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Anthropomorphism, or personification, is attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being. Examples include depicting deities with human form and ascribing human emotions or motives to forces of nature, such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

Anthropomorphism has ancient roots as a literary device in storytelling, and also in art. Most cultures have traditional fables with anthropomorphised animals, which can stand or talk like humans, as characters.

The word anthropomorphism was first used in the mid-1700s.[1][2] The word derives from the Greek ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos), "human", and μορφή (morphē), "shape" or "form".


From the beginnings of human behavioural modernity in the Upper Paleolithic, about 40,000 years ago, examples of zoomorphic (animal-shaped) works of art occur that may represent the earliest evidence we have of anthropomorphism. One of the oldest known is an ivory sculpture, the Löwenmensch, Germany, a human-shaped figurine with the head of a lioness or lion, determined to be about 32,000 years old.[3][4]

It is not possible to say what exactly these prehistoric artworks represent. A more recent example is The Sorcerer, an enigmatic cave painting from the Trois-Frères Cave, Ariège, France: the figure's significance is unknown, but it is usually interpreted as some kind of great spirit or master of the animals. In either case there is an element of anthropomorphism.

This anthropomorphic art has been linked by archaeologist Steven Mithen with the emergence of more systematic hunting practices in the Upper Palaeolithic (Mithen 1998). He proposes that these are the product of a change in the architecture of the human mind, an increasing fluidity between the natural history and social intelligences, where anthropomorphism allowed hunters to empathetically identify with hunted animals and better predict their movements.[5]

In religion and mythology

Main article: Anthropotheism

In religion and mythology, anthropomorphism refers to the perception of a divine being or beings in human form, or the recognition of human qualities in these beings.

Ancient mythologies frequently represented the divine as deities with human forms and qualities. They resemble human beings not only in appearance and personality; they exhibited many human behaviors that were used to explain natural phenomena, creation, and historical events. The deities fell in love, married, had children, fought battles, wielded weapons, and rode horses and chariots. They feasted on special foods, and sometimes required sacrifices of food, beverage, and sacred objects to be made by human beings. Some anthropomorphic deities represented specific human concepts, such as love, war, fertility, beauty, or the seasons. Anthropomorphic deities exhibited human qualities such as beauty, wisdom, and power, and sometimes human weaknesses such as greed, hatred, jealousy, and uncontrollable anger. Greek deities such as Zeus and Apollo were often depicted in human form exhibiting both commendable and despicable human traits.

Anthropomorphism in this case is referred to as anthropotheism.[6]

From the perspective of adherents to religions in which humans were created in the form of the divine, the phenomenon may be considered theomorphism, or the giving of divine qualities to humans.

Anthropomorphism has cropped up as a Christian heresy, particularly prominently with the Audians in 3rd century Syria, but also in 4th century Egypt and 10th century Italy.[7] This often was based on a literal interpretation of Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them".[8]


Some religions, scholars, and philosophers objected to anthropomorphic deities. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes (570–480 BC) said that "the greatest god" resembles man "neither in form nor in mind".[9] Both Judaism and Islam reject an anthropomorphic deity, believing that God is beyond human comprehension. Judaism's rejection of an anthropomorphic deity grew during the Hasmonean period (circa 300 BC), when Jewish belief incorporated some Greek philosophy.[1] Judaism's rejection grew further after the Islamic Golden Age in the tenth century, which Maimonides codified in the twelfth century, in his 13 principles of Jewish faith.[10][full citation needed][page needed]

Hindus do not reject the concept of a deity in the abstract unmanifested, but note practical problems. Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12, Verse 5, that it is much more difficult for people to focus on a deity as the unmanifested than one with form, using anthropomorphic icons (murtis), because people need to perceive with their senses.[11][12]

In Faces in the Clouds, anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposes that all religions are anthropomorphisms that originate in the brain's tendency to detect the presence or vestiges of other humans in natural phenomena.[13]

In literature

Religious texts

There are various examples of personification as a literary device in both Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament and also in the texts of some other religions.


Anthropomorphism, sometimes referred to as personification, is a well established literary device from ancient times. It extends back to before Aesop's Fables[14] in 6th century BC Greece and the collections of linked fables from India, the Jataka Tales and Panchatantra, which employ anthropomorphised animals to illustrate principles of life. Many of the stereotypes of animals that are recognised today, such as the wiley fox and the proud lion, can be found in these collections. Aesop's anthropomorphisms were so familiar by the 1st century AD that they coloured the thinking of at least one philosopher:

And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind. For after being brought up from childhood with these stories, and after being as it were nursed by them from babyhood, we acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent.

Apollonius noted that the fable was created to teach wisdom through fictions that are meant to be taken as fictions, contrasting them favourably with the poets' stories of the deities that are sometimes taken literally. Aesop, "by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events".[15] The same consciousness of the fable as fiction is to be found in other examples across the world, one example being a traditional Ashanti way of beginning tales of the anthropomorphic trickster-spider Anansi: "We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go."[16]

Fairy tales

Anthropomorphic motifs have been common in fairy tales from the earliest ancient examples set in a mythological context to the great collections of the Brothers Grimm and Perrault. The Tale of Two Brothers (Egypt, 13th century BC) features several talking cows and in Cupid and Psyche (Rome, 2nd century AD) Zephyrus, the west wind, carries Psyche away. Later an ant feels sorry for her and helps her in her quest.

Modern literature

Building on the popularity of fables and fairy tales, specifically children's literature began to emerge in the 19th century with works such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) by Carlo Collodi and The Jungle Book (1894) by Rudyard Kipling, all employing anthropomorphic elements. This continued in the 20th century with many of the most popular titles having anthropomorphic characters,[17] examples being The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1901 onwards),[18] The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) by A. A. Milne. In many of these stories the animals can be seen as representing facets of human personality and character.[19] As John Rowe Townsend remarks, discussing The Jungle Book in which the boy Mowgli must rely on his new friends the bear Baloo and the black panther Bagheera, "The world of the jungle is in fact both itself and our world as well".[19] Another notable work is George Orwell's Animal Farm.

The fantasy genre developed from mythological, fairy tale and Romance motifs[20] and characters, sometimes with anthropomorphic animals. The best-selling examples of the genre are The Hobbit[21] (1937) and The Lord of the Rings[22] (1954–1955), both by J. R. R. Tolkien, books peopled with talking creatures such as ravens, spiders and the dragon Smaug and a multitude of anthropomorphic goblins and elves. John D. Rateliff calls this the "Doctor Dolittle Theme" in his book The History of the Hobbit[23] and Tolkien saw this anthropomorphism as closely linked to the emergence of human language and myth: "...The first men to talk of 'trees and stars' saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings... To them the whole of creation was "myth-woven and elf-patterned".'[24]

In the 20th century, the children's picture book market expanded massively.[25] Perhaps a majority of picture books have some kind of anthropomorphism,[17][26] with popular examples being The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) by Eric Carle and The Gruffalo (1999) by Julia Donaldson.

Anthropomorphism in literature and other media led to a sub-culture known as Furry fandom, which promotes and creates stories and artwork involving anthropomorphic animals, and the examination and interpretation of humanity through anthropomorphism.[27]

Various Japanese manga have used anthropomorphism as the basis of their story. Examples include Squid Girl (anthropomorphised squid), Hetalia: Axis Powers (humanised countries) and Upotte!! (humanised guns).

In film, television, and video games


Some of the most notable examples are the Walt Disney characters, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; the Looney Tunes characters, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig; and an array of others from the 1920s to present day.

In the films Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011), all the characters are anthropomorphized vehicles.

In the motion picture Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), most of the characters are anthropomorphic animals very similar to the style seen in the Furry Fandom. They are given especially human characteristics such as body shape, hands, and clothing, among other things.


Since the 1960s, anthropomorphism has also been represented in various animated TV shows such as Biker Mice From Mars (1993–1996) and SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron (1993–1995). Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, first aired in 1987, features four pizza-loving anthropomorphic turtles with a great knowledge of ninjutsu, led by their anthropomorphic rat sensei, Master Splinter.

TUGS (1988) is a British children's series, set in the 1920s, featuring anthropomorphic tugboats. They moved like real boats but would sometimes perform certain actions without the aid of humans although not seen. Like real boats they obeyed maritime laws but would sometimes perform actions of their own will.

In the American animated TV series Family Guy, one of the show's main characters, Brian, is a dog. Brian shows many human characteristics – he walks upright, talks, smokes, and drinks Martinis – but also acts like a normal dog in other ways; for example he cannot resist chasing a ball.

A Canadian-New Zealand-American animated TV show called Turbo Dogs (2008) starred anthro dog characters. In 2010, a French-American animated TV show The Mysteries of Alfred Hedgehog was mostly consisted of woodland anthropomorphic characters.

A British TV series, Thomas and Friends, features anthropomorphised trains, airplanes, helicopters and cars.

An American TV show, "Annoying Orange", features anthropomorphised fruits and vegetables, with the main characters also famous for a web show on YouTube.

Video Games

Sonic the Hedgehog, a game released in 1991, features a speedy blue hedgehog as the protagonist. This series' characters are almost all anthropomorphic animals such as foxes, cats, and other hedgehogs who are able to speak and walk on their hind legs like normal humans. As with most anthropomorphisms of animals, clothing is of little or no importance, where some characters may be fully clothed while some only wear shoes and gloves.

Another example in video games is Super Mario Bros., which was released in 1985. Some of the characters include Yoshi, a dinosaur who is able to talk, run and jump, and Bowser, a "Koopa" that is able to perform most human characteristics, with some exceptions, as he can breathe fire.

Art history

Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg's soft sculptures are commonly described as anthropomorphic. Depicting common household objects, Oldenburg's sculptures were considered Pop Art. Reproducing these objects, often at a greater size than the original, Oldenburg created his sculptures out of soft materials. The anthropomorphic qualities of the sculptures were mainly in their sagging and malleable exterior which mirrored the not so idealistic forms of the human body. In "Soft Light Switches" Oldenburg creates a household light switch out of Vinyl. The two identical switches, in a dulled orange, insinuate nipples. The soft vinyl references the aging process as the sculpture wrinkles and sinks with time.


In the essay "Art and Objecthood", Michael Fried makes the case that "Literalist art" (Minimalism) becomes theatrical by means of anthropomorphism. The viewer engages the minimalist work, not as an autonomous art object, but as a theatrical interaction. Fried references a conversation in which Tony Smith answers questions about his "six-foot cube, Die."

Q: Why didn't you make it larger so that it would loom over the observer? A: I was not making a monument. Q: then why didn't you make it smaller so that the observer could see over the top? A: I was not making an object.

Fried implies an anthropomorphic connection by means of "a surrogate person-that is, a kind of statue."

The minimalist decision of "hollowness" in much of their work, was also considered by Fried, to be "blatantly anthropomorphic." This "hollowness" contributes to the idea of a separate inside; an idea mirrored in the human form. Fried considers the Literalist art's "hollowness" to be "biomorphic" as it references a living organism.[28]

Post Minimalism

Curator Lucy Lippard's Eccentric Abstraction show, in 1966, sets up Briony Fer's writing of a post minimalist anthropomorphism. Reacting to Fried's interpretation of minimalist art's "looming presence of objects which appear as actors might on a stage", Fer interprets the artists in Eccentric Abstraction to a new form of anthropomorphism. She puts forth the thoughts of Surrealist writer Roger Caillous, who speaks of the "spacial lure of the subject, the way in which the subject could inhabit their surroundings." Caillous uses the example of an insect who "through camouflage does so in order to become invisible... and loses its distinctness." For Fer, the anthropomorphic qualities of imitation found in the erotic, organic sculptures of artists Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois, are not necessarily for strictly "mimetic" purposes. Instead, like the insect, the work must come into being in the "scopic field... which we cannot view from outside."[29]

In science

In the scientific community, the use of anthropomorphic language that suggests animals have intentions and emotions has traditionally been deprecated as indicating a lack of objectivity. Biologists have been warned to avoid assumptions that animals share any of the same mental, social, and emotional capacities of humans, and to rely instead on strictly observable evidence.[30] In 1927 Ivan Pavlov wrote that animals should be considered "without any need to resort to fantastic speculations as to the existence of any possible subjective states".[31] More recently, The Oxford companion to animal behaviour (1987) advised that "one is well advised to study the behaviour rather than attempting to get at any underlying emotion".[32] Some scientists, like William M Wheeler (writing apologetically of his use of anthropormorphism in 1911), have used anthropomorphic language in metaphor to make subjects more humanly comprehensible or memorable.[33]

Despite the impact of Charles Darwin's ideas in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Konrad Lorenz in 1965 called him a "patron saint" of ethology)[34] ethology has generally focused on behaviour, not on emotion in animals.[34] Though in other ways Darwin was and is the epitome of science, his acceptance of anecdote and anthropomorphism stands out in sharp contrast to the lengths to which later scientists would go to overlook apparent mindedness, selfhood, individuality and agency:


The study of great apes in their own environment has changed attitudes to anthropomorphism.[35] In the 1960s the three so-called "Leakey's Angels", Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees, Dian Fossey studying gorillas and Biruté Galdikas studying orangutans, were all accused of "that worst of ethological sins – anthropomorphism".[36] The charge was brought about by their descriptions of the great apes in the field; it is now more widely accepted that empathy has an important part to play in research.

Frans de Waal wrote: "To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us."[37] Alongside this has come increasing awareness of the linguistic abilities of the great apes and the recognition that they are tool-makers and have individuality and culture.[citation needed]

Writing of cats in 1992, veterinarian Bruce Fogle points to the fact that "both humans and cats have identical neurochemicals and regions in the brain responsible for emotion" as proof that "it is not anthropomorphic to credit cats with emotions such as jealousy".[38]


In the context of the sciences, the term anthropomorphism has been deprecated to the point that, when applied to a scientist, the term functions as a pejorative (see above). However, there is also a risk of straying off the path of objectivity when scientists choose to assume that only humans possess any degree of certain traits.[39] This assumption is called anthropocentrism, practitioners of which either believe in or unintentionally form an outlook of human exceptionalism. Darwin — to the chagrin of many religious philosophers — dismissed these ideas of human exceptionalism in his book The Descent of Man by saying that our differences are "only in degree and not in kind".[40]

In psychology

Earl Hopper has explored under the rubric of personification how the traumatized individual, lacking inner strength, actively seeks out accepted social roles to play as a form of costume or mask.[41] Neville Symington has similarly highlighted how the narcissist puts on the cloaks of others as a false self, to cover an inner hollowness.[42]

The concept of personification emphasises, however, the possibility of an active interpretation of proffered roles – and thus both complements and challenges the idea of role suction, the imposition of roles by the unconscious forces working within a group context.[41]

In sports

Anthropomorphic animals are often used as mascots for sports teams or sporting events.

See also

Children's literature portal



External links

  • "Anthropomorphism" entry in the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships (Horowitz A., 2007)
  • "Anthropomorphism" entry in the Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy, and Spaceflight
  • "Anthropomorphism" in mid-century American print advertising. Collection at The Gallery of Graphic Design.
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