American Gods, Part 1

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by Eliza Rosenberg

For other instalments in this series, see here.

[Note: This is the first in a series of entries on Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods. The series will consist of chapter-by-chapter discussions of the book from a religious studies perspective, each avoiding spoilers for future chapters.]

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was well poised for prominence when it was first published by William Morrow in 2001. Gaiman’s best-selling and award-winning graphic novel – or, as he prefers, comic book – Sandman, published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint between 1989 and 1996, had been instrumental in pushing the medium toward mainstream respectability. His next major work, the text novel Stardust (William Morrow, 1999), sold successfully and received a Locus Award nomination and a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. American Gods sold even more successfully and collected Bram Stoker, Hugo, Locus, Nebula, and SFX Magazine awards. The Starz network will be releasing a televised adaptation under the direction of Bryan Fuller in 2017. Anyone in religious studies who has not read the book has probably been asked why at least a few times. Even if the Starz’s series does not achieve Game of Thrones-level popularity, I would venture that its likely audience, including the new readers it brings to the book, overlaps considerably with the pool of undergraduates enrolling in religious studies courses.

The reason American Gods is effective in communicating its many ideas about religion is that it’s worth reading in its own right: an engaging story about interesting characters. The finer points of those are best left to literature specialists – or to general readers with no particular interest in religion, many of whom seem to have enjoyed the book very much. (I would note that American Gods’ ideas are as much about race and colonization as about religion as a “separate” subject, although for the moment I will limit the discussion to the “primarily religious.”) Although I will be avoiding spoilers, I think it is safe to summarize the premise as follows: A man who has found himself in some hard circumstances receives an unsolicited job offer from a stranger, a grey-haired man with a missing eye who wears a silver ash-tree pin and who asks the protagonist, since the day on which they meet “certainly is my day,”[1] to call him Mr. Wednesday. Intrigue ensues.

Most people in the discipline would probably skip past the question of who Mr. Wednesday is, and the story dispenses with it quickly as well. Even before it answers the question of his identity for the readers, however, it introduces another question that will inform the rest of the narrative: What, exactly, is “religion”? We raise this old saw in the first session of every introductory class, and American Gods wisely declines to offer another insufficient definition. Instead, the protagonist’s experiences are ones that resonate with a classroom full of curious and frustrated students who have been struggling through an impossible task. His perspective on wake he attends will seem familiar:

The atmosphere in the room was religious – deeply religious, in a way that Shadow had never previously experienced. There was no sound but the howling of the wind and the crackling of the candles . . . “We are come together, here in this godless place,” said [one attendee], “to pass on the body of this individual to those who will dispose of it properly, according to the rites. If anyone would like to say something, say it now.”[2]

The liturgical echoes (“We are come together in this place”; proper rites) evoke the atmosphere of explicit religion – a funeral mass; the dharma and the li of attending to finalities. That it is evoked in a “godless place” – the text is quite specific as to why it is godless, and what this means ­– reinforces the tendency of religion to defy categories. This is a theme that Gaiman reiterates, beginning, for example, a key section of narration with the caveat that:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all . . . [They are] places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the word . . . So, none of this is happening. Such things could not occur in this day and age. Never a word of it is literally true, although it all happened, and the next thing that happened, happened like this.[3]

The irony inherent in the text emphasizes the importance of another common answer to “What is ‘religion’?” namely that it involves sacred narratives, i.e., myths. The field of religious studies has paid this subject less attention in the past two decades or so than it did previously – not due to any oversight in the discipline, I think, but more owing to the abundance of earlier work on myth and the imperative to consider long-neglected issues related to the vital contexts of myths (e.g., social locations). The point, though, is so foundational that it can become lost in the layers of specialization that sometimes distance students from their instructors: Religious narratives have power. Their potency comes not only from what they mean but also from what they say. We often remind students that the content of a religious narrative is inextricable from its socio-historical matrices. American Gods gently but memorably reminds us that the reverse is equally true – were it not, the narratives themselves would have no resonance in their contexts.

Another common answer to “What is ‘religion’?” that has retreated lately from the scholarly limelight and that American Gods re-engages is that of belief. Gaiman introduces the theme even before he introduces Mr. Wednesday. Shadow has the first of a series of recurring dreams that find him in a subterranean space with a buffalo-headed man who tells him, “If you are to survive, you must believe . . . Believe everything.”[4] The buffalo-headed man’s advice holds for religious studies as much as it does for Shadow. For too long, the discipline operated on a religion-as-sincere-belief model that filtered the totality of religion through the lens of Western Protestantism. (This tended to be true regardless of whether the scholars in question were themselves Western Protestants!) As anyone in the field now acknowledges, of course, religion is “about” social location, routine, liturgy, sensory experience, materiality, ethics, culture, etc. just as often as it is “about” belief or myth. Trying to identify any single controlling factor as the controlling one is usually a fool’s errand. Nonetheless, religious studies is no less prone to overcorrection than any other discipline: Belief is often an important part of religion, although not always in the same way. Adherents do not maintain or adapt religious practices, interpret experiences as religious, etc., either arbitrarily or as socially programmed automatons. What it means to “believe in” something varies as much as the object of that belief, the motivations for it, and the enactment of it, but in addition to being performed, communicated, enforced, enacted, tasted, contested, embodied, and legislated, religion is narrated and believed in.

Questions of method and approach aside, American Gods provides another point of entry at which to meet students: its gentle amusement not only at the tropes of the discipline, but the foibles of those in it. The novel features periodic “Coming to America” interludes, stories of how many of its titular characters wound up so far away from their original soil. Gaiman presents these interludes as the compositions of one these characters, an undertaker called Mr. Ibis who “[speaks] in explanations: a gentle, earnest lecturing that put Shadow in mind of a college professor who used to [know Shadow] and who could not talk, could only discourse, expound, explain.”[5] I suspect that even most first-year students will share their instructors’ laughter of recognition. I also suspect that I am in good company among instructors who find Mr. Ibis a reminder of what we fear becoming – and find in American Gods an affectionate tribute to the Mr. Ibises we have met along the way.

Eliza Rosenberg received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McGill University in 2015. She is currently Adjunct Professor of Religion at Eastern Kentucky University.

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[1] Neil Gaiman, American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text). New York: William Morrow, 2016, 31. (In all editions: chapter 1, section 2).

[2] Ibid, 565–566; chapter 14, section 17

[3] Ibid, 643; chapter 18, section 1.

[4] Ibid, 22–23; chapter 1, section 2.

[5] Ibid, 243–244; chapter 8, section 1.

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