Supreme Beings

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SUPREME BEINGS are divinities whose nature reveals a unique quality of beinggenerally, a transcendent spiritual powerin a culture's religious system. Such divine beings figure in many different religious systems, yet they manifest values and symbolic associations that display remarkable similarities. The first section of this article presents, in a general way, the power, attributes, and values common to a large number of supreme beings. The second section illustrates these features by referring to specific historical forms of supreme beings. The final section summarizes the history of scholarly interpretations of the origin, nature, and meaning of these singularly important and complex supernatural beings.

General Features

A supreme being is generally described in symbolic terms that reflect the values most highly appraised in a specific historical situation. Considering the complexities of any culture's history, it is extraordinary that a comparative discussion of the nature of supreme beings constantly returns to the same cluster of religious ideas. Without prejudice to one or another aspect of supreme being highlighted in one historical moment or another, this article presents here a general view of the kinds of power and value revealed in supreme beings. It should be noted that the intricacies of history make general statements a source of great controversy. The supremacy of these divine figures marks with an appropriate intensity the heat of debate over their origin, nature, and form. Since each supreme being is a creative and unique composition of elements, the attributes described herein best serve to define the general category of supreme being, and, as shall be seen, apply to specific beings only in one degree or another.

The power of supreme beings is inherently ambivalent, because they manifest their potent omnipresence in a passive mode. Unlike the activities of culture heroes, which are abundantly described in epic cycles of myth, the presence of supreme beings is generally acknowledged in mythology only in brief accounts. In contradistinction to the dramatic activities of vegetation deities, totems, ancestors, and solar and lunar divinities, supreme beings occupy almost no place in scheduled public cults. It has long been acknowledged that sky divinities, or "high gods," admirably reveal many of the central attributes and powers of supreme beings.

Not limited to any single sphere of concern or influence (e.g., fertility of plants or of animals), supreme beings are omnipresent and omnipotent, but, by that very fact, they remain uninvolved with particular activities. Their powerunreckoned by time, unbounded by spaceapplies to all spheres of life and not to any one alone. Great power and presence reside in a supreme being's inactive transcendence of historical particularities. This remoteness relates to the power of permanence that often reveals itself in symbolisms of the sky and heavenly heights. Standing immutable since before time began, supreme beings remain uninvolved with change. Their steadfastness and eternity go hand in hand with their relative withdrawal from the detailed alterations of historical circumstances. The uniqueness of their infinite character is often portrayed in myth as a kind of loneliness. By their very nature, they stand apart from creation. Nevertheless, they seldom withdraw altogether from the world; they withdraw only to that level that suits their infinite, omnipotent, omniscient character.

Transcendence enables supreme beings to see and to know everything. This strongly colors the nature of their spiritual force: By seeing and understanding all, they can do everything. In keeping with their passive nature, it is the omniscient thought of supreme beings that "actively" expresses their infinite knowledge. As creators, supreme beings create preeminently, but by no means exclusively, by the power of thought or word alonecreatio ex nihilo. Their word is creatively powerful.

If supreme beings know all things in the world and even think them into existence, such knowledge is not reciprocal. Knowing everything, they often pass beyond the comprehension of lesser beings. Once again, paradox pervades the nature of supreme beings. Present everywhere, they remain inaccessible. Seeing all, they may remain invisible. In relation to knowledge, supreme beings are the clearest revelation of mysterya sacred meaning that can never be exhaustively known, despite its uninterrupted presence. Full knowledge of a supreme being always remains hidden. In this connection, supreme beings are often associated with religious specialists and esoteric societies, whose knowledge of special mysteries is made known in elaborate and secret initiations.

The majestic omnipresence of supreme beings involves them in all that is. Their involvement with being as such takes several particular expressions. They may create the universe directly, or they may create it indirectly through supernatural agents over whom they exercise control. In religious systems in which supreme beings have not bequeathed creation to the guardianship of other supernatural beings, they may be viewed as sustaining all life, assuring the fruitfulness of creation, or owning all that exists. As the foundation of all that is real, they may be the sovereign upholders of the world order, rulers of all beings, and even providers of moral commandments and socioethical mores. As guarantors of good order, supreme beings punish transgressions in passive ways, by withholding fertility (famine), health (epidemic), or the process of the seasons (drought). As creators and maintainers of life, they fertilize the vital forms of the universe. Although a supreme being may be prayed to spontaneously by individuals at any time and in any place, public invocation is often limited to times of calamity when life itself seems threatened.

One response consonant with the enigmatic, transcendent, and passive power of supreme beings is the human tendency to replace them with other religious conceptions. In fact, supreme beings per se do not usually dominate the religious imagination. When myths recount the withdrawal to the transcendent heights appropriate to their nature, they are replaced in importance by more active religious forms: gods who specialize in fertilizing activity, vegetation deities, storm gods, culture heroes, divine twins, ancestors, the dead, world rulers, theological abstractions of virtues, or metaphysical principles of cosmic law. The passive is overtaken by the active. Transcendent station yields to the processes of the concrete world. Infinity gives way to the here and now. Yet, supreme beings reveal the very meaning of transcendence and infinity in all its forms: omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence.

Historical Forms

Although essential elements of the power and structure of supreme beings may be recognized and isolated for the sake of analytic discussion, it must be acknowledged that they have appeared across human history in complex forms that differ greatly in specific composition from one culture to another. Their manifestations are not limited to one or even several places on the globe. Nor does geographic distribution entirely explain the process of the historical development or diffusion of this religious idea. No matter how marginal to the history of technological development a culture might appear to be (e.g., the hunting cultures of Tierra del Fuego), that culture's complex notions of supreme being give evidence of a lengthy and complicated history. There appear to be no social or economic factors that determine, in cause-and-effect fashion, the compound of elements that constitute the form through which a supreme being reveals itself in a culture. After lengthy debate among scholars, little doubt remains that sophisticated theologies of supreme being predate the introduction, through missionary or colonial influence, of theological ideas from historical monotheisms. Because arguments based solely on geographic and historical evidence have failed to be convincingly clear, the survey of supreme beings presented here follows the logic of the structures that are evident in the forms of supreme beings themselves. Structures exemplified briefly include (1) attributes, (2) activities, (3) relationships to other divinities, and (4) the place of supreme beings in cult.


Even when the forms of supreme beings are only poorly outlined, they are more than vague supernatural forces. Supreme beings are divine persons, with names and epithets that convey their attributes and reveal something about their nature. In addition to personality, their characteristics include celestiality, primordiality, and omniscience; associations with creation and death; remoteness and symbolic means of access; and their tendency to be replaced by other concepts.


The names of numerous supreme beings refer to their connections with the sky. Among the Sam-oyeds, the supreme being is called Num ("sky"). Along the Australian coast in the vicinity of Shoalhaven Bay, the name Mirirul ("sky," or "he who is in the sky") indicates the supreme beings found among the Yuin and their neighbors. In Africa, one of the names for the supreme being of the Galla and other Oromo peoples is Waq ("sky"), as in the phrases guraci waq ("dark sky") and waka kulkullu ("calm sky"). He is also called Cólok ("the sky"). Among some Ewe peoples, the universal father is called Dzingbe ("sky"); his wife is the earth. Northeast of the Ewe live the Akposo people, who call the supreme being Uvolovu ("the high one," or "the regions above"). Among the Selkʾnam hunters of Tierra del Fuego, the name of the supreme being is Témaukel ("the one up there"), although this name is seldom uttered aloud. In its place, one uses the circumlocution so'onh-haskan ("dweller in the sky") or so'onh kas pémer ("he who is in the sky"). Among the Tsimshian south of the Tlingit, an irascible supreme being named Laxha (also called Laxhage or Laha, "sky") deluges the earth. The Haida of Queen Charlotte Islands call the supreme being Siñ or Sing ("bright sky"). The connection of supreme beings with the sky is not exhausted by the direct translations of their names. More important, in accounts that describe them as dwelling in the sky, or as expressing themselves through celestial elements such as the stars and the rains, these associations are extended.


Another large number of names refer to the antiquity of supreme beings, who often reveal, as part of their own nature, the meaning of what is primordial, most fundamental, a part of the nature of existence from its earliest beginnings. Primordiality is thus part of a supreme being's nature. The Yahgan of Tierra del Fuego call their supreme being Watauineiwa ("the primeval," or "the ancient one"). The Botocudo of eastern Brazil believe in a supreme being who lives in heaven and is called Old Man or Father Whitehead. During the great August sacrifices in Cuzco, Viracocha, the supreme being of the Inca, was praised as the one "who exists from the beginning of the world to its end."


A large body of epithets refers to the omniscience and omnivoyance of supreme beings. Baiame, supreme being of the Kamilaroi, Wiradjuri, and Euahlayi of New South Wales, sees and hears everything, especially at night, with his many eyes and ears. Daramulun, according to the Yuin, can observe all human action from his position in heaven. In Assam, the Khasis of the Mon-Khmer nucleus of Indochinese peoples believe in a female supreme being and creator who dwells in heaven and who sees and hears all that happens on earth. On Madagascar, the supreme being Andriamanitra sees all those things that lie hidden. In the Avesta, Ahura Mazdā is described as vouru casani ("widely seeing").

The clarity of a supreme being's knowledge may be manifested in the light of the bright sky, which, by virtue of its own luminosity, sees and knows all existence that lies below. The Altai Tatars call upon their supreme being as the Ak Ajas ("white light"). The Khanty refer to Ajas Kan ("the bright leader"). Buriats speak of the dwelling of their celestial god as "a house ablaze with silver and gold." For the Mansi, Tārem is a "good golden light on high." In Sumerian, the divinity is described as dingir ("shining, bright"), and in Akkadian, ellu expresses the same meaning.

Cosmogonic power

Other names refer to supreme beings as the source of all life and power. The Warao of the Orinoco Delta refer to Kanobo ("great father") as the author of life. Also in Venezuela, the Yaruro people believe in a great goddess who created the world. Everything sprang from her, and everything living returns to the western paradise where she now lives. The Caliña and Galibi peoples from the Surinam coast maintain that the goddess Amana ("she without a navel") was not born but has lived forever. All life comes from her, for she begets and contains everything that comes to be. Her twin sons assist in creation. The supreme deity of the Koghi (Cágaba) of Colombia is also a universal mother who gives birth to all creation. She rules the cycles of life, death, and rebirth for all creatures. The mother is omnipresent. Life is an intrauterine existence. Among the Mbyá, a Guaraní people of Paraguay, the supreme being gives life to the world and continues to extend goods in the form of game and health. The Tupinamba of the southern Brazilian coast conducted a search for the land of Tamoi, the supreme being whose name means "great father." He created life and now governs a distant paradise wherein there is no death. In Australia, the supreme being's role as life-giver is recognized in the epithets extended to Baiame, who is addressed as Mahmanmu-rok ("our father") among the Kamilaroi and as Boyjerh ("father") among the Euahlayi. Among the Yuin, Daramulun is spoken to as Papang ("father"). The Kurnai use Mungan-ngaua ("our father") as the proper name of their supreme being.

Specific references to supreme beings as creators occur in many cultures. By way of brief illustration one may mention examples from North America, Oceania, Africa, Australia, and South America.

Native American creator gods include Awonawilona, the Zuni supreme being whose solar associations are sublimated almost to the point of becoming a speculative philosophical principle of life. He creates the clouds and the waters of the world from the breath of his own heart. Tirawa Atius of the Pawnee lives above and beyond the highest heaven. The wind is his breath. Tcuwut Makai, supreme being of the Pima, dwells in the west, governing rain and winds. His first creation was crushed when he pulled the sky too close to the earth. In his second attempt, he fixed the stars and the Milky Way in the sky. Ahone is a sky-dwelling creator of sun, moon, and stars. The existence of belief in him is documented among peoples of the Virginia Colony in 1610. He had no cult to speak of; instead, sacrifices were made to Oke, a god who punished people with hurricane winds to make their crops suffer.

In Oceania, one may call attention to Tangaroa (Tangaloa, Ta'aroa, and many other variants), a widely known Polynesian divinity of the sea; Agunua, the supreme spirit of San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands; Yelafaz, the anthropomorphic sky-dwelling god of Yap; Djohu-ma-di-hutu ("lord above"), believed in by the Alfuri of Molucca; Qat, lunar supreme being of the Banks Islands; Hintubuhet ("our bird-woman"), supreme being in New Ireland; and Ndengei (Degei), the great serpent-god of Fiji. Ndengei usually lies immobile in his cave on Mount Kauvandra on the northeast coast of Viti Levu, but occasionally, when he is stirred, he causes earthquakes and heavy rains.

African supreme beings who are creators include Deng, the omniscient "free-divinity" of the Dinka people, who is identified as Nhialic Aciek ("god the creator"). The term nhial ("up," or "above") is associated with multiple modes of supernatural expression. Among the Western Dinka, Deng has no shrines but is honored in sacrifice together with Nhialic ("divinity itself," an appellation applied to Deng) and the ancestors. Also in Africa, one may point to Cagn, the mantis-shaped creator of the San people; Kosane, the vaguely defined supreme being of the Venda; lrun, high god of the Yoruba; Katonda, supreme being of the Ganda; Lugaba, supreme creator divinity of the Hima; and Ngai, supreme being of the Maasai.

In South America, too, there is no shortage of supreme beings who are creators. Among them one may mention Pelepelewa, god of the Trio of Surinam; Kamuscini, the talking sky-god of the Bakairi; Karu of the Mundurucú of the Tapajós River; and El-al, a supreme being known in Patagonia. In Australia, one finds many creator supreme beings celebrated in scholarly literature. Among those not mentioned above are Bunjil of the Kulin, Nurrundere of the Narrinyeri, Mangarrara of the Larrakia people, and, as a collective name for the high god of the Aboriginal peoples of southeastern Australia, the All-Father.

Such examples by no means exhaust the number of supreme beings whose complicated nature includes the role of creator. The supreme beings mentioned above seem principally interested in the creation of the sky, the stars, the earth, and meteorological phenomena. They concern themselves with the creation of vegetation only in a secondary way. However, other creators, a smaller group of supreme beings, interest themselves particularly in the creation of trees, vines, herbs, grasses, and other forms of vegetation.

In general, this second group is more dramatically involved with rain than with other, more ethereal celestial elements. Among many such supreme beings one may mention uNkulunkulu of the Zulu peoples; Bego Tanutanu, the creator of the landscape, source of foods, plants, and instruments of culture at Buin in the southern Bougainville straits; Tsui //goab, Khoi celestial god who unites the clouds and swells the rains; Teharonhiawakhon, the Iroquois twin divinity who holds heaven at two points (or with his two hands); and Yuskeha, the parallel Huron divinity who sends good weather for crops and enjoys sexual relations with Ataentsic ("she whose body is ancient"), who is also called "the dark one" (i.e., the earth). One notices that supreme beings who are creators of vegetation tend to absorb or acquire attributes more commonly seen among culture heroes, specialized deities of vegetation, and storm gods.

Control over life is also reflected in the supreme beings' ability to end life when they will. For example, among the Yámana of Tierra del Fuego, the supreme being is called "slayer in the sky"; among the Maidu of north-central California, he is also called "a slayer." Supreme beings often figure in deaths that are mysterious, summary, and sudden. Celestial supreme beings strike humans with their thunderbolts. The Semang of Kedah believe that the supreme being Kari created everything except the earth and humankind. These last were fashioned by Ple, a subordinate deity. Kari sees everything from on high and punishes humans by dropping on them a flower from a mysterious plant. Where the flower lands, fatal lightning strikes. The Apapocúva-Guaraní supreme being, Nanderuvuçu ("our great father"), withdrew long ago into a distant dark country where the only light that exists comes from within his chest. Eventually, it is believed, he intends to destroy the world and thereby bring about the end of time.


More often than not, the sky is the principal manifestation of supreme being. From this preponderance of historical facts has come the term high god, over whose origin and nature the controversy surrounding supreme being once raged. Scholars have made clear the fact that supreme being is not a simple personification of the "natural" object, the sky. Rather, a supreme being is a distinct divine personality who reveals himself or herself in the power of the sky. Many peoples are careful to make the same distinction in various ways, speaking of their supreme being as dwelling beyond the sky, or as the invisible sky that lies beyond the visible one, or as wearing the sky for a vestment. Puluga, in the Andaman Islands, is said to reside in heaven. The sky is his house. For Baiame, an Australian high god, the sky is a campground, brightened with stars that serve as campfires and traversed by the river of the Milky Way. Num, the Samoyed divinity whose name means "sky," lies in the seventh heaven, but he cannot be a simple personification of the natural sky, for he is also believed to be the earth and the sea. For many Ewe-speaking populations, the blue color of the heavens is a veil that Mawu uses to shield her face, and the clouds are her clothing.

Because a supreme being dwells in inaccessible heights and displays a passive and transcendent character, his outline tends to be left undefined. Although his personality is awesome and powerful, he often avoids dramatic action in favor of inert omnipresence. He may remain mysterious and vaguely delineated. Such is the case with Moma ("father"), the supreme being of the Witóto of Colombia. Associated closely with the power of the word in rituals and chants, he created all things in the world from the mere "appearance" (naino ) of each thing's "nonexisting substance." Moma calls himself Nainuema ("he who is or possesses what is not present," that is, illusive appearance). According to the Witóto, Moma captured the specter of appearances in his dream and pressed it to his breast until he could transform it into the earth. Earthmaker, supreme being of the Winnebago, comes to consciousness in the primordium in order to make the world keep still. He then remains aloof. What Earthmaker was like, or what there was before he came to consciousness, the Winnebago do not know. The Pawnee contend that Tirawa Atius ("father on high") is in everything. However, no one is able to know what he looks like.

The remoteness of the power of a supreme being may even be portrayed as indifference. When the passivity of a supreme being is exaggerated to the point of his extreme withdrawal from creation, he takes the form of a deus otiosus, a god who has retired himself and his unique powers from the active world. He no longer captures the religious imagination in the commanding way of more dramatic supernatural beings. He may, nevertheless, remain the ground for all created and creative possibilities. The Lenape (Delaware), a southern Algonquin group, believe that Gicelamuʾkaong ("he who created us through his thought") entrusted his supernatural responsibilities to subordinate beings: the winds, the lord of animals, the sun, the moon, and the thunder. He then withdrew to the twelfth heaven. Nonetheless, he looks over human activities, especially the longhouse ceremonies, for the center post of the cult house is the staff that he keeps in his hand. Témaukel remains rather indifferent to the affairs of the Selkʾnam of Tierra del Fuego. He did not complete the work of creation but deputized Kénos, the mythical ancestor, to raise the sky and provide moral instruction. He now lives in the stars. Absent from cult, he still interests himself in moral behavior and punishes the wayward with sickness and premature death. The pre-Zoroastrian conception of Ahura Mazdā depicted him as a divine being who creates only through the mediation of the spenta mainyu ("good spirit").

The paradoxical coupling of power and passivity within the supreme being of the sky may be made known in sexual terms. Or the coupling of power and passivity may be expressed in terms of the alternations of the bright sky of day and dark sky of night. Thus Puluga, though omniscient, knows the thoughts within human hearts only in the light of day. In the Banks Islands, it is believed that at the beginning night did not exist. Qat spread the night over the earth so that creation remained obscure. However, after a while the situation did not suit him, and, with a red obsidian knife (dawn), he cut into the darkness. The rays of sunlight that enter through the roof of a house are said to be his spears. Among a western group of San, the supreme being, called Kággen, produces darkness by spreading the bile that spills when he splits open the gallbladder of an antelope. Upset by the darkness, he creates the moon.

The power of transcendent height is continued in the supreme beings who dwell on the tops of mountains. Well known are Mount Olympus of Greek mythology and Haraberazaiti in Iranian belief. In Palestine, Mount Tabor and Mount Gerizim stand as high holy places. Himinbjörg ("heaven's mountain") figures importantly in the Norse Eddas. Ngenéchen, divinity of the Araucanians of Chile and Argentina, lived on top of volcanoes with his wife and children. In the same area, the god Pillán, who lives on mountains in the middle of the sky, seems to have served as a model for Ngenéchen.

Just as mountains symbolically express access to the transcendent realms of infinite power, so other paradigmatic symbols reveal the place of contact with the otherwise inaccessible source of life. In particular, the cosmic tree or world tree is a startling image of access to the dwelling of the high god. Flathead Indians believe that the roots of the cosmic tree reach down into the dwelling place of the evil being, Amtep. At the upper end lies Amotken ("the old one"), a good celestial creator. Rites are often celebrated in connection with an image of the cosmic tree. Thus, during the Turco-Tatar horse sacrifice, the shaman carries the soul of the victim to Ülgen, the supreme being, by scaling nine notches cut into a birch tree. Ascending the tree, the shaman reports his voyage through the nine heavens. Contact between this world and the celestial powers is reflected also in images of the Milky Way, the ladder reaching to heaven, and the liana. The climax ("ladder") in the mysteries of Mithra had seven rungs fashioned of seven different metals. Cultures in North America, Oceania, Africa, and ancient Egypt all possess myths concerning ascent to heaven along a cosmic ladder.

In Misminay, near Cuzco in Peru, the Milky Way is conceived of as a stream of semen that flows through the center of celestial space just as the Vilcanota River, its terrestrial counterpart, flows through the center of the earth. As the Milky Way encircles the world, it descends into the ocean in the west, absorbing the earth's waters, and travels underground to rise in the eastern sky. Taking the form of rain, fog, and hail, the heavenly water-semen falls into the headwaters that feed the Vilcanota River. The Milky Way also contains female elements, the yana phuyu ("dark spots"), which are the sources of various animal species.

Celestial bodies and elements are often portrayed as the more active constituents and expressions of a supreme being himself. Nurrundere, thunder-voiced god of the Australian Narrinyeri, produces the rainbow when he urinates. The Xhosa of southern Africa believe that hail falls when Utikxo arms himself for battle. On Timor, monsoon rains come forth from Usi Neno, a supreme being with strong solar aspects, as a result of the effort he expends in his intercourse with Usi Afu, goddess of the earth. In Indonesia, in the Ambon Islands, the supreme being called Upu Lanito ("lord heaven") sets stars in the sky as a sign that he has gone to warn the sun and moon about an impending attack of nitu ("spirits"). There are abundant accounts that describe the sky as the face of a supreme being; the sun and moon are his eyes.

It shall be seen that the more active divinities tend to specialize in one life-giving activity or sphere (e.g., crops, animals, the dead, military organizations, cosmic laws, or the laws of a kingdom) rather than to remain, as do supreme beings, vague and passive sustainers of life in general. In many instances, their activities are expressed in independent mythologies of active supernatural beings who overshadow the remote and transcendent supreme being. The end result is that there exist religious systems wherein the supreme being is supplanted by more active and specialized deities or, alternatively, wherein the formal expression of the supreme being itself is presented not as remote and transcendent but as quite intensely involved with the specific life processes of the universe. In the latter case, the form of the supreme being absorbs attributes from other important and more active supernatural beings like the culture hero, the trickster, or fertility gods.


It has been seen that supreme beings are supreme by virtue of their unique nature, not necessarily by virtue of their achievements or exploits. Supreme being, by its very nature, underlies all that is; its character stands in a direct relationship to what exists, what is ontologically true. In this connection, supreme beings are often invoked as witness to oaths, as witness to what is. In northwestern Sumatra, among the Batak peoples, reference is made to Debata. When he smiles, his mouth opens to reveal his teeth in the form of lightning. He is invoked in oaths taken over serious matters. He punishes perjury with bolts of lightning. On Ceram, people swear to the truth by Upu Langi ("lord heaven") and his female counterpart, Upu Tapene. Otherwise, there seems to be no regular cult offered to them. Swahili speakers frequently testify to the truth of an assertion by swearing to "Mungu mmoja" ("the one god") or by saying "Mungu anaona" ("God is watching").

By no means are supreme beings always portrayed as creators. Nevertheless, cosmogonic activity is the single activity that befits their foundational character, their role as the ground of all existence. Some supreme beings leave no room for doubt about their cosmogonic activity. Their powerful thought alone brings the world into being. Such is the manner in which Wakonda, the Omaha supreme being, created the world. At first, all things were in his mind. The same is true of the Winnebago creator, Earthmaker. Creation proceeds from his thought. When he wishes something, it comes to exist, just as he wishes. It has already been seen how the Witóto supreme being, called Nainuema ("he who is appearance only"), ties a phantasm to his breast with his dream-thread in order to create the world. The Maidu of California believe that Ko'doyanpe ("earth namer") brought about creation after long and intense thought. Likewise, Dasan, the high god-ancestor of the northern Pomo, called the world into being with his words. Whether such sublime notions are preserved from the most archaic traditions or whether they are the fruit of more recent theological speculations that have purified and rarefied earlier ideas is a matter of some dispute.

As evident in several examples above, supreme beings' involvement with creation may be more subtle and complicated. They may take responsibility only for the initial creative impulse toward form, leaving the final shaping of the world to other supernatural beings, especially to a "transformer," or culture hero. In many cases, the supreme being is only indirectly involved in creation. He engenders, empowers, or presides over those beings who create the world and its creatures. His creative activity remains supervisory. In other instances, he may create in cooperation (or in competition) with other powerful beings. In any case, a supreme being appears to be more than a rational "first cause" of creation. Life and existence, as a whole, stem from and are maintained in accordance with his own inner nature. I do not speak here of a necessary pantheism or emanationism, since a supreme being is a distinct personality who remains distinguishable from creation.

Regardless of the degree of his active participation in creation, once the universe exists a supreme being's major job is done. He then "retires" at some remove, often to the heavenly heights, where he devotes himself to the passive and transcendent pursuits of maintaining and sustaining life. He may thus leave the world to powers who preside directly over specific domains that are less than cosmogonic in scope and whose activitiesthe accomplishment and functioning of specific world processesmake sense in a world that already exists. Myths often recount the withdrawal of the high god as the event that marks the end of the primordium.

Relationship to other divinities

A supreme being rarely occupies the dominant position in a pantheon or a divine hierarchy. Once creation has ended, if indeed he was involved actively in the cosmogony, the supreme being yields the mythical stage to more active beings whose personalities are more clearly delineated.

A supreme being's link to the very foundations of being is often expressed in temporal terms (for example, he may exist before the other gods exist). Consequently, in the cases in which more active beings take over the religious imagination, his eventual passivity in relation to them may be expressed in terms of old age and its inactive fragility. In the Akkadian text Enuma elish, the primordial couple, Apsu and Tiamat, now grown old, are nettled by the noise and games of younger divinities, by whom they are eventually destroyed. The god El, as reported in the Ugaritic texts, is weak and senile. While in his palace in Mount Tsafon, El is attacked by Baal. The younger god not only usurps the previously dominant position of the supreme being but routs him to the farthest reaches of creation. In explicitly sexual terms, younger gods may deprive a supreme being entirely of his no longer exercised potency by castrating him. Ouranos, the Greek cosmocrat and husband of Gaia (Ge), was castrated by his son and successor Kronos. This event interrupted the unbroken coitus between sky and earth during the primordium. When his sexual organs were tossed into the sea, Aphrodite came into being. In the Hurrito-Hittite theogony, which appears to bear North Syrian and Sumerian influences, Alalu was replaced by the god Anu. After nine years had passed, Anu himself was attacked by Kumarbi, who bit Anu's loins. Swallowing part of the god's sexual organ, Kumarbi became pregnant with three children. These violent divine beings express attributes quite different from those of the unchanging supreme beings. Their dynamism tends to alienate still further from myth and cultic activity the transcendent and passive character of supreme beings. Supreme beings are thus often obscured and their power eclipsed.

As is characteristic in the above examples, the younger, "champion" divinities who usurp a supreme being's position are often associated with the fertility of fields and animals. In their connection with agriculture and fecundity, they are often known in the violent but necessary manifestations of weather and storm gods. Their character is bound up with tempestuous change, the violence of concrete life processes that make fertility of seed and stock possible but unforeseeable. Such violence is one important aspect of Indra, hailed as "bull of the world," "lord of the plow" (śiraspati), and "master of the fields" (ūrvavapati). He uses his vajra (thunderbolt) to kill the monstrous Vrta and thereby release the waters. Also in South Asia one finds Parjanya, son of the sky and god of hurricanes. He unleashes the rains and assures fertility for animals, crops, and humans. In Iran, the meteorological divinity Verethraghna is dramatic and fertilizing. As illustrated by creators specializing in vegetation, the form of a supreme being may itself contain aspects of these fecundator beings. In such cases supreme beings maintain a more active role in the mythic imagination, but at the cost of losing something of their unchanging nature.

On the one hand, the passive involvement of a supreme being in the very ground of being in all its forms may give rise, eventually, to his usurpation or transformation by dynamic figures specializing in one or another specific life form or process: fertility and fecundator gods. On the other hand, in a parallel but separate development, a supreme being's supervisory capacity, his general omniscience passively expressed, may develop into more active and concrete expression in the form of a sovereign god. Whether such a sovereign god is the result of a process in which a supreme being, for example a sky god, absorbs the traits of a cosmocrat, or vice versa, must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. In all these cases, however, the emphasis of the resultant form no longer falls on the supreme being's transcendent supervision of the universe but on his active guardianship of the norms of world order.

Certain sovereign divinities enforce the most general cosmic or "natural" laws inherent in the structures of the universe. Varua, called Sahasrāka ("thousand-eyed") in the gveda, is the universal king (saraj), who guards the norms of world order. By virtue of his own nature, his power is over all existence. Unlike the champion gods of fertility, who violently conquer their specialized domains, Varua reigns through his innate relationship to ta (the cosmic, ethical, and ritual order of the universe) and through his mastery of magico-spiritual influence (māyā ), which allows him to bind with his "nets," "ropes," and "knots" those who transgress that order. In other cases, a sovereign divinity may be interested less in cosmic processes than in human moral action. In such instances, he may send forth moral commandments and laws and punish breaches of the ethical order. As sovereign, a supreme being may even interest himself in the details of socioethical behavior, upholding the proper performance of customs and mores.

The cosmic pillar that upholds the universe, or the columna universalis, is often associated with the sovereign being, himself the upholder of cosmic order. As an axis mundi, like the cosmic tree and mountain, it points to aspects of the sovereign that preserve celestial powers and associations. During their Winter Ceremonial, the Kwakiutl people of the northwest American coast wrap a cedar "cannibal pole" in red-cedar bark to endow it with nawalak ("supernatural power"). Projecting through the roof of the house, the forty-foot post is considered to be the Post of the World and the insignia of the great divinity Baxbakualanuxsiwae ("man-eater at the mouth of the river"). It is an image of the great copper pole that upholds the heavens and provides passage between the spatial realms of the cosmos. The Saxons maintained a cult of a cosmic pillar called Irminsul, one image of which Charlemagne destroyed in the village of Eresburg in 772. It was the "pillar of the universe" that supported all existing things. Horace reports the existence of such a pillar and similar associated beliefs among the Romans. In Vedic India, as reported in the first book of the gveda, a similar pillar was called the skambha. The Achilpa, an Aranda group of Australia, carry a sacred pole that they call kauwa-auwa, and they wander in the direction in which it leans. It is a replica of the pillar fashioned by the god Numbakula who, after covering it with blood, ascended along the kauwa-auwa until he disappeared into the sky.


In his most removed form, as noted above, a supreme being usually inspires no regular public cult. A relative absence of cult seems to characterize many of those celestial supreme beings whose passivity borders on otioseness. To a great degree this is true of Thakur (among the Santāl of India), Synshar (among the Khasis), Kari (among the Semang), Sammor or Peng (among the Sakai of the Malay Peninsula), Pirman (among the Benwa-Jakun of Johore), Tuhan Allah (also among Jakun groups), Muladjadi (among the Batak of central Sumatra), Petara (among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo), Opo-geba-snulat (on the Indonesian island of Buru), Lowalangi (on the island of Nias in Indonesia), Hintubuhet (in New Ireland), Ndengei (in Fiji), Takaro (on Malo Island, near Malekula), Gueggiahora (among the Camacâes in Bahia, Brazil), Wendé (among the African Kaguru), Zame Asizame Ôyô (among the Fang of West Africa), Mpambe (among the Anjanja south of Lake Malawi), Ruwa (among the Chagga of Mount Kilimanjaro), and Yelafaz (on the island of Yap).

In fact, those celestial supreme beings who do call forth a regular cult seem to be exceptional cases. Among them are Agunua, venerated at Haununu on the southwest coast of San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands, and Tabuarik, who, together with his lightning-wife, De Itji, is celebrated in a cult that features sacred stones (for instance, on Nikunau in the Gilbert Islands). More often supreme beings are invoked spontaneously, and even frequently, by individuals or by a community in extreme circumstances of famine, earthquake, drought, and so on. When this irregular aspect of worship first came to scholarly attention, it led investigators to undervalue the importance of supreme beings. Unable to take seriously the profound truth of myth, early investigators were incapable of seeing that the absence of regular public cult was related to the supreme beings' associations with the ground of all being.

A supreme being is often associated with initiatory societies that focus on the knowledge of mysteries. In such secret initiations, many of a supreme being's celestial attributes are maintained. Such appears to be true among Native American tribes of California who possessed what was called the Kuksu cult, wherein the masked initiates impersonated spirits of the dead. The sound of a bull-roarer imitated the voice of the supreme being and other spirits. The area in which this secret society flourished coincides roughly with the area in which there are clearly delineated concepts of a high god (e.g., among the Maidu). However, this connection is a complicated one. Among the Yahgan of Tierra del Fuego, the ciexais puberty initiations involve themselves deeply with Watauineiwa, the supreme being who established them. In the kina, the secret society rituals of the Yahgan, however, no mention is made of him. Nor does the supreme being figure in the Selkʾnam esoteric initiations (klóketen ), on which the Yahgan probably modeled the kina. Although knowledge of a supreme being may be transmitted, refined, and reshaped in secret societies, it is unwarranted to draw the more general conclusion that supreme beings are the creation of such elites.

Among those supreme beings who merge with or yield to more active forms, there exists a tendency toward a more scheduled public cult. This can be seen in cults dedicated to solarized supreme beings. Although solarized supreme beings share something of the sacrality of the sky, their potency and periodic activity often highlight the manifest rational order of regulated life processes, which outshines the mysterious and unfathomable order of being commonly associated with celestial supreme beings.


The attributes and powers of supreme beings, often reflected in their very names, are most clearly made known in sky divinities. The activity that best suits the infinite and omnipotent nature of supreme beings is the creation of the world. Often, but not always, they create the world through thought, a creatio ex nihilo, which is in keeping with their passive nature. After creation, a supreme being often retires on high and becomes even more transcendent a power. When supreme beings do take a more active role, their form tends to merge with or yield to other divine forms. Such is true, on the one hand, with sovereign divinities who ruled the world and, on the other hand, with fecundators and "champion" divinities. Knowledge of a transcendent and mysterious supreme being is often better preserved in initiatory secret societies than in the public cults that surround the more active expressions of sun god, storm god, or meteorological beings.

There is no doubt that many forms of supreme being, as known today, have been influenced by the religious ideas of historical monotheisms. Such contacts reveal themselves in the very names of many supreme beings, not to mention the influences brought to light in careful study of the histories and religious ideas of cultures around the globe. However, the impact of such historical change ought not to be exaggerated. In the first place, no culture's religious ideas have remained without change through history. Even those forms held by scholars to be most archaic give evidence of complicated historical processes that involve borrowing, deterioration, new inspiration, and reconstitution. The contemporary era ought to be seen as a further instance of a much larger historical process. In the second place, in those areas where absorption of ideas from monotheisms is clearly evident, one does not generally find inert imitations of monotheisms but lively new syntheses, often in terms that are best understood as part of the religious history of a local culture's conception of supreme being.

Scholarly Theories

In the development of the discipline of history of religions, the investigation of supreme beings has occupied a special place. For more than a century, three factors have especially affected the scholarly debate about the nature of supreme beings: the provenance of the materials studied; the dogmatic concerns of the investigators, whether theological or scientific; and the judgments in vogue regarding the nature of religious expressions. On the most general plane, one may distinguish four important positions taken during the study of supreme beings over the past 120 years.

Four main views

The first point of view, exemplified in the work of Leopold von Schroeder, interested itself in the sky gods known through sacred texts in the Indo-European family of languages. Interest in such exalted forms of supreme being was eclipsed when attention turned to the ethnographic data pouring in from cultures outside the Indo-European sphere. This second position, developed most successfully by E. B. Tylor, held that it was impossible to see supreme being as anything but a most recent religious form in human history. Tylor considered the idea of supreme beings to be a rational elaboration of simpler and earlier religious notions. The third perspective began with Andrew Lang, who called attention to the authentic existence of supreme beings outside Indo-European and ancient Near Eastern culture history, principally in Aboriginal Australia. Taking his cue from Lang, Wilhelm Schmidt carried on an intense and comprehensive investigation of supreme beings in traditional cultures of the Americas, Oceania, Australia, Asia, and Eurasia.

Regardless of their judgment on the antiquity and meaning of the various forms of supreme being, these three views of the issue never succeeded in detaching the inquiry into the nature of supreme being from the question of the appearance of historical monotheism with its concomitant theological constructs of revelation, creator (or first cause of creation), and moral rectitude. A historicist search for simple origins, an exaggerated rationalism in defining religion, and a dismal appraisal of the nature of myth are common to all three approaches.

It fell to Raffaele Pettazzoni to take a fourth position by reinstating a consideration of the supreme being of the sky, this time in a framework that treated the history of monotheism as a particular, even if related, historical instance. Drawing upon data from all over the world, Pettazzoni centered his research on what were called the "primitive" religions. Taking Pettazzoni's insight about the celestial being as a starting point, Mircea Eliade has presented a morphology of supreme beings that serves as the foundation for his comparative historical studies of religion. In addition to these general positions and their principal protagonists, a large number of scholars interested themselves in one or another specific aspect of the problem and contributed to the understanding of supreme beings.

Early studies

During the nineteenth century many scholars of religion investigated religious texts from cultures in the Indo-European language family. Their main concerns were philological. When they investigated the meaning of specific religious images and forms, they took a special interest in those forms that were associated with natural phenomena. Nevertheless, the comparative philology of Indo-European languages pointed to the existence of a supreme sky god. The identification of the Indo-European radical deiwos ("sky") in designations meaning "god" (for example, in Old German tivar, Lithuanian diewas, Latin deus, Iranian div, and Sanskrit deva ) lent support for a theory like that of Charles Ploix, who contended in La nature des dieux: Études de mythologie greco-latine (1888) that the sky was the principal subject of myth and religion.

In this way, the nineteenth-century attempt to discover a theory of origins of religion in natural phenomena made way also for a sky-dwelling supreme being. Unfortunately, a shallow understanding of myth in general led to the conclusion that supreme beings were merely personifications of one or another natural phenomenon. In Die Herabkunft des Feuers und des Göttertranks (1859), Adelbert Kuhn gave a privileged place to meteorological phenomena such as rain, lightning, storms, and thunder, holding that these celestial phenomena were responsible for the development of mythological themes.

In Die Geschichte der Religion (1869), Otto Pfleiderer also laid great stress on the importance of a celestial supreme being. He considered the sky god a natural starting point for the development of monotheism. By postulating that the origins of religion lay in the personification of natural phenomena in the heavens and by hypothesizing about the connection between the sky god and monotheism, he provoked reactions from investigators with theological concerns. E. G. Steude, in Ein Problem der allgemeinen Religionswissenschaft und ein Versuch einer Lösung (1881), argued that early belief in a sky god, although a vague form of monotheism, might easily degenerate into polytheism through the personification of other celestial phenomena. Therefore, "primitive" belief in a supreme being ought not to be judged a true monotheism.

F. Max Müller, the foremost spokesperson of the school of nature mythology, attempted to avoid the theological pitfalls by positing the origin of religion in an innate capacity of the human soul to respond to the infinite. Consequently, in his studies of comparative mythology Müller placed great stress on those objects that are wholly intangible and that best express infinity: the sun, the dawn, and the sky. The experience of the infinite made available in the contemplation of these intangible objects (numina ) ultimately gave rise to their designation by name (nomina ). Through a "disease of language," the named objects were personified as gods, whose exploits were recounted in myths. According to Müller, the origin of supreme being lies neither in polytheism nor in monotheism but in what he termed "kathenotheism," the tendency of the religious perception to treat any particular god as the only one in any specific moment.

Much of the early interest in Indo-European supreme beings culminated some years later in the work of Leopold von Schroeder. In the first volume of his Arische Religion (1914), he presents in an exhaustive fashion the instances of supreme sky beings: Indian Dyaus-pitr, Latin Jupiter, Greek Zeus Pater, Scythian Zeus-Papaius, Illyrian Daipatures, and Thraco-Phrygian Zeus-Pappos. However, by the time von Schroeder's useful collection of researches had been gathered together, the investigation of supreme beings in the history of religions had already passed beyond the relatively narrow confines of Indo-European texts. An increasing amount of reliable ethnographic data and a better awareness of the enormity of culture history demanded that the question be debated on wider grounds. Rather than a contribution to the general history of supreme being, von Schroeder's work became a masterful synthesis of a generation of research by specialists in only one area of religion.

Evolutionary theories

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, when scholars turned systematic attention to the history of religions outside Indo-European cultures, interest in the nature and meaning of supreme being waned. In their enthusiasm for evolutionary theories of the development of human ideas, various schools of scientific thought placed the concept of supreme being on the opposite end of history from the origin of religious thought. The idea of supreme being and its manifold forms were thus deprived of the prestige of origins.

Sir John Lubbock, for example, contended that the earliest stages of human development gave evidence of a total absence of religion. Religious inclinations began with a belief in fetishes and arrived at the concept of a supreme being only after passing through the intervening stages of totemism, worship of nature, shamanism, and anthropomorphism (idolatry). In a similar way, Herbert Spencer attributed the origin of religious ideas to a vague belief in ghosts, which culminated in ancestor worship. The worship of distinguished ancestors eventually gave rise to the notion of supernatural beings. Ultimately, the concept of supreme being was the outcome of a lengthy historical process of reflection on human personalities such as a chief famous for strength and bravery, a medicine man of high esteem, or a stranger with superior knowledge of arts and inventions.

Various evolutionary theories found it inconceivable that an exalted notion of supreme being could exist in antiquity. Instead, religious history was seen as a development from simple ideas to more complex ones. In this way, the "origin" of supreme beings was postulated in animal totems, rudimentary human emotions, the human will at work in primitive magic, or a vague universal magic force.

The most popular of these theories was that of animism, set forth by E. B. Tylor in Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom (1872). For Tylor, the idea of supreme being was only the last in a long series of developments of religious ideas, which ultimately began with the idea of the human soul. The doctrine of a supreme being emerged only in the "later stages" of human history after it had been transformed, rationally projected on nature, and developed throughout a stage of ancestral worship and idolatry. Eventually it emerged in the form of a "pure" spirit that took its place in a polytheistic pantheon over which it gradually stood supreme.

The enthusiasm that greeted animism and other evolutionary theories succeeded in displacing scholarly interest in supreme beings. In placing the idea of supreme being in the most recent stages of human history, these theories implied or stated explicitly that the concept of supreme being was introduced into the cultures of Aboriginal Australia, Africa, and Native America by Christianity or Islam. In the opinions of these evolutionary theorists, the concept of supreme being was not an authentic local tradition. Scarcely heard in the din of scientific enthusiasm were opinions like those of the theologian C. von Orelli. Examining beliefs in supreme beings in Africa, Australia, and North America in his Allgemeine Religionsgeschichte (1899), von Orelli concluded that the original form of religion was a monistic belief in a celestial divinity, whose nature was known through revealed truth.

Andrew Lang

A disciple of Tylor, Andrew Lang called for a reconsideration of supreme beings in the light of materials from southeastern Australia as reported by A. W. Howitt. Lang pointed to the authentic existence of the idea of supreme being among Australian Aborigines, Andamanese pygmies (Negritos), and certain peoples of Africa and the Americas, whose life-ways were deemed most simple and whose religious ideas were therefore considered most archaic. He thus questioned one of the fundamental presuppositions of the animistic theory.

Lang never abandoned totally the evolutionary scheme, but he did challenge its overall simplicity. He argued that the idea of supreme being stood quite apart from the religious conceptions of soul and spirit that emerged in response to such phenomena as death, illness, and dreaming. A supreme being was an entity with a quality of being unique unto itself. It could not be an elaboration of earlier and simpler notions, for, in some cases, the idea of supreme being exists where no evidence of ancestor worship is found.

In The Making of Religion (1898), Lang presents the supreme being as a deathless "maker" of all creation that is not fashioned by human hands. Lang considered the idea of supreme being a sublime religious conception that the human intellect was capable of conceiving at any stage of its historical development. Though recognized by the religious intellect, a supreme being was a creative power that the imagination eventually encrusted with mythical elements. Consequently, although the conception of a creator was exalted, the forms into which mythic fancy cast supreme beings were often erratic and degrading.

Lang's insistence on the authentic existence of a sublime supreme being in the religious thought of cultures that animists deemed "lower" or "savage" races met with little success during his lifetime. Nor was his the only voice to fall on deaf ears. As early as 1860, in his second volume of Anthropologie der Naturvölker, Theodore Waitz-Gerland had argued for the existence of an indigenous African religion whose ideas of supreme being were so exalted that they approached the limits of monotheism. In his History of Religion (1906), A. Menzies, too, had concluded that there existed a widespread belief in a vague and remote divinity who managed the world but found no place in cult, but he was not sure how archaic the form was.

Wilhelm Schmidt

In the very year of Lang's death, Wilhelm Schmidt published the first volume of Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (1912), a twelve-volume work that was to occupy him for the next forty years. An ethnologist of uncommon energies and linguistic abilities, Schmidt studied supreme beings in a comprehensive fashion. Although he acknowledged his debt to Andrew Lang for having recognized the existence of supreme beings outside historical monotheisms, his main thrust was to situate the study of supreme beings in a more accurate historical framework than the one provided by an ideology of evolution.

Following Fritz Graebner and Bernard Ankermann, Schmidt attacked theories of a unilinear and evolutionary development of religious history. He argued convincingly that human history was a more complicated reality. In the place of simple unilinear development, Schmidt, following the trend of continental historical tradition, proposed the existence of a number of culture circles (Kulturkreise ), each with distinctive ecological, economic, political, social, and ideological components that developed in relative independence of one another. By first delineating the characteristics of supreme beings found in each culture circle and by comparing those traits seen to be common to distinct culture circles, Schmidt hoped to arrive, through reliable empirical and historical methods, at that original configuration of the idea of God existing in the common archaic culture (Urkultur ). In this way, Schmidt argued that the contemporary societies of Oceania, Africa, the Americas, and Asia ought not to be ranked in any temporal order on a unilinear time line. On the other hand, features common to many of them pointed to the existence of a temporally earlier culture of shared beliefs.

Like Lang before him, Schmidt emphasized the moral and rational capacities, reflected in the conceptions of supreme beings, of those peoples who had been dubbed "savage" or "primitive." In fact, Schmidt exaggerated the importance of rationality in the nature of religion, for he held that supreme beings were inextricably bound to the rational process of inquiry into the first causes of the universe.

By studying those features common to the religions of African and Asian pygmies, Schmidt postulated the existence of shared religious beliefs stemming from the earlier historical stratum that he called the religion of Archaic Pygmy Culture (Religion der Pygmäischen Ur-kultur). Abstracting from American and Arctic materials in the same manner, Schmidt outlined the beliefs in a supreme being that characterized a hypothetical Archaic Arctic-American Culture. Finally, by comparing his constructions of Archaic Pygmy and Arctic-American cultures with religious beliefs in southeastern Australia, Schmidt postulated the "historical outlines" of earliest belief in a supreme being.

What Schmidt found in the reconstructed primordial culture was a supreme being whose nature satisfied all human needs, in particular, the need for a rational first cause of the universe and its creatures. In this way, the supreme being was viewed as the father and founder of social realities, the family, and kin alliances as well as the author of moral realities in his role as lawgiver and ethical judge, who is himself free from all moral corruption. Schmidt argued that the belief that the supreme being was a protective father, supportive of the virtues of trust and love, provided archaic humans with the capacity to live and work toward supramundane goals. Rendering labor significant and providing a sense of responsibility, the belief in a supreme being proved to be an effective impetus for the forward struggles of human history.

Thus, the supreme being of Archaic Culture was the lord of human history because he was seen to fill all time and was the source of the beginnings of human life as well as the judge at its end. Furthermore, since the supreme being was believed to fill all the space of the universe, Archaic Culture could conceive of the existence of only one supreme being, unique and without peer. This being reigned as sovereign over all peoples of the earth. In short, through his historical investigation of ethnographic data, Schmidt contended that the religion of the most archaic human culture was a primordial monotheism (Urmonotheismus ), whose existence could best be explained through a primordial revelation (Uroffenbarung ) of the supreme being itself at the beginning of time.

Recognizing that the high god is found in contemporary cultures with less frequency than in the primordial culture, and acknowledging that the contemporary high god is often absent from scheduled cult and manifest in many obscure forms, or even supplanted by other divine figures, Schmidt atributed this degeneration to the very march of history, to the effects of change on human life and thought. Lang had made the same point. Where Lang had attributed the withdrawal of the high god to the cloak of mythic fancy put on over time, Schmidt also considered the economic and social realities of culture history. Thus, the experiences of matrilineal agrarian societies stressed the importance of a female supreme being, lunar associations, and blood sacrifices. Patrilineal totemic cultures contributed emphases on solar symbolism of a male supreme being. Patriarchal cattle-breeding cultures underlined the supreme being as a sky god, the highest in a pantheon of ranked beings increasingly associated with natural phenomena. Through such a historical process, the kernel idea of a primordial supreme being weakened over time, even while the images of supreme being multiplied themselves in number and breadth of special application. History took its greatest toll on the idea of supreme being in those cultures with a long history of ethnological change. For this reason, Schmidt laid great stress on the study of cultures that remained on the margins of technological change.

Schmidt's historical extrapolations from ethnographic materials drew criticism from anthropologists. His assertions of the existence of a primordial monotheism and revelation disturbed theologians. From the point of view of history of religions, Schmidt's greatest shortcoming would prove to be his lack of appreciation of religious elements other than strongly rational ones. In short, although he helped break the stranglehold of evolutionary theories and renewed serious study of supreme being, he continued a rational tradition of interpretation that found it impossible to appreciate the many existential dimensions of myth subsequently disclosed by a more profound hermeneutics of religion. For these reasons, his ideas never gained widespread acceptance. Nevertheless, Schmidt's mammoth studies of supreme beings stand as a monument to his industry and to the existence of the concept of supreme beings in the general history of cultures.

In Schmidt's wake

A distinguished school of culture history grew up around the researches of Wilhelm Schmidt. Although his disciples were very careful to emend or even to reject his historical conclusions about a primordial Archaic Culture and his theological conclusions about a primordial monotheism, they did continue to hold that the investigation of supreme beings outside monotheism constituted a high priority of research. In particular, the researches of Willhelm Koppers, Josef Haeckel, and Martin Gusinde confirmed the importance of the position of supreme beings in many of the cultures that Schmidt had studied.

Reactions to Schmidt came from both theological and ethnological quarters. In general, his critics raised their objections on the basis of material from one special field or another. For the most part, however, other investigatorsPreuss, Radin, Lowie, Söderblom, and van der Leeuw among themagreed with Schmidt in recognizing the existence and importance of a supreme being in many cultures around the world.

In "Die höchste Göttheit bei den kulturarmen Volkern" (1922), Konrad T. Preuss claimed that supreme beings did not form a late stage of human development but rather the foundation of human thought. In Glauben und Mystik im Schatten des höchsten Wesens (1926), Preuss pointed out that the separate ideas concerning the world are woven into a universal scheme personified by the supreme being of the sky. Paul Radin, in Primitive Man as Philosopher (1927), put forward the idea that a supreme being was a creation of a special type of religious person, one inclined toward intellectual reflection. Speculative thought inclined itself toward an unapproachable, abstract divinity, absent from cult and from the contamination of mythic fancy. Radin opposed this sublime figure to the figure of the transformer, a nonethical, materialistic, and dynamically dramatic figure who fascinated the more pragmatically inclined religious mind. Robert H. Lowie, who examined supreme beings in his Primitive Religion (1924), was not so much concerned with the historical origin of the idea of supreme being. Admitting its antiquity, he insisted on the need to consider it as an idea on its own merits, quite apart from notions of spirit, ghost, ancestor, or mana.

Nathan Söderblom, a great specialist in Iranian religions, also abandoned the quest for the historical origins of religion in favor of a threefold typology of religions distinguishing ethnic religion from mysticism of infinity and from prophetic revelation. He denied any connection between what he termed "primitive high gods" and the supreme beings of monotheisms. Since the high gods remained remote from their world and absent from cult, they appeared to him to be abstract reflections upon the origin of creation. Far from being true divinities, they were a rational construct of an "originator" (Urheber ). In Das Werden des Gottesglaubens: Untersuchungen über die Anfänge der Religion (1926), he postulated a different origin in human experience for the idea of a supreme being in the religions "of the Book." In these traditions, prophets interpreted their experience of a divine will making itself felt in both the legal and political arenas of daily life as an experience of the supreme (that is, most powerful and authoritative) being. This contrasts with the primitive notion of supreme being, which was, in his view, developed in response to questions about the origins of things.

Gerardus van der Leeuw employed several of Söderblom's key concepts in his treatment of supreme beings in "Die Struktur der Vorstellung des sogenannten Höchsten Wesens" (1931). Later, in Phänomenologie der Religion (1933), van der Leeuw extended the basic cognitive categories that Söderblom thought lay behind the concept of supreme being into a more refined Gestalt psychology of religion. The supreme beings outside monotheisms were an outgrowth of the basic cognitive structure of origination. Following Preuss, van der Leeuw also argued that these supreme beings, these high gods, preserved the world order by serving as systematic expressions of the mystical unity on which the conception of the world of everyday experience was grounded.

Like Söderblom and Preuss, van der Leeuw considered the question of the nature and structure of supreme beings in isolation from the history of the idea and the historical situations of particular expressions of supreme beings. An intrinsic element of such supreme beings is their otiosity, their remoteness. Whatever form a supreme being may take, whether sky god, weather god, or animal in form, it is always a form that remains in the background of the religious psyche. According to van der Leeuw, the supreme being created the world but now remains uninvolved with it in any practical way. He is looked upon as a being who in the past accomplished something extraordinary but who will never act in such a way again. Whereas Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt believed that the supreme being suffered mythic distortions accrued throughout history, van der Leeuw argued that the supreme being, as a structure of the religious psyche, exists outside history.

Raffaele Pettazzoni

It was Raffaele Pettazzoni who proposed that ambivalence is an essential component of the structure of supreme beings. Reappropriating the historical vision of Giovanni Battista Vico, who emphasized that every religious phenomenon is also a "genomenon" (something with a temporal history of development) and that the truths of human history are especially accessible through ideas forged in the symbolic terms of their time ("verum et factum convertuntur"), Pettazzoni embarked on an enormous study of the historical expressions and forms of supreme beings. Nonetheless, he respected the efforts and contributions of phenomenologists, who studied the forms of supreme beings in their essential structures.

The essentially ambivalent structure of supreme beings emerged from Pettazzoni's study of their historical forms. On the one hand, one finds relatively inactive creators who have retired to inaccessible regions once their acts of creation have been accomplished. On the other hand, one finds in history testimonies to supreme beings who are extremely dynamic overseers of the moral order. These active and omniscient sky gods often intervene directly in the course of human affairs by punishing transgressors of the statutes of social order with the weapons of weather and flood so characteristic of their own tempestuous natures.

Over the course of time, Pettazzoni argued, these historically separate features combined into a basic phenomenological structure of a dualistic nature. Their common meeting ground is the sky. Pettazzoni pointed out the primordial and cosmic quality of the remote and inactive creator. In his view, those features of a supreme being that emphasize his transcendence of the world are best suited to express his conservation of the very conditions that guarantee its existence and endurance. Once the world is fashioned, the function of the creator can only be to prolong its duration and ensure its stability. Further action would endanger it. Creativity and passivity are thus indissolubly, if paradoxically, linked with one another. In this way, Pettazzoni rejected the hypothesis of Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt that the remoteness of the creator is a historical development of mythic fantasy.

On the other hand, criticizing the view held by van der Leeuw and Söderblom, which claimed that the dynamic features of supreme beings are foreign to the otiose figure of a primordial creator, Pettazzoni asserted that moral omniscience is also fundamental to the structure of supreme being. The capacity for moral supervision renders a supreme being morally relevant to historical and social order. Arguing that it is not only the God of historical monotheism who actively involves himself in the course of human events, Pettazzoni documented the existence of all-seeing, celestial supreme beings in Australia, Asia, Indonesia, Melanesia, Africa, and the Americas. Cultures in all of these places provide evidence of the existence of an ambivalent supreme being, both passive creator and omniscient sky god, who oversees the moral order and who is inclined to cede his place to more specialized forms of weather divinities.

Pettazzoni's contribution to the study of supreme beings was his positive evaluation of myth. Rather than viewing it as a degeneration or trivialization of a pure and primordial rational idea, Pettazzoni considered myth the most suitable vehicle for the expression of the sublime and exalted truth contained in the nature of the transcendent and omniscient supreme being. The full existential meaning of supreme being is manifest in myth as in no other form of rational discourse.

Mircea Eliade

In several of his studies in the history of religions, Mircea Eliade has given priority to the investigation of supreme beings. In his great morphological treatise, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), the nature and meaning of supreme being becomes the foundation stone for his approach to the study of religion. Observing the results of earlier investigations, Eliade concludes that in every instance supreme being is a complex figure representing a very involved historical process of religious experiences, revelations, and theoretical systematizations. Nonetheless, Eliade agrees with Pettazzoni that supreme being best manifests its unique spiritual quality as a hierophany of the sky. Height and infinite space become especially suitable manifestations of what is transcendent and supremely sacred. Such supreme beings are primordial; they preexist the world as it is now known, and they act as creators who are beneficent and eternal. They establish the order of creation and become the upholders of its laws. Consequently, Eliade holds that supreme beings are more than simple hierophanies of the sky. Instead, they possess a quality of being that is uniquely their own.

Eliade's special contribution to the study of supreme beings is his illumination of the process of their withdrawal or disappearance. He draws attention to the fact that myth often narrates the withdrawal of a supreme being to remote heights, whence he presides over the larger contours of life, destiny, and the afterlife of the soul, without, however, assuming any dominant role in public cult. In retirement, supreme beings are often replaced by other religious forms: by divinities of nature, by ancestors, by powers of fertility, by solar or lunar divinities, and so forth. Eliade contends that this tendency to give way to more concrete and dynamic forms is an essential element of the stucture of supreme being.

Further, Eliade holds up the withdrawal of supreme beings as the exemplary model for the very process of the religious imagination in history. Considering "the sacred" as a structure of human awareness, he points to its historical occultation or withdrawal even as it manifests itself in concrete and, one could say, profane forms. The withdrawal of the supreme manifestation of being and the occultation of its fullness before active but more circumscribed divine appearances lead to a process of experimentation with sacred forms. This process constitutes the history of religious experience: a religious quest for the full manifestation of supreme being, which myth describes as existing "in the beginning."

Eliade has made a historical application of his morphological analysis of supreme beings in Australian Religions: An Introduction (1973), in several articles on South American religions, and in A History of Religious Ideas (19781986) as well as in other works. At first, Eliade draws attention to the replacement of supreme beings by other divine forms that share the celestial sacrality of supreme being even though they lose something of its transcendent omnipotence: weather, storm, solar, and lunar gods as well as universal sovereign gods who reign from on high. To this extent he develops suggestions made by Pettazzoni. However, his more general point is that supreme being is replaced in the religious imagination by a range of epiphanies of elementary life forces that come to compose a cosmic sacrality: water, stone, earth, vegetation, and animals. These epiphanies reveal themselves as particular modes of being of which a supreme being is the fullest manifestation. Because of this relationship to supreme being no longer fully manifest in history, each cosmic religious form tends, by "imperial" expansion of its meaning to all realms of life, to express itself as a revelation that, like supreme being, includes all other possibilities. However, these limited revelations are, by their very nature, incapable of expressing fully the sacred. They provoke the need for the experience of other forms.

Concluding remarks

Understanding the nature, structure, and meaning of supreme beings outside monotheism has remained a priority for scholars who study religion in a comparative and historical frame of reference. The study of this important being has played a singular role in expunging several futile assumptions that plagued the early stages of investigation. Specifically, the naive premises that the origins of religion might be found in a single simple cause, that valid religious experience might be exhausted through rationalistic explanations, and that religious history is a unilinear progressive development had all to be abandoned. In their place, the study of supreme beings has substituted a deeper appreciation of the complexities of human experience in all cultures and in all times and a more profound understanding of the wider existential dimensions of mythic truth.

In particular, better acquaintance with supreme beings has underscored not only the inestimable value of the religions of Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and archaic cultures but also the inescapable need to know them well in order to understand the religious experience of humankind.

See Also

Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu; All-Father; Animism and Animatism; Axis Mundi; Cosmogony; Deus Otiosus; El; Eliade, Mircea; Evolution, article on Evolutionism; God; Jupiter; Kulturkreiselehre; Lang, Andrew; Leeuw, Gerardus van der; Lowie, Robert H.; Mawu-Lisa; Meteorological Beings; Mountains; Müller, F. Max; Num; Num-Tūrem; Pettazzoni, Raffaele; Polytheism; Preuss, Konrad T.; Radin, Paul; Schmidt, Wilhelm; Shangdi; Sky; Söderblom, Nathan; Spener, Philipp Jakob; Tangaroa; Tian; Tylor, E. B.; Ülgen; uNkulunkulu; Varua; Viracocha; Zeus.


General Works

A number of important studies treat the general investigation of supreme beings on a large scale. In addition to their theoretical and historical value, these works also provide ample bibliographies on the subject. Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958) deals at length with the question of supreme beings in chapter 2, "The Sky and Sky Gods." There follow twelve pages of bibliography containing some three hundred entries grouped by geographic and culture area. For a brief synthesis of Raffaele Pettazzoni's view on the issue, see his "The Supreme Being: Phenomenological Structure and Historical Development," in The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Mircea Eliade (Chicago, 1959), pp. 5966. Other important works by Pettazzoni include Dio: Formazione e sviluppo del monoteismo nella storia delle religioni (Rome, 1922); "Allwissende höchste Wesen bei primitivsten Völkern," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 29 (1930): 108129, 209243; and L'onni-scienza di Dio (Turin, 1955). A wealth of material is contained in the eleven thousand pages of Wilhelm Schmidt's Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, 12 vols. (Münster, 19121955). Other general works central to the discussion of supreme beings include Nathan Söderblom's Das Werden des Gottesglaubens: Untersuchungen über die Anfänge der Religion, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1926); Gerardus van der Leeuw's "Die Struktur der Vorstellung des sogenannten Höchsten Wesens," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 29 (1931): 79107; Carl Clemen's "Der sogenannte Monotheismus der Primitiven," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 27 (1927): 290373; and Paul Radin's Monotheism among Primitive Peoples (London, 1924).

Specific Studies

Most of the recent works on the subject make no attempt to encompass the wide parameters of the nature and meaning of supreme beings. Any list of these studies specializing in the supreme being of one culture area could become inordinately long. The following works, not included in the bibliographies of the general treatises cited above, serve as illustrations of the kind of works that bring clarity to the state of the question in their particular field.


David N. Keightley, "The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture," History of Religions 17 (1978): 211225. Joseph Shih, "The Notion of God in the Ancient Chinese Religion," Numen 16 (1969): 99138. Homer H. Dubs, "The Archaic Royal Jou Religion," T'oung pao 46 (1958): 217259.


Hans Schärer, Ngaju Religion: The Conception of God among a South Borneo People, translated by Rodney Needham (The Hague, 1963). Anicetus B. Sinaga, Toba-Batak High God: Transcendence and Immanence (St. Augustin, West Germany, 1981).


E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion (Oxford, 1956). Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford, 1961). John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York, 1969). Charles H. Long, "The West African High God: History and Religious Experience." History of Religions 3 (1964): 328349.

South America

Mircea Eliade, "South American High Gods, Part I," History of Religions 8 (19681969): 338354. Mircea Eliade, "South American High Gods, Part II," History of Religions 10 (19701971): 234266. Arthur Andrew Demarest, Viracocha: The Nature and Antiquity of the Andean High God (Cambridge, Mass., 1981). Ana Maria Mariscotti, "Die Stellung des Gewittergottes in den Regionalen Pantheen der Zentralanden," Baessler-Archiv (Berlin), n. s. 18 (1970): 427436.


Miguel León Portilla, La filosofía nahuatl estudiada en sus fuentes, 2d ed. (Mexico City, 1959). Bodo Spranz, Göttergestalten in den mexikanischen Bilderhandschriften der Codex Borgia-Gruppe (Wiesbaden, 1964). Mercedes Olivera de Vazquez, "Los 'dueños del agua' en Tlaxcalcingo," Boletin del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (Mexico City) 35 (1969). Ferdinand Anders, Das Pantheon der Maya (Graz, 1963).

North America

Josef Haekel, "Kosmischer Baum and Pfahl in Mythus und Kult der Stämme Nordwestamerikas," Wiener völkerkundliche Mitteilungen 6 (1958): 381. Åke Hultkrantz, "The Structure of Theistic Beliefs among North American Plains Indians," Temenos 7 (1971): 6674. Åke Hultkrantz, Religions of the American Indians, translated by Monica Setterwall (Los Angeles, 1979).


E. A. Worms, "Djamar, the Creator," Anthropos 45 (1950): 641658. T. G. H. Strehlow, "Personal Monototemism in a Polytotemic Community." In Festschrift für A. E. Jensen, edited by Eike Haberland et al. (Munich, 1964), pp. 723754. Mircea Eliade, Australian Religions (Ithaca, N.Y., 1973).

New Sources

Egwu, Raphael. Igbo Idea of the Supreme Being and the Triune God. Würzburg, 1998.

Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God. Edited by Aida Besancon Spencer and William David Spencer. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998.

Gupta, V. P. Cult of Mother Goddess: A Global Perspective. Delhi, 1999.

Hodgson, Janet. God of the Xhosa: A Study of the Origins and Development of the Traditional Concepts of the Supreme Being. Cape Town and New York, 1982.

Motz, Lotte. Faces of the Goddess. New York, 1997.

Pruett, Gorden E. As a Father Loves His Children: The Image of the Supreme Being as Loving Father in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Bethesda, Md., 1994.

Ryan, Patrick. "'Arise, O God:' The Problem of 'gods' in West Africa." Journal of Religion in Africa 11/3 (1980): 161171.

Schwartz, O. Douglas. "Hardship and Evil in Plains Indian Theology." American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 6/23 (1985): 102114.

Spirituality and the Brain. Is God a Figment of the Imagination? Films for the Humanities & Sciences. Princeton, 2002.

Tovagonze, Venance. "God-Concept: 'Supreme Being' in African Tribal Religions." Journal of Dharma 17 (1992): 122140.

Lawrence E. Sullivan (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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