The concept of God is closely related to the search for meaning and values. It is a concept that is widespread among religious traditions. Humans have always had an idea of God or gods who created the world, and they have worshipped these gods in various ways. The concept of God developed and progressed as human beings developed and learned more about the world in which they lived. The idea of God moved from a mythical understanding to a more rational understanding. In patriarchal societies, where the male/father figure dominated, images of God are often male images. In agricultural societies the images and understanding of God are linked to the land and the cycle of the seasons. Each generation in every culture faced the big questions of life: what is the meaning and purpose of life, why do people suffer, where have we come from, what is the ultimate destiny of humanity? Their experience of life and their knowledge shaped their understanding of God. Humanity’s continuing search for meaning and values has influenced the concept of God within the various cultures.
Gods in ancient myths:
The gods and goddesses of the mythical world take many different forms and are often fascinating. They often share characteristics even when they are from widely differing cultures. These characteristics identify a type of god, and are called ‘archetypes’. For example: Father/creator god, Great mother, Dying god, Trickster, Destroyer god, Helper god, Male/female pair, gods who visits the earth and are shunned. Pantheon is the word used to describe the officially recognised gods of a particular culture. The pantheon gives us an insight into the values and mindset of a people.
Mircea Eliade gives immense insight into the gods of ancient times and shows a clear link between the ancient search for meaning and the manner in which the gods were portrayed. He noticed that many divine symbols of our ancient ancestors transcend the boundaries of religion and culture. Thus, ancient myths express experiences that are common to many people from a variety of cultures.
Eliade, in his portrait of the gods, explores the cosmic symbolism of the sky. This is connected to the belief in sky gods or a great God of the sky. Our ancestors also held beliefs in gods of rain, thunder and lightning (all fertility symbols) and also the sun and moon gods (symbols of life, death and fertility). The sky is a central divine symbol in ancient mythology and it expresses a real sense of the transcendent. The Australian aboriginal culture also has images of divine beings linked to the sky. One such divinity is Baiame who dwells in the sky and receives the souls of the innocent. He causes rain and thunder and produces fertility, thus he is a creator. Baiame sees and hears everything. Thus Baiame is a creator, has fertility powers, he is omnipotent and omniscient. He is an ethical god, judging and rewarding the innocent. These are key themes that are bound up with the search for meaning.
Other ancient societies echo similar beliefs. The Selk’nam nomad hunters of Tierra del Fuego (South America) believed in the ‘Dweller in the Sky’. Eliade identifies this god as the omniscient creator and the author of moral law, the judge and master of human destinies. Similarly in ancient Mesopotamian culture, the Babylonian God ‘Anu’ means ‘the sky’. Anu is the supreme ruler and king, and the authority of the earthly king is derived from him. These ancient beliefs indicate a belief in the mysterious and transcendent nature of God, the sky being an inaccessible divine sphere removed from human proximity. The Greek god, Zeus and the Roman god, Jupiter are exceptions to this rule.
Eliade notes that there is a close link between the word ‘God’ and the word for a ‘day’ (Deus and Dies in Latin) evoked by the god Dieus, the hypothetical god of the light sky, common to Aryan tribes. He writes: ‘Certain it is that the Indian Dyaus, the Roman Jupiter, the Greek Zeus and the Germanic god Tyr-Zio, are forms evolved in the course of history from that primeval sky divinity, and that their very names reveal the original twofold meaning of ‘light (day)’ and ‘sacred’ (cf. the Sanskrit div, ‘shine’, ‘day’, dyaus, ‘sky’, ‘day’; dios, dies;deivos, divus). Zeus, Jupiter and Tyr-Zio are more actively involved in the world than the remote Hindu god Dyaus.
The thunderbolt, a symbol associated with both Zeus and Jupiter, indicates their control of rain and storms and their vast power to protect or destroy fertility. Storms manifest the great creative force of a god. The thunderbolts of lightning were used to punish those who broke the moral and social codes. The Germanic gods, Thor and Odin, also held great power. For our ancestors the concept of fertility being linked to a creator god is central to the idea of sky gods showing their power through storms. For example, the Celts believed in a god called ‘Taranis’ (from the word ‘Taran’ / ‘to thunder’, torann in Irish). Fertility was also dependant on the cooperation of the sky gods with the earth goddess. It was perceived that there was a sacred marriage between the sky gods and the great Earth Mother. The sky is the place for gathering clouds, where thunder roars and where fertility is determined. Thus, all of life was dependant on the sky for its continuance. Gradually our ancestors shifted their understanding from creator sky gods to active fertility gods. As Neolithic peoples began to abandon nomadism in favour of settlement and farming, fertility became a central preoccupation for them. Dependency on fertility gods increased since they were key to crop success and the cycles of nature. Some ancient societies replaced the symbol of the sky with the symbol of the sun to reflect this gradual change in understanding. The sun was of course the ultimate symbol of fertility, a symbol commonly used by the Egyptian pharaohs.
The moon also became a central symbol for ancient societies. Representing the cycles of nature, fertility, regeneration and life the goddesses of fertility were closely linked to the moon. For example, in the Pygmy civilisation of Africa, the moon represents the mother of all living things. Some civilisations linked the cyclic nature of the moon to the woman’s menstrual cycle. Eliade notes that in traditional Eskimo culture, unmarried girls dared not look at the moon for fear of falling pregnant
Greek myth: Zeus
The Greek pantheon tells us much about the concerns of Greek civilisation and how the ancient Greeks understood themselves and the world. While there are many gods and goddesses in the Greek pantheon, twelve principal gods emerge as the most important. These comprise of Zeus and his family, who lived on Mount Olympus and were thought to rule the world. Zeus was strong and powerful; he was a father, husband and head of the family; however he had the failings of a mortal man. Zeus was a sky god, concerned particularly with the weather, and his symbol was a thunderbolt. The following is a myth concerning Zeus and tells us something about his character.
Only Zeus, the Father of Heaven, might wield the thunderbolt; and it was with the threat of its fatal flash that he controlled his quarrelsome and rebellious family on Mount Olympus.
A time came when he became so proud and intolerable that his wife, Hera, Poseidon, Apollo and all the other family surrounded him suddenly when he lay asleep on his couch and bound him with rawhide thongs, knotted into a hundred knots, so that he could not move. He threatened them with instant death, but they had placed his thunderbolt out of his reach and laughed insultingly at him. While they were celebrating their victory, and jealously discussing who was to be successor, Thetis the Nereid, foreseeing a civil war on Olympus, hurried in search of the 100-handed Briareus, who swiftly untied the thongs, using every hand at once, and released his master. Because it was Hera who had led the conspiracy against him, Zeus hung her up from the sky with a golden bracelet around both wrists and an anvil fastened to either ankle. The other deities were vexed, but dared attempt no rescue for all her piteous cries. In the end, Zeus undertook to free her if they swore never more to rebel against him, and this each in turn grudgingly did.
Nordic myth: Thor
The gods that emerged from Northern and Western Europe were gods of thunder, rain and wind. Perhaps this reflected the colder, darker atmosphere of this part of the world. This is an example of how the culture of a people affected their understanding of God. The mythology of the Nordic culture is one that depicts the constant struggle against the forces of darkness and chaos. The Nordic gods often engaged in violent battles against the forces of evil, which were depicted as giants and monsters. Thor is probably the best known of the Nordic gods. He was the god of thunder. He is described as a huge bearded figure, who was armed with a hammer, iron gloves and a girdle of strength. He was an outspoken god with an enormous appetite for food and drink!
Thor, rising from sleep one day, found that his hammer was gone. This makes him so angry that his beard shakes, and his whole body trembles. Accompanied by his assistant Loki, he goes to Freyja (woman!) to ask if Loki may borrow her wings so that he can fly to Jotunheim, the land of the giants and to find out if they are the ones who stole his hammer.
At Jotunheim, Loki meets Thrym, the king of the giants, who boasts that he has hidden the hammer seven leagues under the earth. He adds that the gods will not get the hammer back until Thrym is given to Freyja for his bride.
Loki returns and tells Freyja to put on her wedding attire for she is (alas) to wed the king of the giants. Freyja is furious and says that people will think she is man-mad if she agrees to marry a giant! Then the god Heimdall comes up with an idea. What if Thor dresses up as a bride. With his hair up and two stones under his tunic he will look like a woman. Thor isn’t enthusiastic about the idea but he agrees to do it, since it is the only way he will ever get his hammer back. So Thor allows himself to be dressed in bridal costume with Loki as his bridesmaid.
When the gods arrive at Jutenheim, the giants prepare the wedding feast. But during the feast, Thor devours and entire ox and eight salmon. He also drinks three barrels of beer. Thrym is astonished. The true identity of the god is nearly revealed. But Loki manages to avert the danger by explaining that Freyja has been looking forward to coming to Jutenheim so much that she has not eaten for a week. When Thrym lifts the bridal veil to kiss the bride, he is startled to find himself looking into Thor’s burning eyes. Loki rescues the situation by saying that the bride has not slept for a whole week because of the excitement and anticipation of the day. At this, Thrym commands that the hammer be brought up and placed on the hands of the bride during the wedding ceremony. Thor roars with laughter when he is given the hammer. He kills Thrym with it, and he wipes out the giants and all their kin.
This god of thunder has a huge appetite. The loss of the hammer could represent a drought and consequent crop failure. Recovery of the hammer could be the coming of spring, arrival of hope.
Polytheism and the emergence of monotheism:
Our ancient ancestors lived a precarious existence, often experiencing the need to placate the gods to win their favour and guarantee fertility and life. It seems that they needed reassurances about the purpose and fruitfulness of the world. Thus the gods they worshipped were usually close to the world of nature. This sensitivity to a divine presence in nature suggests a divinisation of the natural world, a theme taken up in pantheism and in Celtic spirituality.
Monotheism and polytheism refer to the understanding of the transcendent within a religion. The transcendent refers to the belief in a higher power, the other, the sacred – generally referred to as God.
The belief in many gods is called polytheism. Polytheism is the norm rather than the exception in world religions. Ancient cultures held beliefs in a wide range of gods. This assumption was unquestioned. Yet, there were exceptions. Judaism totally rejected polytheism throughout its history.
Examples of polytheism:
- Hinduism is sometimes described as a polytheistic religion. With a history of four thousand years it is a belief system containing many gods. The majority of Hindu villages have their own god whom they venerate. There is no founder or prophet in Hinduism and it has no ecclesiastical structures nor central creed. Gods worshipped in Hinduism include Shiva, Vishnu or his incarnations (especially Krishna or Rama) and thousands of other local gods.
Hinduism dates back to the second millennium B.C. after the Ayran invasion of north India. The Vedas (oldest sacred texts of Hinduism) come from the Ayrans. Other strands of Hinduism grew out of this Vedic tradition. Agni is the god of fire and sacrifice, restoring life to all beings. He also unites heaven, earth and the atmosphere in between. Indra is the god of war and the sky god. He represents the archetype of the forces that originate life and he is the fertility god. This omnipresent god represents fruitfulness, for he has abundant vitality: he is responsible for the fruitfulness of women, fields and animals. At weddings he is invoked so that the bride may give birth to ten sons. Varuna is another sky god – he upholds the cosmic order and uses powers too punish and reward.
Hindus believe that Brahman is the ultimate source of their existence. Brahman is a distant, all-powerful god; he is the creator and the basis for all existence. He is an abstract concept, devoid of anthropomorphic images. He has no attributes, no form and has no task – he is omnipresent yet imperceptible. He has to be approached through a number of more accessible deities, the principal ones being:
Brahma – the creator who brings the Universe into existence
Vishnu – who preserves life and all living things, working for good and controlling fate, salvation of moral order and redemption of humanity; Vishnu’s work is carried out traditionally through his incarnations, such as the gods Krishna and Rama; Krishna is the hero of myths such as the Bhagavad Gita (Krishna is the lover, warrior king), Rama is the noble hero who combated evil in the world;
Shiva – source of good and evil, destroys life but re-creates new life;
Mahadeiri, the goddess, is also a principal deity in Hinduism. Hindus frequently have a favourite deity and they may have a shrine to them in their homes. A more devotional relationship can be enjoyed with more personalised gods, such as Shiva and Vishnu.
- Shinto is another example of polytheistic religion. Shinto is a Japanese religion. It means ‘shen’ - divine being and ‘tao’ - way of the gods. Gods or spirits of Shinto are numerous. They are known as ‘kami’ and have special powers. Shinto legend has it that the gods controlled the cosmos and came down to earth and inhabited any special elements of the landscape.
Izanagi and Izanami were creator gods – brother and sister as well as lovers.
The Upanishad writings (800-400 B.C.) show a shift of emphasis from polytheism and its mythologies to a more unified and inward understanding of reality. They seem to conclude that everything is one, thus moving towards monism. The notion of the absolute Brahman emerges in these later writings. The world was then seen to have emerged as a result of emanation or necessary evolving, rather than by a once off act of creation. Something of the ultimate Source is believed to have flowed down to us. In a deep way, all is one. Hinduism is unusual in that it upholds beliefs in many gods yet these are all manifestations of the One or tend towards the One. ‘This monistic or pantheistic view of reality is neither polytheism nor monotheism, The unity of all reality runs contrary to polytheism; the lack of any distinction between creator and creature or the divine and human – the idea that everything that exists is an expression of the divine, runs contrary to classical monotheism. It is a belief system that proclaims creation as a free act of God rather than a necessary emanation or outpouring from the One’.
The search for meaning in Hinduism is all-encompassing, and Hinduism does not shy away from the complexity of this search. Each Hindu god is a unity of opposites. Each god has a consort who is also a god and whose qualities complement or contrast those of his/her divine partner. The god Shiva has a consort called Kali or Durga. If Shiva is the destroyer, Kali is the great mother. There is also a paradoxical contradiction within each god. Shiva the destroyer can also re-create new life. Kali, the benevolent mother, can also judge and take life (she is perceived as wearing a necklace of human skulls). The ‘trinitarian’ set of gods, Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva, have an internal set of contrasting qualities. ‘This unity of opposites is one of the most primitive ways of expressing the paradox of divine reality: the reconciliation or rather the transcendence of all contraries’.
Monotheism means the belief in one God. The three great monotheistic world religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The development of monotheism is closely linked to the history of Judaism. Both Christianity and Islam trace their roots to the faith of the Israelites. The monotheistic stance of Judaism was a clear departure from the cult practices of the ancient Semitic civilization. The existence of many divine beings in the ancient near East was unquestioned. Documentary evidence for the Israelites’ monotheistic stance dates back to the 6th century B.C. but most likely pre-dates documentary evidence. Monotheism for the Jews involved a special covenant relationship with Yahweh (God). Their strict first commandment was to worship no other god but Yahweh. Images of God were also prohibited (a prohibition that was most unusual in religious traditions in the ancient Near East at that time, since all ancient gods were symbolised by images, mostly anthropomorphic ones).
The concept of God in the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
In Judaism, Yahweh cannot be reduced to mere human representations or images. The Old Testament attributes certain human traits to Yahweh. Yahweh is at the heart of the close covenant relationship with the Jews. This relationship is written about in terms of a husband/wife or a father/child relationship. Personal communication is important to the relationship. Yahweh is not abstract or impersonal. Yahweh speaks and acts, unlike the idols of surrounding nations of the Near East at that time. The Genesis creation account (Adam and Eve) shows this relationship in action. It also demonstrated human ethical responsibility resulting from Yahweh’s creation of us. God was known by various names by the Israelites: El (‘Holy One’, showing the transcendence of God), Elohim, Shaddai (‘The Almighty’, from early Patriarchal literature). Yahweh is the most common name for God in Judaism. It closely mirrors the verb to be – ‘I am who am’. It is a name suggesting a creator, one who brings life into being.
The Old Testament concept of God was passed down through the Christian tradition. However, for Christians this great almighty God became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, thus the person of Jesus is the fullness of God’s self-revelation. Many titles were used to name Jesus: Kyrios/Lord – replacing the Jewish name for Yahweh, stressing the authority of Jesus as universal Lord. Jesus was also called the Messiah – anointed one, linked to Jewish kings who were anointed. The Messiah would establish in the world the reign of God. Linked to the notion of the Messiah is the concept of the Suffering Servant or the Son of Man. The title prophet was also used – an eschatological prophet who would be killed because of what he stood for, like prophets before him. The title High Priest was also used – the paschal mystery, the sacrifice for sins symbolised by the cross. Jesus is referred to as the New Covenant, sympathising with sinners. The New Testament uses titles such as Bread of Life and Good Shepherd. Jesus reveals god through his person, his words and actions. This is reflected in his key teachings in the New Testament such as the Beatitudes and the command to love one another. These teachings reveal God to be compassionate and merciful, forgiving and close to the poor and persecuted. The concept of God in Christianity is Trinitarian. God is a communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, revealed in the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. This God of love extends to enemies, is all embracing and forgiving. St. Augustine described the dynamic as love: the Father is the One who loves, the Son is loved and the Holy Spirit is love itself. This inclusive description of love gives us insight not just into God but into humanity and the meaning of our existence. Christians are called to love – even one’s enemies.
In Islam god is revealed in the Qur’an, the sacred text that is understood literally as God’s word. The Qur’an offers 99 names for God or Allah but the most important is his status as God alone. The creed is taken from the first line of the Qur’an and is recited by Muslims five times a day. It is a simple monotheistic statement: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet’. Muhammad’s struggle against the polytheism of the Arabian tribal religions of his culture resulted in the foundation if Islam. The concept of the Incarnational and Trinitarian God of Christianity is contrary to the beliefs of Muslims. Monotheism has many practical implications for the daily life of Muslims. It is linked to the belief in the fundamental equality of all people before God and therefore demands social justice. As well as the Oneness of God, Muslims place emphasis on the transcendence of God: Allah is the creator and there is a real gulf between Allah and humans. Muslims must not associate any other god with Allah (this is known as the sin of shirk) nor use any images or representations to depict Allah. Islam means ‘submission to God’, so all of human life must be lived under God’s command. The belief in the absolute otherness of God places Muslims at variance with Christians over the Incarnation – a central tenet of Christian faith the God became human in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Muslims still see Allah’s engagement with the world. They emphasise the merciful nature of Yahweh and his creative power in the universe. Each chapter (sura) in the Qur’an begins with the words ‘In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate’. Also important in Islam is the notion of Allah’s judgment at the end of time as well as Allah’s lordship over human origins, nature and destiny. Thus, the sovereignty of God is all-important in Islam. Allah’s authority is not questioned.
 Eliade, M; ‘Patterns in Comparative Religion’, London 1969
 Ibid; p41
 Ibid; p44
 Ibid; p66
 Ibid; p66
 Ibid; p155
 Cassidy, E; ‘The Search for Meaning and Values’, Dublin 2004, p184
 Ibid; p185