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What is an Effigy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 March 2014
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An effigy is a representation of a person, classically in the form of a sculpture or dummy. Effigies are used to ornament tombs and monuments, and they may also be ritually carried during parades, protests, and other ceremonial occasions. Most people link effigies with the idea of death, differentiating them from ordinary sculptures, and in some cultures, the effigy has particularly macabre associations.

The oldest known effigies date to around 2700 BCE, when Egyptian rulers were buried with life-sized statues of themselves. These statues were meant to represent the person entombed, ensuring that his or her soul had a place to live. The practice of creating tombstone effigies spread, and was at one point very common, although it has since declined.

A classic tombstone effigy is life-sized, and often depicted in a recumbent position, as though sleeping, although some may be shown kneeling in prayer or even standing. Many tombstone effigies are based on a death mask made of the face of the deceased, so in some cases their faces look a bit gruesome. Some tombstone effigies are much smaller; it is also possible to find busts, death masks, and other forms of depiction of the dead used as tombstone effigies.

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Many examples of grave effigies can be found in old churches and graveyards all over the world. Britain's Westminster Abbey has a number of notable effigies which visitors often enjoy seeing, depicting British monarchs and other famous figures in British history. These effigies often include various symbolic items linked to the person during life, such as symbols of office and the person's accomplishments.

The effigy also plays a special role in some parades and political activities. Historically, people who have been angry with their governments have burned prominent government officials in effigy, typically after carrying dummies which represent these figures through the street. Effigies may also be hung and symbolically drowned. In this case, the crowd usually does not want the person involved to actually die, but they do want the individual to leave office.

Effigies are also ritualistically carried in funeral parades and parades which commemorate important events in history. On Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, for example, people carry effigies of Guy Fawkes through the streets and symbolically destroy them to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot.

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