Cult, Deity, Natural, Objects, Divine, Stars
The term "nature gods" may be taken as designating those deities that are distinguished on the one hand from natural objects regarded as divine and worshiped, and on the other hand from the great gods, who, whatever their origin, have been quite dissociated from natural objects; in distinction from these classes nature gods are independent deities who yet show traces of their origin in the cult of natural objects.
These three classes often shade into one another, and it is not always easy to draw the lines between them. It is worth while, however, to keep them separate, because they represent different stadia of religious and general culture; the nature gods are found in societies which have risen above the old crude naturalism, but have not yet reached the higher grade of intellectual and ethical distinctness. But as they are in a real sense dissociated from natural objects, they tend to expand as society grows, and it is unnecessary to attempt to deduce all their functions from the characteristics of the objects with which they were originally connected. In some cases, doubtless, they coalesce with the local clan gods whose functions are universal; and in general, when a god becomes the recognized deity of his community, the tendency is to ascribe to him a great number of functions suggested by the existing social conditions. In some cases the particular function of the god may be derived from the function of the natural object whence he is supposed to spring; but the number and variety of functions that we often find assigned to one deity, and the number of deities that are connected with a single function, indicate the complexity of the processes of early religious thought and make it difficult to trace its history in detail.
Among natural objects the heavenly bodies, sun, moon, and stars, and particularly the sun and moon, have very generally attracted men's attention and become objects of worship. The deification of the sun may be traced through all stadia of development, from the crudest objectivism to a highly developed monolatry or a virtual monotheism. Veneration of the physical sun, or a conception of it as a supernatural man, is found in many parts of the world. It has not been observed, apparently, in Australia, Melanesia, Indonesia, and on the North American Pacific Coast; these regions are all backward in the creation of gods—devoting themselves to the elaboration of social organization they have contented themselves largely with an apparatus of spirits and divine animals. In Central and Northern Asia and among the Ainu of Jesso, while there appears to be a recognition of the sun as divine, it is difficult to distinguish real solar divinities. In Japan mention is made of a sun-goddess but she plays an insignificant part in the religious system.
The cult is more developed in Eastern and Central North America, particularly in the former region. The Navahos (in the center of the continent) have a vague deity of the sun, but the cult is most prominent among the Algonkin (Lenâpé) and Natchez tribes; the last-named especially have an elaborate cult in which the sun as deity seems to be distinct from the physical form.
The highest development of this cult in America was reached in Mexico and Peru. In both these countries, which had worked out a noteworthy civilization, the solar cult became supreme, and in Peru it attained an ethical and universalistic form which entitles it to rank among the best religious systems of the lower civilized nations.
The Egyptians, with their more advanced civilization, finally carried sun-worship to a very high point of perfection. The hymns to Ra, the sun-god, reached the verge of monotheism and are ethically high, yet traces of the physical side of the sun appear throughout. The same thing is true of the old Semitic sun-cult. The Babylonian and Assyrian Shamash is in certain respects an independent deity with universal attributes, but retains also some of the physical characteristics of the sun. In Africa, outside of Egypt, the only trace of an independent sun-god appears to be in Dahomi, where, however, he is not prominent; why such a god should not be found in the neighboring countries of Ashanti and Yoruba is not clear; climatic conditions would affect all these countries alike.
In the Veda the sun-god Savitar has a very distinguished position as ethical deity, but earlier than he the similar figure Surya represents more nearly the physical sun, and this is true perhaps also of Mitra. With the latter it is natural to compare the Avestan Mithra; he is held by some to have been originally a god of light, but he seems also to have characteristics of the sun in the Avesta, and in late Persian the word mihr ('sun') indicates that he was at any rate finally identified with the sun. It is noteworthy that a distinct sun-worship is reported among certain non-Aryan tribes of India, particularly the Khonds; this cult may be compared with that of the Natchez mentioned above, though the Khonds are less socially advanced than these American tribes.
The cultic history of the moon is similar to that of the sun, but in general far less important. In addition to its charm as illuminer of the night, it has been prominent as a measurer of time—lunar calendars appear among many tribes and nations, uncivilized (Maoris, Hawaiians, Dahomi, Ashanti and Yorubans, Nandi, Congo tribes, Bantu, Todas, and others) and civilized (the early Babylonians, Assyrians, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, perhaps the early Egyptians, and now all Mohammedan peoples). Naturally it has been associated with the sun in myths, standing to it in the relation of brother or sister, husband or wife. Among existing noncivilized peoples it sometimes receives worship as a god or as connected with a god. In these cases it retains to a great extent its character as an object of nature. So the Greek Selene and the Roman Luna, standing alongside of the lunar gods proper, probably indicate an early imperfect deification of the moon.
Though the stars were generally regarded, both among savages and in ancient civilized communities, as animated (possessed of souls), and in a sort divine, instances of the deification proper of particular stellar bodies are rare. In Egypt they were reverenced, but apparently not worshiped. The Babylonian astronomers and astrologers began early to connect the planets with the great gods (Jupiter with Marduk, Venus with Ishtar, etc.), and stars, like other heavenly bodies, were held by them to be divine, but a specific divinization of a star or planet does not appear in the known literature. The same thing is true of China, where, it may be supposed, reverence for the stars was included in the general high position assigned to Heaven. In the Aryan Hindu cults stars were revered, and by the non-Aryan Gonds were worshiped, but there is no star-god proper.
In the Old Testament and the Apocrypha there are passages in which stars and planets are referred to in a way that indicates some sort of a conception of them as divine: they are said to have fought against Israel's enemies, and in the later literature they are (perhaps by a poetical figure of speech) identified with foreign deities or with angels. But there is no sign of Israelite worship offered them till the seventh century B.C., when, on the irruption of Assyrian cults, incense is said to have been burned in the Jerusalem temple to the mazzalot (probably the signs of the zodiac) and to all the host of heaven (the stars); and there is still no creation of a star-god. The early Hebrews may have practiced some sort of star-worship; there are traces of such a cult among their neighbors the Arabs.
The Arab personal name Abd ath-thuraiya, 'servant (worshiper) of the Pleiades,' testifies to a real cult, though how far it involves a conception of the constellation as a true individual deity it may be difficult to say. It has been supposed that the pre-Islamic Arabs worshiped the planet Venus under the name Al-Uzza, but this is not certain. It is true that they worshiped the morning star, and that ancient non-Arab writers identified the planet with Al-Uzza because it was with this goddess that the Roman goddess Venus was generally identified by foreigners. But Al-Uzza was an old Arabian local deity who gradually assumed great power and influence, and it is certain that she could not have been originally a star. It must, therefore, be considered doubtful whether the Arabs had a true star-god.
A well-defined instance of such a god is the Avestan Tistrya. His origin as an object of nature appears plainly in his functions—he is especially a rain-god, and, as such, a source of all blessings. Alongside of him stand three less well defined stellar Powers. The Greeks and Romans adopted from Chaldean astronomy the nominal identification of the planets with certain gods (their own divine names being substituted for the Babylonian); this did not necessarily carry with it stellar worship, but at a late period there was a cult of the constellations.
To some savage and half-civilized peoples the rainbow has appeared to be a living thing, capable of acting on man's life, sometimes friendly, sometimes unfriendly. It figures largely in myths, but is not treated as a god.
|Written By Crawford Howell Toy|
|Prev | Next|