Restoring Idolatry to Iconolatry
But the need to destroy the icons of a religion does not merely suppress the religion's material culture. There is a profound spiritual, or we might say magical, reason for the destruction. The Icons, or idols as their detractors would call them, were not simply works of stone, wood, porcelain, metal, or such. An Icon might be a work of high art or an unhewn stone, but in every case it was seen as an embodiment of the Deity worshiped through it. For this reason, the Icon was literally worshiped or offered latria or Divine service (as the Romans put it). This term is the basis for the word idol-latria.
For its detractors, this practice was the height of folly or the depth of sin. Their polemic centers on the worship of a stone or block of wood, an object made by human hands. Yet there is no evidence that the ancient peoples, or our contemporaries for that matter, confuse the Icon with the God, any more than we confuse a telephone with the person we are talking to. But you would not necessarily know this by listening to the speech of priests engaged in worship.
In worship, the Icon is typically addressed as though it is the person of the Deity. Whether giving words of praise, making food offerings, or dressing the Icon or shrine, the Icon is typically addressed as though there were a person present there. The reason for this behavior is that the Icon is the Deity, or more properly an incarnation of the Deity, what we might call today an instance. The 'actual' Deity is of course a structure of the world (at least for Pantheists)—that's what makes that Being a Deity. But the image, often anthropomorphic, is considered to hold the spirit of the Deity.
The Icon has come by this status 'naturally' as do the sacred stones, often meteorites, worshiped in many cultures. A constructed Icon may have been consecrated by the priestfolk who invited the essence of the Goddess to dwell within it. Thereafter, the Icon was treated as the Deity, offered hymns and material offerings, and had prayers addressed to it. In response, the Deity blessed the city and the people and at times granted their prayers. Deities being characteristically present throughout existence might be said to be especially concentrated or present in an Icon. Or the Icon might serve as something like a telephone, as though the ear of the Deity were in that place (a common motif in Egypt). Long worship and regular offerings made the Icon a powerful locus of the Deity's presence. These practices made the Deity especially welcome and disposed to granting Her or His benefits at that place. One could think of these statues and sacred objects as anchorages for the Gods, holding them to the human world and making them accessible to humankind. This is why those Icons had to be destroyed by the practitioners of competing religions.
For a trained and practiced priestess or priest, witch, or mage, access to the Gods is readily available through invocations and offerings. For the common person, who does not know the "order of the sacred observance, its holiness and [the] long-protracted endurance of toils, and, . . . the customs, prayers and other rituals" (Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, 2004, p. 153) that enable Divine contact, the consecrated Icon was the principal place they came to offer worship and ask boons. To break a peoples' contact with the Gods, one must destroy and desecrate the Icons of their Gods. Yet if we know how to destroy contact with the Gods, we also know how to undo the damage.
Sam Webster is a Mage, Mason, Sorcerer, Seminarian, and Pagan Priest, restoring the way of the Gods.
Webster's column, "Pagan Restoration," is published the 3rd Wednesday every month on the Pagan Channel. It is now being offered in a new format! Don't forget to update your RSS links and e-mail subscriptions.