After a two year hiatus, which included as much behind the scenes drama as the show itself, American Gods is back. Starz premiered the second season on Sunday, March 10th, with an episode that makes clear that the war between the Old Gods and the New Gods has begun. Since you can already read many reviews of the new season (see, for example, the one from Alan Sepinwall or Matt Zoller Seitz), let me focus my post on discussing some of the relevant religious themes of the show in general, as well as an analysis of some of those themes as found in the first episode of the second season in particular.
Old Gods, New Gods, and the Search for the American Soul
For those of you not already familiar with the show, American Gods is based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name, and it depicts the war between the Old Gods, those such as Odin (also known as Mr. Wednesday in the novel and the show), Easter, Bilquis, Anansi, or Czernobog, brought to America by immigrants and slaves among others, and the New Gods, those created by modern society, such as entertainment (Media), technology (Technical Boy), and globalization (Mr. World). At the center of this battle is the figure of Shadow Moon, a character who gets caught in the middle of this war, and whose mysterious past may be the key to solve the conflict between the old and the new gods.
The novel is an entertaining and fascinating exploration not only of religion in America, but also of the concept of America itself. Gaiman moved to the States in the 90s, and as he has acknowledged, he founded difficult to reconcile the idea of America, as it was presented to him in books, movies, TV shows, and popular culture in general, with its reality:
I moved to America in 1992. Something started, in the back of my head. There were unrelated ideas that I knew were important and yet seemed unconnected: two men meeting on a plane; a car on the ice of a frozen lake; the significance of coin tricks, and more than anything, America: this place I now found myself living in that I knew I didn’t understand. But I wanted to understand it. I was an immigrant, although a reluctant one, and I was living in a huge strange country that resembled the America I’d encountered in books and in films so much less than I had expected. The place was filled with oddness and, it seemed to me, with the kind of hubris that gets authors into trouble, that I thought I ought to point out to Americans how very odd it actually was.
As an immigrant to America myself, I find stories that try to make sense of the “oddness” of America extremely compelling. I have always found a certain dissonance between the story (or stories) Americans tell themselves about their own country, and the actual historical record. The country of freedom has its roots in slavery, and the American Dream can easily become an American nightmare (as stories from the border recently reveal). Gaiman captures this tension in American Gods through the voice of Mr. Ibis, one of the Old Gods, who argues that, after all, American history is just a fiction:
“The important thing to understand about American history, wrote Mr. Ibis, in his leather-bound journal, is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored. For the most part it is uninspected, unimagined, unthought, a representation of the thing, and not the thing itself. It is a fine fiction, he continued, pausing for a moment to dip his pen in the inkwell and collect his thoughts, that America was founded by pilgrims, seeking the freedom to believe as they wished, that they came to the Americas, spread and bred and filled the empty land.”
Although even my own children know that the story of America is much more complicated, there is no doubt that the power of that mythical narrative, that of the pilgrims coming to this land in search of freedom, still plays a large role in way America (and Americans) see themselves.
The Old beneath the New: The Layered Nature of Religion
As a professor of religion, American Gods also explores another interest of mine: the complex and layered nature of religion in America. While the United States is largely dominated by Christianity (slightly over 70%), there is more to the religious landscape of the country underneath those numbers. If we look under the surface, the same people who defined themselves as Christian, can also believe in witchcraft, spirits, reincarnation, and UFO’s. The best example of the layered nature of belief in the first season of the show is presented in the complex and syncretic relationship of Christianity and Easter. Easter, the goddess of Spring, played in the show by Kristin Chenoweth, is relatively happy with her status in America. She has been able to survive thanks to the appropriation of the holiday by Christianity. Easter might be mostly seen as a Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but it also contains a remnant of ancient rituals and beliefs connected to the celebration of the arrival of Spring, as symbolized by children’s egg hunts. The scene below from the last episode of season 1, in which Mr. Wednesday (Odin) confronts Easter about the unfairness of it all, it is poignant and funny at the same time:
Human, Gods, and the Chicken and the Egg Paradox
American Gods also deals with a question that I explore with my students in some of my religion classes, mainly, what is the origin of religion? There are various theories as to the origin of religion, but the show seems to take an approach similar to that of the famous sociologist Émile Durkheim, who argued that religion was a reflection of society:
Before all, [religion] is a system of ideas with which the individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members, and the obscure but intimate relations which they have with it. This is its primary function; and though metaphorical and symbolic, this representation is not unfaithful. Quite on the contrary, it translates everything essential in the relations which are to be explained: for it is an eternal truth that outside of us there exists something greater than us, with which we enter into communion […] The god is only a figurative expression of the society. Religious beliefs are symbolic expressions of social realities.
Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
While many religions articulate a cosmology in which humans are created by the gods (see Genesis, for example), American Gods presents the gods as a human creation. As Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow Moon, gods are an expression of human hopes, fears and anxieties that become reified and incarnate due to our need for them to exist. The series places an enormous amount of importance on the concept of belief. The word “believe” was in most of the promotional posters for the first season. Shadow Moon is constantly reminded of the importance of belief by Mr. Wednesday, as well as by a mysterious Buffalo that appears in his dreams: “Believe,” said the rumbling voice. “If you are to survive, you must believe.” Belief is presented as a central aspect of human nature. We may not be able to scientifically prove the things we believe, but they are important nonetheless. Religion and faith shape how we behave as individuals and how we function as a society.
“My kind of people see your kind of people…” he hesitated. “It’s like bees and honey. Each bee makes only a tiny, tiny drop of honey. It takes thousands of them, millions perhaps, all working together to make the pot of honey you have on your breakfast table. Now imagine that you could eat nothing but honey. That’s what it’s like for my kind of people…we feed on belief, on prayers, on love.” Chapter 10 of American Gods
At the same time, the show also incisively portrays the dangers of belief. The gods may be created by us, but they also end up having a life of their own. Our worship feeds them, but they also demand to be worshiped. In the realm of the higher metaphor that I think operates in the background of American Gods, we may think that we need money, power, technology, and even fame, but there is always a price to pay when we venerate those things and they end up controlling us. We become slaves of our own creations.
Religion in Season 2 Episode 1 of American Gods: House on the Rock
Road Attractions and the Nature of Sacred Places in America
The first episode of the second season begins with a few of the main characters (Mr. Wednesday, Anansi, Mad Sweeney, and Shadow Moon) driving to the House on the Rock, in Wisconsin, described as a building so strange that “They say this was built by Frank Lloyd Wright’s evil twin […] Frank Lloyd Wrong.” There, Mr. Wednesday has called for a meeting of the Old Gods, a meeting in which he wants to rally them to battle against the New Gods. On the way to the House on the Rock, there is an interesting conversation about the nature of sacred places in America. According to Mr. Wednesday, in America, some of the most sacred and powerful places are actually some of the strangest:
In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.” American Gods, Chapter 5
Here, Gaiman offers an interesting reflection about the nature of sacred places in America, as well as the intersection of religion and commerce: sacred places are not only there to be admired, but also to make some money. Religion and capitalism go hand in hand in America. But the commercialization of those places is not an indication of its power. As Shadow Moon tells Mr. Wednesday, by that measure, Disney has to be the most sacred place in America, to which Mr. Wednesday responds that there is not much power in Disney World in Florida, while there is an unusual concentration of it in the strange park of Weeki Wachee, famous for its mermaid show. As someone who, like myself, lives in Florida, and it is constantly bemused by some of the attractions of the state (including the almost religious devotion to Disney), Gaiman’s analysis offers interesting food for thought.
A Call to War
Once they have arrived at the House on the Rock, Mr. Wednesday reveals his real identity as Odin and tries to rally the few old gods who have shown up (Anansi, Kali, Czernobog, Bilquis) against the new gods. He argues that they are being forgotten, that humans do not pray to them anymore, and without their faith, without their belief, they are doomed and will soon be forgotten:
“When the people came to America they brought us with them. They brought me, and Loki and Thor, Anansi and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Kobolds and Banshees, Kubera and Frau Holle and Ashtaroth, and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean. The land is vast. Soon enough, our people abandoned us, remembered us only as creatures of the old land, as things that had not come with them to the new. Our true believers passed on, or stopped believing, and we were left, lost and scared and dispossessed, only what little smidgens of worship or belief we could find. And to get by as best we could.” Mr. Wednesday in American Gods, Chapter 6
The speech is not completely effective, and only when Mr. World kills Zorya Vechernyaya (the Evening Star), the old gods decide to join Mr. Wednesday on his war against the new gods.
Who is Shadow Moon?
While trying to stop the killing of Zorya Vechernyaya, Shadow Moon is kidnapped by the new gods and taken in a freight train. While the war between the old and the new gods is the most visually entertaining aspect of the show, the true mystery of the story is discovering the real identity of Shadow Moon. Who is this mysterious character? Who are his parents? What is his role in this war? As a storytelling device, the search for Shadow Moon’s identity is Gaiman’s attempt at finding what lies at the heart of America’s soul, in all of its beauty, and with all its contradictions.
Despite the negative reviews of the new season, I still think that the story of American Gods is a story worth telling, and that Starz should give Gaiman and whoever they choose as a new showrunner a chance to complete this adaptation of what I consider to be one of the most thought provoking novels about the story of America of recent decades.