Skip to main content

Why Gods Have Faces, The Role of Anthropomorphism in Ancient Religions

· 8 min read

Ganesha Example Of Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics, behaviors, or emotions to non-human entities. It's a fundamental aspect of human cognition that enables us to understand and interact with the world around us.

Let's explore the powerful role anthropomorphism plays in world mythologies, from Greek gods to Egyptian deities, revealing how human traits shape our understanding of the divine, the natural, and ourselves. Let's embark on this fascinating journey through myths and mirrors."

What is Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics, behaviors, or emotions to non-human entities. It's a fundamental aspect of human cognition that enables us to understand and interact with the world around us. This phenomenon isn't limited to physical features; it also extends to ascribing human emotions, intentions, and cognitive processes to non-human entities, including animals, plants, objects, natural phenomena, and even abstract concepts.

Anthropomorphism has been a key feature of human storytelling, mythology, and religion across various cultures and epochs. Let's take a look at some examples from different parts of the world:

Greek Mythology

Greek gods and goddesses were anthropomorphic beings who resembled humans not only in appearance but also in their behavior. They exhibited human emotions such as love, anger, jealousy, and they also had humanlike failings. For example, Zeus, the king of the gods, was known for his infidelities.

Egyptian Mythology

Many Egyptian deities were depicted as anthropomorphic entities, often as human-animal hybrids. For instance, Anubis, the god of death and mummification, was often depicted with the body of a man and the head of a jackal.

Hindu Mythology

Hindu gods and goddesses are often depicted with human-like forms, but with supernatural abilities. Many deities are also portrayed as part-human, part-animal. Lord Ganesha, for example, is depicted with an elephant head on a human body.

Native American Mythology

Many Native American myths and stories feature anthropomorphic animals, such as Coyote, Raven, and Bear, who behave like humans, speak like humans, and often display human-like emotions and motivations.

Shintoism in Japan

Many Shinto kami (spirits) are depicted in an anthropomorphic manner. In Shinto beliefs, objects, animals, and even concepts like wind and rain can have spirits and are often personified in myths and stories.

By giving human characteristics to non-human entities, stories and myths can convey profound truths and lessons in an engaging and accessible way.

Why was Anthropomorphism Used

Anthropomorphism has been used extensively in mythologies worldwide due to several reasons:


By attributing human characteristics to divine entities or natural phenomena, it makes them more understandable and relatable to people. It allows complex or abstract ideas to be conveyed in a more tangible, understandable form.


Humans have a long tradition of storytelling, and anthropomorphic characters lend themselves well to memorable stories. These characters can portray human virtues, vices, and emotions, providing moral and ethical lessons.


Anthropomorphism is a powerful tool for symbolism. An animal or object with human traits can symbolize particular human qualities, making the concept more vivid. For example, a cunning fox or a wise owl in a story is immediately recognizable and memorable.

Explaining the Unknown

Ancient cultures used myths to explain natural phenomena and the mysteries of the universe. By personifying these phenomena, they were able to provide explanations that made sense within their understanding of the world.

Coping Mechanism

Anthropomorphism can also serve as a psychological coping mechanism, allowing individuals to better comprehend and negotiate their world by viewing it through a human lens.

Cultural Identity and Continuity

Myths form an integral part of a culture's identity. The anthropomorphic characters in these myths reflect the norms, values, and beliefs of a society, serving to both maintain cultural continuity and enforce societal norms.

In essence, the use of anthropomorphism in mythology helps human beings understand the world around them, provides moral and societal lessons, gives a sense of control over natural events, and strengthens cultural identity.

Unmasking Anthropomorphism

Through Iconic Characters of Indian and Egyptian Mythology

Welcome to an enlightening exploration of anthropomorphism, a concept deeply embedded in human cognition and culture. To truly appreciate this, we turn our gaze towards the vibrant tapestry of Indian and Egyptian mythologies, each rich with anthropomorphic deities. Journey with us as we delve into the fascinating narratives of Lord Ganesha and Lord Hanuman from India, and Anubis and Sekhmet from Egypt. By exploring these characters, we unveil how anthropomorphism serves not merely as artistic expression, but as a potent symbol of human virtues, vices, and life's profound mysteries. As we navigate the human traits of these divine beings, we will unravel a deeper understanding of anthropomorphism and its enduring impact on human culture and storytelling.

Certainly, here's a more detailed look at these four fascinating anthropomorphic characters:

Indian Mythology

  1. Lord Ganesha: Lord Ganesha, often depicted with an elephant's head on a human body, is one of the best-known and most worshipped deities in Hinduism. His image is found throughout India and beyond. Ganesha is revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the god of intellect and wisdom. As the god of beginnings, he is traditionally invoked at the start of rites, ceremonies, and new ventures. The elephant head represents wisdom and understanding, while his human body signifies the earthly existence of human beings.

  2. Lord Hanuman: A central character in the Indian epic Ramayana, Lord Hanuman is revered for his unwavering devotion to Lord Rama. Often depicted as a monkey-faced deity, he represents strength, valor, and selfless service. As a symbol of physical strength and perseverance, Hanuman is often turned to for inspiration and protection. His tales depict him as a being of extraordinary physical and mental might, as well as deep spiritual understanding.

Egyptian Mythology

  1. Anubis: Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife, is one of the most iconic gods of ancient Egypt. Anubis was responsible for judging the souls of the deceased in the Hall of Truth, where the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Ma'at, symbolizing truth and justice. He also oversaw the process of mummification, ensuring the deceased was well prepared for the journey to the afterlife. His jackal-headed form likely originates from ancient observations of these creatures around burial sites.

  2. Sekhmet: Sekhmet, often depicted as a lioness or as a woman with the head of a lioness, is the Egyptian goddess of war and healing. Known as "The Powerful One," Sekhmet was considered the protector of the pharaohs and led them in warfare. Her dual nature embodies the Egyptian belief in the balance of opposites. As a healing deity, she was believed to have a calming, nurturing aspect and was associated with medicine and health.

These characters continue to have a significant cultural impact and serve as prominent symbols in their respective mythologies. They reflect the human struggle with natural forces, ethics, duty, wisdom, and the complexities of life and death.

Anthropomorphism's Influence on Superstitions and Rituals

Anthropomorphism doesn't merely create engaging characters for our myths and stories. Its implications reach deeper into human society, shaping behaviors, customs, and even religious rituals.

Anthropomorphic deities, crafted in our human image, carry our virtues, vices, and idiosyncrasies. As these deities rule over natural phenomena and abstract concepts, it's common to see rituals and superstitions arise as a means to appease these gods or influence the elements they govern.

For instance, consider the rituals surrounding Lord Ganesha in India. Before embarking on a new venture, whether it's the opening of a business or the beginning of a journey, it's a common practice to invoke Lord Ganesha—the remover of obstacles—for good luck.

Similarly, in ancient Egypt, the embalming process was done with rituals and prayers to Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that performing these rituals correctly would protect the deceased and guide them to the afterlife successfully.

These practices speak to a profound human desire for control and predictability in an uncertain world. They represent our attempts to comprehend, influence, and humanize forces beyond our grasp, embodied by these anthropomorphic deities.

However, the very human traits we ascribe to these deities can also foster superstitions. If gods can be placated, angered, or swayed much like humans, it's a small step to believe that certain actions, omens, or rituals can influence their favor. Thus, anthropomorphism, while offering comfort and relatability, can also breed fear and superstition.

So, while anthropomorphism brings our gods down to earth, it also, paradoxically, elevates our human actions into the realm of the divine, imbuing everyday rituals and superstitions with a deeper, cosmic significance.

What Can You Do Next 🙏😊

If you liked the article, consider subscribing to CosmicZing, my YouTube Channel, where I try to decode the mysteries of the universe through ancient Indian wisdom and take you on a journey of self-discovery and spiritual enlightenment.

YouTube @cosmiczing