‘American Gods’: If I had a hammer

American Gods
“The Secret of Spoons”
May 7, 2013

Short Version

After being saved by an anonymous hero, Shadow Moon gets patched up and demands to know what the actual hell is going on, but Mr. Wednesday remains maddeningly vague. Shadow packs up his wife’s house and he and Wednesday hit the road. On a stop at Target or a Target equivalent, Shadow is propositioned by Lucille Ball to come work for her. He politely declines. He and Mr. Wednesday head to Chicago where they have dinner with Czernobog and the Zorya Sisters, where Mr. Wednesday tries to convince a reluctant Czernobog to come to a meeting. Instead, Czernobog challenges Shadow to a game of checkers: if Shadow wins, he’ll attend the meeting, if Czernobog wins, he gets to bash Shadow’s head in with a hammer. Either way, Shadow does not seem to get very much out of this particular wager. Shadow loses, again, and you’d think he’d have learned his lesson about making bets with supernatural beings by now.

Coming to America, 1697

SO IT WAS WRITTEN.

On a Dutch slave ship headed to America, a slave cries out to his god Anansi, begging for his help. The slave does not have anything to offer Anansi, but if he can get him out of this mess, the slave promises all kinds of goodies, including nice silks and fine wines. Please, Anansi, he doesn’t know where his mother is.

Anansi appears with some terrible news: Slave’s Momma is long dead, having been thrown off the boat by one of the rapey Dutch assholes above deck, and his mother can’t swim, which is something all of the slaves need to work on: take swimming lessons. That’s how stereotypes are created.

Anansi then begins to tell the men a story: “Once upon a time a man got fucked.” And that is the story of black people in America, the end. Anansi realizes that his audience doesn’t even know that they are black yet, that they became black when those Dutch motherfuckers upstairs decided they were black.

And what waits for these black folks when they get to shore is a lot of not good: they will be slaves, worked literally to death, only allowed Sundays off to fuck and make more slaves. One hundred years later, they’re still fucked. A hundred years after that: fucked. And a hundred years after they are freed? Still fucked, being killed by cops and kept out of work.

So, get angry, because angry is good, angry gets shit done, angry is a god. And really, when you think about it, there’s no good reason for them to even bother with this whole America experiment. Instead, they should set this boat on fire and slit every Dutch throat above deck, because they’re already dead, they might as well die a sacrifice for something worthwhile.

So that’s exactly what they do, amen.

Somewhere in America, Namely Indiana as seen on Shadow’s motel t-shirt

Despite being nearly hung to death, Shadow is for the most part remarkably OK. He gets a few quick staples into a wound on his side, and then heads back to the motel where he and Mr. Wednesday are staying to demand a few god damned answers from his new boss. But Mr. Wednesday, who has been biding his time with a busty blonde, claims he has no idea what Shadow is talking about until Shadow describes the TechnoDouche with the toad pipe, threatening to “reprogram reality.” Mr. Wednesday assures Shadow that his lynching has earned him hazard pay and that TechnoBro’s assault on Shadow is an insult to him.

That night, Shadow dreams of his wife, and when he tells her that everyone told him she had died, she whispers that he’s merely having a bad dream.

The next day, Shadow packs up the house he shared with Laura and in the process finds a particularly unsettling text from his best friend on her phone.

HEY, SHOW, NO ONE LIKES UNSOLICITED DICK PICS, THANKS.

ron swanson hammer cell phone mad angry hate.gif

That bit of business taken care of, Mr. Wednesday tells him there is only so long Shadow is required to grieve for a woman who was schtupping his best friend, and Shadow manages to not punch him in his good eye.

And then they are off on their journey. Mr. Wednesday half-explains the parameters of the trip: they are going to be meeting a number of important people in different places, and they are never going to take the highway because it’s boring. First stop: Chicago, to pick up Mr. Wednesday’s “hammer.”

Except actually, the first stop is a diner where Mr. Wednesday is meeting someone and he sends Shadow off to Target to pick up some supplies.

And that’s where Shadow meets New Goddess, Media, in the form of Lucille Ball in a bank of television sets. Lucy Ricardo explains to Shadow that people worship her now through their multitude of screens: time and attention are better than lamb’s blood when it comes to sacrifices. She offers Shadow a job working for her and the New Gods, but seeing as her buddy is TechnoDouche — and that Shadow is PRETTY SURE HE’S GOING INSANE SINCE HE’S TALKING TO LUCY RICARDO THROUGH A TELEVISION — Shadow declines her offer. As he hurries away from this madness, Media calls out to him that she’s seen the likes of Shadow before and guys like him always end up a suicide. She’s just trying to keep his neck out of that belt.

lucy drunk.gif

Shadow returns to the diner where he passes Mr. Wednesday’s dining companion who appears to have fireball eyes, not unlike his buffalo dream friend. But Shadow just shrugs this off  as one more indication that he’s losing his damn mind, a worry that he shares with Mr. Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday, however, is like, “Eh. There are bigger sacrifices one might be asked to make than going a little mad.”

Back in the car, Mr. Wednesday hurls the cell phone Shadow bought for him out the window, as well as Shadow’s phone, just for good measure, before musing on his charms with the ladies. “Charms can be learned like anything else,” Mr. Wednesday explains while performing his own magic trick: turning the car radio on without ever touching it.

illusion trick arrested development

They finally arrive in Chicago, where they swing by a tenement apartment to visit with the Zorya Sisters and their relative and Mr. Wednesday’s proverbial hammer, Czernobog. When Mr. Wednesday presents gifts for the sisters, elder sister, Zorja Vechernjaja (otherwise known as the criminally underappreciated Cloris Leachman) begrudgingly invites them to dinner but warns that Czernobog is going to be none too happy to see them. Also, DON’T WAKE UP HER SISTER. Not the silent Zorya Utrennyaya (played by the utterly wonderful Martha Kelly from Baskets), she’s awake and helping Vechernjaja with dinner, but Zorya Polunochnaya, whom we will not have the pleasure of meeting (in this episode). Zorya Vechernjaja offers to read Shadow’s fortune, but he’s not interested thanks, we’re all fucked anyway.

mr. nancy fucked american gods.gif

And that’s when Czernobog comes home from a long day at the slaughterhouse, and he’s not thrilled to find “Wotan” in his living room, gifts or no gifts. But seeing as Zorya Vechernjaja has invited Wednesday and Shadow for dinner, he agrees to let them stay — but only through dinner.

In the kitchen, Shadow helps the sisters with dinner, and Zorya Vechernjaja explains that the meal will not be great: back in the old country, she had servants, but here, they only have themselves and learning is beneath her. Zorya Utrennyaya glances into Shadow’s coffee cup, and alarmed, shows Zorya Vechernjaja who is also visibly shaken. When Shadow asks what they see, Vechernjaja replies that he will have a long happy life with many children, before telling him something closer to the truth: his mother died of cancer. He will not die of cancer.

Meanwhile in the living room, Mr. Wednesday tries to convince Czernobog to come with him to some meeting that “everyone” is going to be at, that Mr. Wednesday needs his strength. But Czernobog is like, “NAH.”

Over dinner, Czernobog notes that Shadow is black before explaining that in his country everyone pretty much looks the same, so they had to fight over shades. His brother had a fairer complexion than Czernobog so everyone thought he must be the “good” brother, and Czernobog became the “dark” brother.

1x02_Locke_Backgammon_set pilot 2

But over time, they both turned gray, so it’s impossible to tell who is the dark brother and who is the light one.

Czernobog then goes on a long story about coming to America and eventually being forgotten by his countrymen, and having to get a job in a slaughterhouse. There’s a lot of talk about sledgehammering a cow’s skull — like, a whole lot — before Czernobog begins bitching about bolt guns.

Czernobog then challenges Shadow to a game of checkers which Shadow accepts. Halfway through the game, Czernobog introduces Shadow to his hammer, which appears to bleed all over the damn place, before proposing a bet: if Shadow wins the game, Czernobog will go with Mr. Wednesday to his meeting. If Czernobog wins, he gets to bash Shadow’s head in with his hammer. And Shadow, because he hasn’t LEARNED HIS DAMN LESSON about NOT TAKING BETS WITH STRANGERS WHO MAY OR MAY NOT BE GODS but WHO ARE DEFINITELY TALKING ABOUT BASHING HIS SKULL IN WITH A HAMMER, accepts. And hey! Guess who loses the checkers game? That’d be Shadow, and Czernobog notes that it’s a shame, as Shadow is his only black friend.

Somewhere Else in America, Namely Back in California

Bilquis is still eating people with her magic vagina. Also, she goes to a museum and looks longingly at some jewelry in a display case that I guess was hers once.

Get on with the Analysis Already

Some background on our new godly friends here.

Anansi is a African trickster god who takes the form of a spider — sometimes a spider with a sharp fashion sense. He is a storyteller, and is associated with the oral tradition of the people of Ghana. His stories were brought to the New World by slaves, and in the Caribbean, he serves as a symbol of slave resistance.

Anansi is credited with bringing storytelling to the world. In one of the most well-known tales about Anansi, the sky god Nyame had all of the stories and was keeping them to himself. Anansi asked what it would cost to buy the stories and Nyame demanded Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, and the Mboro Hornets. Anansi tricked all three animals, capturing them sometimes with his webs, and brought them back to Nyame who in return made him the gods of all stories.

Anansi is also said to have accidentally spread wisdom to the world. In this story, he was trying to hoard wisdom and contain in a pot which he was planning to put in a safe place high in a tree. He tied the pot to the front of himself, but that made it difficult to climb the tree and he grew increasingly frustrated. His young son suggested that he tie the pot behind himself, and Anansi was so irritated that a child solved this problem that he dropped the pot and wisdom fell out, spreading across the world.

According to Penguin’s Dictionary of Symbols:

Anansi the spider prepared the material from which the first humans were made and created the sun, the moon and the stars. Then Nyame, the sky-god, breathed life into mankind. The spider continued to play the go-between between gods and mortals and, as a culture hero, brought mankind corn and the hoe.

And so we have in Orlando Jones’ fiery Anansi a storyteller, and a protector, in a fashion, of his people. What I find interesting is that like Odin, Anansi is not only a god that is associated with wisdom, but also a god who tried to keep wisdom entirely for himself. Knowledge is power, after all.

As for Czernobog, what we know about him is somewhat limited. We know Czernobog was a Slavic god whose name meant “Black God” and who represented darkness, possibly evil. His brother is Belobog, or “White God,” and as such is a solar god, a god of lightness and good.

Or so we think. It turns out the very little we know about these gods comes from early Christian scholars who might have had their own theologically-based interpretations of these polytheistic figures. In particular, they may have been the ones to characterize our friend Czernobog as a satanic figure. (Fun fact, the dark satanic creature in Disney’s Fantasia is Chernobog [which is a variation on Czernobog’s name.]) There is actually scant evidence that the ancient Slavs necessarily associated evil with darkness, which is in and of itself a fairly Christian concept.

Some more modern interpretations of Czernobog and Belobog suggest that instead of being brothers, two separate entities, they might just be dual aspects of a singular solar god for instance. In many myths, this light-dark dualism represents the sun’s journey through the day: filling the world with light before descending into the underworld and darkness. Thus, Czernobog and Belobog might just be two different names for the same solar being, representing two different aspects of his nature.

As for his hammer, hammers are male symbols of creative-destructive forces, brute strength, sometimes evil. Again, according to Penguin’s Dictionary of Symbols, there are two Lithuanian (i.e. Slavic) myths related to hammers. In one, a powerful king had locked up the Sun in a tower, so the signs of the Zodiac shattered the tower with a mighty hammer, setting the Sun free. In another, iron hammers are the instruments with which the gods break through the ice and snow to bring about Springtime. I find it interesting that in both tales, the hammer is used to restore light, to help the solar god, which in these tales would cast Czernobog’s hammer in a considerably less sinister light.

Speaking of the zodiac, that brings us to the charming Zorya Sisters. In Slavic mythology, the Zoryas are the Morning and Evening Stars who serve the solar god Dažbog (and who might be their father). In the morning, Zorya Utrennyaya (“Sister Dawn”) opens the gates to his palace for his sun-chariot to pass through, and in the evening, Zorya Vechernyaya (“Sister Evening”) closes the gates when he returns. In some accounts, they are both married to the moon and bear his children, the stars; in other accounts they are virgin goddesses. I suppose Gaiman went with the latter.

The Zoryas have another job: they keep an eye on Simagrl, the winged doomsday hound who is chained to Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor (“The Little Bear”). If the chain were to break, Simagrl will eat the constellation and the universe will end.

ursa minor american gods.JPG

What I find interesting about the Zorya is this notion of dualism: one old, one young; one ushers in the night, the other the morning. And yet, the Morning Star and the Evening Star are (often) the same star, Venus (except for the infrequent times when it is Mercury – – save your comment). And I assume that the Slavs were both sophisticated enough to know that from an astrological perspective and from a metaphorical one. If Belabog and Czernobog are actually two sides of one being, why can’t Utrennyaya and Vechernyaya be as well?

As for the third Zorya sister, she was an invention of Gaiman’s, Zorya Polunochnaya, “Sister Midnight.” But we’ll get to her in the next episode.

A few other points about this episode: the Zorya sisters see something in Shadow’s coffee dregs, but it’s unclear what.

coffee ground american gods.JPG

I saw an eagle, others say they thought it looked like a Thunderbird, both of which are symbols of great power, the Thunderbird more associated with Native American tradition. Others thought it could be a raven, a bird that is often associated with death and war, and are symbols of Odin. It could also be a Phoenix, the great bird of death and rebirth. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ In any event, a bird symbol would be fitting for Shadow on this particular journey.

Speaking of Odin, the episode begins with Shadow having a wound in his his side stapled shut after his assault. In the myth, when Odin hung himself for nine days and nine nights to access the secrets of the runes, he also wounded himself with his spear in his side.

And while we’re on the subject of those runes, on their road trip, Mr. Wednesday notes that “charms can be learned like anything else.” Odin would tell him it just might require a little self-sacrifice.

hanged man tarot

Which brings me to a point I forgot to get to in my last post: The Hanged Man tarot card. In some interpretations, The Hanged Man is actually Odin himself, representing his act of self-sacrifice for knowledge of the runes. But even if The Hanged Man is not understood to be Odin, typical readings of the card suggest it represents not a punishment, but of letting go, submission, self -sacrifice, changing one’s perspective and seeing the world in a new fashion.

His seeming stillness and pose are signs of complete submission, the promise and assurance of an accretion of greater esoteric and spiritual powers — chthonian rejuvenation. The Hanging Man has relinquished enhancement of the powers within him, standing aside the better to ingest cosmic influences.

As you probably have picked up on by now, sacrifice is a huge theme of this story. Gods demand sacrifices from their worshippers — it’s part of the grand bargain. If you aren’t willing to make a sacrifice, be it a blood sacrifice or the sacrifice of a more esoteric nature to that which you worship, can you really call yourself a believer?

What is interesting is that the episode is bookended by acts of self-sacrifice by black men — men who have just heard a god’s take on the meaninglessness of the white-black dualism. The slaves do not know that they are “black” or what the consequences of being “black” are until Anansi tells them. They then choose to sacrifice themselves to something “worthwhile” — to prevent their own suffering, while also taking out some of those “white” motherfuckers who if left alive would just go on to enslave others. Their act of self-sacrifice at Anansi’s suggestion is an act of seeing the world from a new perspective and understanding that this new world — the New World — will be their death. They submit to this new reality, they let go of their instinct of self-preservation, and by sacrificing themselves, they are freed.

As for Shadow, after being lectured by Czernobog on the pointlessness of being labeled black or white as it’s all gray in the end, he joins Czernobog in a game of checkers — a game of black against white.

From Penguin’s Dictionary of Symbols regarding the checkerboard, or “chequer-board” as they so charmingly put it:

Symbolizing the opposing powers which battle against one another in a life-and-death struggle within both the universe and the human individual, its pattern is especially suitable for a board game. It encapsulates the conflict situation. The arrangement of squares is a signal that battle is about to commence. That battle may be between reason and instinct, design and chance, of one set of factors against another, or of the different potentialities of a single life. The chequer-board thus symbolizes the arena in which such conflicts and battles take place.

Though the checkers game is symbolic of these light-versus-dark, white-versus-black conflicts within the universe (and man himself), ultimately the game is really about Shadow’s struggle with accepting this new reality in which he has found himself. Shadow spends much of the episode worrying that he is losing his mind, what with Leprechauns and being hung by weird faceless dudes, Lucille Ball trying to offer him a job, guys with flaming eyeballs walking around, Mr. Wednesday performing magic, strange Slavic women knowing about his mother’s death, and hammers that bleed.

By agreeing to be a sacrifice in the event that he loses this game, Shadow is submitting to the possibility that he might not be mad and this world might be real. He is letting go of the rules of the universe he once knew where none of this was possible. By offering himself as a sacrifice to Czernobog’s hammer, Shadow is opening himself up to see the world from a new strange and enlightened perspective.

American Gods airs on Starz on Sundays at 8 p.m. and does not allow talk of killing cows at the dinner table.

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2 thoughts on “‘American Gods’: If I had a hammer

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