Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: An Immigrant Song for 2017
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An early scene in the new Starz series American Gods features the song “Iko Iko”#, written by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford and famously covered by the Dixie Cups.
The chorus (“Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-né, jock-a-mo fee na-né”) predates the song, and all of sixties pop, by centuries. It’s a Mardi Gras chant ‐ linguists know that much ‐ though its meaning has been so garbled by time that they don’t even agree about which language it’s in. Popular theories about its meaning include a French boast, a West African dance cheer, a Haitian code promising a slave rebellion, and, fittingly, a prayer to an unknown and forgotten god; but no one knows for sure.
Mr. Ibis, the history keeper and retired god of knowledge depicted in the Neil Gaiman novel on which the show is based, notes in his ancient journal that American history “is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored.” In other words, he argues, what Americans think of as our culture is a creation, a shallow understanding of our own complex history based on misunderstanding and both accidentally and purposefully forgetting our roots.
The overall effect is not of history, but of legend. Not the story the way it looked when it happened, but the story the way it looked when it was retold and distorted a thousand times.
In this way, it’s just like every part of American history: the version we know about is hardly ever the version that is true.
In both the show and the book, American Gods follows the journey of Shadow Moon, an ex-con who loses his wife, best friend, home, and job in the span of a few days following his release. Rootless and friendless, Shadow (like so many other Neil Gaiman characters) finds himself drawn into a world he never knew existed, one lying just below the surface of his, where the forgotten gods of every group of immigrants who has set foot in the New World since the first settlers crossed the Siberian Land Bridge.
They lurk in every corner of America, left behind by their believers, yet still refusing to disappear.
But while the world-building and story of American Gods are interesting, they’re not what make the series unique (Douglas Adams, to give one example, explored a very similar premise more than a decade before Gaiman did). People have always loved telling stories about gods, and modern authors are no exception.
No: it’s the first word in the title that makes American Gods unique, not the second.
More than anything else, American Gods has been an exploration of what it means to be American, what we think it means to be American, and why the answers to those questions are so very different.
Mr. Wednesday, our protagonist’s con-man guide through this mysterious new world (so to speak), philosophizes that “this is the only country in the world that worries about what it is.” America, he opines, is always anxiously asserting its identity, both because it is such a hodgepodge of different cultures, and because the role of that hodgepodge in creating mainstream American culture has largely been forgotten or ignored.
Mr. Wednesday himself is a perfect example of this principle. The American avatar of the Norse god Odin, he’s able to travel unnoticed in an America where he was once revered. He drops so many hints to his true identity (starting with his assumed name) that viewers can almost feel him begging the people around him to discern who he is. In a late season episode, he actually lays out the “god’s honest” truth for a police officer: he’s an ancient Norse god gathering other gods for war. The officer doesn’t believe him, of course. No one does.
He’s forgotten in a country where one of the days of the week is literally named after him…
The goddess Easter, who hosts the show’s finale at her candy-colored estate, is in the same longboat as the All-Father: her name is spoken and her festival celebrated every year in America, but it’s been rebranded as a Christian holiday so extensively she herself might as well have never existed.
Americans still keep her festival, still celebrate it in the springtime, still associate it with the eggs, rabbits, and sweets that symbolized sex and rebirth to her worshippers. But thanks to the dedicated efforts of early Christians, they’ve forgotten why. They’ve forgotten her. And as a result, she is fading, even though America continues to celebrate her year after year.
Comparatively, though, Easter is lucky. Other gods survive on much less. Anubis, the Egyptian god of death, gets by mostly on symbols that Americans repeat without remembering why. Shadow’s wife Laura spends her whole life dealing cards in the shadow of Anubis’ idol, with the eye of his half-brother Horus adorning her casino uniform, and yet, when she meets Anubis in the afterlife, she has no idea who he is. The Djinn we meet driving cabs is in a similar predicament: once a rich, more-than-a-little-evil figure of mythology, he laments how present-day Americans remember nothing about his kind except children’s stories about how they grant wishes.
To quote Mad Sweeney, the show’s resident leprechaun#:
I was a king once. I was. Then they made me a bird. Then Mother Church came along and turned us all into saints, trolls and fairies. General Mills did the rest.
Such is life for the Gods in America. They are starving and dying out from lack of belief, which would be bad enough. What’s crueler is they’re doing it in a place that should be a feast for them; a place with towns named in their honor and holy days set aside for their worship, where their symbols are revered and their stories told. All of those acts of worship have been cut from their roots, and so, they are meaningless.
This, the show posits, is the nature of America: our country may be new, but its roots are old, global, and not so much forgotten as written over, to the extent we can fool ourselves into thinking that America is homogenous. Easter is a holiday about bunnies and flowers, not a pagan ritual raising bonfires in honor of the goddess of fertility. Wednesday is Hump Day, not the sacred festival of the Norse god of gallows ravens. Genies are funny characters from Disney movies, not shape-shifting demons born of fire. Leprechauns are lovable creatures who chase after lucky charms (okay, the show actually does support that one a bit).
By forgetting the complex, ancient, and above all multicultural roots of our culture, the show argues, we also forget that our culture itself is complex, ancient, and multicultural. We invent a monolith where none ever existed.
This metaphor seems especially current now, as Congress ponders bids to build the proposed border wall with Mexico, which one bidder promises will be “a powerful statement of the determination of the American people to defend their nation and its Anglo-Saxon heritage, Western culture, and English language.” It may not be a sentiment that many bidders are stating so baldly, but it’s one that’s been tacitly recycled over the past few years. The country is full of people prepared to wring their hands over the transformative effect immigrants have on America’s heritage, culture, and language.
The assumption always seems to be that there exists a single, unified American culture to which new immigrants can either choose or refuse to assimilate: the thing we call “mainstream America.”
In its first season, American Gods chose to take a different approach: what if the whole premise of the question is wrong? What if the whole concept of assimilation is just a story we made up based on a comforting misunderstanding of our country’s difficult history? What if there is no mainstream America?
What if it’s immigrants all the way down?
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