Living with gods

One of our Library Volunteers, Michael, writes of his recent experience at the British Museum’s ‘Living with gods’ exhibition and reflects on the different forms of religious symbolism.

‘Living with gods’ is the title of an exhibition at the British Museum looking at how people believe through everyday objects of faith. Beliefs in religious beings and worlds beyond nature are distinctive to all human societies and provide a perspective on what makes believing a vital part of human behaviour.

The exhibition begins with an incredible 40,000-year-old ivory sculpture made from a mammoth tusk, known as the Lion Man. Depicting a human body with a lion’s head, it is the oldest known figurative sculpture in the world and must have had some ritual purpose due to its torso being worn smooth by handling – possibly by many generations.

Discovered in a cave in Ulm, Germany in 1939, it is a being which cannot exist in nature. While we shall never know what the Lion Man meant to the community which created it, it is estimated that it took approximately 400 hours to carve, which suggests that it was an object of great importance.

You can learn more about the Lion Man, and see images, on the British Museum’s blog post here: British Museum: The Lion Man

Following on, key themes of belief are shown relating to our senses- light, water and fire. Light is essential to life and represents divine presence. This takes many forms around the world: Amaterasu, a powerful Japanese deity, seen as the goddess of sun; Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, spiritually signifying the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, hope over despair.

Water, through baptism, is the door through which every Christian enters the faith and becomes part of the Christian community. In Hinduism, the river Ganges is considered sacred and is personified as the goddess Ganga. She is worshipped by Hindus who believe that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and the water is considered very pure.

Fire, a fascination and fear to our ancestors. It kept wild animals at bay, but allowed us to cook, keep warm and safe – the hearth is the home. In classical mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods. For the Jews, God spoke to Moses from the flames of the burning bush. In ancient Rome, the goddess of fire was Vesta and in her temple, the hearth was home and was Rome itself – and if the flames ever went out, that was the end of Rome.

Objects on display reflect all these senses and show how people connect to worlds beyond nature through the natural environment or in specially built spaces.

Other objects show the power of prayer, the importance of song, festivals and pilgrimage and the key life experiences – birth, coming of age, marriage and death. Christian pilgrimage, for example, is represented by a souvenir model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, said to be built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century after a visit by his mother, Helena, to the site of Christ’s death and burial.

Pilgrimage is also represented by Christian pilgrim badges, collected as souvenir: for example, a lead scallop shell, symbol of St. James of Compostela, and a lead figure from Canterbury representing St. Thomas. Newly-born babies and their mothers are represented by a ceramic figure of St. Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of childbirth, and becoming an adult in the Pacific island nation of Vanuata by a lock of brown hair.

One piece of fascinating evidence that there were polytheistic societies (those who worshipped many gods) in Britain is a roman earthenware jug, dated about 250 AD, which was found in Norfolk in the 1840s. It contains small bronze figures depicting the different gods, including Jupiter, chief of the roman deities and god of sky and thunder, and Minerva, goddess of wisdom wearing a helmet.

In contrast, monotheistic societies (those who believe that there is only one deity), is represented by the Marduk tablet from Babylon and the limestone fragmentary stela showing ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton.

Divine authority for rule is another aspect covered. A bronze vessel from China, whose inscription suggests that dynastic leaders enjoyed a mandate from heaven. We in Britain experienced this in 1953 with the Coronation of our Queen – ‘anointed of the Lord’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The story of life is represented by a tanka or Buddhist Wheel of Life from Tibet. Made of blue dyed cotton and highly painted with a rod through the top to enable it to be hung, probably in a temple, it tells a story which connects our individual lives to the community and the world to which we are briefly a part.

The beginning of the exhibition shows the 40,000-year-old Lion Man which played a central part in what might be described as a religious ceremony. The last item on display is another small sculpture which was also designed to be held in the hand. It is a small cross made of two pieces of wood nailed together. An Italian carpenter in Lampedusa took wood from African migrant boats that had been shipwrecked on 11 October 2013 off the coast of the island, and turned the wood of destruction into a cross; something that came from his own tradition but spoke of hope for everybody. It’s very powerful. The cross, an emblem of death, becomes in itself a sign that there is hope; a different life, a better life.

‘Living with gods: people, places and worlds beyond’ is at the British Museum until 8 April 2018.

Images of some objects referred to in this post can be seen here: British Museum: highlight artefacts

Michael Graham, Library Volunteer

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