1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Idolatry

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IDOLATRY, the worship (Gr. λατρεία) of idols (Gr. εἴδωλον), i.e. images or other objects, believed to represent or be the abode of a superhuman personality. The term is often used generically to include such varied, forms as litholatry, dendrolatry, pyrolatry, zoolatry and even necrolatry. In an age when the study of religion was practically confined to Judaism and Christianity, idolatry was regarded as a degeneration from an uncorrupt primeval faith, but the comparative and historical investigation of religion has shown it to be rather a stage of an upward movement, and that by no means the earliest. It is not found, for instance, among Bushmen, Fuegians, Eskimos, while it reached a high development among the great civilizations of the ancient world in both hemispheres.[1] Its earliest stages are to be sought in naturism and animism. To give concreteness to the vague ideas thus worshipped the idol, at first rough and crude, comes to the help of the savage, and in course of time through inability to distinguish subjective and objective, comes to be identified with the idea it originally symbolized. The degraded form of animism known as fetichism is usually the direct antecedent of idolatry. A fetich is adored, not for itself, but for the spirit who dwells in it and works through it. Fetiches of stone or wood were at a very early age shaped and polished or coloured and ornamented. A new step was taken when the top of the log or stone was shaped like a human head; the rest of the body soon followed. The process can be followed with some distinctness in Greece. Sometimes, as in Babylonia and India, the representation combined human and animal forms, but the human figure is the predominant model; man makes God after his own image.

Idols may be private and personal like the teraphim of the Hebrews or the little figures found in early Egyptian tombs, or—a late development, public and tribal or national. Some, like the ancestral images among the Maoris, are the intermittent abodes of the spirits of the dead.

As the earlier stages in the development of the religious consciousness persist and are often manifest in idolatry, so in the higher stages, when men have attained loftier spiritual ideas, idolatry itself survives and is abundantly visible as a reactionary tendency. The history of the Jewish people whom the prophets sought, for long in vain, to wean from worshipping images is an illustration: so too the vulgarities of modern popular Hinduism contrasted with the lofty teaching of the Indian sacred books.

In the New Testament the word εἰδωλολατρεία (idololatria, afterwards shortened occasionally to εἰδολατρεία, idolatria) occurs in all four times, viz. in 1 Cor. x. 14; Gal. v. 20; 1 Peter iv. 3; Col. iii. 5. In the last of these passages it is used to describe the sin of covetousness or “mammon-worship.” In the other places it indicates with the utmost generality all the rites and practices of those special forms of paganism with which Christianity first came into collision. It can only be understood by reference to the LXX., where εἴδωλον (like the word “idol” in A.V.) occasionally translates indifferently no fewer than sixteen words by which in the Old Testament the objects of what the later Jews called “strange worship” (עֲבוֹדה זֶרֶה) are denoted (see Encyclopaedia Biblica). In the widest acceptation of the word, idolatry in any form is absolutely forbidden in the second commandment, which runs “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image; [and] to no visible shape in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth, shalt thou bow down or render service” (see Decalogue). For some account of the questions connected with the breaches of this law which are recorded in the history of the Israelites see the article Jews; those differences as to the interpretation of the prohibition which have so seriously divided Christendom are discussed under the head of Iconoclasts.

In the ancient church, idolatry was naturally reckoned among those magna crimina or great crimes against the first and second commandments which involved the highest ecclesiastical censures. Not only were those who had gone openly to heathen temples and partaken in the sacrifices (sacrificati) or burnt incense (thurificati) held guilty of this crime; the same charge, in various degrees, was incurred by those whose renunciation of idolatry had been private merely, or who otherwise had used unworthy means to evade persecution, by those also who had feigned themselves mad to avoid sacrificing, by all promoters and encouragers of idolatrous rites, and by idol makers, incense sellers and architects or builders of structures connected with idol worship. Idolatry was made a crime against the state by the laws of Constantius (Cod. Theod. xvi. 10. 4, 6), forbidding all sacrifices on pain of death, and still more by the statutes of Theodosius (Cod. Theod. xvi. 10. 12) enacted in 392, in which sacrifice and divination were declared treasonable and punishable with death; the use of lights, incense, garlands and libations was to involve the forfeiture of house and land where they were used; and all who entered heathen temples were to be fined. See Bingham, Antiqq. bk. xvi. c. 4.

See also Image-worship; and on the whole question, Religion.

  1. According to Varro the Romans had no animal or human image of a god for 170 years after the founding of the city; Herodotus (i. 131) says the Persians had no temples or idols before Artaxerxes I.; Lucian (De sacrif. 11) bears similar testimony for Greece and as to idols (Dea Syr. 3) for Egypt. Eusebius (Praep. Evang. i. 9) sums up the theory of antiquity in his statement “the oldest peoples had no idols.” Images of the gods indeed presuppose a definiteness of conception and powers of discrimination that could only be the result of history and reflection. The iconic age everywhere succeeded to an era in which the objects of worship were aniconic, e.g. wooden posts, stone steles, cones.