Those Who Once Reigned: Experts Name Famous and Forgotten Ancient Gods
Ancient Origins asked experts to weigh in on the topic of ancient deities. Some ancient gods get all the attention - but which gods are largely forgotten… and why? The following is their views on individual gods that have largely been forgotten and/or which gods they believed were the most significant of the cultures they ruled over. Some of their answers may surprise you!
1. Ganesha - A Key God of Creation in India —By Laird Scranton
Key creational symbolism from India, Africa, Egypt and elsewhere is linked through the elephant god Ganesha. Phyllis Granoff of Yale University wrote an article about the eight incarnations of Ganesha. She saw that the incarnations were meant to represent progressive stages of creation, but had no context in which to understand them.
References from the Dogon tribe in Mali provide linkage to that context. From there, it becomes possible to understand the symbolism of Ganesha's mother Sati and her husband Siva, and other related Hindu deities. The correlations are relatively easy to understand, precisely because both traditions (from Africa and from India) have been well-preserved, so neither has changed much.
Ganesha Painting at a Temple in Bhadrachalam. (Adityamadhav83/CC BY SA 3.0)
Another significant deity would be the Dogon creator-god Amma, a "hidden god" who is a counterpart to Amen in Egypt. Reversals in symbolism suggest that Amma was originally feminine, and is now somewhat ambiguously defined by the Dogon as being both male and female. That outlook goes along with an origin for the name in India, where Amma was the affectionate name, comparable to "mommy", that Ganesha used to refer to his mother, Sati. Threads of an earlier tradition are less well-known and come out of the Sakti Cult, where Ganesha was understood to have two mothers - sister goddesses named Dharni Penu and Tana Penu.
—Author and researcher, Laird Scranton
2. The King of the World—By Mark Pinkham
One of the most important deities of any civilization was ‘he who was known as the first’ (or one of the first) of its ancient monarchs. This being is often identified by his followers as King of the (entire) World. The same ruler is alluded to by most of the ancient cultures albeit by different names and appearances. Often it is said that this royal personage was a beneficent culture bearer who taught the "path to God" but eventually experienced a fall (often through pride) and then met an untimely demise through torture and murder.
Among the Persians, this ruler is known as the renowned King of the World Jamshid, who was slain by a demon because of his pride. In the Hindu scriptures this monarch is the peacock riding King Murugan or Sanat Kumara, and among the northern Iraq sect of Yezidis he is called Tawsi Melek, the Peacock King, who is also reputed to have suffered from pride. The Sumerians called him Enki, "Lord Earth," and the Egyptians knew him as Osiris, the ancient king who traveled to his subjects around the entire globe while teaching them the art of making and consuming sacramental wine.
For the early Greeks he was the globetrotting and wine-imbibing Dionysus, who, like his counterpart Osiris, was murdered by close relatives. The Jews remember this figure as King Melchizedek and the Hopi still regularly venerate him as Masau'u, the Lord of the World - who was once sent into the underworld to rule because of his reputed fall from pride.
—Author and researcher and Ancient Origins guest author Mark Pinkham
- The Story of Sif, Powerful Wife of Norse God Thor
- Mysterious GodSelf Icon Found Worldwide: Lost Symbol of an Ancient Global Religion?
- Thieves of Fire in Ancient Mythology: Divine Creation and Destruction in the Hands of Man
3. The Minoan Mother Goddess, Athena —By Petros Koutoupis
Despite our inability to decipher their language, it is well known that the Minoans worshiped a Mother Goddess who was at the very top of their pantheon. A knowledge of Linear B and Mycenaean Greek, allows one to use the same phonetic values to transliterate the Minoan Linear A. Through this, many Proper Nouns have been identified - including a very important deity who was referred to as A-ta-no-dju-wa-ja or Athena Goddess. Dju-wa-ja can be compared to the Proto-Indo-European deiwo or god, in some cases, to be associated with the Sun.
Statue of a Minoan snake goddess or priestess. (C messier/CC BY SA 4.0)
Eventually, when the Mycenaeans took over the Aegean and assimilated into Minoan culture, this deity would evolve to A-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja or Mistress Athena. Where this Mistress Athena stood in the Mycenaean pantheon is unclear, but by the time the Greeks emerged from their Dark Age circa 800 BC, she would start to take a backseat to other "more powerful" and male Olympians.
—Author and independent historical researcher, and Ancient Origins guest author Petros Koutoupis
4. Meeting Zeus and Hermes —By Paul Devereux
Ancient gods seem mainly to have been personifications of natural phenomena – which is why many seem interchangeable across cultures, even under different names. In that light, I could say that I once ‘met’ Zeus, the chief god in the Ancient Greek pantheon.
I was staying in a hotel room which had a balcony overhanging the ravine beneath the Delphi temple site. Late at night a thunderstorm erupted. It was the only time I've ever seen lightning flashing horizontally at eye level. I knew where the ancient Greeks got Zeus from right then and there.
‘The chariot of Zeus.’ (Public Domain)
I ‘met’ him again on Crete while driving a dodgy rental car along a crazy winding dirt track (with a seriously precipitous drop on one side) up Mount Juktas, which rises above Knossos. I wanted to visit the Minoan shrine on the summit, but halfway up a bolt of lightning struck the mountainside above and sent a load of rubble showering down. Taking cowardice as the better part of valour, I retreated, asking Zeus to let me up to the shrine next day. I was granted permission and obtained some rare photos of this little-visited shrine when I returned.
My favorite Greek God is Hermes, probably the Roman Pan, who was the pre-dynastic Egyptian god Min. My first time in Greece I got lost on the mainland and just drove on without any idea of where I was going. Miraculously, while following a winding country lane, I was led to some fabled Greek sites, like Mycenae. It was as if Hermes, the messenger and wayfarer god, had hitched a ride and led me there. Better than SatNav!
‘Hermes’. (TNS Sofres/CC BY 2.0)
—Author, researcher, editor and presenter, and Ancient Origins guest author Paul Devereux
5. The Continued Influence of Phobus —By Adrienne Mayor
Even though his influence is still extremely powerful today, Phobus is a forgotten deity from classical antiquity. He is the ancient god of terror and the origin of the word "phobia." In antiquity, Phobus/"Fear" personified fright - especially the terrors of war. For example, when a huge Amazon army attacked Athens in Greek mythology, the citizens were so terrified that the great hero Theseus decided to make a sacrifice to Phobus. The sacrifice ritual required cutting the throat of a black bull over a black shield, then plunging one's hands into the gore while beseeching the god for courage in the face of terrible danger.
Phobus (Phobos) is the personification of fear in Greek mythology. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In 331 BC, Alexander the Great carried out the last recorded historical sacrifice to the god of fear. It was on the eve of the Battle of Gaugemela, when Alexander's men were severely outnumbered by Darius's vast Persian army. Against all odds, the Greeks overwhelmed the Persians the next day.
Although it is no longer common practice to sacrifice bulls to allay fear, no one can deny the rising power of Phobus and the horrors of war.
—Author, Stanford University Research Scholar, and Ancient Origins guest author, Adrienne Mayor
- The Truth Behind the Christ Myth: Ancient Origins of the Often Used Legend – Part I
- The Bird and the Serpent: From the Neolithic Goddesses to Ancient Chinese Symbols of Nobility and Benevolence
- Beware the Supernatural Bathroom Spirits, Toilet Deities, and Dung Demons
6. Combining Deities: The Case of Horus and Jesus —Dr. Ken Jeremiah
With the changing religious beliefs of various cultures, certain gods were seemingly neglected or forgotten, while others were held in increasingly higher esteem. Although it is certainly true that some religions were wiped out by their conquerors, most cultures and religions do not stand alone. One deity’s important attributes are often applied to others; thus, divine representations are combined. Consider the god Serapis - its only purpose was to help unify the Egyptian and Greek populations. The government officials combined Egypt’s Osiris with Apis, a bull-like deity.
In most cases, the blending of important spiritual or cultural teachings was not so blatant. However, savior deities, such as Attis, Ra, Krishna, Tammuz, Zoroaster, Osiris, Horus, Mithra, Jesus, and others generally have similar attributes. For example, these deities tended to have miraculous births and twelve disciples.
‘The Exhortation to the Apostles’ (c. 1886-1894) by James Tissot. (Public Domain)
The number 12 comes from the Pythagorean cult. While Pythagoras was alive, he was known as the son of Apollo. His mother supposedly gave birth to him miraculously, and he spent much time learning the open and mysterious religious traditions that surrounded him. He and his followers perceived God as spherical, and only twelve of the same-sized spheres can surround the central sphere while all touching each other. They saw this structure as the universe’s basic building block. Many of Pythagoras’ teachings are carried forward in Christianity, as are the Egyptian traditions involving Horus, Osiris, and the perception of the soul.
Horus and Jesus supposedly had the same birthdate (December 25) and similar life events. Horus was called the Lamb and known as the son of God. His mother Isis was called Meri, which meant “the beloved.” His father Osiris was cruelly killed by his brother Set, and after his death, he was resurrected. The name Set became sheitan in Hebrew, which means “adversary,” and this word later morphed into ‘Satan.’ There is no information available about Jesus or Horus between the ages of 12 and 30, but they were both said to be baptized at the age of 30.
After that, they are credited with numerous miracles including the performance of exorcisms, restoring sight to the blind, and raising people from the dead. Both were supposedly transfigured on mountains, and they gave sermons called “The Sermon on the Mount”. They had similar crucifixions alongside two thieves and subsequent burials. The two supposedly descended into hell and then returned after three days, at which point they were both called Christ (Krst). The etymology of this word, which translates to “the anointed one,” stems from Egypt too.
Connections can be made between the deities of religions all over the world. Anytime cultural links are made, certain gods will seem to be bypassed while others attain greater importance. New deities will not attract outside followers unless they possess the same laudable traits that others already had. In this way, few Gods actually “die” or are completely forgotten... they just adopt different names.
—Author, researcher and Ancient Origins guest author and speaker, Dr. Ken Jeremiah
7. Ancient Belief and Disbelief in the Greek Pantheon —By Peter Marshall
The most important ancient Greek gods were Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. They were all said to be brothers, the sons of Cronus. According to myth, they divided the three parts of the world by shaking lots in a helmet. Zeus got the sky and became the bearer of lightning; Poseidon, the god of the surface of the earth, including the sea; and Hades, the god of the Underworld. Poseidon was considered equal in dignity to Zeus but less powerful.
Unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam which believed in one God, the ancient Greeks believed many gods who were said live on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. They were an unruly bunch, all-too-human, who quarreled, made love with each other and mortals, and committed incest. They were thought to interfere with the destiny of humans: Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, helped Odysseus for instance to return home after the Trojan wars, while Poseidon blocked his progress because he had killed one of his Cyclops sons.
The Greeks for the most part believed in their gods. One of the reasons why Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenian State was because he did not honour of the gods properly. There were a few sceptics as there are now. One philosopher said that the gods were made in the image of humans; an Ethiopian would have a black supreme god. Another said we have no knowledge of the afterlife, of whether the gods exist or not.
The Greek gods were developed by later peoples, notably by the Romans. For them, Zeus became Jupiter; Poseidon, Neptune; and Hades, Pluto. They also became the names of different planets. But probably the sea-god Neptune has survived the longest, given the unpredictable nature of the sea and superstitions of those who sail on it.
—Philosopher, historian, biographer and Ancient Origins guest author, Peter Marshall
We thank our excellent experts for sharing their thoughts and opinions! These are just a selection of some of the ancient deities that have made an impact on past and present cultures, please feel free to add in your opinions on the subject in the comments section below.
Featured image: Solar deity bronze relief, Deriv. (CC BY-SA 2.0)