Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Ye Gods!

“Ye gods!” I hear myself say. “That's terrible!”

A neighbor had been telling me about a stabbing that had just taken place on the block. Such is life in urban America.

What she thought of my involuntary expostulation, I don't know. Probably nothing. If it registered at all, she probably thought I was just being precious.

But I wasn't, really. “Ye gods” has become my oath-of-choice.

The nice thing about “Ye gods” is that—unlike most pagan oaths—it's remained in current English usage for the past 400 years or so, so it doesn't have the “trying too hard” quality that mars modern pagan oaths of the “By Thor's hairy balls!” variety.

How that came to be so makes an interesting story. Back in Shakespeare's time, new anti-blasphemy legislation made it legally punishable to use the name of the Christian god(s) on stage. Playwrights responded by using the names of pagan gods instead. (That's when “by Jove!” entered the English lexicon.) Ah, the good old Renaissance: when the old paganisms saved Christian Europe from itself.

Even the oath's archaic formulation, in my opinion, works in its favor. It's a invocation: what it means is "You gods!," but using the old second-person plural pronoun. (Thou = singular, you = either singular or plural, ye = plural only.) Since the many-ness of the gods is precisely the point, that works very nicely here. Attempts since the 1960s to make religious language more "contemporary" have resulted only in a liturgical idiom noteworthy mainly for its banality. In fact, throughout human religious history, religious language has routinely been characterized by its use of archaic and elevated diction. The very form of the language itself says: non-ordinary.

A long time ago, I made the decision that I wasn't going to swear by any gods other than my own. Since then, I've mostly been true to that decision. Still, when you're around non-pagans, that can be problematic.

Hence “Ye gods.”

Like being a “21st” century pagan, it's weird, but not too weird.






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Monday, 30 September 2019

    Mr. Posch,

    When I'm around my friends, I'll usually say, "Gods!"

    When I'm alone and confronting some greater or lesser unpleasantness, I'll say, "Father Zeus, give me strength!"

    Occasionally, I'll invoke Mithras or Herakles instead, when some physical feat on my part is required.

    Thanks for sharing! I had no idea that Christian zealots in Shakespeare's day were directly responsible for the whole, "By Jove", thing. It's so deliciously ironic.

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