I've been told that there are three subjects to avoid in polite company: sex, politics, and religion. Though I consider all of you, my gentle readers, polite company, this month I'm going to tackle one of those subjects...religion. Kind of.
The Marvel Universe is an amazing place. Among the many extraordinary phenomena is the unequivocable existence of gods- not just one god, but many gods, in fact, all gods from every culture and religion, past and present- Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, Celtic, etc. All of these gods are physically real in the Marvel Universe, not just symbolically or spiritually or metaphorically real.
There's an inherant problem in this for those who take their particular god very seriously. In the real world (that's here), most religions teach the uniqueness of their belief systems- not just the sovereignty, but the exclusivity of their god; not so much "You shall put no other gods before me," as "There are no other gods except for me." The paradox of the Marvel Universe, then, is that while everybody's notion of god is right and true, no god (or belief system) is true to the exclusion of all others.
If I may be allowed to express a little pet peeve of mine, I'd like to say that it fills me with chagrin to get letters from readers who disagree with a comic character's beliefs of with the mythological underpinnings of a story set in the Marvel Universe. News flash, folks: It's a free world and characters can espouse whatever beliefs they have, and the Marvel Universe is a fictional construct, one that need not conform to a given reader's idea of the real universe. People who confuse comic reality with real world reality, and expect it to conform to their belief systems, probably should not be reading fiction. Thank you for this indulgence.
So just what are gods, anyway? God in the singular is the supreme being of a reality, the creator and ruler of the whole universe. Certain belief systems feature a singular god, sometimes with multiple aspects or faces, and allow that god support troops of various lesser supernatural creatures. Gods in the plural are epitomes of various human virtues. Gods in the plural are beings of superhuman or supernatural power who are worshiped by lesser, mortal beings. This may be something these gods seek out or something that is thrust upon them without their solicitation.
The Marvel Universe, as we've said, is a multiple god universe. If someone (character or reader) chooses to believe in a single God in the Marvel Universe, s/he must demote all of the other beings of power to the status of mere demigods. I am not saying it is foolhardy for a person in the Marvel Universe to believe in a single God- anyone is entitled to whatever belief one wants- that person simply has to either ignore all the other gods or create a personal cosmology in which these beings fall somewhere between one's self and the supreme being.
Marvel's abstract entities like Eternity and Infinity, who represent great big hunks of reality, make no claims to being gods. So if one is trying to piece together a personal cosmology, they must be taken in account as well.
Is worship or belief an essential trait of a god? Is the god who has the most worshippers the most powerful? Well, I can't speak for the real world, of course, but in the Marvel Universe, there was a story in a 1970's THOR ANNUAL that posited that the Norse and Greek gods' power was dependent upon belief, that their very life forces were somehow psychically linked to humanity's heart's and minds, and thus they waned in power as soon as they left the area where they had worshippers. Subsequent tales have shown this story to be apocryphal or false. In the Marvel Universe, the gods are objectively real, and while some of them may have some enchantment that ties their powers to the beliefs of others, this is not a function of their godhood. In fact, an ungodly character like Dormammu, who has never claimed to be a god, has cast a spell that links his personal power to the psyches of his worshippers.
Besides gods, there are beings of great power who, if they stuck around mortals long enough and performed a few great feats of power, would probably be worshiped as gods themselves. These are guys like the Silver Surfer, the Stranger, Galactus, and the High Evolutionary. What are the differences between guys like these and gods like Hercules, Thor, Leir, and Horus? Certainly not power level. It seems to be place or method of origin.
Most of the gods worshiped on Earht in the Marvel Universe were said (in a later THOR ANNUAL which has not been discredited) to have derived in some way from Earth's mystical-biospherical energy. Super-aliens and evolved humans, of course, do not fit this criterion.
Then we have the Celestials, huge and mysterious alien beings, bron not of this earth, not spiritual beings in any way though worshiped as gods on some planets, who have sufficient power to make the gods of Earth stand up and take notice. Taking these guys into consideration only makes the construction of a personal Marvel Universe cosmology that much more difficult. It's a good thing that your average M.U. citizen isn't aware of too many of these gods (except for Thor and Hercules), and s/he probably doubts that these two are the same individuals s/he read about in mythology books.
Writing gods credibly is more difficult than writing human beings credibly. It would be very difficult if most of the gods of the Marvel Universe didn't have so many human traits, but fortunately they do. However, because of their great power and longevity, their perspective of time and sense of purpose must be vastly different from a human being's. Very few stories do more than merely touch upon these issues, dwelling instead on the actions of these beings. But let us exercise our imaginations for a moment and think what it would be like.
If centuries seemed like mere years to us, how would we feel about friendships with mere mortals, who would age and die in what seemed like a matter of months? Would we become injured to this dismal certainty, or refuse to associate with mortals? If we had the power to do anything we wanted, what would we decide to do? What if we had spent a few centuries learning all the earthly languages, a few more playing all the musical instruments, some more seeing every single corner of the planet, a few decades amassing a personal fortune, another few governing great numbers of people- after we had done and had it all, what would we still find worthwhile?
Would we devote our time to helping people? What would be the point- they're going to die anyway? Would we devote our time to lording it over people? What would be the point- how big a challenge could that be? Would we devote our time to learning for its own sake? Art for its own sake? Pleasure for its own sake? If you had all the time in the world, what would you do to make that time seem well-spent?
Gods are cool. They enable us mere mortals to stretch our imaginations, picture ourselves fulfilling the outer limit of our potentials. Gods are instructive. They help us mere mortals understand aspects of the universe in a metaphorical way. Gods are inspirational. They can show us mere mortals how to be better, more heroic, more noble mere mortals. And the Marvel Universe, the largest, most cohesive fictional universe in all literature, has the greatest array of gods in all the world. Suspend your real world religious beliefs and have a ball.
-- Mark Gruenwald