Gods Among Us: Fiction About Polytheism

I have been insatiable in my reading so far this year. I’m at 14 completed books and it’s only the middle of February. I attribute that, in part, to no longer being terrified every morning, bracing myself for whatever horrors the 45th occupant of the White House had planned for that day. Yes, we’re still in the middle of a biblical plague. Yes, there was an insurrection that damn near became the prequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. But one Big Bad is gone. It wasn’t until Inauguration Day that I realized just how freeing it would feel to no longer have that monster in the White House. It’s like there’s actually a little room in my brain now for happiness.

Another reason I’ve been reading so much is that I’ve been accepted into a training program for people who want to work on progressive campaigns or run for office. I’m going to be on the communications track, and I could not be more excited. And since I’m seemingly one of the few participants without prior campaign experience, I’m reading as many old and new political science books as I can before my training. But that roundup will be for another post.

This time, I want to talk about some pagan-adjacent fiction. I didn’t seek out a bunch of books about polytheism, but they do keep finding me. Here are the ones I’ve read and loved recently.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

When I first became interested in polytheism, I knew I had to read this Neil Gaiman classic. Shadow Moon is a convict who leaves prison upon his wife’s death. It’s at her funeral that he finds out she was having an affair with his best friend, who was driving the car they both died in. So, no wife, no job at his now-dead friend’s gym, no tether to society. It makes him the perfect mark for Wednesday, a mysterious gentleman of dubious reputation who hires Shadow as his muscle. And so Shadow gets dragged into a war between the fading old gods and the shiny new gods of media and tech. 

This was a captivating read that helped me conceptualize a lot of concepts I’ve been studying, like thoughtforms, archetypes, syncretism and the difference between hard polytheism and soft polytheism. American Gods is transgressive, sensual, gritty, surprising and tender. I haven’t watched the Starz adaptation yet, and I’m really excited to.

The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab

In France in the early 1700s, Adeline Larue is desperate to avoid marrying a man she doesn’t love and living out the rest of her life in her tiny town. She runs into the woods and prays to any god who will listen — but the gods who answer after dark don’t want trinkets as offerings. She sells her soul for time, and she gets immortality with a caveat. No one will ever remember her. Anyone she meets forgets her the second that she’s out of sight or the moment they fall asleep. She writes, and the words vanish. She draws, and the mark disappears. She steps out of a room, and a lover becomes a stranger. Over the centuries, Addie figures out how to exploit every loophole of the deal. She lives by her wits and accepts her loneliness, until 300 years later when someone remembers her.

Schwab is a singularly gifted storyteller. I am a singularly gifted twist-guesser. But there was nothing I could predict about this inventive book. I believe I’ve read that Schwab is a pagan, and this book makes me reflect on the pagan belief of the inherent divinity and connectedness of everything and everyone. I also enjoy a portrayal of a flawed and selfish yet alluring deity. Anything more I say would spoil a book that deserves to be experienced by anyone who hears its title.

The Rose by Tiffany Reisz

Lia is an English socialite who takes up running an escort service with her friends as a side hustle. Upon her college graduation, her father gives her an ancient temple goblet in honor of her passionate interest in Greek myths. But a handsome party guest warns her the kylix is a dangerous and magical object that was used in the Cult of Eros to bring the wildest sexual fantasies to life. But lucky for her, he is more than happy to tutor her through its use.

It was an inspired idea to put Greek mythology on a collision course with contemporary London. It shouldn’t work, but gods does it work. This is an erotic masterpiece. It’s funnier and sweeter than it has any right to be. I learned so much about the Greek myths — honestly, THIS is how you should teach them in school. I was delighted by the portrayal of one deity in particular: Aphrodite.

Olympians: Aphrodite, Goddess of Love by George O’Connor

This is a graphic novel with gorgeous illustrations and even more gorgeous writing. It’s a perfect introduction to Aphrodite’s myths — it wasn’t my intro to her, but I almost wish that it was.

When I started exploring the concept of “deity work,” I explored so many myths. I read and listened to everything I could find about Hecate. I wondered if my aptitude with words made me a fitting acolyte for Hermes. I researched the Hindu pantheon and was really vibing with Kali and her liberation and rage.

It felt taboo to even entertain the idea of worshiping another god. It felt like a bridge too far, one sin too many in the long list of transgressions that have divided me from the faith of my childhood. Not that you could call something faith when it was based on fear, when no part of it nourished my soul.

But when I did dip my toes into research on deities and exploration of my ideas about them, I did not think I would spend much time at all on Aphrodite. First of all, she’s got a bit of a bad reputation. And second, she just seemed too obvious. I’m a romance writer. I host a podcast about romance novels. I have had a dramatic and life-altering love life. I once had a beauty blog. I wasn’t about to dive into what I felt would be the equivalent of basing my spiritual practice off the results of a Cosmo quiz.

And yet I did end up finding my way into deep research on laughter-loving Aphrodite. She was obvious — but obvious in the same way as ink that turns a faint pencil sketch into a clear map of the path I’ve been walking all along. Because what has brought me to my knees more than love? 

Is she real? Who can know. Plenty of things that aren’t physically tangible or quantifiable — like love — have real effects. Are her values real to me? Absolutely. I can think of few better ways to worship than through pleasure, compassion and creating beauty wherever I can.