A Comparison of American Gods and Percy Jackson: Western Adaptions of Ancient Gods

Neil Gaiman and Rick Riordan have distinctly different audiences but they do have one area where they create similar worlds: their Americanisation of ancient gods. So when I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for the first time, I found it hard not to compare it to Rick Riordans work.

(As a quick disclaimer, I’ll be referring only to Riordans Percy Jackson series and the Heroes of Olympus series. I’m aware that Riordan has written about the Egyptian Mythology, but I haven’t read them yet so I can’t include them in this blog post. I’m also using Gaimans ‘preferred text’ so if anything seems unfamiliar, that may be why.)

Rick Riordans ‘Percy Jackson’ series is a young adult book which focuses on adventure whereas Neil Gaimans ‘American Gods’ is more of an adult novel which reads like a road trip. Since Gaiman targets an older audience, it means that he can incorporate some of the more adult myths (such as the Queen of Sheba who becomes a prostitute). The Percy Jackson series does discuss the gods infidelity (we wouldn’t have our demi-gods without it), however it’s not described in any explicit detail.

In Percy Jackson, the children of the gods live in the human world, as they did in the classical myths. The gods still hold their divinity, just translated into modern aspects. So they still live on Olympus and visit the mortal world at will. Whereas in American Gods, the gods live in the human world and have human occupations relevant to their mythology (for example Thoth and Anubis run a funeral parlour). They still have their powers but they’re very weak as the gods have no followers and their powers are largely dependent on faith. Interestingly, in both fictional universes, the underworld still exists as it does in the myths; Hades in Percy Jackson and the Egyptian mythology in American Gods.

In both adaptations, the gods travel to America because of their followings. In American Gods, the gods follow their followers. Once rituals started occurring in America, the gods would move over. Similarly, in Percy Jackson, the gods moved as the West developed. In American Gods, the premise is that gods exist because people believe in them. Immigrants to the United States brought their gods with them. The power of these gods diminish as peoples belief in them weakens. This allows new gods to appear, reflecting America’s obsessions with concepts such as media, technology and drugs, which become gods in their own right. This is similar to Riordans dichotomy of the Greek and Roman gods, but with a more modern slant.

Arguably, Riordans dichotomy can be pretty confusing at times. The Greek and Roman gods are intrinsically linked and it’s hard to tell if the aspects are supposed to be the same or different people. In American Gods, the depictions are a much clearer. The gods have different names but are still pretty recognisable (especially when their pseudonyms are Low Key. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out.)

American Gods features a large range of different religions such as: Egyptian, Norse, Slavic and Germanic. Whereas Percy Jackson is solely devoted to Greek and Roman gods (I will reiterate that Riordan has written a separate series about the Egyptian Gods, I just haven’t read it yet.) The Greek and Roman gods didn’t feature in American Gods, possibly because their followers were a lot less likely to have gone to America. As I mentioned before, Riordan creates new gods based on what people in modern times worship. These include: the Technical Boy (god of computers and the Internet), Media (goddess of television), The Black Hats (Mister World, Mister Town, Mister Wood and Mister Stone) who supposedly exist out of America’s obsession with Black helicopters and the Men in Black and The Intangibles (gods of the modern stock market). The story revolves around the war between the new and old gods, similar to how the Heroes of Olympus series introduces the war between the Greek and Roman gods. The only difference being that Gaimans war is much more contemporary and makes a lot more sense in the modern context.

Both stories construct a brilliant world in which the ancient gods are translated into an American form. Which one you prefer is largely dependent of which style of narration you prefer. Rick Riordan is largely a young adult writer, and his work is targeted at younger audiences. It’s fun to read and focuses on the friendship and the adventure. Gaimans American Gods is a lot darker and focuses more on the underhanded side of the gods and the politics which work between them. Despite their differences, I would recommend both texts if you’re interested in reading about mythology.

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