We’ve probably all heard the expression “So-and-so has the body of a god”. But with so many traditions and pantheons full of deities what does that mean and why does it matter? This is my take, one that has helped bring me comfort in the face of an increasingly harsh, shallow society.
Most people in the Western World are familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. At least in terms of Their names and how They are depicted. Male gods shown with muscled frames, defined abs and legs that appear to be carved from steel. Goddesses have a bit more body diversity but still tend to conform to a certain “ideal” type.
This is what most people have in mind when they think about what gods “look like”. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This isn’t a slam or argument against any particular depiction of deity but rather an appeal to explore others.
Modern artwork showing deities is often characterized by this concept that all gods are muscle bound and all goddesses are slender with big breasts and tiny waists. I remember coming across a lovely work of photo art from a modern Hellenic temple showing the smith god Hephaestus as a slightly heavyset man. The comments on the work were extremely disheartening. “Gods are supposed to look perfect!” “He wouldn’t be able to do His job like that!”
One commenter explained in detail that he was unable to connect with deities not depicted as “physically perfect”. I remember being completely taken aback not only by people’s complete disregard for the fact that the model was an actual human being but also the association between a specific body type and “perfect”. Perfect by who’s terms? Are you saying that despite His noticeably strong muscles He wouldn’t be able to perform His work because His stomach isn’t flat? Absolute absurdity.
“Physical perfection” is a demonstrably artificial concept anyone. Perfect for what? A sprinter isn’t built like a football player, a strongman doesn’t have the body of a swimmer, etc. Outside of our shallow, image obsessed media it has no actual definition. We have been collectively trained to strive for a “perfection” that simply doesn’t exist so that companies can sell more products.
Cultures across the world have carved, drawn and imagined their gods in a wide variety of different ways. The Egyptian god Hapi is shown with a large chest and big belly, representing His associations with abundance.
Another god Bes, (also Egyptian) is envisioned as short and plump. Despite these features (which would be labeled as “flaws” by our modern society) Bes was beloved in ancient times an in the modern day by Kemetics.
Fertility and mother goddesses the world over are given the image of a curved woman with a large, round body emphasizing Their creative powers. These ample goddesses are beloved and venerated in nearly every tradition. Their images adorn jewelry, altars, artwork and books.
Another much loved god Who doesn’t match the image of a deity so many have in their head is Hotei, Japanese (as well as Chinese) god of happiness and contentment. His image can be found not only in temples but also outside of bars and restaurants, of which He is considered the patron god.
Yet another of the “Seven Lucky Gods” of Japan can be included here. Ebisu, patron god of fishermen, luck and wealth. Ebisu is described as a “full-figured” man dressed as a fisherman. To this day He plays an important role in Japanese culture, appearing in many mediums.
One of the most popularly worshiped Hindu gods of all time is Ganesh or Ganesha. Considered by some branches of the Hindu faith to be the Supreme Being, Ganesha is shown in images as an elephant headed man, sometimes with multiple arms and a large protruding stomach. Depending on the tradition this can represent everything from satisfaction to the infinite number of worlds existing within Him.
These aren’t the only body types that are left out when we view gods through the lense of modern ideas of “physical perfection”. As I don’t have infinite room here however I’ll have to discuss them next time!
What does all of this mean thing? It means that the images we create of our gods reflects ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with buff gods but there is also nothing wrong with heavyset or even fat ones either. People aren’t meant to look alike or have the same builds and neither are our gods.