Monday, October 27, 2014

Gods in Popular Culture

So as John and Anne head into the final stretch they've asked me to fill in on the Monday post for a few weeks. So unfortunately this means that there won't be any new mechanics or flavor discussion here for a few weeks. Instead you get me talking about themes and stories that are show up in popular culture.

I am not nearly as well versed in mythology as Anne, John, and most of you, but I do keep up with a lot of popular culture and I've been noticing lately, and it might just be I’m more tuned into it now, mythology shows up a lot. Popular culture is often derided for being watered down, literally being mainstream. But if you pay attention you can find a goldmine of jumping off points for telling your own stories. That last sentence makes for a weird mixed metaphor, but let's keep moving.

So as I said before my aim over the next few weeks, as we get closer to the launch of Hero’s Journey, is to talk about stories (mostly mythological) in popular culture and talk about ways you could play with your own settings.

I’m going to kick this off by talking about American Gods, a book published by Neil Gaiman in 2001. I won’t be going into a ton of detail, but I will be talking about some themes that come up in the book. So it’s should be fair to give a...


Ok seriously I’m going to be loosely discussing plot and themes here, it's pretty general but spoilers.

American Gods tells the story of a man named Shadow who is just getting out of prison when he is hired by Mr. Wednesday to assist with an undefined job. The story takes place in the back rooms and alleys of America also on its forgotten back roads, sleepy towns, and crumbling roadside attractions. Over the course of the story Shadow encounters multiple gods living in the periphery. In the world Gaiman creates, Gods have been brought to the new world by their worshipers through their belief and rituals, but have now been left behind and no longer worshiped.

The gods are for all intents immortal, they live for as long as they are remembered and can only truly die if they are forgotten. That is not to say the gods we meet in the story are well off.  They all feel worn and tired. Most of them are aged and poor, they’re all generally odd and some have gone completely mad. They are all trying to get by with any worship they can get, many turning to grifting and cons to get what little that they can.

These old gods are threatened by the gods of the modern age, gods like Television and Internet, the children of Media. These gods are "worshiped" through daily sacrifice of the masses who willingly make a sacrifice of time. The new gods are fattened by this devotion, but you would be hard pressed to truly call it worship. They seek to eliminate the old gods, because they want all belief and worship for themselves.

So that’s the broad strokes of the setting, I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t. The setting is where the story really gets me. The world Gaiman describes exists on the edges of the real world. It’s a version of the world that looks like ours, but just outside of our view in the corners and dark places fantastic things are happening. They’re happening in the places we don’t pay attention to, to people we would normally ignore.

There are some interesting setting ideas that Gaiman leaves throughout this tail. First is the thought  that there are multiple versions of the same god in the world, they are brought with their worshipers. There could be an Odin in America, but there is also in each land that he was worshiped. These Odins could grow and become their own interpretation of the template, they are both the same and not the same being. What would happen if two of the same god were to meet? Gods tend to dislike sharing. How might the same god evolve in a new culture? What kinds of conflicts could arise between the “original” other versions of themselves?

Another idea is that America, or perhaps the modern world, is not a good place for gods. Humanity has little time left for older beliefs. Many of the gods are kept from being forgotten through their stories but not belief. They’re no longer worshiped, but they’re also not forgotten. These gods are starving for belief, but are unable to perform godly feats. How would weakened gods relate to their champions? How would a champion react to a weak god? How might a "weak" god manipulate their champion? How would they react if their champions had more belief than they did?

Still another idea is that the gods are also concerned with belief as though it were a finite resource. Like humanity, they are willing to go to war over precious resources. What if belief, worship, and faith were finite and one could only way to gain belief, was to diminish another pantheon's. How does that change the divine political landscape?

So that’s my ramblings for the day. How about you? Have you read American Gods, did you get any other ideas from it? I’ll be putting up a forum post to continue the discussion.

I'd also take recommendations as to other stories, movies, and shows you'd like me to talk about.

Have an awesome day!