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anthropomorphism

anthropomorphism Anthropomorphism can refer to the representation of the gods in human form or, more generally, to the attribution of human characteristics to animals or to inanimate objects. In both cases it can be seen as a statement of human superiority — everything else that there is must be just like us — or as an attempt to understand that to which we have no direct cognitive access, by imagining it to behave just like us.

The gods of many ancient societies were thoroughly anthropomorphized, both in their form and in their familial and social relationships; for example, as presented in the Homeric poems which were familiar throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, they get drunk, marry, quarrel, and make up just like people. The Greeks solved the problem of how, in this case, the gods are any different from us by attributing to them alone the features of being ‘immortal and ageless’. Either the cause or the effect of these two (usually related) features lies in a different diet: the diet of the gods consists of nectar and ‘ambrosia’, which literally means ‘immortal’, and this leads to a different fluid flowing in their bodies. The Greeks called this fluid ichor. In classical myth, the anthropomorphic nature of the gods meant that gods and mortals were thought to be fully capable of interbreeding, although the gods could also take on forms other than their human ones by metamorphosis. However, immortality and agelessness continued to be the prerogative of the gods; neither the children of mixed unions, nor mortals who were especially precious to the gods, could share them. For example, the mortal Tithonos was loved by Eos, goddess of dawn, and was granted the power to ask for anything he wanted. He asked for immortality, but forgot to mention agelessness, so that he grew older and older until all that was left of his physical self was his voice.

The body of a god may function sexually just like a mortal body, and Greek mythology included the difficult labour of the female Titan, Leto, in which she gave birth to the twin deities Apollo and Artemis — the first-born child Artemis helping to deliver her own brother.

One consequence of imagining the gods in human form, so that in art the only way to tell which figures are divine may be their representation on a larger scale, is that it can make it easier to believe that some humans may really be gods. This was a feature of the Mediterranean world before Alexander the Great decided that his mother's stories of having been impregnated by a god in the form of a snake conveyed divine status on him. The idea that a man could show himself to be a god by achieving something which was impossible for a mere mortal, such as conquest of a large proportion of the known world, meant that subsequent great generals could hint at such a status for themselves. From the third century bc, there was increased contact with Egypt, where for many centuries anthropomorphic representations of the gods had existed alongside the belief in the divinity of the ruler. This fuelled belief in the possession of divinity by certain humans, culminating in the cult of the living emperor in the Roman world.

Christianity, in common with the Islamic and Jewish traditions, generally avoids anthropomorphism, but still proposes that connections between the divine world and the human world can result in the birth of a child who is divine, as well as representing God the Father in art as a benign patriarch.

The attribution of human — particularly emotional or mental — characteristics to animals, or even to inanimate objects, has a long history, from Aesop's fables to fairy tales such as ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ and on to Beatrix Potter. Pleading with one's computer or cajoling one's temperamental car can be variations on this theme. The whole animal kingdom can be anthropomorphized, with the lion as ‘King of the beasts’, or the hive as a ‘Queen’ bee running her obedient ‘workers’. The ‘politics’ of such an animal world then act as a commentary on our own, with the animal representing the ‘natural’ way of acting. Additionally, individual species — such as the ‘wily’ fox — can be given a dominant anthropomorphic character trait; this enables different valuations to be placed on each species, and on each trait, within a given social context.

Helen King


See also Greeks; metamorphosis; reproduction myths; Titan.

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Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism (Gk., ‘of human form’). The attribution of human qualities to the divine, as also to other items in the environment, hence the conceiving of God or the gods, or of natural features, in human form. The status of such language and descriptions has been a matter of fierce debate in those religions which rely on revelations which describe God in terms of human qualities—e.g. sitting on a throne (in Islam, see TANZĪH). In general the limitations of analogical language and of symbols led in the direction of the via negativa. That is true even of Hinduism, but in that case the prevailing sense of God underlying all appearance makes the occurrence of anthropomorphism deceptive: there is a real presence through the image, and thus through sound and language (see e.g. ŚABDA; MANTRA; MAṆḌALA).

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"Anthropomorphism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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anthropomorphism

anthropomorphism (ăn´thrəpōmôr´fĬzəm) [Gr.,=having human form], in religion, conception of divinity as being in human form or having human characteristics. Anthropomorphism also applies to the ascription of human forms or characteristics to the divine spirits of things such as the winds and the rivers, events such as war and death, and abstractions such as love, beauty, strife, and hate. As used by students of religion and anthropology the term is applied to certain systems of religious belief, usually polytheistic. Although some degree of anthropomorphism is characteristic of nearly all polytheistic religions, it is perhaps most widely associated with the Homeric gods and later Greek religion. Anthropomorphic thought is said to have developed from three primary sources: animism, legend, and the need for visual presentation of the gods.

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"anthropomorphism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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anthropomorphism

anthropomorphism Attribution of human characteristics to that which is not human. The most commonly cited sociological illustration of this phenomenon is the tendency, often found in early functionalist sociology, to push the organic (or biological) analogy too far—to the point at which societies are reified and given the characteristics of self-conscious human actors.

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"anthropomorphism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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anthropomorphism

an·thro·po·mor·phism / ˌan[unvoicedth]rəpəˈmôrˌfizəm/ • n. the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object. DERIVATIVES: an·thro·po·mor·phize / -ˌfīz/ v.

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"anthropomorphism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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anthropomorphism

anthropomorphism The attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals, most commonly by supposing non-human behaviour to be motivated by a human emotion that might motivate superficially similar human behaviour.

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"anthropomorphism." A Dictionary of Ecology. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"anthropomorphism." A Dictionary of Ecology. . Retrieved April 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/anthropomorphism

anthropomorphism

anthropomorphism The attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals, most commonly by supposing non-human behaviour to be motivated by a human emotion that might motivate superficially similar human behaviour.

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"anthropomorphism." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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