The words god and gods, Hebrew ELOHIM, are several times used in Scripture to express the power, office, or excellence of some created beings, as angels, magistrates, Ex 22:20,28; Ps 86:8; 97:12; often also for the false gods of the heathen. These were exceedingly numerous, and are denoted by various terms, signifying vanity, falsehood, etc. Among the first objects to be deified were the sun, the moon, and the chief powers of nature. Innumerable animals, deceased men, all ages, passions, and conditions of man, and every thing which fear, lust, malice, pride, or caprice could suggest, were made objects of worship. The gods of modern India are numbered by millions.
GODS, in the plural, is used of the false deities of the Heathens, many of which were only creatures to whom divine honours and worship were superstitiously paid. The Greeks and Latins, it is observable, did not mean, by the name God, an all-perfect being, whereof eternity, infinity, omnipresence, &c, were essential attributes; with them the word only implied an excellent and superior nature; and, accordingly, they give the appellation gods to all beings of a rank or class higher or more perfect than that of men, and especially to those who were inferior agents in the divine administration, all subject to the one Supreme. Thus men themselves, according to their system, might become gods after death, inasmuch as their souls might attain to a degree of excellence superior to what they were capable of in life. The first idols, or false gods, that are said to have been adored where the stars, sun, moon, &c, on account of the light, heat, and other benefits which we derive from them. (See Idolatry.) Afterward the earth came to be deified, for furnishing fruits necessary for the subsistence of men and animals; then fire and water became objects of divine worship, for their usefulness to human life. In process of time, and by degrees, gods became multiplied to infinity; and there was scarce any thing but the weakness or caprice of some devotee or other, elevated into the rank of deity; things useless or even destructive not excepted. The principal of the ancient gods, whom the Romans called dii majorum gentium, and Cicero celestial gods, Varro select gods, Ovid nobiles deos, others consentes deos, were Jupiter, Juno, Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, Diana, Venus, Mars, Mercury, Neptune, Vulcan, and Apollo. Jupiter is considered as the god of heaven; Neptune, as god of the sea; Mars, as the god of war; Apollo, of eloquence, poetry, and physic; Mercury, of thieves; Bacchus, of wine; Cupid, of love, &c. A second sort of gods, called demi-gods, semidii, dii minorum gentium, indigetes, or gods adopted, were men canonized and deified. As the greater gods had possession of heaven by their own right, these secondary deities had it by merit and donation, being translated into heaven because they had lived as gods upon earth.
2. The Heathen gods may be all reduced to the following classes:
(1.) Created spirits, angels, or demons, whence good and evil gods; Genii, Lares, Lemures, Typhones, guardian gods, infernal gods, &c.
(2.) Heavenly bodies; as, the sun, moon, and other planets; also, the fixed stars, constellations, &c.
(3.) Elements; as air, earth, ocean, Ops, Vesta; the rivers, fountains, &c.
(4.) Meteors. Thus the Persians adored the wind: thunder and lightning were honoured under the name of Geryon; and several nations of India and America have made themselves gods of the same. Castor, Pollux, Helena, and Iris, have also been preferred from meteors to be gods; and the like has been practised in regard to comets: witness that which appeared at the murder of Caesar.
(5.) They erected minerals or fossils into deities. Such was the Baetylus. The Finlanders adored stones; the Scythians, iron; and many nations, silver and gold.
(6.) Plants have been made gods. Thus leeks and onions were deities in Egypt; the Sclavi, Lithuanians, Celtae, Vandals, and Peruvians, adored trees and forests; the ancient Gauls, Britons, and Druids, paid a particular devotion to the oak; and it was no other than wheat, corn, seed, &c, that the ancients adored under the names of Ceres and Proserpina.
(7.) They took themselves gods from among the waters. The Syrians and Egyptians adored fishes: and what were the Tritons, the Nereids, Syrens, &c, but fishes? Several nations have adored serpents; particularly the Egyptians, Prussians, Lithuanians, Samogitians, &c.
(8.) Insects, as flies and ants, had their priests and votaries.
(9.) Among birds, the stork, raven, sparrow hawk, ibis, eagle, grisson, and lapwing have had divine honours; the last in Mexico, the rest in Egypt and at Thebes.
(10.) Four-footed beasts have had their altars; as the bull, dog, cat, wolf, baboon, lion, and crocodile, in Egypt and elsewhere; the hog in the island of Crete; rats and mice in the Troas, and at Tenedos; weasels at Thebes; and the porcupine throughout all Zoroaster's school.
(11.) Nothing was more common than to place men among the number of deities; and from Belus or Baal, to the Roman emperors before Constantine, the instances of this kind are innumerable: frequently they did not wait so long as their deaths for the apotheosis. Nebuchadnezzar procured his statue to be worshipped while living; and Virgil shows that Augustus had altars and sacrifices offered to him; as we learn from other hands that he had priests called Augustales, and temples at Lyons, Narbona, and several other places, and he must be allowed the first of the Romans in whose behalf idolatry was carried to such a pitch. The Ethiopians deemed all their kings gods: the Velleda of the Germans, the Janus of the Hungarians, and the Thaut, Woden, and Assa of the northern nations, were indisputably men.
(12.) Not men only, but every thing that relates to man, has also been deified; as labour, rest, sleep, youth, age, death, virtues, vices, occasion, time, place, numbers, among the Pythagoreans; the generative power, under the name of Priapus. Infancy alone had a cloud of deities; as, Vagetanus, Levana, Rumina, Edufa, Potina, Cuba, Cumina, Carna, Ossilago, Statulinus, Fabulinus, &c. They also adored the gods Health, Fever, Fear, Love, Pain, Indignation, Shame, Impudence, Opinion, Renown, Prudence, Science, Art, Fidelity, Felicity, Calumny, Liberty, Money, War, Peace, Victory, Triumph, &c. Lastly, Nature, the universe, or ?? ???, was reputed a great god.
3. Hesiod has a poem under the title of ????????, that is "The Generation of the Gods," in which he explains their genealogy and descent, sets forth who was the first and principal, who next descended from him, and what issue each had: the whole making a sort of system of Heathen theology. Beside this popular theology, each philosopher had his system, as may be seen from the "Timaeus" of Plato, and Cicero "De Natura Deorum." Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Arnobius, Minutius Felix, Lactantius, Eusebius, St. Augustine, and Theodoret, show the vanity of the Heathen gods. It is very difficult to discover the real sentiments of the Heathens with respect to their gods: they are exceedingly intricate and confused, and even frequently contradictory. They admitted so many superior and inferior gods, who shared the empire, that every place was full of gods. Varro reckons up no less than thirty thousand adored within a small extent of ground, and yet their number was every day increasing. In modern oriental Paganism they amount to many millions, and are, in fact, innumerable.
4. The name of God, in Hebrew, Elohim, is very ambiguous in Scripture. The true God is often called so, as are sometimes angels, judges, and princes, and sometimes idols and false gods; for example: "God created the heaven and the earth," Ge 1:1. The Hebrew Elohim denotes, in this place, the true God. "He who sacrificeth unto any god, (Elohim,) shall be put to death," Ex 22:20. And again: "Among the gods there is none like unto thee," Ps 86:8. Princes, magistrates, and great men are called gods in the following passages: "If a slave is desirous to continue with his master, he shall be brought to the judges," Ex 21:6, in the original, to the gods. Again: "If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges," Ex 22:8, in the original, to the gods: and in the twenty-eighth verse of the same chapter, "Thou shalt not speak evil of the gods" that is, of the judges or great men.
The Psalmist says that the Lord "judgeth among the gods," Ps 82:1. And again, God says to Moses, "I have made thee a god to Pharaoh," Ex 7:1. The pious Israelites had so great an aversion and such an extreme contempt for strange gods, that they scorned even to mention them; they disguised and disfigured their names by substituting in the room of them some term of contempt; for example, instead of Elohim, they called them Elilim, "not