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Deus Otiosus


DEUS OTIOSUS . The Latin term deus otiosus (pl., dei otiosi), meaning literally "god at leisure" or "god without work," denotes a god who has withdrawn or retired from active life. The paucity of detailed descriptions of these deities, when coupled with their widespread appearance in cultures around the globe, presents a puzzle for the study of religions. Athough the outline of these divine personalities is usually sketchy, they maintain a firm hold on the religious imagination. The study of gods who have retired from their arena of activity has provoked deep reflection on the meaning and function of symbols, especially of divine forms, in religious life.

Celestial Associations

Many African creation myths involving dei otiosi recount how the divine sky lay flat on the earth at the beginning of time. Nuba and Dogon myths, for example, describe how the chafing of the sky against the earth stunted human growth and disrupted normal routines of work. (R. C. Stevenson, "The Doctrine of God in the Nuba Mountains," in African Ideas of God, ed. E. W. Smith, London, 1950, p. 216; Marcel Griaule, Masques Dogons, Paris, 1938, p. 48). "In particular, women could not pound their grain without knocking against the sky, and so close relations finally ended when the sky's anger at the annoying blows of the women's pestles caused it to withdraw from the earth" (Dominique Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa, Chicago, 1979, p. 16). In other African societies, such as the Nyarwanda and Rundi of central Africa, the creator god lived with the first people at the beginning of time (or the first people lived in the sky with the god). For one reason or another, the god moved away from the company of his creaturesupstream, downstream, to a mountaintop, or to the sky (R. Bourgeois, Banyarwanda et Barundi, Brussels, 1957, vol. 3, pp. 1925).

Most forms of the deus otiosus cluster around the symbolism of the sky. The manifestation of the sacred in the sky and the belief in supreme beings of the sky is most often overwhelmed and replaced by other sacred forms. We do not mean to say that devotion to the beings of the sky was the first and only religious practice of archaic humankind. In the first place, we do not have the data we need to reconstitute the first forms of religious practice and belief in human history. More important, the study of histories that we know more fully indicate the unlikelihood that a belief in a supreme being of the sky would exclude all other religious forms. The point to begin with is that the experience of the sky as a religious reality, in fact as the divine sphere, places emphasis on the religious value of withdrawal and transcendence. The sky itself, as a symbol of sacred being, embraces or constitutes these elemental structures of a deus otiosus, withdrawal and transcendence. For this reason, countless other hierophanies can coexist with this sacred manifestation of the remote sky.

For example, Puluga is an omniscient sky-dwelling divinity revered in the Andaman Islands. After a stormy relationship with the first people, Puluga reminded them of his commands and withdrew. Men have never seen him since that time of estrangement at the beginning (Paul Schebesta, Les Pygmées, Paris, 1940, pp. 161163). In a similar way, Témaukel, the eternal and omniscient creator of the Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego, is called so'onh-haskan ("dweller in the sky") and so'onh kas pémer ("he who is in the sky"). Témaukel created mythical ancestors who took over the process of creating the world. Once creation was accomplished, he withdrew beyond the stars. For his part he remains indifferent to human affairs. Correspondingly, human beings possess no images of Témaukel or regular cult dedicated to him, and they direct their prayers to him only in cases of dire illness or bad weather (Martin Gusinde, "Das höchste Wesen bei den Selk'nam auf Feuerland," in Wilhelm Schmidt Festschrift, Vienna, 1928, pp. 269274). The Muring people of the east coast of Australia recount in their myths the story of Daramulun, their "father" (papang ) and "lord" (biamban ). Daramulun, the true name of this divine being of the sky, is known only to initiates. For a brief time he lived on earth and instituted the rites of initiation. Since his return to the heavens his presence is made known mostly in the sounds of thunder, the eerie groans from the nocturnal jungle, and through the sound of sacred bull-roarer used in initiation rites (Alfred W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, New York, 1904, pp. 362ff., 466ff.). Similarly, Bunjil, the heavenly supreme being of the Kulin tribes of Australia, created earth, trees, animals, and human beings and then left the world to live in the heaven beyond the "dark heaven" visited by holy men (ibid., p. 490).

Absence of Myth and Cult

The most striking feature of the deus otiosus is the absence of an active cult dedicated to the god. Even where there is sporadic and spontaneous devotion, it is remarkable how often there is no regular calendar of seasonal rituals celebrated in honor of the god. Mythic accounts of the deus otiosus are scanty. Even those myths that exist are short compared to the dramatic epics of heroes, storm gods, or the divine forms associated with the agricultural cycle. A large number of celestial supreme beings receive no regular worship. Among them we may mention Muladjadi of the Batak of central Sumatra, Petara remembered by the Sea Dyaks of Kalimantan (Borneo), Ndengei of Fijian mythology, and Yelefaz from the island of Yap.

The absence of scheduled cult and the brevity of mythic reference to the deus otiosus led scholars to a misconception. At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth (and even today, in some circles), scholars of religion and culture overlooked the importance of this religious form. The deus otiosus was seen as an anomalous piece of speculation, as a recent addition to the divine pantheon in response to contact with Christian missionaries, or as an archaic idea that had lost the clarity of its expression and meaning. It did not fit into the schemata that evaluated mythic thinking as infantile, unsubtle, or undeveloped. Rather than regard the absence of the deus otiosus from myth and cult as an inherent feature of its structure, scholars frequently ignored the issue or slighted its value in favor of theories that portrayed tribal peoples as theologically naive or intellectually underdeveloped.

Withdrawal of God

Myths that mention the deus otiosus usually face head-on the question of the god's absence from the preoccupations of culture. The narratives themselves describe the withdrawal or substitution of the supreme being. For example, lrun, the Yoruba divinity whose name means "lord or owner of the sky," turned over the project of creating the world to batala, one of his sons. When batala became drunk and mismanaged the creation of humans from clay, Oduduwa, his younger brother, usurped the task of creation. lrun then permanently absented himself from human history. He does not intervene directly in human affairs, for he delegated the care of human creation to his sons and to the oria, a collection of deities each with its own precinct, priesthood, temple, and devotees. Although absent from the unfolding course of human affairs, lrun remains an essential presence, for he inspires the breath of life into all individuals and allots them their destiny. Furthermore, the Yoruba call upon lrun in times of desperate calamity (E. Blaji Idowu, Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief, London, 1962; Peter Morton-Williams, "An Outline of the Cosmology and Cult Organization of the Oyo," Africa 34, 1964; Benjamin C. Ray, African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1976, pp. 4976, esp. pp. 52ff.).

Myths describe the origins of the status of the deus otiosus in cultural life as well as in the religious imagination. On the one hand, the god withdraws on his own initiative after finishing his work of creation or of overseeing its accomplishment. On the other hand, another frequent scenario is the usurpation of the supreme being's sovereignty by a younger and more active god. In the Hittite translations of Hurrian texts made around 1300 bce, there is an initial episode that describes the struggle for the "kingship of heaven." At first, the god Alalu was king, then the divinity named Anu overpowered him. At the beginning of Anu's reign, Kumarbi, the main protagonist of Hittite myth and the father of the gods, was Anu's servant. After nine years, Kumarbi chased Anu into the sky, tossed him to the ground, and bit off his loins (Hans G. Güterbock, "The Hittite Version of the Hurrian Kumarbi Myths: Oriental Forerunners of Hesiod," American Journal of Archaeology 52, 1948, pp. 123124; and C. Scott Littleton, "The 'Kingship in Heaven' Theme," in Myth and Law among the Indo-Europeans, edited by Jaan Puhvel, Berkeley, 1970, pp. 93100). A parallel in Greek mythology describes the castration of the sky god Ouranos and the forced separation of Heaven (Ouranos) from Earth (Gaia). In Mesopotamian mythology as well, the young gods led by Marduk guarantee that the great gods such as An, Enlil, and Ea lose their supremacy in the cult.

The existence in mythology of this most streamlined and ethereal of divine forms, the deus otiosus, teaches a lesson about the dynamics of the religious imagination. The dei otiosi, especially those supreme beings of the sky who retire after the creative episode, withdraw from the world in several senses. They withdraw on high and leave their creation behind. They also withdraw to the outer margins of the religious imagination and define the outermost reach of creativity, for they assume the most wispy of images. No doubt, contact with outsiders, especially Christians or Muslims, has often played a role in shaping the contemporary forms of dei otiosi. However, such contact does not preclude the existence of an indigenous structure of the deus otiosus. In fact, the existence of a myth of an otiose god enabled many cultures to recognize aspects of the foreign supreme being and reconcile them with their own. Far from remaining insignificant, the features of the deus otiosus exhibit definite signs, especially of vagueness and sublimity, that demarcate the outer reach of imaginable being.

Symbolic Characteristics

The deus otiosus is a limit-image, for before and beyond the deus otiosus nothing exists. The Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin admitted, "What there was before our Father Earthmaker came to consciousness, we do not know."


The descriptions of supreme beings who withdraw on high introduce students of religion to the most sublime end of the spectrum of divine forms, for the deus otiosus is often the most sublimated of sublime forms. By narrating descriptions of the most remote, transcendent, invisible, or intangible reality, cultures offer themselves and scholars expressions of an experience of being that, by definition, most transcends the senses. The myths of the deus otiosus are statements about the nature of creativity itself and about the subtle powers and rarefied capacities of the religious imagination. The Witóto of Colombia offer the following example: in the beginning nothing existed except "mere appearance," which was "something mysterious." Moma, the supreme being, touched this phantasm. Moma calls himself Nainuema, "he who is or possesses what is not present." He is an illusive appearance linked to sacred sounds associated with ritual words and chants. By means of dream, Nainuema held the phantasm against his breast and fell into deep thought, his breath helping him hold onto the illusion with the thread of his dream. Moma plumbed the dream-contained, breath-held phantasm to its bottom and found that it was empty. He fastened the illusion to his dream-thread with a gluey substance and then stamped on the bottom of the illusion until he came to rest on the earth. He made the forests rise by spitting and covered the earth with heaven (Konrad T. Preuss, Religion und Mythologie der Uitoto, vol. 1, Göttingen, 1921, pp. 27, 166168). Such sublime features of the deus otiosus have great value for the student of religious forms, for they describe the outer boundaries of imaginable being.


The passive character of the dei otiosi leaves the gods' personalities vague and ill-defined. The deities often avoid dramatic action and remain inert or aloof. In fact, the creativity of the dei otiosi is often described in negative terms. Their omnipresence comes across as a lack of presence in any single or definable place over another. Their omnipotence implies an uninvolvement with any single or specific cosmic operation, such as the growth of crops or the transitions of the human life cycle. Their omniscience implies a certain indifference to, or lack of interest in, any one fact over another. Their immortality implies a certain stasis, immobility, and inability to change. These negative valences are a function of the gods' association with creation at the very beginning. Once creation is accomplished and being has appeared for the first time, the function of a creator is completely exhausted and the god becomes otiose. The divinities and their unique creative powers retire from the active world they have initiated. They remain the ground of all created being and of all creative possibilities and, for that very reason, retire into infinity, beyond the bounded spaces of creation. Once the universe comes into existence, the supreme being's active mode is no longer in need of full manifestation, nor is it desired.


The withdrawal of the deus otiosus from the creative scene marks the end of the primordium. Therefore, it may be said that the presence of the deus otiosus defines primordiality, a potent condition full of possibilities. Dei otiosi have always existed; they bespeak the meaning of eternity and antiquity. The sky, or whatever paradisal place the gods dwelled in, has always been inhabited by supernatural beings. For example, for the Aranda of Australia, the "great father" (knaritja ) is an eternal youth (altjira nditja ) who lives in an eternally green countryside covered with flowers and fruits. The Milky Way transects this immortal dwelling place. The great father and his heavenly companions, all equally young, take no interest in the affairs of earth; the great father leaves the management of such affairs to the ancestors. The Aranda great father represents the primordium, the state of being that has no immediate significance, although it has unprecedented ontological bearing. Beatific existence, immortality, anteriority, or static antiquity are unmatched conditions of being. That primordial state was interrupted, and direct contact with it became difficult or impossible. Only a few privileged people, such as mythic heroes or specialists in ecstasy, can revisit a situation that has become irretrievably lost. Primordiality reveals something about the very nature of time and space. It is a quality that cannot be recaptured in terms of the present conditions of the cosmos. The withdrawal of the deus otiosus is part of the definition of a primordial world that stands over and against history. Primordiality is the milieu in which reality and eternity can truly manifest themselves. Knowledge of the existence of a deus otiosus affirms that even unique modes of being can be apprehended as a species of time.


The fate of the deus otiosus in mythic history guarantees that the first state of being becomes something less immediate and pressing. The god withdraws and becomes distant, and, for its part, human history becomes enveloped by the wrappings of symbolic life. For example, in the very beginning of the Makiritare creation cycle, all that existed was sky and eternal light. Shi, the invisible sun, had already created Wanadi, the heavenly creator, by blowing on quartz crystal. During that first period, there was no separation between the sky and the earth; the sky had no door in it as it does now, and Wanadi was bright and shining everywhere. He wished to make houses and place good people in them, and for this reason sent aspects of himself to earth. Attawanadi ("house-Wanadi"), the third aspect of Wanadi, specialized in constructing enclosures. He created the enclosed stratum called earth. Attawanadi made a new, visible sky for the earth so that the real sky could no longer be seen. The atta, the house or village of the Makiritare, is an exact replica of the first universe created by Attawanadi. Attawanadi's creation of the house-world achieved symbolic closure. He withdrew from his creation.

Myths of creation involving a deus otiosus frequently recount the lifting up of the sky and the installation of that heavenly body, the primordial image of transcendence. The sky becomes the paradigm of distance and difference. As the object of first real separation, the deus otiosus and its celestial manifestations betoken the possibility of distance between one kind of being and another; their continued transcendence and absence guarantee the symbolic life they signify. Many myths portray the danger that the sky will fall; that is, they portray the fear of the collapse of symbolic possibilities. If the symbolism of withdrawal of the deus otiosus, the reality transcendent above all others, will not stand up to scrutiny and cannot stay removed, then no symbolic distance of any kind can be guaranteed, and representational life fails. In fact, it is only at the end of time that many dei otiosi make their return. Attawanadi, for example, will return to the Makiritare when the earth ceases to exist (Marc de Civrieux, Watunna: An Orinoco Creation Cycle, ed. and trans. David M. Guss [San Francisco, 1980, pp. 28ff.]. The relationship between gods and humans comes into being when the separation of creator from created is acknowledged. "The period of man's 'religiousness' is not at all the 'paradisiac' era when God lived in the 'village' of men but the period following when God had lost his earthly and human qualities in order to live separately from mankind" (Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa, p. 16). The withdrawal of the deus otiosus becomes the foundation-stone of religious life: "the African feels deeply that the more inaccessible God seems to be, the greater is his need of him" (Zahan, p. 16).

Symbolic life, made possible by the withdrawal of primordial being, offers humankind the freedom of the symbolic condition, a dynamic existence that could never have flourished if the creator had continued to crush or overwhelm his creation with his ponderous presence and immediacy. Mediation, intermediaries, and symbolic distance become indispensable and possible when the god retires from the scene.

Implications for the Study of Religious Symbols

The knowledge of the mythic history of the dei otiosi, the story of their creative acts and the transformations they undergo while disappearing into the starry vault or into the forest or downstream, are an indispensable part of culture. Equipped with this knowledge, members of a culture live in awareness of the sacred nature of their environment and of their sociocultural order because they know the mythic history of each one of its forms. The withdrawal of the primordial being, the deus otiosus, leaves indelible marks on the physical universe and its organic contents.

For example, the Campas of Peru describe the migration of the sun (Pava) into the sky. He enlisted the aid of the hummingbird Neoronke, who carried one end of the sky-rope to the highest level of the universe. As Pava ascended, transformations occurred that gave nature its present condition. Many primordial beings, which at that time existed in protohuman form, became animals such as the tapir or the mouse. Certain trees and flowers used to demarcate the calendrical year were daughters of Pava. The trees are the clothes that these young women shed when they migrated to heaven with him. When the sky-rope dropped to the earth after the ascent, a number of beings fell from heaven to earth, including the wasp, the porcupine, and the sloth (Gerald Weiss, Campa Cosmology: The World of a Forest Tribe in South America, New York, 1975, pp. 219588; esp. pp. 389390).

There is no guarantee that the divine form of the deus otiosus will remain balanced on the periphery of the religious imagination. In some cases it seems that the god lapses into total oblivion. In other instances, prophets re-form and revitalize the concept of the supreme being and reinstate his cult. Where mythic knowledge of the retired god disappears entirely, the deity becomes completely otiose and no longer has religious value. Such was probably the fate of Dyaus, the Indo-European sky god, who eventually was no longer worshiped. No hymns or myths present this oldest Vedic religious form. The name simply designates the "sky" or "day." However, there lingers the memory that the "Sky knows all" (Atharvaveda 1.32.4) and that there is the "sky father" (Atharvaveda 6.4.3), who is one element of the primordial pair, Dyāvāpthivī, "sky and earth" (gveda 1.160). This draws Dyaus into the circle of similarly named Indo-European sky gods for whom we possess mythologies: Greek Zeus Pater, Roman Jupiter, Illyrian Daipatures, Scythian Zeus-Papaios, and Thraco-Phrygian Zeus-Pappos.

The god Mwari of the Shona people of Zimbabwe appears to be an instance of the recovery of the deus otiosus. Since the fifteenth century, circumstances have contributed to the revitalization of this remote sky god's cult. The Rozvi royal dynasty patronized the cult in the center of the city of Zimbabwe and the priests of Mwari have become important political figures (Daneel, 1970, pp. 3035).

The form of the deus otiosus, even if it is recalled only in wispy outline, is an essential stimulus to the life of the religious imagination. To one degree or another such a form is implied in every complete corpus of myths. Since every reality appearing in the mythic beginnings of the world is a total and absolute statement of its kind of being, the change and dynamism that undergird human history provoke a total eclipse or disintegration of primordial form. The death, transformation, or withdrawal of supernatural beings into the heights or into the extremes of the cosmos exemplifies the fate of primordial existence as a whole.

See Also

Sky; Supreme Beings.


Daneel, M. L. The God of the Matopo Hills: An Essay on the Mwari Cult in Rhodesia. The Hague, 1970.

Danquah, J. B. The Akan Doctrine of God. 2d ed. London, 1969.

Eliade, Mircea. "The Sky and Sky Gods." In his Patterns in Comparative Religion, pp. 38123. New York, 1958.

Eliade, Mircea. "South American High Gods." History of Religions 8 (1968): 338354 and 10 (19701971): 234266.

Ikenga-Metuh, Emefie. "The Paradox of Transcendence and Immanence of God in African Religions: A Socio-historical Explanation." Religion 15 (1985): 373385.

Lienhardt, Godfrey. Divinity and Experience. Oxford, 1961.

Long, Charles H. "The West African High God: History and Religious Experience." History of Religions 3 (1964): 328342.

Pettazzoni, Raffaele. "The Formation of Monotheism." In his Essays on the History of Religions, translated by H. J. Rose. Leiden, 1954.

Pettazzoni, Raffaele. "The Supreme Being: Phenomenological Structure and Historical Development." In The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Mircea Eliade, pp. 5966. Chicago, 1959.

Verger, Pierre. "The Yoruba High God." Odu 2 (January 1966): 1940.

New Sources

Casadio, Giovanni. "El and Cosmic Order: is the Ugaritic Supreme God a deus otiosus?" In Studia Fennica 32 (1987): 4558. For a bibliography on the deus otiosus in the religious-historical literature see p. 57.

Casadio, Giovanni. "A ciascuno il suo: otium e negotium del dio supremo dalla Siria alla Mesopotamia." Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni 58 (1992): 5979. After a discussion of the bibliography on the deus otiosus as a cross-cultural type, the controversial case of the Mesopotamian celestial god is examined.

Flamand Jean-Marie. "Deus otiosus: recherches lexicales pour servir à l'histoire de la critique religieuse d'Épicure. " In Sophies Maietores. Chercheurs de sagesse: hommage à Jean Pépin, edited by Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé, Goulven Madec, and Denis O'Brien, pp. 147166. Paris, 1992.

Mircea Eliade and

Lawrence E. Sullivan (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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