'American Gods' And The Inescapably Destructive Nature Of Belief
Spoilers for seasons one, but no book spoilers. Book spoilers in the comments will be deleted.
American Gods wrapped its first season on Sunday night, but you’ll forgive me if I waited until Odin’s day to discuss the central figure in the show: belief. Specifically, an aspect of belief in the Gaiman world that hadn’t occurred to me while reading the book or during the first seven episodes. Humans unquestionably created gods. We know this because humans unwittingly created the new gods Media, Technical Boy and Mr. World. Which would then also make it safe to assume that we created the old gods Jesus (in his many forms), Ostara, Mad Sweeney (winky face emoji), and, yes, even Odin. If there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, capital “G” God in American Gods, it can most accurately be described as humans’ seemingly unmitigated power to believe magical beings into existence. Magical beings who then unrelentingly fuck with us.
If it weren’t for the pesky fact that humans made the god, the arrangement of which Mr. Wednesday speaks at the end of the season finale would make sense. Humans have something the gods want in the form of worship, and the gods have something we want in the form magical powers. So we have to pray and make sacrifices, and then the gods, on the equivalent of a coke-fueled tirade, proceed to show the world just how big and powerful they are by sending wind or unleashing prisoners on a slave boat to burn that motherfucker down or helping immigrants steal apples and lace (leprechauns are an exceedingly specific god). Under those rules, the gods’ behavior in the face of our neglect makes sense. They’re just doing what they need to do to get by. Only we have determined the rules for how they get by.
We, theoretically, could have set up a system where the supernaturally powerful gods were at out mercy. Remember, the mechanism by which gods are created ins’t worship itself, but belief. So we could have believed in a god who more than anything else wished to stay as far away from humans as possible. Zorya Utrennyaya could have promised that she would bring the sun each morning, if we would just leave her alone for one goddamn night. If you’re a parent who has ever bribed your child so you could just sleep for twenty more minutes, I’m sure this agreement is familiar to you. The reason we didn’t set up our relationship with the gods that way is because we weren’t aware we were creating them. We unknowingly manifested the new gods, and have sustained them with our devotion. And belief, at its core, is inherently destructive.
Now I’m not arguing that belief, belief systems, or religion is bad, mind you. I said destructive. Because destruction is the counterpart, and therefore inescapable result, of creation. If humans can create magical beings with only our belief, we will also need to acknowledge that we’re destroying other gods by refusing or forgetting to believe in them. Or more overtly destroying them by tearing down their temples and places of worship so others are more likely to stop believing in them (so sorry about that again, Bilquis). And we do this because belief and devotion only feel good if it’s at the exclusion of other beliefs. No one’s ever gotten any joy out of shouting “We’re number perfectly average! Everyone has varied strengths and weakness, but statistically we’re overall fairly equal!” We’re right because we love our god, and we love our god because we’re right. Despite the fact that the gods are responsible for most of the tragedies on the show, the humans are the real assholes because we made them that way.
Or think about it like this. We have the ability to create, using only our minds, literally any form of magically powerful being we want. Humans have, over time, created an uncountable number of these gods. We can make them do almost anything we want. And what we make them do most is punish us. Self-destruction is apparently a great color on us.
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