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  Idolatry (from a neutral Greek word meaning ‘image’, with the same root as the verb ‘to see’) has come to mean the veneration of images, and has generally had a pejorative sense during its chequered history, especially when used by Jews, Christians and Muslims to describe the practices of other faiths.

From the earliest times and in all civilizations representations of gods have been made, whether in the ancient Middle East, Egypt, the Indus valley civilization, ancient China or Africa, or the pre-Hellenic civilizations in Greece and Crete—that is, since at least 4000-5000  BCE. The earliest ‘idols’ are invariably little models of Mother Earth (see goddess) and the sky gods. Clearly a very deep, basic psychological need is supplied by the provision of a tangible sign of divine power. As civilizations and their technology advanced, these representations became more and more sophisticated and beautiful, reaching great heights in, for example, the arts of classical Greece (6th-3rd century  BCE) and the Chola and Pandyan eras of Tamil Nadu. But in one area of the world, the ancient Middle East, there was a reaction against idolatry in the 15th century  BCE, when the Israelites whom Moses led from Egypt adopted an austere monotheism. Although they carried around the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were engraved with the awe, reverence and pomp normally associated with idols, they were strictly forbidden to make graven images. They did not always live up to this high ideal, but since the surrounding peoples used images, idolatry quickly became equated with apostacy.

Excavations of synagogues in the Roman period have uncovered murals and mosaics with graphic representations, but there is no hint of veneration. (In the same way, in India under the Moguls, art, especially miniature painting, flowered, in contravention of Islamic law.)

At first Christianity followed its Jewish parent, but in the 2nd century  CE, Christian sarcophagi have scenes depicting biblical stories, and when Christianity became a mass religion and the official faith of the Roman Empire, images—not least the central image of Christianity, the cross (with or without the form of Christ himself), were sometimes assumed to have miraculous powers, a belief which the Reformers did not hesitate to castigate as idolatry. In the violent upheavals and wars which accompanied the Reformation, religious statues were smashed, cathedrals wrecked, and the treasures of the Renaissance vandalized in a popular protest which hardened into puritanism. In Protestantism there is still considerable ambivalence about religious art (though the cross retains its symbolic potency), and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) have led to a reaction in Roman Catholicism against holy images and miracle-working statues.

In the East the Orthodox Church was rent by the iconoclastic controversy (c.725-842), saying that it was the veneration of icons (see iconography) and statues which prevented the conversion of Jews and Muslims. The Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (?675-741) totally forbade their use as idolatrous. Great persecution of monks, who were the main icon painters, ensued, while the deposed patriarch appealed to Rome. Successive popes condemned the policy, upheld by Leo\'s son and grandson in turn, but two empresses, Irene, who instigated the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (787), which upheld the icons, and Theodora, who got a proicon patriarch elected in 842, got the policy reversed despite the iconoclastic stance of the army. However, to avoid charges of idolatry, Orthodox art henceforth remained two-dimensional, though icons are venerated as images of heavenly reality.

The iconoclastic controversy was undoubtedly due in part to the influence of Islam, where all image-making is forbidden. The position in Hinduism is complex. On the one hand, educated Hindus are convinced that images of the deity are not worshipped, but are simply aids to worship, and some movements which reject sacrifice and the concept of a personal god, reject images altogether. For the majority, however, the deity is present in a very real way in the ‘idol’. When a statue of the deity is completed, a special ceremony is held to call down numinous power into the image. Then it is treated as god, that is, as a king or queen: daily washed, clothed, fed, taken out in procession and offerings made before it. Interestingly, the word ‘idol’ has been taken into Indian English and indology as a neutral, almost technical word for the divine image, depite the fulminations of missionaries against idolatry. There are still many Indian Christians who will not enter a temple because of the presence they feel there as represented by the devotions shown to the idols. It is the presence of idols which makes a building into a temple.

Both in Hinduism and African traditional religion, God is present in everything. It is therefore a question of taking something already infused with divinity in some way and making it a special channel of divine power. A tree or rock, for example, can be as much an idol as a statue or carving (see Shinto and totemism). Probably the best way to view the use of idols is as lifelines to the deity, something to hold on to, something to bring one into direct contact with the divine. However, the question is always whether the object of veneration does not become the subject of worship. Idolatry is often seen in the West as a possessive kind of love, following Paul\'s strictures about ‘covetousness which is idolatry’. Idolatry has thus become equated, in general parlance, with obsession: we ‘idolize’, for example, people, money, power or sex. EMJ



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