The earliest recorded use of the term is by the archaic Greek poets Homer and Hesiod. Both describe dead heroes as hemitheoi, or "half gods". In these cases, the word did not mean that these figures had one parent who was divine and one who was mortal. Instead, those who demonstrated "strength, power, good family, and good behavior" were termed heroes, and after death they could be called hemitheoi, a process that has been referred to as "heroization". Pindar also used 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—centuries after the death of Caesar—and modern critics have cast doubt on whether the Senate really did 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 as follows: 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.
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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.
In contemporary literature, demigods are used in various fictional contexts. 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.[ISBN missing]
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In Hinduism, the term demigod is used to refer to deities who were once human and later became devas (gods). There are three very notable demigods in Vedic Scriptures: 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 though they 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 fathered by various deities. These children were Yudhishthira (child of Yama), Bhima (child of Vayu) and Arjuna (child of Indra). She taught this mantra to Madri, King Pandu's other wife, and she immaculately conceived twin boys named Nakula and Sahadeva (children of 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. Bhishma is another figures who fits the western definition of demigod, as he was the son of king Shantanu and Goddess Ganga.
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) reads, "oṃ tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padam sadā paśyanti sūrayaḥ", which translates to, "All the suras [i.e., the devas] look always toward the feet of Lord Vishnu". Similarly, in the Vishnu Sahasranama, the concluding verses, read, "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) translates 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 an effort to emphasize their subservience, Prabhupada uses 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, used in reference to Lord Krishna, is translated 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.
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- "demigod". Collins English Dictionary. Collins. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
- Milton, John (1667). Paradise Lost. 9.937.
- Riordan, Rick (2010). Percy Jackson: The Demigod Files. London: Penguin.