How Myth and Belief Shape the Characters of ‘American Gods’

Bob Aquavia

Myths have been around since mankind first looked up at the sky. We’ve used them to explain the nature of the world, the way things ought to be and to impart wisdom on our descendants. They’ve entertained, shocked, motivated, and humbled us. It’s no wonder that we all remember stories about Thor, Hercules, Gilgamesh, and more. But once upon a time they weren’t just stories, they were belief. In American Gods, those heroes and gods of the past are very much real. They’re fighting to stay in the present, while the present and future gods push them further and further from relevance.

As noted in both the book and series, everyone who came to America brought their gods with them. This means that Anubis can sit down in an IHOP and share breakfast with a leprechaun and a djinn. Ok, that doesn’t happen in the book, but now I’m kind of hoping! Sorry, I’ll save that for the fan-fic. Ok, back on track….

american gods mad sweeney throwing coins

Exploring these myths is exploring the cultures that bore them. I’ll take a deep dive into just a few of the myths that play a predominant role in the series, as well as explore how they could influence its direction. (Please note, as of this writing only two episodes of the series have aired, and I will try to keep book spoilers to a minimum. But they will be there, so you’re now forewarned).

“It’s my day.”

Mr. Wednesday, while being the second god we meet on the show, steals the thunder (pun slightly intended) right from the start. While he doesn’t look it in his cavalier and charming mannerisms, he is, in fact, the All-Father of Norse and Germanic myth, Odin. Those stranded Vikings sought his blessing through fire and blood, and when they finally escaped off that beach, he was left behind in a new world. And yes, Ian McShane is spot-on perfect in the role.

Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday in American Gods
Mr. Wednesday contemplating his next move, and his next drink.

As in the book, the hints to his true identity are there and prolific. The word “Wednesday” is derived from Old English wōdnesdæg (Wōden being one of his many names), he talks about his one good eye, he speaks of compacts and drinks mead. While we probably know the noble version of Odin from Marvel’s Thor movies/books, the American Gods’ version is more influenced by the original stories. A powerful god who is both wise and a trickster, one who looks out for himself more times than not.

What’s important to note is that it won’t be the revelation of Mr. Wednesday’s true identity but the consequence of such that will have the greatest effect on Shadow Moon’s life. The visions Shadow sees look to be connected to the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The World Tree is an important part of Norse myth: it’s what connects the nine worlds of creation together, and it provides knowledge, life, and stability. It’s also the spot of Odin’s greatest sacrifice, a task he willingly took to gather the runes of language and provide them to the world. If Shadow is starting to see visions of the tree associated with Wednesday, then there will be blood. Er, more blood.

Coming to America

Throughout both the novel and series, we see how these gods and other creatures ended up in America. These stories are both matter-of-fact and fantastic. The chronicler of these tales is Mr. Ibis, whom we have yet to meet on the show. Mr. Ibis runs a funeral parlor with his associate Mr. Jacquel, and they too have important parts to play in the American Gods saga.

Demore Barnes as Mr. Ibis from American Gods
Mr. Ibis chronicles another story of gods coming to America

The reason Mr. Ibis records the stories is because he is Thoth, the Egyptian god of science, writing, and numbers. He’s usually depicted with the head of (you guessed it) an ibis, although there are versions of him as a baboon as well. He is a thoughtful deity and would become associated with arbitrating many disputes among the gods (both in Egyptian mythology as well as in the book/show).

His counterpart, Mr. Jacquel, has a much closer association with the funeral parlor that they run, given that his real identity is of Anubis. He is known as the Egyptian god of the dead and mummification, both judge and shepherd of those who enter the afterlife. His last name is a play on common depictions of him having the head of a canine or jackal. And his work in a funeral parlor is perfectly suited, as he was often credited as the patron saint of embalmers. Who knows how handy a pair of gods well-versed in the afterlife could be?

Spinning a Tale Like Thread

Another of the old gods from Africa that will gain a greater spotlight in the series is the storyteller Mr. Nancy, or as he’s commonly known, Anansi. A major character in West African and Caribbean folklore, Anansi is seen as a god both worshiped for his devotion to stories as well as to intelligence and cleverness. His stories usually revolve around him besting larger or more powerful gods through trickery and guile.

Orlando Jones stealing the story as Mr Nancy
Mr. Nancy will steal the story with a smile and wink

While he was an important secondary character in the book, Mr. Nancy seems to have a much larger role in the series. It’s also no coincidence that he appears as he does in the second episode. In what already has the internet buzzing, his first scene has Anansi (played to perfection by Orlando Jones) speaking to a group of slaves on a Dutch trading vessel in the 1600’s. Through fiery speech, he tells them of not just their immediate future in America but also those of their descendants and inspires them to revolt on the ship.

When I mentioned earlier that Anansi stories were a major backbone of Caribbean folklore, it because of Africans that were brought both here to America and the Caribbean by the slave trade. They held onto their stories in order to hold onto their history, as well as provide inspiration in fighting their oppression. Anansi became representative of oral history and culture, to the point that there’s even a word for these types of stories: Anansesem, or “spider tales”.

“Worship me.”

When adapting the novel to series, it was always a question if “that scene” would be shown. And boy howdy was it. The scene in question is of Bilquis seducing, having sex with, and then literally absorbing her lover into her body. As written and as shown, it caused quite a few jaws to drop. It’s also interesting because while she was a minor character in the book, she so far has a much more predominant role in the show (although she has yet to cross paths with our heroes).

Yetide Badaki's Bilquis demands worship in American Gods

This literal worship of Bilquis’ body actually is a unique take on her story and myth. Formally known as the Queen of Sheba, she is represented across Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Ethiopian faith. In some stories, she is merely represented as a queen who sought the wisdom of King Solomon. In others, she was brought before him in order for him to court her (or for her to court him, depending on the teller).

Her name (or one of her names) is found in supplementary texts of the Quran: Bilkis, a derivation from Greek and Hebrew words to mean “concubine.” It’s also in Jewish and Arabic folklore that her supernatural aspects are brought forth. In Kabbalah texts, she’s a queen of demons and associated with Lilith. In other tales, she’s half jinn, half human. What we’re seeing is most likely an amalgamation of all these characteristics, but it’ll be interesting to see how she brings that to the greater conflict that’s building.

See What You Believe, Believe What You See

American Gods Season 1 2017 easter kristen chenowith

These are just a few of the myths we have and will encounter in American Gods. There are so many more stories to touch on, though. The trailers have already shown Easter (or Ôstara, in the Germanic), the goddess of spring, rebirth, and fertility as part of the fight. While she’s none too pleased about consistently being shown up by him on her holiday, Jesus Christ will also have more of a role in the series (as opposed to a minor mention in the book). Hopefully, they’ll also bring in our own native gods as well. In the book, Wiskaedjak, an Algonquian trickster god, had a role in Shadow’s journey, along with American folklore legend Johnny Appleseed.

The importance of these myths and stories isn’t just to convey a message or impart a specific value, but it’s to provide the literal lifeblood for these gods: belief. The major theme of American Gods is simply that they still want to be believed in. Their powers are waning because we’ve forgotten the old ways and have instead developed our own. Wednesday’s goal is not an altruistic one, but one of survival. And in this realm, he’s every bit of the fabled warrior who seeks conquest, not compromise.

For now, though, let’s sit back and relax. The showrunners have said that there will be changes both big and small to the plot, as well as much more expansion of side characters and storylines. The journey has just begun, the stage is only starting to be set. The myths of American Gods have only begun to reveal themselves.

Bob Aquavia
I occasionally put words to page as a Fan Contributor by way of sunny Las Vegas. A fan of books (comic and otherwise), movies, tv, pro wrestling and video games. A periodic traveler and wanderer; also, more coffee than man.