Images and their use are an unmistakable part of Hellenismos. Whether we refer to the past or the present, images (eidoloi, sing. Eidolon) are omnipresent. Almost every ancient temple had images in their sanctuaries, whether a cult image (ranging from crude clay images, to carved wooden images so old their provenance was forgotten, to massive chryselephantine statues such as those built by Pheidias), or votive statuary presented by grateful worshippers. Today, most every worshipper of the Hellenic deities, like their spiritual ancestors maintains domestic shrines to with the statuettes and paintings of the gods worshipped in the household.
This is such a common phenomenon that few really think about it. But what exactly is the role of images in Hellenismos? A casual observer may be forgiven if they come away with the impression that we in some way worship these images. After all, they are placed on or before our altars and seem to receive cult from us. We seemingly pray to them, burn incense before them, and make offerings to them.
Is this truly the case? In the ancient world, those who worshipped the actual images, or who pay excessive attention to them were considered guilty of deisidaimonia, literally “fear of the Gods.” We know this term in English via the Latin translation, superstition from superstitio.
Superstition is also what we may term this today, and I will use the term henceforth. Superstition was an excessive piety towards the gods, manifesting a fear that the gods would take offense at minor matters or perceived lack of devotion to the gods.
- Pagans of sound mind rejected still another model of divine relations: the servile model. The man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as though they were capricious and cruel masters, projected an image unworthy of the gods…such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) was what the Romans meant by ‘superstition.’1
Such people were known to visit the images daily, and fuss with the peplos woven as an eact of devotion to the deity, wash the image reverently, and speak to it as if it were his friend. They abased themselves in the hope of averting divine wrath.
- People smiled when women went to the temple and told the goddess Isis their troubles…Leave it to the Common people to spend all day in the temples waiting on their gods like slaves, behaving like valets and hairdressers before the statues of their deities.2
Indeed, one philosopher asked dismissively, “What need has a god for body-servants?” Heraclitus said: “Those who draw near to lifeless images as if they were Gods, act in a similar manner to those who would enter into conversations with houses.”3
This I believe, we would agree is superstition. If excessive devotion to an image is superstition, is an excess in the other direction, towards an aniconic worship, also a vice?
I would argue that it is not, because the use of images was not necessary at any time in the worship of the gods. The earliest forms of Hellenic worship were aniconic. Worship was carried out on mountain tops or near fissures in the earth (for the ouranian and chthonic deities respectively), or before a tree sacred to a god, such as a palm tree at Delos (as depicted on a Bronze Age gemstone), or at an oak tree at Dodona (per Homer and Herodotus), or a place whose uncanny beauty or a lightning strike indicated the presence of the numinous. Most sanctuaries, even in the Classical Age, and later, were exactly of this type. In the medieval period, after the acts of Theodosius, worship of the gods had to become aniconic, as the use of images would mark one out for persecution. Yet the worship continued for quite some time in this state.
Even in sanctuaries with cult images, most worship took place away from the cult image. The image was housed inside the temple, off limits to most worshippers. Worship took place outside, in the forecourt of the sanctuary where the altar was. It was around the altar where worship took place, just as in the aniconic sanctuaries in the hills and wilds of Greece. No image was directly present at this worship. Today, I worship deities for whom I have no images, and it doesn’t prevent me from saying my prayers and offering my incense at my shrine for them.
So if images are not necessary, what are the roles of images in Hellenismos?
I believe their roles are to serve as symbolic representations of the presence of the deities depicted. The cult images of the great temples symbolized the presence of the deity in his or her house (the temple), and by extension their presence and protection over the city in which or near which the temple lay. An image in the home symbolizes the presence of the deity in the home with their worshipper.
Beyond just this, they also serve as reminders of the presence of the deities, and of their influence in our life. Say you have a picture of your wife. If someone ask about your wife, you may point at her picture, and say; “That’s my wife.” No one would be so feeble minded as to confuse the picture of your wife with your wife herself. This would be true even if you look lovingly on the picture, or place flowers by the picture, and small gestures of affection like that. Just as you place a photographic image of one’s wife or spouse on one’s desk to symbolize their presence in your life, and also to remind oneself of one’s beloved, the same goes for placing an image of a deity in your home or on an altar. There is no superstition involved in this use of images, to symbolize the presence of the deity and to remind us of Them.
The symbolic nature of the image also serves as a means for us to express our devotion to the deity. Veneration and offerings made in the presence of the images, being symbolic of the presence of the deity, symbolically go through the images to the deity whose likeness they are. They are symbolically referred through to the deity. They thus serve as a medium through which the gods teach us (through representations of mythological scenes), and touches us.
We can see and believe this, without believing that the image themselves have some property or virtue worthy of worship. Nor is it necessary to go to the extreme of superstition in the adoration or veneration of the image to achieve the benefits of the symbolic presence of (and connection to) the deities.
In summary then, ideally images in Hellenismos serve to symbolize the presence of the deity (the function of the cult image), as well as serve as reminders and conduits to the deity.