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Exploring Aniconism: IAHR 2015 Panel Review

Mikael Aktor reviews the panel he co-organised on Aniconism at the 2015 IAHR World Conference in Erfurt, Germany.

Anicionic objects from different religious traditions together form a broad category of religious material sources. In fact, it seems both too broad and incoherent. It includes clearly recognizable depictions of wheels, fish, phalli, unmanufactured objects and elements in the natural environment such as unwrought stones, trees, rivers and mountains, fashioned objects, such as stelai and logs, as well as empty spaces, such as vacant seats, and empty rooms. While all of these objects are described as ‘aniconic’ at least in some religious traditions, they differ dramatically in their religious agency and manner of mediating divine presence. A South Asian river can be a Hindu goddess, while it is hardly an image of her. Similarly, a black meteorite could be described as Cybele the mother goddess, yet it does not seem to articulate a vision of the divinity’s imagined appearance. At the same time, a river and a stone have markedly different physical and visual relations to their viewers and worshippers as well as the deities to which they are linked. In order to explore the range of aniconism, Mikael Aktor and Milette Gaifman organised a panel at the 21st World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR)to discuss these questions.

In particular panelists were invited to address three themes: How to build up a more precise terminology? There is much confusion as to the meaning of several central words such as ‘representation’, ‘symbol’, ‘icon’, ‘iconicity’, ‘aniconic’ and subcategories of the aniconic such as ‘physiomorphic’, ‘petromorphic’ and more. It is also open to debate as to how many and what categories must or can be included in the aniconic. Is a body relic an aniconic representation of a sacred being? Is fire? It is also common that a god or goddess appears in both anthropomorphic and physiomorphic forms. The river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh, India, is worshipped as a goddess and so is her anthropomorphic image in front of which we find the aniconic banalinga, the direct manifestation of Shiva. What kinds of mediation are going on here? Is the river an ‘aniconic representation of Mother Narmada’ or simply her true form?

 

Figure 1: Narmada Temple at the Western point of Mandhata Island in the middle of Narmada River at Omkareshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by Mikael Aktor.

Another theme is about historiography. Scholars working in different religious traditions, for instance Greek, Hindu and Buddhist, have often assumed that aniconic symbols predate later pictorial, typically anthropomorphic modes of expression. Recent scholarship has revealed that such periodizations sometimes go together with the hypothesis that early aniconic symbolism was the expression of an original unwillingness to imagine divine beings in iconic forms, an unwillingness that only gradually gave way to iconicity and an anthropomorphic visual imagery. But do such hypotheses stand for a fresh historical scrutiny within single traditions, and if they do, can such developments be explained within general macro-historical frameworks? Lastly, it is interesting to ask questions about how aniconic objects embody and mediate their prototypes. Even if aniconic modes of expression predate iconic imagery, aniconism was never lost. Rather aniconic forms continued to exist as a deliberate choice side by side with anthropomorphic or other iconic representations. What, then, do aniconic forms accomplish in terms of mediating the divine prototypes to which they are related? Also the lack of direct visual links between aniconic objects and the holy or ritually potent presences they mediate raises questions as to how the sensory properties of such objects generate notions of ritual agency and trigger religious thought and practice. Is the missing visual link a way of expressing a more esoteric understanding of the prototype?

Nine papers were presented at the panel.

Milette Gaifman critically addressed the genealogy of the notion of ‘aniconism’ from its birth into archeological scholarship in the middle of the 19th century. The word was coined by the German archaeologist Johannes Adolph Overbeck, in the context of an account of the development of ancient Greek art. But it was overlaid with a Protestant ideological bias in favor of transcendence that is inadequate today. The paper also stressed the idea of aniconism as a deliberate choice and showed how Greek gods were given both anthropomorphic and aniconic forms.

 

Figure 2:
Seat of Zeus and Hekate. Halki Island, Greece. Photo by Milette Gaifman.

Robert G. Bednarik argued that contrary to the widely held belief that iconic palaeoart preceded the aniconic during the early history of humans, palaeoart commenced as non-iconic forms, and in most parts of the world then settled by hominins continued as such during the Pleistocene era. He paid attention to the question of the continuation of aniconism after the introduction of iconicity and the apparent connection between the former and adult initiated groups. He pointed out that the neuroscientific explanation of aniconism shows that it is cognitively more complex than iconic depiction.

Figure 3: Petroglyph in Kienbachklamm, Austria.Photo by Szojak via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Jay Johnston considered the materiality and mediality of sacred and ‘magical’ stones in Northern European vernacular belief practices (especially Gaelic traditions). Her paper focused on the materiality and ontology of the objects, their associated visions and the relations such stones are understood to have produced. As sites of divine agency and efficacy the stones were imbued not only with spiritual agency, but also placed within an invisible network of relations that linked individuals, non-human animals, the landscape and the metaphysical realms.

Jørgen Podemann Sørensen presented material from ancient Egyptian religion, where images of the gods served to secure their presence in the world. Statues used in ritual were the vital presence of the god, and when kings were called ‘the living image’ (as in the name Tutankhamun) of a god, this was really based on the role of statues in ritual. At the same time there was an idea that gods had a ‘true form’, independent of all kinds of iconic or aniconic representation. This was demonstrated by the many iconic and aniconic representations of Osiris.

Hans Jørgen Lundager Jensen discussed the promotion of aniconism as a general rule for the Yahweh-religion: Images of the god Yahweh were strictly prohibited. The reason for the prohibition was not Yahweh’s inherent indescribability but can be understood in the broader context of the religious revolutions (the so-called ‘axial age‘) in the middle of 1. Mill. BCE. As such it can be regarded as an element in a general transformation from a ‘pre-axial’ type of religion, based on cult, ritual and material culture, to an ascetic, and cognitively sophisticated, form of religion.

Mikael Aktor presented his field work in Nepal and India on the Hindu pancayatanapuja, a ritual where five deities, Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Ganesha and Devi, are worshipped in the form of five stones from different locations of South Asia. In particular, he examined the anthropomorphization that seems to take place when aniconic objects are appropriated in devotional rituals of worship. Inspired by Milette Gaifman’s idea of seeing aniconism not as an absolute mode of representation but as part of a spectrum he presented a chart showing the continuity between various aniconic forms.

Figure 4: Shalagramas (Ammonite fossils), the manifestations of Vishnu, with tilaka marks and facial characteristics. Muktinath, Nepal. Photo by Mikael Aktor.

David L. Haberman presented his research on the worship of landscape elements in Hinduism. He focused on the worshipful interaction with three such natural phenomena: the Yamuna River, sacred trees of Varanasi, and Mount Govardhan. He stressed that although all three would be considered aniconic religious objects, they all have iconic forms as well, typically personified as various gods or goddesses. Like the previous paper, a major aim of the presentation was to examine the devotional tendency to anthropomorphize aniconic objects as a way of manifesting their full being and bringing out their personality—in other words, to draw the iconic out of the aniconic.

Richard H. Davis discussed the many manifestations of Shiva that we see in South Indian temples as understood from the perspective of Shaivasiddhanta theology. A Shiva temple contains both iconic and aniconic forms, for Shiva to inhabit and for human devotees to worship. Davis presented the varied forms that are transformed ritually into manifestations of Shiva during a Shaiva temple festival, as spelled out in medieval priestly guidebooks. Apart from the aniconic Shivalinga and the anthropomorphic processional icons, these also include a flagpole, a sacrificial fire, a trident, a pot of water, a drum, and a temporary linga made of rice and yogurt. The festival provides a demonstration of Shiva’s divine ubiquity.

Klemens Karlsson stressed that meanings attributed to objects are not inherent to the objects themselves. Instead, meanings are the result of cultural and historical processes and are constantly changing. The same applies to ‘aniconic’ objects. Early Buddhist cultic sites in South Asia were covered with signs that have been interpreted as ‘aniconic’ representations of the Buddha. This paper focused on the shifting meanings of these signs from the early ‘aniconic’ phase to the time when these signs exist side by side with anthropomorphic presentations of the Buddha and became symbolic signs that serves as vehicles for Buddhist doctrines.

The panel was convened by Mikael Aktor, co-editor of Objects of Worship in South Asian Religions (Routledge 2015) and Milette Gaifman, author of Aniconism in Greek Antiquity (Oxford University Press 2012).

 

MLA citation format: Aktor, Mikael “Exploring Aniconism: IAHR 2015 Panel Review” Web blog post. Material Religions. 14 October 2015. [date of access]

 

 

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