Exit the Gods
Roberto Calasso and various Divinities
The death of the great Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso has made me go back to his books. He was one of the last people on earth who really knew everything about everything, from Kafka to Indian mythology, but the book of his that left the deepest impression on me is The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.
Cadmus, the king of Thebes and inventor of the alphabet, married Harmonia, a wood-nymph from the Akmonian wood, which was near Themiscyra, which all fans of Wonder Woman will recognize as the legendary home of the Amazons. All the gods came down from Olympus to attend the wedding feast.
The significance of the event, Calasso tells us, is that this was the last time the gods ever took part in the lives of human beings. The gods were notorious for interfering in wars (notoriously the Trojan War), and turning women (Arachne) into spiders for being good at weaving, or killing another woman’s twelve children (Niobe) because of her pride in her own fertility, or, appallingly, raping women just because they felt like it (notably Zeus, some of whose victims were Leda, queen of Sparta, and the Phoenician princess Europa, and, in his Roman incarnation, Jupiter, there was Danaë as well, who gave birth of Perseus as a result of the assault).
After the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, however, all that stopped. The gods left us alone. Ever since then we’ve been on our own.
Is that such a bad thing, you may well ask.
Interestingly, this idea of the exit of the gods crops up in other mythologies, too. In Norse mythology, at the so-called “Twilight of the Gods” or Götterdämmerung, the divinities of Asgard have to face their ancient enemies, and they both destroy them and are destroyed by them. After that, there are no more gods. Once again, we’re on our own.
I like this idea, which seems to me to parallel the development of our own lives, first as children, needing parental guidance and authority, and then, as adults, finding ourselves parentless and needing to make our own way.
Moving beyond the gods, learning to make our own choices, establishing our own ethics and laws, without having to worship or obey those frequently flawed personae, seems to me to be an excellent thing.
Let’s call it ”growing up.”
A footnote: the term “Twilight of the gods” is a translation of the Old Norse word ragnarøkkr, which is used on just one or two occasions in the ancient texts of the Prose and Poetic Edda. The word used more often is ragnarök, which is better translated as “the fall or destruction of the gods.” In that final battle, most of the major gods, including the Marvel favorites Odin, Thor and Loki, are killed.
Regarding Asgard, Odin, Thor, Loki, etc., there will be more to say at another time, when I consider the Avengers film and television cycle. For now let’s just say the Marvel versions are a little less than canonical.