“We shall pause, the page read. Savior, what do you know of the gods? We do not speak of the vermin who slouched across the wastes as our would-be Dragon did, adorned with the trappings of divinity and the trinkets of better men. We speak of those gifted with the power to transcend their becoming–to be eternally.”
I’ve so far written not nothing about gods, and I’ll confess it is a serious literary interest of mine. We create images of them, deify them as empowered forms of ourselves with interests, obsessions, psyches, separated from ours by gulfs of poorly-understood “power” but without a doubt like them. This is almost certainly a cognitive bias: If we can’t imagine gods as like us, then how are we supposed to imagine them? Lovecraft, et al went ahead and dropped the bomb of “not like us”, but that’s old hat by now, especially since writers seem to have interpreted the meaning of that phrase as “arbitrary to the point of irrelevance”. And besides the cognitive tarpit, the myopia angle just isn’t that interesting. Let’s change the question: What does a god look like when it is like us? That is, it was a creature of becoming that became godlike.
War Torn/Rale has gods in four vaguely-defined flavors: the Old Gods, the True Gods, Heroes/Horrors, and the False Gods. These are not universally accurate/reliable classifications–some straddle the lines–nor are they a hierarchy, they’re really just what (particularly aware) people called specific individuals at specific times. That said, they all have one thing in common: power. These gods were all capable of exerting an influence on the human society around them on par (at minimum) with a tropical storm, which altered their relationship with that society in a way fairly alien to the standard human experience. That relationship, then, is the focus for the above categories. I’ll expound:
The Old Gods are the closest thing War Torn/Rale has to a realistic depiction of religion. In the long-tailed beginning of our timeline, the scale of society was small, and while magic was abundant, mages were not. Magic was not understood in any meaningful, organized way, and so the way that people interacted with it was through rituals and mysticism. In some cases, these rituals were merely acts with no supernatural power, but from which humans derived meaning. In others, they drew upon sources of mana in nature, often from animals that had intuitively learned to command magic. Accordingly animist belief systems were common, and the objects of their worship were, collectively, the Old Gods. They were elusive, sometimes outright mythological, but their rare and poignant interactions with humans underlaid traditions that societies treasured long after those interactions ended. Still, though, as humans gained more visibility into the channels of power and developed stronger traditions for wielding it themselves, these gods faded into fables and stories, and by the time Spar set fire to the Great Shell of Thago, worship of them had all but disappeared. Aside, though it did not have the social characteristics of an Old God, the Chimera is probably a good representation of what one would have looked like up close (ie, utterly horrifying in a way the myths, stories, and traditions would unrecognizably smooth over).
The True Gods, though they may have incidentally been objects of worship, generally interacted much more willfully with society. They were not always visible (though the Blood God was), but their interventions were always directed–and directed toward society, where the animal gods of the Old Times probably had a very limited conception of what society even was. The Blood God massacred cities single-handedly, and his will was sufficient to instill a culture of free magic the world over. The Man of the Clouds effectively withdrew an entire city from worldly existence, the Gyre overlaid a grand narrative upon the world for thousands of years, and the One-Eyed Crow was responsible for, well, a number of unpleasant things.
Still, in both cases, the gods had conceptual and ideological significance. They meant something, and society organized around those ideals. The Heroes, Horrors, and False Gods weren’t really interested in that ballgame.
The Heroes and Horrors were outcasts, generally by choice, and though the societies they bumped into told stories about them, they tended to be the campfire variety. The Saraa Sa’een was terrifying, but aside from the Barabadoon, a close-knit band formed specifically to hunt it, no one had much insight into why it did anything or what it was supposed to mean. It was just a monster, it killed people, and then a similarly ideologically vague Hero showed up and drove it off. In this way, they drove a different sort of folklore than the gods that came before them, and it’s really key to note that this was largely a function of their interests. They had no desire to interact with the sphere of human consciousness–society was simply an object to them–so they left no legacy there.
This all brings us to the sordid history of the False Gods. All of the “gods” I’ve described to this point have been humans (or animals) that learned to commune with the world fundamentally in such a way as to give them power over it. The False Gods had no such talent, no such strength of will or character, and of all the beings on this list, they were the most reviled.
At the end of the War of the Roaches, it became clear to Ka’s war-ravaged overthrowers that his sudden ascent from petty ruler of a fishing village to despotic necromancer was fueled by a single object in his possession: a stone–called the Hellstone by its discoverers–that radiated pure mana, allowing him to create the roaches (likely the only piece of magic he ever learned) on an unheard of scale. The infusion of magic into objects was at this point a practice accomplished mages knew about, but it was rare, and disciplined practice was limited to a few recluses in the Bloodwood. For that reason, the non-magical layman had never discovered that he could become extremely powerful just by acquiring a lot of these miscellaneous objects.
Not all of them were so blunt as the Hellstone. Some had very specific purposes, like a necklace that would bring its wearer back from death seven times, or a statue that would unmake any living thing held in its arms in order to radiate invigorating force to the people and plants around. But no matter how niche their use, acquiring one allowed an ambitious individual to expand their power and influence far more quickly than they ever could otherwise.
And the effect snowballed: A would-be “god” would betray a friend for his panoply, then, fearing the censure of their community, strike first at anyone else in their vicinity who might hold similar keys to power. Then, when they became powerful enough that they did not have to fear for their safety, the priority shifted to suppressing potential rivals. They used their powers to gather wealth and then placed standing offers to buy any magical items that people could bring them, raising an economy of thieves and scavengers that prompted any owners of magical items that they must sell or die. And then, when a False God died for one reason or another, they would leave behind a vast trove of powerful artifacts for scavengers and successors to kill each other over.
The False Gods often roamed. They enjoyed the generally cruel exercise of their power, but the people that surrounded them tended to flee. They enjoyed–demanded–the worship of their people, but they rarely received it in earnest. They were “false” because though they commanded world-shaking power, they were divine in no other way. They were tyrants and strongmen, and when communities gradually discovered that fighting back could sometimes slay those tyrants, the most brazen False Gods died, and the rest simply faded from notoriety.
This description is a very precise fit for Judiah, from the linked story, but other False Gods had different qualifications and priorities. The Ban Gan Shui was not terribly cruel, though her interest in humans as objects for experimentation was not a kind one, and though Le Markhan was not nearly so arrogant as Judiah, it was his excess of hatred that brought his downfall. Again, their role as tyrants rather than deities unites them.
Every single one of these started out as a person (except the ones that started as animals, but that may be its own discussion). The path of growth was generally very similar, in magnitude it was almost identical, but what they then became varied wildly. Some of this, of course, lay in their choices–what they did with their power affected how they were perceived, but also note that each of these groups tended to exist at different times (the Blood God and the Man of the Clouds were contemporaries, the other groups had periods of history named for them), which means that what they became to society was as much a function of society as it was of their temperament. If you live in a society that has no gods, God himself walking into town one day, heralded by choirs of angels, is still no guarantee that he will be perceived as such. Judiah was able to conquer armies, he caused crop fields to bloom with plenty, and yet no one revered him–they just saw a lecherous, bloodthirsty marauder with unbreakable skin. There’s probably a profound observation about our society in there somewhere, but I’m not a doctor.
That’s the society side, but it’s also worth noting that the gods’ perceptions of the world end up just as varied. The False Gods viewed humanity as a necessary part of their ecosystem, the Heroes and Horrors saw it as a fixture–replaceable but significant–but it’s likely that the Blood God looked upon his kingdom and saw its denizens as truly insignificant specks. This was not a forgone conclusion, given his history, but it was his conclusion nevertheless.
Consider, then, that it may have been power that elevated these individuals to significance, but it was people, “just like you or I–indeed you and I” that decided what they would be, to the world and to themselves. That’s a different sort of power, sure, but it’s power that the mortal have over the divine. It may be worth remembering in our world of dead gods that still writhe.
Top image: Pieces of Control, by Quinn Milton; and The Blood God, Hiding, and an as-yet-unrevealed piece, by Hector Rasgado