wagner hits all my “bad” buttons.

    now Sibelius… that would be worth listening to.

    note:

    Originally conceived as a mythological opera, Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat), on a scale matching those by Richard Wagner, Sibelius later changed his musical goals and the work became an orchestral piece in four movements.

    smart, smart man.

    :)

  31. Ichthyic says

    Durkon died sometime since this morning?

    ?

    last I checked he was in the process of having his blood sucked out, but not yet in the “dead” column.

  32. chigau (違う) says

    I like to annoy the snooty OperaBuffs by pronouncing Wagner
    wag-ner
    as opposed to
    vog-nah
    and then getting them to try to explain it to me before intermission is over.

  33. UnknownEric is just a spudboy, looking for a quantum tomato. says

    Wagner was a fascist. Give me Smetana any day.