10 of History's Weirdest Ancient Gods

Over the course of human history, people have believed in a ton of really really weird things. In some ways, if you look at it from an outsider’s perspective, pretty much any god is a little weird. Gods make sense to people who invest in the system; they also make sense as myths or archetypes. And sometimes they make sense in very specific places and times. But looking at it outside of that, religion in general is really freaking weird.

Some gods, though, are a LOT weirder than the rest.  Here’s ten of the weirdest, and their crazy stories.

1. Abraxas – Magical King of the Weirdos

In the 2nd century, the Roman Empire was a marketplace for an incredible amount of mostly strange religions, including early Christianity. The people of Rome were hungry for new deities, new beliefs, loved secret societies, and were really looking for something new as a basis for belief.  You had to be really competitive to come up with a god that would impress.

The Gnostics were a group of mystics, some of whom identified as Christians, others as Pagans. They were promoting a very esoteric kind of belief system full of ideas about many different dimensions, all kinds of spiritual beings, strange powers, and a philosophy that questioned the very nature of our reality (the kind of stuff that in the modern world we just put into movies like The Matrix).  They had to come up with an iconic figure that could compete with the handsome and mighty gods of Rome, exotic Egyptian goddesses like Isis, the monotheistic Unconquered Sun, and of course the populist good-shepherd healing deity imagery of Jesus in mainstream Christianity.

So their best and brightest came up with a god who had a rooster head and snakes for legs.

Abraxas was technically an “Archon”, a kind of demigod the gnostics thought ruled the different levels of reality and were sort of false-deities that controlled the world, and that stood between the humans and the true and pure reality where the highest and true God reigned. That doesn’t mean he was evil, it was more of just a job for him, and he was the highest Archon, meaning effectively he was the god of all material reality.  Did I mention that the Gnostics were kind of complicated?

Because the Gnostics wanted Abrasax to represent the combination of all the lesser deities, he had the head of a rooster (sacred to Apollo) and his two legs were serpents (representing any number of wisdom-gods).  He basically looked like a total freak out of a sense of completeness.

Gnostics were mostly intellectuals, and it shows that educated people are sometimes a very special kind of stupid if they thought that this was going to win out against a handsome Sun God or the humble and loving shepherd-god Jesus. Even so, Abrasax proved really popular as a magical image, and archaeologists have found thousands of magical amulets and talismans with his picture on it, mainly for protection and healing.

2. Cloacina – The Sewer Goddess

On the whole, it must be a pretty sweet deal to be a goddess. Adored by mortals, known all over, hanging out on Mt. Olympus, and all that! But imagine if you’re a Goddess, and you see all your relatives get to be stuff like the goddess of beauty, goddess of wisdom, goddess of the home, even lesser but still cool stuff like the goddess of rainbows. And then it’s your turn, and you end up being given the portfolio of “Goddess of the Sewers”.

Welcome to poor Cloacina’s life. She’s the patron goddess of sewers, and more specifically of Rome’s sewer system. Still, it wasn’t all bad. She got a small shrine in Roman times, and she sometimes appeared on coins. Most of her work largely remained invisible to the typical Roman.  In some ways, though, she got the last laugh: the incredible Roman sewer-system (the “cloaca maxima”) was a masterpiece of engineering. There was nothing like it in the entire world, and wouldn’t be for a long time after. And while all the rest is consigned to history, there are still parts of Cloacina’s sewer in use in Rome to this day.  She did a good job.

3. Glycon – The Fake Snake

One of the many weird gods of 2nd-Century Rome, Glycon took the cake: he was a serpent-god. Only not a real serpent. He was a puppet of a serpent. That people worshiped.
Glycon was associated with healing and especially with fertility. Women went to his puppet-shrine to make offerings in the hopes of pregnancy or safe childbirth. According to at least some contemporary critics, the guy running the puppet (a Greek ‘prophet’ named Alexander of Abonoteichus) was also incredibly helpful at creating pregnancy in Glycon’s followers in ways that had nothing to do with immaculate conception, if you know what I mean (nudge nudge, wink wink). The puppet would move and would even speak (probably through ventriloquism), answering follower’s questions with very cryptic oracles, all for a very small fee.

Somehow, the Glycon sect became a huge success. Alexander started his own Glycon-based mystery-school, and apparently even Emperors themselves asked for oracles. There’s even commemorative coins. After Alexander died, rich and at a ripe old age, the Glycon cult died out too, until the modern age. Now, it has been revived by comic-book writer, wizard, and professional grumpypants Alan Moore, who has declared himself to be a follower of Glycon. Moore totally acknowledges that Glycon is a fake god of a fake prophet, defending his choice saying that “I happen to believe that most of the important things in the material world start out as fiction”.

4. Hermaphroditus – God/dess of Traps

Long before Bailey Jay, the ancient Greek world venerated another beautiful erotic celebrity of boundary-blurring gender identity with magic powers. The deity Hermaphroditus was the child of Hermes (himself sometimes a gender-bending god) and Aphrodite (the goddess of beauty, love and sex). In some stories, Hermaphroditus was born having the appearance of a girl (including breasts) but the genitals of a boy. In others Hermaphroditus was originally a boy, but when he was bathing a pool he encountered a water nymph who fell in love with him; and when she started to get it on with him all crazy-style, her body was bound to his so that Hermaphroditus took on features of both sexes. 
Hermaphroditus was obviously connected to sexual themes (the demigod Silenus, sometimes depicted as a centaur, was said to have been one of Hermaphroditus’ sexual partners).  But there was also a connection to marriage (probably because of Hermaphroditus representing the union of the male and the female).  Hermaphroditus was sometimes invoked at weddings to bless the bride.

Because of Hermaphroditus, people who were born (or took on) atypical gender or sexual traits were seen as having special status in the ancient world.  Legend had it that those who moved between the standard genders had the Hermaphroditus-granted power to have visions of the future.

5. Kek – Patron God of Memes

Praise Kek!  Never has a god been so obscure for so long (literally thousands and thousands of years) only to make a sudden and massive comeback; in this case thanks to internet meme magick.

Don’t know what I’m talking about?  Well, you might remember Hillary Clinton somewhat embarrassing herself by declaring a cartoon frog popularly named “Pepe” as an evil agent of right-wing forces on national television.  Far from being some kind of modern right-wing nationalist invention, Pepe the Frog is the reborn form of a relatively minor Ancient Egyptian deity worshiped around 2500 BC (so, 4500 years ago, more or less). 

Kek was the god of night-time at its darkest hour, just before dawn, and was thus called the “Bringer of Light”. So, a sign of hope in dark times, you could say.

He was depicted, like Pepe, as a human figure with a Frog’s head.  His name, “Kek”, is the slang used by the 4channers who popularized Pepe instead of the more common “lol”; only when they started using the word “Kek” none of them apparently had any idea that an ancient frog-headed god named Kek even existed (he was really, really obscure, except to very serious students of ancient Egyptian gods).

But it gets better! The ancient god Kek was associated with probabilities and numbers, and particularly with repeating digits (“22”, “777”, “99999” etc.).  People on 4chan started to notice that posts that featured pictures of Pepe the Frog tended to have what they called ‘dubs’, repeating digits in the post-number stamp; so much that they started to associate it with Pepe. Again, at the time none of them knew about the ancient god Kek.

And to top it all off, Kek’s symbol in Egyptian hieroglyphics looks remarkably (to modern eyes) like a guy sitting in front of a computer.

This is seriously powerful meme-magick stuff. The ancient God Kek has been accidentally awoken by the new astral-plane known as the Internet. And apparently, he’s a Republican.  Now that’s some REAL “old time religion”!

6. Maftet – The Killer Cat

Lots of Egyptian deities were pretty weird. Most of them had animal qualities and eerie qualities, so there’s a lot of weirdness to choose from. But Maftet was a particularly weird one.
The Egyptians loved (worshiped) cats, but before the cat-goddess Bast, there was Maftet, who was an earlier cat-deity. In the old-kingdom period of Egyptian history she wasn’t a person with a cat-head; she was just a cat!  Just like the Egyptians used regular cats to get rid of pests, Maftet was the goddess who protected you from dangerous pests: she granted protection against scorpions and snakes for regular people.

But for the Pharaoh, Maftet was extra-special. It was said that in the afterlife, Maftet would hunt down and decapitate the enemies the Pharaoh had in life, and then bring those enemies’ heads and lay them at the Pharoah’s feet, the way your house-cat might kill a rat for you and bring it to you as a present.

So Maftet was used to terrify anyone who tried to defy the Pharaoh: you’d know that if you were added to the Pharaoh’s enemies-list in this lifetime, then after you died you’d be hunted down by Maftet and your head would be brought back to him like you were a common pest.  This also made Maftet the first known patron-goddess of the Death Penalty!  What with Kek’s comeback, you’d think that maybe Maftet could also get popular down in Texas or something.

7. Ninkasi – Goddess of Booze

One of the oldest words used in the English language is “alcohol”. It dates back to ancient Sumerian, and it’s also one of only a tiny handful of words that were passed down from that dead language into other languages (Sumerian had no surviving linguistic ‘descendants’).  That pretty much shows how important booze was to our ancient cultures. In the case of Sumeria, it’s believed that the entire civilization started because of building temple-complexes to allow the priests to cultivate alcohol for use in religious ceremonies. So booze literally helped start human civilization.

For the Sumerians, booze meant Beer. And Ninkasi was the Sumerian Goddess of Beer. That’s a goddess I think most of us could get behind!

The Sumerians called her “she who satisfies desires” and “she who fills the heart”. Both are sentiments a lot of ordinary people would still feel about a good beer. Also, poems to Ninkasi are among some of the earliest surviving human writings, dating back 5000 years; and among this poetry there’s also the earliest known beer recipe!  Even if no one has worshiped her in about 4000 years, I’d say we all still owe a debt of gratitude to Ninkasi.

8. Pasithea – The Stoner’s Goddess

But hey, maybe beer is not your thing. Maybe you prefer something a little bit more trippy than a pale ale. In that case, you probably want to check out Pasithea. She was the Greek patron goddess of hallucinogenic drugs.

Pasithea was said to be the child of Dionysus (god of ecstasy and wine) by his somewhat non-consensual partnering with Hera (queen of the gods). She was married to Hypnos (god of sleep), and thus she was also the patroness of resting and relaxation. With Hypnos she had three sons: Morpheus (god of dreams), Phobetor (god of nightmares) and Phantasos (god of imagination). In the mysteries, she was the goddess of visions produced by the use of hallucinogenic substances. There was even a specific plant the Greeks also called “pasithea” that was said to produce these magical visions, but we’re not sure which one it was. Too bad! 

Along with her husband, she also shared an association with the poppy (which is used to produce opium, and in our modern times, heroin).

9. Priapus – The Ron Jeremy of Gods

Priapus was literally the god of wieners, among a few other things (livestock, gardening, ‘fertility’ stuff in general). So he was always depicted as having an absolutely enormous erection. It’s where we get the term “priapism” from (meaning when someone gets an erection they can’t make go away).

There’s many depictions where it’s clear the ancient Greeks and Romans treated Priapus in a comedic fashion (he’s often depicted having to prop up his ridiculously huge erection with some kind of object), but it’s also clear he was very, very popular.  He was considered a ‘good luck’ deity, and there are tons of different talismans and little statuettes and other things of that sort which have survived to this day. He was used for magic: for fortune, for protection, and obviously for help with erectile dysfunction.  His magical protection charms were often hung at the entrances of houses (that’s right, ancient Greek and Roman cities had penises everywhere), along with some very x-rated poetic incantations about what Priapus would do to anyone who tried to break in.

One interesting bit of trivia: by at least some accounts of divine genealogy, Priapus would actually be Hermaphroditus’ brother.

10. Sheela Na Gig – Seriously, WTF is this?!

This one is so weird, we don’t really know what it is. We don’t even know if Sheela Na Gig is a goddess. She might be; or she might be some kind of monster, or she might just have been a kind of medieval meme.

Sheela Na Gig appears in a number of buildings, mostly castles and churches, dating to medieval Europe (mainly England and Ireland). She appears as a decoration, not unlike a gargoyle or a ‘green man’. But Sheela Na Gig looks like an old woman with sagging breasts and a huge open vulva. She’s usually got a grotesque over-sized head, bulging eyes, and often an open mouth.

Many anthropologists and historians believe she is a figure from much older folk tales, possibly back through history to some point where she was some kind of god. Her name in Irish means something like “old hag with breasts”.
It seems totally plausible that Sheela Na Gig is a survivalism of some ancient Celtic goddess or spirit. In various European religions you would see goddesses that had the form of old crones, often these were associated with time, death, or witchcraft.  But the thing is, we have never found any evidence of the particular image of Sheela Na Gig dating any earlier than the 11th century or so, by which time that area of Europe was very definitely and solidly Christian.  It could be that the Church appropriated this image from older pagan stories, using Sheela as a kind of protective image and making it harmless at the same time; like it did with the pagan ‘green man’, turning it from an ancient local god into nothing more than a church-decoration.

But there are other possibilities: it might be that Sheela was really not pagan at all, but a Christian image, actually meant to represent the depravity of sin and sexual lust. This would explain why she was so often featured on churches. She was meant to be a kind of demonic figure, used by the church to remind the faithful of what to avoid.

But it’s also possible that she was just a kind of amusing image that some clever artisan came up with as a decoration, and then the image caught on. She might have just been a fad.

That’s the ultimate fate of a lot of really old or really weird gods: over time, they change so much and so much is forgotten that in the end no one knows what they were originally meant to be about.

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