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Mythic Passages, 
		the newsletter of the Mythic Imagination Institute, a non-profit arts and education 
		corporation.  Copyright 2005

William Doty

The Many Deities of Neil Gaiman's American Gods

by by William Doty, Ph. D.,
William Doty, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and former editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and editor who has published more than twenty books and seventy essays in a wide range of journals on topics including religious studies, anthropology, psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best known books include Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, Myths of Masculinity, and Myth: A Handbook.

Just released from prison, Shadow finds his seat at the back of the airplane, only to discover that the woman passenger already ensconced there had been assigned the same seat number. The stewardess says not to worry, and seats him in the single remaining first class seat. The man next to him already knows his name and says he wants to employ the well-muscled Shadow. Later during the flight he says he's sorry to hear about his wife and best buddy being killed in the car accident.

And whoa, we're in a sorta quasi-magical atmosphere just short of Stephen King. But then already in prison, Shadow had been teaching himself how to make coins magically disappear and reappear. And when it turns out that the man beside him is named "Wednesday," it begins to be evident that he is an incarnation of the Germanic god Wotan (or Wodan: hence Wodenstag, Wednesday). The almost s.f.-magical aura spans the narrative: toward the end of the novel, Shadow "reached into Chad Mulligan's mind, easy as anything, and he plucked the events of that [painful to remember] afternoon out from it as precisely and dispassionately as a raven picks an eye from roadkill" (573).

I made a passing reference in my February column to American Gods , noting that it parsed a reference to the African Ananse figure in the guise of the character Mr. (or Aunt) Nancy. But the trickster figure is never merely single, often polymorphous, and polymorphous slides easily into polytheistic ("many imaged" --> "many deities"). Here I focus less upon the trickster than the polytheistic panoply of sacred/mythological families of deities represented in this large and complex novel.

Certainly American Gods is a postmodern work--meaning, of course, not after modernity, but infected with modernity and its later viruses. One might as well label its climate "postchristian," for one Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic theme--"the Storm"--surfaces here repeatedly. And few contemporary works manage to stuff into the minestrone pot so many figures from antiquity: Bast, Odin, Media (Medea), Loki, Thoth, Anubis, the Three Norns, Kali, the Valkyries, Ganesa, Ibis, Horus, and others. And the deities are mixed with historical figures: on one page alone we find the Czech Czernobog, Elvis, Mr. Nancy, Wotan, a 1970 VW bus, in addition to the tallest dwarf in America, Alvis Son of Vindalf. Nor do inviduals stay dead: Shadow's love Laura returns in visionary scenes, and after Wotan is shot by a laser weapon, he also reappears in Shadow's dreams.

This is not one of those works that seek merely to update the antique figures--though it does do that--so much as to insight aspects of the old characters seldom realized before. This is a carnival of deities, albeit with scenes of pain and pathos and tragedy, beginning when Shadow undergoes horrifically-beaureaucratic prison exit-interviews only to be released a week early because his marital partner has been killed.

The revelation that she died with the penis of his former and presumably future employer in her mouth jerks the story into hyperdrive, and one of several almost-surreal sequences of events. On his way home, Shadow finds his prepaid airline trip malfunctioning. As noted, he gets upgraded fast--and a magical realism begins, that returns many times during the novel. Even when he takes unexpected alternative modes of transportation, Wednesday always appears just a step ahead of him.

Shadow, who intelligently spent his three years in prison strengthening his body, is referred to repeatedly as "Big guy," yet "dumb like Thor." However in this world physical strength is less important than psychological prowess, and Shadow slowly learns across the course of the narrative to cover his own ass while simultaneously protecting Wednesday's. Shadow is the driver, the assistant, the fall-guy, who nevertheless comes out ahead in the long run, even though the ghost of his wife returns often enough to keep him on a razor's edge.

The "true or false?" issues of postmodernist writing recur: Are there really only three Fates? And the typical lack of narrative coherence in such writing is present yet today: several non-sequential scenes focused upon Russian characters verge upon early twen-cen surrealist visions such as Buñuel and Dali's film Un chien andalou. Or we can speak of manipulations of reality-plans: anticipating a straight cocktail, Shadow is given glasses of honey-derived mead to cement his being hired by Wednesday; and of time--waiting to be booked into jail, Shadow wades through many issues of Sports Illustrated and Newsweek , in what seems to be first minutes and then hours in a waiting room.

Also in high postmodernist dudgeon, there are long riffs of dialogue that might be found in the writings of William Burroughs. One begins (394) "I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed." If the reference to Burroughs is indirect, the direct citation of another postmod odyssey (473) , Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow , is clearly meant as a paean to that work.

One might also suspect side glances toward Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions : "We were discussing the ways to deal with the paradigm shift" (408 and elsewhere). No wonder "See Rock City" signs turn up in the pantheon (485). Nor is there great centering coherence (the modernist goal): in fact, Wotan reports that marshalling the gods is like herding cats into straight lines (385). This is problematic insofar as Gaiman's characters suggest that "all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today" (395): a clever version of the "attic" of Egyptian religions, where earlier deities were never discarded, but allowed to compost and self-fertilize.

Here there is a suggestion (396) that there is no room for all of them to coexist--so that a Storm/War between them may result (part 3 is entitled The Moment of the Storm). Is that what is happening in the competitions between the western Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) today? Yet in the novel there is still communication and conversation: repeatedly earlier television figures speak to Shadow as if he were contemporary: Lucille Ball asks "Wanna see my tits?" and the cast of Cheers gives him live advice.

I suspect even a riff on Joseph Campbell's famous passage on the second page of Hero with a Thousand Faces : "The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change." Here's the Gaiman: "The Queen of Sheba, half-demon, they said, on her father's side, witch woman, wise woman, and queen [...] stands on the sidewalk of Sunset Boulevard at 2.00 a.m. staring blankly out at the traffic like a slutty plastic bride on a black-and-neon wedding cake" (373).

What sort of a mind develops such themes as I have sketched here? Well, because of Shadow, the world is changing (582). The novel ends in what Northrop Frye would call the archetype of Spring: "Myths of the birth of the hero, of revival and resurrection [...] of the defeat of the powers of darkness, winter, and death." I continue to believe that creative artists expose where a society is moving en avant : what else can we learn from the Cubists and Surrealists of the early twen-cen? Or currently from the sky-reaching architects such as Santiago Calatrava and Frank Gehry, or Christo's spritefully-orange Gates in Central Park?

That Gaiman, a Brit now living in the US, describes the panoply as American seems strange, during a period of right-wing fundamentalist capture of much of our politics and religion. Yet perhaps he is a harbinger of some new breezes in the winds, fragrances of new, more-liberated visions of our customary everyday. And suggestions that traditional models of the religious/mythological are shifting and changing in ways never suspected in traditional societies.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Hero with a Thousand Faces . 2nd ed.

Princeton: Princeton UP.

Doty, William G. 2006. "The Trickster Ananse Redux." Mythic Passages


Frye, Northrop. 2001 [1951]. “The Archetypes of Literature.” Vincent B.

Leitch, ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism . New
York: Norton; 1442-57.

Gaiman, Neil. 2001. American Gods . New York: HarperTorch-


Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . 2nd

ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. 1973. New York: Viking.

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