Cult Statues and Talismans


1 Introduction

The concept of a cult statue is not universal to human cultures; in fact, even just within the Ancient Mediterranean, the English term can refer to a significant variety of objects involved in diverse practices. Here, I will start from the Greek word ágalma, since when I say “cult statue”, it is usually this that I have in mind.

Ágalma is one of the words that have a different sense in Homer than they do in all of later Greek literature, as ancient grammarians were well aware. They define its Homeric sense as:

  • “any beautiful thing by which someone is exalted (agálletai) and delighted. But the poets after Homer use ágalma to mean ‘carved image’ (xóanon)” (Scholia on Iliad 4.144).
  • “We use ágalma to mean ‘carved image’, but Homer calls any gift which someone sees and is delighted and exalted by an ágalma” (Scholia on Odyssey 3.438).
  • Or, differently put: “In more recent authors, ágalmata are monuments (stêlai), but here, dedications (anathḗmata)” (Scholia on Odyssey 3.274).

‘Dedications’ (anathḗmata) are any gifts to the gods that are permanently ‘set up’ (anatíthēmi) in the temple of a god. That the term ágalma changed its meaning from dedication to the image of a deity indicates that such an image was regarded as the dedicatory offer par excellence, that which most pleased and delighted the divine recipient.

This is not to say, however, that the Homeric poems come from or describe a time where cult statues were not yet differentiated from other dedications – only that there seems to be no specific term for them. And since the cult statue, unlike other dedications, is not just for the deity, but also is the deity, perhaps there was no pressing need for such a term. In book 6 of the Iliad, when the priestess Theano worships at the temple of Athena, she is simply said to lay (títhēmi) a robe “upon the knees of lovely-haired Athena” (Iliad 6.303), as if the goddess herself were seated in the temple. And in a sense, she was: “the temples (are) where the gods dwell, through (diá) the cult statues” (Scholia on Iliad 7.298).

2 Cult statues and the gods

In the lexicon of Julius Pollux, cult statues are defined as “the things which we worship: agálmata, xóana, seats of the gods, likenesses of the gods, images (eikónes), imitations, figures, forms, shapes” (Onomasticon 1.7). Agálma (pl. agálmata) is the generic term for a three-dimensional image of a deity, especially of stone or metal, while xóanon usually refers to a statue of wood, often very ancient and roughly carved, or of ivory (cf. Ammonius, On the Differentiation of Similar Words, s.v. ξόανον). The other terms listed here are more abstract.

“The things which we worship” are listed by Pollux alongside “the place in which we serve the gods” (the temple, Onomasticon 1.6), “where we make consecration” (the temple grounds), and “that on which we sacrifice or kindle a fire” (the altar).” This reflects typical worship at a temple, where sacrifice was made in a temple precinct, not in the temple itself, but on an outdoor altar near it, and thereby in the vicinity of the cult statue of the god set up within the temple. But it also raises a question: if these acts constitute worship of the gods, then what need is there for the cult statue as something “which we worship”? Does this not muddle who or what the act of veneration is directed at?

The use of a cult statue might indeed become a source of confusion if, as in Judaism, the aim of devotion is to share in the invisible presence or shekhinah (hebr. שְׁכִינָה‎ šəḵīna) of a god who has made himself known and well understood through his own words, and through records of his deeds. Here, a cult statue in the shape of a bull, for instance, may well be said to lead away from an understanding of, and relationship with, the deity itself.

Such preconditions, however, often do not exist. As Pausianias’ Description of Greece shows repeatedly, the existence of a statue, a temple, and regular worship did not necessarily entail a clear understanding on the part of locals of who the statue represented or why that deity was venerated. In such cases, Pausanias often summons myths or other scholarly explanations from the store of his learning, compensating for what he perceived as a deficiency of understanding.

For instance, regarding a temple of the “Good God” (Agathós Theós), he conjectures that, “if the gods are the givers of good things to humanity,” – a reference to the Homeric phrase “the gods, the givers of good things” (Odyssey 8.325) – “and Zeus is the highest of the gods, then by following this logic, one might conjecture that this is a byname of Zeus” (Pausanias 8.36.5). Since Pausanias knew who the temple was dedicated to, he must have spoken to some locals, but they, in their immediate familiarity with the name and worship of the Good God, apparently could supply no satisfactory explanation of his identity. In other words, it was the physical temple and the local name of the god, and presumably also his statue (although Pausanias does not mention it), in which local custom was anchored. An intellectual explanation of the kind supplied by Pausanias must be regarded as secondary.

So, we might say that there exists a spectrum, where on one end, the deity is well known and understood by an entire community, and the cult statue is clearly an image of that deity (be that a licit image of Zeus or an illicit one of the god of Abraham) – while on the other end, a cult statue is understood by its worshippers primarily as a unique object of worship (through the concrete terms of devotional practice), while its relationship to the unseen gods believed in by the wider community is left undefined. What ties the objects across this broad spectrum together is that they are all, to some extent, considered to be gods themselves.

On the extreme end of that spectrum, we can locate the cult statue from the following story about Nero (regardless of its historicity): “He despised every form of worship, except for that of the Syrian Goddess; but soon, he rejected her too and even polluted her with urine, because he had been seized by a different superstition, to which alone he adhered with the greatest pernacity. Since, after some commoner of obscure station had given him a little image in the shape of a girl (imaguncula puellaris) as a protection against plots, a conspiracy was immediately detected, he took up the habit of worshipping it as the highest deity (pro summo numine), with three sacrifices every day, and he convinced himself that through its signs, he could foreknow the future. A few months before his death, he approached it (with animal sacrifices), and was unable to receive a favorable omen by extispicy” (Suetonius, Nero 56). Here, a privately owned statuette, which we might fitly call a kind of talisman, is worshipped by one individual in ways usually reserved for the greatest of the communally shared deities (often enough without any use of images).

3 How cult statues are gods

Returning to the aforementioned passage from the Iliad, in which Theano worships Athena, the key portion runs as follows:

“Beautiful-cheeked Theano took the robe,
Laid it upon the knees of lovely-haired Athēnaiē,
And in prayer, she made a vow to the daughter of great Zeus:
‘Lady Athēnaiē, protector of the city, fairest of the goddesses,
Break the spear of Diomedes, and grant that he himself
Will lie fall headlong before the Scaean gates,
So that we will now sacrifice twelve cows in your temple,
Heiferlings untouched by the goad, if you take pity
On the city and the wives and little children of the Trojans!’
So she spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athēnē threw her head back in refusal.”

Here, by poetic licence, the distinction between the cult statue and the goddess has been completely elided. But, outside of poetry, how can anyone seriously treat a statue as divine, when – created, lifeless, immobile and destructible – it manifestly lacks the attributes of a god?

PGM 1.22: anathou en naô
1.144: eis ton lithon … andrias

Numen / presence
Genius (Statius; also his mini-Hercules); epigrams?
Obsequens; Egyptian, Roman, Phoenician, Babylonian, ??? Neopl., Astrologers, Cyranides?
Sigilla, characteres

Imageless worship