In “American Gods”, Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, ancient deities and creatures of legend exist in the real world.
As Odin, King of the Viking gods, takes a road trip across the United States, we encounter the Germanic goddess of the dawn Ēostre, Egyptian deities Thoth and Anubis and even Anansi the trickster from African folklore who sometimes takes the shape of a spider, amongst others. But these timeless figures exist only so long as people believe in them, and are now locked in a battle facing extinction, obscured by the attention-seeking new gods of media, drugs and celebrity.
Gaiman’s best-selling novel has now become a glorious, binge-baiting TV series on Amazon Prime. In series one, Ricky Whittle has broken free of the shirtless constraints of the Hollyoaks calendar, Gillian Anderson channels icons Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie (thanks to the shapeshifting nature of her character), while Ian McShane exhausts the show’s considerable budget by chewing the scenery every time he makes an appearance.
So the question is: how credible is the central premise? Would we even notice if the big cheeses of myth and legend were amongst us? Looking around London, the answer is… They’re already here!
Even the most unimaginative tourist in the capital will encounter their share of London Gods. The salmon cycle of visitor journeys inevitably leads to Piccadilly Circus where travellers will gaze upon the statue of Eros. Except it’s not Eros. It’s a different one of the Erotes, those chubby winged godlings who nipped at Greek Aphrodite’s heels. Poor Anteros, defender of requited love, is ever fated to be mistaken for Eros, his twin and proponent of crazy, stupid love. Does no-one look at Anteros’ plumed butterfly wings to differentiate him from his saucier twin? Probably not.
In fact, should our putative tourist wander around the city, they will happen upon a host of divinities in the parks and streets around our city. Head past the Diana Memorial in Hyde Park and they’ll be face-to-face with Isis, the Egyptian goddess of nature (rather than the unsettling modern connotation). The 633-kilo bronze sculpture in the shape of an ibis bird rules the roost of the abundant Serpentine wildlife.
Continue towards Hyde Park Corner and Achilles, the greatest warrior from Homer’s Iliad, will present himself. Those of a nervous disposition need not shield their eyes from the Trojan warrior’s weaponry… Achilles’ statue was once completely nude, but a small fig leaf was soon installed to shroud the myth in an air of mystery.
Walk through the prosperous streets of Mayfair and our sightseer may traipse past legendary auctioneers, Sotheby’s. Look up and they will see a black basalt statue that sits above the entrance. Claiming to be the oldest outdoor statue in London, it is of Sekhmet, depicted as a lioness, the fiercest warrior of the Ancient Egyptians. Being a contradictory deity, she was both a warrior goddess as well as goddess of healing, and was seen as the protector of the Egyptian pharaohs.
The divine presence is not restricted to statues. Their influence is spread throughout the city not least through the names of pubs and hostelries. Naturally Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and intoxication, looms large with eponymous locations in Hoxton, Shoreditch, Hackney, Islington and Chelsea amongst others. But he isn’t the only son of Zeus represented by London’s alehouses. The greatest of Hellenic chthonic heroes, Heracles, is represented in Soho’s celebrated literary haunt, the Pillars of Hercules.
It’s not even just statues and pubs where we see the presence of the Ancients. Examine any street map and you’ll see the pull from the mythical past. The Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, fares well in terms of thoroughfares with a Street, Road, Close and Lodge named after her, while her Roman equivalent Athena was less well represented by a now-defunct chain of High Street anodyne card and poster sellers. Follow in the (alleged) footsteps of Phyllis Pearsall and you’ll find Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods in every corner of the city. Ulysses Road, Hermes Close, Artemis Place, Jupiter Gardens, Juno Way, Isis Street, Apollo Avenue and Poseidon Court are just some of the divine interventions in London’s concourse.
Neil Gaiman maintains in American Gods that “Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered” so with so many mentions of the old Gods scattered throughout the city, what are the chances of rubbing shoulders with the ancient deities right here in contemporary London? It’s definitely something to ponder while you wait for Hermes to deliver your parcel. Or eat your Mars bar. Or shave with a Venus razor. Or go for a run in your Nike trainers.
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