Old Gods, New Gods, and the Battle for Brain Space

American Gods, a novel by Neil Gaiman, depicts a metaphorical war between the gods of the old world and the gods of the new.  It begins as the main character, Shadow, is set to be paroled after three years in prison for assault.  Tragically, only two days before his release, he learns that his wife was killed in a car accident.  Out of prison, and with no real home to return to, he is approached by a man calling himself “Mr.  Wednesday”, who offers him a job as his assistant.  Apprehensive at first Shadow takes the job, not realizing that he is setting in motion a complicated series of events which will determine the fate of the American consciousness.

For Gaiman, the gods themselves are born of human thought; they evolve through changes in telling and retelling of their stories.  Selective pressures determine their form and their viability at any given time in the collective consciousness.  Just as certain organisms are more fit for survival based upon their relationship to the surrounding environment – i.e. natural selection – gods become viable or unfit with respect to the mental climate of a society or culture.

Some gods are the “offspring” of other gods, as opposed to evolutions, because a story retold and altered as it travels may remain the same where it originated, resulting in two separate but related forms of the same god – parents and children.

For example, the “Father” of the Christian trinity, often depicted as an old European man in the heavens, can be seen as an evolution of the Greek Zeus, who also wore a long white beard and resided in the sky.  Likewise the figure of Jesus Christ is a conglomeration of various figures who preceded him.  He is an evolution of the “Godman”, present throughout many mythological traditions, who dies and is resurrected.  Some of his analogues include Osiris of Egypt and Dionysus of Greece.  And it was Odin, like Jesus, who was also crucified and his side pierced with a spear.  The conflation of myths to create the story of Jesus is discussed in detail in Jesus and the Lost Goddess by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy:

Jewish Gnostics combined the Exodus initiation myth of the Jewish Christ Moses-Jesus and the initiation myths of the pagan Godman Osiris-Dionysus to create a unique synthesis we know as the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Freke & Gandy, 18)

It is possible too, although no historical evidence exists to support it, that the evolving myth incorporated the account of a real life person crucified around the time he was said to have lived in order to lend it greater validity.  Ultimately, though, whether or not the “Son” or the “Father” actually exist, how they manifest in the consciousness of their believers is likely to differ from their physical or metaphysical reality.  They become, for each believer, a subjective phenomenon, as evidenced by the many different interpretations or depictions in art.

This concept of gods as creations – even extensions – of human consciousness is not a new one, and is in fact well established within the psychology of religion.  For every person or society, the god or gods in some way embody their culture and the different aspects of their environment as they perceive it.

In this way, the existence of gods is cyclical and somewhat paradoxical, sharing a self-same identity with those who believe.  Even an almighty creator god itself stems from the minds of those it was said to have created.

There is a blurring of the line between metaphor and reality as the gods have real physical world manifestations.  These gods are not the all-seeing, all-knowing entities one may expect.  On the contrary, they are depicted as mortal, vulnerable, and live much like human beings – holding jobs, forming relationships, eating, sleeping, and dying.  It is quite novel to see the legendary All-Father, Odin, cast as a lecherous and manipulative con man, or the Egyptian God of Death, Anubis, working as a coroner.

Many gods and supernatural beings, both popular and obscure – make an appearance, such as Kali and Ganesha of India, Anansi of West Africa, leprechauns from Ireland, Anubis and Thoth from Egypt, and djinni from the Middle East.  Gaiman then introduces the “new gods”, such as Media – a woman in heavy makeup so perfect as to be unreal, Television – taking on the form of a generic celebrity personality, and Internet – an arrogant fat kid one might picture as the head of a successful dot-com business.  More or less anything that has dominated the American consciousness is represented as a god – be it a new technology such as drugs, railroads, cars, and airplanes – or important changes in the way people live.

Anything that dominates mental space, so as to inspire reverence or devotion, can be a “god”.  A television can even be seen as an altar, and indeed people plant themselves in front of them on specific daily schedules.  They make sure not to miss their favorite programs, showing the same kind of rigorous devotion as a person who regularly attends church on a given day.  As such, the deities draw their power and thrive, or weaken and perish, on the strength of their adherents’ beliefs.

“So, yeah, Jesus does pretty good over here [in America].  But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride.  You know? It all depends on where you are.” (Gaiman, p. 208)

The American incarnations of the old world gods were carried within the minds of people who migrated from Europe, Asia, and Africa, but who maintained their traditions.  In time, however, as cultures collided, blended, or were altogether displaced, many of the gods were lost to time, and in effect, succumbed to death.  They are being steadily displaced with each new evolution in American culture, from the proliferation of the railroads during the industrial revolution to the advent of mass communication in the 20th century.  Although most people would not acknowledge it, Gaiman points out that there are strong similarities between the worship of traditional deities at altars, and the common American practice of sacrificing time and devotion to the television.

While American Gods has all the excitement and suspense of an actual and even believable war between gods, it is in fact an allegory for the struggle between thought-phenomena for the right to occupy people’s minds.

Religions are, by definition, metaphors after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.  (Gaiman, p.  508)

The central idea of the book is that as societies change, advancing culturally and technologically, there is less time or “brain space” for old customs and old beliefs.  The story takes place in the United States, which is becoming an increasingly secular society.  Gaiman conveys the capriciousness of the American consciousness, how at ever-diminishing intervals, our minds shift from one paradigm to the next; religion for new age spirituality, books for television, newspapers and radio for internet.  Only the ideas – here represented by gods – with the ability to change with the times can even hope to survive.

Shadow in many ways represents the iconic American.  He is noticeably large and physically intimidating, ethnically ambiguous, superficially simple, and yet deceptively intelligent.  Story-wise he is the son of a human woman and the god, Odin, perhaps a reference to the duality between this nation’s religiosity and modernity.  He also represents the minds of all Americans, who are often forced to find a middle ground between old ideals with new ones created by rapid changes in society and culture.

He is first recruited by Odin as a crucial ally for the old world gods, as they make their bid for survival in an ever-changing world.  The conflict comes to a head when Odin is killed by the new gods, but as Shadow eventually discovers, the whole affair was an elaborate scheme – a “two man con” – perpetrated by Loki, along with Odin himself.  His death, which he knew to be only temporary, was the final push the old world gods needed to engage in all-out war with the new.

After crossing over to the new world, the American incarnation of Odin weakened with time, as the devotion of his followers diminished.  Gods after all are subjective thought phenomena and manifest through the actions of those who believe in them.  As they enter the collective consciousness, meaning that multiple – even many – people agree on the details, their ability to influence the world increases.  But for Odin in the United States there were no more of the sacrifices of old, or wars fought in his name.  Odin was a god of death, one who was therefore empowered by sacrifice, and in order to sustain himself, he orchestrated a master plan.

The war between the old world gods and the new world gods would inevitably be a massacre, with great casualties on both sides.  Loki would dedicate the battle to Odin, ensuring that each death restored the All-Father’s strength.  Loki himself, who thrived on chaos, stood to gain just as much power from the war itself.  Parallels could be drawn between this scheme and the many battles – both physical and ideological – fought in the name of religion throughout history in order to sustain one creed or another.

Unfortunately for Odin and Loki, Shadow discovers the plan, and eventually becomes the arbiter between both sides, convincing them that the war itself is pointless, and will only serve to sustain unnecessary conflict.  As Shadow manages to avert the catastrophe, Gaiman’s message seems to be that modern secularism does not have to be at odds with traditional spirituality or religiosity in the human consciousness, that the brain has ample capacity for both.

Reality is not so much different from Gaiman’s epic tale.  Consider a holy war in which two opposing sides each believe that their god exists, and that the god of the other side does not.  And this is why they are fighting.  Whether or not either god “exists” is irrelevant, because so long as there are believers, and they think that violence is their only recourse, they will be driven to continue such a war indefinitely.

The mind truly is a battleground, with a war occurring on the small scale within every individual, as in the case of the seminary student who tries to reconcile his commonly held beliefs with obvious contradictions in history or scripture, or the atheist who cannot fully dismiss the sense of wonder that nature inspires to mere mechanical selection.  The battle also takes place macrocosmically in the public consciousness, as different denominations disagree on the specific details of their gods, or debate on how or whether or not they should be invoked towards political ends.

The very idea that something like a television or a celebrity could be observed with the same reverence as a god may fly in the face of traditional religious perspectives, but the very nature of religion as a cultural phenomenon is often to adapt to changes in the global consciousness of its adherents.  This is the very point of the book, that as the battle for “brain space” rages on, with each new scientific innovation, new interpretations of history, shifts in culture and society, we must reconcile these changes with the deep-seated desire in all of us to hold on to some part of our pasts.  Whether or not our ancient gods projected themselves from the collective unconscious, or later became rationalizations of our emerging interpretations of the surrounding environment is a question that may be an end in itself, rather than one that even needs an answer.

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