Updated: Jan 21, 2022
The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Hieronymus Bosch is based on Genesis 6:1–4
The Nephilim are mysterious beings or people mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. They are large and strong; the word Nephilim is loosely translated as giants in some Bibles but left untranslated in others. Some traditional Jewish explanations interpret them as fallen angels. The main reference to them is in Genesis, but the passage is ambiguous and the identity of the Nephilim is disputed.
According to Numbers 13:33, they later inhabited Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest of Canaan.
A similar or identical biblical Hebrew term, read as “Nephilim” by some scholars, or as the word “fallen” by others, appears in Ezekiel 32:27.
The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (1908) gives the meaning of nephilim as “giants”, and holds that proposed etymologies of the word are “all very precarious”. Many suggested interpretations are based on the assumption that the word is a derivative of Hebrew verbal root n-p-l “fall”. Robert Baker Girdlestone argued in 1871 the word comes from the hif’il causative stem, implying that the nephilim are to be perceived as “those that cause others to fall down”. Ronald Hendel states that it is a passive form: “ones who have fallen”, grammatically analogous to paqid “one who is appointed” (i.e., overseer), asir “one who is bound” (i.e., prisoner), etc.
The majority of ancient biblical versions—including the Septuagint, Theodotion, Latin Vulgate, Samaritan Targum, Targum Onkelos, and Targum Neofiti—interpret the word to mean “giants”. Symmachus translates it as “the violent ones” and Aquila’s translation has been interpreted to mean either “the fallen ones” or “the ones falling [upon their enemies]”.
In the Hebrew Bible
In the Hebrew Bible there are three interconnected passages referencing the nephilim. Two of them come from the Pentateuch and the first occurrence is in Genesis 6:1–4, immediately before the account of Noah’s Ark. Genesis 6:4 reads as follows:
The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
Where the Jewish Publication Society translation simply transliterated the Hebrew nephilim as “Nephilim”, the King James Version translated the term as “giants”.
The nature of the Nephilim is complicated by the ambiguity of Genesis 6:4, which leaves it unclear whether they are the “sons of God” or their offspring who are the “mighty men of old, men of renown”. Richard Hess takes it to mean that the Nephilim are the offspring, as does P. W. Coxon.
The second is Numbers 13:32–33, where ten of the Twelve Spies report that they have seen fearsome giants in Canaan:
And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.
Outside the Pentateuch there is one more passage indirectly referencing nephilim and this is Ezekiel 32:17–32. Of special significance is Ezekiel 32:27, which contains a phrase of disputed meaning. With the traditional vowels added to the text in the medieval period, the phrase is read gibborim nophlim (“fallen warriors” or “fallen Gibborim”), although some scholars read the phrase as gibborim nephilim (“Nephilim warriors” or “warriors, Nephilim”). According to Ronald S. Hendel, the phrase should be interpreted as “warriors, the Nephilim” in a reference to Genesis 6:4. The verse as understood by Hendel reads
They lie with the warriors, the Nephilim of old, who descended to Sheol with their weapons of war. They placed their swords beneath their heads and their shields upon their bones, for the terror of the warriors was upon the land of the living.
Brian R. Doak, on the other hand, proposes to read the term as the Hebrew verb “fallen” (nophlim), not a use of the specific term “Nephilim”, but still according to Doak a clear reference to the Nephilim tradition as found in Genesis.
Most of the contemporary English translations of Genesis 6:1–4 and Numbers 13:33 render the Heb. nefilim as “giants”. This tendency in turn stems from the fact that one of the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, composed in III/II century BCE, renders the said word as gigantes. The choice made by the Greek translators has been later adopted into the Latin translation, the Vulgate, compiled in IV/V century CE, which uses the transcription of the Greek term rather than the literal translation of the Heb. nefilim. From there, the tradition of the giant progeny of the sons of God and the daughters of men spread to later medieval translations of the Bible.
The decision of the Greek translators to render the Heb. nefilim as Gr. gigantes is a separate matter. The Heb. nefilim means literally “the fallen ones” and the strict translation into Greek would be peptokotes, which in fact appears in the Septuagint of Ezekiel 32:22–27. It seems then that the authors of Septuagint wished not only to simply translate the foreign term into Greek, but also to employ a term which would be intelligible and meaningful for their Hellenistic audiences. Given the complex meaning of the nefilim which emerged from the three interconnected biblical passages (human-divine hybrids in Genesis 6, autochthonous people in Numbers 13 and ancient warriors trapped in the underworld in Ezekiel 32), the Greek translators recognized some similarities. First and foremost, both nefilim and gigantes were liminal figures resulting from the union of the opposite orders and as such retained the unclear status between the human and divine. Similarly dim was their moral designation and the sources witnessed to both awe and fascination with which these figures must have been looked upon. Secondly, both were presented as impersonating chaotic qualities and posing some serious danger to gods and humans. They appeared either in the prehistoric or early historical context, but in both cases they preceded the ordering of the cosmos. Lastly, both gigantes and nefilim were clearly connected with underworld and were said to have originated from earth and as well end up closed therein.
In 1 Enoch, they were “great giants, whose height was three thousand ells”. An Ell being 18 inches (45 centimetres), this would make them 4500 feet (nearly a mile) tall (1350 metres).
The Quran refers to the people of Ād in Quran 26:130 whom the prophet Hud declares to be like jabbarin (Hebrew: gibborim), probably a reference to the Biblical Nephilim. The people of Ād are said to be giants, the tallest among them a hundred feet high. However, according to Islamic legend, the ʿĀd were not wiped out by the flood, since some of them had been too tall to be drowned. Instead, God destroyed them after they rejected further warnings. After death, they were banished into the lower layers of hell.
The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair, sculpture by Daniel Chester French.
All early sources refer to the “sons of heaven” as angels. From the third century BCE onwards, references are found in the Enochic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Genesis Apocryphon, the Damascus Document, 4Q180), Jubilees, the Testament of Reuben, 2 Baruch, Josephus, and the book of Jude (compare with 2 Peter 2). For example: 1 Enoch 7:2 “And when the angels, (3) the sons of heaven, beheld them, they became enamoured of them, saying to each other, Come, let us select for ourselves wives from the progeny of men, and let us beget children.” Some Christian apologists, such as Tertullian and especially Lactantius, shared this opinion.
The earliest statement in a secondary commentary explicitly interpreting this to mean that angelic beings mated with humans can be traced to the rabbinical Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and it has since become especially commonplace in modern Christian commentaries. This line of interpretation finds additional support in the text of Genesis 6:4, which juxtaposes the sons of God (male gender, divine nature) with the daughters of men (female gender, human nature). From this parallelism it could be inferred that the sons of God are understood as some superhuman beings.
The New American Bible commentary draws a parallel to the Epistle of Jude and the statements set forth in Genesis, suggesting that the Epistle refers implicitly to the paternity of Nephilim as heavenly beings who came to earth and had sexual intercourse with women. The footnotes of the Jerusalem Bible suggest that the biblical author intended the Nephilim to be an “anecdote of a superhuman race”.
Some Christian commentators have argued against this view, citing Jesus’s statement that angels do not marry. Others believe that Jesus was only referring to angels in heaven.
Evidence cited in favor of the fallen angels interpretation includes the fact that the phrase “the sons of God” (“sons of the gods”) is used twice outside of Genesis chapter 6, in the Book of Job (1:6 and 2:1) where the phrase explicitly references angels. The Septuagint manuscript Codex Alexandrinus reading of Genesis 6:2 renders this phrase as “the angels of God” while Codex Vaticanus reads “sons”.
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan identifies the Nephilim as Shemihaza and the angels in the name list from 1 Enoch.
Second Temple Judaism
The story of the Nephilim is further elaborated in the Book of Enoch. The Greek, Aramaic, and main Ge’ez manuscripts of 1 Enoch and Jubilees obtained in the 19th century and held in the British Museum and Vatican Library, connect the origin of the Nephilim with the fallen angels, and in particular with the egrḗgoroi (watchers). Samyaza, an angel of high rank, is described as leading a rebel sect of angels in a descent to earth to have sexual intercourse with human females:
And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: “Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.” And Semjaza, who was their leader, said unto them: “I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.” And they all answered him and said: “Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.” Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it …
In this tradition, the children of the Nephilim are called the Elioud, who are considered a separate race from the Nephilim, but they share the fate of the Nephilim.
Some believe, the fallen angels who begat the Nephilim were cast into Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:6) (Greek Enoch 20:2), a place of “total darkness”. An interpretation is that God granted ten percent of the disembodied spirits of the Nephilim to remain after the flood, as demons, to try to lead the human race astray until the final Judgment.
In addition to Enoch, the Book of Jubilees (7:21–25) also states that ridding the Earth of these Nephilim was one of God’s purposes for flooding the Earth in Noah’s time. These works describe the Nephilim as being evil giants.
There are also allusions to these descendants in the deuterocanonical books of Judith (16:6), Sirach (16:7), Baruch (3:26–28), and Wisdom of Solomon (14:6), and in the non-deuterocanonical 3 Maccabees (2:4).
The New Testament Epistle of Jude (14–15) cites from 1 Enoch 1:9, which many scholars believe is based on Deuteronomy 33:2. To most commentators this confirms that the author of Jude regarded the Enochic interpretations of Genesis 6 as correct; however, others have questioned this.
Descendants of Seth and Cain
References to the offspring of Seth rebelling from God and mingling with the daughters of Cain are found from the second century CE onwards in both Christian and Jewish sources (e.g. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Augustine of Hippo, Sextus Julius Africanus, and the Letters attributed to St. Clement). It is also the view expressed in the modern canonical Amharic Ethiopian Orthodox Bible: Henok 2:1–3 “and the Offspring of Seth, who were upon the Holy Mount, saw them and loved them. And they told one another, ‘Come, let us choose for us daughters from Cain’s children; let us bear children for us.'”
Orthodox Judaism has taken a stance against the idea that Genesis 6 refers to angels or that angels could intermarry with men. Shimon bar Yochai pronounced a curse on anyone teaching this idea. Rashi and Nachmanides followed this. Pseudo-Philo (Biblical Antiquities 3:1–3) may also imply that the “sons of God” were human. Consequently, most Jewish commentaries and translations describe the Nephilim as being from the offspring of “sons of nobles”, rather than from “sons of God” or “sons of angels”. This is also the rendering suggested in the Targum Onqelos, Symmachus and the Samaritan Targum, which read “sons of the rulers”, where Targum Neophyti reads “sons of the judges”.
Likewise, a long-held view among some Christians is that the “sons of God” were the formerly righteous descendants of Seth who rebelled, while the “daughters of men” were the unrighteous descendants of Cain, and the Nephilim the offspring of their union. This view, dating to at least the 1st century CE in Jewish literature as described above, is also found in Christian sources from the 3rd century if not earlier, with references throughout the Clementine literature, as well as in Sextus Julius Africanus, Ephrem the Syrian and others. Holders of this view have looked for support in Jesus’ statement that “in those days before the flood they [humans] were … marrying and giving in marriage” (Matthew 24:38).
Some individuals and groups, including St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and John Calvin, take the view of Genesis 6:2 that the “Angels” who fathered the Nephilim referred to certain human males from the lineage of Seth, who were called sons of God probably in reference to their prior covenant with Yahweh (cf. Deuteronomy 14:1; 32:5); according to these sources, these men had begun to pursue bodily interests, and so took wives of the daughters of men, e.g., those who were descended from Cain or from any people who did not worship God.
This also is the view of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, supported by their own Ge’ez manuscripts and Amharic translation of the Haile Selassie Bible—where the books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees, counted as canonical by this church, differ from western academic editions. The “Sons of Seth view” is also the view presented in a few extra-biblical, yet ancient works, including Clementine literature, the 3rd century Cave of Treasures, and the ca. 6th Century Ge’ez work The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan. In these sources, these offspring of Seth were said to have disobeyed God, by breeding with the Cainites and producing wicked children “who were all unlike”, thus angering God into bringing about the Deluge, as in the Conflict:
Certain wise men of old wrote concerning them, and say in their [sacred] books that angels came down from heaven and mingled with the daughters of Cain, who bare unto them these giants. But these [wise men] err in what they say. God forbid such a thing, that angels who are spirits, should be found committing sin with human beings. Never, that cannot be. And if such a thing were of the nature of angels, or Satans, that fell, they would not leave one woman on earth, undefiled … But many men say, that angels came down from heaven, and joined themselves to women, and had children by them. This cannot be true. But they were children of Seth, who were of the children of Adam, that dwelt on the mountain, high up, while they preserved their virginity, their innocence and their glory like angels; and were then called ‘angels of God.’ But when they transgressed and mingled with the children of Cain, and begat children, ill-informed men said, that angels had come down from heaven, and mingled with the daughters of men, who bear them giants.
Arguments from culture and mythology
In Aramaic culture, the term niyphelah refers to the Constellation of Orion and nephilim to the offspring of Orion in mythology. However the Brown–Driver–Briggs lexicon notes this as a “dubious etymology” and “all very precarious”.
C. Greenfield mentions that “it has been proposed that the tale of the Nephilim, alluded to in Genesis 6 is based on some of the negative aspects of the Apkallu tradition”. The apkallu in Sumerian mythology were seven legendary culture heroes from before the Flood, of human descent, but possessing extraordinary wisdom from the gods, and one of the seven apkallu, Adapa, was therefore called “son of Ea” the Babylonian god, despite his human origin.
Fallen angels were believed by Arab pagans to be sent to earth in form of men. Some of them mated with humans and gave rise to hybrid children. As recorded by Al-Jahiz, a common belief held that Abu Jurhum, the ancestor of the Jurhum tribe, was actually the son of a disobedient angel and a human woman.
Cotton Mather believed that fossilized leg bones and teeth discovered near Albany, New York, in 1705 were the remains of nephilim who perished in a great flood. However, paleontologists have identified these as mastodon remains.
In popular culture
Main article: Nephilim in popular culture
The name and idea of Nephilim, like many other religious concepts, is sometimes used in popular culture. Examples include the gothic rock band Fields of the Nephilim, The Renquist Quartet novels by Mick Farren, The Mortal Instruments, The Infernal Devices, The Last Hours, The Dark Artifices and other books in The Shadowhunter Chronicles series by Cassandra Clare, the Hush, Hush series by Becca Fitzpatrick, and TV series The X-Files and Supernatural. In the video game series Darksiders, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are said to be nephilim, wherein the nephilim were created by the unholy union of angels and demons. The main characters of the game DmC: Devil May Cry (2013), a reboot of the popular original series Devil May Cry, Dante and Vergil, are also referred to as Nephilim; being the offspring of the demon Sparda and the angel Eva. In the trading card game Magic: The Gathering, the Nephilim are interpreted as Old Gods from before modern society. In Diablo 3 the Nephalem were the first humans upon Sanctuary, created as a result of the union between Angels and Demons. A creature referred to as “Nephilim” appears in Season 2 of the Japanese animated series Symphogear.
Book of Giants
Giants (Greek mythology)
List of giants in mythology and folklore
“Cuchulain Slays the Hound of Culain”, illustration by Stephen Reid from Eleanor Hull’s The Boys’ Cuchulain, 1904
A demigod or demi-god is a minor deity, or a mortal or immortal who is the offspring of a god and a human, or a figure who has attained divine status after death. Figuratively, it is used to describe a person whose talents or abilities are so superlative that they appear to approach being divine.
Väinämöinen, the central character in Finnish folklore and the main character in the national epic Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot, is an old and wise demigod, who is possessed a potent, magical singing voice. Picture of the Väinämöinen’s Play by Robert Wilhelm Ekman, 1866.
The English term “demi-god” is a calque of the Latin word semideus, “half-god”. The Roman poet Ovid probably coined semideus to refer to less important gods, such as dryads. Compare the Greek hemitheos.
In the ancient Greek and Roman world, the concept of a demigod did not have a consistent definition and associated terminology rarely appeared.[need quotation to verify]
The earliest recorded use of the term occurs in texts attributed to the archaic Greek poets Homer and Hesiod. Both describe dead heroes as hemitheoi, or “half gods”. In these cases, the word did not literally mean that these figures had one parent who was divine and one who was mortal. Instead, those who demonstrated “strength, power, good family, and good behavior” were termed heroes, and after death they could be called hemitheoi, a process that has been referred to as “heroization”. Pindar also used the term frequently as a synonym for “hero”.
According to the Roman author Cassius Dio, the Roman Senate declared Julius Caesar a demigod after his 46 BCE victory at Thapsus. However, Dio was writing in the third century CE — centuries after the death of Caesar — and modern critics have cast doubt on whether the Senate really did this.
The first Roman to employ the term “demigod” may have been the poet Ovid (17 or 18 CE), who used the Latin semideus several times in reference to minor deities. The poet Lucan (39-65) also uses the term to speak of Pompey attaining divinity upon his death in 48 BCE. In later antiquity, the Roman writer Martianus Capella (fl. 410-420) proposed a hierarchy of gods as follows:
the gods proper, or major gods
the genii or daemones
the demigods or semones (who dwell in the upper atmosphere)
the manes and ghosts of heroes (who dwell in the lower atmosphere)
the earth-dwelling gods like fauns and satyrs
The Celtic warrior Cú Chulainn, who is the hero of the Irish national epic the Táin Bo Cuailnge, is a demigod. He is the son of the Irish god Lugh and the mortal princess Deichtine.
In Hinduism, the term demigod is used to refer to deities who were once human and later became devas (gods). There are two notable demigods in Vedic Scriptures:
Nandi (the divine vehicle of Shiva),  and Garuda (the divine steed of Vishnu). Examples of demigods worshiped in South India are Madurai Veeran and Karuppu Sami.
The heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the five Pandava brothers, fit the Western definition of demigods though they are generally not referred to as such. Queen Kunti, the wife of King Pandu, was given a mantra that, when recited, meant that one of the Gods would give her his child. When her husband was cursed to die if he ever engaged in sexual relations, Kunti used this mantra to provide her husband with children fathered by various deities. These children were Yudhishthira (child of Dharmaraj), Bhima (child of Vayu) and Arjuna (child of Indra). She taught this mantra to Madri, King Pandu’s other wife, and she immaculately conceived twin boys named Nakula and Sahadeva (children of the Asvins). Queen Kunti had previously conceived another son, Karna, when she had tested the mantra out. Despite her protests, Surya the sun god was compelled by the mantra to impregnate her. Bhishma is another figures who fits the western definition of demigod, as he was the son of king Shantanu and Goddess Ganga.
The Vaishnavites (who often translate deva as “demigod”) cite various verses that speak of the devas’ subordinate status. For example, the Rig Veda (1.22.20) reads, “oṃ tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padam sadā paśyanti sūrayaḥ”, which translates to, “All the suras [i.e., the devas] look always toward the feet of Lord Vishnu”. Similarly, in the Vishnu Sahasranama, the concluding verses, read, “The Rishis [great sages], the ancestors, the devas, the great elements, in fact, all things moving and unmoving constituting this universe, have originated from Narayana,” (i.e., Vishnu). Thus the Devas are stated to be subordinate to Vishnu, or God.
C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) translates the Sanskrit word “deva” as “demigod” in his literature when the term referred to a God other than the Supreme Lord. This is because the ISKCON tradition teaches that there is only one Supreme Lord and that all others are but His servants. In an effort to emphasize their subservience, Prabhupada uses the word “demigod” as a translation of deva. However, there are at least three occurrences in the eleventh chapter of Bhagavad-Gita where the word deva, used in reference to Lord Krishna, is translated as “Lord”. The word deva can be used to refer to the Supreme Lord, celestial beings, and saintly souls depending on the context. This is similar to the word Bhagavan, which is translated according to different contexts.
One prominent Chinese “demigod” is Erlang Shen. In the Journey to the West, the Jade Emperor’s younger sister is mentioned to have descended to the mortal realm and given birth to a child named Yang Jian. He would eventually grow up to become a deity himself known as Erlang Shen.
Main article: Philippine mythology
In the indigenous religions originating from the Philippines, collectively called Anitism, demigods abound in various ethnic stories. Many of these demigods equal major gods and goddesses in power and influence. Notable examples include Mayari, the Tagalog moon goddess who governs the world every night, Tala, the Tagalog star goddess, Hanan, the Tagalog morning goddess, Apo Anno, a Kankanaey demigod hero, Oryol, a Bicolano half-snake demi-goddess who brought peace to the land after defeating all beasts in Ibalon, Laon, a Hiligaynon demigod who can talk to animals and defeated the mad dragon at Mount Kanlaon, Ovug, an Ifugao thunder and lightning demigod who has separate animations in both the upper and earth worlds, Takyayen, a Tinguian demigod and son of the star goddess Gagayoma, and the three Suludnon demigod sons of Alunsina, namely Labaw Dongon, Humadapnon, and Dumalapdap.
The term demigod first appeared in English in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, when it was used to render the Greek and Roman concepts of semideus and daemon. Since then, it has frequently been applied figuratively to people of extraordinary ability. John Milton states in Paradise Lost that angels are demigods.
In Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series, based on the 1997 film, while the title character was only referred to as a mortal in the film, he was referred to as a demigod in the series. He also had cousins appear in the series, like Triton, the son of Poseidon.
Demigods are important figures in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, in which many of the characters, including Percy Jackson himself, are demigods. In Riordan’s work, a demigod is defined as an individual born of one human and one divine parent.
Christ myth hypothesis
Greek hero cult
List of demigods
Greek hero cult
Ruins of a hero-shrine or heroon at Sagalassos, Turkey
Hero cults were one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion. In Homeric Greek, “hero” refers to the mortal offspring of a human and a god. By the historical period, however, the word came to mean specifically a dead man, venerated and propitiated at his tomb or at a designated shrine, because his fame during life or his unusual manner of death gave him power to support and protect the living. A hero was more than human but less than a god, and various kinds of supernatural figures came to be assimilated to the class of heroes; the distinction between a hero and a god was less than certain, especially in the case of Heracles, the most prominent, but atypical hero.
The grand ruins and tumuli remaining from the Bronze Age gave the pre-literate Greeks of the 10th and 9th centuries BCE a sense of a grand and vanished age; they reflected this in the oral epic tradition, which would crystallize in the Iliad. Copious renewed offerings begin to be represented, after a hiatus, at sites like Lefkandi, even though the names of the grandly buried dead were hardly remembered. “Stories began to be told to individuate the persons who were now believed to be buried in these old and imposing sites”, observes Robin Lane Fox.
Nature of hero cult
Greek hero-cults were distinct from the clan-based ancestor worship from which they developed, in that as the polis evolved, they became a civic rather than familial affair, and in many cases none of the worshipers traced their descent back to the hero any longer: no shrine to a hero can be traced unbroken from Mycenaean times. Whereas the ancestor was purely local, Lewis Farnell observed, the hero might be tended in more than one locality, and he deduced that hero-cult was more deeply influenced from the epic tradition, that “suggested many a name to forgotten graves”, and provided even Dorians a connection to Mycenaean heroes, according to Coldstream. “Coldstream believed the currency of epic would account for votives in Dorian areas, where an alien, immigrant population might otherwise be expected to show no particular reverence for Mycenaean predecessors”. Large Mycenaean tholos tombs that betokened a grander past, were often the site of hero-cults. Not all heroes were even known by names.
Cult of Oedipus on a Lucanian amphora, ca. 380-70 BC (Louvre, CA 308)
Aside from the epic tradition, which featured the heroes alive and in action rather than as objects of cultus, the earliest written reference to hero-cult is attributed to Dracon, the Athenian lawgiver of the late seventh century BC, who prescribed that gods and local heroes should both be honoured according to ancestral custom. The custom, then, was already established, and there were multiple local heroes. The written sources emphasise the importance of heroes’ tombs and the temenos or sanctuary, where chthonic rites appeased their spirits and induced them to continue to favour the people who looked to them as founders, of whom founding myths were related. In the hero’s restricted and local scope he “retained the limited and partisan interests of his mortal life. He would help those who lived in the vicinity of his tomb or who belonged to the tribe of which he himself was the founder,” observes Robert Parker, with the reservation that Heracles, with his pan-Hellenic scope was again the exception.
Whitley interpreted the final stage, in which hero-cult was co-opted by the city-state as a political gesture, in the archaic aristocratic tumulus surrounded by stelae, erected by Athens to the cremated citizen-heroes of Marathon (490 BC), to whom chthonic cult was dedicated, as the offering trenches indicate. On the other hand, Greek heroes were distinct from the Roman cult of dead emperors, because the hero was not thought of as having ascended to Olympus or become a god: he was beneath the earth, and his power purely local. For this reason hero cults were chthonic in nature, and their rituals more closely resembled those for Hecate and Persephone than those for Zeus and Apollo: libations in the dark hours, sacrifices that were not shared by the living.
The two exceptions to the above were Heracles and Asclepius, who might be honored as either heroes or gods, with chthonic libation or with burnt sacrifice. Heroes in cult behaved very differently from heroes in myth. They might appear indifferently as men or as snakes, and they seldom appeared unless angered. A Pythagorean saying advises not to eat food that has fallen on the floor, because “it belongs to the heroes”. Heroes if ignored or left unappeased could turn malicious: in a fragmentary play by Aristophanes, a chorus of anonymous heroes describe themselves as senders of lice, fever and boils.
Some of the earliest hero and heroine cults well attested by archaeological evidence in mainland Greece include the Menelaion dedicated to Menelaus and Helen at Therapne near Sparta, a shrine at Mycenae dedicated to Agamemnon and Cassandra, another at Amyklai dedicated to Alexandra, and another in Ithaca’s Polis Bay dedicated to Odysseus. These all seem to date to the 8th century BC. The cult of Pelops at Olympia dates from the Archaic period.
Heroes and heroines
Hero cults were offered most prominently to men, though in practice the experience of the votary was of propitiating a cluster of family figures, which included women who were wives of a hero-husband, mothers of a hero-son (Alcmene and Semele), and daughters of a hero-father. As Finley observed of the world of Odysseus, which he reads as a nostalgic eighth-century rendering of traditions from the culture of Dark Age Greece,
Penelope became a moral heroine for later generations, the embodiment of goodness and chastity, to be contrasted with the faithless, murdering Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife; but ‘hero’ has no feminine gender in the age of heroes.
Where local cult venerated figures such as the sacrificial virgin Iphigeneia, an archaic local nymphe has been reduced to a mortal figure of legend. Other isolated female figures represented priestess-initiators of a local cult. Iconographic and epigraphal evidence marshalled by Larson combine to depict heroines as similar in kind to heroes, but in androcentric Greek culture, typically of lesser stature.
Types of hero cult
Offerings to a deified hero and another deity, depicted on a Greek marble relief ca. 300 BC
Whitley distinguishes four or five essential types of hero cult:
Oikist cults of founders. Such cults arose in colonies in the Hellenic world in Magna Graecia and Sicily at the grave of the founder, the oikist. In the case of cults at the tombs of the recently heroised, it must be assumed that the identity of the occupant of the tomb was unequivocally known. Thucydides (V.11.1) gives the example of Brasidas at Amphipolis. Battus of Cyrene might also be mentioned. “Such historical examples,” Whitley warns, “have clearly colored the interpretation of certain tomb cults in the Archaic period.” Such Archaic sites as the “heroon” at Lefkandi and that close to the West Gate at Eretria cannot be distinguished by archaeological methods from family observances at tombs (tomb cults) and the cult of ancestors.
Cults to named heroes. A number of cult sites known in Classical times were dedicated to known heroes in the Greek and modern senses, especially of the Iliad and other episodes of the Epic Cycle. Whitley makes two points here, first that the earliest heria associate the male hero with earlier and stronger female presences, and second, that figures such as Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus all have strong local connections. The cults of Oedipus at Athens and Pelops at Olympia are examples.
Cults to local heroes. Such local figures do not figure among the Panhellenic figures of epic. Examples would be Akademos and Erechtheus at Athens.
Cults at Bronze Age tombs. These are represented archaeologically by Iron Age deposits in Mycenaean tombs, not easily interpreted. Because of the gap in time between the Bronze Age collapse and the earliest votive objects, continuity appears to be broken. A sherd from above the Grave Circle A at Mycenae is simply inscribed “to the hero”, and Whitley suggests that the unnamed race of the Silver Age might have been invoked. In Attica, such cults are those associated with tholos tombs at Thorikos and Menidhi.
Oracular hero cults. Whitley does not address this group of local cults where an oracle developed, as in the case of Amphiaraus, who was swallowed up by a gaping crack in the earth. Minor cults accrued to some figures who died violent or unusual deaths, as in the case of the dead from the Battle of Marathon, and those struck by lightning, as in several attested cases in Magna Graecia.
Heroes, politics, and gods
Hero cults could be of the utmost political importance. When Cleisthenes divided the Athenians into new demes for voting, he consulted Delphi on what heroes he should name each division after. According to Herodotus, the Spartans attributed their conquest of Arcadia to their theft of the bones of Orestes from the Arcadian town of Tegea. Heroes in myth often had close but conflicted relationships with the gods. Thus Heracles’s name means “the glory of Hera”, even though he was tormented all his life by the queen of the gods. This was even truer in their cult appearances. Perhaps the most striking example is the Athenian king Erechtheus, whom Poseidon killed for choosing Athena over him as the city’s patron god. When the Athenians worshiped Erechtheus on the Acropolis, they invoked him as Poseidon Erechtheus.
List of heroes
Achlae – Greek river god, Achelous
Achle, Achile – Legendary hero of the Trojan War, from the Greek Achilles
Achilles at Leuce
Actaeon pupil of the centaur Chiron
Alexander the Great at Alexandria
Battus at Cyrene
Cadmus – the Phoenician founder of Thebes
Cyamites – of the Eleusinian mysteries who presided over the cultivation of Fava beans.
Erechtheus at Athens
Homer, venerated at Alexandria by Ptolemy IV Philopator
Oedipus at Athens
Orion at Boeotia
Pandora the first woman, whose curiosity brought evil to mankind
Peleus – he fathered the famous hero Achilles.
Pelops at Olympia
Philippus of Croton
Imperial cult of ancient Rome
Relics in classical antiquity
Apotheose of Venezia (1585) by Paolo Veronese
The apotheosis of Cornelis de Witt, with the raid on Chatham in the background.
Apotheosis (Greek: ἀποθέωσις, from ἀποθεόω/ἀποθεῶ, ”to deify”; also called divinization and deification from Latin: deificatio, lit. ”making divine”) is the glorification of a subject to divine level and most commonly, the treatment of a human like a god. The term has meanings in theology, where it refers to a belief, and in art, where it refers to a genre.
In theology, apotheosis refers to the idea that an individual has been raised to godlike stature. In art, the term refers to the treatment of any subject (a figure, group, locale, motif, convention or melody) in a particularly grand or exalted manner.
Ancient Middle East
Before the Hellenistic period, imperial cults were known in Ancient Egypt (pharaohs) and Mesopotamia (since Naram-Sin to Hammurabi). From the New Kingdom, all deceased pharaohs were deified as the god Osiris. The architect Imhotep was deified after his death.
From at least the Geometric period of the ninth century BC, the long-deceased heroes linked with founding myths of Greek sites were accorded chthonic rites in their heroon, or “hero-temple”.
In the Greek world, the first leader who accorded himself divine honours was Philip II of Macedon. At his wedding to his sixth wife, Philip’s enthroned image was carried in procession among the Olympian gods; “his example at Aigai became a custom, passing to the Macedonian kings who were later worshipped in Greek Asia, from them to Julius Caesar and so to the emperors of Rome”. Such Hellenistic state leaders might be raised to a status equal to the gods before death (e.g., Alexander the Great) or afterwards (e.g., members of the Ptolemaic dynasty). A heroic cult status similar to apotheosis was also an honour given to a few revered artists of the distant past, notably Homer.
Archaic and Classical Greek hero-cults became primarily civic, extended from their familial origins, in the sixth century; by the fifth century none of the worshipers based their authority by tracing descent back to the hero, with the exception of some families who inherited particular priestly cults, such as the Eumolpides (descended from Eumolpus) of the Eleusinian mysteries, and some inherited priesthoods at oracle sites. The Greek hero cults can be distinguished on the other hand from the Roman cult of dead emperors, because the hero was not thought of as having ascended to Olympus or become a god: he was beneath the earth, and his power purely local. For this reason, hero cults were chthonic in nature, and their rituals more closely resembled those for Hecate and Persephone than those for Zeus and Apollo. Two exceptions were Heracles and Asclepius, who might be honoured as either gods or heroes, sometimes by chthonic night-time rites and sacrifice on the following day. One god considered as a hero to mankind is Prometheus, he secretly stole fire from Mt Olympus and introduced it to mankind.
Up to the end of the Republic, the god Quirinus was the only one the Romans accepted as having undergone apotheosis, for his identification/syncretism with Romulus. (See Euhemerism). Subsequently, apotheosis in ancient Rome was a process whereby a deceased ruler was recognized as having been divine by his successor, usually also by a decree of the Senate and popular consent. In addition to showing respect, often the present ruler deified a popular predecessor to legitimize himself and gain popularity with the people. The upper-class did not always take part in the imperial cult, and some privately ridiculed the apotheosis of inept and feeble emperors, as in the satire The Pumpkinification of (the Divine) Claudius, usually attributed to Seneca.
At the height of the imperial cult during the Roman Empire, sometimes the emperor’s deceased loved ones—heirs, empresses, or lovers, as Hadrian’s Antinous—were deified as well. Deified people were awarded posthumously the title Divus (Diva if women) to their names to signify their divinity. Traditional Roman religion distinguished between a deus (god) and a divus (a mortal who became divine or deified), though not consistently. Temples and columns were erected to provide a space for worship.
In the Roman story Cupid and Psyche, Zeus gives the ambrosia of the gods to the mortal Psyche, transforming her into a god herself.
The Ming dynasty epic Investiture of the Gods deals heavily with deification legends. Numerous mortals have been deified into the Taoist pantheon, such as Guan Yu, Iron-crutch Li and Fan Kuai. Song Dynasty General Yue Fei was deified during the Ming Dynasty and is considered by some practitioners to be one of the three highest-ranking heavenly generals.
Ancient India, Southeast Asia and North Korea
Various Hindu and Buddhist rulers in the past have been represented as deities, especially after death, from India to Indonesia.
Deceased North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung is the principal object of the North Korean cult of personality in which he is treated similarly to an explicitly apotheosized leader, with statues of and monuments dedicated to the “Eternal President”, the annual commemoration of his birth, the paying of respects by newlyweds to his nearest statue, and the North Korean calendar being a Juche calendar based on Kim Il-sung’s date of birth.
Instead of the word “apotheosis”, Christian theology uses in English the words “deification” or “divinization” or the Greek word “theosis”. Traditional mainstream theology, both East and West, views Jesus Christ as the preexisting God who undertook mortal existence, not as a mortal being who attained divinity. It holds that he has made it possible for human beings to be raised to the level of sharing the divine nature: he became human to make humans “partakers of the divine nature”[original research?] “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For He was made man that we might be made God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”
The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology contains the following in an article titled “Deification”:
Deification (Greek theosis) is for Orthodoxy the goal of every Christian. Man, according to the Bible, is ‘made in the image and likeness of God.’. . . It is possible for man to become like God, to become deified, to become god by grace. This doctrine is based on many passages of both OT and NT (e.g. Ps. 82 (81).6; II Peter 1.4), and it is essentially the teaching both of St Paul, though he tends to use the language of filial adoption (cf. Rom. 8.9–17; Gal. 4.5–7), and the Fourth Gospel (cf. 17.21–23).
The language of II Peter is taken up by St Irenaeus, in his famous phrase, ‘if the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods’ (Adv. Haer V, Pref.), and becomes the standard in Greek theology. In the fourth century, St. Athanasius repeats Irenaeus almost word for word, and in the fifth century, St. Cyril of Alexandria says that we shall become sons ‘by participation’ (Greek methexis). Deification is the central idea in the spirituality of St. Maximus the Confessor, for whom the doctrine is the corollary of the Incarnation: ‘Deification, briefly, is the encompassing and fulfillment of all times and ages,’ . . . and St. Symeon the New Theologian at the end of the tenth century writes, ‘He who is God by nature converses with those whom he has made gods by grace, as a friend converses with his friends, face to face.’ . . .
Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church does not use the term “apotheosis”.
Corresponding to the Greek word theosis are the Latin-derived words “divinization” and “deification” used in the parts of the Catholic Church that are of Latin tradition. The concept has been given less prominence in Western theology than in that of the Eastern Catholic Churches, but is present in the Latin Church’s liturgical prayers, such as that of the deacon or priest when pouring wine and a little water into the chalice: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes with approval Saint Athanasius’s saying, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
Catholic theology stresses the concept of supernatural life, “a new creation and elevation, a rebirth, it is a participation in and partaking of the divine nature” (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). In Catholic teaching there is a vital distinction between natural life and supernatural life, the latter being “the life that God, in an act of love, freely gives to human beings to elevate them above their natural lives” and which they receive through prayer and the sacraments; indeed the Catholic Church sees human existence as having as its whole purpose the acquisition, preservation and intensification of this supernatural life.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church or Mormons) believes in apotheosis along the lines of the Christian tradition of divinization or deification but refers to it as exaltation, or eternal life, and considers it to be accomplished by “sanctification.” They believe that people may live with God throughout eternity in families and eventually become gods themselves but remain subordinate to God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. While the primary focus of the LDS Church is on Jesus of Nazareth and his atoning sacrifice for man, Latter-day Saints believe that one purpose for Christ’s mission and for his atonement is the exaltation or Christian deification of man. The third Article of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states that all men may be saved from sin by the atonement of Jesus Christ, and LDS Gospel Doctrine (as published) states that all men will be saved and will be resurrected from death. However, only those who are sufficiently obedient and accept the atonement and the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ before the resurrection and final judgment will be “exalted” and receive a literal Christian deification.
One popular Latter-day Saint quote, often attributed to the early Church leader Lorenzo Snow in 1837, is “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.” The teaching was taught first by Joseph Smith while he was pointing to John 5:19 in the New Testament; he said that “God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did.” Many LDS and non-LDS scholars also have discussed the correlation between Latter-day Saint belief in exaltation and the ancient Christian theosis, or deification, as set forth by early Church Fathers. Several LDS and non-LDS historians specializing in studies of the early Christian Church also claim that the Latter-day Saint belief in eternal progression is more similar to the ancient Christian deification as set forth in numerous patristic writings of the 1st to 4th centuries AD than the beliefs of any other modern faith group of the Christian tradition.
Members of the Church believe that the original Christian belief in man’s divine potential gradually lost its meaning and importance in the centuries after the death of the apostles, as doctrinal changes by post-apostolic theologians caused Christians to lose sight of the true nature of God and his purpose for creating humanity. The concept of God’s nature that was eventually accepted as Christian doctrine in the 4th century set divinity apart from humanity by defining the Godhead as three persons sharing a common divine substance. That classification of God in terms of a substance is not found in scripture but, in many aspects, mirrored the Greek metaphysical philosophies that are known to have influenced the thinking of Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine. Mormons teach that by modern revelation, God restored the knowledge that he is the literal father of our spirits (Hebrews 12:9) and that the Biblical references to God creating mankind in his image and likeness are in no way allegorical. As such, Mormons assert that as the literal offspring of God the Father (Acts 17:28–29), humans have the potential to be heirs of his glory and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17). The glory, Mormons believe, lies not in God’s substance but in his intelligence: in other words, light and truth (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36). Thus, the purpose of humans is to grow and progress to become like the Father in Heaven. Mortality is seen as a crucial step in the process in which God’s spirit children gain a body, which, though formed in the image of the Father’s body, is subject to pain, illness, temptation, and death. The purpose of this earth life is to learn to choose the right in the face of that opposition, thereby gaining essential experience and wisdom. The level of intelligence we attain in this life will rise in the Resurrection (Doctrine and Covenants 130:18–19). Bodies will then be immortal like those of the Father and the Son (Philippians 3:21), but the degree of glory to which each person will resurrect is contingent upon the Final Judgment (Revelation 20:13, 1 Corinthians 15:40–41). Those who are worthy to return to God’s presence can continue to progress towards a fullness of God’s glory, which Mormons refer to as eternal life, or exaltation (Doctrine and Covenants 76).
The LDS concept of apotheosis/exaltation is expressed in LDS scriptures (Mosiah 3:19, Alma 13:12, D&C 78:7, D&C 78:22, D&C 84:4, D&C 84:23, D&C 88:68, D&C 93:28) and is expressed by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “Though stretched by our challenges, by living righteously and enduring well we can eventually become sufficiently more like Jesus in our traits and attributes, that one day we can dwell in the Father’s presence forever and ever” (Neal Maxwell, October 1997).
In early 2014, the LDS church published an essay on the official church website specifically addressing the foundations, history, and official beliefs regarding apotheosis. The essay addresses the scriptural foundations of this belief, teachings of the early Church Fathers on the subject of deification, and the teachings of LDS church leaders, starting with Joseph Smith.
In art the matter is practical: the elevation of a figure to divine level entails certain conventions. So it is that the apotheosis genre exists in Christian art as in other art. The features of the apotheosis genre may be seen in subjects that emphasize Christ’s divinity (Transfiguration, Ascension, Christ Pantocrator) and that depict holy persons “in glory”—that is, in their roles as “God revealed” (Assumption, Ascension, etc.).
Apotheosis of French soldiers fallen in the Napoleonic Wars, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, beginning of 19th century.
Apotheosis of George Washington
Ingres, The Apotheosis of Homer
Alphonse Mucha’s The Slav Epic cycle No. 20: The Apotheosis of the Slavs, Slavs for Humanity (1926)
Apotheosis of Gdańsk by Isaak van den Blocke.
Later artists have used the concept for motives ranging from genuine respect for the deceased (Constantino Brumidi’s fresco The Apotheosis of Washington on the dome of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.), to artistic comment (Salvador Dalí’s or Ingres’s The Apotheosis of Homer), to mock-heroic and burlesque apotheoses for comedic effect.
Many modern leaders have exploited the artistic imagery if not the theology of apotheosis. Examples include Rubens’s depictions of James I of England at the Banqueting House (an expression of the Divine Right of Kings) or Henry IV of France, or Appiani’s apotheosis of Napoleon. The C. H. Niehaus-designed Apotheosis of St. Louis (Louis IX of France) became a symbol for St. Louis MO. The term has come to be used figuratively to refer to the elevation of a dead leader (often one who was assassinated and/or martyred) to a kind of superhuman charismatic figure and an effective erasing of all faults and controversies which were connected with his name in life—for example, Abraham Lincoln in the US, Lenin in the USSR, Yitzchak Rabin in Israel, or Kim Jong-il in North Korea.
Apotheosis in music refers to the appearance of a theme in grand or exalted form. It represents the musical equivalent of the apotheosis genre in visual art, especially where the theme is connected in some way with historical persons or dramatic characters. When crowning the end of a large-scale work the apotheosis functions as a peroration, following an analogy with the art of rhetoric.
Apotheosis moments abound in music, and the word itself appears in some cases. François Couperin wrote two apotheosises, one for Arcangelo Corelli (Le Parnasse, ou L’Apothéose de Corelli), and one for Jean Baptiste Lully (L’Apothéose de Lully). Hector Berlioz used “Apotheose” as the title of the final movement of his Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, a work composed in 1846 for the dedication of a monument to France’s war dead. Two of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballets, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, contain apotheoses as finales; the same is true of Ludwig Minkus’s La Bayadère. Igor Stravinsky composed two ballets, Apollo and Orpheus, which both contain episodes entitled “Apotheose”. The concluding tableau of Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye is also titled “Apotheose.” Czech composer Karel Husa, concerned in 1970 about arms proliferation and environmental deterioration, named his musical response Apotheosis for This Earth. Aram Khachaturian entitled a segment of his ballet Spartacus “Sunrise and Apotheosis.” Richard Wagner, referring to the lively rhythms which permeate Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, called it the “apotheosis of the dance”. Alexander Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons, Op.67 has as the concluding movement: Autumn: Scene and Apotheosis.
Musical theater has a tendency to use apotheosis often, although that can become easily confused with motif (narrative)s. One meta example of this is The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals, where musical theater itself is deified by the characters within the play, excluding the titular character.
Samuel Menashe (1925–2011) wrote a poem entitled Apotheosis, as did Barbara Kingsolver. Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) wrote Love, Poem 18: Apotheosis. The poet Dejan Stojanović’s Dancing of Sounds contains the line, “Art is apotheosis.” Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote a poem entitled Love’s Apotheosis. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem entitled “The Apotheosis, or the Snow-Drop” in 1787.
In an essay entitled The Limitless Power of Science, Peter Atkins described science as an apotheosis, writing:
Science, above all, respects the power of the human intellect. Science is the apotheosis of the intellect and the consummation of the Renaissance. Science respects more deeply the potential of humanity than religion ever can.
Cult of personality
James Frazer, The Golden Bough
Robert Graves, The White Goddess
List of people who have been considered deities
Religion in ancient Rome
Theosis (Eastern Orthodox theology)
Edward Burnett Tylor