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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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It is important to bear in mind that man's ability
to conceive of deity antedates his ability to record his
conceptions in writing. The religions of the so-called
primitive peoples of the modern world attest to the
fact that a rich complex of belief in supernatural
beings, and ritual practices connected with their serv-
ice, can flourish without the support of a sacred litera-
ture. That such a situation existed before the invention
of writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in the early part
of the fourth millennium B.C., is evident from prehis-
toric archeology. Although the interpretation of
archeological data concerning human thought and
belief, unsupported by written texts, must necessarily
be speculative, artifacts nonetheless are documents of
man's mental activity. The making of a stone axe, for
example, can tell much, if carefully interpreted, of its
prehistoric maker's social and economic needs and his
skill in meeting them.

Paleolithic culture has left behind some notable
evidence of what might reasonably be considered as
mankind's earliest known essays in the conception of
deity. The most striking instance of this evidence is
the so-called “Venus of Laussel” (Figure 1). This is the
image of a woman carved on a block of stone, which
was found at Laussel, in the Dordogne district of
France. When found, the figure occupied the central
position among a series of other carvings, so arranged
as to suggest that the place of their location was a
rock sanctuary. The “Venus” figure represents a nude
woman with the maternal attributes grossly exagger-
ated, while the facial features are undepicted; the
figure holds a bison's horn in the right hand. Similar


figures, of much smaller scale and carved in the round,
which have also been found on various Paleolithic sites,
would seem to indicate that a common motive inspired
their making. A clue to this motive is possibly to be
found in the strange fact that the faces of the figures
are invariably blank, whereas the maternal features are
carefully depicted. This difference of treatment is
surely significant. It would seem to show that the
carvings were not designed as portraits of individual
women, but rather to symbolize “woman” as the
“mother” or source of new life. The context of their
relevance, if this was their meaning, is clear. The
phenomenon of biological birth provided the Paleo-
lithic peoples, who made the images, with ocular evi-
dence of the emergence from the female body of new
beings of their own kind. The phenomenon, moreover,
was probably the more impressive since it is unlikely
that the process of procreation was properly under-
stood at the time. There is reason, accordingly, for
seeing in these figures, and particularly in the Venus
of Laussel, the earliest known evidence of man's deifica-
tion of the female principle. “Deification” in this Paleo-
lithic context must, of course, be carefully qualified;
for our knowledge of the ability of the human mind
at so remote a period necessarily rests on deduction
from archeological data only.

The original location of the Venus of Laussel suggests
that it was an object of worship, in other words, that
those who made and reverenced the image sought
thereby not only to portray the female principle, but
also to establish a special relationship between them-
selves and what they conceived to be the source or
creatrix of new life. How they made the mental transi-
tion from the phenomenon of birth, as observed in
individual women of the community, to the conception
of a transcendental Woman or Great Mother as the
source of fertility and new life is beyond our present
comprehension. But, as we shall see, these Venus figures
constitute Paleolithic prototypes of the Mother God-
dess or Great Goddess, whose cult is well attested in
the Neolithic period, and finds subsequent expression
in many of the famous goddesses of the ancient Near

The Venus of Laussel may, therefore, be reasonably
regarded as the earliest known depiction of the idea
of deity for the purpose of worship. It is important
to note that the idea probably stemmed from the con-
cern of Paleolithic man with the phenomenon of birth
as the operation of a mysterious power that replaced
the deceased members of his community by others
newly-born. The depiction of pregnant animals in
Paleolithic cave-art provides evidence of similar im-
port; namely, that these primitive hunting peoples
were deeply concerned with the reproduction of the
animals upon which they lived. Thus the original con-
ception of deity was intimately related to a basic
human need.

The deification of the female principle in Paleolithic
culture is more certainly attested than that of the male
principle. The most likely instance of the latter is
provided by the figure of the so-called “Sorcerer” of
the Trois Frères Cave in the department of Ariège,
France. This designation for the figure does, in fact,
represent an interpretation of it which negates the
alternative interpretation that it depicts a god. The
figure is a strange composition. In form it is generally
anthropomorphic; but the body is shown as covered
with a hairy pelt, and with an animal's tail and genitals.
The head, moreover, which is surmounted by the ant-
lers of a stag, has furry ears, owl-like eyes, and a long
tongue or beard. The posture of the figure is suggestive
of the action of dancing, though other equally reasona-
ble explanations could be offered.

In view of the evidence that exists of a Paleolithic


hunting-ritual in which men disguised as animals per-
formed mimetic dances, many prehistorians have in-
terpreted the figure as representing a sorcerer per-
forming such a magical dance (Figure 2). But this
interpretation encounters the difficulty of explaining
why such a figure should be depicted in a cave which
appears to have been used as a sanctuary. The problem
involved here, though interesting and important, is
outside the scope of this article. The alternative inter-
pretation, which some eminent specialists in prehistory
have advanced, is that the figure represents a super-
natural “Lord of the beasts,” whom the Paleolithic
hunters conceived of as the owner of the animals, and
who had to be propitiated by those who hunted and
killed them. This interpretation is reasonable; but it
has to be regarded as less certain than that which
presents the Venus of Laussel as the earliest depiction
of the idea of deity.

The intimation given by Paleolithic culture that the
earliest conception of deity was inspired by man's
concern with the production of new life finds re-
markable confirmation in Neolithic culture: the most
notable instance will be briefly described here. Exca-
vation of the Neolithic town at Çatal Hüyük in Anato-
lia, which dates from the seventh millennium B.C., has
revealed a flourishing cult of a Great Goddess, who
was concerned with both birth and death. This ambiv-
alence of concept is evidenced in a strange way. The
sanctuaries of the Goddess were adorned by friezes of
plaster models of the female human breast. These
objects were found to contain the skulls of vultures
and foxes and the jawbones of boars. No written texts,
unfortunately, exist to explain this strange symbolism.
However, the union of symbols of maternal nourish-
ment and care with symbols of death is profoundly
suggestive, and this significance is reinforced by other
symbols found in the sanctuaries: human skulls, the
horns of bulls, and mural paintings of great vultures
menacing headless human corpses. The interpretation
of these symbols is necessarily speculative; but the idea
of a Great Goddess, who is the source of life, and to
whom all return at death, is known in other later
religions, for example, in Crete and the Greek Eleu-
sinian Mysteries. In such an ambivalent context, the
Great Goddess is identified or associated with the earth
as Mother Earth, whose womb is conceived as both
the source of life and the place of repose, and possibly
of the revivification, of the dead.

The tradition of the deification of the female princi-
ple, which can thus be traced from the Paleolithic on
through the Neolithic period, found expression in the
early literary cultures of the ancient Near East and
the Indus Valley. The tradition is embodied, with cer-
tain variant features, in such famous goddesses as the
Mesopotamian Innina-Ishtar, the Syrian Astarte, the
Egyptian Isis and Hathor, the Anatolian Cybele, the
Cretan Great Goddess, and the Cyprian Aphrodite.
Many of these goddesses combined the roles of Virgin
and Mother, and they were often intimately associated
with a young god who, alternatively as their son or
lover, was the deified spirit of vegetation.


The earliest written records, dating in Egypt and
Mesopotamia from the fourth millennium B.C., reveal
in both places a polytheistic form of religion which
had evidently been long established. The Egyptian
form, since it is generally the better documented and
certainly more graphically presented, will be consid-
ered first.

In the great corpus of religious texts, known as the
Pyramid Texts, which were inscribed on the interior
walls of the pyramids of certain pharaohs of the Fifth
and Sixth Dynasties, a great number of divinities, male
and female, are named. Their divine nature is denoted
by a hieroglyph (nṯr), resembling an axe or a flag
unfurled horizontally from its pole. The symbol indi-
cates that already the ancient Egyptians had conceived
of deity or divinity in an abstract form. Unfortunately
the essential meaning of the hieroglyph nṯr remains
an enigma, despite many attempts to interpret it. It
looks like an axe; but there is some evidence that in
its more primitive form it showed two streamers pro-
jecting horizontally from a pole, which might represent
the standard that stood before primitive shrines. But,
whatever be the origin of the symbol, it is significant
that in their earliest texts the Egyptians were already
able to envisage divinity as a distinctive quality or
character that could be attributed to certain specific
entities regarded as deities.


Although they were thus able to conceive of divinity,
the Egyptians evidently believed that the virtue found
expression or was embodied in a variety of personified
beings, who were distinguished by individual names
or titles. These deities ranged in nature and status from
cosmic beings such as the sun to strange animals and
insects, such as the ibis (a wading bird related to the
heron) and the scorpion, which were worshipped at
various local centers for reasons unknown to modern
scholarship. Some deities were personifications of ab-
stractions such as Shu (“air”), Maat (“truth”), or Atum
(ἰtmw), a designation which seems to have meant “the
not-yet-Completed-One, who will attain (completion).”

The iconography of the Egyptians shows that they
envisaged their gods in concrete forms of varying kinds:
as men and women in Egyptian attire; or as having
human bodies and animal heads; or as wholly animal
(i.e., mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects). Some of
these conceptions were evidently of primitive origin;
but some derived from a complex transformation of
imagery. The most notable instance of the latter was
the representation of the sun-god Rē by a scarab-beetle.
The ancient Egyptian word for the scarab-beetle was
kheprer which was akin to kheper, “come into being”
or “exist.” Since the sun-god was regarded as self-
existent, and consequently called Khepri, the relevance
of the scarab-beetle as a symbol is intelligible. But for
the Egyptians the symbol had a further meaning.
Scarab-beetles were believed to be of male sex only,
and they have the curious habit of pushing about balls
of dung, on which they feed. Since ancient Egyptian
cosmogonic myth was structured on the imagery of
biological procreation, the sun-god, being self-existent,
was pictured as commencing the creation of the uni-
verse by masturbation, while he was also thought of
as rolling the sun across the heavens each day.

It has been well to analyze this scarab symbol, in
view of its curious compound of metaphysical thought
and esoteric imagery concerning the concept of divine
self-existence inherent in the word kheprer. The scarab
symbol may thus serve to show how behind the strange
iconography of Egyptian religion there may often
reside ideas that are remarkable for their metaphysical

So far as it is possible to define the quintessence of
divinity as it finds expression in the many deities of
ancient Egypt, it would seem that it inheres in the
idea of power. But it was power to do particular things:
to give life, fertility, prosperity, maintain cosmic order,
to have supernatural knowledge, generally of a magical
kind. In the Egyptian pantheon, several deities had
special functions or abilities; and there was a tendency
to associate local deities with the great state or cosmic
deities so as to give the appearance of a kind of
henotheism. There is much evidence, too, of the use
of the expression nṯrc (the “Great God”), without
a personal name; generally the reference is to Rē, the
sun-god, but sometimes it denotes Osiris.

The chief characteristics of the Egyptian idea of
deity were expressed in three gods: Rē, Osiris, and Set (Figure 3.
The first, as the sun-god, was the state-god
par excellence. The pharaoh was regarded as the “Son
of Rē,” and his representative on earth. Rē was the
creator of the universe and the source of all life and
power. He sustained the order (maat) of the cosmos,
and Maat, the personification of truth, justice, and
order was regarded as both his daughter and his food.
Consequently, Rē was often thought of as the judge
of mankind. This association with the moral law has
a unique significance. It first appears in Egyptian texts
about 2400 B.C., and thus constitutes the earliest evi-
dence of the involvement of the concept of deity with
ethics. Such involvement is not inevitable, and the
history of religions affords numerous examples of
amoral and unmoral deities. The Egyptian records
fortunately permit us to see how Rē became associated
with the moral order. The idea of maat was basically
that of cosmic order as opposed to chaos. For example,
the Egyptians conceived of a monster of darkness,


Apophis, which threatened to destroy the sun each day
as it rose and set. The social order in Egypt, which
was maintained by the pharaoh, the son of Rē, was
part of the cosmic maat. Consequently, anyone whose
conduct was not in accord with the accepted mores
abused maat, the good order of things, of which Rē
was the upholder, and so incurred his vengeance in
this world or the next.

Osiris was a deity of a wholly different kind, and
one of peculiar significance for the history of religions.
For whereas Rē and all the other deities were by
nature immortal, Osiris was a god who had died and
been raised to life again. There has been much special-
ist discussion about the origin of this extraordinary
conception, but no agreed conclusion has emerged.
What is certain is that in the Pyramid Texts Osiris first
appears as an ancient divine king, who had been resur-
rected after being murdered by his evil brother Set.
The Texts show that a ritual technique of embalmment
and magical revivification was performed on the dead
pharaoh, following the pattern of what had once been
done for Osiris. On the principle of sympathetic magic,
it was believed that the repetition of the rites would
raise the king to a new life as Osiris had been raised.
This mortuary ritual was gradually democratized until
all Egyptians, who could afford it, looked forward to
obtaining resurrection after death through Osiris.

Osiris, by reason of his legend and soteriological
significance, had a deep human appeal, and became
the most popular of Egyptian deities, and his cult
spread far outside Egypt. He increasingly acquired
cosmic attributes, and was associated with the fructi-
fying flood of the river Nile and with the annual life-
cycle of vegetation, especially grain. But, he also as-
sumed another role. Already in the Pyramid Texts Osiris
was venerated as the ruler of the dead, and by the
New Kingdom period (1580-1085 B.C.) he had become
the dread judge before whom the dead were tried by
the weighing of their hearts against the symbol of maat

The idea of a “dying-rising god,” who saves those
who are ritually assimilated to him, is a truly re-
markable notion, and it is not easily explained in terms
of those basic human needs and intuitions to which
the idea of deity generally relates. Osiris is the most
notable example of such a category of deity before the
emergence of the conception of Christ as the divine
savior who dies and rises again to life. Some other
religions of the ancient Near East provided similar, but
less well-constituted examples, namely, the Mesopo-
tamian god Tammuz, and the better known figures of
the Phrygian Attis and Adonis of Syria. Each of these
deities was connected in some way with the life-cycle
of vegetation: their deaths and resurrections being
related ritually to the dying and reviving of vegetation
each year. However, in the mythoi of both Osiris and
Christ, although the imagery of the death and resur-
rection of the grain does occur, their deaths and resur-
rections are regarded as historical events. The origin
of the Christian idea of a god who saves mankind by
his death and resurrection will be discussed later. Here
it must suffice to note that in the earliest documents,
i.e., the Pyramid Texts, Osiris appears as the key figure
in a mortuary ritual practiced to achieve immortality
by reenacting his legendary embalmment and resur-

The third deity who embodies a distinctive aspect
of the Egyptian concept of deity is Set. Originally this
god was associated with the desert and storms, which
doubtless invested him with an austere character. In
the Pyramid Texts, he appears most notably as the
murderer of Osiris. This sinister role meant that, with
the growing popularity of the cult of Osiris, Set was
gradually transformed into a god of evil. In later reli-
gious thought he became the personification of cosmic
disorder, being identified with Apophis, the monstrous
serpent of chaos who unceasingly threatened to extin-
guish the sun. Thus Egyptian theology progressively
assumed a dualistic character, although its dualism
never became so radical as in the Zoroastrianism of
ancient Iran.

The Mesopotamian concept of deity differed in some
striking ways from the Egyptian. Although the religion
of the Mesopotamian peoples (the Sumerians, Babylo-
nians, and Assyrians) was polytheistic like that of
Egypt, their gods formed a hierarchy that was carefully
related to the constitutive parts of the universe. Ac-
cording to ancient Mesopotamian cosmology, the uni-
verse was made up of four parts: heaven, earth, the
waters that surrounded the earth, and the underworld
of the dead. Each part was governed by a god: Anu,
who ruled the heavens, was the first in status; he was
followed by Enlil, presiding over the earth, Enki (or
Ea), the god of the waters, and Nergal, lord of the
underworld. Below this cosmic hierarchy were three
deities connected with the chief celestial bodies: Sin
(the moon-god), Shamash (the sun-god), and Ishtar (the
planet Venus). Vegetation was deified under the Su-
merian name of Dumuzi. The deity is generally known
by the Hebrew name of Tammuz, and Ezekiel 8:14
refers to the annual rites of lamentation for his death.
In mythology, Tammuz was associated with Ishtar (who
was also the goddess of fertility) as her lover, by whom
he was rescued from the underworld.

The Mesopotamian pantheon contained many other
gods of lesser significance, including national gods such
as Marduk of Babylon and Assur of Assyria who were
accorded leadership over the other gods by their own


peoples. Despite this multitude of deities with varying
functions, there was a distinctive concept of deity in
Mesopotamia which finds expression in various myths
and legends concerning the relations of the gods to
mankind. Thus it is related that the gods created men
as servants who would relieve them of the task of
feeding and housing themselves: hence the building of
temples and the offering of sacrifices within them. But
from these human servants the gods withheld the im-
mortality which they themselves enjoyed. This belief
that man could not hope to survive death profoundly
affected the Mesopotamian Weltanschauung; it pro-
vided the main theme of the celebrated Epic of Gil-
Associated with the belief was a corresponding
concept of destiny. It was held that in the divine
economy each person had a “destiny,” i.e., a part or
purpose to fulfil. When the gods no longer had use
for an individual, he had no “destiny” and so died. The
gods were generally regarded as benign towards their
human servants, and as protecting them from demonic
attack so long as they continued punctilious in their

In effect, the Mesopotamian conception of deity was
a realistic evaluation of the world as understood in
terms of contemporary thought. The hierarchy of the
gods represented cosmic order as opposed to the
demonic forces of chaos (the idea is mythologically
portrayed in the conflict between the gods and Ti'âmat,
the personification of primeval chaos, in the Babylonian
Creation Epic, known as the Enûma elish). Mankind's
purpose and welfare lay in its integration with and the
support of the divine order.

Of the religions of the other ancient Near Eastern
cultures that of the Hebrews was destined to have a
profound influence upon later Western thought and
culture. Its conception of deity was essentially linked
with the cult of the god Yahweh, and, in its develop-
ment, reflected the transformation which the character
of this deity underwent in process of time, owing to
a variety of causes.

The origin of the cult of Yahweh has been the subject
of much specialist discussion. It seems to be generally
agreed that Hebrew tradition reflects an awareness that
the cult had been specifically adopted by the ancestors
of Israel on some notable occasion in the past. Thus,
in Hebrew literature constant reference is made to the
idea that a covenant had once been made between
Yahweh and Israel. The transaction is dramatically
described in the account of the giving of the Law to
Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1ff.). Various expla-
nations have also been offered of the original location
of the cult of Yahweh before its adoption by Israel,
but none has won general acceptance. The most that
can safely be said is that Yahweh appears to have been
a desert god, closely connected with war.

A passage in Exodus (3:13-14) reveals that the
Hebrews were curious about the name “Yahweh,” and
attempted to explain it etymologically. Thus, in answer
to Moses' question about the name of the god who
had appeared to him in the burning bush and commis-
sioned him to go to the Israelites who were then in
bondage in Egypt, the deity is represented as replying:
“'I AM WHO I AM.' And he said, 'Say this to the
people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you.'” (R. S. V.)
This mystifying statement is due to an attempt to
derive the name “Yahweh” (traditionally rendered
“Jehovah” in English) from the Hebrew root hạyah
or hāwāh, meaning “to be.” Modern scholars have
concentrated on the problem here, and a variety of
interpretations has been suggested: according to the
opinion recently expressed by a specialist of great
standing, the explanation in Exodus 3:14 derived from
an original formula, “It Is He Who Creates What
Comes into Existence” (W. F. Albright, p. 148). This
formula might be compared with the title Khepri of
the Egyptian sun-god, mentioned above.

Whatever may have been the original meaning of
the name “Yahweh,” there is no doubt that it took some
centuries before the deity was firmly established as the
sole god of Israel. During the complex process, which
is documented by the pre-Exilic writings of the Hebrew
Bible, it is probable that the original conception of
Yahweh was adjusted to the needs of the agrarian
culture that the Israelite tribes had adopted on their
settlement in Canaan. Thus there is some evidence of
the assumption by Yahweh of some of the attributes
of El, the chief Canaanite god.

During the pre-Exilic period, the Yahwist prophets
were chiefly concerned to present Yahweh as the god
who had delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian
bondage and given them Canaan as their homeland.
They represented him as a “jealous god,” who com-
manded his chosen people: “You shall have no other
gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). It is difficult to be
certain whether, at the earlier stage of Israel's religious
development, Yahweh was regarded as the only god
of the universe, or as being more powerful than the
gods of other peoples. However that may be, the
Yahwist prophets laid such emphasis upon the suprem-
acy and omnipotence of their deity that the religion
which they promoted was virtually monotheistic. Thus
in the Yahwist creation-story in Genesis 2:4ff., Yahweh
is represented as the creator of the universe and of
mankind. And so absolute was the emphasis upon
Yahweh's omnipotence that he is actually depicted as
the author of both good and evil. (For example, it is
“an evil spirit from Yahweh” that torments Saul in
I Samuel 16:14, and Yahweh causes David to number
Israel and then punishes him for doing so by decimating
the people with a pestilence in II Samuel 24:1ff.)


The Yahwist prophets, besides stressing the omni-
potence of their god, also presented him as a just god,
who demanded a high standard of moral conduct from
his people. The incompatibility of these two aspects
of Yahweh soon became apparent on both the commu-
nal and personal planes.

Yahwism was essentially an ethnic religion: it was
primarily concerned with the relationship of Yahweh
and his chosen people Israel. The logic of the Sinai
Covenant was that Yahweh would protect and prosper
his people, if they were faithful to him. In the period
preceding the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.), the various
disasters that Israel suffered at the hands of neighboring
nations were explained by the prophets as Yahweh's
just punishment for acts of apostasy. But from the Exile
onwards a new attitude begins to appear. Since the
misfortunes of Israel vis-à-vis the other nations were
such as could not reasonably be explained in terms of
Israel's greater iniquity, another message had to be
found. This finds expression in the apocalyptic litera-
ture of the period (ca. 200 B.C.-A.D. 100). The prophets
now proclaimed that Yahweh would eventually vindi-
cate his suffering people, and punish their Gentile

Since Yahweh was now firmly regarded as the only
God and Ruler of the universe, this apocalyptic faith
tended to take on a transcendental character. It was,
moreover, conditioned by the influence of Iranian
dualism, which Israel had probably first encountered
through its incorporation into the Persian empire of
the Achaemenides after the Exile (538 B.C.). This meant
that Yahweh's eventual vindication of Israel became
identified with his ultimate overthrow of the demonic
powers with whom the gods of Israel's Gentile oppres-
sors were associated. These ideas were set forth in an
eschatological imagery that represented the “day of
Yahweh” as the catastrophic overthrow of the existing
world-order and its replacement by a new supernatural
order, described as the “Kingdom of God” or “King-
dom of Heaven.” In some forms of this apocalyptic
eschatology a supernatural minister of Yahweh, the
Messiah (“Anointed”), was expected to overthrow the
forces of evil and judge the nations (cf. Brandon, Judg-
pp. 70ff.). This intense nationalistic view of
Yahweh logically stemmed from the Covenant idea,
and, with various modifications, it has characterized
the Jewish conception of deity. Even when a more
universalist estimate of Yahweh's providence has occa-
sionally found expression, it has been in terms of the
peculiar spiritual status of Israel. The irenic vision of
Zechariah 8:23 significantly illustrates this: “Thus says
the Lord [i.e., Yahweh] of hosts: In those days ten men
from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of
the robe of a Jew, saying, 'Let us go with you, for
we have heard that God is with you.'”

The discrepancy between the idea of Israel's god as
being both omnipotent and just, and the unhappy
fortune of Israel itself, was accordingly explained in
terms of apocalyptic eschatology. The problem of
Yahweh's dealings with the individual similarly found
its solution. This problem arose from the original Yah-
wist doctrine of human nature, which precluded any
hope of a significant post-mortem life for the individ-
ual. Instead, it was taught that Yahweh rewarded the
pious with long life and prosperity in this world, and
punished the impious by misfortune and early death.
At death the shade of the individual descended to a
wretched existence in the gloomy depths of Sheol,
which was the Hebrew counterpart of the Mesopo-
tamian kur-nu-gi-a, “the land of no-return.” But since
experience proved that often it was the pious that were
afflicted with misfortune and early death, while the
impious flourished like the proverbial green bay-tree,
an emerging sense of individuality in Israel brought
a questioning of Yahweh's justice.

The problem was discussed in the Book of Job, one
of the finest products of Hebrew literature. Job's mis-
fortunes are presented therein as a test case. For Job
is an upright and pious man, so that the sufferings that
befall him are demonstrably undeserved. The drama
turns on Job's belief that God is both omnipotent and
just, and the conflicting evidence of his own undeserved
sufferings. Job's agony of faith is made the more poign-
ant by his acceptance of the orthodox view that death
was virtual extinction. Although the problem is acutely
discussed, no adequate solution within these terms was
found by the author of the book. Indeed, no such
solution was found elsewhere in Israel, until the second
century B.C., when finally belief in a resurrection of
the dead was accepted into Judaism. With this belief
went also a belief in a personal post-mortem judgment,
so that Yahweh's justice was vindicated after death, if
it had not been in this life. The description of the Last
Judgment in II(IV) Esdras 7:32-38, however, graphi-
cally shows how powerful the ethnic factor still was
in the Jewish conception of God in the first century
A.D.; for therein the post-mortem fate of individuals
is insensibly merged in the divine judgment of the

In the history of religions the Jewish conception of
God is remarkable for its embodiment of the profound
conviction that God, under his ineffable name of Yah-
weh, had specially chosen the descendants of Abraham
for a unique destiny: namely, to be his holy people,
and be settled by him in the land of Canaan, where
they should worship him in the great Temple of Jeru-
salem, built on the spot which he had signified. This
belief was presented in a superb literature which set
the distinctive pattern of the Jewish conception,
namely, of God as the “Lord of History.” This title


has been used by scholars to describe the way in which
the Bible shows how Yahweh's providence for Israel
was progressively revealed in historical events, or what
is presented as historical events. The revelation in-
volves a linear view of time, which was unusual; for
most ancient peoples envisaged the temporal process
as cyclic in movement. To Jews, history has ever been
Heilsgeschichte, i.e., “Salvation-History,” or, in other
words, a teleological process in which the purpose of
Yahweh for Israel has progressively been revealed and
fulfilled. This teleological conception was, in process
of time, transmitted to Western thought and culture
by Christianity. However, before the Christian idea of
God can be properly considered, it is necessary to
evaluate the conceptions of deity in ancient Iran and
Greece; for each of these contributed to the religious
situation of the Greco-Roman world into which Chris-
tianity was born, and by which it was influenced.

The concept of deity in ancient Iran before the sixth
century B.C. is fundamentally obscure, since the earliest
written evidence is provided by Zarathustra or Zo-
roaster (born ca. 570 B.C.). His Gāthās document the
reform of Iranian religion which he initiated, and
which profoundly affected the subsequent religious
tradition of Iran. Much attention has been given by
specialists in Iranian studies to the obvious problem
of pre-Zoroastrian religion. Since it is known that the
early Aryan settlers in Iran shared a common cultural
tradition with the Aryans who settled in the north-
western area of the continent of India, the literature
of the latter (especially the Rig-Veda) has been studied
as relevant to the situation in Iran. Evidence has also
been sought in some post-Zoroastrian traditions of Iran.
From this research not only is it certain that primitive
Iranian religion was polytheistic and akin to that repre-
sented in the Rig-Veda, but it appears that there was
a disposition to conceive of deities of ambivalent form.
Thus there are indications of the worship of sky-gods
named Mithra and Vayu, who each represented both
the good and sinister aspects of reality. Another such
deity was Zurvān, who assumed an important role in
later Persian religion (Figure 4). The name of this
mysterious deity meant Time, and a form of the name
occurs as early as the twelfth millennium B.C. on tablets
found at Nuzi.

Zarathustra seems to have rejected this Iranian pro-
pensity to an ambivalent conception of deity by pro-
claiming the God whom he calls Ahura Mazdā, the
Wise Lord, as the only true God, and by identifying
him exclusively with Arta (“Righteous Order”). There
has been much speculation as to the origin of Ahura
Mazdā, and some specialists think that the conception
was derived by Zarathustra from an Iranian counter-
part of the Vedic god Varuna (see below).

Whatever the origin of his Wise Lord, Zarathustra
was concerned to trace the dualistic nature of the
universe to a supernatural source. This he does in the
Gāthās by positing two primordial spirits: the Spenista
(“Bounteous Spirit”), and the Angra Mainyu
(“Evil” or “Destructive Spirit”). These spirits represent
the opposing aspects or forces of the universe: light
and darkness, life and death, good and evil. However,
despite Zarathustra's emphatic identification of Ahura
Mazdā with the principle of good order (Arta) and
his radical condemnation of the Druj (“Lie”), some
vestige of the earlier ambivalence of deity appears in
the Gāthās. For Zarathustra regarded Ahura Mazdā
as the sole cosmic creator, to whom the origin of both
light and darkness are attributed (Yasna, 14:5.). This
is a segment of the Avesta. This indication of an earlier
tradition, which derived the two contrasting aspects
of cosmic phenomena from a single divine source, is


significant in view of later developments in the Iranian
conception of deity.

In the classic form of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazdā,
under the name of Ohrmazd, was virtually equated
with the Spenista Mainyu, and represented the princi-
ple of Good; the opposing principle of Evil was called
Ahriman. The equation had the effect of making Good
and Evil coeval; and, although Zoroastrian eschatology
foretold the ultimate victory of Good (Ohrmazd) over
Evil (Ahriman), logically the two principles were equal
in status, each having always existed uncreated. This
implicit equality provided no ground for the belief that
Good should ultimately triumph over Evil; in fact, their
mutual opposition was usually described as eternal.
During the Sassanian period (A.D. 208-651), it would
appear that an attempt was made to resolve the meta-
physical problem involved in this orthodox form of
Zoroastrianism by representing Ohrmazd and Ahriman
as being both derived from Zurvān (Time) in such a
manner as to establish the inferior status of the latter,
and thus justify his ultimate elimination. Unfortunately
the true nature of this Zurvanism is fundamentally
obscure, owing to the unsatisfactory character of the
extant documentation. What seems reasonably certain,
on the authority of Eudemus of Rhodes, a disciple of
Aristotle, is that the Persians were known to derive
“a good god and an evil daemon” from Space (topos)
and Time (chronos). In the later Persian Rivâyat it is
categorically stated: “with the exception of Time, all
other things have been created.... Then it [Time]
created fire and water, and, when these had intermixed,
came forth Ohrmazd. Time is both Creator and the
Lord of creation which it created” (Spiegel, pp. 161ff.).

There seems, accordingly, to have been some tradi-
tion in Iran of Zurvān as an ambivalent creator-deity,
and that this was utilized in Sassanian times by certain
thinkers who were dissatisfied with the metaphysical
basis of orthodox Zoroastrianism. Orthodox reaction to
this Zurvanite heresy found expression in the Bun-
where Ohrmazd is identified with Time:
“Thus it is revealed in the Good Religion. Ohrmazd
was on high in omniscience and goodness; for infinite
Time he was ever in the Light” (XV, 1ff.).

There is evidence that the Persians conceived of two
forms of Time: Zurvān akarana (“Infinite Time”), and
Zurvān dareghō-chvadhāta (“Time of long Dominion”).
With the former Ohrmazd was identified as Infinite
Time. Zurvān dareghō-chvadhāta signified the destruc-
tive aspect of Time, which brings decay, old age, and
death to all living things. This form of Time was asso-
ciated with Ahriman, and the conception was incorpo-
rated into Mithraism, where it found striking icono-
graphic expression. Many Mithraic sanctuaries-con-
tained images of a monstrous being, having a man's
body, wings, and a lion's head. Around the monster's
body a large serpent is entwined, and upon the nude
body the signs of the zodiac are depicted; the monster
stands upon a sphere and holds a long staff and keys.
The image and its symbols were evidently designed
to represent Time that rules and destroys all. Its pres-
ence in Mithraic sanctuaries as an image of Ahriman
probably indicates that the temporal sovereignty of
Ahriman in this world was recognized in Mithraic

The influence of the Iranian dualistic conception of
deity was very considerable. It can be traced in Gnosti-
cism and Manichaeism, in Judaism and the beliefs of
the Qumrân sectaries, and in Christianity. This influ-
ence was doubtless due to the fact that it helped to
explain the origin and nature of Evil, which constitutes
a basic problem for all monotheistic faiths. It has been
noted that Iranian dualism was not a logically absolute
dualistic interpretation of reality; it looked forward to
the ultimate triumph of Ohrmazd over Ahriman. In
this sense it was an ethical eschatology; for it sum-
moned mankind to align itself on the side of Good
(Ohrmazd) against Evil (Ahriman), because Ohrmazd
would finally win and Ahriman would be exterminated.
In other words, the Iranian conception of God, which
seems in its original form to have reflected the ambiva-
lence of man's experience of reality, became in its
Zoroastrian form an expression of his hope that what
he identified as the principle of Good would ultimately
prevail over that which he evaluated as Evil. The
dualistic Weltanschauungen of those other religions
and cults, which were influenced by Zoroastrianism,
were inspired by a like optimism.

The Greek conception of deity comprises two
different traditions: the religious and the philosophical.
Although the philosophical conception naturally com-
mands the attention of historians of thought, for Greek
philosophy has long been regarded as one of the great-
est products of Greek culture, it was the idea of deity
implicit in religious faith and practice that really re-
flected the outlook of the Greek people. Philosophical
conceptions of the divine, such as Plato and Aristotle
expounded, were destined to have a great influence
upon medieval Christian and Muslim theology; but
they had little effect upon contemporary Greek life
and thought; indeed, most of the philosophers them-
selves conformed to the prescriptions and usages of the
traditional religion.

The Greek view of deity first finds expression in the
Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, and since these epics
enjoyed a unique place in the Greek scheme of educa-
tion, the Homeric view became the established evalua-
tion. According to it, the universe was governed by
a hierarchy of gods, presided over by Zeus. The major-


ity of these gods were probably of Indo-European
origin, being akin to those of the Aryan invaders of
India and Iran. They were brought into Greece by the
Hellenic tribes who conquered the Aegean peoples
who lived there, and whose religion seems to have been
based on the cult of the Great Goddess. The religion
that finds expression in the Homeric literature probably
represents a fusion of Indo-European and Aegean tra-
ditions; but with the former predominating, for Zeus
is essentially the Aryan sky-god.

The essence of divinity in Homer is supernatural
power, generally associated with the more violent or
deadly aspects of cosmic phenomena: Zeus wields
thunderbolts; Poseidon is associated with the sea and
earthquakes; Apollo's arrows are equated with pesti-
lence. But it is controlled power; a divine government
that makes the universe a cosmos, not a chaos. This
aspect finds graphic expression in the Homeric poems
in anthropomorphic terms, for the Greeks instinctively
conceived of their gods as “men writ large.”

A very significant instance occurs in the Iliad XVI,
431-61, which describes the reaction of Zeus to an
incident in the struggle between the Greeks and Tro-
jans. Patroclus, a Greek hero, is fated to kill Sarpedon,
the human offspring of one of Zeus's many liaisons with
mortal women. The Homeric writer pictures Zeus as
earnestly desirous to save his son. He communicates
his intention to the goddess Hera, who, in reply, warns
him that if he interferes with what is fated, the other
gods will follow his example. Zeus sorrowfully recog-
nizes the truth of what she says, and allows Sarpedon
to go to his fate. The episode reveals that the Greeks
believed that there was a proper order (moira) of things
that maintained the balance of forces in the universe.
Zeus was the embodiment of this order, as the Egyptian
sun-god was of maat and the Iranian Ahura Mazdā
was of arta. Zeus was omnipotent; but if he acted
ὑπὲρ μόπον (“beyond what is fated”) he would disrupt
the order of the universe and induce the other gods
(being deifications of power), whom he ruled, to act
in like manner, so that chaos would replace cosmos.
Greek mythology was very conscious of the forces of
chaos in the universe, which it personified under the
image of Giants and Titans, whom the Olympian gods
had once subdued after a truly titanic struggle.

In the Homeric poems Zeus is described as “the
father of gods and men.” This title did not signify that
he was regarded as the Creator of the universe; it
connoted his sovereign supremacy. In these poems,
also, the classic pattern of the Greek estimate of man's
situation vis-à-vis the gods first emerges. The gods, and
preeminently Zeus, are represented as being capricious
in their dealings with men. This presentation undoubt-
edly derived from the fact that the Greek conception
of deity was inspired by experience of the forces oper-
ative in the natural world. The general harmony of
cosmic phenomena suggested an orderly divine gov-
ernment; but the irrational variety of human fortune
indicated divine caprice. In the Iliad XXIV, 527-33,
this impression is illustrated by a vivid imagery: Zeus
is portrayed as arbitrarily giving out good and ill for-
tune to mankind from two urns, set on the floor of
Olympus. Generally the assignments are balanced mix-
tures of good and ill; but sometimes, without apparent
cause, an unfortunate is given only of the bad.

Homeric religion allowed no hope that the inequali-
ties of this life would be divinely adjusted after death.
In the Odyssey the belief is graphically presented that
death irreparably shattered the psychophysical con-
stitution of the individual person, and that only a
wraith-like replica, without consciousness, survived to
descend into the gloomy depths of Hades, which was
ruled over by Pluto and his queen Persephone.

Except for certain minor variations, the Homeric
conception of deity formed the main tradition of Greek
theology into the age of Greco-Roman culture. It finds
expression in poetry and drama; and negatively in
sepulchral art, where the sad scenes of farewell make
no reference to Zeus and the other gods. Religious
iconography, although it produced some superb depic-
tions of deity in the idealized perfection of the human
form, portrays only a calm dignity, aloof from human
emotions, and remote from concern with the aspira-
tions and fears of mortal beings.

It was in Stoicism, which appealed to many as a
philosophy of life, that an attempt was made to set
forth the traditional view of deity in a carefully articu-
lated scheme that rationally accounted for the universe
and man's place in it. As Cicero succinctly defined
Stoic theology: “Zeno and the Stoics generally main-
tain that God is aether, endowed with Mind, by which
the universe is ruled” (J. von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum
I, frag. 154). Man could not, therefore, have
a personal relation with God; but he was counselled
to live “according to Nature,” which meant integrating
himself with the cosmic process and not aspiring to
a destiny outside that process. The Stoics assumed that
the cosmic process was rational, being the expression
of the divine providence (πρόνοια). The difficulty of
preserving this belief, however, against the logic of
experience is significantly reflected in the Meditations
of Marcus Aurelius, who nobly strove to live according
to Stoic precepts: “Either all things come from a single
rational source, and combine together in a coherent
whole (ἑνὶ σω̂ματι)... or there are only atoms (ἄτομοι),
a formless disintegrating mass” (ix, 39). Marcus desired
that the former be true; but his reason warned him
of the equal probability of the latter.


That the gods of classical Greece, and the Roman
gods who were later identified with them, continued
to be worshipped until paganism was suppressed by
the Christian emperors in the fourth century was due
primarily to their political importance. In the Greek
city-states and in Rome the gods represented the divine
guardians of social order and prosperity, and all citi-
zens were expected to participate in their public wor-
ship as evidence of their integrity and loyalty. The
power of this political faith is not to be underes-
timated: it found, significantly, bitter expression
against Christianity in 410, when Rome was sacked by
Alaric the Goth, shortly after the abolition of the old
Roman gods in favor of Christ.

The idea of deity in these state-cults did not repre-
sent or satisfy the spiritual needs of many people.
Hence they turned to the mystery-religions, which
promised their initiates salvation of some kind, usually
in the form of rebirth from death. The gods of these
mystery-cults were not remote cosmic deities; a mythos
usually told how they had died and risen to life again.
Osiris provides the classic example, although the origi-
nal form of the rites associated with him were of a
mortuary character as described above. Other notable
mystery-gods were Attis, Adonis, and Dionysus-
Zagreus. The significance of the mystery-cults of the
Greco-Roman world, in the present context, lies in the
attraction of a deity, conceived as having undergone
suffering and death and then rising triumphantly to
a new eternal life.

The conception of deity in Greek philosophy, despite
the various terminology and imagery used by individual
thinkers, expressed a common aim from the time of
the first speculations of the Ionian philosophers. This
was to define a source of existence in terms of meta-
physical attributes considered to connote perfection of
being. Thus Plato saw God as the essence or idea of
the Good, eternal, unchanging, and unmoved. To Aris-
totle, God was essentially the Prime Mover, Himself
unmoved, who is the first and the final Cause of all
things. Of greater metaphysical complexity was the
conception of Plotinus (A.D. 204-70), the founder of
Neo-Platonism. He distinguished a kind of divine trin-
ity. The One, equated with God and the Good, was
both transcendent and immanent: “while it is nowhere,
nowhere is it not”; the Nous (“Mind” or “Spirit”), being
the image of the One; and the Soul, the offspring of
the Nous, which is the cosmic creator.

In Greco-Roman society there was a deep concern
about religious issues, and many attempts were made
to remove the difficulties of the traditional mythology
and accommodate the deities of other religions. For
example, Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46-120) utilized Plato's idea
of daimones, as beings intermediate between gods and
men, to effect a reconciliation between polytheism and
monotheism; and Sallustius (fl. A.D. 350) distinguished
between mundane and supramundane gods. Syncretism
was also fashionable; it produced the noble pre-
sentation of the Egyptian goddess Isis as the “mistress
of all the elements,” “queen of the dead,” “the princi-
ple of all in heaven,” “manifested alone and under one
form of all the gods and goddesses” (Apuleius, Meta-
XI, 3ff.).


The Christian conception of deity derived from two
traditions: Hebrew and Greek. The factors that molded
it after the fusion of these traditions, and that gave
to it is peculiar distinction, were various, and were
related to certain historical situations. An appreciation
of these factors is essential for understanding the com-
plex theology in which the Christian doctrine of God
was eventually embodied.

The original Christian movement, centered on Jesus
of Nazareth, was one of a number of Messianic move-
ments that took place in Palestine during the first six
decades of the first century (Figure 5). These move-
ments resulted from the reaction of the Jews, who
believed that Israel should be a theocracy, to the im-
position of Roman rule in A.D. 6. So far as the purpose
of Jesus can be made out from the problematic evi-
dence of the Gospels, it would appear that he sought
to prepare his fellow Jews for the establishment of the
Kingdom of God. This aim was inspired by current
Jewish apocalyptic hopes which have already been
described. The achievement of his aim would have
involved the abolition of Roman rule. The execution
of Jesus by the Romans was, therefore, the inevitable
penalty inflicted by them on one whom they thus
adjudged to be guilty of sedition. After his crucifixion,
the disciples of Jesus continued to believe that he was
the Messiah, and that he would soon return with su-
pernatural power “to restore the kingdom to Israel”
(Acts of the Apostles 1:6). His death at the hands of
the Romans was regarded as a martyrdom for Israel,
and it was interpreted in terms of the Suffering Servant
of Yahweh, described in Isaiah 53:1ff. The background
of this belief was Judaism, with its strong monotheistic
tradition. Hence, although he was recognized as the
Messiah, Jesus was regarded as being essentially human
in origin and nature.

The Apostle Paul was responsible for introducing
a fundamentally different evaluation of Jesus and his
crucifixion. Paul had not been an original disciple of
Jesus; and although he was a Jew, he was of the
Diaspora and familiar with Greco-Roman culture. For
reasons too complicated to describe here (cf. Brandon
[1962], pp. 211-16), Paul believed that God had com-


missioned him to preach a “gospel” specially designed
for the Gentiles, and one which radically differed from
the gospel of the original disciples of Jesus. In his
gospel Paul presented Jesus as a preexistent, divine
being, whom God had sent into the world for the
salvation of mankind. Paul envisaged the human race
as enslaved by the demonic powers that controlled the
planets (Galatians 4:3-4). To rescue its members from
their state of perdition, this preexistent “Lord of glory”
had been incarnated in the person of the human Jesus.
The demonic powers (archontes), not recognizing his
true nature, crucified him (I Corinthians 2:7-8). Their
error cost them their dominion over mankind; for they
could not hold their divine victim, who rose to life
again. Through ritual assimilation to Christ, in his
death Paul taught that Christians shared, at baptism,
in Christ's resurrection to a new immortal life (Romans

Paul, accordingly, presented Jesus Christ as the di-
vine Savior of mankind, who had provided the means
of salvation by his incarnation, vicarious death, and
resurrection. This interpretation became the estab-
lished form of Christianity owing to the disappearance
of the original Jewish Christian community in the
Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Paul, how-
ever, had not defined the relationship between God
and Christ, but had referred to the latter by various
titles, the implications of which he did not discuss. A
title of frequent use was that of “Son of God,” which
implied a unique filial relationship.

Christian thinkers soon became aware of the prob-
lem involved in the divinization of Christ, if the basic
principle of monotheism, which Christianity had in-
herited from Judaism, were to be maintained. The
problem was, in effect, twofold. If Christ were divine
in an absolute sense, yet distinct from God, there were
thus two gods, and Christianity was a form of ditheism,
not monotheism. On the other hand, if the filial rela-
tionship were literally interpreted, then God the Father
would be the progenitor of God the Son. But the logic
of this relationship meant that Christ would not be
fully God, since there must have been a time when
he “was not” and God the Father alone existed.

The problems thus involved in the divinization of
Christ led to the great Arian controversy, which con-
vulsed the Church in the fourth century. A solution
was found, and imposed by imperial decree, at the
Council of Nicaea in 325. Christ was proclaimed as
coequal and coeternal with God the Father; and the
Greek term homoousios (“of like substance”) was used
to define his relationship to the Father in a manner
such as was thought to describe his essential and un-
qualified divinity, while preserving his distinction as
the Son. In the definition of orthodox belief at Nicaea,
brief mention was also made of belief in the Holy
Spirit. This belief stemmed from certain passages in
the New Testament which presented the Holy Spirit
as a divine entity distinct from the Father and the Son.
In the so-called Constantinopolitan Creed (ca. 381), the
belief received official definition, thus making the
orthodox conception of the Godhead a Trinity com-
prising God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy
Spirit. The doctrine is carefully stated in the Atha-
nasian Creed or the Quicunque Vult, which dates be-


tween 381 and 428: “And the Catholic faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity;
neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Sub-

This Trinitarian conception of the Deity was essen-
tially the product of Christian soteriology. Paul's inter-
pretation of Christ's death as a divinely planned means
to save mankind from spiritual perdition necessitated
the deification of Jesus, and hence the problem of his
relation to God. The hypostatization of the Holy Spirit,
which in many scriptual contexts seems to be an at-
tribute or aspect of God, completed the process. It is
to be noted in this connection that since Christianity
developed in the world of Greco-Roman culture, its
doctrine of God was thought out by men educated in
Greek metaphysics, and officially defined in terms
drawn from the categories of Greek philosophical

The establishment of the Trinitarian conception of
the Deity as Christian orthodoxy has endured to the
present day. During the Middle Ages much effort was
devoted to the philosophical justification and statement
of the doctrine of God. Most notable was Anselm's
ontological argument in his Monologion and Abelard's
exposition of the Trinity in the Theologia summi boni
(ca. 1120). Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-74), the most
renowned exponent of medieval theology, whose
thought was influenced by Aristotle, significantly de-
fined God inter alia, as primum movens immobile
(“First Unmoved Mover”), and actus purus (“Pure
Act”). But such metaphysical definitions were not un-
derstood by ordinary Christians, and the popular idea
of God is to be found concretely depicted in medieval
iconography. Thus, in statues and pictures, God the
Father was shown as a venerable old man, crowned
with a kind of papal tiara: he holds God the Son,
represented crucified, while God the Holy Spirit in the
form of a dove radiating light, emanates from Him.
But though reference to the Trinity has always been
frequent, Christian liturgy, art, and literature attest to
a preoccupation with God the Son, whose incarnated
form could be more easily visualized and had the
greater emotional appeal.

The soteriological character of Christianity has also
provided an abiding problem for its conception of God.
It finds expression in the basic tension between the
doctrine of divine predestination and human free will.
It is significant that the Church has never officially
defined how Christ's death is accepted by God as an
atonement or propitiation for human sin.


The Hindu conception of deity combines, or rather
comprises, two distinctive traditions, which might be
conveniently designated the “popular” and the “philo-
sophic.” The former reaches back to the Indus Valley
civilization of the third and second millennium B.C.,
and to the Aryan tribes that entered the northwestern
areas of the continent about 1400 B.C. The religion of
the Indus Valley peoples is known only by archeologi-
cal data, which is of uncertain significance; but it may
be reasonably inferred that several deities were wor-
shipped, and that some may have been prototypes of
the later Hindu deities. The religious beliefs of the
Aryans are documented by the hymns of the Rig-Veda,
which are addressed to a variety of divinities. The gods
concerned were chiefly deifications of cosmic phe-
nomena. The most prominent is Indra, a storm-god
conceived as a victorious warrior-king. Other impor-
tant gods were Varuna, a sky-god, associated with
cosmic order (rta); Agni, the fire-god, identified with
the ritual fire that consumed sacrificial victims; Rudra,
a terrible god who brought disease; Yama, the death-
god and ruler of the underworld. These deities were
often of ambivalent character: for example, Rudra not
only inflicted suffering, he also healed.

How some of the Vedic deities and those of the Indus
Valley peoples became the gods of Hinduism presents
many problems that are yet unsolved. Of the complex
multitude of Hindu gods two are of outstanding im-
portance and distinction, namely, Vishnu and Řiva.
Each has an ambivalent nature, and typifies the crea-
tive and destructive aspects of the empirical world.
Thus in the Bhagavad-Gītā, one of the foundational
documents of Hinduism, Vishnu is first revealed, in all
the multiplicity and complexity of his being, as the
creator and sustainer of the universe. Then follows
another vision. The god appears as an awful monstrous
being, with many mouths set with dreadful fangs, into
which all living things pass to their doom. The terrible
deity announces in explanation: “Know I am Time, that
makes the worlds to perish, and come to bring on them
destruction” (Bhagavad-Gītā, XI:32). This equation
with Time is significant and recalls the Iranian Time-
god Zurvān. The equation relates to the Hindu inter-
pretation of reality: that all existence in the phenom-
enal world involves an uncreasing process of life and
death; for Time governs this world and all implicated
in it, and its process is cyclic. However, despite this
revelation of the awful aspect of Vishnu, the
Bhagvad-Gītā teaches that the deity was benign to
those who worship him with a deep personal devotion

Řiva, the other great deity of Hinduism who com-
mands the allegiance of millions, similarly represents
the creative and destructive aspects of the phenomenal
world. His creative power is symbolized by the lingam
or phallus. In iconography he is portrayed as Natarāja
(“King of Dancers”), who performs the cosmic dance,


symbolizing the energy of the universe, perpetually
creating, sustaining, and destroying the forms in which
it manifests itself. As Bhairava, the terrible destroyer,
Řiva is imagined as haunting places of cremation, en-
twined by serpents and wearing a necklace of skulls.
He is also called Kāla-Rudra (all-devouring Time). By
a strange transformation of imagery, the śakti or acti-
vating energy of Řiva, has been hypostatized as a
goddess. This process has resulted in the conception
of the goddess Kālī, who personifies Time. She is often
represented as trampling on the corpse-like body of
Řiva, from whom she has emanated. Iconographically,
she portrays the unceasing cycle of life and death
manifest in the natural world.

The philosophical conception of deity, which finds
expression in the Upanishads, is difficult to define
because it is basically imprecise, being presented in
an imagery and terminology that is both subtle and
complex. “Brahman” signifies the Ultimate Reality,
with which the “Ātman” (the “Self”) is identified; in
turn the self (ātman) of the individual person is identi-
cal with the transcendent Ātman. The subtlety of the
equation is seen in this passage from the Řatapatha
(X.6.3): “One should venerate Brahman as
the True.... One should venerate the Self (ātman)
who consists of mind... greater than the sky, greater
than space, greater than this earth, greater than all
existing things. He is the self of breath (life), he is my
own self” (Zaehner [1962], p. 66). From the concept
of Brahman, the idea of a personal creator-god Brahmā
was derived, and an attempt was made to relate the
other two great deities of Hinduism, Řiva and Vishnu,
in a Trimūrti or “One God in three forms”: Brahmā
(the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Řiva (the
destroyer). However, the conception has never estab-
lished itself in popular Hinduism.

Buddhism has often been described as atheistic. Such
an evaluation, without further qualification, is mislead-
ing, since it is generally based upon some tacit assump-
tion of what constitutes deity. So far as the original
and essential nature of Buddhism can be determined,
it may be said that it was not concerned with the idea
of God as the Creator of the universe. The Buddha
sought to emancipate people from regarding this world
as reality and involving themselves in it. However,
since the Buddhist concept of Nirvāna is described as
Truth, Reality, the Good, and by such adjectives as the
“unbecome,” “deathless,” “unchanging,” it may rea-
sonably be regarded as constituting the essence of
deity. In its popular forms, Buddhism is theistic in two
ways. Thus, many of the gods of Hinduism have been
recognized as superhuman entities; though, like man-
kind, they are held to be subject to decay and death
and the laws of samsāra (“rebirth”) and karma. But
more important has been the deification of the Buddha
himself. His image in temples is treated as a holy object
and is the focus of worship. And what are conceived
to have been, or will be, other forms of the Buddha-
nature such as Adibuddha and Amitabha (Amida), and
Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara, have also been
deified and worshipped. In this latter Buddhist concep-
tion of deity, however, the operative factor is soterio-
logical significance; little concern is shown about the
cosmological or metaphysical attributes that charac-
terize the conceptions of other religions.

In China, about 1000 B.C., the kings of the Chou
dynasty effected a religious change which had a long-
lasting influence. Seeking to avoid the worship of Ti,
the divine founder-ancestor of the Shang dynasty which
they had supplanted, they called this ancient deity
Shang Ti, i.e., the Ti above, or the supreme Ti, and
equated it with T'ien, the deification of Heaven. This
new deity was presented as the supreme God, who was
concerned with the prosperity and well-being of the
Chinese people. To this end it was conceived as de-
manding good government, and ready to remove rulers
who failed to provide this—as it had removed the
Shang dynasty. The worship of Shang Ti became the
state-cult, with the emperor as its charismatic high-
priest, he being the Son of Heaven. The supreme act
of national worship was the annual sacrifice to Shang
at the time of the winter solstice, offered by the
emperor at the Altar of Heaven in Pekin. Although
thus the god of the official cult, this deification of
Heaven could be the object of personal devotion, as
the teaching of the great philosopher Mo-tzŭ (fl. 400
B.C.) shows. Mo-tzŭ also spoke of the “Way” (Tao) of
Heaven as a kind of divine providential ordering of
the world. The term Tao was also used by the early
Taoists to describe the eternal principle of being, un-
derlying and sustaining the universe. According to the
important Tao-tê-ching, the Tao is “formless yet com-
plete,” it preexisted heaven and earth, it is “as the
mother of all beneath heaven,” and the sage seeks to
be in perfect harmony with it. This naturalism, which
characterized ancient Chinese thought, also found ex-
pression in the concepts of Yin and Yang, regarded as
alternating principles manifest in every aspect of life.
The tendency to monism or dualism did not, however,
rule out recognition of lesser forms of deity; and
Chinese religion included both ancestor worship and
belief in a multitudinous variety of minor gods and

The Arabic word Allah is a shortened form of alilāh
(“The God”), and it expresses the quintessence of the
Muslim conception of God. Supreme emphasis is laid
in the Koran on the unique unity of Allah, often with
reference to the Christian deification of Jesus and Mary.


Muhammad thus proclaims his deity: “Allah—there is
no god but He, the Living, the Self-subsistent.... He
is the High, the Mighty One” (Sūrah 2:256). Elsewhere
in the Koran, Allah is presented as the Creator, and
the implacable Judge of mankind at the end of the
world. In stressing the omnipotence and omniscience
of Allah, Muhammad found himself involved in the
inevitable problems of divine predestination and
human free will with which Jewish and Christian theo-
logians have wrestled. Inconsistently he represents
Allah as predestinating men severally to salvation or
damnation, while he also describes him as “the Com-
passionate One, the Merciful.” Much of this inconsis-
tency probably stemmed from his own spiritual expe-
rience, and because he was by nature a prophet, not
a thinker. In subsequent Muslim thought the concep-
tion of Allah was greatly developed. The traditional
ninety-nine names of Allah constituted a widely diver-
sified list of qualities attributed to him, and attempts
were made to explain away the anthropomorphic ideas
and terminology used in the Koran. But despite such
sophistications, the Muslim conception of Allah has
remained fundamentally that which Muhammad pro-
claimed, under the impulse of his own peculiar inspi-
ration, and in reaction to the crude polytheism of his
fellow-Arabs and his contacts with Judaism and with

It may be observed, in concluding this survey, that
in a subtle but very significant way which has not yet
been properly investigated, the idea of deity reflects
the character of the people or culture that has pro-
duced it. Whereas certain attributes such as power,
immortality, and eternity, represent commonly held
notions of what constitutes divinity, the forms in which
deities have been conceived are curiously varied. It
will suffice, for illustration, to mention only the depic-
tion of deity in ancient Egypt, in Hinduism, and in


General: S. G. F. Brandon, Man and his Destiny in the
Great Religions
(Manchester, 1962); idem, Creation Legends
of the Ancient Near East
(London, 1963); idem, History,
Time and Deity
(Manchester and New York, 1965); idem,
The Judgment of the Dead (New York and London, 1968);
idem, Religion in Ancient History (New York, 1970); idem,
editor, Dictionary of Comparative Religion (London and
New York, 1970). Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed.
J. Hastings, 12 vols. (Edinburgh and New York, 1913), 6,
243-306; DieReligion in Geschichte und Gegenwart
(Tübingen, 1958), II, 1701-25. C. J. Gadd, Ideas of Divine
Rule in the Ancient East
(London, 1948). E. O. James, The
Concept of Deity
(London, 1950); idem, The Worship of the
Sky God
(London, 1963). R. Pettazzoni, The All-Knowing
(London, 1956). G. van der Leeuw, la religion dans
son essence et ses manifestations
(Paris, 1948).

Prehistory: H. Breuil and R. Lantier, Les hommes de la
Pierre Ancienne
(Paris, 1951). J. Maringer, The Gods of
Prehistoric Man
(London and New York, 1960). P. J. Ucko
and A. Rosenfeld, Palaeolithic Cave Art (London and New
York, 1967).

Egypt: H. Bonnet, Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religions-
(Berlin, 1952). J. G. Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris
(Berlin, 1966). H. Kees, Der Götterglaube im alten Aegypten,
2nd ed. (Berlin, 1956). S. A. B. Mercer, The Religion of
Ancient Egypt
(London, 1949).

Mesopotamia: M. David, Les Dieux et le destin en
(Paris, 1949). E. Dhorme, Les religions de
Babylonie et d'Assyrie
(Paris, 1945). S. N. Kramer, Sumerian
(Philadelphia, 1944).

Israel: W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan
(London, 1968). A. Lods, Israël: des origines au milieu du
viiie siècle
(Paris, 1932); idem, Les prophètes d'Israël et
les débuts du Judaïsme
(Paris, 1935). G. F. Moore, Judaism
..., 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1927). S. Mowinckel, He
That Cometh
(Oxford, 1956). W. O. E. Oesterley and T. H.
Robinson, Hebrew Religion (London, 1930). J. Pedersen,
Israel, Vols. 3 and 4 (London and Copenhagen, 1940). H.
H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (London, 1956). H. Wilde-
berger, Jahwes Eigentumsvolk (Zurich, 1960).

Iran: J. Duchesne-Guillemin, Zoroastre (Paris, 1948). G.
Dumézil, Les dieux des Indo-Européens (Paris, 1952). F.
Spiegel, DieTraditionelle Literatur der Parsen (Vienna,
1860). G. Widengren, Hoch gottglauben im alten Iran (Lund,
1938). R. C. Zaehner, Zurvān: A Zoroastrian Dilemma
(Oxford, 1955); idem, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroas-
(London, 1961).

Greece and Rome: L. A. Campbell, Mithraic Iconography
and Ideology
(Leiden, 1968). Franz Cumont, Les religions
orientales dans le paganisme romain
(Paris, 1929). W. K.
C. Guthrie, The Greeks and their Gods (London, 1950). W.
Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers
(Oxford, 1948). M. P. Nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen
2 vols. (Munich, 1950; 1955).

Christianity: S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (New
York, 1968). E. Bréhier, la philosophie du Moyen Age (Paris,
1949). F. C. Copleston, Aquinas (Harmondsworth, 1955).
A. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition (London, 1965).
A. Harnack, History of Dogma, 7 vols. (London, 1894-99;
reprint New York, 1961). M. Werner, DieEntstehung des
christlichen Dogmas
(Bern and Tübingen, 1957).

Hinduism and Buddhism: E. Conze, Buddhism (Oxford,
1957). S. A. Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol.
I (Cambridge, 1922), Vol. II (Cambridge, 1932). C. Eliot,
Hinduism and Buddhism, 3 vols. (London, 1954). J. Gonda,
DieReligionen Indiens, Vol. I (Stüttgart, 1960). E. J.
Thomas, The History of Buddhist Thought (London, 1949).
R. C. Zaehner, Hinduism (London, 1962).

China: Fung Yu-Lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy,
Vol. I (London, 1937). M. Granet, la pensée chinoise (Paris,
1950); idem, la religion des Chinois (Paris, 1951). D. H.
Smith, Chinese Religions (London, 1968).

Islam: M. Gaudefroy-Demonbynes, Mahomet (Paris, 1957).


D. B. MacDonald, The Development of Muslim Theology,
Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory
(London, 1903).
A. J. Wensinck, The Muslim Creed (Cambridge, 1932).


[See also Buddhism; Christianity in History; Cycles; Deter-
minism in Theology; Dualism; Gnosticism; Hierarchy;
Islamic Conception; Neo-Platonism; Religion, Ritual in.]