American Gods, Chapter One: Setting the Themes


by Eliza Rosenberg

For other instalments in this series, see here.

[Entries will avoid spoilers for future chapters. The references cited, however, may contain spoilers, whether in discussions of American Gods or of the traditions on which it draws.]


Diving into American Gods proper, the aptness of the title – a working one that was never replaced – is immediately apparent. Critic Heather O’Donoghue observes that “the atmosphere and naturalistic details of the novel’s opening pages are in the distinctive hard-boiled style of American crime fiction,”[1] or what Gaiman describes as “what I thought of as an American style – clean, simple, uncluttered.”[2] Gaiman, an English expatriate, steeps not only his prose but also his settings in cultural peculiarities that lifelong Americans (although not necessarily Shadow, who we soon learn grew up in the foreign service) rarely register as peculiar: points of small-town pride; the idioms of advertising and customer service; patriotic quirks; car culture and the fast food, roadside attractions, and motels attendant on it. Robert Jones even suggests that the importance of dreams in American Gods, in conjunction with “the mythologizing of the American dream” are such “that Gaiman’s text can be read as both an embrace and a challenge to the fundamental building block of America.”[3]

Many, although not all, of gods of the title are equally unmistakably “American manifestations of supernatural figures of the Old World.”[4] One of American Gods’ themes is the power and importance of religious narratives in their own right, i.e., not in terms of what they signify or how they function, but of what they are. Gaiman stressed this theme in appearances and writings leading up to the book’s publication and he reinforces it even in the prefatory material. The formulary legal disclaimer usually found in novels’ copyright pages appears instead as an independent preface: “[A]ll of the people, living, dead, and otherwise, in this story are fictional or are used in a fictional context. Only the gods are real” (xv; “Caveat, and a Warning for Travelers”).[5]

American Gods, then, is interested in the reality of religion, however construed, rather than its metaphors, “[suggesting] that there is something beyond the cultural representations of the real”[6] and “[using] Norse (and other) mythology to explore serious issues of mortality, illusion, and religious belief.”[7] This accords with Gaiman’s stated aim of “find[ing] what it was that I responded to in ancient pantheons and then try[ing] to create a fictive structure in which I could believe as I wrote it.”[8] It is apparent from the first chapter that the “ancient pantheons” are very much alive here as round, relatable, and dynamic characters – and as the characters of often ancient, orally based, and contextually very different texts that can be so bewildering to audiences continents and millennia removed from them. Gaiman’s investment in these sources is apparent throughout, something many scholars seem to have appreciated. As Evans notes, “Gaiman considers the accuracy of his references ‘a point of honor’: the history is ‘good history,’ ‘the mythology is good, accurate mythology’ . . . . [T]his seems to refer to the explicit use of old, traditional stories (legends, folktales, myths, and so on) taken from scholarly sources, to the acknowledgment of these sources, and to the acknowledgment of issues of authenticity with them,” which “become simply another element in Gaiman’s intertextuality.”[9]

  1. American

In the previous entry, I mentioned that American Gods engages with some of the common answers to “What is ‘religion’?” – a staple semi-rhetorical question for the first session of introductory-level religion classes. In reading American Gods with a class, another semi-rhetorical question presents itself: “Is x religious?”, for values of x that do not necessarily strike alumni of post-Enlightenment Western-type education as religious. The first chapter of American Gods presents several values of x that will recur throughout the book (questions that I will address largely in the context of Anglophone North American university settings.) Is the land religious? Is the weather? Is traveling a religious activity? Is “Where’s ‘home’ for you?” a religious question?

After a bit of thought, most beginning religion students will be able to supply affirmative replies. The land itself is sacred in indigenous American religions, someone will usually offer, and many religious traditions identify certain sites as particularly holy. As for the dwellers on the land – here most notably including birds, trees, and the sun and moon – they tend to follow easily enough, as does the weather that affects the land. Some students may be familiar as well with thunderbirds or with storm deities and divine lightning bolts. In all of these cases, the religious character of the subject is something that most students will have encountered as “other,” either because it is not part of their own religious context or because “mainstream discourse” marks it as such. Widely distributed media articles, textbooks, popular culture, etc., do not proceed on the assumption that land, for example, is sacred. They remind or inform their implicit audiences that Native Americans consider it to be sacred (and, of course, mark Native Americans). Some students may have been on pilgrimages or have relatives who have been; most or all will have heard about groups of strangers going on pilgrimages, frequently through disaster reports. A few students may be deeply invested in who is at home in Tibet, Israel-Palestine, or the Americas themselves, but the majority usually will not have strong feelings on these issues, even if they are in some way directly involved with them. And so on.

The religious character of “Where are you?” is not explicit in the first chapter of American Gods, but it is inescapable. When we meet Shadow, he is looking forward to being released from prison, where “he marked off the days on his Songbirds of North America calendar, which was the only calendar they sold in the prison commissary, and the sun went down and he didn’t see it and the sun came up and he didn’t see it” (5; ch. 1, §1). Presumably he does not see real songbirds either, although one of his jobs in the prison shop is “assembling bird feeders, which was barely more interesting than stamping out license plates” (6; ch. 1,§1). These reminders of freedom of movement – the flight of birds; cars – highlight Shadow’s inability to move across or enter the land. It is a fitting irony that his wife is travel agent and has herself arranged for Shadow’s travel, upon his release, to their home town of Eagle Point, Indiana. It is a quintessentially Midwestern setting whose name evokes ambivalent national symbols: the native bird now a patriotic emblem of the land, and the people who were “displaced” from that land by the emblem-makers.

The text highlights Shadow’s own alienation from the land during his imprisonment in other ways as well. The very names of his fellow inmates – Iceman; Johnnie Larch; Sam Fetisher – evoke either the landscape itself or (stereotypes of) religious practices associated with it. In a naturalistic inversion of the pathetic fallacy, Shadow attributes his unaccountable anxiety to the very ordinary regional weather, which in the latter part of November is “oppressive, still and cold. It felt as if a storm was on the way, but a storm never came” (10; ch. 1, §1). Shadow voices his anxiety in a telephone call to Laura, who does not understand his meaning, speaking instead of the better weather in Eagle Point. He finds a more sympathetic hearing in the much older Sam Fetisher, who apparently apropos of nothing warns Shadow, “Big storm coming. Keep your head down, Shadow-boy. It’s like . . . what do they call those things continents ride around on? Some kind of plates? . . . It’s like when they go riding, when North America goes skidding into South America, you don’t want to be in the middle. You dig me?” (13; ch. 1, §1).

The warning comes too late, of course; Shadow is already mixed up in metaphors. He is literally as well as figuratively in the middle of a storm – the upper Midwest’s weather, as observed by an English author, is a character in American Gods – and figuratively embedded in a continent set on a collision course. “[You are] in the earth and under the earth,” the buffalo-headed man in Shadow’s dream tells him, speaking without moving his mouth. “You are where the forgotten wait” (23; ch. 1, §2). The figure’s buffalo aspect, like the name of Shadow’s destination, recalls an iconic native species of the land and, very specifically in this case, evokes the people displaced and destroyed by the stealing of it through the near-extinction of American bison that Euro-Americans prosecuted in the nineteenth century.

Furthering Shadow’s alienation is his disconnection from his own roots. We learn in the first chapter that his wife Laura is his only living relative. We also receive the problematic impression that Shadow lacks a defined ethnic identity, startling in the racially fraught setting of a U.S. prison. While other inmates and prison officials are described in the omniscient narrative or are identified by other characters (including Shadow) in more or less subtly racially marked terms, Shadow is described only in terms of negation, never affiliation. The inference that he “reads as” a multi-ethnic African-American comes from a white guard’s asking Shadow “what [he is]” and proceeding to offer a series of “guesses” in the most racist terms available. Shadow refuses to engage: “Not that I know of, sir”; “Maybe”; “Could be, sir” (4; ch. 1, §1). His more specific replies to a Black fellow inmate, a very different exchange in context and meaning, reveal only through silence: “Sam Fetisher stared at Shadow. ‘Where you from?’ he asked. Eagle Point. Indiana.’ ‘You’re a lying fuck’ said Sam Fetisher. ‘I mean originally. Where are your folks from?’” (10; ch. 1, §1). Shadow’s grounds for choosing Chicago as an alternative answer – his mother spent some of her childhood and ultimately died there – reveal only that he has no sense of his own origins and that no family or community claims him as their own.

In addition to being alienated from land and people, Shadow is alienated from himself (although Gaiman, as Siobhan Carroll discusses at length,[10] spares his readers another American narrative of self-actualization). The book introduces him immediately and in media res: “Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.” (3; ch. 1, §1). We are not told why Shadow is in prison, and of his experience there we learn only that his physical strength prevented it from being even more unpleasant than it might have been. We only learn that he loves his wife, so much that she has occupied his mind almost completely throughout their three years of enforced separation. We do not learn Shadow’s last name until he fantasizes that “it was a simple mix-up: some other Laura Moon’s body had been dragged from the highway wreckage.” (20; ch. 1, §2). Laura changed her name when she married Shadow,[11] but it is through his wife’s name that Shadow is identified, suggesting that her taking the name was what made it his. And although Shadow’s real first name never appears in the book at all, by the third page we learn that Laura has given him another nickname, Puppy. Prohibited pets under their lease, Shadow told Laura, “I’ll be your puppy. What do you want me to do? Chew your slippers? Piss on the kitchen floor? Lick your nose? Sniff your crotch? I bet there’s nothing a puppy can do I can’t do!” (12; ch. 1, §1). Unstated in Shadow’s declaration is dependent adoration that puppies develop toward their human caregivers, the attitude behind the mugs and t-shirts printed with “O Lord, make me the person the dog thinks I am.” American Gods does not mark Shadow’s view of Laura as explicitly religious, but she is clearly, as it were, his idol. The psychology of his devotion to her is vivid, one that is familiar to all those who have been young and felt themselves to be in love.

When Laura dies unexpectedly, then, Shadow loses his living deity. His numbness in the wake of her death makes plausible his lack of resistance to the strangeness that subsequently enters his life. Life without Laura, for Shadow when we meet him, is both unimagined and unimaginable. After her death, the merely unbelievable barely seems to register as such. One of the few things chapter one directly tells us about Shadow, in fact, is that he “was not superstitious. He did not believe in anything he could not see” (7; ch. 1, §1). Nothing over the course of the story changes this. Religion in American Gods is not about the invisible, only about the unseen, and even this is left unchallenged in Shadow’s case. He never comes to believe in the unseen. Instead, he begins to see the unbelievable.

  1. Gods

Given Laura’s occupation as a travel agent, it is fitting that her arrangements are what first allow Shadow to encounter Mr. Wednesday. Gaiman’s prefatory disclaimer that “only the gods are real” helps readers avoid the mistake of thinking that the grim-countenanced traveler recalls the Norse god Odin. Gaiman’s concern for “good mythology” is immediately evident. The traits that in Norse texts “obscure [Odin’s] identity within the stories but which would have signaled to audiences his [disguised] appearance”[12] are all present in the initial description of Mr. Wednesday: a grim smile, gray hair and eyes, gray clothing, a “craggy” face recalling (gray) rocks, a false eye, and a silver necktie pin of a deep-rooted tree (26–28; ch. 1, §2). The placement of the pin on Wednesday’s necktie rather than a lapel echoes Odin’s experience with the tree the tie presumably depicts (i.e., Yggdrasil, the world-tree) as the site of his sacrificing himself to himself by the conventional means of hanging. Shadow’s earlier conversation with an old cellmate who laments the lost glories of hanging the convicted from the gallows reinforces the association (4; ch. 1, §1). Asked how he knows Shadow’s name without being told, Mr. Wednesday replies that “it’s the easiest thing in the world to know what people call themselves. A little thought, a little luck, a little memory” (28; ch. 1, §2). This is an apt reply: Norse sources consistently characterize Odin as knowing the names of all things and describe him as having two servant ravens, Thought and Memory. Even the fact that he is traveling, alone and pseudonymously, accords with traditional depictions, although it must be admitted that Odin’s ability to ride on the air offers less impressive material to Neil Gaiman than it did to Snorri Sturluson.

Odin, as presented by the Norse literati or by Gaiman, presents among the first of many opportunities in American Gods to complicate beginning students’ assumptions about how divinity can be conceptualized. Many of the common answers to “What is ‘religion’?” reveal Platonic and Christian neo-Platonic conceptions of divinity and devotion to be as influential today as ever before, although ­– or because – they tend to be received and implicit conceptions. Religion, we often hear (and sometimes think!) is “about” universal truths; about the intangible and spiritual as opposed to the physical and corporeal; about eternity and the transcendence of mortality. Holy persons, whether historical figures regarded as saints or deities whose existence is outside the empirical, are supposed to be role models for believers, to present ideals toward which they should strive, or at least to embody prevailing values and social norms (or occasionally to provide safe outlets for chaotic alternatives to them). Many instructors educated in a Western system, I would venture, can remember being disoriented to learn what they now teach: that the defining trait of divinity can be power rather than benevolence; that the holy can be abnormal just as much as normative; that the “purely spiritual” can be a footnote to the physical; that religion can be about the subjective, the mundane, and the mortal.

It is another fitting irony, then, that one of American Gods’ key images is explicitly Platonic. In the first of his dream encounters with the buffalo-headed man, which occurs immediately before his meeting Mr. Wednesday, “Shadow was in a dark place . . . Firelight flickered from wet cave walls” (22; ch. 1, §2). Both the image and the language will recur throughout the novel, and the very name by which the protagonist goes suggest the reflection visible in that allegorical setting. The novel’s concepts of divinity, however, are far from Platonic indeed, as indeed, Wanner points out, are those that the Norse sources evince.[13] The point continues to apply as Shadow encounters gods with global origins.

I will not try to list here all the ways in which the substance and narrative of American Gods unfold along distinctly non-Platonic lines. I would, however, draw attention to the way the first chapter also subverts generic conventions of modern fantasy epic – and thus, to some extent, the mythic epics on which modern fantasy often draws. Carroll points out that readers familiar with these conventions are “primed to trust Wednesday” as a mysterious, older, and clearly knowledgeable stranger who acts as a guardian of things ancient.[14] By these same conventions, Shadow might be expected to decline Mr. Wednesday’s job offer in favor of family obligations or out of a sense of unworthiness. But Mr. Wednesday, a god, is no match for the likes of, say, Merlin or Gandalf. He is not even the first physically marked, patriarchal source of information and power we meet in chapter one. Instead, he is preceded by a distinctly non-numinous allotype: a prison warden who Shadow has occasionally seen at a distance but never met and who “up close . . . looked worse. His face was oblong, with gray hair cut into a military bristle cut. He smelled of Old Spice [deodorant]. Behind him was shelf of books, each with the word prison in the title; his desk was perfectly clean, empty . . . He had a hearing aid in his right ear” (15–16; ch. 1, §1). When Shadow and the readers first encounter Mr. Wednesday, they already know the type. Those who are familiar with Norse tradition can even see the sadistically amused guard who reports to the warden as a bureaucratized Loki, one who has exchanged his cunning and disguises for a steady job that provides a uniform. Even without the shock of Laura’s death numbing his reactions, Shadow’s first impression of Mr. Wednesday is set up to be one lacking in awe.

Confounding genre expectations even further, nothing really alters this first impression. Mr. Wednesday is no misapprehended Obi-Wan Kenobi. As their relationship develops, he gives Shadow ever more reasons not only to distrust but also to dislike him. Shadow, for his part, never takes up the hero’s task, instead becoming involved with Mr. Wednesday due to a lack of alternatives and with a kind of resigned resentment of the situation. They are far from the epic pair that might have been expected – just as Shadow is no devotee of the god he serving, and just as the thoroughly traditional Mr. Wednesday proves to be a very different model of god.

Eliza Rosenberg received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McGill University in 2015. She is currently Adjunct Professor of Religion at Eastern Kentucky University. 


[1] Heather O’Donoghue, From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 181–182.

[2] Quoted in Timothy H. Evans, “Folklore, Intertextuality, and the Folkloresque in the Works of Neil Gaiman,” 68. In Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert eds., The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2016), 64–80.

[3] Robert William Jones II, “At Home in the World Tree: A Somaesthetic Reading of the Body at Home in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 6. Open Library of Humanities 1:1 (2015): 1–18.

[4] Andrew Wearring, “Changing, Out-of-Work, Dead, and Reborn Gods in the Fiction of Neil Gaiman,” 244. Literature & Aesthetics 19:2 (Dec. 2009): 236–246.

[5] Neil Gaiman, American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text) (New York: William Morrow, 2016), xv. In all editions: “Caveat, and Warning for Travelers.”

[6] Rut Blomqvist, “The Road of Our Senses: The Search for Personal Meaning and the Limitations of Myth in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 21; cf. 22, n. 7. Mythlore 30:3/4 (2012): 5–26.

[7] O’Donoghue, From Asgard toValhalla, 182–183.

[8] Neil Gaiman, “Reflections on Myth,” 77. Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 31 (Winter 1999): 75–84.

[9] Evans, “Folklore, Intertextuality, and the Folkloresque . . . ”, 71–72. In a similar vein, O’Donoghue, surveying online fan responses to American Gods, notes similarly that one source of its popular appeal is “an air of mystery, of the possibility initiation into academic or pseudo-academic wisdom and learning” (From Asgarad to Valhalla, 183). Mathilda Slabbert and Leonie Viljoen describe the novel as “a melding of mythology, fictional fantasy and reality and explores the mythical underpinnings of story-making” in which Gaiman “devises a refreshing contemporary mythology of his own, and presents a plausible alternative for the reader to the twenty-first century dilemma” of disenchantment and its discontents. (“Sustaining the imaginative life: mythology and fantasy in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 153; Literator 27:3 (2006): 153). Irina Raţă likewise describe’s the book as “Gaiman[’s using] old myths to create new ones . . . introduc[ing] elements from African, American Indian [sic], Irish, Norse, and Slavic mythologies, as well as numerous urban myths, phenomena, and objects of worship” (“The Role of Intertextuality in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” 106; Cultural Intertexts 2:3 (2015): 103–112).

[10] Siobhan Carroll, “Imagined Nation: Place and National Identity in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.” Extrapolation 53:3 (2012): 307–326.

[11] Gaiman, American Gods, 325 (ch. 9, §2). Laura’s maiden name was McCabe.

[12] Kevin J. Wanner, “God on the Margins: Dislocation and Transience in the Myths of Oðinn,” 329. History of Religions 46:4 (2007): 316–350.

[13] Wanner, “God on the Margins” 3232–335, 350. On Gaiman’s constructions of divinity, see here especially Blomqvist, “The Road of Our Senses” and Carroll, “Imagined Nation,” passim.

[14] Carroll, “Imagined Nation” 317–318.

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