American Gods just aired its sixth episode, “A Murder of Gods.” With that many episodes in the wild, we’ve got enough material to put it through its Pagan/Polytheist/Heathen paces. This review isn’t necessarily a breakdown of what the show is about or who you can find lurking within; there are dozens of those reviews out there. I’m here to tell you it’s one of the most Pagan shows on TV, and you should absolutely be watching.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman (who is also working on the show) American Gods tells the story of nearly every Deity or spiritual being ever worshiped by anyone on American soil: Norse/Germanic, Kemetic (Egyptian), Hellenic (Greek), Slavic, Babylonian, leprechauns, djinn… and more we haven’t even encountered yet.
For some Heathens/Pagans/Polytheists, the linchpin of the story (Gods’ dependence on humans’ worship/sacrifice) might feel impious, and that’s understandable. The show doesn’t always present the most flattering interpretation of Deity. But for me, it’s certainly closer to the Lore than the Marvel movies.
*Note: Here there be spoilers. *
In this review, I talk about events, circumstances, and characters within the show up to the most recent episode (originally aired 04 June 2017).
One of the things that makes this show so enjoyable is the small touches that are pitch perfect for the stories they’re telling and the Gods they’re using to tell those stories. A few examples:
First off, Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday) has two eyes. It might seem silly to lead with that, but this is Odin/Wotan he’s playing. Old Man One-Eye Himself. The answer to this apparent discontinuity lies in a level of subtlety rarely found on TV these days. I couldn’t tell you if it’s a contact lens, clever lighting, or post-production CG wizardry, but it’s obvious what they’re trying to indicate if you look closely enough: His right eye is glass. It reflects more light, and the color is unnaturally bright.
Similarly, in Episode 6, Vulcan has a slight limp. In Episode 3, when Anubis takes an elderly Egyptian lady to her afterlife, the woman’s cat accompanies them to the scales where her heart is weighed, eventually giving her the push she needs to enter said afterlife. Was it Bast, or just another example of what many magical people have said for centuries: cats are not completely of this world? I think we know the answer…
From the Heathen perspective, we’ve only seen two representatives from the Norse/Germanic pantheon: Loki, known to Shadow Moon as his prison sage “Low Key Lyesmith”, and Odin/Wotan, known to Shadow as Mr. Wednesday. In the novel, Loki is very much a background character, so we’ll likely not see too much more of Him for a while yet.
Wednesday, on the other hand, is presented as an unapologetic womanizer, a thief, and quite power-hungry. He feeds on war in this world, and a war between Gods Old and New would certainly be a banquet for someone like that. As I said above, it’s not the most flattering example of the Old Man ever put on screen. But if you picture shifting that hunger for war over to a drive for wisdom and knowledge, the portrayal isn’t all that inaccurate.
In the Lore, Odin continually uses subterfuge and occasionally outright falsehoods to gain what he needs (Gunnloð springs to mind), so the small twist into a modern day con man hungry for a violent battle for supremacy isn’t that big of a stretch. There are also many call-outs to His origins, with Huginn and Muninn having made a couple appearances in the series. What’s more, in the latest episode He mentions the “charms” he knows, using one of them to heal Shadow’s wound. Vulcan even makes a direct reference to the His sacrifice to Himself on the World Tree.
Lastly, there’s the adherence to the sacred behaviors that many Pagans still practice. For example, the binding oath used numerous times through the show so far. Shadow’s acceptance of Wednesday’s offer of employment, Mad Sweeny’s wager in the Crocodile Bar, Czernobog’s checkers game… all examples of wagers/oaths that are kept no matter how dangerous or difficult they end up being.
And then there’s the classic point of the exact wording of an oath being used to undermine the oath itself. In the Lore, Loki lures Svaðilfari away so the builder can’t complete the wall around Asgard, which didn’t violate the oath made to the builder despite undermining his work. In the show, Shadow is able to convince Czernobog that the original wager only afforded the God a single swing of his hammer, which might not succeed in a killing blow. This allows Shadow to trick Czernobog into a second game wagering for a second swing — earning himself a stay of execution and Wednesday an ally.
In the most recent episode, we saw how Vulcan repeatedly and flagrantly broke the rules of hospitality when Wednesday and Shadow came to visit. He openly taunted Shadow at the Hanging Tree, offered Wednesday a drink while rudely denying Shadow one, and then out-and-out betrayed Wednesday and Shadow to the New Gods after swearing to support Wednesday in the coming conflict. In light of all this, it was perfectly logical that Wednesday promptly killed the other God for His betrayal.
There’s no getting around the fact that this is a fictional story told, like many others, using the Gods rather than about them. The lens through which American Gods projects the Gods that we know and offers up “New” ones that might exist isn’t perfect. However, it does allow them to tell powerful stories about belief, racism, nationalism, sexuality, death, and many other topics that are exactly the kinds of things we talk about when Heathens and Pagans speak of our Deities. Even in a distorted mirror, some truth can shine through.
American Gods is available on the STARZ premium cable channel, as well as in the STARZ app via Amazon. New episodes air Sunday evenings.
*Huginn’s Heathen Hof LLC does not own any of the content from “American Gods”. All images used here belong to Starz Inc. and are used here under the ‘fair use’ clause of section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976.*
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