Reader Don wrote me this morning:
Just a note to say that H.L. Mencken was born on this day in 1888. His powerful essay, “Where are the Grave-yards of the Dead Gods?” is, of course, always worth revisiting.
It was too late to include his birthday in the Hili Dialogue, which was already published (I don’t put birthdays in there any longer, anyway), but I did remember that famous essay and decided to put it here for your delectation.
Mencken was of course a very famous writer in his day, despised by the conventional and religious but beloved by apostates, heretics, and the heterodox—as well as by lovers of good writing. He had a uniquely academic/popular and acerbic writing style, and didn’t pull any punches. And he despised religion publicly and loudly—unusual in that day.
I happen to love Mencken, even though he had his flaws. But he wrote like a dream with prose that was sui generis; he was passionate in advancing his views; and he also liked classical music, a good cigar, and a schooner of beer. If you want a good introduction to his work, I highly recommend the book below (click on screenshot to go to the Amazon link). It’s a selection of his work that he compiled himself. I especially recommend Mencken’s essay “Professor Veblen”, also found in this book, which you can read online for free. It’s his savaging of the pretentious Thorstein Veblen’s books, especially Veblen’s then-famous The Theory of the Leisure Class. Read it; it’s the funniest book review I know of. What was the sweating professor trying to say?
And here, from the Millennium Project, is his essay on (or rather against) religion. It gives a good sense of his writing style.
H. L. Mencken
Where is the grave-yard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter to-day? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year–and it is no more than five hundred years ago–50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today [in 1921] Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha, and Wotan, he is now the peer of General Coxey, Richmond P. Hobson, Nan Petterson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler, and Tom Sharkey.
Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother, Tezcatilpoca. Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful: He consumed 25,000 virgins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quitzalcontl is? Or Tialoc? Or Chalchihuitlicue? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or Ixtlilton? Or Omacatl? Or Yacatecutli? Or Mixcoatl? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard of hell do they await the resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jack-ass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods as violently as they now hate the English. But today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.
But they have company in oblivion: The hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Axona, and Vintios, and Taranuous, and Sulis, and Cocidius, and Adsmerius, and Dumiatis, and Caletos, and Moccus, and Ollovidius, and Albiorix, and Leucitius, and Vitucadrus, and Ogmios, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshiped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose–all gods of the first class, not dilettanti. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them–temples with stones as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, wizards, archdeacons, evangelists, haruspices, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: Villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence. Worse, the very tombs in which they lie are lost, and so even a respectful stranger is debarred from paying them the slightest and politest homage.
What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley? What has become of:
All these were once gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Jahveh himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:
Diana of Ephesus
You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity–gods of civilized peoples–worshiped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.
A great economy of prose there! Of Mencken it can truly be said: there was nobody like him before, and there will be none like him again.
30 thoughts on “Mencken on nonexistent gods”
Jesus H. Christ, what in-your-face writing!
“In what forlorn and unheard of hell do they await the resurrection morn?”
“The hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies.”
“down the chute”
“[enormous list of names]”
… we might miss Mencken – and mourn the anesthetized writing that came after – but at least he’s with us in his writing!… I wonder how he’d use the resource of the Internet….
“down the chute”—I busted a gut when I read that.🤣
Mencken would have been an amazing blogger.
It was good for Zeus and Hera.
It was good for Zeus and Hera.
If it’s good for Zeus and Hera,
It’s good enough for me!
Give me that old time religion!
Wasn’t there something in one of Heinlein’s (or perhaps Pournelle’s) sci-fi novels that had a couple of verses of such a song?
Not Pratchett’s “Small Gods” mentioned by David Harper, below, at least not as far as I can remember.
I think it was in Dream Park. 🙂
That is correct; by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes.
Terry Pratchett addressed the same question in his Discworld novel “Small Gods”, a scathing and very funny satire on organised religion.
Mencken’s “The American Language” is magnificent. And here it’s free:
Academic perhaps, though Mencken was an autodidact; his formal education ended with high school (when he graduated valedictorian of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute) — not at all unusual for newspapermen at the turn of the 20th century (indeed, well into the 20th century).
Newspaper reporters’ having a fancy alphabet soup of academic degrees following their names is a relatively recent phenomenon. In Mencken’s day, journalists generally made their bones through an apprenticeship system.
What I meant is that he knew and used a lot of big words. Also, he wrote a best selling book on the English Language. He was a scholar as well as a “regular Joe” who could write like a dream.
I knew exactly what you meant, boss. I’ve always found there to be something special about autodidacts, about the way they soak up information and knowledge wherever they find it, and about how they tend to collect unusual words. This is especially true for those who become writers. Two examples that come to mind in addition to Mencken are Gore Vidal and Hunter Thompson. (Hunter essentially stole what higher education he could, moving to Morningside Heights after his discharge from the Air Force and sitting in on classes at Columbia, then later doing the same at Berkeley. He wrote about it in one of his early, pre-Gonzo pieces for The Nation in 1965, in the wake of the Berkeley FSM, “The Nonstudent Left.”)
I contemplate high school upper classmen/valedictorians across the Fruited Plain bringing up Gore Vidal and other autodidacts to their counselors. As I recall Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard.
As with the gods so with their prophets and other various and sundry annoited spokespersons? Per the internet apparently not, so far, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, sending its “Rapid Response Team” of chaplains to minister to British mourners and help them cope with the loss of the Queen. Get in a little evangelizing to boot? How would the Brits otherwise ever cope? Where were they upon the passing of Princess Diana? Where won’t they go? (I’m sure there are at least a few places.) Have they yet ministered to grieving sports fans, disappointed political candidates, distraught investors who have not maximized return? A public relations feather in their cap; a virtue-signaling star in their crown. An evangelist eventually passes; a corporation bearing his name endures indefinitely.
One of Menken’s oft employed techniques was the insult via feint praise comparison, such as this dig at America’s intellectual quality:
If you can’t stand mockery and derision of religion, farmers, chiropractors, and many others, Menken isn’t for you.
Perhaps Hitchens is our closest example to Menken in wit, courage, and general iconoclasm.
That was a pleasant romp! In his essay “Professor Veblen” Mencken is in full force as he rips into examples of opaque and pointless writing. I think what he says should be quoted as a critique of the same sort of writing appearing today in some of the papers that populate journals in the Humanities. “One wandered through a labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk”.
Mencken’s most prescient quote:
“Some great and glorious day the plain folk of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
And it came to pass
Can you imagine the woke conflict over praising the author for an accurate assessment of Trump and condemning him for using the word “moron.”
Little did he know, “their hearts’ desire” would mean the “voters” who instead sat on the couch saying “meh” while “binge-watching” Netflix.
What I’ve always found puzzling is how a man with such a brilliant brain as Mencken’s, with such a command of language and politics, and ability to see through religion, could also have been an anti-Semite.
He introduced his translation of Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ with lines like these:
“On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish. Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness…The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world.”
Was the Holocaust enough for him? I don’t bring this up to “cancel” Mencken or argue for the invalidity of his other writings. An essay like “Where are the Grave-yards of the Dead Gods?” deserves to be quoted and valued for as long as religion exists, and the same can be said for most of his other work. It’s just unfortunate that a thinker who was right in so many areas happened to be so screamingly, hideously wrong in another. But this is sadly common with writers and intellectuals—some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment were guilty of anti-Semitic and racist remarks, despite having advanced ideas about human values and morality that if taken to their logical conclusion would have prevented such remarks. I think our wisest reaction is not to completely condemn the writer and decide his work is entirely contaminated, but to realize that even brilliant men have their limitations and blind-spots, and that very few people live up to their full potential.
Id like to read where Mencken attempts to justify his anti-Semitism. Surely it is not because he accuses the Jews of being “Christ-killers” as I gather that, like all religions, he considers Christianity a fabrication.
Was he born in 1889? Wikipedia lists his year of birth as 1880: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._L._Mencken
Right. 1880, not 1888. He died in 1956.
Excellent post and essay. Some comments:
1) Fred Hobson’s biography “Mencken” is excellent.
2) Quite a bit of Mencken is available free on Project Gutenberg and Librivox.
3) The best fictional treatments of the theme that gods die when their last follower dies are Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. The latter is the book I recommend to anyone who wants to sample Discworld, especially if they happen to be non- or anti-religious.
4) Ingersoll to Mencken to Hitch. There’s the Tinker to Evers to Chance of the all-atheist baseball team!
Mister, we could use a man
Like HL Mencken again….
Those.. were… the…. daaaayyyys!
[ cigar ]
A brilliant bit of writing, many thanks for posting. It also made me think of a couple of good websites:
Richard Dawkins gave a talk a while back in which he specifically mentions Wotan and all the gods nobody cares about anymore. I think JuJu of the Mountain too – perhaps readers remember it. It was in reply to the classic question of religious victims “what if you’re wrong?”
I’m not sure of the date or venue precisely, but I have a hunch he was drawing from the Mencken piece above.
His reply to that question, asked by a student at Liberty U, is here.
2006 it says – I think that’s right.
Many of these gods & goddesses are worshiped daily, today.