A deity (i/ˈdiː.ᵻti/ or i/ˈdeɪ.ᵻti/) is a concept conceived in diverse ways in various cultures, typically as a natural or supernatural being considered divine or sacred. Monotheistic religions accept only one Deity (predominantly referred to as God), polytheistic religions accept multiple deities, henotheistic religions accept one supreme deity without denying other deities considering them as equivalent aspects of the same divine principle, while several non-theistic religions deny any supreme eternal creator deity but accept a pantheon of deities which live, die and are reborn just like any other being. A male deity is a god, while a female deity is a goddess.
The Oxford reference defines deity as "a god or goddess (in a polytheistic religion)", or anything revered as divine. C. Scott Littleton defines a deity as "a being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life".
Various cultures have conceptualized a deity differently than a monotheistic God. A plain deity need not be omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, or eternal, however an almighty monotheistic God generally is held to have these attributes. Monotheistic religions typically refer to the incorporeal God in masculine terms, while other religions refer to their deities in a variety of ways – masculine, feminine, androgynous and gender neutral.
Historically, many ancient cultures such as Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Nordic culture and Asian culture personified natural phenomena, variously as either their conscious causes or simply their effects, respectively. Some Avestan and Vedic deities were viewed as ethical concepts. In Indian religions, deities have been envisioned as manifesting within the temple of every living being's body, as sensory organs and mind. Deities have also been envisioned as a form of existence (Saṃsāra) after rebirth, for human beings who gain merit through an ethical life, wherein a being becomes a guardian deity and lives blissfully in heaven. But in Indian religions, all deities are also subject to death when their merit runs out.
The English language word "deity" derives from Old French deité, the Latin deitatem or "divine nature", coined by Augustine of Hippo from deus ("god"). Deus is related through a common Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) origin to *deiwos.
According to Douglas Harper, the PIE root *dewos- yields the ancient Indian word Deva meaning "to gleam, a shining one," from *div- "to shine", and it is a cognate with Greek language dios "divine" and Zeus, and Latin deus "god" (Old Latin deivos). Deva is masculine, and the related feminine equivalent is devi. Etymologically, the cognates of Devi are Latin dea and Greek thea. In Old Persian, daiva- means "demon, evil god", while in Sanskrit it means the opposite, referring to the "heavenly, divine, terrestrial things of high excellence, exalted, shining ones".
The closely linked term "god" refers to "supreme being, deity", which states Douglas Harper, is derived from Proto-Germanic *guthan, from PIE *ghut-, which means "that which is invoked". Guth in the Irish language means "voice." The term *ghut- is also the source of Old Church Slavonic zovo ("to call"), Sanskrit huta- ("invoked," an epithet of Indra), from the root *gheu(e)- ("to call, invoke.")
An alternate etymology for the term "god" comes from the Proto-Germanic Gaut, which traces it to the PIE root *ghu-to- ("poured"), which from the root *gheu- ("to pour, pour a libation"). The term *gheu- is also the source of the Greek khein "to pour". Originally the German root was a neuter noun, but the gender of the monotheistic God shifted to masculine under the influence of Christianity. In contrast, all ancient Indo-European cultures and mythologies recognized both masculine and feminine deities.
The term deity often connotes the concept of sacred or divine, as a god or goddess, in a polytheistic religion. However, there is no universally accepted consensus concept of deity across religions and cultures, and the concept of deity has been envisioned in diverse ways.
Huw Owen states that the term "deity or god or its equivalent in other languages" has a bewildering range of meanings and significance. It has ranged from "infinite transcendent being who created and lords over the universe" (God), to a "finite entity or experience, with special significance or which evokes a special feeling" (god), to "a concept in religious or philosophical context that relates to nature or magnified beings or a supra-mundane realm", to "numerous other usages".
Scholars infer the probable existence of deities in the prehistoric period from inscriptions and prehistoric arts such as cave drawings, but it is unclear what these sketches and paintings are and why they were made. Some engravings or sketches show animals, hunters or rituals. The Venus of Willendorf, a female figurine found in Europe and dated to about 25,000 BCE has been interpreted as an exemplar of a prehistoric divine feminine.
In Buddhist mythology, devas are beings inhabiting certain happily placed worlds of Buddhist cosmology. These beings are mortal (being part of saṃsāra) and numerous. It is also common for iṣṭadevatās to be called deities, although the nature of Yidams is distinct from what is normally meant by the term.
Buddhism does not believe in a creator deity. However, deities are an essential part of Buddhist cosmology, rebirth and Saṃsāra doctrines. The heavenly gods (devas, deities) are asserted to be a realm of existence in Buddhism, and typically subdivided into twenty six sub-realms. A rebirth in this heavenly realm is believed to be from leading an ethical life and very good karma accumulation. A Deva does not need to work, and is able to enjoy in the heavenly realm all pleasures found on Earth. However, the pleasures of this realm lead to attachment (Upādāna ), lack of spiritual pursuits and therefore no nirvana. The vast majority of Buddhist lay people in countries practicing Theravada, states Kevin Trainor, have historically pursued Buddhist rituals and practices because they are motivated with their potential rebirth into the Deva realm. The Deva realm in Buddhist practice in Southeast Asia and East Asia, states Keown, include gods found in Hindu traditions such as Indra and Brahma, and concepts in Hindu cosmology such as Mount Meru.
In the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism, a deity is often referred to as Deva (god) or Devi (goddess). The root of these terms mean "heavenly, divine, anything of excellence". Deva is masculine, and the related feminine equivalent is devi. In the earliest Vedic literature, all supernatural beings are called Asuras. Over time, those with a benevolent nature become deities and are referred to as Sura, Deva or Devi.
Devas or deities in Hindu texts differ from Greek or Roman theodicy, states Ray Billington, because many Hindu traditions believe that a human being has the potential to be reborn as a deva (or devi), by living an ethical life and building up saintly karma. Such a deva enjoys heavenly bliss, till the merit runs out, and then the soul (gender neutral) is reborn again into Saṃsāra. Thus deities are henotheistic manifestations, embodiments and consequence of the virtuous, the noble, the saint-like living in many Hindu traditions.
A deity – god or goddess – is typically conceptualized in Hindu tradition as a "supernatural, divine" concept manifesting in various ideas and knowledge, in a form that combine excellence in some aspects, wrestling with weakness and questions in other aspects, heroic in their outlook and actions, yet tied up with emotions and desires.
The Upanishads of Hinduism characterize Atman (soul, self) as deva (deity), thereby asserting that the deva and eternal supreme principle (Brahman, gender neutral) is part of and within every human being and living creature, that this soul within is spiritual and divine, and to realize self-knowledge is to know the supreme.
Like many ancient Indian traditions, Jainism does not believe in a creator, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal God; however, the cosmology of Jainism incorporates a meaningful causality-driven reality, and includes four realms of existence (gati), and one of them for deva (celestial beings, gods). A human being can choose and live an ethical life (karma), such as being non-violent (ahimsa) against all living beings, thereby gain merit and be reborn as deva.
Jain texts reject a trans-cosmic God, one who stands outside of the universe and lords over it, but they state that the world is full of devas who are in human-image with sensory organs, with the power of reason, conscious, compassionate and with finite life. Like Hinduism, Jainism believes in the existence of the soul (Self, atman) and considers it to have "god-quality", whose knowledge and liberation is the ultimate spiritual goal in both religions. Jains also believe that the spiritual nobleness of perfected souls (Jina) and devas make them worship-worthy beings, with powers of guardianship and guidance to better karma. In Jain temples or festivals, the Jinas and Devas are revered.
The ancient Greek civilization had numerous deities, both gods and goddesses, as part of its religious beliefs and mythologies. These continued to be revered through the early centuries of the common era, and many of the Greek deities inspired and were adopted as part of much larger pantheon of Roman deities. The Greek religion was polytheistic, but had no centralized church, nor did it have any sacred texts. The deities were largely associated with myths, and they represented powers of natural phenomenon or aspects of human behavior.
The Greek deities likely trace back to more ancient Indo-European traditions, since the gods and goddesses found in distant cultures are mythologically comparable and are also linguistically cognates. Among goddesses, for example, the goddess of dawn is Eos in Greek, who also appears as Indic Usha, Roman Aurora, Latvian Auseklis; while among gods, Zeus (Greek), Deus (Latin), Zio (Old German), Dyaus (Indic) are cognates and share similar mythologies.
Greek deities varied with its city states and islands, but in most part the pantheon of gods and goddesses of the ancient Greek culture shared panhellenic themes, as well as celebrated similar festivals, rites and ritual grammar associated with them. The twelve Olympian gods, for example, were not only panhellenic but also inspired the Dii Consentes galaxy of Roman deities – Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Hestia, Poseidon and Zeus. Other important Greek deities included Dionysus, Hades and Heracles.
Besides the Olympians, the Greeks worshipped various local gods, the satyr-god Pan (goat and shepherds guardian god), Nymphs (spirits of rivers), Naiads (who dwelled in springs), Dryads (who were spirits of the trees), Nereids (who inhabited the sea), river gods, Satyrs (nature spirits), and others. In addition, there were the dark powers of the underworld, such as the Erinyes (or Furies), said to pursue those guilty of crimes against blood-relatives. The gods of Greek mythology, like many Indo-European traditions, were anthropomorphic. Their iconography, states Burkert, is as "persons, not abstractions, ideas or concepts". They had fantastic abilities and powers, each had some unique expertise and in some aspects a flawed personality, they were not omnipotent and could be wounded in some circumstances.
Greek deities led to cults, were used politically, and they inspired votive rituals for favors such as bountiful crops, healthy family, victory in war, or peace for a loved one who just died.
The Roman pantheon had numerous deities, both Greek and non-Greek. The more famed deities, found in the mythologies and the 2nd millennium CE European arts, have been the anthropomorphic deities syncretized with the Greek deities. These include the six gods and six goddesses: Venus, Apollo, Mars, Diana, Minerva, Ceres, Vulcan, Juno, Mercury, Vesta, Neptune, Jupiter (Jove, Zeus); as well Bacchus, Pluto and Hercules. The non-Greek major deities include Janus, Fortuna, Vesta, Quirinus and Tellus (mother goddess, probably most ancient). Some of the non-Greek deities had likely origins in more ancient European culture such as the ancient Germanic religion, while others may have been borrowed, for political reasons, from neighboring trade centers such as those in the Minoan or ancient Egyptian civilization.
The Roman deities, in a manner similar to the ancient Greeks, inspired community festivals, rituals and sacrifices led by flamines (priests, pontifs), but priestesses (Vestal Virgins) were also held in high esteem for maintaining sacred fire used in the votive rituals for deities. Deities were also maintained in home shrines (lararium), such as Hestia honored in homes as the goddess of fire hearth. This Roman religion reverence for sacred fire, is also found in Hebrew culture (Leviticus 6), Vedic culture's Homa, ancient Greeks and other cultures.
Ancient Roman scholars such as Varro and Cicero wrote treatises on the nature of gods of their times. Varro stated, in his Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum, that it is the superstitious man who fears the gods, while the truly religious person venerates them as parents. Cicero, in his Academica, praised Varro for this and other insights. According to Varro, there have been three accounts of deities in the Roman society: the mythical account created by poets for theatre and entertainment, the civil account used by people for veneration as well as by the city, and the natural account created by the philosophers. The best state is, adds Varro, where the civil theology combines the poetic mythical account with the philosopher's.
The Roman deities continued to be revered in Europe through the era of Constantine, and past 313 CE when he issued the Edict of Toleration.
The diverse African cultures developed sophisticated theology and concepts of deities over their history. In Nigeria and neighboring West African countries, for example, two prominent deities (locally called Òrìṣà) are found in the Yoruba religion, namely the god Ogun and the goddess Osun. Both are complex deities. Ogun is the primordial masculine deity as well as the archdivinity and guardian of the trades such as tools making and use, metal working, hunting, warriors, protector, equity and justice. Osun is an equally powerful primordial feminine deity and a multidimensional guardian of fertility, water, maternal, health, social relations, love and peace. Ogun and Osun deity traditions were brought into North and South America with slave ships. They were preserved by the African people in their plantation communities, and their festivals continue to be observed in the modern era.
In Southern African cultures, a similar masculine-feminine deity combination has been revered in other forms, particularly as the Moon and Sun deities. One Southern African cosmology consists of Hieseba or Xuba (deity, god), Gaune (evil spirits) and Khuene (people). The Hieseba includes Nladiba (male, creator sky god) and Nladisara (females, Nladiba's two wives). The Sun (female) and the Moon (male) deities are viewed as offsprings of Nladiba and two Nladisara. The Sun and Moon are viewed as manifestations of the supreme deity, and worship is timed and directed to them. In other African cultures, in contrast, the Sun is seen as male, while the Moon is female, both symbolism for the godhead. In Zimbabwe, the supreme deity is androgynous with both male-female aspects, envisioned as the giver of rain, treated simultaneously as the god of darkness and light, and is called Mwari Shona. In the Lake Victoria region, the term for a deity is Lubaale, or alternatively Jok.
The Inca culture has believed in Viracocha (also called Pachacutec) as the creator deity. Viracocha has been an abstract deity to Incan culture, one who existed before he created space and time. All other deities of the Inca people have corresponded to elements of nature. Of these, the most important ones have been Inti (sun deity) responsible for agricultural prosperity and as the father of the first Inca king, and Mama Qucha the goddess of the sea, lakes, rivers and waters. Inti in some mythologies is the son of Viracocha and Mama Qucha.
Inca people have revered many male and female deities. Among the feminine deities have been Mama Kuka (goddess of joy), Mama Ch'aska (goddess of dawn), Mama Allpa (goddess of harvest and earth, sometimes called Mama Pacha or Pachamama), Mama Killa (moon goddess) and Mama Sara (goddess of grain). During and after the imposition of Christianity during Spanish colonialism, the Incan people retained their original beliefs in deities through syncretism, where they overlay the Christian God and teachings over their original beliefs and practices. The male deity Inti became accepted as the Christian God, but the Andean rituals centered around Incan deities have been retained and continued thereafter into the modern era by the Incan people.
In Mayan culture, Kukulkan has been the supreme creator deity, also revered as the god of reincarnation, water, fertility and wind. The Mayan people built step pyramid temples to honor Kukulkan, aligning them to the Sun's position on the spring equinox. Other deities found at Mayan archaeological sites include Xib Chac – the benevolent male rain deity, and Ixchel – the benevolent female earth, weaving and pregnancy goddess. The Maya calendar had 18 months, each with 20 days (and five unlucky days of Uayeb); each month had a presiding deity, who inspired social rituals, special trading markets and community festivals.
A deity with aspects similar to Kulkulkan in the Aztec culture has been called Quetzalcoatl. However, states Timothy Insoll, the Aztec ideas of deity remain poorly understood. What has been assumed is based on what was constructed by Christian missionaries. The deity concept was likely more complex than these historical records. In Aztec culture, there were hundred of deities, but many were henotheistic incarnations of one another (similar to the avatar concept of Hinduism). Unlike Hinduism and other cultures, Aztec deities were usually not anthropomorphic, and were instead zoomorphic or hybrid icons associated with spirits, natural phenomena or forces. The Aztec deities were often represented through ceramic figurines, revered in home shrines.
In Norse mythology, Æsir means gods, while Ásynjur means goddesses. These terms, states John Lindow, may be ultimately rooted in the Indo-European root for "breath" (as in "life giving force"), and to the cognates os which means deity in Old English and anses in Gothic.
Another group of deities found in Norse mythology are termed as Vanir, and are associated with fertility. The Æsir and the Vanir went to war, according to the Norse and Germanic mythologies. According to the Norse texts such as Ynglinga saga, the Æsir–Vanir War ended in truce and ultimate reconciliation of the two into a single group of deities, after both sides chose peace, exchanged ambassadors (hostages), and intermarried.
The Norse mythology describes the cooperation after the war, as well as differences between the Æsir and the Vanir which were considered scandalous by the other side. The goddess Freyja of the Vanir taught magic to the Æsir, while the two sides discover that while Æsir forbid mating between siblings, Vanir accepted such mating.
Temples hosting images of Nordic deities (such as Thor, Odin and Freyr), as well as pagan worship rituals, continued in Nordic countries through the 12th century, according to historical records. This shocked Christian missionaries, and over time Christian equivalents were substituted for the Nordic deities to help suppress paganism.
Ancient Mesopotamian culture in Sumer (southern Iraq) had numerous ‘’dingir’’ (deities, gods and goddesses). Both male and female deities were revered, with some anthropomorphic, some zoomorphic (such as a flying dragon, turtle, snake, goat), and some as natural objects (mountain, moon, sun, bright stars).
The Sumerian deities had numerous functions, such as presiding over procreation, rains, irrigation, agriculture, destiny and justice. The gods were fed, clothed, entertained and worshipped to prevent natural catastrophes as well as to prevent social chaos such as pillaging, rape or atrocities of war. Many deities were patron guardians of city-states. Over their history, some Sumerian deities were absorbed into others. Usually the case was that a matriarchal guardian deity was absorbed into a patriarchal deity, as one city state conquered the other.
The Sumerian mythology of the 1st millennium BCE treated Anšar (later Aššur) and Kišar as primordial deities. Another significant deity in Sumerian culture was Marduk. He rose from an obscure deity of the 3rd millennium BCE to being one of the most important and complex deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon of the 1st millennium BCE. Marduk was worshiped as creator of heaven, earth and humankind, and as the patron deity of the city of Babylon. Marduk's iconography is zoomorphic, and he is most often found in Middle Eastern archaeological remains depicted as a “snake-dragon” or a "human-animal hybrid".
The ancient Egyptian culture had numerous deities. Egyptian records and inscriptions list the names of many whose nature is unknown, but they also make vague indirect references to other unnamed deities. The Egyptologist James P. Allen estimates that more than 1,400 deities are named in Egyptian texts, whereas Christian Leitz estimates there are "thousands upon thousands" of Egyptian deities. The ancient Egyptian terms for deities were nṯr (god), and feminine nṯrt (goddess); however, these terms may have also applied to any being – spirits and deceased human beings, but not demons – who in some way were outside the sphere of everyday life. Egyptian deities typically had a cult, role and mythologies associated with them.
Among the numerous deities, around 200 are prominent in the Pyramid texts and ancient temples of Egypt, many zoomorphic. Among these, were Min (fertility god), Neith (creator goddess), Anubis, Atum, Bes, Horus, Isis, Ra, Meretseger, Nut, Osiris, Shu, Sia and Thoth. Most Egyptian deities represented natural phenomenon, physical objects or social aspects of life, as hidden immanent forces within these phenomena. The deity Shu, for example represented the world's air; the goddess Meretseger represented parts of the earth, and the god Sia represented the abstract powers of perception. Some deities such as Ra and Osiris were associated with the judgement of the dead and their care during the permanent afterlife. Major gods often had many roles and were involved in multiple phenomena.
The first written evidence of deities in Egypt are from early 3rd millennium BCE, but these likely emerged from prehistoric Egyptian beliefs. However, deities became systematized and sophisticated after the formation of one Egyptian state under the Pharaohs and their treatment as sacred kings with exclusive right to interact with the gods, in the later part of the 3rd millennium BCE. Over time, through the early centuries of the common era, as Egyptians interacted and traded with neighboring cultures, foreign deities were adopted and venerated.
The Polynesian people developed a theology centered on numerous deities, with clusters of islands having different names for the same idea. There are great deities found across the Pacific Ocean. Some deities are found widely, and there are many local deities whose worship is limited to one or a few islands or sometimes to isolated villages on the same island.
The Māori people, of what is now New Zealand, called the supreme being as Io, who is also referred elsewhere as Iho-Iho, Io-Mataaho, Io Nui, Te Io Ora, Io Matua Te Kora among other names. The Io deity has been revered as the original uncreated creator, with power of life, with nothing outside or beyond him. Other deities in the Polynesian pantheon include Tangaloa (god who created men), La'a Maomao (god of winds), Tu-Matauenga or Ku (god of war), Tu-Metua (mother goddess), Kane (god of procreation) and Rangi (sky god father).
The Polynesian deities have been part of a sophisticated theology, addressing questions of creation, the nature of existence, guardians in daily lives as well as during wars, natural phenomena, good and evil spirits, priestly rituals, as well as linked to the journey of the souls of the dead.
A monotheistic God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and eternal. Historically, various cultures have conceptualized a deity differently than a monotheistic God. A deity need not be almighty, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent or eternal.
Christianity is a monotheistic religion where most mainstream congregations and denominations accept the concept of the Holy Trinity. John Calvin and other Christian scholars, states Scott Swain, traced the "scriptural witness to the deity of the Son and the Spirit". The world is viewed as an element in God's actualization, states Samuel Powell, while the Spirit is viewed as more than an aspect of deity and as the divine essence that is "the unity and relation of the Father and the Son". According to George Hunsinger, the doctrine of the Trinity justifies worship in a Church, wherein Jesus Christ is deemed to be a full deity with the Christian cross as his icon.
The theological examination of Jesus Christ, of divine grace in incarnation, his non-transferability and completeness has been a historic topic. For example, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, states John Webster, reached the consensus that in "one person Jesus Christ, fullness of deity and fullness of humanity are united, the union of the natures being such that they can neither be divided nor confused". Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament, is the self-disclosure of the one, true God, both in his teaching and in his person; Christ, in Christian faith, is considered the incarnation of God.
Ilah, ʾIlāh (Arabic: إله; plural: آلهة ʾālihah), is an Arabic term meaning "deity". It appears in the name of the monotheistic god of Islam as Allah (al-Lāh). al-Lāh translated means "the god". The first statement of the shahada or Muslim confession of faith is "there is no ʾilāh but al-Lāh" "there is no god but God". Islam a strictly monotheistic and the Shahada asserts, state Juliane Hammer and Omid Safi, that "there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is His messenger". This pillar of Islam does not accept the possibility of deities, alternate representations or any equal partners to God's divinity; the Quran, states Gavin D'Costa, denies "Christ's divinity and the Holy Trinity".
The term Allah is used by Muslims for God. The Persian word Khuda (Persian: خدا) can be translated as god, lord or king, and is also used today to refer to God in Islam by Persian and Urdu speakers. The Turkic word for god is Tengri; it exists as Tanrı in Turkish. In Malaysia, many States have laws prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word Allah, but these have been ruled unconstitutional if the use does not involve the propagation of non-Muslim religions to Muslims.
Judaism, states Huw Owen, affirms the existence of one God (Yahweh, or YHWH), who is not abstract, but He who revealed himself throughout Jewish history particularly during the Exodus and the Exile. Judaism reflects a monotheism that gradually arose, was affirmed with certainty in the sixth century "Second Isaiah", and has ever since been the axiomatic basis of its theology.
The classical presentation of Judaism has been as a monotheistic faith that rejected deities and related idolatry. However, states Breslauer, modern scholarship suggests that idolatry was not absent in biblical faith, and it resurfaced multiple times in Jewish religious life. The rabbinic texts and other secondary Jewish literature suggest worship of material objects and natural phenomena through the medieval era, while the core teachings of Judaism maintained monotheism.
According to Aryeh Kaplan, God is always referred to as "He" in Judaism, "not to imply that the concept of sex or gender applies to God", but because "there is no neuter in the Hebrew language, and the Hebrew word for God is a masculine noun" as he "is an active rather than a passive creative force".
Émile Durkheim states that gods represent an extension of human social life to include supernatural beings. According to Matt Rossano, God concepts may be a means of enforcing morality and building more cooperative community groups.
Sigmund Freud suggested that God concepts are a projection of one's father. Psychologists of religion, state Barrett and Keil, have proposed that the personality and characteristics of deities reflects a culture's sense of self-esteem and that a culture projects its revered values into deities and in spiritual terms. The cherished, desired or sought human personality is congruent with the personality it defines to be gods. Lonely and fearful societies tend to invent wrathful, violent, submission-seeking deities (or God), while happier and secure societies tend to invent loving, non-violent, compassionate deities.
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