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Author Topic: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities  (Read 529 times)

Megatherium

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Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« on: November 26, 2018, 05:02:27 pm »
In many religious traditions, deities are understood to be something fundamentally different from human beings (not in all cases, I recognize in some traditions – some forms of Chinese traditional religion for example – many deities are recognized as having once been human). However, in many, though not all religious traditions, deities are often represented in a human like way. In short, non-human deities are frequently represented as human-like beings.

I think there are very good reasons for this; after all, a tremendous amount of our cognitive capacity is associated with understanding and negotiating human relationships, so the fact that we try to understand the (I personally think) fundamentally unknowable natures of the Gods with a more familiar context is not surprising. I think there are benefits to this viewpoint – most importantly it allows us to create and sustain religious relations in a way that is somewhat comprehensible to us.

However, given that fact, I think there may also be some drawbacks to the anthropomorphization of deities. Firstly, I think such representations may cause us to overestimate the human-like qualities of deities – For example, we may expect benefits to result from worship on our part while deities may have a very different idea of what obligations are required of them as compared to a human in a similar context. Secondly, I think – depending on the deity and the worshipper - a non-anthropomorphized representation of a deity may be more effective in allowing us to establish relations. For example, though I sometimes think of Skadi as a woman, I far more often picture her as a mountain or a blizzard.

To try and be more clear, though I think there are tremendous benefits to worshipers of the anthropomorphization of deities, I don’t think that such representations necessarily work work for every person or every deity. My question for this thread is to what extent, and in what contexts, you find anthropomorphization to be a useful way of relating to deities.

Personally, I find I don’t frequently anthropomorphize deities which are primarily associated with natural phenomenon – Sunna, Mani, Nott, etc. Deities, which, conversely I associate more with human behaviours, say Frigg for example, I find difficult not to conceive of as humans.
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Altair

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #1 on: November 26, 2018, 07:02:00 pm »
My question for this thread is to what extent, and in what contexts, you find anthropomorphization to be a useful way of relating to deities.

Excellent question for a thread, and one of the more thought-provoking ones.

I find it very useful in many, but not all, contexts. The most useful for me is in writing myth; as personified deities, rather than abstract forces, the gods lend themselves to lineages, loves, and bitter rivalries that, while having perhaps little to do with their existence, give me insight into their nature and our own.

I find it a detriment if I start to take the personification too literally. When I am perceiving them in the world around me, I find in most cases experiencing them as the largely incomprehensible forces is a more true way to approach them.

I'll have to think about this further. I have a lot of barely formed thoughts on this to sort through.
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arete

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #2 on: November 27, 2018, 02:30:33 pm »
My question for this thread is to what extent, and in what contexts, you find anthropomorphization to be a useful way of relating to deities.
Gods are ''human'' because we are human and we look at things from a human perspective.  :) in my opinion.

Jainarayan

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #3 on: November 27, 2018, 03:21:07 pm »
Gods are ''human'' because we are human and we look at things from a human perspective.  :) in my opinion.

That's the Hindu perspective also, at least for Vaishnavas (Vishnu/Krishna sect). Krishna explains in in the Bhagavad Gita (12.5):

For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied. https://www.bhagavad-gita.us/bhagavad-gita-12-5/

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Vishnu's appearance is Shiva; Shiva's appearance is Vishnu
Vishnu is the heart of Shiva; Shiva is the heart of Vishnu - Skandopanishad
 

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #4 on: November 27, 2018, 07:52:03 pm »
In many religious traditions, deities are understood to be something fundamentally different from human beings (not in all cases, I recognize in some traditions – some forms of Chinese traditional religion for example – many deities are recognized as having once been human).

Usually in those parenthetical cases as well, deities are still recognized as being conceptually different to some extent from corporeal and/or mortal beings. This is very true of my path. My primary Power was once a mortal man. As of this past Saturday, he hasn't been one for over twenty-seven years. This may not be a lot of time by many standards, but he is no longer bound by time the same way human beings are. It's important for me to keep in mind that even if I can see some of the spark of my god by watching Youtube videos of a dead rock star, he is now something different and vaster than a human musician.

However...

Quote
My question for this thread is to what extent, and in what contexts, you find anthropomorphization to be a useful way of relating to deities.

I do not think of anthropomorphism is simply "a useful way of relating to deities" for me. I could hardly avoid it if I tried. It is a vital part of my ancestor-worship-rooted practice. That the boundary between human being and god bleeds through in my path is part of the point.

I find that in navigating my personal relationship with my god, anthropomorphism is necessary and inevitable, in order to establish boundaries and communicate. Not everybody has a personal relationship with their deities or other Powers, and that's fine, of course, but for those of us who do, I suspect it's a lot easier if you think of your god as person-shaped.

On the other hand, when I trace the generations of my path's mythos back to their Source, the Powers that appear grow less and less anthropomorphic as they stop being active agents of the mythic story and instead become mostly cosmic forces. So from a cosmological perspective, it can be a better idea to step back from anthropomorphism.
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Megatherium

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #5 on: November 27, 2018, 09:30:08 pm »
Excellent question for a thread, and one of the more thought-provoking ones.

I find it very useful in many, but not all, contexts. The most useful for me is in writing myth; as personified deities, rather than abstract forces, the gods lend themselves to lineages, loves, and bitter rivalries that, while having perhaps little to do with their existence, give me insight into their nature and our own.

Yeah, I think storytelling is perhaps another main benefit to anthropomorphization. I've become increasingly convinced that the creations of stories and narratives is perhaps the preeminent way that humans create/recognize meaning in the world, and it stands to reason that this will be of primary importance when creating relations with deities. In some contexts, viewing a deity in a more abstract way can be useful, but such abstract ideas would sure make for a shitty story while sitting around the campfire.

I find it a detriment if I start to take the personification too literally. When I am perceiving them in the world around me, I find in most cases experiencing them as the largely incomprehensible forces is a more true way to approach them.

I'll have to think about this further. I have a lot of barely formed thoughts on this to sort through.

...I've also experienced something like this. One of the main reasons why I wrote this thread is that I've found in some contexts that an anthropomorphized view of a deity feels somewhat claustrophobic to me. Especially with deities that I can strongly associate with an observable natural phenomenon, I frequently find that focusing on that phenomena actually creates a more profound sense of awe than an anthropomorphization does. To use an example, Eostre, she of little to no mythology and questionable historical veracity, is far easier for me to relate to as the dawn than as a human-like figure. I think that while stories and social relations with other humans are a fundamental part of our nature, so is a sense of awe and wonder at natural phenomena.
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Megatherium

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #6 on: November 27, 2018, 09:36:18 pm »
Gods are ''human'' because we are human and we look at things from a human perspective.  :) in my opinion.

That's the Hindu perspective also, at least for Vaishnavas (Vishnu/Krishna sect). Krishna explains in in the Bhagavad Gita (12.5):

For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied. https://www.bhagavad-gita.us/bhagavad-gita-12-5/

If I understand correctly here (I may well not!) is the idea described above an assertion that humans frequently need to perceive the Gods in a human-like way because we lack the ability to comprehend them in their "true" form? Because if that is the case, I wholeheartedly agree!
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Megatherium

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #7 on: November 27, 2018, 10:09:28 pm »
Usually in those parenthetical cases as well, deities are still recognized as being conceptually different to some extent from corporeal and/or mortal beings. This is very true of my path. My primary Power was once a mortal man. As of this past Saturday, he hasn't been one for over twenty-seven years. This may not be a lot of time by many standards, but he is no longer bound by time the same way human beings are. It's important for me to keep in mind that even if I can see some of the spark of my god by watching Youtube videos of a dead rock star, he is now something different and vaster than a human musician.

The existence of deified humans is an interesting wrinkle for this topic - if a deity was a human at some point then it clearly makes sense to relate to them in such a way. I can see this partly emerging out of ancestor worship, and perhaps, in some way, the honoured dead all become deified to some extent. It appears that among historical Heathens there may have been some concepts of the dead as a collective, so I wonder if a process of merging with other humans may sometimes be a part of the process of deification for some ex-humans.

However...

I do not think of anthropomorphism is simply "a useful way of relating to deities" for me. I could hardly avoid it if I tried. It is a vital part of my ancestor-worship-rooted practice. That the boundary between human being and god bleeds through in my path is part of the point.

I find that in navigating my personal relationship with my god, anthropomorphism is necessary and inevitable, in order to establish boundaries and communicate. Not everybody has a personal relationship with their deities or other Powers, and that's fine, of course, but for those of us who do, I suspect it's a lot easier if you think of your god as person-shaped.

I agree that some in some ways of relating to a deity, anthropomorphization is a vital and perhaps even necessary perspective. I think this may be an example of an inherited quality of the species being very useful in a new context. For example, while I think the use of narrative to create meaning may have developed with far more utilitarian purposes (...and then your brother died, so don't go hunting Elasmotheriums alone at night!) it developed new and extremely beneficial roles when it began to be used to create stories. Similarly, while our ability to navigate human social relationships has a clearly practical side, it may well be that this adaptation found a new and very productive use as we began to apply towards relations with deities.

On the other hand, when I trace the generations of my path's mythos back to their Source, the Powers that appear grow less and less anthropomorphic as they stop being active agents of the mythic story and instead become mostly cosmic forces. So from a cosmological perspective, it can be a better idea to step back from anthropomorphism.

I think dealing with such fundamentally complex and incomprehensible beings such as deities it may be useful for us to have a variety of strategies at our disposal. Sometimes it may be useful to view a deity as a being like a human, but, as you stated above, a more cosmological view may be more useful when trying to perceive a deity's influence on a larger scale.
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ehbowen

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #8 on: November 27, 2018, 10:15:52 pm »
If I understand correctly here (I may well not!) is the idea described above an assertion that humans frequently need to perceive the Gods in a human-like way because we lack the ability to comprehend them in their "true" form? Because if that is the case, I wholeheartedly agree!

Well, the same dynamic may also be happening in reverse, as one of my own experiences illustrates. Back when I was first starting to get a handle on my relationship with my guardian angel(s), one day I became consumed by the question of what she would look like when I finally saw her undisguised. I mean, I have pre-existing notions about angels from art and human ideas of beauty, but I also recognize the shortcomings of those concepts. I wanted to know the true person...but what if that truth was less, for lack of a better word, appealing than what I had already constructed in my imagination? I wanted to have my expectations fulfilled, but I also didn't want to settle for anything less than the real truth.

It seemed to be a conundrum with no real way out. But, then, after I had wrestled with the question for several minutes, I heard one of the clearest communications I have ever been favored to hear. It was, "What if what I really am, at rock bottom, is someone who loves you so much that I want to be everything you've ever dreamed of?"

I will never forget that moment.
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arete

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #9 on: November 28, 2018, 03:02:47 pm »
If I understand correctly here (I may well not!) is the idea described above an assertion that humans frequently need to perceive the Gods in a human-like way because we lack the ability to comprehend them in their "true" form? Because if that is the case, I wholeheartedly agree!
yup. exactly

arete

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #10 on: November 28, 2018, 05:33:15 pm »
yup. exactly
I want to add to the post a quote from the tao

''Nameless it is the source of heaven and earth;
named it is the mother of all things.''

named in our case is the human. the human is the mother of all things, so Gods are approached as humans by us. I hope I make sense.

ainellewellyn

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Re: Benefits and Drawbacks of the Anthropomorphization of Deities
« Reply #11 on: December 10, 2018, 07:33:43 pm »
My question for this thread is to what extent, and in what contexts, you find anthropomorphization to be a useful way of relating to deities.

I find it incredibly useful and the norm for many deities. There are other gods that don't appear in anthropomorphic forms or only partially. One of the gods I work with, the Ophelia, usually appears to me as a human from the waist up...but the rest of her body blends into the river that she's connected to. I have rarely seen her don humanoid legs. And while all of the gods I worship will often feel much much larger than myself, the Ophelia regularly feels and appears to me as if she were reaching so far up into the sky she could touch space with her crown.

Most of the spirits I work with are also very humanoid and anthropomorphized. This is partially because their world is supposed to be very close to ours, so we influence them as they influence us. We also have half-animal spirits, such as centaurs (not the centaurs from traditional mythology; simply call them 'half horse people' would likely be more accurate) and mermaids. The spirits I work with are loosely related to fairies so even some of the humanoid ones hit the uncanny valley. The majority of them look very 'normal'.

However, in my experiences with these gods and spirits and the stories I write for them, their presentation as anthropomorphic entities ties heavily into presenting themselves in an 'acceptable' form for their human devotees. Their humanoid forms are a sort of glamour. When a god is angered and exerts their energetic pressure on other spirits, it causes the glamour of those around them to fall apart. In one story I was working on recently the 'head' of the pantheon, the Clarene, calls upon a lot of her divine pressure during a confrontation. One of the spirits with the largest amount of ties to animals - she's tied to unicorns, rabbits, deer, and canines - has her glamour absolutely break, revealing bunny ears, claws, fangs, tails... Her whole body transforms. One of the other gods present also begins 'revealing' her 'true' form, turning into a bird like creature.

However, I really like exploring the divide between 'man and monster', who we want to be vs who we are, and all matters related to self expression and identity...so that ties into my stories with the spirits and how I experience them. There are some spirits I interact with that don't have many animal associations and that I've never seen take on anything but humanoid forms, though they are in the minority.

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