American Gods aims to show that mythology is not a primitive belief system relegated to unsophisticated cultures. For Gaiman, the same questions, desires, and superstitions that led humans to create Odin and the other Old Gods are still embedded in the human psyche, causing contemporary people to worship material things and cultural phenomena in the same way the ancients worshipped their gods. By reframing contemporary cultural phenomena as semi-religious myths created to fulfill the human need to worship things bigger than themselves, Gaiman shows the centrality of mythology and belief in shaping the identity and purpose of contemporary individuals and communities.
Just as ancient peoples gave life and form to natural elements such as the sun or the ocean, modern people in American Gods give mythic significance to things such as technology (in the form of Technical Boy), television (in the form of Media), or money (in the form of intangible stock market gods). Personifying these mundane aspects of American culture gives a mythic dimension to the texture of American life. As such, Shadow’s road trip through America becomes like an epic journey, and banal objects take on a supernatural aura, as with Shadow’s coins that have the power to restore life or the drink that Mr. Wednesday gives Shadow to cement their deal to work together.
The mythic stories that Gaiman tells about these experiences show how mankind uses stories to make sense of the things that have power over them and to give order to human life. In fact, Gaiman shows that stories do more than simply help people come to terms with the things that have power over them; to Gaiman, myths—and beliefs in general—actually give people power over their lives by enabling them to take confident action in the face of fear or confusion. One example is when Essie Tregowan depends on her belief in the Pixies to keep herself safe throughout the tumultuous experience of her arrival in America. Even more significantly, Shadow realizes after his time in the underworld that human belief is the only reason that anything happens in the world at all, and he uses this knowledge to persuade the New and Old Gods to stop fighting each other.
The human need to believe in something is shown to be double edged, however. Since it’s people and culture that create gods (not vice versa), the gods are only powerful as long as people believe in them. This incentivizes gods to make humans believe in them at all costs. Gaiman uses the story of the gods running amok and abusing their power as an allegory for the destructive power that human beliefs can have over their own lives and the lives of others.
Yet despite the dangers inherent to myth and belief, Gaiman shows that the stories people tell are essential to their ability to come together. By telling stories that propose a common past and common interests for diverse groups of people, societies are better able to envision a common future. Shadow demonstrates this by bringing the Old and New Gods together by telling a story about the new place that both kinds of gods can have in the minds of American people. In a way, American Gods is self-consciously doing exactly what it’s talking about in the book; it’s bringing together many different stories from different people and places in order to propose a single story, knit from all of them, that explains who Americans are, what they have in common, and why—moving forward—they’re on the same side.
Mythology, Belief, and Community ThemeTracker
Mythology, Belief, and Community Quotes in American Gods
"Believe," said the rumbling voice. "If you are to survive, you must believe."
"Believe what?" asked Shadow. "What should I believe?"
He stared at Shadow, the buffalo man, and he drew himself up huge, and his eyes filled with fire. He opened his spit-flecked buffalo mouth and it was red inside with the flames that burned inside him, under the earth.
"Everything," roared the buffalo man.
"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."
"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."
The important thing to understand about American history, wrote Mr. Ibis, in his leather-bound journal, is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored. For the most part it is uninspected, unimagined, unthought, a representation of the thing, and not the thing itself.
"…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."
"In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power… And so they would build temples, or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or… well, you get the idea."
"There are churches all across the States, though," said Shadow.
"In every town… And about as significant, in this context, as dentists' offices. No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they've never visited... Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that."
"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?"
Shall we go out onto the street, Easter my dear, and repeat the exercise? Find out how many passers-by know that their Easter festival takes its name from Eostre of the Dawn?
"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.
We need individual stories. Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people—but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless…
Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.
A life, which is, like any other, unlike any other.
Soon, it seemed to her that they pretended that there never had been a place called St. Domingo, and as for Haiti, the word was never mentioned. It was as if the whole American nation had decided that they could, by an effort of belief, command a good-sized Caribbean island to no longer exist merely by willing it so.
"Take a sip of this," he said. "Only a sip."
The liquid was pungent, and it evaporated in his mouth like a good brandy, although it did not taste like alcohol. Wednesday took the flask away, and pocketed it. "It's not good for the audience to find themselves walking about backstage. That's why you're feeling sick. We need to hurry to get you out of here."
"I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe… I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone's ass…”
"Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today?"
“And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn't room for them both in the world. And that some kind of war is kind of likely.”
"Gods are great," said Atsula, slowly, as if she were comprehending a great secret. "But the heart is greater. For it is from our hearts they come, and to our hearts they shall return . . ."
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."
People believe, thought Shadow, It's what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.
“You made peace,” said the buffalo man. “You took our words and made them your own. They never understood that they were here – and the people who worshiped them were here – because it suits us that they are here. But we can change our minds. And perhaps we will.”
“Are you a god?” asked Shadow.
The buffalo-headed man shook his head. Shadow thought, for a moment, that the creature was amused. “I am the land,” he said.
"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."