Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Gods of Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale constantly amazes me with how unique it is, especially when it comes to religion. It manages to take real religious ideas and weave something entirely new and different from the thing that originally inspired them. The Smiling God, the beagle puppy, and the angels are inspired by Abrahamic religions, but while it’s clear that Huntokar and the other gods are definitely at least inspired by real deities, the creators of Night Vale have managed to create their own unique pantheon.

Several episodes ago, we learned that the god Huntokar, who has been mentioned in passing throughout the show, is the god of Night Vale and has been protecting the people of Night Vale since the very beginning. However, we came to discover that her protection also nearly doomed Night Vale by causing the multiple versions of the town in different universes to collapse in on themselves. In this episode, Huntokar mentions that she is one of four old gods that include the Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL), the Woman from Italy, and the Distant Prince.

Writers tend to take two different routes when it comes to adding deities to their stories. They either use gods of real religions, or they invent their own. Creating your own deities has the major advantage that you aren’t taking the risk of portraying another religion’s deities in a potentially harmful way. However, we cannot escape the fact that we are affected by what we know about religions and their deities and inevitably the audience may realize that these “fake gods” are inspired by real ones. It’s fine to be inspired by real deities, but it’s important to still develop them in such a way as to make them their own unique god, otherwise the portrayal could still end up seeming problematic. And that is exactly what the creators of Welcome to Night Vale were able to do. Their deities are clearly inspired by different real gods, but are written in such a way that they become their own unique god and are not simply a copy of another deity.

Spoilers for Welcome to Night Vale for up to Episode 113.

Let’s start with the first Night Vale god we were introduced to, the Glow Cloud. The Glow Cloud first appeared in Episode 2 and is simply described as a cloud that glows different colors and rains down dead animals onto people. It eventually decides to live in Night Vale with its offspring and becomes head of the school board. The Glow Cloud is the simplest of the gods and is the most conventional. It controls people’s minds and insists that people beg for mercy from it, but ultimately the Glow Cloud is just a regular citizen of Night Vale, albeit a powerful one. Out of all the gods, the Glow Cloud is the only one that has a more Abrahamic connection. The raining down of animals is similar to the ten plagues of Egypt, with the raining of hail, and the various plagues that involved being tormented by larger and larger animals. Of course, unlike the Abrahamic deity, the Glow Cloud is more dangerous and more willing to harm people or take away their free will with mind control, but is also more merciful than some of the other gods. The Abrahamic god also took the form of a cloud several times in the Bible, but while the Glow Cloud is somewhat inspired by the Abrahamic god, we see that the creators of Night Vale are able to create a truly unique deity while still being inspired by real religions.

The Woman from Italy is another of the Night Vale gods and is by far one of the most destructive. While the Glow Cloud insist that people fear and worship it, it has mostly integrated itself into the normal life of Night Vale. The Woman from Italy, however, appears to want no part of the humans other than to torture and destroy them. She seems most inspired by warrior gods or gods of destruction, and ironically, or perhaps on purpose, I see no connection between her and the Roman Pantheon. Pluto is too kind by comparison and even Mars has more purpose in his destruction, whereas the Woman from Italy is just hell-bent on causing destruction for no other reason than that she enjoys it. The Woman from Italy reminds me more of Ahriman, a Zoroastrian deity, and Kali, a Hindu goddess of death and a destroyer of evil. Ahriman is essentially the devil in Zoroastrianism and he fights against his good twin bother Ohrmuzd (also called Ahura Mazda). Ahriman desires to rule over everything and bring about chaos and disorder. The Woman from Italy is the most dangerous and destructive of the gods (along with perhaps the Distant Prince). She travels the world controlling people’s minds and forcing them to speak in rhyme about her, and she is deceitful in her seemingly normal appearance. Like Ahriman, she only wants chaos and disorder.

She is also similar to Kali in some ways. Kali has often got a bad name in Western pop culture mostly due to misunderstandings of her more monstrous appearance in her actual iconography, but she is primarily a force that fights against evil. In this way, the Woman from Italy is not reflective of her at all, but in the death and destructive power she exudes, they are very much alike. Kali is a wilder goddess and when she fought the demon Durga, her bloodlust got out of hand and she started to kill and destroy everything that came across her path until she was stopped by Shiva. The Woman from Italy shows this same bloodlust, and travels the world torturing and destroying anything in her path. But unlike Kali, the Woman from Italy seems not to care about good or evil and just kills pretty much everyone without much mercy. The Woman from Italy is definitely inspired by gods of death and destruction, but because she is described as being from Italy, she appears to at least identify with European roots. Perhaps the creators of Night Vale are using her as a depiction of imperialism and colonialism; Huntokar tells us she is never in Italy (which means Italy is safe from her) but she travels everywhere else causing chaos. The writers here use very violent, destructive gods as the basis for the Woman from Italy’s traits, but ultimately shape her to be a god that fits a more modern idea of destruction and chaos.

The Distant Prince is probably one of the Night Vale gods we know the least about (as of Episode 110). But he is described as just as destructive and merciless as the Woman from Italy. He travels with his large court and moves about in thunderstorms. He also sends his Harbingers to do his bidding. The Distant Prince to me sounds most reminiscent of the Hindu god Shiva. Shiva is a god of death, destruction, and change who will ultimately end the world. Shiva is in no way an evil god but is a real and necessary part of life. We see Shiva’s influence in the Distant Prince in the first episode he was introduced. In this episode, the Prince’s Harbingers force the entire town of Night Vale to run in a race through the Narrow Place, a cold and unfeeling place that will consume them. We don’t know if any of them died during this; they instead come out of the Narrow Place changed. As narrator Cecil describes:

We went there. We sent messages in Morse code to the people we once had been, asking for help, but they could not help us. They were outside of the Narrow Place.

The Distant Prince was pleased. He gathered his Harbingers to him for the celebration. They cooed, and merged in and out with each other, taking startling forms.

We screamed.

They cooed.

We wore black coats and had never existed.

The Distant Prince wore a golden coat, and had always existed.

All darkness is just a thickness of birds. There is rustling in every shadow, every surface is alive!

We wore black coats and we went through it. We went through the Narrow Place.

So, it was another great marathon! I’m glad that our city government continues to encourage physical activity with fun events like this, and I’m proud of all of us for taking part. We will never be the same again.

Cecil goes on to talk about how no one is ever the same person after any moment. That each minute, hour, or year, you are different than you were before. Cecil portrays this change as a necessary and real part of life. That is exactly what Shiva represents: the constant changing of everything, the destruction and rebirth of everything. At the same time, though, the Night Vale creators still create their own mythology. It is clear from other episodes that the Distant Prince is not as good as gods like Shiva. And the constant warning that he is getting closer to Night Vale is portrayed as foreboding. Huntokar, like the Woman from Italy, had to make a deal with him to keep him from destroying Night Vale. Huntokar even states that the Distant Prince shaped people into his wounded and twisted servants when he first began exploring the world. So the Distant Prince is certainly a darker deity, but still has at least some roots in real religious belief. Once again, we see that Night Vale’s gods are inspired by real religions but the creators are able to use that base to create their own unique mythology.

And finally, there is Huntokar, the deer-headed goddess who cultivated and cared for the people of Night Vale and loved them so much that her attempt to save the town almost destroyed them. To prevent Night Vale from being destroyed by a bomb, Huntokar decided to pull it out of time, but this caused all Night Vales in every reality to collapse in on each other, all teetering precariously on the edge of destruction. In Huntokar, I again see some connections to Hinduism: Huntokar clearly represents the Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva who make up the Hindu Trimurti or trinity. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Huntokar is the creator of Night Vale, its preserver who keeps it protected from the other gods and keeps it from collapsing, and she is also the destroyer, because moving the town out of time nearly destroyed it. That said, Huntokar also has some connections to Wicca and Paganism, especially in her appearance.

Though Wicca/Paganism is not necessarily a uniform faith, many who practice it believe in a Triune Goddess and the Horned God. The Horned God is technically a relatively new creation but is also a composite of many other horned religious deities. Neopaganism.com further explains the attributes and symbolism of the Horned God:

The Horned God is most often depicted with a stag’s antlers, symbolizing his connection with animals, wilderness, the hunt, and virility.

At first glance, other than the horns, this god initially appears to have little to do with Huntokar, but there are many similar qualities between Huntokar and the Horned God. The Horned God represents a connection between the divine and the animal, which is why he is depicted with animal-like qualities. Huntokar looks similar to the Horned God but is also the most connected to humanity. Human beings are still essentially animals, and this perhaps shows that Huntokar has more of a connection with and cares more for humans, and does not want to destroy or control them as the others do. Again, we see the creators of Night Vale combining things about different deities to create their own unique mythology.

While the creation of this new and unique pantheon is great, the Welcome to Night Vale creators also have to keep in mind the subconscious biases that they may have against different religions. For example, both the Distant Prince and the Woman from Italy appear to be inspired by Hindu gods or goddesses, and they also appear to be the most violent, as opposed to the Glow Cloud, who is inspired by Abrahamic gods and is basically an okay citizen. This could inadvertently be stereotypical, so the Welcome to Night Vale creators, while inspired by these deities, definitely change The Woman from Italy and the Distance Prince enough so that there is no way you can assume they are fictional stand-ins for these real deities. The Woman from Italy is painted as clearly as European in appearance. Her association with Italy can also link her in some ways to Catholicism, which is based in Rome. So while the Woman from Italy is inspired by some Hindu gods, it is only certain attributes, and many of her other attributes come from other deities. The Distance Prince is heavily inspired by Shiva, but he also travels by thunderstorm, which, like the Glow Cloud, could be viewed as Abrahamic. The key to making these deities unoffensive is ensuring that their attributes are very much a unique combination of several different deities, making it impossible to say that any of these fictional deities are 100% based on a real god.

I love seeing religion in pop culture, but I am most fascinated when writers create their own deities, pantheons and religions, which is something that happens far too rarely. It’s hard to escape preconceived religious ideas, but we can take existing religious ideas to build a whole new world and divine structure. Creating new religious ideas rather than just taking religious deities and sticking them in a story is an easy way for stories to be less inadvertently offensive. However, authors need to still be careful not to reflect bias in their made-up deities. They need to be mindful as to what religions inspired these deities and make sure not to show real-world prejudice in a made-up religion. This is something that Welcome to Night Vale does well, and it’s something that I hope other authors try to do more often in the future.

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