Cult image

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African Songye Power Figure Image of an African Songye Power Figure in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (2005.21)-EDIT.jpg
African Songye Power Figure
Vermilion on a stone is a common form of a Hindu murti Vermilion on a stone.jpg
Vermilion on a stone is a common form of a Hindu murti
Reproduction of the Athena Parthenos statue at the original size in the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. Athena Parthenos LeQuire.jpg
Reproduction of the Athena Parthenos statue at the original size in the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee.
Our Lady of La Naval de Manila statue in Quezon City, the Philippines, c. 1593 Our Lady of La Naval de Manila.jpg
Our Lady of La Naval de Manila statue in Quezon City, the Philippines, c. 1593
Heathen altar for Haustblot in Bjorko, Sweden; the larger wooden idol represents the god Frey. Sveriges Asatrosamfunds hostblot 2009.jpg
Heathen altar for Haustblot in Björkö, Sweden; the larger wooden idol represents the god Frey.

In the practice of religion, a cult image is a human-made object that is venerated or worshipped for the deity, spirit or daemon that it embodies or represents. In several traditions, including the ancient religions of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and modern Hinduism, cult images in a temple may undergo a daily routine of being washed, dressed, and having food left for them. Processions outside the temple on special feast days are often a feature. Religious images cover a wider range of all types of images made with a religious purpose, subject, or connection. In many contexts "cult image" specifically means the most important image in a temple, kept in an inner space, as opposed to what may be many other images decorating the temple.


The term idol is often synonymous with cult image. [1] [2] [3] In cultures where idolatry is not viewed negatively, the word idol is not generally seen as pejorative, such as in Indian English. [4]

Ancient Near East and Egypt

The use of images in the Ancient Near East seems typically to have been similar to that of the ancient Egyptian religion, about which we are the best-informed. Temples housed a cult image, and there were large numbers of other images. The ancient Hebrew religion was or became an exception, rejecting cult images despite developing monotheism; the connection between this and the Atenism that Akhenaten tried to impose on Egypt has been much discussed. In the art of Amarna Aten is represented only as the sun-disk, with rays emanating from it, sometimes ending in hands.

Cult images were a common presence in ancient Egypt, and still are in modern-day Kemetism. The term is often confined to the relatively small images, typically in gold, that lived in the naos in the inner sanctuary of Egyptian temples dedicated to that god (except when taken on ceremonial outings, say to visit their spouse). These images usually showed the god in their sacred barque or boat; none of them survive. Only the priests were allowed access to the inner sanctuary.

There was also a huge range of smaller images, many kept in the homes of ordinary people. The very large stone images around the exteriors of temples were usually representations of the pharaoh as himself or "as" a deity, and many other images gave deities the features of the current royal family.

Classical Greece and Rome

All ancient Greek temples and Roman temples normally contained a cult image in the cella. Access to the cella varied, but apart from the priests, at the least some of the general worshippers could access the cella some of the time, though sacrifices to the deity were normally made on altars outside in the temple precinct (temenos in Greek). Some cult images were easy to see, and were what we would call major tourist attractions. The image normally took the form of a statue of the deity, typically roughly life-size, but in some cases many times life-size, in marble or bronze, or in the specially prestigious form of a Chryselephantine statue using ivory plaques for the visible parts of the body and gold for the clothes, around a wooden framework. The most famous Greek cult images were of this type, including the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and Phidias's Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon in Athens, both colossal statues now completely lost. Fragments of two chryselephantine statues from Delphi have been excavated.

The acrolith was another composite form, this time a cost-saving one with a wooden body. A xoanon was a primitive and symbolic wooden image, perhaps comparable to the Hindu lingam; many of these were retained and revered for their antiquity. Many of the Greek statues well-known from Roman marble copies were originally temple cult images, which in some cases, such as the Apollo Barberini, can be credibly identified. A very few actual originals survive, for example the bronze Piraeus Athena (2.35 metres high, including a helmet).

In Greek and Roman mythology, a "palladium" was an image of great antiquity on which the safety of a city was said to depend, especially the wooden one that Odysseus and Diomedes stole from the citadel of Troy and which was later taken to Rome by Aeneas. (The Roman story was related in Virgil's Aeneid and other works.)

Abrahamic religions

Members of Abrahamic religions identify cult images as idols and their worship as idolatry - the worship of hollow forms. The Book of Isaiah gave classic expression to the paradox inherent in the worship of cult images:

Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.

Isaiah 2.8, reflected in Isaiah 17.8.

One could avoid such a degrading paradox by adopting the early Christian idea that miraculous icons were not made by human hands, acheiropoietoi. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians make an exception for the veneration of images of saints - they distinguish such veneration from adoration or latria .

The disparaging of man-made (as opposed to divine) works as idols can provide a useful pejorative, especially in religious discussions. [5]

The word idol entered Middle English in the 13th century from Old French idole adapted in Ecclesiastical Latin from the Greek eidolon ("appearance", extended in later usage to "mental image, apparition, phantom") a diminutive of eidos ("form"). [6] Plato and the Platonists employed the Greek word eidos to signify perfect immutable "forms". [7] One can, of course, regard such an eidos as having a divine origin. [8] [9]


Frans Hogenberg, The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566, in Antwerp, the key moment of the Beeldenstorm in 1566, when paintings and church decorations and fittings were destroyed in several weeks of a violent iconoclastic outbreak in the Low Countries. Several similar episodes occurred during the early Reformation period. Frans Hogenberg Bildersturm 1566.jpg
Frans Hogenberg, The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566, in Antwerp, the key moment of the Beeldenstorm in 1566, when paintings and church decorations and fittings were destroyed in several weeks of a violent iconoclastic outbreak in the Low Countries. Several similar episodes occurred during the early Reformation period.

Christian images that are venerated are called icons. Christians who venerate icons make an emphatic distinction between "veneration" and "worship".

The introduction of venerable images in Christianity was highly controversial for centuries, and in Eastern Orthodoxy the controversy lingered until it re-erupted in the Byzantine Iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th centuries. Religious monumental sculpture remained foreign to Orthodoxy. In the West, resistance to idolatry delayed the introduction of sculpted images for centuries until the time of Charlemagne, whose placing of a life-size crucifix in the Palatine Chapel, Aachen was probably a decisive moment, leading to the widespread use of monumental reliefs on churches, and later large statues.

The Libri Carolini , a somewhat mis-fired Carolingian counter-blast against imagined Orthodox positions, set out what remains the Catholic position on the veneration of images, giving them a similar but slightly less significant place than in Eastern Orthodoxy.

The intensified pathos that informs the poem Stabat Mater takes corporeal form in the realism and sympathy-inducing sense of pain in the typical Western European corpus (the representation of Jesus' crucified body) from the mid-13th century onwards. "The theme of Christ's suffering on the cross was so important in Gothic art that the mid-thirteenth-century statute of the corporations of Paris provided for a guild dedicated to the carving of such images, including ones in ivory". [10]

The 16th-century Reformation engendered spates of venerable image smashing, especially in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries (the Beeldenstorm) and France. Destruction of three-dimensional images was normally near-total, especially images of the Virgin Mary and saints, and the iconoclasts ("image-breakers") also smashed representations of holy figures in stained glass windows and other imagery. Further destruction of cult images, anathema to Puritans, occurred during the English Civil War. Less extreme transitions occurred throughout northern Europe in which formerly Catholic churches became Protestant. In these, the corpus (body of Christ) was removed from the crucifix leaving a bare cross and walls were whitewashed of religious images.

Catholic regions of Europe, especially artistic centres like Rome and Antwerp, responded to Reformation iconoclasm with a Counter-Reformation renewal of venerable imagery, though banning some of the more fanciful medieval iconographies. Veneration of the Virgin Mary flourished, in practice and in imagery, and new shrines, such as in Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore, were built for Medieval miraculous icons as part of this trend.


Towards the end of the pre-Islamic era in the Arabian city of Mecca; an era otherwise known by the Muslims as جاهلية, or al-Jahiliyah, the pagan or pre-Islamic merchants of Mecca controlled the sacred Kaaba, thereby regulating control over it and, in turn, over the city itself. The local tribes of the Arabian peninsula came to this centre of commerce to place their idols in the Kaaba, in the process being charged tithes. Thus helping the Meccan merchants to incur substantial wealth, as well as insuring a fruitful atmosphere for trade and intertribal relations in relative peace.

The number and nature of deities in the pre-Islamic mythology are parallel to that of other polytheistic cultures. Some have been official Gods others of a more private character.

Muhammad's preaching incurred the wrath of the pagan merchants, causing them to revolt against him. The opposition to his teachings grew so volatile that Muhammad and his followers were forced to flee Mecca to Medina for protection; leading to armed conflict and triggering many battles that were won and lost, which finally culminated in the conquest of Mecca in the year 630. In the aftermath, Muhammad did three things. Firstly, with his companions he visited the Kaaba and literally threw out the idols and destroyed them, thus removing the signs of Jahiliyyah from the Kaaba. Secondly, he ordered the construction of a mosque around the Kaaba, the first Masjid al-Haram after the birth of Islam. Thirdly, in a magnanimous manner, Muhammad pardoned all those who had taken up arms against him. With the destruction of the idols and the construction of the Masjid al-Haram, a new era was ushered in; facilitating the rise of Islam.

Indian religions


A clay Ganesha murti, worshipped during Ganesh Chaturthi festival, and then ritually destroyed. Dagdushet Halwai Ganpati 2005.jpg
A clay Ganesha murti, worshipped during Ganesh Chaturthi festival, and then ritually destroyed.

The garbhagriha or inner shrine of a Hindu temple contains an image of the deity. This may take the form of an elaborate statue, but a symbolic lingam is also very common, and sometimes a yoni or other symbolic form. Normally only the priests are allowed to enter the chamber, but Hindu temple architecture typically allows the image to be seen by worshippers in the mandapa connected to it (entry to this, and the whole temple, may also be restricted in various ways).

Hinduism allows for many forms of worship [11] and therefore it neither prescribes nor proscribes worship of images ( murti ). In Hinduism, a murti [12] typically refers to an image that expresses a Divine Spirit (murta). Meaning literally "embodiment", a murti is a representation of a divinity, made usually of stone, wood, or metal, which serves as a means through which a divinity may be worshiped. [13] Hindus consider a murti worthy of serving as a focus of divine worship only after the divine is invoked in it for the purpose of offering worship. [14] The depiction of the divinity must reflect the gestures and proportions outlined in religious tradition.


Image of Siddha (Liberated soul) worshiped by the Jains Liberated.jpeg
Image of Siddha (Liberated soul) worshiped by the Jains

In Jainism, the Tirthankaras ("ford-maker") represent the true goal of all human beings. [15] Their qualities are worshipped by the Jains. Images depicting any of the twenty four Tirthankaras are placed in the Jain temples. There is no belief that the image itself is other than a representation of the being it represents. The Tirthankaras cannot respond to such veneration, but that it can function as a meditative aid. Although most veneration takes the form of prayers, hymns and recitations, the idol is sometimes ritually bathed, and often has offerings made to it; there are eight kinds of offering representing the eight types of karmas as per Jainism. [16] This form of reverence is not a central tenet of the faith.

East Asian religions


In Shinto, cult images are called shintai. The earliest historical examples of these were natural objects such as stones, waterfalls, trees or mountains, like Mount Fuji, while the vast majority are man-made objects such as swords, jewels or mirrors. Rather than being representative of or part of the kami, shintai are seen as repositories in which the essence of such spirits can temporarily reside to make themselves accessible for humans to worship. A ceremony called kanjō can be used to propagate the essence of a kami into another shintai, allowing the same deity to be enshrined in multiple shrines.

See also


  1. ""Idol" in the American Heritage Dictionary (2016.)". Retrieved 2019-01-29.
  2. ""Idol" in Merriam–Webster (2017)". 2019-01-15. Retrieved 2019-01-29.
  3. "Idol" in the Oxford Living Dictionaries (2017).
  4. "Idol", Harper’s Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemier, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1985; but readily used by, for example, Swami Tejomayananada, in his Hindu culture, An Introduction, p. 66, Chinmaya Mission, ISBN   8175971657, 9788175971653
  5. For example: Mahoney, Daniel J. (2018). "The Humanitarian Subversion of Christianity and Authentic Political Life". The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity. New York: Encounter Books. ISBN   9781641770170 . Retrieved 16 Jan 2019. Humanitarianism as Comte first proclaimed it is an 'idol' of the first order at the service of a soul-destroying illusion.
  6. Harper, Douglas. "idol". Online Etymology Dictionary .
  7. Smith, P. Christopher (2002). "Is Plato a Metaphysical Thinker? Rereading the 'Sophist' after the Middle Heidegger". In Welton, William A. (ed.). Plato's Forms: Varieties of Interpretation. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. p. 243. ISBN   9780739105146 . Retrieved 16 Jan 2019. [...] what is seen and known is no longer the original transient physical thing coming to pass either temporally or locally but the static metaphysical eidos or intelligible 'look' a physical thing has about it, the conceptual form known by the mind's eye and of which the physical thing is now only a particular instance.
  8. Smith, John Clark (1992). The Ancient Wisdom of Origen. Bucknell University Press. p. 19. ISBN   9780838752043 . Retrieved 16 Jan 2019. The Platonic Forms become, in fact, thoughts of the Divine Mind [...].
  9. Popper, Karl (2012) [1945]. The Open Society and its Enemies (7 ed.). London: Routledge. p. 146, 158. ISBN   9781136749773 . Retrieved 16 Jan 2019. [...] the divine originals, the Forms or Ideas [...] the divine world of Forms or Ideas [...].
  10. Metmuseum
  11. Vaswani, J.P. (2002). Hinduism: What You Would Like to Know About. Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. p. 12. ISBN   978-1-9049-1002-2. Hinduism also teaches us that all forms of worship are acceptable to God. We may use idols; we may go to temples; we may recite set prayers; we may offer a simple form of worship with flowers and a lamp; or we may perform an elaborate puja with set rituals; we may sing bhajans or join a kirtan session or we can just close our eyes and meditate upon the light within us.
  12. "pratima (Hinduism)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 21 August 2011.
  13. Klostermaier, Klaus K. A Survey of Hinduism. 1989 pp. 293–5
  14. Kumar Singh, Nagendra. Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, Volume 7. 1997, pp. 739–43
  15. Zimmer, Heinrich (1953), Joseph Campbell (ed.), Philosophies Of India, London, E.C. 4: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, p. 182, ISBN   978-8120807396 CS1 maint: location (link)
  16. "Hansa sutaria", Jain rituals & ceremonies, Jaina, archived from the original (Doc) on 2007-06-28

Further reading

Related Research Articles

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Temple Structure reserved for religious or spiritual activities

A temple is a building reserved for religious or spiritual rituals and activities such as prayer and sacrifice. It is typically used for such buildings belonging to all faiths where a more specific term such as church, mosque or synagogue is not generally used in English. These include Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism among religions with many modern followers, as well as other ancient religions such as Ancient Egyptian religion.

Hindu deities are the gods and goddesses in Hinduism. The terms and epithets for deity within the diverse traditions of Hinduism vary, and include Deva, Devi, Ishvara, Ishvari, Bhagavān and Bhagavati.

<i>Puja</i> (Hinduism) Prayer ritual performed by Hindus of devotional worship

Puja or pooja is a prayer ritual performed in the morning by Hindus to offer devotional worship to one or more deities, to host and honour a guest, or to spiritually celebrate an event. It may honour or celebrate the presence of special guest(s), or their memories after they die. The word "pūjā" is Sanskrit, and means reverence, honour, homage, adoration, and worship. Puja, the loving offering of light, flowers, and water or food to the divine, is the essential ritual of Hinduism. For the worshipper, the divine is visible in the image, and the divinity sees the worshipper. The interaction between human and deity, between human and guru, is called darshan, seeing.

Idolatry idol worship, any reverence of an image, statue or icon

Idolatry is the worship of an idol or cult image, being a physical image, such as a statue, or a person in place of God. In Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism, idolatry connotes the worship of something or someone other than God as if it were God. In these monotheistic religions, idolatry has been considered as the "worship of false gods" and is forbidden by the values such as the Ten Commandments. Other monotheistic religions may apply similar rules. In many Indian religions, such as theistic and non-theistic forms of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, idols (murti) are considered as symbolism for the absolute but not The Absolute, or icons of spiritual ideas, or the embodiment of the divine. It is a means to focus one's religious pursuits and worship (bhakti). In the traditional religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Africa, Asia, the Americas and elsewhere, the reverence of an image or statue has been a common practice, and cult images have carried different meanings and significance.

Ancient Greek religion religion in ancient Greece

Ancient Greek religion encompasses the collection of beliefs, rituals, and mythology originating in ancient Greece in the form of both popular public religion and cult practices. These groups varied enough for it to be possible to speak of Greek religions or "cults" in the plural, though most of them shared similarities.

Hubal was a god worshipped in pre-Islamic Arabia, notably by Quraysh at the Kaaba in Mecca. The god's idol was a human figure believed to control acts of divination, which was performed by tossing arrows before the statue. The direction in which the arrows pointed answered questions asked of the idol. The origins of the cult of Hubal are uncertain, but the name is found in Nabataean inscriptions in northern Arabia. The specific powers and identity attributed to Hubal are equally unclear.

Place of worship specially designed structure or consecrated space for use in worshipping

A place of worship is a specially designed structure or consecrated space where individuals or a group of people such as a congregation come to perform acts of devotion, veneration, or religious study. A building constructed or used for this purpose is sometimes called a house of worship. Temples, churches, synagogues and mosques are examples of structures created for worship. A monastery, particularly for Buddhists, may serve both to house those belonging to religious orders and as a place of worship for visitors. Natural or topographical features may also serve as places of worship, and are considered holy or sacrosanct in some religions; the rituals associated with the Ganges river are an example in Hinduism.

<i>Murti</i> A statue, idol, symbol or icon

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Jagannath Hindu God, believed to be abstract form of Krishna.

Jagannath ; lit. 'lord of the universe') is a deity worshipped in regional traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism in India and Bangladesh. Jagannath is considered a form of Vishnu. He is a part of a triad along with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. To most Vaishnava Hindus, Jagannath is an abstract representation of Krishna; to some Shaiva and Shakta Hindus, he is a symmetry-filled tantric representation of Bhairava; to some Buddhists, he is a symbolic representation of the Buddha in the Buddha-Sangha-Dhamma triad; to some Jains, his name and his festive rituals are derived from Jeenanath of Jainism tradition.

Atenism Monotheistic religion from ancient egypt

Atenism, or the "Amarna heresy", refers to the religious changes associated with the eighteenth dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known under his adopted name, Akhenaten. In the 14th century BC, Atenism was Egypt's state religion for around 20 years, before subsequent rulers returned to the traditional gods and the Pharaohs associated with Atenism were erased from Egyptian records.

Al-Lat pre-Islamic Arabian goddess

Al-Lat, also spelled Allat, Allatu and Alilat, is a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess worshipped under various associations throughout the entire peninsula, including Mecca where she was worshipped alongside Manat and al-'Uzza. The word Allat or Elat has been used to refer to various goddesses in the ancient Near East, including the goddess Asherah-Athirat.

Prana pratistha refers to the rite or ceremony by which a murti is consecrated in a Hindu temple, wherein hymns and mantra are recited to invite the deity to be resident guest, and the idol's eye is opened for the first time. Practiced in the temples of Hinduism and Jainism, the ritual is considered to infuse life into the Hindu temple, and bring to it the numinous presence of divinity and spirituality.

Jain temple the place of worship for Jains, the followers of Jainism

A Jain temple or Derasar is the place of worship for Jains, the followers of Jainism. Jain architecture is essentially restricted to temples and monasteries, and secular Jain buildings generally reflect the prevailing style of the place and time they were built.

Bala Krishna one of the early forms of worship in Krishnaism

Bala Krishna sometimes translated to "Divine Child Krishna", or Bal Gopal is historically one of the early forms of worship in Krishnaism and an element of the history of Krishna worship in antiquity. This tradition is considered as a part of the number of other traditions that led to amalgamation in a later stage of the historical development and culminate in worship of Radha Krishna as Svayam bhagavan. Other monotheist traditions are Bhagavatism and Cult of Gopala, that along with Cult of Krishna-Vasudeva form the basis of the current tradition of the monotheistic Krishna religion. The worship of Balakrishna, the divine child, while a significant feature of the Krishna religion, often receives less attention, however it is one of the most popular deities of Krishna in many parts of India today. Early evidence of such worship can be found or as early as the 4th century BC according to evidence in Megasthenes and in the Arthashastra of Kautilya, when Vāsudeva (as the son of Vasudeva was worshiped as supreme Deity in a strongly monotheistic format, where the supreme Being was perfect, eternal and full of grace.

Ancient Egyptian deities gods and goddesses worshipped in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian deities are the gods and goddesses worshipped in ancient Egypt. The beliefs and rituals surrounding these gods formed the core of ancient Egyptian religion, which emerged sometime in prehistory. Deities represented natural forces and phenomena, and the Egyptians supported and appeased them through offerings and rituals so that these forces would continue to function according to maat, or divine order. After the founding of the Egyptian state around 3100 BC, the authority to perform these tasks was controlled by the pharaoh, who claimed to be the gods' representative and managed the temples where the rituals were carried out.

Shikharbaddha mandir

A shikharbaddha mandir is a traditional Hindu or Jain place of worship, typically featuring architecture characterized by superstructures with towers pinnacles and domes and often built of carved marble, sandstone, or other stone. While such mandirs are common in many branches of Hinduism, the use of the term shikharbaddha mandir to describe such mandirs is most common in the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism as well as Jainism. The opposite of the shikharbaddha temple is one without a shikhara tower, i.e. with a flat roof.

Polytheism Worship of or belief in multiple deities

Polytheism is the worship of or belief in multiple deities, which are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals. In most religions which accept polytheism, the different gods and goddesses are representations of forces of nature or ancestral principles, and can be viewed either as autonomous or as aspects or emanations of a creator deity or transcendental absolute principle, which manifests immanently in nature. Most of the polytheistic deities of ancient religions, with the notable exceptions of the Ancient Egyptian and Hindu deities, were conceived as having physical bodies.

Worship in Hinduism

Worship in Hinduism is an act of religious devotion usually directed to one or more Hindu deities. A sense of Bhakti or devotional love if generally invoked. This term is probably a central one in Hinduism. A direct translation from the Sanskrit to English is problematic. Worship takes a multitude of forms depending on community groups, geography and language. There is a flavour of loving and being in love with whatever object or focus of devotion. Worship is not confined to any place of worship, it also incorporates personal reflection, art forms and group. Hindus usually perform worship in temples or at home to achieve some specific end or to integrate the body, the mind, spirit and also to live a pure life in order to help the performer reincarnate into a higher being.

The Nabataean religion is the form of Arab polytheism practiced in Nabataea, an ancient Arab nation which was well settled by the third century BCE and lasted until the Roman annexation in 106 CE. The Nabateans were polytheistic and worshipped a wide variety of local gods as well as Baalshamin, Isis, and Greco-Roman gods such as Tyche and Dionysus. They worshipped their gods at temples, high places, and betyls. They were mostly aniconic and preferred to decorate their sacred places with geometric designs. Much knowledge of the Nabataeans’ grave goods has been lost due to extensive looting throughout history. They made sacrifices to their gods, performed other rituals and believed in an afterlife.