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Aniconism in Greek Antiquity

Aniconism in Greek Antiquity

By Milette Gaifman (Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation). Pp. xviii + 357, figs. 93. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2012. $185. ISBN 978-0-19-964578-7 (cloth).

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Aniconism is “the denotation of divine presence without a figural image ... exemplified by the worship of stones or poles” (1). Scholars so far have considered it a practice belonging to the earlier stages of Greek cult and art and have not given it great consideration apart from acknowledging it as a paradoxical phenomenon. Gaifman’s book aims to place “aniconism within the broader map of Greek art, religion, and visual culture” (3). This reevaluation has important implications for our understanding of images of deities in Greek art.

The first chapter presents the historiography of aniconism and the different methodologies used for approaching aniconism in Greek art. Gaifman’s survey of past scholarship demonstrates that aniconism as a phenomenon worthy of study appears in the 19th century, and that it has been associated with primitive beliefs and practices from its earliest discussions (18–19). She identifies a range of divine figures without anthropomorphic features, from trees and stones to pillars and poles.

In the second chapter, she discusses the presence of aniconic monuments in the work of Pausanias. Particular emphasis is given to “argoi lithoi,” unwrought stones worshiped in various locations, such as Achaian Pharai, Thespiae, Orchomenos, and Gytheion, while herms are also discussed in some depth. What emerges from her examination is that in Pausanias’ time, there is no distinction between “agalma” (statue) and “argos lithos” (unwrought stone) when they have the same function in cultic contexts. Moreover, Pausanias is the first to suggest that the earliest objects of worship were in the shape of unworked stones.

The third chapter presents the views of Greek writers other than Pausanias on aniconism. The texts date from the sixth century B.C.E. to the second century C.E., from Xenophanes to Clement of Alexandria. As in Pausanias, in these texts aniconic monuments in Greek ritual practices are associated with the origins of cults and are considered to be at the beginning of a sequence of objects of worship, from the aniconic to the anthropomorphic statue. They are also associated with the religious practices of individuals and household religion. However, when practiced by non-Greeks, aniconism becomes a marker of otherness and differentiation.

After the analysis of the literary evidence comes an examination of the archaeological material. Rough rocks are discussed in chapter 4, and standing stelae in chapter 5. Chapters 6 and 7 examine representations of aniconic monuments on vases of the Classical period, highlighting two particular cases: the column of Apollo, a monument thought to have been set up in front of doorways, and the “beams” (dokana) of the Dioskouroi, a widespread type of monument associated with the gods. The archaeological evidence shows the longevity of the use of aniconic monuments: at Thera, the “Agora of the Gods” is in use from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period (136–57); the “Crossroads Shrine” at the Athenian Agora was in use during the Classical period (159–63); the stone worshiped at the Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Paphos was depicted in coins of the Roman period (170–75); numerous groups of stelae of the Archaic and Classical periods can be found in southern Italy (185–206); and classical and Hellenistic stelae have been found in areas of the Greek mainland such as Arcadia and Thessaly (211–32).

The conclusions return to the scholarly assertion of the marginality of aniconism and demonstrate that rather than being an insignificant, strange phenomenon, aniconism was in fact a way of connecting to the religious and historical past, and an alternative to figural representation.

Gaifman succeeds in her reevaluation of aniconism, and her analysis of the material clearly shows that the use of aniconic monuments was a matter of choice from the Classical period onward. Her chapter on Pausanias is a welcome addition to recent scholarship on the author and highlights another area where Pausanias focused on the meaning and importance of “Greekness.” The third chapter is particularly useful, revealing that far from a marginalized phenomenon in Greek thought, aniconism was used as a method of understanding Greek religious practices and ideas, practiced in counterpoint to figural representation. Her survey of monuments is extremely helpful in understanding the various forms of aniconism and the context in which such monuments can be located.

However, there seems to be a conflation between markers of the divine and markers of space belonging to the divine (e.g., 248–50). The first implies that the deity is constantly present in the area of the aniconic monument; the second implies that this area is one where the god can be invoked and petitioned following specific rites, so a pillar or other such monument acts as a marker of the potential presence of the divine. Another example of this conflation is in the discussion of theoxenia scenes, where the Dioskouroi are seen riding above empty couches (33). Gaifman says that “the gods themselves are not represented in figural form” (34); however, since the gods have not yet arrived at the banquet, there is no need to represent them both at the couch and as riders. The couch is the place where the divinity will manifest; it is not an aniconic monument of the divinity.

In the discussion of the scenes with Ajax and Achilles playing dice on vases (43–5), the idea that the absence of Athena implies the invisible presence of the goddess is an attractive one; however, it also complicates the meaning of the scene. Perhaps a game of dice is simply a game of dice; perhaps the goddess makes a later appearance in the (lost) literary source; perhaps she is an addition so that painters can differentiate their work from that of Exekias, who first painted the scene.

Pillars on vase paintings also serve as excellent areas for placing an inscription. So the pillar with the “Karneios” inscription (254–59) or the one with “Aphrodite” (259–62) need not refer to aniconic divine figures, but to the location or time of the dance depicted on the vase, while the seated bride next to the inscribed pillar is placed under the protection of the goddess and, as Gaifman says, “is likened to the goddess” (261 [emphasis original]).

On the whole, the book is extremely useful and the ideas presented are attractive, insightful, and thought provoking, and it will be of great use to students (esp. at a graduate level) and scholars of ancient religion, history, art, and archaeology.

Olympia Bobou
The Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies
Oxford University
Oxford OX1 3LU
United Kingdom

Book Review of Aniconism in Greek Antiquity, by Milette Gaifman

Reviewed by Olympia Bobou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Bobou

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