Reading Notes – ‘Living with the Gods’

I recently read, ‘Living with the Gods’ by Neil MacGregor, originally a radio series and a fascinating exploration of religion and rituals, across cultures and throughout history. MacGregor is a former director of The British Museum and he weaves this story through the medium of artefacts. Examining places and objects that illuminate how humans have practiced faith and beliefs through time.

I underlined quite a lot in this book … so here goes some reading notes!

Days of Week

‘The names .. are an inherited meditation on the cycles of time … Sunday, Monday – it begins with the sun and the moon. … After them come the days of the easily visible planets … Mars – martedi/mardi; Mercury – mercoledi/mercredi; Jupiter (Jove) – giovedi/jeudi; Venus – venerdi/vendredi … the order is the sequence that the Romans followed. … In England, .. the exotic gods of Rome were renamed for their equivalent northern gods .. Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frige. On Saturday .. Saturn, the one Roman immigrant stubbornly retained’

‘Encompassing the different cycles of sun, moon and the five planets, every week thus implies … the company of many gods and the vastness of space itself. … We still live every day with the gods of our ancestors and our conquerors, inhabiting an ancient but stable structure of time. … To name the days of the week is, for most of the world to declare consciously or unconsciously, the religious history of your particular community’

Practice vs Doctrine.

‘Looking instead at what societies believe and do. It is a way of addressing religion as practice rather than doctrine’

‘The Ten Commandments: one all-powerful, all-controlling God, handing down a text, written in unchangeable stone, which sets out clear, immutable doctrine. … The Abrahamic faiths really are most unusual, and not just in their belief in a single God. Most faiths of the world for most of history have not had texts that calimed such unique status”

‘The silence of objects allows us into territory difficult to enter in other ways’

‘All we can do when we venture into the thought worlds of others, is to acknowledge our inadequacy: we are discussing matters for which we do not have the words’ (vocabulary and concepts that simply do not exist in our language/culture)

‘Religion offers an architecture of meaning in which people may find shelter and hope’

‘The human need for belonging and for a story to sustain it in which everybody has a part’

‘ “Who are ‘we’?” is the great political question of our time, and it is essentially about what we believe’

The Lion Man

The Lion man of Ulm is around 40,000 years old and ‘the oldest evidence yet found of the human mind giving physical form to something which can never have been seen … a cognitive leap to a world beyond nature, and beyond human experience’

‘can only have been made by an accomplished sculptor who had carved many pieces … at least 400 hours of work’

This community’s ‘primary concern must have been getting and bringing in food, making clothing, keeping the fire going, protecting their children from predators and so on. Yet they allowed someone of great ability to spend a lot of time away from such tasks … to produce an object which could play no part in its physical survival’

‘The people in this area were also making and listening to music. A variety of flutes. … these objects are about shared social activity; but also transporting you into another realm’

Examination of the Lion Man ‘suggests some sort of ceremonial ritual in which the lion’s mouth played a part.. prolonged handling .. possibly even over several generations’

‘Imagination is at the core of it .. What we do very well is thinking ahead, into the future, beyond our individual lives, as well as into the past’

Fire & The State

Fire – ‘visible yet ungraspable, powerful but immaterial’

Fire as the focus of society .. ‘focus’ is the latin for hearth, an every time we use the word, we pay unconscious tribute to the incomparable gathering power of fire’

Temple of Vesta. ‘Vesta was for the Romans the virgin goddess of fire, protectoress of the peace of home and hearth. She was a completely domestic goddess… Her temple, was the hearth of the whole city and of the empire. … The domestic fire of Vesta was the central symbol of the Roma state.’

‘the job of the Vestal Virgins, .. was quite simply to keep the fire alight .. if the fire ever went out, it was a sign that the relationship between the Romans and their gods had been disrupted…. The finger of suspicion might well be pointed at one of these priestesses – with the doubt that she was no longer a virgin. The punishment for a Vestal Virgin convicted of such a failing was a fearful death, being buried alive.’

‘Like almost all Roman priesthoods, this was an elite job .. at the very heart of the Roman political world … Vestal Virgins have remained powerful symbols in the cultural and political imagination of the West. .. One of the canniest manipulators of this was .. Elizabeth I of England. As the Virgin Queen, whose legitimacy had been denied by the Roman Catholic church, [she] must have relished the opportunity to shou herself heir to an even older Roman institution, and one that affirmed the central role of an unmarried woman in the great affairs of the nation’

In a 1583 portrait by Quentin Massys, ‘Elizabeth too carries a sieve, affirming both her virginity and her unique fitness to guarantee the survival of the state’

(Tuccia a Vestal Virgin in 3BC had ‘proved’ her virginity by carrying water from the Tiber in a sieve – the gods protecting her and working this miracle)

‘Marie Antoinette.. had herself painted as a Vestal… she discards the sieve of virginity and is shown standing by the sacred fire, the emblem of the nation … tending the flame of the state ‘

Keep the Home Fires Burning, / While your hearts are yearning, / Though your lads are far away / They dream of home. (Ivor Novello)

‘Every woman in Britain in 1914, a state that like ancient Rome, allowed most women virtually no political role – was now summoned as wife, mother or sister to do her bit to save the state by tending the flame’

‘The last Vestal Virgin stood down in 394. Only a generation later, the Goths sacked Rome.’

‘Under the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, …first lit on 11 November 1923.. La Flamme de la Nation .. not only honours the dead, but embodies the state’s confidence in its future. … every evening at 6.30pm a small group performs the ceremony of ‘the Keeping Alive of the Flame’ – former soldiers and schoolchildren together doing the duty of the Vestal Virgins….It continued even under the German occupation in the Second World War.

‘Just as any fire will perish if it is not carefully tended and fed, so the institutions of a society will crumble of not constantly repaired and renewed … a symbolic recognition of the fragility of all political institutions and our obligation to be vigilant in keeping them in good repair.’

Water of Life & Death

‘Water to prepare the body for the activity of the spirit, water that readies humans for a new relationship with the world: .. an idea .. that is unsurprisingly central to many faiths’

‘The British monarchy to this day uses Jordan water for royal baptisms. Roman Catholics all over Europe accord special properties to water carried home from Lourdes. ‘

‘The Ganges is said to flow originally across the sky and in the heavens. in the form of the Milky Way, before coming to earth on India’s northern plains .. the Ganges is actually the liquid form of the goddess Ganga.. a channel of communication and of communion between heaven and earth.

‘It is the rivers that matter. They really are the temples of India … For Hindus, if you are cremated on the banks of the river Varanasi, or if your ashes are brought there and surrended to the Ganges.. you may at leat be freed from the burden of the cycle if reincarnation: your soul will be liberated from all bodily constraints.. in everlasting tranquility with the creator spirit.’

The Return of the Light

‘Newgrange … a structure older than Stonehenge, or than the Pyramids in Egypt .. It is the cosmic promise, given in the depth of winter, that light and warmth will return and new crops will grow.’

‘Every year at precisely 8.58 on the morning of 21 December.. a shaft of direct sunlight hits an opening above the entrance to this stone age structure .. For 17 minutes, this narrow sun beam illuminates the underground tomb’

‘The ‘dead of winter’ .. a lethal reality. Until well into the twentieth century, European mortality rates increased substantially in the winter months .. Would there be enough food and fuel to enable the community to survive?

‘The pivot of this cycle from death and life, the very moment of transition is the mid-winter solstice . So it is not surprising .. that many buildings across Eurasia, including the megalithic tombs of Gav’rinis at Carnac in Brittany, or the temple of the Ggantija on Gozo – are aligned to the first rays of the returning sun.’

Newgrange ‘is clearly the creation of a highly organised community, one with enought people and agricultural surplus to devote a huge and impressively skilled labour force, possibly over several generations, to constructing such an extraordinary monument… The investment of critical resources for existential rather than material advantage.’

Also on light, see Story of Amaterasu, Japanese sun goddess in the Shinto religion.

Harvest & Homage

“And the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air.. every living thing shall be meat for you; even as the green herb, have I given you all things”.. this biblical idea of dominion, of a literally god-given right to do with every living thing as we please.. has great influence on how Western civilization uses and abuses the natural world. ‘

‘In this regard the Judaeo-Christian tradition is unusual. Most belief systems urge a more complex, reciprocal relationship between us and the living world.’

‘The Yup-ik people depend for their survival on the seal. … Their flesh, skin and intestine provide nutrition. Their fat is rendered into oil.. historically it was also sued as a fuel for cookin , heating and lighting’

‘To these ceremonies, people invited the spirits of the animals that had been harvested throughout the year… publicly honouring the animal that you needed to kill… The way you treat animals matters at every stage.. you offer a seal you have killed a drink of water, so its soul will not be thirsty.. you use all parts of the animal because they are aware, even after you hunt them’

‘Their world view was, and largely continues to be that animals and indeed landscape features and plants, are aware.So Yu’pik people try to think good thoughts, respectful thoughts to one another and toward the world’

‘ In ancient Egypt, a region with some of the lowest rainfall in the world, the Nile was an essential source of life … each year, monsoon rains falling to the far south … raised the water levels of the river. A much-needed flood would follow… ‘

‘Yet things could easily go wrong. Settlements and precious land were sometimes destroyed when the waters ran too high. And when they did not run high enough, there was famine … Everything hinged on the proper balance of nature … it became a matter of life AND death’

Osiris, ‘the god .. played the key role in ensuring that the proper balance was maintained. But unusually, for a god, he did not ‘preside’ over that process: he was caught up in it himself. He too lived and died’

The ancient Egyptians made corn mummies with the face of Osiris, ceremonially stored these and then planted them each year in a festival called Khoiak, ‘sustenance upon sustenance’.

Contrast this to:

‘Our own modern Western conception of nature: that it is outside of us , and that it should somehow be made to confirm to our desires’

‘Both Alaskan and Egyptian societies, in very different circumstances evolved narratives to acknowledge with humility their dependence on the natural world. In consequence, both could devise actions to engage the whole community in husbanding it. Most of the modern world is now struggling to do either’

Living With The Dead

‘For us, when our ancestors die they are in the past and our descendants are in the future. For the Inca and many cultures of the Americas.. all time time is together: the present, future and past exist concurrently, are always in parallel .. mummy bundles of the ancestors would be brought into the room to contribute the wisdom of the past to the conversation .. also in the room would be the spirits of the descendents not yet born’

‘Edmund Burke in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ [wrote] “society is a partnership .. it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”

‘the whole history of portrait painting in China is inextricably linked to images made to serve in .. ritual dialogues with the ancestors”

“Lighted candles and burning incense would be placed below them, along with offerings of fruit and wine… Many mainland Chinese, .. today bring themselves at certain times of the year into the presence of their ancestors.. they mostly use digital photographs, updating a portrait tradition that stretches back over 2000 years. The offerings have been updated too … paper models of computers, cars and .. of luxury goods of all sorts.. are now burned, so that the smoke will carry the necessary item to the spirit of the deceased”

‘For the Fallen’, written in 1914: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them” .

“Our national commemoration, unlike that of other countries, does not demand that the lives lost should determine and change our behaviour, or inform the decisions we make in the present. We remember our dead, but we no longer live with them”

Birth and the Body

“The body of the queen is an affair of the state”

“Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all for centuries taken the view that human fertility, and in particular children, are gifts from God… So right from the moment of puberty, a woman’s body is already in a sense claimed by the wider community”

A Place in Tradition

Discusses Jewish traditions of learning to read the Torah and Vanuatu hair plaiting traditions.

Contrasted against ‘Modern Western society .. [where] we have moved away from a model of elders initiating children into an adult world … the young initiate each other into adult worlds of their own .. we are a liberal society. We want choice, We don’t want our future handed down to us’

Let Us Pray
L’Angelus by Jean-Francois Milllet, 1857

‘You can see clearly the spire of the village church, where the bell has just been rung. It reminds everybody to stop their work for a moment and say the Angelus prayer … it calls them to stay where they are, but to redirect their thoughts away from their immediate everyday concerns and towards God. It is a public summons to a private act’

‘ this image .. had such a powerful appeal for people living in the new industrial towns and cities, where factory work never stopped ‘

‘ it spoke reassuringly of another France, as it had claimed to be before the Revolution of 1789 – a nation united and defined by its Catholic faith’

In ‘Ireland – the Angelus bell (in spite of considerable public protests) still rings, on national radio at 12 noon and on nation television at six in the evening’

‘ prayer … usually involves putting aside the obligations of everyday life for a little while, prayer may seem – from the outside, at least – to be a form of social withdrawal’

‘ it is about getting down to earth, to our physical body as it lives and breathes’

‘ the puritans banned all dancing and singing, and we lost a lot of that bodily dynamism of our prayer, which Muslims… have retained’

‘however we do it, whether we kneel, sit, stand or prostrate ourselves – it is ‘we’ who pray. As in almost all religious rituals, to connect with God is also to join more fully with each other’

The Power of Song

‘Before the Reformation, religious music tended to be sung by trained specialists… Texts.. were almost exclusively in Latin… worship was shaped and mediated by professionals’

‘Luther proclaimed .. that the special sacrament of priesthood is not the exclusive preogative of an elite priestly class, but of everyone who has faith. That had the almost magical effect of creating individual responsibility for one’s own faith’

‘His famous 95 theses triggered the Reformation .. the success of the Reformation was due in part to the printing press… it was also in part due to the power of song… Luther took the standard prose tetxts of the Order of the Mass in Latin, and turned them into rhymes that had a ring and a resonance to them … pre-existing songs and hymns were sometimes used, but Luther completely reformatted them’

‘Physical synchrony .. the more we are together in a bodily sense, the more that facilitates being together in a psychological sense … singing, chanting, standing, marching are all absolutely critical in producing a sense of ‘we-ness’ ‘

‘When we have shared identity, we begin to stop seeing people as ‘others’. They’re like us, they’re of us, they’re with us. We trust and co-operate with them more”

‘When you are singing, your breathing changes. You are sometimes short of breath, and you sometimes have more oxygen than normal. you experience a sort of buzz, a change in your physiology which goes beyond the resonance of the music’

‘ Singing the Psalms in your own language quickly became the badge of a new Reformed religious identity, individual groups identifying themselves with particular translations and the accompanying tunes”

‘The Bay Psalm Book, the first book to be printed in British North America, appeared in 1640. It defined and united Boston protestants for well over a hundred years’

‘Amazing grace! how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now am found/ Was blind, but now I see.’ John Newton 1772

‘Only a single word .. is of more than one syllable’

‘before his conversion and ordination, Newton had been a slave-trader. He talked openly of his early sinful state, and later joined Wilberforce in the campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade’

Theatres of Faith

‘In festivals, repeated over the generations, [societies] define and reimagine the spiritual community and enable it to continue beyond the single life of the believer’

The House of God

‘Göbeke Tepe in Southeast Turkey is believed to be the oldest religious site in the world … erected a full 6,000 years before Turkey’

‘it was because Hunter Gatherers first learnt how to co-operate in making a site like this for religious ceremonies that they were later able to live and work together in cities … first came the temple, then came the city’

‘In most cities the and civilizations, the sacred structures are the grandest, the costliest and the most enduring, often the culmination of communal as well as spiritual life’

On the Mesopotamian state of Girsu in 2000 BCE, where serveral times a year statues of gods would be take out of the temples and paraded about. They would also be carried to visit other divinities, the gods’ own relatives in other cities. In the temples, access depended on status .. eg which door and which parts of the temple could be accessed by whom.

‘These processions of gods and people played an important part in what we could now describe as state-building. They reminded inhabitants .. they were part of one state, subjects of the same ruler and united in worship of the same gods’

‘The Mespotamian tablets.. show the beginnings of patterns .. where power secures access and access further reinforces power’ (Eg who was allowed in to which bits of the temple depended on status)

‘How do you make a scared space? A lot of it is to do with the careful admission of light. The great mysterious spaces always pay very careful attention to light’

Example of new Cathedral in Kericho.

‘Spaces are hallowed by the presence and prayers of previous generations, sometimes stretching over centuries – an atmosphere of holiness, impossible to define, but not difficult to sense, which allows believers to feel closer to the divine’

‘When a place of worship .. is desecrated. Even if nobody is hurt, it is universally read as an attack not just on a building, but on a community. … such attacks shock and threaten as few assaults on property can’.

Gifts to the Gods

‘Musica people … El Dorado… The golden man .. covered in gold dust for his ‘coronation’ ceremony on lake Guatavita’ (all naked and gilded, paddled to centre of lake, dropped gold and emeralds in lake, returned to shores to much music, singing and dancing)

‘The Musica saw gold not at all in terms of monetary value, but as part of a cosmic choreography of equilibrium and exchange’

‘The Musica had no material economic metric by which produce and commodities were exchanged. … value resided supremely in the creation of peaceful equilibrium’

‘Statehood in Greek terms is actually about centralised finance … The Parthenon is the product not just of local taxation, but also of taxation of the Athenian Empire.. what is stored in it is really an expression of Athenian wealth and power’

‘It was designed around 438 BCE, as the treasury of the Athenian Empire: a huge store of wealth, which was under the ownerhsip and overview of the goddess Athena, but which was capable of being repurposed as state finance’

‘Objects given to the Parthenon could be put on show, and – just as imprtant – they could be removed at a later date … with a rapid rise in withdrawals during periods of crisis and danger for the state … The ancient Greek offering was continually provisional’

‘The public treasury was located in a temple in many cities of the ancient world. In Rome, the temple of Juno Moneta … Moneta is today the Italian word for small change. And in English every time we use the word ‘money’ we acknowledge that the sacred and the financial world have a long shared history’

To Be a Pilgrim

‘Focus over the last century and a half has been moving from the tangible to the intangible: in places of the relics and sites that attracted Chaucer’s pilgrims, people now travel to the scenes of visions and divine epiphanies’

‘ In France, only Paris has more Hotel rooms than Lourdes: there are more than 6 million visitors annually’

Festival Time

‘Festivals invite whole communities to renew themselves every year in the same place, as the generation pass’

‘Because each festival is a re-enactment of all its predecessors, we come to a powerful appreciation that life … is not a lonely, one-act story with a beginning and an end’

On Christmas ….

the slaves will become the masters, the masters will become the slaves … one of the central features of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, in honour of the god Saturn. Held each year 17th December to around the 23rd, this was the most anticipated of Roman holidays’

‘ As Saturn himself put it, his words formed for him by the satirist Lucian: ‘During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping’ ‘

‘Christmas is probably third century in its origins: so it is ancient, but definitely not biblical. later some Protestant Christians would point that out and try and get rid of Christmas altogether’

‘The Pilgrim Fathers, arriving in America in 1620, made a point of working through on Christmas Day, as there was no biblical reason to do otherwise… The Scottish Parliament abolished all celebration of what was considered a dangerously Papist feast – the Christ Mass – in 1640, and the main midwinter celebration moved to New Year, where for many Scots it still remains. As late as 1958 Christmas was a normal working day in Scotland’

‘As New York rediscivered its Dutch roots, in opposition to English colonialism, the Dutch tradition of Saint Nicholas … Sinterklaas – was taken up … this might have reamined just a quaint bit of New England tradition-invention, until in 1823 Clement Clarke Moore, turned this .. into a poem:

“Twas the Night before Christmas, when all through the house/ Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there”

‘It was nonsense, but rhythmic and memorable nonsense, and it quickly became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic … focus of the feast now shifted to children. St Nocholas distributing presents from his sleigh’

‘The American reinvention of Christmas in the 1820s was .. developed further in equally surprising directions above all as a result of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, published in 1843.. It has influenced almost every aspect of British Christmas since. .. the traditional Christmas meal.. had long been goose… Turkey swiftly became the bird of choice for the whole family … Much more important .. Dickens suggests, Christmas should be a festival of social harmony, a moment for generosity, for solidarity across the classes’

‘Christmas works because it says something profound which we cannot escape: we are all born helpless, and a new birth is a moment of enormous joy and celebration’

The Protectoresses

On the Greek goddess Artemis in Ephesus:

‘She generally has fawns to either side of her and wears a crown … but strikingly her upper body s covered with what have been interepreted variously as multiple breasts or bull’s testicles

‘Artemis and her brother Apollo never grow up … she harnesses that fertility within herself without using it. That gives her control over her own body. She is the goddess of wild animals … She is a universal deity, protecting women as well as men’

‘Artemis’s virginity is an important element of her cult … [but] relates less to the idea of being sexually chaste than to the idea of being single and powerful’

The Work of Art in Times of Spiritual Reproduction

‘Manuals of guidance for icon painters stress the importance of mastering long-agreed conventions for representing saints. The task of the painter is not to invent but to ‘transcribe’ these holy images of the Church’

The Accretion of Meaning

Nativity, painted around 1490 by the Netherlandish artist Geertgen to Sint Jans …. we see the frontier between heaven and earth miraculously dissolved…

‘Neither ox nor ass, appears in the Gospel … the Hebrew prophet Isiah had foretold that those animals would one day recognise the future master of Israel.. The shining, luminous body of the newborn baby, giving out rays of light like the sun .. was provided by Saint Bridget of Sweden… who in a vision .. [saw] the stable made dark by the brilliance coming fro the child..

‘Like most religious pictures, this one tells not one story, but several – and allows us to add ours. ‘

On San|Bushmen:

‘In the 1870s, at around the time that the last rock paintings were being made, a German linguist called Wilhem Bleek came to South Africa, conversed extensively with the San – in a San language which is no longer spoken – and developed a phonetic script for writing down everything they said… the results: a vast collection of biographies, and many accounts of rituals and myths.’

In ‘the rich symbolism of San rock art: … a fly whisk ,, indicates a shaman, a medecine man. … when people went into an altered state of consciousness, to visit the spirit world, they suffered a nasal haemorrhage. They then smeared the blood on people, in the belief that the power of the blood and the smell of the blood.. would keep the evil spirits away’

A common posture in San rock art is arms outstretched behind a figure’s shoulders, a strange unnatural pose. … ‘Some people dance like this when they’re asking god to put more potency into their bodies, so that they can go to the spirit world and cure people’

‘the hybrid human-animal images are shamans in some kind of trance, absorbing the power of animals to help them gain access to the spirit world. ‘

‘ when the shamans enter an altered state of consciousness, a wall painting like this would allow the rest of the group, who are not in a trance, to share in the shamans’ heightened spiritual experience … the paintings helped spread the experience of the spirit world ‘

Grayson Perry quoted says: ‘ Religion, to begin with , is bound up in with society’s emotional needs… art is about emotional investment in the thing itself … We all bring our own life story and experience to bear on every image we ever contemplate ‘

‘death is hovering, It’s always hovering there isn’t it, death?’

‘Inari, the important Shinto deity .. protector of agriculture in general and the rice harvest in particular.. Inari is often depicted as coming to earth from heaven riding on a fox.. on the roof of the Tokoyo headquarters of the huge Shiseido cosmetics company is a famous shrine to Inari, who can protect corporate profits as well as rice harvests’

‘ As Buddhism spread from the Asian mainland to Japan, .. the deities brought by the incoming religion were slowly – and deliberately – equated with deities in the indigenous Shinto tradition. .. a remarkable feat of assimilation’

‘one Buddhist deity, Dakini … who is both protective and destructive, who sometimes cherishes human hearts and sometimes eats them, came to .. co-exist with the Shinto Inari.

‘Only when it was confronted with a religion which refused all such negotiation – Christianity – did the Japanese spirit harden’

John Gray, philosopher: ‘Religions seem substantial and enduring only because they are always invisibly changing’

Change Your Life

‘the central purpose of many religious images, They are designed to move, fascinate, or unsettle us to the point where we will want to change our life.’

Reproaches, [are] part of the liturgy used in Catholic churches on good Firday,, in which God rebukes his people for continually failing to respond to his loving guidance’

‘the extraordinary centrality in Western Christianity of a single highly charged image: Christ .. on the Cross and of the idea that we, sinful humanity, are responsible for his anguish’

‘Bridget of Sweden was one of a number of mystics of this era [13th/14th c] .. Because she was a courtier and a mother, who had played an active part in the world, her appeal went far beyond those living in religious houses’

‘Medieval churches were jam packed with images … crucially, this is about guilt that this forgiven , and that is very different from just making people feel bad about themselves’

‘the life-changing image is a very loose canon … Protestant reformers were profoundly hostile to them … they believed that the only reliable way of communicating the truths of religion was by the word: the image was a danger to true faith and best destroyed’

Rejecting the Image, Revering the Word

‘During the 16th and 17th centuries … all across Northern Europe, paintings, stained glass and statues were destroyed’

On Judaism: ‘a religion that values words over images’

The Prophet Muhammad is recorded as saying that ‘Good writing makes the truth stand out’. This is why over time, calligraphy became by far the most important means of visual expression in Islam’

Focus on the word in both faiths [Judaism and Islam] necessarily encouraged learning and literacy.. Literacy among Jewish women developed comparatively early. Children, particularly boys were also taught to read at a very early age .. even today an astonishing number of people can recite the entire Quar’an by heart’

The Blessings of Many Gods

‘One fo the world’s great polytheistic societies: Rome. As the empire grew, Roman gods were exported to its new provinces and temples built for them .. But these were not jealous gods, and this was in no sense a missionary campaign to convert the infeidel. Thee gods of the defeated regions .. continued to be honoured and worshipped locally… the adpoting and co-opting of gods .. as Rome began to expand its territory.

‘If you honour other people’s gods, you acknowledge them, and the people who worship them, as a legitimate part of your community. Thye and their gods become less strange: in the process, you and they both change. … in 173 BCE a decree of the Senate commented, iidem ubique di immortales: ‘the immortal gods are the same everywhere”

‘Living with many gods allowed the Romans to absorb an astounding range of new peoples from Egypt to Norfolk, into a highly successful state … ; and it offered Mespotamians a world view in which natural disaster – not infrequent in a region of earthquakes and floods. -was not he fault of those who suffered it.’

Spirits Of Place

‘Elves, or sprites, gnomes, goblins, or fairies … playful, tricky, dangerous, they are usually .. just out of sight.. and a constant near presence in English folklore and literature.. they were everywhere in rural Europe, from Ireland to Siberia – survivals of ancient beliefs about landscapes thought to be animated and inhabited’

‘For centuries they co-existed edgily with official Christianity … They did not move with us to the cities in the nineteenth century. and for most Europeans these flickering traces of much older beliefs today sit, divertingly, somewhere between superstition , whimsy and Middle Earth’

In Thailand ‘Spirit houses.. are built to appease malevolent spirits or to encourage a protective guardian .. in spite of modern Thailand’s rapid urbanisation, spirit houses like this are still very common, you find them in airports, shopping centres and schools’

‘This is an area of belief and behaviour for which we often in English do not have the right words. Our language and our thoughts have been so shaped by Christianity and the classical world that we struggle to find a vocabulary to discuss .. beings that are very definitely neither gods nor demons. Almost all the words available to us .. have belittling connotiations of childish fantasy, missionary disparagement or spiritualist trickery’

‘In the languages of the north Vanuatu.. you cannot speak without doing so in relation to the landscape. So you don;t say: ‘This glass is in front of this cup’ Rather, you say: ‘This glass is on the sea-side of this cup’ or ‘further from the sea than this cup’, because all your sense of position is oriented to where the sea is.. Your vey way of speaking is initmately embedded in the landscape’

‘to walk through this kind of landscape is to walk through an inherited web of shared stories … you have both your own experiences in it and also those from the stories of your people that have been passed down to you .. the landscape is built up of the history of your own life and also the lives of the people who were in that landscape before you’

If God Be with Us

‘the new self-image of Elizabethan England in the 1590s .. Protestant, bravely fighting against the might of Catholic Spain’

‘remarkable things happen when you live with a god who is not your neighbour’s – especially if the god of a nation state is also the god of battles’

The Battle of Adwa in Ethiopia against the Italians. ‘An African country, under African leadership, had utterly vanquished a European army.. at Adwa in 1896 Ethopia had shown .. that Europeans did not always win .. ‘

‘Ethiopia had been a Christian state .. for well over 1500 years .. by about 330, only slightly later than the Roman Empire, Christianity had become the state religion .. thanks to Ethiopia’s geographical remoteness, it developed there independently of the imperial churches of Rome and Constantinople’

‘In 1935, Ethiopia was once again attacked by Italaian forces – this time the fascist regime of Mussolini. It was conquered and brutally occupied .. Haile Selassie (the emperor of Ethiopia) had to flee.. Haile Selassie’s name before he became emperor had been .. Ras Tafari , or Prince Tafari .. Rastafari became very important as far away as Jamaica .. where many were reaching for an alternative, non-colonial Christian identity’

‘His Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie .. is a living example of kingship that is older than anything in Europe .. there was one place in Africa that had never been colonised or totally dominated by Europeans’

‘In this case, a church which had developed as an exclusively Ethiopian national institution, shaped by and for local circumstances and defining local and national identity, has given people with completely different histories, and living in a different continent, a tradition and a figure which they have made their own’

Tolerating and Not Tolerating

‘Mumabi, the cosmopolitan commerical capital of modern India .. a multilingual, multi-racial and multi-faith metropolis .. Christians and Hindus, Parsis and Jews, Muslims and Jains, all living cheek by jowl in what has been, for most of that period harmonious co-existence’

‘In India, the world’s major faiths are practised side by side in greater numbers than anywhere else in the world .. a civic faith in a pluralist society’

‘Secularism in the Indian form means not ‘no religion in government matters;, but ‘no favouritism of any religion over any other’

‘this illustration of a Hindu tale was made not, for a Hindu patron, but for the Muslim emperor Akbar, a rough contemporary of Elizabeth I … Akbar’s political priority was to foster an informed religious pluralism’

‘The road to altercation was clsoed. Sunnis and Shias met in one mosque, and Christians and Jews in one church, and observed their form of worship’

‘the emperor operated out of a ‘conviction in his heat that there were sensible men in all religions.. If some true knowledge was everywhere to be found, why should truth be confined to one religion?”

‘the (very European) notion that communities of faith might be reflected in political groupings .. even territorial guarantees’

‘India’s ideals of respectful co-existence, a beacon of enlightened thinking that long predates any European Enlightenment, are not being upheld’

‘the creation of the modern nation state on the European model. .. a land or a territory belongs to a culture or a language or a religion, and therefore one group has the priority in defining what gets built where’

The Mandate of Heaven

‘The archbishop of Canterbury pours holy oil over Elizabeth II during her coronation. Like the biblical kings of Israel, but unique now among European monarchs, she is the Anointed of the Lord’

‘To be a leader in the eyes of a people, it has in most societies, and for most of history, been necessary to be their leader in the eyes of God. Divine endorsement has usually been central to the idea of monarchy’

In Benin in the 16th Century, the ruler, ‘Oba would never eat in public, because his subjects believed him to be a god, and so he could survive without food. It was crucial to his authority to maintain that belief’

In Chinese Zhou dynasty, who came to power around 1050 BCE .. ‘ the right to govern can be removed … that heaven’s grace cannot be taken for granted .. there were scholars at the imperial court whose job it was to know the will of the people – and through them the will of heaven. If enough people expressed sufficient discontent over a lengthy period of time, the scholars might suggest that the ruler’s time was up’

‘There is No God’

‘In 1793 .. the French nation celebrated the first Fête de la Raison, the Festival of Reason .. a tribute to the great philosophes – Voltarie, Diderot, Rousseau and their colleagues, the secular saints of the French Revolution – who over the previous fifty years had argued for political freedoms , and had attacked and ruthlessly satirized the dogmas and political privileges of the Catholic church .. In the ancien régime the fusion of church and state had run very deep’

’20 Brumaire, year Two, Reason and the reovilution had abolished not just God – they had reordered time. .. The rest of Europe was appalled’

‘In due course, the old complex systems of distances, weights adn measures, many of which varied from one city to another were all abolished’

‘A clock .. created by Abraham Louis Breguet, in 1795 .. the mechanism sits, entirely visible, inside a glass box.. there is no decoration .. this an object designed to inspire trust .. it insists that there is nothin myserious or miraculous about the world we inhabit, that all aspects of it are clear and regular, measurable and visible’

‘The clock also shows the new, rational and politically correct names of the months of the Revolutionary calendar. All now were the same length – thirty days – divided not into four weeks, but into three décadis, each of ten numbered days (there were a further five special days at the turn of the year. The months were named in almost-rhyming triads after the natural cycle of agriculture and the seasons: ‘Vendémiaire -‘wine-making” Brumaire – ‘misty’, Frimaire – ‘frosty’.

‘Within a few years of Napoleon’s coming to power, most of the the symbols of the Triumph of Reason had disappeared’

‘the need for a notion of existence – for meaning – beyond the individual and the individual life’

‘On both France and Russia, The power of the absolute monarchs was both given and restrained by God .. There was an agreed vocabulary of moral resistance. When God was abolished, there was no longer even an abstract restraint on state power, and in Russia and in France, murder followed in the name of reason.’

Living With Each Other

‘these are people who would ove to experience a depth and richness of life, but cannot .. embody the T.S.Eliot line ‘We had the experience and missed the meaning”

Kumbh Mela – an auspicious Hindu festival that takes place every 12 years. ‘In 2013 it is estimated that an astonishing 120 million people took part in Kumbh Mela over the 2 month period ‘

‘the moral danger .. ‘the globalization of indifference’ .. as the religious participant has given way to the ever more atomized consumer’

‘living properly with other people, living with each other, is the nearest we can get to heaven’