After episode 2 of American Gods, the character everyone seems to be wondering about is Czernobog. Believe it or not, you’ve seen him before.
In “The Secret of the Spoons,” American Gods brought us to Chicago and introduced us to Czernobog. Who is he? We met him, years ago, in a much different aspect.
Czernobog in American Gods
In episode 2 of American Gods, Wednesday tells Shadow they’re going to Chicago to get his hammer. What he really wants is the guy who owns the hammer: Czernobog. But he very much does not want to help Wednesday. Still, he takes a shine to Shadow and invites him to play checkers, with a catch: Czernobog wants to make a bet. If Shadow wins, he’ll help Wednesday. If he wins, he gets to smash Shadow’s head in with his hammer and Shadow will kneel willingly for it.
Czernobog wins the game, and he’s sorry, because Shadow is his only black friend. That doesn’t exactly seem like something friends do. Could it be that Czernobog has an ulterior motive, or does he just miss smashing heads from his slaughterhouse days?
What do we know about Czernobog at this point? He smokes like a chimney, and he’s obsessed with blood and hammers. Czernobog loves slaughtering cows, and actually thinks aspects of it are pretty hilarious. He scoffs when others are offended by all his talk of death. It’s just part of life, after all. If you’ve ever spoken with Eastern Europeans and Russians, they tend to have this same dark sense of humor that’s very much embodied in Czernobog. So dry. But who is he?
Peter Stormare as Czernobog (Official image 4abedd33-b097-469a-8330-d92a7963e02a via Starz)
The Slavic Thor?
Czernobog actor Peter Stormare explained to Entertainment Weekly in an article that he considers his character to be a kind of Slavic Thor.
"He can represent evil, but he can also represent good things. And he’s slowly fading into the shadows because no one is paying attention to him, but now when they come to him, it’s an injection to come alive, and that’s nice for me to do as an actor. I’m not just evil."
And in a separate article from Entertainment Weekly, Bryan Fuller countered:
"He’s probably closer to Loki than Thor, because he’s a god of evil and darkness and bad things, and his brother is the god of light and good, so they’re in slightly different pantheons of religious specificity, but I will nod along and smile to whatever Peter Stormare has to say."
Czernobog in Slavic and Russian mythology
I am very good at Google. I can usually find anything on that search engine, but I was having a ton of trouble finding the source mythology for Czernobog online. Ends up there is a reason, and it is not my fault.
As Neil Gaiman told Rain Taxi:
"There were a few I ran across while I was doing the book that I wanted to learn more about. The most frustrating of them, of course, was Czernobog and the Zorya, the Slavic gods, because there’s so little about them actually known. I ran across them while I was beginning the book, and I loved the idea of Czernobog the black god and his brother Bielebog the white god, and the Zorya, these sisters of the dawn—the morning star, the evening star, and the mysterious midnight sister. And then I spent weeks trying to research them more. At the end of three weeks of solid research I had nothing I hadn’t had in some little Peterson’s book of gods at the start. There’s so little known about the Russian Gods. The Catholic church and the Russian Orthodox church stamped out most of it, and then Napoleon burned the rest of it on his way to and from Moscow."
I can’t even find whatever little Peterson’s book he’s talking about. And the “astonishingly incomplete” American Gods bibliography on Gaiman’s blog isn’t much help, either, especially online. These books are only available on paper. Part of me wants to overnight order a pile of obscure world mythology texts. They’re on my wish list now, at any rate.
The best description of Czernobog I found was in Struik Publishers’ Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies (pages 256-257):
"Chernobog is the bringer of destruction. His name is a mix of the word cherny meaning “black,” and bog meaning “god.” He lives in the shadows and night. Conversely Byelbog, from byely meaning “white,” is the god of light and creative forces.The two forces of Byelbog and Chernobog were later to be infused with the character of God and Satan inherited from Christianity, but in their original form did not represent good and evil in the Christian sense. On the contrary, Slavic mythology established a kind of dualism that was opposed by Christianity."
This duality directly speaks to a central theme within Neil Gaiman’s body of work: death isn’t evil, and destruction isn’t bad. These things just are. Without death, there is not life. Without destruction, there can be no creation. When you really think about it, black and white are the same two things. Black is a complete saturation of colors. White light is comprised of all the colors of the spectrum. We are all legion.
This is directly represented through the black and white checkers set Shadow and Czernobog use for their game. Czernobog plays black, his color, and lets Shadow, the black man, play white. Czernobog finds this hilarious. That’s duality.
Human beings and the gods we created before Jesus are imperfect creatures, pulled between the urge to be nice and the urge to be a total jerk. We all fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. We all have different aspects, depending on our moods, the situation, and the people around us. (This is actually a very Jewish concept, which I am sure is not lost on Neil. Jews spent generations in Eastern Europe, exchanging mythology and ideas with the locals, who, although officially Christianized, tended to in reality be a bunch of superstitious pagans with a fabulously terrifying oral tradition.)
Where you’ve seen Czernobog before
I did say, at the beginning, that you’ve seen this character before. Well here he is, a monster straight out of our childhoods:
Bonus: The Secret of the Spoons
Toward the end of their Checkers match, Czernobog sings a sad little song about bitter coffee and the lost secret of the spoons that used to make their coffee sweet without adding sugar. I could not find a reference to this song anywhere, and today I learned why. It doesn’t really exist. The song was written just for American Gods.
Want more in-depth info about the gods of American Gods? Check back next week with Culturess and I will have more fascinating research for you!