What Happens to the “Extra” Soul? Split Embryos & Chimeras

One of the fundamental dogmas of Eastern Orthodoxy is the existence of the human soul.

In Orthodox spiritual circles, one finds the usual paradox of circular reasoning and confirmation bias when it comes to science. They love to boast when an early Church Father, or even Holy Scripture, mentions something that has only been verified by one of the sciences many centuries later. This gives an Orthodox Christian a warm feeling that this somehow proves the “Divine inspiration” of the texts. Of course, every religion has such instances of ancient texts containing truths that science has only recently confirmed—Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, most of the pagan religions—and modern-day adherents of these religions make similar boasts. One would assume that the Orthodox Christians who make such boasts believe in the validity of the science they claim validate the ancient writers’ divine illumination. However, this is only a case of confirmation bias.


However, when one of the sciences contradicts an orthodox teaching or dogma, then the Orthodox Christian resorts to a circular reasoning tactic: “True science validates Orthodoxy and the Scriptures because they are the only truth. If one of the sciences contradicts or seemingly disproves Orthodoxy then it is wrong because Orthodoxy is the only truth.” In some cases, the science will be dismissed abruptly as “an unproven theory” or “Western atheist propaganda.”

Thus, when a branch of science confirms some aspect of Orthodoxy or the Scriptures, the Orthodox Christian will say with a big smile, “Even science confirms this!” When it contradicts any aspect of the Orthodox faith then it is dismissed as secular and vain knowledge; not useful for the salvation of one’s soul.

Let’s return to the “eternal soul” in Eastern Orthodoxy. One of the central teachings of Orthodoxy is that a human embryo is a complete human being from the moment of conception; i.e., it is both body and soul. This dogma is used in bioethical arguments against abortion; i.e., a human being is murdered before the chance of baptism and enters the next life un-baptized. Furthermore, according to Elder Joseph Voutsas, abbot of St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery in Roscoe, NY, the Church Fathers teach that it is better for a woman to have the baby, baptize it, and then murder it over having an abortion. He also states the canonical penances for murdering a baptized baby are less severe for the mother than having an abortion.

Human Development Week 1: Morula to Blastocyst Stage

Split Embryos and Chimeras

A 3 day old embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. Embryos at this stage occasionally split, becoming separate people (identical twins). Is this a case of one soul splitting into two? But Orthodox dogma teaches that it is at the moment of conception that the embryo is body and soul. If the embryo splits, does one of them have no soul? Or is a new soul created after the moment of conception? Of course, the early Church Fathers were unaware of this fact; they were not illumined about this when they were writing their treatises about the human soul, their canons or their dogmas.

The early God-illumined Fathers were also unaware of the fact that sometimes two embryos fuse into a single individual, called a chimera. Neither the Orthodox Church nor her ancient dogmatic and scientific Patristic texts have an explanation of what becomes of the extra human soul in such a case. As a matter of fact, they are totally silent about these two physiological phenomenon.

Of course, now that science has revealed these happenings to the world, modern day theologians have been writing books and articles on Orthodox Christian bioethics. However, there is no general consensus and many of the authors have conflicting viewpoints.

Identical vs. Fraternal Twins

Embryo splitting may refer to:

  1. When spontaneous, the natural way in which identical twins are formed.
  2. When artificially induced, a method of cloning.

Monozygotic (MZ) or identical twins occur when a single egg is fertilized to form one zygote (hence, “monozygotic”) which then divides into two separate embryos.


Regarding spontaneous or natural monozygotic twinning, a recent theory proposes that monozygotic twins are formed after a blastocyst essentially collapses, splitting the progenitor cells (those that contain the body’s fundamental genetic material) in half, leaving the same genetic material divided in two on opposite sides of the embryo. Eventually, two separate fetuses develop. Spontaneous division of the zygote into two embryos is not considered to be a hereditary trait, but rather a spontaneous and random event.

Monozygotic twins may also be created artificially by embryo splitting. It can be used as an expansion of IVF to increase the number of available embryos for embryo transfer.

Here we have one fertilisation event, but two individuals result. Do those twins have to share the ‘human soul’ they had from conception?


Monozygotic twinning occurs in birthing at a rate of about 3 in every 1000 deliveries worldwide.

The likelihood of a single fertilization resulting in monozygotic twins is uniformly distributed in all populations around the world. This is in marked contrast to dizygotic twinning, which ranges from about six per thousand births in Japan (almost similar to the rate of identical twins, which is around 4–5) to 15 and more per thousand in some parts of India and up to over 20 in some Central African countries. The exact cause for the splitting of a zygote or embryo is unknown.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques are more likely to create dizygotic twins. For IVF deliveries, there are nearly 21 pairs of twins for every 1,000.

Artificial embryo splitting or embryo twinning, a technique that creates monozygotic twins from a single embryo, is not considered in the same fashion as other methods of cloning. During that procedure, an donor embryo is split in two distinct embryos, that can then be transferred via embryo transfer. It is optimally performed at the 6- to 8-cell stage, where it can be used as an expansion of IVF to increase the number of available embryos. If both embryos are successful, it gives rise to monozygotic (identical) twins.

Such an individual results when fraternal twins, derived from separate conceptions, merge very early in development to form a single individual with some cells with one genome and some cells with another


A chimera is an ordinary person or animal except that some of their parts actually came from their twin or from the mother. A chimera may arise either from monozygotic twin fetuses (where it would be impossible to detect), or from dizygotic fetuses, which can be identified by chromosomal comparisons from various parts of the body. The number of cells derived from each fetus can vary from one part of the body to another, and often leads to characteristic mosaicism skin coloration in human chimeras. A chimera may be intersex, composed of cells from a male twin and a female twin. In one case DNA tests determined that a woman, mystifyingly, was not the mother of two of her three children; she was found to be a chimera, and the two children were conceived from eggs derived from cells of their mother’s twin.

Mosaicism and chimerism



“The epidemiology of multiple births”. Human Reproduction Update (European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology) 5 (2): 179–187. http://humupd.oxfordjournals.org/content/14/1/37.full

“Study: Twins form after embryo collapses”. USA Today. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/2007-07-03-52152171_x.htm

“How eggs split to form identical twins” WonderQuest. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/science/wonderquest/2001-05-09-why-twins-form.htm

“Human embryo twinning with applications in reproductive medicine” http://apps.elsevier.es/watermark/ctl_servlet?_f=10&pident_articulo=90018480&pident_usuario=0&pcontactid=&pident_revista=605&ty=147&accion=L&origen=zonadelectura&web=www.elsevier.es&lan=en&fichero=605v93n02a90018480pdf001.pdf

“Projections of population-based twinning rates through the year 2100” http://www.reproductivemedicine.com/toc/auto_abstract.php?id=13594

“Time-lapse recordings reveal why IVF embryos are more likely to develop into twins. Researchers believe the laboratory culture could be the cause” https://web.archive.org/web/20070921094734/http://www.eshre.com/emc.asp?pageId=939

New scientist magazine: The stranger within. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18024215-100-the-stranger-within/

Strangers within: Meet the other humans who live in your body https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22930550-400-strangers-within-meet-the-other-humans-who-live-in-your-body/

‘Semi-identical’ twins discovered: Hermaphrodite reveals previously unknown type of twinning. http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070326/full/news070326-1.html



Oliver Sacks on Hallucinations (Indre Viskontas, 2013)

NOTE: The following is an interview taken from Skeptical Inquirer Volume 37.3, May/June 2013.


What causes the startling, unbidden perception of something that seems very real but has no material existence outside of our own minds? The “poet-laureate of medicine,” Oliver Sacks, takes us through the looking glass and into the fascinating world of hallucinations. Oliver Sacks, MD, is a physician, best-selling author, and professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. He is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985),An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), and The Mind’s Eye (2010). His book Awakenings (1973) inspired the 1990 Academy Award-nominated feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Sacks is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His newest book isHallucinations (2012).

Indre Viskontas, a PhD neuroscientist and a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow, interviewed Sacks for our Center for Inquiry’s Point of Inquiry podcast.


You have a new book out called Hallucinations, and some of our readers may have already come across an excerpt in the New Yorker called “Altered States,” in which you describe some of your own experiences with hallucinogenic drugs. But before we delve into that topic, please tell us what is it that distinguishes a hallucination from other fantastical mental experiences, such as waking dreams or imagination?

Well, hallucinations can occur in full consciousness, unlike dreams, and they are projected externally and appear to have a real and objective reality, unlike imagined objects and people. They are similar to percepts (objects of perception) except they are, as it were, forced percepts in which there’s nothing there to perceive. It’s as if the perceiving parts of the brain have been forcefully activated internally.

I was initially struck by the beginning of your book, where you talk about people who have hallucinations because one of their senses has an absence of stimulation. For example, Charles Bonnet Syndrome, where people who are blind experience visual hallucinations. Tell us a little more about what’s going on there.

Oliver Sacks

First, a lot of my work is done in an old-age home. I see a lot of people who have impaired vision or hearing even though they are intellectually quite intact. And a good proportion—I can’t say exactly but I would think close to a fifth of these people—develop hallucinations in the mode in which they are defective. So the blind and partially blind get purely visual hallucinations. Deaf people get auditory hallucinations, most commonly musical rather than verbal. People who’ve lost their sense of smell can get smell hallucinations.

One might say that people who have lost a limb get limb hallucinations. But I’m not quite sure whether phantom limbs belong in the same category with the others.

I open the book with a description of a patient whom I’ve been following for many years, who became very dear to me, and I was very sad when she died a few weeks ago, just short of her hundredth birthday. She was a remarkable old lady, strong and clear minded.

The nursing home phoned me saying she was apparently hallucinating and they didn’t know what was going on. When I went to see her, she was puzzled. She said, “I’ve been blind for five years. I see nothing. Why am I seeing things now?” I asked, “What sort of things?” She described scenes with animals, with people looking at her, with falling snow and a snow plow. Very vivid visual vignettes, maybe two or three minutes long, and then there would be another one.

I asked if they were like dreams, and she said, “No, they’re like film clips or maybe like going to the theater.” Interestingly, she could never recognize the people or places she hallucinated. And she felt that when they did their thing it was autonomously without any relation to her or to her own thoughts or feelings. This is rather characteristic of hallucinations in Charles Bonnet syndrome. Other hallucinations sometimes are charged with affects (emotions) or the sense of familiarity. But not the Charles Bonnet ones.

You mention that in the case of these visual hallucinations, they were of unfamiliar things. Whereas, I think you also mention that when people have musical hallucinations they are generally of familiar melodies or tunes or music they have heard before. Is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s a very striking difference. I’ve wondered whether it’s because music is an already constructed thing, whether one takes in whole pieces of music as opposed to visual things which may not be completed, unless of course, one is hallucinating a painting or photograph. It’s very much that what one sees has to be constructed like imagining an image. Whereas the musical ones are very much more like memories.

Do you know of any research in which people have looked at what’s going on in the brain during these hallucinations? Say, for example, in the visual hallucinations, there’s some other part of the brain that’s also active that’s doing the imagining or creating the scene.

Yes, well, there have been some very beautiful studies that have become possible with the advent of functional brain imaging, fMRI, and more recent forms of imaging, tensor imaging, that shows the white matter. If people were hallucinating faces, there tended to be abnormal activity in the so-called fusiform face area in the back of the right hemisphere in the inferotemporal cortex. If, on the other hand, they were hallucinating words or pseudo-words or letters, lexical hallucinations, then the visual word form area in the left hemisphere would be activated. And it looked very much that those systems of the brain involved in perceptual recognition generated hallucinations of that sort if they were being autonomously stimulated or released.

I think the studies of musical hallucinations have not sorted things out quite in this way because people hear [complete] pieces of music. What we find is a very widespread activation of all those parts of the brain, including cerebellum, basal ganglia, premotor cortex, and so forth that are activated when one listens to real music.

In these patients who are experiencing hallucinations in the absence of stimulation, and in particular, those healthy people you described who, after three days in a sensory deprivation chamber, began to hallucinate, it almost seems as though the hallucinations are a comfort rather than something they fear. Did you find that patients over time would learn to control either the content or the expression of their hallucinations?

Modern Isolation Tank

Usually no control, or very little control, was obtained. But there tended to be accommodation. Once people with Charles Bonnet are reassured that there is no psychiatric or neurological calamity and they’re not on anything hallucinogenic, they may then become quite accepting of the hallucinations. I quote one man who imagined his eyes saying, “We know blindness is no fun so we have concocted this small syndrome as a sort of coda to your sighted life. It’s not much, but it’s the best we can do.” I’m slightly misquoting him, but that’s essentially what he imagined his eyes saying. Charles Bonnet’s grandfather who, as it were, was the original subject, would often compare his hallucinations to spectacles in a theater, and would sometimes like to go in a dark room in the afternoon for a hallucinatory matinee.

I was struck along the same lines by a description of a patient you wrote about. Her name was Gertie C. I believe she was a Parkinsonian patient. Could you tell our readers her story?

Gertie was a patient who had had the sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, and a post-encephalitic syndrome which immobilized her for decades before she was put on L-dopa. She had all sorts of hallucinations, as do other patients on L-dopa. But it also become clear, when she got to know me and trust me (and I followed her for ten years or more) that she had had hallucinations long before she was put on L-dopa, mostly of a rather pastoral sort. She imagined lying in a meadow or floating in water. When she was put on L-dopa, her hallucinations became more social and more erotic, and apparently she got these quite under control so that she did not hallucinate until the evening. When it was time for her to hallucinate at 8:00 PM, she would say to her visitors, firmly but courteously, that she was expecting a gentleman visitor from out of town, and perhaps they could come another day. Her gentleman visitor, an apparition, would come through the window and brought her much comfort, both social and sexual. But she really seemed to have control of this. It never spread out of control, and it had this sort of humor that was engaging.

But she was an old hand at hallucinating. It may be that some schizophrenic patients—she was not schizophrenic—may also get on comfortable terms in this sort of way with their hallucinations. Incidentally, I mentioned in my book another patient who had Parkinson’s disease (not post-encephalitic), and he was also prone to hallucinating visitors. But they never followed him out of the apartment. They were confined to his apartment, and he could get away from them, if he wished, by going outside.


About a year ago I cohosted a television show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which I had the opportunity to investigate claims of miracles across the U.S. Several of the episodes included people who reported having had visions of a religious sense. They would be very offended if I intimated at all that they might have been hallucinating. Is there a difference, at least in the medical field, between what people think of as a religious vision and a hallucination?

Well, there is certainly a difference in character. People are often rather quiet about ordinary hallucinations. But with religious experiences, they may become almost evangelical. There’s a book in front of me at this moment which has been much talked about and is on the cover of Newsweek. It’s called Proof of Heaven and subtitled, “A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife,” by a man called Eben Alexander.

He had a nasty bacterial meningitis. He was in a coma for several days. But when he came to, he described an enormously complex so-called near-death experience. These experiences are often rather stereotyped in quality. People may feel they’re in a dark corridor and moving towards some bright light. Feelings of bliss envelop them as they are drawn towards the light. They sense, in a way, that the light is the boundary between life and death. And they would then come back or “float back.” InMusicophilia, I described such a sequence with a subject, another surgeon as it happened, who had been struck by lightning.

And he had this sort of blissful moment and then he said, “Slam! I was back.” He was back because someone was doing CPR on his heart and his heart started beating again twenty or thirty seconds afterwards. So, his whole cosmic journey only occupied a matter of seconds. Dr. Alexander feels that his cortex was out of action while he was having his visions and therefore it must have been direct supernatural intervention. I think such a claim can’t be sustained and indeed, a few seconds of altered consciousness as one emerges from coma would be enough to give him such a state.

People in these states may insist on their reality and feel their lives are transformed. And, as you say, may get angry if one says it was a hallucination. Of course, hallucinations, being brain events in the absence of any sort of objective world around one, can’t be evidence of anything, much less proof of anything. Certainly the being in heaven hallucination may feel real at the time, but in retrospect, I think many people will almost regretfully say, well, it was a hallucination. It seemed intensely real but it can’t be.

But other people may stick with the feeling that they have been vouchsafed a glimpse of the afterlife or, indeed, they have had quite a long sojourn there. One knows that what one had imagined was not reality. But if it leaks into hallucination, it may [seem to] be. I don’t think hallucinations are evidence of reality any more than imaginings are.


I was struck by how you describe almost a continuum of belief in one’s own hallucinations. You have people who, for example, on one extreme, have Anton’s Syndrome in which they have damage to the occipital lobe and they’re blind cortically. But they deny their impairment—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. On the other extreme, you have people who immediately know that their hallucinations aren’t real and they’re skeptical of them. What is the difference between these two sets of people?

Anton’s Syndrome, which I only touch on briefly, does involve all sorts of misconnections from reality testing. But with complex temporal lobe hallucinations, which during surgery can be induced by stimulating the temporal lobe cortex in the right place, can produce what Dr. Penfield, a pioneering neurosurgeon, called “experiential hallucinations,” which seem intensely real. Although there may be a sort of doubling of consciousness, so the patient can say, “I know I am in Dr. Penfield’s operating room, but I am also at the corner of 25th and First Avenue in South Bend, Indiana.”

They might feel an intense sense of similarity in their investing somehow the present. I think one has to think in terms of various levels. These Charles Bonnet hallucinations are relatively low down in the ventral visual pathway. But by the time one comes to these temporal lobe hallucinations, one is finding co-activation of the amygdala and the hippocampal systems. This then may invest them, certainly, with a strong sense of emotion and familiarity. Also, to some extent, of [a sense of] reality.

You also describe—in the temporal lobe epilepsy patients—ecstatic hallucinations.

These so-called “ecstatic” hallucinations have been described for many years in the medical literature, and in the general literature. You have only to read Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of his own seizures—descriptions he also splits among many of his characters. He would suddenly be arrested and cry, “God exists! God exists!” He would feel that he was in heaven and that everything was unified and made sense. It could sometimes be followed by convulsions, but he said for five seconds of this state he would give his whole life.

In these ecstatic hallucinations, there is a sudden transport of joy and also a sense of being transported to heaven or into communication with God. These seem intensely real to people and very pleasurable. There was an interesting study a few years ago when there was an attempt to treat some patients with ecstatic seizures. A lot of them refused to take medication, and some of them even found ways of inducing their own seizures.

If a seizure is pleasant, usually there is spiking in the right temporal lobe at the same time as people are having their divine vision. They may be a bit out of touch with the sort of daily reality around them. But lives are being transformed by this.

One of my favorite case histories, which I quote in my book, is of a bus conductor in London who, as he was punching the tickets, suddenly felt that he was in heaven and told this to all of his passengers. He remained in a very elated state for three days. It sounds as if he was in an almost postictal mania. Then he continued on a more moderate level, deeply religious, until he had another bunch of seizures three years later—and he said that cleared his mind. Now he no longer believes in God and angels, in Christ, in an afterlife, or in heaven. Interestingly, the second conversion to atheism carried the same elated and revelatory quality as the first one to religion.

temporal lobe epilepsy patients—ecstatic hallucinations

I want to ask you about a personal experience of mine. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a full-blown hallucination, at least to my knowledge. But you might remember from the conversation we once had at dinner that I am a grapheme-color synesthete. For our readers who are unfamiliar with the term, it means that I see letters and numbers in color. Is this a hallucination?

No, I think that seeing letters and numbers in color or seeing music in color is really a constant physiological happening between two areas of the cortex, a letter-reading one and a color-constructing one. I think this sort of thing, which you can probably verify from your own experience, comes at an early age, and doesn’t change. I suppose one might call it an illusion, in that one sensation is invested with the qualities of another sensation. This can take very complex forms. There’s one professional musician who could taste different pitches—she tuned her violin by taste.

That’s amazing. For me it just feels so natural, yet I know, intellectually, that the appearance of the color doesn’t happen until my brain has somehow understood the symbolic meaning of a letter, for example.

That’s interesting. And if you’re given a sort of a nonsense string of letters, that doesn’t light up at all?

Well, the letters do. But it’s not until—say if I see two intersecting lines, it’s not until my brain decides whether it’s a T or an L that I see the color. If letters are occluded and I don’t know what the letter is, there is no color. It feels instantaneous to me that the color comes on in line with the meaning of the letter. In that way, I wondered if there wasn’t a part of my brain that is overlaying a hallucination. But I can see your point that it’s more of an illusion because it’s unchanging and it’s always present.

Probably if you spoke to another letter-synesthete, you would find that he or she had different colors from you.

Yes, in fact, I’ve been working with an illustrator on a graphic novel. Her name is M.G. Lord. She’s also a synesthete, and we have very heated arguments about what colors the letters should be.

Nabokov discovered when he was a child that he was a synesthete. But he complained to his mother that the letters in the alphabet set were of the wrong color. She agreed with him. But when she said the colors they were to her, the two of them disagreed. In general, synesthetes don’t agree. This is especially striking for musical synesthetes. Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov both thought [their musical synesthesia] was something absolute. But when they met they found that they saw very different colors and couldn’t agree about anything.

I’d like to wrap up the interview with a more personal note from your own experiences. I was very much struck by one experience you described in which you had taken a hallucinogenic drug and you were waiting for a hallucination to appear. And then nothing happened. Can you describe that experience?


Yes, well, I was living then down on Venice Beach in the early 1960s, and there were a lot of drugs around. And people said to me, if you really want something striking take artane. Artane is a belladonna-like drug which is used in treating Parkinson’s. And they said just take twenty, you’ll still be in partial control. Anyhow, I took these tablets. At first I noticed nothing. I had a rather dry mouth, difficulty accommodating, my pupils were dilated. Nothing else. Then I heard a car door slam and footsteps, and I thought it was my friends Jim and Kathy. They often visited me on Sunday. I shouted “Come in!” and we chatted. I was in the kitchen.

There was a swinging door between the kitchen and the sitting room. I said, “How do you like your eggs done?” And we chatted in the four or five minutes while I prepared their ham and eggs. Then I walked out with the breakfast on a tray and . . . there was no one there. I was so shocked I almost dropped the tray. It hadn’t occurred to me for a moment that all this was hallucinated, at least that their part of the conversation was hallucinated. I thought I’d better watch myself. But this was followed by some even stranger things, including having a conversation with a spider. I think the spider was real enough; there weren’t any visual elements.

But then the spider said, “Hello.” And for some reason it didn’t surprise me any more than Alice was surprised by the White Rabbit. I said, “Hello yourself.” And we had a conversation. Actually, an abstract conversation about some points in analytic philosophy. Many years later, I mentioned this to a friend of mine, an entomologist, the philosophical spider with a voice like Bertrand Russell. He nodded his head and said, “Yes, I know the species.”

What is amazing is that you were expecting it. You were waiting for a hallucination.

Yes. Although I didn’t think it would take that form. I thought it would be all sorts of dramatic visual misperceptions and hallucinations as one may get with LSD or mescaline and those drugs. But this time it was purely auditory, and oddly humdrum although at the same time deeply absurd. I wonder what one would have thought had they seen me talking learnedly to a spider.

The curious case of encephalitis lethargica
The curious case of encephalitis lethargica

Indre Viskontas, a writer, neuroscientist, and opera singer, holds a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience and a master of music in vocal performance. Her scientific research explores the neural basis of memory and creativity; she has published more than thirty original peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. Viskontas is affiliated with the Memory and Aging Center at UC–San Francisco and is the associate editor of the journal Neurocase. She cohosted Miracle Detectives, a six-episode docuseries on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which she explored the scientific explanations of paranormal experiences. She also blogs regularly at http://www.indreviskontas.com.

The monk who left the Holy Mountain to destroy a statue of Neptune in the Ministry of Education with a sledgehammer! (1976)

Poseidon holding a trident. Corinthian plaque, 550-525 BC. From Penteskouphia.

NOTE: The following article is taken from “Time Machine,” July 23, 2015. Poseidon (Greek: Ποσειδῶν) was one of the twelve Olympian deities of the pantheon in Greek mythology. His main domain was the ocean, and he is called the “God of the Sea”. He is usually depicted as an older male with curly hair and beard. Poseidon was a major civic god of several cities: in Athens, he was second only to Athena in importance, while in Corinth and many cities of Magna Graecia he was the chief god of the polis.




An unprecedented incident of religious fanaticism made headlines in April 1976.

The protagonist was a monk from Mount Athos, who went to Athens in order to destroy the statue of Poseidon that stood at the entrance of the Ministry of Education.


It all started from an article by the Metropolitan of Florina, Augoustinos Kantiotes, “concerning the genitals of the pagan God and the shame of Athens,” which enraged the monk. In the article, Kantiotis mentioned—among other things—the plaster copy of the Poseidon statue that adorned the entrance to the Ministry of Education. The monk was furious and decided to act. He got a car and traveled from Athos to Athens to eliminate what he believed was the Ministry’s shame.

He invaded the building early in the morning and started hitting the statue with a large sledgehammer. The Ministry officials tried to stop him, but did not manage.

The monk was furiously beating Poseidon shouting: “Down with the idols.” 

The monk broke the statue’s hands and feet. Police officers arrived at the Ministry and arrested him before he could shatter the head. “It was a corruptive idol; disgusting and shameful. Those who set it up in the Ministry of Religious Affairs are not Christians,” the monk said to justify his action. Reporters gathered and submitted questions at the police station where he was led.

“What bothered you most about the Poseidon statue? Perhaps his nakedness? -That too. Why do they have the idol in the ministry? Do they want to restore paganism, as did Julian the Apostate? No, they will not succeed in that.”

The monk was not penitent. Rather, he said to himself: “Oh I did not have the honor to also break its head with the hammer.” The monk even threatened to return to Athens at night with two cases of dynamite and turn Poseidon to ash. According to his plan, he would break the glass and enter the Ministry with the wicks ready for firing. In an emergency, as stated, he would be killed together, like Samuel in Kougki.

The case was brought to justice. People who supported the monk had gathered in court. When the accused asked the chairman what he had to say about the matter, he replied calmly: “I accept. I broke the statue because it was the shame of the city and caused the indignation of Christians.” When they asked him if he sought exemption from the charges, he categorically said no. The court sentenced the monk to prison for eight months, but he appealed and was released.

St. Nicholas destroys idols, 13th c. fresco


Saint George topples the pagan idols (Decani, 14th c.)
Saint George topples the pagan idols; Decani, 14th Century
Saint Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of pagan god Veles (11th century)
St. Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of the pagan god Veles (11th century)



A 6th Century Admonition to Destroy the Shrines of the Idols (St. Ceasarius of Arles, †542)

NOTE: The following sermon is taken from Sermons, Volume 1 (1–80) (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 31), Sermon 53, pp. 263-265:

St. Ceasarius of Arles

(1) It is a source of pleasure to us, dearly beloved, to see you faithfully coming to church, and for this we give the greatest thanks to God. Truly, this is becoming and proper for Christians, to hasten like good sons to their mother the Church with the greatest longing and true piety. But, although we rejoice at this, dearly beloved, to see you hasten faithfully to church, we are sad and we grieve because we know that some of you rather frequently go over to the ancient worship of idols like the pagans who have no God or grace of baptism. We have heard that some of you make vows to trees, pray to fountains, and practice diabolical augury. Because of this there is such sorrow in our hearts that we cannot receive any consolation. What is worse, there are some unfortunate and miserable people who not only are unwilling to destroy the shrines of the pagans but even are not afraid or ashamed to build up those which have been destroyed. Moreover, if anyone with a thought of God wants to burn the wood of those shrines or to tear to pieces and destroy the diabolical altars, they become angry, rave with fury, and are excited with excessive frenzy. They even go so far as to dare to strike those who out of love for God are trying to overthrow the wicked idols; perhaps they do not even hesitate to plan their death. What are these unfortunate, miserable people doing! They are deserting the light and running to darkness; they reject God and embrace the Devil. They desert life while they follow after death; by repudiating Christ they proceed to impiety. Why, then, did these miserable people come to church? Why did they receive the sacrament of baptism if afterwards they intended to return to the profanation of idols? Truly in them is fulfilled what was written: The dog is returned to his vomit: and the pig to his wallowing in the mire.’1 They do not fear what the Lord said through His Prophet: ‘He that sacrificeth to gods shall be put to death, save only to the Lord’;2 moreover, in the psalms: ‘All the gods of the Gentiles are devils, but the Lord made the heavens’; and again: ‘Let them be all confounded that adore graven things, and that glory in their idols.’3

(2) Therefore, brethren, whoever you are who have not done such wrong to the loving Christ, see to it that you never do so. Be careful lest those desperate, wicked men overwhelm you, and lest after Christ’s sacraments you return to the poison of the Devil. Rather, rebuke whomever you recognize as such, admonish them quite harshly, chide them quite severely. If they are not corrected, strike them if you can; if they are not corrected thus, pull their hair. If they still continue, tie them with bonds of iron, so that a chain may hold those whom Christ’s grace does not hold. Then, do not permit them to restore the shrine, but endeavor to tear to pieces and destroy them wherever they are. Cut the impious wood down to the roots, break up the altars of the Devil. Moreover, know this, dearly beloved, that when he is baptized every man is separated from the following and army of the Devil. However, if later on there is a return to the practice of that impiety which we mentioned before, Christ is immediately deserted and the Devil again takes hold. It would have been a less serious matter not to come to Christ than afterwards to desert Him, according to what the Apostle Peter says about the matter: ‘It were better for them not to have known the way of justice than, having known it, to turn back.’4

(3) We are saying, brethren, what is expedient for you. Eternal punishment will torture without any remedy whoever is unwilling to observe this. Some like to get drunk, some to commit adultery, others to entice the innocent, but afterwards they will not like to burn in eternal flames. Look, brethren, observe what we are saying, for no one can say that he was not warned. See how we shout and testify and preach; do not despise your herald if you want to avoid the Judge. However, concerning God’s mercy, we believe that He intends to give perseverance in good works to you, the faithful. Those who have committed some impiety He will inspire to hasten to do penance. Thus, by persevering in good after having been reformed from evil they will equally deserve to arrive at eternal bliss: with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns world without end.


  • 2 Peter 2.22.
  • 22.20.
  • 95.5; 96.7.
  • 2 Peter 2.21.


Saints Who Destroyed Religious Images (Icon Reader, 2012)

NOTE: The following article is taken from: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/saints-who-destroyed-religious-images/

For completeness, if nothing else, this post addresses how religious images not depicting Christ and His Saints were regarded by the Church, using the testimony of her martyrs. Below, is a roughly chronological list of Saints known to have destroyed idols: i.e. the religious images and statues venerated by non-Christians, and considered holy by them. The list is by no means exhaustive.

King Hezekiah (+687 B.C.)

This king of Judah gives a scriptural precedent for the physical destruction of idols (2 Kings 18-20). King Hezekiah is glorified because, in order to restore true worship of God in his kingdom, he“removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made…”; and as Scripture explains, the righteous king did these things because “he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Commemorated Aug 28

King Hezekiah asherah-pole
King Hezekiah removed pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and knocked down the Asherah poles.

King Josiah (+609 B.C.)

In a similar way to King Hezekiah, Josiah also used his royal authority to “clean up” the faith of Israel, and destroyed idols and other objects related to the worship of Baal. Scripture describes his legacy thus: Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. (2 Kings 23:25).
Josiah is included in the genealogy of the Evangelist Matthew and so is celebrated on the second Sunday before Christmas.

King Josiah Destroying the Idols of Baal. (Gustave Dore)


The Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother (1st Century A.D.)

As part of the Church’s tradition, it is believed that during Christ’s flight into Egypt, statues to the native gods crumbled and fell at His presence; this led to the conversion of some of the inhabitants. This story is enshrined in the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, which contains the following stanza addressed to Jesus:

By shining in Egypt the light of truth, Thou didst dispel the darkness of falsehood; for its idols fell, O Saviour, unable to endure Thy strength;

Flight into Egypt, showing the idols (white figures) falling from the city walls
Flight into Egypt, showing the idols (white figures) falling from the city walls

The Apostle Paul (+67 A.D.)

As recounted in the Book of Acts (19:11-20), the miracles of the Apostle Paul led many pagan sorcerers in Ephesus to convert to Christ, whereupon they publicly burned their spell-books. Scripture concludes this episode with the words: So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.

The destruction of Books of Magic at Ephesus..jpg

The Apostle Matthew (+ 1st century A.D.)

Some accounts of the Evangelist’s life state that in the place of his martyrdom the local ruler repented of executing the Saint and was baptized, taking the name Matthew. The newly-illumined king then proceeded to destroy the pagan idols in his temples.
Commemorated November 16 and June 30

The Apostle John (c. +97 A.D.)

Some accounts of the Life of John the Evangelist state that his exile to Patmos was a result of the Apostle causing pagan idols to fall through his prayers. In the Anglo-Saxon homilies from the 10th/11th centuries, there is an explicit mention of the Apostle John turning the idols to dust by the power of God (see here).
Commemorated September 26, May 8, and June 30

Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus (+ 2nd Century A.D.)

These Saints were stonemasons who settled in Ulpiana (in modern-day Kosovo) and were there employed by the Roman prefect in building a pagan temple. The Saints gave away all their salary to the poor. After the temple was complete, Ss Florus and Laurus gathered all the local Christians together, and then proceeded to smash all the statues of the temple before erecting a cross. The local authorities executed 300 Christians for this act, including the Twin-Saints, who were thrown down into a well.
Commemorated August 18.

Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus
Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus

Abercius of Hieropolis, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 167 A.D.)

After praying fervently for the conversion of the pagan-dominated Hierapolis, an angel of the Lord appeared to the bishop, and ordered him to destroy the pagan idols. Having done so, he presented himself to the pagans, who would have murdered him were it not for his miraculous healing of three demon-possessed youths.
Commemorated October 22.

St. Abercius striking the temple gods with his rod
St. Abercius striking the temple gods with his rod.

Martyr Julian of Dalmatia (+ 160 A.D.)

This youth was mercilessly tortured over a period of days for not offering sacrifice to the idols. During this time, the temple of Serapis and all the idols within it were destroyed. The pagans attributed the destruction to St Julian’s “magic” and demanded his immediate execution. Of the idols, Julian said boldly: “Listen, accursed ones, do not trust your gods, which you have made with your hands. Know, rather, the God Who out of nothing, has created Heaven and earth.”
Commemorated July 28.

Virgin-Martyr Paraskevi (+ 170 A.D.)

This famous Orthodox saint was arrested for converting many pagans to Christ. After many tortures she meekly let herself be led to the Temple of Apollo to offer sacrifice. However, upon entering the temple, St Paraskevi made the sign of the cross and the statues in the temple were destroyed. The furious pagans ensured the Saint was condemned to death.
Commemorated July 26.

St. Paraskevi Smashes the Idols of Apollon
St. Paraskevi smashes the idols of Apollo.

Holy Martyrs Speusippus, Eleusippus, Meleusippus and their grandmother Leonilla (+ 175 A.D.)

Triplets who lived in France, as youths they were converted to the Christian faith by their grandmother, Leonilla, and in their zeal destroyed the pagan idols in the area.
Commemorated January 16.

Saint Glykeria (+ 177 A.D.)

The daughter of a Roman official in Thrace, she was a secret Christian who was forced to attend a pagan high-festival at the largest temple in the area. During the service, overcome by having to witness the ministering to false idols, she toppled the statue of Jupiter and upbraided the pagans for their folly. For this she was executed. Read more>>
Commemorated May 13

Saint Charalampus (+202 A.D.)

When already 113 years old, St Charalampus was subjected to fierce tortures for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. Upon witnessing his steadfast faith, the daughter of the Emperor Severus – called Gallina – converted to the Christian faith and destroyed all her pagan idols.

St. Haralambos trampling on a demon

Great-Martyr Christina of Tyre (+ 3rd Century A.D.)

The daughter of a pagan governor, Christina was instructed in the faith by an angel of the Lord, and afterwards she destroyed all the idols in her room and threw them from the window. When her father discovered the truth he had her cruelly tortured before he died. The next governor finished the job and executed St Christina by the sword.
Commemorated July 24.

Great-Martyr Tatiana of Rome (+225)

Secretly Christian, Tatiana was ordained as a deaconess, captured by the pagan authorities, brought into the sanctuary of Apollo, and forced to offer sacrifice. Through her prayers, the earth shook, toppling the statue of Apollo and causing some of the pagan priests to be crushed. As the statue fell, witnesses saw a demon flee from behind it. St Tatiana was cruelly tortured and beheaded.
Commemorated January 12.

Martyr Polyeuctus of Melitene, in Armenia(+ 255 A.D.)

A Roman soldier who confessed faith in Christ during the persecution by Emperor Valerian (253-259). In zeal he went to the public square and tore up the edict of Decius which required everyone to worship idols. A few moments later, he met a procession carrying twelve idols through the streets of the city. St Polyeuctus dashed the idols to the ground and trampled them underfoot.
Commemorated January 9.


Martyr Agatha of Palermo (+251)

Was also cruelly tortured under the edict of the Emperor Decius (see above) for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. During interrogations she openly mocked the idols as “not gods but demons”, and also mocked the city prefect who worshiped them. Before her final execution an earthquake shook the city destroying a number of the pagan temples, attributed to the prayers of St Agatha.
Commemorated February 5

Martyr Heliconis of Thessalonica (+ 3rd Century A.D.)

Suffered under the governor Perinus for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. After many tortures the virgin-martyr appeared to relent and so was brought to the temple. After requesting to be alone in the temple, St Heliconis manfully tore down all the idols and smashed them to pieces. On returning, the enraged pagans demanded her execution.
Commemorated May 28

Martyr Sozon (“Saved”) of Cilicia (+ late 3rd century)

A pious young shepherd who was foretold his martyrdom in a dream. Awaking he headed for the city of Pompeiopolis, where a festival to a golden statue was taking place. Secretly he broke off the hand of the statue and distributed the fragments to the poor. When persecutions began in order to find the culprit, St Sozon immediately presented himself to the emperor Maximian, confessing: “I did this, so that you might see the lack of power of your god, which offered me no resistance. It is not a god, but a deaf and dumb idol. I wanted to smash it all into pieces, so that people would no longer worship the work of men’s hands.” St Sozon gave up his life under pitiless tortures.
Commemorated September 7

Saint Victor of Marseilles (+290 A.D.)

A Roman army officer in Marseilles, who publicly denounced the worship of idols. At the orders of Emperor Maximian he was brought before a statue of Jupiter in order to offer incense before it. Not only did St Victor refuse, he kicked the statue, causing it to fall and shatter. Crushed under a millstone.
Commemorated July 21.

Priest-Martyr Mocius of Amphipolis (+ 295 A.D.)

Overturned the altar during a pagan service to Dionysius (Bacchus) and exhorted those gathered to turn to Christ. Captured and forced to offer sacrifice to false gods, the Saint called upon the name of Jesus Christ and the idols shattered. He was finally brought to Byzantium and executed there.
Commemorated May 11

Sainted-bishop Sisinios and Artemon, Presbyter of Laodicea (+303)

When the Emperor Diocletian ordered a persecution of the Christians in the late 3rd century, St Artemon was already an elderly and long-serving priest of the Church. Saint Sisinios, knowing about the impending arrival in the Laodiceian district of the military-commander Patricius, went together with the priest Artemon into the pagan-temple of the goddess Artemis. There they smashed and burnt the idols. Although arrested and tortured, St Artemon’s life was miraculously spared so that he could go on preaching until 303 A.D., when he was finally seized by pagans and murdered.
Commemorated April 13.

Martyr Blaise of Sebaste (+ 316 A.D.)

An old man living a life of prayer in a secluded cave, the pagans did not forget his earlier life as a zealous bishop for the Christians. Dragging him back to the city to face trial, St Sebaste fearlessly mocked the idols (as shown in this detail from a Russian icon) for which he was savagely beaten and eventually executed along with pagan women who had been converted by his words and miracles.
Commemorated February 11

Great-Martyr Theodore Stratelates, or “the General” (+ 319 A.D.)

Was appointed military-commander in the city of Heraclea Pontica, during the time the emperor Licinius began a fierce persecution of Christians. Theodore himself invited Licinius to Heraclea, having promised to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. He requested that all the gold and silver statues of the gods which they had in Heraclea be gathered up at his house. Theodore then smashed them into pieces which he then distributed to the poor. After tortures, St Theodore was beheaded

Theodore Strataletes smashes the idols and gives the pieces to the poor
Theodore Strataletes smashes the idols and gives the pieces to the poor

Commemorated February 8.

Martyr Acacius of Apamea (+ early 4th century)

Holy Martyr Acacius was brought to trial for his belief in Christ. Sent from city to city enduring tortures along the way, the Saint publicly caused the toppling of pagan idols through his prayers… twice!
Commemorated July 28.

Saint George the Victory-Bearer (+ 303 A.D.)

Among the many stories relating to this great Saint, is one relating to the smashing of idols (and shown in the picture at the very top of this post). After being offered great riches and power, the Holy George was brought to the temple of Apollo to give sacrifice. St George made the sign of the Cross approaching an idol and turned towards it, as though it were alive: “You wishest to receive from me sacrifice befitting God?” The demon inhabiting the idol cried out: “I am not God and none of those like me are God. The One-Only God is He Whom thou preachest. We are of those servant-angels of His, which became apostate, and in the grips of jealousy we do tempt people.” “How dare ye to be here, when hither have come I, the servant of the True God?” – asked the saint. Then was heard a crash and wailing, and the idols fell down and were shattered.
Commemorated April 23.

Saint George topples the pagan idols (Decani, 14th c.)
Saint George topples the pagan idols; Decani, 14th Century

Priestly-Martyr Erasmus of Ohrid (+ 303)

Born in Antioch and after living a life of prayer on Mt Lebanon, he was ordained bishop and sent into Ohrid to preach the Gospel. Through miracles and preaching he converted many pagans in Ohrid, and overturned their altars. Brought before Emperor Maximian, Erasmus was commanded to worship a copper statue of Zeus. St Erasmus through prayer caused a terrible-looking dragon to appear from behing the idol and, again through prayer, caused it to wither and die. Through this sign the demonic nature of idol-worship was revealed, and the power of Christ to overcome it, converting 20,000 pagan souls. St Erasmus was beaten and imprisoned, but later was released and died in peace.
Commemorated June 2 (read his life here)

Empress Helena (+ 329 A.D.)

The pious Christian mother of Constantine the Great, Empress Helena is best remembered in the Orthodox Church for finding the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the site of the finding she erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Less well-known perhaps, but no less significant, is that a temple to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) needed to be flattened for the church to be built. St Helena probably also ordered the destruction of a temple to Zeus (Jupiter) in order to build a church dedicated to St. Cyrus and St. John.
Commemorated, with St Constantine, on May 21.

The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem.
The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem.

The finding of the true Cross is commemorated on September 14, and is one of the Great Feasts of the Church.

Saint Nino (or Nina), Enlightener of Georgia (+ 332)

A native of Cappadocia, the Saint Nino is called “Equal-to-the-Apostles” for her evangelism of Georgia in the 4th century. One time, St Nino was traveling to Mtskheta with a group of Georgian pilgrims on their way to venerate the god Armazi. There she watched with great sadness as the Georgian people trembled before the idols, and prayed:“O Lord, send down Thy mercy upon this nation …that all nations may glorify Thee alone, the One True God, through Thy Son, Jesus Christ.” A violent wind began to blow and hail fell from the sky, shattering the pagan statues.
Commemorated January 14.

Achillius of Larisa (+ 330 A.D.)

The earliest recorded bishop of Larisa, St Achillius was present at the first Ecumenical Council, where he defending the Orthodox faith. In his city, the miracle-working Achillius embodied well the fuller Orthodox understanding of “religious images”: he was renowned for both tearing down pagan temples and adorning the Christian churches with icons. Reposed peacefully.
Commemorated May 15.

Nicholas the Wonder-Worker of Myra (+ 345 A.D.)

One of the most celebrated Saints of the Orthodox Church worldwide, the wonderful feats of this miracle-working bishop abound. Among these acts is the destruction of all the temple of Diana and other pagan shrines in his city of Myra, after he was reinstated as bishop there during Constantine’s reign. Much of the demolition was carried out by his own hand, though he also had to struggle in prayer to overcome the demons that inhabited the temples. That this act of Nicholas is celebrated is evidenced in later church frescoes showing the event, and this account taken from his biography.
Commemorated December 6, May 9, and July 29.

St. Nicholas destroying the idols.

Martyr Mark, Bishop of Arethusa, in Syria (suffered 360 A.D.)

Under Constantine the Great St Mark, with the help of his deacon Cyril, had tore down a pagan temple and built a church in its place. When Julian the Apostate became emperor, idol-worship again grew, and the pagans wished to take revenge upon the now elderly bishop. Beaten, slashed with knives, his ears sliced off with linen, and with his hair pulled out, St Mark steadfastly refused to offer up any money in order to rebuild the pagan temple he had demolished. Even after the pagans kept lowering the price, St Mark refused to pay a single coin. Exhausted, and seeing that people were converted to Christ through his endurance, the torturers let St Mark go!
St Gregory the Theologian writes highly of St Mark, and uses his example in his writings against Julian the Apostate.
Commemorated March 29.

Saint Emilian of Thrace (+ 362 A.D.)

A servant of the governor of Dorostolon, in Thrace, during the reign of Julian the Apostate. When an imperial delegate arrived in Dorostolon to kill the Christians, he did not find a single one there. Delighted by this, he ordered a great feast in honour of the idols to take place the next day. That night, Emilian went throughout the town and smashed all the idols with a hammer. The next day, the outraged citizens grabbed a man, supposing him to be the culprit. Emilian said within himself: ‘If I conceal my action, what sort of use has it been? Shall I not stand before God as the slayer of an innocent man?’ He therefore confessed everything before the governor, explaining: ‘God and my soul commanded me to destroy those dead pillars that you call gods.’ The enraged governor ordered St Emilian to be flogged and burned.
Commemorated July 18.

Spyridon the Wonderworker of Tremithus, in Cyprus(+ 348 A.D.)

A shepherd who gave all his wealth to the poor, St Spyridon was made bishop of Tremithus after the death of his wife, under the reign of Constantine the Great. All the Lives of the saint speak of the amazing simplicity and the gift of wonder-working granted him by God. Through a word of the saint the dead were awakened, the elements of nature tamed, the idols smashed. At one point, a Council had been convened at Alexandria by the Patriarch to discuss what to do about the idols and pagan temples there. Through the prayers of the Fathers of the Council all the idols fell down except one, which was very much revered. It was revealed to the Patriarch in a vision that this idol had to be shattered by St Spyridon of Tremithus. Invited by the Council, the saint set sail on a ship, and at the moment the ship touched shore and the saint stepped out on land, the idol in Alexandria with all its offerings turned to dust, which then was reported to the Patriarch and all the bishops.
Commemorated December 12

Great-Martyr Irene of Thessalonica (+ 4th century A.D.)

Born in Persia, Irene was the daughter of the pagan king Licinius, and her parents named her Penelope. Locked in a tower to keep her away from Christian influence, Penelope received instruction from her tutor, Apellian, who was secretly Christian. Baptized by a priest named Timothy, she took the name Irene (meaning “peace”), and then smashed all her father’s idols, urging her parents to be Christians.
Commemorated May 5.

Emperor Theodosius the Great (+ 395 A.D.)

As ruler of the western and eastern Roman Empires, St Theodosius was zealous in upholding the Orthodox confession of the Holy Trinity, and is honored with the epitaph: “Right-Believing”. He ordered the destruction of many pagan temples, outlawed the old Olympic Games, and successfully defeated numerous armed, pagan rebellions, which sought to re-establish worship of the pagan gods.
Commemorated January 17.

Julius the Presbyter and Julian the Deacon (+ 5th Century A.D.)

Natives of Myrmidonia, these two brothers visited many outlying lands of the Byzantine Empire in order to win converts to Christ. To this end, they obtained permission from the Emperor Theodosius the Younger (+450) to build churches over the sites of dismantled pagan shrines. The grave of St Julius, which lay within a church built by Julius himself, dedicated to the Twelve Holy Apostles, became a site of healing.
Commemorated June 21.

Saint Porphyry of Gaza, Bishop and Confessor (+ 420 A.D.)

After many years as a monk, St Porphyry was elected Bishop of Gaza, a city where the Christian population numbered less than three-hundred, and idolatry was wide-spread. Discriminated against by the pagans, St Porphyry went to Constantinople and gained the support of Emperor Arcadius and the Archbishop, St John Chrysostom, to close down the idolatrous temples. Officials sent to close down the pagan shrines of Gaza were often bribed, and so after much labouring, St Porphyry undertook the destruction of the temples personally with his flock of Christians. Many temples were destroyed, including those dedicated to Aphrodite, Hecate, the Sun, Apollo, Kore (Persephone), Tychaion, the shrine of a hero, and the Marneion, dedicated to Zeus. In their place, Christian churches were erected. The pagan idols were burnt, and the marble from their temples were used to pave the way to the new Christian churches, so that all Christians on their way to worship would trample upon the remains of idolatry. These acts, along with much preaching, prayer, and humiliations suffered by St Porphyry, won the entire city of Gaza over to the Christian faith.
The Life of St Porphyry, recounting his struggles against the pagans, was written by the deacon Mark.
Commemorated February 26.

Saint Gregory the Great (+ 604 A.D.)

A Holy Father among the Saints, St Gregory is also known for sending, as the Bishop of Rome, the missionary St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the English in the late 6th century. In a letter to Abbot Melitus, St Gregory writes:

Tell [Bishop Augustine] that I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that race should not be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Let blessed water be prepared, and sprinkled in these temples, and altars constructed, and relics deposited. For if these temples are well built, it is essential that they should be transferred from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.

We can be confident that St Augustine of Canterbury carried out faithfully the orders of St Gregory, and can also be counted among the list of those Saints which have destroyed pagan religious artifacts.

In another letter to Aethelbert, the first Christian king of England, St Gregory gives further exhortations to destroy the idols:

Almighty God raises up certain good men to be rulers over nations in order that he may by their means bestow the gift of righteousness upon all those over whom they are set… So, my most illustrious son, watch carefully over the grace you have received from God and hasten to extend the Christian faith among the people subject to you. Increase your zeal for their conversion; suppress the worship of idols; overthrow their buildings and shrines…

It should be noted that King Aethelbert is also revered by the Orthodox Church, even if he is not outrightly proclaimed as a Saint. Both these letters are found in full in St Bede’sEcclesiastical History of the English people (Book I).
St Gregory commemorated March 12 and September 3.
St Augustine commemorated May 26.

Edwin of Northumbria, King and Martyr (+ 633 A.D.)

A thoughtful king who took many years before finally accepting baptism by the hand of St Paulinius, despite his wife already being a pious Christian. After much deliberation, it was a miracle which finally convinced the king of Christ’s power, and upon making the decision to convert, his loyal lords and pagan priests were convinced too by his firmness of confession. The first thing St Edwin did, before even being baptized, was to order the “profaning” (according to Bede’s history) of the pagan altars and shrines. The chief-priest, Coffi, volunteered to do this, riding on horseback to the main pagan temple and throwing a spear at the altar, before tearing the whole edifice down (this happened not far from York, UK).
Commemorated October 12.

Saint Romanus (also Godard) of Rouen (+ 640 A.D.)

A sainted bishop of Rouen, before his consecration the faithful of the city asked Romanus to do something about the Temple of Venus in the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre. St Romanus entered the temple and tore the dedication from the altar, causing the temple to miraculously crumble and collapse.
Commemorated October 23.

Saint Boniface (+ 754 A.D.)

Born Wynfrith in Devonshire, England, St Boniface went on to spread the Gospel throughout the German lands. One of his most famous evangelic feats was the felling by his own hand of a sacred Oak dedicated to Thor, using the timber to build a chapel on the site where today stands the cathedral of Fritzlar.
Commemorated June 5.

Saint Michael, first Metropolitan of Kiev (+ 992 A.D.)

Possibly a native of Syria, St Michael was sent by St Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople to be the first Metropolitan (head-Bishop) of Kiev, after that nation’s ruler, Prince Vladimir, accepted baptism. Saint Michael spent the rest of his days tirelessly traveling the Kievan lands preaching, shepherding the faithful, establishing churches, and overturning the pagan shrines.
Commemorated September 30 and July 15.

Holy Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 1015 A.D.)

Previously a war-monger, fanatic idol-worshiper, and polygamist, the change in Prince Vladimir after his baptism in the year 988 cannot be more dramatic. Immediately after his baptism, the newly-illumined ruler also had his twelve sons baptized, along with many boyars. Prince Vladimir then went on to have the wooden idols he had erected, torn down and hacked to pieces, with a statue of the chief pagan God, Perun, cast into the River Dnieper. These acts of Prince Vladimir had such far-reaching consequences that they later became known as the Baptism of Rus’. Prince Vladimir spent the rest of his twenty-eight years establishing churches and Christian schools throughout his lands, supported in his efforts by Sainted Metropolitan Michael (see above).
Commemorated July 15, also the day designated to celebrate the Baptism of Rus.

Saint Abraham of Rostov (+ 1077 A.D.)

A pagan convert who became a monk and dwelt in the areas around Rostov, in Russia. St. Abraham prayed fervently before an icon of Christ that he may be able to topple the idol of the local’s chief god: Veles. In answer to his prayers, the Apostle John appeared to the monk, and gave him a staff. With this, St. Abraham went to the shrine of Veles and toppled the statue of him, smashing it into pieces. Abraham founded the monastery of the Theophany in Rostov, as well two parish churches.
Commemorated October 29.

L: St. Abraham receives a staff from the Apostle John R: St Abraham uses it to destroy the idol of Veles


Some of the saints listed above are chiefly remembered for their fearless acts of destroying idols, though the majority are not. However, all the saints listed above are, among their other works, openly celebrated by the Church for their destruction of non-Christian temples, shrines, and statues.

What to take from this all? As with other miraculous deeds of the Saints, the destruction of the idols can be understood symbolically as the victory of right-believing Christians over all other idols, whether they be demons pretending to be gods or man-made constructs that lead our minds from the contemplation of God. This can be done without denying the historical fact of the Church’s Saints physically destroying non-Christian religious images. Of course, when considering other deeds of the Saints, we try to use their acts as an example for our own conduct. In the case of idol-smashing, most Christians today would shy away from literally following the Saints’ example, even though non-Christian idols abound. Perhaps this is wise, though the courage of these idol-smashing Saints is certainly something worthy of imitation. In striving for this, we can pray to Christ that we may emulate the martyr’s strength:

Thy Martyr, O Lord, in his courageous contest for Thee
Received the prize of the crowns of incorruption
And life from Thee, our immortal God.
For since he possessed Thy strength, he cast down the tyrants
And wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.
O Christ God, by his prayers, save our souls,
Since Thou art merciful.

(General Apolytikion to a Martyr)

Saint Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of pagan god Veles (11th century)
Saint Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of pagan god Veles (11th century)


Eyewitness Testimony (Lorraine Hope, 2015)

NOTE: This article is taken from Forensic Psychology, pp. 160-169


Eyewitness testimony plays an important role within the criminal justice system and has, over the past four decades, emerged as a significant research area for psychologists and other social scientists. This chapter aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the key findings of an extensive literature on eyewitness identification performance, signposting both classic studies and emergent research strands. Taking the reader through the witnessing experience, from the initial encoding of the perpetrator to the final stage of delivering testimony in court, this chapter identifies the factors likely to lead to mistaken identifications. Theoretical implications and methodological difficulties associated with eyewitness research are also considered. In the second half of the chapter, the difficulties associated with identifications from closed-circuit television (CCTV) are examined and a full overview of the current UK guidelines for the conduct of identifications is provided.

Information obtained from eyewitnesses plays an important role in many forensic investigations. For instance, the positive identification of a suspect can provide major advances in an investigation (Coupe & Griffiths, 1996; Kebbell & Milne, 1998). Eyewitness testimony is also extremely influential in the courtroom where ‘few kinds of evidence are as compelling, or as damning, as eyewitness testimony’ (Overbeck, 2005, p.1895). Yet identifications are often disputed – and inaccurate. A review of DNA exoneration cases suggests that eyewitness errors have played some part in over 75 per cent of the convictions overturned by DNA testing in the United States (Innocence Project, 2007; see Scheck et al., 2000). That erroneous eyewitness testimony is a leading cause of wrongful convictions suggests that jurors fail to take into account factors which may have influenced or biased the eyewitness and led to a mistaken identification (Boyce et al., 2007; Huff et al., 1996).

In this chapter, we examine the performance of eyewitness and consider some of the key factors underpinning mistaken identifications.

Dr. Lorraine Hope
Dr. Lorraine Hope, Professor of Applied Cognitive Psychology, University of Portsmouth

Eyewitness Identification Performance: Experimental Research and the Real World

The scientific study of eyewitness identification, which emerged in a programmatic fashion during the 1970s, has mainly been conducted by cognitive or social psychologists and typically adopts a standard scientific experimental model. In the mock witness paradigm, volunteers and/or unsuspecting members of the public are exposed to a selected target (perpetrator) as part of a staged event (or simulated crime) and become eyewitnesses. As the events and target individuals are stipulated by the researcher, the nature of witness errors can be documented and systematic manipulations can be made to establish which recall and recognition errors are most likely under particular, forensically relevant conditions. Thus, the primary purpose of such experiments has been to establish cause-effect relations among variables (Wells & Quinlivan, 2008).

An important question for applied researchers and the legal fraternity concerns the extent to which the findings obtained in laboratory research can be generalised to the experience of actual witnesses. There are, of course, a number of important differences between the experience of (some) witnesses and unsuspecting participants in research. For instance, witnesses to ‘real’ crimes rarely receive a warning – or may not even be aware they have witnessed something important until after the event. A further concern frequently expressed by those in the legal system is that many of the ‘witnesses’ in such experiments are drawn from rather homogeneous samples of college students. In fact, many studies of eyewitness memory have included community-based samples (e.g. Gabbert et al., 2009; Lindsay et al., in press) while a significant body of research has examined the identification performance of different age groups, including young children (e.g. Pozzulo & Dempsey, 2006) and the elderly (e.g. Dodson & Krueger, 2006). Importantly, research consistently demonstrates that college-age students outperform other age populations. Thus, as noted by Wells and Quinlivan (2008), college-age participants may in fact underestimate the magnitude of eyewitness fallibility.

Witnesses to ‘real’ crime events may experience a higher level of emotional arousal, particularly if the witnessed incident involves weapons or violence and the witnesses feel threatened. For sound ethical reasons, researchers are typically not permitted to induce stress in experimental participants and are, therefore, unable to replicate violent crime scenarios in any meaningful way. Of course, it is also worth noting that the nature of the stress evoked in a controlled experimental setting may differ qualitatively from the stress associated with involvement in an actual criminal event. In brief, the effects of stress and enhanced emotion on memory are complicated, but the results of research conducted in ecologically sound settings suggest that memory is more likely to be impaired than enhanced in a stressful or arousing situation (e.g. Morgan et al., 2004; Valentine & Mesout, 2008).

Perhaps foremost on the minds of those reluctant to embrace scientific findings on eyewitness performance is the fact that the consequences of an identification decision diverge significantly when that decision is made in a laboratory as opposed to a police identification suite. It is difficult to demonstrate whether or not legal consequences have any actual bearing on witness identification accuracy. However, archival studies of actual witnesses to serious crimes indicate that witnesses taking part in identification parades, where they are presented with a suspect and a number of innocent ‘stand-ins’, select a foil (i.e. an innocent ‘stand-in’ or filler) up to 30 per cent on average (Slater, 1994; Wright & McDaid, 1996; Wright & Skagerberg, 2007). These archival data suggest that witnesses can be highly prone to error and do not necessarily become extremely cautious when faced with a high-stake identification decision (see Memon et al., 2003b).

Many factors may affect the accuracy of an eyewitness and the research literature examining these factors is extensive (Wells & Olson, 2003). A useful distinction between these factors was introduced by Wells (1978) who differentiated between estimator variables and system variables. System variables are factors which are (or could be) under the control of the criminal justice system, specifically identification test factors such as pre-lineup instructions, lineup composition, structure and presentation method. By contrast, estimator variables are not under control of the criminal justice system and, while these are factors which can be manipulated in research (such as exposure duration, age or race of witness, or presence of a weapon), they cannot be controlled in the actual witnessed incident. Therefore, the impact of such factors on witness accuracy has to be estimated, or taken into account, in a post-hoc manner.

Working systematically through the witnessing experience, from the encoding of the original incident to eyewitness testimony in court, this chapter examines several important estimator and system factors which have been shown to impair eyewitness identification accuracy. This is not intended to be an exhaustive review of all possible factors but rather a consideration of the more well-researched witness, perpetrator and contextual factors which provide some insight into subsequent witness identification behaviour and accuracy.

Are eyewitnesses reliable

The Witnessed Event

Witness factors

Stable witness characteristics are not, on the whole, useful predictors of identification performance. Research examining factors such as gender, race or intelligence has not revealed any particularly robust effects indicating that members of some groups are better witnesses than others. Nor has research documented any strong relationship between eyewitness accuracy and personality factors. While a small number of studies have examined certain personality characteristics such as self-monitoring (Hosch & Platz, 1984) and trait anxiety (Shapiro & Penrod, 1986), ‘no strong theory relating personality to eyewitness identification has emerged’ (Wells & Olson, 2003, p.281).

However, the age of the witness has been consistently associated with identification accuracy, with findings for young children mapping onto the performance of older witnesses under certain test conditions. Specifically, when the originally encoded perpetrator is present in the lineup (a culprit present lineup), both young children and the elderly do not differ significantly from young adults in their ability to correctly identify the perpetrator. However, when the perpetrator is not present in the lineup (a culprit absent lineup), both young children and elderly witnesses are more likely than young adults to make a false identification of an innocent foil (see meta-analysis by Pozzulo & Lindsay, 1998). More recent research demonstrates that older eyewitnesses (e.g. 60 to 80 years) tend to make more false identifications than younger adults in both target present and target absent lineups (Memon et al., 2003a, 2002). No unifying theory has emerged to fully account for this finding across both age groups. For instance, it appears that young children’s identification performance is hampered by a ‘choosing problem’ (Brewer et al., 2005). Keast et al. (2007) also noted a marked overconfidence in children’s judgements relating to their identification decisions which suggests that children may be poor at monitoring their own memory, a conclusion consistent with the developmental literature (Howie & Roebers, 2007). The mechanisms underlying higher false identification rates for older witnesses are less well explored. Ageing is typically associated with reduced cognitive capacity (such as a decline in attentional resources, see Craik & Byrd, 1982; Salthouse 1982) and an increased reliance on a more ‘automatic’ feeling of familiarity rather than a more effortful recollection process (Jacoby, 1999; Mandler, 1980). Thus, it seems unlikely that the explanations for difficulties experienced by younger witnesses will also apply to older witnesses.

A more malleable witness factor at the time of encoding is blood alcohol level. If the witness has been drinking and is intoxicated, both encoding and storage may be impaired (Cutler & Penrod, 1995). In terms of identification performance, Dysart et al. (2002) found that participants with high blood alcohol readings were more likely to make a false identification when faced with a culprit absent identification task. While a number of explanations have been proposed to account for these findings, such as a tendency to focus on salient cues when intoxicated (alcohol myopia hypothesis), research on the performance of intoxicated witnesses is limited due to the associated methodological and ethical difficulties.

Perpetrator factors

Stable factors (such as gender or age of the culprit) have little or no impact on witness ability to correctly identify the perpetrator. However, there are a number of well-documented factors that can serve to either impair or enhance recognition ability. For instance, distinctive faces are far more likely to be correctly identified than non-distinctive faces. Similarly, and perhaps due to their distinctiveness, attractive faces are also more easily identified than less attractive or more typical faces. The psychological mechanisms underlying these findings are relatively straightforward. When an encoded face is distinctive or atypical in some way, it will not only attract more attention and greater processing resources but the distinctive feature is also more likely to benefit from an enhanced representation in memory (Ryu & Chaudhuri, 2007; see Brewer et al., 2005 for an interesting examination of the role of distinctiveness).

Unsurprisingly, disguises usually have a negative impact on identification ability (Cutler et al., 1987; but see O’Rourke et al., 1989). Simple changes, such as covering the head, wearing glasses, growing facial hair or even altering hair style slightly, can significantly impair face recognition (Narby et al., 1996; Shapiro & Penrod, 1986). Furthermore, changes in appearance over time (such as ageing, changes in weight, etc.) also have a negative impact on identification performance. In one study, Read et al. (1990) found that photographs of a target face taken after a two-year delay were less likely to be recognised than photographs taken nearing the time of original encoding.

An extensive literature has documented the identification impairment that occurs when the perpetrator is from a different race or ethnic group to the witness. Research on own-race (also known as cross-race) bias typically demonstrates that witnesses are less accurate when attempting to identify a target from another race or ethnic group than when tasked with identifying a member of their own race (see meta-analysis by Meissner & Brigham, 2001). Specifically, research documents a higher correct identification rate from target present lineups and a lower false identification rate from target absent lineups when the witness and perpetrator are from the same race. This bias has been demonstrated in both laboratory and field studies (e.g. Wright et al., 2001) and has been observed across various combinations of ethnic groups (e.g. whites identifying blacks, blacks identifying whites, etc.). Work by Chiroro and Valentine (1995) exploring a basic contact hypothesis suggested that everyday interactions with people of different races may reduce the effect – but not consistently. Other evidence suggests that the quality rather than the quantity of cross-racial interactions may be more important in reducing own-race bias (Lavrakas et al., 1976). Interestingly, a similar pattern of results has been demonstrated for gender and age such that a match between witness and target age and gender can promote recognition accuracy (e.g. Wright & Sladden, 2003; Wright & Stroud, 2002). Taken together, these findings suggest a somewhat preferential processing mechanism for familiar stimuli. In this vein, McClelland and Chappell (1998) have argued that ownrace faces may benefit from more accurate and efficient processing due to their familiarity.

Situational factors

In any witnessed incident, there may be a number of situational factors which impinge on subsequent eyewitness performance. An important factor which has received surprisingly little attention from researchers is the nature of the exposure duration (i.e. the opportunity, or length of time, the witness had to observe the perpetrator). In their meta-analysis of face recognition studies, Shapiro and Penrod (1986) found the predicted linear relationship between exposure duration and hit rates (i.e. as the amount of time spent viewing the target increases so does the likelihood of a correct recognition decision). Only a handful of studies have systematically manipulated exposure duration in an eyewitness context. These studies have typically demonstrated the expected beneficial effect of longer exposure duration on subsequent identification accuracy (e.g. Memon et al., 2003a; Read, 1995). However, inconsistent choosing patterns in target absent conditions require further experimental examination. Similarly, relatively little research attention has been paid to the effect of distance on identification and the ability of eyewitnesses to correctly estimate distances from an incident or perpetrator. Obviously, a correct identification is somewhat unlikely if the witness was unable to see the perpetrator so research has tended to focus on identifying a useful ‘rule of thumb’ with respect to distance. For instance, Wagenaar and van der Schrier (1996) suggested that identification performance was optimal when the viewing distance was less than 15 metres from the target. However, recent work by Lindsay et al. (2008) reveals that the 15-metre rule may not be useful – or accurate – for two reasons. Firstly, if witnesses are unable to estimate distance reliably then they are unlikely to be able to report accurately whether they were less than 15 metres from the target. Secondly, it seems rather unlikely that all identifications made when the viewing distance was less than 15 metres will be correct – or vice versa. In Lindsay et al. (2008), over 1300 participants observed a target person at various distances, estimated the distance to the target, generated a description and attempted an identification of the target from either a target present or target absent lineup. Participants were poor at accurately estimating the distance between themselves and the target (particularly when required to make this estimate from memory). While the reliability of target descriptions was unimpaired up to distances of approximately 50 metres, a decline in identification performance occurred for both target present and target absent lineups as distance between the witness and target at encoding increased.  Although this finding is broadly consistent with those of Wagenaar and van der Schrier (1996), Lindsay et al. (2008) did not observe any dramatic dropoff in identification accuracy at 15 metres, noting that many participants made correct identifications beyond this distance, suggesting that a 15-metre rule is not a particularly useful diagnostic for the courts.

Another variable aspect of a criminal incident is the amount of stress or fear a witness may experience. Research inducing realistic levels of stress is, for obvious methodological and ethical reasons, difficult to conduct. However, in a field training scenario, Morgan et al. (2004) subjected soldiers to either a high- or low-stress interrogation in a mock prisoner of war camp over a 12-hour period. After a 24-hour delay, soldiers who had experienced a high-stress interrogation were significantly less likely to correctly identify their interrogator than those who had experienced the low-stress interrogation. A more recent study conducted on civilian participants in an arousing context (the London Dungeon) demonstrated that high-state anxiety was associated with fewer correct identifications of a target (Valentine & Mesout, 2008).

Other researchers have focused on the forensically relevant problem of witnesses to crimes involving weapons. Although some field research suggests that the emotional arousal associated with violent witnessing conditions may actually serve to benefit memory (e.g. Yuille & Cutshall, 1986; but see Wright, 2006), eyewitness experts have tended to favour the view that incidents involving the presence of a weapon will have a negative impact on eyewitness performance (Kassin et al., 2001). This phenomenon has become known as the weapon focus effect (Loftus et al., 1987) and occurs when the presence of a weapon adversely affects subsequent eyewitness recall performance such that memory for details such as the perpetrator’s facial characteristics and clothing is impaired (e.g. Cutler et al., 1987; Hope & Wright, 2007; Loftus et al., 1987; Maas & Kohnken, 1989; Pickel et al., 2003; Steblay, 1992). One explanation is that increased arousal (or stress) due to the presence of a weapon reduces attentional capacity as increased attention is paid to the weapon while peripheral cues are ignored or filtered (Hope & Wright, 2007; Loftus, 1980; Macleod & Mathews, 1991). A meta-analytic review of the effects of stress on eyewitness memory by Deffenbacher et al. (2004) concluded that high levels of stress impair the accuracy of eyewitness recall and identification but that the detriment depends on the response mode elicited by the stress manipulation. The authors propose that some emotion manipulations generate an ‘orientating’ response while others generate a ‘defensive’ response (Deffenbacher, 1994; Deffenbacher et al., 2004; see also Klorman et al., 1977; Sokolov, 1963). Deffenbacher et al. (2004) argue that the orientating response leads to enhanced memory for ‘informative aspects’ of a scene but that the defensive response can lead to either enhanced memory or significant memory impairment depending on other cognitive and physiological factors.

Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify suspects in criminal investigations — and they're wrong about one third of the time.
Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify suspects in criminal investigations — and they’re wrong about 1/3 of the time.

Between the Witnessed Event and Identification Task

Retention interval

In the delay between an individual witnessing a crime and making an identification attempt, the witness’s memory is not only prone to decay, but it is also vulnerable to the influence of post-event information from numerous sources. Both delay and post-event information have been shown to compromise recall completeness and accuracy (see Anderson, 1983; Ayers & Reder, 1998; Ellis et al., 1980; Gabbert et al., 2003; Loftus et al., 1978; McCloskey & Zaragoza, 1985; Meissner, 2002; Tuckey & Brewer, 2003).

Delay systematically decreases the amount of information that can be recalled (Ebbinghaus, 1885; Kassin et al., 2001; Rubin & Wenzel, 1996; see also Tuckey & Brewer, 2003). Furthermore, a meta-analysis of 128 studies of face recognition suggests that there is a decline in the correct identification of previously seen faces after a delay (Shapiro & Penrod, 1986). Sporer (1992) found a decrease in correct identifications and an increase in false alarms over various intervals up to three weeks. Importantly, the field work by Valentine et al. (2003b) examining performance of real witnesses suggests that the greatest decline in performance occurs when the delay exceeds one week.

Post-event misinformation

Research conducted by Elizabeth Loftus in the 1970s demonstrated the misinformation effect – a powerful phenomenon resulting in memory distortion (for a review see Loftus, 2005). In a now classic experiment, Loftus and Palmer (1974) presented participants a short film of a car accident and subsequently tested participant recall for details of the incident. Importantly, they found that simply changing one word in a question pertaining to the speed the car was travelling when the accident occurred resulted in significantly different estimates of speed. Specifically, participants asked to estimate what speed the car was travelling at when it contacted the other vehicle provided slower speed estimates (31.8 mph) than those asked to estimate the speed of the car when it smashed into the other vehicle (40.5 mph). Including the verb ‘smashed’ in the question also led to increased false reports of witnessing broken glass at the scene of the accident (no broken glass was ever shown). Several hundred experiments since have demonstrated the misinformation phenomenon, explored boundary conditions of the effect and served the development of theoretical explanations. More pertinent to eyewitness identification accuracy is an emerging body of work on the impact of co-witness influence on memory. In a recent survey 86 per cent of real eyewitnesses discussed their memory with a co-witness who was present at the witnessed event (Paterson & Kemp, 2006). Witnesses to an event may share the same experience but their individual recall of the event may differ for many reasons, including naturally occurring differences in attention paid to various details of the event, differences in spatial or temporal location at the scene or perceived differences in ability to recall those details (Gabbert et al., 2006).

Research amply demonstrates that the most likely outcome when two witnesses discuss their memories is that their accounts of the witnessed event become more similar and, hence, seemingly corroborative (Gabbert et al., 2004; Wright et al., 2000). A witness is also more likely to be influenced by a co-witness with whom they have a prior acquaintance, such as a friend or partner (Hope et al., 2008). However, very few studies have explored the impact of misleading information on subsequent identifications. A recent study conducted by Gabbert et al. (2007) which manipulated co-witness confidence and accuracy across both target present and target absent lineups found that participants were more likely than controls to reject the lineup incorrectly when they were aware that the co-witness had rejected the lineup. However, participants were no more likely than controls to identify the perpetrator correctly after seeing the co-witness make an accurate identification, and the pre-lineup confidence expressed by the confederate did not appear to influence the witness.

While unbiased lineup procedures may ensure that identification decisions themselves are unlikely to be shared with other witnesses, misinformation concerning descriptive details or pertaining to the general appearance of the target may have a negative impact on eyewitness accuracy, and this hypothesis is worthy of further experimental scrutiny.


Intermediate Recognition Tasks


In the course of an investigation, witnesses may be asked to search through a set of mugshots (usually photographs of potential suspects). Unsurprisingly, a number of studies have shown that previous exposure to the suspect increases the likelihood that the suspect will be identified in a subsequent lineup. In other words, repeated exposure to a suspect can increase mistaken identifications of an innocent suspect (Brigham & Cairns, 1988; Dysart et al., 2001; Gorenstein & Ellsworth, 1980; Memon et al., 2002).

Composite production

In an investigation where no suspect has emerged, the police may work with a witness to produce a facial composite of the perpetrator. Previously, this composite might have been produced by a sketch artist but technological advances have led to the use of computerised systems for composite production (such as the E-Fit or Profit identification systems). While research demonstrates that the quality of composites is often rather poor, with little likeness to the appearance of the actual perpetrator (see Wells & Hasel, 2007, for a review), a more important question concerns the extent to which generating a composite might impair identification accuracy. In two studies, Wells et al. (2005) examined whether building a face composite had a negative effect on memory for the target face. Results indicated that building a composite resulted in significantly lower identifications for the original target face (Experiment 1), while a second experiment revealed that the results might be generalised to a standard witness paradigm (Experiment 2). In light of these results, Wells et al. (2005) suggest that where multiple witnesses are available ‘it might be possible to use one witness to build a composite and save the other witnesses for any later lineup identification attempts’ (p.155).

The Identification Task

In this section, we consider several important system variables which can have a significant impact on eyewitness identification performance. These variables are ultimately under the control of the criminal justice system and, to date, research has focused on demonstrating the identification errors resulting from poor practice in the production and administration of identification tests (i.e. lineups) while delivering recommendations for improved procedures.

Pre-lineup instructions

Often witnesses assume that the suspect apprehended by the police and presented to them in the formal setting of a lineup must have a high probability of being the actual perpetrator. In other words, witnesses assume that they would not have been invited to make an identification if there was not a good reason for the police to believe the suspect was the actual perpetrator and their role is to make a positive identification (i.e. choose someone from the array). This bias may be further exacerbated if the witnesses are presented with the task in a misleading manner (i.e. ‘Take a good look at the lineup and see if you can identify the offender’). In fact, Memon et al. (2003a) found that over 90 per cent of mock witnesses indicated that they expected the perpetrator to be present in a lineup even under unbiased conditions. Therefore, it is extremely important that witnesses are informed that the person they saw ‘may or may not be present in the lineup’. Incorrect identifications from target absent lineups are significantly lower when witnesses are given this simple cautionary instruction (see meta-analyses by Steblay, 1997; Clark, 2005).

Lineup composition

When a suspect disputes his involvement in an incident or claims an identification error, a lineup must be conducted. Here the police face a number of challenges as there are (at least) two important dilemmas with respect to lineup composition, namely, the number of lineup members (or foils) present in addition to the suspect, and how those foils are selected. The requisite number of lineup members is typically specified in law. For instance, in the UK a lineup must contain at least eight foils, while in the US lineups containing five (or more) foils are common. However, researchers have drawn a sharp distinction between the nominal size of a lineup (i.e. the number of people appearing in the lineup) and what has been described as the functional size of a lineup (Wells et al., 1979). Functional size refers to the number of plausible lineup members. If an eyewitness describes a perpetrator as a male, in his early twenties with long, dark hair, but then views a lineup in which two of the foils have short dark hair and one other foil is in his 40s, then the functional size of the lineup is reduced by three members, as these foils will be automatically discarded by the witness as they do not match the original description provided. The purpose of the lineup is to provide a fair identification task in which the suspect does not ‘stand out’ inappropriately from the other foils. Reducing the functional size of the lineup – particularly when the suspect is not the actual perpetrator – significantly increases the chance of a false identification (Lindsay & Wells, 1980; Tredoux, 2002). Thus, the selection of appropriate foils is critical for the production of a fair lineup and has been the focus of a good deal of debate. In the UK, police are required to select foils that resemble the suspect in what might be described as a ‘match to suspect’ strategy. In other words, foils are selected on the grounds that they match the appearance of the suspect (rather than the description of the perpetrator).

This strategy is problematic as research has documented that foils who do not coincide with a witness’s prior verbal description are likely to be disregarded, resulting in a biased lineup and an increased likelihood that an innocent suspect may be mistakenly identified (e.g. Clark & Tunnicliff, 2001). Thus, a ‘match to description’ strategy (i.e. where foils are selected based on their match to descriptions of the perpetrator provided by the witness) may be preferable (Luus & Wells, 1991). However, more recent research by Darling et al. (2008) did not identify any differences in either correct or incorrect identifications as a function of these lineup composition strategies. Clearly, further research is necessary to identify specifically how alterations to the composition of a lineup affect choosing behaviour.

Investigator bias

Ideally, lineups should take place under double-blind administration where both the witness and lineup administrator are unaware of the identity of the suspect. Where the person conducting the lineup knows which lineup member is the suspect, there is a possibility that they will unintentionally transmit this knowledge to the witness (Harris & Rosenthal, 1985), resulting in increased rates of false identification (Phillips et al., 1999). More recently, Greathouse and Kovera (2008) noted that administrators displayed more biasing behaviours (such as inviting the witness to ‘take another look’, providing overt cues as to the identity of the suspect, and exerting greater pressure on witnesses to choose) during single-blind administration procedures (i.e. when they knew the identity of the suspect) than under double-blind procedures.

Lineup procedure: Comparing absolute and relative judgements

The lineup task has probably received greater research attention than any other topic relating to eyewitness testimony. In the traditional lineup (which may involve photographs or live participants, depending on the jurisdiction), the suspect and foils are presented simultaneously. Given witnesses tendency to assume that the perpetrator will be present in the lineup, the opportunity to examine all lineup members at once can lead witnesses to compare the lineup members with each other and select the lineup member who best matches their original memory. This has been described as a relative judgement strategy (Wells, 1984; Wells & Seelau, 1995). An alternative method of lineup presentation, known as the sequential lineup, was proposed by Lindsay and Wells (1985). Unlike the traditional simultaneous lineup where all lineup members are viewed at once, in the sequential lineup method each lineup member is presented sequentially, one member at a time. The witness is required to make an absolute identification decision for each lineup member (Is this the perpetrator you saw? Yes or No) prior to seeing the next person in the lineup. In the optimal version of the lineup, the witness does not know how many faces will be presented and the lineup terminates when a choice is made, with witnesses not permitted to see any further photos, review previously presented photos or change their identification decision. This lineup method promotes an absolute identification decision as, unlike the simultaneous lineup, witnesses cannot engage in relative comparisons between lineup members but instead have to compare the face presented with their memory for the perpetrator. Many studies have demonstrated that the sequential lineup method significantly reduces false identifications (see Steblay et al., 2001 for a metaanalysis) as a consequence of promoting a more conservative response criterion than the simultaneous lineup procedure (Meissner et al., 2005). However, a number of recent studies, while typically observing the predicted improvements in the false identification rate, have also noted a reduction in correct identifications under sequential procedures (Ebbesen & Flowe, 2002; Memon & Gabbert, 2003). Interestingly, in their metaanalysis, Clark et al. (2008) noted that only biased lineups produced the sequential lineup advantage with respect to false identifications. Further research is necessary to better understand the mechanisms driving choosing behaviour in order to develop accuracypromoting lineup formats.

Post-identification feedback

Witness confidence is, perhaps, the most influential cue used by juries when evaluating the credibility and reliability of eyewitness testimony (Cutler et al., 1990; Lindsay et al., 1981). However, mistaken eyewitnesses can be overconfident (Shaw & McClure, 1996; Wells & Bradfield, 1999) and eyewitness confidence can be highly malleable in the period after making an identification (Luus & Wells, 1994a, 1994b; Wells & Bradfield, 1998). For instance, Wells and Bradfield (1998) found that witnesses who were given positive feedback (e.g. ‘Good, you identified the suspect’) reported higher confidence and better viewing conditions than those who received no feedback. Conversely, witnesses given negative feedback were less confident and reported worse witnessing conditions. The effects of feedback have also been shown to occur for both target present and target absent lineups (Bradfield et al., 2002), when there are long delays between identification and feedback (Wells et al., 2002), and even extend to witness willingness to testify (Wells & Bradfield, 1998, 1999). Post-identification effects may be reduced (but not eliminated) by means of warnings (e.g. Lampinen et al., 2007).

Is confidence ever related to accuracy?

Police, lawyers, judges and other legal practitioners, in addition to lay jurors, typically consider confidence as a useful indicator of likely eyewitness accuracy (Deffenbacher & Loftus, 1982; Noon & Hollin, 1987; Potter & Brewer, 1999). As we have seen, however, eyewitness confidence is malleable and susceptible to bias which can, in the worst-case scenario, produce highly confident mistaken identifications. But can witness confidence actually tell us anything useful about identification accuracy? Until recently, researchers have tended to take the view that confidence is not reliably associated with accuracy and, in particular, is not a reliable predictor of accuracy given low or non-significant confidence– accuracy correlations (e.g. Bothwell et al., 1987; Sporer et al., 1995; see also Kassin et al., 2001). However, in an extensive programme of research focusing on confidence and adapting alternative analyses, Brewer and his colleagues have challenged this conclusion (Brewer, 2006; Brewer & Wells, 2006; Weber & Brewer, 2004). Using a calibration approach, these authors have documented substantial confidence–accuracy relations for lineup choosers (i.e. witnesses who make positive identifications) across various stimuli materials (for extended discussion of this method and the relationship between confidence and accuracy, see Brewer, 2006; Brewer et al., 2005).

Identifications from CCTV

Intuitively, one might expect that identification performance might improve significantly when the ‘witness’, be that the original witness, a CCTV operator or police officer reviewing the evidence, has access to a video recording of the (alleged) target and, possibly, still photographs of the suspect. With video footage of the incident available, the task would no longer rely so heavily on memory (or prior familiarity with the perpetrator) and would simply require the witness to engage in an apparently simple matching task. However, the identification of individuals from CCTV footage is not necessarily a simple identification task and, like other identification tasks, is prone to error – even under optimal conditions.

There are two quite distinct circumstances where an attempt may be made to identify a face from a video image (Bruce et al., 1999). In the first situation, a spontaneous identification may be made by a member of the public (or perhaps, a CCTV operator or police officer) who claims that the target appearing in the CCTV image is personally known to them. In the second situation, the target appearing in the CCTV footage is compared to an apprehended suspect to establish whether, in fact, the suspect was recorded at the scene of the incident under investigation. Identification accuracy varies under these circumstances with respect to whether the face is previously known or previously unknown to the witness.

In one of the early studies on spontaneous identifications based on prior exposure, Logie et al. (1987) examined the ability of the general public to identify a live target in a town centre from a previously presented photograph. The photograph had been published in a local newspaper. Despite circulating details of the precise location of the target, the spontaneous detection (i.e. identification) rate for the general public was very low and this was coupled with a high false recognition rate (i.e. false identifications of other ‘innocent’ passers-by).

These low recognition rates in dynamic interactions where the target face is continually available to the witness have been documented elsewhere. In a field study, Kemp et al. (1997) examined whether credit cards bearing a photograph of the cardholder might serve to reduce credit card fraud. Including a photograph of the legal cardholder on a credit card (or indeed, other identity document) would seem to be a relatively foolproof method of ensuring that the card is used only by the person entitled to use it. In their study, shoppers presented a credit card bearing a photograph of themselves to pay for half the transactions while for other transactions they presented a card bearing the photograph of another individual. Experienced checkout cashiers were required to either accept or decline the card depending on their verification of the cardholder’s identity, and rate their confidence that the photograph appearing on the card was, in fact, that of the shopper. More than 50 per cent of the fraudulent cards were accepted by the cashiers – despite the fact that cashiers were aware that a study was under way and indicated that they both spent longer examining cards and had been more cautious than usual.

High error rates in the ability to match a target from CCTV footage have also been documented. Typically, it has been assumed that difficulties in identifying faces from video recordings are largely due to the frequently poor-quality nature of the recording and that were high-quality recordings available such difficulties would be reduced. While it is true that many CCTV images may be of poor quality for a number of technical reasons (such as unsuitable lighting conditions, intermittent image sampling, etc.), the assumption that this alone underpins low accuracy rates in face matching from CCTV has been challenged by research findings.

Bruce and her colleagues (1999) examined how well people were able to match faces extracted from a high quality video-recording against high-quality photographic images. The results revealed that overall accuracy was relatively poor (averaging only 70 per cent across trials) even under these optimal conditions. Performance was further degraded when the target expression or viewpoint was altered. Furthermore, the use of colour target images (as opposed to black-andwhite images) did not appear to lend any particular advantage (or disadvantage) to performance on the matching task. Thus, it would appear that our ability to identify an unfamiliar face – even in the presence of a reference image (such as a CCTV still or a photograph) is surprisingly error-prone (Davies & Thasen, 2000; Henderson et al., 2001).

In contrast, identification accuracy for known or familiar faces can be very accurate – even when the target images are of poor quality. To examine the impact of familiarity on face recognition, Burton et al. (1999) showed study participants surveillance video footage of a target who was known to some participants but not others. Results indicated a marked advantage for people who were personally familiar with the target – 73 per cent of the poor-quality image targets were recognised when they were familiar. In a series of studies exploring the role of familiarity, Bruce et al. (2001) found that participants were able to correctly verify (or reject) a familiar target with a high degree of accuracy (over 90 per cent) despite the use of poor-quality video images. When participants were unfamiliar with the targets, the accuracy rate was significantly lower (56 per cent). Subsequent experiments revealed that brief periods of exposure to the target do not necessarily generate sufficient familiarity to improve the recognition or matching of unfamiliar faces – unless some ‘deep’ or social processing has taken place (i.e. discussing the faces with another person).

Face recognition is of central importance to investigative police work (Scott-Brown & Cronin, 2007). CCTV has the benefit of providing investigators with a permanent record of an event and, importantly, who may have been involved in it. The availability of CCTV footage – and the speed at which it was analysed – facilitated the rapid identification of the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers from thousands of hours of recordings (Metropolitan Police, 2005). Furthermore, actual CCTV footage is generally considered powerful evidence in court (NACRO, 2002; Scott-Brown & Cronin, 2007; Thomas, 1993). However, relying on CCTV for the recognition and identification of suspects may foster a false sense of security and a potentially dangerous over-reliance on such evidence. We expect to be able to do this task with a high degree of accuracy. However, the research consistently demonstrates that people are poor at this task – even under optimal conditions.

Is eyewitness identification evidence reliable?

Experimental psychological research on eyewitness identification has flourished over the past 30 years, producing hundreds of articles and thousands of identification data-points. Given the size of the literature and the many different designs and research hypotheses deployed, it is often difficult to compare between studies and reach an overall conclusion with respect to our ability to identify correctly a previously seen individual. As Clark et al. (2008) note, correct identification rates often vary widely across experiments, for instance from as high as 80 per cent to as low as 8 per cent. To establish what the results of eyewitness experiments can tell us, Clark et al. (2008) conducted a meta-analysis of 94 comparisons between target present and target absent lineups. The most important conclusions to emerge from this analysis were as follows: 1. correct identifications (from target present lineups) and correct non-identifications (target absent lineups) were not correlated; 2. an identification of the suspect is diagnostic of the suspect’s guilt but the identification may be less informative if any of the identification procedures are in any way biased (such as lineup composition); and 3. non-identifications were diagnostic of the suspect’s innocence while ‘don’t know’ responses were, unsurprisingly, non-diagnostic with respect to guilt or innocence. Based on these and earlier analyses (e.g. Clark, 2005), Clark et al. (2008) suggest as a basic principle that ‘a suspect identification has greater probative value to the extent that it is based on the witness’s memory, and less probative value to the extent that it is due to lineup composition or an increase in the witness’s conformity, willingness, or desire to make an identification’ (p.211). Thus, when assessing the reliability and likely accuracy of an identification, legal practitioners and juries alike need to consider the extent to which these factors might have played a role in the identification process.

The Eyewitness in Court

The final stage of the eyewitness’s role within the legal process takes place in court. Courts in many jurisdictions acknowledge that there is a risk that eyewitness evidence may be unreliable and jurors are typically instructed to scrutinise the circumstances under which the witness encountered the suspect (Memon, 2008). For instance, in England and Wales trial judges are required to ‘protect against unsafe convictions in cases involving disputed identification’ (Roberts & Ormerod, 2008, p.74). The Turnbull guidelines (R v. Turnbull) stipulate that if a prosecution case is heavily based on eyewitness identification evidence, where the judge considers that evidence to be weak, of poor or questionable quality, the case must not proceed. When a case involving eyewitness identification evidence does proceed before a jury, the judge is required to provide both a general warning regarding the risks associated with eyewitness evidence and a more specific warning tailored to the nature of the potential weaknesses of the eyewitness evidence in that particular case.

The admissibility of expert testimony concerning eyewitness testimony remains a topic for some debate in legal circles (see Benton et al., 2006 for a review), In most adversarial systems, including North America and the UK, the judge decides whether expert testimony is admissible against certain criteria (Benton et al., 2006; Kovera et al., 2002; Read & Desmarais, in press). The one criterion common across most jurisdictions concerns the extent to which issues pertaining to eyewitness memory are considered to be a matter of juror common sense. In the UK this means that the jurors are usually expected to make a sound decision about the quality of eyewitness evidence unaided by testimony from an expert. The judicial conclusion that eyewitness memory is indeed a matter of common sense is one of the most frequently cited reasons for the rejection of eyewitness expert testimony (Benton et al., 2006; Leippe, 1995; Yarmey, 2001), and legal experts are often in agreement (e.g. Benton et al., 2006; Stuesser, 2005).

However, jurors are not particularly sensitive to potential eyewitness error – or responsive to judicial instructions on the matter (Kassin & Sommers, 1997). In fact, over a quarter of a century of research has demonstrated that lay understanding of eyewitness psychology is limited – and often mistaken (e.g. Benton et al., 2006; Brigham & WolfsKeil, 1983; Deffenbacher & Loftus, 1982; McConkey & Roche, 1989; Noon & Hollin, 1987; for a comprehensive review see Benton et al., 2006). Jurors tend to be unaware of the implications of biased procedures used by law enforcement, such as poorly constructed lineups, misleading feedback or biased instructions (Shaw et al., 1999). Potential jurors also find it difficult to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate witnesses (e.g. Lindsay et al., 1989, 1981). Even legal professionals are typically rather limited in their understanding of factors affecting eyewitness accuracy (Granhag et al., 2005; Wise & Safer, 2004). Furthermore, convictions which originally relied heavily on eyewitness testimony, but are now known to have been in error, illustrate quite clearly that jurors are often unable to either generate or apply the common sense expected of them by the courts.


Eyewitnesses serve an important function in the delivery of justice and can, under the right circumstances, correctly confirm the identity of a criminal. However, caution needs to be exercised with respect to identifications as the leading cause of mistaken convictions is erroneous eyewitness testimony. In particular, consideration must be paid to the conditions under which the witness encoded the perpetrator, the presence of any intervening misleading information, the nature and fairness of the identification procedures and whether the witness received feedback – unwittingly or otherwise.

Further Reading

Brewer, N., Weber, N. & Semmler, C. (2005). Eyewitness identification. In N. Brewer & K.D. Williams (Eds.) Psychology and law: An empirical perspective (pp.177–221). New York: Guilford Press.

An excellent and thoughtful overview of key issues in eyewitness research, Specifically, this chapter examines the various stages of the identification process that occur in the real world, from features of the event which may impede the witness to the impact of exposure to inaccurate post-event information and, finally, the identification task. Brewer and his colleagues also critically examine other factors which research suggests may be diagnostic of identification accuracy (e.g. confidence and latency). Throughout the chapter, the authors highlight several important methodological shortcomings which beset the extant research literature, such as underpowered experiments, a limited stimulus set and inadequate lineup conditions. Not only does this chapter provide a comprehensive review of the eyewitness literature and consider some of the problematic methodological issues faced by researchers but, importantly, it also focuses on the need to further develop our theoretical understanding of eyewitness identification behaviour.

Valentine, T. & Heaton, P. (1999). An evaluation of the fairness of police lineups and video identifications. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 13, S59–S72.

Valentine’s work evaluating the fairness of VIPER lineups makes an important contribution to our understanding of current UK identification procedures. In this initial study of video identifications, Valentine and Heaton compared the ‘fairness’ (in terms of non-biased lineup selections) of photo versus video identification stimuli. In a fair lineup the suspect should be chosen, by chance, by 11 per cent of the mock witnesses (i.e. each lineup member should have an equal chance of being selected if the actual perpetrator is not present and correctly identified). However, in this study, 25 per cent of mock witnesses selected the suspect from the photographs of live lineups while only 15 per cent of mock witnesses selected the suspect from video lineups. The authors concluded that the video lineups were fairer than the live lineups. Given that mistaken eyewitness identifications are a significant source of miscarriages of justice, Valentine and Heaton argue that the more widespread use of video identification may actually improve the reliability of identification evidence.

Weber, N. & Brewer, N. (2004). Confidence–accuracy calibration in absolute and relative face recognition judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 10, 156–172.

This paper introduces an important new conceptual and analytical approach to eyewitness confidence which continues to show promise in determining the likely diagnosticity of eyewitness identification decisions. Confidence–accuracy calibration was analysed for both absolute and relative face recognition judgements. The most interesting finding is that recognition judgements for ‘old’ (i.e. previously viewed) stimuli demonstrated a strong confidence–accuracy calibration. In other words, there was an association between accuracy and the level of confidence expressed. This finding suggests that there was a meaningful relationship between subjective and objective probabilities of judgement accuracy for previously seen items. However, for ‘new’ judgements there was little or no association between confidence and accuracy using the calibration approach. See also: Brewer, N. (2006). Uses and abuses of eyewitness identification confidence. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 11, 3–23.

Wells, G.L., Memon, A. & Penrod, S. (2006). Eyewitness evidence. Improving its probative value. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7, 45–75.

A thorough review of the eyewitness literature and its role within the legal system. In this article, both estimator and system variables are examined and, in particular, the authors focus on how procedures based on scientific research findings can be developed to improve the probative value of eyewitness evidence. Other important questions are addressed, including the frequently occurring tension in applied research between scientific rigour and external validity when moving from the laboratory to real-world contexts. Specifically, the authors consider issues of base rates, multi-collinearity, selection effects, subject populations and psychological realism and note how a combination of critical theory and field data can work together to improve the generalisability of eyewitness research.


Origins of Foot Washing & Foot Kissing (Cameron Kippen)


NOTE: This article is taken from the Canadian Federation of Podiatric Medicine (CFPM). The author is a Podologist and Shoe Historian from Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia. 


Research into the religious significance of the washing and kissing of bare feet was inspired by the recent “foot worship” scandal of George Passias who “washed” and kissed Ethel Bouzalas’ feet with his own mouth. The former priest was defrocked last year for his sexcapades which came to light in video format.

What may surprise you dear reader is Christians protected their feet by the patronage of the holy.

Byzantine mosaic of washing the disciples' feet, at the Monreale Cathedral, Italy
Byzantine mosaic of washing the disciples’ feet, at the Monreale Cathedral, Italy

Two Saints championed the legs and feet, St Peter (The Apostle). The Feast of Peter and Paul is June 29th; and Servatus (Servaas, Servatius or Servais), his Memorial Day is 13 may. Servatus is frequently depicted as a bishop with three wooden shoes.

In Biblical times shoes were made from animal skins, and these were difficult to clean. This may explain why shoes in the Old Testament, an agricultural society came to represent all that was unclean. The emblems of filth were left outside homes and considered quite unsuitable for holy places. Feet encased in footwear required to be purified and this responsibility usually fell to the lowest house servant. Foot bathing signified the status of an honored guest and put them at ease and comfort. It also kept the floors, clean. Foot washing was viewed as an honor or service and became a common Jewish custom at formal banquets and took place either on arrival or before the feast.

Foot washing, when undertaken by anyone other than the lowest servant in the household, took on significant symbolic importance. Most authorities recognize this humble action as deliberate act of humility, a mark of respect or deliberate self-humiliation. Ceremonial feet washing often involved marking the toe with blood or oil to symbolize either consecration or the cleansing of the entire person. This type of ritual was considered important before entering God’s house. Bathing feet in oil was also taken as a prospect of wealth. When Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair, she also anointed them with expensive ointment. For this token of devotion, Christ forgave her sins then proceeded to remind his host that he had not been extended the same courtesy as would be appropriate to a welcome guest. Jesus then subverted the symbolism by washing the feet of his disciple’s feet at the Last Supper. Despite protestation he reminded his devotees the significance of foot washing, which is celebrated to this day. ‘I have done this to give you an example of something that you should do.’ Christ’s action demonstrated that service rather than status represented greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven. This action prepared his disciples (and their converts) to walk in the path of righteousness. Christians adopted the Hebrew foot washing ceremony and in some religious faiths this is still considered as one of the three ordinances (sacrament) i.e. baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and foot washing.

An Emperor Kissing the Pope's Feet, Illustration from 'Acts and Monuments' (John Foxe)

Foot washing acts as a renewal of baptism and commitment to living God’s way of life. Foot washing is still practised in one form or other throughout the world on the Thursday before Good Friday. Popes, religious leaders, and monarchs have all honoured the commitment to faith and humanity. In the UK the ceremony was often accompanied with the distribution of alms in the form of food and drink, clothes and money. Until 1689, in the reign of William & Mary, the monarchs personally washed the feet of the selected poor. Foot cleaning was replaced by specially minted coins, called Monday Money. To this day the custom is still celebrated on the day before Good Friday, when Her majesty the Queen distributes specially minted money to the poor. A man and woman are chosen to represent each year of the monarch’s life and given the special coins in a church. The specially minted coinage is worth much more than its face value.

Pope Francis Kissing the foot of a Muslim boy
Pope Francis Kissing the foot of a Muslim boy

Proskunew describes a Persian custom, which involved kneeling and putting the face to the ground. This sometimes involved kissing the ground. Taken as the act of submission, respect, gratitude, supplication, neediness, and humility. This was used on all sorts of occasions. Thought to have originated as a non-verbal greeting where men of equal rank would kiss each other on the lips. An inferior kissed his superior on the cheeks, and where one was much less noble rank than the other, he fell to the ground in homage. Considered to have become ritualized at the oriental courts, depending on rank, visitors would prostrate themselves, kneel in front of, bow for, or blow a kiss to the king. There may have been practical reasons for blowing a kiss as halitosis was thought to be common. Magicians would use the same technique in order to prevent contamination of the sacred fire. Alexander the Great (327) spread his empire to incorporate others and naturally took Iranians to serve at his court. To win his or her respect and support he had to act like a Persian king, and ordered everybody to behave according to the oriental court ritual. The court custom, caused consternation amongst the Greeks as prostration, bowing or kneeling, to anyone other than the Gods was unacceptable. Despite violent opposition it is not clear whether Alexander the Great’s attempt at cultural infliction, succeeded.

However, proskynesis was commonly practiced at the courts of his successors and remnants remain today occidentals, still bow for kings and queens. By the time of the Old Testament the custom had passed in judicial behavior and when an accused was brought before the judge, he lay prostate. If found guilty, the judge would place his foot on their neck. If innocent the judge would stoop over and lift their face with his hand. Lifting the face was a Hebrew concept, which equaled a declaration of innocence in a judicial, proceeding. When Muslims bow towards Mecca this is another reference to proskynesis and by contrast the posture of early Christian worship. was standing.

Saint Francis, complete with his own stigmata, fondles and kisses the bleeding wounds of Jesus
St. Francis, complete with his own stigmata, fondles and kisses the bleeding wounds of Jesus

According to Brasch (1989), kissing the feet was a gesture of homage and deference, far removed from its erotic roots. Millions of pilgrims with loving pressure have worn down the feet of the statue of Saint Paul in Rome with their lips. At the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire it was the custom for the faithful to kiss the right hand of the Papal Father. In the eighth century, a rather passionate woman took liberties and according to legend, the Pope cut off his hand in disgust. The custom of kissing the Pope’s right foot was adapted as more appropriate. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) had kings and churchmen kiss his feet. Today the act of homage involves kissing the Pontiff’s right shoe. Lips are aimed at the cross-depicted on the shoe. This is either taken as a tribute to his authority or the simulation of servitude.



The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches practice the ritual of the Washing of Feet on Holy and Great Thursday (Maundy Thursday) according to their ancient rites. The service may be performed either by a bishop, washing the feet of twelve priests; or by an Hegumen (Abbot) washing the feet of twelve members of the brotherhood of his monastery. The ceremony takes place at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

After Holy Communion, and before the dismissal, the brethren all go in procession to the place where the Washing of Feet is to take place (it may be in the center of the nave, in the narthex, or a location outside). After a psalm and some troparia (hymns) an ektenia (litany) is recited, and the bishop or abbot reads a prayer. Then the deacon reads the account in the Gospel of John, while the clergy perform the roles of Christ and his apostles as each action is chanted by the deacon. The deacon stops when the dialogue between Jesus and Peter begins. The senior-ranking clergyman among those whose feet are being washed speaks the words of Peter, and the bishop or abbot speaks the words of Jesus. Then the bishop or abbot himself concludes the reading of the Gospel, after which he says another prayer and sprinkles all of those present with the water that was used for the foot washing. The procession then returns to the church and the final dismissal is given as normal.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos washes the foot of a priest during a ceremony in Jerusalem's Old City
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Metropolitan Theophilos washes the foot of a priest.


In the scriptures scholars accept feet were used as metaphors for the genitalia. Keen to downplay emphasis on the generative process which was more pagan, the ancient Hebrews took the foot and made it a gender icon.
‘And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in. I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night.’ (Gen 19:2)
In Isaiah (7:20) reference was made to the hair of the feet. Most authorities interpret this passage to mean pubic hair. By sexualizing the feet, there was need to cover them from uninvited gaze. In the vision of the Lord’s glory, Isaiah described the six wings of the seraphims.
‘and with twain he covered his feet.’ (Isaiah 6:2)
Centuries later, Christian art avoided showing feet of the Devine with only the more risque artists risking ex communication, by tempting viewers to glimpses of uncovered feet. Angels were painted with large wings, which covered their feet, hence, a representation of modesty. The term shoe, which had its derivation in Old English (Anglo Saxon), describes a cover but not as protection, instead it meant to partially conceal, in an alluring manner. In Biblical times feet were not sexually attractive but could become so, when embellished with sandals. The penis metaphor is most obvious in the Book of Ruth.
‘And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down ; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.’ (Ruth 3:4)


Another sex tapes involves Ethel Bouzalas rubbing her feet on Father George Passias’s face.
Ethel Bouzalas rubbing her feet on Fr. George Passias’s face.


Pilgrims carrying the good news of God’s Salvation had beautiful feet:

‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publish salvation; that saith unto Zion, The God reigneth!’ Is 52:7

‘Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings that publisheth peace!’ Nahum 1:15
By the New Testament those spreading the Gospels wore sandals.

‘And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;’ Ephesians 6:15

The ancient custom of falling voluntary at another’s feet was taken as a mark of reverence.
‘And I fell at his feet’ 1 Sam 25: 24

‘And Esther spake yet again before the king, and fell down at his feet..’ Esher 8:3.
Many who met Jesus were described to fall to their feet.
‘And, behold, there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name; and when he saw him, he fell at his feet.’ Mk 5:22

‘And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead.’ Rev 1:17

Taking hold of the feet of another was considered an act of prayer.

‘And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught him by the feet’ 2 Kings 4:27

‘And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.’ Mt 28:9
The action of touching a heel had profound meaning.
‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed ; it shall bruise thy head , and thou shalt bruise his heel.’ Genesis 4:15
Jacob meant ‘one who grabs the heel’ or ‘heel god’ in Hebrew.

‘He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had power with God:’ Hosea 12:3

‘And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel: and his name was called Jacob’ Gen 25:26
Images of heels were linked to potential disaster and the vulnerability of humanity.

‘The gin shall take him by the heel, and the robber shall prevail against him.’ Job 18:9

By the time of the New Testament, sitting at someone’s feet was considered an act of submission and tachability.
‘They went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus,’ Luke 8:35

‘And she had as sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word.’ Luke 10: 39

Spreading the Word of God across the known world would entail travelling. There is direct reference to Jesus Christ in the New Testament saying to his disciples to wear sandals whilst spreading the gospel. Later in the scriptures he is attributed to a statement not to be overburdened with footwear. Most scholars accept the latter to mean to travel light. By implication however as shoes and sandals were the preferred costume of the privileged then perhaps the Disciples were being directed to become more accepted by the higher social strata yet by the same token, not to appear too well attired to offend the poor. If sandals were to play an important role in the beginnings of Christianity then sandal makers and in particular sandal repairers would have a contributory role. Many affluent converts were disinherited from their family’s wealth yet compelled to spread the WORD, they needed an income for support themself. Many became sandal makers who worked by night whilst doing God’s work during day.


Sinful woman washes christ's feet
Sinful woman washes Christ’s feet