American Gods Season 2 Episode 5: The Ways of the Dead

If the previous episode, The Greatest Story Ever Told, was about Money, this episode is about Death, or more precisely, about what the dead can teach to the living. In terms of the storylines, Laura and Mad Sweeney travel to New Orleans and meet Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte, Voodoo loas (spirits) in another attempt for Laura to come back from the dead, and for Sweeney to recover his lucky coin. Shadow, still in Cairo, encounters the spirit of Will “Froggie” James, a black man who was lynched in Cairo in 1909 after erroneously being accused of killing a white woman, and who haunts African Americans in town ever since. Finally, we follow Wednesday, Samir and Jinn in their search for a dwarf who can fix and restore to glory his spear Gungnir.

William Faulkner famously said that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This episode examines that idea by exploring how some of the darkest periods of American history are still haunting us in the present, like a ghost…

So let’s break down some of the religious references in the episode, which includes Voodoo, Norse mythology, and even some reflections on the success of monotheism. From now on, beware of spoilers…

Memento Mori or How Shadow Needs to Learn a Lesson from the Dead

The episode opens with Shadow, still in Cairo, having a nightmare of a white dead woman followed by the lynching of a black man. During the vision, the black man says to Shadow “Memento Mori,” a Latin phrase that means “remember that you will die,” and that became in classical antiquity and early Christianity a philosophical attempt at reflecting on our own mortality. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, said it best when he wrote his own take on Memento Mori in the essay “To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,”

[L]et us learn bravely to stand our ground, and fight him. And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death. Upon all occasions represent him to our imagination in his every shape; at the stumbling of a horse, at the falling of a tile, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently consider, and say to ourselves, ‘Well, and what if it had been death itself?’ and, thereupon, let us encourage and fortify ourselves. Let us evermore, amidst our jollity and feasting, set the remembrance of our frail condition before our eyes, never suffering ourselves to be so far transported with our delights, but that we have some intervals of reflecting upon, and considering how many several ways this jollity of ours tends to death, and with how many dangers it threatens it.

In this episode, the Memento Mori theme is actually not as uplifting as in classical antiquity or even Montaigne, and it takes more of a darker turn, more a threat than a warning to Shadow.

Although still not clear to him, what Shadow saw in his nightmare was the actual lynching of Will “Froggie” James, which took place in Cairo, Illinois in 1909, after having been falsely accused of killing a dead white woman. In the episode, the spirit of Will James has been haunting black people in Cairo ever since. This storyline is not in the book, but it seems clear that it is an attempt by the writers of the show to further explore the role that race and racial issues have played in the creation of systemic inequalities in America. Inserting an actual historical lynching in the narrative of the story seems to be their way to tell us that America may want to bury some of its ugly past, but unless confronted, it still haunts us…

In this scene, we also see Wednesday urinating on the seedling of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in order to speed up its growth (in Wednesday we always see a mixture of sacred and profane, he is a god, but he is a naughty god). As we will see, Yggdrasil will play a very important role later in the narrative of American Gods. Before he takes off to run one of his mysterious errands, he tells Shadow to stay with Mr. Ibis and “learn the ways of the dead.”

Welcome to New Orleans

Next, we encounter Mad Sweeney drunk in New Orleans. Our most unlucky Leprauchaun is in New Orleans in an attempt to reverse his fortune, which took a dramatic downturn when he gave his lucky coin to Laura. Both of their futures are now intertwined. She needs his coin to stay alive, he needs it to recover his good fortune. In the scene, we see Sweeney drunkenly talking to a statue of St. Jude, saint of impossible cases, which seems quite appropriate, given his reason for being in New Orleans. The city also has a famous St. Jude Shrine in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel.

New Orleans is a great location to highlight one of the most important themes of the book/show: the layered nature of religion in America. In most of the country, Christianity has erased the traces of the past. Either with the arrival of the Spaniards, and later of the Puritans, Christianity has mostly suppressed and oppressed the original beliefs of this land, and has constantly attempted to eradicate its religious past so a new religious history can be written anew. As Gaiman creatively argues in his novel, this project has only been partially successful, since when one scratches the surface, we can easily see traces of the past: the cult of the Leprechaun in St. Patrick’s day (with all the green and the four-leaf clover, the worship of Spring and Ostara during Easter, etc.). New Orleans is one of the few places in America in which those layers are clearly visible since the past has been preserved, not only architectonically, but also culturally. The Spaniard, French, African, Caribbean layers are still very much present, not only in the names of the streets, in the languages spoken in New Orleans, in the music, in the food, but also in the richness of its religious practices. An easy way to describe religion in New Orleans would be syncretic, but this also simplifies the richness and complexity of what happens there. The Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin used the term “chronotope” to describe the interrelation of time and space and how they constantly interact with each other.

Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.

A think that the notion of chonotope helps better define what happens in a place like New Orleans, where older cultural layers are visible, but they also interact with later ones, giving it a richness and a complexity that can actually be seen by any visitor to the city.

In this episode, that chronotopic complexity of New Orleans will be explored through Voodoo and, in particular, through the figures of Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte, two loas (spirits) deeply connected to the dead in Voodoo religion in Louisiana.

A final nice touch in this scene is the coin used by Sweeny in order to enter into the bar/restaurant of Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte. It is a gold coin with a Lion and a Sun (you need to pause the frame to see it). The Lion and the Sun is an old astrological and zodiacal motif and became particularly important in Iran.

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Ancient coin from the Seljuks dynasty depicting a lion and the sun

Salim, Jinn and the problem of Monotheism

Salim and Jinn are an interesting couple in the context of American Gods. Salim, a gay Muslim devoted to Allah, in love with a Jinn, a spirit in the from the pre-Islamic world that was absorbed into the tradition as part of their supernatural worldview (as demons mostly). The layered nature of religion at work again, with newer, more powerful layers incorporating older beliefs into its fold. Jinn says as much when he tells Salim that he was given a choice when Islam rose into prominence: convert to Islam or live his life as a heretic demon. He chose to be a heretic demon.

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Salim the monotheists keeps encountering many different gods (image courtesy of Starz)

What I love about this scene is that Jinn is the proof to Salim that there is more than one God since, in fact, he has met them! There have been many gods and goddesses before the emergence of monotheistic gods (and after). So the idea of believing in one god goes against the evidence that many people all over the world believe in different ones. Even monotheistic traditions are more troubled in their monotheism when examined closer. In Christianity, this is perfectly exemplified in the issue of the Trinity. Is there one or there is three? I know monotheistic traditions have spent centuries debating the subtleties of these problems, but American Gods brings them to the surface in fun and provocative ways.

In the scene, Wednesday meets them to retrieve Gungnir in order to take it to a dwarf to fix it.

Will “Froggie” James and America’s Original Sin

In the next scene, we get back to Shadow and the story of Will “Froggie” James. The ghost of Will James seems to be haunting black people in Cairo, with his next victim being Jamarr Goodchild, the brother of Ruby Goodchild, who we encounter in the previous episode. As I have mentioned, William James was a real person who was lynched in Cairo, Illinois in 1909, after being falsely accused of killing a white woman. If this was not horrific enough, what actually happened makes very explicit the darkness that lurks in the shadows of American history. The night of the lynching the whole of Cairo went out to see and enjoy the lynching as if it were a public spectacle. There are images to prove it, some of them in the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, which collects the stories and images of some of these public lynchings and the photographs that were taken at these events (sometimes sold as postcards!).

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Will “Froggie” James (Image courtesy of Without Sanctuary.org)

It would be easy to simply say that this happened a long time ago, but America has a long history of not wanting to confront its past, and the nature and public spectacle of these lynchings tells us something that America does not want to confront, does not want to deal with. That lack of acknowledgment has become less egregious, but nor less problematic. It is now systemic and can be seen on a daily basis on the inequalities lived by many African Americans. Jim Wallis’s book America’s Original Sin describes this problem of racial injustice in clear terms:

“Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation—the extreme rightists—the forces committed to negative ends—have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.” Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.”

What is interesting in this episode is that the ghost of Will James is not haunting white people, who were responsible for his lynching, but black people because he felt that they abandoned him. He is not a god like Anansi, looking for praise. He is a ghost searching for victims.

The Tallest Dwarf in America

In the next scene, Wednesday teases Salim about his faith in Allah, particularly since he thinks that he would not need to be so pious and also be less judged (he is gay, after all), if he was to embrace another god like the All-Father himself: “let me present myself as a fun-loving but serious addition to your personal pantheon, Wednesday is the name, good times is the game.”

The three of them end up meeting Alviss, a dwarf who is also a master metalsmith. Wednesday needs Alviss to fix his spear Gungnir, a weapon that will play a central role in the war between the Old and the New Gods. In his Norse Mythology book, Gaiman describes Gungnir

“[Loki] presented Odin with the spear called Gungnir [made by the sons of Ivaldi]. It was a beautiful spear, carved with intricate runes. It will penetrate anything, and when you throw it, it will always find its mark,” said Loki. Odin had but one eye, after all, and sometimes his aim could be less than perfect. “And, just as important, an oath taken on this spear is unbreakable.”

Neil Gaiman. “Norse Mythology.”

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Wednesday and Gungnir

Alviss, though, warns him that the issue with Gungnir is not the forging, but the runes that power the tip of the spear, which have faded “rubbed clean but the friction of time and the fading of memory.” He needs the help of another dwarf, Dvalinn, to restore the runes in the tip of Gungnir.

Runes a central to Odin’s power, since the knowledge of the runes is what gave him his wisdom. Odin was willing to sacrifice himself in order to achieve that power:

 

“Odin knows many secrets. He gave an eye for wisdom. More than that, for knowledge of runes, and for power, he sacrificed himself to himself. He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out. He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of his agony he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree. Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.”

Neil Gaiman. “Norse Mythology.”

On their way out, there is also a funny aside about the motorcycle that Salim and Jinn have been driving, which is revealed to be Hildisvíni, Freyja’s ride (a boar). Frayja is a goddess associated with war and death, but also llove and fertility.

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And Salim thought he was just riding a motorcycle! In this episode is revealed to be Hildisvíni, Freyja’s ride

Back in New Orleans… Let’s Meet some Voodoo Loas (Spirits)

Laura and Mad Swenney finally meet with Baron Samedi, the Voodoo loa (spirit ) of the dead and his wife Maman Brigitte. Baron Samedi is able to bring people back to life, which is the reason why Laura and Sweeney are there in the first place. Baron Samedi is a popular spirit in Lousiana Voodoo, and it is invoked in rituals involving the dead. I have already spoken above about the syncretic/chronotopic nature of religion in New Orleans, and Voodoo is a great example of that, with its Afro-Caribbean practices sprinkled with some Catholic beliefs. The complex nature of Voodoo is also evident in the history of Baron Samedi’s wife, Maman Brigitte, which is considered to be a modern loa, connected to Northern Europe (probably Celtic goddesses, which explains her red hair in the episode).

After they all have dinner, Maman Brigitte takes Sweeney away so Baron Samedi can prepare a potion for Laura that will help her come back from the dead. He does prepare the potion, but it will not be complete until Laura can find two drops of blood infuse with love. This seems to be an obvious obstacle for Laura since, as Baron Samedi tells her, she is not able to feel love, not even to Shadow. She is too much of a free spirit to be chained to a man, nor even for love. She is impulsive, and she cheated on Shadow, but this doesn’t make her a bad person (something she seems to feel), she is just a free spirit. It seems that if she completes the potion, she will betray herself since she is trying to turn her vital clock for the wrong reasons. As if to prove the point, she has sex with Baron Samedi… or does she. In a strange dream-like sequence, Mad Sweeney is also having sex with Maman Brigitte only to suddenly feel that it is Sweeny and Laura who are having sex as if their mutual sexual encounters have been crossed. This storyline is not in the book, and it seems to be an attempt to give more life to one of the few female characters in the original Gaiman story. It seems as if the Sweeny and Laura have a closer connection that they want to acknowledge. It might be the coin, it might not. They are both free spirits, who say what they think and do what they want. They are also passionate and self-destructive, so that may be something that it is bringing them closer together. I guess time will tell…

The Curse of Will James

At the end of the episode, we go back to the story of Will James, and the curse he has on the black people in town. Anansi confronts Mr. Ibis about this problem. His worshippers are dying, and Ibis is not saying anything about it. He knows that Will James is a ghost (and a symbol) that is undermining the life of African Americans, but Ibis also feeds from the dead that are brought to him. He seems to be complicit if not by action by inaction.

What is interesting in this episode is that they also explore the way oppression can be internalized by the victims. Will James is a symbol not of what white America has done to black people in America, but about how black people have internalized their own oppression. I am not sure that I agree with this presentation (it is a bit a blaming the victim approach), and I would not be surprised if there is some chatter on the internet about this particular take of the show (again, not in the novel).

Will James seems to be teaching Shadow in this episode about the flip side of racism in America, about the way black people have been brutalized, oppressed, and weakened.” James tells Shadow that “you do not understand the nature of the land in which you dwell… [you need to] understand my anger.” James represents the original sin of America, and Shadow, who while American did not grow up in this country, needs to learn a lesson about the plea of African Americans, a lesson that he has not experienced in his own flesh.

Next Episode

Shadow and Mr. Wednesday seek out Dvalin to repair the Gungnir spear. But before the dwarf is able to etch the runes of war, he requires a powerful artifact in exchange.

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