What is the history of how gods ruled over humanity?
In many world faiths, humanity is ruled by an all-knowing and powerful god or sometimes gods. This understanding has a long history and surprisingly many faiths have taken it as given that god(s) rule over mortal humankind. Stories and myths around some of the ancient religions that created or had developed this understanding are evident in a variety of locations and periods.
Examples in the Old World
In many myths, how gods ruled over humanity is often tied to the creation myths in these religions. However, it is also more complex than this, as often the power structure and hierarchy of the gods varies across time. In other words, which gods rule over humans, even for a given society, has often changed and the relationship that humans have created with their gods reflects how people saw their world. Take for example in Egypt, where in the New Kingdom (c. 1500-1100 BCE) period, in the late 2nd millennium BCE, the combined god Amun-Ra was seen as the chief of the pantheon of gods.
In an earlier period, it was Pharaoh who was the important or even most important god as embodying Horus. Egypt, like many Mediterranean and Old World societies, saw that gods, like human societies, had hierarchies. Thus, gods ruled not only humans, because they created humans, but that there was a hierarchy of power among gods. That hierarchy shifted across time, often based on political change or shifts in power, such as priestly classes gaining more power in Thebes in the New Kingdom period, where Amun-Ra became the head of the pantheon. This is also true in ancient Mesopotamia. The gods created humans, in this case, but according to the Enuma Elish or at least the later version of the story, it is the god Marduk who heroically comes to the defense of humans and the gods who achieves power over people. In the war between gods, the victorious gods chose Marduk to rule them all and, by extension, humanity who serves the gods. In an earlier version of that story, the heroic god was Enlil, indicating that a type of power displacement occurred and the chief god shifted over time.
Other similar stories exist, but with other gods inserted as the victorious god, including the god Ashur in northern Mesopotamia, in ancient Assyria, or modern northern Iraq. In both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian beliefs, humans directly serve gods in a clear, hierarchical pattern. The main purpose of humanity is to serve the gods through sacrifice and works. People can ask for gods to intercede or to help them but human fate is ultimately controlled by different gods, including one's personal gods or gods associated with given people.
Gods in traditional Central and Southern African societies also emphasized a hierarchy of gods. A good example in Igbo culture in Nigeria is Chukwu, who was the supreme god who created and assigned tasks to all beings, including other gods. This structure of power defined the relationship between gods, that is a chief god Chukwu, who then acts as a type of overlord god to the other gods. Several African cultures also believed in the higher-level gods and lower gods who were created by the higher gods or served them, with humans being a part of the hierarchy of defined relationships. Different gods also had different roles over time, often shifting their position of importance over time.
Different forms of Hinduism have different lead gods. In Shaivism, Shiva, the destroy god, leads the pantheon. In Shaktism, Devi is a goddess who is at the top of the hierarchy. In classical or current traditional Hinduism, there are four key meanings to life that give human purpose and define the relationship of humanity with deities. These include Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha. Dharma is moral and ethical actions that guide one's life. Artha is the pursuit of wealth and prosperity. Kama is attaining enjoyment and fulfilment from life. Moksha is attaining enlightenment and is considered as the fourth key goal of life. These ideals derive from the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Mahabharata, that has a series of poems between a warrior and Lord Krishna.
In Shintism, Amaterasu emerged as the most powerful deity, who is a sun goddess and became, among her sibling gods, the goddess in charge of keeping balance and harmony on Earth (Figure 1). Her chief priestess became an unmarried woman from the Emperor's household. Thus, authority and power were given to her to keep peace and harmony on Earth, where she would then bestow power to the emperor and his family to keep peace. Harmony and purity are considered the high ideals of Shintoism and are the purposes of humanity. The most ancient Chinese religious belief system known to us emphasized the god Shangti, who was the supreme being that controlled war, weather, success in life, and other aspects within Earth from the time of the Shang Dynasty. However, the god was powerful and could not be accessible to normal humans. This justifies having the Chinese emperors, who are intermediaries and pray or request things from Shagti, such as rain for the harvest. Later, this god evolved into the concept of Heaven, with Heaven itself ruling over all other beings. Later Taoism developed the concept of harmony through Ying and Yang, which are male and female qualities that balance life. Effectively the meaning and understanding of how Shagti controlled humanity changed as the philosophies and ruling classes changed in China. Nevertheless, many of the qualities espoused in Shagti, even if modified in form, were worshiped and carried on by the Taoist philosophers.
In Norse cosmology, the worlds and realms are divided into nine worlds. Humans occupy the world known as Midgard, while many of the gods are in Asgard, where Odin rules and is the most powerful. In Norse beliefs, several gods occupy the top realm, including Odin, Frigg, Thor, Loki, Balder, Hod, Heimdall, and Tyr, who represent the Æsir clan. Gods ruled as they pleased, and often fought each other for power, but humans sacrificed to them to receive favor, including gods interceding or helping during life. However, gods, similar to many ancient Old World beliefs, can be almost whimsical, doing as they please. The fate of people was determined by the Norns, who were three female beings, who weave the fate of humans and gods alike.
Thus, one's life is determined by fate from the Norns rather than the normal or even most important gods. The purpose of life was to be remembered by one's ancestors and people. One's works in life help determine this memory. Thus, song and poetry in Norse beliefs are important to tell the tales of heroic deeds or actions as a way to share memory.
Examples in the New World
In the New World, Aztec belief also put sacrifice, similar to many Old World beliefs, as a key concept in how humans related to the gods. Sacrifice, like in the Old World, displays a hierarchical power structure where gods demand obedience and worship from their subject humans. The national god was Huitzilopochtli, who demanded blood to be placated. In this case, similar to the Old World, sacrifice was intended to keep Huitzilopochtli and other gods happy, as humans owed them a blood debt. In the case of Aztecs, if gods were angry the results could be catastrophic, as they can turn day into night and destroy even light.
Thus, unlike most Old World societies, human sacrifice was used as a means to repay this blood debt and was the only way to keep the gods happy. The ancient Maya did worship Hunab-Ku, who is a type of all-knowing and powerful god. Purpose in life was to make the gods happy through sacrifice, although the Maya also believed their lives could be tied to the fate of their calendar that would expire in the cycle of destruction and recreation experienced at the end of each Earth. In at least one known set of Inca beliefs, Viracocha was the supreme creator god, who is symbolized by the sun and storms. This god gives and makes life possible. However, humans were only a second attempt, as the first beings on Earth were giants. Nevertheless, humanity owes its existence to Viracocha and, in cases, this sacrifice demanded human sacrifice. In a similar manner, humanity was ruled by the hierarchy of gods with Viracocha at the top, with humanity also owing gods a type of blood debt (Figure 2).
In the Algonquin tradition, Gitche Manitou was a spirit being who created life. All things had to balance with other life, in the concept of Manitou, which is similar to beliefs such as Shintoism. In this case, beings are not in a type of hierarchy of power with their creator but there is a balance in life that attempts to maintain harmony in the world through different forms of life, with humans being one of these forms that are also needed to keep harmony. This lack of a clear hierarchy of power distinguishes it from Old World and even other beliefs from the New World that generally emphasized a hierarchy of power among gods and beings.
Hopi mythology also emphasizes balance and harmony. Tawa is the creator spirit, but things, including humans, are created to be in harmony with each other. The Kachina dancers and masks that Hopi wore were intended to help maintain harmony in the world, preventing chaos from reigning, which may initiate the end of the world. In general, North American native communities displayed far less hierarchy in the relationship between spirits/gods and humanity, emphasizing connective relationships that keeps a type of balance or harmony.
In ancient Old World societies and even many in Central and South America, hierarchy of the gods and power relationships between the gods and humanity established how people saw their place in the world and how they could relate to the gods. Purpose and meaning of life were justified following the relationship of humanity with gods. These relationships do not only reflect belief systems but also how societies themselves were structured. In North America populated by pre-Columbian Native groups, many different tribal groups did not have clearly defined hierarchies of political or social power. This is reflected in their religious beliefs where spirits and gods did not exist in a strict hierarchy. On the other hand, societies with clearly defined classes and social hierarchies had well defined hierarchies in understanding humanity, its purpose, and how it fit with the gods. Aztec and South American societies generally had defined hierarchies of power and relationship of humanity with gods, where these gods even required regular human sacrifice. Harmony and balance in nature and life are common themes of purpose in east Asia and North America, but hierarchies of power and separation of power between humans and the gods is more evident in east Asia, more comparable to other parts of the Old World.
In religious doctrines where it has been recorded spanning human history, including cases prior to the rise of modern monotheistic religions, defined power structures between gods and humanity are an important them. This defines the purpose and reason for life. However, reason and purpose of life are not strong themes in all religious ideas. We see that balance and harmony in nature could, in itself, be a key purpose that defines the relationship among the spirits/beings with humanity.
- For more on gods in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and including the wider Near East, see: Holland, G.S., 2010. Gods in the desert: religions of the ancient Near East. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
- For more on traditional beliefs, see: Olupona, J.K., 2014. African religions: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, New York.
- For more on how eastern philosophies and religions viewed relationships of deities and gods to humanity, see: Coogan, M.D., Narayanan, V. (Eds.), 2005. <9i>Eastern religions: origins, beliefs, practices, holy texts, sacred places</i>. Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York.
- For more on the Norse beliefs and cosmology, see: Lindow, J., 2002. Norse mythology: a guide to the gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs. First issued as an Oxford University Press paperback. ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- For more on some of the major ancient states in the New World and their beliefs, see: Murphy, J. (Ed.), 2014. Gods & goddesses of the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs civilizations, Gods and goddesses of mythology . Rosen Educational Services, New York.
- For more on native North American beliefs, see: Sullivan, L.E., 2003. Native religions and cultures of North America. Continuum, New York.