“American Gods,” “Wonder Woman” and the Need to Think Critically About Our Media Consumption

I’ve been talking about pop culture a lot this past week on social media and there have been a few good discussions and a few not so good and I find myself moved this morning to post about it here. Two things prompted this. Firstly, I watched last week’s “American Gods” and posted the following:

“”American Gods” is beautifully shot. Parts of it are intensely profound but in the end, it is peppered with pollution, the attitude clearly stated that the Gods are dependent on us, that humans are greater than the Gods, and the typical screed of modernity. I am so disgusted. It does show the danger of modern culture but…I wonder how many people are seeing that underlying message of disrespect? The same scenes and same story could be told without the line “humans are greater than gods” and yet they just had to put that in. Gaimon et al couldn’t help themselves.”

You would have thought I’d kicked someone’s dog. Many people were deeply bothered by the fact that I criticized Gaiman and this work. Let me be clear, I enjoy the show. It’s beautifully shot and beautifully directed but, because I enjoy it, it’s all the more important to criticize it, to be critical of it, because this show like so many others, presents our Gods in ways that are deeply problematic. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

The second thing that happened today was that my friend Wyrd Dottir posted a review on her fb of the new “Wonder Woman” movie and again, apparently, the Gods are the villains. (I’m disappointed to hear this. I loved the WW television show as a child and I was looking forward to the movie but I won’t be wasting my money on it now). It was at this point that I felt pushed to write something for my blog.

I’ll state right up front that while I may abstain from media like this, I am not actually advocating not reading a book or watching a movie because it is disrespectful or impious. Everyone has to make the choice of what they give space to in their heads, what they indulge in during their free time, and what they expend energy on for themselves. I am, however, deeply concerned about how uncritically polytheists will immerse themselves in media and pop culture without giving it the slightest bit of thought.’ I enjoy it, so it’s ok’ seems to be the rule of the day.

What we watch has the power to affect us. It sets up programming in our minds, unconscious attitudes that then influence how we approach our world. It patterns us to accept or not certain things as normal. What we expose ourselves to has the power to change our inner landscape and thus the way we process and relate to the world at large. It programs us. That’s why I find the attitude (across the board in pop culture) of the Gods being less than humans, or of humans being able to defeat the Gods, or of the Gods being childish and less evolved than we so problematic. This is the attitude enmeshed in modernity and pop culture and it’s  polluting because it is everywhere unquestioned. I know works like “Wonder Woman” or “American Gods” are fiction and yes, it saddens me that our cosmologies are up for grabs this way. For most Pagans, these attitudes will pass by most unrecognized and unquestioned and frankly, on a large scale, I think they  pollute and entrain the mind to dismiss the Gods when they are accepted without question.

People will argue that in the ancient world poets and dramaturgists often wrote in similar fashion of the Gods but I would counter that there was a cultural context deeply rooted in piety and respect for the Powers that counter the damage this might have done (and it wasn’t accepted unquestioningly. There were discussions in the ancient world about the propriety of presenting the Gods in such a liberal fashion. Certain philosophers actually condemned the practice because of the potential for impiety). We have neither that cultural context, that embedded polytheism to shape us, nor the willingness to challenge those things we enjoy. THAT is why it is so deeply problematic.

Others argued when I first talked about this on facebook that movies and television series like this are good even if they present the Gods poorly because they might bring people to the Gods and it’s a good way to spark and interest and learn about Them and Their stories. Maybe but I would counter that there were no records when the first people honored these gods. They had dreams, visions, the gods come through in ritual. They had piety. The lore is a map, not the territory. It’s a check, a useful tool, a reference point, it can teach secrets but nothing takes the place of direct encounters with these beings and that is a thousand times harder than it has to be when we approach them with unconscious attitudes of hubris.

Someone else said that shows like ‘American Gods’ were just an ‘alternative viewpoint’. Well, how is it an alternative viewpoint when the other side is never presented? Popular media only ever seems to present stuff that minimizes and attacks the Gods and devotion to them. Show me movie or television series that has pure, clean piety. (Please…I’d love to know of one). Show me one that isn’t 80% ok but 20% crap.

I reiterate that we need to approach our media critically because this plants seeds in our heads and grows the world inside us and one should be careful of that and learn to filter out the stuff that’s inimical to piety, which we can’t do if we refuse to even  recognize it.

Lykeia rightfully points out:

“In terms of pollution if we consider that one can become unclean from entertaining exposure that which is contrary to our spirituality, a case for pollution (vis a vis media) can be made. Of course it can be entertaining while acknowledging it is spiritually polluting. One can be entertained and enjoy aesthetically things while recognizing a need for cleansing if choosing to indulge in it. Myself such things tend to deter me. I prefer not having that enter my spiritual space.

In polytheism conduct towards the gods and our relationship with them is an important issue (although perhaps not to the “wider pagan community which is one reason out of many I don’t affiliate to such). It is part and parcel to proper etiquette in developing relationships with our gods. A seed planted that the gods are dependent on us and thus leaving us in a position of power taints this relationship potentially which is why many polytheists treat it so gravely. We are virtually surrounded by popular media saying our gods are weak and encouraging hubris ( a huge no no). This is not an issue to this novel only but a common trend in media and so there is a need to be mindful of it and guard against it if necessary.”

Kenaz Filan writes, “We need to figure out how to teach people that everything we are and everything around us is rooted in the Gods, not vice versa. That may be our greatest task in re-establishing a Polytheism for the modern era.” And this is true. Every single argument and controversy in some way comes down to the question of do we prioritize the Gods or man, do we venerate the Gods, or ourselves. Do we value devotion or have we eaten the poisoned fruit of modernity wholesale and without question?

The question raised by American Gods, the nonsense about humans being greater than the Gods isn’t something to allow to slip into our minds unchallenged. To again quote Kenaz Filan,:

“If the Gods are the wellspring and foundation of Being, we exist as part of Their plans and Their actions. If the Gods are the creations of men then they (small t) are tools by which we understand the material universe until they are supplanted by a more accurate understanding. (Once upon a time we believed lightning was Zeus or Thor throwing thunderbolts: today we know better). They are aspects of the Overmind which connects humanity together the way the Internet joins computers. They are symbols which we use like letters in algebra and calculus to answer problems. All those things are centered in humanity. By centering Being in the Gods, we move closer to a worldview where humans are not “lords over earth and its dominions” but part of an intricately connected system created by the Gods for Their purposes”

There is nothing in the community more important than developing a sense of respect and piety toward the Gods.  I think we need to seriously consider what kind of foundation we want to create for our traditions. If we can watch something that presents such a skewed view of our Gods and the act of devotion itself, without critically analyzing it, without even acknowledging that it’s perhaps not presenting us with the best example (at the very least), if we can’t look at our world and see the results of such doggedly entrained disrespect, then what hope is there for the future of our traditions. I think we need to be the most critical of those things we most enjoy because it’s what we watch when we’re relaxed, what we uncritically enjoy that’s going to creep by our mental censors. It’s those things we blindly consume that will do the most damage.

For me it comes down to not wanting to give space in my head to that which does not bring me closer to my Gods. I don’t want to give space within myself to that which doesn’t enhance my devotion. I don’t want to waste time on that which doesn’t nurture my piety no matter how much fun it may be. I’m not asking polytheists to go on a social media or pop culture fast but it would be nice if people could be a little bit more critical, a little bit more thoughtful of the media they do consume. We’re bombarded every day by messages that are deeply deleterious to polytheism. These things matter.

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Posted on June 2, 2017, in Misc., Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Still haven’t seen American Gods, but would like to…I read the book and enjoyed it, and actually set the book down and jumped around the room at one point when Antinous was mentioned, because He gets few enough mentions anywhere, much less in pop culture (not that Gaiman’s writing is exactly “pop culture”–highly successful subcultural, yes, but that’s a minor distinction!), while likewise recognizing that it was about as inaccurate to Antinous’ current cultus as it could possibly be (I believe the phrase regarding His modern worshippers was “steroid-sculpted leather queens”…uh, nope!). I’ll be curious to see if there is any nod towards Him in this show, and if there is I’d like to be aware of it; and, I’d like to see it just because it did look like it might be good, and others are likely to see it and base their ideas off it (i.e. students in classes I teach), and thus I should try and be familiar with it so I can discuss it critically with them if they bring it up.

    One of the only films dealing with the Deities that took Them seriously, in my view, is Thermae Romae, for two reasons: They’re mostly not in it and not referred to; and it is set in Ancient Rome and modern Japan (it’s a Japanese film), and the latter is still actively polytheanimist, so there’s an understanding that doesn’t have to be questioned that these matters are viable and need not even take up too much notice. And, it’s also highly amusing, and has fun with itself and doesn’t take itself (as a film) too seriously, which I also appreciate highly. Anyway…

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  2. Sophia Durrell

    After a recent rereading of Plato’s Republic, questions about the messages in the media on offer in our society have been in the forefront of my thoughts. Plato emphasizes the need to tell appropriate stories about the gods, and the necessity of training in music to enable people to find and follow harmonious patterns in life. These notions seem oppressive and repellent to a modern mindset raised on empty concepts of “individuality” and “uniqueness”, but I believe there is a great wisdom to them, especially when looking at the fruits of such a mindset on a societal level. Mass media technology has a power to reinforce patterns of thought, behavior and aesthetics on a world-wide level ( so much for uniqueness!). Unfortunately, the patterns chosen are always those that reinforce, the easiest, the cheapest and the lowest common denominator, and reject and defile the ideal and sacred relentlessly.

    I’m not a fan of Gaiman’s work (which seems to make me something of a heretic among most heathens I know) and don’t care for the awe and admiration he recieves for writing books that give a token nod to my gods, while painting them as all- too- human conmen. My misssion currently is seeking that which is worthy of worship, and creations like his obfuscate and corrupt that idea, and are given too much adulation in the heathen community. Are we that hungry for affirmation from the secular world, that we lap up these tainted scraps of acknowlegement, and pay for the privelege?

    I think a reversal of the 60’s credo may be helpful in this day and age : Turn off, tune out, and drop in. Unmediated connection and communication with each other, and our gods.

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  3. It’s interesting, because I totally agree with your basic argument here – that it matters what media we consume and how it affects our even unconscious ideas about the gods – but I had a bit of a different reaction to American Gods. Don’t get me wrong, I too cringed hard when the last episode had some line in it about how the gods were products of human minds. I feel like even just from a story perspective, that kind of lessened the inherent meaning and impact of what the show had built up thus far regarding the interactions between gods and mortals. Not to mention, obviously, being disappointed that once again they felt the need to put in a little footnote – “Oh of course we’re not actually saying any of this is REAL” – and I feel like that’s a sickness of our culture.

    BUT, on the other hand, I don’t actually watch this show merely for “entertainment” – in fact, I don’t generally consume media simply for entertainment purposes as is so common in our culture (or, when I do, it’s total fluff just to relax, not something potentially meaningful like this). I am always looking to be moved, not just aesthetically but emotionally and spiritually, I want it to connect to the things that matter to me. American Gods has been doing that, not just because it shows a bunch of familiar gods, which is neat, but because it delves into some really powerful stuff even when no gods are present – such as the episode centered on Laura which was rather mainadic in a weird way. Or look at the very first scene of the very first episode – it unapologetically showed the harsh reality of interacting with gods where the gods still came through, and I can relate to that. If it wasn’t hitting me like that, I might have a lot less patience for the crap mentioned above.

    Ultimately, I understand that the people making this are not polytheists and have no obligation to present our beliefs as true. But I do agree strongly that we need to police the stuff we let into our minds, and at least question everything, recognize those atheistic biases, and make sure we’re reaffirming to our own selves what is really true and meaningful to us. And also, learn to see our gods in everything so that even mundane stuff can be re-enchanted, as it were.

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  4. We humans are not more powerful than the Gods. That statement should make those who believe, honor & love our Deities very upset. The one point that the show is telling us mortals, too much technology, connected to our phones like there part of our bodies. Whether or not the people who watch this show understands the message will depend if they can do without their cell phones & other forms of technology to let their minds absorb it.
    Sady, the book is great, but this series doesn’t reflect the imagination & wonder the author had envisioned. But I am a great fan of Neil Gaiman’s books.

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  5. I have complex feelings about “American Gods”, the TV show.
    I loved the book when it came out but I was much more of a Neo-Pagan than a polytheist back then. (I had previously loved the author’s graphic novel series “Sandman” because it had excellent storytelling and featured gods and beings from ancient religions.)

    I was very excited when they announced the show. I think the casting is excellent but there’s just something about the show that I’m not liking. It’s too ‘stylistic’. Rather than presenting the story in a straightforward manner, there’s all sorts of artistic embellishes which takes away from the series a bit for me.

    Additionally, I think the blood and gore is over-the-top. It’s like an artsy Peckinpah. Knowing the story, I understand that blood and sacrifice are an essential aspect of the plot. So yeah, I expect some blood. I’m not offended by blood. I just think it’s treated in an almost pornographic way here, which takes me out of the reality of the show.

    Having said that, I think the beginning of Episode 3 where we first see Anubis is probably one of the best depictions of polytheism in popular culture as of yet.

    As far as whether or not these pieces of media are pollutive, I think American Gods..like Wonder Woman…are intended to be interpretations of popular pieces of media (Gaiman’s book and the Wonder Woman comics, respectively).

    Does it impart a respectful polytheistic attitude towards the gods? No. But I think art such as these gets one’s foot in the door, so to speak, for people to potentially seek a relationship with the gods. From there, it’s possible that people will seek more information about the gods and find modern polytheistic religions and respectful information about how to have a pious relationship. Or perhaps they’ll open the wrong door and end up on tumblr.

    How do most people born into this polluted monotheistic culture end up finding our way the gods? Yes, for many of us it was because we read mythology as a kid. Or saw the classic “Clash of the Titans”. But for some people, the entry point is going to things like the Thor movies. Or American Gods. Or Wonder Woman. Or comic books.

    Though maybe these pop culture versions of our gods do not impart a healthy or respectful attitude…but if it gets people interested in polytheism in the long run, I support it.

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  6. The TV show Supernatural is very disrespectful to polytheists too.

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  7. I think the same about Japanese media. I watch a lot of anime and you can see many Shinto themes in it. There is a clear undercurrent of polytheism and it is often beautiful and comforting to me. One example is in Madoka Magica, they were mocking major religions’ hatred of the body and physical world and depicting it as disturbed and cultish. A cult of brainwashed people trying to commit mass suicide by mixing bleach and ammonia, talking about death liberating them from the pain of life and the body. The episode was called “Miracles and Magic Are Real”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Puella_Magi_Madoka_Magica_episodes

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  8. I saw “Wonder Woman” last night, and as soon as the Zeus/Ares angle came up, I knew I’d be reading a piece from you this weekend that dealt with it. I don’t say that in a disparaging manner either. These are important conversations that we should be having.

    Ultimately, we as humans need to be critical of everything. Our world is actively trying to program us, to force us down a Modernist Materialism path that isn’t good for anyone, much less those of us that are actively trying to get/stay in contact with the numinous.

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  9. I have enjoyed Gaimon’s work, but I easily separate it as a work of fiction in my mind from what the God/desses are quite capable of. I do think that too many people fail to make this distinction, and that you are spot on with your statement that what people watch impacts their ways of thinking about something without their even examining their Subconscious for what might be truth from lack of truth.

    The God/desses have an uncanny way of working with what’s in my head to educate me and help me grow in their service… That can never be if I took in a polluted image of God/dess. I have to continually separate the images that result from my dance with Nature and that feed me from those that don’t. It is an ongoing process of cleansing and prayer, even with the minute seeming stuff. It is an ongoing balance between the stuff of ego and the stuff of devotion and piety…

    I am grateful that you continue to utilize those terms, Galina, because modern culture does not seem to grasp a sense of the Holy even by half.

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  10. First I’ll state I haven’t watched or read American Gods.

    Keep in mind that although some media may seem centered around polytheistic beliefs, it’s most likely written and produced by monotheists, atheists or agnostics. When creating these stories they must explain why deity X is interested in interacting with humans. A simple answer that fits their human-centric world view is because they need us.
    Actually this idea exists in some polytheist religions, that offerings “feed” the Gods, and that they need this nourishment.
    The convenient concept of a deity that loves us unconditionally and would do anything for us “just because” doesn’t fit my concept of a universe filled with powerful sentient non human persons, so why do the Gods bother with us? Perhaps in some cases we fulfill some need they have, reciprocating our need for them, even if it’s just to feel needed. I would say thinking that this relationship means they are beholden to us or created by us is surely hubris and solipsism.
    I still can’t comprehend why my God would bother with me, even if I do pray and offer and thank Him, for He is so huge and vast and ancient, but I resolve that some things are not knowable to me, at least not in this physical form.

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  11. I haven’t seen American Gods, but it is one of my favorite books. The books appealed to me as an English major because Gaiman skillfully pulls in a lot of illusions to Long Century novels in those historical chapters. It was also one of the first fiction books I read that tried, in some respects, to make an argument for theogony and mythos in America. However, I had misgivings about the television series as soon as I heard about it because I know what movies and television do to polytheism, and from the trailers &c., there’s nothing that is surprising to me about how it’s going. (Like, does anyone remember the Maenads in True Blood?) The only reason I haven’t tried to see what the show is attempting is that I put a high value on my time, and I’m spending a lot of my time writing a polytheistic science fiction opus.

    One of the things I have considered doing is trying to look at South Asian and other non-Western science fiction works (which is called science fantasy in many cases due to sentiments in the genre) to ID which among them is actually saying really cool things about modern and futuristic cultures and their relationships with gods. I’d rather make time in my life to read creative works that write about gods skillfully, and I think it’s very important that polytheist creators increase our visibility and impact on culture.

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  12. The attitude of man over Gods in pop culture is an old one. Original Star Trek had Apollo trying to recreate worship only to be foiled by Capt. Kirk. What I have seen in popular culture in science fiction especially is the triumph of the human, with God believers being from the Dark Ages. Xena Warrior Princess had the decline and fall of the Gods, with the rise of the monotheistic God. The list goes on.

    Whenever Gods appear in popular culture, the result is usually the same. They are figments of the imagination, less than powerful, con artists, and the like. I think that unless a person is rooted in Polytheism, they will assimilate these ideas in their practices.

    How does a person become rooted in Polytheism? By reading original sources and writings of other Polytheists. By discussions with the same and arguing theology with passion. Daily practices and devotions.

    One thing I do is rebut what I read in pagan books. I do that with various blogs that present an intrusion into Polytheism. At the end of the day, I do make sure that if my brain is veering into Pagan non-theistic territory, to stop reading that stuff. Take a fast in reading popular culture stuff. Go back to reading Ovid and the others.

    The problem is dicey since popular culture does present Gods but presents Them in a bad light or just useless.

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  13. An angle here is that this stuff about “belief” is just window-dressing. Religion doesn’t have a great track record in our culture, and in order to even think about the gods, much less the gods having a reality, people need to rationalize and rationalize and rationalize it with theories they find “plausible.” American Gods’ silly rationalization allows people two things: people to believe the premise and then move on, and also for Gaiman to explore what he wants to explore, which is what those gods mean in *our* cultural context rather than the ones we find in the Eddas.

    And, well, the fact of the matter is “American Gods” made a lot of people pagan. I know a bunch of people, including myself, who were drawn to Odin from the depiction there. The greater question to me is artistic. Are the gods portrayed as alive, disruptive, vibrant, compelling? And here the answer is absolutely yes. That is, after all, the starting point for polytheism. Everything else is theology, and while theology is important, I can excuse a great deal for a great depiction.

    Besides, I’m not as inclined to see the concept of “human over gods” as blasphemous as you– there are plenty of accounts in myth of humans standing up to the gods, and while it usually ends in some kind of horrifying consequence, humans do get away with it, especially with the help of other gods. Our mysteries are much deeper than the imperative toward total obedience you get in monotheisms. That doesn’t mean American Gods’ account is strictly correct, but as a fantasy, it has a lot to say, and a lot to say of relevance to polytheists.

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  14. You bringing up the original Star Trek, with Apollo being the last Deity that hoped mortals would one day find him again, touches a long ago memory. As a beginning teenager, that episode crushed me, even though I wasn’t of the ancient path then.( It laid dormant then)
    To think a mortal could defeat the God Apollo. The breaking of his heart when mankind would not love him in return ripped through me.Even though we know that it is modern pop culture, the pain of seeing those Deities we love & are devoted to treated so badly gets to be too much for some of us.
    Thankfully, all voices & opinions can be raised on Pagan blogs. Even stating how it offends us to see the disrespect & falsehoods portrayed, may it give the Deities hope that there are some who will speak out when they are shown in such a poor & false.fashion.
    Thank you for letting our thoughts be expressed here.
    Blessings to all here.

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  15. It’s interesting to read the “gods” tropes listed on tvtropes.org- “Gods Need Prayer Badly”, “Jerkass Gods”, etc, and see how they’ve been used in various media.

    As an author, I find the theme of “the Gods have shifted their attention elsewhere” to be more useful than “the Gods need prayer”. Just like you might become less active on an internet forum or social media site when there isn’t anything going on to interest you.

    An anime series worth checking out is Natsume’s Book of Friends (Natsume Yūjin-chō), despite its dippy-sounding title. A young man frees yokai, one at a time, that his grandmother thoughtlessly bound when she was a girl.

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  16. I just want to start out and say thank you for writing about this topic. I had a conversation similar to this a few months ago with some Polytheists about how we need to be critical of what we consume (in this instance it was internet memes about the Gods but the idea is the same). They shrugged it off saying similar things to the counterpoints you mentioned about the poets talking about the Gods in bad ways. They just couldn’t see that it’s different now because of the cultural context! Not only that, as you mention, the poets that depicted the Gods in such negative light were called into question by our forebears. Also, when we look at the pieces themselves, the scenes in question still have a sense of propriety. When Diomedes wounds Ares, it’s only because he had help from Athena. It took the power of another deity for a man to contend with a deity. That shows that even when we see humans taking on divine beings in the lore, it’s only possible through the divine beings Themselves (either through the mortal in question having assistance or ultimately having the divine within them). The Gods are still on top (where They should be).

    But anyways, I think this situation also goes to show how important devotional art is. What we are seeing here is creative expression being the litmus test for how society as a whole views the Gods. If we as Polytheists start reclaiming the way our deities’ images are handled in the major and minor media outlets, then I propose that this would begin to balance out and even swing public opinion. Ultimately, this would lead to a better social environment for our people. In short, we need to call upon those who have the talent and devotion to infiltrate the movie and television industries and make Polytheist art.

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  17. You asked about one series that portrays pure piety: HBOs Rome. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially for this reason.

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