American Gods series one episode two introduces us to yet more Old Gods, including the grim and bloodthirsty Czernobog.
We first meet Czernobog in a shabby Chicago apartment, where this grumpy run-down Old God is scraping by with his three Slavic goddess flatmates. Czernobog may not be happy to see Mr Wednesday, but the all-father is determined to get him on board with his fight against the New Gods.
The sledgehammer that once ran with blood now rests rusting on the mantelpiece. Czernobog has had to sate his thirst for blood and death by becoming a “knocker” in a slaughterhouse and killing cattle, though even that role has been made redundant by technology.
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Actor Peter Stormare does an excellent job hamming it up as this bloodthirsty Slavic deity. But who is Czernobog – and where has novelist Neil Gaiman borrowed him from?
Meet Czernobog, the Black God
The name comes from čĭrnŭ, “black”, and bogŭ, “god”. Alternatively known as Chernabog, Chornoboh, and Tchernobog, the god we meet is a deity of the west Slavic tribes of the 12th century.
Few records of those tribes’ pagan polytheist beliefs survive, and the ones we have are from a Christian outsider’s perspective. But those sources tell of the Slavic belief that bad things happen in the world because of the Black God – that is, Czernobog.
What about Bielebog?
If Czernobog makes bad things happen because he is the Black God, does it follow that good things happen in the world because of a White God? Perhaps.
In American Gods, Czernobog tells Shadow that he misses his brother Bielebog (or Belobog), who is blonde where he’s brunette and good where he’s bad. Bielebog is the cause of luck and success, and he swaps places with Czernobog in the spring.
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All of this comes from the 12th century Chronica Slavorum, a historic source on Slavic mythology written by a German priest. “The Slavs, too, have a strange delusion,” he writes. “At their feasts and carousals they pass about a bowl over which they utter words, I should not say of consecration but of execration, in the name of the gods — of the good one, as well as of the bad one — professing that all propitious fortune is arranged by the good god, adverse, by the bad god.
“Hence, also, in their language they call the bad god Diabol, or Zcerneboch, that is, the Black God.”
So that’s Czernobog – but the good god is never mentioned, much less named as a “White God”. Bielebog’s existence as part of Slavic mythology is extremely sketchy. Was there really a dualistic structure?
That’s something Gaiman evidently thought about, because in the novel Czernobog wonders aloud if he and his long-lost brother Bielebog are actually the same person. As spring comes around in the novel, the grouchy Czernobog lightens up considerably.
What does Czernobog really look like?
This comes from the novel, when Shadow gets his first glimpse at the Gods’ reality: “Shadow saw a gray-haired old East-European immigrant, with a shabby raincoat and one iron-coloured tooth, true.
“But he also saw a squat black thing, darker than the darkness that surrounded them, its eyes two burning coals; and he also saw a prince with long flowing black hair, and long black moustaches, blood on his hands and his face, riding, naked but for a bear-skin over his shoulder, on a creature half-man, half-beast, his face and torso blue-tattooed with swirls and spirals.”
What about the sledgehammer?
There is no particular mythic connection between Czernobog and his sledgehammer, though it’s not a huge leap of imagination to see how bloody murder fits with his character.
But adding in the sledgehammer allows Gaiman to construct an intriguing backstory about worshippers of Czernobog.
Towards the end of the novel, Shadow and Mr Nancy and Czernobog stop at a clearing near Cherryvale in Kansas. The site is sacred for the old Slavic god, who draws sustenance and power from the memory of past worship. Here, in the clearing, the “Benders” made human sacrifices using a hammer, his weapon of choice.
This is a reference to a 19th century family of serial killers known as the Bloody Benders, who lived on that spot and murdered visitors for the fun of it – seating them above a trap door, stepping out from behind a curtain with a sledgehammer and bludgeoning them to death before dropping them into a pit.
The Benders were likely German or Dutch rather than Slavic worshippers of Czernobog, but that doesn’t stop him gaining power from the sacrifice.
American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes available every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights
This article was originally published in 2017