The below is an abridgement of the longer original monograph prepared for The Institute for Cultural Research, PO Box 2227, London NW2 3BW Monograph Series No. 44.
This version prepared for free download from the ICR website, www.i-c-r.org.uk
A preacher went into an Indian village, saying: ‘God is everywhere’. He accused the people of idolatry, insisting there was no God in their cult image. An illiterate villager retorted: ‘You just said God was everywhere – surely he must be in our idol as well?’
It is not possible to pinpoint the time when people first began to impose form onto the unseen. It is unlikely to have been very long after they came to believe in a spirit or spirits beyond their ordinary perceptions.
To try to make an image out of an idea is particularly human. Adherents of polytheistic religions point out that even the devotees of a ‘formless god’ find it difficult to avoid mental pictures. They ask what is the difference between an image created in the mind, and one on canvas or stone.
‘Images are felt to be necessary because man needs some mediating channel through which to receive the sacred power: God is too great for man to meet directly, and he cannot be totally revealed.’
Countless millions of peoples for tens of thousands of years have found both mental and physical images of use in their attempts to connect with a divine force. Among every community that has worshipped idols, the more thoughtful members have maintained that their clay gods are simply a bridge to the real.
A few have gone so far as to believe that, somewhere in the journey towards the real, the bridge must be crossed and left behind. Indeed, those who can do without images have always managed to get beyond them, even when they live in an image-based culture.
But, as we shall see, the popular mass craves, creates and constantly renews the symbol. So, while one ancient Egyptian- Akhenaton- could transcend his cult object and feel himself in the presence of the divine spirit, hordes of the ordinary folk held out for miracles, excitement, sensation.
Time and again those sorts of people have found their way to the image, even if they live in a culture which overtly prohibits religious form. This paper will look at the ways people have used images to embody gods and spirits, and what they have derived from this process.
The first idols
The first idols are almost certainly as old as art itself. Female figurines were introduced into Europe as long ago as 30,000 BC, from central Russia and Siberia, where they probably originated. They are believed to have been a sort of fertility idol, a prototype mother goddess. ‘These little statues are carved in stone, bone or ivory, and vary in height from two to ten inches. As a rule they depict the nude female form…almost without exception, they portray the fully mature woman…the sexual characters of the female body are strongly emphasized, if not exaggerated.’
These mother goddesses held sway for an extraordinary period of time. Over twenty thousand years later, through the Neolithic and Chalcolithic eras, they were still going strong. In south Eastern Europe alone, around 30,000 miniature sculptures of clay, marble, bone, copper or gold have been retrieved from 3000 archaeological sites.
Palaeolithic figurines always have been found in occupation layers, implying they belonged to people who lived some kind of settled life. ‘They must have been part of a domestic fertility cult responding to the power of the life-force…a form of imitative magic practised in parallel with the hunters and their hunting magic in the cave paintings.’
Hunting tribes of Northern Asia still make little female statues, which they call Dzuli. The idols represent the tribes’ ancestral origins. ‘The men confide their homes to the Dzuli’s safekeeping when they go hunting and offer them goats and fat upon their return.
In much the same way, Palaeolithic figures appear to have served both as tutelary spirits and as symbols of the origin of family and tribe. In short, they were the ‘great mothers’.
The passing of the last ice age presented hunters of Mesolithic times – about 10,000 BC – with new challenges. Older breeds of animals, such as the mammoth, upon which they had depended for food, died out.
It seems that new beliefs helped them to cope with the new pressures. A crudely carved willow trunk, over eleven feet long, is believed to have been the idol of reindeer hunters. The top end is rounded, suggesting a head, and a long ‘neck’ separates it from the ‘shoulders’ below.
‘There seems little doubt that this figure represented the spirit or divinity venerated by the reindeer hunters who had camped on this site…they did apparently make offerings to their god, attaching these to the poles that surrounded their idol.’
A discovery in the cave of Montespan in France suggests that even earlier men may have fashioned idols of animal spirits. A clay figure of a headless bear was found pierced with holes made by arrows. Between its forepaws was the fossilized skull of a young bear; apparently the bleeding head of a real bear was placed upon the statue.
The whole is very reminiscent of beliefs held until recent times by the Ainu of Japan and the Gilyaks of Sakhalin. They believed that each year the spirit of a ceremonially killed bear became their protector, and could ask the powerful spirit of the mountain for a good year’s hunting.
The Animal inheritance
The prehistoric reverence for the animal is believed to have developed into the animal cults of the ancient Egyptians. Entire cemeteries of mummified cats, dogs and other animals have been found. In a religious tradition that lasted for well over three thousand years, the Egyptians believed certain animals were divine incarnations of gods.
In keeping with their supernatural nature, the gods could be incarnated in more than one animal, or the same animal could be linked with several gods.
The very early Egyptians worshipped fetishes derived from nature. Plutarch describes one such object, which was worshipped at Busiris and Mendes in the Delta at a very early period, and which later became associated with the cult of Osiris.
According to Plutarch the fetish was a hollow tree trunk, which restored to life the dead who were placed in it…The fetish object became very popular as an amulet throughout the dynastic period and models of it…were laid on and inside the body, and worn by the living as ornaments.
Later, both animals and fetishes developed into anthropomorphic idols. These had human bodies, with the original fetish object often recognisable upon their heads. It was as though the human imagination of the ‘other’ refused to be confined to natural forms.
Carved images were used as a way of focussing the required presence. They were intended as vehicles. ‘The image is made ‘alive’ by the spirit which enters it, at least temporarily, in order to preside over his or her own rituals.’
The Maori, who had few representations of their gods, used god sticks in a similar way. The stick was portable, and about a foot long, with a sharpened end which could be thrust into the ground. They prepared it for the temporary presence of the god by painting it with ochre, binding it with flax cord and dressing it with feathers. It was then pulled with the string to attract the attention of the god, who could then be solicited. The stick itself was not worshipped.
What idols mean to their followers
Images of the gods are never considered by their adherents as simple blocks of stone; they are always imbued with some spiritual presence. Before an image is installed, it may be spiritually ‘charged’ in a ceremony during which the priest prays to God (or to a god) to make the image His abode, either permanently, or for a specific period of time.
Some religions go to great lengths to disclaim charges of idolatry. ‘The Hindu carvings symbolise the various attributes of God. These images are not worshipped for their own sake. The prayer is offered not to the idol, but to the Divine Spirit, of which the image is but a mere symbol.’
Form, however, is a very double-edged tool. It is a fine line between an image as a mediator of the holy, and an object that has become intrinsically holy itself. The symbol is both powerful and enduring. Thus, for instance, the carved form of the Australian aborigine may represent a mere vehicle, which the spirit of the deity may enter, but: ‘…aborigines usually go further than this: they state that it is the real body of a living thing.’
Indian tribal people of South Gujarat go a step further still in their worship of carved wooden crocodiles. ‘The wooden representations of the crocodile are considered to be not just a wooden image, but a live being. It can see with its eyes and it needs a shelter to keep cool. It can bite as well and turn around on its post. A story about how an unbeliever, who put his arm in the mouth of a crocodile to prove it was only wood and not alive, was suddenly caught by the crocodile, is often narrated.’
When ethnographers commissioned the carving of a crocodile god, the carpenter at first refused, until the fieldworkers promised to install it with due ceremony. The ritual was carried out in the evening. The newly carved crocodile was splashed with water and received offerings, all to the accompaniment of songs in its honour. All that remained was for the carpenter to imbue it with a spiritual ‘charge’ that would render it of use to its owners. He did so with a recitation: ‘If children are asked, give children; if money is asked, give money; if grain is asked, give grain; if service is asked, give service; give everything asked for… ‘We offer you worship, gift of chicken, gift of coconut, gift of rice, offering of wine is given.’
Thus was a brand new god created. This was no unusual event; across the world new deities are continually making their debut on this plane of existence.
In Vietnam, ambitious villagers who improve the lot of their fellows may live in hope of one day becoming a deity. In each village are shrines dedicated to minor local heroes: perhaps the man who introduced the potter’s wheel to his particular village, or a son of the community who became a scholar.
Chinese popular deities include men and women of consequence who are believed to have the power to protect from demonic forces, to grant cures and blessings. ‘To a great extent, many Chinese deities can be regarded in the same light as early Christian saints, the spirits of deceased humans who can intercede in Heaven on behalf of the living.’
In the sixteenth century, as China underwent a period of instability, people flocked to this type of deity. There were so many gods of different forms and origins that people needed a practical way to distinguish between them. The solution the ever-practical Chinese people came up with was a series of low-cost images, often paintings or block prints.
The attraction of image worship has proved extraordinarily durable. In ancient Egypt, the same form of Osiris was worshipped continuously for three thousand years.
His potency was undoubtedly increased in the public mind by his air of mystery. Secrecy was a key ingredient in Egyptian religion. The early house of the god was the temple where the cultic image of the god was kept hidden behind locked doors. These images were of wood with inlaid eyes and they were small enough to be carried around in processions. No examples have survived to the present day.
It was the duty of the ruler to tend the image as one would a living creature. ‘He sprinkled water on the image twice from four jugs, clothed it with green and black paint. Finally he fed the image, by laying before it bread, beef, geese, wine and water.’
Probably the more thoughtful Egyptians progressed to the idea of the image as the temporary habitation of the god. However, the common people were eager for miracles and wonders. From time to time the cult image would be carried out of the shrine to be worshipped by the multitude. They were held by the public to be oracles, which possessed magical powers of healing.
The ancient Greeks took the opposite course to the Egyptians, whose gods were as supernatural as possible, and made them like men in nature. While this may have taken away some of their mystery, it increased the sense of identity between gods and men. ‘This transformation of the gods into the likeness of men was a prodigious stroke of emancipating thought. It meant that the Greeks were so impressed by the range and possibility of human gifts that they could not conceive of the gods in any other shape.’
The power of the form
The kind of images discussed in this paper are both attractive and durable. The Pharoah Akhenaten (1364-47 BC) discovered this when he tried to eliminate the gods in favour of worship of Aten, the supreme universal creator, represented by the solar disc and its rays, installing himself as its mediator. ‘It is sufficient to say that this ‘solar monotheism’ proved to be ephemeral and on the death of its propagator Egypt and her pharaohs reverted to her manifold gods and long-hallowed iconographic forms.’
Idols may be suppressed, but they refuse to disappear entirely because they fulfil a function in the popular mind. They thrive on times of adversity, when people crave a tangible amulet that might provide them with the immediate satisfaction and reassurance they crave.
During the fourteenth century Black Death, for example, villagers deserted the church and flocked to the pagan goddess Hretha, who was a type of earth mother, associated with Diana and venerated as a grain deity. She was worshipped at the new moon in woodland groves. In 1351 the Bishop of Exeter was forced to denounce her as an ‘unchaste Diana’: ‘… after a stone and timber temple, complete with altar, candles and cult statue, had been erected on a wooden hill above the river Torridge.’
Residents of the Italian city of Siena had a bruising experience with a rediscovered cult idol. Around 1300 AD they were delighted to unearth a nude Venus sculpted by Lysippus. They immediately installed it in a place of honour in front of the city hall as a protective deity. When plague broke out in 1348, they turned against the image as violently as they had first embraced it. The good people of Siena, however, had not lost their belief in the potency of the image. One account says it was broken into pieces and buried in Florentine soil so that its evil qualities might be transferred to the enemy.
Humans remain the same
The multiplicity of images varies widely. However, the nature of human beings does not. Nor do the things they yearn for: certainty in the midst of doubt, form in the face of the intangible, an end to fear. Across geographical and historical distance, idols and images have adhered to certain very specific rules. Those rules are governed by the desires of human beings to impose form and order out of what they do not know. And in a few cases, to use form to break through to the invisible truth they feel lies beyond.