King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 23, 24, 25, 26

A fourth voice came from inside the circle, a thin and tired one: the voice of Hund the leech. For weeks now, ever since the first joining of his friend Shef and his supposed-pupil Svandis, the little man had been withdrawn, sullen, even angry. Jealous, they all supposed, of the taking of the woman he loved by the one man who seemed least likely to. Now he spoke decisively.

“I can test it for you.”

“How?” asked Hagbarth.

“I have known for a long time—since Shef and I drank the potion of the Finns—that I can create visions, with a potion. I think it likely that all his visions spring from the same root. Not a root, a fungus. You all know that if the rye gets wet when it is harvested, a kind of black spur grows on it. You Norsemen call it the rugulfr, the wolf in the rye. We all know to scrape it off, dry it out, not eat it. But it is hard to get rid of completely. It brings visions, brings madness in large doses. I think our friend is especially subject to it, as some are. His visions come on after eating rye-bread or rye-porridge. What have we been eating since we have been here, since we finished our own stores? Wheat-bread, from well-dried grain. But I have decoction of the ergot-fungus in my stores. I can bring on his visions at any time.”

“But if you say that,” said Hagbarth, “you are agreeing with Skaldfinn, and Svandis. The visions are just a disorder of the belly. Not a message from the gods. So there are no gods.”

Hund looked round bleakly, without excitement or urge to make a point. “No. I have considered all this. You are all victims of a kind of thinking I know. Either this or that. Either inside or outside. Either truth or falsehood. It works with simple things. Not with the gods.

“I am a leech. I have learned to look at the whole of my patients before I decide what may be wrong with them. Sometimes it is not just one thing. So I look at the whole of our beliefs about the gods. If we—we priests of the Way—were to put our beliefs into words, we would say that the gods are somewhere outside us, somewhere in the sky, it may be, and that they were there before us. They made us. As for the gods of other people, like the Christians who brought me up, or the Jews we have met here, they are just mistakes, they do not exist at all. But they say the same of ours! Why should we be right and they wrong? Or they right and we wrong? Maybe we are all right.

“And all wrong. Right to think the gods exist. Wrong to think they made us. Maybe we made them. What I think is that our minds are strange, beyond our understanding. They work in ways we do not know and cannot reach. Maybe they work in places we cannot reach, places that are beyond our space and our time—for the visions of Vigleik, and Shef too, they reach where their bodies could not go. In those strange places I think the gods are made. From mind-stuff. From belief. They grow strong on belief. Wither on disbelief, or oblivion. So you see, Thorvin, Skaldfinn, Shef’s visions could be a true guide to the gods. But sprung from rye-wolf, or from my potions, just the same. They need not be either/or.”

Hagbarth licked his lips, spoke hesitantly, in face of the little man’s certainty and composure. “Hund, I do not see how that can be true. If it were true that the gods spring from belief, think: how many Way-folk are there, how many Christians are there? If the Christ-god draws on the belief of thousands of thousands, our gods only on the belief of a tenth that number—surely our gods would be crushed like a nut under a war-hammer.”

Hund laughed, mirthlessly. “I was a Christian once. How much do you think I believed? I believed that if I did not pay tithes to the Church my father’s hut would be burned down. There are Christians in the world, I know. King Alfred is one of them. Shef told me once of the old woman he and Alfred met, grieving for her man. She was another. But Church-folk are not Christians. Nor do all those who say the shahada believe in Allah. They believe in nothing, or they believe in the shari’a, as your people, Solomon, believe in their books. I do not think that kind of belief will do. For if the gods are our creation, then they cannot be deceived, as we deceive ourselves.”

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