“You sing of the young gods easily
In the days when you are young;
But I go smelling yew and sods,
And I know there are gods behind the gods,
Gods that are best unsung."
It seems in almost every mythology
or Fantasy Pantheon
known to man, there are mentions of entities that came before and are often above the gods
themselves. They're often seen as being older and greater than the gods because Older Is Better
, although there can be beings that are older yet about even or weaker than the gods.
These Old Gods are often some type of Anthropomorphic Personification
or Eldritch Abomination
. In fact, they usually are in most mythologies. They also have a large overlap with Precursors
, for gods at least. They occasionally appear as the demons of a replacement religion, but compare Angels, Devils and Squid
for the cases when their Eldritch-ness
is played up instead.
See Death of the Old Gods
, for an explanation on why the older types may not be around anymore.
If there's only one of them, see Top God
. See also Divine Ranks
When Gods Need Prayer Badly
, expect these Gods to be the exception. After all, they usually existed before humanity, so why would their existence be dependent on them?
Please note: These characters don't literally have to be old looking gods
, it's merely a common term for them that's used both on and off of this site.
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Anime and Manga
- In Saint Beast, there was another set of gods led by Kronos before Zeus became the high god by destroying them (the implication being because they were Abusive Precursors).
- "There came a time when the old gods died!"
- There are many gods throughout the Marvel Universe, and they tend to live up to their names. Unfortunately for them, even they can't compare to the upper levels of the countless Cosmic Entities throughout the setting.
- Marvel Cosmology is really loaded with this. Those Who Sit In The Shadows are this to Norse Gods. Elder Gods are this to all Earth Gods, Celestials Are This to Elder Gods and all gods worshiped by any race in the Universe and so-called Cube Beings (godlike beings that evolved from Cosmic Cubes) and their equals, Abstracts are this to everybody and Living Tribunal is this to Abstracts. Then we have beings like Primordial Gods, who are apparently older than Abstracts, Galactus who is older than them, coming from previous Universe and equal to Abstracts, several beings of various powers older than Galactus and Chaos King who is older than them all, being the previous Universe. Then we have bunch of beings like Shuma-Gorath, Dormammu, Stranger, Beyonder, and Nemesis who are hard to fit into cosmology, so in the end the only thing clear is that One-Above-All is this to everybody.
- The Endless - older than any god, respected by them all, personifications of most fundamental concepts, but not gods per se, as gods require faith and the Endless don't. They also seem to be above all nearly all godlike beings of the DC Universe, although in the right situations, other personified entities like the Kindly Ones, Lucifer, and some others have the power to contend their influence.
- In The Ballad of the White Horse, Ogier sings a song of ancient, unknowable gods that have existed long before the Norse gods, and seek to burn and rend all that exists, god and man alike.
- The "Old Gods" from American Gods. There's mention of lost pantheons whose names (and followers) have been entirely forgotten. There's also the Land itself, something like the very first divine being humanity ever knew/created, who patiently regards the gods themselves as mayflies in much the same way they look at mortal humans
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Old Gods are nameless animistic beings that are still worshipped in the North, but have no church or religious tenets; it's implied that they may be the spirits of wargs whose mortal bodies died, living on within trees and animals. The Seven, a Crystal Dragon Jesus septinity, are a younger religion which came to Westeros thousands of years ago along with the Andal invasion and was codified as the official state faith by Aegon the Conqueror. There is some degree of syncretism between the two in Westeros, and people will often swear oaths "by the old gods and the new". Other religions exist as well in different parts of the world; the Lord Of Light, the Drowned God, the Many-Faced God, Mother Rhoyne...
- David Eddings really likes this trope:
- In The Belgariad, UL and the two opposing Destinies are much more powerful than the gods (the Destinies are exactly equal in power; how they stack up to UL isn't elaborated on).
- The Dreamers has the original male and female creative powers embodied as the peasant couple Ara and Omago.
- In The Elenium, The Elder Gods of Styricum are of the Eldritch Abomination variety, before they were overthrown and imprisoned by the Younger Gods in a Titanomachy-esque series of events. Azash was even castrated, Ouranos style.
- In The Silmarillion, Ilúvatar, who created the world, is a God of Gods who effectively delegates running the world after creation to the Valar, analogous to polytheistic gods/goddesses (technically the highest choir of angels, J. R. R. Tolkien being a good Catholic). Thereafter, he steps in only when the Númenóreans attack Valinor, at which point the world needs to be re-shaped to take the Blessed Realm outside the physical realm.
- The Cthulhu Mythos' own unspeakable horrors fit the trope, being ancient nightmares that once roamed the world before they were imprisoned, but are destined to rise again when the stars are right. There is a brief mention of some "weak gods of earth" who live in the Dreamlands under the protection of Nyarlathothep.
- The Faerie Queens in The Dresden Files are as good as gods, but the Faerie Mothers (formally, the Queens Who Were) are an order of magnitude stronger and far more ancient, though they seem to be pretty restricted in how they can use their power, and don't do much during their one appearance other than offer some cryptic advice.
- In the Mithgar books, the Fates are said to be above the gods, and the Great Creator is above them. Whether or not any of these exist as discreet entities or just abstractions is left ambiguous.
- The Dead Gods of Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné stories "While the Gods Laugh" and "Dead Gods' Homecoming". The swords Stormbringer and Mournblade were originally created to destroy them. They chose to discorporate themselves long ago because they were afraid of being completely destroyed by the swords.
- The Old Gods in the Arcia Chronicles, whose death at the hands of the invading Lightbringers ironically became their world's Start of Darkness.
- The world has the ice giants who were sealed away by the gods and are supposed to return at the end of the world. Which they did, during the Apocralypse (Essentially a mish-mosh of multiple apocalypse scenarios). While not alien or unknowable (One character has a conversation where he tries to convince them to stop), they stand above most Pratchett villains by being completely, honestly, and unapologetically omnicidal maniacs who cannot be swayed from their course.
- The universe at large has the Old High Ones, so far above the gods that they view gods as being roughly the same thing as humans are. There are said to be eight, but the only one mentioned individually is Azrael, the Great Attractor and Death of Universes, whose manifestations individual Deaths of different worlds are. He is something like galactic in size and has a clock that tells Time what it is.
- In the Glory of the Defeated series by Lionel Suggs, the entire plot revolves around getting rid of the Old Gods, in order to replace them with New Gods.
Religion, mythology and folklore
- There's the Titans in Greek Mythology, parents of the classic gods, who were overthrown by them.
- Izanami and Izanagi in Shintoist beliefs. They were the first humans, created by one god, who had them make more gods.
- Norse Mythology had at least two or two-and-a-half categories of Old Gods, namely the Jotnar and the Vanir, and possibly the Alfar (Elves):
- The Jotnar were descendants of Ymir, the ur-being, who co-existed with (and was kept fed by) a primeval cow named Auðumbla. Auðumbla licked on the salty ice of Niflheim and as the ice melted, a third being was freed: Búri, the first "true" god. Odin, Vili, and Ve (Búri's grandsons) later killed Ymir and created the world from his corpse (the Jotnar were almost exterminated by the flood of blood from the murder — only one couple remained to repopulate the race, making them technically younger than the race of gods). Following this event, Odin became the father and king of the New Gods, the Aesir. The Jotnar were expelled by the Aesir from the central regions of creation but remained puissant and reknowned for their ancient wisdom, the main remaining category of Old Gods.
- The Vanir and the Alfar: If any myths of the origin of the Vanir and Alfar ever existed they have since been lost. They ought to be descendants of either Borr, Búri's son and Odin's father, or of Vili and Ve, his brothers, to keep the origin myth consistent. The Vanir and the Aesir fought a war that ended in a truce. Following this truce the Vanir were relegated to Old Gods (except for a few, notably Freyr and Freyja, who were incorporated into the Aesir). Since most of the sources we have don't mention anything about them other than the war, their practice of seidr, and their home Vanaheim we hardly know anything about them. The Alfar faded into obscurity, only barely more divine than the mortal kindreds of dvergar and humans.
- Odin himself is called "the old God".
- Celtic Mythology has the Fomorians, a semi-divine race who lived in Ireland long before the Tuatha Dé Danann showed up. Several of the Tuatha Dé Danann were themselves descended from the Fomorians, most notable of which was Lugh the Long Handed.
- The Fir Bolg were also this, although they were (eventually) not quite as hostile to the Tuatha Dé Danann as the Fomorians.
- Tiamat and Apsu were the primal couple of Mesopotamian mythology, ancestors of all the gods. They then turned on the gods and tried to wipe them out. The gods fought back and, under the leadership of Marduk, won. Marduk split Tiamat in two, made heaven and earth out of her body, and became king of the gods.
- In Chinese mythology, the giant Pangu (or P'an-ku)is born in the primal chaos and sorts it out into heaven and earth. After a long life (18,000 years), he dies and, like the more violent Ymir and Tiamat, his body becomes the inventory of the world.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- The Forgotten Realms setting has a large number of pantheons containing various deities of different power levels. Above all of these pantheons, there is Ao, also known as the Overgod. On one occasion when a god stole the Tablet of Fate from him he responded by stripping ALL gods of most of their divine powers, forcing them into their avatar forms on the material plane until the Tablet was returned. And then of course, there's a being of light who even Ao answers to.
- The Highgod and Chaos from Dragonlance.
- Eberron has the three dragons - Siberys the Dragon Above, Khyber the Dragon Below and Eberron the Dragon Between - who became the three layers of the world at the beginning of time. While there are a few cults devoted to Khyber, the other two aren't directly worshiped much.
- The Primordials in the 4th edition aren't necessarily stronger than the gods, but they certainly came before them.
- Basic D&D Immortals rules. The Immortals are the BD&D equivalent of deities. The Old Ones are a group of extremely powerful beings who are as to the Immortals as the Immortals are to mortals. If someone becomes an Immortal and reaches the highest level of Immortality twice, they can join the Old Ones.
- And then there are the Elder Evils, Eldritch Abominations that the Aboleths remember. How is this special? The Aboleths were already ancient when the gods came to be, and Elder Evils are/were older than anything the Aboleths can remember. They are not gods, but they are powerful enough to challenge them and pose a treat of world ending proportions. "Abomination" doesn't even begin to describe those horrid beings.
- Similarly vestiges also fit this mold;
"Beings that cannot exist inhabit a place that cannot be. Cursed by gods and feared by mortals, these entities fall outside the boundaries of life, death, and undeath. They are untouchable by even the most powerful deities, though they can be summoned and used by even the weakest mortal." - Tome of Magic
- Those most powerful gods? They'd be the "Uber Deities" even stronger than the mightiest Greater Deity and so far beyond the gods that while the Gods Need Prayer Badly, they can afford not to care about such things anymore.
- Two such beings explicitly mentioned in D&D lore include the patron of the demigod Vecna from the Greyhawk setting, a being referred to only as The Serpent, and the enigmatic Lady of Pain from Planescape, who's mentioned as a "contemporary" of The Serpent, and responsible for the 3rd edition rules.
- Then you have the dead gods floating about the astral plane, which are implied to be able to be restored to life somehow. Such as if people start worshiping them again, but there may be more to it than that.
- Exalted: The Primordials, who are basically Greek Titans, but more awesome/terrible. The younger gods they created don't like them, and created the eponymous superhumans to do them in.
- The Titans from the Scarred Lands D&D setting are basically the same thing, as are the Titans from Scion. White Wolf loves this trope, apparently.
- Warhammer 40,000 has the C'tan, ancient gods that feed on the lifeforce of stars and predate all sentient life in the universe, and thus the other main gods in the setting who are born from the dreams and emotions of sentient beings. Rather than being defeated by the younger gods as is typical of this trope, most of them were instead wiped out by the army of undead robot soldiers they created to help them get rid of the new gods by killing the lifeforms that sustained them. Oops.
- One of the possible Imperator types in Nobilis are the primordial "True Gods".