This article doesn’t spoilers for the novel or TV show American Gods, other than the fact that these are characters you will meet. You already know that if you watch two of the commercials or have seen the many, many posters that have been posted for months and names each of the characters. This article won’t give away what these characters actually do in the story of either the novel by Neil Gaiman or the TV show, and we won’t be talking about the “new gods” such as Media and Technical Boy, etc. If you know the story, here’s some fun background on where these old god and mythical characters originally came from. If you don’t, here’s a primer on some mythology! Neat, right?
Odin AKA Woden AKA Wotan AKA Weda
In Norse mythology, Odin is not the first god but he is the grandson of one of the first gods. He helped create the Earth and then created humanity, and he is father to many of the Norse gods of Asgard, so he is often called the All-Father. He is a warrior and ruler who once desired greater knowledge and wisdom, so to accomplish this he sacrificed an eye, was speared in the side and then was hanged from a tree. But he is also a bit of a trickster, one who disguises himself and goes by different aliases when he needs to trick his enemies into helping him and/or defeating themselves. He is wise and cunning, but also absent-minded at times.
Occasionally Odin travels the world disguised as an old drifter with a long beard, often wearing a hat and cloak while using a walking stick. Sometimes he has used the aliases Grimnir, Baleyg, Brunn, Langbard, Londungr, and others. Odin prizes information and so his two ravens Huginn and Muninn (“Thought” and “Memory”) spy on people and events around the world, then report back to him. He has also been known to have two wolves named Geri and Freki (‘Ravenous” and “Greedy”). The day we call Wednesday is named after Odin (essentially derived from “Woden’s day”), just as Tuesday is named after his son Tyr AKA Teiws (the god of war and combat), Thursday is named for his son Thor (god of thunder), and Friday is named after his wife Frija or Frigg (an Earth goddess associated with foreknowledge and wisdom.
Odin or Grimnir or Mr. Wednesday is portrayed by Ian McShane.
Bilquis AKA Bilqis AKA Queen of Sheeba
There isn’t much solid mythology around this woman. She is mentioned in various Judeo, Christian and Islamic texts. She is supposed to be a queen and may have been real, but exactly who she was and the nature of her kingdom is a mystery left up to debate. All we have are pieces of stories. Some call her a seductress and wildly passionate.
In American Gods, some figures we meet are based on literal people but not those same people themselves. The ones we meet are walking myths based on the stories and ideas made about those people, and these walking myths take on a life of their own. So even if the Queen of Sheba existed in reality, the woman we meet in this story doesn’t have to be her. This is rather the myth behind her, a myth that is doing whatever she can do to stay alive and vital.
Bilquis is played by Yetide Badaki.
Mad Sweeney AKA Buile Suibhne
Suibhne (which is pronounced “Sweeney”) is from an old Irish tale of which there are many versions. One of the major versions is that a pagan king named Suibhne mac Colmain (“mac” meaning “son of”) left a battlefield when he was driven insane when a saint he had wronged put a curse on him. Suibhne was compelled to wander and moved quickly from one location to another like a bird. Some stories say he also took on bird-like qualities such as feathers. He participated in many battles, often enjoying them for their own sake. At times his sanity would be restored, only to be lost later. It’s said he was fated to die in battle on a spear.
The Sweeney of American Gods is certainly a man who likes a fight and who seems compelled to wander, but he seems more reckless than insane. He also claims to be a Leprechaun and is able to produce gold coins from thin air. It’s true that Leprechauns are also Irish myth and that they often, like Mad Sweeney himself, were tall. Why this version of Mad Sweeney is a leprechaun is tough to explain. Perhaps because enough American-Irish who continued his stories also wound up putting him in the same category as a leprechaun, or misremembered his stories by confusing him with one, it made him follow suit. A major premise of American Gods, after all, is that thought and belief not only creates gods and similar entities but can also change them over time. Or maybe he’s just joking and not letting go of what he thinks is a good bit.
Mad Sweeney is portrayed by Pablo Schreiber.
Anansi AKA Nancy AKA Kwaku Anansi AKA Compe Anansi
Originating in Ghana, Anansi is one of the most famous figures in West African and Caribbean folklore and has had many stories told in America as well. “Anansi” means “spider” and he is both a spider and a man, a figure who did not start as a god but then, through cleverness and cunning, was given the status of god of all stories. He is known to help others, but is also often interested in helping himself. He is a trickster whose schemes are said to be the reason why a tiger has stripes. One story says that the moon belongs to him and he put it in the sky so that all his children, and all of us, could enjoy it together. He is also seen as a figure of resistance against captivity and oppressors.
Depending on the story and circumstance, Anansi may appear to be a spider or a man or a hybrid spider-man or a spider in man’s clothes. In some stories, he is Aunt Nancy. Some stories say that he does not transform from one shape to another. He is simply what he needs to be or wants to be at any given time.
Anansi, or “Mr. Nancy,” is portrayed by Orlando Jones.
Czernobog AKA Chernabog
His name means black god. He is the god of darkness and evil, brother to Belobog the god of light and good. Remember the black, winged demon in Disney’s Fantasia? That was meant to be this guy.
A Slavic deity, he is associated with the darker seasons of the year, and thus he is connected to cold, famine, crop death, illness, and even poverty. He is not a trickster or known for using cunning. His actions are direct, often the result of brute force and straightforward attacks. He is a nasty, ill-tempered being and is openly hostile to most he encounters. His brother and he are in constant battle and their different victories shift the seasons of the Earth.
Czernobog is portrayed by actor Peter Stormare.
The Zorya Sisters
Sisters to Czernabog, these two Slavic mythological figures represent Zorya Utrennyaya, the Morning Star, and Zorya Vechernyaya, the Evening Star. They guard and watch over the doomsday hound, Simargl, who is chained to the star Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor. If the chain ever breaks, the hound will devour the world below.
Some myths indicate a third sister. For his novel American Gods, writer Neil Gaiman created a new character based on this idea of a third sister: Zorya Polunochnaya, the Midnight Star.
Zorya Utrennyaya is portrayed by Cloris Leachman. The mute Zorya Vechernyaya is portrayed by Martha Kelly. Zorya Polunochnaya is portrayed by Erika Kaar.
Vulcan AKA Hephaestus
Known as Vulcan to the Romans (Hephaestus to the Greeks), this is the Olympian god of fire, the metal forge, and volcanoes. The term “vulcanologist” comes from him. Some connect him to the Minoan fire god Velchanos.
Vulcan was a metalsmith god, working in his forge on great weapons and armor. He was also seen by the Romans as a god naturally inclined to unleashing destruction, and so his worshippers often sought to appease him and ask that he keep his fires and disasters contained. He was also seen as a fearsome ally to have at your side against any enemy. Some associated Vulcan with fertility, and one version of his story indicates that he is the father of Jupiter.
Vulcan is portrayed by actor Corbin Bernsen.
Thoth and Anubis
These two Egyptian deities appear as Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel. Thoth is often depicted as a god with the head of an ibis bird or a baboon. Anubis is often seen as a god with the head of a dog. It used to be believed that his sacrificial animal was the jackal, but recent evidence suggests it was actually a golden wolf.
Thoth is a god of wisdom and truth. It is said that he created the art and act of writing, thus he is also god of the written word. He helps maintain the universe’s balance and is the scribe of the underworld, the latter job associating him with Anubis. Anubis is your judge before you enter the afterlife, weighing your heart against a feather to see how weighed down you are by your guilt and sin. Despite being such a prominent figure and one of the most featured figures in Egyptian myth, there are no real stories about him or his personality.
Thoth or Mr. Ibis is portrayed by Demore Barnes. Anubis or Mr. Jacquel is portrayed by Chris Obi.
Ifrit and Jinn
In Islamic mythology, the Jinn (associated with genies) are a class of spiritual being that is lower than angels or demons. The Ifrit is a particular type of Jinn. Ifrit (male) and Ifritah (female) were born out of fire just as Adam in Eden was supposed to have been born from mud, earth and clay. Their eyes are often like fire, and sometimes they are said to have large wings made of fire and smoke.
Many Ifrits of the Jinn are ruthless and wild, but they can be good or evil just like any human, and even perhaps pacifistic. They are invulnerable to conventional weapons, but can be captured through tricks and magic, at which point they are often under the power and will of their captor. Even while captive, they are often rebellious.
An Ifrit of the Jinn in American Gods is portrayed by Mousa Kraish.
Easter AKA Ēostre
The goddess for whom the Christian holiday of Easter is originally named. Easter or Ēostre is a Germanic goddess who may have origins earlier in proto-European societies. There is a lot of debate over where she began and what her exact nature was, but the general idea is that she welcomes the spring and the renewed cycle of life. As such, she’s also associated with signs of fertility, such as eggs and rabbits. When Christians wanted to help converted Pagans with accepting their own beliefs, the Easter holiday was adopted and reinterpreted to be a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Easter is portrayed by Kristen Chenoweth.
And that’s it for now! Keep watching American Gods though, as other strange figures and gods may crop up from time to time!