Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Wisdom is an oft-used word that is tough to define.
Most people interpret the word as the possession of a worldly awareness, and through this cognizance, the mental dexterity to navigate the many challenges of life.
Others regard wisdom as the priceless fruit of accumulated knowledge and experiences.
Yet some others consider intelligence the same as wisdom. This interpretation would, however, be scoffed at by gamers. Within role player games dated and modern, intelligence and wisdom are always different attributes.
Coming to religions both ancient and modern, wisdom refers to everything above mentioned as well as divine secrets. Such secrets are not coveted clues to great power or treasure. Rather, these are the complex designs for the human world by the gods. In other words, explanations for the hardships of life.
When humans pray to gods and goddesses of wisdom, it is thus for the ability to weather, to triumph over life’s tribulations. Prayers might be specific, to grow a business, to win a war, but they inevitably point to the same longing.
Correspondingly, wisdom gods consistently rank among the most worshiped and respected deities in world faiths.
Wisdom Gods and Goddess From Around the World
- Ahura Mazda
Athena, the Greek Goddess of War, Wisdom, and Handicraft, is the most famous wisdom goddess from classic mythology. Nowadays a Western symbol of knowledge, strategy, even democracy, the great city of Athens is said to be named after her. However, scholars such as Walter Burkert believe it was the other way around.
Within Greek mythology, Athena is said to be born of Zeus, or more accurately, born from the lightning god’s head. There are different accounts, with the most dramatic version by Hesiod describing the goddess as emerging from Zeus’ forehead in full armor after the supreme deity swallowed his first wife Metis. Zeus did this rather appalling act as a prophecy foretold Metis would give birth to a son more powerful than him.
Down the road, Athena competed with Poseidon to be the patron of Cecrops’ ancient city and won because the residents much preferred her versatile gift of the olive over Poseidon’s promises of military supremacy. That city is, of course, Athens.
Both myths clearly indicate an association with matters of the head, i.e., knowledge, acumen, foresight, etc. Throughout Greek myths, Athena would then frequently play the role of teacher or strategist to humans and immortals alike.
For example, she invented the plow and rake, is the patroness of agriculture, and encouraged philosophy, poetry, and oratory.
She was the goddess who showed Perseus how to confront the dreadful Medusa without suffering her petrifying gaze. Odysseus, the “smartest” Greek mythical hero, was her favorite champion.
Little wonder that today, Athena’s name in the Western world is synonymous with astuteness and strategy.
There are several gods and goddesses of wisdom in the Japanese pantheon. For example, the widely venerated Tenjin. However, a quick examination immediately reveals that most of these deities are either associated with learning, are patrons of specific disciplines, or are deities incorporated from other Asian cultures.
If any, the only true native Japanese god of wisdom is the mysterious Omoikane. An ancient Shinto heavenly deity (Amatsukami) referred to in the Kojiki as Yagokoro-Omoikane, or “plentiful wisdom serving one’s thoughts,” Omoikane was the god who devised the strategy that lured Amaterasu out of hiding after the Sun Goddess fled from her duties. The details of this plan, in turn, led to the creation of two of the Japanese royal family’s most important regalia.
Other Shinto texts further state that Omoikane descended to the ancient Shinano Province where he fathered Shinto deities such as Ame-no-Uwaharu. Today, there are several shrines in Japan dedicated to the wisdom god, with the most famous one at Chichibu. There, he is prayed to as a god of literature and examinations too.
Interestingly, outside of the episode in the Kojiki, no other notable legends in Japanese mythology demonstrate Omoikane’s status as an embodiment of wisdom. He is barely even mentioned. In recent years, Japanese pop culture has also peculiarly portrayed the god as a sinister, brain-like entity.
The reason behind this unflattering new interpretation is anyone’s guess.
Mimir is the most notable name as far as wisdom gods in Norse mythology are concerned.
Descriptions of him in Norse myths are somewhat gruesome too. The wisest of the Aesir, or the Asgardians, Mimir was sent to the rivaling Vanir tribe as a hostage but was beheaded. Odin then preserved Mimir’s head with herbs and carried it about for knowledge and counsel.
The Poetic Edda has a slightly different version in which Mimir’s head resided beside a well with water that grants knowledge. Famously, Odin was so eager to drink the magical waters, he was willing to leave an eye behind as a levy.
The Prose Edda, in turn, expanded the story by stating that Odin drank from the well using the Gjallarhorn. This is the horn that Heimdall would blow to announce the arrival of Ragnarok. When the Twilight of the Gods does arrive, Odin would return to the well to seek counsel from wise Mimir.
Outside of the above stories, there are no other notable mentions of Mimir in Norse mythology. But with Odin, himself regarded as a wise and mighty leader, eager to seek counsel from the decapitated Asgardian, one can easily surmise how precious his counsel is.
Thoth is one of the better-known ancient Egyptian gods. He is also one of the most complex ones to introduce.
For a start, “Thoth” isn’t the deity’s original Egyptian name, it’s the Ancient Greek name for the god. The original name of “Dḥwty” is variously transliterated as Diḥautī or Djeheuty, the discrepancies stemming from the fact that pronunciation of the name has yet to be established.
A popular and important God of Scribes, Writing, Hierographics, Magic, even Judgement, Thoth was also believed to be self-created or born from the lips of Ra, the supreme Egyptian Sun God. More importantly, as a Moon God, Thoth is sometimes confused with Khonshu in modern writings, with the two gods indeed sharing many attributes. However, in art, Thoth is portrayed as having an Ibis head, while Khonshu is shown with the head of a falcon.
Moving on to associated myths, Thoth featured prominently in several important stories, usually as a counselor or mediator, or a neutral emissary i.e. messenger of the gods. He was the advisor and constant companion of Ra, and the Sun God’s intermediary between the lands of the living and the dead. In some versions of the all-important resurrection of Osiris myth, Thoth was the one who gave Isis the magical words to restore her husband. Later, when Isis’ son, Horus, battled the evil Seth for domination of Egypt, Thoth acted as a mediator.
The wisdom god furthermore had a crafty side to him, and curiously, most “examples” of his wit involved Ra.
After the Sun God forbid Nut, the Sky Goddess, to give birth on any day of the year, Thoth gambled with the Moon (or Khonshu in some versions) and won enough of the latter’s light to form five full days. He then added these days to the existing 360 days of the Egyptian calendar, forming our modern 365 days count. Because the new days existed outside of Ra’s curse, Nut could give birth during them.
After a nasty fallout between Ra and the Moisture Goddess Tefnut, Thoth assumed a baboon form to approach Tefnut. Though exposed, he managed to sweet-talk the livid goddess into returning to Egypt.
These stories of Thoth’s wit soon led the Greeks to associate the Ibis god with Hermes, the Greek Messenger of the Gods and a celebrated trickster himself. The two gods were ultimately even syncretized as “Hermes Trismegistus.”
In turn, Hermes Trismegistus was venerated as the central god of Hermeticism.
Quetzalcoatl is the Aztec God of the Sun and Wind, Air, and Learning, famously known as the Feathered or Plumed Serpent too. One of the most important Aztec gods and the patron of priests, Quetzalcoatl’s attributes significantly increased over time. In the later part of Aztec history, he became the God of the Morning and Evening Stars too.
Interestingly, while there are many Aztec myths celebrating Quetzalcoatl’s contributions to the (Aztec) world, there are none that explicitly exemplify his wisdom or wit. That said, he was credited with the invention of the calendar, an attribute similar to Thoth (see above). As a god of learning and writing, and of books, he was especially venerated in temple colleges too. These were important institutions where future priests and sons of the nobility were educated.
Aztec legends even claim that the Plumed Serpent was the god who introduced maize into the diet of his people. Quetzalcoatl “discovered” this amazing new food by interacting with an ant. This amazing story is in addition to the god journeying into the underworld to retrieve the bones of the previous generations to create the current generation of humans.
On another note, Quetzalcoatl was the original title of The Plumed Serpent, a 1926 D.H. Lawrence political novel. In the fictitious timeline of this story, Christianity is banned in Mexico, replaced by revived worship of the Aztec god. Reviews of the book were strongly divided.
There are two major deities associated with wisdom in Hinduism. The first is Saraswati, consort of Brahma the Creator, one-third of the Tridevi, and Goddess of Knowledge, Music, Arts, and wisdom.
The other is Ganesha, the famous Hindu “elephant head” god. A lord of learning and letters, one of Ganesha’s alternate names is Buddhipriya. The title literally means “fond of intelligence/wisdom.”
Coming back to Saraswati, the goddess was first mentioned in the Rigveda as a river goddess with healing powers. The Mahabharata then elevated her status by describing her as the mother of the Vedas and the “symphony” that manifested when Brahma created the universe. The Brahmanas additionally hailed her as “the mother of eloquent speech and melodious music.”
Iconology-wise, Saraswati is typically depicted as a beautiful woman in a splendid saree, seated on a white lotus and holding a book, a rosary, a water pot, and a Veena. As expected, each of these objects represents a different form of knowledge or wisdom. The book symbolizes the Vedas and true knowledge of the universe, as well as all forms of learning. The water pot represents purification, a metaphor for the ability to separate right from wrong.
The Veena is the symbol most associated with the goddess, the one that identifies her as a patron of the arts too. Religiously, this South Asian stringed instrument, a core part of classic Indian repertories, represents knowledge that brings forth harmony.
Mentioned in numerous Hindu texts including the Vedas and Mahabharata, the Veena is furthermore sacred in Hinduism. It is also regarded as the instrument of sages. Today, one version of the Veena is fittingly known as the Saraswati Veena.
And Over in Japan …
Saraswati is known as Benzaiten in Japan, with the localized goddess also part of the Seven Lucky Gods. In this form, she is a goddess of eloquence, speeches, and learning. She is also a patron of the arts.
Nabu is one of the oldest known wisdom gods in world faiths. Like Thoth, he was the assistant of a pantheon head. He was also the scribe of Marduk, the latter, the powerful God of Creation in Ancient Mesopotamia.
Worshipped by the Babylonians and the Assyrians as early as the 1st millennium BC, Nabu’s center of worship was Borsippa, although statues of him were carried to Babylon each year for him to pay respect to Marduk. (The creation god was his father) The patron of scribes and the rational arts, Nabu was credited with the invention of writing too.
These scholarly attributes are correspondingly reflected by Nabu’s known symbols. Befitting his learned nature, the scribe god is represented by a simple stylus resting on a tablet.
With syncretization a frequent occurrence in Mesopotamian faiths, anthropologists believe that Nabu was originally a West Semitic deity who was incorporated into the cult of Marduk. His status as Marduk’s scribe then led to him becoming a god/patron of writing. After which, he inherited the epithet of wisdom from Enki. Mythologically, Enki was the father of Marduk and the Sumerian God of All Magic and Wisdom.
Lastly, the Greeks identify Nabu with their own prophetic god Apollo; Nabu was said to write the fates of men onto tablets. He was also associated with Hermes, and through that, linked to the abovementioned Thoth.
8. Ahura Mazda
As the supreme creator deity of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda is associated with many things. The god’s name literally meaning “Lord Wisdom.”
Supremely wise, benevolent, and upholder of order and righteousness, Ahura Mazda is also the source of all goodness in Zoroastrianism. With his Yazatas, he guides humans on the route to Asha, or righteousness. In contrast, the destructive Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) and his wicked Daevas deceive humans into straying.
However, Angra Mainyu is destined to lose his war with Ahura Mazda. The evil one is nowhere near Ahura Mazda’s equal.
Believed to be worshipped as early as 7th or 6th centuries BC, Ahura Mazda is furthermore one of the oldest wisdom gods in continuous worship. Hereby, it must be highlighted that much like Christianity and God, Zoroastrianism views Ahura Mazda an all-encompassing deity. He isn’t particularly representative of wisdom the way most other ancient faiths interpret the word, he is the source of all that is “good.” His identity is different from all other gods and goddesses mentioned on this list.
Historically, Ahura Mazda is also believed to be an ancient proto-Indo-Iranian deity who was declared by Zoroaster to be the supreme "uncreated" creator. As a faith centered on the veneration of one creator deity, Zoroastrianism naturally bears many resemblances to the monotheistic faiths of our modern world too.
Most faiths depict wisdom gods and goddesses as sagacious counselors. If not, knowledge deities are described as scholarly or the patron of writers. The assumption for the latter being, one who reads, learns, and writes must be wise in some way.
But in our human world, cunning tricksters could be wise too, yes? After all, without penetrating insights into the workings of the world, could tricksters go about their deceptive deeds?
Ancient civilizations understand this. You can see this acuity reflected in the stories about Thoth. (His Greek equivalent, Hermes, was known for his wit too) Nabu’s mythological grandfather Enki, the former Mesopotamian wisdom god, was likewise a famous trickster.
Coming to Akan mythology, Anansi is described as the God of Stories, Wisdom, Knowledge, and maybe even creation. Unlike the other gods on this list, this West African spider god is no scholarly, stoic, secretary of heaven too. Instead, he’s almost like a common man, with the exception that he has multiple legs and a reputation for triumphing over far stronger foes with just his wits alone.
Notably, Anansi’s colorful stories do not depict him as always winning too. In quite a number, the spider god is actually shown suffering the consequences of his shortcomings, and in true fable fashion, learning an important lesson at the end of the day.
This exemplifies the epithet “of wisdom,” doesn’t it?
Simply put, the spider god might not be very wise, but his tales expound true wisdom. Everyone can benefit from reading them.
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- Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Paperback ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 122. ISBN 9780195183641. Retrieved 2016-08-08.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ced Yong