The Old Gods are the gods of religion and culture that were brought over to North America by human activity (immigration, slavery) and survived there even after their worship stopped.
Characteristics of the Old Gods
- "Old Gods" is a term used to refer to the numerous supernatural entities that the immigrants, slaves and travellers brought with them to North America. Not all of them are "gods" in the usual sense of the term - several are supernatural entities from folklore or mythical figures - but all were born of belief and worship. The television series reinforces the cohesion of the term "Old Gods" by establishing what was merely implied in the novel: all of the "non-divine" supernatural entities among the old gods used to be gods or goddesses in the past of their homeland, but belief (or lack of) degraded them into smaller entities. While the deities coming from Southern and Central America are considered foreign entities in an hostile land, and thus equal to the other old gods, the beings native to North America are not considered the same as the "old gods" (see American entities).
- The Old Gods are American incarnations or avatars of a given deity and entity. Bound by the shores of North America, they cannot leave the continent, while their "original self" still exists and evolve in their homeland, distinct and separate from their American counterpart. (For the original incarnations of the deities, see Original gods).
- The old gods feed on belief and worship. Those whose religion is still active in America (such as Hindu gods and Vodou loa) are said to live quite well, while those whose true believers and worshippers are long gone (such as the Egyptian or Nordic gods) need to find alternative ways to claim worship (adoration, prayers, dedication, sacrifices...). Without regular worship, the old gods weaken, lose their powers and sanity, grow old and sick. When weakened, they can even die like regular human beings. On the contrary, regular worship allows the old gods to not die of old age, sickness, hunger or other natural causes (though several of them appear old due to their ancient nature reflecting in their human appearance). While the weakened old gods can die of lethal wounds or old age, death does not work for them like for human beings: they can manifest as ghosts or spirits soon after their death, and even be resurrected with enough worship and sacrifices. The only "true death" for an old god is utter oblivion (see below).
- Without worship or belief, the old gods fade away, a fate considered "worse than death". When a god completely stops receiving worship or belief in any form, they will eventually disappear and a statue of them appears in the Hall of Forgotten Gods. Knowledge of the god and the popularity of their legends, plays an important role in the survival of the old gods: well-remembered old gods usually stay alive longer than obscure legendary figures, and the Hall of Forgotten Gods separates the gods whose name and aspects are still known from those whose names and stories have completely disappeared (the former having a chance at being resurrected, the latter being doomed to oblivion). The case of Easter also reveals that, even if a god's celebration is popular, as long as the deity itself is not remembered or known the worship will feel empty and unsatisfying.
- While weaker than their original counterparts, the old gods are still quite powerful beings able to use magic and an array of supernatural powers (each god's abilities depending on their functions, roles and attributes in their original mythologies or respective religions).
- The old gods usually have one given human-looking appearance, that they can alter or change as they desire, though never for too long. When the old gods weaken, they seem to lose control over their appearance, such as Bast who is too weak to manifest as a human being (except in other realms such as dreams, the afterlife or the backstage). In the "backstage", the old gods regain their divine and mythical shapes - while they usually choose a default appearance for the sake of convenience, they actually have at their disposition numerous aspects reflecting the entirety of their characters throughout history, cultures and religions.
- In the novel, Shadow describes the essence of the Old Gods as "the old world, a world of infinite vastness and illimitable resources and future".
The chronology of the Old Gods
The universe of American Gods slightly alters the historical chronology of the discovery of America. In this universe, most of the theories of "early Pre-Colombus contact" with the American continent are true, explaining the presence of gods belonging to very ancient civilizations. As Mr. Ibis explains it: "This country has been Grand Central station for ten thousand years. [...] Columbus did what people had been doing for thousands of years. There’s nothing special about coming to America."
Chronology in the book:
- 14 000 BCE: Siberians tribes arrive in America through Beringia, the land bridge that connected Siberia to present-day Alaska. They brought their gods with them (such as the mammoth-god Nunyunnini), but their descendants abandonned them and developped their own gods. These tribes were the ancestors of Native Americans (see American Entities).
- 7000 BCE: The Ainu, the Japanese aboriginal race, came to America. The skull of one of them was found in the 20st century.
- 5000 BCE: Polynesians came to what is known today as California. The skull of some of them were found in the 20st century.
- 1530 BCE: Egyptians came to America to trade. They exchanged with the Natives animal skins, food and copper from "what would later become Michigan's upper peninsula". They stayed long enough to believe and worship the Egyptian gods and to bury the few of them who died of a fever, but realizing America was not a good trading land they left. The Egyptian gods that came during this era were Mr. Ibis, Mr. Jacquel, Bast, Horus and Set.
- 7th century: Welsh people came to America and brought with them Gwydion.
- 800: The Basque established their secret sacred fishing grounds on the coast of "Newfoundland".
- 813: A group of thirty Norsemen discovered North America, built there a hall for their gods (specifically Thor, Tyr and Odin, to which they sacrificed a Native American), but left after starting a war with the local "scraeling" people.
- 900s: Leif the Lucky, son of Erik the Red, re-discovers America, which he calls the Vinland. Their presence reinforces the Nordic gods. It is possible that Loki came during this era, since he was not mentionned among the gods brought in 813.
- In the Dark Ages, the Irish went to America. During the same era, Africans from the West Coast traded with South America, and the Chinese visited "a couple of times" what they called Fu Sang (today's Oregon).
- The European colonization of America (from the 16th to the 19th centuries) brought numerous European gods and entities, notably gods and creatures from the Cornish, British and Germanic cultures. See Essie MacGowan.
- The Atlantic slave trade (from the 16th to the 19th centuries) brought numerous gods from the African continent, most of them surviving through new religious practices such as the American forms of West African Vodun (Haitian Vodou, Louisiana Voodoo...). See Loa
- The Great Famine of Ireland, from 1845 to 1852, caused a wave of Irish immigration towards the United-States. Said Irish men and women brought with them several entities, such as Mad Sweeney.
Chronology in the television series:
- In the 1970s, Bilquis came to America with those that fled the Iranian Revolution.
- Tu'Er Shen, the Chinese god of homosexuality, mentions that he came to America in the mid-19th century.
Main Old Gods
Notable Old Gods
Other Old Gods
These creatures are not gods or god-like beings, but beasts, animals and creatures existing alongside the gods in mythologies or supernatureal realms.
Ammet, the Eater of Souls, lives in the Egyptian afterlife, its function being to devour the heart of those judged by Anubis if the heart is too heavy. It appears in Chapter Sixteen when Shadow is judged.
The squirrel living in Yggdrasil in Nordic mythology. It appears to Shadow while he hangs from the World-Tree in Chapter Fifteen, repeating "Ratatosk! Ratatosk!" and brings several times water to Shadow, in a nut shell, to ease his fatigue, pain and calm his hallucinations.
Bird is one of the Old Gods in the Anansi Boys novel and appears in Anansi tales, where Bird and other animals including Tiger and Monkey are frequently tricked and embarrassed by Anansi. She is a villainous goddess of all birds.
Tiger is one of the Old Gods and appears in Anansi tales, where Tiger and other animals including Bird and Monkey are frequently tricked and embarrassed by Anansi. He is the main antagonist in the Anansi Boys novel and is the god of all big cats, savagery, and the hunt.
- Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab created a perfume oil based on the character of Mithras, described as: Oblations of milk, oil, honey, and blood. They also created for their "American Gods III" line a perfume oil based on the Forgettable God: A faint impression of scent, a memory slipping like water through a sieve.
- When asked about the "absence" of the Abrahamic God in the novel, Neil Gaiman explained on his Tumblr that technically He was everywhere and yet did not appear as any character of the book - due to the belief that the God of Abraham is "invisible, insubstantial, beyond all understanding, and revealing himself through his works".  
- The Annotated Edition of American Gods mentions that, in his first ideas for the novel, Neil Gaiman wanted to explore a group of "retired circus people" living in Florida. It is unknown if this group would have been some of the Old Gods or not.
- In the context of American Gods, American means "North America". As a result, the Old Gods include not only coming from outside of the American continent per se, but also deities coming from Southern or Central America (several Mayan and Aztec deities are seen among the ranks of the Old Gods).