Sunday, August 29, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Joannis Mylonopoulos (ed.), Divine Images and Human Imaginations in Ancient Greece and Rome. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 170. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. xvi, 437. ISBN 9789004179301. $200.00.
Reviewed by Irene Bald Romano, American School of Classical Studies at Athens

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume consists of thirteen papers originally delivered at a 2007 international conference entitled "Images of Gods — Images for Gods" ("Götterbilder Bilder für die Götter") at the University of Erfurt, exploring issues relating to divine images from various perspectives, although with more focus on Greek than Roman. The editor of the volume, Mylonopoulos, organized the conference and contributed a paper, as well as an excellent introduction on the ancient and modern terms used to describe divine images, theories, and methodological approaches. He reminds us that there was no single word to define "cult image" in ancient Greek or Latin, that the distinction between votive and cult image was often blurred, and that one image could sometimes fulfill both requirements. There have been several recent studies of Greek cult images, by Donohue (1997), Scheer (2000, 8-34) and Bettinetti (2001, 25-63), that include an examination of terminology , and in this volume, Estienne offers an analysis of Latin terms for statue and cult statue (simulacrum, statua, signum, effigies) and discusses the implications of the distinction between images of the gods (simulacrum deorum) and temple ornaments (ornamenta aedium).

Setting aside terminology, these papers and other studies have made clear that the identification of an object as a "cult image" arises from various possible factors, including the use of the object in cult activity or within local religious traditions; the honors it was afforded; oftentimes its purported magical properties and complicated etiology that imbued it with greater interest and sanctity; its prominent position within a sanctuary or shrine (but not necessarily within a temple); and its attributes and other aspects of its appearance, whether anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or aniconic.

Despite these general parameters, there is still lack of certainty over the identification of cult images or specific divinities in Aegean Bronze Age cult, perhaps owing to our lack of complete understanding of visual clues and artistic vocabulary in the absence of literary texts. Blakolmer delves into this issue to try to understand why we fail to recognize specific deities in the complexity of the Minoan and Mycenaean pantheons. This is a situation that is markedly different from the earliest Iron Age cult images, for example, where visible attributes (or other aspects of their physical appearance) were important for the identification of a divinity. These attributes were employed especially intensively from the early 5th century onwards, as Mylonopoulos discusses in his essay on the use of attributes. In the end, Blakolmer justifiably concludes that the evidence for the existence of anthropomorphic cult statues in Minoan Crete or on the mainland in the Mycenaean period is highly speculative, with very little proof that cult images played an essential role in Aegean Bronze Age ritual. A revolution must have occurred sometime early in the 1st millennium B.C. in the way the Greeks conceived of their deities, the way in which they were represented, and in an important aspect of cult practice — the worship of a god through a sacred cult image. For an excellent essay on early Greek religion that suggests some methodological approaches see Pakkanen 2000-2001.

Aniconism has often been discussed as an early stage in the evolution to anthropomorphic images, but it is clear from the existing evidence that non-anthropomorphic objects were used as symbols of the presence of a divinity in various periods. Gaifman uses a historiographical approach to explore this theme and shows that Winckelmannn's reading of the ancient sources, especially of Clement of Alexandria, and his evolutionary schema has colored interpretations from the 18th century to the modern day. It is also Pausanias' fascination with the tales he was told about images from Greece's distant past that has influenced our (mis)understanding of the worship of stones and other non-anthropomorphic objects as a primitive act. The life-story of the wooden and magical aniconic (or semi-iconic) image of the Hermes Perpheraios at Thracian Ainos that is told by Kallimachus' in his seventh iambos provides a case in point, as Petrovic discusses.

In a provocative essay, Keesling shows that despite literary and epigraphical texts that should aid our understanding of religious iconography in the Archaic and Classical periods, there is still ambiguity about how we should interpret the reception of the Greeks to one category of votive image—korai. Keesling attempts to answer what or whom these statues represented, and if these statues that were clearly made for the gods are, in fact, images of the gods, using the Acropolis korai and Archaic-style Cypriot korai for her study. Keesling convincingly suggests that korai took their meaning from their context, their specific placement, the local religious traditions, or historical circumstances, but she generally rejects the notion that korai were perpetual stand-ins for human votaries. Keesling concludes that the ancient viewer would expect to see a divinity in the image, unless the context or some iconographical clues told them otherwise.

Hölscher analyzes Attic vase painting scenes that purport to show cult images in which archaism is used as a formula to denote "statue" and shows how the formula changed over time. She concludes that whereas in the 6th and earlier in the 5th century, statue and god were more often recognizably distinct and both were sometimes depicted on the same vase, the picture changes in the course of the 5th century. On some vases of around the 440s the representation of the god or of a statue of the god may have been left intentionally vague by the painter. Are we, therefore, to suppose that this signals some shift in religious beliefs in this period? Hölscher leaves the question open to some extent, but the subject is an important one that could be explored further. It is also worth pointing out that this is also the period of the creation of the colossal chryselephantine Athena Parthenos, which seems to have served less as an important object of veneration than as a spectacular and ostentatious symbol of Athens.

In an important paper, Pirenne-Delforge summarizes the essential role and position of Greek priests and priestesses and defines the relationship between these servants of the gods and cult images. As we know, neither priests nor cult images were necessary or central to the worship of a deity in ancient Greece, but both were mediators, in a sense, between the divine realm and the human, e.g., in the ritual feeding of the gods and in standing in for the divinity in various rituals, as the priest or, more often, the priestess did—in a mimesis between the servant of the god and the god. In much the same way, cult images stood in place of the divinity.

Pirenne-Delforge also discuss hidrysis, a term defined as the installation of a deity in the human realm. This act involved not only setting up an altar and a cult image, but also "setting up with pots," as Aristophanes (Peace 922-924) describes it—the preparation of a suitable sacrificial feast; the act of hidrysis is thus another way of defining the difference between a divine statue and a cult image. Moede shows that in artistic representations of the Augustan period, the physical transfer of the cult image into the area of an altar is symbolic of the installation of the signum and the founding of a cult, i.e., in Greek terms, the hidrysis.

We have long understood that, in Greek cult practice cult, images were not as important as the act of sacrifice. Ekroth has in recent years published several important articles on Greek sacrifice (see the bibliography in this volume), including an excellent essay in a recent catalogue of the exhibition on heroes at the Walters Art Museum (2009). In the volume under review, she focuses on an early 4th century B.C. Athenian votive relief in the Louvre depicting Theseus and two worshippers with a low mound between them. Ekroth provides a valuable discussion of the characteristics of various kinds of altars, bomos, eschara, as well as simple fieldstone and rock altars, reminding us that various divinities in various locales were given offerings on a range of altars from the simplest to the most monumental structures. In the case of this relief, Ekroth suggests that the mound represents a stone altar, and she speculates that it might be the Horkomosion, a stone mythically connected to Theseus and the place in the Athenian Agora where oaths and treaties were sworn. (For the lithos in front of the 6th century Stoa Basileios, see Camp 1992, 53–57, 100–105.) Ekroth's argument is fascinating and complicated, but since the cult of Theseus is little documented in Greek sources, her hypothesis is speculative.

Scheer discusses how cult images sometimes served not only religious, but also political, purposes. The statue of Athena Alea from Tegea was removed by Augustus to a secular context in Rome, as a punishment to the Tegeans for taking the wrong side in the Battle of Aktion. The Tegeans resorted to appropriating a statue of Athena Hippia from the neighboring town of Manthourea to serve as the image in the temple in Tegea, although it seems by Pausanias' time to have been thought of as Athena Alea. Scheer concludes that the removal of the old cult image did not cause the demise of the sanctuary. Another conclusion might be that the sanctuary, as a place of cult activity may already have been in decline, and the absence of the original cult images had little impact on its functioning.

Steurnagel interprets "temple-sharing" in which images of the deified Roman emperors shared temples with traditional gods (synnaoi theoi). An examination of specific examples shows that the divine emperors were, through "temple-sharing," integrated into the traditional pantheon. This close association of the emperor and his cult with the higher powers brought greater esteem (and financial resources) to the cities where the special status of "cult partnership" was granted. The careful placement of the statue of the divine emperor and the cult image of the god made it clear that the new gods of the imperial cult were not competing with the traditional gods in their temples. Rather, "temple-sharing" was a reinforcement or identifier of the divine status of the ruler.

In the final contribution to this volume, Bravi sheds light on the reception, use and adaptation of pagan statues in Byzantine Constantinople where the aristocratic, cultivated class kept the flame burning for ancient Greece and Greek identity. These Greek and Roman divine images were situated in new public contexts and, at the same time, were used as ideological underpinnings for an imperial city seeking to emphasize its classical roots. Bravi traces the changing reception of Classical images of the gods, depending on the cultural context, from the period of the founding of Constantinople to the looting of the Crusaders in 1203. This is a very fitting conclusion to this volume where so much emphasis has rightly been put on context — temporal, physical, and cultural — and its importance in identifying the meaning of images of the divine.

It is not easy to produce a volume of conference proceedings with such uniformly high scholarly standards in a single language (that is not the native language of all of the contributors). The bibliography is of great value as a compendium of the most recent and relevant references on Greek and Roman divine imagery, and, as is usual for this Brill series on Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, the indices of ancient authors and subjects are excellent. The illustrations are judiciously chosen, and one never feels the need to search through other resources for missing photographs. The editor and the authors are to be congratulated on their very valuable contributions to scholarship on Greek and Roman religion, cult practices, and divine images.


J. Mylonopoulos, "Introduction: Divine Images versus cult images. An endless story about theories, methods, and terminologies," 1-19.
F. Blakolmer, "A pantheon without attributes? Goddesses and gods in Minoan and Mycenaean iconography," 21-61.
M. Gaifman, "Aniconism and the notion of "primitive" in Greek antiquity," 63-86.
C. M. Keesling, "Finding the gods: Greek and Cypriot votive korai revisited," 87-103.
F. Hölscher, "Gods and statues—An approach to archaistic images in the fifth century BCE," 105-120.
V. Pirenne-Delforge, "Greek priests and "cult statues": In how far are they necessary?," 121-141.
G. Ekroth, "Theseus and the stone. The iconographic and ritual contexts of a Greek votive relief in the Louvre," 143-169.
J. Mylonopoulos, "Odysseus with a trident? The use of attributes in ancient Greek imagery," 171-203.
I. Petrovic, "The life story of a cult statue as an allegory: Kallimachus' Hermes Perpheraios," 205-224.
T. Scheer, "Arcadian cult images between religion and politics," 225-239.
D. Steuernagel, "Synnaos theos. Images of Roman emperors in Greek temples," 241-255.
S. Estienne, "Simulacra deorum versus ornamenta aedium. The status of divine images in the temples of Rome," 257-271.
K. Moede, "The dedication of cult statues at the altar. A Roman pictorial formula for the introduction of new cults," 273-287.
A. Bravi, "Ornamenta, monumenta, exempla. Greek images of gods in the public spaces of Constantinople," 289-301.
Bibliography, 303-359.
Index of passages cited, 361-366.
Subject Index, 367-386.
Figures, 387-437.


Bettinetti 2001 = S. Bettinetti, La statua di culto nella pratica rituale greca. Bari.
Camp 1992 = Camp, J. M. 1992. The Athenian Agora: Excavations in the Heart of Classical Athens. London.
Donohue 1997 = A. Donohue, "The Greek Images of the Gods: Considerations on Terminology and Methodology," Hephaistos 15, 31-45.
Ekroth 2009 = G. Ekroth, "The Cult of Heroes" in S. Albersmeier, ed. Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece. New Haven, 120-143.
Pakkanen 2000-2001 = P. Pakkanen, "The Relationship Between Continuity and Change in Dark Age Greek Religion: A Methodological Study," Opuscula Atheniensia 25-26, 71-88.
Scheer 2000 = T. S. Scheer, Die Gottheit und ihr Bild. Untersuchungen zur Funktion griechischer Kultbilder in Religion und Politik, Zetemata 10, Munich.

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