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DEIFICATION . The Latin term deificatio does not appear until late in the Roman era, and then first in Christian literature, particularly in the controversies involving the Nestorians, who blamed the orthodox for "deifying" the body of Christ. In current usage, the English term deification is equivalent to apotheosis. In light of history, however, apotheosis might be reserved to refer to the consecration of heroes, of political personages, of Hellenistic sovereigns and, notably, of Roman emperors. In this article the subject will be the deification of individuals or of things generally through means that correspond to certain general tendencies of Greco-Roman paganism.

Pythagoreanism and Cathartic Deification

Since death makes the radical difference between men and gods, the problem of deification is indeed that of immortalization. In the Classical epoch, the Greeks attributed the power of immortalizing (athanatizein ) to the Getae and to the Thracians through a kind of shamanism that may have involved Zalmoxis. No evidence exists of the ritual patterns of these practices, but they must have been based on a doctrine of the soul and on the existence of spiritual elites. Zalmoxis was regarded as a daimōn and as a disciple of Pythagoras. The connection is significant, since belief in metempsychosis is sometimes attributed to the Thracians.

The belief in metempsychosis is tied to the first explicit formulation of a deification of persons through asceticism and the satisfaction of penalties consequent upon the pleasures of previous lives. It is found in the writings of the Pythagorean philosopher Empedocles (frag. 145146): a soul is a kind of "demon" that is bound to the cycle of reincarnation in expiation for its faults. At the end of purifying reincarnations, after having been "prophets, cantors, physicians ," these fallen and ransomed "demons" are "reborn as gods": they become the "table companions of the immortals." The last two verses of the Pythagorean Golden Verses (70f.) offer hope of a state like that of an immortal god for the sage "who, having left his body behind, goes forward into the free ether." Hierocles would explain this deifying liberation of the soul as the "highest aim of the hieratic and sacred craft," that is, of philosophy. Deification, then, consists of restoring the personal daimōn to its authentic status as an immortal god. It is the goal of a spiritual asceticism confirmed by various means of testing.

The same teaching is implicit in Plato, notably in the Phaedo (69c, 114c), where the philosopher is talking not expressly about a deification, but rather about a sojourn among the gods. It is also seemingly implicit in the inscriptions engraved upon the noted golden tablets of Thurii (fourth to third century bce) and of Rome (second century ce). These assure the deceased that he will be a god by virtue of his heavenly ancestry, his divine race, and the sentence that he has served. Caecilia Secundina "became divine according to the law," that is, by the law that governs reincarnations (Orphicorum fragmenta 32g.4). The deceased in one of these tablets states expressly that he has escaped at last the "circle of sorrows," an image that elsewhere is applied to the cycle of rebirths. Whether these tablets bear inscribed fragments of an Orphic "book of the dead," of a missa pro defunctis, or of a Pythagorean hieros logos ("sacred teaching"), their formulary promises a posthumous deification.

The same point of view is declared on the new tablet of Hipponium: the soul of the deceased woman will take "the sacred path along which the other initiates and Bacchants walk unto glory." The reference is to Orphic Bacchants. It is significant that Orphic vegetarianism expresses the desire to live not as men but as gods. This asceticism had the aim of purifying man from his Titanic components by liberating the Bacchus within him. A liberation of this sort coincides, as it does in Empedocles and Plato, with the escape from the "circle of genesis." The Orphic-Pythagorean deification thus presupposes a persevering action directed toward oneself, a cathartic and mystic tension. When Hippolytus (Philosophumena 6.9.25) attributes to Pythagoras the statement that souls "become immortal, once they are detached from their bodies," this does not mean that physical death liberates them automatically, but that immortality is the reward for continual effort at personal purification. This conviction is based upon a dualist anthropology.

The Mysteries and Initiatory Deification

Orphic-Pythagorean ideas were disseminated with variations (especially involving metempsychosis) by advocates of Platonism and Neoplatonism. Ever since the Classical epoch, the Orphic mystics, as well as various wandering charlatans, had promised, through the use of specialized formulas, not a religious purification, but only an ethical purification in the spirit of the philosophers. Later, during the Hellenistic age, the multiplication and success of mystery religions popularized a new form of deification.

These cultscentered on deities who were regarded as having lived and suffered among menput into question the radical distinction between cursed mortals and blessed immortals. Insofar as they made their initiates relive in a liturgical way the trials of the gods who had died and revived (Osiris) or were reborn (Attis), the mystery religions connected their devotees with an adventure that ended with victory over death. Indeed, the initiation that, at first, was regarded as giving the candidates some assurance of a kind of privileged status in the beyond (Eleusis) tended also to safeguard them against bad luck, and even to deify them by a form of ritual identification with Dionysos, Attis, or Osiris. The Dionysian mysteries made a Bacchus of the initiate; the consecration of the initiate by means of the winnowing basket and the phallus regenerated him by immunizing him against death and infernal demons. Dionysos was held to have returned from the nether regions along with his mother Semele, and to have been "reborn." His myth provided a model for the rebirth of any initiate, to whom the same immortality was promised (Turcan, 1966, pp. 396ff., 436ff., 466ff.). This regeneration required the (figurative) death of the initiate, who was subjected to a rite of katabasis. The initiate was seen as undergoing the same trials of initiation that had turned Dionysos into a true Bacchus (ibid., pp. 406ff.). The Neoplatonists compared the restoration of the soul (purified and reintegrated in God) to the awakening of Dionysos Liknites (ibid., p. 401). The initiation of the cult of Isis offers many comparisons. The neophyte had to die to his previous life, and the ritual involved a descent into hell, with some kind of mystical or hallucinatory journey through the cosmos. Yet as recompense the initiate was defied, adorned "ad instar Solis" ("as a likeness of the Sun," that is, Osiris-Helios), and held up to the faithful as an idol. The benevolence of Isis, who judged someone to be worthy, made the neophyte into a new Osiris. The funeral rites of mummification in ancient Egypt had the same purpose. Yet in figuratively anticipating the initiate's death, the mysteries of Isis during the Roman epoch in some way democratized apotheosis, in that in its beginnings only pharaohs were the beneficiaries.

The mysteries of Cybele likewise promised a regeneration to their adherents and an elevation (epanodos ) toward the gods. Just as in the initiation of the cult of Isis, the initiate is thought of as dying like Attis, in order to share in the love of Cybele in a blessed hieros gamos. The Galli, by castrating themselves, identified with Attis. To avoid this personal bodily sacrifice, use was made of the taurobolium, the ritual sacrifice of a bull. The function and meaning of the taurobolium are debated (R. Duthoy, The Taurobolium: Its Evolution and Terminology, Leiden, 1969). Yet the fact remains that the beneficiary of the taurobolium was factitiously identified with the victim by drenching himself in the victim's blood, thereby becoming an Attis that those present could worship. Just like the initiate of Isis, the initiate of Attis was "reborn" through the taurobolium: in aeternum renatus. Whatever the rites or mysteries, the resting with a divine nature was thought of as a regeneration (Nilsson, 1974, p. 653). This feature is also seen in Hermetic deification.

Hermetism and Gnostic Deification

Comparing astrology with an initiation, Vettius Valens (second century ce) identifies contemplation of the stars with a kind of mystical union with God: the knowledge of the heavens "divinizes" the man who possesses it, as if the subject came to merge with the object. This is even more true of the knowledge of God when, in the imperial epoch, philosophy becomes theosophy. In the Corpus Hermeticum, this idea recurs frequently, "for this is the blessed end of those who have the knowledge: they become God" (Corpus Hermeticum 1.26). The good choicethat of divine things"deifies man" (ibid., 4.7). We are "divinized" by the birth into spiritual life that constitutes gnosis. Asclepius 41 gives thanks to the supreme God, that he has deigned to "consecrate for eternity," that is, to deify men in the flesh. This affirmation seems to conflict with that in Corpus Hermeticum 10.6, where it is denied that the soul can be divinized while in a body.

Indeed, Hermetic gnosis supposes a complete regeneration. It is the new man enlightened and reborn in God who becomes a god by dying to physical life and by becoming alien to the world even in this life. Regeneration consists of the substitution of ten good "powers" (including "the knowledge of God") for twelve evil "powers" attributable to the zodiac. The disciple then identifies himself with the cosmic eternity, Aion, and he is then divinized. This is the very recommendation that Nous makes to Hermes: "Become Aion, and you will understand God" (ibid., 11.20). Here again it is a matter of restoring the soul to its original state: "You are born a god and a child of the One," declares Hermes to Tat (ibid., 13.14).

Similarly, the Gnostic systems derived from Christian inspiration, whatever the variations in their myths and their soteriology, envision only the final restoration of the spirit to its original divine state. Finally, the idea that by knowing oneself one learns to know God and to be known by him so as to be "deified," or "generated into immortality," is expressed by orthodox Christians (Hippolytus, Philosophumena 10.34). In contrast with Hermes Trismegistos, Hippolytus promises the Christian a body that will be as immortal and incorruptible as the soul itself. But, like the Hermetist, the Christian must also die to the old man and to the profane life.

Magical and Theurgic Deification

Certain procedures of deification are comparable to Hermetic gnosis, at least insofar as they are presented as "formulas for immortality" that feature magical concepts. This is true in the case of the so-called Mithraic liturgy (end of the third century ce), where the name of Mithra appears as only one of those associated at that time with the sun. The ritual involves prayers and a journey of the spirit that in some way anticipates the posthumous ascension of the soul unto Helios and the heavenly Aion, both invoked for the occasion. As in Hermetism, the apathanatismos asserts that a subject is regenerated by the very object of his theosophical quest, but this is conditional to the exact application of a formula. Other magical texts insist upon the importance of knowledge revealed by the god or gods: "We thank you for having divinized us through the knowledge of your being," states one papyrus. Following the death of the magus, Aion carries away his breath (pneuma ) by way of rescuing it from Hades, "as befits a god." The neophyte is "reborn" and freed from fate, as was the initiate of Isis. Neoplatonic theurgy would give its approval to pagan magic, and Psellus could believe that it was capable of making gods of men.

The magus could also deify animals by ritually mummifying them in accordance with traditional Egyptian practices. Further, he could deify idols through telestic action and theurgy. In this sense, Asclepius 23 affirms that man is the creator of gods. It was precisely for this reason that Christians reproached pagans: the very idea that men could make gods! The most frequently denounced example of idolatrous fiction is that of Serapis who, according to Origen (Against Celsus 5.38), owed his existence "to the profane mysteries and to the practices of sorcerers invoking demons." Indeed, telestic action consists of causing divine influence to enter into idols, to "animate" them or to illuminate them through the magical process known as phōtagōgia. This consecration of statues employing magical formulas played a great role in late paganism.

Funerary and Iconographic Deification

The adornment of tombs displays the concern for deifying individuals by analogy or through iconography. This tendency was first evident in Rome among the class of freedmen who sought thus to insure themselves some kind of moral promotion. Their cippi or stelae represent, from the first century ce, Herakles, Hermes, Dionysos, and Artemis portrayed after the image of the deceased man or woman. The epitaphs, the architecture of the tombs, and the literary tradition confirm the intention to identify the dead with gods, goddesses, and heroes. When the use of sarcophagi began to prevail at the time of the Antonines, sepulchral imagery manifested even more clearly the same concerns that are evident among higher social circles; emperors and empresses provided the example. This style of funerary deification consisted either of featuring the deceased's medallion portrait (imago elipeata ) as being carried by the gods (Tritons, Centaurs, Victories, Erotes) or of giving the sculpted god, goddess, or hero the same features as the dead man or woman, who could then be seen as Dionysos, Ariadne, Mars, Hercules, Endymion, or Selene. Imagery of predatory animals (eagles, griffins) or gods (Dioscuri, Pluto) also implies a deification by analogy. Finally, sarcophagi with figures of the Muses, or with scenes of teaching, of battle, or of hunting, heroize the deceased through association with the depicted qualities of gallantry or erudition.

Thus, in the Hellenistic and Roman world, philosophy, theosophy, magic, mystery religions, and the cult of the dead all aspired to the same goal (one that on principle was excluded in Classical Greek religion): for the individual person to become or become again a god.

See Also

Apotheosis; Soul, article on Greek and Hellenistic Concepts; Theurgy; Thracian Religion.


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Robert Turcan (1987)

Translated from French by Paul C. Duggan

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