People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.
Who loved American Gods (Neil Gaiman, novel, 2001) before the series made by Amazon? For me it was stunning, even though I already knew and loved Gaiman for Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman, novel, 1996) and The Sandman (aa.vv., comic book series, 1989–2015).
What was surprising was not the idea of the gods in the world of human beings: it is from the times of the Iliad, the Edda and the Mahabarata that the deities became the engines and solvers of human affairs. And basically, for those who believe in it, even the lonely protagonists of the monotheistic religions often intervene in our world (curiously, only in the ways and moments that best match the reference storytelling).
On this theme, however, there is no lack of new revivals, such as Malpertuis (Jean Ray, novel, 1934) in which the Greek gods were imprisoned under the "skins" of ordinary Flemish citizens; or the beautiful The hounds of Morrigan (Pat O’Shea, novel, 1985), related to Irish mythology.
Even the idea of clashes from “old” and “new” gods is not new, since the founding moments of classical cosmology (to make a reference accessible to anyone) are based precisely on the succession of different divine “generations”: for example the gods succeed the titans. Well, Gaiman skillfully plays with the peculiarities of Germanic mythology and the trickster figure, but anyone who has heard stories with trickster characters will find the this solution appropriate solution rather than innovative (in addition, Gaiman’s readers had already known Loki himself in that role in The Sandman stories).
No, the novel’s newest idea is that the power of gods depends on the faith of their followers: the more people believe in you, the more powerful you are.
It’s something new: according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, the power of God depends on the Essence of God and this opinion is shared by who wonders about the origin of divine power. In literature we can find alternatives but never related to the faith: in Donnerjack (Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold, nove, 1997) the source of power for the gods is Mount Meru, the primal mountain of humanity’s collective dreams.
When I started to get interested in this idea I was sure that I’ll find illustrious references (perhaps in seventies writers, in the new wave of sci-fior in boardgames), but I could “unearth” only one mention useful mention: in The Birthgrave (Tanith Lee, novel, 1975), the protagonist thinks how people grant power, along with trust. Useful, but not enough. Indeed I’ve not discovered anything but three finds of the same age.
American Gods and the wonderful story of the plan to have a sacrifice on a global scale is my starting point, I won’t spend any more words about it.
In Peter Molyneux’s 2001 video game Black & White the player is a deity who can perform miracles and commands a giant creature controlled by an AI that can be educated and that will consequently act in the world of mortals as representatives of the god (or goddess). The player’s powers are directly proportional to the number of temples and believers.
Olimpo spa (2000) is a humorous Italian comic by Vincenzo Cerami and Silvia Ziche: the Olympians no longer do anything in the world, are depressed and disinterested because they have only two believers (they become one in the course of the story). They will act to get more believers and they will be more present in the world. The equation is not so direct, but we are close.
I still think that the idea was already present in the Sandman comic book series, but I couldn’t find a certain reference, and I’m almost sure I missed something at least in the world of board games (I seem to remember a board game called “Credo!” In which, however, priests rather than gods acquired power (or maybe power-points?)) or videogames, but in the absence of anything better I must be satisfied of this: at the beginning of the century, the equation believers = divine power had to be in the air. ;)