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Bible Encyclopedias
Image Worship

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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It is obvious that two religious votaries kneeling together before a statue may entertain widely different conceptions of what the image is and signifies, although their outward attitude is the same. The one may regard it as a mere image, picture or representation of the higher being, void in itself of value or power. It is to him, like the photograph hung on a wall of one we love, cherished as a picture and no more. But the other may regard it, as a little girl regards her doll, as an animated being, no mere picture, but as tenement and vehicle of the god and fraught with divine influence. The former is the attitude which the Latin Church officially inculcates towards sacred pictures and statues; they are intended to convey to the eyes of the faithful, especially to the illiterate among them, the history of Jesus, of the Virgin and of the saints. The other attitude, however, is that into which simple-minded Latin peasants actually lapse, as it is also that which characterizes other religions ancient or modern which use pictures or sculptures of gods, demons, men, brutes, or of particular parts and organs of the same. With the latter attitude alone does the present article deal, and it may conveniently be called idolatry or image worship. For the history of the use of images in Christian worship see Iconoclasts.

The image or idol differs from the fetish, charm, talisman, phylactery or miraculous relic, only in this, that either in the flat or the round it resembles the power adored; it has a prototype capable of being brought before the eye and visualized. This is not necessarily the case with the worshipper of aniconic or unshaped gods. The Semite or savage who sets up a sacred stone or Bethel believes indeed that a divine power or influence enters the stone and dwells in it, and he treats the stone as if it were the god, kisses it, anoints it with oil, feeds the god in it by pouring out over it the blood of victims slain. But he is not an idolater, for he has not "made unto himself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above or in the water beneath or in the water under the earth." The question arises: must the stage of aniconic gods historically precede and lead up to that of pictures and images? Are the latter a development of the former? In the history of human religions can we trace, as it were, a law of transition from sacred stock and stone up to picture and image? Is it true to say that the latter is characteristic of a later and higher stage of religious development? It was perhaps the facility with which a pillar of stone or wood can be turned into an image by painting or sculpturing on it eyes, ears, mouth, marks of sex and so on, which led anthropologists of an earlier generation to postulate such a law of development; but facts do not bear it out. In the first place, what we are accustomed to call higher religions deliberately attach greater sanctity to aniconic gods than to iconic ones, and that from no artistic incapacity. The Jews were as well able as their neighbours to fashion golden calves, snakes and the minor idols called teraphim, when their legislator, in the words we have just cited, forbade the ancillary use of all plastic and pictorial art for religious purposes. And of our own Christianity, Robertson Smith remarks as follows: "The host in the Mass is artistically as much inferior to the Venus of Milo as a Semitic Masseba was, but no one will say that medieval Christianity is a lower form of religion than Aphrodite worship." Here then in the most marked manner the aniconic sacrament has ousted pictures and statues. It is the embodiment and home of divine personality and power, and not they. Equally contradictory of any such law of development is the circumstance that the Greeks of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., although Pheidias and other artists were embodying their gods and goddesses in the most perfect of images, nevertheless continued to cherish the rude aniconic stocks and stones of their ancestors. If any such law ever operated in human religious development, how can we explain the following facts. In the shadowy age which preceded the Stone age and hardly ended later than 10,000 B.C., the cave-dwellers of the Dordogne could draw elks, bisons, elephants and other animals at rest or in movement, with a freshness and realism which to-day only a Landseer can rival. And yet in the European Stone age which followed, the age in which the great menhirs and cromlechs were erected, in which the domestication of animals began and the first corn was sown, we find in the strata no image of man or beast, big or little.

Whence this seeming blight and decay of art? Salomon Reinach, guided by the analogy of similar practices among the aborigines of Australia, and noticing that these primitive pictures represent none but animals that formed the staple food of the age and place, and that they are usually found in the deepest and darkest recesses of the caves where they could only be drawn and seen by torchlight, has argued that they were not intended for artistic gratification (a late motive in human art), but were magical representations destined to influence and perhaps attract the hunter's quarry. In a word this earliest art was ancillary to the chase. It is a common practice in the magic of all ages and countries to acquire control and influence over men and animals by making images of them. The prototype is believed to suffer whatever is done to the image. Reinach, therefore, supposes that in the Stone age which succeeded, pictorial art was banned because it had got into the hands of magicians and had come to be regarded as inevitably uncanny and malefic. This is certainly the secret of the ordinary Mahommedan prohibition of pictures and statues, which goes even to the length of denying to poor little Arab girls the enjoyment of having dolls. It is felt that if you have got a picture of any one, you have some power of harming him through it; you can bind or loose him, just as you can a Djinn whose name you have somehow learned. It is as dangerous for your enemy to have a picture of you as for him to know your name. The old Hebrew prohibition of graven images was surely based on a like superstition, so far as it was not merely due to the physical impossibility for nomads of heavy statues that do not admit of being carried from camp to camp and from pasture to pasture. Possessing no images of Yahweh the Jews were also not exposed to the same risk as were idolaters of having their gods stolen by their foes and used against them. Lastly, the restriction to aniconic worship saved them from much superstition, for there is nothing which so much stimulates the growth of a mythology as the manufacture of idols. The artist must indeed start with imaginative types, revealed to him in visions or borrowed from current myths. But the tendency of his art is to give rise to new tales of the gods. There is perpetual action and reaction between picture and myth; and a legislator desiring to purify and raise his countrymen's religion must devote no less attention to their plastic art than to their hymnology.

Motives drawn from homoeopathic magic may thus explain the occasional disuse and prohibition of pictorial and plastic Xiv. 11 a art in cult; they may equally explain its genesis and rise in certain ages and countries. Prayer is much more hopeful and efficacious for a worshipper who has means of bringing near to himself, and even coercing the god he worships. An image fashioned like a god, and which has this advantage over a mere stock and stone that it declares itself and reveals at a glance to what god it is sacred, must surely attract and influence the god to choose it as his home and tenement. And having the god thus at hand and imprisoned in matter, the simple-minded worshipper can punish him if his prayers are left unanswered. Dr E. B. Tylor accordingly (in his chapter on "Idolatry" in Primitive Culture, ii. 170), reminds us of "the negro who feeds ancestral images and brings them a share of his trade profits, but will beat an idol or fling it into the fire if it cannot give him luck or preserve him from sickness." So Augustus Caesar, having lost some ships in a storm, punished Neptune by forbidding his image to be carried in procession at the Circensian games (Sueton. Aug. 16).

In certain cases the wish to carry elsewhere the cult of a favourite or ancestral cult, may have dictated the manufacture of images that declare themselves and reveal at a glance whose they are. Thus a Phoenician colonist might desire to carry abroad the cult of a certain Baal or Astarte who lived in a conical stone or pillar. Pilgrims visiting Paphos, the original home and temple of Astarte, could of course be in no doubt about which of the heavenly powers inhabited the cone of stone in which she was there held to be immanent; nor was any Semite ever ignorant as to which Baal he stood before. It was necessarily the Baal or Lord of the region. But small portrait statues must surely have been made to be carried about or used in private worship. Meanwhile the shapeless cone remained the object of public adoration and pilgrimage.

The Egyptian writer Hermes Trismegistus (c. 250), in a work called Asclepius (cited by Augustine, De civit. Dei, viii. 26), claims that his ancestors discovered the art of making gods, and since they could not create souls, they called up the souls of demons or angels and introduced them into the holy images and divine mysteries, that through these souls the idols might possess powers of doing good and harm. This was the belief of the pagans, and the Christians for centuries shared it with them. Not a few Christian martyrs sought and won the palm by smashing the idols in order to dislodge the indwelling devil; occasionally their zeal was further gratified by beholding it pass away like smoke from its ruined home.

Image worship then is a sort of animism. It is a continuance by adults of their childish games with dolls. In the Roman religion, on a feast of thanksgiving for a great victory, couches were spread in the temples for the gods, whose images were taken down from their pedestals and laid on the couches, and tables set before them loaded with delicate viands. This was called a Lectisternium. So Marco Polo (i. chap. 53) relates how theTatars had each a figure of Natigay, the god of the earth, who watched over their children, cattle and crops. The image was made of felt and cloth, and similar images of his wife and children were set on his left hand and in front of him. "And when they eat, they take the fat of the meat and grease the god's mouth withal, as well as the mouths of his wife and children." The old Greek statues moved of themselves, shook their spears, kneeled down, spoke, walked, wept, laughed, winked, and even bled and sweated, - a mighty portent. Images of Christ, of the Virgin and saints have achieved many a similar miraculous portent. A figure of Christ has been known even to give its shoes to a poor man, and a Virgin to drop a ring off her finger to a suppliant. In Umbrian villages on Easter Sunday the images of Jesus and His Mother are carried in rival processions from their respective chapels, and are made to bow when they meet face to face. The spectators applaud or hiss according as they make their bow well or ill. In antiquity it was a common ceremony to arrange a holy marriage between male and female images, and such unions acted on the earth as a fertility charm. Much of a priest's time was given up to the toilet of the god or goddess. Thus Isis was dressed and coiffed every day by her special attendants according to Apuleius ( Met. xi. 9). Like the statue of St Agatha of Catania to-day, her image was loaded with jewels, and an inscription of Cadiz (C.I.L. ii. 3386) contains an inventory of the jewels with which Isis had been endowed by Spanish devotees.

Idolatrous cults repose so largely on make-believe and credulity that the priests who administered them, perhaps oftener than we know, fell into the kind of imposture and trickery of which the legend of Bel and the dragon represents a classical example. "Thinkest thou not," said King Astyages, "that Bel is a living god ? Or seest thou not how much he eateth and drinketh every day? Then Daniel laughed, and said, 0 King, be not deceived: for this is but clay within, and brass without, and did never eat or drink anything." In the sequel Daniel proves to the king that the priests with their wives and children came in through privy doors and consumed the viands set before the god; and the king, angered at their trickery, slew them all and gave Bel over to Daniel for destruction.

The invectives against idolatry of the early Jewish and Christian apologists, of Philo, Minucius Felix, Tertullian, Arnobius, Lactantius and others, are very good reading and throw much light on the question how an ancient pagan conceived of his idols. One capital argument of the Christians was the absurdity of a man making an idol and then being afraid of or adoring the work of his own hands. Lactantius preserves the answer of the pagans so attacked (De origine Erroris, ii.2): We do not, they said, fear the images themselves, but those beings after whose likeness they were fashioned and by whose names they were consecrated. Few such rites of consecration remain, but they must have been similar to those used in India to-day. There the Brahmin invites the god to dwell within the image, specially made hollow to contain him, "performing the ceremony of adhivasa or inhabitation, after which he puts in the eyes and the prana, i.e. breath, life or soul." Similarly Augustine ( De civ. Dei, viii. 23) relates how, according to Hermes, the spirits entered by invitation ( spiritus invitatos ), so that the images became bodies of the gods (corpora deorum). Thus the invisible spirits by a certain art are so joined unto the visible objects of corporeal matter that the latter become as it were animated bodies, images dedicated to those spirits and controlled by them (see Consecration). Such statues were animated with sense and full of spirit, they foresaw the future, and foretold it by lot, through their priests, in dreams and in other ways.

See E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, ed. 1903 (list of authorities and sources vol., p. 171); L. R. Farnell, The Evolution of Religion (London, 1905); Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, translation by J. S. Stallybrass. (F. C. C.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Image Worship'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​i/image-worship.html. 1910.
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