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Basic Information

Apotheosis means "to make divine". Also sometimes known as Deification or Exaltation, it is the act of declaring someone a god, or the act of becoming a god.

Apotheosis can also refer to simply declaring something the pinnacle of its art or category. So you might say "Shakespeare is the apotheosis of English drama" or something along those lines. Sometimes the term is also used to describe artwork that presents its subject as being great and wonderful (rather than the art being great itself). So there's something of a linkage between apotheosis and flattery or propaganda.

In the context of gaming, however, Apotheosis is most often going to refer to the literal ascension to godhood.

In the Ancient World, there was a long tradition of elevating rulers to be divinities. Pharoah, Emperor, King, High Priest, etc, might become a god upon their death, or in some cases while still alive. Apotheosis is the moment that transforms people of history into mythological characters. This apparently began with Naram-sim of Akkad who (in Mesopotamia of the 23rd Century BC) declared himself divine and spread a story of how he'd defeated the god Enlil. Later, his aunt Enheduanna was declared a minor goddess after her death, so I guess it runs in the family.

Declarative Apotheosis of a dead relative is pretty self-serving. You can claim like you're just being a good respectful child, or honoring the memory of your ancestors, but you're also sending the clear message of "I think I'm the spawn of a powerful divine being worthy of your worship, and I deserve to be treated like I am". Many classical cases of apotheosis - or indeed those with ancient roots - also have their basis in divine ancestry (Emperors of China, Japan and Rome all claimed divine ancestors, as did the Pharoahs, pretty much all of the mythical heroes and a number of culture heroes).

In myth, a culture hero, or an especially virtuous or lucky person, or a half-mortal demigod might undergo apotheosis to become a "full-on capitol G" god. When such a transformation happens in the course of myth or mythic cycle, it often involves some sort of self-sacrifice or an element of overcoming death, per the dying god motif. You may have to journey to the underworld, feed the masses with your body, sacrifice a body part, and/or get nailed to a tree. Those are more like guidelines than rules. In other cases, immortality and some degree of deification are simply the effect of eating the food of the gods (such as ambrosia or a golden apple) and can be the fast-track to apotheosis. Of course, the amount of effort required to become a deity depends to some degree on what your culture considers divine: in an ancestor venerating culture where even grandad gets something close to worship, being some kind of deity is not a big deal, and even most polytheisms are receptive to more entry tier gods. The higher up the tree you go, the more it takes to get there.

The apparent converse of this would be avatara or incarnation which is the process of an extant deity taking the form and nature of a mortal to some degree - or possibly lapsation whereby a divine or quasi divine being is expelled from the divine realm.

List of People said to have undergone Apotheosis


Game and Story Use

  • Many cult groups have a leader who claims to be divine. Such a cult of personality can be dangerous or make for exciting plotlines and memorable characters, even before you start dropping in stuff like functional magic or the cthulhu mythos. If they can legit perform miracles, things will get interesting. If they only play confidence games to fake divinity, well, that's a whole other form of interesting.
  • Writ large, a nation or empire that defies all its former leaders on their death suggests a culture steeped in tradition that respects its elders and is perhaps obsessed with perception of its history and lineage. This may be a sign of strength and security, as the people are proud and patriotic. Or, it could be a sign of insecurity and instability, a nation that needs to prop up its ineffectual governance with a divine mandate or a need to make questioning the official storyline akin to heresy so that no one pokes too deeply into their dark secrets.
    • It's likely to be some sort of theocracy, or possibly with a large bureaucratic imperial cult that maintains the traditions.
    • As mentioned above, a ruler who directly declares their own ancestors as divine in the absences of a traditional context is not just honoring those who went before them. They are also shoring up their own power with the implied threat of "I too shall soon be a god, so you don't want to mess with me." This sort of governance is also likely to be a theocracy, but probably dominated by a single all-powerful sacred king rather than an enduring cult that survives regime change. Given the consolidation of absolute power into one living individual, such a nation is likely to be mercurial and subject to the whims of the current monarch.
  • Apotheosis may be a character goal, or even the intended late-stage/story arc of a campaign.
    • White Wolf's Scion RPG built this in intentionally, with PCs starting as half-human children of a god, and then ascending during play from hero to demigod to god ranks.
    • Beware of Hubris, for pride goeth before the fall and all that.
    • Stealing the food of the gods might be a way to shoehorn apotheosis into a shorter campaign, since all you need is one good heist instead of a history great miracles or achievements that lead to earning your ascension. But it does mean the power-level of the game is likely to shift suddenly, so choose your system and plot wisely. It's worth talking it over with your players, too, to manage expectations. Some folks will be fine with "we all become gods" being the end-goal of the campaign, but others may feel cheated if they don't get to throw around their power for at least a few sessions. Season to taste.
      • Or subvert - you have to keep eating the food of the gods to maintain divine power (or at least immortality). One heist may simply leave you holding the tiger's ears … and when the supply starts to run low, there may be a certain amount of falling out amongst conspirators if they've not yet figured out some other way to cling to power.
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