The Longevity of Pagan Gods

Edith Wharton, Italian Backgrounds:

“Shapes which have once inhabited the imagination of man pass reluctantly out of existence. Centuries of poetic belief had peopled the old world with a race of superhuman beings, and as many centuries would  be needed to lay their ghosts. It must be remembered, moreover, that no sudden cataclysm, political or intellectual, marked the introduction of the Christian faith. For three centuries after the sacrifice on Calvary, hardly an allusion to the new god is to be found in the pages of the pagan historians and philosophers. Even after he had led the legions of Constantine to victory, and so won official allegiance throughout the Roman world, no violent change marked the beginning of the new era.

For centuries still, men ploughed the same fields with ploughs fashioned on the same hues, kept the same holidays with the same rites, and lived on the same store of accumulated beliefs. And in the hearts of the solitaries these beliefs must have lingered longest. For in fleeing the world they were returning to the native habitations of the old gods. They were nature-spirits every one, sprung from the wave, the cloud, the tree. To the cities they had been borne triumphant by the will of men, and from the cities they might be banished at its behest; but who should drive them from their old stronghold in the breast of nature? Their temples might be re-dedicated to the new god, but none could banish them from the temples not made with hands. Daylight might deny them, but twilight confessed them still. They made no effort to recover the supremacy which had been wrested from them: the gods know when their hour has come. But they lived on, shrinking back more and more into their primitive forms, into the vapour, the tree-trunk, the moon-track on the lonely sea; or revealing themselves, in wistful fugitive glimpses, to the mortals who had come to share their forest exile.”

Edith Wharton

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