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  Anthropomorphism (Greek, ‘giving human shape’) is the technique of attributing human shape, ideas and feelings to non-human entities. It is a practice as ancient as the human race, and its root purpose seems to be not so much to ‘dignify’ non-human entities by imagining them like us, as to bring them within range of our own human understanding. Thus, at the simple level, one can say that clouds, for example, have ‘faces’, and at a more complex level that they ‘frown’ or ‘race’. It may be claimed, initially as a poetic fancy, that Nature is empathetic to human emotions. One can talk of ‘cunning’ foxes or ‘loyal’ dogs, or imagine, for instance, a wildebeest cow mourning her newborn calf taken by lions. Sentient animals (and indeed trees, rivers, even rocks and buildings) are staples in literature of every kind. (Examples range from the frog in Aesop\'s fable who is ambitious to be an ox to the Houyhnhnms of Swift\'s Gulliver\'s Travels, from the trickster Coyote of African and American folk tale to Tolkien\'s Ents and George Orwell\'s pig-Napoleon.) One of the aims of magic is to allow human beings to enter into the condition of animals, to acquire, for example, ‘second hearing’ (the ability to understand all animal ‘languages’).

Anthropomorphism is particularly important to human beings trying to comprehend the supernatural. It is hard to come to terms with supernatural forces which have no shapes—with the ancient Greek Titans, for example, who became whatever they thought (fireball, hill, leaf, might, rage) for as long as they held that thought. It is much easier to project some kind of transcendent human identity on to supernatural ‘beings’ (the word itself is anthropomorphic), and then attempt to form relationships on the human model. The whole of animism depends on the view that the environment itself consents with human beings in a kind of shared perception and acceptance of existence. Many religions anthropomorphize their gods, either as beings with every human attribute magnified (as in ancient Greek or Nordic religion), or as beings that assume human nature in order to communicate with humans. Some religions go further, adding theriomorphism to anthropomorphism: their gods take on the shapes of beasts as well as of humans. For example, Sekhmet in ancient Egyptian religion, and Mother Earth in Aztec cosmology, had a crocodile shape; Ganesh in Hinduism has a human body and an elephant\'s head; the creator-god in much Australian native religion is a rainbow-snake. Even religions that attribute no physical human shape to their gods (such as Christianity and Islam) talk of God as ‘he’, as a ‘father’, as ‘wise’, as ‘merciful’ and so on. Shinto shrines contain no visual images and yet Shinto mythology is full of anthropomorphic images. To the believer, all this is perfectly simple, an essential and unquestioned component of faith itself. To the nonbeliever, it might seem that whether we are dealing with the demon-masks of ancient native religions or with such comparatively sophisticated ideas as the Christian ‘God made man’, we are in the presence of something which tells us much less about the mysterious nature of the supernatural than about the imperatives of human psychology. EMJ KMcL



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Anthropology Of Religion


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