ANTHROPOMORPHISM (Greek ’ανθρωπος [anthropos]—man; μορφη [morphe]—form, shape)—ascribing human physical and psychological characteristics to beings which by nature do not possess them; in primitive religions and in the Old Testament we distinguish physical anthropomorphism that ascribes to God the physical characteristics of a man of ideal build (developed in particular in Greek mythology and art), and psychological anthropomorphism (anthropopathism); in theology—predicating of God with the help of terms that refer to man or to his actions or passive experiences.
The anthropomorphic understanding of God’s essence and of the phenomena of the non-human world is a consequence of the imperfection of human knowledge and has a basis in man’s spiritual and sensual nature. Man’ mind creates concepts only on the basis of impressions and mental images. Anthropomorphism occurs in all religions, but has different functions, often connected with proper concepts about God. In the oldest natural religions from the so-called primitive cultural period God was conceived as the invisible Highest Being. The Indians of North America called him the Great Spirit. Other tribes of primitive culture such as the Samoyeds, Pigmies and Bushmen called God the Father and Creator of all things. They thought of God as omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, morally good, the Creator of the moral order. He dwelt in the sky, but at the beginning he dwelt among men and provided them with the necessities of life. They call on God in prayer convinced that he hears and sees them. They ascribe to him a certain type of spirituality and say that he is like a breath of wind. In the oldest natural religions they do not make pictures of God; the worship of the Highest Being ordinarily does not involve the use of images. Instead, we find a mental image of God as a clear and shining form, often fiery, presented as far as possible as an immaterial being.
Some tribes such as the African pygmies think that God dwells in the third, seventh, tenth, or twelfth heaven. Lightning is his weapon; thunder and the sound of wind are the sign of his anger; the rainbow is the hem of his garment. According to the people of the Andaman Islands, God is an elder with a long beard who sleeps and is bored in his solitude; they offer him the first fruits as a sacrifice. Other tribes of primitive cultures such as the Koriaks, probably influenced by early agricultural and totemistic cultures, anthropomorphize God even more and ascribe to him a married life and immoral conduct.
In early cultures the process of anthropomorphization of the Highest being gained strength. In matriarchal and agricultural culture, the divinity was often regarded as a women, or the land was thought to be his wife or sister; in totemistic culture active magic developed. The rising sun was regarded as the sun of the Highest Being, and the sun later came to the center stage; the setting sun as the Highest Being, but weak and old, lost contact with men. In patriarchal shepherd culture the Highest Being retained most of the characteristics of God from the period of primitive culture, but slowly changed into the divinity of the sky who was pictured in a human fashion as a patriarch; there were hierarchical steps between the Highest Being and men by which they could reach him.
In historical times along with the increase in divinities and the progress of material culture, including development in religions, the Highest Being was demoted to the level of the divinities, gods, or heroes who have vices and misdeeds. Mythology often portrayed the gods in the form of animals or men. Anthropomorphism often appears in the religions of the Chinese, Japanese, East Indians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and especially among the Greeks and Romans. The Old Testament and Islam banned the making of images of God.
W. Schmidt, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, I–XII, Mr 1912–1955; A. Lemonnyer, La révélation primitive, P 1914; L. von Schroeder, Arische Religion, I–II, L 1914–1916; A. Cholet, DThC I 1367–1370; EJUD II 885–905; W. Schmidt, Die Urkulturen, HM I 468–501; Prümm RH (passim); H. Piesl, Vom Präanthropomorphismus zum Anthropomorphismus Entwicklungsstadien im altmesopotamischen Pantheon, In 1969; W. Pötscher, Strukturprobleme der aristotelischen und theophrastischen Gottesvorstellung, Lei 1970.