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Many fantasy stories include Old Gods (i.e. pagan deities from largely defunct religions) who still exist during modern times. Whether they're like Marvel's Asgardians, who exist largely unchanged in a far-off realm, or Gaiman's American Gods, where they could literally be sitting next to you on the bus, these stories present beings who once ruled the world and who often possess incredible power, still existing in the present day.

However, to match up with the secular reality of modern life, these Gods have withdrawn from the world, or at least are no longer seeking worship from humanity. They are anonymous or absent altogether, and their withdrawal matches up with the end of their worship among the peoples of historical Earth.

Why would this be true? If we grant the premise that the Gods exist, and that they were worshipped for centuries or millennia (implying that they require or at least enjoy human attention), why would they permanently and unanimously retreat into anonymity, all within roughly the same few hundred years?

And, perhaps more interestingly, why would they go down without a fight?

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closed as too broad by sphennings, kingledion, JBH, John, Aify Dec 25 '17 at 7:46

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like Idea Generation. . . That's not good. I like the question though. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Jun 8 '15 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 If you have suggestions to move it away from idea generation, feel free to share them. I'm not looking for ideas, I'm looking for character justifications. Retreating from the world seems "out of character" for Zeus and Thor, I'm wondering if any reasonable explanations exist for why they might do it. $\endgroup$ – Nerrolken Jun 8 '15 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ You should read Acheron by Sherrilyn Kenyon. In that book, some of the gods chose to adapt because of various factors that I will not spoil in this comment. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 8 '15 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: but the question says "their withdrawal matches up with the end of their worship among the peoples of historical Earth". The question seems to imply that it is only about gods whose worship ended in historical times. Large-scale worship of, e.g., Zeus and Thor has ended, but several other major gods are still worshipped today, and so would seem out of scope of the question (it also uses the wording "pagan deities", which seems to exclude Christianity's God if taken as a restrictive term.) $\endgroup$ – sumelic Jun 9 '15 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ This question is too broad, if only because you seem to be assuming context that keeps changing. Please edit your question to specify EXACTLY which gods we're talking about. All gods across all movies, books, comics, mythology, etc. is too broad. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 25 '17 at 2:01
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If we assume benevolent deities who weren't simply using humanity

One possibility is they were trying to bootstrap humanity.

"Mythic ages" were dangerous places. There were generally hostile species (or even pantheons for other species who were against humanity). Gods, demigods and other such benevolent or semi benevolent entities might have helped mythic age humanity not get eaten like popcorn by monsters, or survive the local hostile demon, or demon like creatures.

However once humanity was able to survive on its own, they didn't need direct divine intervention, and free agency without too much intervention was a more benevolent stratergy.

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Much like that question, or a similar gods effect illustrated by the Darshanide Gods in Lanfeust of Troy comic books, the power of the Gods are granted to them through the strength of the belief of their followers. As people gradually stopped having faith in them, they lost their powers.

Now we can suppose that they are anyway immortal beings, which make them continue to live in our days, but their other powers come from faith that is no-longer there.

Now, did they go without fight? Well, one could argue that probably they lost some of their powers with time: maybe they were too busy partying in Olympus, or disappointed by the humans. One could argue that the Gods are, like humans, subject to decadence: see the Fall of the Roman Empire.

But then, some other religion came in, and that did not go without a fight: see how the Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians, the persecution of the Christians by the Romans, the religion wars of Renaissance's Europe, etc. Those could be the effect of the already weakened Gods puting a fight to counter a new faith that would and will bring their downfall.

And then comes the vicious circle: the less power they have, the less they can favour their believers, the less believers the get, and hence less power.

Once their power have gone down, they can choose for themselves what do they want to do, in face of their eternal life curse. Some retreats in their once-powerful Kingdoms (Asgard, Olympus, etc.). Some just blend in the population, trying to be helpful. Some still try to get some power by wandering the world, trying to revive the Old Faith. Some of those might just be writing Fantasy books.

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    $\begingroup$ Why not hire a publicist? Lots of people are famous and in terms of numbers those famous people are more well-known then ever, by orders of magnitude. On the flip side, perhaps beings who live off fame don't need to expend energy on miricles to be famous, so they make music instead. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 9 '15 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ Well they come from the past with an old-mentality. Maybe they need time to realise it. Who knows, could it be that next year we will have Odin on TV commercials? But apart from that mentality problem, to get famous you need advertisement, but you need to start with something: popular song, popular TV show, or loads of money (yes, Paris H., writing about you!). Otherwise you have some issue. But they can't achieve much, so it would be hard. Maybe some of them are actually trying to get famous with something and THEN come up as a God. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jun 9 '15 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ Who's to say Oden can't sing? Maybe some hit songs were magical. Maybe a famous actor was an ancient god, and after spending that lifetime he moved on to something else. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 9 '15 at 12:20
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If you read through old mythologies they often feature stories of the gods overthrowing giants, titans and dragons who had ruled the world before them. Those giants were once gods themselves turned from heroes to monsters by the power of a new religion, lost in the detritus of history and fading with the memories of forgotten priesthoods.

Gods have always been cast aside with the passage of time.

The things that has changed is that with the written record they are no longer entirely lost. They exist where they have always existed- in our minds and in realms of pure consciousness that are - as yet - inaccessible to physical travel. Now that we have a way to store their stories and their memories, they can persist with a mild glow, like the weak embers of a once-great fire, but their influence, their ability to shape and change minds is greatly weakened. They are little more than stories now. They can no longer change hundreds of minds at once to create visions or miracles, but from time to time they can find someone particularly susceptible to their influence and perhaps direct them with the hope of drawing more followers, though more often than not the people involved are considered to be mentally ill.

Meanwhile they watch enviously the few holdouts from their era who have managed to retain enough followers, enough belief, to guide people still and the new upstarts whose grand temples shine across modern cities- "The Markets" and "The Consumer"- potent, faceless, deities for a faceless age.

To appear physically in the world takes great power, requiring a vast following, to create an image in many minds at once - even something they expect to see, like a person walking through a crowd - is only marginally less challenging. Whispering in a single ear, creating a picture in a single mind, especially if that mind is particularly open to your message - that might be as much as a weak and largely forgotten god could manage.

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds quite a bit like Sir Terry Pratchett in "small gods". And i like it :-) $\endgroup$ – Burki Jun 9 '15 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ It's certainly influenced by that, also by the interesting philosophical point if the belief in a god causes a large group of people to act in a specific way, that god genuinely exists in a meaningful sense, if not necessarily what we usually mean when we talk about the existence of deities. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Jun 9 '15 at 16:32
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There are other names for non-human things that are extremely dangerous. We call them "Extinct", or "Endangered". Or possibly, "Zoo Animals". Humans historically don't play nicely with things that can kill or hurt us.

As technology advanced, humans got more dangerous, and gods who kept a public presence started to die. Sure, a single human isn't much of a threat, but put a couple of thousand together with advanced weapons and maybe some explosives, and it turns out even Thor or Zeus need to watch out.

The gods, being long-lived and reasonably intelligent, could see where the wind was blowing. Unable to stop or slow scientific advances, they decided to blend in and hide instead, talking the route of discretion as the better part of valor. This would happen over a fairly short period - a couple of hundred years - but it wouldn't take too many dangerous humans for the various pantheons to get the message.

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    $\begingroup$ And look at the Crucifix: "here's what we do to our gods now". $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 9 '15 at 12:23
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The classic mythological model here is what Mircea Eliade and others called a deus otiosus. In essence, this is a god who has removed himself from the everyday lives and ritual practices of his worshipers.

In terms of religion and myth, the pattern -- well attested in east Africa, the ancient Near East, and sporadically elsewhere -- tends to involve a senior creator-god, an "all-father" like Odin or Zeus, plus a pantheon of lesser divinities with relatively particular areas of interest and influence. The creator creates the world and all in it, sometimes with help of the others, and sometimes simply by creating those lesser divinities as helpers -- or both. Having done this work, the creator essentially lays down the rules for how humanity should relate to each other and to the gods... and then goes back to wherever he actually lives (the sky, the mountaintop, etc.).

From the worshippers' point of view, this means that ritual life is divided into practices that address lesser gods within their spheres of interest. Thus women seeking help with childbirth or pregnancy, or men seeking help with hunting, address their prayers and rites to the goddess of fertility or the god of the hunt, respectively. On certain unusual occasions, principally annual rites of especially awesome dimensions, the senior priesthood (or sometimes an otherwise "secret" priesthood) addresses collective sacrifices to the creator, more or less thanking him for all he has done to make life possible and ordered, for creating the lesser gods, and so forth.

Every now and then, however, really bad things happen, such as a long-extended drought, or a plague, or something like that. The prayers addressed to the lesser gods don't seem to be solving the problem. At this point, the senior priests and the community at large come out to beg for the intercession of the creator.

Think of it like a bureaucracy: you don't go to the CEO when your computer doesn't work, you call IT; when the whole company is collapsing, it's the CEO who is (supposed to be) responsible.

Now the question here simply reverses the perspective on this not-uncommon pattern, asking why the gods behave in this fashion. In addition, it posits that all the gods have receded, not just the creator.

To address this, I would begin with the previously-described deus otiosus pattern, and think about the stories people tell. The question isn't why gods actually do this or that, but rather what people say about such matters. Even in a fantasy world where the gods may manifest directly, they're not especially likely to explain themselves. Why should they?

What I think is lacking from the question is consideration that there may be fundamental disagreement about the gods' actions. If we take the situation you've described, I can see various cults that account for the situation differently:

  1. The gods have abandoned us because we failed to act in a manner they approved. We must return to the old ways, obey every jot and tittle of the old law, and then the gods will come back.

  2. The gods were never really there anyway: they were a fantasy of superstitious rubes. Now we can see clearly that there are no gods, so we should get on with making the world a good place for us.

  3. The gods disappeared for reasons we cannot fathom, because we don't have enough information. We need to keep faith and watch for the signs of their return.

Each of these perspectives will generate mythological material that answers the question posed, but they won't entirely agree -- or even agree at all.

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Do you know how much work it is to be a god? You get to the office in the morning, learn that your demigod assistant still hasn't learned that it's double espresso, one sugar, darn it, and face the overflowing pile of petitions from worshippers. Meanwhile, two of your fellow gods have been nagging you for weeks about reviewing a design for that new creature they want to set loose in the brush, and one of them is still fighting with one of the goddesses over that incident with the rapid-growth plants that weren't supposed to be an impenetrable jungle, and good heavens is it not even 9:00 yet? Ugh, going to be a long day.

Beings that don't need to keep working and don't derive pleasure from it retire. Your old gods have been at this for, what, millennia? Eons? Even if it's only centuries, are they perhaps getting a little tired of it all, or bored? Being gods, they don't need to remain actively involved; doesn't this sound like a great time for a vacation -- or, if you prefer, science experiment, to see how their creation functions without them?

By 9:30 the inbox is no smaller but the travel plans have been made. The inhabitants of the world, maybe overseen by some of the lesser divine beings, can run things for a while. The gods and their heavenly court are off to do something relaxing, exciting, or different.

Except your coffee-challenged demigod; he's not allowed to come until he learns how not to mess up drink orders.

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