Sunday, November 28, 2010

Representations of Wisdom and Knowledge in Mythology

By Beat Schwendimann

Humans like to visualize abstract ideas to make them more tangible. In ancient times, people described abstract ideas often in the form of various gods and goddesses. Among the most abstract ideas are the concepts of knowledge and wisdom themselves. Many cultures imagined gods and goddesses of knowledge and wisdom (See previous blog entry on the difference between knowledge and wisdom).

The wisest of the Egyptian gods was Thoth (Djhuty, Djehuty, Tehuty) (depicted with the head of an isis or a baboon). Thoth was one of the earlier Egyptian gods, thought to be scribe to the gods, who kept a great library of scrolls, over which one of his wives, Seshat (the goddess of writing) was thought to be mistress. He was associated by the Egyptians with speech, literature, arts, learning. He, too, was a measurer and recorder of time, as was Seshat. The magical powers of Thoth were so great, that the Egyptians had tales of a 'Book of Thoth', which would allow a person who read the sacred book to become the most powerful magician in the world. The Book which "the god of wisdom wrote with his own hand" was, though, a deadly book that brought nothing but pain and tragedy to those that read it, despite finding out about the "secrets of the gods themselves" and "all that is hidden in the stars".

Sarasvati - Goddess of Learning
Sarasvati (also spelled Saraswati) is the goddess of learning and the inspiration for all music, poetry, drama and science. Hindu musicians pray to her before performing and students ask for her help before taking a test. Sarasvati has four hands: in one she holds a book; in another she holds prayer beads (because she is the source of spiritual knowledge, too); her other two hands hold a vina, a sitar-like musical instrument. Not suprisingly, Sarasvati is especially revered by students and teachers. At the beginning of spring (January-February), her image is taken out in a jubilant procession.

I find it interesting that Sarasvati represents learning, the PROCESS of gaining knowledge, not knowledge itself. Saravsati illustrates that knowledge needs to be gained through learning and not through some magical transfer.
Ganesha - God of Wisdom and Prudence
Ganesha is the Hindu god of wisdom and prudence. These qualities are signified through his two wives Buddhi(wisdom) and Siddhi (prudence).Ganesha has a thorough knowledge of the scriptures and is a superb scribe. Ganesha has an elephant's head with one broken tusk. According to one legend, Ganesha was asked to scribe down the epic of Mahabharata, dictated to him by its author, sage Vyasa. Taking into note the enormity and significance of the task, Ganesha realized the inadequacy of any ordinary 'pen' to undertake the task. He thus broke one of his own tusks and made a pen out of it. The lesson offered here is that no sacrifice is big enough in the pursuit of knowledge.

Odin with his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn
Odin was the god of battle and also of wisdom, magic, and poetry. His name means "fury" or "frenzy," the quality of fierce inspiration that guided warriors and poets alike. Despite his warrior appearance, Odin was an intellectual god. Odin was credited with great wisdom, including knowledge of magic and divination. Odin also gained knowledge of the world (Midgard) through his two ravens Huginn ("thought"), and Muninn("Memory" or "Mind").These circled the Earth each day, seeing all, and then at night reported to Odin what they had learnt.

Athena - Goddess of Wisdom (Statue in front of parlament building in Vienna)
Athena (called Minerva by romans) is the daughter of Zeus and Metis. Metis was the Titaness of the forth day and the planet Mercury. She presided over all wisdom and knowledge. She was seduced by Zeus and became pregnant with Athena. Zeus became concerned over prophecies that her second child would replace Zeus. To avoid this, Zeus devoured Metis. Athena emerged in full armor from Zeus' forehead. Athena is fierce and brave in battle but, only fights to protect the state and home from outside enemies. She is the goddess of the city of Athens, handicrafts, and agriculture. She invented the bridle, which permitted man to tame horses, the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship, and the chariot. She is the embodiment of wisdom, reason, and purity. She was Zeus's favorite child and was allowed to use his weapons including his thunderbolt. Her tree is the olive. The owl is her bird. She is a virgin goddess.

Prometheus (by Heinrich Fueger 1817)
Prometheus, was the wisest Titan. His name means "forethought" and he was able to foretell the future. He was the god of fire. A master craftsman considered the wisest of his race, he was credited with the creation of humans and with giving them fire and various types of skills and knowledge. His name means "forethought." Prometheus was a wise craftsman who taught humans many useful skills, including navigation, writing, and architecture, and he brought the knowledge of fire to man (read more on how Prometheus got punished for his deed here)

In addition to the goddess Athena and the titan Prometheus who were wise and knowledgeable, ancient greeks also knew Sophia (being wisdom impersonate) and Episteme (being knowledge impersonate).

Sophia - The greek goddess of wisdom
Episteme - The greek goddess of knowledge
Today, we describe abstract concepts no longer as deities but use the language of mathematics, science, and philosophy.

Further information: Wikipedia list of Knowledge Deities

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