On craft-worker gods and heroes

Christ in the House of His Parents (John Everett Millais) – Wikimedia Commons

For ancient as well as modern people, God has been conceived of in a bewildering variety of ways.  At one extreme, we see a wholly abstract and ineffable power, such as the Advaitic conception of Brahman, and on the other hand, we find an anthropomorphic god such as Krishna in the Mahābhārata, who is faced by the same moral dilemmas and limitations on his ability to act as the rest of us.

Furthermore, God’s nature may or may not be constituted by his practical role in various activities instrumental to human life and flourishing, such as creating the universe, creating humanity, intervening to help us or save us in some way, and so on.  One such highly practical role for God is the notion that he made the world through some kind of process of building or construction, and indeed the idea of God as a sort of craft worker, and in some cases more specifically a smith or carpenter, seems to be found in various religions.

The more general idea of a hero or particular god who is a smith or carpenter is found as an underlying idea in diverse mythologies.  In Greek mythology, Hephaistos is a smith god, perhaps of pre-Greek origin, who made all the weapons of the gods and miscellaneous other things, and was supposedly lame.  He can be compared another divine hero and artisan, Wayland the Smith, mentioned in Germanic literatures, who was likewise lame, and who was a maker of weapons and armour.  In Old English literature, Beowulf wears a mail shirt crafted by Wayland.

Similarly, in the Rig Veda, Tvaṣṭar is a sort of craft worker-god, who made the soma-cup of the gods.  I previously described how and why Tvaṣṭar fashioned a vajra, a type of weapon, for Indra.

However, the Rig Veda also includes a few passages which speak more directly to the desire to see god as the creator of the world.  One such passage tells of another maker-god, called simply the maker of all [Viśvakarman], who is supposed to have created heaven and earth.  This is described in the following verses, where the author speculates about the exact process and materials of construction.

What was the basis?  How was it taken hold of?  How did it go
When, making the earth, the all-seeing maker of all forced open the sky?
All-seeing, all-facing, all-arms, all-stepping,
The pre-eminent god blows with arms, with wings, making sky and earth.
Was it wood?  Then what was the tree from which they carved sky and earth?
You wise ones, now investigate what he used as the base material when supporting the world!

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 81 Mantras 2-4; my own provisional translation]

The work of the all-maker god here is perhaps like a carpenter, working with wood.   However, in general, the author remains open-minded about this, setting aside dogmatic certainties, yet with losing their intense curiosity to know more and to know more clearly.  Indeed, this attitude of earnest and continual questioning and seeking about the nature of the divine seems to be the prevailing spirit shared by many of the authors complied in the Rig Veda.

We may also be reminded of Jesus, who was also famously a carpenter and the son of a carpenter.  Indeed, the Christian conception of a triune God is perhaps an attempt to more fully encompass some of the various diverse aspects.  Thus we read in the Bible –

“For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.”

[Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 2, Verses 16-18; KJV]

At first blush, the idea of a god or divine hero as craft worker might appear disappointingly prosaic. However, as we have seen, the development of this idea has been charmingly elaborated across diverse traditions.  The idea of a maker-god even seems to have had a kind of resurgence in a recent argument by some contemporary Christian theologians, who hold that God fashioned our universe in by fine-tuning the values of the fundamental physical constants to allow life on earth.  This indeed would be an exemplary act of craftsmanship in the best tradition of our ancient gods.

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