Following a series of excellent posts by Jonathan Becker ruminating on the use of deities in classic AD&D and the way that use seems to have mutated in the OSR (he would say to the detriment), after my belligerent exhortations, I think it is only fitting that I offer a companion piece, for the greater glory of the OSR.
The prompting for the Piece is mr. Becker’s annoyance with what he perceives to be an increasingly common trope in OSR adventures, that of low-level or relatively low-level adventurers going toe to toe with fallen deities, godlings, quasi-deities or otherwise hampered specimens of full divinity. As Palace of Unquiet Repose seems to be ranked among the offenders, I must offer a spirited commentary!
In his first piece, Sir Becker seeks to level a charge at the idea that it is not uncommon for the protagonists in the Sword & Sorcery novels of the appendix N to come to grips with, flee from, foil and indeed occasionally defeat the minor godlings and demi-deities that inhabit their world. In his defense he subsequently points to a major problem with the categorization of any such events; the fact that S&S stories hold to no universal standard of what does or does not constitutes a god. In his treatment, he looks at staples of the S&S diet; R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, C.A.Smith and a nod to the great C.L. Moore, whose work he had not perused and therefore could not comment upon. Also taken along in this consideration are the works of J.R. Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson, but as these authors are by no means Sword & Sorcery authors, I will omit them from my addendum .
One important point that is brought up is that at times in S&S, creatures are worshipped or described as Gods but these turn out to be no more then mundane creatures, be they ancient technological machines, or great primordial creatures. As counting these among the confrontations with the Divine would be against the spirit of the inquiry, we are compelled to narrow down what constitutes a god according to a series of fairly robust terms;
* The creature must be a self-described God or Goddess or akin to one, either by locals, or perhaps more definitively, by the omniscient voice of the author. Various titles like Chaos Lord, Demon Prince, Faerie King, Elemental Lord or other titles indicating rulership over some supernatural realm can in some rare cases suffice for the purpose of this exercise, being counted as minor godlings depending on the context
* The creature must have a clear link to the supernatural. No merely mundane creature, no matter how powerful or monstrous, like a thousand year old giant worm, can properly be termed a god unless it has some unearthly or mystical properties.
* The author recognizes that the boundary between minor godling and powerful spirit, faerie, nymph, elemental, demon or whatnot is a vague one (as it was in the Mythology) and hopes that the discretion that is exercised beforehand will curtail any splitting of hairs, antfucking, kvetching and lawyering that is the doom of comments sections everywhere.
Let us Dig In! Sir Becker considers Conan first and foremost in his analysis, as is only proper.
First up, everyone’s favorite barbarian: Conan. One gets the impression that the gods of Howard’s Hyborian age are fairly mortal (much like the Norse gods)…if Conan stuck Crom with 3′ of good, Hyrkanian steel, he’d probably die. However, we never encounter Crom in Howard’s stories, perhaps because Crom is an actual deity. Conan kills some godlike frost giants, an ancient “god in a bowl” (appears to be a naga, much like the one in module N1), and an alien time-traveller that resembles a small elephant. These aren’t gods: they’re monsters. In the bluntest of D&D terms, they are meant to be slain and looted.
Conan is probably the strongest case for the fact that S&S heroes do not meet their gods as the very existence of Crom is left ambiguous, his only gift to the Cimmerian people their courage. I don’t particularly disagree that the bulk of the Gods in Hyborea appear to be merely powerful monsters, extra-terrestrials or in the case of ‘the Frost Giant’s Daughter’, Frost Giants. It would have been worthwhile to consider the sub-par ‘The Devil in Iron’ and it’s superior companion ‘Iron Shadows in the Moon’ but I think it is fair to state that while Conan’s antagonists do in fact make up the lesser inhabitants of the higher spheres, none of them can be properly termed gods, possibly a reflection of R.E. Howard’s pronounced atheist convictions, which were fairly prevalent among the intellectuals of the time.
Next up, we’ll look at Moorcock’s albino sorcerer, Elric. He fights all sorts of gods. The “Burning God.” Balo the Jester of Chaos. In the end, he is responsible for the death of ALL the chaos lords (gods) including his own patron, Arioch. Except that, actually, he’s not doing the killing. It’s his Most-Powerful-Artifact-Weapon-In-The-Multiverse (Stormbringer) that is doing the actual soul-sucking, not Elric. In the final battle he does a one-shot spell that summons a multitude of Stormbringers (Stormbringer has siblings), and they fly around killing all the gods. Stormbringer, as an artifact, was forged to slay gods (and to “keep in check” higher powers). It’s a plot point of the books. Do your D&D characters carry such an artifact weapon?
Conversely, Elric is one of the clearest anti-patterns and the rationale around its discrimination is flimsy. The non-human Elric, through his sorcery and the pacts made by his ancestors, continually calls upon Supernatural Powers to aid him against…well, other Supernatural powers. The battle between Law & Chaos, with at their apex, the Lords of Law and the Lords of Chaos, is an overarching theme. His will commands the Lord of the Lizards, begs favors of Straasha, lord of the water elementals, and he fights no merely Baalo , but slays Pyaray, the Whisperer of Impossible Secrets, crosses swords with multiple Chaos Lords (they are indeed destroyed by a one-time magic calling upon all of Stormbringers brothers and sisters), thwarts the attempts of the sorcerous shapechangers Agak & Gagak in feeding off of the multiverse  and there are numerous other examples. That he would need to resort to artifact-level weaponry is no disqualification surely? One would expect that in a battle between the divine and the mortal, the mortal is on the defensive and would have to resort to some sleight, aid or device to even the odds . At the highest echelons of mortal ability, conflict with the Divine becomes somewhat more feasible.
Okay, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Haven’t read as much of them as I’d have liked, but I can’t remember them KILLING any gods. Running afoul of them, getting mixed up with them, fleeing their wrath or being cursed by them…sure, all that. But mortal combat (i.e. the hit point draining kind)? No, I don’t think so.
Sir Becker is correct that nowhere in their adventures on Nehwon do Fafhrd and his companion put a god by the roadside, make him dig his own grave and then do him in the neck execution style but who can forget their theft of Death’s Mask  or the invasion of the Sea-King’s private quarters  while he was out? It shows that encounters involving the gods, the apex predators of the supernatural food chain, are not just conceivable, but occur more often then not. This point of them making no KILLS is no admonition against would be heroes going toe to toe against false gods, but indeed supports such a practice. After all, were they genuine deities, one would expect the conflict to have a lethal outcome for the hapless adventurers that would take upon themselves so foolish and possibly suicidal an endaevour. It makes more sense to have any would-be antagonists of mortal PCs to fall short of true divinity when looking at the source material, not less.
Karl Wagner’s Kane…well, I’ve only had the chance to read Bloodstone, and it’s been a while. If memory serves, Kane “kills” a super computer masquerading as a deity. Machines break…they are mundane/mortal, not supernatural. Maybe. I get a little depressed thinking about Wagner; he died so young (age 48, alcoholism).
I would suggest Mr. Becker has been missing out on the other stories, they are quite good, if only obtainable at considerable expense. Dark Crusade has Kane face a common bandit, possessed by the Elder God Sataki, and invested with supernatural ability. This falls short of a direct manifestation of the God (indeed, to bring him into the mortal world is his goal) but it does constitute yet another (indirect) confrontation with the divine. Then there is the monstrous Spider god Ysisl, from whose extradimensional lair Kane barely escapes.
I don’t remember any hero versus god action in Clark Ashton Smith, but I probably haven’t read enough of him. I have C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry ordered from Amazon, so apologies if she kills a bunch of godlings and I failed to mention it…haven’t yet had the chance to read her stories
C.A.Smith’s inclusion into a discussion of tropes as applied to D&D might fall into the same category as Wagner in that they are unquestionably in the S&S canon but not explicitly mentioned in Appendix N unlike say Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword. Nevertheless, C.A. Smith is unquestionably a father of Sword & Sorcery and his influence can be felt far and wide. Maybe more so then Lovecraft, C.A. Smith’s short stories are not so much about fighting gods as they are about getting eaten by them. The fate of the thieves’s failed attempt to steal a great jewel from the accursed jungle temple of Tsathoggua , the thief attempting to steal back his love from the temple of Mordiggian the Eater of Corpses  or the band of warriors trying in vain to grapple with the half-divine bandit Knygathin Zaum make it clear that the fate of those who attempt to do so on even semi-even footing is more often then not a shallow grave. The divine and their children, if they are faced, should not be vulnerable to mundane weaponry.
C.L. Moore’s collection Jirel of Joiry is featured in Appendix N and I had the immense pleasure of reading it just this year. Initially the lady Jirel is equipped with the dubious blessing of a soul-destroying kiss by the unknown Black God, but she does in her journeys face the nebulous Pav of Romme, the scion of some otherworldly realm or demi-plane that she is imprisoned in . Ultimately this being I defeated not by swordplay but by willpower.
H.P. Lovecraft isn’t really an S&S writer, but there’s no denying his writing’s had an impact on D&D and many OSR offerings. Lots of extreme, alien gods walking amongst men in HPL’s stuff. But people don’t fight them. They get killed and eaten by them, or possessed, or driven insane. It’s not really mano-a-mano. Well, except for a certain Norwegian sailor, who’s ship-to-kaiju combat was absolutely NOT stolen by Disney for the climactic battle in The Little Mermaid against the giant octopoid entity. Nope, no way…that scene is straight out of Hans Christian Andersen. Regardless, it’s one exception to a multitude of non-combats.
Like C.A. Smith, the deities of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos are horrible monsters, abominations so alien to us that the mere sight of one is enough to drive men to madness or death. Their otherworldly nature is beyond question. Their followers and spawn often to seek to bring these gods into our world, thereby ushering in the end times, and it is these followers that can be thwarted. This with the exception of legendary Cthulhu, Ole 1d6 Investigators per round himself, who is at least temporarily defeated by ramming him with a steam boat.
There is an interesting anomaly to consider. In the sublime Viking-Saga the Broken Sword by Poul Anderson there is a passage where Skaffloc, on his voyages with the elf-earl Imric meets with a most dangerous foe. p.31 “Their hardest battle was with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and mad and shrunken in loneliness but wielding fearsome powers even so. Three elf ships were burned after the fight, there being none left to man them, but Imric was the victor.”
Then follows interesting speculation r.e. the origins of the nature of the divine in S&S stories which I highly recommend people to read. A takeaway is that the pseudo-pagan pantheistic approach to divinity in S&S is actually fairly rare (not false!) but that the nature of the Divine in D&D can be traced back to the 3 major influences of Leiber, Moorcock & Lovecraft .
That being said, I think in [Leiber, Moorcock & Lovecraft’s] cases a major takeaway from their stories is: the gods are NOT to be futzed around with.
You don’t fight them. You’re not going to kill them. You certainly don’t loot their bodies.
Which I would amend accordingly:
In the considered works we have seen the Gods represent the APEX of the supernatural food pyramid. For those lacking sufficient mettle, encounters with deities are terrifying affairs that can quickly lead to ruin or death for the persons involved if the Deity wishes serious harm.
We see that, like the heroes of the myths that inspired them, the protagonists of these S&S tales do draw the ire of gods, encounter minor godlings, will occasionally attempt to steal from them  or are otherwise compelled to evade their wrath. While no mortal man is ever going to go three rounds against Asa-Thor, we see that at the highest levels of mortal ability, a man of exemplary ability suitably endowed with powerful ultra-mundane weaponry, may indeed cross blades with the Minor Lords of the Higher Heavens and come away the victor. It only makes sense that he would require some sort of aid, that the deity be hampered or of especially humble status, or that some other factor is introduced (like a Steamboat) to even the odds. I hearken back to the Illiad, where brave Achilles is eventually forced to give way before the wrath of the Scamander, a River God, or where Diomedes cuts down Ares  after being invested with divine might by the Will of Athena.
The proper approach that seems to be implied is to have the divine be a noticeable factor even in games where the characters are not of immense power, and indeed, if any hostile confrontation is to take place, it is far more likely the characters will be left holding the short end of the stick and will have to flee or run then it is to be an ultra-powerful smackdown with a demon-lord at the end of the campaign, which should probably be the capstone of a successful campaign. After all, once you beat up Orcus, where do you go from there? In short: It is unlikely your first encounters with gods will be on a level playing field and involve a balance of power.
Join us next time for a continuation of this series.
 If the good Professor will forgive me posthumously, it is certainly not because his fantasies on the divine are inadequate to the task. Au contraire, if we were to include the Silmarillion and looked at the heroic exploits of the Sons of Feanor, we would see an age where the supreme evil walks the earth in human form, and is scarred by the efforts of the Eldar, or thwarted by the efforts of mere men.
 The Vanishing Tower
 Sailor on the Seas of Fate
 This is also hardly unprecedented. Consider Diomedes going toe to toe with Ares in the Illiad, but only after he is wreathed in divine glory by the hand of Athena. Is there any doubt that in a straight up fight, Ares would likely dispatch him? But this is the very point! No one said you’d have to fight the gods fairly, indeed if anything the opposite is true!
 The Price of Pain-Ease, Swords Against Death
 While the Sea King’s Away, Swords in the Mist
 The Tale of Satampra Zeiros
 The Charnel God
 The Testament of Athammaus
 The Dark Land, Jirel of Joiry
 This omits the influence of Mythology and Faerie Tales, or consideration of works like The Broken Sword, or Abraham Merrit, or the Compleat Enchanter series by Fletcher Pratt that derive heavily from mythology. That being said, when it comes to the divine in the works in Appendix N, the 3 aforementioned authors are more salient then any other
 One vaguely recalls a Native American Myth of Two heroic brothers sneaking into the house of the god of the sun and facing discovery.
 Who is subsequently spirited off and must heal his injuries in some sort of divine hospital on mount Olympus. In Greek Myth, Gods cannot die, but they can be horribly wounded, crippled and bound.