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Statue Toppling as Exorcism

Ancient Egyptian statues with noses smashed to stop the spirit reentering the world

Ancient Egyptian statues with noses smashed to stop the spirit reentering the world

Death to Statues

George Floyd’s death in 2020 led to riots in the USA and, in the UK, the statue of a slave trader was toppled into a river – but later recovered. In other cities right wingers gathered to “protect” statues of their heroes from the possible attacks of “lefties”.

Statues of slave traders and slave owners, mainly from the 18th century have been removed even though they may have been philanthropists or promoted progressive reform in other areas, or suffered discrimination themselves.

The desire to remove statues of slave traders and slave owners seems intended to remove all knowledge of slavery from the public gaze, like the wicked uncle never to be mentioned in family conversations.

The slavery era was a time of great and repellent evil, of brutality and exploitation in a brutal and exploitative age.

Slavery was also to a great extent the manure that let the British Empire flower and, like manure it has been tacitly decided that it should not be mentioned in polite society along with the brutality the moneyed classes showed towards the poor: white, brown, yellow or black or how many of Britain’s richest families today gained their wealth from slavery or the compensation paid them when slavery was abolished – a subtle twist on slave trading.

There is however more to statue toppling than detestation of slavery.

Fear of Statues

From the time of the Pharaohs till now social change, or a change of ruler has almost always been accompanied by the destruction defacement or removal of statures. The fall of the Soviet Union left statues of the great ones of the previous regime destroyed or lying neglected in storage. One of the first things American troops orchestrated was the removal of the statue of Saddam Hussein. In the USA statues of confederate heroes have steadily been removed as a result of a growing rejection of , or unwillingness it acknowledge, the slavery era.

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Statues are more than images. In the time of the Pharaohs statues of gods were considered channels through which the gods could affect the world – and accept offerings. When a god – or a god king – fell out of favour their statue was defaced, usually by smashing the nose, as a way of preventing it acting in the world, including accepting offerings.

Perhaps the belief a statue was a channel for the gods and other beings to interact with the material world has persisted and sunk into the collective unconsciousness of the West and protestant iconoclasm was a way to prevent the statues and pictures in catholic churches from acting against them.

There are folk beliefs that standing stones and statues move from time to time, perhaps walking around, and this may tie in to a long history of mechanical automata in myth (the Greek Talos) and the mechanical “life” many craftsmen created in the 18th century and earlier.

Statues were not always e animated by gods or demons. The legend of the Golem shows how mere humans can animate dead matter.

Zombies stalk through literature and mythology. Originally a labourer, his will and feeling stripped from him by magic, today’z zombie is a walking automaton with a ravenous desire to bite humans and recruit them into a zombie army. The zombie, a less intelligent, more easily spotted version of a medieval revenant, walks as one might expect an animated statue to walk.


Statue toppling may have been an example of mass hysteria partly fuelled by a hatred of racism and xenophobia but there were no accompanying demonstrations against England’s racist Tory government, against a government that had a hostile environment policy against all who were not English – with some exemption granted to the Scots, Irish and Welsh, who at the time were deemed politically necessary. There were no protests against a government that had bolstered up inequality with the lowest pension in he developed world and no mass protests agains a government that encouraged social security clerks to ask sicial security claimants why they had not killed themselves.

All in all it would seem that toppling the statues was a way to purge the demonstrators of a guilt they felt the inherited from their ancestors, and a form of exorcism intended to stop the spirit of the eighteenth century’s dark side from returning.

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