Small Gods
Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

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Small Gods

Copyright © 1992 by Terry and Lyn Pratchett

Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.

The tortoise is a ground-living creature. It is impossible to live nearer the ground without being under it. Its horizons are a few inches away. It has about as good a turn of speed as you need to hunt down a lettuce. It has survived while the rest of evolution flowed past it by being, on the whole, no threat to anyone and too much trouble to eat.

And then there is the eagle. A creature of the air and high places, whose horizons go all the way to the edge of the world. Eyesight keen enough to spot the rustle of some small and squeaky creature half a mile away. All power, all control. Lightning death on wings. Talons and claws enough to make a meal of anything smaller than it is and at least take a hurried snack out of anything bigger.

And yet the eagle will sit for hours on the crag and survey the kingdoms of the world until it spots a distant movement and then it will focus, focus, focus on the small shell wobbling among the bushes down there on the desert. And it will leap . . .

And a minute later the tortoise finds the world dropping away from it. And it sees the world for the first time, no longer one inch from the ground but five hundred feet above it, and it thinks: what a great friend I have in the eagle.

And then the eagle lets go.

And almost always the tortoise plunges to his death. Everyone knows why the tortoise does this. Gravity is a habit that is hard to shake off. No one knows why the eagle does this. There’s good eating on a tortoise but, considering the effort involved, there’s much better eating on practically anything else. It’s simply the delight of eagles to torment tortoises.

But of course, what the eagle does not realize is that it is participating in a very crude form of natural selection.

One day a tortoise will learn how to fly.


Great beginnings

Things just happen, one after another. They don’t care who knows. But history . . . ah, history is different. History has to be observed. Otherwise it’s not history. It’s just . . . well, things happening one after another.



These aren’t books in which the events of the past are pinned like so many butterflies to a cork. These are the books from which history is derived. There are more than twenty thousand of them; each one is ten feet high, bound in lead, and the letters are so small that they have to be read with a magnifying glass.

When people say “It is written . . .” it is written here.

There are fewer metaphors around than people think.

That was the reliable thing about the Church of the Great God Om. It had very punctual prophets. You could set your calendar by them, if you had one big enough.

And, as is generally the case around the time a prophet is expected, the Church redoubled its efforts to be holy. This was very much like the bustle you get in any large concern when the auditors are expected, but tended towards taking people suspected of being less holy and putting them to death in a hundred ingenious ways. This is considered a reliable barometer of the state of one’s piety in most of the really popular religions. There’s a tendency to declare that there is more backsliding around than in the national toboggan championships, that heresy must be torn out root and branch, and even arm and leg and eye and tongue, and that it’s time to wipe the slate clean. Blood is generally considered very efficient for this purpose.



The trouble with being a god is that you’ve got no one to pray to.



It was almost impossible to know what he was thinking about and no one ever asked. The most obvious reason for this was that Vorbis was the head of the Quisition, whose job it was to do all those things that needed to be done and which other people would rather not do.

You do not ask people like that what they are thinking about in case they turn around very slowly and say “You.”

There were no jolly little signs saying: You Don’t Have To Be Pitilessly Sadistic To Work Here But It Helps!!

But there were things to suggest to a thinking man that the Creator of mankind had a very oblique sense of fun indeed, and to breed in his heart a rage to storm the gates of heaven.

The mugs, for example. The inquisitors stopped work twice a day for coffee. Their mugs, which each man had brought from home, were grouped around the kettle on the hearth of the central furnace which incidentally heated the irons and knives.

They had legends on them like A Present From the Holy Grotto of Ossory, or To The World’s Greatest Daddy. Most of them were chipped, and no two of them were the same.

And there were the postcards on the wall. It was traditional that, when an inquisitor went on holiday, he’d send back a crudely colored woodcut of the local view with some suitably jolly and risqué message on the back. And there was the pinned-up tearful letter from Inquisitor First Class Ishmale “Pop” Quoom, thanking all the lads for collecting no fewer than seventy-eight obols for his retirement pension and the lovely bunch of flowers for Mrs. Quoom, indicating that he’d always remember his days in No. 3 pit, and was looking forward to coming in and helping out any time they were short-handed.

And it all meant this: that there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.

Vorbis loved knowing that. A man who knew that, knew everything he needed to know about people.

Note (Hal’s):
I’ve re-read this many times, but only just noticed there is a brilliantly ambiguous pronoun in that last sentence.

— end note




Choral singing was compulsory for novitiates, but after much petitioning by Brother Preptil a special dispensation had been made for Brutha. The sight of his big round face screwed up in the effort to please was bad enough, but what was worse was listening to his voice, which was certainly powerful and full of intent conviction, swinging backward and forward across the tune without ever quite hitting it.



It dawned on him, very slowly, that demons and succubi didn’t turn up looking like small old tortoises. There wouldn’t be much point.

“How many talking tortoises have you met?” it said sarcastically.

“I don’t know,” said Brutha.

“What d’you mean, you don’t know?“

“Well, they might all talk,” said Brutha conscientiously [...] “They just might not say anything when I’m there.”


Logic (examples)

Many feel they are called to the priesthood, but what they really hear is an inner voice saying, “It’s indoor work with no heavy lifting, do you want to be a ploughman like your father?”



They weren’t that important. They were merely at the top. The people who really run organizations are usually found several levels down, where it’s still possible to get things done.

“Unfortunately, wild and unstable ideas have a disturbing tendency to move around and take hold.”

Fri’it had to admit that this was true. He knew from experience that true and obvious ideas, such as the ineffable wisdom and judgment of the Great God Om, seemed so obscure to many people that you actually had to kill them before they saw the error of their ways, whereas dangerous and nebulous and wrong-headed notions often had such an attraction for some people that they would—he rubbed a scar thoughtfully—hide up in the mountains and throw rocks at you until you starved them out. They’d prefer to die rather than see sense. Fri’it had seen sense at an early age. He’d seen it was sense not to die.

Fear is strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easy. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.



Rule by fear

It takes forty men with their feet on the ground to keep one man with his head in the air.

“Being alive is sinful. It stands to reason, because you have to sin every day when you’re alive.”



In the rain-forests of Brutha’s subconscious the butterfly of doubt emerged and flapped an experimental wing, all unaware of what chaos theory has to say about this sort of thing . . .




“But you . . . you’re omnicognisant,” said Brutha.

“That doesn’t mean I know everything.”

Brutha bit his lip. “Um. Yes. It does.”



“Ossory. Ossory,” said the tortoise. “No . . . no . . . can’t say I—”

“He said that you spoke unto him from out of a pillar of flame,” said Brutha.

“Oh, that Ossory,” said the tortoise. “Pillar of flame. Yes.”

“And you dictated to him the Book of Ossory,” said Brutha. “Which contains the Directions, the Gateways, the Abjurations, and the Precepts. One hundred and ninety-three chapters.”

“I don’t think I did all that,” said Om doubtfully. “I’m sure I would have remembered one hundred and ninety-three chapters.”

“What did you say to him, then?”

“As far as I can remember it was ‘Hey, see what I can do!’ ” said the tortoise.



Vorbis liked to see properly guilty consciences. That was what consciences were for. Guilt was the grease in which the wheels of the authority turned.




There were all sorts of ways to petition the Great God, but they depended largely on how much you could afford, which was right and proper and exactly how things should be. After all, those who had achieved success in the world clearly had done it with the approval of the Great God, because it was impossible to believe that they had managed it with his disapproval. In the same way, the Quisition could act without possibility of flaw. Suspicion was proof. How could it be anything else? The Great God would not have seen fit to put the suspicion in the minds of His exquisitors unless it was right that it should be there. Life could be very simple, if you believed in the Great God Om. And sometimes quite short, too.

It is a popular fact that nine-tenths of the brain is not used and, like most popular facts, it is wrong. Not even the most stupid Creator would go to the trouble of making the human head carry around several pounds of unnecessary gray goo if its only real purpose was, for example, to serve as a delicacy for certain remote tribesmen in unexplored valleys. It is used. And one of its functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary and turn the unusual into the usual.

Because if this was not the case, then human beings, faced with the daily wondrousness of everything, would go around wearing big stupid grins, similar to those worn by certain remote tribesmen who occasionally get raided by the authorities and have the contents of their plastic greenhouses very seriously inspected.



“Pets are always a great help in times of stress. And in times of starvation too, o’course.”

There were twenty-three other novices in Brutha’s dormitory, on the principle that sleeping alone promoted sin. This always puzzled the novices themselves, since a moment’s reflection would suggest that there were whole ranges of sins only available in company. But that was because a moment’s reflection was the biggest sin of all. People allowed to be by themselves overmuch might indulge in solitary cogitation. It was well known that this stunted your growth. For one thing, it could lead to your feet being chopped off.

“Bugger off,” said the man without looking round.

“The Prophet Abbys tells us (chap. XXV, verse 6): ‘Woe unto he who defiles his mouth with curses for his words will be as dust,’ ” said Brutha.

“Does he? Well, he can bugger off too,” said the man, conversationally.



“I—I do not know how to ride, my lord,” said Brutha.

“Any man can get on a mule,” said Vorbis. “Often many times in a short distance.”

There were no lies here. All fancies fled away. That’s what happened in all deserts. It was just you, and what you believed.

What have I always believed?

That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out all right.

You couldn’t get that on a banner. But the desert looked better already.



“The sea, Brutha. It washes unholy shores, and gives rise to dangerous ideas. Men should not travel, Brutha. At the center there is truth. As you travel, so error creeps in.”

“Nothing is impossible for the strong in faith,” said Vorbis.

“Try striking a match on jelly, mister.”

People said there had to be a Supreme Being because otherwise how could the universe exist, eh?

And of course there clearly had to be, said Koomi, a Supreme Being. But since the universe was a bit of a mess, it was obvious that the Supreme Being hadn’t in fact made it. If he had made it he would, being Supreme, have made a much better job of it, with far better thought given, taking an example at random, to things like the design of the common nostril. Or, to put it another way, the existence of a badly put-together watch proved the existence of a blind watchmaker. You only had to look around to see that there was room for improvement practically everywhere.

This suggested that the Universe had probably been put together in a bit of a rush by an underling while the Supreme Being wasn’t looking, in the same way that Boy Scouts’ Association minutes are done on office photocopiers all over the country.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005; May 2011

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Graphics copyright © 2003, 2005 by Hal Keen