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Idolatry

Idolatry is the worship of eidola, or images, generally as the conscious representatives of supernatural beings; and the origin of this practice seems natural enough, if one considers how even the average man of the nineteenth century prefers the concrete to the abstract. In races of low culture the idea of supernatural beings must have been evolved slowly and with great difficulty, and the embodiment of this idea in any figure, however rude, of a man, or even of one of the lower animals, marked a distinct advance in the path of religious evolution. For this reason idolatry is not found among races of the lowest culture; and in most cases Fetishism (q.v.) seems to have served as an intermediate stage between Animism (q.v.) and Idolatry, but is distinctly inferior to it in this respect - the mere possession of a fetish gave its owner power to compel the indwelling deity, while the being represented by an idol was to be implored. One gets a glimpse of this important distinction even in stock- and stone-worship, for the priests of Baal in their memorable contest with Elijah cried out in the presence of the standing stones on Carmel, "O Baal, hear us!" (1 Kings xviii.). This distinction, however, is not always found, as may be seen from Rachel's theft of her father's teraphim, where the idea of possession seems to be the dominant one, for she "put them in the camel's furniture, and sat upon them" (Gen. xxxi.). The range of idolatry is wide: it is common among the savages of Polynesia. and it flourished in ancient Greece amid the highest civilisation the world has seen; for while to the philosophers - who knew that though "the people had many gods, there could be but One" - the statues of the divinities were at best but symbols, to the bulk of the Greeks they were personifications of or animated by the dwellers on Olympus. It is present, in a greater or less degree, in all forms of religion except the lowest and those based on Monotheism, and even in these last it often creeps in, either from the limitations of the human mind, or by a process akin to that of degeneration in the animal kingdom. Long after worship of Jehovah had become national we find the Jews constantly lapsing into the idol-worship of the Gentiles around them, endeavouring to bring in "strange gods." even proclaiming, as did Aaron, the day on which the idol was to be worshipped as a "feast to the Lord" (Exod. xxxii. 5). And this continued to later times, for in Isaiah (lxiv. lxv.), after a purely monotheistic declaration, the prophet describes a gross form of idolatry so vividly that we may be sure it is from personal knowledge. The statues of the Roman, and the pictures of the Greek Church are authoritatively declared to be mere aids to devotion, and to be honoured only for the sake of persons they represent; but to very many of the peasants of Italy, or Spain, or Russia, the crucifix or the ikon is a real idol.

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