The term is composed of two words of Greek origin: anthropos (man) and morphe (form, aspect). It defines the attribution of properly human characteristics to nonhuman beings, that is, either divine entities or animals.
Anthropomorphism of Divinities
In many religions, polytheistic or monotheistic, the divine was or is believed to possess external or internal characteristics similar to the ones of humans, as it may be understood by the artistic representations and mythological or sacred books’ tradition.
The first-known thinker who severely criticized this attitude was Xenophanes of Colophon (ca 570M80 BC). In some of the fragments of his works that have been saved, Xenophanes condemned famous poets like Homer and Hesiod, who were looked upon as authorities in mythology, because they had presented the Greek gods as full of unacceptable human weaknesses. He also denounces as purely subjective self-projections the current beliefs that men of his time had about the divine, giving as proof the fact that the Thracians represent their gods as being blue-eyed and red-haired like themselves, whereas the Aethiopian divinities are Black. To illustrate even better the absurdness of these human beliefs, Xenophanes pointed out that if animals were able to create works of art like humans, they would also probably depict their divinities with bodies like theirs.
This critical position against current religious anthropomorphism was followed afterward by many Greek philosophers (especially by Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Neoplatonists), who conceived the divine in a more abstract way.
Anthropomorphism of Animals
In the myths and fairytales of almost all the civilizations that have flourished in every continent, various species of animals have been used as symbolic representations of one or another typical human mental or intellectual character (for example, the lion is “the strong and fearless,” the fox is “the cunning,” the bee is “the industrious,” and so on). These projections are founded on more or less evident equivalences between natural behaviors of these species and human attitudes. They were essentially used to give educative moral examples (such as the Aesopian myths). For some African tribes and for the Siberian shamans, the establishment of a personal connection between a human being and an animal believed to have some particular qualities may lead to the acquisition of these qualities by the human being.
This common way to project human characteristics to animal behaviors influenced many interpretations of animal ethology, which presented themselves as scientific approaches, from Plutarch (AD 50-125) up to the 18th century. Even the famous French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) didn’t escape the attribution of such elements to animal species.
Of course, it is undeniable that humans share some common attitudes with the other animal species. But serious scientific analysis describes these elements in a neutral way, without wishing to use the human species as a “model” or a “measure” for the other forms of life and taking care not to make easy transfers of ethological interpretation from the humans to the rest of the animal world.
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- Eliade, M. (1952). Images et symboles. Essais sur le symbolisme magico-religieux. Paris: Gallimard Coll.
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- Fabre, J.-H. (1920). Social Life in the insect world (B. Miall, Trans.). London: T.F.U.