The Ascription of Divinity to Human Beings


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    If God were not a necessary being of himself, He might almost seem to be made for the use and benefit of mankind.
    John Tillotson (1630-1694), Archbishop of Canterbury (1691-1694)

    As anthropologists have long known, there is a widespread tendency for ordinary mortals to endow their leaders with everlasting life. This appears to have been the origin of many divine pantheons, including the ancient Jewish gods. It seems that we mortals like to feel that our leaders are greater than they really are. We want them to be immortal.

    In Britain King Arthur was held to be destined to return to his throne at some time in the future, which is why he was styled the Once and Future King. Around the country there are many ancient burial mounds that local traditions hold to be the resting-place of local kings who only sleep, and who one day will return. Such beliefs are now regarded with benign amusement, but it is not long ago that they were widely held. During the Crusades it was reported that St George had returned to fight for Christendom. Sometimes he bore the arms of England. During World War I it was widely believed that he had come back again, still dressed as a crusader, to fight for England against a new evil. For centuries many believed that Francis Drake would return to save the country if he was ever needed, and some claim to have heard his drum during sea battles in the twentieth century.

    This sort of phenomenon is not peculiar to Britain. St James would occasionally turn out on his white horse to help the Spanish forces, just as St George did for the English. Once and future leaders occur around the world. Chandragupta in India, Cyrus in Persia, Romulus in Rome , Alexander in Greece, Hakim (according to the Druzes) in Lebanon , Timur in Uzbekistan, Charlemagne in parts of Europe , Barbarossa in Germany, Vlad the Impaler in Romania , Sebastian in Portugal. Often these leaders did not die: they mysteriously disappeared one day and retired to some hidden resting place, or were bodily transported to Heaven. Some Jews seem to have believed that Enoch, Moses and Elijah were taken up into Heaven without having died*. Even today there is a reluctance to accept that key national figures are really dead, and their return is occasionally reported. Examples of men who have died in recent times and whose earthly return has been expected, or reported, include Parnell ( Ireland), General Gordon and Lord Kitchener (Britain) , Zapata ( Mexico), Hitler ( Germany and Austria), and Che Guevara ( Cuba). Sometimes there are religious overtones. Towards the end of the twentieth century both John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley were reported to have returned as living persons in the USA. Both have had religious shrines erected to them, and both have been credited with miracles. People are simply unwilling to accept the mortality of their heroes.

    In the past, mortals who became immortal often went on to become fully divine. Gilgamesh got to Heaven in this way, and so probably did Osiris. More than 2,000 years ago Greek philosophers realised that at least some of their immortals were exaggerated memories of earlier generals, kings and heroes*. This did not carry much weight with the masses, who continued to believe in their immortal gods. Indeed they seem to have been surprisingly ready to believe that men were gods. According to Acts 14:11-12, Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for gods on one occasion*, and later, Paul was again mistaken for a god by the Maltese (Acts 28:1-6). In New Testament times Simon Magus was believed by Samaritans to be a god*. In the Greek world great rulers were regarded as sharing the essence of divinity. From the second century BC to the third century AD rulers were frequently accorded the divine title epiphanes. The word means manifestation, specifically a divine manifestation, and is the root of the Christian term Epiphany. The Romans were liberal with conferred divinity, believing that they could appoint gods. It became customary for the Roman senate to elect emperors to the pantheon after their death. Julius, Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian and Titus for example were all deified. On his deathbed the Emperor Vespasian joked: "Dear me, I believe I am becoming a god"*. Herod Agrippa also reputedly considered himself to be a god*.

    Apotheosis of Antoninus and Faustina,
    from the base of the Column of Antoninus in fhe Campus Martius (now Piazza di Montecitorio), Rome.

    Apotheosis of Antoninus and Faustina, from the base of the Column of Antoninus in fhe Campus Martius (now Piazza di Montecitorio)


    Even without formal appointments ordinary people have spontaneously judged great leaders to have turned into gods. Zoroaster never claimed divinity for himself, but some of his followers were keen to accord it to him. Siddhartha Guatama became immortal as a divine Buddha. In Asia there are still communities that worship Ghengis Khan, and around the Mediterranean there are saidto be those who worship Alexander the Great. Some leaders achieved godhead even while still gracing us here on Earth in human form. Egyptian Pharaohs were gods. Chinese and Japanese emperors were gods, and some Japanese still regard their living emperor as a god. Successive Tibetan Dalai Lamas are still in theory God-kings, as are a few remaining Asian kings such as those of Nepal and Thailand (though the King of Nepal's divinity has come into question since a massacre of the Nepalese royal family in 2001, and then the creation of a Nepalese republic in 2009). Rastafarians regard the late Emperor Haile Selassi of Ethiopia as a god. European monarchs no longer claim divinity, but many of them trace their lineage back to Odin.

    Louis XIV, the Sun King, thought of himself as Jupiter. He had himself painted as the god, and had no qualms about citing his divine Olympian status to justify his placing himself human norms. As he pointed out to courtiers as he escorted their young wives off to the bedroom "There is no shame in sharing with Jupiter".

    In popular imagination great heros still win a place in heaven - the process of getting them there is called apotheisis.

    Apotheosis of St Ignatius by Baciccio


    The Apotheosis of Nelson, 1805 painting by Scott Pierre Nicolas Legrand


    The Apotheosis of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, 1860
    Presumably George is lifting the recently deceased Abraham into Heaven.

    Great religious leaders have foreseen the likelihood of their followers imagining them to be divine. The Buddha on his deathbed laughed at his followers for supposing him to be immortal. Mohammed went to great pains to impress upon his followers that he was a human prophet, not a god. "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet". Even so some Muslims identify men with God. Shi"ite Muslims invest their imams with semi-divine or even divine powers, the Alawites believe that Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali, was God. Bohras and Khojas regard their imam as an embodiment of the Hindu god Vishnu, and, like other Ismailis, they regard the Aga Khan as at least semi-divine.

    The temptation to make men into gods seems to be almost irresistible. Both Siddhartha and Mohammed foresaw the danger and warned their followers about people who would want to deify them. Critics have speculated that if Jesus had been more perspicuous he might have warned his followers that, after his death, they would need to watch out for people like Saint Paul who might want to deify him.


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    §. John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate, pp 106-111.

    §. We are not talking here of humans who won immortality as divine lovers (e.g. Ganymede and Psyche) or as great healers (Æskelepios and Imhotep ) but of kings and heroes like Philip of Macedon (Alexander's father) and Orion. Generals who won immortality include Dion, and Lysander the Spartan.

    §. The gods were Zeus and Hermes (Jupiter and Mercury), the same gods that according to myth visited Baucis and Philemon incognito. See Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8, 626-721.

    §. St Justin Martyr, First Apology 26, cited by Eusebius, The History of the Church, 2:13.

    §. See Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, and for Vespasian's quotation 10.23.

    §. Acts 12:19-23, cf. Josephus, Antiquities, 19.8.2.

    §. "Le roi, par le sentiment excessif de sa divinité païenne, arrivait à cette conclusion: 'qu'il était comme monarque audessus des lois ordinaires et que dans l'Olympe où les poëtes et les artistes l'avaient placé, comme le Jupiter d'Homère, il pouvait, se transformer pour ses plaisirs et honorer la terre de ses amours.'" (M Capefigue, Mademoiselle de la Vallière et les Favorites des trois Ages de Louis XIV.)

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