In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

Anthropomorphism

“So why did the snake’s wife file for divorce? You give up? Ereptile Dysfunction, ha ha! Get it? Heh, hmmmm…Well, I thought it was funny…” *

Anthropomorphism is the act of characterizing something that isn’t human with human qualities, feelings and motivations. Bugs Bunny, for instance, speaks English, stands up on two legs and is generally a smartass. We all know that real rabbits don’t do either of these things, so Bugs is what we call an anthropomorphized rabbit (and a damn funny one, too).

It’s virtually impossible to practice any sort of theistic religion without anthropomorphizing a Deity to some extent. The most obvious example is polytheism, where we’re actually encouraged to invoke our Deities into cult images. Usually these images are at least somewhat humanoid, even if they have animal heads (as with the Egyptian pantheon) or multiple appendages (as with the Hindu pantheon). Even when these images are more zoomorphic, polytheists are often animists as well and believe that animals have souls just as humans do (as well as trees, rivers, stars, planets, etc.).

This sounds pretty weird to most people, and we polytheists are often called “idolaters” by mainstream faiths. This is actually really offensive, especially when it comes to the insinuation that we’re stupid enough to think our Gods are just pieces of stone or wood. In reality, calling our Deities into cult images is really no different from the idea of Yahweh becoming a man named Jesus to bridge the gap between Himself and the human race. It’s also no different from using crucifixes or statues to represent Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary. We don’t worship the images themselves; we worship the entities those images represent. It’s like having a photograph of someone you love; everyone knows the photograph and the person aren’t the same thing. When we offer things of value to images of Gods, it’s a symbolic way of demonstrating hospitality to Them. It’s the closest thing we have to actually “Skyping” with Them and interacting with Them face-to-face.

As indicated above, polytheists aren’t the only ones who anthropomorphize their Deities. When most Westerners hear the word “God,” they inevitably imagine a white-bearded man sitting on a throne in the clouds (like on The Simpsons or Family Guy). Even Jews and Muslims can’t avoid doing this a little bit. Many of their theologians have said that Yahweh/Allah has no gender; yet they continue to refer to Him as a “He.” Now of course, it’s much easier to identify with a Deity if we can call it a “He” or a “She” instead of an “It,” but that’s my point; we humans can’t identify with Deities unless we humanize Them somehow. (It’s also interesting that despite being asexual, Yahweh is almost never called a “She”; the image of “God” having a penis and facial hair is just too prevalent.) Furthermore, the Bible and the Koran both tell us that “God said” something numerous times, despite the understanding that Yahweh/Allah doesn’t have a physical mouth. Sure, statements like this are symbolic (just like the images we polytheists use for our Gods), but they still paint unavoidable images in the reader’s mind. In this way, every theistic religion is “guilty” of “idolatry” to some extent. (The only religions that manage to avoid this are the non-theistic ones, like Taoism and Buddhism, which don’t necessarily believe in the existence of Deities.)

The funny thing is, this image wasn’t invented by Seth McFarlane; it goes all the way back to the ancient Canaanite Deity, El.

It seems to me that most people now think of anthropomorphism as a “bad” thing, like it’s something that only children or primitive cavepeople would do (or which is only suitable as a literary device). But we now know that willow, poplar and sugar maple trees will actually warn each other about impending insect attacks; that bees have been known to possess both cognition and an extremely complicated language; and that beavers are basically hydraulic engineers, creating dams to make ponds and building houses for their families. Granted, trees, bees and beavers may not think, feel or communicate in the exact same way that humans do, but the point is that they do in fact think, feel and communicate. And when ancient people anthropomorphized these and other aspects of nature, it was their way of living in balance with the rest of the universe.

I think it’s really sad that in today’s world, people usually think of nature as some soulless, alien thing that only exists to be exploited. Is it any wonder that our planet is also more polluted and torn up than it’s ever been before? You don’t have to anthropomorphize nature to respect it and live in balance with it; certainly, Lord Buddha is a primary example of this. But considering that (1) this practice is now almost universally frowned upon outside of fiction and (2) we seem to be trapped in an escalating cycle of koyaanisqatsi (“life out of balance”), I think the backlash against anthropomorphism is at least partly – if not largely – to blame.

_________________________
* “The Viper and the Blood Sucker,” from The Fables of Florian by J. J. Granville (1888)

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5 responses to “Anthropomorphism

  1. trellia January 17, 2015 at 3:34 am

    I completely agree! I worship the Shinto deity Inari, whose most prominent symbol is a fox. Most ordained Shinto priests are quick to stress that the fox is merely Inari’s messenger, and Inari himself/herself should never be perceived as a fox, although image representing Inari as a human are somehow acceptable. But the fox is such a ubiquitous symbol of Inari, and human depictions of him/her are comparatively rare, that in my mind’s eye I cannot help but perceive Inari as a fox. And I don’t see a problem with this. I know that Inari isn’t really a fox, anymore than (s)he is a human – (s)he’s a Deity. And I merely use the fox to identify him/her in my mind because it’s easier for me as a mere mortal – his/her true nature is beyond the human imagination. It’s a shame so many Shintoists don’t see it the same way!

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    • G. B. Marian January 19, 2015 at 7:17 pm

      I totally agree with you. I wonder why Shintoists are so reactionary against that? Perhaps it’s a reaction to what monotheistic religions tend to expect from other faiths. For example, Hinduism is still a polytheistic religion for most intents and purposes, but over the past century or so, more and more scholars of Hinduism have been arguing that it’s “really” a monotheistic faith…which is according to some of its schools, but not all. I think the people who make this argument are really just saying that because most Westerners won’t take any religion that isn’t monotheistic seriously, so in order for interfaith work to be done between Christians and Hindus, this “monotheistic” interpretation is emphasized. Do you suppose something similar might be motivating Shintoists who argue against perceiving Inari Himself as a fox? Perhaps they are discouraging this because they worry about not being taken seriously by less animistic faiths?

      Also, I find your relationship with Inari very fascinating, and I love reading what you have to say about Him. Hearing about Him switching between fox form and human form makes me think of Eric Carr, a.k.a. “The Fox,” who replaced Peter Criss (i.e., “the Catman”) when he left the rock band KISS in 1980. I happen to be a huge fan of Mr. Carr (even more so than I am of Mr. Criss), and I wonder if Mr. Carr might have known anything about Inari. Since KISS’ makeup was largely inspired by kabuki theatre, I wonder if there might be a connection there. Here’s a picture of the Fox, who unfortunately passed away from heart cancer in 1991.

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  2. trellia January 20, 2015 at 1:52 am

    I hadn’t considered the idea of Shinto becoming monotheistic! It’s fundamentally an animist tradition, but I can see how Inari-worship in particular starts to lend itself to monotheism…Inari is rather unique among Shinto deities in that he’s not mentioned in the old Shinto legends and yet is probably the most popular deity in Japan. I can also see how people are afraid that they won’t be taken seriously if they are seen to be worshipping a “fox,” which is a big shame (sometimes Inari is also represented as a snake or dragon, and somehow this is often seen as more acceptable, perhaps because snakes and dragons are already held in high regard in Asia). The rejection of the fox as a representation of Inari himself could be out of genuine fear of offending Inari – the fox is considered a rather negative symbol in Japan and Inari is seen as a rather harsh, temperamental (some would even say sinister) deity by many, so people will do anything not to offend him. It’s interesting to note that when I posted one of my blog articles on the whole fox argument on an Inari-related Facebook group, it was quietly deleted. When I asked about it, they said that it wasn’t representing a true picture of Inari and may cause arguments among members. Clearly, it’s a highly sensitive issue!

    I’m so glad you enjoy reading my blog 🙂 And yes, the similarity between Eric Carr and kabuki actors is uncanny! I’m sure he must have discovered legends of Japanese fox-spirits, and by extension Inari, during his kabuki research. He also reminds me of the Japanese group Babymetal, who take their image and song lyrics directly from Japanese fox legends! (They’ve actually attributed their link with Inari to their success) It’s fascinating how these performers seem to be drawn to the image of the fox…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rung2diotimasladder January 20, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    “It’s like having a photograph of someone you love; everyone knows the photograph and the person aren’t the same thing.”

    This is a really good point. And I think you’re right about most religions and “idol” worship…it’s usually there to some degree if we are to confuse the matter. But your point above makes clear that these anthropomorphisms are just natural ways of understanding and communicating ideas, that these ‘idols’ actually point outside themselves, and when they do, there should be no confusion.

    (Unless we invent confusion, which is something we seem to like to do.) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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