Ancient gods surround me these days. Surely part of it is due to having recently finished Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (I know I’m a few years late on this, but novel-reading time is at a premium even when teaching only part-time). Gaiman’s not the first to have taken on the theme of “what if ancient deities still survived?”. As a child I read Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants with its science-fictionalized version of Ragnarok, and even earlier H. P. Lovecraft had resurrected Dagon and Cthulhu. Gaiman’s treatment, however, is contemporary and is a barometer of how the old gods are faring these days.
Dark and witty, Gaiman’s treatment is a fun-house ride through the fanciful concept that old-time gods and folk-heroes emigrated to American with their believers. The resulting adventure brings a multi-cultural mix of supernatural powers that end up mostly focusing on the Norse mythological cast. Same was true of del Rey — the Norse mythology reflects a stark world of raw power, betrayal, death and resurrection, that resonates with northern European experience. Anansi and Chernobog also take starring roles in American Gods, although the only ancient Near Eastern deities with any prominence in the story are the Egyptian Thoth and Anubis in supporting roles.
Casting an eye over the American landscape, this assessment is perhaps true to life. Ancient Near Eastern deities seem so distant and unfamiliar. Gods long dead. Despite recent movements to revive the worship of Mesopotamian or Canaanite deities, their powers seem to have dissipated at the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. as Yahweh gained a prominence he has never relinquished, and the Greeks and Romans paved over the graves of Ninhursag and Yarikh with European versions of the more prominent West Asian gods. Universities reflect this lack of knowledge with slowly dying departments of Ancient Near Eastern studies. Like Gaiman suggests, America seems to have gone after the more modern gods suited to our present-day lifestyle.
4 thoughts on “Death of the Gods”