Apotheosis: The Theological Problems

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Recently, I have been doing an in-depth study of apotheosis. For the Hellenic Pagan (and possibly for others, though I would not know), apotheosis is an interesting topic because it can help us to understand that difference between humans and deities. It is also an extremely difficult concept to tackle from the perspective of Hellenic theology, because the implications of it are difficult to think about.

Difficult Concept 1: Gods are people, and People aren’t so different from gods. 

This isn’t just a modern problem. Apotheosis represents a contradiction in ancient Polytheistic Theology also. In ancient times, believing that the difference between a deity and a human has to do with wisdom and virtue (qualities usually hard earned through life experience) was a totally normal thing. In the Hymn to Demeter, for example, Kallidike says to the disguised Demeter:

“Old Mother, we humans endure the gifts the gods give us, even when we are grieving over what has to be. They [the gods] are, after all, far better than we are.” (Line 145-148)

The natural implication is that even the difficult things in life are done for the best, and there is a basic trust that the gods are wise enough to know which actions are for the greatest good.

Yet, in ancient Hellenic mythology, the gods are always getting angry at mortals for thinking that they are equal to the gods. At the same time, humans are becoming deities, when deities say that’s ok. If the deities are so much greater than us that presuming equality to them is wrong, how can a human, with their limited knowledge and experience, become a deity?

Actually, I’m going to propose that the fact that deities and mortals aren’t so different is precisely why the deities are so keen on punishing mortals who assume equality.

No one gets mad at a cat for thinking that she is people. Imagine the absurdity. Staring at your cat several times a day, wondering if the cat thinks she’s as good as you, or better than you. Imagine waiting there with a rolled up magazine, watching for an expression of smugness.

Let’s leave aside the fact that cats basically always look smug, and that such an attitude would lead to animal abuse. What would it argue about you as a person? It would argue a profound sort of insecurity that would be the exact opposite of being wise or spiritual.

The chasm between you and the cat, in terms of size, intellect, understanding and power to effect the environment is so large that we find the concept of kitties thinking they are people adorable and silly. If the chasm was as great between Hellenic deities and humans, I imagine that would be their reaction. Niobe would not have been punished in a violent fashion. Leto would have sighed and shook her head, as I might if my cat hissed at me. That would have been the end of it. Kassiope and Andromeda wouldn’t have been worth Poseidon’s wrath, any more than my cat preening in a sun beam, looking at me as if to say, “You wish you were me, flat-faced monkey-thing.”

Hamlet_PicardTo what is the deific reaction to hubris similar?

To a slave who presumes equality to their master, or to a 18 year old who presumes equality with their parents. In both cases, the parent, or the master, is categorically superior only by means of some societal construct… and in the latter case, approximately two decades worth of life experience.

Let’s start with the 18 year old. Here is a person who is fundamentally equal to his or her parents in a legal sense, and possibly even superior in a physiological sense. Are the parents right to become angry at the 18 year old’s presumption of equality? In many cases, yes. When the 18 year old presumes themselves equal and no longer listens to their parents, the parents lose the ability to guide the youngster, and to keep him or her safe.

Have you ever heard a deity say, “you can refuse to serve me, but you will lose my blessings,” or something similar?

It’s not so different from, “you can follow your own rules when you have your own house,” in many ways.

In the cases of Herkles, Asklepios and Demophon, the case was most certainly that they were being reared, in some sense, by the deity. Their relationship to their divine patron was similar to that between a child and a parent. Demophon’s apotheosis was failed because, as we see in the myth, Demeter was not yet “done.” IE, Demophon was still a child, whereas Herakles and Asklepios lived long enough to prove themselves through their deeds.

Ariadne, interestingly enough, had a divine patron who had a god-spouse relationship with her before her apotheosis. I actually strongly suspect that it was this marriage which was a sort of a spiritual coming of age for her.

“Inakhos was witness to both, when the heavy bronze pikes of Mykenai resisted the ivy and deadly fennel, when Perseus, sickle in hand, gave way to Bakkhos with his wand, and fled before the fury of Satyroi cyring Euoi; Perseus cast a raging spear, and hit frail Ariadne unarmed instead of Lyaios the warrior. I do not admire Perseus for killing one woman in her bridal dress still breathing of love.” — Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25. 104 ff

According to this source, Ariadne dies very shortly after her marriage to Dionysos, and upon her return from death, she becomes a goddess. Unlike with Herakles or Psyche, Ariadne does not have to perform any labors to prove her worthiness for divinity. The Hellenic gods take many lovers, but the idea of marriage, here, implies a degree of equality.

The marriage between Dionysos and Ariadne was not the marriage of a volcano and a pebble, or a storm and rain drop. It was the marriage of a new god, and someone who was soon to be a deity.

“Soon to be a deity” is something that can be true of incarnate people.

Inherent in the ancient thinking, there was an implicit contradiction. On the one hand, deities are far better than humans. On the other hand, they’re not so much better that it’s impossible for a human to catch up. That brings us to difficult concept number two.

Difficult Concept 2: Potentially, anyone can become a deity. 

I prefer to think of myself as a space pirate. Generally, however, bands of outlaws function by having one thug who is thuggery than the rest.
I prefer to think of myself as a space pirate.

One of modern Paganism’s biggest problems is that the majority of modern Pagans believe that they can and should be a major figure within Paganism. I have witnessed numerous cat fights between individuals in Pagan groups, the subtext of which is, “I hate you because you are in charge, and I want the person in charge to be me.” Our movement is like a Pirate ship comprised almost entirely of Captains, and far too many people are looking for a way to be the Captain-est.

That doesn’t mean that all of these people should be in charge, or that they would even know what to do if they were handed the reigns. It does mean that certain people are constantly looking for “cred” or to be recognized.

This is true to such a degree that any special distinction a person might say of themselves, such as being married to a deity, having a special resonance with a deity or claiming to be Otherkin (especially if you happen to be a supernatural or magical being type of Otherkin) is interpreted as a power grab. Moreover, for each of these distinctions, there are people desperate to acquire them, whether that would be healthy or not.

The narratives of Herakles and Psyche (Psyche in particular, because she has no divine parentage) have a subtext that is ripe for this kind of struggle. They imply that, in one lifetime, you might actually be able to have enough life experiences that you could become a deity.

Enlightenment. It now comes quickly, cheaply, and in a package that looks surprisingly like a box of Tide.
Enlightenment. It now comes quickly, cheaply, and in a package that looks surprisingly like a box of Tide.

Granted, according to the most traditional interpretation, you might need to fight a Nemian Lion, take a spear to the gut, light yourself on fire, or have your face bashed in by Aphrodite, but we are nothing if not willing to lower the bar for such distinctions.

My favorite example of this is the modern interpretation of the Abramelin Operation. Now, of course, the original operation entails months or years of ritualizing under extremely controlled conditions, but thanks to the diligent work of Jason Newcomb, it can be done in a few days.

It seems to me as though a community that supported the idea of present-day apotheosis through heroic deeds would find itself facing the problem of people who claim “heroic deeds” which required little in the way of risk, inconvenience, or actual sacrifice. We would also find people, on the other side of the equation, setting standards for heroic deeds which would systematically exclude marginalized groups despite the fact that any and all of these marginalized groups are represented among the Olympians.

The phrase, “can of worms” rings in my ears.

Difficult Concept 3: Old Man Living Atop a Mountain Syndrome

If you read between the lines in these apotheosis narratives, they really seem to suggest that you need to break off ties with humans in order to become a deity.

Psyche deal with bitter isolation before she even laid eyes on a deity:

“Meanwhile, Psyche for all her striking beauty gained no reward for her ravishing looks. She was the object of all eyes, and her praise was on everyone’s lips, but no king or prince or even commoner courted her to seek her hand. All admired her godlike appearance, but the admiration was such as is accorded to an exquisitely carved statue. For some time now her two elder sisters had been betrothed to royal suitors and had contracted splendid marriages, though their more modest beauty had won no widespread acclaim. But Psyche remained at home unattended, lamenting her isolated loneliness. Sick in body and wounded at heart, she loathed her beauty which the whole world admired. For this reason the father of that ill-starred girl was a picture of misery, for he suspected that the gods were hostile, and he feared their anger.” — Apuleius, The Golden Ass 4. 28 – 6. 24

But, she did not begin her journey toward apotheosis until her sisters betrayed her, tricking her into harming her Beloved, a course of action which made her a refuge from Aphrodite. They spoke to her, saying:

We know for a fact–and as we share your painful plight we cannot hide it from you–that a monstrous Dragon lies unseen with you at night. It creeps along with its numerous knotted coils; its neck is blood-stained, and oozes deadly poison; its monstrous jaws lie gaping open. You must surely remember the Pythian oracle, and its chant that you were doomed to wed a wild beast. Then, too, many farms, local huntsmen, and a number of inhabitants have seen the Dragon returning to its lair at night after seeking its food, or swimming in the shallows of a river close by.

‘All of them maintain that the beast will not continue to fatten you for long by providing you with enticing food, and that as soon as your womb has filled out and your pregnancy comes to term, it will devour the richer fare which you will then offer. In view of this, you must now decide whether you ware willing to side with your sisters, who are anxious for your welfare which is so dear to their hearts, and to live in their company once you escape from death, or whether you prefer to be interred in the stomach of that fiercest of beasts. However, if you opt for the isolation of this rustic haunt inhabited only by voices, preferring the foul and hazardous intimacy of furtive love in the embrace of this venomous Dragon, at any rate we as your devoted sisters will have done our duty.’ — Ibid

In truth, it was not a dragon at all, but Eros. As a result of these words, she attacked her beloved, and became a refugee from Aphrodite. Only after the labors imposed upon her by the goddess was she finally rescued by Eros and brought up to Olympos.  I’ll spare you quotes from the rest, especially since this article is running long, and many of the citations are already in another article, but I’ll give you the abstracts.

Herakles, too was brutally betrayed by his wife, who was tricked into mortally wounding him in a fit of possessiveness.

Ariadne rejected her parents, ran away, and was abandoned by her husband.

Demophon, who was almost deified, was denied divinity by his mother’s concern. Her love kept him human.

In order to explain why this is problematic, I will tell you a story once told to me by a fellow in an Ashram I visited.

Once there was an aspirant who left for a cave to meditate in solitude. In silence, he found his Buddha self, and Enlightenment. In this state, he craved no food and needed no water. He wanted nothing.

Then came a second aspirant who also sought solitude. It was night when he arrived, and, to see, he kindled a lamp. Fumbling with the flint and lamp with too few hands, he dropped the flint and the lamp, making an ugly clatter.

The meditating aspirant awoke, and his Enlightenment was lost.

The moral, it was explained to me, was that Enlightenment isn’t just about finding your inner No Mind. It is about cultivating non-reactive awareness, and cultivating that awareness for the purpose of getting Not-Self out of the way. With Not-Self out of the way, it is possible to express true compassion and empathy for people, even if Not-Self would love to choke them with its bare hands.

Being a deity is not an office that you can hold without dealing with humans. I work with deities enough to sometimes catch them in those moments when they are completely and totally exhausted from dealing with our fucking bullshit. This doesn’t mean that they don’t love us. Indeed, what really amazes me is that, after experiences that leave them lying face down on the ground, banging their heads into something out of sheer frustration, they get up fifteen minutes later to go do it all over again.


Thenea: (tear) *snif*


If people are seeking apotheosis, cutting themselves off from humanity probably isn’t the way to do it. Perhaps that is the lesson we are to take from the failed Apotheosis of Demophon. If your plan for becoming a deity hinges on the disinterest of the people who love you most in the world, you are pretty much sunk.

Rather, it is about cultivating the ability to love humanity, even though you have seen the absolute worst in them. If you can find love in your heart for human beings after they have unleashed their worst, I think you have taken a step toward your personal deification. I’ve got no textual evidence for that, other than that humans were shitty to our deified figures right before they turned into deities, but it really resonates with my experiences of gods.

These are only a few of the issues that need exploration, as I try to understand the meaning of deified humans in Greek mythos.




  1. I needed to read this today, as Im sure I am currently making Lokinfacepalm much like Hermes. Have you ever been told, “if you act like a child Im going to treat you like one”? It is maddening.

    1. I haven’t, as such. Hermes yells at me, to be sure, or worse, gives me his special displeased face, which makes me want to crawl under a rock and die. I also get, “Thenea, you are better than this.” — But yeah… when you are close to a deity, there is friction. 😛 But they love you anyway.

  2. Reblogged this on Exploring Devotional Practice in Polytheism and commented:
    Apotheosis isn’t a subject that came up spontaneously in my own study and practice; it was an idea I encountered specifically from Hellenic polytheists and from people who (like myself) count members of this community among our friends. I recognized the stories cited as apotheosis narratives but I had little investment in them as sources of emotional or spiritual guidance. That is, not until I remembered that I did in fact have an apotheosis narrative that I did hold dear to my heart: the story of Andal.

    Andal (sometimes spelled Antal) is a goddess from the Tamil Hindu tradition but the stories we know about her are specifically about her life as a human being. Of the many reasons she is celebrated, the fact of her physical, embodied human existence is one of the most endearing and enduring. I held onto this story as an example of sacred marriage and as an example of the mortal spouse ending up with a retinue of spirits that regarded her as a queen. It’s also a very sweet love story that deserves a wider audience.

    As a child, Andal was named Kodhai. She was found in a bush or lying against the earth (an image reminiscent of Sita, who sprang up from a furrow of plowed ground). Her father was a garland maker; his job was to make the long garlands of fresh flowers used in temple worship and he named his daughter after these strands. Kodhai/Andal grew up watching the worship of Vishnu and a great love for the god was awoken in her heart. Privately, she began wearing the garlands that would be offered to Vishnu. Using an item intended for offering is against the rules of ritual but Kodhai was very attached to Vishnu. (It’s also important to note that certain ancient cultures on the subcontinent had marriage customs wherein a princess would select her suitor by placing a garland of flowers around his neck after taking it off herself. This story has strong connotations of royalty and of feminine agency.)

    Eventually Kodhai’s father discovered what she was doing and reprimanded her. That night, Vishnu himself appeared to the garland maker in a dream, saying that the garlands offered from Kodhai’s very own body were even more precious to him. Chastised by the god of the temple, the garland maker allowed Kodhai to continue her idiosyncratic worship.

    Andal’s mortal life included the composition of the Tiruppavai and the Nachiar Tirumozhi. The Tiruppavai in particular is still highly popular and annual recitations of the work are common in Tamil-language regions of India.

    The marriage ceremony initiated by Andal’s gift of the garland culminated with a formal wedding. She had dreams of Vishnu, including one charming account wherein all the many, many forms of Vishnu bickered with one another to determine which of them she would choose to marry. (She ended up marrying the form of Vishnu specifically identified with the temple her garlands were offered at.) At the very end of her story, Andal passes from a strictly human sphere into one inhabited by spirits, who now regard her as a queen. Her narrative fades at this point and she becomes fixed in the heavenly realm as the deified mortal bride of the Lord of the Three Worlds.

    Sri Andal and Mirabai are often spoken of in the same breath. Both are mortal women with a historic reality; both composed emotive and intimate songs of praise and longing in their regional languages. Both are now celebrated in the regions they came from and far beyond. Both loved and lived in a Vaishnava context. Both regarded a god as their one and only husband and both chose that husband according to their own desires. And interestingly, both of their stories essentially come to a halt at the end of their lives. (I wouldn’t be surprised if there are stories about Andal’s actions as a goddess or about her intercession on behalf of worshipers; I’m simply not aware of any. Similarly, Mira’s identity as a saint is based on her life narrative and not on any particular supernatural healings or interventions attributed to her after her passing.) However, Andal has become a goddess while Mira has remained fixed in the human realm. Mira is remembered for her passion and for her devotion against all odds; Andal is remembered for her marriage and apotheosis. Mira is a princess that became a wandering saint; Andal started life as the daughter of a tradesman and became a divine queen.

    I’m not able to solve the mystery of apotheosis. I don’t have a convenient way to explain why two stories with so many similarities have such radically different outcomes. Perhaps a clue exists in the way that these women’s assertions were regarded by others. Mira encountered continual conflict with her extended family and because of her social position; Kodhai’s father eventually came to believe her and helped her express her sacred relationship in ways meaningful to their immediate community. Kodhai’s story also includes various levels of divine intervention that aren’t as evident in Mira’s. Miracles are credited to Krishna when he saved Mira from poison and from a snake, but I can’t recall a narrative that has him talking to other people on her behalf.

    I rather wonder if apotheosis is a solution to a problem that we as humans aren’t quite able to see. The ascension of a new divinity doesn’t involve the overthrow of an old one; if anything, it fleshes out the landscape of divinity to meet varying needs of humanity. It’s entirely possible that we as a species had some spiritual need for one of our own among the High Ones; Ariadne and Andal and others might have just been right for the job. That said, I personally find more succor from visage of Mirabai, who had so few fucks to give for anything that wasn’t her lord than I do from Andal and her court of spirits. I am charmed and deeply touched by the idea of many Vishnus arguing over who gets to marry Andal, but I am in awe of Mira’s plaintive sacrifices.

    (If you’re interested in learning more about Andal, I’d suggest downloading “Legends of the Goddess: Antal Stories in the Srivaishnava Tradition”, the May 8, 2013 episode of the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies podcast, and just doing a little reading online. The Wikipedia entry is nice. You can also find copies of the Tiruppavai and Nachiar Tirumozhi online and in print.)

  3. Reblogged this on Adventures of a Baby Pagan and commented:
    “Rather, it is about cultivating the ability to love humanity, even though you have seen the absolute worst in them. If you can find love in your heart for human beings after they have unleashed their worst, I think you have taken a step toward your personal deification.”

    This. So much this.

  4. You’re definitely on to something. The blurring of the line between humans and gods is a common feature in polytheistic religions, though exact explanation may differ depending on the tradition or philosophical school. But the overlap between the two is pretty common.

    Simply put, it is a consequence of divine diversity. Whereas in monotheism there is only one god whose authority and status are thus absolute – because there’s a monopoly on divinity – in polytheism, the multiplicity of gods of various types creates a much more mixed picture with multiple shades of grey. It is a spectrum or set of degrees rather than fixed, mutually exclusive natures. And as you correctly point out, theoretically, anyone can climb the ladder to reach a higher level.

    If only more people understood the issue. I’ve met a fair share of folks who either refused to call themselves polytheists with the argument that polytheism is about gods and not ancestors or landwights, or got mad when people worshiped philosophers because they were humans and not gods.

    1. People fight over silly things.

      But speaking of philosophers… Socrates should totally qualify for apotheosis. Athens executed him, and he died still loving them and what they stood for. He was wholly devoted to philosophy. Had Apollon as his divine patron, and is notably the inventor of the syllogism. He’s at least partly mythological already. I actually have a “secular saints” candle for him, which I keep on my household altar. His devotion to the truth inspires me to fearlessly pursue it.

      And really, isn’t that the point? Not to have some indisputably powerful being who you should never question, but to have a role model for some kind of virtue that you seek?

      1. I’m all for it! I’m a guy who worships the spirits of multiple deceased humans as communal or personal heroes, from kings to diplomats and philosophers, so I see no problem with a cult of Socrates. Regulated or monopolized divinity is not something that I’m comfortable with or find natural in a polytheistic religion.

  5. I definitely needed to hear this myself, for the past few days I’ve been wobbly in new terrain with my relationship with Loki. I love him dearly, and feel excited burstingly, but I definitely have problems when it comes to letting go of victimhood 110%. I am not a victim but empathically it keeps being triggered to the point where I keep stumbling…especially through the sting of former rejections with other /human/ people. No doubtedbly (even this is a renewed prayer to Loki) I want to let go of the memories of those reiterated fears and rejections, doubts and abandonment issues so that genuine memories born of (our) love and joy can be made instead. Together and with those we love too. I want you (Loki) no longer the people/habits/control who have hurt me. I want love unconditional…I want to love you eternally….and be love too with you dearest…

    Thank you for helping me to reexplore and remember this Thenea 🙂

  6. Have you looked into Kemetic perspectives on human deification? I don’t know much about it (I’ve got some printouts from a lecture on the topic I can share with you sometime), but they seemed to have some pretty interesting perspectives on the idea.

    Also, an extremely high percentage (probably an overwhelming majority) of the most popular gods worshiped in China and Taiwan currently are deified mortals. I definitely pay attention and take note whenever apotheosis is part of a god’s story, but I haven’t actually spent a lot of time trying to figure out the exact criteria/circumstances of apotheosis in Chinese traditions.

    I’m not sure if the wealth of information means that a general pattern can be found, or if it’s just extremely confusing. I’m currently reading a book which points out that a lot of Chinese mortals-turned-gods didn’t exactly fit Confucian standards of respectability in their lives or their deaths, and that many of them would have qualified to become “ghosts” had they not been deified.

    Of course, the attainment of immortality was/is a major goal of many Daoist practitioners: alchemists, “inner alchemists” (who decided that literally ingesting quicksilver wasn’t great for immortality), hermits, sorcerers, etc. I can say with certainty that “Old Man Living Atop a Mountain Syndrome” was definitely a well known phenomenon in China at one point (less so these days).

    With regards to the thin line between mortals and humans, it almost seems as if hubris deserves punishment…except when it’s rewarded (?) with apotheosis. The debates about whether Alexander the Great was possessed of hubris or pothos (yearning) come to mind as well.

    Along those lines, with hindsight it seems that the opposition of certain deities to certain heroes (i.e. Hera to Herakles) can be seen as a form of “testing” or “goading” to greater deeds, which lay the groundwork for being deified. You wrote, “They imply that, in one lifetime, you might actually be able to have enough life experiences that you could become a deity.” Both Herakles and Psyche had the favor of certain gods (without which one is not likely to get far), but also the strident opposition of others.

    1. All very good points. It would definitely be interesting to look cross culturally. Your comment about the strident opposition of gods reminds me of something in the Mithras liturgy, which also describes a type of deification: “So when you see that the world above is clear and circling, and that none of the gods or angels is threatening you, expect to hear a great crash of thunder, so as to shock you.” (PGM IV, around line 570ish). In other words, being threatened by deities is a part of this process.

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