Only The Gods Are Real
by Paul Waldowski
What if the people who've migrated to this land for the past 10,000 years brought their gods with them, only to forget and abandon them? That's one of many questions asked by American Gods by Neil Gaiman, a novel about old gods fighting for survival against the new American gods of technology, the free market, and the media. The novel's main conceit is that the people who came to this land eventually abandoned their gods, leaving the poor sots without purpose and worshipers. And if there's anything a god needs, it's to be worshiped and adored.
The book opens with Shadow, a man released on parole after serving three years in jail for assault. He finds out his wife is dead and meets a mysterious stranger named Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as a bodyguard. So begins Shadow's adventure amongst the gods as Wednesday tries to bluff and con his way into starting a war between the old gods and the new. The gods Shadow meets are mere shadows of their former selves, old and sickly. There's no one left to worship them, so they get by doing odd jobs and turning to crime. They often lament that "this is not a good land for gods," as the people tend to adopt and forget their gods with every generation.
The major problem with the book is that it ignores the 800 pound semitic sky god in the room. He and his kid are quite popular in America and have been for some time. A character pays lip service to this inconvenient fact in a throwaway line, but to say that gods don't get on very well here is a bit far fetched. Still, it was a concession to the point Gaiman was trying to make; namely, that everyone in this land, even the Native Americans, is from someplace else. The gods they brought with them were soon forgotten or changed as tribes mixed and morphed into other things. When the Europeans came, they too brought their gods, but as they mixed with people from other lands and cultures, the gods were forgotten and left bereft of worship. Gods are so much a part of a culture's identity that they can not be uprooted and plopped down in a foreign place with other peoples. It just doesn't work that way. Gods were as much a part of the identity of a tribe as the ideas of liberty and the Bill of Rights are to us. The only way for a god to move someplace else was through the conquest of another people and their gods. The Exodus story is a twist on this familiar tale. One people try to prove that their god is more powerful than the foreigner's god, so the two gods duke it out to see who's more powerful. Traditionally, this meant that one people had conquered another and erased the old gods from memory. Exodus changes things up a bit and makes it into a tale of liberation from the conquerer instead. The problem with America is clear: there was no real conquest and obliteration of one European culture over another. Even the near genocide of the natives wasn't complete: they still remember and honor their spirits. What remains is a mish-mash of half-remembered tales and creatures that are quickly receding from memory as new gods replace them.
Even the neo-pagan movement gets a bit of a ribbing in Gaiman's book. A waitress professes to be a pagan, prompting Odin to ask which pantheon she worships. When she answers "all of them, I guess", Odin asks whose shrine is in her home and what animal she sacrifices to her god. The girl can't answer. Odin makes clear that she's not actually worshiping anything but old fairy tales. The gods were real to the people who worshiped them. Their fortunes rose and fell with their gods and proper rituals had to be obeyed to ensure the continued survival of the tribe. In Gaiman's book, the gods feed on worship, but he alludes to a time when the gods demanded much more. You may have read about the "nectar of the gods" or "Soma" or some other type of mystical food or drink that sustained the gods. These foods were essentially distilled belief, from which the gods derived their nourishment. Other cultures sacrificed animals, whose blood sated the god's wrath and earned the people the god's favor for a period of time. The earliest and most primitive human cultures offered their gods the most potent sacrifice of all: Man. If you really wanted to show a god you cared, you sacrificed a human to it. Blood nourished the gods. Even the Christian god demanded a blood sacrifice to forgive the people's sins against it, though fortunately it was a one time deal. In a clever twist, Christians metaphorically drink the blood of the human sacrifice, deriving spiritual sustainment from it. The nectar of a god now sustains Man.
But what can sustain these old gods as they battle the new? How can gods whom no one worships defeat those who enjoy the adoration of the masses? Gods may not be real, but what is a god but an idea? Ideas have power, but only if they have champions to fight on their behalf. The gods are nothing without Man. America is a land of ideas, all jostling for prominence and attention. Gods, being mere ideas, must compete for attention within the frothing roil of American culture. Gaiman touches upon this theme in an off-hand manner, but I don't think he really gets what makes America tick. Sure, we have our religious types who put their god above the State, but at least they recognize the existence of the secular State. In the Old World, the gods ran things. Their agents on Earth were the State. To remove the gods was to remove the State. Competing ideas were treason; worse, they could be a cancer that brought down a nation from within. Even with our ignorant and superstitious folk, we're still a land of transient ideas, some of which may seize the popular imagination for a little while before being discarded for the next hot, new thing, but at least we can offer new ideas without destroying the cosmic order. As for the gods? Well, with the free market, technology, and the pursuit of happiness, we really only have room for one ethereal god, and he's got market share that even Bill Gates would kill for. The most any upstart can hope for is to be the Linux of the gods.
In the end, Gaiman's book is a fun and thoughtful romp across America, delivering great cons, oversexed fertility goddesses, a dozen pantheons, and a wife who just won't stay dead. Give it a spin, but be warned: the gods are petty and cruel creatures, expressing the most grotesque fears and faults of the human psyche. They're presented in the book unvarnished and cleansed of the fairy-tale patina we moderns have applied to their memory. You might not think much of them, but that's okay -- they don't really think much of you, either. Happy reading.
Paul love the rollicking tale incorporating a Old God, a road trip and a blind, near crazed sun god.