Essay: The “American Gods” Trinity

Greg Gibbs: Capturing the NightTime for the essay on the monthly book club reading, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  (Spoilers, of course!)

I spent a lot of time following connections between symbols, mythological figures, and themes; I was struck by the deliberate choices in which gods were represented and which were not.  When you think about different pantheons, you can come up with all kinds of symbols being represented, and not all symbols appear in every pantheon.  Gaiman made the choice of using very specific types of gods connecting thanks to very specific symbols; here is my essay on the topic.

This is only my second book essay where visual support is actually part of the critical argument; the previous one was on Alice in Wonderland.

Three groups of traditional deities or complexes prominently feature in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: gods of light and (re)birth, cthonian gods of death and destruction, and gods of knowledge and trickery.  These are not factions, all the gods from one complex are not working together; but they represent the domains, the groups of symbols, that form the core of the novel — the solar myth.  A mind map below shows some of the associations we can make. 

The White gods or Sun complex includes solar and lunar deities, associated with light, fire, spring, fertility, and rebirth.  Though they represent new beginnings, the emergence of the sun here represents the end of the story.  The Sun complex includes Mad Sweeney/Suibhne, Bast, Horus, Easter/Eöstre, Bielebog, Balder, the domains of fire, light and gold, and totems such as rabbits, eggs, hawks, cats, lions, and thunderbirds.

The Dark gods or Death complex is the least numerous, possibly because it’s harder to portray them as friendly, desirable, or supportive; or because they are associated with endings and stasis , making them more obstacle than dynamic plot element.  Nevertheless, they are not the enemy.  The Death complex includes Mr. Jacquel/Anubis, Mama-ji/Kali, Czernebog, and arguably Hinzelmann; their symbols are cold, winter, iron, and earth, and totems like jackals and crows.

Too Much Information, by Bonnie Morris The Grey gods or Trickery complex drive the plots and impart information gradually; they include Wednesday/Odin, Mr. Ibis/Thoth, Whiskey Jack/Wisakedjak/Inktomi, Mr. Nancy/Anansi, Elegba/Papa Legba, Low-Key Lyesmith/Loki, and the Forgotten God.  They are gods of commerce, information, exchange, trickery, and transformation, represented by the colour grey, autumn, and mercury; their totems are raven, wolf, fox and spider.

The motif of the three, from light to dark and dark to light, is also represented in the book by several triple deities, most of them feminine: the Norns, the Fates, the Morrigane, Ganesha [1], and the Zorya [2].  These triple deities seem to symbolize an underlying unity, the reconciliation of the three aspects into one continuous cycle.

The modern gods (Media, the Technology Kid, etc.) are not associated with these domains, they are not rooted in nature; if anything, they would have more in common with deities markedly absent in the book, like Hephaistos/Vulcan or Athena/Minerva.  This lack of rooting in natural forces may be the cause for the transitory nature of their power.

American Gods mind map

Notes and References

[1] “(O Lord Ganapati!) You are (the Trinity) Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesa (Shiva). You are Indra. You are fire [Agni] and air [Vāyu]. You are the sun [Sūrya] and the moon [Chandrama]. You are Brahman. You are (the three worlds) Bhuloka [earth], Antariksha-loka [space], and Swargaloka [heaven]. You are Om.  (That is to say, You are all this).”  upamantra 8 of the Ganapati Atharvashirsa, as translated by swami Chinmayananda Saraswati.

[2] Interestingly, the Zorya are not traditionally triple, but double; Zorya Polunochnaya is Gaiman’s own invention.  This suggest a deliberate attempt to connect with other symbols.

Image Credits:
The storm picture is Gary Gibbs slide #21 from his site “Capturing the Night” and was taken in Australia. The raven and wolf are “Too Much Information”, by Bonnie Morris. Used without permission but with great admiration, no copyright challenge intended. The mind map is mine, created with the open source software FreeMind.

5 thoughts on “Essay: The “American Gods” Trinity

    1. Hmm, my memory fails me, I don’t recall Iblis’ role in the book. Traditionally, he’s represented as a devil and he might fit in with the Grey Gods of the trickery complex?

      Unless you mean Mr. Ibis, who I also placed among the Grey Gods; or Bilquis, who might be in the White Gods section because of a link to fertility or the Grey Gods again because of the commerce aspect.

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