Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples

Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples

One of the central facts of human existence is that every society shares a set of beliefs and assumptions - a faith, an ideology, a religion - that goes far beyond the life of the individual. These beliefs are an essential part of a shared identity. They have a unique power to define - and to divide - us, and are a driving force in the politics of much of the world today....

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Title:Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples
Author:Neil MacGregor
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Edition Language:English

Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples Reviews

  • Bettie☯

    1/30: The Beginnings of Belief: The programme visits the cave in southern Germany where fragments of ivory were discovered in 1939. These fragments were gradually pieced together by archaeologists decades later to re-assemble the figure. Some smoothing on the torso suggests that the Lion Man was passed from person to person in the cave.

    2/30: Fire and State: Many societies have seen the mesmerizing phenomenon of fire as a symbol of the divine. Neil MacGrego

    1/30: The Beginnings of Belief: The programme visits the cave in southern Germany where fragments of ivory were discovered in 1939. These fragments were gradually pieced together by archaeologists decades later to re-assemble the figure. Some smoothing on the torso suggests that the Lion Man was passed from person to person in the cave.

    2/30: Fire and State: Many societies have seen the mesmerizing phenomenon of fire as a symbol of the divine. Neil MacGregor focuses on sacred fire which comes to represent the state itself: the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and 'la Flamme de la Nation', the Flame of the Nation, constantly burning beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

    3/30: Water of Life and Death: In Islam, Christianity and Judaism, water is an essential part of religious practice. But for no faith does water - and one particular kind of water - play such a significant role as for Hindus. To bathe in the river Ganges is not just to prepare to meet the divine, but already to be embraced by it. The river Ganges is the goddess Ganga, and the waters of this river, which govern life and death, have not only determined many aspects of Hinduism, but in considerable measure shaped the identity of the modern state of India.

    4/30: Here Comes the Sun: Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world, and focuses on light. He experiences the sunrise whilst inside the monumental stone passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, a structure older than Stonehenge or the pyramids in Egypt. Here, on the winter solstice, thanks to the design of the tomb, a bright, narrow beam of sunlight reaches deep inside the structure. He also considers the story of Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess, whose decision to hide herself in a cave plunged the world into darkness, and reflects on how - centuries later - the image of rising sun became closely linked with Japanese national identity. (I can recommend Newgrange)

    5/30: Dependence or Dominion?: NM focuses on the natural world and seasonal change: the Yupik people of Alaska depend on the seal, and ancient Egyptians looked to the god Osiris to bring fertility to their arid land. Both societies, in radically different climates, devised practices that acknowledged the fact of their dependence on the natural world - and engaged everybody with the responsibility of co-operating with it.

    6/30: Living with the dead: In the British Museum, NM focuses on mummy bundles from Peru, skeletons wrapped in textiles made of llama wool or cotton. For the living, these were ancestors with great wisdom and knowledge of the world, who could be called upon to help key decision-makers. He also examines two Chinese 'ancestor portraits', and discovers how and why they were venerated by surviving family members.

    7/30: Mother and Child: He focuses on how societies and communities seek to protect the newly-born and their mothers, including the role of St Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of childbirth, and the use of protective omamori in Japan.

    8/30: Becoming an Adult: He focuses on rites of passage, marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, including a lock of bound hair, from the collections of the British Museum, which reveals an important ritual for teenage boys on the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

    9/10 Lines of Communication: He focuses on prayer, reflecting on how this most highly individualized of activities is also a profoundly communal act, with objects including a 16th century ivory and gold qibla, used to find the direction of Mecca - a function now offered by smartphone apps.

    10/30: The Power of Song: He focuses on a Kirchenpelz or 'church fur' - a sheepskin coat made in the late 19th century in Transylvania, now part of Romania, for the German-speaking Saxon community there. This was not just 'Sunday Best': to wear this coat was to proclaim in public your allegiance to the Lutheran Church, and your identity as a Transylvanian Saxon.

    11/30: The House of God: Stone tablets in the British Museum detail how a temple was designed and formed in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago - the first sacred space for which we have a written record. It was a god's home, complete with private areas crafted to meet his every need: kitchens and dining rooms, family rooms and spaces for guests.

    12/30: Gifts to the Gods:High in the Andes in Colombia, the indigenous Muisca population consigned highly-wrought gold figurines to the waters of Lake Guatavita. Records of the treasures stored in the Parthenon, Athens, dating from around 400BC, reveal numerous gifts for the goddess Athena - gifts with a double role. The Parthenon was also a kind of central bank, capable of operating as a lender of last resort, creating an intimate connection between the temple of a goddess and the finance of the state.

    13/30: Holy Killing: Displayed in the British Museum is a finely-crafted Aztec knife, dating from around 1500, with a richly-decorated handle. It had a brutal purpose - human sacrifice. In ancient Greece, animal sacrifice was a vital ritual for connection with the deities: the grounds of a Greek temple were in part a sacred public slaughter-house.

    14/30: To Be A Pilgrim: the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time, and focuses on pilgrimage, and its role in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

    15/30: Festivals: their role in shaping a communal identity.

    16/30: The Protectoresses: In Mexico, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe came not from the hand of an artist, but was directly given from heaven - according to its history. Our Lady of Guadalupe is now the most powerful of presiding images, and the Basilica of Guadalupe near Mexico City is said to be the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. The sanctuary of the goddess Artemis in the great trading city of Ephesus, now in western Turkey, was by far the most celebrated temple of the antique Mediterranean, and the cult of Artemis spread eastwards towards the Black Sea, and westwards towards Spain. Artemis was thought to protect the vulnerable at their moments of greatest personal danger.

    17/30: Replicating the Divine: For the painter of a Russian religious icon, the paramount purpose is the continuation of a tradition, in which the painter seeks only to take his proper place, creating an image which opens a gateway to the divine. The Hindu goddess Durga is at the centre of the popular annual festival of Durga Puja, where communities create images of the goddess in everyday materials - clay, wood, straw and oil paint - which then are endowed with a transcendental character.

    18/30: The Making of Meaning: Our understanding of the rock art created by the San people of southern Africa over many centuries is helped by written accounts, so that what first appears to be an image of a hunting expedition becomes a record of a spiritual journey into another realm of experience. "For many years it was a matter of gaze and guess," says David Lewis Williams, an authority on rock art: "You gaze at it, and if you gaze long enough, your guess will take you close to what it's all about - and I'm afraid that's not the case, but we don't have to gaze and guess any more."

    In the British Museum, a small 19th century Japanese shrine shows the spirits coming to visit a long-settled agricultural society. The curved doors of a small wooden box open to reveal, inside, a shimmering world of carved gilded wood, and a scene to which Japanese viewers would bring different interpretations.

    19/30: Change Your Life: A small coloured wood-cut, created in the Netherlands around 1500, offers a particularly gruesome rendering of Christ's crucifixion. Christ is pictured with blood pouring from his torso, his head, his legs and his outstretched arms. These are not realistically arranged droplets; instead we see a flurry of vertical red strokes, tightly packed together and evenly spaced. Neil MacGregor reflects on the purpose of this image.

    He also considers a serene figure of the Buddha, a halo behind his head, already in his enlightened state.

    20/30: Rejecting the Image: A striking cobalt blue mosque lamp, from around 1570, shows an Islamic way of doing honour to the word: calligraphy.

    In Jewish religious ceremonies a yad - a small silver rod with a little hand and a pointing index finger - is used to follow the text during readings from the Torah, to avoid any damage to the delicate parchment.

    21/30: Living with Many Gods: n the mid-1840s, a Roman earthenware jar was dug from the earth near Felmingham Hall in Norfolk. Inside, excavators found several belief systems, all mixed up together - for buried in the pot was a jumble of gods, deities of different kinds and origins, that tell us what it meant for people in Roman Britain around the year 250 to be living with many gods.

    The great ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh includes a narrative with striking similarities to - but important differences from - the story of Noah in the Bible. Here a council of gods is persuaded to unleash a great flood to wipe out humankind.

    22/30: Living with One God: Using objects from both ancient Babylon and ancient Egypt, Neil examines how one god could become central to worship in these societies.

    23/30: The Other Side of the Leaf: the expression of shared beliefs with a focus on societies who believe that they share the landscape with co-inhabitants who are not visible but are present. Such belief systems can be found in places such as the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

    It is difficult, Neil MacGregor suggests, to express this relationship with the landscape in the English language. Words such as spirits, gods or beings do not adequately convey the nature of the co-inhabitants - and although these co-inhabitants cannot always be seen, they are always there, on the other side of the leaf.

    The four Landvættir of Iceland

    24/30: Global Gods, Local Needs: gods can reach new communities, and how those communities can then adapt and change the faiths.

    25/30: Gods Living Together: the expression of shared beliefs with a focus on how faiths co-exist in India.

    26/30: Ruling With The Gods: Queens and kings may be priests of the gods, or their representatives. They may be incarnations - or even gods themselves. Or the relationship may be so close that to divide spiritual from temporal power at all would simply make no sense.

    27/30: Living With No Gods: Neil examines a revolutionary clock, from around 1795, created in the wake of the French Revolution, and designed to mark a new way of living: in an age of reason, there would no longer be royalism or religion in France.

    A poster from the Soviet Union celebrates the apparent triumph of scientific progress: the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin floats in space, looks out and proclaims 'There is no God!'. It seems that the heavens are empty of divine beings, but full, instead, of starry promise.

    28/30: Turning The Screw: A plain board, to be found on a 17th-century Japanese roadside, offers generous rewards to anyone who informs on Christians. At almost exactly the same time a print from France depicts the officially sanctioned destruction of a Huguenot Church just a few miles east of Paris.

    29/30: The Search For A State: An over-printed coin from 2nd century Jerusalem tells of the failed attempt of Shimon bar Kokhba to lay claim to a state for the Jews, free from Roman rule - while a white cotton flag, framed in pale blue, flew over Sudan after it had been taken by Mahdist forces and before the Islamic state collapsed in the mid 1890s.

    30/30: Living With Each Other: He began with the Lion Man, an object created 40 000 years ago, and now reflects on the present, on the future and on hope.

    5* Living With The Gods

    5* A History of the World in 100 Objects

    3.5* Germany: Memories of a Nation

    4* Shakespeare's Restless World

  • Sid Nuncius

    This is another excellent book from Neil MacGregor. I have no expertise in this area, but as a lay reader I found it a thoughtful, erudite and immensely illuminating book.

    MacGregor takes a similar approach to that in his previous outstanding books, A History Of The World in 100 Objects and Shakespeare’s Restless World, in that he uses artefacts fascinatingly to illustrate his subject, basing each brief chapter around a subject which has has religious significance like sacrifice, water and so on.

    This is another excellent book from Neil MacGregor. I have no expertise in this area, but as a lay reader I found it a thoughtful, erudite and immensely illuminating book.

    MacGregor takes a similar approach to that in his previous outstanding books, A History Of The World in 100 Objects and Shakespeare’s Restless World, in that he uses artefacts fascinatingly to illustrate his subject, basing each brief chapter around a subject which has has religious significance like sacrifice, water and so on. Thus, this isn’t a conventional history of religion at all, but a very insightful look at the way in which worship in its many diverse forms has played a part in human life from the earliest objects we know of to the present day. As always, MacGregor makes shrewd, penetrating and very humane points, leaving us with much to think about. It’s a great book to read a chapter or two at a time, I think, and then to come back to.

    The book is beautifully illustrated and MacGregor’s unfussy, readable style is a pleasure. I can recommend this very warmly.

  • carelessdestiny

    Marvelous reading for these long dark evenings. Beautiful words elegantly strung together in sentences surrounding images of prescient meaning. I wish they hadn't dragged Grayson Perry into it though, he clearly doesn't know what he's talking about.

  • Tamara Agha-Jaffar

    Neil MacGregor’s

    explores objects, rituals, and places in terms of what they reveal about faith and spirituality. Beginning with the 40,000-year- old Lion Man of Ulm, MacGregor takes us on a penetrating and insightful journey that spans centuries, crosses all corners of the globe, and interrogates the religious traditions of the past and present with compassion and respect.

    MacGregor was director of the British Museum from 2002-2015. He generously illu

    Neil MacGregor’s

    explores objects, rituals, and places in terms of what they reveal about faith and spirituality. Beginning with the 40,000-year- old Lion Man of Ulm, MacGregor takes us on a penetrating and insightful journey that spans centuries, crosses all corners of the globe, and interrogates the religious traditions of the past and present with compassion and respect.

    MacGregor was director of the British Museum from 2002-2015. He generously illustrates his text with beautiful color photographs taken primarily from exhibits in the British Museum. He deconstructs each exhibit, situating it in context, and explaining its function in ritual and/or as an object of faith with the goal of elucidating how we worship.

    In addition to explaining the role of objects, natural phenomena, and rituals, MacGregor takes us to locations which harbor religious significance—sacred spaces pregnant with mystery which presumably function(ed) as gateways to the supernatural realm. These sites include pre-historic caves with their cryptic drawings; the underground tomb In Ireland’s Newgrange; the excavation site at Gobekli Tepe in south-east Turkey; Girsu in Iraq; Lake Guatavita in the Columbian Andes; cathedrals, synagogues, temples, and mosques in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. MacGregor also explores the role of ceremonies, prayers, festivals, and songs as communal activities that bind a people together, providing them with a cohesive identity.

    MacGregor’s persona is knowledgeable, curious, non-judgmental, non-dogmatic, tolerant, immensely humane, compassionate, sensitive, and respectful of the various traditions and cultures. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this text is the way MacGregor takes an object, ritual, or ceremony and unveils its similarities with the religious activities and paraphernalia of cultures that are worlds apart and seemingly very diverse. Through these explorations, he is able to draw connections from the past to the present, from one culture to the next. It is a fascinating and wholistic enterprise which demonstrates over and over again that in spite of the ethnic, regional, racial, and religious differences that cause so much violent conflict all over the world, we all emerged from the same stock, share the same anxieties, hopes, and goals. And even though we may pursue different paths to get us there, the “there” we want to get to is fundamentally the same today as it has always been.

    This penetrating text exploring religious objects, sacred spaces, ceremonies, and rituals to remind us we have more in common with each other than we have differences is more essential and relevant today than it has ever been.

    Highly recommended. A pleasure to read with color photos to feast the eyes.

  • Fussnik

    Neil MacGregor is the writer one has longed for: a master of the story of mankind, history told in small bites and great photos, language like music, and a soaring sense of compassion.

    The book begins with a 40,000 year old Lion Man sculpture, found in a cave near the Danube...

    and ends with a small cross, made by a carpenter on Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island, which has become the goal for tens of thousands of migrants from Africa, desperate to reach a Europe which does not want to receive t

    Neil MacGregor is the writer one has longed for: a master of the story of mankind, history told in small bites and great photos, language like music, and a soaring sense of compassion.

    The book begins with a 40,000 year old Lion Man sculpture, found in a cave near the Danube...

    and ends with a small cross, made by a carpenter on Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island, which has become the goal for tens of thousands of migrants from Africa, desperate to reach a Europe which does not want to receive them. It is made of two pieces of wood washed up from a destroyed refugee boat. "Thousands have drowned in small, overloaded boats that sank during the short sea crossing. The carpenter, wanting to give something to the migrants as a token of welcome and compassion, began fashioning crosses like this one from the wreckage of migrant boats that had been washed ashore, from wood that, as he said, smelt of salt, sea and suffering....

    In 2015 the carpenter gave the cross to the British Museum. It is an object which in its simplicity and in the directness of its message humbles even the great museum that house it."

  • Maria

    Very interesting overview of belief systems all over the world. The photos perfectly illustrate the text and add to the reading pleasure.

  • Roman Clodia

    Like MacGregor’s other books this is both immensely readable and a testament to his own wide curiosity, knowledge and sense of humanity in its broadest sense. I hesitated before reading this having no religious sensibility at all and while its focus did make it slightly less absorbing for me personally than either his

    or

    , this approaches faith and religion not via dogma or creed but via objects, rituals and places. It is thus les

    Like MacGregor’s other books this is both immensely readable and a testament to his own wide curiosity, knowledge and sense of humanity in its broadest sense. I hesitated before reading this having no religious sensibility at all and while its focus did make it slightly less absorbing for me personally than either his

    or

    , this approaches faith and religion not via dogma or creed but via objects, rituals and places. It is thus less tied to British Museum exhibits than the previous books, and overall concerned with how the appurtenances of religious faith function in terms of group identity and community. MacGregor acknowledges freely that this sense of identity can be the cause of violent conflict or operate as the basis of a more positive sense of a community of humanity.

    Each short chapter focuses on a specific topic such as sacrifice, water, the sun, religious festivals, icons and images, pilgrimage, polytheism, atheism and so on, and within the chapter MacGregor ranges freely geographically and in terms of thought, bringing in expert opinion where necessary. It’s this diffuse approach which makes this book such a pleasure: there is so much to learn, so many interesting connections made between disparate cultures and times – from Siberia to Plymouth, from human sacrifice in the Aztec empire to the creation of Christmas in puritan Massachusetts, from sun worship in prehistoric caves to seal worship in Iceland, from the iconic moment when Barack Obama started singing ‘Amazing Grace’ to crosses made from capsized refugee boats on the shores of Sicily. The text is lavishly illustrated with colour photos – definitely a book that is as pleasurable as a material object as as a text.

    Thanks to Penguin/Allen Lane for an ARC via NetGalley

  • Fraser

    Very enjoyable and informative in sections. Not as good as his previous book but still utilising similar ground - artefacts from the British Museum collection.

    Recommended

  • Janice

    OMG, a new book coming out soon?! I have to buy it!!! 😍😍😍 have been waiting for ages

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