The origins of gods

Chris at Mixing Memory has a couple of interesting posts on religious cognition. They inspired me to present my own hypothesis about the origins of religion, and in particular individual gods...

My own view, which is mine (*ahem*), is pretty simple. While there are benefits to religion in terms of social altruism, cooperation, and the like, these accounts of religion fail to explain why there is a Mars, or Thor, or Zeus, of Shiva. In short, they explain the domain, but not the details.

My own view of religion is that it is a side effect of social dominance behaviour in a particular ape (i.e., us). And moreover, it is my view that gods themselves are just socially dominant individuals who either really existed and were subsequently elevated even further by the tribal affiliations and etiologies offered for social structures, or were invented individuals by those who really were socially dominant. Scratch a god, and find an older hero, or a tale told by those in power.

I think that most gods were originally individuals - even Yahweh, Astoreth, and the bulk of the early Greek and Hindu pantheons. I have no evidence of this as such; it's just an inference from my major premise. Of course, by the time they appear in writing, they are usually very distant from these individuals and have accreted all kinds of superpowers and become very abstract, as the social conditions in which they play a role have changed. But I think that with few exceptions (possibly Ra, and other sun gods), nearly all individual gods are the echoes of some actual event or persons.

Social dominance is something that we hesitate to talk about with respect to humans, largely because many enthusiastic ethologists tried to make inappropriate analogies from other species to ourselves without dealing with our own evolutionary history. Back in the days of Lorenz, this took the form of using evolved behaviours (like "stamping grounds") of other species, very far from us in the evolutionary tree, and applying them somewhat uncritically to humans, as if we were gazelles or wolves or macaque monkeys. Later, this came to be known as sociobiology, which is so obviously bad that only the really evil nazi-types would ever even entertain these ideas [as documented by Segerstrale]. Well, so the myth goes, anyway.

But we are social dominance apes. We are our own kind of social dominance apes, so any resemblance to our nearest relatives the chimps or gorillas has to be taken as an analogy that needs to be carefully used, though. Still, by eliminating obvious cultural biases, we can see some things we share with them.

In highly sexually dimorphic species like the gorilla, the dominance of the genders tends to be within-gender. Males dominate other males, for control of the harem, and females dominate other females. In chimps, social hierarchies are mostly gender based, but it is not impossible for an alpha female to take over troop dominance if the alpha male dies and there is no obvious candidate replacement. In bonobos, though, dominance tends to be cross-gender more than in other apes species. Except us. We humans have a complex hierarchy in any given society that is partially the result of our biology, and partially the result of historical contingencies. Why should Elizabeth I be dominant over all the alpha males in England? Because she was the heir, not because she was able to face down her competitors for the top spot. Why was it that she was not the puppet of some Earl or other? Because she was able to behave like a dominant individual. The first is due to history; the second at least in part to Elizabeth's own psychology.

Human societies are arrange in ranks of various kinds - economic, military, sexual, cultural and age. Each rank, or class, has an internal dominance hierarchy. A few individuals are able to so dominate so many of these ranks that they attain an almost mystical respect. Harder to do in urban societies, this is possibly the reason why individuals in semi-agrarian societies, where military and hunting skills are prized, get the rank of deity after a while. Maybe we will see something similar happen in urban societies where different skills dominate these class hierarchies. Thnkyewvurrymuch...

Anyway, that's my speculation about the origin of gods - they are not so much archetypes or cognitive misfirings as actual individuals who get elevated ad infinitum after their death. The archetypes apply later.


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Well, that dominance theory is certainly supported by the ten commandments (thou shalt have no other gods before me). Although in this case, Yahweh may have been proxy for Moses. I've always thought that most religions were an effective means by which ancient tribal elders united and controlled their people. As such an elder, you had to very concerned about rival gods eroding your power base - that's why the first commandment was of the utmost importance.

No! It's mine, mine I tell you!

Oh, very well, give me references then...

[late note] Oh, OK, now I feel like a right Charlie. I looked up Snorri Sturlusson to discover that he is the author of some of the Eddas, and not some prescient 1960s anthropologist.

On surrogates for elders, I think this is exactly the case of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who removed all other gods from official worship except the sun (Aten) in order to limit the power of the priests of those other gods. It was a bold experiment but he lost in the end to primate alliance making...

I should add that kings often function as absent alpha males too, which bolsters the local alphas who are in allegiance to him, and also means that kings tend to get deified. The tradition of making the king's tomb a massive monument (including the Pyramids) is a form of social bonding which tends to serve the interests of the local dominant individuals.

So in a few thousand years, there could be a cult devoted to the Great Cephalopodeity Muyazz...?

By Ian H Spedding FCD (not verified) on 13 Dec 2006 #permalink

Since Euhemerus of Messina (3rd Century BC) owns the trade mark on your theory, you owe him a royalty.

Euhemerism was very popular with the converted Pagans because it allowed them to preserve some of the traditions of their peoples without irritating the local bishop, even though the orthodox position was that the ancient Gods weren't misremembered men but very real demons--Snorri Sturluson, the 12th Century Icelandic historian and scholar, claimed that Odin had been the first king of Norway.

While the names of Gods have to have come from someplace, is there really any evidence that very many of them were once the names of living men and women? Many divine names seem to be barely altered versions of abstract qualities, and various pantheons are structured as if they represented a taxonomy of basic social roles and natural powers.

Isn't euhemerism just a version of the oldest myth of all, what might be justly called the myth of mythology, which makes us think that things are explained by their origins? Compare the appeal of the geological explanations of Noah's flood. How exactly does a not-very mysterious event like a flood account for thousands of years of myth making?

My own theory and the theory that is mine is that the basic fact about the Gods is that they hardly need an explanation at all because human beings are so incredibly credulous, such suckers for a good story, that any old grain of sand that lodges in the collective conscience can become a pearl in very short order. The beginning is triffling and explains nothing: why the story is remembered, transmitted, and endlessly elaborated is the real question.

We've got a lot of excellent historical evidence of the rapidity which with new religions emerge--the goofy fabulations of the Mormans aren't quite two centuries old yet, for example, and I presume that the Angel Moroni wasn't originally the King of upstate New York.

Many of the apparently abstract god names are much later - Zeus is likely to be a later name for an early deity, for example, and Jupiter (sky father, I believe) is even later still.

And I am explicitly not explaining why humans believe in deities, or why they play a role in social cohesion throughout history, just why we have those deities and not, say, other more philosophical ones.

In fact I think that most mythical entities are something like this. The obvious one is the Kentaurs, but I think that trolls, goblins and the like are just names for other tribal groups that were regarded as dangerous and mysterious. That doesn't mean I think they lived under bridges.

And Moroni is clearly invented, but the God is still in the lineage of transmission from whatever deities the Christian and post-Christian gods are based on.

All questions by the way, are real to someone. If you happen to think the beginning is a trifle, fine. I don't. And when something is universal, it is often less interesting than the particulars to explain.

I've got no problem with attempting to determine the particular origins of this or that cult. On the other hand, you are yourself promoting a general theory, i.e. the notion that specific Gods were once particular political figures. I don't doubt that one could find particular Gods who have some relationship to particular kings, but I wonder what the evidence is that the pattern is very common?

Another question: you write that "many of the apparently abstract god names are much later." I don't know of any anthropological or philological evidence for this idea that sounds to me a bit like an Enlightenment-era historical narrative. Various mythographers have proposed an exactly reverse narrative in which the general tendency is to go from vague and general deities to more and more personalized figures.

I think that you have an interesting idea on a subject that I have wondered about for a long time. Just how did all of those dozens upon dozens of religions get started? For those interested in exploring a different aspect of religion, how religions evolve, there is a new book from MIT press that may be worth reading. Ekelund et al. are economists and they develop a model of believers selecting beliefs from the marketplace of different religions. The book is called The Marketplace of Religion. Here is part of the blurb from the Amazon web page.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had established a monopoly and controlled the market of belief, not allowing for competition to fulfill the demand of disparate believers. The Protestant Reformation introduced competition to the religion market, so Christians for the first time could determine which "product" (Catholicism or Protestantism) was most beneficial to them.

It should be interesting. I ordered my copy yesterday, a Christmas present to myself.

I'm currently reading Christ's Churches purely Reformed by Philip Benedict. Protestanism fragmented into several versions within a few decades of Martin Luther's 95 theses. More choices for the sixteenth century "consumer."

By Fred Schreiber (not verified) on 13 Dec 2006 #permalink

There are a few cases where this sort of deification process (when we're talking about actual individuals) seems to have been identified - for example, Shango, and certainly the Roman emperors (here both mechanisms are at work), and of course, it being the holiday season, there's one great big obvious case, if altered somewhat to fit within a monotheistic trinitarianism.

And to tie it back to the second of Chris' posts, besides the social-cohesion-and-control aspects, and the inevitable exaggeration and 'whisper down the lane/telphone' transmission, those versions of their exploits that would be most easily remembered - most successful in terms of memetic natural selection - would be the ones that fit the minimally counterintuitive (MCI) template . . . .

But my completely untested hunch is that in other cases, what's going on (partially) involves people basically filling in spaces-in-the-world that they know should be out there - often as a different side effect of social dominance behavior. In some cases a specific individual (or succession of individuals) becomes divinely elevated, but in others I would guess it's more: well, we have [list local (often institutionalized, role-based) dominance hierarchy - and what's next? ( And of course, dominant individuals will utilize this for power and legitimacy - whether out of whole cloth or prexisting scraps and patterns). Ok - but that's domain, you can say, what about the details? Well, here the MCI stuff, along with other imaginative/narrative structures, comes into play, as the deity is constructed/'evolves' to be MCI-catchy and believable, and culturally and environmentally congruent, in terms of the, well, beliefshed (from watershed, etc.).

Or take the various Master of Animals deities. It would seem that we have 1) well, obviously someone has to be in charge of all/specific/valued animals, right? 2) something that provides a sense of being able to influence events, if you do things right (which may also enforce/encode folk-conservation concepts), 3) group, occupational, or even individual projection - whether for social control or identification, or whatever, and 4) perhaps, in some cases, echoes of historical figures.

Most likely many gods are bizarre back-crossed hybrids, odd mixes of concepts and distant memories? And of course, when you're dealing with ancestors . . . (and certainly the creation by dominant individuals aspect is important)

But I tend to imagine that the core of things involve not specific people, but more like this kind of person, but +.

Ach, too early to think! Still haven't had coffee. Now that's clearly a goddess.

And my idea (which is mine), is that gods are the product of misplaced empathy—that we possess the ability to infer mind-states in others as a useful property for maintaining social stability and to enhance learning, but because evolution isn't all-powerful, one unfortunate side-effect is that we're also readily anthropomorphizing sticks, rocks, animals, mountains, the weather, misfortune, death, etc., and a side-effect of our ability to comprehend the minds of our friends and family is that we spontaneously populate the whole universe with similar minds.

I will also add that your idea (which is yours) is a subset of mine. The readiness to imbue dead heroes with continuing thoughts and actions is a correlate of the ability to empathize and project thoughts unto others.

My post is apparently being held for some reason, so I'll just add that on top of that, whenever it shows up, I also agree with PZ's misplaced-empathy bit, which it implicitly depends on. I'd even go so far as to say it's mineMINEmine, but it just so isn't . . .

A while back razib was talking about being an atheist from a very young age, in the context of being different from many people, including having a rather weak Theory of Mind, etc (I think the term he used in comments was 'jolly sociopath'?)- I don't think he explicitly linked the two, but it would be interesting to look into . . . (although obviously there are tons of atheists who are all empathic and stuff, just directing it terms of actual minds, and maybe-minds, like pets).

Although I'm now rather taken with the idea of (philosophical) Zombie-God . . .

I am feeling spectacularly lazy today, so instead of paraphrasing I'll just dump a chunk of the American Heritage Dictionary into my comment:

Homer's Iliad calls him "Zeus who thunders on high" and Milton's Paradise Lost, "the Thunderer," so it is surprising to learn that the Indo-European ancestor of Zeus was a god of the bright daytime sky. Zeus is a somewhat unusual noun in Greek, having both a stem Zn- (as in the philosopher Zeno's name) and a stem Di- (earlier Diw-). In the Iliad prayers to Zeus begin with the vocative form Zeu pater, "o father Zeus." Father Zeus was the head of the Greek pantheon; another ancient Indo-European society, the Romans, called the head of their pantheon Ipiter or Iuppiter — Jupiter. The -piter part of his name is just a reduced form of pater, "father," and I- corresponds to the Zeu in Greek: Ipiter is therefore precisely equivalent to Zeu pater and could be translated "father Jove." Jove itself is from Latin Iov-, the stem form of Ipiter, an older version of which in Latin was Diov-, showing that the word once had a d as in Greek Diw-. An exact parallel to Zeus and Jupiter is found in the Sanskrit god addressed as Dyau pitar: pitar is "father," and dyau means "sky." We can equate Greek Zeu pater, Latin I-piter, and Sanskrit dyau pitar and reconstruct an Indo-European deity, *Dyus pter, who was associated with the sky and addressed as "father." Comparative philology has revealed that the "sky" word refers specifically to the bright daytime sky, as it is derived from the root meaning "to shine." This root also shows up in Latin dis "day," borrowed into English in words like diurnal.

Closely related to these words is Indo-European *deiwos "god," which shows up, among other places, in the name of the Old English god Tw in Modern English Tuesday, "Tiw's day." *Deiwos is also the source of Latin dvus "pertaining to the gods," whence English divine and the Italian operatic diva, and deus, "god," whence deity.

(The asterisks denote conjectural reconstructed forms.)

And this makes me smile. If you look up the Indo-European root dyeu in the Appendix, this is what you get:

To shine (and in many derivatives, "sky, heaven, god"). Zero-grades *dyu- and *diw-. Derivatives include Tuesday, divine, jovial, Jupiter, diary, dismal, journey, and psychedelic.

You know when you're talking to some friends about something you only know a little about, but they know nothing? And you... embellish? You extrapolate, turn half-formed ideas into points of well established fact?

People like to sound smart. Other people will listen, and admire. So I'm not sure that it needs to be propagated by an alpha, but could easily represent an attempt to *become* an alpha (or, hey, a beta will do - I'm puny).

Tribe: "We wonder how the world came to be. We wonder why scary earthquakes happen. We are afraid to die."

Puny Nerd: "I know! The world was made by this guy called Bill. And Bill is mighty, he makes earthquakes when he is angry. And don't worry, because if Bill likes you he will make good things happen and bring you back to life after you die!"

Tribe: "Gosh! You sure are smart, Puny Nerd! We like the sounds of this Bill fella."

Puny Nerd: "Oh, hey, and you know what makes Bill like you more? Giving me stuff..."

(See also the lame things parents come up with to sound smart to their kids).

By SmellyTerror (not verified) on 14 Dec 2006 #permalink

"(See also the lame things parents come up with to sound smart to their kids)."

It would be rather amusing if much of religion arose as a response to the little-kid "Why?" stage . . .

"It's not "Bill", SmellyTerror. His name is Hank."
[Reading amusing link . . .] Hang on, I thought it was the idea of wieners in buns that was an abomination? Although the no condiments bit sounds about right . . .

PZ: Holy leaping Jesus, Hank kicks ass! Wait, I'm mixing my metaphors...

Dan: there was actually a religious ad on Australian tv many moons ago (I think I was about 12 at the time, so 20 years back) that followed the kid's "why?" route. I remember it came down to the kid asking why the wind blows, and the parents couldn't answer. Cue the church logo. The implication being, of course, that everyting comes back to god. My first god-of-the-gaps!

See, religious folk really do use "God" as the final "why?" answer. I can really see someone way back in the early stages of language going the same route. Anyway, what have atheists got to stop kids asking the next "why"? "Look, it's all bloody quantum, ok?"

(Well actually, I say "Why do you ask, my son?"; "Because I wanna know!"; "Why?"; "But..."; "Why?"; "Dad!"; "Why?"; "I'm not talking to you!"; "Why?"; "Mum!")

Of course, even as a kid I was inspired to find out the real reason(s), because clearly "god dunnit" was just a cop out - though as a *lazy* kid I didn't bother to look it up and just kinda guessed. Still got it mostly right.

And isn't that the problem with religion? Folk stop looking. The people who made the ad probably could have worked it out if they'd tried, but they *didn't* try because they were satisfied with "god dunnit".

By SmellyTerror (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

At Passover, a child asks "Why is this night different than all others?" and the adults respond with the Exodus story. The question and the answer are not part of a real inquiry about the custom of Passover. They are simply part of the custom. The explanation is just as arbitrary, just as much a matter of faith, as the thing to be explained. Seems to me that religiously motivated questions are usually like the Passover question. They aren't real questions at all since a real question would have to be asked with expectation that the answer might be surprising.

"Social dominance is something that we hesitate to talk about with respect to humans"...

Not here. Thanks for this.
It's amusing to set back and watch, as power corrupts the alpha males/females, and exposes the weakling in character. The Ted Haggards, Jim Bakkers, Jimmy Swaggarts, Mother Teresa... religion itself in the spiritual sense, can be a sweet thing, but with anything that smells of a lucrative business endeavor, the alphas maneuver for personal wealth, power and security.

"On the other hand, you are yourself promoting a general theory, i.e. the notion that specific Gods were once particular political figures. I don't doubt that one could find particular Gods who have some relationship to particular kings, but I wonder what the evidence is that the pattern is very common?"
Egyptian Pharoahs believed they were direct descendent of the gods, and Imhotep, father of medicine (Egypt) was deified to god status. I believe what's been proposed has significant truth to it. Jesus was man, and made into god.

China has three age of Myth.

The first age of myth's deities are creative-destructive gods who thru either an act of willful creation or side effect of wanton destruction shapes all aspect of the ancient chiness world.These gods does not only physical effect the world, but also teaches, such as bringing language and agiculture to humans.

The second age of myth are the pantheon of deified individuals who makes up the court of the jade emperor. Their deification is written down in the "book of ascension" that explain the reason and circumstance of each individual's deification. This deification
is elevated by taoism, which sustained the mythical foundation of the second age.

The third age of myth came with the advent of buddhism in china. The three religions mixed syncratically to create chinese mythical system of the thousand years before the fall of the emperor.

So ever since the second mythic age of china, gods are seen as deified individuals. Gods are not seen as beyond human, but seen as sprung from humanity.

It's the theory of Robert M. Price (and it's his theory) that Moses was the myth, used to by the priests emphasize the importance of obeying their laws and giving all the prescribed tithes and sacrifices, which are described in great and repetitious detail in the Old Testament.

It is further his theory that Jesus was an embodiment of the Hero Myth, derived largely from the ideals of the Greek Cynics crosssed with the Jewish Holy Spirit. (I'm shortening this so much as to be inaccurate, but the result is personification of an ideal rather than an historical figure.)

There's more in Of Myth and Men or in Christ a Fiction and much more in Deconstructing Jesus.

I think that most gods were originally individuals - even Yahweh, Astoreth, and the bulk of the early Greek and Hindu pantheons. I have no evidence of this as such; it's just an inference from my major premise...

-- Wilkins

I don't doubt that one could find particular Gods who have some relationship to particular kings, but I wonder what the evidence is that the pattern is very common?

-- Harrison

There are a few cases where this sort of deification process (when we're talking about actual individuals) seems to have been identified - for example, Shango, and certainly the Roman emperors (here both mechanisms are at work)..

-- Dan S.

A few comments (which aren't really mine... an angel came to me in a vision and told me to type them*) :

1. Ancestor worship is fairly common across several civilizations.

2. Ancestor worship is held by some to be generally discontinuous with worship of gods, but there is some disagreement. Ancestors are seen as 'intermediaries' to the gods in some civilizations, not in the evolutionary sense, but both in the sense of being 'semi-divine' and as being useful supplicants to have on your side if you wish a word with the deity. But as to assertions that ancestor worship and deity worship are entirely discontinuous, I suspect there's some resistance on the part of people subscribing to a belief in a god (for obvious reasons) to hearing that their god evolved at all, so some of the resistance to the notions of ancestor worship gradually evolving toward worship of a god may be due to nothing more than this. It certainly seems plausible to me, given other facts (below), that it might occur fairly frequently.

3. Certainly, some rulers do claim descent from the gods of their civilizations. Others, if they don't do this, do at least claim to derive their authority from them.

4. For certain gods (as noted), there's pretty good evidence they originated in historical figures. Other origins are far more confused. My impression (I'm not a specialist, just curious, and read this stuff on and off) is part of the confounding problem here is the significance of syncretism... which is itself hard to nail down. There are very frequently at the very least suggestive parallels between gods of related cultures, and the trick is determining whether the evolution (which definitely occurs) is more convergent (folk tend to want the same things in their gods) or actually due more to direct borrowing of ideas. Frequently, it's hard definitively to say which it is (and note that it can also be both: the element of the myth is borrowed, but it travels well because it happens to make the legend more innately appealing). The classic example is the ongoing back and forth over the birth-death-rebirth gods--I tend to think there had to be some borrowing there, since I don't get much resonance from the story (that's to say: my own very subjective experience of the story is it's nothing I find particularly attractive, so I rather suspect there's no deep human striving that creates those de novo, but rather they're edited and bastardized and amalgams and descendants of one another... but that, I suppose, is hardly definitive either).

5. Generally speaking, my suspicion would be: probably most god stories have some elements at least that began in revered ancestors or kings, or even if those elements later got mixed in with stories that might have originated far more abstractly... the reason being that I suspect that syncretism is pretty common. It's probably a poor approximatino to think of religions as following a nice neat cladistic tree in which the 'ancestor' religion of another is easily and clearly established; 'gene-jumping' in which ideas get exchanged and mixed as cultures mix is probably pretty common. It was probably far more so when literacy was less common.

* I had a whole narrative composed for how this went. But it got a bit long. I'm omitting it for that reason. But suffice to say, length issues aside, it killed. Honest.

That is pretty much my view, although I heard it from a Socratic daimon. I wouldn't expect much information of the historical heroes, kings and ancestors to survive the process of accretion, syncretism, and mythopoeiesis; but I would expect the process to kick off from a historical individual in nearly all cases.

The problem with the "archetype" story is that gods are distinct. Ares and Mars might be pretty similar, but they aren't exactly the same. Move to the Indus Valley, and the war god is very different again. Some of the difference might be to do with the different roles war plays in each culture, but the archetypes aren't archetypical enough.

I suppose an intermediate position might be that many gods are abstractions of particular social concepts like war, and will be distinct because the social structure is.