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Anthropomorphism, also referred to as personification or prosopopeia, is the attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals, forces of nature, and others. "Anthropomorphism" comes from two Greek words, ανθρωπος, anthrōpos, meaning human, and μορφη, morphē, meaning shape or form.


In Religion and Myths

Various mythologies are almost entirely concerned with anthropomorphic gods in human forms and possessing human characteristics such as jealousy, hatred, or love. The Greek gods such as Zeus and Apollo often were depicted in anthropomorphic forms.

Current religious belief generally holds that it is improper to describe the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as human. However, it is extremely difficult for the average person to picture or discuss God without an anthropomorphic framework. It is also noteworthy that the Judaeo-Christian Creation story (Book of Genesis) holds that God created man "in His image", implying if not an anthropomorphic God, then at least a deimorphic Man. Traditional Christianity also maintains that Jesus became human while remaining fully God, uniting the divine and human natures in his person, and retaining his resurrected body when he ascended to Heaven. According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("LDS Church"; see also Mormon), God the Father has a glorified, perfected physical body in which His spirit dwells. However, in contrast to the human frailties (hate, lying, etc.) attributed to, for example, Greek gods, monotheist Gods are generally considered omnibenevolent.

The ten avatars of the Hindu supreme God Vishnu possessed human forms and qualities and retained the divine, although divinity varied in degrees; see avatar for more detail. Vishnu, in Vaishnavism, a monotheistic faith, unlike the gods of Greco-Roman religion, is omniscient and omnibenevolent; see theological attributes on Vishnu and in article on God.

Anthropomorphism is also important in many traditions of magic, where it is thought that entities can be affected by appealing to, bartering with or threatening their spirits.

Anthropomorphism in the form of personification consists of creating imaginary persons who are the embodiment of an abstraction such as Death, Lust, or War (see Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for notable examples).

In Rhetoric

In classical rhetoric, personification is a figure of speech (more specifically a trope) that employs the deliberate use of anthropomorphism, often to make an emotional appeal. In rhetorical theory, a distinction is often drawn between personification (anthropomorphism of inanimate, but real, objects) and other figures, such as apostrophe, a figure in which an absent people or abstract concepts are addressed.

An examples of rhetorical personification:

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet-flowing breast. Joyce Kilmer, Trees

An example of rhetorical apostrophe:

O eloquent, just, and mighty Death! Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World

In Literature

Anthropomorphism is a well established device in literature, notably in books for children, such as those by Beatrix Potter and Lewis Carroll, involving characters such as Peter Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, respectively.

Terry Pratchett is notable for having several anthropomorphic personifications in his Discworld books, perhaps most well known is the character Death. Piers Anthony also wrote a series regarding the seven incarnations of Death, Nature, Time, War, Fate, Good and Evil. Neil Gaiman is also notable for anthropomorphising seven aspects of the world in his series The Sandman - they are called the Endless: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.

The Indian books Panchatantra (The Five priniciples) and The Jataka tales employ this trick of anthromorphized animals very effectively to illustrate various principles of life.

Mrs. Grundy is a personification of conventional propriety.

Common usage

It is a common tendency for people to think of inanimate objects as having human-like characteristics as well, though few if any actually believe this to have real significance. Common examples include naming one's car or begging a machine to work. Advances in artificial intelligence are beginning to make such foibles into a potentially more significant phenomenon, however, as computers begin to reach the point where they can recognize spoken language. Some computers are already very good at displaying very specific and specialized categories of human-like behaviour, such as learning from their mistakes or to anticipate certain input, playing chess and other games with humanlike capability, and even in the case of robots potentially taking on humanlike form.

Modern occurrences

Characters from the sitcom
Characters from the sitcom Dinosaurs

The use of anthropomorphized animals has a long tradition in art and literature. Frequently they are used to portray stereotypical characters, in order to quickly convey what characteristics the author or artist intends for them to possess. Examples include Aesop's fables, George Orwell's Animal Farm and political cartoons, e.g. Maus. Many of the most famous children's television characters are anthropomorphized funny animals: Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Calimero, for example. While 'funny' is common, it is not a hard rule; Bert the Turtle, star of Duck and Cover is a children-oriented exception. While cartoons have often featured these characters, a newer sitcom-style show with this theme is Father of the Pride.

In recent years interest in anthropomorphic animals has also spawned a genre of examples, commonly referred to as "furries" or "morphs" for short. In turn, the word has also come to include bestowing on humans certain animalistic attributes, or even the attributes of inanimate objects. These attributes can include everything from physical shape or movements, "She moves like a lynx", "He looks like a bear", to mentalities. "He is savage as a lion", "She has the heart of a lamb." Subcultures, such as Therianthropy, Furry or Otherkin, have formed with this primary characteristic in mind. These subcultures thrive over the internet and are easy enough to find that they have even received media attention.

In logical reasoning

Using anthropomorphized caricatures or projecting human qualities on conceptual entities or inanimate objects in reasoning is also known as committing a pathetic fallacy.

See also

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