Idols and religion

The Cycladic idols

The most famous artefacts of the Cycladic Culture are doubtless the marble idols. These unique works of art testify in an especially impressive way to the craftsmanship and artistic sense of the Cycladic people. They are abstract, simple, but often very carefully crafted human figures, usually about two or three decimeters (up to 1.5 m) high. Cycladic idols were found almost exclusively in graves. Stone idols existed already during the Stone Age, and also appear in neighbouring regions, but nowhere reached the idols such an expressive perfection, such clarity and elegance in their design. The Cycladic idols were quite unknown and unappreciated until the 1960s when they suddenly obtained recognition in the Modern Art movement, which lead to a great rise in illegal excavations and black market dealings. Around 3,000 Cycladic idols are known, most of which come from illegal excavations, so that we have no information about the circumstances of their finding.

The few marble idols that have been found on the Cyclades dating to the Neolithic Age resemble the Bronze Age idols in form and execution, which proves that the technique and tradition of idol production developed on the Cyclades and was not brought here from elsewhere with the beginning of the Cycladic Culture. In contrast to the later idols, the Stone Age idols show rounder, fuller, more markedly female shapes.

This Neolithic marble idol from Naxos (Sangrí) shows the round female body type which is so typical of Neolithic idols. In spite of the different form, this early idol can be clearly recognized as a precursor of the Cycladic idols of the Bronze Age.

Characteristic features of the Cycladic idols are the slender, rather flat form, the neither standing nor lying posture with slightly angled legs and feet, the arms lying above each other over the belly (with the left arm almost always being the top one) and the flat head, tilted a little backwards with a slightly protruding triangular nose. Most idols are female figures; however, the sex is not pronounced at all but recognizable only from the the incised pubic triangle and the breasts sometimes depicted as small bulges (in contrast to the Stone Age idols).

A whole range of different idol types with special characteristics can be distinguished. Apart from the typical form described above, some idols show a much more schematic “violin-shaped” form, only hinting at the human body shape. A few idols show a completely different posture, such as sitting figures or male idols with musical instruments or a cup in their hand or groups of two or three idols standing on top of each other.

simple “violin-shaped” idol

A very few idols show a sitting posture.

Most of the idols are carefully shaped and worked out in their outlines. In contrast, the details such as the arms, fingers and toes and pubic triangle as well as the gap between the legs and sometimes a line on the back to indicate the spine are usually executed only as slight or deeper straight incisions using a file. Rarely the arms are rounded, especially in the earlier idols, which shows that the artists consciously chose this simplicity and that it is not due to a lack of technique. The most striking feature of the idols is the unnatural design of the head with a long, thick neck and often an unnatural “lyre-like” shape being wider towards the upper end of the head. Noteworthy is the posture of the head which is always held tilted slightly backwards. The nose protrudes as a simple triangle; the ears are sometimes indicated. Details such as eyes and mouth were painted on the stone, at least sometimes. The strange head and body posture of the idols must certainly have meant something to the Cycladic people – but what?

While the figure is very carefully shaped and smoothed, the details such as the arms and the pubic triangle are only hinted at as simple incisions. The left idol shows the “lyre-like” head shape characteristic for some idol types.

The production

The idea to carve idols out of white marble has probably been stimulated by the beautiful marble beach pebbles that can be found everywhere on the coast – in fact sometimes instead of an elaborate, expensive idol just a simple beach pebble had been put into the grave. Beach pebbles are also often found around the graves: They must have had a symbolic meaning. The simple violin-shaped idols were probably worked out of large pebbles, which already resembled the idols in their flat, elongated form. At first, people used only stone and wood tools to carve the idols: Pieces of wood and emery powder were used for grinding. Only in the middle phase of the Early Bronze Age appear metal tools such as bronze chisels, which might explain the larger number of figures and their sometimes more complicated form (e.g. the harp player).

The artists took great care in designing the figures. Uniform proportions show that they used compasses and protractors. The proportions of the first figures are very different from the natural proportions of the human body, the later ones approach them. Usually the width of the figure corresponds to a quarter, sometimes a third or a fifth of the length. Often the essential lines of the idol are given by three, later two circles of the same size lying on top of each other. Certain angles are also used frequently, namely those of the diagonals of a rectangle with a ratio of the sides of 5:8 or simple derivatives thereof (in Egyptian architecture the same angles are of great importance; and the Minoan double axe and signs of stonemasonry also represent these angles). Often several similar figures attributed to an artist show different sizes, but the same proportions. Using rulers, compasses and protractors, the artists probably carved the desired shape on the rough stone and then slowly brought it out by grinding.

The function of the idols

Much has been speculated about the meaning and function of the idols without convincing results. The interpretation is complicated by the fact that most of the idols originate from illegal excavations, so that the circumstances of their finding are unknown.

Idols were found almost exclusively in graves, but they were the rarest grave goods. Usually they show no traces of use; only among the early, standing idols some were broken and repaired, i.e. they probably had been used in some way. Occasionally, large idols were found that had been smashed to fit into the grave, but also small idols were sometimes smashed; or only pieces of idols, especially the feet, lay in the graves – all this does not seem to make a lot of sense.

The idols are mostly, but not exclusively, female figures. Accordingly they are interpreted as images of a female deity, and their presence in the graves may testify to a belief in life after death, for which the support of a maternal deity was important. Some idols, however, also represent musicians (with harps and flutes) or drinkers with a raised cup (yes, already 5,000 years ago wine and music were very important to the inhabitants of the Cyclades…!).


We know nothing certain about the religion of the Cycladic people. Striking is the lack of temples, which suggests that nature gods were worshipped in the open air or at simple altars. However, some places have been found that are interpreted as sanctuaries, such as a building on the hilltop Koryfí t’Aronioú north of Pánormos, where many stone slabs with pictographs have been found. These depict dancing people, hunting and fishing scenes and a deer on a boat; they might have been gifts to the deity or “votive tablets” with which the people asked for special assistance. A small building on Amorgos showed signs of burnt offerings, which were still very popular in Greek antiquity.

These elliptical building foundations on the hill Koryfí t’Aronioú are regarded as an Early Bronze Age sanctuary.

Some of the stone slabs found at Koryfí t’Aronioú with pictographs are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum in Apíranthos.

The only known larger cult site of the Cycladic Culture (and the oldest cult site in Greece, dating to the middle phase of the Early Bronze Age, i.e. about 2,500 BC) was located on the now deserted island of Kéros, southeast of Naxos, together with a large settlement with marble terraces, paved alleyways and drainage tunnels. Here, at the entrance of a cave that has now collapsed, thousands of shards of clay and stone vessels were discovered, similar to those found in graves, together with large numbers of idol fragments and human bones. Surprisingly none of the fragments and shards fit together: The objects were obviously not broken on the site, but they were parts and pieces of grave goods and bones that were brought here deliberately, probably as part of a ritual connected to the afterlife.

The archaeologist Chr. Doumas suspects that the Cycladic people believed that this cave on Kéros was the entrance to the underworld. During the middle phase of the Cycladic Culture, graves were commonly used several times. For each new burial the bones from the previous burial were removed while only the skull was left in place. It looks as if the bones from the older burials and fragments of the grave goods were then taken to Kéros and laid at the entrance to the Underworld. In this context it is interesting to note that often only fragments of idols were found in graves, mainly legs and feet, but no heads. In the potsherd field of Kéros, again only legs and feet of idols appear, which is certainly no coincidence. However, one can only speculate about the exact nature and meaning of the rituals that were performed here.

The catastrophe at Panormos
view from Pánormos to the islands of Koufoníssia and Kéros (the higher island in the background)

fragments of idols in the Museum of Apiranthos

According to the few preserved testimonies, it seems that the pre-Greek Aegean cultures did not adhere to a polytheism like the ancient Greeks, but believed in a central female deity, which must be understood as mother and fertility goddess. In many Neolithic cultures, so also in the Eastern Balkans, a female mother goddess was worshipped. Of interest is an ancient account which states that the Pelasgians worshipped a female deity who emerged from the initial chaos and created the whole world. Is this goddess perhaps depicted in the Cycladic idols? Certain similarities also exist in cult and religion to the Orient: In Syria at the same time a female deity was worshipped as ruler over life and death. The specially made grave goods also suggest that the people of the Cycladic Culture believed in life after death or in rebirth.

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