Throwback Thursday: American Gods, a Novel by Neil Gaiman

Alvíss and Þrúðr by Lorenz Frølich, 1895. Wikimedia Commons.

American Gods is a novel by author Neil Gaiman. As the title suggests, the characters are mostly gods, but from many different pantheons (it is pan-pantheistic, if you will). The characters include several Germanic deities and figures, appearing in their American manifestations: Thor, Loki, Odin, Eostre, Alviss, the Norns, Yggdrasil, and Ratatoskr.

These gods are American because they live in the minds of people who traveled to America; from their minds, the gods took root and grew into American manifestations; as such, we see both the American and Icelandic manifestations of Odin in the novel.

Gaiman's conception of national deities resembles recent work by scholars such as Eric O. Scott, in that there is not a static manifestation of “Odin,” but rather different versions in Iceland and Norway.[i] Additionally, Gaiman’s conception of these gods as “American” allows him to use them in ways that might be offensive if the gods were their traditional manifestations. From the postcolonial perspective, however, this conception of America as a static entity, even in eras well before current borders were established, is problematic. Canada must be included as “America,” as Odin arrived in Canada, and then became American. It is unclear, however, if Mexico or any countries further south are American.

As a popular manifestation of Old Norse myth, Gaiman provides an interesting take on these characters, as well as the evolution of religious traditions through the ages. His reflections on the waning influence of pagan deities in the modern age are apt, and some specific details he includes (such as Loki's scarred lips), show he is very familiar with the source material. 

[i] Scott, Eric O. “Pagan Sympathy as Political Resistance in Two Sagas of Icelanders.” Presented at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2016

Norse Myth Retellings and Valkauskas's "The Illuminated Edda"

As of May 31, game designer Andrew Valkauskas's "The Illuminated Edda" Kickstarter raised $21,921 CAD (about $17,400 USD). "The Illuminated Edda" is described in Valkauskas's Kickstarter campaign as "the greatest Viking epics, the Poetic and Prose Eddas, retold with entertaining storytelling and full-color end-to-end illustration". Specialists will note that this description presents a variety of problems and that some of the manuscripts in question are in fact illuminated.

Valkauskas's project seems to be an illustrated retelling along the lines of the d'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants (1963). Strangely, included in "The Illuminated Edda" are narratives from Celtic sources (described as "the Celtic myths") and material from Finnish sources (described as "the Finnish myths", most likely material retold from the Kalevala).

Given the vibrant and visual nature of the Old Norse narratives, illustrated English language retellings of the Norse myths—or for that matter illustrated editions of any material regarding Norse mythology—are surprisingly rare. The illustrations for the project themselves, done by Croatian artist Natasa Ilincic, are rather nice (here's an example). Despite questionable decisions made in the project, the decision to release an illustrated edition makes Valkauskas's "The Illuminated Edda" notable.