Heaven… on Earth

From sacrificial blades to seal-gut parkas, a new Radio 4 series and British Museum exhibition are exploring some of history's most intriguing religious objects. Neil MacGregor reveals what the artefacts tell us about man's 40,000-year relationship with the divine...

Great Court, British Museum, Bloomsbury, London. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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What can objects tell us about different belief systems through time?

The exhibition and radio series Living with the Gods is not about individual faith. It is about the shared beliefs of whole societies, the narrative of their place in the great scheme of things – and how those beliefs are then expressed in rituals designed to bind the societies together. We shall be looking at how both dead and living religions have tried to do this. Examining objects in the British Museum will help us explore practically what people really did, and do. The objects allow you to ground religious beliefs in the practicalities of daily life: how do people actually live, and live together, with their gods?

The focus on objects is a helpful way to escape debates about which belief systems are most worthy. The exhibition is not interested in whether any particular religion is true or not, but what it means for the people who live with it on a daily basis. Almost every society in history appears to have some sort of agreed idea of its own place in the world – how it relates to the past, the future and the cosmos – and that narrative is an important part of how communities define themselves and how they function. Believing and belonging are closely connected.

Do the objects reveal many recurring themes in religious belief through the millennia?

Yes, and one is the way in which societies think about the forces that protect them. Most communities have a notion of some kind of spirit or god looking after them. These protective deities often take very similar forms, and the exhibition has two fascinating examples of this. Firstly, we have little statues of the Roman goddess Diana (known to the Greeks as Artemis), who protected the ancient city of Ephesus, now in western Turkey. For centuries, being under the protection of Diana was a central part of being a citizen of Ephesus. Pilgrims would visit Diana’s shrine, and take home cheap little statues of her. Fast forward to 19th and 20th-century Mexico and we see a similar thing happening with the Mexican patron saint Our Lady of Guadalupe. Living under Our Lady of Guadalupe’s protection is key to national identity, and just like the pilgrims to Ephesus, visitors to her shrine take home small souvenirs.

Despite thousands of years’ distance, pagan pre-Christians in the ancient Mediterranean and Roman Catholics in modern Mexico both chose to live under a virginal protectress known to care for women and families. Both societies also found ways of incorporating these goddesses into their everyday lives, by taking images of them home to live alongside.

Another intriguing phenomenon that reoccurs is the idea that the divine can be reached only when the whole community is involved. Zoroastrians (who follow the teachings of ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster) believe that the closest we can come to God is through the purity, power and immateriality of fire. However, God can be reached only if the whole community is represented in that fire. From the baker and metalsmith to the warrior and priest, people across the town must contribute flames for the sacred fire.

Something very similar happens in Kolkata, in the celebration of the warrior-goddess Durga. Once a year, every neighbourhood makes a clay statue for Durga to inhabit. Like the Zoroastrian fire, the statue must be formed of earth from across the neighbourhood. The priest even has to visit a prostitute to request clay for it. Only then will the statue be a proper vehicle to receive and carry the divine. Both these traditions are based on a very interesting idea – that you can only truly live with the gods when all parts of the community are included.

To what extent has religious belief helped define and bind individual communities?

Belief and community belonging are very closely connected, and that’s a central theme in the exhibition. Religious objects show us again and again that agreeing on a shared story about how your community relates to the divine is an enormously strong bonding force. It allows every individual to be part of a narrative that will continue to go on even after his or her death.

Throughout history there have also been strong connections between belief systems and political structures. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, as the political system moved towards control by one person, the pattern of the gods moved in a similar direction: from polytheism to one god becoming the ‘head god’. It’s a fascinating example of belief systems changing to match political evolution.

Belief systems haven’t always mirrored state structures, however. In fact, the two have often come into conflict. Strongly centralised states have frequently expressed a desire to impose one way of belonging, by trying to enforce a belief system that matches the political status quo. Two fascinating objects from almost exactly the same date demonstrate this. In the 1680s, in an attempt to unify their country, French leaders decided that there was only one way to be French: that was to be Catholic. Protestants were forced into converting, and we have a very powerful and disturbing print celebrating the demolition of Charenton Protestant temple just outside of Paris.

At almost exactly the same date as that print was created in France, over in Japan wooden noticeboards, erected along bridges or roadsides, offered huge rewards for anyone willing to denounce Christians. After arriving in Japan with the Jesuits, Christianity had been very influential in the country for around a century. Yet in the 1680s, the Japanese state decided to implement a complete removal of the faith. It wanted to enforce the fact that you categorically could not be both Japanese and Christian. These two objects from opposite sides of the world demonstrate exactly the same phenomenon – powerful states feeling that belief systems were putting their unity under threat.

Why did you decide to include atheism and alternatives to religion in the exhibition?

Living with the Gods is about believing and belief structures. For most of history, that could be described as ‘religion’. But in France in 1793, it became about something completely different, when the French Revolution abolished conventional religion and tried to find a different faith structure to replace it. Firstly this was Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being and, later, the Cult of Reason. What’s interesting here is that the French didn’t abandon state-endorsed belief altogether. Instead, they invented an entirely new belief system they hoped could hold the country together.

The same thing happened in 1920s Russia, in the move from a Christian monarchy to totalitarian dictatorship. Leningrad’s great cathedral was seized, and transformed into a museum of atheism. But it’s important to remember that what the Soviets introduced was state atheism – it had nothing to do with personal belief. I find it very interesting that the Soviet state clearly felt the need to hold on to some form of official belief structure. Just like religion had been before it, atheism was an essential part of how the state and the individual fitted together.

The exhibition spans 40,000 years. What are the challenges of covering such a broad scope of experience?

Most British people are used to thinking about religion as something structured. When we talk about gods, most of us think of some kind of person, with some sort of job description. But this is by no means the norm. For example, it’s an inappropriate way to think about forces that might share the landscape with you, or articulate your relationship to the animal world.

A key problem here is language. Our vocabulary only has words for the religious notions that we have encountered. Finding meaningful terms to explain other experiences is a major challenge. For example, the English word ‘spirit’ sounds too whimsical to describe the forces with which some Pacific Islanders believe they share their environment. Even the term ‘gods’ is problematic. For much of the world, the whole notion of ‘gods’ isn’t actually the proper starting place. Our thoughts are limited by the words we have, and that’s when objects prove so helpful.

Why does this remain a relevant topic in the 21st century?

Fifty years ago, most historians thought that religion’s influence would dwindle. We now know that’s not the case. It’s clear that belief is still at the centre of the political debate.

Every society has had to ask itself questions about its own story. Sometimes these stories coexist and sometimes they come into conflict. We are seeing what that can mean in the Middle East at the moment. I hope that reflecting on these issues helps us in the largely secular west to realise why religion is such a powerful political force, and why issues of faith for many societies raise the most profound issues of identity, or indeed survival.

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Neil MacGregor is the former director of the British Museum.