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Aniconism among the Greeks

Speaking of icons, over at Marginalia there is a new and interesting review by Fernande Hölscher of Milette Gaiman’s Aniconism in Greek Antiquity (Oxford, 2012). The conclusion:

Above all Gaifman deserves praise for her precision. Unlike her predecessors, she never speaks of “divine representation” in non-figural objects but always understands them as “markers of divine presence.” Stones and steles designate the god or goddess; they are not relics of ancient aniconic veneration. If the Greeks performed cultic rites in front of stones, these objects helped the worshippers to experience divine power—we can only speculate at the level of intensity. The Greeks never venerated the objects as if they were the gods themselves. Steles are not the actual divinities. Rather, they demarcate divine presence in the context of the subject. Even when the steles bear a goddess’s name such as Aphrodite, they do not indicate that she was venerated in aniconic form. Instead they reveal that a stone was used to represent her presence as ritual was performed. In the sphere of athletics, steles similarly functioned to demarcate space.  Here and elsewhere, their purpose was to “set the scene,” not to be worshipped.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.