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Inventing the Gods

Michael W. Cho writes science fiction and fantasy in Tempe, Arizona, and plays Spanish guitar for his day job. You can catch up with him at michaelwcho.com.

The god wandered into his temple one morning after an absence of years. Someone, he saw, had been faithfully sweeping the floors and mending the roof. Someone had sacrificed a fish on the altar, leaving a heap of ash and bone. Given the poverty of the village, this was not an inconsiderable investment.
In the corner crouched a limestone statue with a trident in one hand and a net in the other. It was not so bad a depiction, but he would have preferred if it had a more heroic cast to it.
Some people entered: an old priest and his assistant, a girl. He had a sad face like a bulldog and she had sparrow-bright eyes.
"I asked Phileas to help my poor mother during labor, and He did!" she was saying. "He gave her comfort, and her pain was relieved, and my brother was born soon thereafter!"
"Sweep," said the priest gently.
The girl swished a broom across the floor, and she moved as if dancing. The god, of course, had been elsewhere during this event. However, it seemed to have done his reputation no harm.
"I told Father he should burn a seed of grain for every row he plants. At least. Maybe one for each plant would be better. I offered to help him with the consecration."
Despite the girl's confidence, the success or failure of the village's crops was not within the god's sphere of influence.
The priest expelled air loudly through his teeth. He was cleaning the statue's head reverently with a damp cloth. "Where have you gotten these notions? The philosopher from the city?"
"Indeed," said the girl, drawing out the last vowel. "He says our ideas about the gods are--how shall I put it? Childish."
The god, sitting on the altar with one leg crossed over the other, raised an eyebrow. The girl swept within arm's reach of him.
"In what way are they childish, child?" said the priest, his sad features calm and without indignation.
"Well. As Master Delios says, in our ignorance, we think of the gods as simply humans with longer lives and more power. The stories show them to be no wiser or kinder than we. But isn't it arrogant to think they would resemble us so closely?"
The god had never much considered to what extent his kind resembled mortals. Generally, he had other concerns--competition with his brothers and sisters, the pursuit of various enticing sylphs and nymphs, the ever more difficult pursuit of novel experiences. He'd always supposed he was not much wiser or kinder than a human, although he certainly lived longer.
"Karis," said the priest, "you are being remarkably impious. Do you forget yourself? Look around!"
The girl laughed. "You misunderstand me, father! Master Delios says that we must imagine the gods to be so far beyond us that they're beyond our imagination!"
"That is sophistry," said the priest.
"A god isn't like a man, who's just... in a place. He must be everywhere--and nowhere."
The god frowned at this. He certainly felt himself to be somewhere, and that was right here, on the altar. Before, he had dwelt in the city of the gods, and before that, he had wandered. All in all, he could not agree with the girl or this Master Delios on this point.
"This is all wrong," said the priest. "Phileas is here."
He was more right than he knew. The god chuckled, wishing for some wine--but this was a poor village, and all they had to offer were fish ashes.
The priest said, "In your house is a spirit whose concern is to watch over your hearth. Childbirth is its affair. Don't bother Phileas with the domestic matters of women!"
The girl sighed and went back to her sweeping. "Well, I think it is impious to say Phileas doesn't live here and in my house and in your house and everywhere, and has always been here. It's the only logical conclusion. It does make more sense when Master Delios says it."
"Phileas is the god of our stream. He brings sweet water and fish. Why do you presume to ask all these other things of him?"
Every decade or so, the god would inspect the stream and see to its flow and water quality, and make sure it was properly stocked. He'd been doing this for centuries, but not forever. He clearly recalled being born, mostly because he hadn't wanted to come out and the issue had been forced.
"These newfangled notions," muttered the priest, studying the dish of ashes. He dumped it in a sack. In its place, he left a ripe fig, which unnoticed by the priest, the god thoughtfully chewed.
"We should not imagine Phileas as a man, which is a small thing," said Karis, voice growing expansive, "but as an ocean, or the sky, as something greater than we can conceive. He knows all, and we owe everything to Him. This is the teaching of Master Delios."
The god had a wide grin on his face. He liked these new ideas, and he liked this girl. Maybe she and this philosopher were on to something, and he was even greater than he knew. Perhaps these powers and qualities were somewhere inside him. He only lacked these new teachings to become a king of gods and ascend to the sky.
The priest was staring helplessly at the altar, where he had put the fig a moment ago.
"Karis, did you--?"
"I believe I've received an omen," said the priest. "Phileas looks kindly on us, child! He is protecting us!"
"Of course he is!" said the girl, spreading her arms wide. "I can feel His presence!"
But the god had already left, and was walking along the road to the city to hear the teachings of this Master Delios, who sounded very wise.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 16th, 2018

Author Comments

The idea for this story arose while reading James J. O'Donnell's Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity. I was fascinated that the practitioners of the complex mosaic of religions of the ancient world could be subsumed, in the end, by the concept of "pagans"--that a single, invented word could stand for all of them in our minds. In my story, the idea is inverted: a simple regional god has his ambition stirred by the newfangled thinking of some mortal philosophers.

- Michael W Cho
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