We have reached the dreaded 'X's in the Pagan Blog Project, but the 'X's are actually quite doable for Hellenists, I feel. Today, I would like to talk a bit about a very special type of statue the ancient Hellenes had access to: xoana (ξόανα), or xoanon (ξόανον), when speaking of the singular. The word comes from the verb 'xeein' (ξέειν), which means 'to carve' or 'to scrape', in relation to wood. In the field of classical archaeology, the term is conventionally used to denote a wooden statue of great age and sanctity. In general, these statues were aniconic cult-statues and thus bore very little--if any--likeness to the deity they represented. Due to the materials they were made from, xoana have not survived into the modern age, unless they were reproduced in marble in the late Hellenic era, or the Roman one, or a reproduction was made.

In general, we can deduce that the ancient Hellenes did not really think their deities lived in the temples they created for them; too many temples were not completed, despite being a bustling temenos The temenos of Zeus at Stratos, for example, is a good example. Construction on the temple on the Temenos grounds was started in the fifth century BC, and while the altar was completed fairly quickly, construction on the temple itself was stopped long before worship at the altar did. The site functioned as a religious site for over 700 years, and the temple never even had a roof. There are a few examples of older temples where the temple was actually said to house a deity--these were the temples that housed xoana. The Erechtheion on the north side of the Acropolis of Athens is a good example of this.

Built between 421 and 406, the Erechtheion was associated with some of the most ancient and holy relics of the Athenians: the Palladion, which was a xoanon of Athena Polias, the marks of Poseidon's trident and the salt water well that resulted from Poseidon's strike, the sacred olive tree that sprouted when Athena struck the rock with her spear in her successful rivalry with Poseidon for the city, the supposed burial places of the mythical kings Cecrops and Erechtheus, the sacred precincts of Cecrops' three daughters--Herse, Pandrosus and Aglaurus--and those of the tribal heroes Pandion and Boutes. It's interesting to note that this large building was constructed in only 15 years, while the Temple of Zeus sat uncompleted 700 years into its use.

The Palladion was the centerpiece of the worship of Athena in Athens. The xoanon was the holiest image of the Goddess the ancient Hellenes knew of, and was thus regarded with the highest respect. It was placed under a bronze likeness of a palm tree and a gold oil lamp burned in front of it. The centerpiece of the grand feast of the Panathenaia was the replacement of this statue's woolen peplos with a newly woven one. It was also carried to the sea by the priestesses and ceremonially washed once a year, in the feast called the Plynteria. Church Father Tertullian mentioned the Palladion in a late 2nd century AD writing, described it as being nothing but 'a rough stake, a shapeless piece of wood'.

It was this characteristic of the Palladion that made it so holy: all xoanon were considered not a man-made artefact but of divine provenance, typically having fallen from the sky after being fashioned by the master crafter Daidalos. Smilis (Σμῖλις), another sculptor and master craftsman, was honored for crafting a number of other xoana. Pausanias, in his 'Description of Greece' describes many xoana. This quote, for example, concerns the wooden xoanon of Hēraklēs at Corinth:

"Now the sanctuary of Athena Chalinitis is by their theater, and near is a naked wooden image of Heracles, said to be a work of Daedalus. All the works of this artist, although rather uncouth to look at, are nevertheless distinguished by a kind of inspiration." [2.4.5]

In rare instances, the aniconic cult-statues were reshapen in later times, making them more human in form. Why this was done is unknown. There are many mentions of xoana in the ancient writing. The statue of Samian Hera at Samos, and the 'Hera of Delos', for example. Pausanias mentions five in one breath: two in Boeotia (a Herakles in Thebes and the Trophonios at Lebadeia), two other xoana in Crete (a Britomartis at Olous and an Athena at Knossos), and a small xoanon of Aphrodite at Delos. The cult-statue of Artemis of Ephesus (depicted above)--which was assumed to be 'many breasted' but in reality was probably decorated with abstract bull's testicles--was another example of a recarved xoanon.

A xoanon could be from any timeframe; Hómēros already wrote about fully fleshed-out Gods with very defined apperances. Yet, xoana were focal points of worship in ancient Hellas, long after his works came out. It was their divine spark that set them apart, not their age or looks. Pausanias suggested that xoana were not only religious statues, but statuaries onto themselves with the ability to have the spirits of Gods or heroes dwelling within them. This made these objects decidedly valuable for the ancient Hellenes and also defnes the diference between a statue and a xoanon: a statue is a gift to the Theoi; a xoanon has the potential to house one.

Image source: Wikipedia Commons.