See, I told you I was going to keep talking about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series! Today I’m going to discuss three ways in which the series subverts the expectations of readers familiar with Christian lore. These tropes are the Mystical Pregnancy, the Death of the Son of God, and God Dying for Our Sins. I think these departures from Christian canon are ultimately more “human”—more relatable and thus, perhaps, more believable.
Major spoilers for The Sandman series below!
- Mystical Pregnancy Does Not Result in a Savior
The Mystical Pregnancy trope did not begin with Christianity—for instance, there were several virgin or one-parent births in Greek mythology, and it could be argued that Isis’s conception of Osiris in Egyptian mythology was pretty mystical—but the Christian story of Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus is likely to be the most familiar instantiation of the trope to readers of Sandman. In Volume 2, The Doll’s House, we find out that Desire, one of the Endless, impregnated Unity Kinkaid, a woman who suffers from an illness causing her to sleep most of the time.
Now, first, let’s get one thing out of the way. In Sandman, Gaiman is careful to make a distinction between the seven Endless—our main character Dream as well as his siblings, including Desire—and gods. In the Sandman universe, gods only exist because people believe in them (which is an intriguing concept that merits its own OMPCR post). The Endless, says the narrative, are not gods because they exist whether you believe in them or not. Now, this is not the typical definition of a god. And the Endless are powerful enough that, according to most mythologies, they would count as gods. So when I map them to these Christian tropes, just realize that I understand Gaiman’s distinction between gods and Endless, but I’m choosing to ignore it for purposes of making parallels.
This means, then, that Unity was impregnated by a god. And it was in fact a virgin birth, because Desire admits much later that ze never had sex with Unity, but just tricked her body into producing a fetus. In most traditions (Christianity included), the progeny of a mystical pregnancy is supposed to go on to do great things, such as save the world. But Unity’s child did nothing of the kind (that we know of). In fact, she’s so insignificant to the plot that I can’t even remember her name.
Instead, it’s Unity’s granddaughter Rose who ends up becoming a major character. But she doesn’t save the world either. In fact, she almost destroys it. You see, Rose is a Dream Vortex, capable of driving the world mad by tearing down the walls between dreamers. Dream Vortexes are the only mortals whom Dream is allowed to kill. Fortunately, Rose’s grandmother Unity saves her from death by revealing that she—Unity—was in fact the original Dream Vortex. Somehow, through Desire’s interference, the Dream Vortex trait was passed down through Unity’s genetic line.
So here we’ve got the product of a mystical pregnancy being insignificant, the important but typically-conceived granddaughter of a mystical pregnancy as a world-destroyer, but then not important after all, and the virgin mother herself being the actual important one rather than her children. Unity even takes on the sacrifice that, according to the Christian tradition, her child was supposed to make, and chooses to become the Vortex once more and let Dream kill her to prevent damage to the world. This whole situation subverts so many Mystical Pregnancy expectations that we don’t even know where to look! But it doesn’t end there…
- The Death of the Son of God Saves No One
Dream’s son Orpheus (yeah, that Orpheus) is born not by a mystical pregnancy, but through fairly typical means; his mother was the Muse Calliope, who was Dream’s wife for a time. Despite his typical conception, he’s still a son of our most prominent god figure, Dream, so we would expect Orpheus to be some sort of savior. Surprise: he’s not.
Those of you familiar with Orpheus’ story from Greek mythology will recognize this next part. Orpheus’s wife Eurydice dies on their wedding night. Devastated, Orpheus makes his way into the Underworld to try to bring her back. His beautiful music-playing convinces Hades, lord of the Underworld, to let Eurydice return with Orpheus, but as he leaves the Underworld, he’s not allowed to look back at her as she walks behind him. He resists this temptation until he arrives back in the mortal world. Thinking they’re both safe now, he turns to look. Eurydice is still just within the threshold of the Underworld, so he’s broken the rule, and she must return. Orpheus then loses the will to live and eventually lets himself be ripped apart in the frenzy of the Baccheae.
The myth goes on to say that the women throw Orpheus’s head into a river, where it continues to sing and to call out his lost wife’s name. What Sandman adds to this is that Orpheus in fact never died after that, because he initially was only able to enter the realm of the dead because he made a deal with his Aunt Death (another Endless) in which she agreed not to let him die. Dream could have circumvented this deal by killing Orpheus, but he refuses to do so. So… Orpheus spends the rest of his life as a severed head, not doing much at all, let alone being a savior. It’s true he kind of had a resurrection when he entered the Underworld and was able to come back out of it, but his journey there was meant to save one person, not all people, and it was a failure rather than a triumph.
In the end it becomes clear that Dream is the only one who can end Orpheus’ suffering by killing him. With much heartache, he does so (I’m skipping a ton here; go read Brief Lives if you want to shed some tears). And… nothing momentous happens, neither then nor three days later. Orpheus, like most dead people, doesn’t save anyone or come back to life, or, well, do anything. This death of a son of god doesn’t save the world. In fact, it only saves one person—Orpheus.
So, the son of god is no hero and no savior. He doesn’t love everyone, but rather only one particular person. His “resurrection” is an utter failure, and his punishment for his failure is to live eternally as a disembodied head, in contrast to Jesus’s reigning eternally at the right hand of the Father in heaven. And Orpheus’ eventual true death is for no one’s sake but his own. It was all set up for him to be like Jesus, but once again, the tables are turned on us readers.
- God Dies Not to Save Us from Our Sins, but to Save Us from His Sins
There is one huge effect that Orpheus’ death had. The Endless, though nearly omnipotent, live according to a set of rules, and if they violate those rules, there are dire consequences. One rule is that they’re not allowed to spill family blood, or else the Furies will seek vengeance. Well, by killing Orpheus, Dream spilled family blood, all right. This eventually leads to Dream’s own death.
Can we view Dream’s death as a sacrifice? At the most basic level, it was a sacrifice for the sake of his son. Showing mercy to his son—even if thousands of years too late—turned out to be more important to Dream than his own life.
But if we dive more deeply than that, we can see that Dream was kind of setting up his own death as early as Volume 2, if not earlier. There, he ensures the existence of a successor by “claiming” a child who was gestated in the Dreaming (i.e., the World of Dreams). His successor will become a new aspect of him when he dies. If he wasn’t expecting to die, then why would he set up a successor?
Okay, then, so why was he expecting to die? I don’t think it was because he knew he’d eventually have to kill Orpheus. I think many events all combined to show him that his current state was not best for the sake of the world. I discussed in my review of Sandman: Overture 1-3 that Dream has a notorious history of mistreating his lovers. He was harsh towards his own son as well, and wholly unsympathetic towards Hippolyta, the mother of his eventual successor. Even back in Volume 1, he confronts his own weakness when mortals keep him imprisoned for 80 years. Once he escapes and regains his lost power, his sister Death helps him realize he is far too fond of revenge. And the list goes on. Dream recognizes the darkness within himself, and decides it is too late and too deeply entrenched for him to change it. His only option, then, in order to be a better version of himself for the sake of all the dreamers he’s supposed to have responsibility for, is to die and let a new aspect take over. And that’s what I mean by “God Dies Not to Save Us from Our Sins, but to Save Us from His Sins.” It was indeed a sacrifice to save us, but not a sacrifice of an innocent the way Jesus was. “God” sends his “son”—his successor Daniel—to become the new Him, in order to save us, because the son will be better than the father was.
And you know what? Looking at the contrast between the Old Testament God of wrath and vengeance, and the New Testament God of love and forgiveness preached by Jesus, I can almost believe that’s what Jesus’s purpose was. An imperfect God is easier to believe in. Just as a mystical pregnancy that doesn’t result in special children (because statistically, so few people are likely to become Great; why should children of mystical pregnancies be any different from typical humans?), and the death of a son of god being much more personal than a momentous world-saving act is easier to believe in. Sandman takes these familiar Christian tropes and humanizes them, so we get gods and children of gods that really don’t look that much different from us mere mortals. It’s easier to believe, perhaps more comforting (i.e., if God isn’t perfect after all, why should we try to be), and more relatable. And probably easier to write than a perfection that remains unknowable to us as imperfect humans.
I don’t think the purpose of Gaiman’s subversion of these common Christian tropes was to attack anybody’s faith. But, inevitably, these unexpected twists force you to interrogate your beliefs about God, and to come to your own conclusions about what kind of God you believe in and why. I know for me, I find the Endless to be amazing characters, but I could never accept anyone like them as gods worthy of worship (though, of course, they don’t care about worship). They, and all the flawed gods of various mythologies, seem too close to my own imperfect state. But that’s just me. What about you, dear readers? How did Sandman affect your ideas about divinity?