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The idols and the religion of the Cycladic culture

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.

stone age idol Naxos
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).

Naxos Cycladic idols . Naxos Cycladic 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.

Naxos Cycladic culture violin-shaped idol
simple “violin-shaped” idol

sitting cycladic idols
A very few idols show a sitting posture.

Cycladic culture, harp playing idol
harp player, from Wikipedia

Cycladic culture group of idols
Very rare are idols of several connected figures, from Wikipedia

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?

Cycladic idols
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.

Cycladic sanctuary Naxos Koryfí t'Aronioú
These elliptical building foundations on the hill Koryfí t’Aronioú are regarded as an Early Bronze age sanctuary.

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

The only known major cult site of the Cycladic culture (and the oldest cult site in Greece, from the middle phase of the Early Bronze Age, i.e. around 2,500 BC) was located on the now deserted island of Kéros to the south-east of Naxos, which was inhabited during the Early Bronze Age, as were the surrounding islands. On a small pyramid-shaped islet called Daskalió, which lies just off the west coast of Keros and used to be connected to the main island by a pier, there was a small but very carefully constructed settlement on several levels with terraces and walls and even a sewage system, built of white Naxiotic marble. Only about 20 people lived in the settlement permanently, but at certain times it seems to have been visited by probably hundreds of people who stayed for a few days at a time. The visitors, who apparently visited the site for a regularly recurring ritual or festival, came mainly from Naxos and the other nearby islands, but also from more distant areas such as the Greek mainland, according to the finds. There were several metal workshops in the settlement, and numerous remains of daily life were found, such as grape seeds, animal bones, shards of cooking and eating utensils, etc.

Right next to the islet of Daskalió, two sites have been excavated on Kéros, which apparently played a role in the rituals or celebrations for which people came to Daskalió. Thousands of shards of clay and stone vessels, which were commonly used as grave goods, have been found here, as well as a large number of idol fragments, fragments of stone slabs and small stone cylinders (coils? mortars?) and, in two places, accumulations of human bones and sea pebbles. A large number of obsidian splinters were also found, apparently from the processing of obsidian on site, as well as fragments of metal objects and other remains indicating the existence of smelting furnaces for the extraction and alloying of metals.

The finds from Kéros are very strange in many ways and present us with a number of puzzles. Particularly surprising is the fact that none of the fragments and shards of the grave goods (idols, stone and clay vessels) fit together: The objects were (almost without exception) not broken or smashed on site, but the found shards were single fragments of previously broken grave goods that were taken here obviously for a special purpose. Apparently the deposition of the fragments – and certainly of the human bones found in some places – had a ritual significance. It is not known where the other pieces of grave goods have remained: No matching pieces have been found on Daskalió, on Kéros, in nearby graves or anywhere else.

According to analyses, the marble material of the idol and stone vessel fragments came mainly from Naxos, specifically from the area between Moutsoúna, Apíranthos, Danakós and Ligarídia south of Moutsoúna. No evidence of the production of stone artefacts has yet been found in this region, neither the remains of workshops nor places where many stone fragments indicate large-scale stone working. As for the pottery fragments, most of them probably also originate from Naxos, but others show that they were made on islands with volcanic soil such as Santorini and Milos, while still others probably came from the Greek mainland or the western Cyclades.

The archaeologist Chr. Doumas suspects that the Cycladic people believed that a nearby 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.

view of Keros from 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, 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 in cult and religion also show a connection 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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