Friday, July 6, 2012

The Treachery of Gods


The gods of Uruk, the strong-walled,
Assume the shape of flies and buzz about the streets.
The protecting deities of Uruk, the strong-walled,
take on the shape of mice and hurry into their holes.
Three years the enemy besieged the city of Uruk;
the city's gates were barred, the bolts were shot. 
- Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet I
Even the mightiest can be humbled. Even a god can know fear.

When a city is doomed to destruction, the gods of the city are rarely willing to share its fate. Instead, they depart from their temples, shrines and idols to hide themselves in forgotten places. They take the forms of vermin and scuttle in the sewers, or seal themselves in sugar-pots, or bury themselves in the sand by the riverbank.

When the city falls, the conquering army rides through to claim its spoils. The people of the city are put to the sword or made slaves. Yet when the invaders return to their homelands, it is not only gold and slaves they bring back with them. In saddlebags and boot-heels and underneath fingernails, the fickle gods ride, their carriers unsuspecting. In the land of the conquerors, new shrines begin to appear, in darkened alleyways or on secluded hillsides, where the gods who already own this land will not notice.

Not all cities are destroyed by war, however. Sometimes, an entire population may be wiped out by flood or plague or earthquake, leaving their city silent and untouched. Eons later, you may arrive there to turn over flagstones and search for lost treasure. But be wary, for what you find may be no treasure at all, but something else - a tiny god in hibernation.

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