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Exploring Aniconism (2/2)

Panel Chair: Milette Gaifman | Tuesday, August 25, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

Anicionic objects together form a broad category of religious material sources – a category which in fact 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’, they differ dramatically in their religious agency and manner of mediating divine presence. Based on empirical data from different traditions this panel discusses aniconism from three perspectives: Classification (what are the criteria for distinguishing between different types of aniconic objects?), historiography (what are the historical relations between aniconic and iconic representations within single traditions or in general?) and mediality (how do the sensory properties of aniconic objects generate notions of ritual agency?).

Jørgen Podemann Sørensen

The Real Presence of Osiris: Iconic, semi-iconic and aniconic ritual representations of an Egyptian god

In ancient Egyptian religion, images of the gods served to secure their presence in the world. Statues used in ritual were the nfr.w, the vital presence of the god, and when kings were called ‘the living image’ (twt ᶜnḫ– as in Tutankhamun) of a god, this was really based on the role of statues in ritual. Gods could also be present through their sacred animals, kept in large numbers within the temple precincts, and they could also be ritually active in the form of aniconic and semi-iconic symbols. At the same time there was an idea that gods had a ‘true form’ (jrw m3ᶜ), independent of all kinds of iconic or aniconic representation. Particularly interesting are the many iconic and aniconic representations of Osiris. The contemporary currency of so many forms of ritual presence demonstrates the futility of any ‘theological’ approach and calls for a broader theory of representation.

Hans Jørgen Lundager Jensen

Aniconism in the Bible

The Hebrew Bible promoted aniconism as a general rule for the Yahweh-religion: images of the god Yahweh were strictly prohibited. In the Ten Commandments aniconism follows immediately after the monolatrous rule not to ‘have’ other god than Yahweh. The reason for the prohibition against ‘idols’ is not Yahweh’s inherent indescribability; in the Bible, there is no lack of literary images of Yahweh who is described as or compared with humans, animals, and meteorological phenomena. Among Biblical scholars, aniconism is often regarded as a local, ‘Israelite’, phenomenon. My own proposal will be to see it in the broader context of the religious revolutions (the so-called ‘axial age‘) in the middle of 1. Mill. BCE and regard it 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

Why Would a God Want to Appear Like This? Worshippers' Exegeses of the Hindu Pañcāyatana Pūjā

Many Hindu gods are worshipped both in their iconic, mostly anthropomorphic forms, and in aniconic forms, mostly as natural stones or simple geometrical shapes. There is even in some contexts the tendency that the aniconic forms, especially of Viṣṇu and Śiva, are seen as more apt representations of the indivisible, true aspect of these gods. But what do people say – people who perform aniconic worship today? This paper presents the results from interviews conducted on a field work in Nepal and India where I researched the five stones used in the pañcāyatanapūjā. In this ritual five divinities are worshipped in the form of five natural stones from five different locations of South Asia. The field work was conducted on these five locations and at each place I asked worshippers how they understand the aniconic appearance of the god, especially in its relations to the anthropomorphic image.


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