A Polytheist Perspective on “American Gods”

So, I finally watched American Gods last fall. Despite the hype, I wasn’t going to, because I’m not a fan of the “Gods need our prayers, worship, and belief to live” trope. I’m not sure whether I hate that trope or the “Gods are aliens and magic is science we don’t understand” storyline more. Both of them strip the mystery and power from the Gods, but in different ways. So I was understandably leery.

 

However, I was watching Jackson Crawford’s videos, and he said that he thought that the character of Mr. Wednesday was the best representation of Odin in modern popular culture. Now, Professor Crawford is not a Polytheist and does not practice Asatru, but he is an expert in Old Norse language, culture, and mythology. He really loves the work and treats the culture with respect, and I love his work and I respect his opinion. I have his translation of the Edda, and if you are interested in this subject and have never heard of him, I highly suggest you look him up on YouTube, he makes amazing and informative videos. So I decided to risk it and check it out. I am a fan of some of Neil Gaiman’s other works, although I never got around to reading “American Gods”.

 

As it turns out, for a Polytheist, American Gods is indeed a mixed bag. I’m sure I’m not the only Pagan who is always happy to see our Gods depicted as main characters and major actors in the world, and in the MODERN world no less. Sometimes living in a monotheist culture can be tiring, maintaining devotional relationships in a society that mocks piety can be hard, and even worse we sometimes have to hide our faith for our safety or employment. So seeing even imperfect depictions of our Gods can be a balm for the soul, as long as we are wise enough not to confuse a media depiction for the real thing.

 

Okay, my thoughts on American Gods!

 

But there is, of course, the niggling problem of the story’s main conflict, that of the struggle for power between the Old Gods and the New.

 

I will say that Gillian Anderson (of X-Files claim to fame) as the Goddess of Media was lovely – she showed up wearing the guises of iconic celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, and David Bowie, and driving home a great point about celebrity-worship in our culture. She spoke about TVs being the modern altar, “I’m the one they sacrifice to …. They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me. Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or the palm of their hand so they don’t get bored watching the big one. Time and attention – better than lamb’s blood.” It’s hard to argue with that. (I say while typing this on a phone as the bigger TV screen plays!!)

 

But as I said, I have some issues with the main plot of the show. Mr. Ibis (Thoth) actually said in one of the Coming to America shorts at the beginning of the episodes, “the Gods are great, but people are far greater.” As previously stated, I’m not a fan of this trope/belief. I find it incredibly hubristic, and our sacred Greek stories has taught us what comes of hubris, hasn’t it?

 

The Bilquis storyline is another one that confuses me. She’s apparently based more on the Biblical Queen of Sheba, and in the book suspected of being half-demon, than on a Pagan Goddess. The producers have expanded her part in the story, too, when in the book she was just a minor character. If you’ve heard that she swallows a guy up with her vulva during sex, weeeeeeelllll …. you heard right. That was a wild scene. The less said about that the better. Not sure what the point of that was honestly (yes, it was in the book, although you have less sympathy for the man involved as he’s john and she’s posing as a “hooker”, he’s painted as less than savory).

 

But American Gods is not without redeeming traits. Professor Crawford was right. Mister Wednesday is so Odinic it’s amazing. It’s quite refreshing to see, after stuffy Marvel Odin, who couldn’t be less Odin-like if he tried (sorry Anthony Hopkins). Odin in the sagas, the Odin I know, is not a stuffy king, but a half-mad wanderer. Making him a con artist or a grifter in the modern world is just too perfect. Mr Wednesday is rightly portrayed as a persuasive smooth-talker, a seducer of women, a long-term strategist and definitely manipulative. Some might say that he is “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, yet something about him makes you want to know him anyway, maybe against your better instincts. This is the closest I’ve come to seeing “my” Odin on screen! He’s not Loki’s blood-brother for nothing. Somewhere in the modern world, we forgot that Odin is quite the Trickster, too. They really are two sides of the same coin, Odin and Loki.

 

The 7th episode in particular touched me in its depiction of Pagan(ish) devotion. It told a long story of an Irish immigrant to America, and her lifelong devotion to the Fair Folk. She told her people’s sacred stories and left out bowls of cream as offerings to win the faeries’ favor. Even when she was in desperate situations, starving, destitute, homeless, she always managed to leave a small crust of bread out for the Fae. This is a small but powerful act, a sacrifice, a symbol of her love for them. This is a contract that modern society has broken with the spirit world, but some of us have chosen to take up that ancient pact again.

 

I recognized myself in Esse McGowen’s story, because I’ve been in desperate times myself, and I’ve still tried to make my offerings to my Gods and spirits. They might have been poorer and more meager than at other, more prosperous times, but it was the effort and the sacrifice that made it meaningful. To see this kind of reciprocal relationship between humans and Gods or Beings of the Otherworld portrayed in mainstream media, on my TV, touched me deeply in a way that I’m not sure that I have the words to properly convey. That episode brought me to tears, particularly when Esse had reached the end of her days and one of the Fair Folk came to take her to the afterlife.

 

Other good things: Love the guy who plays Anubis. LOVE him. He had just the right balance of presence, gravitas, a slightly scary edge of power, but balanced with kindness. He was PERFECT. He was gentle and kind with the spirit of an Egyptian woman who he took to the afterlife. Despite being Muslim, she loved the old stories of Egyptian Gods and that was apparently enough for Anubis to come for her. The scene where he weighs her heart against the scales of Ma’at was particularly touching. A few episodes later, we see what happened when Shadow’s wife died. Laura Moon met a very different Anubis. I don’t like her. Besides cheating on her husband, she was the one who convinced him to steal in the first place, the reason he landed in prison. She doesn’t seem like a good person. To top off her “mistakes” in life, she then goes on to disrespect and cuss at a God, because she didn’t like the circumstances that were created by her own terrible choices. The Anubis she met was far more frightening than the one that the Egyptian woman did, and rightfully so.

 

A closing thought: When one of the Zorya sisters told Shadow “You believe in nothing, so you have nothing.” ….. Wow. That’s some first class wisdom she’s laying down there. Despite the way that Shadow got to that point, if you’ve read the book and know what the end-of-season twist is, that’s a powerful lesson that our modern society could stand to learn.

 

So in conclusion, American Gods is an interesting watch. Yes it’s written by non-Polytheists and sometimes that shows, but I believe that sometimes the Gods inspire even those who don’t believe in Them. They can work Their will in the world, even when unseen and unacknowledged. And I can say that there are parts of American Gods that definitely feel inspired to me. When Mr Wednesday finally reveals himself as Odin in the season one finale, I got chills. This show is excellent. Weird, surreal at times, but then it’s basically following Shadow on a shamanic journey that he wasn’t necessarily ready for. Go watch it!

 

 

 

 

 

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