On the heels of American Gods episode 5, it’s finally time to talk about the character everyone’s been wondering about. Who is Mr. Wednesday?
For the last five weeks, American Gods has been following its protagonist Shadow Moon. From a storytelling standpoint, he’s an excellent choice, because he (and hence the reader) is completely clueless. One of the main reasons for all his confusion is his new boss, Mr. Wednesday.
Currently, they’re traveling around the country, recruiting experts in various pre-eminent fields, as Wednesday put it. Shadow may not quite have absorbed the reality of his situation, but you’ve probably picked up on it, what from the title of the show and the fact that everyone but Shadow spends a great deal of time taking about gods.
Wednesday is a god, and so are all his friends. (Well, frenemies. No one really likes the guy.) So who is this deity? Why does everyone call him Wednesday, after a day of the week? The more detail-oriented among you may remember that Czernobog called him Votan just before throwing a lamp at his head. And Mad Sweeney finally says it straight out:
"He’s Grimnir, the dude he calls Wednesday."
Wednesday, the day, is named after Wednesday the god, not the other way around. It’s Wotan’s Day or (in English), Odin’s day. Mr. Wednesday, a.k.a., Odin, is the chief god of the Aesir, the Norse pantheon. He’s the father of Thor, and step-father to Loki, who we all know well from the Marvel Comics extended universe.
The movies focus on one aspect of their mythology, which is the fight between Thor and Loki for Odin’s throne while he’s in the Odinsleep. (Douglas Adams takes a look at this same cycle in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, which you totally need to read if you like Norse mythology and Neil Gaiman. Neil wrote a wonderful biography of Adams, which you should also read.)
Odin has many names in addition to Wednesday and Grimnir. He’s also called Allfather, Battle Enhancer, Spearman, Lord of the Undead, Chieftain, Father of Magical Songs, Journey Empowerer, God of Cargoes (or Burdens), Wise One, Concealer, Wanderer or Wayweary, Journey Advisor, Riddler, Deceiver, God of the Hanged and of Prisoners, Grey Beard, Battle Wolf, Raven God, Roarer, Sage, Shaggy Cloak Wearer, God of Runes, Wagon God or God of riders, Finder of Truth, Father of Victory, War Father, Ruler of treachery, Wise One, Wanderer, Awakener, and Terrible One. That’s not even half of them.
One reason for all these names is that Odin is probably an amalgamation of quite a few ancient gods of Northern Europe. We don’t know for sure, because most knowledge of pre-Christian Norse mythology comes from just two epic poems that were written down a couple centuries after the Vikings’ golden age. But what we do know is rich, because of the deeply honored tradition of writing and epic poetry among the Norse. And what’s the main thing Odin is known for? Knowledge and writing.
As Neil Gaiman writes on page 21 of Norse Mythology (W.W. Norton, 2017):
"Odin knows many secrets. He gave an eye for wisdom. More than that, for knowledge of runes, and for power, he sacrificed himself to himself."
Odin hanged himself from Yggdrasil, the world-tree, dangling there for nine days with no food or water, and a spear sticking out of his side. Yes, this does sound an awful lot like Jesus on Golgotha, but I don’t know which story came first. So anyway, Odin is freezing and starving, about to die, and “in the ecstasy of his agony,” as Gaiman puts it, he sees the rune alphabet before him and instantly knows how to read and write. He has the power of words. The Norse didn’t have pens, but if they did, they’d probably have a saying comparing the relative strength of pens and swords, which they definitely did have.
God of war and death
Odin doesn’t spend much time talking about writing in American Gods. Wednesday talks about war. Zorya Vechernyaya even tells him she can smell war in the rain falling around them in episode 3. He isn’t just traveling around the country trying to have a reunion. Wednesday is preparing for battle. He’s recruiting soldiers for the oncoming storm that’s sweeping across America.
Odin is preparing for the end of the world. He did it before, in Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. That was a long time ago, and he was a different person. But this is his job, because it’s always been his job. There’s only one sure thing and that’s Ragnarök, the final battle that ends the world. However, as scholar Tom Shippey explains in a review of From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Heather O’Donoghue from The London Review of Books:
"What is not known for sure is when Ragnarök will come, the battle at the end of the world when the wolf Fenrir, along with other monsters and giants, will challenge gods and men. Odin wants his first team available and in training for the day. Not that it will make any difference, for it is known that the gods and heroes will lose, Thor dead from poison spat by the Midgard-Serpent, Odin swallowed by Fenrir, Frey killed by the fire-giant Surt. There may be a new world after the destruction, but there is no indication that Sigmund and Eirik and the rest of Odin’s einheriar will be part of it, let alone the rest of us."
There’s another thing about the American Gods aspect of Odin you’ve certainly noticed. Wednesday is a complete jerk. He’s a liar, a con man, and a criminal, and he’s proud of it. Norse Mythology for Smart People goes on to say that:
"Odin incites otherwise peaceful people to strife with what, to modern tastes, is a downright sinister glee… He maintains particularly close affiliations with the berserkers and other “warrior-shamans” … Thus, as a war-god, Odin is principally concerned not with the reasons behind any given conflict or even its outcome, but rather with the raw, chaotic battle-frenzy (one of the primary manifestations of óðr) that permeates any such agonism."
"The crucial difference between Tyr [another Norse god of war] and Odin … is that Tyr has much more to do with rule by law and justice, whereas Odin has much more to do with rule by magic and cunning. Tyr is the sober and virtuous ruler; Odin is the devious, inscrutable, and inspired ruler.Odin is often the favorite god and helper of outlaws, those who had been banished from society for some especially heinous crime, as well."
Perhaps that’s why he so eagerly hired Shadow?
I can’t speculate about what exactly Wednesday has planned for Shadow, because I already know how this plays out. And I can’t say much more about him than this because I don’t want to spoil the whole plot for those who haven’t read the book. But know this: like a circle has no beginning, this timeless story has no end.
As Neil Gaiman writes in the final words of Norse Mythology, “And the game begins anew.”