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In this illustration by Milo Winter of Aesop's fable, "The North Wind and the Sun", an anthropomorphic North Wind tries to strip the cloak off of a traveler

Anthropomorphism, or personification, is attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being. Examples include depicting deities with human form, creating fictional non-human animal characters with human physical traits, and ascribing human emotions or motives to forces of nature, such as hurricanes or tropical cyclones.

Anthropomorphism has ancient roots as a literary device in storytelling, and also in art. Most cultures have traditional fables with anthropomorphised animals, who can stand or talk as if human, as characters.

The word anthropomorphism was first used in the mid-1700s.[1][2] The word derives from the Greek ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos), "human", and μορφή (morphē), "shape" or "form".


The 40,000 year-old Lion figure of Hohlenstein Stade.

From the beginnings of human behavioural modernity in the Upper Paleolithic, about 40,000 years ago, examples of zoomorphic (animal-shaped) works of art occur that may represent the earliest evidence we have of anthropomorphism. One of the oldest known is an ivory sculpture, the Löwenmensch, Germany, a human-shaped figurine with the head of a lioness or lion, determined to be about 32,000 years old.[3][4]

It is not possible to say what these prehistoric artworks represent. A more recent example is The Sorcerer, an enigmatic cave painting from the Trois-Frères Cave, Ariège, France: the figure's significance is unknown, but it is usually interpreted as some kind of great spirit or master of the animals. In either case there is an element of anthropomorphism.

This anthropomorphic art has been linked by archaeologist Steven Mithen with the emergence of more systematic hunting practices in the Upper Palaeolithic (Mithen 1998). He proposes that these are the product of a change in the Modularity of mind|architecture of the human mind, an increasing fluidity between the natural history and social intelligences, where anthropomorphism allowed hunters to identify empathetically with hunted animals and better predict their movements.[5]

In religion and mythology

In religion and mythology, anthropomorphism refers to the perception of a divine being or beings in human form, or the recognition of human qualities in these beings.

Ancient mythologies frequently represented the divine as deities with human forms and qualities. They resemble human beings not only in appearance and personality; they exhibited many human behaviors that were used to explain natural phenomena, creation, and historical events. The deities fell in love, married, had children, fought battles, wielded weapons, and rode horses and chariots. They feasted on special foods, and sometimes required sacrifices of food, beverage, and sacred objects to be made by human beings. Some anthropomorphic deities represented specific human concepts, such as love, war, fertility, beauty, or the seasons. Anthropomorphic deities exhibited human qualities such as beauty, wisdom, and power, and sometimes human weaknesses such as greed, hatred, jealousy, and uncontrollable anger. Greek deities such as Zeus and Apollo often were depicted in human form exhibiting both commendable and despicable human traits.

Anthropomorphism in this case is referred to as anthropotheism.[6]

From the perspective of adherents to religions in which humans were created in the form of the divine, the phenomenon may be considered theomorphism, or the giving of divine qualities to humans.

Anthropomorphism has cropped up as a Christian heresy, particularly prominently with the Audians in third century Syria, but also in fourth century Egypt and tenth century Italy.[7] This often was based on a literal interpretation of Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them".[8]


Some religions, scholars, and philosophers objected to anthropomorphic deities. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes (570–480 BCE) argued against the conception of deities as fundamentally anthropomorphic:

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.[9]

He said that "the greatest god" resembles man "neither in form nor in mind".[10]

Both Judaism and Islam reject an anthropomorphic deity, believing that God is beyond human comprehension. Judaism's rejection of an anthropomorphic deity grew during the Hasmonean period (circa 300 BCE), when Jewish belief incorporated some Greek philosophy.[11] Judaism's rejection grew further after the Islamic Golden Age in the tenth century, which Maimonides codified in the twelfth century, in his thirteen principles of Jewish faith.[12]{

Hindus do not reject the concept of a deity in the abstract unmanifested, but note practical problems. Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12, Verse 5, that it is much more difficult for people to focus on a deity as the unmanifested than one with form, using anthropomorphic icons (murtis), because people need to perceive with their senses.[13][14]

In Faces in the Clouds, anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposes that all religions are anthropomorphisms that originate in the brain's tendency to detect the presence or vestiges of other humans in natural phenomena.[15]

See also


  1. Harper, Douglas. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Douglas Harper. 
  2. "Merriam-Webster". Merriam-Webster. 
  3. "Lionheaded Figurine". 
  4. Dalton (1 January 2004). "Lion Man Oldest Statue". VNN World. 
  5. Gardner, Howard (9 October 1997). "Thinking About Thinking". New York Review of Books. Archived from the original on 29 March 2010. Retrieved 8 May 2010. "I find most convincing Mithen's claim that human intelligence lies in the capacity to make connections: through using metaphors" 
  6. "anthropotheism". Ologies & -Isms. The Gale Group, Inc.. 2008. 
  7. "Anthropomorphism" in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia
  8. This article incorporates content from the 1728 Cyclopaedia, a publication in the public domain.
  9. Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Xenophanes frr. 15-16. Many other translations of this passage have Xenophanes state that the Thracians were "blond".
  10. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies V xiv 109.1–3
  11. Book of Philo, gravestones found at Bet Shearim cemetery with inscriptions about a body-less deity, Josephus
  12. Rambam, Book of Science, Fundamentals of Torah, chapter 1, Section 8, quotes Rabbi Abraham Ben David's response to Maimonides: "It is stated in the Torah and books of the prophets that God has no body, as stated 'Since G-d your God is the god (literally gods) in the heavens above and in the earth below" and a body cannot be in both places. And it was said 'Since you have not seen any image' and it was said 'To who would you compare me, and I would be equal to them?' and if he was a body, he would be like the other bodies."
  13. Fowler, Jeanne D. (1997). Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Sussex Academic Press. pp. 42–43. ISBN 1898723605. 
  14. Narayan, M. K. V. (2007). Flipside of Hindu Symbolism. Fultus. pp. 84–85. ISBN 1596821175. 
  15. Guthrie, Stewart E. (1995). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-19-509891-9.,M1. 


  • Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff; Susan McCarthy (1996). When Elephants Weep: Emotional Lives of Animals. Vintage. p. 272. ISBN 0-09-947891-9. 
  • Mithen, Steven (1998). The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Phoenix. p. 480. ISBN 978-0-7538-0204-5. 

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Anthropomorphism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.