There is an interesting story in the Gylfaginning (LXII) in the Prose Edda, you may know the one about how the walls of Asgard were built. Yet this story shows something else of interest – the gods are not omnipotent, nor omniscient, nor omnipresent, nor omnibenevolent. If the gods were omnipotent then they could have built their own wall instantly if they had so chosen to. If they were omnipotent then they would not even require walls. If the gods were omniscient then they could have foreseen the issues in the plan. One of the most telling aspects of the story though is that Thor was away doing Thor things during this time, otherwise he would have apparently put a stop to it quite early, and he is called back to fight the giant. The text reads: “Now that the Æsir saw surely that the hill-giant was come thither, they did not regard their oaths reverently, but called on Thor, who came as quickly.” Thor was away, but the gods called to him and he came seemingly immediately. This is not an omnipresent or omniscient deity or he would have no need of being called on nor could he be away. Finally this story shows that the gods are not omnibenevolent; omnibenevolent gods would not bargain away the sun, moon, and Freyja, even at the prospect of having a free wall built, no matter how certain they were of coming out ahead. There is one more thing to be gleaned from this, the importance of speaking prayer aloud and of titling it correctly. Thor can seemingly travel instantly, but he is shown numerous times in other stories having to travel longer ways than instantaneously. Perhaps this is showing the importance of calling the gods to us, speaking their names aloud and inviting them into our sacred spaces. What if their travel and vision is limited to when and where they are called? That seems preposterous to people accustomed to an omni-deity, but our deities are not omniscient and not omnipresent so perhaps we truly have to call to them if we want their attention. Now this is only one story, but these kinds of examples exist across the myths of our religion. These myths tell the story of mighty and powerful deities who are often benevolent and certainly are incredibly wise, but they are not omni-deities.
The gods are not omnipotent. The gods are not omnipresent. The gods are not omnibenevolent. The gods are not omniscient. Everything we have says the gods may have been incredibly powerful but they were not omni-anything. Here are some more examples that by no means exhaust the extensive amount of ways these things can be shown.
The gods are not omnipresent – Beyond the above examples, how many stories do the gods travel in? All of them that I can think of. An omnipresent deity would have no need to travel because they would exist simultaneously in all places so no movement would be necessary. When Thor travels to Utgard, he hoofs it most of the way because his goat gets broken – that’s not an omnipresent deity. When the gods borrow those hawk-cloaks or when they turn into eagles to get somewhere – that’s not omnipresent.
The gods are not omnipotent – The gods fought each other in many conflicts and come up against giant kind too. In all of these rumpuses, the gods are not able to achieve total victory. The gods also can and do die in several stories and in at least one they age rapidly without the input of some magic fruit. They are often incapable of doing things and certain gods are better at certain things than other gods. None of that screams omnipotence. Lest we also forget the Utgard business again – Thor is strong, very very very strong, but he is not omnipotent. He is way potent, but not omnipotent, otherwise why would he struggle and fail? Omnipotent deities do not ever fail at anything ever, they do not struggle at anything ever.
The gods are not omnibenevolent – The gods are often quite benevolent, but they are not universally so. Ample examples exist of both their benevolence and instances where they withhold their benevolence. Utgard provides an example here too; Thor totally swans off with those human children because of some goat breaking that occurs. That’s not omnibenevolent. He didn’t strike them all dead, but he didn’t just let it go either. Omnibenevolent, no; often benevolent especially to those he likes or who honor him, yes.
The gods are not omniscient – Contrary to popular belief the gods do not see all or know all and there is ample proof. Frigg is noted in the Lokasenna as being able to know the fate of all but the fates in this case was “örölg” and not “urðr”. One reference (poorly translated due to deficiencies in modern language) to knowing the “fates” of all and folks kick the omni-deity mode into overdrive. Does it not matter that on many other occasions the gods have expressed not being able to know anything much about the future? For goodness sake they didn’t know Baldr was going to die until he started having bad dreams about it himself. They couldn’t tell their own future so they contracted out to get it seen by a dead witch. They contracted out for the Voluspa as well. They go out and get intel where they can and have some pre-cognitive abilities and certainly they can predict some things, but are they all knowing or all seeing? That can be a definitive no. As for Frigg, it being orlog (OE orlæg) and not urðr (OE wyrd) is noteworthy because it means that she knows the past that brought us to the present, she knows the original foundations of all, the root of actions, but not where all things end up.
In the end it is simple – the gods are very incredibly powerful, but they are not omnipotent; the gods are far seeing and know way more than us and more than we will ever know, but they are not omniscient; the gods can potentially be anywhere or anyone or invisible and go really really fast so they potentially could be anywhere, but they are not omnipresent; the gods are usually very good to people, but they are not omnibenevolent. We worship great gods, not omni-gods, and that is the way it is and was and all is right in that. They probably don’t know the number of hairs on your head; they likely do not much care to know. Our personal, ingrained, cultural definition of gods may need to be mentally adjusted then to accommodate this shift.
Certain pieces specifically referenced:
Building of the walls of Asgard and Thor
- The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning XLII) of Snorri Sturlson (Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur)
Traveling to Utgard and all that jazz
- The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning XLIV – XLVIII) of Snorri Sturlson
Baldr has bad dreams
- The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning XLIX) of Snorri Sturlson
- The Poetic Edda (Baldrs Draumar)
The gods contract out their divination
- The Poetic Edda (Voluspa)
- The Poetic Edda (Baldrs Draumar)
Frigg and the “örölg” bit (If you are still curious, you’ll want to get a look at the actual Old Norse and compare definitions of the different words as well as get a good handle on orlog/orlæg vs urðr/wyrd in ancient world view because a simplistic view of “fate” is unsatisfactory and anachronistic here.)
- The Poetic Edda (Lokasenna 29)