Images are visual depictions of spirits, including all manner of statues, paintings, prints, puppets, chromolithographs, and dolls. Legends are attached to many sacred images. Some are reputedly divinely inspired. Others are allegedly the handiwork of angels. The mythic history of many Black Madonna images suggests that they just magically, mysteriously appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, the implication being that they have arrived from the spirit world. However, in general, images are depictions of spirits as envisioned by people. People do not create spirits, but they sure do create their images.

Some religions forbid creation of sacred (or any) images or find them controversial. The most famous taboo occurs in the Ten Commandments. The Second Commandment is variously interpreted as “Thou shalt not make graven images,” “Thou shalt not make molten images,” or in plainest English, “Don’t make idols.” Of course, the irony is that just as Moses brought them this commandment, the children of Israel were busy constructing the golden calf.

Judaism never entirely abandoned sacred imagery: Solomon’s Temple periodically contained images of cherubim, the brazen serpent, and, most controversially, statues of the Hebrew goddess Asherah. Orthodox Christianity suffered its iconoclastic schism, bitter disputes as to whether images were permissible, culminating in the destruction of many precious icons. Despite the modern ubiquity of Buddhist statuary, for centuries Buddhism did not engage in sacred imagery. Islam remains the spiritual faith with the strictest injunctions against imagery.

If you’re uncomfortable with graven images or any other kind, don’t use them. The image should never be confused with the deity, who is a spirit being. For purposes of altar building, spirits may be represented by their attributes, sacred plants, or any other object with which they are strongly associated. Hera may be represented by a pomegranate; Hekate by a broom.

Historically, conquerors destroy sacred imagery of those they have conquered, as do militant missionaries. Destruction of images also frequently accompanies religious disputes. Many French Madonna statues were destroyed during the French Revolution or by militant Huguenot Protestants who were violently opposed to Roman Catholic modes of worship. The most notorious modern example is the destruction of a two-thousand-year-old masterpiece, the world’s tallest standing Buddha (53 meters; 175 feet) by the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Sacred imagery clearly evokes passion and dispute. What is its purpose?

* Images serve as reminders of the presence of the sacred: they comfort and empower.

* Images of spirits serve to focus inner vision.

* Images serve as the focal point of an altar, the eye upon which you focus.

* Images may serve as a resting place or home for spirits.

* Images serve as portals through which spirits may be more easily contacted. The Diné (Navajo) word for their sacred sand paintings, Iikah, may be translated as “the place where spirits come and go” or “a summoning of the spirits.”

Images are not just for contemplation. Some images are not inert, but active, whether literally or figuratively. Specific images are tools that spirits can use to transmit their blessings. The shrine of the mysterious spirit Sara-la-Kali in southern France is the site of the largest annual Romani (Gypsy) pilgrimage. Every May, crowds travel to her shrine to place fabric on her votive statue in order to receive her gift of healing.

Tales of miracle statues are not exactly common, but neither are they infrequent. The ancient Egyptians may have possessed methods of magically animating statues. Japanese folk tradition suggests that dolls can acquire human souls or otherwise become animated and come to life. Such dolls possess extraordinary power for good or ill. They bring blessings, but if mistreated, retaliate against their abusers. There is a shrine in Japan where dolls may be disposed of safely. (See: Awashima.)

Miracle statues reputedly bleed or weep (sometimes watery tears, sometimes tears of blood or milk). Madonnas are the most prevalent modern miraculous statues, but they’re not alone. Statues of India’s elephant spirit, Ganesha, have been witnessed drinking milk. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (12 July, 1904– 23 September, 1973) collected ship figureheads. One, named Marie Celeste, a mermaid carved of dark oak, allegedly wept tears every winter.

Sometimes it seems impossible to find a suitable sacred image. Images that are readily available commercially tend to depict only the most popular spirits, as well as reproductions of acknowledged art masterpieces.

Early Christians of Egypt were particularly enthusiastic about smashing Pagan statues. During the violent destruction of Pagan Alexandria, in the late fourth century CE, the renowned Neo-Platonist Olympius reassured his grieving community that the spirits dwelling in statues had departed to celestial realms when their earthly manifestations (their statues) were destroyed.

The word doll is etymologically related to idol. Many dolls serve sacred or magical functions.

Use what works for you. Use what exists. Any attribute of a spirit may be used to represent it. If you are unable to find an image of the Celtic deity Rosmerta, then substitute a cornucopia, her attribute, instead. Alternatively use something that powerfully evokes the spirit, at least in your mind. Africans enslaved in Roman Catholic Latin America and the Caribbean used images of Christian saints to represent their own spirits because that’s what was available. When they wished to represent the great snake deity, Damballah, an image of Saint Patrick was used because that Catholic saintis inevitably portrayed with the snakes he so famously banished from Ireland. Eventually these images may meld. (See the Glossary entry for Syncretism.) Those who now resent the intrusion of Christianity into traditional African spirituality may use botanical images or attributes or create brand-new imagery. (Thus, the primordial Vodou priestess Ayizan is represented by a palm branch.)

Spirits are also associated with abstract imagery, including runes, seals, and vèvès, which may be used for various purposes, including contacting and summoning spirits.

If you cannot find an appropriate altar image, then craft your own. Find a suitable, commercially available doll and then customize him or her. Create outfits appropriate for the spirit; dye the doll’s hair if necessary. Add attributes and adornments.