Throughout Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, many different characters state that “America is a bad land for gods.” The novel argues that when many beliefs sail across the ocean to reach our continent, they struggle to survive.
While I cannot say whether America is in fact a good or bad land for gods, I can be very confident when I say that America is a very good land for myths and legends.
Today’s culture is filled with modern interpretations of ancient myths. Marvel comics has depicted characters such as Thor, Ares, and Hercules fighting alongside masked avengers as superheroes, even bringing their version of Thor to life on the big screen. DC comics also has attempted to pull stories from myth, occasionally linking the hero Wonder Woman to the Greek gods. Vertigo comics also saw several adaptations of ancient mythologies represented in the comic The Sandman (another work by Gaiman; go read The Sandman, seriously).
Comics are not the only medium in which the gods of the ancient world are present. Writers like Douglas Adams, who gave us Norse gods living in England with his novel Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, played up the comedic use of classical mythology.
Another notable example is the American writer Rick Riordan, author of the popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Riordan’s series is a clever update of classical mythology that places the Gods of Olympus in America. Riordan’s stories are significant in that they successfully bring this (sometimes graphically brutal) mythos to children and young teens, giving children both a thrilling adventure story, as well as and an educational introduction to the classic Greek and Roman stories.
Going in the other direction, Neil Gaiman’s aforementioned American Gods takes characters from many different mythologies, including Norse, West African, Egyptian, and Greek, and pits these gods against each other in the landscape of America. Unlike many of the other works I have mentioned, American Gods is very much targeted at adults, relishing in the adult nature of both life in the Americas and these classical myths.
Movies and television shows are obsessed with Judeo-Christian and pagan mythology alike. They constantly use imagery of angels and demons, usually turning these religious myths into action heroes and villains. If I tried to list the number of books written about demon hunters, this article would be far too long.
We seem unable to resist the pull of ancient mythologies. However, we also seem uninterested in stories about these characters in their original settings.
We do not seem interested in Zeus in Greece, or in Odin in Iceland. The one common theme that ties all of these modern adaptations of ancient mythology together is that we take these characters and these stories out of their traditional setting and bring them here. We take these historic pinnacles of other cultures, their rich histories and religions, and we claim them as our own.
We give these characters American or British and we tie them to North American landmarks. Rick Riordan puts the home of the Greek gods above the empire state building, Marvel’s Thor has put the Norse legend on screen in New Mexico, New York, and London (again with the strange idea that a Nordic legend has an upper-class British accent).
American Gods goes further , as the story follows the idea that anywhere someone has believed in something, a new version of that belief will appear. That means that in Gaiman’s novel, the versions of characters that appear, such as Odin (Norse), Anansi (West African), and Ēostre (Germanic), are very literally gods of America.
Another unifying factor of all of these stories is that they take the idea that these mythological characters not only secretly live among us in the west, but they also live in our present time; every adaptation is always contemporary.
In every television show, movie, and book about the supernatural, these mythological figures are always here in secret, going unnoticed by ordinary people. This is done for the same reason that any work of fiction places itself as a secret under our noses. We want to pretend that the myths of the ancient world belong to us; we want to pretend that they could be real, happening while our backs are turned.
Mythology is a part of culture, and like many other things in modern day North America, we like to steal mythology, to pretend that it is a part of us. We want these stories that are so captivating and powerful to be our own.
However, we are not original in adapting the myths of older cultures into our own. The Romans took pieces of the Greek mythos, and Christianity took pieces of Roman mythos. Taking from what came before us is, in a way, a great tradition passed on from civilization to civilization. We take the stories that we like the most and make them our own.
Mythology is an essential part of culture. I cannot help but wonder, what will be considered to be the mythos of our age in the future? What will be adapted into stories about a new land, and a new age, taken from the world of today? Superheroes? Reality TV stars?
Personally, I hope it’s superheroes. A book written in 20014 about the X-Men undercover on a human colony on Mars would be pretty great… Hey, that gives me an idea.
-contributed by Ben Ghan