Have you ever doubted anthropomorphic polytheism?


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Have you ever doubted anthropomorphic polytheism?

Those individuals who comprehend such things, in this case I am speaking of art historians in general and Alois Riegl in particular, inform me that the worldview of primitive wo/man at the very beginnings of human history was founded upon an infinite polytheism. That is to say that “everything in nature that moved, grew, and died without agency—or even against the will—of man seemed superior to him for its autonomy of existence and will. Everything in nature was therefore a god.”

At some crucial moment in human progress wo/man developed a more secure conception of her relationship with the world. When s/he began to confine their mutual perception to individual phenomena of nature that appeared to be the strongest and most frightening they became more assured of their power to prevail in many contests. “With that shift, we find ourselves standing in the very first period of history: the first opportunity has opened up to activate desired improvements of nature.”

This began a natural progression for humanity. As s/he recognized the ability to overcome the most ferocious and deadly of all animals wo/man came to recognize a degree of superiority over nature. “At the same time, he still had to acknowledge behind every natural phenomenon the presence of a driving, animating force far removed from human perception or control…A distinction yet unknown to primitive peoples, who ascribed an autonomous will to everything in nature.”

Wo/man recognized a dichotomy between that which they had some significant control to that which they could only reason to be underlying the appearance reached through human visual faculties. Humans recognized here the natural that could be readily perceived, but also recognized that there was much more that humans could only imagine but not perceive or control. S/he could only imagine these reasoned realities and naturally imagined them to be endowed with sensible human form; the only form imaginable at this time in human development.

“Only human form could appear worthy of a force superior to human beings. Thus was born anthropomorphic polytheism, which the Greeks would bring to its fullest perfection.” Henceforth we humans could envision those forces superior to our own must be envisioned as in human form but unencumbered by our shortcomings in matters of beauty and mortality.

Quotes from Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts by Alois Riegl