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date: 24 March 2017

Objects and Ancient Religions

Summary and Keywords

Objects are implicit in understanding ancient religious practice. Taken as any material artifact used by an individual practitioner, faith community, or religious hierarchy for devotional or ritual purposes, objects can be interpreted as playing a number of roles in ancient religious practice. These roles include being a marker of faith identity; the physical locus of a metaphysical agent, able to be utilized in devotional practice; a talisman imbued with apotropaic effect; or an object ascribed with a ritual function (distinct from other objects of the same type), for example, a chalice. These objects are large and small, stationary and mobile. They can be carried by groups in ceremonial procession or by an individual person; worn as jewelry or installed on a domestic or public altar; buried or purposively broken; and exchanged with others to create and maintain social and interfaith relations. In addition to the recognized statue forms embodying divinities, examples may also include ancient Egyptian funerary goods, carved gemstones (e.g., Gnostic gems), pendants (e.g., Thor’s hammer or a Christian cross),votive images and dedications (including small figurines and models of building complexes), amulets (e.g., inscribed objects or texts worn on the person), sacred robes or headdresses, temple furniture, musical instruments used in rituals, relics, and pilgrim’s mementoes.

Religious studies as an academic discipline has historically emphasized the textual foundations of belief practice; however, a turn toward “Material Religion” since the beginning of the 21st century, informed by broader material culture studies, has increasingly focused research upon the significant role of objects in religious practice. Of especial interest is their role in establishing, signaling, and maintaining individual and community identity and worldviews. This emphasis on material agency, although initially applied to interpreting prehistoric and indigenous “religion,” has more recently been employed to rethink identity and practice in faith traditions both ancient and contemporary. The very process of production (smelting, using naturally formed material, which may have been carved or painted,etc.), as well as how this is to be understood within a religious framework, including the metaphorical associations attributed to different types of material, has also been an area of sustained inquiry. Thus, these religious objects and what can be known of their use are “read” to understand lived religious practice. Rather than viewed as “secondary” to the written text, they are seen as crucial to the practice and development of faith. However, debate remains vibrant concerning those objects and their accompanying iconography when no, or limited, supporting textual sources exist and where conflicting interpretations have been presented. Further, there is increased recognition and critique of the degree to which academic fashions of the past have placed emphasis upon certain types of objects rather than others: for example, Greek statues contra artifacts involved in practices designated “magical” (and therefore not orthodox or mainstream; e.g., phylacteries, ritual handbooks, “demon bowls”), those employed in domestic piety (with associated gender bias), objects designated “low” culture, or objects of a rural or village practice rather than those found in urban centers.

Keywords: material culture, votive, amulet, aniconic, burial deposit, funerary goods, ritual

The production and use of a wide variety of objects were implicit in the practice of religion in the ancient world. Taken as any material artifacts utilized by an individual practitioner, faith community, or religious hierarchy for devotional or ritual purposes, objects can be interpreted as playing a number of different roles. Such categories of use include, for example, devotional or ritual purposes, marker of faith identity, physical locus of a metaphysical agent. These categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive and an object may have been employed in more than one role (for example, being both the physical locus of a metaphysical agent and a ritual object) or change roles during the period of its active use. These categories are employed here as a purely heuristic device.

Religious objects are of many types: large effigies carried in ceremonial procession; small phylacteries worn close to the physical body; distinct pieces of jewelry displayed to communicate religious affiliation and/or social status; and specially constructed items that are then ritually destroyed, buried, or otherwise made “inactive.” Determining the use and “life cycle” of such objects1 is a fascinating and challenging undertaking, especially when there is a lack of temporally concurrent written sources to provide information about the specific context of creation and use. For example, in recent years there has been a surge in scholarship on “prehistoric religion,” with arguments based on highly subjective interpretations of material culture and the attendant design/art elements.2 Indeed, even with supporting written sources, scholars may still differ on the interpretation of the role and function of religious material objects. It should be remembered that knowledge of such material objects is also constrained by what is known of their archaeological context, and even if the find is very well recorded, due to the variable durability of material culture, the remains found at archaeological sites are only partial representations of previous habitation and use. Therefore, determining the exact use of religious objects can be difficult, and indeed the contemporary notion of a singular use for the individual object may not necessarily be relevant in ancient contexts. The religious object may have held different associations and functions depending upon the specific sociocultural context. Bearing this in mind, to follow is a discussion of the different types of objects and dominant arguments about their religious context and use. In the final section, current theoretical approaches to the study of religious objects and material culture employed in the discipline of religious studies will be outlined.

Objects and Devotion: Cult Statues, Votive Offerings, and Relics

The category of cult statue encompasses a great diversity of artifacts, and cult statues are to be distinguished from works more usually labeled religious sculpture. However, in some cases there is overlap, and cult statues are also discussed as fine art sculpture. The distinction between cult statue and votive is slippery, with Scheer noting that it is also a modern construct that does not reflect the lived practice of religion.3 Cult statues may take figurative or nonfigurative (aniconic) form and are generally understood to represent or embody a specific deity. They are a focus of devotional practices, and their placement in the landscape, specific building (e.g., temple), or even a domestic context implicitly designates sacred/ritual space. However, many cult statues were not entirely stationary objects; they would be taken on ceremonial procession and even travel to visit other temples/sacred locations, for example in ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek traditions.

Oft-cited examples of aniconic cult statues are the baitulia, bretades, and xoana of early Greek religion. These “statues” were naturally occurring materials, for example stones or wooden pillars (some exhibit evidence of carving). In her study of aniconism in Greek antiquity, Gaifman considers these forms to be largely understudied and indeed viewed as deviant in relation to what has been historically constructed as the “normative” ancient Greek practice of figurative representation.4 As the locus of a specific deity—understood as either temporarily or permanently resident—scholarship has noted with reference to written sources that these archaic cult figures were attributed specific forms of agency, including a capacity for movement and for cursing or otherwise causing harm to individuals.5 That is, these objects were considered not as inert representations of deity but to be divine; to have and express a divine “liveliness.” Aniconic forms of naturally occurring materials are also a historical (and contemporary) part of Hindu Śiva worship (Śivaliṅgas).6

Phidias’s now-lost Athena Parthenos (Parthenon, Athens) is an oft-cited example of an anthropomorphic cult statue. As Julia Kindt notes, the metaphysical distinction between Greek god and human being was communicated via the scale and materials used in the anthropomorphic forms: in the case of Athena Parthenos, the recorded use of gold and ivory (chryselephantine).7 The value of such material has also been accorded to its capacity to reproduce divine epiphany.8 The use of precious metals in figurative forms to distinguish divinity is also a feature of ancient Egyptian cult statues; this is inclusive of representations of the divinity’s part- and whole-animal forms. One of the most noted examples is a gilded silver falcon-headed seated figure from Dynasty 19, New Kingdom (Miho Museum). The materials used reflect what was written in ancient Egyptian texts about the corporeality of their gods and goddesses, in particular that they had “bones of silver, flesh of gold, and hair of real lapis lazuli.”9 However, extant cult statues from ancient Egyptian temples are very few (if indeed there are more than a single example); their destruction is thought to have been almost complete by the early Christian period.10

Ancient Egyptian cult statues were central figures in elaborate daily rituals—indeed, these rituals were focused on the daily care of the “divine image” into which the specific divinity was understood to enter, but not remain perpetually, hence the need to continually care for the divinity when in its material (sculptural) residence. A range of attendant objects were utilized in these rituals, including jewelry and clothing. The Ptolemaic temple of Edfu included a barque chapel: a room preceding the sanctuary (in which the cult statue of Horus was sealed) that housed the portable barque (boat) used for carrying the cult statue in its ceremonial processions outside the temple (NB: the sun god was believed to travel through the sky in a barque). While not an object of veneration itself, the ritual object was nevertheless significant, and an indication of this significance can still be gleaned from the designation of a particular sacred space in which to house it when not in use.11 Other records of rituals include examples of the cult statue being presented by the king (or high priest: Hem-netjer-tepy) with votive figures. One such is the “presentation of Maat,” which is understood as involving the presentation of a small figurine of the goddess Maat to a temple deity. Owing to the attributes of Maat, this ritual observance is associated with the maintenance of divine order and justice.12

The creation, presentation, and even destruction of votive figures/objects are among the most widespread of ancient religious practices. From the Latin votivus, a votive is understood as a performance or object given in fulfillment of a vow (pledge, etc.), as thanks, in petition, or as a gesture of piety.13 This is inclusive of larger votive tablets, or stelae; for example, Nicholas Wyatt notes that stelae depicting deities were found in the royal city of Ugarit and that these have been interpreted as votive gifts given to temples,14 as were smaller votive figurines made from durable materials as well as perishable products like straw or food produce. The transience of a material and the various changes it may undergo (including color and texture) are important factors in considering an object’s representational capacities. This is also the case for “magical” objects (discussed in ‘Magical’ Material Culture). Votive offerings are traditionally understood to mediate between an individual and the particular deity being petitioned. They are a form of material request, or gift, albeit one which aims for contractual reciprocity.

It has been noted15 with regard to ancient Greek religion that while distinct sculptures of humans and specific body parts were especially crafted as votive deposits, a wide range of items, primarily produced for other uses, were also given a secondary purpose as a votive—including tripods, jewelry, and coins. Further, the choice of which particular votive object to place in the temple responded to broader sociocultural circumstances. That is, what objects were considered valid votive offerings depended upon a social consensus and, in the case of the Greek sanctuaries, also legislation. However, the selection of “gift” was made within a range of normative consensus; therefore, individual choice remained a feature of votive offerings in many temples. Therefore, one should consider the act of votive offering not as a purely “religious” practice, but as one intertwined with social and political expectations and regulation. This is a salient reminder that any sharp distinction between politics/state and religion is a modern construction and should not be uncritically mapped onto consideration of the use of objects in the ancient world.

The archaeological record of ancient Mesopotamia includes many votive objects. As summarized by Michael Seymour, this includes the remains of numerous mass-produced items; he notes eye-idols (Uruk), inscribed statues, and terracotta plaques on which depictions of “deities and divine symbols” were presented.16 A diverse range of items were also employed as votive offerings in ancient Egypt. Several periods have been distinguished in scholarship as yielding particularly substantial records, including the Pre-Dynastic, Eighteenth Dynasty, and Third Intermediate Period.17 Anna Stevens highlights the great range and high quality of votive objects found in Hathor shrines during the 18th Dynasty, which included “inscribed statues, decorated textiles, amulets and pieces of jewelry, figurines, unworked pebbles.”18

Votive offerings were gifts made to the divine that embodied a promise/pledge or request on behalf of the supplicant. As such, they were left in sacred locations (e.g., temple) as offerings. Relics, on the other hand, are also material objects intimately associated with particular divinities; however, in early Christian tradition, these could be dispersed from their purported context of origin and established as a focus of piety and pilgrimage in particular religious locations (e.g., churches) across a broad geographic area. Relics could also become items of personal reverence, attributed an amuletic function. Examples include not only small images and medallions of Christ or the saints, but also especially gathered “packages” of material taken from holy sites, for example “ampullae filled with substances … (usually the oil burning in the lamps around the sacred location).”19

In addition to objects that held a central focus for veneration (cult statue) or supplication (votive) in devotional practice, the large variety of sacred locations—temple, sanctuary, church—in which these were placed contained further objects with diverse roles in religious practice. For example, as Cole recounts, an ancient Greek sanctuary, including groves or caves, would employ objects (“stone, wooden fence,” etc.) as boundary markers; similarly, perirrhanteria (“vessels filled with pure spring water”) were placed at their entrances. Both types of object demarcated the borders of sacred space.20 In the case of perirrhanteria, the vessel’s liquid contents were also used in purification rituals. Freestanding altars (used in public or private spaces) and offering tables can also be considered a distinct type of religious object. From simple stone or timber forms to elaborately, carved, modeled, or decorated structures, these objects held everything from ritual sacrifices to statues, ritual oils, and food offerings (depending upon the religious tradition). Model shrines, for example, ceramic forms that were used in the worship of Canaanite deities (e.g., Astarte), are also evidenced.21 Importantly, religious books (codices, scrolls, etc.) themselves were objects of veneration, provided with elaborate coverings, kept in sacred locations with restricted access, and in some contexts attributed a divine efficacy, especially in the case of miniature books worn as amulets or ritual handbooks.

“Magical” Material Culture

Setting aside the debates and prejudice that surround the construction and use of the word “magic” in academic analysis (and the intended—but often spurious—demarcation between “magic” and “religion”),22 the term is here employed to designate objects attributed with an agency, power, or affect causally linked to a deity, another form of intermediary being, or an individual (e.g., “magician”/“ritualist”) who is understood to have the means to access and direct metaphysical forces. These objects include lamellae (inscribed thin sheets of metal), defixionum tabellae (curse tablets), “demon bowls,” and amulets, which come in many forms including phylacteries and inscribed gems, as well as materials from the natural world—animal teeth, claws, pelts, precious and semiprecious stones, seeds, plant parts, and liquids (water, blood, etc.). Indeed, any object can potentially be an amulet and without indicative text or image it is difficult to assign exact roles and functions to objects, especially those found as part of grave goods or within the remains of domestic and temple buildings. Discussion of such often hinges on what can be known of the placement of the object in the particular find spot, although with much ancient material culture such provenance has been lost or was never recorded in the first place.

Recently Gideon Bohak has presented a typology of ancient amulets, making a broad distinction between “uninscribed” and “inscribed” forms, the latter further divided into five types: papyri, lamellae, pendants made from metal or glass, “magical gems” (inscribed semiprecious stones), and jewelry (“metal ring, or a bracelet”).23 In addition, Bohak notes inscriptions found on material like bone and wood; however, due to poor preservation of these materials, he considers the existing examples to be too numerically insignificant to warrant a specific distinction in his typology.

In many cases the material of which the amulet was made was selected for the particular qualities and capacities ascribed to it (within a specific sociocultural milieu). For example, with regard to the numerous Greco-Egyptian magical gems (sometimes called Gnostic gems), the type of stone—its color, shape, ease of acquisition, and location from which it was obtained—was selected specifically for the properties associated with it. The material of and inscriptions on the “magical gems” are considered to be informed by Egyptian, Hellenic, and Babylonian cultures, which ascribed particular lore (including astrological and religious) and healing or protective properties to different types of stones.24 The attributes of each specific type of stone are part of a network of correspondences that linked what are now considered to be quite distinct phenomena—for example, a body part, a planet, and a deity—tightly together. An example of the association between the color of a stone, the inscribed image, and its use is proposed by Christopher A. Faraone with regard to Roman world yellow jasper gemstones inscribed with an image of an eight-legged scorpion. He argues that the logic behind the stone selection is “like-banning-like,” with the color of the gemstone linked to the color of the most dangerous species of scorpion in the Mediterranean basin, the Palestinian yellow scorpion. Further, Faraone cites textual evidence of the ascribed medical efficacy of the stone itself, referencing the lapidary of Socrates and Dionysus, which notes that yellow agates have great power and are “from Hermes” and that they are used to treat scorpion bite by being “placed directly on the patient (presumably on the sting or bite), when ground up with water and applied as ointment, or when drunk with wine.”25 Therefore, yellow jasper gemstones are interpreted as protective amulets against scorpion bite.

Magical gems have been attributed a variety of roles, from general protective amulets to those specifically orientated towards one particular body organ/illness or life process (e.g., childbirth), as well as divination and magical ritual, including being used to evoke a deity.26 While not utilizing a magical gem per se, The Book of Jeu (Codex Brucianus MS Bruce 96) a 3rd–4th-century-ce Coptic-Gnostic text, recounts a series of rituals designed to enable access to “Treasuries” that form a metaphysical geography (series of realms that must be traversed to enable ascension to the “one true god”). The ritual instructions found in this text demonstrate clearly the way in which object, text, image, and action were conceived holistically to work together in the production of effective magic/ritual. To successfully gain access to a Treasury, the initiate was instructed to “seal oneself” (with the assumption that this was the image provided in the text) and “the name of the seal [also given in the text] to be recited once and a ‘cipher,’ or number likely inscribed on a pebble, which must be held in one hand; and a second name that must be recited three times.”27 What is to be done with the pebble once the ritual is complete is not clear.

Among the most well-known forms of curse tablets are those from ancient Greece, comprised of an inscribed piece of lead that was folded, pierced with a nail, and then offered to the chthonic deities by burial or deposition in wells.28 Nails also pierce the terracotta figurine of a woman (Louvre Inv. E27145; c. 200–300 ce) that had been buried with an accompanying lead tablet. In this case, it was not a curse, but a love charm.29 Many cultures use small “models” of the humans at whom the enchantment is directed as part of the incantation, as well as material like string or cord, in which knots to “bind” the relevant individual or metaphysical being were tied (the knotted cord could then itself be used as an amulet).30

Aramaic and Mandaic incantation bowls also form a distinct type of “magical” material culture. They are of “regular” size (13–20 cm in diameter and 3–8 cm in depth), made in pottery, and inscribed in spiral form on the inside with text that usually (but not always) leads to an image at the base (images can also occur elsewhere inside the bowl). They have been produced in a number of different Aramaic dialects and also pseudo-script. Recovered from Iraq, with over one hundred excavated since the 19th century from Nippur, they are dated within the 6th- to 8th-century range.31 Two specific features are of note. Firstly, some have been recovered in situ in domestic buildings, deliberately placed upside down and buried at the house entrance or inside interior walls; therefore, they can be considered both ritual deposits as well as a type of communal rather than personal amulet. Secondly, their textual and image content evidences diverse cultural influences—Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and “affinities with the Greek magical … and early Jewish Hekhalot literature,” which has been interpreted as a syncretism evidencing “popular religion” (that is, an “everyday” religious practice).32

Smashed pots are a feature an ancient Egyptian funerary ritual, considered a form of sympathetic magic, in which a red pot (red associated with the more chaotic and dangerous god Seth and spirit of evil Apophis [Apep]). According to Teeter, the smashed pot neutralized danger and frightened enemies, thereby protecting the deceased in the afterlife.33 This is also an example of the way in which objects in ancient religions slip across different categories: these pots are both a work of “magic” and a form of ritual deposit. Ancient Egyptian amulets are particularly “slippery” objects, moving across categories of sacred jewelry, amulets used by the living, and amulets used by the deceased (including amulets wrapped within the mummies’ textile layers). These mummy amulets could be shaped as hieroglyphs, with the stone chosen for their creation symbolically associated with the glyphs’ meaning, as animals, parts of the body, furniture (e.g., headrests), or gods.34

Objects of Adornment

Ranging from jewelry to chariot and horse fittings, objects of adornment can carry simultaneous religious and social significance. Indeed, with regard to metallurgy, the process itself has been interpreted as mysterious and ceremonial: “The smith’s work requires esoteric knowledge that enables him to manipulate the dangerous forces unleashed in the process of transforming shapeless metal into a finished product; this especially holds true when sacred objects are cast, or specific types of jewelry associated with status and/or ceremonial use are produced.”35 Lotte Hedeager is here discussing Iron Age Scandinavian material culture, but the point has been extended to the consideration of metal productions of other cultures: that is, the finished objects “hold” symbolic meaning not only from their form, decoration, and material but also from their process of creation (technology).

The types of jewelry ranged from modest pendants of individual medallions or religious symbols, to strings of beads made from exotic stones (also signaling both the capacity to purchase rare trade goods and the aura attached to foreign luxury items), to elaborately constructed earrings, rings, necklaces, bracelets, and headpieces. As exemplified in Arielle Kozloff’s discussion of the Diadem of Khnumet (daughter of Amenemhet II; Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12), jewelry often intertwined many different layers of symbolism: in this case, five-pointed forms made out of turquoise and carnelian, which are interpreted as “perfect renditions of the Egyptian hieroglyph for the word ‘star’” accompanied by beads, in lily and disc form, that are also astrological symbols; central discs that are “the hieroglyph for the word ‘sun’ and the name of the sun-god Re”; and papyrus-form umbels. Taken together, this symbolizes “the sunrise, the daily rebirth of the sun, and eternal resurrection.”36 Even this, however, is not the only layer of symbolism (taking into account as well the associations specific to each of the selected gems), as the find context, a tomb, contributes further meaning. Kozloff calls it a “talismanic funerary headdress” that represents the celestial world (heavens) which Princess Khnumet joins in the afterlife (therefore to be continually reborn like the sun).37 Indeed, in many ancient religions, and especially ancient Egypt as exemplified by this diadem, jewelry had an amuletic function,38 and it can be extremely difficult to identify pieces as “purely” decorative or “fashion” items.

Objects of Transition: Burial Goods and Ritual Deposits

“Rites of passage” (a concept initially developed by Arnold van Gennep39) broadly denotes cultural practices focused on a perceived pivotal event in a humans’ life cycle, with birth and funerary ceremonies being the most obvious examples. However, other life events may also be so marked, including marriage, the onset of menses, and the taking up of adult or important community roles. In addition, “rites of passage” can apply more broadly to the perceived passage of the seasonal calendar within a given cultural context, for which humans developed specific ceremonial practices. This is inclusive of ceremonies marking the change of seasons, specific celestial cycles, or annual environmental and agricultural occurrences (e.g., flood, harvest, monsoon, etc.). The diversity of such practices cannot be adequately exemplified in this overview; however, a few examples will be given to highlight the implicit role of material objects in such ceremonies. This may include objects created specifically for a single use or those utilized repeatedly for specific cyclical occasions or perpetually in specific locations.

Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s (New Kingdom) burial goods are acclaimed. The sheer amount of objects and their opulence have enchanted the public since their discovery in 1922. Among the contents are royal luxury goods,40 which can be interpreted as status markers but also signal a close conceptual relationship between life “in this world” and the afterlife. This point is also relevant to the large number of votives found in tombs, with Teeter noting that their presence in both funerary and non-funerary contexts may indicate a lack of distinction between such realms.41 Therefore, the material objects that were required “in this life” were also requisite for successful rebirth and existence in the afterlife.

The selection and placement of objects in tombs were not standard throughout Pharaonic Egypt, with the Middle Kingdom (c. 1400 bce) generally noted for a flourishing of the diversity of entombed goods. Among objects distinguished for their specific funerary function are Canopic chests, which contained a series of pottery jars holding embalmed body organs and the “ushabti” or “shabti” figures.42 The earliest forms of shabti figures were made from wax or dough but by the 18th century bce were being crafted in wood or stone.43 According to textual evidence, their purpose was to “stand in” for the deceased in the afterlife, completing any requisite forms of labor.44 By the Middle Kingdom, tombs could contain many hundreds of figures, with different sets undertaking different tasks, and even included a range of “managers”—figures to oversee the shabti workers.45 This overview exemplifies but a very few of the vast range of items found in such tombs.

Figures, termed “idols,” and other objects considered “everyday” goods provide examples from Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian contexts of ritual deposits. These are objects that have been recovered from contexts in which their deposition can be considered as a deliberate act (rather than accidental): for example, peat bogs which were previously bodies of water.46 The range of objects found included wooden figures (worked from tree branches) from Denmark and wagons and wagon parts, interpreted by scholars as part of an Earth-mother wagon cult referenced by Tacitus (Germania 40).47 Weapons (swords, spearheads, daggers, axes, etc.) also form a category of ritually deposited objects, with notable finds of deliberate destruction in the Thames during the Bronze Age (especially after c. 1350 bce). Referencing the data collected by York, Garrow and Gosden view this deliberate destruction not as accidental, but as an integral part of the “life cycle” of the objects, proposing a symbolic reading pertaining to the use of the object: “Swords were made to inflict violence, but were also the victims of violence, so that the violence done by swords and to them was perhaps part of a reciprocal relationship.”48 Any such symbolic reading must also take into account beliefs about the river (and water) as the selected location of ritual deposit.

Ambiguous Objects

There are many objects for which a religious purpose is suggested but ultimately cannot be ascribed with certainty. This is particularly evident in prehistoric material culture, for example the “Scottish” carved stone balls (Late Neolithic period), which clearly indicate craftsmanship and care in their construction, but whose purpose eludes accurate identification. Such ambiguity often results in a ritual purpose being ascribed; however, “ritual” is a rather elastic category, and while a general ascription of social or symbolic function can be inferred by the number and distribution of finds, a specific ritual (or indeed “religious”) use remains unsubstantiated. They are indeed perplexing objects.

Ambiguous objects are also found from cultures that have left strong, rich, and accessible literary evidence. The “Magic Sphere” in the collection of the Acropolis Museum (EM2260) dated 2nd–3rd century ce is an intriguing example. Approximately the size of a modern-day bowling ball, it is inscribed with various magical symbols, some difficult-to-read text, and images including a large figure (interpreted as the god Helios) flanked by a lion and a “dragon.” As it was discovered buried near the Theatre of Dionysus, which at the time of the sphere’s creation would have been the location of duels, scholars have interpreted it as a magical object used to secure victory in these fights.49 However, many questions remain; not least, since the sphere contains carving all over its surface and is a large, heavy object, exactly how was it used? Was it inked with some type of substance and rolled to create an imprint? Was it displayed in a sacred space and ritually anointed/rubbed? Was it made purely for the purpose of ritual deposition? The sphere’s ritual enaction is entirely unclear, even though parallels can be found for some of its iconographical elements.

Some “tricky” objects demonstrate the close interrelation between realms of life now commonly held separate (e.g., politics and religion). One such class of object is the “bracteate.” These are gold discs—considered modeled on Roman coins or medallions—produced in the Scandinavian migration period (c. 4th century ce) and found distributed throughout northern Europe.50 The iconography imprinted on the bracteates has been interpreted as scenes from Norse “religion,” in particular narratives associated with Odin: for example, Odin curing Baldr’s horse by whispering in its ear. This has led to the objects being identified as amulets,51 an interpretation commonly held but challenged by Anders Andrén, who cites a lack of comparison with contemporary Scandinavian images. His own research on specific disputed animal figures considers them primarily in relation to content found on earlier picture stones and argues for their depiction—in iconography, design elements, and form—of the sun (and its cycles),52 although this does not necessarily preclude their use as amulets. Lotte Hedeager’s assessment of the objects references the many interpretations that view the bracteates as a “political medium,” playing a role in feasts and festivals at which political alliances were secured and linked to “demonstrations of loyalty,” albeit such events may have been timed to correspond to religious festivals.53 Here then are objects that oscillate between different religious, mythological, and political interpretations; however, their exact content and role remain unsettled.

The enormous diversity of objects related to ancient religions far exceeds what can be exemplified in this short essay, which has also largely referenced examples from only the Mediterranean and northern European cultures (and even then, a limited range of those). The traditions of the vast areas of ancient China, the Indus Valley, and pre-Columbian America, to name but a few, are not represented. Rather than surveying broadly, this article has foregrounded the range of roles such objects can play and provide indicative examples. It has also sought to exemplify some of the ways in which the objects have been studied.

One of the most crucial factors in thinking about objects and ancient religions is to challenge contemporary assumptions about materiality, that is, a view that perceives matter/objects as something inert, lifeless, and necessarily the opposing “binary” to spirit/consciousness. Considering the creation, use, and destruction of objects in ancient religions, such a perspective is too limited to capture the spectacular diversity of the roles objects played. This includes being active mediators between the human and the divine world, being a focus for devotion, and even being the physical locus for the divine in this world. Objects may have even been shared across religious groups, or their production may have been the result of the meeting of different faith traditions. Luxury good or everyday item, objects were integral to the practice of ancient religions.

As noted by Andrén in 2014, recent approaches to material culture have moved from perceiving objects as “representing” ideas to viewing them as being involved in idea formation (thus also challenging dominant discursive construction of a text–object dualism). This includes not perceiving objects as having developed in response to or from a text, but in mutual exchange with text. Further, this approach highlights material culture as a “source of cosmological narratives.” That is, that objects are not secondary manifestations subjugated to text, but rather may have informed textual creation.54 Objects are not the poor relation of textual sources, but primary evidence in their own right. The challenge for scholarship is to adequately account for their specific context of production and varieties of use, for which interdisciplinary analysis is often requisite.

Review of the Literature

The academic discipline of religious studies has historically emphasized the textual foundations of belief practice; however, a turn towards “Material Religion” over the past decade, informed by broader material culture studies, has increasingly focused research upon the significant role of objects in religious practice. Of especial interest is their role in establishing, signaling, and maintaining individual and community identity and worldviews. This includes scholarly emphasis that stresses material agency; although initially applied to interpreting prehistoric and indigenous “religion,” this focus has also been employed to rethink identity and practice in faith traditions ancient and contemporary. The very process of production (smelting, carving or painting naturally formed material, etc.) and how this is to be understood within a religious framework, including the metaphorical associations attributed to different types of materiality, have also been an area of sustained inquiry. Thus, these religious objects and what can be known of their use are “read” in order to understand lived religious practice. Rather than viewed as “secondary” to the written text, they are seen as crucial to the practice and development of faith. Developments in several disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology, and cultural studies, have informed changing attitudes towards objects in religious studies. However, debate remains vibrant concerning those objects and their accompanying iconography for which no, or limited, supporting textual sources exist, and where conflicting interpretations have been presented. Further, there is increased recognition and critique of the degree to which academic fashions of the past have placed emphasis upon certain types of objects rather than others; for example, Greek statues contra artifacts involved in practices designated “magical” (and therefore not orthodox or mainstream; e.g., phylacteries, ritual handbooks, “demon bowls”), those employed in domestic piety (with associated gender bias), objects designated “low” culture, or objects of a rural or village practice rather than those found in urban centers. To follow is a short summation of the main, and most recent, innovations in approaches to religious objects:

Lived Ancient Religion: This approach has gained popularity since the late 1990s.55 It focuses on the everyday experiences associated with religious practice; that is, the way in which particular faith traditions are “lived” daily in complex life environments. More recently, this approach has been further developed via its application to the ancient world: Lived Ancient Religion (LAR) is described by Jörg Rüpke as understanding religion as situational and dynamic rather than universal, as such and in parallel with “Material Religion.” LAR emphasizes the viewer’s experience in the construction and perpetuation of religious identity and practice. Objects are interpreted as implicit in the practice and are considered as primary sources for the interpretation of LAR. “Vernacular Religion” can be considered a related approach: it emphasizes the way in which “everyday” religious practices may disrupt the conventional categories of “official” and “folk” belief. In an ancient Greek and Roman context, this would be considered the relation between “personal” and “state” (or “community”) religion.56 Both these approaches examine the creation, use, and, where relevant, deposition/destruction of material culture to reconstruct an understanding of lived religious practice.

Gift Economies and Symbolic Exchange: Developments in the anthropology and sociology of religion have strongly impacted upon the way in which religious objects are understood. This includes the analysis of grave goods when interpreted as markers of status and religious identity. Such analysis has stemmed from the application and amplification of the work on “gift exchange” by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950). This approach emphasized the symbolic aspects of gift giving, noting that the object (gift) is entangled in the identity of the giver, and that any such gift necessitates the action of receiving, which then establishes a relationship of reciprocity/obligation between the parties involved. In short, it emphasized the symbolic aspect of such exchanges and the way in which these relations were embodied in the material object (gift), including the extended subjectivity of the giver. Recently, Kindt has argued that such symbolic analysis has not been adequately applied to ancient religious practice, noting its suitability for interpreting votive offerings as a form of “symbolic” capital.57 One of the most salient points of these approaches is the “uncovering” of the way in which objects are interrelated with various forms of social power through their creation, use, circulation, display, and even destruction. It is also worth noting that these material “transactions” do not guarantee the divine’s favor and therefore—even after their deployment—continue to be subject to broader sociopolitical dynamics.

Material Religion: This term designates approaches that focus upon the role that media—including objects and communications technology—play in the creation and mediation of religious belief and practice. It considers the ways that people use objects to understand and create their religious identity and position within groups, community, and the environment (including experiences of dislocation or cultural hybridity).58 An associated approach has been the consideration of the role of the senses in religious belief and practice (strongly informed by philosophical phenomenology), including the tactility and smell of objects.59 Efforts have also been made to undermine the dualism between “text” and “object,” with scholarship investigating the materiality of religious texts. For example, in addition to analyzing a book as the repository of belief or religious instruction, the scholar also considers its scale, its material construction, how it was used, who had access to it, and so forth. There is also evidence for some forms of books being used as protective amulets and/or being ascribed spiritual agency.60 Recently, note has been made of the potential for metaphorical reading of material culture.61

Agency: Objects That Act

The discussion of religious objects included several examples of statues and amulets (whether naturally occurring or human-made) that were believed to hold forms of agency: capacity to move, to protect, and so on. The source of this agency varies according to tradition, but may be viewed as something inherent to the object (ontological) or “given” to the object by a deity or religious/ritual specialist. There are varying degrees to how these relationships are understood, with many contemporary scholars taking their cue from the work of Alfred Gell, in particular Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998). Gell did not propose that objects have their own ontology, but rather, that they can act as “social agents” replacing people.62 The topic of material agency has also recently become popular in Cultural Studies. Termed New Materialism, this approach focuses on other-than-human agents and perceives this agency as not derivative of the human but integral to materiality itself.63 However, forms of animation have been attributed to matter in a wide variety of religious traditions, and such conceptualizations are not entirely “new.” Nonetheless, viewing matter as something inherently active is leading to re-readings of ancient religious objects.

Primary Sources

The sheer number of “objects” pertaining to ancient religions is overwhelming, even though what remains is only a fraction of what once existed. The location of primary sources for the study of this material is directed by the particular religion/culture/area being studied. Several major museums hold vast collections across a diverse range of cultures: the British Museum, London includes an online research catalogue for their various collections, onsite libraries, and study rooms; the Louvre, Paris also provides an online catalogue for their vast holdings and research facilities for visiting scholars. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles provides an online catalogue for their holdings; the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg also provides a searchable collection catalogue, as does The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, known as “The Met”.

Important specialist collections pertaining to the ancient Near East are held by the Pergamon museum, Berlin; the Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago; and the Kelsey Museum, Ann Arbor.

In addition to the museums already noted, other prominent collections of ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman objects include the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; the Nubia Museum, Aswan; the Coptic Museum, Cairo; the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London; and the Ashmolean, Oxford. There is also an online database for magical gems: The Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database.

Additional significant collections of ancient Greek religious objects can be found at the Archaeological Museum of Herakleion, Crete (Minoan culture); the National Archaeological Museum, Athens; and the Acropolis Museum, Athens.

There are several museums dedicated to the study of religions that present a representation of objects from the ancient world (including South East Asia, China, etc.): the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art; the State Museum of the History of Religion, Saint Petersburg; and the “Sacred Traditions” permanent exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

Further Reading

Andrén, Anders. Tracing Old Norse Cosmology: The World Tree, Middle Earth, and the Sun from Archaeological Perspectives. Vägard til Midgård 16. Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic, 2014.Find this resource:

Andrews, Carol. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 1994.Find this resource:

Bonner, Campbell. Studies in Magical Amulets Chiefly Graeco-Roman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950.Find this resource:

Boschung, Dietrich, and Jan N. Bremmer, eds. The Materiality of Magic. Paderborn, Germany: Fink, 2015.Find this resource:

Entwistle, Chris, and Noël Adams, eds. Gems of Heaven: Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity, c. AD 200–600. London: British Museum, 2011.Find this resource:

Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Gaifman, Milette. Aniconism in Greek Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.Find this resource:

Hedeager, Lotte. Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia AD 400–1000. London: Routledge, 2011.Find this resource:

Insoll, Timothy. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Jones, Andrew M. Prehistoric Materialities: Becoming Material in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Lundby, Knut, ed. Religion across Media: From Early Antiquity to Late Modernity. New York: Peter Lang, 2013.Find this resource:

Morgan, David, ed. Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge, 2010.Find this resource:

Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2006.Find this resource:

Plate, S. Brent, ed. Key Terms in Material Religion. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.Find this resource:

Raja, Rubina, and Jörg Rüpke, eds. A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World. West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.Find this resource:

Segal, J. B., ed. Catalogue of the Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum. London: British Museum, 2000.Find this resource:

ThesCRA = Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum, Los Angeles: Getty Publications, c. 2004–2014.Find this resource:

van Straten, F. T. “Votaries and Votives in Greek Sanctuaries.” In Oxford Readings in Greek Religion. Edited by Richard Buxton, 191–223. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Vasquez, Manuel. More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Willburn, Andrew T. Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus and Spain. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things,” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appaduria (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64–91.

(2.) See for example the first eleven chapters (by different authors) comprising “Part I: Prehistoric Religions,” The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe, eds. Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer, and David A. Warburton (Durham, U.K.: Acumen, 2013), 15–99; and Ian Hodder (ed.), Religion at Work in a Neolithic Society: Vital Matters (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

(3.) Tanya S. Scheer, Die Gottheit und ihr Bild: Untersuchungen zur Funktion griechischer Kultbilder in Religion und Politik. Zetemata 10 (Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2000).

(4.) Milette Gaifman, Aniconism in Greek Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1–3.

(5.) David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 33–34; 449.

(6.) For discussion, see Mikael Aktor, “The Śivalinga between Artifact and Nature,” Objects of Worship in South Asian Religions: Forms, Practices, and Meanings, eds. Knut A. Jacobsen, Mikael Aktor, and Kristina Myrvold (London: Routledge, 2014), 14–34.

(7.) Julia Kindt, Rethinking Greek Religion (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 157–158.

(8.) Verity J. Platt, Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion. Greek Culture in the Roman World (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(9.) Lichtheim, M. (1976), quoted in Arielle P. Kozloff, “Luxury Arts,” Companion to Ancient Egyptian Art, ed. Melinda K. Hartwig (Chichester, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 198.

(10.) Emily Teeter, Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt (Cambridge, U.K.: Routledge, 2011), 55.

(12.) See ibid.; and Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003).

(14.) Nicholas Wyatt, “Religion in Ancient Ugarit,” A Handbook of Ancient Religions, ed. John R. Hinnells (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 143.

(15.) Kindt, Rethinking, 64–65.

(16.) Michael Seymour, “Mesopotamia,” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, ed. Timothy Insoll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 781.

(17.) Anna Stevens, “Egypt,” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, ed. Timothy Insoll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 731.

(19.) Freedberg, Power, 128–199.

(20.) Susan Guettel Cole, “Greek Religion,” A Handbook of Ancient Religions, ed. John R. Hinnells (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 282.

(21.) Aaron A. Burke, “Ancient Israel and the Levant, and the Origins of Judaism,” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, ed. Timothy Insoll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 904.

(22.) See: Brian Copenhaver, Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg (eds.), Defining Magic: A Reader (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(23.) Gideon Bohak, “Amulets,” A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World, eds. Rubina Raja and Jörg Rüpke (West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 86.

(24.) Richard Gordon, “Archaeologies of Magical Gems,” Gems of Heaven, eds. Chris Entwistle and Noël Adams (London: British Museum, 2011), 43.

(25.) Christopher A. Faraone, “Text, Image and Medium: The Evolution of Graeco-Roman Magical Gemstones,” Gems of Heaven, eds. Chris Entwistle and Noël Adams (London: British Museum, 2011), 55.

(26.) Ibid., 44.

(27.) Erin Evans, The Books of Jeu and Pistis Sophia as Handbooks to Eternity (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 87–89.

(28.) Kindt, Rethinking, 96.

(29.) Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum, 2006), 92. For an overview of the range of forms and purposes of curse tablets, see John G. Gager, Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

(30.) Ibid., 108.

(31.) Michael G. Montgomery, “Religion and the Aramaic Incantation Bowls,” Religion Compass 1.4 (2007): 414–429; and Erica Hunter, “The Typology of the Incantation Bowls: Physical Features and Decorative Aspects,” Catalogue of the Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum, ed. J. B. Segal (London: British Museum, 2000).

(32.) Montgomery, “Religion,” 414.

(33.) Teeter, Religion, 144–145.

(34.) For extensive examples of ancient Egyptian amulets, see Carol Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum, 1994).

(35.) Lotte Hedeager, Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia AD 400–1000 (London: Routledge, 2011), 139. It should be noted that while the processes of metallurgy required specialist knowledge and strength for production, perhaps it was not only a realm of men (as assumed by Hedeager’s use of “him” in this quotation).

(36.) Kozloff, “Luxury,” 296.

(37.) Ibid., 297.

(38.) Pinch, Magic, 105.

(39.) Arnold van Gennep, trans. M. B. Vizedom and G. L. Caffee; Intro. S. T. Kimball (London and Henley: Routledge, 2004).

(40.) Kozloff, “Luxury,” 259.

(41.) Teeter, Religion, 88.

(42.) Rosalie David, Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 2002), 52–53.

(43.) Pinch, Magic, 98.

(44.) Ibid. Reference to Coffin Texts 427/Book of the Dead 6.

(45.) David, Religion, 52–53.

(46.) Martin Welch “Pre-Christian Practices in the Anglo-Saxon World,” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, ed. Timothy Insoll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 866.

(47.) Ibid., 866–867.

(48.) Duncan Garrow and Chris Gosden, Technologies of Enchantment? Exploring Celtic Art 400 BC to AD 100 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 128–129.

(49.) Anon. Object Label, Acropolis Museum, 2016. See also Armand L. Delatte, “Études sur la magie grecque: I, Sphére magique du Musée d’Athèns,” Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 13 (1913): 247–278.

(50.) Hedeager, Iron, 55; and Anders Andrén, Tracing Old Norse Cosmology: The World Tree, Middle Earth, and the Sun from Archaeological Perspectives. Vägard til Midgård 16 (Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic, 2014), 143–144.

(51.) Hauk referenced in ibid., 144.

(52.) Ibid., 146.

(53.) Hedeager, Iron, 55–56.

(54.) Andrén, Tracing, 24.

(55.) David Hall, Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

(56.) Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (eds.), Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (London: Equinox, 2012); and Robert Parker, On Greek Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(57.) Kindt, Rethinking, 69.

(58.) For examples of this approach, see S. Brent Plate (ed.), Key Terms in Material Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); David Morgan (ed.), Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (London: Routledge, 2009); and Manuel Vasquez, More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(59.) See Sally M. Promey (ed.), Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

(60.) Jay Johnston and Iain Gardner, “Relations of Image, Text and Design Elements in Selected Amulets and Spells of the Heidelberg Papyri Collection,” Methodological Reflections about the Relationship between Magical Texts and Images (Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming 2016; and David Petts, Pagan and Christian: Religious Change in Early Medieval Europe (London: Bristol Classical, 2011), 49.

(61.) Andrén, Tracing, 22.

(62.) Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), 5.

(63.) See for example Diane Coole and Samantha Froste (eds.), New Materialism: Ontology, Agency, Politics (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2010).