Of otherworldly realms and the humans who imagine them

Living with Gods at the British Museum and Imagining the Divine at the Ashmolean Musem.

– reflections on a visit.

Recently I visited two interesting exhibitions dealing with the more material dimensions of religion, or maybe faith, which together made for an educational venture into a realm of the human condition which is both, fascinating as well as hard to grasp, especially as it is not always easily separated from the follies (and worse things) that humans often commit in its name. And yet there is a lot there to offer even to the nonbeliever: art, stories, philosophy, community… even, I believe, insights into what makes us human.
I should probably mention at this point that I am not a very religious person myself. (More elaborations on that maybe in a future post!) So you won’t be reading an exhaustive testimonial to faith, or ongoing praise for a single deity in what follows.
I do, however, find religions a rather interesting subject matter, because some form of supernatural thinking, ideas, stories or symbolisms that we consider as religious, as magical or as myth has been a part of our species, our cultures for a – historical, if not evolutionary – long period of time. And it has, without doubt, immensely influenced the cultural, political, social, etc., development of humankind.

When thinking of religion we tend to think of Scripture, in other words text – oral traditions at first, before the narratives became fixed in written words and later expanded on in commentary, secondary texts etc. And so we’re quick to identify it mainly with doctrine, the teachings, with what often is called the tenets of the faith.
But this is but one dimension of the phenomenon and seeing the other dimensions simply as extensions of it may be distorting the picture. Isn’t it far more likely that these texts are the result of a process that always already built on the social dimension, the coming together in ritual and the imaginary dimension – as in image-creating: that which not only produced ideas of otherworldly beings, but also strove to give them a visual appearance through art – which gave us images, statues, ornaments, etc., and so, on the one hand served to illustrate texts, on the other certainly fed back into these myths and texts again, contributing to the refinement of these major strands of the grand narrative(s).
And, what is more, while we find these things often labelled as superstitions by the authoritative religious texts, we mustn’t forget about the many ways humans put faith into talismans, into divine protection through minor deities, saints, spirits of ancestors, etc.
All these elements combined show the rich tapestry of meaningful objects, stories and actions which, diachronously as well as synchronously form the sphere of faith and religion.

 

Living with Gods at the British Museum takes an extensive ethnographical look at human beliefs, their objects, rituals and histories.
Greeting the visitor is the Lion Man, a 40.000 year old sculpture combining the upper body of a lion with the lower body of a human. Carved in over 400 hours from mammoth tusk, it is the oldest know artefact depicting a being that doesn’t exist in nature. It gives testament to how long ago our ancestors not only had developed myths that gave birth to creatures like this, which became realized in physical form, but also the importance that had been given to objects like this, considering how much effort went into producing it.
It is quite fascinating to stand next to an object like this and trying to fathom the amount of time that separates one from its original creators, while at the same time trying to get a glimpse of the mindset of those people who – biologically practically the same –  spiritually already had so much in common with modern man, and yet lived, both physically and mentally, in a world quite different from where we are now. And the question arises, whether it was the human capability for this form of creativity that brought about the divine realms, whether the insight into the otherworldly was the spark for creativity or whether both of these went hand in hand? And, whichever the case may be, just how great the influence of these traits on our cultural evolution has been. What would a world look like, where mankind had evolved without the knowledge of expanded consciousness, without ideas about the otherworldly realms, without myth or the penchant for inventing supernatural beings. (Or, if you chose to believe otherwise: if not inventing them, coming into contact with them and making them comprehensible to human thoughts, giving them forms in which to worship them…)
Zoroastrian Tiles. Source: British Museum Blog.
Fair Use
Fire and light, water, wind and earth, all have their places in worship and belief, sacred places and spaces, ceremonial garbs and objects. The number of exhibits is too extensive to name all of them, while the quality of the chosen objects and their presentation makes Living with Gods a tremendous experience. Shamanic drums and talismans introduce us to more primitive beliefs, and yet it is these sort of objects that serve to take the faith with you as a vademecum in everyday life, that serve to protect newborns, the home, etc., but that also find their way into more commercialised ventures such as mementos sold at places of pilgrimage or, an object of luxury, an exquisitely crafted rosary made by a wellknown maker of luxury jewellery.
Other items of splendour serve the social dimension, are the central focus of worship at festivals, such as the Indian Juggernauts, presented in the exhibition in the form of an intricately made scale model.
There is always an aspect of economics to faith, not only in the way that individuals or companies profit from the sales of paraphernalia, or more dubious money making schemes preying on people’s wish for meaning or safety in a hostile world, but also in the way communal effort in worship and investment into places and objects of worship and ceremony acts as social glue for the community. And, as a return of investment, we see faith growing stronger, bonds being tightened and a feeling of belonging in the individual that works to relieve stress, fear or depression. – There is an accompanying radio program from BBC Radio 4. (Registration required)

 

Imagining the Divine, at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, focuses on the representation of otherworldly ideas in art. With a focus on today’s 5 major world religions, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam, it examines the history and developments of the images and symbols we’ve come to associate with these faiths, how the were formed through varieties of, often mutual, influences and when, approximately, they were established. With an eclectic selection of objects the curators give some fascinating – and sometimes surprising – insight into the imagery we have become to regard as, pardon the pun, iconic as the result of a far more complex history than may at first be obvious.
Hand from a Buddha Statue. Source: Ashmolean Museum. Fair use.
Whether someone believes in Jesus as a historical figure, as son of god, both or neither, we’ve come to associate him with the image of a bearded man. Or the Buddha as seated in meditation with his hair in a bun. In comparison, we can encounter Krishna in the guise of one or more of his 10 avatars, often surrounded by further deities from the vast tradition which gets subsumed under the name of Hinduism. Whereas Judaism tends to hint at the divine presence via more abstract symbolism and Islam, generally, shying away from all depiction, developed the tradition of calligraphy devoted to creating valuable Korans. And beyond their direct religious use and meaning, these symbols and tropes have permeated our grand narratives.

 

Very well curated by the Empires of Faith project, Imagining the Divine does a great job illustrating how these imageries and iconographies developed through the first Millennium AD, giving fascinating insight to how diverse cultural influences become merged into new, powerful symbolisms. Watch a ~15 Minutes long video with interviews about the exhibition here.
Through all this it paints an image of how amazingly rich the cultural tapestry of Europe and Asia was during late antiquity and how much of it survived in religious art. And how, as living traditions, it still connects us to our ancestors through forms that are still being used, symbolism and semiotics that are, in many cases, still very much actively understood – even if their meanings have undergone change through the centuries and are to this day very much evolving.
Standing side by side with the, equally fascinating and influential, rediscovery and hence re-reading of classic texts and art the Renaissance brought along, they are – or can be – to post-enlightenment humans, a source of understanding of our own presence as the result of pasts that looked back upon pasts…

 

Together, but certainly also each by their own, these exhibitions make for a fascinating exploration of how humans and societies, through the centuries, have been living with the supernatural as fundamental part of their existence. And how, despite their different forms and traditions, religions and faiths share some basic principles and serve similar purposes.

 

Voltaire said: “If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.” I do not want to take it on me to deny the faithful their belief or declare it wrong here, but personally I believe that if there is an entity or a form of being behind what we refer to with words like the “Divine” or “God”, that this would probably be so far from anything the human intellect can even remotely comprehend. And hence that all the gods we tend to know, are human creations, created in our image. The question doesn’t always have to revolve around proving or disproving. Sometimes, instead, it may be about living and letting live with the divine we imagine.
Living with Gods can currently be seen at the British Museum, London finishing 8th of April 2018
Imagining the Divine can be seen until 18th of February 2018 at The Ashmolean Museum Oxford

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