The term "demigod", meaning "half-god", is commonly used to describe mythological figures whose one parent was a god or goddess and whose other parent was human, as such, demigods are human-god hybrids. In some mythologies it also describes humans who became gods, or simply extremely powerful figures whose powers approach those of the gods even though they are not gods themselves.
A few examples of demigods include the Celtic hero Cuchulain, the Sumerian king Gilgamesh (who supposedly was actually two thirds god), the ancient Germanic woodsman Ansel, and the Greek hero Heracles (Roman Hercules).
Part of the dual nature of Greek heroes that gave rise to the modern demigod conception of them, a repeated theme in the story of their birth, is a double paternity; one parent is a mortal, and another is a god. The hero's mother manages to lie with king and God in the same night (e.g., the mother of Theseus) or to be visited secretly by the god (e.g., Danaë, mother of Perseus), and the seed of the two fathers is mixed in her womb. Thus the heroes have liminal qualities that enable them to have great strength, to cross the threshold between the worlds of the living and the dead yet return safely, and to mediate long after their death between human and divine.
The fact that male deities of Greek mythology had far more notable children with mortals than the female goddesses can be attributable to the Greek male dominated society being reflected in their religion. Zeus, primarily, and also Poseidon, both had a multitude of affairs with mortal women, with Zeus having to shield them from his wife Hera after she was alerted to the infidelity. The females were expected to remain loyal to their husbands, while the males were almost expected to take multiple lovers, meaning the majority of the demigods in Greek myths were born on earth to human mothers than on Olympus to divine mothers.
These hybrids were stronger, braver, and quicker than other mortals, accomplishing super-human feats only possible because of their divine parent. They would go out of their way to prove their valor, often engaging monsters or beasts far too powerful for any normal human to defeat, for the sole purpose of spreading their name. Others, such as Heracles, fought for a reclaiming of lost honor. Theseus fought to save his homeland, because he killed the Minotaur to stop the flow of sacrifices that were taken from Athens on a yearly basis to feed the beast.
Zeus became the father of many heroes as a result of his dalliances, and after death they were accorded honors, especially among those Greeks who claimed to be their descendants and to have claims on the protection and patronage of a god. The veneration of heroes was part of chthonic rites in the religion of Greece. Such demigods were always mortal, but were preeminent among humans, and some had unusual powers. An exception was Heracles, who was accepted in the passage of time among the Twelve Olympians.
Structurally, mythic narratives of such heroic figures falls into the genre of Romance, as Northrop Frye defined and described it. Alexander the Great encouraged the myth makers in his retinue to spread the legend of his "secret" Olympian paternity. His legend survived the end of Antiquity; a cycle of medieval romances developed around his legend.
In the Hindu religion, demigod is used to refer to deities who were once human and later became devas (gods) and are worshiped as such. Worship of the demigods is often different from worship of the regular Gods such as Lord Ganesha and Lord Shiva and is usually carried out by non-Brahmins.
The heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the five Pandava brothers, fit the Western definition of demigods, but are generally not referred to as such. Queen Kunti, the wife of King Pandu, was given a mantra that, when recited, meant that one of the Gods would make her pregnant with his child. When her husband was cursed to die if he ever engaged in sexual relations, Kunti used this mantra to provide her husband with children, Yudishtira (father Yama), Bhima (father Vayu) and Arjuna (father Indra). She taught this mantra to Madri, King Pandu's other wife, and she begot twin boys, Nakula and Sahadeva (fathers the Asvins). Queen Kunti had previously begotten another son, Karna, when she had tested the mantra out - despite her protests, Surya the sun god was compelled by the mantra to impregnate her.
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) translated the Sanskrit word "deva" as "demigod" in his literature when the term referred to a God other than Krishna. This is because the ISKON tradition teaches that Krishna alone is the Supreme Lord and all the other Gods are Krishna's servants. In order to emphasize their subservience, Prabhupada used the word "demigod" as a translation of deva. However, there are at least three occurrences in the eleventh chapter of Bhagavad-Gita where the word deva is used to refer to Lord Krishna - here Prabhpuada translates it as "Lord". The word deva can be used to refer to a supreme god, celestial beings and saintly souls. This is similar to the word Bhagavan which is translated according to different contexts.
- Ruck and Staples 1984, part 3; Kerenyi 1959.
- Burkert, Walter (1984) Greek Religion.
- Kerenyi, Karl (1959) The Heroes of the Greeks.
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