When the moon’s gone down and alone I lie, I know that it’s me. I’m waiting for my own imminent return even as I push the day further ahead.
The human animal is a strange beast, ascribing divinity and animality to itself all at once. Do we think ourselves so inscrutable that we put off knowing ourselves until the Last Day, the great and terrible day when we will stare into the mirror with unveiled faces? Are we so fearsome to behold that we push ourselves into the sky and vault up the heavens lest the thick cloud roll back and all be revealed?
The wandering god isn’t a scowling deity running off into the wilderness to hide its life-giving presence from the land. I am the storm god disappearing beyond the mountains, stifling myself, robbing the land of its fertility. I am the vanishing god, addicted to my own wandering.
I am the face forever turning. I do not believe in its splendor, that in the locking of eyes, of lips, of hands, there is a reckoning that folds the world of shifting shadows into its shimmering body. I am the name I cannot speak for fear that it will resound in my ear as clang and clatter.
Rend the heavens and come down. Shake the mountains with your presence. How long will you keep silent?
The twin myths of the vanishing god and the wandering god have lived long with me. I have nourished them with my fears and passions, and knit them into my being. The loss of these stories (or even their retooling) is a loss of identity.
What would it mean to believe that I belonged in this world? That it could be, that it is, my home?
The vanishing and the wandering are two parts of the same story. The god disappears and goes into hiding, wandering the universe in search of faces that can bear its brightness. In the absence of such faces, the divine hides itself behind the curtain of the temple’s holiest room or in the thick of a dark cloud hovering atop the mountain.
It is a game of shock and shadows, of untamable bursts of glittering vision and concentrated presence followed by long periods of darkened eyes and the sense of estrangement.
I learned the myth of the disappearing self long before I reached Oxford, but it was in Oxford that I read ancient Mesopotamian myths about vanishing gods. The sensations of longing from my childhood began to find names and shapes. I came to these stories starving for vibrant human language. I had only the language of God to voice the genesis and cataclysm of my world, and that world saw the human and the divine as irrevocably severed, a body sliced from its head.
These Mesopotamian myths held an uncanny compromise. Some of the language felt familiar because it was unrelentingly religious like the Bible stories I’d cut my teeth on. They offered a world enthused, replete with deity. Gods and goddesses roamed its hills and sat in its shrines.
But I saw them as human in origin, revealing the unfathomable pools of human imagination. And I knew that these texts were artifacts made by human hands, which negated their divinity. These gods were not like my one true God. They were imagined. My God was real. And my God would have no truck with unreality, this sensory world of food and drink.
There’s more than one way to disappear, I suppose. When reality is constantly deferred and you’re required to embed yourself in that distant Real, you can’t help but sink into some kind of ether. You’ve reach a stalemate between world of your immediate senses, that’s purported to be ethereal, and world beyond the pale that feels nebulous to your bodily senses.
The Real becomes the land of your birth to which you are never allowed access, the country to which you swear allegiance and pay your tithes, but whose king denies you entry and representation. The realm beyond its borders turns into a place of shifting shadows and you become one of its many specters.
The Mesopotamian disappearing god story I first encountered comes from the Hittites, a people of the Bronze Age who founded an empire centered the city of Hattusa in north-central Anatolia.
In this world, humans and deities each had roles to perform in the cosmos. Disasters like famine, war, and pestilence were seen as evidence that the god or goddess responsible for their sector had become angry and abandoned its post. The loss of fertility among humans and animals or the failure of the crops to flourish for lack of rain could only mean one thing: one of the storm gods had quit its job…