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Old 09-12-2013, 06:56 AM
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Old gods in fiction / Need for belief [edited title]


In multiple works they have used the idea that old gods still exist but are weaker or fading due to lack of belief.

Off the top of my head I can think of a few that fit. American Gods by Neil Gaiman and the Who Mourns for Adonais?episode of Star Trek TOS. I haven't caught up with all the books yet but the Dresden Files uses this.

There are other examples that are just beyond the grasp of my memory. So what are some other examples and who did it first?

Last edited by twickster; 09-21-2013 at 08:24 AM. Reason: Edited title of merged thread
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Old 09-12-2013, 06:57 AM
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Old 09-12-2013, 07:09 AM
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Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away had this.
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Old 09-12-2013, 07:20 AM
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Lots of choices here. Two off the top of my head.

It's a minor but increasingly important element of George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire stuff.

It's the main focus of Small Gods by Terry Pratchett.
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Old 09-12-2013, 07:39 AM
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Old 09-12-2013, 07:57 AM
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Puck of Pook's Hill by Kipling has something along those lines with the Wayland Smith arriving in England and slowly fading in power and stature as his believers disappear.

Puck however remains as he always has.
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Old 09-12-2013, 07:57 AM
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And the reverse is a small plot point in Pratchett's Going Postal. It involves the rise of the goddess Anoia, Goddess of Things Stuck In Drawers.
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:05 AM
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Turtledove's Case of the Toxic Spell Dump exists in a world that relies on all religions, prior gods etc. for its tech and engineering. The plot revolves around clashing religions and god-sets and the artificial preservation of things like the Cult of Apollo.

It also ruthlessly Anglicizes all place-names in the southwestern US to absolutely devastatingly funny effect. Highly recommended.
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:06 AM
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Man, I haven't thought of that book in a while. I think I have a copy laying around. Probably my favorite Turtledove novel.
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:39 AM
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"Night Life of the Gods" (1931) by Thorne Smith, an author best known for the "Topper" series of books.

In NLOTG, an inventor creates a 1920s style transmogrifier ray that turns people into stone, and vice versa. (Dr. Frank'n'Furter ripped off his idea about 30 years later.) Someone aims the ray at statues of the Roman Gods in the NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art and turns them into real "people." The whole lot of them go on merry adventures in prohibition era NYC.
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:41 AM
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Originally Posted by Amateur Barbarian View Post
Turtledove's Case of the Toxic Spell Dump exists in a world that relies on all religions, prior gods etc. for its tech and engineering. The plot revolves around clashing religions and god-sets and the artificial preservation of things like the Cult of Apollo.

It also ruthlessly Anglicizes all place-names in the southwestern US to absolutely devastatingly funny effect. Highly recommended.
Weird. I just yesterday tossed that paperback into the car for reading at meetings. Great book!
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:43 AM
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There was a miniseries on NBC called Merlin that featured Mab, a pagan goddess on the verge of extinction because she was being forgotten after the spread of Christianity.
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:48 AM
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It's been a while since I read it, but IIRC Tom Robbins' novel "Jitterbug Perfume" features Pan, who has become invisible due to lack of belief. However, even if you can't see him, you can definitely smell him.
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:53 AM
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Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest fits, I think. Faeries and Herne and all that.
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Old 09-12-2013, 09:00 AM
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Adams' The Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul; though I don't remember if the gods were weak there or just bored and tired.

Ditto ditto Tom Holt's Expecting Someone Taller (I think it was), where an ordinary Joe gets ahold of the Ring of the Niebelung (or however it is spelled) and with the (largely subconscious) power of life and death over the whole world ...

SPOILER:
everything actually goes quite well, much to the dismay of the world's news broadcasters.
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Old 09-12-2013, 09:05 AM
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It's been a while since I read it, but IIRC Tom Robbins' novel "Jitterbug Perfume" features Pan, who has become invisible due to lack of belief. However, even if you can't see him, you can definitely smell him.
Ha! I remember that book. It was one of my favorites for a while, but I haven't read it in twenty-mmmrmr-years.
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Old 09-12-2013, 09:16 AM
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Piers Anthony uses this idea in the Incarnations of Immortality series. For example, the incarnation of good that we would call God is said to be a relatively new diety and very powerful because of strong belief. The Jewish god is shown as a separate person, with diminished power due to having less followers and emaciated during the holocaust.
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Old 09-12-2013, 09:33 AM
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Ditto ditto Tom Holt's Expecting Someone Taller (I think it was), where an ordinary Joe gets ahold of the Ring of the Niebelung (or however it is spelled) and with the (largely subconscious) power of life and death over the whole world ...

SPOILER:
everything actually goes quite well, much to the dismay of the world's news broadcasters.
Several of Holt's books deal with stuff like that: Ye Gods, Here Comes the Sun, Odds & Gods, and such.
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Old 09-12-2013, 10:22 AM
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It's been a while since I read it, but IIRC Tom Robbins' novel "Jitterbug Perfume" features Pan, who has become invisible due to lack of belief. However, even if you can't see him, you can definitely smell him.
Pan was all over British literature for much of the 1890's. By the end of the decade, one noted wit made fun of the endless stream of horned li'l gods popping out the forest "to wean quiet English villages from respectability."

Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan - an excellent example - inspired Lovecraft.
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Old 09-12-2013, 10:29 AM
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Ha! I remember that book. It was one of my favorites for a while, but I haven't read it in twenty-mmmrmr-years.
Hence the user name? (Wasn't Ellen Cherry one of the waitresses in that book?)
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Old 09-12-2013, 10:48 AM
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Gods Behaving Badly

Oh hey--they're making it into a movie! Based in NY instead of London, but oh well...high caliber cast.
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Old 09-12-2013, 11:27 AM
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Tim Powers' "Last Call" trilogy is an interesting intertwining of the Green Man mythos with the Greek Dionysius, who in modern times are known as a reality only to a small coterie of mathematicians, card sharps, magicians and psychics.

Last edited by Evil Captor; 09-12-2013 at 11:27 AM.
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Old 09-12-2013, 11:40 AM
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Adams' The Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul; though I don't remember if the gods were weak there or just bored and tired.
A combination of both, I believe. And not only weaker in sheer power but also weaker relative to a modern mortal world where a thunder god gets picked up on radar and harried by fighter jets while trying to fly across the North Atlantic.
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Old 09-12-2013, 01:10 PM
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Turtledove's Case of the Toxic Spell Dump exists in a world that relies on all religions, prior gods etc. for its tech and engineering. The plot revolves around clashing religions and god-sets and the artificial preservation of things like the Cult of Apollo.

It also ruthlessly Anglicizes all place-names in the southwestern US to absolutely devastatingly funny effect. Highly recommended.
Turtledove also has a book titled Thessalonica set in the 7th century AD. The titular city is Christian, but a few of the old Greek powers, like centaurs and satyrs, are still around. But they are weakened by the newer belief, and can't approach the city, and Christian actions, like making the sign of the cross, will drive them off. Then the city is besieged by the Slavs and the Avars, whose gods are powerful with the worship of their many people. How the whole thing gets resolved is a fun story.
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Old 09-12-2013, 01:14 PM
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I haven't caught up with all the books yet but the Dresden Files uses this.
Actually the Dresden files mythos is that basically everything and everyone you've ever heard of from any mythology anywhere really exists--and get along just about as well as you'd expect them to. Heck, the last one had Santa Claus as a minor character.
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Old 09-12-2013, 01:16 PM
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The God Engines by John Scalzi uses this as a plot point. Great, great novella. I hope he goes back to that world someday.
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Old 09-12-2013, 01:25 PM
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The God Engines by John Scalzi uses this as a plot point. Great, great novella. I hope he goes back to that world someday.
He won't.

Too many other classic novels to 'revisit.'
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Old 09-12-2013, 01:58 PM
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The God Engines by John Scalzi uses this as a plot point. Great, great novella. I hope he goes back to that world someday.
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He won't.

Too many other classic novels to 'revisit.'
Is this a shot at Scalzi? He did write Fuzzy Nation which used the setting created by H. Beam Piper. But it's the only one of Scalzi's books that's based on another author's work so he doesn't seem to have a pattern of doing it.
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Old 09-12-2013, 02:22 PM
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Is this a shot at Scalzi? He did write Fuzzy Nation which used the setting created by H. Beam Piper. But it's the only one of Scalzi's books that's based on another author's work so he doesn't seem to have a pattern of doing it.
Redshirts could be called "Copyright Safe" Star Trek fan-fiction. I bet Paramount went over it with a fine tooth comb to see if they could sue.

But I forgive him as it (and Fuzzy Nation) were fantastic.
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Old 09-12-2013, 02:29 PM
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Zelazny does this in DILVISH THE DAMNED: the gimmick is that the god is down to one last worshipper -- and she honestly doesn't seem to realize he's a god, or even know his name; from her perspective, she's a witch invoking a devil. She of course performs her ritualized devotions where the old altar still stands, until she dies, at which point the exposition gets pretty danged (a) to-the-point, and (b) reminiscent of Jerry Maguire:

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"She was my link to this plane of existence. I require a worshipper here in order to focus my energies in this world. She was the last. Now my presence will weaken here until I must retire to the places of the Old Ones. Unless I find a new worshipper."

"Me?"

"Yes. Serve me and I will serve you."
So cue another would-be devil worshipper, who soon finds himself quibbling with someone about his benefactor's nature: devil or god? "Perhaps the distinction between the two is not so sharp as men would think -- especially when times grow hard," says the one mortal who still remembers the deity Taksh'mael, while standing near said altar. "I knew this place long ago. It was different."
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Old 09-12-2013, 02:39 PM
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But it's the only one of Scalzi's books that's based on another author's work so he doesn't seem to have a pattern of doing it.
John's an okay guy, but he's kind of the Steve Miller of sf. The pattern is among Scazimaniacs who praise each work without acknowledging that an awful lot of it has a familiar feel. Understand that I'm not even in the same room with the p-word, here, but as a long-time reader of classic sf, Scalzi's influences are quite quite apparent.

I'd rather just reread the original than such... remixes. This extends to his nonfiction writing (blogs and such); I am a little weary of people quoting and retweeting identifiably retreaded thoughts and ideas as if JS grew them from new soil.

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Old 09-12-2013, 02:56 PM
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In multiple works they have used the idea that old gods still exist but are weaker or fading due to lack of belief.

Off the top of my head I can think of a few that fit. American Gods by Neil Gaiman and the Who Mourns for Adonais?episode of Star Trek TOS. I haven't caught up with all the books yet but the Dresden Files uses this.

There are other examples that are just beyond the grasp of my memory. So what are some other examples and who did it first?
In the Iron Druid series, the god's strength comes from human awareness or cultural influence, not necessarily worship. The Asgardians and Greek/Roman pantheons do well because of popular culture, to the point that unlike most gods in the series, the Greek and Roman gods can't be killed (permanently).

In Glen Cook's Instrumentalities of the Night series, mankind has learned to kill their gods, but they've still got new ones springing into existence all the time due to new superstitions, and a new monotheistic religion cropping up is problematic as its god never seems to manifest anywhere.

The theme in both series' is that the protagonists are in danger because they're godslayers, leading various dieties to want them eliminated as a possible threat.
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Old 09-12-2013, 03:20 PM
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The final stories for the Greek gods and the Norse gods themselves acknowledged that there would be gods to come after them that would rise to power, as the old gods faded away as people forgot about them.

So the idea is not exactly a new one. It's an understood facet of a couple old religions (though perhaps added to the texts when the religions were becoming a dying breed). Still though, predates modern novels by a long shot.
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Old 09-12-2013, 03:23 PM
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The Rick Riordan books - (Percy Jackson teen lit)
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Old 09-12-2013, 04:14 PM
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The final stories for the Greek gods and the Norse gods themselves acknowledged that there would be gods to come after them that would rise to power, as the old gods faded away as people forgot about them.
Is that quite the same, though? As I understand it, Thor is slated to die from a wound inflicted in battle by an enemy (Jörmungandr?), just like any being could die from a wound. Then, as a result of dying, his memory/worship will gradually fade away. The fading memory is the effect of the death, not the cause.
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Old 09-12-2013, 04:20 PM
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Marion Zimmer Bradleys' Mists of Avalon uses this notion in describing the fading of the preChristian religion. The priestesses consider their goddess to be fading along with the religion thereof for lack of worship.
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Old 09-12-2013, 04:29 PM
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Turtledove's Household Gods also relies upon some minor Roman gods doing a favor for a modern woman because they were so tickled to have been remembered.
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Old 09-12-2013, 06:59 PM
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Roger Zelazny's "Creatures of Light and Darkness" tackled Egyptian/Greek gods while his "Lord of Light" covered Hindu ones.
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Old 09-12-2013, 07:15 PM
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Fritz Leiber's Swords and Ice Magic plays with the idea, as Fafhrd and the Mouser meet Loki and Odin who are very weak from lack of worshippers, although I thought this a poor novel.

Neil Gaiman also used the concept in a minor way in the graphic novel, The Wake. As I recall, Bast had to use a bit of worship from a child so she could restore her youth for Dream's wake.

Harlan Ellison used the idea in a hilarious story about gnomes, but I can't remember the title for the life of me. I think the story is in Strange Wine.
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Old 09-12-2013, 07:35 PM
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Pan was all over British literature for much of the 1890's. By the end of the decade, one noted wit made fun of the endless stream of horned li'l gods popping out the forest "to wean quiet English villages from respectability."

Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan - an excellent example - inspired Lovecraft.
Well, damn! Looking him up finally answered the question of the origin of a quote used on, of all places, Fantasy Island. I've been wondering for years what that was from!

There's another Glen Cook book, Petty Pewter Gods, that deals with what happens when two rival bands of gods quarrel over the temple at the far, far, end of the street of the gods.

There's a brief mention in The Hidden City by David Eddings, when Aphrael remarks that gods "go out of fashion." The need for the gods to have worshipers to sustain their power and even their lives is also used against her in The Shining Ones, when an enemy manages to get people to start killing her worshipers en masse.
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:48 PM
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K.A. Applegate had a YA series called Everworld that featured the gods in a parallel universe of sorts. As an Animorphs fan as a kid, I devoured Everworld as well. Sadly, there were only twelve books, and it ended very abruptly.
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Old 09-12-2013, 08:51 PM
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Oops. Reported my own post for the move to CS.
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Old 09-12-2013, 10:15 PM
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Harlan Ellison used the idea in a hilarious story about gnomes, but I can't remember the title for the life of me. I think the story is in Strange Wine.
I don't know what Ellison's story was, but it reminds me of Asimov's "The Little Man on the Subway". There are no old gods in it, but there is a new god who's trying to build up power by amassing worshipers.
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Old 09-13-2013, 08:00 AM
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I think it was The Exiles' Club (1915), by Lord Dunsany that had all the old Greco-Roman gods living quietly in a very private London Gentlemans' Club... He also wrote a similar story with all the great poets living in an exclusive country club.

I can't remember if the gods in that story relied on belief in them to keep going, but he wrote another story called Chu-bu and Sheemish in 1912 which definitely used the 'fading away without believers' idea.
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Old 09-13-2013, 08:24 AM
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Fredric Brown did this in THE NEW ONE back in the '40s, where the old deities are still around, but much weaker -- surviving not so much because anybody still worships them, but because folks like Thor made their reputation back when ("boy, you should have heard him in a ruckus, only a few centuries ago") and so can pretty much coast on sheer agnostic inertia now.

Quote:
there's one thing saves us. There are some humans who believe anything. Or anyway don't actually disbelieve anything. That group is sort of a nucleus that holds things together. No matter how discredited a belief is, they hang on by doubting a little.
"Now, you take some of the older lads like Ammon-Ra and Bel-Marduk -- they're kind of weak and puny these days because they haven't any real followers. They used to be big guns around here, kid ... Look at him today -- walks with a cane."
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Old 09-13-2013, 08:39 AM
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The Asgardians and Greek/Roman pantheons do well because of popular culture, to the point that unlike most gods in the series, the Greek and Roman gods can't be killed (permanently).
Incorrect. The Greek/Roman gods can't be killed in the series because their mythology doesn't allow for it, just like Coyote can't be killed (permanently, at any rate). Doesn't have anything to do with the level of awareness.
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Old 09-13-2013, 09:45 AM
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In the Iron Druid series ...
This is a fun, light series, I enjoyed it.

As to the OP, Robert Holdstock's "Mythago Wood" trilogy features a similar idea. Magic has shrunk to a few isolated old-growth forests, and humanity's cultural memory gives rise to mythical legends and creatures which are confined to the forests. The books center around Rhyope Wood in England, which is only a couple square miles from the outside, but once penetrated seem to go on forever.

I can't recommend this series enough, especially the first two, which focus on nebulous old European myths like Jack the Giant Killer and the Green Man. The third book loses a little of the mystery when it starts to focus on more specific epic stories like Jason and the Argonauts, but it's still fun and twists the stories in interesting ways.
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Old 09-14-2013, 03:21 AM
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Incorrect. The Greek/Roman gods can't be killed in the series because their mythology doesn't allow for it, just like Coyote can't be killed (permanently, at any rate). Doesn't have anything to do with the level of awareness.
Huh, I stand corrected:

Quote:
Unlike the Irish and the Norse - and many other cultures - the Greco-Romans did not imagine their gods as eternally youthful but vulnerable to violent death... They could regenerate completely, which essentially gifted them with true immortality, so that even if you shredded them like machaca and ate them with guacamole and warm tortillas, they'd just re-spawn in a brand-new body on Olympus and keep coming after you...
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Old 09-14-2013, 06:36 AM
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John's an okay guy, but he's kind of the Steve Miller of sf. The pattern is among Scazimaniacs who praise each work without acknowledging that an awful lot of it has a familiar feel. Understand that I'm not even in the same room with the p-word, here, but as a long-time reader of classic sf, Scalzi's influences are quite quite apparent.

I'd rather just reread the original than such... remixes. This extends to his nonfiction writing (blogs and such); I am a little weary of people quoting and retweeting identifiably retreaded thoughts and ideas as if JS grew them from new soil.
Harsh, AB, harsh.

I think of Scalzi like I once heard a DJ describe The Black Crowes: Not all that original but still pretty satisfying.

As for Steve Miller, hey, hands off. The sonofabitch can play. He digs the whole jazz/blues genre and plays that guitar as well as almost anybody in the territory.
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Old 09-14-2013, 06:39 AM
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Originally Posted by The_Peyote_Coyote View Post
Neil Gaiman also used the concept in a minor way in the graphic novel, The Wake. As I recall, Bast had to use a bit of worship from a child so she could restore her youth for Dream's wake.
It's not too much to say that a great deal of Gaiman's work is founded on this premise. More than in just The Wake, all of the 'gods' in the Sandman universe derive their power/existence from the belief mortals have in them.

Makes one wonder about how Gaiman meant for the One God to be handled. Sure, he makes an appearance in Lucifer, but that's not written by Gaiman (though it IS great).
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