Stories about gods have existed in cultures all over the world. They can teach us, they can entertain us, and they can show us the land they come from. However, one culture has never had legends or tales of ancient gods — the United States. At least not until sixteen years ago, when Neil Gaiman published his now-classic novel AMERICAN GODS. This epic tale managed to weave together gods both old and new, while also musing on the nature of America itself and the relationship between gods and their homes. Yet with such an epic tale, what themes and ideas really matter for the reader? With the Starz adaptation debuting later this month, now is the time to pause and take another look at this modern legend and see the ten most important themes within its pages.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

IMMIGRATION

From the title, it’s easy to assume AMERICAN GODS is the tale of new gods born in America. That’s not wrong, but it’s not the true focus. The novel explains early on that when the settlers and immigrants first arrived, their gods came with them. These gods have populated America in secret ever since, but the lack of worship has made them more mortal than they would like to admit. Because of this, they are disturbing mirrors for the experience of many immigrants in America over the centuries. The Irish King Mad Sweeney is a rejection of the stereotypes that Americans often see other cultures as. He identifies as a leprechaun (despite being seven feet tall) and hates Guinness. When asked about it, he merely states there is more to Ireland than beer — a sentiment that rings true with so many immigrants who are still being viewed through the stereotypes placed on them. It’s also a powerful metaphor that Sweeney has lost his Irish accent being in America for so long.

THEMES OF AMERICAN GODS

Another strong statement comes from Czernobog, the Slavic god of evil. Czernobog is a living example of the duality that many immigrants feel in America. He has been forgotten at home and is barely remembered in his new land. He laments being so much less than he was, remembering the old days but unable to reclaim them. Again, this is a constant feel for many immigrants: they are strangers in a new world and cut off from the old. Czernobog knows there is nothing for him in his homeland, yet he still yearns for it. Sadly, these are feelings that are only enhanced by the New Gods of America. Created in modern times and “homegrown,” they reject the Old Gods and do everything in their power to destroy them. There is little subtlety in their approach — readers need only hear the New Gods’ declarations and can picture the anti-immigrant sentiments that have echoed in America since the first immigrants came.

PROGRESS

The New Gods have tinges of nationalism, but there is a bigger banner they wave: progress. These are gods of the modern world — the Internet, media, the stock market. In their minds, they are the future, creating a new path that will be followed by everyone now and forever. The Old Gods are merely irrelevant old fools that have to be eliminated so that the New Gods can prosper. This need to eliminate the old ways rings true in many parts of America, where factories are shut down and jobs are taken away and replaced with machines. The New Gods are interested only in their own survival and prosperity. The idea that there could be something to learn from the Old Gods never crosses their mind (millennial ideas written years before they became commonplace).

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The Old Gods are the mirror of this. They had always seen themselves as everlasting and now struggle to survive in a new world. Yet just like the New Gods, they never consider the other side to the argument. They never consider that their time has passed, or even that their ways need to change. This is also a flipside for the American worker, the old factory worker who was so confident in his job, he never even considered he might be replaced.

PERMANENCE

The need for both sides to survive is unique because they both feel they should last forever. Yet this struggle for permanence is unique because it is rare to see gods having to fight just to stay alive. It also speaks to just how hard permanence actually is to achieve. If even gods can’t live forever, what truly can? The Old Gods have seen their numbers dwindle and their belief weaken in America. That makes them desperate to regain their status, even though many may die in the attempt. For the New Gods, the stakes are different. Despite their bravado and arrogance, they also know they can be replaced. It adds to the desperation of the New Gods and adds a level of irony to their status as gods of progress. It also acts as a warning to the reader: nothing can last forever, especially when it can be replaced.

OLD AGE

While both pantheons in AMERICAN GODS are far from altruistic (neither one ever mentions making the world better, just ruling it), the Old Gods tend to garner more sympathy. They are more familiar to readers and some of the New Gods, like Technical Boy, are quite off-putting in their arrogance. Yet another trait that endears the Old Gods is simply their age. They are largely portrayed as feeling their age and seem tired and out of place. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Mr. Wednesday (Odin) struggles with his credit cards. While it may be a con (Wednesday pulls several throughout the novel), it’s hard not to see him as the old figure he truly is, and how unforgiving the modern world can be. It makes the Old Gods seem like misfits, and therefore easy to relate to.

THEMES OF AMERICAN GODS
Especially compared to this guy

At the same time, their age also adds to their desperation. Some want to fight and regain the glory of their youth, while others don’t want further conflict and want to be left alone. It’s the two sides of aging — burning out and fading away — and it’s up to the reader to decide which one is better.

BELIEF

In a book about gods, belief is a factor that has to be explored, and AMERICAN GODS dives right in. The main focus is on the relationship between gods and mortals, but in a startling new way. The gods, both Old and New, draw power from the same source: the belief of mortals. It’s their food and drink, and without it, both sides will fade away. The two factions feel it in different ways. The Old Gods, far from their homelands, have had their belief dissipated or reduced to stories and memories that don’t matter anymore. For the New Gods, they see belief as fleeting, as they can be pushed aside for new ideals.

This is the fascinating angle that AMERICAN GODS takes — gods are not eternal. They need human belief to survive and prosper, and that opens up a whole new line of questions. Did gods create man or vice versa? Do gods deserve unconditional worship or do they have to earn it? Can any god be superior to the others? Are gods even necessary? And is Voltaire’s great statement true, that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to create him?

RELIGION

While religion might seem like another word for belief, there are differences. Religion is organized belief. It has rules, structure, and rituals attached. Some scenes of AMERICAN GODS hint at this, such as flashbacks to the first Viking settlers making sacrifices to Odin. Yet Wednesday delivers a more interesting take during his travels with Shadow. He explains that there are spots of ground scattered throughout the world that are considered holy. When humans find these spots, they feel compelled to mark it in some way. However, this does not necessarily mean churches, just something to draw people in. In America, this means all the roadside attractions (World’s Biggest Ball of Twine!) that compel people to stop their trip and come see.

The idea that there are spots that demand worship is fascinating when compared with belief. While the gods need human belief to survive, the idea of holy ground signifies a need in mortals as well. It indicates that man has a need to worship something, to feel a power greater than themselves. After all, roadside attractions are a mainstay. People feel they have to come see them, even if it’s something ridiculous. Obviously, not all people feel the need to worship something. Yet we are always amazed at natural formations and odd attractions. Perhaps those places give a sense that the world is much bigger than just what man perceives. A natural park, then, might be the church of nature.

SACRIFICE

No story about gods would be complete without sacrifice. In AMERICAN GODS, much of that comes from the main character, Shadow Moon. Moon becomes attached to Mr. Wednesday early in the novel, which means he gets dragged around as Wednesday recruits gods. It also means he takes many beatings for his employer. Czernobog, Technical Boy, and others all take their swings as Shadow. Yet all his actions almost feel like a tribute for Wednesday, a sacrifice of his body for the god’s purpose.

READ: How does comics’ greatest mythical hero stand up to the legend?

The greater sacrifice comes when Shadow is forced to re-live the hanging of Odin (in which Odin hung himself from the World’s Tree for nine days to gain wisdom). By doing this, Shadow faces off with many forces, including death and his past, but ultimately gains wisdom about Wednesday and the impending battle. Shadow realizes that Wednesday has manipulated events as a sacrifice to himself that will re-energize him. The dichotomy here is astounding. By recreating the original sacrifice Wednesday undertook, Shadow has seen how far the god has fallen by creating an ignoble sacrifice of others. Yet it once again echoes the ancient law of mortal sacrifice for gods.

DECEPTION

Deception takes many forms in AMERICAN GODS. The actions of Wednesday and his associate Low-Key (say it out loud) to end the Old Gods to save themselves is the clearest example. Yet the other gods are examples as well. The New Gods deceive themselves by thinking they are superior, even though the fact they’re fighting Old Gods indicates they can be forgotten. Shadow Moon also deceives himself by refusing to believe in the gods at first, until he is forcibly shown the truth. Yet this is a larger deception that Shadow plays upon himself, one that leads into one of the most prominent themes within the book…

DEATH

Death hangs heavy over AMERICAN GODS. It’s chilling enough thinking that gods are concerned with staying alive, but the most adept use of death comes from Shadow. He begins the novel finding out his wife has died days before his release from prison. Upon his release, he immediately flies out to the funeral, but the combination of events has left him numb. It’s no wonder that Wednesday approaches him in this state; he’s vulnerable and consciously or not, needs something to distract him. Shadow’s whole journey then can be seen as an attempt to distance himself from this death — even as he’s literally haunted by his dead wife.

AMERICAN GODS THEMEs

Ultimately, Shadow has to face death while hanging from the world tree. Afterward, he is not only able to help the gods accept their own possible mortality, but also finally puts his wife’s spirit to rest, and begin again. Therefore, the whole journey can be seen as Shadow dealing with grief, but also him being forced to face death and emerge a new man from it.

AMERICA

Yes, the very nature of America itself is the true theme of AMERICAN GODS. Many of the other themes bleed into it — immigration, progress, old age, even religion. All of them are seen with a particularly American bent, making us think of how we as a nation view immigrants, how we’re so quick to embrace the new and fear the old, even how we worship. It’s that last one that stands out best, the real reason that no god can truly survive in the American lands. Even before Wednesday, Shadow Moon finds himself a companion — a buffalo-headed man that appears to him in his dreams. After endless cryptic wisdom from the creature, Shadow finally asks for answers to the gods’ conflict.

The buffalo man explains that the very first people to come to America believed in a creator, but more out of courtesy then need. Their true worship and praise went to that which truly sustained them: the land. The buffalo man explains that he is the spirit of the land itself, and because of that worship America has, and always shall be, “a bad place for gods.” At first, this may not make much sense, but there was a time when America as we know it was young, and driven by two words.

Manifest destiny: -the belief that America would stretch from one coast line to the other, and hold all the land in between.

That, more then anything, symbolizes the message of AMERICAN GODS. Gods may come here, gods may be born here, but none of them will ever truly take hold. Because in the end, Americans value America more than gods.

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