André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs (Coach House, 2015)
Stories inspired by ancient mythologies persist in contemporary works, whether it’s on our movie screens (Gods of Egypt, Clash of the Titans, Hercules, Thor); our TV screens (Vikings); in our video games (God of War); on our bookshelves (Fifteen Dogs, American Gods, Percy Jackson & the Olympians); or as Shannon Page previously mentioned, in our comics. Even after these cultures have “fallen” and the languages have faded, we still know elements of their mythologies. We know about the Minotaur, Medusa, and sirens that sink ships. We remember their monsters and we also remember their gods.
The fact that we still write about “ancient” gods is fascinating to me. The modern world’s population primarily worships the Abrahamic religions Islam and Christianity. These two heavyweights in spiritual practice are followed by the smaller, but still considerable numbers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and folk religions. These current religions have figures and texts to reference, so why do writers continue to pull from so-called dead religions instead?
An obvious reason why some writers would want to avoid writing about current religions is because it comes with backlash. Certain religions, such as Islam, disapprove of idolatry, so creating a physical image of God would be offensive. Exploring religion in writing, whether it’s adding oppositional opinion or creative license, can end in controversy. Dan Brown’s best seller The Da Vinci Code received backlash for its depictions of the Christian religion, which included the speculation that Jesus had children with Mary Magdalene. The archbishop Angelo Amato said the book was “full of calumnies, offenses and historical and theological errors regarding Jesus, the Gospels and the church.” Amato claimed this while calling for Christians to boycott the book and movie.
An even greater controversy erupted over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which caused now-infamous backlash from Muslim communities. Rushdie’s writing inspired boycotts, book burnings, and bookstore bombings. The Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, along with the publishers of the book. Rushdie had to live under police protection for years.
While some writers might crave controversy, it’s safe to say that many would like to avoid the consequences. A clever way to discuss religion, gods, and spiritual forces without the burden of consequence, is to take on religions that people don’t follow anymore. There won’t be much of an uproar over creative license taken with Odin.
Flipping the Scripture
First, I’d like formally apologize for that pun, but I won’t delete it.
Beyond avoiding controversy, using mythological gods is a way authors play with dynamics of power. Writers and readers are usually stuck with ideals presented in modern religions. In many current religions, the dynamic between the god and worshipper is like that of a parent and child. The child is rewarded for obedience and good behaviour and punished either as a test or for disobedience. The god figure exists for guidance. It is wholeheartedly invested in human lives.
In ancient Norse, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religions, the gods had lives separate from their worshippers. They had their own concerns that were not always connected to humanity. They had their own trysts and love triangles, and fights and friendships. Nowadays, people don’t assume Jesus is ignoring his worshippers in order to settle a fight with Gabriel. We assume that our connection with god (or the gods) is constant.
The ancient dynamic is described in Neil Gaiman’s novel and soon-to-be TV show American Gods. In the novel, we witness deities living beyond the dependence of their worshippers. The deities go to bars. They have friends. They attend the occasional picnic. They commit the occasional murder. More importantly, American Gods places the protagonist Shadow in the midst of a war between old and new deities. Humans aren’t fully aware of this massive event happening around them, because they are not the lead players in this epic.
Scotiabank Giller Prize and Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize winner Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis, also plays with the power dynamic of old gods. Alexis uses Apollo and Hermes to open the novel, in order to take focus away from humanity. Humans are unworthy in comparison:
“ … Apollo argued that, as creatures go, humans were neither better nor worse than any other, neither better nor worse than fleas or elephants, say. Humans, said Apollo, have no special merit, though they think themselves superior.”
Soon after Apollo makes those claims, he and Hermes make a bet that only gods can make. They give fifteen dogs human consciousness to see if it’s possible for them to die happy. The gods watch the fates of the dogs unravel over the years. Even as we watch the dogs divert from the expectations of the gods, or forge their own will, the gods can change it. They intervene, even when they vow otherwise. After the bet is concluded and all the dogs have died, the novel returns to Apollo and Hermes, their lives hardly changed by the entire experience.
Ancient mythology removes the human ego from stories. Greater beings than humans exist and have greater stories. They can control our destinies at a whim, so that we have no power to create our own path or right our own wrongs. We are are not children trying to appease a parent—we are toys waiting to be played with.
More Than Human
The contemporary turn towards ancient gods could be an embrace of their powers. Classic mythologies have all experienced rises and falls in cultural representation over history, and today they’re on the rise.
Our culture has fallen for the popularity of fantasy franchises. We love magical worlds that involve wizards (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Magicians). We have accepted creatures and beasts as fixations of pop culture (vampires, werewolves, mermaids). The creatures have been so normalized in our cultural consciousness that they shift between being written as figures of our nightmares to figures of our romantic desires.
A depiction of the ancient Egyptian god Anubis
We love these figures because they tend to be humans with amplified abilities and characteristics. Wizards, witches, sorcerers, and spellcasters are humans with magical powers. Vampires are humans with fangs and an assortment of special traits depending on the universe they’re in (i.e., super strength, super speed, sparkling, flying, unbelievable sexiness, etc.). Mermaids are part-human, but they can live and breathe underwater. The list continues on with Minotaurs, gorgons, centaurs, zombies, banshees, elves, dwarves, faeries, and beyond. These creatures are similar to humans, but they’re better. They are deadlier, stronger, and more mystical than humans could ever be. They push from the mediocrity of the human form.
I believe that turning to the ancient gods is an extension of our interest with the fantastic. The gods typically appear anthropomorphic or have elements of a human form (i.e., the ancient Egyptian god Anubis has the head of a jackal and the body of a man). They have the essence of humanity without frailties like mortality. The creatures I mentioned previously have fascinating abilities, but they pale in comparison to the leaders of ancient mythologies. Sure, mages and mermaids are interesting, but what’s more extraordinary than a god?
In the end, I think that we turn towards these extraordinary figures because we know that we, as humans, are mediocre. We embrace the fantastic in writing because it is the ultimate form of escapism–we don’t just escape from our everyday lives, we escape from the failings of the human form. We, consciously or unconsciously, understand that Apollo was kind of right: humans have no merit, even though they think themselves superior.