I am a pretty big fan of American Gods. I read the book having come to Odin about a year beforehand. Having worked my way through the first three episodes, and a good way into the fourth, I can say that Starz has outdone themselves with their portrayal of the book. There is much that I think polytheists can get out of reading Neil Gaiman’s book or seeing it brought to life on the small screen. There are aspects of the book that I hope do not make it at all into polytheist discourse, namely the central conceit of the book and show: that the gods need human beings to exist, and exist because of our faith and/or prayers. I think placing ourselves so centrally would be a grave error. By placing humans at the center of the universe, so to speak, the Gods are thus removed from it.
I think that wrestling with media is something, at least as American polytheists go, is something we may have to do for quite a while. Certainly, before we saw the Marvel Thor movies when my son was younger, I had to do a lot of work to put down firm boundaries so he did not mistake our Thor for Marvel’s. In raising the next generation, we will encounter issues that are essentially no different than those anyone else will. How much media will we expose our kids to? What kinds? What will be off-limits until a certain age?
Our son Kiba has enjoyed Marvel movies and comics during most of his young life. We have always placed the Sacred Stories and our beliefs before the depictions of Marvel, providing clear guidance on what is and is not Thor. I think, especially for our youngest, this is important because we are providing the baseline understanding they are building for the Gods. If we build up Thor alongside His depiction in Marvel, we are doing our Gods, our children, and future generations a disservice. Being able to discern true signal from noise begins early. By allowing that signal to be muddied we are allowing things into the lives of our children that should not occupy the same space.
It is not that any particular media, even if it features our Gods, is in and of itself a bad thing. I think that media can be an excellent bridge for ideas. For instance, ideas of animism clicked for our son when he was younger after watching My Neighbor Totoro. We pray and offer to the treevaettir, the tree spirits, because They live here, it is Their home and They guard it. There are landvaettir who depend on these trees as homes, as places to receive their own offerings, and so on. The movie provided us touchstones for moving forward in his understanding of how we relate to landvaettir.
Media is not an enemy in and of itself. D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myth remains a staple in our home of telling the stories of our Gods to younger people, providing a steady bridge from child to youth. Rather, we need to be careful that our children do not mistake the entertainment that features our Gods, whether it is a depiction of Thor in Marvel comics or D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myth for our Gods. That we clearly define what media, whether it is book, comic, movie, cartoon, etc. becomes the maps for the next generation is part of our responsibility. Likewise, it is our responsibility that we exclude as much as possible from our maps the media that has no place with them.
When I last wrote on this topic I noted then how I still have difficulty seeing Thor as a redhead because of depictions I have seen of Him growing up were always displayed with blond hair. I am relatively lucky in that Thor was not a favorite comic character of mine growing up. No, for me that was Wolverine and Spider-Man. Not a lot of deprogramming needed to happen when I became a Heathen, and this depiction of Thor with blond hair is one I still cannot shake.
So should I shake the imagery of Thor with blond hair? Not necessarily. As I have said before, if people look at the image of the Joker as a useful image to approach Loki through I do not take issue with it so long as it is quite clear they’re not worshiping the Joker, but Loki. I think that where I run the deepest issue is when pop culture becomes a substitute for our Gods. In other words, it would be an issue if the image of Marvel’s Thor overcame who and what Thor is, and likewise, Joker over who Loki is. When the God is mistaken for, or taken for a media image.
I do think that media can touch our Gods. Certainly, I felt that Gaiman and the show of his book both get really powerful, even deep aspect of Odin. Something his character says in the show got me, something he says to Zorya Vechernyaya, is that above everything he seeks knowledge. Fits pretty well alongside to His seeking power in my experiences of and knowledge of Him. Likewise, the first scene we see Anubis in was very powerful for me, and it was everything I could do not to weep at the beauty I saw Him and His Work conveyed with.
It is not that I think we should cut ourselves off from all media. I think we should be careful and discerning about how much we let it influence us. At the end of the day comic books are meant to see just as much as books are. I think that placing anything of our religion into a medium whose primary concern is making money first and foremost, and not on the increase of knowledge, experience, and so on of our Gods, needs to be treated with suspicion. If we can draw connections, metaphors, and understanding of our Gods from the many sources of media about us, I think this is all to the good. If our media, rather than our Gods, becomes the object of our worship is where the problem comes.
Media in American Gods actually is quite a good depiction of worship-as-consumption and replacing the Gods with media as the object of our worship. If media becomes what we worship, then all that time spent in front of televisions and handheld devices replaces devotion. It renders religion as vacuous a question as “So you wanna see Lucy’s tits?” If religion becomes the mere process of consuming media or simply being in a place exposing ourselves to media then we’re not practicing religion, but ritualized consumption. This is another area that I think Gaiman actually nails very, very well on the head. For some spirits that kind of attention could easily turn into food. It’s so seductive because that kind of passive consumption-as-doing is built into our society. It has been for awhile, but I think I really saw it in full, naked vileness when, instead of calling Americans to do anything useful, President George W. Bush essentially called on the country to go shopping after 9/11. Rather than, say, plant a victory garden or otherwise put that anxiety, pain, and frustration to something community-oriented and useful, the one person whose voice was supposed to call out the clearest and provide good leadership essentially said “Fall back asleep, get back to shopping.”
It’s part of why I think we need to be careful of how we depict our Gods, teach about Them, and teach discernment on whether we are praying to or offering to our Gods. It’s why a grounding in the lore, without turning the map of that lore into territory of the Gods, is important. It is why being clear on what our entertainment is, and what we worship is so important. We could well be feeding a spirit that has nothing to do with our Gods. It’s not that every offering we make needs to come with tons of divination to figure out if we’re offering to the right Being. I think, rather, that it is about keeping clean headspaces about the Gods and any media representations so we do not mistake one for the other, and seek to develop a relationship with a modern adaptation or interpretation of Them, rather than the Gods Themselves. In regards to Ancestors, this would be like developing a relationship with Uncle Joe only through the stories his wife told, and being unwilling to relate with as his own person.
Beyond what I have spoken about here and before, I do not have hard and fast recommendations with how we raise the next generation of polytheists. I do know this, though: it is our responsibility to raise our children.
When he is in our presence, Sylverleaf and I are totally responsible for what Kiba gets sat in front of, or doesn’t, for what he learns or doesn’t. How could we cede so much power to the overculture that our own kids would become beholden to those things, rather than what we teach him and how we raise him? To raise him otherwise would be abdicating responsibility for raising our child to the overculture, which is very sick and very deeply needing to change. The next generation cannot make those changes if we continually cut them at the knees, demanding to know why they never learned to stand.