The Former Gods

Human rulers die, and the next generation takes over. Sometimes the older generation gets “helped” off the throne, either by assassination or war. So it’s not surprising that mythology has many versions of this succession story, which rarely involve peaceful inheritance.

I was moved to write this because I always wondered why the Greeks, Babylonians and others had mythologies that involved endless generations of gods, all fighting one another. It seemed messy and complicated. But it seems like the “war in heaven” theme is a common one.

The Norse, Greeks and Irish have versions of a struggle between two groups for control of heaven: the Giants, Fomorians, and Titans on one side and the Aesir, Tuatha de Danann and Olympians on the other. Before you start thinking this is an Indo-European myth, however, the Mespotamian peoples had their own versions, best known from the Babylonian Enuma Elish.

Even the Indo-European version differ on many details, as these quick summaries show:

Titanomachy: the Titans were the children of the sky (Ouranos) and earth (Gaea). They were based on Mount Othrys, and among them were the god Kronos and his wife Rhea. Kronos and his brothers castrated Ouranos and he became king of the gods. Later his own son, Zeus, rose up against him. This led to a 10-year war between the Titans and Zeus’s brothers and sisters, who were based on Mt. Olympos. The Titans lost, and were chained up in Tartarus, a deep abyss in the Underworld. (It was as far below Hades as the earth is below the heavens.) Those Titans who either sided with Zeus or stayed neutral escaped punishment.

Battle of Magh Tuiread: in this Irish myth the Tuatha de Danann have to defeat two antagonists, first the Fir Bolg, who like Kronos presided over a Golden Age, and then the Fomorians. At first the Tuatha try to compromise with the Fomorians, and even choose a Fomorian king, but his stinginess and blatant favouritism force a second battle, which the Fomorians lose. The young champion Lugh kills their most feared warrior, the monstrous Balor. Unlike the Titans, they are not imprisoned, but they are utterly routed.

Death of Ymir: the Norse are the outlier here, since their major battle with the giants is at the end of their time, at Ragnarök, when the two groups will annihilate each other. At the beginning of time, however, Odin and his two brothers killed the primal giant, Ymir, from whom all the others are descended. The blood flowing from his body drowned all but two of the rest of the giants. These two escaped and from them the rest of the giants were descended. The gods then make an ordered cosmos from Ymir’s body.

The War in Heaven: the Babylonian myth has similar elements to these. The primordial water-deities Tiamat and her husband Apsu are the parents of the first generation of deities, but Apsu dislikes his noisy children and declares war on them. He is killed, and Tiamat vows to avenge him. She fights the champion Marduk in the form of a giant sea dragon, but he kills her and makes the cosmos from her shattered body. (She herself created all the sea-monsters to fight for her.) Her lover, Kingu, was captured and later killed, the first humans formed from a mixture of his blood and clay. Other gods who had sided with her were captured and enslaved but later released when humans took over their labours.

And the Moral Is?

The Norse myth is the most interesting to me because it is so Freudian: the repressed return, with a vengeance. The other three consider the defeat of the older generation to be final. (Although the Irish gods are in turn displaced by humans, taking over the land while the gods retreat to the hollow hills.)

In the Mespotamian case, the rebel gods are enslaved until humans come along (lucky us!). The Irish Fomorians were either killed in battle or “beaten back to the sea”. The Titans are chained up in Tartarus, and the Norse giants are either in their own realm, Jotunheim, or living on the fringes of Midgard, the stronghold of humans.

If it is true that there is nothing as dead as a dead king, then the message is that the reign of the old gods is no more.

The political implications of these “regime change” myths is obvious. In both, the current order are the good guys, while the old rulers/gods were either indifferent or hostile. The Irish myth in particular makes the failing of the Fomorian king Bres the cause of the final war, with the stories of Nuada and Lugh reinforcing the theme: what makes a good king?

Going along with this is the idea that a hero, either Marduk, Lugh or Zeus, will step in and save us from chaos in the form of Tiamat, Balor or the Titans. (It’s interesting to note that later, mainly Roman writers, tended to conflate the Titans and the Greek giants, who also fought Zeus and co.) The implication, of course, is that the hero is good, and Tiamat or Ymir must be bad. It is astounding how much ink has been wasted proving this point, or trying to make the Norse giants out to be Satanic.

The truth is probably a lot more cynical: they’re the ones who lost. The victor must be the good guy, because he won. This is how Odin, Zeus, Marduk and Lugh all legitimate their rule: they won. (This is called the Myth of Redemptive Violence, and argues that ancient myths of this type are based on the assumption that might makes right, so winners must be good.) So in a sense the succession myth is a charter myth: the new gods beat the old gods, so they are more cunning, stronger, and better fit to rule.

From the point of view of an author or story-teller, there have to be old gods, or a monster, for the new gods to beat so that they can show how fit they are. In a famous episode of the Justice League cartoon, Lex Luthor makes the same argument to Superman (who kills him, ending the cycle but in a sense proving his point).

Old Times, Old Gods

This is a depressing view, because there’s something cool about the idea that the Old Gods are out there somewhere brooding and biding their time. (It also explains the arc of Norse myth – it could be seen as a mythical version of the concern with feuds and their fallout in the sagas.)

We know that some of these gods, like Kronos/Saturn and the Irish gods Donn and Tethra had careers outside of the “war in heaven” myths, so perhaps the idea of Old Gods also taps into a general intuition that while there may be gods now that take an interest in us and share our concerns, there are larger forces in the universe, who are indifferent to us. (Or, if you’re H.P. Lovecraft, out to get us.)

As I said in the beginning, humans come in generations, so it makes sense that gods would too. And even before Darwin, archaeology or geology got going, we knew that the Earth was an old place, with a long history. The old gods, whether chained, free or in exile, were the living embodiment of that past, a reminder of time immemorial.

In post-Christian times, ancient things were said to have been built by giants, i.e. mythical and ancient creatures. Pre-Christian, polytheistic religions said that the old gods made the world, or the world was made of them. All you had to do was look around to see their traces.

Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh
Hesiod’s Theogony
Prose Edda
Enuma Elish

The original paper on the Myth of Redemptive Violence (pdf)


3 thoughts on “The Former Gods

  1. This heavenly warfare indeed runs through all cultures. Even our native Australian people whose history goes back far beyond what we once imagined have always had this warfare theme in all their complex faiths etc. It seems to boil down to good and evil………..Personally I believe its still waging on both the earth and in the heavens. Thank you for your insightful and learned postings.


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