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The Theotokos of Vladimir, tempera on panel, 104 x 69 cm, painted about 1130 in Constantinople, and protectress of Vladimir and later Moscow

A palladium or palladion is an image or other object of great antiquity on which the safety of a city or nation is said to depend. The word is a generalization from the name of the original Trojan Palladium, a wooden statue (xoanon) of Pallas Athena that Odysseus and Diomedes stole from the citadel of Troy and which was supposedly later taken to the future site of Rome by Aeneas, where it remained until perhaps transferred to Constantinople and lost sight of after the conversion of the Empire to Christianity.

In English, since around 1600, the word "palladium" has been used figuratively to mean anything believed to provide protection or safety,[1] and in particular in Christian contexts a sacred relic or icon believed to have a protective role in military contexts for a whole city, people or nation. Such beliefs first become prominent in the Eastern Churches in the period after the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, and later spread to the Western church. Palladia were processed around the walls of besieged cities and sometimes carried into battle.[2] In this more offensive role they may also be referred to as "vexilla" (singular vexillum, Latin for "battle standard").

Classical antiquityEdit

Nike (Victory) offers an egg to a snake entwined around a column surmounted by the Trojan Palladium. (Marble bas relief, Roman copy of the late 1st Century AD. After a neo-Attic original of the Hellenistic era.)

Troy and RomeEdit

The original Palladion was part of the foundation myths of both Troy and Rome. It was a wooden image of Pallas (whom the Greeks identified with Athena and the Romans with Minerva) said to have fallen from heaven in answer to the prayer of Ilus, the founder of Troy. In the Trojan War the besieging Greeks discovered that they would be unable to take the city while it was protected by it, and so Odysseus and Diomedes stole it from the citadel of Troy before taking the city by the ruse of the Trojan Horse. According to a later set of myths it was then taken to Rome, where an actual image, unlikely to have been actually of Trojan origin, was kept in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum for centuries, and regarded as one of the pignora imperii, sacred tokens or pledges of Roman rule (imperium). The Roman story is related in Virgil's Aeneid and other works.


The goddess Athena was worshipped on the Acropolis of Athens under many names and cults, the most illustrious of which was of the Athena Poliás, "[protectress] of the city". The cult image of the Poliás was a wooden effigy, often referred to as the "xóanon diipetés" (the "carving that fell from heaven"), made of olive wood and housed in the east-facing wing of the Erechtheum temple in the classical era. Considered not a man-made artefact but of divine provenance, it was the holiest image of the goddess and was accorded the highest respect. It was placed under a bronze likeness of a palm tree and a gold lamp burned in front of it. The centerpiece of the grand feast of the Panathenaea was the replacement of this statue's woolen veil with a newly woven one. It was also carried to the sea by the priestesses and ceremonially washed once a year, in the feast called the Plynteria ("washings"). Its presence was last mentioned by the Church Father Tertullian (Apologeticus 16.6), who, in the late 2nd century AD, described it derisively as being nothing but "a rough stake, a shapeless piece of wood" (Latin original: "[] Pallas Attica [] quae sine effigie rudi palo et informi ligno prostat?"). Earlier descriptions of the statue have not survived.

Christian palladiaEdit

10th century icon of the Image of Edessa, with King Abgar V of the legend shown as Emperor Constantine VII who brought the image to Constantinople in 944

Around the end of the 6th century the first references to Christian palladia start to appear.[3] The Image of Edessa in Armenian Mesopotamia, or Mandylion, later moved to Constantinople, is one of the first and long the most famous examples. This was later credited with the failure of the Persian siege of Edessa in 544. But the image is not mentioned in the account of Procopius, writing soon after the event, and first appears as the agent of the failure in the history of Evagrius Scholasticus of about 593.[4] Specific icons, especially those of the Virgin Mary or Virgin and Child became credited with specialist functions, with their veneration aiding against disease or other misfortunes, and the military role of palladium was an example of this.

Beliefs attributing particular icons as palladia were found especially in the Eastern Churches, and have remained particularly powerful in Russian Orthodoxy, where a number of icons protected different cities. Important public officials in Imperial Russia would have an insignia that signified their status and authority ; this was treated with very great respect. In Celtic Christianity palladia were more often relics, which in the Celtic tradition were typically possessions of a saint, such as books, bells, belts and croziers, all housed in reliquaries, and in Irish circumstances functioned as the battle standards of clans rather than protecting a city. They were sometimes carried into battle in their reliquaries or cumdach, hanging by a chain around the neck of a member of the clan. In the Western church such beliefs have declined even in Catholic countries since the Reformation, and disappeared in Protestant beliefs. Various folk myths have instead arisen, but these are probably not regarded very seriously even by the general public.

The Byzantine palladia, which first appear in the late 6th century, cannot be said to have had a very successful track record, as apart from Constantinople most major cities in Egypt, Syria and later Anatolia fell to Muslim attacks.[5] Just before the start of the Byzantine Iconoclasm an incident of what might be called a "reverse-palladium" is recorded. According to Iconoclast sources an officer called Constantine, defending Nicaea against an Arab siege in 727, smashed an icon of the Virgin, and this saved the city. The Iconodule sources also record the incident, but say that Constantine was promptly killed, and the city saved by other icons, including the famous series of 318 portraits of participants in the First Council of Nicaea which adorned the hall where the council had met in 325.[6]

In other culturesEdit

The Luck of Edenhall, 14th century Islamic glass, a palladium for its English owners
"If this cup should break or fall
Farewell the Luck of Edenhall!"
The cup has a custom-made 15th-century European leather case and the name is first recorded in a Musgrave will of 1677. A number of other Northern gentry families had a variety of objects called "Lucks", and "Luck of Troy" was an old English term for the Trojan and Roman prototype;[13][14] the first recorded use of "luck" in this sense is a reference to the Luck of Edenhall.[15]
London Stone, seen through its protective grille
  • Some writers have suggested that the historic London Stone was once regarded as London's palladium.[16] Notably, a pseudonymous contributor to the journal Notes and Queries in 1862 quoted a supposedly ancient proverb to the effect that "So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish".[17] This verse, if it were genuine, would link the Stone to Brutus of Troy, legendary founder of London, as well as confirming its role as a palladium. However, the writer can be identified as the Richard Williams Morgan, an eccentric Welsh clergyman who in an earlier book had claimed that the legendary Brutus was a historical figure; London Stone, he wrote, had been the plinth on which the original Trojan Palladium had stood, and was brought to Britain by Brutus and set up as the altar stone of the Temple of Diana in his new capital city of Trinovantum or "New Troy" (London).[18]
This story, and the verse about the "Stone of Brutus", can be found nowhere any earlier than in Morgan's writings. No one before Morgan had called London Stone "The Stone of Brutus", and although the spurious verse is still frequently quoted, there is no evidence that London's safety has ever traditionally been linked to that of London Stone.[19]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ OED, "Palladium, 2", first recorded use 1600
  2. ^ Kitzinger, 109-112
  3. ^ Kitzinger, 103-110
  4. ^ Kitzinger, 103-104
  5. ^ Mango, 3
  6. ^ Mango, 2-3
  7. ^ Beckwith, 88
  8. ^ Beckwith, 88-89
  9. ^ The Cathach at the Royal Irish Academy Archived 2014-07-02 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Crosby, Kate, "Devaraja", p. 418, in Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to Timor, Volume 3, R-Z, ed. Ooi Keat Gin, 2004, ABC-CLIO, ISBN 1576077705, 9781576077702, google books
  11. ^ Foster, Douglas A., The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, Churches of Christ, 2004, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, ISBN 0802838987, 9780802838988
  12. ^ quote, and verses, article by Rev. William Mounsey of Bottesford in The Gentleman's Magazine, 1791
  13. ^ "The Luck of Edenhall in the Victoria and Albert Museum". Victoria and Albert Museum. 2012-05-08. Retrieved 2012-05-08.;"The Luck of Edenhall (Eden Hall)". 2010-07-14. Retrieved 2011-02-09.
  14. ^ Beard, 84-97 describes the "Luck of Muncaster" and other examples, mostly cups; his next chapter is on the Luck of Edenhall.
  15. ^ OED, "Luck"
  16. ^ Clark, John. "London Stone" (PDF). Vintry and Dowgate Wards Club. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 March 2012. Retrieved 24 April 2013. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  17. ^ Mor Merrion (1862). "Stonehenge". Notes and Queries. 3rd series. 1: 3.
  18. ^ Morgan, Richard Williams (1857). The British Kymry or Britons of Cambria. Ruthin: Isaac Clarke. pp. 26–32.
  19. ^ Clark 2010, pp. 45–52.


  • Beard, Charles R., Luck And Talismans: A Chapter of Popular Superstition, 2004 reprint, Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 1417976489, 9781417976485, google books
  • Beckwith, John, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Penguin History of Art (now Yale), 2nd edn. 1979, ISBN 0140560335
  • Kitzinger, Ernst, "The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 8, (1954), pp. 83–150, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, JSTOR
  • Mango, Cyril, "Historical Introduction," in Bryer & Herrin, eds., Iconoclasm, pp. 2–3., 1977, Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, ISBN 0704402262

Other sourcesEdit

  • The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion. s.v. "Palladium".

External linksEdit