Almost all gods and goddesses of the ancient world represented perfection in body and spirit to the mortals who worshipped them. After all, gods and goddesses were divine creatures.
Yet some gods were amputees. Ai Apaec, a Peruvian god, was minus an arm above the elbow. An Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca, was missing his right foot. The Irish god, New Hah, sported a four-digit silver prosthesis which replaced his severed left arm.
A closer look
The veneration of amputee-divines seems a paradox because some ancient peoples feared limb loss more than death, according to the Prosthetics.Org.UK Web site.
“It was believed that [amputation] affected the amputee not only on earth but also in the afterlife,” the Web site explains. Hence “amputated limbs were buried, and at the time of the amputee’s death, disinterred and reburied with the amputee to ensure a whole eternal life.”
Though they were missing arms and a foot, Ai Apaec, Tezcatlipoca and New Hah were powerful divines. The Mochicas, Native Americans who predated the Incas, worshipped Ai Apaec. He may have been the son of their “remote, almost indifferent, supreme being and creator deity, who was a sky god,” according to Arthur Cotterell’s, A Dictionary of World Mythology.
Cotterell did not say which arm Ai Apaec lost. But the deity was fit enough to prowl beneath the creator-god’s throne, which was usually set atop a high mountain, the dictionary says. The Mochicas and the Incas lived in the Andes.
Ai Apaec had a fierce, cat-like mouth, as did the nameless creator-divine. Ai Apaec “also…wore snake-head ear-rings and a jaguar headdress,” Cotterell wrote. To the north in Mexico, the Aztecs, also a polytheistic people, venerated the one-footed Tezcatlipoca.
Tezcatlipoca’s name means “smoking mirror,” a reference to the black obsidian reflector Aztec magicians used in fortunetelling, according to Cotterell.
“Tezcatlipoca had several aspects; he was the patron of warriors and identified with [the war god] Huitzilopochtli; he was the original sun knocked out of the sky and turned into a tiger by [the creator god] Quetzalcoatl; he was a trickster god associated with witches, thieves and evildoers in general; and, not least, he was an all-powerful deity who could take or give life.
Tezcatlipoca inspired a gruesome Aztec rite. “…A youth impersonated Tezcatlipoca for a year and then was ritually killed in the spring, his heart being offered to the sun Tezcatlitoca,” according to the dictionary. New Hah lost his limb in battle. A Celtic deity, it is said he was nicknamed “Airgedlamh” for his prosthesis.
Elsewhere in ancient Europe, the Greeks worshipped gods and goddesses that looked human. Males were strong, handsome and powerfully built. Females were lissome and beautiful.
But Pelops, a grandson of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, had a special prosthesis – a shoulder made of ivory. Pelops was brought back to life after suffering a gruesome death.
Pelops’ father, Zeus’ mortal son Tantalus, did not just kill his offspring. He chopped up his son for stew and served the brew to the Greek gods and goddesses who lived on Mount Olympus. Tantalus wanted to see whether the Olympians “could tell the difference between the flesh of man and beast,” the Prosthetics.Org Web site explains.
Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, chowed down on poor Pelops’ shoulder. When she realized what she was eating, she magically made him whole again and gave him the special prosthesis.
Also in Greek mythology, Tantalus suffered a unique punishment for his misdeed. He had to stand knee deep in water with fruit hanging over his head. He could never quench his thirst because the water went away every time he bent down to drink. He was always hungry because the fruit vanished when he reached for it.
The word “tantalize” comes from Tantalus’ punishment.
In India, halfway around the world from Greece, Vishpla, a mythical warrior queen, ambulated on an artificial leg. Her story is briefly told in the Rig-Veda, a sacred poem written as long ago as 3500 B.C. Vishpla lost her leg – the Rig-Veda does not say which one – but recovered and returned to combat wearing an iron leg. Her story is said to be the first written reference to a prosthetic limb.
For more information:
- Cotterell A. A Dictionary of World Mythology. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1986.