Gods and Goddesses

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GODS AND GODDESSES . In human religious experience, manifestations of sacred power (hierophanies) provide centers of meaning, order, worship, and ethics. Humans have always felt that real life is in close contact with sacred power, and that sacred power is often encountered in the form of divine beings. Ideas and experiences of these goddesses and gods thus are not so much intellectual reflections as existential concerns, revolving around the fundamental human questions of life in this world. The manner in which the divine beings are imagined and experienced, and the particular types, functions, and personalities of the divine beings, depend on the cultural context of the particular community of people.

Gods and goddesses fit most aptly into what have been called polytheistic cultures, where the divine reality has not been unified into monistic or monotheistic systems. Monistic views still allow for goddesses and gods as manifestations or emanations of one divine reality, whereas a monotheistic worldview absorbs their functions as attributes of the one God, or downgrades them to helpers, such as angels or saints. This article will focus on the major types of gods and goddesses in the cultures in which plurality of divine beings is taken for granted.

Scholarly discussion on gods and goddesses has raised a number of issues. One question has to do with the relation between gods and human society. Even though the goddesses and gods of a particular society necessarily reflect the values and traditions of that society, one cannot assume direct correspondences between the mythological divine world and humans. Just because a society emphasizes a mother goddess does not mean that it was originally a matriarchy, for example. It seems that myths about the gods and goddesses cannot be taken as direct reflections of human historical experiences. At the same time, careful study of the changing visions of the divine beings may suggest some facets of the dynamics of social change within a particular community of people. For example, a change in dominance from one god or goddess to another may reflect the rising power of a particular group within the society with its mythological concerns. Or a change in a particular goddess or god's function could conceivably reflect new needs and concerns on the part of the people.

Another issue questions whether it is possible to identify the "original" function of certain goddesses and gods, in contrast to added or accumulated functions, or to distinguish between "primordial" gods, on the one hand, and lesser spirits or deified humans, on the other. While these distinctions can provide valuable insights, they can also be misleading. Although certain central functions may stand out, like those of creator, warrior, or fertility giver, often a particular goddess or god displays a number of functions, and it cannot be determined with certainty which should be considered the original or primordial. In fact, most divine beings are highly complex and are perceived to meet the needs of the people in a variety of ways.

In the last several years this discussion has been carried on particularly by feminist scholars who have focused a great deal of study on goddesses, with results that have enhanced our understanding of the importance, richness, and complexity of the individual goddesses. Earlier scholarship emphasized the importance and variety of male gods while stereotyping goddesses as secondary and limited to mothering and fertility functions. But feminist scholars have brought the study of goddesses to the fore and shown convincingly that they are no less important in power and sovereignty than male gods, and they are equally diverse in their functions.

One central issue is the question whether there was, in the prehistorical period, one unified Great Goddess (e.g., Mother Earth) that is somehow revealed or expressed in the various goddesses of the different peoples. J. J. Bachofen gave impetus to this theory in Das Mutterecht (1861) by arguing that mothers ruled over families in the prehistoric era. Other scholars, such as Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough (19111915), Erich Neumann in The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype (1955), and E. O. James in The Cult of the Mother Goddess (1959), established the idea that the cult of the Mother Goddess was prevalent throughout the ancient world and that it reflects an essential human archetype. Archaeologists James Mellaart and Marija Gimbutas argued that evidence from archaeology supports the theory that the cult of the Great Goddess was reflected in the female figurines and other feminine symbols which dominated these societies. Gimbutas put forth the view that peoples of ancient Europe and the Near East were devoted to the worship of the Mother Goddess in her various forms and lived in matriarchal, peaceful societies. They were disrupted and changed by the invasion of war-like Indo-Europeans, who brought their male gods and established patriarchal, violent societies.

Many feminist scholars, through extensive critical investigations of goddesses in past and present world religions, have questioned this theory of a unified Great Goddess behind all goddess figures, and of the societal changes that took place. These scholars, such as Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris in Ancient Goddesses: The Myth and the Evidence, argue that the theory that all goddesses represent mother or fertility power actually constricts and diminishes their role. Rather, they find goddesses representing the whole range of divine functionscreators, rulers, warriors, fertility-givers, promoters of sexuality, mistresses of animals, bringers of destruction and death, among others. And they show that male gods also include so-called feminine functions such as giving birth, nurturing, and bringing peace. The emphasis in this scholarship is not on uncovering a unified Goddess archetype, but on recognizing the complexity, diversity, and significance of goddess figures in the cultures of the world, past and present.

Yet discussion of the Great Goddess still plays a significant role in some contexts. Hindus, with their full array of goddesses, have long speculated about one Great Goddess (Mahādevī), manifested in various goddesses, including Pārvatī, Lakmī, Sītā, Durgā, and Kālī, while at the same time exulting in the individual aspects and activities of these goddesses. A significant appropriation of the idea of the Great Goddess has also taken place in the contemporary western movement variously called Goddess Spirituality, Goddess Religion, and Women's Spirituality. Growing out of feminism, Goddess Spirituality resonates to the perception of the Great Goddess, affirming women's bodies and lives and providing powerful images of the mysteries of life and death, regeneration, creativity, and the divine force in all of nature.

History and Morphology of Divine Beings

To understand the full dimensions of gods and goddesses in the various cultures of the world, it is helpful to keep in mind both the cultural history and the morphology of human involvement with what they have considered sacred beings. Historically, all the different deity forms that have developed need to be understood and related to the cultural areas in which they are at home. People of each particular culture choose certain types of sacred modalities as strong and efficacious, and these modalities define the goddesses and gods as they are experienced and described within that culture. There is always an ongoing process of revaluation of the gods and goddesses, even in archaic cultures that seem to change very little over long periods of time. The modalities of the sacred are dynamic, one form diminishing in importance or becoming absorbed into another form, while new experiences give strength to other forms of the sacred. The way in which the people envision the gods and goddesses reflects something of their social, political, economic, and cultural experience in a living process.

In considering the morphology of goddesses and gods across various cultures, the modalities by which the sacred is experienced are embedded in the structures of nature itself and in the structures of human life. Almost every significant reality in human experience has been seen in one culture or another as the arena of a sacred manifestation: sky, earth, sun, moon, mountains, water, hunting, planting, sexuality, washing, childbirth, eating, rulership, war, death, and so forth. Some common cross-cultural themes exist in the way peoples of the world have envisioned gods and goddesses. Since their power meets human existence precisely at the most vital and crucial areas of life, humans experience these divine manifestations in concrete, compelling forms. The goddesses and gods thus revealed are felt to have efficacious power, personality, and will. The fact that the divine beings have personality and will is rooted in the sense that human existence is not just aimless and haphazard but is related to the sacred pattern created or structured by the will of the gods and goddesses.

Each people's system of gods and goddesses depends on their traditional cultural context, for deities are always envisioned in ways appropriate to a culture. For example, divine beings in archaic hunting societies include ancestors, sky and astral gods, and representations of mother-type goddesses. But most characteristic of hunting cultures are sacred beings associated with animals: culture heroes in animal form and, above all, masters and mistresses of animals. These are powerful gods and goddesses who represent the sacred as experienced in the people's relationship to animals.

Planting cultures also know animal forms of gods, but here earth gods of fertility come to the fore. Earth goddesses and gods are creators and givers of life, appearing also in vegetarian goddess forms as, for example, Mother of Grain. Atmospheric godsstorm and sunare important in that they fertilize the earth goddess and bring fecundity. Dying and rising deities often symbolize the cycle of vegetal fertility. Ancestors or culture heroes are important as the divine beings who originated cultivated plants.

Pastoral peoples are of many types and often include some planting activities in addition to keeping their herds. Sky and atmospheric gods tend to be supreme among these peoples. But they also revere divine powers associated with herds of animals, because sacred life-giving power comes to the people especially in relation to their herds.

Cultures that have developed beyond these archaic levels create very complex pantheons of goddesses and gods. For example, agricultural city-state societies like those of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, or Mexico typically have a hierarchical pantheon ruling over the city-state through a human ruler, the pantheon mirroring in some respects the various functions of the city-state. The complex civilizations established throughout Europe and Asia by Indo-European peoples retained some elements of the early pastoralist gods but greatly expanded and developed these pantheons as they interacted with the religious traditions of the indigenous peoples in their various settlement areas.

In most cultures the plurality of divine powers is understood to operate as some sort of pantheon, a system of gods and goddesses functioning as a sacred community. Pantheons arise from the experience of the sacred in different arenas of nature and society. They change over time as some functions become more important and others less so, reflecting dynamic changes in social groups and culture. Often a pantheon has some kind of hierarchal structure based on the different functions of its goddesses and gods. There may be a sovereign or head of the pantheon, for example, a father of the gods (such as ˒El for the ancient Canaanites) or a great goddess who ranks first before all in power and authority (such as Amaterasu in early Shintō). Sometimes the head of the pantheon is envisioned as old or remote, and the vital functions of maintaining life and order are performed by other powerful, immanent gods and goddesses. The pantheon functions as a particular culture's way of understanding the various experiences of the sacred in a symbolic system, providing orientation and unity to human existence in a world made up of a plurality of divine wills.

Typologies of Goddesses and Gods

In order to sketch the rich scope of divine beings in human history and culture, two somewhat different perspectives on gods and goddesses are explored here: a cosmic typology and a social typology. The cosmic typology outlines some of the epiphanies of sacred power through the structures of the cosmos and the organization of these divine forms. The social typology explores sacred beings in relation to functions in vital areas of human society and culture.

Cosmic goddesses and gods

Many religious traditions expressly recognize a cosmic typology of gods and goddesses. The Greeks divided their gods into the Olympians and the chthonic gods, and early Shintō myths spoke of kami of heaven and kami of earth. Deities of the Indo-European peoples typically are related to the three realms (Skt., loka s) of sky, atmosphere, and earth. In ancient Mesopotamian cultures, gods had cosmic functions, such as An of the heavens, Enlil of the storm, and Enki, lord of the earth and waters.

Sky gods and goddesses

Among cosmic gods, the sky deities generally take precedence. Even the most primal, archaic cultures know of a primordial supreme god who is manifested in the vault of the sky. The characteristics of this god are drawn from the experience of the sky: this is the high god with authority over all, all-seeing and thus all-knowing, present everywhere and sovereign in power. The sky god is also the ultimate creator and sustainer of everything, as well as the law-giver and moral overseer. At the same time this god is remote, a deus otiosus. Other goddesses and gods of the sky and atmosphere are often thought of as helpers of the supreme sky god. Tribes of southeastern Australia have a sky god called Baiame, or Daramulun, who is self-created, causes rain, and sees and hears all. The Yoruba sky god is lrun, an almighty, immortal, all-knowing creator. An of ancient Mesopotamia is the supreme authority in the sky, presiding over the assembly of the gods. Varua of Vedic India is visible everywhere, with the wind as his breath; he gives rain and thunder and is all-knowing, thousand-eyed, and is the universal king and the guardian of cosmic order. Ahura Mazdā, the Iranian supreme god, and Zeus, who became the high god of the Greeks, retain this celestial character of sovereignty, as do the related sky gods Jupiter of the Romans and Óðinn (Odin) of the Scandinavians. Among the ancient Chinese, Tian (Heaven) was considered the upholder of the universal moral order. Hathor, mistress of the sky in ancient Egypt, was closely identified with the king's sovereignty, and another sky goddess, Nut, extended that sovereignty to the journey into the afterlife. These sky gods and goddesses also take on many other specialized functions.

Meteorological gods and goddesses

Deities associated with meteorological and atmospheric phenomena often represent specialized functions or attributes of the supreme sky god. Important among these are, first of all, the storm and wind deities. Moving away from sovereignty and transcendence, they express fecundity, creative force, rain-providing power, epiphanies of force and violence and war, sources of energy for nature and for civil order. An, the Mesopotamian sky god, in this aspect is called the "fecund breed-bull"; he manifests his powers in the spring sky with thunder and fertilizes Ki (Earth) with rain. In this form, too, appear such great storm gods as Enlil of Mesopotamia, Indra of India, Min of ancient Egypt, Baal and Hadad of the Northwest Semites, Marduk of Babylon, and Þórr (Thor) of Scandinavia. While the supreme sky god is quite remote and transcendent, these storm gods become more immanent: Varua the sky god becomes old and feeble, and Indra takes over; ˒El is sometimes pictured as old and impotent, and Baal moves to central stage as the fecundator. The storm gods overflow with strength and vitality, burst open the clouds for rain, send fertility to the fields, and keep the cosmic forces going. Wind and storm are destructive as well as fecundating, and the ravages of such storm gods and goddesses as Þórr (Thor), Enlil of Mesopotamia, Anat of the Canaanites, Tlaloc of the Aztecs, Ngai of the Maasai, and ango of the Yoruba are dreaded.

Sun divinities are meteorological sacred powers related to the sky, embodying and dispensing the power of life. The sun god brings light, enlightenment and wisdom and is often characterized by unchangeability, stability, and order. Shamash, sun god in ancient Mesopotamia, was considered god of oracles and diviners; Hammurabi called him the great judge of heaven and earth, source of laws and order. In ancient Egypt, the sun god, fighting against darkness and chaos, was thought daily to conquer darkness and create light anew. In many cultures the sun god or goddess plays the role of the supreme god; Re-Atum in ancient Egypt, Huitzilopochtli in Mexico, the sun god among various North American Indians, and Amaterasu in Japan exemplify this. The sun god also has the power to destroy, especially in desert cultures; this god overpowers the living with heat and drought, devouring as well as generating life. The sun god has connections with the underworld, like Re of ancient Egypt who leads dead souls through the underworld, or Utu of Mesopotamia who acts as their judge during the nightly journey.

Goddesses and gods associated with the stars and planets frequently are experienced as the eyes and/or ears of the sky god, lending themselves to the all-seeing and all-knowing qualities of the supreme god. The Masai of Kenya believe the sky-rain god Ngai has universal vision through his nighttime "eyes"; a falling star is one of the eyes of Ngai coming closer to earth in order to see better. The sky god Varua is "thousand-eyed," and the Samoyed sky god Num employs the stars as his ears, through which he listens to the earth from the boundless regions of the sky. Inanna, Sumerian goddess of the morning and evening star (the planet Venus), was considered to be the source of the king's power, one who brought the arts of civilization to the city and death and restoration to life. The polestar (north star), because it appears not to move, is seen in many cultures to represent divine power of stability; in India, for example, newlyweds worship Dhruva (the polestar) as a source of constancy in marriage. The complicated movements of the stars and planets led the ancient Babylonians to associate them with divine beings who control events in nature and human life, an idea also expressed by the ancient Greeks and others.

The moon waxes and wanes, disappears and reappears, and thus its divine epiphany epitomizes mysterious power, change and transformation, death and rebirth, fertility and regeneration. Frequently the moon manifests a fertility-giving goddess; this is true for Selene among the Greeks, Rabie among the Wemale of Ceram, and Pe among the Pygmies. There are also lunar elements associated with many of the great goddesses who have other functions. While the moon deity is often thought to be a goddess, in some cultures the moon is considered male, while the sun is a female divine being, as, for example, Tsukiyomi and Amaterasu in Shintō mythology. The moon deity rules especially over the rhythms of life associated with the waters, rain, vegetation, and the fertility of earth and all women. At the same time, the moon goddess or god sometimes becomes the mistress or master of the dead, receiving those who die and regenerating them. Gods of the moon, such as Thoth of ancient Egypt, Nanna of ancient Mesopotamia, and Aningaaq of the Inuit (Eskimo), measure time and regulate natural phenomena.

Earth gods and goddesses

Earth deities form an important and complex category of the cosmic typology. Basic types include the various manifestations of the earth itself: waters, mountains, the great many hierophanies associated with animal forms and vegetal formsall the divine aspects that seem "given" in the powerful epiphanies of sacred earth.

The earth is the primary source and nurturer of all life, and it is also the sacred power that receives all life back again. Many human cultures have perceived a particularly significant epiphany of the sacred associated with earth itself, sometimes named Mother Earth. Hesiod states in his Theogony that Gaia (Earth) first gave birth to Ouranos (Heaven), and the hierogamy between Gaia and Ouranos initiated the whole process of life. Humans perceive that the earth itself is endlessly creative but at the same time passive and indistinct, the repository of a wealth of sacred forces. Manifest in the very soil of the place where humans live, this earth type of goddess is expressed first of all in motherhood (that is, inexhaustible fruitfulness) from very ancient times in human experience. In the long saga of human life prior to the discovery of agriculture, various forms of mother goddesses played an important role in the way humans understood their existence; the multitude of female figurines found from Paleolithic cultures provides evidence of the importance of this power. And so it has continued through all human history. Children come from the earth mother; the sick are regenerated by being brought again into close contact with her; the dead are returned to her womb. For example, Ala, worshiped by the Igbo of Africa, is the source of fertility for the land and the family, the abode of the ancestors, and the guardian of laws; barren women pray to her for children, and men ask her for success in trade or increase in livestock. Throughout human history, goddesses with mothering and nurturing functions, together with fertility-giving functions, have been widespread, including both great goddesses widely worshiped and countless local goddesses.

It is striking that often these creative, mothering goddesses also have a dark side, seen as a source of violence and death. For Hindus, the great goddess Kālī epitomizes the ravages of time and death, as she is pictured with bloody fangs and devouring mouth, a necklace of human heads, and a skirt of human arms. She devours her children, and yet many Hindus worship her as loving mother. Equally gruesome are mother goddesses among the Aztecs, as, for example, Coatlicue, pictured with a skirt of writhing snakes, a blouse of human hands and hearts, heads of serpents for hands, claws for feet, with twin spurts of blood gushing from her decapitated body. Her central creative act was giving birth to the great war god Huitzilopochtli just as her four hundred children sought to kill her. Huitzilopochtli, born fully grown and armed, slaughtered the siblings, providing a central motif for the ritual human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Such goddesses demonstrate the human experience that creativity, life, and growth are inevitably linked with violence, death, and decay.

Indistinct and unformed like the earth, yet similarly powerful, the fons et origo (font and origin) of all life is the sacred power manifest in water. Water symbolizes the primal reality from which all forms come and to which all forms return. Nun in ancient Egyptian mythology, for example, is the primordial ocean in which are the germs of all things. Rich in seeds, the divine water is homologized to semen and fertilizes earth, animals, and women. Hapi, a male god of the Nile, is often depicted with breasts to show that he is a bringer of life. Enki, Sumerian god of waters, helps to organize and create the world and human life. Water also purifies and regenerates, and so the Iranian water divinity Aradvī Sūrā Anāhitā is thought to purify humans and multiply flocks. A great many local cults are associated with springs, streams, and lakes in various religions. For Hindus, Gagā (the River Ganges) is a powerful goddess, nourishing the land and mediating between this world and the divine world. The beautiful Yoruba river goddess un bestows gifts of rulership and wealth on the rulers of the towns and cities through which her river passes. Many of the most powerful deities of the Ashanti are those associated with rivers and lakes; they can cure sicknesses and social ills, but they also have destructive powers. So water deities are ambivalent: water both generates life and destroys it. There is a sense that the goddesses and gods of the waters are capricious, randomly doing good or evil. Well known from Greek mythology is Poseidon, the untamed and faithless god of the ocean; from his palace at the bottom of the sea he swallows the world and renews it in rhythmic cycles. In Scandinavian mythology, Ran, the sea god Aegir's wife, draws people down with her net. Sedna, the sea goddess of the Inuit, is the mother of sea animals, but when humans violate taboos, she sends famine and destruction with icy dispassion. Water gods and goddesses can be symbolic of chaos, taking the form of dragons and snakes, both destroying the world and bringing rain and fertility; Apsu and Tiamat in Babylon, Prince Yamm in Canaan, and Vtra in India exemplify this duality.

Powerful epiphanies of earth deities are experienced through mountains, strong and distant pillars of heaven, stabilizing the earth and providing order and fertility. Most mountains in Japan, such as Mount Fuji, are felt to be the locale of kami presence; and Taishan in China is a divine mountain that attracts extensive worship. Śiva is called "lord of the mountains" in Hindu tradition, and his consort Pārvatī is "daughter of the mountains"; their favorite abode is on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. The ancient Hebrews worshiped ˒El Shaddai, apparently related to the mighty mountains, and the Israelite god Yahveh was first encountered as the god of Mount Sinai. Mountains are the source of life-giving springs and streams, and well as violent stormsand so many storm gods are linked with mountains, such as Baal-Hadad among the Canaanites. Pele, goddess of volcanic fire in Hawaii, demonstrates the destructive aspect of volcanic mountain epiphanies.

Reaching back to the dawn of human existence is the sense that the sacred is manifested in animal form. Epiphanies are associated with animals that are powerful and terrifying, those that exhibit wisdom or secret knowledge, those that are symbolically connected with the power of the earth, the moon, or the waters, and above all those that share sacred life-power with humans through their very flesh and blood. Animal symbols of goddesses and gods include the cow in ancient Egypt, a manifestation of the sky goddess Nun; the fox Inari in Japan; the coyote in North America; the bear among the Ainu; the buffalo among North American Indians; serpents and dragons in a great variety of cultures; and others, including caribou, elephants, dolphins, whales, and eagles. Powerful deities in animal form are linked to rain and storm, in particular the bull (Baal, Indra, Rudra, etc.), the thunderbird, and the dragon. Imaging the divinities in animal form expresses a sense of close relation to the sacred life that sustains animals and humans alike.

With the agricultural revolution came also a revolution in cosmic epiphanies, giving rise to various forms of goddesses and gods of vegetation, as well as giving new emphasis to the fertilizing male earth gods. Plant life is an epiphany of sacred power. For example, in a bas-relief of Assur, the upper part of a god's body is represented as coming out of a tree; and a seal from the Indus Valley civilization depicts a divine being within a tree faced by a group of worshipers. Demeter was a goddess responsible for grain for the ancient Greeks, and among the Cherokee the goddess Corn Woman is the origin of the corn plant. Among the Polynesians the growth of plants such as banana trees and taros actually comes from the sacred concentration of power in the ancestral dema deities of the time of the beginnings. Characteristic of plant life is the rhythmic cycle of death and birth, season after season, and so the divinities of vegetation reflect this pattern of death and rebirth; this is true, for example, of Baal of the Canaanites and Tammuz of Mesopotamia. Gods of phallic energy, such as the ancient Egyptian Min and the Indian Śiva, express another aspect of the divine source of generative power.

Gods and goddesses of the underworld

Chthonic deities live in the dark recesses of the earth and are especially related to the underworld. In some cases, the gods of the underworld are raging, destructive monsters who bring down even the gods of life; such a figure is Mot in Canaanite mythology. The ruler of the place of the dead is grim and dreaded; this is true of Hades in ancient Greece, Ereshkigal in Mesopotamia, and Seth and Nephthys in Egypt. Sedna, sea goddess of the Inuit, and Taishan, a mountain god of the Chinese, are cosmic divinities who receive the dead into their abodes. These goddesses and gods of the world of the dead are ambiguous in the extreme: dreaded and avoided, they still have sacred powers that can assist people in this most critical passage of life. Often the deities of the underworld are related to the deities of life-giving power; Satene among the Wemale of West Ceram is an example. After all, it is the divine mother who gives and nourishes life who also finally receives back the dead. In illustration of this, figurines of pregnant goddesses have been found in prehistoric burial sites, providing images of life-giving power within the realm of death.

Gods and goddesses of social functions

Much research has been done on the social functions of goddesses and gods, especially on the triad of functions common to Indo-European divinities: (1) a sovereignty function with magical and juridical aspects; (2) a function of physical power and bravery, especially in war; and (3) a function of fertility and prosperity. Georges Dumézil in particular has shown how this triad of functions penetrates all the societies that stem from proto-Indo-European culture, although each culture went on to develop their divinities further. While this important system of categorization is incorporated to some extent in the social typology used here, it should be noted that this scheme does not apply as readily to non-Indo-European cultures. For example, many deities of the ancient Near East and of Africa combine the sovereign and the warrior functions, and other ancient societies do not so clearly separate the food-producing class and its attendant deities from the warrior class and its gods. Most of the great gods and goddesses of non-Indo-European peoples cannot be neatly pigeonholed into this triad of functional classes; thus the following categories are amplified somewhat.

Creators and guardians of society and order

Supreme or sovereign deities often are considered to be creators and preservers of society and order. Often the supreme god creates human society and originates and upholds cosmic and moral law. This god holds people responsible on the basis of the moral design, judges them, and punishes them, either directly or through other deities who perform this function. In Vedic thought, the sky god Varua is the cosmocrator and also the upholder of ta, the cosmic and moral law to which all things are subject. In theistic Hinduism, Vaiavas see Viu as the originator and preserver of society. Ka, avatāra of Viu, advises Arjuna to fulfill the duties of his warrior caste, for even Viu performs his dharma (duty) so that the worlds continue to function (Bhagavadgītā 3.324). Yahveh of the Hebrews both originates human society and gives forth the law that governs all peoples. Jupiter, the Roman high god, is the guardian of oaths, treaties, and moral duty. Shangdi, "Lord Above," worshiped by the Shang rulers in ancient China, sends both weal and woe in governing the fortunes of the rulers. And Tian, "Heaven," supreme deity for the Zhou rulers, provided a moral mandate for just rulers but withdrew it for those who were unjust. In Babylon, the assembly of the great gods, having created humans as servants of the gods, supervises human society and determines human destinies. Widespread among African peoples is the notion that the supreme god is the ultimate originator and authority governing human life, even as other gods fulfill the needs of everyday life. In Hindu tradition, the great goddess Śrī Lakmī, embodying Śrī (radiance, creative power), was thought to provide sovereignty and power to the kings in their rule.

Sometimes the supreme god or gods create the first gods, who then complete the creation. In Mesoamerican myths, the supreme dual creator god engendered several sons, including Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, who then created the universe and the other gods. In other mythic scenerios, the original humans are first produced and then as divine culture heroes they complete the creation and oversee its order. For example, the dema deities of the myths of the Marind-anim of New Guinea create the vital aspects of human culture and morality by their actions in the time of the beginnings. Ancestors often take the place of the high god as guardians of human morality, although the high god is recognized as the ultimate authority, the court of last resort. The high gods may have inspectors, like Eu of the Yoruba and Satan of the Israelites (Job 12), to help in upholding the divine order.

Goddesses and gods of protection and war

Gods who display physical power often function as gods of protection and war. This role is ascribed especially to cosmic storm goddesses and gods, such as Indra in the Vedas and Þórr (Thor) in Scandinavian mythology. Ancient Near Eastern cultures have combined sovereign storm gods to function as divine warriors and protectors; Marduk of the Babylonians and Yahveh of the Hebrews are two such gods. Mars of the Romans is a classical god of war, protecting the state against its enemies but also preserving fields and herds against damage and disaster. In Mesoamerica, the powerful warrior god Tezcatlipoca collaborated in creating the world and is present everywhere, but he also promotes conflicts and induces people to transgress. Huitzilopochtli, Aztec war god and sun god, was born in full warrior regalia and killed threatening deities so as to renew world order. For the Yoruba, Ogun is god of hunting, iron-making, and war; in great festivals he is worshiped by hunters, blacksmiths, and warrior chiefs, as well as the king. Mixcoatl, central Mexican warrior god, was also worshiped as god of the hunt. Many goddesses, such as Athena among the Greeks, Anat in Canaanite mythology, Sekhmet in ancient Egypt, and Durgā in Hindu tradition, are also presented as divine warriors and protectors.

Deified humans rise to become gods of war and protection, such as the famous Chinese general Guandi, who was deified as the warrior protector par excellence. The Christian apostle St. James is known as Santiago in Spain, where his body was miraculously brought after his death; he became the warrior saint for the Christian Spaniards, driving out the Muslims during the reconquest of Spain. Then Santiago was invoked as the warrior-protector during the conquest of Mesoamerica, helping to defeat the Indians who resisted becoming Christian. Gods can also appear in human form to destroy evil, as do the avatāra s of Viu, whom this high god sends out from age to age to battle the rise of evil in the world.

Overall, a great variety of goddesses and gods function as divine protectors in every conceivable time of crisis: Castor and Pollux protect warriors for the Romans; in China the deified girl who became Tianshang Shengmu (Holy Mother in Heaven), known popularly as Mazu, is the protector of sailors; Min of ancient Egypt is the protector of travelers, as are the kami of the road in Japan and Saint Christopher in popular Christianity; and gods and goddesses all over the world protect women in childbirth and children as they grow up.

Goddesses and gods of fertility and prosperity

Deities promoting fertility and prosperity fit into an extremely broad and diverse category; in fact, the majority of gods and goddesses take on some of these functions, and the remaining categories listed below could be included in a general way in this basic category.

All the goddesses and gods associated with hunting and agriculture belong in this group. It is perhaps in securing and producing food that humans experience most deeply the interpenetration of divine cosmic powers and the divine forces of society and culture. In hunting cultures special importance is given to the hierophanies related to the animal herd most essential to the survival of the people, such as bears, reindeer, caribou, seals, and walruses. Sacred power manifests itself in mythological form as the master or mistress of animals; this god or goddess is an archetype of the herd, protector and master of animal life, who also provides boons to humans, giving to them of the sacred life of the animals. The Caribou Man of the Naskapi Indians (of Labrador), the Great Bull Buffalo of the Blackfeet Indians, and Sedna as the keeper of sea animals among the Inuit are examples of this type of divine being.

Planting peoples associate the sacred work of planting and harvesting with the deities who originate and continue the powers of vegetal fertility. In West Ceram, myths tell how the body of the goddess Hainuwele was cut up and planted in the earth, where it changed into root plants that the people have continued to cultivate. Widely known is the Mother of Grain, exemplified by Demeter in ancient Greece as goddess of the cultivated soil, and Corn Woman of Native American tribes.

A primary concern in the realm of fertility is human procreation, and most societies have deities of love, marriage, and procreation. In Greek mythology, Hera, wife of Zeus, is goddess of marriage, and Aphrodite and Eros are instigators of love. Ishtar of Mesopotamia and Hathor of ancient Egypt are goddesses of love and procreation. Freyja in Scandinavian mythology is at the same time divine lover/mistress and wife/mother. All across China, the bodhisattva Guanyin is invoked to help women in conceiving and child-bearing. The central Mexican goddess Xochiquetzal was widely popular as goddess of the arts, physical pleasure, and amorous love. Popular Mexican conceptions of the Virgin Mary, especially La Virgen de Guadalupe, identify her with indigenous fertility goddesses who occupied the land prior to the coming of the Europeans. Aborigines of Australia have myths about the Great Rainbow Snake who is responsible for human fertility.

An extension of this divine function of fertility is the granting of prosperity and wealth. In Scandinavia this function is performed by the deities known as the Vanir: Freyr, for example, grants peace and fertility, and his father, Njǫrðr (Njord), dispenses prosperity to those who go to sea. In the Hindu pantheon, Lakmī, the divine wife of Viu, is the goddess of wealth and happiness, granting sovereign power to kings and prosperity to subjects. And Gaeśa, the popular elephant-headed god, is widely worshiped as the overcomer of obstacles and the bringer of good fortune. The human aspiration is summed up in the Chinese popular triad, the Gods of Posterity, Prosperity, and Longevity.

Domestic and community gods and goddesses

The center of concern for fertility and prosperity is the home, and many goddesses and gods dwell and function within it, guarding the door, presiding over the hearth, sustaining marital ties, and granting childreneverything that makes for happy home life. Hestia is the goddess of the hearth for the Greeks, as Vesta is for the Romans. Among the ancient Aryans, Agni, the god of fire, also presides over the family cult of the hearth. Neith in ancient Egypt is skilled in the domestic arts, as is Athena among the Greeks. For the Ainu of northern Japan, the fire goddess, Iresu-Huchi, presides over the home, giving peace and prosperity, receiving and keeping children who have died. Traditional Japanese homes have images of Daikoku and Ebisu as protectors of the household, and the Chinese have Zao Jun, the god of the cooking stove, who watches over and brings prosperity to the family. For the Romans, the penates guard the storeroom, and the lares guard the family estate boundaries.

Beyond the home, local communities have gods of protection and prosperity. At the entrance to traditional Japanese villages stands a stone image of the bodhisattva Jizō, erected for the protection and welfare of the village. And the Chinese earth god Tudi Gong is worshiped in traditional villages; he is the god rooted in the locality who keeps track of village happenings and generally oversees the prosperity and welfare of the community. For cities, there are the Gods of Moats and Walls, to perform the necessary bureaucratic functions in the divine realm. In India, most traditional villages have a powerful local deity (grāmadevatā ), usually a goddess, celebrated in rousing festivals, thought of both as village founder and protector and also occasional source of disease and disaster.

Gods and goddesses of healing, sickness, and death

A major concern in human life has always been sickness and death; appropriately many goddesses and gods operate in this critical area. Some bring sickness and death, others cure sickness and protect the dead, and still others perform both functions. Well known is the Greek god Asklepios, who presides over healing and medicine. In China, Baosheng Dadi was a human doctor who after death became a god of medicine and healing. Traditional Japanese keep images of the Buddha Yakushi, king of medicines, in their homes for health. Some gods and goddesses specialize in bringing about sickness: the Pakoro Kamui brings smallpox to the Ainu; Irra is the dreaded plague of ancient Mesopotamia; and Namtar, the herald of Ereshkigal, Mesopotamian goddess of the underworld, has sixty diseases that he can spread among humans.

The ambiguity of divine power is often expressed in the existence of one deity who is both the bringer of health and prosperity and the agent of destruction and death. Hermes, protector and guide of travelers, becomes the grim psychopomp who guides souls to Hades. In the Vedas, the god Rudra often brings sickness and destruction, although he is also revered as the healer. The Great Rainbow Snake of the Australians, Hina of the Hawaiians, and Kālī of Hinduism all promote fertility and birth but also cause destruction and death. Human hopes of merciful treatment in the passage of death are reflected in the existence of many goddesses and gods who guard, nourish, guide or otherwise help the deceased. Hathor of ancient Egypt nourishes the dead, and the bodhisattva Jizō in Japan is especially revered as the receiver and protector of infants who die. Yama of Hinduism, as the first mortal to die, guides the dead to the celestial world. Amida (Skt., Amitābha) is popularly worshiped in Japan as the merciful Buddha who, when a person dies, appears with his holy retinue to lead the soul to rebirth in the Pure Land paradise. Some cults link the worshiper to the story of the deity's death and resurrection. Prominent cults of this type are that of Osiris and Isis in Egypt, Tammuz in Mesopotamia, as well as several of the Hellenistic mystery religions.

Gods and goddesses of culture, arts, and technology

Divinities related to cultural expressions are quite diverse, with roles corresponding to the needs and experience of a particular society. Among divine culture heroes are Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods for the benefit of humans; Blacksmith in Dogon tradition, who acquired seeds from heaven and brought them to earth for the first crops; Rāma, the carrier of culture, whose feats are recounted in the Hindu Rāmāyaa ; Nyikang, the first king of the Shilluk of Africa; and Quetzalcoatl, the deified hero of the Aztec. Some culture heroes are thought of as the original humans who created the vital aspects of human existence in the mythic time of the beginnings. The dema of the Marind-anim and the ancestors in the Dreaming of Australian myths provide the prototypes for human cultural activities such as planting, sexuality, and festivals. The changing image of the trickster, such as Coyote among North American Indians, perhaps could fit here; though not necessarily worshiped as a god, the trickster typically wrests some cultural benefit for humans from the gods.

Gods and goddesses are patrons of the arts, representing the creative force and the secret knowledge of individual arts. Creativity comes from divine sources, and so worship of gods and goddesses provides inspiration and creative energy for poets, writers, sculptors, painters, weavers, dancers, musicians, and various other artists. Sarasvatī in Hinduism is the goddess of learning, art, and music, widely worshiped in school festivals. Thoth, the god of wisdom in ancient Egypt, is endowed with complete knowledge and is the inventor of all the arts and sciences: arithmetic, surveying, geometry, astronomy, soothsaying, magic, medicine, surgery, music, drawing, andabove allhieroglyphic writing. In India, Śiva is the lord of the dance, inspiring festival dancers; Ogun inspires ecstatic dancing among the Yoruba as well as creative body art done with iron tools.

There are goddesses and gods for almost every conceivable occupation, craft, and technology. Njǫrðr (Njord) of Scandinavia is patron of those who build ships and go to sea. In Greek mythology, Herakles and Hermes are associated especially with merchants, Athena is associated with women artisans, and Hephaistos, the god of fire, is the creative flame of the forge in metalwork. Amaterasu in Shintō tradition was linked to the art of weaving. Among the Yoruba it is believed that Ogun clears away obstacles and gives prosperity to all those who work with iron and steelwarriors, hunters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, barbers, butchers, and (in modern times) mechanics and taxi drivers. Hermes is the patron not only of merchants but also of thieves and rogues; and Inari of Japan is the kami of rice growers as well as geisha and prostitutes.

Gods and goddesses of esoteric knowledge and magic

The mysterious character of divine power finds expression in deities associated with secret mysteries and magical powers that are available only to those who have special knowledge or have been initiated into the worship of these goddesses and gods. The high god of the Indo-Europeans is, in one of his aspects, the source of esoteric knowledge and magic. Varua of the Vedic period in India has the sun as his eye and controls māyā ("creative power," but later also "illusion"). Óðinn of the Scandinavians is one-eyed, having left his other eye in the well of the giant Mímir in return for the gift of wisdom. A famous poem describes how Óðinn hung on a tree for nine days and nights in order to acquire the esoteric knowledge of magical runes. Deities of esoteric knowledge inspire poets, shamans, and prophets, and they give up secret knowledge to diviners. The Scandinavian goddess Freyja, for example, taught the gods magical knowledge, and this is tapped into by women called vǫlva, who go into trances and act as soothsayers. Yogic exercises in Daoism attempt to tap into the power of the exterior and interior gods, and Tantric practices in Esoteric Buddhism involve invoking the cosmic Buddhas and bodhisattva s for esoteric knowledge and power.

See Also

Agriculture; Animals; Cosmogony; Culture Heroes; Deity; Deism; Deus Otiosus; Earth; Henotheism; Indo-European Religions; Lady of the Animals; Lord of the Animals; Meteorological Beings; Monotheism; Moon; Mountains; Polytheism; Sky; Stars; Sun; Supreme Beings; Theism; Underworld; War and Warriors; Water.


A classic discussion of the meaning and typology of gods and goddesses throughout all cultures is Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958). Raffaele Pettazzoni provides a model cross-cultural study especially related to the omniscient quality of deities in The All-Knowing God: Researches into Early Religion and Culture (London, 1956). Although outdated, The Mythology of All Races, 13 vols., edited by Louis H. Gray (Boston, 19161932), contains a wealth of valuable information. Scholarly analyses of the major mythologies can be found in Mythologies of the Ancient World, edited by Samuel Noah Kramer (Garden City, N.Y., 1961).

Of the immense amount of scholarship focused on goddesses, Marija Gimbutas, in books such as Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Europe (London, 1974) and The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco, 1989), has been most influential in promoting the theory of the Great Goddess worshiped in ancient cultures, manifest in countless forms and symbols throughout old Europe and Asia before being suppressed by male-dominated cultures and gods. This theme is continued in Jean Markale's, The Great Goddess: Reverence of the Divine Feminine from the Paleolithic to the Present, translated from the French by Jody Gladding (Rochester, Vt., 1999). A more nuanced view of mother-type goddesses is put forth in Mother Worship: Themes and Variations, edited by James J. Preston (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982). Many scholarly studies have questioned the theory of a unified Mother Goddess as they carefully lay out the great variety of goddesses, as seen in works including Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris (Madison, Wis., 1998); Goddesses Who Rule, edited by Elisabeth Benard and Beverly Moon (New York, 2000); and Lotte Motz, The Faces of the Goddess (New York, 1997).

Richard Wilkinson's, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003), offers a comprehensive survey of the deities worshiped by the ancient Egyptians. Thorkild Jacobsen's The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven, Conn., 1976) is a masterful presentation and interpretation of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian divinities. John S. Mbiti's Concepts of God in Africa (New York, 1970) surveys ideas from all over Africa, emphasizing the importance of the high god. Focusing on the Yoruba, J. Omosade Awolalu discusses some of the main deities of their vast pantheon in Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites (London, 1979). Africa's Ogun: Old World and New, edited by Sandra Barnes (2d ed., Bloomington, Ind., 1997), is a model investigation of one specific god, Ogun, laying out many facets of this god's cult in traditional times and describing vital transformations among contemporary Yoruba both in Africa and in the Americas. For a helpful survey of the deities of native North Americans, see Sam Gill, Dictionary of Native American Mythology (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1992), and David Adams Leeming, The Mythology of Native North America (Norman, Okla., 1998). Excellent information on deities of Mesoamerica is found in Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, edited by David Carrasco (3 vols.; Norman, Okla., 1998). For convenient information on deities of South America, see John Bierhorst's, The Mythology of South America (New York, 2002).

Georges Dumézil's views on Indo-European deities are well represented in his Gods of the Ancient Northmen, edited by Einar Haugen (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), and his Archaic Roman Religion, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1970). Much interesting information on the Scandinavian deities is carefully presented in E. O. G. Turville-Petre's Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia (New York, 1964). While not covering all Greek mythology, W. K. C. Guthrie's The Greeks and Their Gods (London, 1950) is still a helpful study of Greek goddesses and gods; and Mark Morford's, Classical Mythology (5th ed., White Plains, N.Y., 1995), covers the whole range of gods and goddesses. Robert Turcan's, The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times (New York, 2001), includes descriptions of the ancient Roman gods and goddesses. For India, Sukumari Bhattacharji's The Indian Theogony (Cambridge, U.K., 1970) looks at the Indian gods and goddesses from the early Vedic period to the late Puranic tradition. A flurry of scholarly investigation has focused on the Hindu goddesses, including Seeking Mahādevī: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess, edited by Tracy Pintchman (Albany, N.Y., 2001); and Devī: Goddesses of India, edited by John Hawley and Donna Wulff (Berkeley, Calif., 1996). A model investigation of one Hindu goddess is Sarah Caldwell's Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence, and Worship of the Goddess Kāi (New York, 1999).

Theodore M. Ludwig (1987 and 2005)