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Statue of the Egyptian god Osiris from between 664 and 332 BCE.

Mar 17, 2008
Gods in the Flesh – Part One

As the main deity of the funerary cult, Osiris is shown as a mummy wearing the atef-crown and holding the crook and flail as his royal insignia. But why is the god portrayed as a human being?

As is well known, anthropomorphy is a trait shared with all prominent members of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, often in combination with animal features. Likewise, ancient civilisations such as the Babylonians, the Hittites, the Greeks, the Persians, the Indians, the Chinese and the Aztec all widely painted, sculpted and described gods and goddesses in terms of human beings. This raises the question to what extent members of these cultures actually envisioned their gods as humans?

Euhemerus of Messene (4th century BCE) was a Greek mythographer credited with the view that the supernatural tales and characters featured in mythology were really exaggerations of mundane historical events. While his work has not withstood the ravages of time, various classical writers of the Imperial period reflected the opinion that the gods were really just extraordinary human beings.

For the Greek essayist, Plutarch († 120 CE), for example, Osiris was merely a “good king”:

“One of the first acts related of Osiris in his reign was to deliver the Egyptians from their destitute and brutish manner of living. This he did by showing them the fruits of cultivation, by giving them laws, and by teaching them to honour the gods. Later he travelled over the whole earth civilizing it without the slightest need of arms …”

In commemoration of Euhemerus’ contribution to the theory of myth, scholars customarily brand “Euhemerism” every type of “historicizing” theory of myth that has been proposed since Antiquity. To varying extents, these include more recent champions of mythology such as Robert Graves, Joseph Fontenrose, Samuel Kramer and Thorkild Jacobsen, who would argue that characters such as Gilgamesh or Heracles had been flesh-and-blood kings. But is Euhemerism a valid and useful explanation of the phenomenon of deity? Does the “man” hypothesis successfully explain the content of ancient myth?

It has to be conceded that historical events have at all times and places been coloured by mythical imagery. Quite a bit of mythological poetry was woven around the death of Julius Caesar or the birth of Gautama Buddha, for instance, but in these and most other cases it can be demonstrated that the mythical motifs attached to these events had existed long before. Actual historical persons have sometimes been deified, but never did the motif of apotheosis itself originate with these people. As far as we can tell, the mythology – in the form of “archetypes” – has always preceded its application to worthy specimens of Homo sapiens.

A vital indication that mythical “archetypes” themselves never took their cue from the lives and times of human beings is the profound astral nature of the deities, ancestors and heroes sported in world mythology. Euhemerists have generally responded in two different ways to the undeniable celestial association of the gods and goddesses. Their first resort was to catasterism, the belief that deceased people or their souls went up to the sky and turned into a star, a planet, a comet or a meteor.

A second popular apology in the classical period was the reinterpretation of sky-related elements in myth as garbled memories of the scientific accomplishments of the ‘‘divine” humans. For example, Lucian of Samosata (2nd century CE) was credited with the belief that Phaethon, the son of the sun god who set the world ablaze, was just an early stargazer, who died while investigating the course of the sun. And the Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily (1st century BCE), treated Atlas, the giant mountain-like bearer of the sky, as an early star watcher:

“They also say that he perfected the science of astrology and was the first to publish to mankind the doctrine of the sphere; and it was for this reason that the idea was held that the entire heavens were supported upon the shoulders of Atlas, the myth darkly hinting in this way at his discovery and description of the sphere.”

Hesperus, the evening star, was a king... “distinguished above the others for his piety, justice to his subjects, and love of mankind”, who “...having once climbed to the peak of Mount Atlas, was suddenly snatched away by mighty winds while he was making his observations of the stars, and never was seen again; and because of the virtuous life he had lived and their pity for his sad fate the multitudes accorded to him immortal honours and called the brightest of the stars of heaven after him.”

Neither argument is acceptable from a modern point of view and gods such as Osiris, Atlas and Hesperus were clearly based on celestial phenomena from the start. What, then, led ancient societies to portray these gods as human beings?

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Further Reading:

The Mythology of the World Axis; Exploring the Role of Plasma in World Mythology

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon


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