Deconstructing godhood and Shadow’s role in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
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American Gods‘ base storyline sounds like a cliche: Americans worship two kinds of gods— the religions and beliefs they are traditionally or culturally affiliated with, and more recently, technology—cars, the Internet, media. These two groups fight for survival, for glory and the belief of Americans’ hearts and minds.
The storytelling, however, is anything but. American Gods is an stunning, breathtaking piece of fiction.
The themes and tropes in the novel are multiple and overlapping. I will be sticking to the themes that interest me most: what makes a god, Shadow’s role and the novel’s criticism of religion.
The story opens with its protagonist Shadow, a convicted criminal, getting released from jail. Right upon which, he meets Wednesday, an ageing man who hires him as his personal escort and bodyguard. Wednesday’s mission? To gather all the traditional ‘old’ gods who were brought over through the beliefs of various immigrant groups and are now scattered across America in order to fight against and claim victory over the new gods.
The novel is largely about this mission, interspersed with Shadow’s own journeys in addition to side stories about how some of these gods and beliefs came to take root in American soil. The other side, television, media, etc., fight back.
Telling the story from Wednesday, Shadow and the old gods’ point of view makes American Gods really unique: countless texts, manifestos, articles have discussed the existence and impact of technology, or our new gods, dry. Instead of adding another voice into the mix, Gaiman tells the story of what’s being lost as these new idols take over. He gets us intimate with these old gods, how they came to be, and how they have transformed and faded overtime.
American Gods is an invitation and a catalyst into a myriad discussions. It describes how ancient, grand beliefs which people ritually held large-scale sacrifices to have been reduced—almost pitiably—overtime, into shadows of themselves. How these beliefs, personified into various figures a long time ago, now struggle to survive. How they, because they were fed and built on blood, now have to appease themselves with parodic versions of those sacrifices. One god, Czernobog, even goes so far as to talk to the ghosts of his dead worshippers in order to gain strength and health. The novel makes it clear again and again that these gods were believed into existence by their worshippers, and without continued worship and the power it gives them, they get weak and impotent. This is the premise for the war: authority, blood and glory once again.
What Makes a God: Creator or Created?
This raises the question: What makes a god? Is it people’s belief in them, or the glory and other inherent qualities that this belief imputes to them?
The multiple backstories behind the gods show that these gods are all, to some extent, creations. In one backstory, Gaiman details the origins of the god Nyununini, a mammoth head god. The leaders of an ancient Northern tribe consume what seems to be medicinal mushrooms, then take turns to speak as “Nyununini” from inside of a mammoth’s skull.
In this case, they practically invent the god, artificially inducing states of psychosis and hallucinations in order for the god to ‘speak’. Indeed, when they move to another part of the continent where these mushrooms do not grow, the god never ‘speaks’ or ‘visits’ again.
Of course, these gods all have inherent abilities: making the seasons change, shapeshifting and magic. But are these what make them gods?
No matter the religion, gods only exist to us (or, in other words, their existence only matters to us) as long as we believe in them. Which to a large extent makes them created beings, no matter what we believe they create.
In American Gods, these gods are only in America because people imagined them, then brought them over when they came to America. If the belief takes root, the god grows in power and strength. But overtime, these cultural traditions get lost and fade. These gods, who now have a voice and being of their own, struggle to survive, desperately seeking out the praise of humans. Who are the real gods then? The novel suggests it is humans, who create and then sustain, or abandon, these ‘gods’. The story flips the typical man-god relationship on its head: these gods, created beings, worry about being abandoned by their creators and fight for our attention amongst themselves.
The trope of invention and imagination is interesting here. Very often, the gods have more than one form, the original one they had when they were first conceived thousands, if not millions, of years ago, and the one people imagine them to have today. Odin is a classy, contemporary businessman and an ageing, wrinkled old man. Mama ji is a tar coloured demon and a friendly, motherly figure. Easter, so disconnected from her roots as Eostre, is but a flower, hippie girl. This is in contrast to common religious teachings that the qualifying nature of gods, or what makes a god a god, is their timelessness. Instead, American Gods shows that gods are so dependent upon the imaginations of the humans that create them that even their basic appearances change with the times.
Who is Shadow?: Conman/Christ
Besides the gods, another constant in the novel is, of course, Shadow himself. Shadow is but a vessel. We never know his actual real name; he even loses it in the end. We only know him by his nickname Shadow, apparently because he used to follow adults around as a child, and for a while Mike Ainsel, a disguise he put on. We know but little of his backstory; barely about the crime he committed that landed him in jail in the first place. Glimpses into his inner world are dominated by dreams about the gods and how they try to speak to him—even his dreams are vessels.
Towards the end, we find out an important fact about Shadow: He is Wednesday’s (who is Odin, the allfather) son.
We see a multitude of gods throughout the book: from Hinduism, Norse mythology, Islam and so on. But Jesus Christ of Christianity is not only just mentioned in passing, he is not present at all at the final battle.
Instead, Shadow fills the role of the “son of god”, albeit with a pagan twist . Through him, the novel’s disdain for (blind) religious belief is made known again and again.
When Wednesday dies, Shadow holds his vigil: hanging on a tree, just like Christ in the bible. Right before he dies, his side is inexplicably pierced: a dark, molasses-like substance flows from the wound. Far from the glorious, much-retold story of Christ’s death and resurrection, Shadow’s vigil is drawn out, pitiable, grotesque.
In the end, he finds out this was all for nothing: the battle is but a two-man con between Loki and Odin to get the gods into battle so both of them can feed on their blood. Shadow is but a distraction meant to draw the gods there. And it works. Once again, American Gods‘ scorn toward religiosity is clear. The ultimate sacrifice in religion (hanging on a tree to die for humanity) is but scapegoating on a grand scale. It is not the glory, the worship, that makes the gods travel miles across the country to battle: it is this unspectacular, nameless and powerless demigod who manages to be distracting enough that does.
Shadow, as the son of god, only does two forms of magic, or miracles, throughout the novel. One, he makes it snow. Once. Second, he does sleight-of-hand coin tricks. To his audience, his tricks astound and surprise. At the end of the novel, he travels to Iceland where he performs a simple magician’s trick for the original Odin, who is amazed. Yet, Gaiman makes it clear that he learns these coin tricks out of boredom, from a book from the library prison. There is no magic to them.
Shadow also stands in for humanity itself: he gets to see the “Backstage” of people’s consciousness and it is through him that we experience and discuss humanity’s shifting idolatries and attentions.
Yet, Shadow is a convicted criminal, a conman and a trickster (a magician) and a liar (Mike Ainsel, Wednesday’s accomplice). As the protagonist, he leads us, makes us sympathise with him. Through Shadow’s relationship with the gods, the humanity he stands for and the readers, the novel suggests that people are to faith as blind sheep are to an untrustworthy master. Gaiman’s text contains a plethora of different faiths. Yet, its criticism towards Christianity in particular, the faith that still reigns most popular in America today, is subtle yet biting.
The questions this novel asks: Is it all—belief, faith, worship, even hope—but an illusion? A giant magic trick people chose to believe in, because if they don’t, what then?: The nothingness and loss that Shadow tries to choose in the end? The upending of structures in traditional god-man relationships asks: since these gods, these creators, are just as much created, how much is man equal to, or even greater than, their gods?
American Gods raises more questions than it can answer, and really makes readers reconsider what they are believing in: how much of it is but human constructs, to what extent is it all a sleight-of-hand, meant for purposes not in our best interests?
If you’d like to purchase and read this book, you can do so here.
This post is slightly longer than my past several posts, but I hope that you’ve had as much fun reading it as I had writing it.
Next up, I have a couple more really good books planned, so watch out for them!
I’ll probably also take a peek at American Gods‘ television series although I don’t have high hopes as I usually don’t really like the show the more I love the book. But I can’t wait to give it a try.
Till next time, happy reading!