4 : 5 May 2005

M. S. Thirumalai


Mankind has attempted to reach out to God in many ways. Making idols, calling them gods, and worshipping them is one of these ways.

Even the Jews who pride themselves on being the worshippers of the one true God at times practiced idolatry in their worship. Islam, which claims to be totally opposed to idol worship, has found in its folk beliefs other ways of letting its adherents honor their dead and venerate their graves. Hinduism has devised an elaborate and intricate system of justification for the making and worshipping of idols. Idol worship is central in the religious life of a Hindu. Buddhism centers around, among other things, worshipping the idols of Buddha and other personages. Roman Catholicism provides for the veneration of the images of a number of Christian personages.

The ancient Greeks and the Romans developed the iconography (the art of making idols) of the West and offered it as the glory of their gods and heroes. The ancient Egyptian civilization, even before the Greeks and Romans, had established the art of making and worshipping exquisite idols in gold, silver and other materials. They honored their dead royalty and worshipped their king in these idols. And long before advanced civilization developed, men in groups, variously called primitive or tribal, made some idols of sticks, paintings, carved figures, or stones - and worshipped them.

And all these continue even today.


Archaeological excavations all around the world attest to the fact that men everywhere have tried to visually represent and worship what they considered divinity or power or powers superior and external to themselves. These representations were often in the form of animals, or in some cases, human and imaginary shapes, or just a simple stone.

More often than not, these visual representations and their veneration are linked to man's desire to control objects and events around him. By worshipping their idols they thought that they would get what they wanted and also have power to control others. Even today it is often believed, not just among "primitive" peoples but among those who are materially advanced, that an image or a picture of an object or person may be used in place of the real object or person to attain magical benefits.

In sorcery, the image or picture of the object or person is subjected to various processes with the belief that such processes would be experienced by the real person or object. There is a general tendency to assume, according to Noss (1969:7), that whoever made an image of an animal subjected it to his influence, or somehow brought it into his power, based on the assumption that "to foresee is to foreordain, and that like produces like."

Other motives identified for visually representing and worshipping animals, humans or other objects, both imaginary and real, include the desire for fertility, awe and fear of the dead, and awe and fear of nature. The most important fact however, is that, all over the world, without exception, humans recognized a power beyond them and tried to capture this power in some manner through visual representations and used such representations for their spiritual and material advancement.

The burial of the dead with offerings of flint implements reveals the reverence men had not only for the dead but also for the objects they offered to the dead - both men and animals. The dead were worthy of reverence and the objects by which this reverence was communicated were objects of great value to the dead and the survivors. In some groups painting and modeling emerged very early in their history. They drew pictures, painted murals, and used clay to mould figures. They carved figures of men and animals in wood and stone on the bones of animals. Most of these works of art were part of man's attempt to manage the relationship between him and the power beyond him. Their works of art were also used for magical, reverential and memorial purposes of which these works of art were put. It is also possible that in several cases these visual representations were purely a description of what men saw, felt, or imagined. To impose only an instrumental function on the visual representations would be to downgrade the creative processes of imagination inherent in man.

The fear of the seen and the unseen dominated most of this endeavor because man recognized that there is someone beyond him, and superior to him. All people groups throughout the ages of history have emphasized the "presence of a powerful but silent force in things or persons,…..which is believed to act of itself, as an addiction to the forces naturally or usually present" (Noss 1969:15).

As Noss (1969) points out, such veneration or worship could be in one of three ways, in isolation or in various combinations. First, the visual representation itself may be worshipped as living and active; second, the visual representation may not be worshipped for itself but for the spirit or soul lodged or inhering in it. Third, it may be claimed that the object is not worshipped at all, but it is used as a symbol of the reality which is worshipped and which is visibly and tangibly represents. All these modes of worship may be involved in the very same act of worship (Noss 1969:15,16).

Veneration of visual representations in wood, bones, stones, and on the walls had been noticed form very early times in history. Sometimes just the plain wood, bone, or stone may be worshipped. Other times, human or animal figures or combination or animal (both real and imaginary) and human figures or some other imaginary figures may be shaped in these materials and used for worship. Implements made from these materials (wood, stone, or bone, or others) were also worshipped. Worshipping of stones, both shaped and unshaped, was found all over the world. With the advance of technology, visual representation of the divinity changed from a representation of the divinity in nonmetallic material to representations in metals.


Idolatry was not restricted to visual representations of both living and nonliving objects, it was also common to worship plants and trees. The plants and trees became venerable objects in themselves or in association with other objects of worship. Some deities were believed to reside in these plants or trees, or the plants and trees themselves were assumed to have divine power, and in some cases represented the vigor of fertility.

In some cultures live animals are objects of worship. The worship of cows among the Hindus is a well known example. Noss (1969:16) suggests that such worship of animals is due to men's belief that "if they can somehow share in the magnificent powers of certain animals they will gain greatly in strength, vision, and cunning. Another source of animal veneration is the feeling that members of the group and certain animals share kinship. The relationship is often conceived to be so close that many people have had little difficulty in believing that the soul of a man at death, or during life, passes into the body of an animal, and vice versa. In the mythology of animal worshipping people groups, animals are often closely associated in some manner with the deities. Some of the animals that have been venerated are the cow, lion, tiger, eagle, snake, bear, goose, dove, dog, bull and beaver.

The worship of the elements earth, air, fire, and water either directly and in some personified visual representations is also common among various people groups. Earth is a goddess, and air and fire are gods in the Hindu religion. Sun and moon, rivers, stars and clouds could also be venerated. In fact, once people begin to worship elements, animals and so on as part of a pantheistic and animistic religion, the adherents of such religions may exhibit a tendency to extend worship to objects not in their original list.

All these visual representations are surrounded by taboos, restrictions relating to worship modes, places and times of worship, sacrifices, purification rites and sacrifices.


Tylor's conception of idolatry (Tylor 1958) is closely linked with the stages of material civilization or stages of technology. The lower the position a people group occupies in the technology scale the less will be its clarity in the visual representation of the deity. For, idol making requires clearly advanced tools to shape forms in a variety of media, which constrains the state of idol making in various people groups. On the other hand, relics of the past in which clarity of visual representation was either not the goal or was not feasible can be found alongside clearly shaped idols. Tylor finds that stock and stone worship becomes idolatry by a scarcely perceptible transition. That is, from the worship of unshaped objects man proceeded to more well defined visual representations of the divinity. However, Tylor finds that idolatry, that is, a clear and more well defined visual representation of divinity is distributed unevenly among various categories of civilization:

Idolatry occupies a remarkable district in the history of religion. It hardly belongs to the lowest savagery, which simply seems not to have attained to it, and it hardly belongs to the highest civilization, which has discarded it. Its place is intermediate, ranging from the higher savagery where it first clearly appears, to the middle civilization where it reaches its extreme development, and henceforward its continuance is in dwindling survival and sometimes expanding revival (Tylor 1958:254).

Tylor, writing for a western audience which has already discarded concrete idolatry in favor of fine idolatry (covetousness, love of material goods and so on) links the stage of material technology to the emergence, stabilization and discard of idolatry. Dwindling survival, and sometimes extending revival are, however, a correct appraisal of the progress of idolatry, even in the western world with a long tradition of Christianity. But it is not just the level of technology alone which determines and prods the course of progress of idolatry. As we shall see later on, when we discuss the restrictions imposed on the form and function of icon within the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition, unbridled technological intrusion into idol/icon making processes is always frowned upon. It is the theology underlying idol/image/icon worship that guides the extent to which technology will be allowed to influence idol making. Idolatry is not a simple process based exclusively or even mostly on technological considerations or developments. Idolatry and idol making are processes which are dictated by theology of the religion of a people group.

Although visual representations of the divinity are found among various people groups all over the world, their distribution and the quality of the visual representation are not even. Tylor would link this uneven nature of distribution and the quality of visual representation to various levels of civilization:

Idolatry does not seem to come in uniformly among the higher savages; it belongs, for instance, fully to the Society Islanders, but not to the Tongans and Fijians. Among higher nations, its presence of absence does not necessarily agree with particular national affinities or levels of culture - compare the idol-worshipping Hindu with his ethnic kinsman the idol-hating Parsi, or the idolatrous Phoenician with his ethnic kinsman the Israelite, among whose people the incidental relapse into the proscribed image-worship was a memory of disgrace. Moreover, its tendency to revive is ethnographically embarrassing. The ancient Vedic religion seems not to recognize idolatry, yet the modern Brahmans, professed followers of Vedic doctrine, are among the greatest idolaters of the world. Early Christianity by not means abrogated the Jewish law against image-worship, yet image-worship became and still remains widely spread and deeply rooted in Christendom (1958:254).

Tylor suggests the following stages in the progress of idolatry:

  1. Originally visual representations were treated as only symbols of some soul or deity. They were representative of the deity or the soul.
  2. In the next stage the tendency to identify the symbol and the symbolized resulted in identifying the idol as a living powerful object.
  3. This led to an elaboration of explicit doctrines "as to the manner of its energy or animation."
  4. A variety of behavioral conduct is the result of the explicit doctrines: The Kurile islander throws his idol into the sea to calm the storm. The African natives, and many other people groups all over the world feed ancestral images and bring them a share of their profits. When idols do not bring luck to their worshippers, some people groups may fling the idols into fire. Hindus make idols in clay for specific festivals, worship them and at the end of the festival period throw them into deep waters. Dances are performed before the idols to please the idols. Thus there are a number of activities performed before and for the idols as part of their worship. In this stage the idols become participants in the affairs of their worshippers. They undergo all the daily ablutions of the living human beings. In essence, there is a lot of elaboration of idol making and idol worship procedures and these may be associated with the level of civilization of the communities of idol worshippers.

Idolatry is always based upon belief in spiritual beings. Spirit-embodiment is a basic characteristic of idolatry all over the world. The idols or idol-like objects have to be first of all treated as an embodiment of a spirit or spirits or some power external to their worshippers. There are specific rites and procedures adopted for this purpose by the idolaters. Without these rites and procedures the objects would not attain the status of idols worthy of veneration and worship. We should recognize the fact that almost always the idolaters concede and claim that they are not just worshipping the idols/images as objects in themselves but as objects representing the spirit or divinity behind them, or as objects embodying the spirit or spirits.

The embodiment rites and procedures may vary from one society of idolaters to another. In some societies, adorning idols with certain ornaments activates the embodiment, while on the reciting of verses, or the placing of the idols in the right direction and in the right place and at a right time causes the spirit to be embodied in the idols. Such embodiment, however, does not limit the spirit-deity to residing only in the consecrated object. The spirit-deity is seen as being free to leave and return the consecrated object or to live in several objects at the same time.


Of the many illustrations given by Tylor (1958) for a study of comparative idolatry, we quote below two instances which more or less comprehensively describe the entire phenomenon of idolatry. Tylor quotes from a work of anthropology by Waitz to illustrate the theory of embodiment of West African idolatry:

The God himself is invisible, but the devotional feeling and especially the lively fancy of the negro demands a visible object to which worship may be directed. He wishes really and sensibly to behold the god, and seeks to shape in wood or clay the conception he has formed of him. Now if the priest, whom the god himself at times inspires and takes possession of, consecrates this figure to him, the idea has only to follow that the god may in consequence be pleased to take up his abode in the figure, to which he may be specially invited by the consecration, and thus image-worship is seen to be comprehensible enough (1958:262).

Note the most important aspect; the deity is to be invited and brought into the object, not by threat, but by some means which is pleasing to the spirit or convinces the spirit that it should reside in the object.

Citing "wide and careful researches" of Castern among the Turanian tribes of North Asia, Tylor reports:

The idols of these people are uncouth objects, often mere stones or logs with some sort of human countenance, or sometimes more finished images, even of metal; some are large, some mere idols; they belong to individuals, or families, or tribes; they may be kept in the yurts for private use, or set up in sacred groves or on the steppes of near the hunting and fishing places they preside over, or they may even have special temple-houses; some open-air gods are left naked, not to spoil good clothes, but others under cover are docked out with all an Pstyak's or Samoyed's wealth of scarlet cloths and costly furs, necklaces and trinkets; and lastly, to the idols are made rich offerings of food, clothes, furs, kettles, pipes, and the rest of the inventory of Siberian nomad riches. Now these idols are not to be taken as mere symbols or portraits of deities, but the worshippers mostly imagine that the deity dwells in the image or, so to speak, is embodied in it whereby the idol becomes a real god capable of giving health and prosperity to man. On the one hand, the god profits by receiving richer offerings, failing which it would depart from its receptacle (1958:263).

Finally caution must be sounded as regards the possibility of differences in functions assigned to the idol worship by individuals of the same religion. For one it may only be a symbol, a portrait, a representation of a deity but not the deity itself. For another, the idol may be a living object because of the embodiment of the spirit/deity in it. And yet, whether one considers it as only a symbol or as a living, embodied object, the worship and veneration is for the spirit in it or behind it. The theology behind, and of, the visual representation of the divinity will come to guide and regulate the devotee's behavior. We should also remember that it is always the case that pantheistic and animistic religions encouraged visual representations and venerations of their deities.


Idol, icon and image are the three words frequently used when we discuss visual representation of the divinity and veneration of such visual representatives. The word idol is derived from the Greek word eidolon, which generally meant a likeness to the object represented. Eidolon also meant an idea or fancy. This word was also used in the Late Latin and entered Middle English from Old French.

In English, the word idol is used to refer to five major meanings: (i) It is used to refer to a representation or symbol of an object or worship. (ii) It may be used to refer to a likeness of something. It could also mean a pretender or an imposter. But in this latter sense the word is no more currently used. (iii) A visible form or appearance but without substance, as in the expression used by English poet P.B. Shelley, an enchanted phantom, a lifeless idol. (iv) The word may be used to refer to an object of extreme devotion. For example, a matinee idol, a movie idol. (v) Finally it could also refer to a false conception.

A few remarks are appropriate here as regards the use of the word idol in English. There is no mention, reference, connotation or implication about the kinds of medium by which an idol may be fashioned. Often one assumes an idol to be a shaped object, presented in concrete material resembling some living or dead, real or imaginary object and evoking in us an idea of similitude between it and the object it stands for. While this is one aspect of the meaning of idol, it can and does have other meanings.

While the word image is often used interchangeably with idol, the theological literature of the Roman Catholic church maintains a clear distinction between the two.

Image is from Latin and is taken from Old French into Middle English. The word image has a much wider range of meanings than idol, and these meanings may be grouped under four major heads: similitude, mental construct, verbal expression, and scientific measure. Note, first of all, that the word image, unlike the word idol, is not used to indicate intensity of devotion. An image may be an object of worship but it is not used to indicate a meaning similar to idolize. As a scientific measure the word is used in a very limited and fixed send ('a set of values given by a mathematical function that corresponds to a particular set of the domain'). This sense is well beyond our consideration here. The use of the word image to indicate the figure of speech usage (the verbal expression meaning of the word) is also restricted to a specific process. Thus it is the range of meanings in the domains of similitude and mental construct that comes to dominate the use of this word.

Although it sounds restrictive when put in this manner, in fact the word image has more implications and greater areas of use. Within the similitude domain, (i) it refers to a reproduction or imitation of the form of a person or thing, especially to an imitation in solid form. In this feature it shares the feature of idol. (ii) It refers to the optical counterpart of an object produced by an optical or an electrical device. For example, the image in a mirror, or seen through and reproduced by a lens. Note that in this aspect, the word image cuts itself off from the features of the meanings of idol. An image in a mirror is different from an idol per se. An idol can have its image in a mirror. Thus the similitude here is of a different kind from the similitude that exists between an object and its concrete representation either as an idol or as an image. This notion is extended to cover a likeness of an object produced on a photographic material also. (iii) In Christian theology, image refers to exact likeness, semblance, as in Genesis 1:27, God created man in his own image. Here the sense of semblance partakes also of the essence of the original. Striking similarity between persons is also covered in expression such as He is the image of his father. (iv) The word refers also to a tangible or visible representation.


The most distinguishing aspect of the meanings of image comes under the mental construct domain. Image, in this domain, refers to an idea or concept, and/or a mental conception held in common by a group of people. It may be a mental concept symbolic of a basic attitude and orientation, as the Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary describes it. This is reflected in phrases such as the image of the United States. Clinton's image as a dynamic leader. Note that such extensions are not possible for idol. The word image refers also to a mental picture of something not actually present. A picture of a portrait taken together as a whole is not an image, but the contents of a picture or portrait could be an image of an object, when singled out for reference.

An idol is a concrete representation, using only one layer of the medium, whereas an image could also be a shadowy representation of a concrete representation. In this aspect, an image could use more than one medium (for example, a statue and its shadowy representation). Thus, even within its concrete sense, image has the freedom of transferring itself from one medium into another, which facility is not available to idol.


Icon is derived from the Greek word eikon and is used also in Latin. This word is also dominated by the feature similitude. It is used to refer usually to pictorial representations. An icon is a representation of something or some one considered to be sacred. In the process, an icon itself comes to be regarded sacred and may be honored with worship. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons are conventional religious images painted in a typical fashion on small wooden panels, and are used in the devotions of the Eastern Orthodox Christians. An extended meaning of the word is an object of uncritical devotion. Note, however, this extended sense adopted in the ordinary language use is not acceptable to the Eastern orthodox Christians. It is a viewpoint from outside the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In common parlance, the word refers to an emblem or symbol which has come to represent a type. For example, consider the illustrative sentence: The house became an icon of 1860s residential architecture.

There may be two types of relationships, when an object is visually represented: iconic and arbitrary relationships. There is more or less an one to one correspondence between an object and its visual representation in the iconic relationship. When a real tree is represented visually as a tree in a picture, an iconic relationship between the object and the visual representation is established. There is some semblance either in shape or in function or both between the real object and the picture of it. On the other hand, the word tree is a good example of an arbitrary relationship existing between the real object tree and its visual representation as a word. There is no one to one correspondence between the word tree and the real object. The real object tree may be visually represented as maram in Tamil, a language spoken in south India.


Icon is one of the signs used in a communicative act. There are several definitions of what a sign is. Generally speaking, a sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands in for it. A sign is a sign because it communicates something. When a token does not have any communicative value it is not more a sign. Saussure (1959 translation) regarded a sign as a communicative device taking place between two human beings intentionally aiming to communicate or to express something. Peirce (1972. collected essays) finds sign as something which stands, to proper name as Samuel do not have any common property except the fact that they all answer to 'Samuel.'

Some signs are objects explicitly produced in order to signify. On the other hand, some other signs are objects produced in order to perform a given function. Signs may originate from a sender or from a natural source. Signs may be in the verbal or nonverbal medium. The nonverbal medium may be used in a variety of ways: portraits, actual movements, and sign language and so on. Some signs may involve lesser effort than others. The act of uttering a word, in comparison with the visual representation of what is denoted by a word, involves lesser labor.

The so-called iconic sign has the same properties as its object. The portrait of a person is to a considerable extent iconic, but is not completely so since the painted canvas does not have the texture of the skin, or the capacities for speech and motion, which the person portrayed has. So, one could say that the iconic sign, here the portrait, has the same perceptual sense as its object but not the same perceptual physical properties. In this latter sense, the conventionality is emphasized.

The iconic sign is similar to its object. To say that a sign is similar to its object is not the same as saying that it possesses some of its properties. One decides to recognize as similar two things because one chooses certain elements as pertinent and disregards certain others. Thus, there is more conventionality in arriving at similarity than it first appears to be so. What is important to note is that based on geographical similitude and topographical isomorphism, a sort of transformation from one to the other takes place. And the transformation is not based on natural correspondence, but on certain rules. In view of these rules, conventionality becomes a chief characteristic of iconic signs as well. In other words, iconic signs are also culturally based, and coded and are not totally arbitrary.

Eco suggests that the iconic sign is not conventional when it is proposed, but it becomes so step by step, the more its addressee becomes acquainted with it. We shall see this process more explicitly when we trace the introduction and veneration of the icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We will also see how the stages suggested here fit in aptly with the processes of introduction and subsequent veneration of images within the Roman Catholic Church.

The iconic sign may possess (a) optic (visible), (b) ontological (supposed and imposed by the users of the iconic sign in due course), and (c) conventionalized properties of the object. By conventionalized properties are meant those depending on an iconographic perceptual experience.


n people groups which practice idolatry we find an iconic relationship existing between the human society and the society of gods the groups worship. The social relations, both organizational, structural including hierarchic, of a people group of idolaters are found being replicated in several ways in the society of gods they worship. This is not to say that there is exact replication. The replication is easily identified in its essence in the pantheon. Thus there are at least two levels of iconic relationship we should observe when we study the idolatry of various people groups. In the first and basic level, the concrete similitude in the forms of the gods in relation to the concepts underlying each and individual deity needs to be explored. In the second level, we should study the iconic transfer of social structure and function to the pantheon.

Iconic representation of gods is not based on any concrete perception of concrete objects. Iconic representation of gods is based on human mental perception of gods. Sometimes the poets (as in Ancient Greek) may set up the description of the physical features of gods; other times the religious teachers and texts may set up the description of the physical features of gods. From an unsharpened stone or wood to a well carved image is a long historic road through which the idolaters always traversed with the help of codified texts which soon become sanctified standards which could not be transgressed. Ultimately, from a purely similitude level one moves on to a conventionality even within the iconic sign. Thus conventionality becomes a more potent feature even of the iconic sign.


More often than not, the iconic representation of gods is treated as one of the means to reach out to the concept that underlies the visual representation. For example, the Roman Catholic position, which we discuss more fully later, is that the devotees pay homage not to the image but to the concept/person represented by it. The Eastern Orthodox position is that an icon is both a recipient and a medium for conveyance of the homage paid to the concept represented by the icon. To the Hindu, the omnipresent God, who is the father of the universe, appears to reside in everything, including the idol, as much in the loving heart of the devotee as in stocks and stones. His God may or may not be conceived as anthropomorphic. The form of the conception depends upon the stage of achievement of the worshipper in the culture of divine knowledge and spiritual wisdom. Thus who is God and what is God is dependent upon man. To a Hindu conventionality in arriving at similarity than it first appears to be so. What is important to note is that based on geographical similitude and topographical isomorphism, a sort of transformation from one to the other takes place. And the transformation is not based on natural correspondence, but on certain rules. In view of these rules, conventionality becomes a chief characteristic of iconic signs as well. In other words, iconic signs are also culturally based, and coded and are not totally arbitrary.

Eco (1984) suggests that the iconic sign is not conventional when it is proposed, but it becomes so step by step, the more its addressee becomes acquainted with it. We shall see this process more explicitly when we trace the introduction and veneration of the icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We will also see how the stages suggested here fit in aptly with the processes of introduction and subsequent veneration of images within the Roman Catholic Church.

The iconic sign may possess (a) optic (visible), (b) ontological (supposed and imposed by the users of the iconic sign in due course), and (c) conventionalized properties of the object. By conventionalized properties are meant those depending on an iconographic perceptual experience.

In people groups which practice idolatry we find an iconic relationship existing between the human society and the society of gods the groups worship. The social relations, both organizational, structural including hierarchic, of a people group of idolaters are found being replicated in several ways in the society of gods they worship. This is not to say that there is exact replication. The replication is easily identified in its essence in the pantheon. Thus there are at least two levels of iconic relationship we should observe when we study the idolatry of various people groups. In the first and basic level, the concrete similitude in the forms of the gods in relation to the concepts underlying each and individual deity needs to be explored. In the second level, we should study the iconic transfer of social structure and function to the pantheon.


Iconic representation of gods is not based on any concrete perception of concrete objects. Iconic representation of gods is based on human mental perception of gods. Sometimes the poets (as in Ancient Greek) may set up the description of the physical features of gods; other times the religious teachers and texts may set up the description of the physical features of gods. From an unsharpened stone or wood to a well carved image is a long historic road through which the idolaters always traversed with the help of codified texts which soon become sanctified standards which could not be transgressed. Ultimately, from a purely similitude level one moves on to a conventionality even within the iconic sign. Thus conventionality becomes a more potent feature even of the iconic sign.


More often than not, the iconic representation of gods is treated as one of the means to reach out to the concept that underlies the visual representation. For example, the Roman Catholic position, which we discuss more fully later, is that the devotees pay homage not to the image but to the concept/person represented by it. The Eastern Orthodox position is that an icon is both a recipient and a medium for conveyance of the homage paid to the concept represented by the icon. To the Hindu, the omnipresent God, who is the father of the universe, appears to reside in everything, including the idol, as much in the loving heart of the devotee as in stocks and stones. His God may or may not be conceived as anthropomorphic. The form of the conception depends upon the stage of achievement of the worshipper in the culture of divine knowledge and spiritual wisdom. Thus who is God and what is God is dependent upon man. To a Hindu yogi, one who meditates and does penance, who has realized the supreme Brahman (the Universal Soul) within himself, there is no need of any temple or any divine image for worship. But, to those, who have not attained this height of realization, various physical mental modes of worship are required and rules of various kinds of conduct are laid down. It is asserted that a yogi perceives Siva, one of the three chief gods of the Hindu pantheon, in his heart and thus images are meant for the ignorant men. Again, the worship of images, it is said, brings on re-births, and is not therefore to be resorted to by the yogi who desires to free himself from them.


Thus, even among the idolaters there is a subtle recognition that worship without images is a superior alternative to image worship. The elaborate justificatory arguments for image worship within the Roman Catholic Church and the theology of icon worship within the Eastern Orthodox Church do not insist on the use of these mediational artifacts to the exclusion of a non-image, non-icon worship.


The Old Testament uses many words to refer to idols and images. Consider the following list.

mipleset horrid thing
semel idol, image (Note that the same word is translated as idol and image.)
'asab idol. This has close similarity to the word meaning 'sorrow.'
awen trouble, sorrow, idolatry, wickedness, iniquity, emptiness. This word is used 48 times, and suggests a progression from trouble to wickedness to emptiness and then on to idolatry.
elil something worthless, particularly as an object of worship.
selem a representation, a likeness, image. This is used to refer to man as created in the image of God. The same word is used to refer to the golden copies of the mice and the swellings which afflicted the Philistines in I Sam 6:5, 11.
gillul idol. This word means logs, blocks, shapeless things.
hebel a derogatory substitute for idol, meaning vanity

Note that most of the words listed above are used in some derogatory or contemptuous sense. They are descriptive characterizations of either the form, uselessness or lifeless nature of idols. The words are full of theological understanding of what constitutes an idol. The scorn and contempt of the prophets for the idols and their worshippers are reflected in these words. These words signified that the gods of the heathen were nothing more than lifeless materials and were the handiwork of the humans. Idols are not to be treated as representations of the pagan gods. The pagan gods are just inert and lifeless materials.

sekiya image, form, appearance
maskit a stone image, idol, figure, picture, imagination, opinion, thoughts, conceit, imagery
masseba cultic pillar
terapim idolatry, idols, images (household gods)
sa'asu'im things formed, images
pesel idol, image (hewn into shape)
masseka molten image
nesek molten image
'ema an object of terror
sheqer falsity
sheqes detestable thing

Note that the words used for visual representations of gods treat the objects themselves as gods. Thus, some gods are molten, some are graven, some are portable household images, some are hollow having nothing, and some are horrid objects of terror. Only a very few Hebrew words referring to image/idol could be used in a value free-context. One such word is salem which emphasizes the representation/similitude characteristic and is used to refer to man as created in the image of God. It is the emphasis on the aspect of representation that enables this word to be used in several contexts.


As already pointed out, the English word idol is derived from the Greek word eidolon. The Greek word meant "picture," and "copy." The use of this word implied the unreality of the object and thus was used in the New Testament to show that these gods are unreal. Idols are not true gods; they are the handiwork of men, they are not divine but are the products of human sin and folly. Only demon lie behind them.

The Greek word eikon meant "image." It indicated an artistic representation, a mental image, and a likeness or manifestation. This word is used to state that Christ is the image of God. Eikon is distinguished from skia. In Hebrews 10:1 we find that the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming, it is not the image of these good things. Substantial representation of the original is emphasized in the use of the word eikon. Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). Can we visually represent someone who is invisible? Since this is not possible, the use of the word by Paul meant or implied a revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In the popular language of the time, the word had the meaning of the indwelling of the gods in the images. In other words, the word implied the original in the copy in substantial and even identical fashion. Paul used this feature to assert that Christ is God. Since the word had this potent of representation as well as the indwelling of the essentials of the original in the copy, the emphasis was on this aspect and not on the reality or truthfulness of such claims as regards the images of gods.

Because the words eidolon and eikon are words from a culture and religion of idolaters, these are used in non-derogatory senses as well. On the other hand, most of the words in the Hebrew language used for idols and images and such other manmade objects of worship often carried a derogatory sense. Thus the New Testament devised various other ways to indicate its nonapproval of idolatry. It clearly equated the gods of the heathen with the objects, thus affirming the OT position that gods of the heathen are lifeless objects. It further affirmed that only demons lie behind these objects. It separated the general process of representation of identity between the original and the copy and emphasized these processes while making use of the word eikon. At the same time, the New Testament also restricted the use of the term eikon when it man's image as derived from the image of Christ. The notion of image becomes an important theological concept within the New Testament.


An idolater is one who worships idols - "one who pays divine honors to an image or representation of a god, or to any natural object as a deity." Idols become objects of passionate devotion to an idolater. Idolatry is worship of any created object or image made with hands. It also implies immoderate veneration of or attachment to any person or thing - "a savoring adoration," as the Oxford Dictionary calls it.


Iconography is generally defined as the branch of knowledge which deals with the art of representing something by pictures and other visual forms. It is an act of representing, or making visible, religious or legendary subjects. Literally, it means description of images. Scholars consider iconography as an important means to uncover and understand the religious knowledge of societies which practice idolatry.

Iconography is, indeed, religion made visible. As we shall see below, wherever there is idolatry, there is always a definite convention for representation and a definite system and hierarchy of the idols. Images, idols and icons do not exist in a vacuum; they are part of a system and are understood and venerated as part of that underlying system.

As already pointed out, idolatry, in one form or another, is found in people groups all over the world. Studies indicate that iconography, as an art subserving religion and religion-like belief system, was and continues to be used both by the primitive, that is, materially less advanced communities, and materially advanced communities. Iconography was exploited by Australian aborigines, native American Indians, and African tribes and tribal populations all over the world as an essential part of their belief systems just as the Hindus and Buddhists have been using it as part of their religious worship.

Archaeological excavations and historical remains bear witness to the fact that iconography's major function throughout the ages was to aid idolatry.

The widespread use of iconography for religious purposes throughout the ages and in all the continents of the earth raises the question as to how this practice came about and as to how this can be explained within the Biblical context.


The Bible says that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth, who calls out to us and asks "Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 40:28). God "created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens" (Isaiah 45:12).

It is said that "God created man in his own images, in the image of God he created hi" (Genesis 1:27). Consider also the following statements of Paul and John:

For by him all things were created: thing in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones of power or rulers or authorities; all things were created for him and by him (Colossians 1:16).
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:16)

Thus, we, as Christians, believe that God is the source of all that there is, having created the world out of nothing, by his own free will.

Man has abilities to conceptualize and create concrete objects out of matter. This ability to create is, indeed, an ability derived from the fact that he was created by God in God's own image. The Bible clearly states that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him." It does not say the same thing about the animals, or the birds, or the trees.

Note that, wherever there is a reference to the creation of vegetation, animals and birds, there is always an emphasis on or repetition of the fact that these creatures will reproduce in their own kinds. (See Genesis 1:11, 12, 21, and 24.) On the other hand, when it comes to the creation of man, God's counsel was:

Let us make man in our image, in our likeness (Genesis 1:26).

Even as this established a special kind of relationship between man and God, the verses cited above make it clear that the abilities of creativity noted in man, qualitatively absent in animals, should be seen as a consequence of man's being in the image of God. Hence this quality, the creative ability in man is something that should be zealously guarded against perversion, and should be treated as a sanctified gift from God. As we shall see later, man's misuse of this creative ability, by his act of idolatry, is what is despised in the Bible, and not the creative ability in itself.

Creating objects of art is a deliberate act and is noticed in humans in many complex ways. While animals may imprint and even form objects which in some small measure look as if they were engaging themselves in some deliberate art, the fact is that only man engages in art with art as an end in itself, or deliberately uses art towards other ends. He may also build up a system of art which is independent of, not dependent upon, his living as an organism. In other words, art in man's life could be an adjunct, deliberately created and indulged in by him, whereas art-like activities in animals would be an integral part of their biological mechanism.

Note that the Bible recognizes the possible partial similarity between animals and man, based perhaps on the fact that God has created all, when it uses the Hebrew word nephesh "the soul or the living soul" for all kinds of living creatures of the animals kingdom, as well as mankind. Note also that although the Bible ascribes the "spirit" in two instances even to the beasts insofar as it relates to the meaning of breath of life (Genesis 6:17 and 7:15), all other references to it (the spirit) are acts/processes which have an element of deliberation.

In fact, we have two domains of the use of the word spirit: one dimension refers to the breath of life shared by all living creatures and another which refers to the domain of deliberate act, a characteristic of humans. Spirit is assigned the role of being the seat of rationality (Mal. 2:15; Deut. 34:9), determination (Jer. 51:1; Hag. 1:14), attitude in general (Num. 14:24), courage (Josh. 2:11; 5:1), religious understanding (Job 20:3), emotions (Zech. 12:10; Ps. 77:3; 143:4), pride (Ps. 76:12), jealousy (Num. 5:14,30) and various other inner dispositions (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.1041). Note that all the 'inner dispositions' are in the realm of deliberate acts or those acts which could be deliberate acts or acts which could be deliberately brought about by humans.

Thus, in a way, we should say that art has more to do with the human spirit than with the human soul. Although soul and spirit are interchangeably used in the Bible in several places, there is a discernible trend in the Word of God to separate the two as two distinct and yet related entities. Soul may be ascribed also to the animals and to God. Subsequent revelations in the New Testament make it clear that soul is normally "an individual spiritual entity with a material body so that a person is thought of as a body-soul," whereas "spirit is the special gift of God which places one in relationship to him."


A study of iconography in diverse cultures shows that through iconography man has sought to establish a relationship with the Creator. The New Testament revelations clearly speak of the human spirit being made by God and for him. God's children live in fellowship with him through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirits that "we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:16-17). It is no wonder then that most primitive art is a reflection of human effort to relate man to God. IT is also no wonder that iconography, in its widespread use, relates itself to the formation of idols and other objects of worship, assumed to be a means to be in touch with God.

Man, in his spirit, has felt the need to be in touch with the Almighty and this has led him to see the seek God in a natural manner known to him. He had begun to see God in the physical. While this is what is practiced in societies given to idol worship and worship of such related objects, the Bible says that all the spiritual things are obtained only from God, imparted by his Holy Spirit.

The apostle Paul's revelation is that the spiritual and the non-spiritual (the natural) thing are in contrast with one another. The spirit is in the spiritual realm whereas the soul is in the natural realm, and we understand the thing of God through the spirit. Human wisdom is in the realm of the natural. The discerning of spiritual truth requires a spirit, and not a soul (1 Cor. 2:13-15).

In the case of primitive societies, we may have to conclude that the God-given spirit is not liberated form the domain of soul through a knowledge of the true God. Their spirits are groping in darkness trying to reach the true God - their ignorance, to begin with, and their vanity in identifying the true God with the objects they have created, become a matter to be despised. Liberation from idol worship is, thus, liberation of our spirit from a bondage to evil and a liberation form ignorance and misunderstanding that has clouded our perception of God in his true nature.


The Bible shows that there are two types of revelation about God available to man. All persons in all places at all times, past and the present, come to know about God, what he is, and what he is like by what is called general or natural revelation.

All men everywhere acknowledge that there is a transcendent something or someone who regulates everything, and that this person or power is self-sufficient, self-existent, good and righteous, eternal and immanent. This inherent or innate sense of deity is confirmed by the external world which answers that inner sense of deity.

Consider Elihu's counsel to Job:

The breath of God produces ice,
and the broad waters become frozen.
He loads the clouds with moisture;
he scatters his lightning through them.
At his direction they swirl around
over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he command them.
He brings the clouds to punish men,
or to water his earth and show his love (Job 37:10-13).
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.
Therefore, men revere him,
For does he not have regard for all the wise in heart? (Job 37:23-24).
This is the way he governs the nations
and provides food in abundance.
He fills his hands with lightning
and commands it to strike its mark.
His thunder announces the coming storm;
even the cattle make known its approach. (Job 36:31-33)

Mankind has always wondered about the natural phenomena around him and has related these natural phenomena to the wonder, majesty, power and judgment of God. Mankind has always felt that what he sees around him is in the handiwork of God. Psalm 19 says;

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

This knowledge has been and will be a great beach-head for all the evangelists who wish to preach the good news of salvation by faith through Jesus Christ to all the unreached people groups. The apostle Paul used this knowledge in the proclamation of the gospel among the Gentiles.

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood form what has been made.. (Romans 1:20).

In Lystra Paul and Barnabas preached the testimony God had left for all to see:

Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown his kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your heart with joy (Acts 14:17).

In Athens, Paul referred to the knowledge he shared with the Athenians as a beach-head between them and the gospel of Jesus Christ that "the God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth," that, "he himself gives all men life and breath," for he is self-sufficient and does not depend on humans, that "from one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them, and the exact places where they should live; that "God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your poets have said, We are his offspring."

Just as the nature around man speaks to him about the glory of God and reminds him of the eternal Creator, the moral law ingrained in every human being by God reveals to him the God in a general way. There is no society which does not have a sense of moral law, and there is no single human being devoid of moral conscience. This universal occurrence of moral law reveals the fact that it has been ingrained in us by a superior source. Paul points out to this universal conscience in Romans 2:14-15:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

It is this general revelation of God which has prompted societies all over the world and throughout history to seek God, a seeking that is expressed in all idolatry and iconography.


The first thing that we should record is that man has used finite matter to represent an infinite God, and concrete materials to represent spiritual reality. To create idols, images and icons, man has used sand, stone, clay, leaves, hides, wood, metal, chalk, glass and so on.


Since idols do not have inherent animation, man has to create or input animation to them. He may use an animate object, man or animal or bird, as his god (see visual 1). Or he may present them to the viewers/worshippers in such a way as to create the feeling that the god is animate (see visual 2). He may create stories using language portraying these objects as mobile and powerful. He would so create his art and indulge in it that all these would add up to a belief system based on the assumption that his god is mobile and powerful. He would also integrate these objects as participants in his own life's scheme of things. The created art would come to define the visible features of his god.


The material culture and the state of sophistication of man's technology would determine the level of sophistication of his gods, and in most cases would be a compromise between the traditional representation of his gods, the potential of his material culture and the level of sophistication of his technology. In other words, the level of sophistication of his technology alone is not enough - the way things had been done traditionally would give place to technology only in some limited manner, at least to begin with. In a way, it is totally a human effort, although cultures could see the whole thing as god-given.


Concretization of the power that man cannot see is a major focus in all religious iconography and belief systems. To make the invisible visible is the goal and to portray God in his own image. In a way, this feeling may seem to be a reverse of the counsel of God in Genesis 1:26,27, in which it is revealed that God created man in His own image. However, it is the reverse of God's counsel, only in a limited and erroneous way. For, man as an image of God was created by God, as subsequent scriptures clearly indicate, "with a blessed knowledge of the heavenly Father and possessed of a perfect righteousness and holiness…..God made an impression of His own essence upon the soul of man, making His intellect keen for the knowledge of Himself, and his will eager to perform only that which was good and righteous" (Kretzmann 1923).

Man, when made in the image of God, is a living temple of God. The living characteristics of mobility, sensitivity to context and the quality of change of heart and so on are not found in the idols. These characteristics of mobility, and so on, are assumed to be imparted by rituals. In this sense, although man making God in his own image is a reverse process of what God did, it is an erroneous, and an imperfect creation; the product does not, in any essential characteristic, match the target. It is just a shadow.

When God created man, the created object, Man, was full of life with body, soul and spirit. On the other hand, when man creates God as idols, the created objects have no life, no soul and no spirit. The body so crated is no body at all since the characteristics of life are conspicuous by their absence in created object. Man has to create conventions to impart life and power to such objects.


An idol may be in the full form of the object it represents, simply a part of it, or even in a deliberately mutilated form. It could also be a single body part that is selected for worship. These four varieties of representation (the full form of the object, a part of the object, a deliberately mutilated for or a focus on a single body part) are not necessarily found within a single idol worshipping culture.

Part representation and mutilated representation are features which are easily identified in the earliest stages of development of stone carvings in South India, where the rock-cut figures present only a segment/section of the body. A deliberate representation of mutilated bodies is seen in Islamic drawings where the holy imams are depicted as men without faces.


In early Egyptian iconography, one easily notices disconnected representation of a peculiar sort - parts of a body are presented as independent units; the head and legs may be shown from the sides, whereas the eye and the trunk may be shown from the front. In the iconography of the Hindus, the linga idol is partly an anthropomorphic representation of a body part, the phallus, representing Siva, one of the basic gods of Hinduism.

In some cultures, the progression from an organically partial representation to an organically whole representation of gods can be seen. In some other cultures, while some gods may be represented in some of their body parts, others are represented in their organically complete manifestations. Both these forms may be in use within the same culture, with one form assigned to one level of worship or social status and another form assigned to a different level of worship and/or social status. This is particularly seen in Hindu idolatry and in Hindu religious groups, which are based on a caste structure which assigns all Hindus to a particular social level, determined by their social statues at birth.


One can notice a progression in the representation of gods in the iconographies of cultures around the world. In the initial phase, the conception of gods by early men, such as that found among the Australian aborigines and American Indians, was not based on written or structurally organized oral texts. In such representations, implicit conventions played a crucial role. In some materially advanced societies, however, the art of iconography came to be codified, not only in the sense of rigid conventions established for representation, but also in that texts were written which were followed scrupulously by the idol makers. Informal conventions were also in use, but these were supplemented and strengthened by texts which prescribed the conventions of representation. Among Christians, Roman Catholic Church and The Eastern Orthodox Church issued policy statements as to how depictions of Christian personages should be made in icons and images.

The representation of objects, persons, and events in the Australian or American Indian iconography belongs to the first category in which the representations were governed by the informal or oral conventions manifest in the art work. On the other hand, the iconography of Hindus, for example, is governed not only by informal conventions which may be manifest in the idols and transmitted from generation to generation, but also be explicitly formulated principles and procedures in well-written and well-documented texts governing the representation of the gods.

In the former, in some sense, the expression of man's conception of God is rather simple; in the latter, religions much more complex and structured. There is more verbalization of justification of idol worship in the latter, while an explicitly formulated view is a mark of the latter. In fact, within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches there is whole theology justifying image and iconic worship, which is the outcome of progressive codification.


The frightening appearance of gods and goddesses in idols is a common sight in many culture because an idol is often seen as protection against the evil powers, leading to the representation of the deity in a virulent form. The gods and goddesses are assumed to have frightening powers which are often represented in their frightening appearance. In villages in India, in order to avoid the evil eyes, ugly and horrendous looking images are made and displayed.


On the other hand, the notion of the elegant body is a dominant feature in many idols, in idol worshipping cultures. When a god is represented as a beggar, the clothing he wears on the equipment, tool, or musical instrument he holds represents his beggar status, but his body is depicted elegantly proportioned. The idol of bhikshatanamurti (image of the mendicant/beggar god) in south Indian iconography (see visual 6 is a good illustration of this characteristic. The god represented by this idol assumes the role of a mendicant/beggar. However, his body and poise are exquisite, very much unlike an ordinary beggar.


Whether by convention or because of the codified texts, there are only a limited number of ways of representing objects in any culture. Total freedom is not given to the idol makers to represented objects and persons in any way they want to. Individuals in particular cultures come to expect representations in particular ways. There is also the question of sanctity attached to specific forms of expression. A limited number of ways of representation are treated as sanctified which may not given much room for an enterprising and imaginative artist. Since the conventions and/or the texts are held in greater esteem than the craftsman who makes the idol in idol worshipping societies, the craftsman is bound to follow the conventions with the texts. However, the verbal description of the gods both in convention and text can be so elaborate and intricate that not all characteristics described therein can be brought out in making the idols.

MATTER AS A LIMITING FORCE: Verbal Description vs Idol-Making

The portrayal of gods in inanimate matter means that only one or a few of the characteristics assumed to be owned by these gods can be described. Not all the characteristics given in verbal description and which form part of mental images could be portrayed in a single idol. The craftsman would have to make a long series of idols if he were to portray all the characteristics of his gods. This is not done because people would have difficulty in identifying and associating appropriate gods with the appropriate characteristics. The medium certainly comes to control the "all-powerful" gods!

There is always some difficulty in portraying what has been described in the verbal text for the following reasons: The medium with which iconography operates may not allow a complete transfer of the verbal description of the idol to the matter used for making the idols; the mediating craftsman is obligated to follow some convention which, in practice, may restrict his choice; the craftsman may choose to portray something which is not intended by the text and yet be seen as fitting in with the intent of the text.


The meaning of the idols, images/icons and other art work used for worship depends on several factors. The similarity/likeness between the art work and natural objects is one of the bases for the meaning - a body part, a human or an animal is represented and is understood as such. Secondly, there are conventional meanings attached to these objects which are represented. The objects represented may also function to trigger a series of information tied up with the rituals of worship, the powers of the idol, and so on. The conventional meaning, and the triggering function relating to worship, and powers of the idols are more important in idolatry than the likeness between the idols and the gods they represent. However, in most culture, there is a process of justification as to why a god is represented in the form of a particular natural object and/or poise and so on.


It must always be remembered that idols are not gods if there is no underlying belief about their godhood. The belief system underlying idolatry is much more serious and needs careful scrutiny and attention because idols are mediating objects of the underlying belief system. It is the belief system that determines what the beholder sees and how he behaves. The idols, in a way, reformulate their relations to the natural objects because of the underlying belief system. The moment the link between the idol and the belief system is broken, this reformulation ceases and the idols regain, in a predominant manner, the simple value of representing the natural objects. While they may retain a trace of the former relationship; the relationship is not followed up with the same intent as before.

Belief systems often determine the types and depiction of images and idols in ways unique to them. If a belief system depicts the gods as having little organic coherence, the craftsman making the idol may pay more attention to the parts of the gods than the whole. A different belief system may assume specific combinations of human and non-human features for the gods and this will be expressed in the idols and images.


It is important to note that individual cultures may consider representation in a particular form or medium as more sanctified than another. That is, the sanctity of the gods represented is preserved not only in the particular manifestation but also in a particular form.

Cultures which practice idolatry may give a greater importance to the idols than to representation of gods in other forms. It appears that there is indeed a gradation of sanctity attached to gods represented in various types of matter. In Hindu iconography, especially in south India, representation of gods in the form of idols takes precedence over the representation of gods in other forms such as pictures. These cultures may also show a gradation of sanctity in relation to the kinds of matter used to make the idols. In south Indian temples, the stone idols placed in the sanctum sanctorum of a temple are held to be more sacred than metal idols kept in the halls/rooms outside the sanctum sanctorum. This relative importance is shown by the frequency and kinds of worship they receive from priests and devotees.

Likewise there are also restrictions as to the objects and places in which images of gods could be carved without the images/carvings losing sanctity. The entire process is concerned more about retraining the sanctity of the idol than man's conduct and obedience to God. If the objects lose their sanctity, they are no more gods, according to these belief systems. Hence the vigil to guard the idols' sanctity, and to distinguish between those idols which have lost their sanctity and those which still retain it.

The need to maintain sanctity imposes restrictions on where idols can be and should be kept, and a series of rituals that ensures that the idols retain their sanctity.


A recognizable idol or image or any representation of gods may evoke highest devotion only when it is associated with a place or object specified as a place of worship within a particular culture. This does not mean that an idol found outside a designated place and context of worship loses its potential to evoke worship even when it is used for purposes other than worship. For example, when the image of dancing Siva, called Nataraja, an important deity within the Hindu pantheon, is attached to an article, say a thermos flask, as a brand name, the image is recognized as that of the dancing Siva, but it is not seen by most Hindus as an object of worship in that article. It is seen simply as a sign of identity, a registered trade mark. The gods who are worshipped in the form of idols thus run the risk of being cheapened in many ways - their names and representations are liable to be used in vain.

Because idols are the handiwork of men, when socioeconomic needs demand it, these idols may be moved from their domain of worship and used as brand names in business without much consternation. Thus the images of gods do not necessarily evoke reverence wherever they are found.


Another important feature is that the values of a culture will come to guide how the gods are depicted in idols/images/icons or pictures. This is seen in the kinds of poses the idols take or the kinds of physical manifestation they assume. For examples, the idols worshipped by Hindu Tamils in south India, whose priests use Sanskrit, the deceased language of worship, do not have moustaches; whereas the gods who are worshipped by so-called lower castes with or without a mediating priest, using only the vernacular, invariably have moustaches. Moustaches, at least until recently, were not part of the desirable values of so-called higher castes among the Tamils.


In many societies which practice idolatry, there is tendency to combine human and nonhumans in some of their idols and worship such idols/images/icons/pictures. The physical prowess that an animal has is assumed to be inherited by such gods along with the powers of the humans, rendering these gods as more powerful. Because these gods are related not only to humans but also to the natural world, they may occasionally assume the form of animals. In some cultures, such animal incarnations of the gods are institutionalized for worship.

While gods may assume the forms of animals and are worshipped in these forms as well, this is different from assuming animals to be gods and worshipping them. However, animals associated with gods may occupy a sacred place and deserve worship in certain pantheons such as the Hindu pantheon of gods, where there is a personification of animals. They retain their animal form and function, but assume god-like function and conduct as well.

In the Hindu pantheon, prominent gods and goddesses have their own means of transportation which may be animals or birds (see visual 6). By virtue of their association with the gods these creatures might come to be worshipped.


In several cultures, the images/icons/idols/pictures of the gods and others might also exhibit the internal organs of the body such as the heart and lungs. The worshippers assign, in their belief system, a separate meaning for such exposures. These penetration into the insides of the gods add mystery to the gods they worship. Mythological references to the state portrayed in the idol/image/picture offer several interpretations. The gods are to be assigned a mysterious role in a mysterious world not seen by the physical eye of the beholder; in a similar manner, the exposure to the insides of the gods is a revelation of the mystery to the worshipper. Compare the sacred heart displayed in the pictorial representation of Jesus Christ within the Roman Catholic Church.


In many cultures which practice idolatry, there are also geometric art works. Geometric art is found in the aboriginal as well as materially advanced societies. The belief systems underlying this geometric art often use it to relate the present to the ancestral past, and ascribe magical powers of protection to them. The geometric art work might be used as a ritual dedicated to a god/gods, or as a medium by which protection and other benefits are received from the gods, or it might be worshipped in its own right.


As we pointed out earlier, idols are simple objects in the sense that they are concrete manifestations of the idea/ideas behind them. While the ideas themselves may be complex, resulting in curious combinations of imaginary things, the idol concretizes the idea behind it. In aboriginal societies, the pictures and idols often focus on or portray characteristics that are more easily related to natural phenomena or objects. This is done because technology, compared to that of materially advanced societies, was not well developed. Another reason is that in such societies, there might not have been much effort to refine the characteristics they visualize their gods to possess. In societies which have elaborate idol worship, there is always an attempt to choose between the various attributes their gods are supposed to possess for making idols.


There are at least three levels in which we may place the significance of idols. Idols might have a resemblance to the natural objects which might be partial/incomplete or complete. When gods are represented as humans, or some other form of natural object, there are many similarities between them and the objects they represent. However, natural objects might be modified. For example, an idol may have more than two hands, or even more than one face that distinguishes it. Or there may be a distinctive mark from ordinary human beings. All such variations will depend on the underlying concepts as to who and what is a god. Secondly, idols both as objects of worship and art will have developed a series of conventions about them. Although these conventions generally flow from the underlying notion of the gods they represent, the material handling of the processes of idol-making may also add its own conventions or presentation. There may be designs attached to the idols, which may instigate, consolidate, and represent these conventions. The craftsmen who make these idols may add their own to these representations. In course of time, such changes introduced by the sculptors may come to be seen as essential characteristics of the gods themselves. In other words, the characteristics of the idols and those of the gods represented by the idols are open-ended. The sculptor's imagination adds to the qualities and physical features of these gods. Scholars have attested such characteristics in the iconography of several cultures. The sculptor may created a new mythological interpretation in this way.


Fertility (procreation) is a theme that has been found recurring in idol-worship in many cultures. Procreation may be represented in the form of a couple - a male god and a goddess in several postures, not necessarily in sexual acts. Procreation may also be represented through an idol representing only a woman. It may also be sown by an anthropomorphic representation of the male or female genitals or the genitals of both the male and female in some fashion. There may be some assumptions regarding their relationship in the conceptual level of the idolaters as to the relationship between the objects/gods portrayed. For example, the male god and goddess in spousal relationship sit or stand close to one another in south Indian idolatry. The other gods and goddesses who are in spousal relationship and who attend on the chief god and goddess of worship also sit or stand in the same manner. On the other hand, those gods and goddesses not in spousal relationship are kept apart from one another. In some traditional African iconography, the female and male gods in spousal relationship indicative of procreation have their hands chained together. In some other cultures, the function of procreation may be made more explicit and direct by exhibiting prominently the genitals.


More often than not, the gods represented in idols are ranked in terms of a power hierarchy. Their placement within a place of worship, and the quantum, kinds and frequency of worship they receive would indicate the ranking these gods hold in the pantheon. A very important notion related to this hierarchy is the tutelary power of certain gods within a certain village, town or territory.

A village may have several gods, but one among them will be considered the tutelary head of all the gods of the village. Or an individual/family may worship several gods but one among these several will be considered having a sway over the lives of the family. In the case of the tutelary god of a village, the worshipper of the other gods must necessarily pay obedience in some manner to the tutelary head god. Failing to do this, it is often believed, will endanger whatever good the worship of the other idols has achieved.


In south India, there are two types of temples, the elitist and the folk temples. In the former, gods are worshipped through an intermediary priest reciting verses in the classical language Sanskrit. In the latter, there may or may not be an intermediary priest, and the people may worship the gods on their own through nonverbal behavioral postures. Where there is an intermediary priest, he may use only the verses in the vernacular to perform worship rituals.

The chief elitist god is generally assumed to be tutelary head of the local gods within the elitist pantheon. However there may be different gods performing tutelary function for different castes, and families of the same village. And yet, one among them known to be more powerful in causing mischief is always to be propitiated or pampered through worship rituals to avoid his/her wealth.

There is always a distinction maintained between folk and elitist attitudes and concepts as regards worship in many religions including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.


In addition to concretizing the concept of godhead, the idols localize the gods in several ways, of which the notion of tutelary head is one. Note that the idols of a god are not all conceived to be equal in strength and power. The idol of a god in a particular place and temple and in a particular posture may be perceived to be more powerful in granting the wishes of a devotee than the idols of the same god in some other places and temples. This is yet another way of localizing the gods.

An idol may be seen as having greater power to grant wishes-when worshipped in a particular place at a particular time. This is yet another way of localizing gods.


Idols/icons/images/pictures have the function of linking the present with the past in several cultures. Making and worshipping an idol in the similitude of a person who is deceased is one means of energizing the dead to work for the benefit of the worshipper. In witchcraft and similar activities, images come to represent a living individual and any damage done to a limb of the idol is considered to be an injury done to the corresponding limb of the living person. In essence, the idols are a means not only to worship the gods but also the others or other objects who are elevated or who could be elevated to the status of gods, both beneficiary and evil, and who could be manipulated to the advantage of the worshipper. In these sense, the idols are value free and are seen to be operative in the superhuman realm.

Tattooing the gods' images on the human body links the human directly with this god, and as he is the bearer of his god, he assumes that he is protected by this god.


Idol making and iconographic art works are not restricted to objects of worship only. These come to represent the entire inner life of a society in aboriginal societies. That is, in some societies knowledge and conception of the cosmos is not all that is portrayed; social themes, and other myths are also portrayed. For example, in native American iconography, supreme beings, tricksters and cultural heroes, imaginary and unusual mythical beings, the sun, the moon and the stars, thunder, lightning and rain are all portrayed. In Hindu religion, each one of these elements is assumed to be a god and these gods may be represented in the form of idols. In addition, in most cultures which practice idolatry real life animals and humans are also portrayed. Iconography here becomes a tool to represent the entire spectrum of the imaginary as well as the actual world of the society.

On the other hand, in several other societies, iconography may be related mostly to the religious/worship function and thus may revolve mostly around making idols objects of worship. In south India, once again, iconography is closely related to temple architecture and worship of gods, humans and animals. Representation of the existing myths and not creating new myths is the general focus. However in societies such as those of the native Americans and Australian tribes, iconography appears to be have been used to create new myths as well. In these societies, iconography, in the absence of a distinct writing system, performed the function of a writing system.


We have earlier referred to the composite beings portrayed as gods in idols - idols which have partly human form and partly animal form or the form of some imaginary being, resulting in a combination of the human and the nonhuman. In South American pre-hispanic iconography of the tribes, one notices also infantilism and dwarfism. The iconography of the pre-hispanic South American natives is full of composite creatures. Use of certain religious symbols marked the divinity of these composite creatures. Note that in almost all religious iconography some manifest religious symbol or iconographic technique is used to mark divinity. These may either be concepts of supernatural phenomena or gods to be worshipped.


Perhaps we can characterize the gods in idol forms into

  1. Gods/suprahumans in human form indicating that they are gods and not humans.
  2. Gods in human form who again may be distinguished from humans in several ways - have more than the normal human body parts, having a perfect human body, or having just a mental conception of these idols of gods in a spatio-temporally defined context such as a temple of the occasion of worship.
  3. Gods in the form of nonhuman beings, either in their natural shape or in exaggerated versions.
  4. Gods in the combined form of the human and the nonhuman.
  5. the gods of the elements and other phenomena and gods representing inanimate matter, personified as humans, or nonhuman animate or a combination of these two.


We may also distinguish between idols which are worshipped and ritual scenes which are also worshipped. Just as a single idol or a group of idols in various combinations of gods may be worshipped, the ritual scenes portrayed also may come to be worshipped. The portrayal of an act assumed to be sacred thus comes to be worshipped. An elastic situation of worship is thus created. Not only the gods but also the occasions in which the gods were worshipped, when represented in iconography, come to elicit worship. This is found in many homes of the Hindus. A series of portraits may be hanging on the wall, portraits of the idols and the gods represented by these idols of they may be the temples of gods, or they may be the portrayal of specially conducted worship - all treated as objects of veneration. Even the iconoclastic Muslims may keep in their homes pictures of their sacred places of pilgrimage, Mecca and Medina and, show these an extraordinary degree of veneration.


What do we mean by worship? Does it or does it not include veneration? According to the Oxford Dictionary, worship means

  1. the condition in a person deserving of or being held in esteem or repute; honor renown; good name, credit.
  2. respect or honor shown to a person or thing; reverence or veneration paid to a being or power regarded as supernatural or divine; the action or practice of displaying this by appropriate acts, rites or ceremonies.
  3. to honor to revere as a supernatural being or power as a holy thing with appropriate acts, rites or ceremonies.

These are five different words used in the New Testament as verbs to refer to worship (proskuneo, sebmai sebazomai, latreuo, and eusebeo). The word proskuneo refers to the following meanings: to make obeisance, do reverence to. The word sebomai means: to revere, stressing the feeling of awe or destruction; it is used of worship to God, and a goddess (Acts 19:27). The word latreuo means: to serve, to render religious service or homage. The word eusebeo means: act piously towards. Vine's Expository Dictionary says that

the worship of God is nowhere define in scripture. A consideration of the above verbs shows that it is not confined to praise; broadly it may be regarded as direct acknowledgement to God, of His nature, attributes, ways and claims, whether by outgoing of the heart in praise and thanksgiving or by deed done in such acknowledgement.

In the Old Testament, the word shaha which is generally used to refer to worship includes the meanings of bowing down, to be brought low in the sense of being humble and to have one's arrogance removed from oneself. It also includes the sense of descending. In other words, worship is humbling oneself before God, paying obeisance to him and to exalt him before one's own self. The various mechanics of worship are to be inferred from specific instances only. For example, bowing down in worship is to be made exclusively to God and not even to angels.

Worship in cultures and religions which practice idolatry is generally governed by various rules regarding the ways idols are to be treated, and the conduct of the devotees towards the idols and the occasions when worship is given. The worship may be demonstrated by animal sacrifice, offering of various items of food and drink, recitation of verses in praise of the idols, and various activities performed on the person of the idol god.


It is interesting to note that even as several cultures treated/treat idols as sacred representations of their gods or as gods, they also know that these idols could be mutilated and/or melted down and transformed into forms of some other objects. Temples in many cultures melt down their excess idols or bury them in the ground in order to make way for new idols.

The procedures for consecrating new idols are well established in such cultures. For example, in south Indian temples, the new idols are consecrated by following certain procedures/rituals laid down for the purpose. There are also rituals performed periodically to purify old idols from pollution as perceived and dictated by their sacred texts. Because the godhood is attached to material objects which are subject to wear and tear, and which can become unclean, physically as well as conceptually, gods are required to be renewed periodically.


Idols are clothed with attire similar to that worn in particular societies. However, the fashion of this attire may not change as frequently as fashion of the society changes. However, it appears that as cultures begin to change their attire the attire of the idols also changes.

The attired of idols may come to be fixed even though the culture has radically changed its position regarding attire. For example, in south Indian iconography it is customary for the upper half of the body of an idol not to be clothed, even though the worshippers regularly cover their body with clothes. Invariably the lower part of the idol's limbs is represented as fully clothed, while the upper half is always left uncovered (visual).

To correct the difference between the attire of the idols and that of the humans who worship them, the idols are covered with suitable pieces of cloth both in their lower and upper limbs to match the practice of the humans who worship these idols. Thus, in so many different ways, the godhood represented by the idols is rather conditioned and shaped by the humans who make and worship them. Gods then become a real creation of the humans; however, once these are created and consecrated, the humans who worship them come under their control.


Of all the body parts, the representation of the eyes is given greater attention in most cultures. It is through the eyes that the humans normally establish contact with other organisms and fellow human beings. Native American and Mesopotamian iconography focus on the eyes. Also, in the monumental three dimension, well developed figures of south Indian iconography, special attention is given to the eyes. It is through eye contact that a devotee of an idol gets in touch with the idol and the god it represents.

In idolatry, worship means worship of the idol, and this worship is carried on by seeing, among other things, the idol worshipped. While certain rituals may prescribe that at certain times a devotee is not supposed to see the idol, in most cases the very act of seeing the idol itself may amount to worship. Seeing the idol is as important as the other forms of worship.


The vicissitudes of the stages of civilization that a society of idolaters goes through leaves their imprint on their notion and representation of their gods as idols. For example, the theme of animal combat was popular with the Mesopotamian iconography - the heroes who protected the sheep, goats and cattle from the wild animals were represented frequently. Women who committed self-immolation in the funeral pyre of their dead husbands were represented in idols and worshipped in south India. The heroes of mythical events were worshipped in the posture portrayed by the writings about these mythical events.


Note the following: idols could be representations of a single god, or a combination of gods without any backdrop portrayal of their context. The gods could also be represented in selected contexts in which they were perceived to have done something notable. This notable context may be generalized as relevant even today.

What is most important is to note that an orderly world is generally sought to be created for the gods. A hierarchy may be introduced, areas of operations identified and certain social guidelines for interrelationships between the gods ascribed in these societies may be imposed.

A classification of Native American ethnography suggests the categories of the cosmos, supreme beings, tricksters/culture heroes, guardian beings, mythical beings (monsters, etc.), astronomical beings (the sun, the moon and the stars), meteorological beings (thunder, wind, rain, lightning), animal beings, vegetation beings, human beings, and geological abstract symbols (Geertz:17). Note that the gods are thus identified by every element/phenomenon known to the social group.


The blending of human and animal forms is not at all unusual in iconographies all over the world. Hindu idolatry has several gods represented by this blend - such as the lion-faced god narasimha and the elephant-faced god ganesha. Native south American iconographies abound in fusion of human and animal forms, and may also exhibit infantilism and dwarfism. Thus, idolaters do not stop with portraying God in the form of humans, animals, birds and natural elements, they go to the extent of worshipping everything which looks different from them. They empower all the objects and living beings around them with godhood.


Iconography has also the function of narrating a story or stories as part of worship and/or of the communication of religious truths. Selected scenes from stories in which the gods perform certain significant acts always form part of this narration and are portrayed in stone, mortar or some other material. The outer walls or inner walls of a place of worship, or any space convenient for viewing is used for this purpose. In Hindu practices in south Indian temples, wall panels of this type are quite common, similar to what we find in the older churches in Europe.

Sometimes, such portrayals become objects of worship. Scenes of war, ritual banquets, dairy scenes, work-a-day scenes, art performances, the royal court, or sacrifices are some of the other themes often portrayed in panels in many idol worshipping cultures of the world. Several of the figures and scenes in such portrayals are often not easily understood, but, for the contemporary generation of viewers and worshippers, this obscurity is part of the mystic value the panels are supposed to possess.


One of the idol worshipping cultures that has a direct relevance to references against idolatry in the Bible is that of ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian idolatry was elaborate and dependent on Egyptian mythology. Idols were made to portray the gods and the events connected with them in their mythology. Events were chosen for the representations of the gods. Because the gods took different forms in different episodes and on different occasions, the same god could be represented by idols looking quite different from one another. In ancient Egypt, gods were represented both as human beings and as animals. There was an idol which represented a god in a blend of a man's body with a bird's head (visual).

As Karol Mysliwiec, an authority on Egyptian iconography, points out, one Egyptian god may be represented by several objects or animals. Hathor, a goddess, manifests herself as a cow, lioness, snake and musical instrument. On the other hand, one and the same animal could represent several gods. The cobra displayed on the foreheads of pharaohs may signify one goddess in one of the idols and another goddess in another representation.

In addition, the divine identity of an animal different in various local pantheons. Particularly numerous were iconographic variations of the sun god, which illustrate various phases of the sun's perpetuum mobile. Some male gods associated with generative powers (Min, Amun-Re, Kamutef) are depicted ithyphallically. A particular shape, that of a mummified human body, was attributed to Osiris, the god of the dead. This form also occurs in some representations of other gods, especially when they appear in the realm of the dead. Diad and triads of gods, frequent in Egyptian statuary, as well as larger groups of divine beings represented in reliefs and paintings, are visual expressions of various tendencies in Egyptian religion, popular after the Amarna period, take concrete form in the composite features of different gods" (Mysliwiec:31-32).

Ancient Egyptian iconography was elaborate in many aspects. Egyptian statues were made using all kinds of materials - word, gold and silver, and others with bronze and faience. They generally represented a king, one to three gods. While most of the features portrayed in the idols were shared both by the king and gods, they were distinguished by certain other specific features. Size of the statues also contributed to the relative importance/power of the figures portrayed. Small statues generally represented the animals sacred to the Egyptian gods. Large stone statues were objects of worship in Egyptian temples.

The religious books of ancient Egyptians are full of information about the nether world as conceived by the Egyptians. These books contain pictures of the gods of various sorts. The books are those carved Pyramid texts on the walls of the rooms inside the pyramids.

Funerary art is an important section of Egyptian religion. The Egyptian tombs and coffins are full of visuals portraying kings' death.

Egyptian temples had large images. The sanctuary of a temple would have the sacred image of the god to whom the temple was dedicated. The very same image could be transported for ceremonial purposes. In many cultures the images would be carried in procession outside the sanctuary every day or on certain specified auspicious days. This moving of the idols was one way of making the idols come alive in the minds of their worshippers.

The temple art in Egypt was also elaborate. The temples were full of visual representations of mythical stories-ritual scenes, the miraculous births of kings, and various scenes from the lives of kings who, in the ancient belief system, were seen as mediators between the gods and the people. A part of the temple, usually the central part which had many pillars, presented an elaborate collection in visual representation all that was portrayed through out the temple.

Elaboration of the myth and the representation of the myth in visual form, representation of the divine world, symbolic motifs which would cover not only the religious belief systems but also the political and geographical ideas of Egypt as a nation, the cult of the dead, the details of the nether world are the other major aspects of Egyptian visual representation of gods.

Note that the Biblical sanctions against idolatry arose, among other things, the immediate context of ancient Egyptian idolatrous belief systems and practices. The ancient Egyptian religious clearly reveled the tendency to represent the gods in relation to social practices, political beliefs and changes in dynasties. Egyptian art also reveals how man related himself to the imaginary god he had set up for himself. Human foibles became part of the behavior of the gods. Man looked into the living and the dead, more so into the dead, and wove a religion for himself in which he was tossed around by the fear of gods. Royalty was elevated and seen to be closer to gods while commoners did not have such direct access to these gods. The ritualism of the Egyptian religion lent itself to an easy portrayal in the visual medium; and the portrayal of ritual practices soon came to be a necessary adjunct of the abodes of gods - the temples, themselves acquiring sanctity. Life after death became the focus of these carvings.


Another culture that had a direct bearing on positions against idolatry as stated in the New Testament was the Greco-Roman culture. The Greco-Roman civilization, among other things, is well known also for its excellent religious art. The belief systems of the Greco-Roman civilization had an enormous number of gods and goddesses. Gods were created in the imagination of the poets and were given their forms and functions in a deliberate manner in consonance with the needs of the society. Because there were so many gods and goddesses within a pantheon, it is little wonder that the religious art of the culture aimed at distinguishing between them in some systematic manner. In the process, the practices of the religious art, rather the necessities of iconography also came to define what a god was, and how he/she looked liked.

Both anthropomorphic (human form) and theriomorphic (animal form) representations of gods were common in pre-Grecian iconography. The ancient Grecian and Roman iconography, in general, showed the influence of the cultures they came across. While Greco-Roman iconography and architecture heavily influenced all the contemporaneous known world, they were in turn influenced by diverse cultures. For example, the bull headed male of the Egyptian background is found connected to the Greek myth Minotaur. The representations of demon-like creatures in Greco-Roman iconography was due to the influence of Mesopotamia (Green:36).

Minoan-Mycenean iconography is dated between 2000 and 1200 B.C. This is considered to be the important Cretan phase of the Greco-Roman iconography. The Minoan-Mycean culture had used the representation of double axes and the horns as tools of worship. Their representation of the gods was both anthropomorphic and theriomorphic.

Human (female) deities were depicted as encoiled by snakes with birds perched on their heads. These were related in some manner to later developments in Greek religion in which specific deities were associated with specific birds. Was it a move to give these gods a vehicle to move about, to give the immobile gods an appearance of mobility?

Egyptian iconographic traditions also influenced the early Greek religion and iconography. Animal headed figures and demon-like creatures were found in this phase of the Greek iconography and idolatry. The figures were not totally but recognizably human.

Homer and Hesiod were credited with describing the gods, and their descriptions directly influenced the depiction of gods as idols in archaic and classical iconography. Note that religions like those of the ancient Greeks and the Hindus have a long tradition of both oral and written transmission of religious and secular knowledge, and, from this, most of their idolatrous practices evolved over the time. Their gods were identified and described in the verbal language in this transmission of religious and secular knowledge and from these descriptions, which might have been based on already existing practices and belief systems, the idol-making conventions evolved.

In the ancient Greek world, Hesiod wrote a treatise called Theogony which presented descriptions of gods with Zeus as the ruler of the pantheon of the gods. At this phase, the gods were depicted in totally human form - they were given human form and were ascribed human behavior. There was, however, criticism of this tradition as well in the writings of some like Xenophanes and Plato. For example, Plato would rather not have poets in his ideal state since the poets were all lying about the gods.

Although the Greek myth and religion emphasized the human form of the gods, there was always the change of forms indulged in by the Greek gods - Zeus, the chief of all the gods, could take the form of animals and birds to perform so many things. There were other gods who also took animal and/or bird forms to perform several functions. Perhaps we should say that this is a feature found in most of the idolatrous conceptions of God.

In ancient Greek idolatry, the human forms of gods at the myth level were full participants in the human society as well as the animal kingdom. The Greek gods often were described as having animal like features -- Poseidon was horse-like, Athena was owl-eyed, and Hera was cow-eyed. In Hinduism, animals are personified. They may be given some human physical features, but are treated as animal gods. For example, cow is a sacred animal and is worshipped. Kamadhenu is a winged-horse, whose worship gives the devotees what their heart desires. In this way, man began to portray God not only in his own image but also in the image of non-human creatures around him.

The gods of nature took on different functions; some of them became protectors and benefactors of the city and some others acquired other functions, all reflecting the societal and individual values and fashions of the day in the Greco-Roman civilization.

As Green points out (Green:39):

In a world where kings were hailed as living gods and apotheosis was a constant possibility and where gods suffered and died, the division between sacred and profane iconography became even less distinct....
.....Over three millennia, the iconography of Greek and Roman religion became increasingly concrete, locating the divine first in nature, then in objects, and finally within the human realm".

Note how cultures were groping in darkness and how they were trying to see the Truth, and how human folly always led them astray from God.


Early Christians strictly followed the command in the Old Testament that God should not be portrayed in any form or shape or medium and that no object be worshipped as a representation of God. Hence there was only symbolic art portraying the dove, the fish, the ship, the anchor, the lyre, the fisherman, and the shepherd. The catacombs had decorations with the figures of flowers, fruit, animals, and birds. They also depicted the Old Testament characters and objects such as Noah's ark, Moses, Jonah and others. these were mostly paintings or drawings and there were practically no statues before the fourth century (Martin 1930:19). there were very few and rare depictions of New Testament characters. We shall see in subsequent chapters how the trend of depicting in pictures was slowly developed into statuary and worship of images and how such representations were viewed by the theologians and people of the day.

Following the Greco-Roman traditions of iconography, early depictions of Jesus Christ in monumental sculpture showed him similar to a Roman philosopher-teacher. He was not shown to be a Jewish person. In the fourth century, Jesus was represented as Philosopher-Emperor. Moreover, these were only symbolic representations with no eye either for divine features or for historical accuracy (Cook:57-58).

The function of Christian art had always remained allusive, `for it suggests something beyond the visible object'(Schiller 1971:1). Not all the Christian themes in the Old and New Testaments found their way into the works of early Christians. For example, as Schiller (1972:3) points out, `the theme of the Passion was obviously unknown to the earliest Christian artists. It did not enter their pictorial programs until the fourth century, but it expression was at first restricted to the sphere of symbolic allusion and corresponded to the various interpretations of the Passion.' Schiller also says that the early Christian pictorial formula might have been derived from the prototypes in Jewish art. Perhaps this explained the continuous interspersing of Old Testament motifs in the New Testament scenes by the early Christian artists. It is well known that the injunctions against visual representation of the Deity did not deter the Jewish artists from drawing pictures of various sorts to depict the Old Testament themes.

The early Christian visual representations of themes from the Old and New Testaments were not objects of worship. At best they were intended to be part of the solemn atmosphere. The visual representations included various miracles narrated in the gospels, such as the healing of the paralytic man, the raising of Lazarus, and the healing of the woman with an issue of blood. There is also a picture of the baptism of Jesus Christ. Note, however, that these were human figures drawn symbolically. they were not intended to portray truly what Jesus looked like. Any one who reads the history of Christian art will be struck by the fact that the faces and figures of Jesus Christ as shown in pictures and images of today are the results of an evolution from one stage of art into another, from one period of history into another, aided in part by the theological positions of the Church and in part by the evolving constraints of art.

Early Christian archaeological evidences do not subvert the Biblical dictum against making idols of the Deity. In other words there is no conflict between the art of the early Christian and his firm belief in the Word. For one thing, there is no evidence to show that the figures of Jesus Christ depicted in these drawings were claimed to be the face and body of Jesus Christ. The fact that the drawings did not have any uniformity in their representations of Jesus Christ and the fact that these depictions were subjected to changes during various periods in the hands of artists and in different regions clearly show that no claim to representing what Jesus actually looked like was made. Secondly, there is no evidence to show that these were venerated. Thus, Bevan (1940:103-104), who writes with a very critical view against what has been commanded in the Bible, concludes:

Looking then at the archaeological remains of primitive Christianity we should say that, while there is a total absence of paintings or images as things to which any form of homage is directed, and while there seems to be a feeling of shyness in representing the holiest elements in the Christian story, while also the Person of the Lord is not shown for at least two centuries except by figures understood as symbolical, there is an apparent freedom, from the second century onwards, in regard to pictures or sculptures representing human beings.

We have already pointed out that this was the 'freedom' of the artist to portray his conception of Biblical themes. We have also pointed out that several themes, notably the Passion of the Lord, did not find any place in these art works. As we shall see in a subsequent chapter, the theologians of the day were against any visual representation of Jesus Christ and worship of such representations.


It sounds contradictory to speak of idolatry in Islam, a religion which has stoutly disclaimed any idolatrous practice. However, as Islam spread throughout the Middle East and countries far beyond, it acquired practices which certainly fall within the scope of idolatry.

Muhammad had attacked the idolatry prevalent in Mecca in his day and by this infuriated the ruling powers in Mecca. He said that he would never worship things that these Meccans worshipped. He declared that the God he worshipped and what the Meccans worshipped could not be the same. The people of Mecca believed that the intercession of idols was to be sought after for their own benefit. Muhammad did not consider these male and female gods worthy of preservation. They were simply objects whose names were given by men, and did not exist on their own. Men had been beguiled by them and turned away from what God revealed to them. Muhammad declared that there is no god but Allah, and none of these gods had created anything. Nor were they of help in times of need. Men may call on them, but they would not answer them. They were only fit to be used for the fire prepared for the infidels. Idolaters are like spiders who build elaborate and intricate houses which are the frailest houses of all. One should not pray to idol gods who are fit to be put into the fire. One is forbidden to marry an idolatress and idolatry is an unforgivable sin.

These declarations or revelations were an integral part of the teaching of Muhammad, and the early converts to his teaching took oaths giving up idolatry. It was unpardonable to mix the idol gods with the worship of Allah, who forbids the union of other gods with him. God forgives all whom he is pleased to forgive, but he does not forgive an idolater.

The concept of pilgrimage to Mecca, a tradition followed by pre-Islamic Arabs when they worshipped the idols in Kaa`ba, was retained by Muhammad when he marched to Mecca from Medina. In addition, he retained the reverence shown to the Black Stone, but ordered all idols to be destroyed. The Black Stone, with no figure carved on it, continues to be revered by the Muslim pilgrims from all over the world. While intercession of any sort was not acceptable to the text-based Islam, pilgrimage to the tombs and shrines of saints has become the most dominant form of religious behavior among Muslims all over the world.

The mosque is the religious center of Muslim life. It has a marked geometric character, but has no idols or images or any visual representation of creatures in it. The decorative motifs, including vegetal ones, are distinctively decorative in their function. The calligraphically drawn words from the Qur'an add to the solemnity. In view of the prohibition against visual representation of humans or animals, statuary is practically absent. Abstract ornamental sculpture was resorted to for decoration. However, in due course historical events began to be portrayed by the Mongols and the Persians in due course. In addition to ornate ceramics, and ornate art works of different objects, Islamic art began to portray kings, queens and nobles. Note, however, that none of these portraits were to be treated as objects for reverence. Angelic and spiritual powers were not portrayed, generally speaking. Schimmel points out that even as there was a progression towards strict adherence to the principle of not portraying human figures connected with Islamic religion such as Prophet Muhammad, there was a slow but steady tendency to portray kings and other historical events. Even the face of the prophet Muhammad, in some paintings portraying the prophet's night journey through the heavens, was depicted. However, such paintings came to cover the face later on (Schimmel:65). A white rose or a cloud soon came to signify his presence in these paintings.

In order to overcome the restrictions against portraying living creatures, Islamic art developed some conventions which, while adhering to the restrictions imposed, still enabled visual representation of creatures including men. Thus, in some parts of the Islamic world where pictures were made, artists 'sought a way of reconciling their practice with the prescriptions of the religion. The religion forbade making the picture of any living thing, and the theologians decided that if, in the picture of a man or a horse, there was a line drawn across the neck (as there would naturally be in most pictures across the top edge of the clothes or the horse's harness), such a line might be considered to decapitate the man or the animal, and so cause them to be counted as dead, although the picture might represent a scene in which men and horses were engaged in the most violent activities of life' (Bevan 1940:82).

Modern day folk paintings used as charms carry human faces. Places of pilgrimage including mosques and shrines are drawn and displayed with great honor. The calligraphic word may take the subtle form of a bird or some other creature. In general, while visual representation of Muhammad, his relatives or other saintly personages is still taboo, there are other ways of symbolically referring to them in visual arts. Such visual representations are shown some reverence.

Historians suggest that the iconoclastic stance of Islam might have encouraged the iconoclastic fervor among Christians in the eighth century A.D. (Martin 1930:23-24). On the other hand, the origin of opposition to idolatry in Islam could also be linked to the anti-idolatry position of the Jews and early Christians. The fact that caliph Iezid II (720-724) ordered the destruction of all pictures in the Christian churches within his dominions goes to prove the insistence of the Muslim rulers not to allow visual representations of God or gods.


Buddhism presents for us, how, in what stages, and in what forms the founder of that religion came to be represented for idol worship. In the beginning, only Buddha's princely turban, his foot prints, his throne, the begging bowl or the bodhi tree under which he was believed to have attained eternal peace or bliss were depicted and worshipped. In other words, the objects with which Buddha was associated were made symbols of Buddha himself and were worshipped. All were relics of Buddha. However, in due course, the representation of Buddha in idol form came to be well established. Legends of Buddha's birth and other stories of his life and work as a Great Soul and great mendicant were depicted in bas-relief. At this stage divine qualities were added the representations of Buddha in the bas-reliefs. When the idol of buddha was formed and began to be worshiped, it became fixed in the form of 32 attributes of Buddha. Buddhism changed in several ways during this period, and smaller deities were added and a pantheon or pantheons was established. Ultimately, doctrinal developments resulted in the addition of many mythological stories and belief systems to Buddhism. Buddhists also received and adopted several precepts from Hindus and incorporated them into their own system of thought. The Buddha idols finally came to have five transcendent images.


The concept of a pantheon of gods is more notably found in Greco-Roman and Hindu practices of idolatry. While the practices of idolatry in Hinduism may have had no direct bearing on the information in the New Testament, the Hindu practices of idolatry resemble in several ways the Greco-Roman idolatry. Pantheons in these two systems are very well organized and similar hierarchies are maintained.

The gods in the pantheon are related to one another by marriage and/or by other practices and ranks. A master-servant relationship in a trade, between the god and the professional, may be maintained. Certain professions may be assigned to a god and he or she will come to be worshipped as the custodian and dispenser of knowledge in that particular field and he/she will come to decide the destinies of the persons who wish to acquire and practice that particular profession.

For instance, among the Hindu gods education of all sorts is the domain of the goddess Saraswati, and prosperity and wealth are the domains of another goddess Lakshmi. Indra is the god of rain and Agni is the god of fire. The domain of industry of which blacksmithy forms a major part, and engineering devices, is the domain of a god called Visvakarma. The birth of all beings is controlled and regulated by the god Brahma, and Yama is the god of death. So, there is a total control of the human lives exercised by these gods and goddesses.

The gods are more powerful, but have the same shortcomings of the humans in the emotional side of their life. There is competition among them; they can berate one another, try to stop one another from performing their duties, and engage themselves in plotting against one another. In short, not only the trades of the humans but also the ways of life of the humans may be assigned to them in the mythology, and all these may be visually represented in the idolatry. Because the mythology governs to some extent the visual representation of the gods, we see them performing their functions in the visual representations in several ways.

Some of the gods and goddesses may be worshipped as individual entities in postures not connected with their functions in the belief systems. Some of them may be worshipped only in the postures which connect them to their duties assigned in the mythical/religious system. In both the cases, however, certain identity tokens will be assigned to the person of the gods for easy identification. For example, the goddess of knowledge in the Hindu pantheon, Saraswati, is always portrayed as a person with the musical instrument veena, whereas the Siva is portrayed as having a crescent on his hairdo along with several tokens which distinguish him from other heads.(visuals)

The vehicle of the gods is also distinct. Whereas Siva's, the god of death, rides on a dark skinned buffalo. The complexion of the skin is another feature that may distinguish one god from another. Vishnu is portrayed as having a bluish complexion in literary/religious texts and so portrayed in the paintings, and Siva is believed to have a golden complexion. The evil ones and the gods of the so-called lower castes are generally portrayed as having dark skins. Note that such tokens used for identity are based upon the social value system adopted within the religious group.

Ancient Greek mythology and religion have their counterparts in many similar ways in the Hindu pantheon of gods -- "an organized pantheon of deities related by birth or marriage and presided over by a god of the sky who is both ruler and father" is the Greek pattern of myth and religion. In Hinduism also, a pantheon with some differences from that found in ancient Greek religion is believed to be in existence. While ancient Greek religion and myth is no longer a thriving religion, their idols eliciting practically no worship and being treated only as objects of art, the Hindu idols are still treated as deities and worshipped. Thus a clear understanding of this system would give us a description of idolatry as practiced today in one of the materially advanced cultures of the world.

Hindu iconography and Hindu religion are closely linked. Indeed, we may say that Hindu iconography and idol worship stand for most of what Hinduism is. The images of the Hindu gods and goddesses represent the conceptions of divine attributes in Hinduism.

The Hindu gods and goddesses are presented more often with more than two arms. One of the gods -- lion-headed -- has sixteen hands (see the visual). Some gods and goddesses may have more than one face -- one such god has six faces and is called a god of six faces (see the visual). Some gods may have a human trunk but an animal head and face (see the visual). There are animal gods, bird gods, snake gods, and so on (see the visuals).

Hindus may worship idols, and actual living and non-living objects as gods. For example, a true and living human being or animal, in addition to its representation in the form of idols and pictures, may be worshipped by the Hindus.

Hindu temples abound in idols of various gods and goddesses in animal, human and botanic forms. The pantheon of Hindu gods has a hierarchy of its own, and reflects in several ways the Hindu social hierarchy and social values.

The idols and the gods represented by them may be divided into two broad categories - those that are worshipped mostly by the people of so-called higher classes or castes and those that are worshipped by the so-called lower classes or castes. The Brahmins, who are acknowledged by the formal Hindu religion as occupying the highest rank within the Hindu society, do not worship the gods and idols of the second category who are called village-gods/smaller deities. These village gods are installed in places outside the village in small structures, which may not be temples -- as their places are generally considered to be the haunts of malendent demons and evil spirits. Further these deities are propitiated with flesh, blood, wine and with other forms of vulgar rituals. Usually they are installed not as images but as some symbol, like a trident, or a small piece of stone fixed to the ground. Most of them are female deities and bear peculiar names -- in all these places, animal sacrifices are done, especially during the festival days and also some peculiar ceremonies like fire-walking, hook swinging; lashing oneself with leather whips, piercing metallic small tridents in the mouth and slashing at the breast and forehead till blood sprouts out and carrying on head what is called karagam -- a florally decorated earthen pot. In places where images are installed for these village deities, only a part of the body -- more particularly a huge head of the goddess is installed... Among the male village gods, the most important is Aiyanar -- Sasta or Hariputra, who is said to be son of Siva (a male) and Vishnu (another male) when he took the form of Mohini (a female). He is usually represented as a boyish person with two hands (Srinivasan 1954).

Hindu scholars point out that the subject of iconography is not a mere secular science or an ordinary branch of fine art, but a science of religion and faith in God, based on the rigid canons of laws laid down by our ancients. So also idols are not mere toys and our ancient temples are not ordinary museums and holiday rendezvous. They are centers of high psychic power and energy. In these centers the man's subconsciousness is awakened by his gazing at the image of God and if it can respond to the powerful magnetism of the deity, he is able to realize the grandeur of the Paramatman (universal soul), through the medium of the image, into whom his concentration penetrates (Srinivasan 1954:122).

Hindu scholars and the Hindu texts have developed and portrayed idol worship as the essential characteristic of the Hindu religion.

It may be well said that images are to the Hindu worshipper what diagrams are to the geometrician. To the latter, even an ill-drawn free hand circle serves the same purpose in his demonstration as a neatly compass-drawn circle. So also to the Hindu, an ill-shaped image, but one made according to the directions given in the sastras (sacred texts), serve the same object as a very artistically executed image. This is in fact the point which marks all the difference between the Hindu view of images from that of the westerners, say the Greek and Roman schools. While symbolism has been the essential feature of Hindu art, the Hindu artist is not averse to secure beauty in his images. But he will not sacrifice the rigid canons laid in the agamas and sastras, for the sake of physical beauty. The need to confirm to the laws appeared more essential and important to the sthapathi, the craftsman, than to the catering of pleasure to physical eyes (Srinivasan 1954:118-119).

Thus, the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses should be viewed primarily as objects of worship. They are empowered objects in some sense, and are to be treated as such.

Hindu scholars and western teachers and researchers of Indian art have elaborated the significance of Hindu idols for the Hindu religion. Elaborate justificatory and descriptive materials are available for idol worship and for the peculiar forms the gods take in these idols. For example, Coomaraswamy points out that

the larger the number of hands, the more are the attributes conceived (for the gods and goddesses)......Similarly the less the number of hands, the less numerous are the gunas (characteristics/features) conceived and the image may thus be made to approach as nearly as possible the description of the attributeless Brahman. Even in image worship, there are thus different grades of evolution. An image, hence, has been understood, as a symbol meant to keep before the eyes of an ordinary worshipper, certain attributes of the deity he desires to worship and upon which he wishes to concentrate his thoughts. To strengthen the visual expression of the deity, he is also directed to chant the dhyana slokas (recitation of verses as/for meditation) of the particular deity, which describes its form and attributes. Both these strengthen the concept of the deity in the worshippers' mind clearly (Srinivasan 1954:118).

Note that Hindu iconography makes a convention that when a normal human form is depicted for the god, the god so represented is attributeless and that the characteristic of attributelessness is close to the most abstract sense of God. Hinduism is a conglomerate of doctrines ranging from a negation of the existence of God to an abstract and monistic view to polytheism and animism. The iconography of the Hindus has to reflect this wide range of doctrines in its representation of gods and goddesses.

Consider the following description of the function of idols in Hinduism:

While the images are concrete in their substantiality, they are but a means of conjuring up the presence of deity: this is their essential function...The image serves as a yantra, an "instrument" that allows the beholder to catch a reflection of the deity whose effulgence transcends what the physical eye can see. The divine effulgence is beheld in inner vision. As a reflection of this transcendental vision, the image (the idol representing the god) is called bimba. This reflection is caught and given shape also by the yantra....Deity, beheld by the inner eye, by an act of "imagination", is translated in terms of the image. In this respect, the image is called pratima -- "measured against" the original vision of the deity as it arose before the inner eye of the seer......Thus the anthropomorphic image is at the same time a reflection of a transcendental vision and a precise instrument for invoking the divine presence during worship in the man-made and manlike figure of the image (Kramrisch:40).

There is too much of a tautology in such interpretations. What is most significant is the fact that the idol which is viewed as a tool for conjuring up a vision of the divinity soon comes to be identified as divinity itself.

Because Hinduism is based on idol worship, there is an elaborate system of knowledge which links the demonstrative features of an idol with the attributes assumed for the divinity within that religion. There are also attempts on the part of scholars of Hindu iconography to deduce functions not identified and discussed in Hindu iconographic texts, presumably based on a structuralist-functionalist and ethnographic analysis of these idols, so that a coherent system of meanings for these idols is worked out within the Hindu thought. While this is a legitimate and needful area of research in art and art criticism and other secular fields of research, the fact remains that these idols are the handiwork of men and are intended to have a conjuring up function, and which become gods for their worshippers. Polytheism and animism, the dominant features of Hinduism, are the formulation of Hindu iconography.

As already mentioned, Hinduism abounds in gods and goddesses of all sorts. Indra is worshipped as the god of the East, Agni the god of the South-east, Yama the lord of the South, Nirutti the lord of the South-west, Varuna, the lord of the West and so on. There are gods and goddesses who guard the shrines, saints and sages who are deified and worshipped as gods and goddesses, and many human beings who are also deified have idols made of them and worshipped.

While many of these gods are not worshipped by all the Hindus, there are several gods who are. Each profession, community, caste or family may have its own preference for specific gods and goddesses.

The worship of idols of the snake has been a widespread phenomenon among many Hindu castes for a long time and is referred to in Hindu sacred texts. Even now ant hills in which snakes live or find refuge are worshipped. Milk is sprinkled over the ant hills, or milk may be kept in a pot near the ant hills for the snakes to come drink. Snake idols may also be made with human faces. Snakes may be depicted with five or more heads in idols. Snake holes are treated as sacred places and snake stones may be carved and placed on platforms in Hindu temples and under trees considered to be sacred for worship.

Hindus also have idols for the planets. There are nine planet gods with sun as their head -- the moon, the mars, the mercury, the jupiter, the venus, the saturn, the ascending node, and the descending node. The planet gods are

highly respected and venerated, as every pious Hindu believes that the life of every individual goes on ups and downs to the benefic or malefic position of these nine planets in the individual's horoscope, which is written (recorded by the astrologers according the planets' position in the zodiac) at the time of birth of each person. So these planets are believed to influence the destinies of all human beings and they are especially worshipped when individuals pass through bad periods in their life (Srinivasan 1954).

Representation of Hindu gods and goddesses as idols has evolved over a long period, along with the Hindu doctrines of gods and goddesses. Hindus, for most of their history, have seen God in terms of manifest man-made idols. In the earliest period, called the Vedic period (...), the deities were represented in the form of certain animals. The horse was associated with the sun and fire gods, and the bull with two other gods. The procreator was given an animal manifestation. Animals and the elemental powers of nature were associated with the earliest manifestations of the divinity in the Hindu system. Hindu scholars of iconography point out that "the concept of God in one or more anthropomorphic forms later developed perceptibly and clear references to aesthetic appreciation of forms occur in the later" texts (Srinivasan 1954).


Iconography, wherever it is practiced, is a semiotic system. That is, the idols are signs which stand for something represented by them. In addition, the images also become social signs for their worshippers. They come to stand for certain social hierarchies and social processes, etc. The idols come to communicate something also on the social plane, apart from their sign value in the religious domain. Hindu idolatry certainly reveals this inter-relationship between the religious and the social.

The iconic representation of gods is not based on any concrete perception of concrete objects -- no one has seen the gods. The poets and other serious thinkers had, as in the ancient Greek world or in the Hindu religious thought, given shapes and features to the gods and goddesses.

Iconic representation of gods as idols is based on human mental perceptions of gods and the development of technology. The art of iconography has undergone several stages of development from simple drawings on walls to iconic representation of gods in the form of idols in monumental iconography. Stone and metal came to be used in place of clay and wood, which gave some permanency to the idols. Iconic representation depended also on the evolving conceptions of godhead within a people group. Social practices heavily influenced the representation of gods. Last but not the least, even as idolatry became synonymous with religion, the art of iconography was elevated as the chief of all the arts.

Consider the following story given in Silpa Ratna, a Sanskrit text by Sri Kumara of the 16th century. The following is a conversation between a student aspiring to become a sculptor, and a Mastercraftsman-Teacher:

Student: Lord, will you please teach me the art of sculpture?
Teacher: Oh! Sure, I will teach you the art of sculpture. But before you begin learning the art of sculpture, you should master the art of drawing, the art of painting.
Student: If this were so, then, teach me the art of drawing.
Teacher: O, yes, what you say and ask is alright. But to learn and master the art of drawing, you must first learn the art of dance.
Student: Alright, O Lord. Then teach me the art of dance, Sir!
Teacher: O! The art of dance? In order to master the art of dance, you should first of all learn the art of music!
Student: What, Lord? Then I shall first master the art of music, then the arts of dance, drawing, sculpture all I will learn. In any case, I must learn and master the art of sculpture.
Teacher: All these are good proposals, indeed. And yet before you learn to master the art of music, it is imperative and essential that you learn to compose poems. You should master the art of poetry. For music without composition (of poetry) cannot be a higher form of art.
Student: In that case, O Lord! teach me first of all how to compose poetry.
Teacher: O, my boy! This is where the difficulty lies. The art of composing poetry is not something which can be taught by one to another. There is no stead and fast rule as to how one should compose poems, and this is something that one gets as an inborn heritage, and this is something that one attains as divine blessing.

This story illustrates, among other things, how a variety of media is involved in creating images, according to the Hindu thought. It also indicates the preparation that a sculptor underwent or undergoes when making an idol of a god. The sculptor has to have a good acquaintance with the sources of description of the gods.

The sculptor, indeed, kept himself as pure mentally and physically as he could keep his art not polluted. It was after dhyana (meditation/recitation of sacred verses) and contemplation that the great masterpieces were begun and achieved....Suggestive sense and pun in sculpture and other variant modes of expression like the figures of speech in poetry have considerably enlivened sculpture. Like the science of rhetoric and literary criticism for literature, there were elaborate canons of art criticism for the appreciation and knowledge of the merits and defects of art products" (Sivaramamurti, 1961).

Thus, in an idolatrous religion, art and all art-related activities are interlinked with iconography.


Idolatrous religions develop elaborate reasons to justify idolatry. The following are several of the major justifications offered within Hindu thought:

  1. Idols are not mere toys...They are centers of high psychic power and energy. In these centers, man's subconsciousness is awakened by his gazing at the image of God and if it can respond to the powerful magnetism of the deity, he is able to realize the grandeur of the Paramatman (the universal soul), through the medium of the image, into whom his concentration penetrates (Srinivasan, 1954).
  2. Images have been used only to illustrate the concepts.
  3. The sculptors were not satisfied only with the realistic portrayal. They created the images in a manner that would instigate higher thinking in humans.
  4. The images were created with exaggerated shapes, and body parts, etc., in order to create a sense of some special feelings, extraordinary wonderment and devotion in laymen.
  5. The images are made big and beautiful to demonstrate to ordinary laymen that the divine are much greater than the humans.
  6. Images of the gods are meant to be symbols that reveal the hidden/original/real truth, and they are created to indicate the philosophy that lies within and beyond the images themselves.
  7. Even when the gods are given human form, the images are carved with four hands, eight hands, or ten hands, etc., in order to make a distinction between the humans and the gods. Thus, the images of gods are based on human form, and yet different in several respects.
  8. An image has to be understood as a symbol meant to keep before the eye of the worshipper certain attributes of the deity he undertakes to worship and upon which he desires to concentrate his thoughts (Gopinatharao, 1914).

The above interpretations generally characterize the reasons offered by Hindus as justification for their idolatry. It is recognized that the gods (note the plural) are visualized in human form, or any living being personified in human form. To distinguish gods from humans and other living beings, the gods are ascribed certain physical peculiarities in consonance with the superior powers/status. The purpose of the idol is to attain Truth through concentration on the images.

There are other ways of classifying the gods in Hindu idolatry in addition to the forms they are given. In general, the classifications of gods in Hindu iconography betrays a social basis. Some of the ways of classifying the gods within Hindu idolatry are as follows:

One form of classifying the images is according to their mobility. Based on this characteristic, the idols are divided into three groups: those idols which are movable; those idols which are immovable; and those which are partially movable and immovable.


As already pointed out in the earlier sections, the characteristic of mobility is very important in iconography. Because the idols are made of inanimate matter, they are immobile.

Within Hindu religion, the question of mobility is to be seen from the ordinary language classification of objects into stavara and jangama concepts. All the living organisms are mobile (jangama) and all the nonliving matter is immobile (stavara). And hence the living gods have to be ascribed mobility, but the idols lack this characteristic manifestly. Accordingly, we find that the characteristic of mobility is ascribed to the idols in several ways.

1. First of all, freedom from the medium. The history of iconography in south India, which indeed epitomizes the Hindu iconography, clearly shows a progression from monolithic caves as temples to rockcut temples; likewise, a progression from the rockcut idols (idols made on the rocks as an integral part of the rocks) to pillar idols (idols made part of pillars which were made of stones taken out of huge rocks) is also noticed. From the pillar-idols, we see a progression towards monumental idols, standing as statues on their own and not as part of pillars. The monumental idols, in three dimension, were placed in separate rooms, sanctum sanctorum, in the temples which, by this time were no longer rockcut temples but independent structures. The next phase was the replication of the idols in stone into metal, which made it much easier to transport them around for worship, thus giving a sense of mobility to the gods.

2. The adding of signs of life to the images in several ways.

(i) Cosmic symbols like halo, arch, etc.

(ii) Postures of mobility in the idol -- lifting the leg, extending the hand/palm for blessing, bending head, smiles, displacement of ornament, eye movement, object under foot, sitting in a particular posture which would show the activity going on, extending the tongue, plurality of faces and other body parts, and so on.

(iii) Assignation of a personal vehicle to the gods; identification and representation of their personal mode of transport.

(iv) Added to the above are the elaborate rituals that highlight and/or use mobility as the focal point of worship. These include processions of various types in which the idols are taken around the town.

(v) That the idols are living gods sought to be demonstrated in the puja (worship) routine, which starts with the waking up of the gods at dawn from their sleep, and ends with the taking of them to their sleeping chambers, with intervening rituals such as a bathing or feeding them, all closely following the elitist daily ablutions in the Hindu society. In this, there is a merger of the individual idol-god with the human social norm. Elaborate and ritual forms of literature are produced to be followed in these schedules of worship of the idols.


3. Another way of classifying the idols is based on the quantum of their representation. Some of the idols may be made in such a way that the parts of the idol are seen in full. This well-rounded form, which reveals in full the components of the idol in the front, the back and the sides, is in contrast with the idol made in half-relief where only the frontal portions are seen. The third variety is the image painted on walls, cloth and wooden panels. In this category, the third dimension of thickness is not portrayed.

This classification of the images has a dual function. Firstly, the classification is based on the possibilities of visualization of gods using various characteristics of the medium. Secondly, this classification betrays a widely prevalent social basis for the representation of idols in monumental form. Idols worshipped by elitist castes and classes among the Hindus are generally represented in the first category -- these idols have a full form and are generally three dimensional. On the other hand, idols worshipped by the non-elitist groups of people may or may not be in full form. The perfect form is the chief characteristic of these elitist images, whereas perfection of form is not a major factor in representing the folk deities. Also in majority of the cases, the images of the elitist temples must be complete, be in full form; no busts, or head only or a part of the body is allowed to be an image of the elitist temples, whereas in folk temples such a representation is admissible. This choice of full form in most cases in elitist temples and its lack in folk temples reflects the social stratification in some sense.


There are other features relating to idol worship and idol representation which also reveal social bias. No representation of the moustache for the male god; wearing a sacred thread from the shoulder down; well-cut physical features; and offering only vegetarian food to the idols for worship are some of these features.


Hindu iconography receives its information from several sources for idol making. These include the literary sources -- poetic compositions, conventions from previous iconographic practices in various periods and stages, conventions from folk traditions, additions by innovative sculptors, additions made by the patrons of art such as kings, nobles and other donors, and codified iconographic texts.

Idols may be distinguished according to the qualities attributed to particular gods in the Hindu pantheon. Three ultimate qualities are recognized for this purpose -- truth, passion and gloom. There is a fourth quality which is considered inauspicious, and which represents evil. The idols with the last mentioned quality are worshipped for the purpose of inflicting defeat or death on enemies and are looked upon generally as inauspicious.

Images are also classified according to the age, appearance and function of gods they represent. The idols are chosen by the worshippers depending upon their need. The social basis of such a classification becomes clearer when we consider the fact that differential powers are attributed to each of these groups.

The gods in the Hindu pantheon clearly reveal their human basis. A look-alike, iconic, relationship prevails between the idols of gods, and the humans in Hindu iconography. Idols become the mediating points between the gods and the humans in Hindu religion. Gods are visualized in human and nonhuman personified forms. Gods are visualized also as forming a society of their own.


Eco, Umberto. 1984. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Noss, J. B. 1969. Man's Religions. Macmillan, New York.

Peirce, C. S. The Essential Writings, edited by Edward C. Moore. 1972. Harper & Row, New York.

Rao, T. Gopinatha. 1914. Elements of Hindu Iconography. Law Printing House, Madras

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Philosophical Library, New York. 1959.

Srinivasan, T. N. 1954. A Handbook of South Indian Images. Tirumalai-Tirupati Devasthanams, Tirupati.

Tylor, E. B. 1958. Primitive Culture. Harper, New York.


M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Bethany College of Missions
6820 Auto Club Road, Suite C
Bloomington, MN 55438, USA.