1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Apotheosis

APOTHEOSIS (Gr. ἀποθεοῦν, to make a god, to deify), literally deification. The term properly implies a clear polytheistic conception of gods in contrast with men, while it recognizes that some men cross the dividing line. It is characteristic of polytheism to blur that line in several ways. Thus the ancient Greek religion was especially disposed to belief in heroes and demigods. Founders of cities, and even of colonies, received worship; the former are, generally speaking, mythical personages and, in strictness, heroes. But the worship after death of historical persons, such as Lycurgus, or worship of the living as true deities, e.g. Lysander and Philip II. of Macedon, occurred sporadically even before Alexander’s conquests brought Greek life into contact with oriental traditions. It was inevitable, too, that ancient monarchies should enlist polytheistic conceptions of divine or half-divine men in support of the dynasties; “Seu deos regesve canit deorum Sanguinem”, Horace (Odes, iv. 2, Il. 12, 13) writes of Pindar; though the reference is to myths, yet the phrase is significant. In the East all such traits are exaggerated, a result perhaps rather of the statecraft than of the religions of Egypt and Persia. Whatever part vanity or the flattery of courtiers may have played with others, or with Alexander, it is significant that the dynasties of Alexander’s various successors all claim divine honours of some sort (see Ptolemies, Seleucid Dynasty, &c.). Theocritus (Idyll 17) hails Ptolemy Philadelphus as a demigod, and speaks of his father as seated among the gods along with Alexander. Ancestor worship, or reverence for the dead, was a third factor. It may work even in Cicero’s determination that his daughter should enjoy “ἀποθεωσις”—as he writes to Atticus—or receive the “honour” of consecratio (fragment of his De Consolatione). Lastly, we need not speak of mere sycophancy. Yet it was common; Verres was worshipped before he was impeached!

The Romans had, up to the end of the Republic, accepted only one official apotheosis; the god Quirinus, whatever his original meaning, having been identified with Romulus. But the emperor Augustus carried on the tradition of ancient statecraft by having Julius Caesar recognized as a god (divus Julius), the first of a new class of deities proper (divi). The tradition was steadily followed and was extended to some ladies of the imperial family and even to imperial favourites. Worship of an emperor during his lifetime, except as the worship of his genius, was, save in the cases of Caligula and Domitian, confined to the provinces. Apotheosis after his death, being in the hands of the senate, did not at once cease, even when Christianity was officially adopted. The Latin term is consecratio, which of course has a variety of senses, including simple burial. (Inscription in G. Boissier, La Religion romaine; Renier, Inscriptions d’Algiers, 2510.) The Greek term Apotheosis, probably a coinage of the Hellenistic epoch, becomes more nearly technical for the deification of dead emperors. But it is still used simply for the erection of tombs (clearly so in some Greek inscriptions, Corpus Inscript. Graec. 2831, 2832, quoted in Pauly-Wissowa, s.v. Apotheosis). Possibly there is a trace of ancestor worship even here; but the two usages have diverged. The squib of the philosopher Seneca on the memory of Claudius (d. A.D. 54), Apocolocyntosis (“pumpkinification”), is evidence that, as early as Seneca’s lifetime, apotheosis was in use for the recognition of a departed emperor as a god. It also indicates how much contempt might be associated with this pretended worship. The people, says Suetonius (Jul. Caes. c. 88), fully believed in the divinity of Julius Caesar, hinting at the same time that this was by no means the case with the majority of the apotheoses subsequently decreed by the senate. Yet we learn from Capitolinus that Marcus Aurelius was still worshipped as a household divinity in the time of Diocletian, and was believed to impart revelations in dreams (Vit. M. Ant. c. 18). Antinous, the favourite of Hadrian, was adored in Egypt a century after his death (Origen, Contra Celsum, iii. 36), though, according to Boissier, his worship never had official sanction. The ceremonies attendant on an imperial apotheosis are very fully described by Herodianus (bk. iv. c. 2) on occasion of the obsequies of Severus, which he appears to have witnessed. The most significant was the liberation, at the moment of kindling the funeral pyre, of an eagle which was supposed to bear the emperor’s soul to heaven. Sharp-sighted persons had actually beheld the ascension of Augustus (Suet. August. c. 100), and of Drusilla, sister of Caligula. Representations of apotheoses occur on several works of art; the most important are the apotheosis of Homer on a relief in the Townley collection of the British Museum, that of Titus on the arch of Titus, and that of Augustus on a magnificent cameo in the Louvre.

In China at the present day many Taoist gods are (or are given out as) men deified for service to the state. This again may be statecraft. In India, the (still unexplained) rise of the doctrine of transmigration hindered belief. Apotheosis can mean nothing to those who hold that a man may be reborn as a god, but still needs redemption, and that men on earth may win redemption, if they are brave enough. Curiously, Buddhism itself is ruled by the ghost or shadowy remainder of belief in transmigration—Karma.

Apotheosis may also be used in wider senses. (a) Some (e.g. Herbert Spencer) hold that most gods are deified men, and most myths historical traditions which have been grotesquely distorted. This theory is known as Euhemerism (see Euhemerus). It is needless to say that the attitude of those holding the Euhemerist theory is at the farthest pole from belief in apotheosis. According to the latter, some men may become gods. According to the former, all gods are but men; or, some men have been erroneously supposed to become gods. The Euhemerist theory mainly appeals to ancestor worship—a fact of undoubted importance in the history of religion, especially in China and in ancient Rome. In India, too, a dead person treated with funeral honours becomes a guardian spirit—if neglected, a tormenting demon. But whether the great gods of polytheism were really transfigured ancestors is very doubtful. (b) Again, there is a tendency to offer something like worship to the founders of religions. Thus more than human honour is paid to Zoroaster and Buddha and even to the founders of systems not strictly religious, e.g. to Confucius and Auguste Comte. It is noticeable that this kind of worship is not accorded in rigidly monotheistic systems, e.g. to Moses and Mahomet. Nor is it accurate to speak of apotheosis in cases where the founder is in his lifetime regarded as the incarnation of a god (cf. Ali among Shi'ite Mahommedans; the Bâb in Babism; the Druse Hakim). Most Christians on this ground repudiate the application of the term to the worship of Jesus Christ. Curiously, Apotheosis is used by the Latin Christian poet, Prudentius (c. 400), as the title of a poem defending orthodox views on the person of Christ and other points of doctrine—the affectation of a decadent age. (c) The worship paid to Saints, in those Christian churches which admit it, is formally distinguished as dulia (δουλεία) from true worship or latria λατρεία). Even the Virgin Mary, though she is styled Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, receives only dulia or at most hyperdulia.  (R. G.)