A deity[1] is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers.

Deities are depicted in a variety of forms, but are also frequently expressed as having human form. Some faiths and traditions consider it blasphemous to imagine or depict the deity as having any concrete form. They are usually immortal, and are commonly assumed to have personalities and to possess consciousness, intellects, desires, and emotions similar to those of humans. Such natural phenomena as lightning, floods, storms, other ‘acts of God’, and miracles are attributed to them, and they may be thought to be the authorities or controllers of various aspects of human life (such as birth or the afterlife). Some deities are asserted to be the directors of time and fate itself, to be the givers of human law and morality, to be the ultimate judges of human worth and behavior, and to be the designers and creators of the Earth or the universe.



The word "deity" derives from the Latin "dea", ("goddess"), and "deus", ("god"), and other Indo-European roots such as from the Sanskrit "deva", ("god"), "devi", ("goddess"), "divya", ("transcendental", "spiritual"). Related are words for "sky": the Latin "dies" ("day") and "divum" ("open sky"), and the Sanskrit "div," "diu" ("sky," "day," "shine"). Also related are "divine" and "divinity," from the Latin "divinus," from "divus." Khoda (Persian: خدا ) translates to God from Persian.

The English word "God" comes from Anglo-Saxon, and similar words are found in many Germanic languages (e.g. the German "Gott" — "God").

Relation with humanity

Theories and narratives about, and modes of worship of, deities are largely a matter of religion. At present, the majority of humans are adherents of some religion, and this has been true throughout recorded human history. Human burials from between 50,000 and 30,000 B.C. provide evidence of human belief in an afterlife and possibly in deities, although it is not clear when human belief in deities became the dominant view.

Some deities are thought to be invisible or inaccessible to humans, dwelling mainly in otherworldly, remote or secluded and holy places, such as the concepts of Heaven, and Hell, the sky, the under-world, under the sea, in the high mountains or deep forests, or in a supernatural plane or celestial sphere. Typically, they rarely reveal or manifest themselves to humans, and make themselves known mainly through their effects. Monotheistic deities are often thought of as being omnipresent, though invisible.

Often people feel an obligation to their deity, although some view their deity as something that serves them.

Folk religions usually contain active and worldly deities.

In polytheism, deities are conceived of as a counterpart to humans. In the reconstructed and hypothetical Proto-Indo-European, humans were described as chthonian ("earthly") as opposed to the deities which were deivos ("celestial"). This almost symbiotic relationship is present in many later cultures: humans are defined by their station subject to the deities, nourishing them with sacrifices, and deities are defined by their sovereignty over humans, punishing and rewarding them, but also dependent on their worship.

The boundary between human and divine in most cultures is by no means absolute. Demigods are the offspring from a union of a human with a deity, and most royal houses in Antiquity claimed divine ancestors.

Beginning with Djedefra (26th century BC), the Egyptian pharaohs called themselves "Son of Ra" as well as "Bull (son) of his Mother" among their many titles. One, Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1479 BC to 1458 BC, traced her heritage not only to her father, Thutmose I, who would have become deified upon his death—but also to the deity, Mut, as a direct ancestor.

Some human rulers, such as the Kings of Egypt the Japanese Tennos, and some Roman Emperors have been worshipped by their subjects as deities while still alive. The earliest ruler known to have claimed divinity is Naram-Sin of Akkad (22nd century BC). In many cultures, rulers and other prominent or holy persons may be thought to become deities upon death (see Osiris, ancestor worship, canonization).

Forms of theism

Some religions are monotheistic and assert the existence of a unique deity. In the English language, the common noun god is equivalent to deity, while the proper noun God (capitalized) references the unique deity of monotheism. Pantheism considers the universe itself to be a deity. Dualism is the view that there are two deities: a deity of good who is opposed and thwarted by a deity of evil, of equal power. Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Gnostic sects of Christianity are, or were, dualist. Polytheism asserts the existence of several deities, who together form a pantheon. Monolatry is a type of polytheism in which deities are believed to exert power only on those who worship them. Henotheism is a form of polytheism in which only one deity is worshipped. Animism is the belief that spirits inhabit every existing thing, including plants, minerals, animals, and, including all the elements, air, water, earth, and fire. The anthropologist E. B. Tylor argued that religion originally took an animist form. Theism is the view that at least one deity exists.

Adherents of polytheistic religions, such as certain schools of Hinduism, may regard all deities in the pantheon as manifestations, aspects, or multiple personalities of the single supreme deity, and the religions may be more akin to pantheism, monotheism, or henotheism than is initially apparent to an observer.

The many religions do not generally agree on which deities exist, although sometimes the pantheons may overlap, or be similar except for the names of the deities. It is frequently argued that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worship the same monotheistic deity, although they differ in many important details. Comparative religion studies the similarities and contrasts in the views and practices of various religions. Philosophy of religion discusses philosophical issues related to theories about deities. Narratives about deities and their deeds are referred to as myths, the study of which is mythology. The word "myth" has an overtone of fiction, so religious people commonly (although not invariably) refrain from using this term in relation to the stories about deities which they themselves believe in.


The worship of Shiva is a pan-Hindu tradition, practiced widely across all of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Shaivism has many different schools showing both regional variations and differences in philosophy. Shaivism has a vast literature that includes texts representing multiple philosophical schools, including non-dualist (abheda), dualist (bheda), and non-dual-with-dualism (bhedābheda) perspectives. Some people believe that artifacts from Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and other archaeological sites of northwestern India and Pakistan indicate that some early form of Shiva worship was practiced in the Indus Valley. These artifacts include lingams and the "Pashupati seal" that has been the subject of much study. The Indus Valley civilization reached its peak around 2500-2000 BC, when trade links with Mesopotamia are known to have existed, was in decline by 1800 BC, and faded away by 1500 BC.[2]


In Buddhism, devas are beings inhabiting certain happily placed worlds of Buddhist cosmology. These beings are mortal (being part of saṃsāra), numerous, and are respected but not worshiped; it is also common for Yidams to be called deities, although the nature of Yidams are distinct from what is normally meant by the term.

The Buddhist Madhyamaka argue strongly against the existence of a reificating creator or essential being (such as Brahman). Some Prasangikas hold that even the conventional existence of an essential being is a non-existent, whereas others consider that the conventional existence of such a being is an existent.

Some modern Buddhists, especially in the west, believe that deities exist in the same manner that elves or unicorns do - as an archetypal consensual entity that serves a symbolic purpose in the popular imagination.

Though this may seem a rather weak basis of existence for some, as many Buddhists (such as the Yogacara) deny any objective existence (of e.g. a chair), and many more deny any sort of essential existence of phenomena at all, the distinction between the existence and non-existence of consensual entities is important to Buddhist philosophy.


A pantheon, (from Greek Πάνθειον, from πᾶν, all + θεός, god), is a set of all the deities of a particular polytheistic religion or mythology, such as the Egyptian pantheon, or Greek pantheon. A pantheon may include deities of vastly differing importance and scope.

Max Weber's 1922 opus, Economy and Society discusses the link between a pantheon of deities and the development of monotheism.


In some cases, especially the monotheistic Abrahamic god or the supreme deity of henotheistic religions, the divine is not thought of by many believers in the same terms as deities - as a powerful, anthropomorphic supernatural being - but rather becomes esoteric, and ineffable - the Ultimate, the Absolute Infinite, the Transcendent, the One, the All, Existence, becoming or Being itself, the ground of being, the nondualistic, etc.

In this view, God (Allah, Brahman, Elohim, Jesus Christ, Waheguru, etc.) is not a deity, and the anthropomorphic myths and iconography associated with him are regarded as symbolism, allowing worshippers to speak and think about something which otherwise would be beyond human comprehension.

There also are many such views from ancient times, such as in Egypt, Greece, and Rome who were "the" local or regional deity, and who became lost in our view of these cultures only as a whole. According to Plutarch, who lived from c. 46 - 120 A.D., the Egyptian temple of Neith bore the inscription: I am All That Has Been, That Is, and That Will Be. No mortal has yet been able to lift the veil that covers Me. This is a creator deity who was worshipped by devotees in the western delta region of Egypt for over three thousand years. That worship assigned many roles to the deity and took many forms—even including one of earliest known oracle traditions and a resurrection cult—and that worship spread to other regions of Egypt and, some suspect, to other ancient cultures that arose during the beginning of recorded human history. Herodotus describes the annual festival of lights associated with this deity in late December—thousands of years after the earliest records attest an already-established worship of the deity.

Not many of these endured so long, but records of such deities exist from the beginning of human records of their beliefs. Tantalizing images of what may be tens of thousands of years of worship of deities who seem to have been unchallenged and essentially unchanged, therefore easily suggesting that perhaps, humans believed in a single deity initially, that some later developed pantheons and returned again to single deities, and that others developed cosmological concepts that were quite abstract and not dependent upon deities.

Scientific positions on deities

Pascal Boyer argues that while there is a wide array of supernatural concepts found around the world, in general, supernatural beings tend to behave much like people. The construction of gods and spirits like persons (anthropomorphism) is one of the oldest characteristics of religion. He cites examples from Greek Mythology which is, in his opinion, more like a modern soap opera than other religious systems. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, contends that people project human features onto non-human aspects of the world because it makes those aspects more familiar.[3] Sigmund Freud also suggested that god concepts are projections of one's father.[4] Islam, on the other hand, strictly avoids all anthropomorphization of the concept of God.

Likewise, Émile Durkheim was one of the earliest to suggest that gods represent an extension of human social life to include supernatural beings. In line with this reasoning, psychologist Matt Rossano contends that when humans began living in larger groups, they may have created gods as a means of enforcing morality. In small groups, morality can be enforced by social forces such as gossip or reputation. However it is much harder to enforce morality using social forces in much larger groups. He indicates that by including ever watchful gods and spirits, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups.[5]

See also


  1. ^ The traditional pronunciation is /ˈdiː.ɨti/ ( listen), but the variant /ˈdeɪ.ɨti/ ( listen) is becoming more common, though disapproved of by many.  
  2. ^ History of Shaivism
  3. ^ Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained,. New York: Basic Books. pp. 142–243. ISBN 0-465-00696-5. 
  4. ^ Barrett, Justin (1996) (PDF). Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts. 
  5. ^ Rossano, Matt (2007) (PDF). Supernaturalizing Social Life: Religion and the Evolution of Human Cooperation. Retrieved 2009-06-21. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Deity — • This article is confined to the non Christian notion of the Deity Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Deity     Deity     † …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Deity — De i*ty (d[=e] [i^]*t[y^]), n.; pl. {Deities} (d[=e] [i^]*t[i^]z). [OE. deite, F. d[ e]it[ e], fr. L. deitas, fr. deus a god; akin to divus divine, Jupiter, gen. Jovis, Jupiter, dies day, Gr. di^os divine, Zey s, gen. Dio s, Zeus, Skr. d[=e]va… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • deity — [dē′ə tē] n. [ME deite < OFr deité < LL(Ec) deitas, divinity (after L divinitas) < L deus, god < IE * deiwos, god < base * dei , to gleam, shine > Sans deva, god, L dies, day, divus, god] 1. the state of being a god; divine… …   English World dictionary

  • deity — c.1300, divine nature; late 14c., a god, from O.Fr. deité, from L.L. deitatem (nom. deitas) divine nature, coined by Augustine from L. deus god, from PIE *deiwos (see ZEUS (Cf. Zeus)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • deity — [n] god, worshiped being celestial, celestial being, creator, divine being, divinity, goddess, godhead, idol, immortal, supreme being; concepts 368,370 …   New thesaurus

  • deity — ► NOUN (pl. deities) 1) a god or goddess. 2) divine status, quality, or nature. ORIGIN Latin deitas, from deus god …   English terms dictionary

  • Deity — (Roget s Thesaurus) < N PARAG:Deity >N GRP: N 1 Sgm: N 1 Deity Deity Divinity Sgm: N 1 Godhead Godhead Godship Sgm: N 1 Omnipotence Omnipotence Providence =>(Quality of being divine) GRP: N Quality of being divine Sgm: N Qua …   English dictionary for students

  • deity — /dee i tee/, n., pl. deities. 1. a god or goddess. 2. divine character or nature, esp. that of the Supreme Being; divinity. 3. the estate or rank of a god: The king attained deity after his death. 4. a person or thing revered as a god or goddess …   Universalium

  • deity — noun ADJECTIVE ▪ powerful, supreme ▪ lesser, minor ▪ one of the minor Greek deities ▪ benevolent ▪ …   Collocations dictionary

  • deity — UK [ˈdeɪətɪ] / UK [ˈdiːətɪ] / US [ˈdɪətɪ] noun [countable] Word forms deity : singular deity plural deities a god …   English dictionary

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