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The Authentic Experience of Ancient Gods

Ahura Mazda is the highest god in Zoroastrianism, creating and upholding truth.
Ahura Mazda is the highest god in Zoroastrianism, creating and upholding truth.
Religion has been part of all societies,1 but why? A lot of intellectual discourse has tackled the subject, much of it reaching the conclusion that people just need to have gods and so they make them up. But even a quick scan of ancient religious history will show that authentic experience of something awesome—perhaps not “God” or “gods,” perhaps beings with technology so advanced it seems like magic—inspired the creation and growth of religions around the world.

It was easy for religion to take root, both because authentic experience makes for enthusiastic converts and proselytizers, and because religion indeed fills some human needs. Ancient people expected to deal with the normal troubles of life on their own, but, as Rodney Stark writes in Discovering God, they hoped that the gods would help them with the forces beyond human control:

[P]rimitive peoples … call upon the supernatural for rain, for help in finding game, and for safe voyages. In doing so, they acknowledge the fundamental principle that the supernatural is the only plausible source of many things that human beings greatly desire. Therein lies one key to the universality of religion—its capacity to overcome the generic limitations of human power by invoking entities or forces that transcend nature. Whether it is a Bantu priest in Nigeria chanting that Awwaw grant a good harvest, or a Baptist congregation in Georgia singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear,” religion offers an alternative means to achieve greatly desired ends, when direct methods fail or do not exist.

The earliest religions—lost in prehistory and based, perhaps, on real experiences—were more sophisticated than most of the religions they later spawned, and they were more morality-based than later versions. Most stories about gods show them as wrapped up in their own lives, giving little or no thought to the welfare of humanity or individual humans, or to humans' morality or lack of it. Exceptions are the “bringers of civilization,” divine teachers, deities or demigods whose role is to help, such as Oannes.

The failure of humans to pay proper tribute to the gods—such as neglecting to make sacrifices—gets attention, but instead of striking deficient humans dead, the gods tend to destroy the whole city (much as a few annoying ants might encourage us to take out a whole anthill).

Gods and goddesses around the world have usually been thought of as a lot like humans, except with superpowers and immortality. They have humanlike needs and desires, and display the whole range of emotions and behaviors, for better and worse. Often, the gods are depicted as human or humanoid forms, with perhaps a pair of wings and eagle head and talons to show they can fly.

Since creation stories of many societies state that humans were made from divine matter—often the blood, spit, or semen of a god or gods — deities that look more or less like us are not necessarily reflecting a lack of imagination on the part of those depicting them; it would be reasonable for ancient gods to look a lot like humans, and in ancient stories, including Bible stories, they are able to pass as human when visiting Earth. Homer writes, “The gods, likening themselves to all kinds of strangers, go in various disguises from city to city, observing the wrongdoing and the righteousness of men.”

Kamadhenu is a Hindu bovine goddess, the source of all prosperity.
Kamadhenu is a Hindu bovine goddess, the source of all prosperity.
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But it's obvious when looking at depictions of gods that the ancients sometimes had a hard time figuring out what they were seeing, or hearing described. “It's a bird, it's a plane….” Of course, planes were beyond the understanding of ancient people, as were machines generally. If it moves, it's a human or other animal. If it flies, it has to be a bird, but, wait, it's long like a snake, and omigosh it's breathing fire! If it's operating a weapon, it must have hands. If it makes loud noise, it must have a mouth.

Descriptions of the gods are often at least partly descriptions of the vehicles in which the gods travel (see Divine Chariots) —leading to some odd-looking gods, and perhaps leading to the invention of gods with multiple aspects, avatars—magically transforming from fiery serpent to human form as they step out of or slide off of their fiery serpent, or thunderbird, or silver eagle, or flying elephant.

In another realm from most gods and goddesses is the high god, or creator god, a feature of many ancient religions. The high god creates the universe and/or Earth. In many cases, he or she or they afterwards withdraw into remotest heaven, leaving “down-to-Earth” gods to take on the day-to-day work of running the worldly creation.

Jupiter Ammon, shown on this terracotta slab from the first century CE, was one of the many versions of Jupiter, who was equated  with the Egyptian high god Amun after Rome conquered Egypt.
Jupiter Ammon, shown on this terracotta slab from the first century CE, was one of the many versions of Jupiter, who was equated with the Egyptian high god Amun after Rome conquered Egypt.
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Almost without exception, societies that emphasize high-god beliefs feature many gods, who are all subordinate to the high deity. Adherents seemed to find the lesser gods more real, more relevant and accessible compared to the abstract and omnipotent high gods. The monotheist religion of high god Yahweh required that the various gods who were originally in his pantheon be downgraded to divine beings, such as angels and demons, since there could only be one god (see Yahweh’s Roots in Polytheism).

Many scholars believe that the prevalence of high god beliefs is the result not of ancient people around the world making up similar stories, but of essentially the same, authentic, ancient revelations (encounters with “God” or “gods”) being experienced by many primitive cultures globally.

High gods usually are sky deities or sky fathers, ruling over the other gods from the heavens. But many, many other gods are also able to fly, and they put in a lot of time in the sky.



1. Rodney Stark, Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief (USA: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 38.

The Nile god pouring water over the soul of Osiris.
The Nile god pouring water over the soul of Osiris.
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Ravana is a king (or “demon king”) of ancient Lanka, whose main claim to fame is kidnapping Sita, Rama’s wife. Rama is an avatar of Vishnu and king of the Indian city of Ayodhya, and the story of how he gets Sita back is told in the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana (Rama’s Journey).
Ravana is a king (or “demon king”) of ancient Lanka, whose main claim to fame is kidnapping Sita, Rama’s wife. Rama is an avatar of Vishnu and king of the Indian city of Ayodhya, and the story of how he gets Sita back is told in the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana (Rama’s Journey).
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The Hindu Lord Vishnu is portrayed here in his universal form, Vishnu Vishvarupa. Source
The Hindu Lord Vishnu is portrayed here in his universal form, Vishnu Vishvarupa.
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The Aztec god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl combines the deities Ehecatl, the wind god, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god. Ehecatl is usually considered an aspect (similar to a Hindu avatar) of Quetzalcoatl. This illustration is from the Codex Borgia, a graphics-filled pre-Columbian divinatory and ritual manuscript painted on animal skins, 35 feet long, folded into 39 sheets. Source
The Aztec god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl combines the deities Ehecatl, the wind god, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god. Ehecatl is usually considered an aspect (similar to a Hindu avatar) of Quetzalcoatl. This illustration is from the Codex Borgia, a graphics-filled pre-Columbian divinatory and ritual manuscript painted on animal skins, 35 feet long, folded into 39 sheets.
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Amun, the Egyptian creator god, later merged with the sun god Ra to become Amun-Ra.
Amun, the Egyptian creator god, later merged with the sun god Ra to become Amun-Ra.
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Possible representation of Quetzalcoatl wearing a conical cap with a skull in front and long earflaps, characteristic elements of the Huasteca culture, from Naranjo, Veracruz.
Possible representation of Quetzalcoatl wearing a conical cap with a skull in front and long earflaps, characteristic elements of the Huasteca culture, from Naranjo, Veracruz.
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Thunder Gods, Such as Yahweh…

Thunder gods, such as Yahweh, are popular all over the world. Making big noise and throwing lightning bolts, they get people’s attention, and fearful obedience. Wind gods and sky gods may also be thunder gods—sky gods tend to speak with voices of thunder and cause strong winds. There is further overlap between thunder gods, weather gods, storm gods, war gods, fire gods, and sun gods. A lot of deities tend to be noisy and flaming, up in the sky.

japanese thunder godSource
This Two-Fold Paper Screen, from the Tokyo National Museum, painted by Tawaraya Sota in the 17th century, shows the Japanese thunder god, left, and Wind God, right.

Thunderbolts as divine retribution are popular not only in the Bible, but in many ancient cultures. The Hindu lightning god Indra has the thunderbolt Vajra as his preferred weapon. Teshub, the Hurrian sky and storm god, has a triple thunderbolt; Zeus has his thunderbolt, given to him by the Cyclopes; and the Norse thunder god Thor has his magic hammer, Mjölnir (Pulverizier), which not only zaps what he aims at, but returns to him so he can fire again. The Mayan god Huracan is sometimes depicted as three bolts of lightning, and, as his name suggests, he was known for creating powerful whirlwinds.

Amadioha, the thunder and lightning god of Nigeria’s Igbo people, administers justice using thunderstones he hurls down to Earth. He is still a popular god these days, and, as with Yahweh, people swear the truth of what they’re saying by asking the god to strike them dead by lightning if they lie. If Amadioha strikes someone dead with lightning, the priests reportedly see it as the god’s will, and take the dead person’s property, leaving the body unburied. If a person has been cursed in Amadioha’s name, he can only release himself by transferring the curse to a goat that he releases into the wild. This is reminiscent of the Old Testament scapegoat, to whom the high priest of Israel confesses all his people’s sins, before releasing it. The Igbo phrase that translates as “Amadioha will punish you” is like the “God will get you” of Yahweh’s followers.

Perkele, the name of the Finnish thunder god, is a frequently used swear word in Finland. “Management by Perkele” is an expression for a Finnish leadership approach that takes fast action instead of considering everyone’s point of view.

raijin netsukeSource
The Japanese Thunder God Raijin, right, is in the form of a netsuke, a kind of button used in 17th- and 18th-century Japan to fasten men’s purses to the sashes of their robes.

The Australian Aborigine god Mamaragan typifies thunder gods in that he speaks with a voice of thunder, rides a storm cloud, and throws lightning bolts. But his abode is not the high mountains or heavens like most thunder gods, rather just a puddle. The Chinese god Lei Gong specializes in thunder; he has four assistants to help him produce lightning, clouds, rain, and winds, including his wife, Dian Mu, the goddess of lightning, who uses mirrors to flash bolts across the skies. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder writes of nine Etruscan gods who were able to shoot thunderbolts of various colors.

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A Mayan Serpent God Scene from the ruins at Yaxchilan.

The ancient Roman religious deities, the Novensiles (sometimes identified as muses or as members of a divine council), specialize in “lightning readings”—revealing the divine intent behind lightning. Reportedly, Jupiter (or the Etruscan version, Tinia) can wield three types of lightning, from three different celestial regions. The first type, which he can use at his discretion, is perforating lightning,1 which is mild and meant as friendly persuasion or dissuasion.2 Crushing lightning, which is harmful, can be used only by approval of the Dii Consentes, a group of 12 major deities. Burning lightning, which is deadly, is used only by approval of the Dii Superiores et Involuti (hidden gods of the higher sphere).3



1. Massimo Pallottino, “The Doctrine and Sacred Books of the Disciplina Etrusca,” Roman and European Mythologies (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 43–44; Stefan Weinstock, “Libri fulgurales,” Papers of the British School at Rome 19 (1951), 125.
2. Georges Dumézil, La religion Romaine Archaïque (Paris 1974), 630, 633 (note 3), drawing on Seneca, Naturales Questiones 2.41.1–2 and 39.
3. Weinstock, Papers of the British School, 127.

codex borgia page 10Source
The Aztec Codex Borgia always has something interesting going on. These scenes constitute page 10 of the 1898 facsimile edition. See all 76 pages at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Codex_Borgia
marutsSource
Maruts. These Hindu storm gods number from two to 180 depending on the story. They are extremely warlike, with lightning, thunderbolts, and iron teeth. They roar like lions as their fiery red horses pull their golden chariots through the skies.
Dios Cocijo ( Zapotec god of the rain ) found at Monte Alban, in the Valley of Oaxaca, circa 200-500 CE.source
Cocijo, Zapotec god of the rain, from Monte Alban, in Oaxaca, circa 200-500 CE.
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Zeus, the Greek version of Jupiter, is shown in his chariot, preparing to launch a lightning bolt.
chacSource
Chaac, the Mayan god of rain, lightning, and thunder, is shown here reproduced from the Dresden Codex, the oldest known book written in the Americas, from the 11th or 12th century CE.
falling thunder godSource
Falling Thunder God.
thunderbirdSource
Native American Thunderbird.

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Thunderbirds Shooting Lightning, old sign.

modern-day thunderbirdsSource
Modern-Day Thunderbirds follow the leader.

thorSource
The Norse Thunder God Thor, above, in his Germanic version as Donner, uses his hammer to summon the storm clouds in Richard Wagner’s opera, Das Rheingold.
sami offering to diermes or thorSource
Horagalles is the god of sky, thunder, lightning, the rainbow, weather, oceans, and lakes for the northern European Arctic indigneous Sami people. He is usually shown with a nail in his head and holding a hammer.
blackhawk spiritbeingSource
Haokah, above. In about 1880, the Lakota Sioux Chief Black Hawk illustrated a vision he had of himself as the horned thunder god Haokah, 'changed to a destroyer and riding a buffalo eagle.' The rainbow shown is the entrance to the spirit world, and the dots are hail.
papa and rangiSource
Papa (left) and Rangi. This Māori carving likely represents the primal creator couple, Papa the Earth Mother and Rangi the Sky Father, locked in embrace.
chromesun-mississippiansource
Mississippian birdman. 'A digital illustration by the artist Herb Roe, based on a S.E.C.C. design whelk shell engraving from Spiro, Oklahoma.'