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Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  J_Agathokles on Thu Apr 11, 2013 7:10 am

Hello there, I am posting this because the question was asked what could be salvaged from the old Hellenismos.us-forum. I have two posts from the old Hellenismos.us-blog in my Evernote, and one post from a discussion thread which I will share here. Underneath this introduction I will copy a blogpost written by Astalon, posted on May 10th, 2008. The original URL was http://hellenismos.us/b/2008/05/aniconic-symbols-of-the-hellenic-gods/. And here it is:


Aniconic:- Absence of Graphic Representation of any humans or living creatures.

Aniconism is a style, usually of religious representation though it can also apply to art where humans and living creatures were not depicted in art form. The ancient Hellenic religion was an ICONIC religion where Gods were frequently depicted in the form of humans and where beauty, artform, grace etc.. was celebrated. It was because of the Greek iconic religious belief that artistry and sculpture as we know it reached its peak. A lot of modern sculpture technique has not actually changed very much since Hellenic times!!!

However the Greek religion also had an aniconic aspect to the religion. Prior to the Greeks developing the technology and skills and knowledge in sculpture and painting and art the Gods were often represented in an aniconic manner. In fact even till the late Classical period aniconism was still rampant especially in the rural areas as until the Greeks perfected the moulding technology statues were still relatively expensive.

However aniconic symbolism persisted even till the late Hellenistic period owing to three reasons.


  1. The first reason is that many older temples primary cult object were still aniconic.
  2. The second reason is that aniconic symbolism were available “anywhere”. Aniconic symbolism were mainly made from stones or plants which means for most part they were free, as opposed to say statues. Plus in many case the aniconic symbol acts both as the altar and the symbol!!!
  3. The third reason is that in home worship most symbols were aniconic anyway!!


Here are a list of aniconic symbols:-

Aniconic symbols that can be made from stones:-


  1. Hermes:- In rural Greece Hermes is usually represented in the form of a herm. A herm is basically a pile of stones or pebbles or flint shaped either in a cone shaped manner, pyramid shaped manner ( with three or four sides ) or basically just a pile of stones widest at its base and slowly narrowing to the top.

    Herms in later times in Athens used to have an iconic sculpture, usually of a face of a bearded man put on top of it though in the ruarl areas herms remains a pile of rock, usually build where the road forks out but also in front of homes and houses etc..

    Most herms act as altars to Hermes. Historical records documents that people either offered more pebbles to the herm, offered flowers or libation onto the herms.

    Unless one comes from an area without stones building a herm should be easy. I have two in my garden.

  2. Apollo the Averter of Evil:- An upright stone or rock shaped in the form of an obelisk ( menhir ), an omphalus shaped stone ( spherical or slighty elipse like ), a tapering conical stone or a long cylindrical stone. Part of the stone is usually buried in the ground to keep it upright. If the stone is found that way it can be considered to be an altar.

    Stones or rocks like this are usually placed in front of houses or along roadsides and represents Apollo who Averts Evil. People in ancient times use to libate, dowse oil or garland the rock with flowers as offering. The rock like the herm acts both as a symbol and an altar.

  3. Zeus Herkeios:- A cubelike or cuboid or any odd rock or stone with a flat top. Usually placed in courtyards of home or alongside the boundary of cities or towns. Representing Zeus who guards the courtyard. Offering usually offered on this, act both as a symbol and an altar.

  4. The Kharites:- 3 stones or rocks, protruding out of the ground. In fact one of the earliest known altars to the Kharites were three large rocks that protruded out of the ground where people would put their offerings by dabbing or libating at the three rocks. Later there were villages where three smaller protruding stones were used instead. Acts both as an altar and a symbolism.

  5. Priapos:- A long, very tapered cylindirical stone with a rounded is oftentimes the only symbol for this God. Once again acts as an altar to Priapos.


Dried Plant materials ( not living plants or transient display like fresh leaves etc.. ):-


  1. Hera:- Roughly hewn small tree trunks. In Daedela there appeared to be a cult of Hera where Hera was represented by covering up a small tree trunk or very roughly hewned tree trunks. This appeared to be have been the cult image.
  2. Zeus:- Acorns may hav been used to represent Zeus Katabaites.
  3. Dionysos:- A pine cone tied to the top of a shaft of wood, also known as a thyrsus was used to represent him.
  4. Herakles:- A long stick placed alongside the door is a visual representation of Herakles
  5. Poseidon:- Pine cones are used to represent Poseidon.
  6. Demeter:- Dried shaft of either wheat or barley is often used to represent Demeter.
  7. Hekate:- Interestingly enough Hekate is sometimes represented by a bunch of dried herbs!!
  8. Asclepius:- Also sometimes represented by a bunch of dried herb!!


Natural Products ( Dried, not plant related )


  1. Zeus:- A pile of wool is sometimes used to represent Zeus. Wool covering an amphora ( a two handled jar ) is the orthopraxic representation in fact of Zeus Ktesios and is used in home worship
  2. Hera:- A pile of white wool ( the wool is clearly described as white ) is sometimes used to represent Hera.
  3. Aphrodite:- Seashells, especially that of bivalves are often used to represent Aphrodite though other form of seashells can represent her
  4. Poseidon:- Conchs are used to sometimes represent Poseidon
  5. Helios:- Resin that are bright yellow may have been used as the symbolism for Helios though our records only records the time when Helios already had cult statues.


Places in the House:-


  1. Hestia: The hearth ( or in the modern equivalent the cooking stove or the kitchen, though if we were to thoroughly consider the function of the hearth in ancient times the hearth was also the living room and dining room for many poorer families ) is not only her symbol, it is also in a sense the place that is sacred to her. The hearth flame and the hearth proper ( or in the modern context the stove and the benchtop ) was both her symbol and her altar, her temenos in everyone’s kitchen. So potent was this symbolism she was one of the few Greek Gods that rarely got a human representation. People literally “saw” Hestia whenever they entered the kitchen and her altar is the cooking place. People in the past literally dropped food into the burning flame as an offering to her. Every individuals kitchen is literally an inbuilt altar and sanctuary to Hestia, regardless of whether there is a representaton or not since the ancient Greeks themselves in general rarely represented her, seeing the hearth flame as being sufficient representation.
  2. The Dioscuri:- The ridge of the roof ( where the roof meet ) is their symbol. In fact an altar is usually erected to them around the centre pole that holds up the ridge ( in modern day architecture this is no longer required for small buildings owing to improved rafter technology ). Incense were usually burnt and the smoke let to drift along the ridge ( in most modern houses you need to go into the attic to see the ridge )
  3. Hekate:- The doorway is considered sacred to Hekate but is sometimes her symbol. Altars to her in homes were erected near doorway.
  4. Hermes:- The doorway but also the gateway and the fence are sacred to Hermes. These were where the altars were usually erected.
  5. Hercules:- The door and gate were considered sacred to Herakles. Once again his altars were erected near doors.
  6. Zeus:- The pantry and courtyard is considered sacred to Zeus, with a Zeus of the Pantry having an altar literally inside the pantry, represented by a double handled jar ( amphora ) delineated from other amphora by either wool or being the only amphora to sit on top what is clearly an altar. The other is an altar to Zeus Herkeios, the guardian of the courtyard.


Living Plants ( Common House Plants ):-

The list of living plants and how to style them that has been used as representation of the Gods are so long and so exhaustive especially if you start considering the Hellenistic and Roman period association with plants ( where you now have to consider plants from India all the way to France, from Bulgaria all the way to Southern Egypt ) that I will not write them in this blog. Needless to say many non-tropical decidious tree you find in the Northern Hemisphere that you can think about ( Apple, almond, pear, oranges, hazel, oak, birch, pine, olives etc.. ) has been used at some point or the other as the representation of a deity. This is excluding annuals and perennials, various flowers etc.. which would make ones eye pop if I ran through the list.

To make life very easy I will only run through common house plants!!!


  1. Zeus:- One can say safely that any plant from the Genus ficus would likely be sacred to Zeus. The ancient Greeks regarded the common figs ( Ficus carica ) and Sycamore fig ( Ficus sycomorus ) to be sacred to Zeus. Interestingly enough when they went to India they also began to associate the banyan ( Ficus benghalensis ) and the various other strangler banyans ( Ficus religiosa etc.. ) from the subgenus Urostigma as sacred to Zeus!!! They also regarded a plant that we now suspect as (Ficus elastica) to be sacred to Zeus. Interestingly enough at the same time Greeks in the south of the Nile began to identify a plant only later recognized to probably be Ficus lyrata well to be sacred to Zeus. All these plants look very different from each other but has one commonality, they all belong to the genus Ficus.

    If we take one step and associate Zeus with Indra ( as the Greco-Buddhist did ) then the number of Ficus species known to be sacred to Zeus rockets exponentially to the point you get crawler fig plants in Thailand being associated with Zeus.

    There are three plants common to the genus ficus that are used as house plants. One is the Ficus benjamina, an Indian plant that is popular as an indoor house plant. The other is Ficus pumila which is an evergreen vine. The third is Ficus lyrata which may be the plant described in the Southern Nile by the ancient Greeks considered sacred to Zeus.

  2. Dionysus:- The common Hedera helix ( known as ivy ) and all ivies are sacred to Dionysus and is in fact one of the most enduring symbol of Dionysus. One of the way the ancients made a cult image of Dionysus is in fact to plant a wood into the Earth and let the ivy grow over it.
  3. Artemis:- Cyclamens may have been described as far back as the 3rd century BCE in poetry associated with Artemis. This association may not be absurd as one of the few flowers to actually blossom enmasse the Mediterrenean jungles was cyclamens.
    Palms are surprisingly enough sacred to Artemis as well. Though initially only dates were sacred to Artemis palms in India were definitely seen as sacred to her. Bungalow and parlor palms would therefore be sacred to Artemis.
  4. Aphrodite:- Cylamens were also alluded to Aphrodite. However roses were always considered sacred to Aphrodite for sure and miniature roses which is so common an indoor plant would definitely be sacred to her. Another plant interestingly enough that has a long known association to be sacred to Aphrodite are the various orchids.
  5. Apollo:- Aloe vera is a plant long associated with Apollo and is considered sacred to Apollo and especially in his Egyptian temples were grown there.

    Like Artemis all palms would be considered sacred to Apollo. As a result bungalow or parlor palms would be considered sacred to Apollo.

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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Linda on Wed Apr 17, 2013 4:14 pm

Thanks for an interesting article. Glad I found it here, because I must have missed it at Hellenismos.

How about the olives for Athena, the grapes for Dionysos, the pommegranates for Persephone & Hera, the cherries (or mainly the cherry blossoms) for Persehone. Is that part of another grouping of items connected to the gods?
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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  J_Agathokles on Wed Apr 17, 2013 4:34 pm

Linda, it was not a forum post, but was a post on the Hellenismos.us blog, whence you may have missed it, it was an entirely different part of the site.

Those things you mention are not common houseplants, whence the author probably didn't mention them. I don't know if these could be dried so you can use them like that. But if you can dry them, then they would belong in the group of dried plants materials as aniconic representations.

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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  J_Agathokles on Wed Apr 17, 2013 4:38 pm

On a separate note, the thyrsos for Dionysos would be made of a pinecone on top of a shaft of giant fennel (Ferula communis) specifically, though other materials can be used if that is unavailable where you live. The thyrsos could also be garlanded with grape vines and ivy.

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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Linda on Wed Apr 17, 2013 5:40 pm

Thanks, J_Agathokles.

I tend to not want dried organic matter in my home, since it become so dusty and ugly pretty often. I'm more insterested in keeping some kind of art representation of these matters, like pictures, statuettes or something. I have a brass olive branch monted at the wall in my hallway as a symbol of peaceful Athena, to keep peace and serenity within my home. It's a bit along the line with the feng suí ideas but a hellenisic context.
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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  spokane89 on Thu Apr 18, 2013 12:33 am

This was an immensely fascinating read, thanks for salvaging it! Very Happy
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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Agnes on Sun Apr 21, 2013 3:11 pm

I like this. However beautiful the statues of Gods may be, I think they can also contribute to over-anthropomorphism of Them - while (to me, at least) the Theoi are so much more than just "immortal humans with superpowers", as often portrayed. More abstract representations help seeing the Gods from a different perspective.

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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Erodius on Sun Apr 21, 2013 4:09 pm

Agnes wrote:I like this. However beautiful the statues of Gods may be, I think they can also contribute to over-anthropomorphism of Them - while the Theoi are so much more than just "immortal humans with superpowers", as often portrayed. More abstract representations help seeing the Gods from a different perspective.

I agree 110%. I mentioned this in another thread, but this is the reason that, in my own artwork, I prefer a more artificial, stylized and geometric (Egyptian-esque, you might say) style in depicting gods.

Statues can certainly be beautiful (or dreadful, for that matter), but they have the downside of their appeal depending on individuals' aesthetic sense, as well as, more importantly, as you mentioned, possibly leading to unintentional over-anthropomorphizing of gods in our minds, which becomes a barrier to understanding. It makes me think of a few animal-training experts I have heard speak (a relative of mine always seemed to have a set of various unruly dogs for whom she sought trainers), anyway, something I heard reiterated again and again was that, in animals, a lot of behavioral problems arise from their owners treating them and trying to teach them as if they were people. Obviously this isn't a perfect analogue, but the idea is the same. We can run into trouble when we try to project humanity onto non-human things.

One aniconic and very inexpensive method I have used for times when I'm feeling especially iconoclastic, is to go to a craft store and buy a bag of small wooden planks (something like popsicle sticks, essentially), paint them white, and use a gold leafing pen to write the god's name on the wood in Greek script. Then I hot glue (or beeswax) attach the wood pieces to round wooden bases (they're little wooden discs about the size of American quarter coins; on the bag I think they are labeled as 'toy car craft wheels'). Doing this, you can make yourself a full set of 'icons' for only a few dollars.

Stone and bronze sculptures, as they were made in Antiquity, were a very labor-intensive process that took a long time and resulted in expensive products that were likely restricted to the very privileged as far as who could afford them. By the Roman Imperial era, techniques had developed for mass-producing small, cheap, moulded terra-cotta statues, but even these were of a much lower quality and detail than handmade stone or metal sculptures. For the vast majority of people throughout Antiquity, the beautiful statues we see today in museums would have been far beyond the financial means of the average person to possess.

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"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Linda on Sun Apr 21, 2013 4:52 pm

We are all different, I'm one who have statues of the gods and I love them, I consider them beautiful celebratory images of the gods and me they help focus upon the gods, even if I know they can look whatever they desire. But I see them as representations, more than images, just like people around me showing up as different avatars when the phone rings. Like my husband having the coat of arms of his preffered football team, lt makes me recognize him in the phone but it's not him.

Another thing, those expensive images of gods were often made to show off with, by public offices as well as the single man. Take the Parthenon temple for instance, Athena wouldn't care about a structure of marble, but for the Athenians it was a way to show off their power and fortune granted them by the great goddess.
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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Andromeda Amethyst on Sun Apr 28, 2013 6:24 am

Interestingly enough, barring the one statue I have had the money to buy (Hades), my entire altar is aniconic. Owl-shaped perfume bottle, clay anvil, rose shaped candle, and a small bottle filled with volcanic glass sand, etc.. Well, interesting or finding things cheaper than statues with my chronically empty bank account! Laughing
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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Thrasyvoulos on Tue May 14, 2013 3:53 am

I use mostly aniconic symbols, as well. Hearth candle for Hestia, an eagle figurine for Zeus, a peacock feather given me by my late great-aunt for Hera, arrowheads given me by my late grand-father for Apollo and Artemis, a conch shell for Poseidon, a clam shell on a mirror for Aphrodite, and so on. I don't do that because I want to. If I could afford busts and statues and had a place to put them, I'd definitely prefer those, but I make due Laughing

The one icon I own that isn't aniconic is (don't laugh) a Yu-Gi-Oh! card called "Athena." When I was younger, I loved to play Yu-Gi-Oh! and other, similar strategy card games. Actually, it would be a lie to say I don't anymore. I play card games and chess and the like all the time. And, just before I came to Olympianism, I had a little emotional crisis that lead me to pray to Athena which resulted in me finding this Yu-Gi-Oh! card among all my other cards, as well as being practically assaulted with an entire parliament of owl symbols over the course of the proceeding days. *shudders* sooo many owls Laughing I've kept that card in a protector in my wallet ever since.

I'll link to a couple images of the card I'm speaking of, so everyone else can see it. Personally, I think it is a beautiful rendition of Athena Very Happy



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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Erodius on Tue May 14, 2013 9:30 am

Not my cup of tea, thanks . . . No

However, you can print a wide variety of images, completely free, from the Theoi.com galleries — respectful, beautiful images, most of which were made by those who worshipped the Gods. Most of them are very good quality, and look just as nice in black and white (many are black and white anyway), even if you do not have access to a color printer.

Try thrift stores and/or dollar stores for frames, or if that is even too much of an expense, you can mat the image on cardstock and attach it to a wall, or put a lean-to leg on the back to have it stand up.

If you want images, they are easy to acquire, even with no money. Wink

Here are just a pair of nice images of Minerva-Athini I have come across over the years and saved:




_________________
"O Best of Gods, blest daimon crown'd with fire . . . hear, and from punishment my soul absolve, the punishment incurr'd by pristine guilt, thro' Lethe's darkness and terrene desire: and if for long-extended years I'm doom'd in these drear realms Heav'n's exile to remain, O grant me soon the necessary means to gain that good which solitude confers on souls emerging from the bitter waves of fraudful Hyle's black, impetuous flood!"
-Iulianic Hymn to Apollon-Helios, ll. 65-106

"Having come for punishment, one must be punished. One must not pull apart the god within oneself."
-Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica

"Truth would you teach, or save a sinking land,
All hear, none aid you, and few understand."
-Alexander Pope


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Re: Aniconic Symbols of the Gods

Post  Thrasyvoulos on Sun May 19, 2013 4:55 pm

I wouldn't expect it to appeal to very many people x) I keep that card in my wallet because of sentimental reasons, it's the only actual depiction I keep. I don't keep other artistic renditions because of current living arrangements and how certain people would react to having a non-Christian among them ;3 aniconic symbols must do until things change. The card, however, is very close to me, due to how and when I found it, so I keep it with me.

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