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Itzamna e Ixchel
Examples of representations of deities in different cultures. Clockwise from upper left: Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba, Roman, Inca, Maya.

In religious belief, a deity (Listeni/ˈd.ti/ or Listeni/ˈd.ti/)[1] is either a natural or supernatural being, who is thought of as holy, divine, or sacred. Some religions have one supreme deity, while others have multiple deities. A male deity is a god (though "God" is used in a gender-neutral way in monotheistic religions), while a female deity is a goddess.

C. Scott Littleton's Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology defined 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".[2] Historically, various cultures have conceptualized a deity differently than a monotheistic God.[3] A deity need not be almighty, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent or eternal.[4][3] A monotheistic God is almighty, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and eternal.[5][6]

Deities are depicted in a variety of forms, but are also frequently expressed as having human form. Deities are often thought to be immortal, and are commonly assumed to have personalities and to possess consciousness, intellects, desires, and emotions comparable but usually superior to those of humans.

Historically, natural phenomena whose physical causes were not well understood, such as lightning, earthquakes, and floods, were attributed to deities. They were thought to be able to work supernatural miracles and to be the authorities and controllers of various aspects of human life (such as birth or an afterlife). Some deities were asserted to be the directors of time and fate itself, the givers of human law and morality, the ultimate judges of human worth and behavior, or designers of the Universe.


Searching the Seas with the Tenkei (ca. 1885) by Kobayashi Eitaku, with the god Izanagi (right) and Izanami, a goddess of creation and death in Japanese mythology

The word "deity" derives from the Latin deus ("god"), which is related through a common Indo-European origin to Sanskrit deva ("god"), devi ("goddess"), divya ("transcendental", "spiritual"). The root is related to words for "sky", such as Latin dies ("day"), and the Sanskrit div, divus, diu ("sky", "day", "shine"). Also related are "divine" and "divinity," from the Latin "divinus," from "divus."

Other words for the concept

Germanic languages have the word god (in English) or cognates for the concept, written God with a majuscule G if meant to refer to a Supreme Being. A deity portrayed as female is called a goddess.

ʾIlāh (Arabic: إله‎‎; plural: آلهة ʾālihah) is an Arabic term meaning "deity". The feminine is ʾilāhah (إلاهة, meaning "goddess"); with the article, it appears as al-ʾilāhah الإلاهة. It appears in the name of the monotheistic god of Islam as al-Lāh, that is, translated, "the god". ʾIlāh is cognate to Northwest Semitic 𐎀𐎍 / אל ʾēl and to East Semitic forms such as Akkadian 𒀭 ilu. The word is from a Proto-Semitic biliteral Semitic root ʔ-L meaning "god" (possibly with a wider meaning of "strong"), which was extended to a regular triliteral by the addition of a h as in Hebrew ʾelōah and ʾelōhim. The word is spelled either إله with an optional diacritic alif to mark the ā only in Quranic texts or (more rarely) with a full alif, إلاه. The term is used throughout the Quran in passages detailing the existence of God and of the beliefs of non-Muslims in other divinities. Notably, 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".

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 insofar as they do not involve the propagation of non-Muslim religions to Muslims.[7]

Jewish people use the term Adonai, which is the most-frequently used term for God along with HaShem, literally "the Name". Amongst Christians, Yasu—an Arabic transliteration of the name of the Christian Jesus and Shaddai are common, with some other names and titles generally borrowed as transliterations from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Relation with humanity

Panel from an ancient Roman sarcophagus depicting the creation of humans by Prometheus, with deities including Minerva (Roman Athena) and Mercury (Hermes) looking on

Theories and myths about, and modes of worship of, deities are largely a matter of religion. At present, the majority of humans are at least nominal adherents of some religion,[8] and this has been true throughout recorded human history.[9] Human burials from the Upper Paleolithic period provide evidence of religion and human belief in deities.Folk religions usually contain active and worldly deities.

Chinese protector deity

Some deities are thought to be invisible or inaccessible to humans, dwelling mainly in otherworldly, remote or secluded and holy places, such as the concepts of Heaven, and Hell, the sky, the underworld, under the sea, in the high mountains or deep forests, or in a supernatural plane or celestial sphere. Typically, they rarely reveal or manifest themselves to humans, and make themselves known mainly through their effects. Monotheistic deities are often thought of as being omnipresent, though invisible.

Beginning with Djedefra (26th century BC), the Egyptian pharaohs called themselves "Son of Ra" as well as "Bull (son) of his Mother" among their many titles. One, Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1479 BC to 1458 BC, traced her heritage not only to her father, Thutmose I, who would have become deified upon his death—but also to the deity, Mut, as a direct ancestor.[citation needed]

Some human rulers, such as the Kings of Egypt, the Japanese Tennos, and some Roman Emperors have been worshipped by their subjects as deities while still alive. The earliest ruler known to have claimed divinity is Naram-Sin of Akkad (22nd century BC). In many cultures, rulers and other prominent or holy persons may be thought to become deities upon death (see Osiris, ancestor worship, canonization).[citation needed]

Forms of theism

Theism is the view that at least one deity exists.[10] Some religions are monotheistic and assert the existence of a unique deity.[11] In the English language, the common noun god is equivalent to deity, while the proper noun God (capitalized) references the unique deity of monotheism. Pantheism considers the universe itself to be a deity. Dualism is the view that there are two deities: a deity of good who is opposed and thwarted by a deity of evil, of equal power. Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Gnostic sects of Christianity are, or were, dualist. Polytheism asserts the existence of several deities, who together form a pantheon. Monolatry is a type of polytheism in which the existence of multiple deities is recognized, but worship is given only to one. Henotheism is a form of polytheism in which only one deity is worshipped. Animism is the belief that spirits inhabit every existing thing, including plants, minerals, animals, and, including all the elements, air, water, earth, and fire. The anthropologist E. B. Tylor argued that religion originally took an animist form.

Adherents of polytheistic religions, such as certain schools of Hinduism, may regard all deities in the pantheon as manifestations, aspects, or multiple personalities of the single supreme deity, and the religions may be more akin to pantheism, monotheism, or henotheism than is initially apparent to an observer.

The many religions do not generally agree on which deities exist, although sometimes the pantheons may overlap, or be similar except for the names of the deities. It is frequently argued that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worship the same monotheistic deity, although they differ in many important details. Comparative religion studies the similarities and contrasts in the views and practices of various religions. Philosophy of religion discusses philosophical issues related to theories about deities. Anthropology of religion studies religious institutions in relation to other social institutions, the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures, and describes each religion as a cultural product, created by the human community that worships it. Narratives about deities and their deeds are referred to as myths, the study of which is mythology. The word "myth" has an overtone of fiction, so religious people commonly (although not invariably) refrain from using this term in relation to the stories about deities which they themselves believe in.

Ancient religions

The emergence of the concept of deities out of the ancestor or nature spirits known in animism is prehistorical, presumably taking place in Neolithic religion; at the time of the setting in of the earliest written records in the Early Bronze Age, the concept is fully developed in the religions of the Ancient Near East.

Neolithic figurines, such as the "bird goddess" type, and even paleolithic "Venus figurines" have been identified as depicting deities, but in the absence of textual evidence this is necessarily speculation based on archaeological artefacts and open to debate.

Buddhist deities

A Buddhist deity, (Ssangbongsa, South Korea)

In Buddhist mythology, devas are beings inhabiting certain happily placed worlds of Buddhist cosmology. These beings are mortal (being part of saṃsāra), numerous, and are respected but not worshipped; it is also common for iṣṭadevatās to be called deities, although the nature of Yidams are distinct from what is normally meant by the term.

The Madhyamikas argue strongly against the existence of a creator deity or essential being (such as Brahman). Some Prasaṅgikas hold that even the conventional existence of an essential being is a non-existent, whereas others consider that the conventional existence of such a being is an existent.

Though this may seem a rather weak basis of existence for some, as many Buddhists (such as the Yogacara school) deny any objective existence (of e.g. a chair), and many more deny any sort of essential existence of phenomena at all, the distinction between the existence and non-existence of consensual entities is important to Buddhist philosophy.

Hindu deities

Ganesha deity of Hinduism.

In Hinduism, the concept of God varies, it being a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning henotheism, monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism and monism among others.[12][13]

In the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism, a deity is often referred to as Deva (god) or Devi (goddess).[14][15] The root of these terms mean "heavenly, divine, anything of excellence".[14][15] Deva is masculine, and the related feminine equivalent is devi. In the earliest Vedic literature, all supernatural beings are called Asuras.[16][17] Over time, those with benevolent nature become deities and are referred to as Sura, Deva or Devi.[18][19]

Difference between deity and monotheistic God

A typical deity in Hinduism, differs from the monotheistic concept of God in other major religions, in that the deity need not be omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, or a combination of these.[4][20][21]

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.[22][23]

Psychological interpretations

Pascal Boyer argues that while there is a wide array of supernatural concepts found around the world, in general, supernatural beings tend to behave much like people. The construction of gods and spirits like persons (anthropomorphism) is one of the oldest characteristics of religion. He cites examples from Greek mythology which is, in his opinion, more like a modern soap opera than other religious systems. The anthropologist Stewart Elliott Guthrie contends that people project human features onto non-human aspects of the world because it makes those aspects more familiar.[24] Sigmund Freud also suggested that god concepts are projections of one's father.[25] Likewise, Émile Durkheim was one of the earliest to suggest that gods represent an extension of human social life to include supernatural beings. In line with this reasoning, psychologist Matt Rossano contends that when humans began living in larger groups, they may have created gods as a means of enforcing morality. In small groups, morality can be enforced by social forces such as gossip or reputation. However it is much harder to enforce morality using social forces in much larger groups. He indicates that by including ever watchful gods and spirits, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups.[26]

More recently, neurotheology, a term which was originally introduced by Aldous Huxley, studies religious experience of god and spirituality in terms of cognitive neuroscience. Closely related, evolutionary psychology hypothesizes on the reason for the existence of these cognitive processes by examining the survival and reproductive functions they might serve. It is hypothesized that deities are generally accepted by people because it is an extension to the human need to socialize with individuals of the same community.

See also


  1. The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996.
  2. C. Scott Littleton, ed. (2005). Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology, Volume 11. Marshall Cavendish. p. 378.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Robert Hood (1990), Must God Remain Greek?: Afro Cultures and God-talk, Fortress, ISBN 978-0800624491, pages 128-129, Quote: "African people may describe their deities as strong, but not omnipotent; wise but not omniscient; old but not eternal; great but not omnipresent (...)".;
    Bruce Trigger (2003), Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521822459, pages 441-442, Quote: [Historically...] people perceived far fewer differences between themselves and the gods than the adherents of modern monotheistic religions. Deities were not thought to be omniscient or omnipotent and were rarely believed to be changeless or eternal."
  4. 4.0 4.1 John Murdoch, English Translations of Select Tracts, Published in India - Religious Texts at Google Books, pages 141-142; Quote: "We [monotheists] find by reason and revelation that God is omniscient, omnipotent, most holy, etc, but the Hindu deities possess none of those attributes. It is mentioned in their Shastras that their deities were all vanquished by the Asurs, while they fought in the heavens, and for fear of whom they left their abodes. This plainly shows that they are not omnipotent."
  5. Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty (2010), A Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion, Bloomsbury Academic, ISBN 978-1441111975, pages 98-99
  6. WD Wilkerson (2014), Walking With The Gods, Sankofa, ISBN 978-0991530014, pages 6-7;
    Bruce Trigger (2003), Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521822459, pages 473-474
  7. "High Court grants Catholic publication Herald rht right to use 'Allah' word again". The Star (Malaysia). 2010-01-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "People and Society". The World Factbook. CIA. 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Vols. 1-3 University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  10. "Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary". Retrieved 2011-03-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "Encyclopedia Brittanica". Retrieved 2016-01-15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Julius J. Lipner (2009), Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, 2nd Edition, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-45677-7, page 8; Quote: "(...) one need not be religious in the minimal sense described to be accepted as a Hindu by Hindus, or describe oneself perfectly validly as Hindu. One may be polytheistic or monotheistic, monistic or pantheistic, even an agnostic, humanist or atheist, and still be considered a Hindu."
  13. Chakravarti, Sitansu (1991), Hinduism, a way of life, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., p. 71, ISBN 978-81-208-0899-7<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 14.0 14.1 Klaus Klostermaier (2010), A Survey of Hinduism, 3rd Edition, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0791470824, pages 101-102
  15. 15.0 15.1 Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary” Etymologically and Philologically Arranged to cognate Indo-European Languages, Motilal Banarsidass, page 492
  16. Wash Edward Hale (1999), Ásura in Early Vedic Religion, Motilal Barnarsidass, ISBN 978-8120800618, pages 5-11, 22, 99-102
  17. Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary” Etymologically and Philologically Arranged to cognate Indo-European Languages, Motilal Banarsidass, page 121
  18. Wash Edward Hale (1999), Ásura in Early Vedic Religion, Motilal Barnarsidass, ISBN 978-8120800618, pages 2-6
  19. Nicholas Gier (2000), Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0791445280, pages 59-76
  20. Guy Beck (2005), Alternative Krishnas: Regional and Vernacular Variations on a Hindu Deity, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0791464151, page 169 note 11
  21. George Williams (2008), A Handbook of Hindu Mythology, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195332612, pages 24-33
  22. Bina Gupta (2011), An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415800037, pages 21-25
  23. John Bowker (2014), God: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0198708957, pages 88-96
  24. Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books. pp. 142–243. ISBN 0-465-00696-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Barrett, Justin (1996). "Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts" (PDF). Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Rossano, Matt (2007). "Supernaturalizing Social Life: Religion and the Evolution of Human Cooperation" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-06-21. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>