Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Aaron Leitch, author of several books, including Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires, The Angelical Language Volume I and Volume II, and Essential Enochian Grimoire.
I’m willing to bet, if you are reading this blog, you have already watched every episode of the new hit TV series American Gods. Or, if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard a ton about it from your Pagan friends. And, seriously, *WHY* haven’t you watched it yet?? The first season is complete, and only eight episodes, so you can easily binge-watch the whole thing.
In case you are literally living in a broom closet, American Gods is a new television show based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name. The premise of the story is at once both simple and astounding: the modern world, especially America, has become a largely atheist civilization with no interest in remembering the Old Gods. Instead, we have come to unwittingly worship new gods in the form of technology and celebrity. These new young gods are the embodiment of things like the Internet (named Technical Boy), and mass media (named Media), and even the world-spanning control of global corporatism and their propaganda (embodied as Mr. World).
Meanwhile, the Old Gods are still out there. For the most part, they have gone underground, blending entirely into the greater population of mortals. Some of them hold jobs, some of them are just laying low, and a few of them have even taken steps to regain a small fraction of their former glory. (Often by making deals with Mr. World and Media—as was the case with Saint Nick.)
But one of the Old Gods—who lives as an old con-man named Wednesday—isn’t going to take this state of affairs laying down. He refuses to allow his people to vanish into history, forgotten and therefore dead. He has a plan. He’s gearing up for a war against the American Gods.
So that’s the premise. The book (and now the show) has a very dark philosophical undercurrent, viewing the Gods as flawed people with their own problems and agendas, and who are perfectly willing to exploit humans to achieve their ends. “That’s what Gods do… they f**k with us,” says Mad Sweeny, the down-on-his-luck leprechaun. (See, you really need to watch this!) I read the novel in the early 00s, which happened to be a dark period in my own spiritual progress—one that led me to understand that Gods and Angels are not all sweetness and light and friendliness. They are massive intelligences with far more to concern them than petty human needs or desires. I had personally hit a point where I needed to decide whether I wanted to even associate with these beings, let alone continue to work with them. And this book, American Gods, was a big part of my exploration of the “negative column” of that decision. (Fortunately, the positive column won out—so here I am!)
I strongly recommend both the book and the show. If you can read the novel first, and then watch the series, do so! However, this blog entry isn’t a review of either one. Instead, I want to delve into one specific aspect of the story’s underlying philosophy: where the Gods came from.
It is quite ironic that Gaiman presents the Old Gods as the protagonists (sort of) of his story, yet has chosen to present their origins in the way the American Gods themselves would have us believe: that Gods were simply “made up” by humans who desperately wanted something to believe in. Man created the Gods in his own image. People constructed Gods to explain things they couldn’t understand, or to have something to pray to when things go wrong. In this view, the Old Gods are little more than a symptom of mankind’s fear of an unknown and often deadly world. I’m sure you’ve run into this theory before. I would even bet many of you actually hold this theory as “obviously true”—because it is without a doubt the most common view of the origin of the Gods in our civilization. And, it is entirely wrong.
No one simply “made up” any of the Old Gods. And, no, early mankind was not subjected to terror and stupidity about everything around them. For that matter, they weren’t afraid of death, either—which means the Gods were not created because humans feared death might mean oblivion. These are comfortable notions held by modern people who want to believe they are better and smarter than their ancestors. Gods were not “invented;” they evolved quite naturally, over very long periods of time. And, guess what? Most of them were originally human! Not mythologically—but historically.
You see, one of the oldest forms of religion on planet Earth is ancestor worship. (Animism and plant worship are also contenders for the title of “oldest.”) In the most primordial eras, after humans began to show signs of spiritual observance—such as burial of the dead—people didn’t see much difference between a living relative and a passed one. Sure, they existed in two different states (physical and spiritual), but both were seen to exist just the same. The spirit of a loved one could be captured and bound to the body (as in Egypt and other cultures) or to some other artifact. Then, the spirit could be fed and cared for just as if the person were still alive—offering it food, water, warmth, tools, gifts, etc. In return, the ancestral spirit was expected to continue working for the family—offering those things a spirit can offer: protection, good hunts and harvests, prosperity, good fortune, divination, etc. It was from these familial spirits, working hard for the success of their living families, that we get our word for a witch’s spirit-helper: “familiar.”
Ancestor worship was common and widespread right up to the agricultural revolution. Of course, it didn’t actually go away thereafter, but things changed once we settled into cities. One of the biggest problems with farming the land is the constant threat of nomadic raiders. Such tribal people didn’t have the concept of land ownership, and when they found crops, they naturally ate them. In response to this, the farmers hired some protection.
That protection came in the form of the larger and stronger families—the ones with weapons and trained warriors. The farmers purchased their protection by swearing fealty to those families, providing them with a share of the crops and livestock they raised. These are the families who became royalty, believing they had a birthright to conquer and own all the land—and people—they desired. The ancestral spirits of those royal families became the National Gods. Their simple altars were elaborated into Temples. Crops and other goods brought to the king were described specifically as offerings to those Gods. The farmer was feeding the National God to ensure continued harvests.
If you were a royal in the ancient world, you firmly understood the Gods were your direct ancestors. A wonderful example is found in Egypt: Not only did the Pharaoh believe himself to be the reincarnation of Horus, and that he would ascend to be one with Osiris at death, he also remembered that Osiris was the first Pharaoh of Egypt and the founder of his own family line.
Even cosmic Gods whose mythologies do not mention them ever being human (as in Re, or Nut, or Geb) can very often be traced back to older/lesser tribal Gods. For example, the most highly exalted cosmic Hidden God of Egypt, Amon, was once a simple local tribal deity, and therefore was very likely a human ancestral spirit at the start of his career. Other Gods (such as Isis, Osiris, Inanna, Hathor, Baal, etc.) are often described in their mythologies as perfectly physical beings—even if superhuman. For example, note the Sumerian story of Shukaletuda, a human who one day discovered Inanna fast asleep beneath a tree and took the opportunity to rape her. She wasn’t aware of what had happened until she awoke, and then demanded justice against her attacker. That’s not a description of a Goddess who only exists in the spiritual.
There are some cases where even a God’s mythos will declare they were once human, but had been enraptured or ascended in some fashion. This is the case with several Orishas in the ATRs—them having ascended to godhood in a flash of devotional ecstasy, rather than dying after the manner of normal humans. Having left the physical behind, they “become one” with the force of nature they will represent as Gods: such as the Sun, or the River, or the Sea, etc. We can find this in Western mythologies as well: consider the spiritual translations of Elijah and Enoch in Biblical literature. Both of them were not only taken bodily into heaven without experiencing death, both of them were also transformed into archangels (Sandalphon and Metatron, respectively). There is even a scene in the apocryphal 3Enoch where we witness the replacement of every part of Enoch’s physical body with divine fire.
No, human beings did not “make up” the Gods—not out of fear, ignorance, or boredom. Gods are people. Were people. They passed away, but kept evolving—growing larger and more powerful as their families did so, until they had become known as Gods. It took generations for this process to happen, and it was the natural result of our own interfacing with the spirit world. Gods can certainly be empowered or weakened based upon the number of worshipers they have (and the offerings they get, etc.)—but we didn’t just create them out of nothing.
If you have enjoyed this exploration, I will likely post further thoughts on the philosophies presented in American Gods between now and the series’ end. For now, go and make an offering to that Patron of yours. He or She deserves it.
Our thanks to Aaron for his guest post! Visit Aaron Leitch’s author page for more information, including articles and his books.