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A demigod (or demi-god) is a divine or supernatural being in classical mythology. The term has been used in various ways at different times and can refer to a figure who has attained divine status after death, a minor deity, or a mortal who is the offspring of a god and a human.
The earliest recorded use of the term is in the archaic Greek poets Homer and Hesiod. Both describe dead heroes as hemitheoi, "half gods". This did not mean that they had one parent who was divine and one who was mortal. Instead, according to Price, those who demonstrated "strength, power, good family, and good behavior" were termed heroes, and after death they could be called hemitheoi, a process she refers to as "heroization". Pindar also uses the term frequently as a synonym for hero.
According to the Roman author Cassius Dio, Julius Caesar was declared a demigod by the Roman Senate after his victory at Thapsus. However, Dio was writing in the third century and modern critics have cast doubt on this.
The first Roman to employ the term demigod may have been the poet Ovid who used the Latin semideus several times in reference to minor deities. The poet Lucan also uses the term to speak of Pompey attaining divinity upon his death. In later antiquity, the Roman writer Martianus Capella proposed a hierarchy of gods: the gods proper, or major gods; the genii or daemones; the demigods or semones (who dwell in the upper atmosphere); the manes and ghosts of heroes (who dwell in the lower atmosphere); and the earth-dwelling gods like fauns and satyrs.
The term demigod first appeared in English in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century when it was used to render the Greek and Roman concepts of semideus and daemon. Since then, it has frequently been applied figuratively to people of extraordinary ability. John Milton states in Paradise Lost that angels are demigods.
Demigods are important figures in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books, where many of the characters, including Percy Jackson himself are demigods. In Riordan's work, a demigod is strictly defined as an individual born of one human and one divine parent.
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In Hinduism, demigod is used to refer to deities who were once human and later became devas (gods) and are worshiped as such. There are three very notable demigods in Hindu mythology, Hanuman, Nandi (the divine vehicle of Shiva), and Garuda (the divine steed of Vishnu). Examples of demigods worshiped in South India are Madurai Veeran and Karuppu Sami.
The heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the five Pandava brothers, fit the Western definition of demigods, but are generally not referred to as such. Queen Kunti, the wife of King Pandu, was given a mantra that, when recited, meant that one of the Gods would give her his child. When her husband was cursed to die if he ever engaged in sexual relations, Kunti used this mantra to provide her husband with children, Yudishtira (father Yama), Bhima (father Vayu) and Arjuna (father Indra). She taught this mantra to Madri, King Pandu's other wife, and she conceived twin boys, Nakula and Sahadeva (fathers the Asvins). Queen Kunti had previously conceived another son, Karna, when she had tested the mantra out—despite her protests, Surya the sun god was compelled by the mantra to impregnate her.
The Vaishnavites (who often translate deva as "demigod") cite various verses that speak of the devas' subordinate status. For example, the Rig Veda (1.22.20) states, oṃ tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padam sadā paśyanti sūrayaḥ: "All the suras (i.e., the devas) look always toward the feet of Lord Vishnu." Similarly, in the Vishnu Sahasranama the concluding verses state: "The Rishis (great sages), the ancestors, the devas, the great elements, in fact all things moving and unmoving constituting this universe, have originated from Narayana," (i.e., Vishnu). Thus the Devas are stated to be subordinate to Vishnu, or God.
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) translated the Sanskrit word "deva" as "demigod" in his literature when the term referred to a God other than the Supreme Lord. This is because the ISKCON tradition teaches that there is only one Supreme Lord and that all others are but His servants. In order to emphasize their subservience, Prabhupada used the word "demigod" as a translation of deva. However, there are at least three occurrences in the eleventh chapter of Bhagavad-Gita where the word deva is used to refer to Lord Krishna; here Prabhupada translates it as "Lord". The word deva can be used to refer to the Supreme Lord, celestial beings and saintly souls depending on the context. This is similar to the word Bhagavan which is translated according to different contexts.
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna himself states that worshipers of deities other than the Supreme Lord, Vishnu, are incorrect (Gita 9.23) as such worship leads only to temporal benefits, rather than to the Lord Himself (Gita 7.23). Krishna also says: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are granted only by Me." (Gita: 7:21-22) Elsewhere in the Gita Lord Krishna states: "O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (e.g., devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe." (Gita: 9:23)
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