In American Gods, life and death are two sides of the same coin; each is meaningless without the other. Gaiman explores this interdependence through the relationship of life and death with fear and desire. Those who accept that death is an inevitable part of life are better able to enjoy their lives, and those who fear death tend to be unable to live fully—in particular, they are shown have a difficult relationship to their own sexual desire and a tendency towards demanding unfair sacrifices from others.
Of all the characters in the book, the gods—who can be killed, but only with difficulty—seem to be the most afraid of death, since they have seen less death in their lives than humans have and they are thus uncomfortable with it. The gods’ inability to accept death leads them to extreme measures to keep themselves alive, and their fear leaves them unable to appreciate or be present in their day-to-day lives. Furthermore, the gods often use sex as a way of staving off their fears of death, rather than for pleasure and connection. They get no enjoyment out of sexual desire, and sex is instead a ravenous and destructive act for them, as when Bilquis literally consumes the men who sleep with her, or the ifrit jinn (Ibrahim) “steals the life” of Salim after a sexual encounter. Mr. Wednesday’s attempts to get women to sleep with him also come off as a desperate attempt to make himself feel alive during a cold night.
Just as the gods use sex as a means of staying or feeling alive, they also, in order to protect themselves and feed their life forces, demand sacrifices of others—including taking other peoples’ lives. For the gods, a sacrifice is not a freely-chosen act of giving up something for the benefit of others, but rather a ritual that they desperately impose on others for their own selfish reasons. Throughout the book, the American gods’ fear of death strips the notion of sacrifice of its true significance by removing the elements of generosity and selflessness that can make sacrifice restorative and meaningful. Mr. Hinzelmann is the clearest embodiment of this, as he sacrifices one child each winter in order to keep himself alive and ensure the protection and prosperity of the town of Lakeside. This is especially perverse because Hinzelmann was himself a child sacrifice, murdered in order to make a kobold (a German sprite) that protected German settlers in America. Thus, Hinzelmann should know better than anyone the cost of sacrifice. Sacrifice is also implicated in the lives of Mr. Wednesday (a god who is nourished by death on the battlefield) and Mr. World—particularly in their willingness to kill all the other gods in order to keep themselves alive.
Shadow—who, for most of the book is portrayed as alive, “but not truly living”—doesn’t mind the idea of death because he doesn’t care much for life. While not living in constant fear of death makes him more generous than other gods (as when he goes to prison to shield his wife from the consequences of her behavior), and more able to enjoy sex (as in his encounter with Bast), Gaiman shows that it’s not enough to simply not fear death—Shadow must also learn to embrace his life and live with intention. Shadow’s path to becoming truly alive hinges on his willingness to perform the ceremony at the end of the book, which entails sacrificing himself to memorialize Odin’s life by hanging on a tree for nine days. Shadow’s sacrifice is selfless and freely-given, and, significantly, it occurs after he decides that he truly does want to live, so he is giving up something of value to him (his life). Because of this, Shadow’s ritual rescues the act of sacrifice from its debasement at the hands of the other gods, restoring it to its place as a gift that has the potential to heal and transform others. Not only does Shadow’s sacrifice help others, but it ultimately proves beneficial to Shadow himself; once Shadow is resurrected, it is clear that he has finally learned to live intentionally. It is through risking his life for others that Shadow learns to embrace the new chance at life that he has been given.
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Quotes in American Gods
"I brought you mead to drink because it's traditional. And right now we need all the tradition we can get. It seals our bargain." …
“You work for me. You protect me… In the unlikely event of my death, you will hold my vigil. And in return I shall make sure that your needs are adequately taken care of."
"These are the gods who have passed out of memory. Even their names are lost. The people who worshiped them are as forgotten as their gods. Their totems are long since broken and cast down. Their last priests died without passing on their secrets.
"Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end."
She did not look at him. "You've gotten yourself mixed up in some bad things, Shadow. You're going to screw it up, if someone isn't there to watch out for you. I'm watching out for you. And thank you for my present."
"You were given protection once, but you lost it already. You gave it away. You had the sun in your hand. And that is life itself. All I can give you is much weaker protection. The daughter, not the father. But all helps. Yes?" Her white hair blew about her face in the chilly wind, and Shadow knew that it was time to go back inside.
"Do I have to fight you? Or play checkers?" he asked.
"You do not even have to kiss me," she told him. “Just take the moon."
"…although it was you that brought me here, you and a few like you, into this land with no time for magic and no place for piskies and such folk."
"You've done me many a good turn," she said.
"Good and ill," said the squinting stranger. "We're like the wind. We blows both ways."
"The land is vast. Soon enough, our people abandoned us, remembered us only as creatures of the old land, as things that had not come with them to the new. Our true believers passed on, or stopped believing, and we were left, lost and scared and dispossessed, to get by on what little smidgens of worship or belief we could find…
"We have, let us face it and admit it, little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods."
"Okay. As soon as they say Odin's name, the reed transforms into a spear and stabs the guy in the side, the calf intestines become a thick rope, the branch becomes a bough of a tree, and the tree pulls up, and the ground drops away, and the king is left hanging there to die with a wound in his side and his face going black. End of story. White people have some fucked-up gods, Mister Shadow."
"I did it like he said. I did it all like he said, but I gave you the wrong coin. It wasn't meant to be that coin. That's for royalty. You see? I shouldn't even have been able to take it. That's the coin you'd give to the King of America himself…
"You did it like who said, Sweeney?"
"Grimnir. The dude you call Wednesday. You know who he is? Who he really is?"
"You shouldn't think badly of the town because of this," said Brogan. "It is a good town." …
"So what I'm saying is that Lakeside's lucky. We've got a little of everything here—farm, light industry, tourism, crafts. Good schools."
Shadow looked at her in puzzlement. There was something empty at the bottom of all her words. It was as if he were listening to a salesman, a good salesman, who believed in his product, but still wanted to make sure you went home with all the brushes or the full set of encyclopedias.
Shadow was stretched out full length on the seat in the back. He felt like two people, or more than two. There was part of him that felt gently exhilarated: he had done something. He had moved. It wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't wanted to live, but he did want to live, and that made all the difference. He hoped he would live through this, but he was willing to die, if that was what it took to be alive.
When he was opposite Shadow, he paused. "God, I hate you," he said. He wished he could just have taken out a gun and shot him, and he knew that he could not. And then he jabbed the stick in the air toward the hanging man, in a stabbing motion. It was an instinctive gesture, containing all the frustration and rage inside Town. He imagined that he was holding a spear and twisting it into Shadow's guts.
“It's never a matter of old and new. It's only about patterns. Now. My stick, please."
"Why do you want it?"
"It's a souvenir of this whole sorry mess," said Mr. World. "Don't worry, it's not mistletoe." He flashed a grin. "It symbolizes a spear, and in this sorry world, the symbol is the thing."
“Call no man happy until he is dead. Herodotus.” Mr. Nancy raised a white eyebrow, and he said, "I'm not dead yet, and, mostly because I’m not dead yet, I'm happy as a clamboy.”
“The Herodotus thing. It doesn't mean that the dead are happy,” said Shadow. “It means that you can't judge the shape of someone's life until it's over and done.”
"You and I, we have walked the same path. I also hung on the tree for nine days, a sacrifice of myself to myself. I am the lord of the Aes. I am the god of the gallows."
"You are Odin," said Shadow.
The man nodded thoughtfully, as if weighing up the name. "They call me many things, but, yes, I am Odin, Bor's son," he said.
"I saw you die," said Shadow. "I stood vigil for your body. You tried to destroy so much, for power. You would have sacrificed so much for yourself. You did that."
"I did not do that."
"Wednesday did. He was you."
"He was me, yes. But I am not him."