Did the Ancient Greeks Worship Stones as Gods?

Fernande Hölscher on Milette Gaifman’s Aniconism in Greek Antiquity

Milette Gaifman, Aniconism in Greek Antiquity,
Milette Gaifman, Aniconism in Greek Antiquity, Oxford University Press, 2012, 456 pp., $185

Aniconism was a concept created in nineteenth century Germany to describe an important phenomenon in Greek religion: the veneration of Greek gods—not as their anthropomorphic figure familiar from Homer and the history of Greek art, but as non-figural objects, such as stones and steles, pillars and poles. This book, which began as a doctoral thesis at Princeton under the supervision of William A.P. Childs, marks the first comprehensive study of aniconism among the ancient Greeks.

Gaifman views this phenomenon in its own right rather than as an aberration from the norm. Several studies have treated discrete aspects of the topic—most notably A.A. Donohue, Xoana and the Origins of Greek Sculpture (1988). But nowhere has it been so systematically elucidated as in this new book. Gaifman helps us to understand aniconism and sharpens our perception of anthropomorphism. And who would have imagined that mere stones could be so fascinating!

Modern scholarship on aniconism is often laden with what has been called “cultural Darwinism.”  Scholars working with this evolutionary model reconstruct a linear sequence of representations of the divine, starting with simple stones or pieces of wood, then semi-anthropomorphic representations like herms, images of the god Hermes schematically reduced to his head and phallus, and culminating in the anthropomorphic figure of the gods. Against this teleological model, which originated with Johann Joachim Winckelmann (the founder of Classical archaeology), Gaifman shows that the extant evidence of aniconic veneration cannot be dated to an earlier period of time. Veneration of aniconic representations was practiced side-by-side with the cult of anthropomorphic gods.

In ancient literature, aniconism often bears the meaning of “primitive” and “barbarian,” pointing either to a far distant past or to “otherness.” Gaifman examines these testimonies in their contexts. Only with a clear understanding of the concept over the course of time, from the eighth century BCE to the early centuries of the Common Era, can we properly evaluate the meaning of the non-figured monuments. We are indebted to Gaifman for collecting the original testimonies (many of which are hard to find) and translating them into English.

As wooden objects had usually disintegrated by the time of writing, both ancient and modern writers who discuss the material aniconic culture usually focus on stones. Gaifman treats these witnesses in a very thorough manner, from unwrought rocks to fabricated stones (steles). Gaifman identifies the divine quality of these objects by appeal to ritual evidence—in the form of niches, inscriptions, or the context of a sanctuary. I wonder, though, if we should not make a categorical distinction between the rough unworked stones and the carved ones, since the carving would seem to imply a more deliberate act of facilitating a connection with the divine. Some of the unwrought stones are sanctified and ritually important because of their history. For example, a stone in Delphi was displayed as the object given to the offspring-devourer Kronos in the stead of the infant Zeus; without that substitution, the reign of the Olympians would not have been possible. Such stones are venerated for their own qualities. They recall another group of monuments that Gaifman doesn’t consider: magic stones that were venerated because of their erotic or healing qualities.

Gaifman does not hesitate to illustrate the non-figural, giving each monument (even if only a stone) its due. In this way she can visualize the impact of rough objects on religious behaviour. The rich material from Thera has never been treated in the context of aniconism. Here Gaifman intriguingly suggests that aniconism has something to do with tribal congregation in the outskirts of the city next to the gymnasium, where the inscriptions in the rocks are testimonies of liminal experiences (i.e., the beginning of homoerotic relationships). Niches in the rocks testify to aniconic cult without any hint at a specific divinity. These are similar to the empty seats of Chalke carved into the rock, which Gaifman convincingly subsumes under aniconic material culture. The representation of rocks on coins is included as well. Here she analyzes the famous stone of Aphrodite in Paphos (Cyprus); it served the Roman imagination, yet cannot be supported by archaeological evidence.

There are also carved stones in the form of steles, and these must be understood in context. Even with the name of a divinity (written in the nominative form), the stones cannot always be interpreted as markers of divine presence, as Gaifman rightly insists. They are rather dedications to the gods. Many of them were found in South Italy (Metapontum) and Sicily, but they also appear on the mainland as simple expressions of piety.

Gaifman discusses at length the interesting “altar of the six goddesses” in Pherai (Thessaly) of the late fourth century, which provides a variety of goddess’ names on a row of joining steles and which perhaps was crowned by the heads of the venerated goddesses. But the presence of the heads classifies this monument as a semi-figural object. And here the question arises of how we are to understand the semi-figural. Some will underscore the aniconic dimension, others the anthropomorphic.

Above all Gaifman deserves praise for her precision. Unlike her predecessors, she never speaks of “divine representation” in non-figural objects but always understands them as “markers of divine presence.” Stones and steles designate the god or goddess; they are not relics of ancient aniconic veneration. If the Greeks performed cultic rites in front of stones, these objects helped the worshippers to experience divine power—we can only speculate at the level of intensity. The Greeks never venerated the objects as if they were the gods themselves. Steles are not the actual divinities. Rather, they demarcate divine presence in the context of the subject. Even when the steles bear a goddess’s name such as Aphrodite, they do not indicate that she was venerated in aniconic form. Instead they reveal that a stone was used to represent her presence as ritual was performed. In the sphere of athletics, steles similarly functioned to demarcate space.  Here and elsewhere, their purpose was to “set the scene,” not to be worshipped.