There are few series that we’re as excited to cover here at Pop Theology than the upcoming Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’ve seen the first four episodes, and I can tell you they’re everything you’re hoping for and more. To tide me over until more new episodes drop, I dove into Norse Mythology, Gaiman’s recent take on those foundational stories.
Let’s be honest, when it comes to ancient mythology, Christianity got the short end of the stick. The stories that make up Norse Mythology (W.W. Norton & Co., 304 pgs.) have always featured awesome gods, awe-inspiring giants, inventive dwarves, and unbelievable feats of heroism and trickery. Here, they feel fresher than they ever have, thanks to Gaiman’s witty prose and his clear understanding of the characters and their motivations. Gaiman’s tone mirrors the Marvelization of the Norse god Thor, specifically in the trailer for the upcoming Ragnarok. Rather than a detached anthology, Norse Mythology feels like a novel with a beautiful beginning, a destructive ending, and a page-turning middle.
Working through the stories of Odin, Thor, Loki, and their divine peers, I’m mindful of mythological comparisons…of creation ex nihilo, the first couple (here named Ask and Embla), and divine sacrifice, to name a few. Consider Gaiman’s take on the beginning:
Before the beginning there was nothing–no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning. (29)
Norse mythology boasts more dramatic complexity than many other myths, namely the humor inherent in Thor’s stupidity, the sheer complexity of Loki, and the wisdom of Odin. Few mythologies say so much about humanity through the depiction of their divinities as powerfully as these (Greek mythology shares these implications). There’s something about polytheism that allows for this in ways that monotheism simply can’t.
Norse Mythology is extremely accessible and suitable for a wide audience. Reading these stories feels like sitting beside a campfire or at a bar, listening to drunken tall tales, and being completely mesmerized by the fire and/or the booze. Gaiman ends his adaptation with a sobering conclusion that asks us to reflect on the ways our beliefs in and stories about gods affect the objects of our devotion.