WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for American Gods.
After dropping audiences into a story whose only clue to the supernatural or divine was the title of the show, American Gods welcomed colorful, Slavic characters known as the three Zorya sisters – and their even more colorful roommate, Czernobog. If the show’s time spent with goddess of love Bilquis or the future-knowing African deity Anansi threw viewers for a loop, then the low-brow or intensely-familiar personalities of the second episode likely left many struggling to keep up. Which is why we’re here to help.
The second episode of the series, “Secret of Spoons” left Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) owing his life to Czernobog (Peter Stormare) over a game of checkers. “Owed,” as in the Old God is entitled to kill him come dawn. If it seemed like an abrupt end to the episode, it should: it’s halfway through the same chapter in Neil Gaiman’s novel, which left the real meat of this part of the show’s story until Episode 3, “Head Full of Snow.” Now that it’s come, and Shadow has had his encounter with the third Zorya sister atop their apartment building… fans will probably need a bit of an explanation.
Who is Czernobog, who are the Zorya sisters, and whether or not Shadow is really walking around with the Moon in his pocket.
On a broad level, Czernobog is a perfect encapsulation of author Neil Gaiman’s initial approach to the American Gods story. The history or belief surrounding him as a deity is sketchier, less agreed upon, and open to interpretation – but the thematic ideas and play he makes possible is invaluable. In Slavic tradition, Czernobog is literally the “Black God,” a broad, hard-to-define embodiment of evil, darkness, ill will. In other words, he’s the source of “the bad” in life, where his brother, Belobog (the “White God”) was the embodiment of the opposite.
In a historical sense, that’s about as specific as the records or historians ever got – in fact, Belobog is more of an assumed opposite to Czernobog’s darkness, even if Slavic tradition makes the duality less straightforward than you might think. But in Gaiman’s hands, Czernobog questions the very basis of the idea of light and dark at all. Before playing Shadow in checkers, he even suggested that the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ are more trivial an assumption or construction than true reflection of nature. In the book, Gaiman goes one step further and has Czernobog wonder if his brother was ever an actual brother, or Belobog was simply another aspect of himself.
Whatever the case, that opens the door to the idea that even “The Black God” isn’t more or less evil than any other. While on one hand his mastery of crushing a cow’s skull in a single blow can be seen as brutal, his belief that such power should only be wielded by those who have mastered it, and not just anyone echoes an idea about the line drawn between the realm or influence of man, and that of gods.
He can still be tricked using a mixture of pride and logic, and eventually concedes to aid Wednesday and Shadow. His story is far from over, so we’ll cease our explanation there and simply instruct fans to be prepared for more of his signature charms.
The Zorya Sisters
The most likable of the Old Gods introduced so far, Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman) isn’t what most will think of when picturing a guardian of the Sun God in old Slavic mythology, but that’s exactly the case. She and her sister are also another case of Neil Gaiman blending real mythology and theism with fiction, since the original version of their story features only Zorya Vechernyaya, the “Evening Star”and her sister Zorya Utrennyaya (Martha Kelly), the “Morning Star.” Together they opened and closed the gates of Heaven for their father (in some versions) the Sun God, Dažbog.
Together they were known as the Auroras, and aside from greeting the Sun God when he began and ended each day, are typically entrusted with protecting the world from Simargl, a winged beast they keep chained to Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor. If their watch should lapse, then Simargl the winged dog/lion will destroy the constellation, and the world along with it. But for his version of the story, Gaiman added a third sister, created completely for his own version.
The result is the three Zorya sisters – Zorya Vechernyaya (“Evening Star”), Zorya Utrennyaya (“Morning Star”), and Zorya Polunochnaya (“The Midnight Star”) – varied across three ages of renewal, and drawing a far clearer connection to the Three Fates or Moirai of Greek mythology. Hence their ability to read Shadow’s fortunes (with varying degrees of sincerity). But for reasons obvious to every reader or viewer, it’s Gaiman’s addition that quickly becomes the most significant.
Zorya Polunochnaya’s Gift
Shadow’s encounter with Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar) plays out largely the same on TV as in the novel. Shadow awakes from a dream, and follows a fire escape onto the roof where this “Midnight Star” awaits. It’s her who delivers the mythology of the Zorya sisters’ task of guarding the world from Simargl, before supplying Shadow with a form of protection. And when she tells Shadow to pick the Moon out of the sky – and then does it herself – viewers may not know just how literal the action is intended to be.
The novel makes it a bit clearer, since Shadow watches Zorya Pulonochnaya pluck the Moon from the sky, and hand it to him as a silver dollar. He then looks to see if the Moon remains, and it does. If it wasn’t clear from Shadow’s waking realization that there is no fire escape, yet the silver dollar remains, the real message and mystery of this scene are going to take some time to truly grasp. The important thing to take away is her claim of Shadow having given up protection already, and the suggestion that he is someone deserving of protection, as well.
She may be coming back in the show’s story, so expect this scene to be truly understood a bit farther into Shadow’s own journey.