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Mythology, Anthropomorphic Gods, and Curious Humans

Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes is said to have remarked that if one were to ask horses to draw their gods that they would draw horses, cows would draw cows, etc. One could see his remark as suggesting that all beings draw deities in their own likeness because they are unseen and so create concepts through their own frameworks of experience, or more cynically that deities are a projection by human beings of themselves due to circumstance (as the article cited here suggests: and that Xenophanes is mocking the notion of gods’ existence.

This short article, fourth entry in my series, ‘The Human Heart of Myth’, is not going to argue for either, but rather pursue a strand that is common to both – what anthropomorphic deities reveal about human beings’ approach to explanation of the unseen in response to their environment.

I ask you to imagine your are in a world where there are no advanced tools (though you may be spurred on to create these driven by your own curiosity) for observation except your eyes and ears with your world view further informed by your conversations with others. In such circumstances, what factors shape your world view? This is no easy task in our world of satellites, CCTV, sophisticated telescopes, vessels that can travel to incredible depths under the ocean. But try! Your framework would be: your physical environment, emotions, cares, fears, lifestyle (farming, trading, for example) and factors that affect these both positively and negatively. Is it not inevitable that human traits come to shape interpretations of such factors?

What do I mean by this? That humans would have analysed and interpreted causes in light of comparison with their own range of feeling and experience, namely occurrences that suggest incontestable power, anger, or sadness.

I mentioned the story that Achilles tells to Priam in book XXIV of the Iliad in my previous article. He tells of Zeus meting out good fortune and misfortune to mortals, against which they are relatively powerless. We can perhaps conjecture that the notion of supreme beings above mortals may have begun in this way. As human beings experienced reversals of fortune that they could not explain or felt to be unjust, such vicissitudes came to be blamed on greater, untouchable powers. Divine envy checked the arrogant and these higher beings could have favourites.

How did these beings come to acquire their human feelings, responses, and resentments, all without the risk these posed to mortals? When one considers the more extreme features of the natural world, one can perhaps come closer to understanding how disasters were attributed not only to unseen powers, but to unseen beings who vented their own very human-like nature in response to mortals’ own behaviour. A thunderstorm and lightning that set alight a forest came to be an angry Zeus. A ghastly storm at sea suggested an angry deity, too, powerful enough to command the vast oceans. Indeed, myth tells us that Poseidon was more than happy to lend his equally angry niece Athena a helping in hand in wrecking the Greeks on their voyage home from Troy after they destroyed the city he loved and helped to build. Plague was frequently associated with divine wrath. What else, in an age that did not know viruses and bacteria, could explain such devastation? Admittedly the sixth and fifth centuries BC saw a reaction against blaming the divine and in favour of naturalistic or rational causes, and theories of connections between environmental causes and disease emerged, but these scholars did not persuade everyone. Fire was associated with anger. Pliny recorded frantic prayers to the gods as Mt Vesuvius spewed her pyroclastic flow into the air. In myth, Typhon was held to be the cause of Etna’s eruptions, angry at his imprisonment under the mountain by Zeus.

Mortals equally read sadness in the natural world and its processes. Autumn and winter can make mortals sad for many reasons. But it also looks like sadness in its very gloominess and expiring vegetation. The world is becoming sad, the greyness and darkness fuelling such a view of this natural cycle. One can see how mortals looking for an explanation gave us the myth of the saddened goddess Demeter missing her beloved daughter Persephone as she endures her absence. Spring and summer are happier, humans naturally associate colour and new life with good feelings. Demeter is also happier; Persephone has returned.

Childish explanations? Lazy explanations? Many still believe in the power of a god or gods to intervene in the world. However, even though we may be much less likely to blame meddling, anthropomorphic deities, such beliefs do reflect a remarkable self-awareness of human vulnerability and nature’s power, that grumpy gods aside, has a perhaps still pertinent message for our own times and urge against a hubristic attitude to nature.

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