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20190331 – Living with the Gods



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The main idea of this book is to trace religious and other ideological believes from the very beginning, by analyzing the first known relevant artifact and then information from many diverse sources that demonstrate and explain different patterns of ideologies. It is also to demonstrate how these ideologies unite groups of people, how the process of ideological interaction occurs, how theatrics and images are used in promoting these religions and ideologies, advantages and disadvantages of different religious structures: one or many gods. The key point however is the look at power distribution between religion and secular authorities formal and informal.


Introduction: Believing and Belonging

Here author defines this book not as a history of religion, but as research on the role of shared believes either religious or ideological in society and how it shapes individual’s attitude to society, state, and morals. Author briefly looks at different systems of believes starting with American motto on the money: “In God we trust” and then at organized religions of the world that experiences kind of religious revival in multiple places, especially Hindu and Muslim combined with reaction of dominant secular believers in response. Author also stated that he believes that religion addresses many of the same questions as politics, providing guidance to any specific group of people to “Who are we?” question.

Part One: Our Place in the Pattern

Chapter 1: The Beginnings of Belief

This chapter starts with discussion of the oldest known statute – Lion man, dated to around 40,000 years ago. It was evaluated that this small statute required some 400 hours of work and therefore had to be highly valuable. It must have some very important ritual value for people who crated it. In addition, microscopic analysis identified that mouth and only mouth of the statute was contacted by organic material, probably blood. This is quite striking evidence of development of some kind of material representation of powerful forces that influence human environment, but are beyond human control. Another peace of evidence is that no everyday objects were found in the same place, but a lot in places nearby, seemingly demonstrating that Lion man was part of some important ritual not really mixable with everyday life. Author’s conclusion is that even at this early point Homo sapience is also Homo religious, using his imagination to try appease unknown.

Chapter 2: Fire and State

Here author moves to more recent times discussing link of fire to gods from Shiva to Jewish Yahweh, to Roman goddess of fire Vesta and her virgin servants. Somehow this leads to female power of English and French queens and their cultural connection to Vestal Virgins demonstrated in portraits. Then author brings in Zoroastrians and their attitudes to fire, which was quite different from Roman attitude. Romans saw it as coming from one source, since Vestals and maintaining this permanent source. Zoroastrians saw it as coming from everywhere and mixing in one place, creating unifying symbol of community. Amazingly, centuries after Islamic conquest when small group of remaining Zoroastrians called Parsis moved to India, bringing with them ashes of their sacred fire, they managed for centuries keep this ritual fire running. It believed that this flame was continued unextinguished since year 721.  Then author traces this attitude to fire to contemporary permanent fires at Tombs of Unknown soldiers and similar places.

Chapter 3: Water of Life and Death

This is about religious meaning of water. It starts with baptismal font in Salisbury Cathedral today and then moves to high significance of water in Hindu religion, especially Ganges water. Author also discusses baptism, where he also uses Indian example.

Chapter 4: The Return of the Light

This is about not just light, sunbeam and different ancient structures where it plays important role, defining specific moment of time. As example author discusses Newgrange that was built some 5000 years ago. After that he moves to discussing Japanese use of sunlight and cultural fusion of “light and life, of the nation, the winter solstice sun and the emperor.

Chapter 5: Harvest and Homage

Here author moves to religious meaning of animals. He starts with bible, Noah’s story and notion that god gave humans dominion over animals. Then he moves to Alaska and discusses meaning of anorak, made from animals and rituals that designed to establish peace with spirits of these animals that humans used for their needs. It goes through all human cultures and author discusses such process in ancient Egypt.

Part Two: Believing Together

Chapter 6: Living with the Dead

The next stop is rituals of burial, mourning, and various forms of body disposal in such way that newly empowered spirit of deceased would stay happy and cooperative, rather than pissed off and hostile. Author discusses attitudes in medieval England, and then moves to WWI dead and commemorations. He also looks at Peruvian mummies and Chinese tradition of giving gifts to the dead and their contemporary practices.

Chapter 7: Birth and the Body

For discusses of birth author uses St. Margaret who bursts from the back of dragon that swallowed her, which somehow made her protector of women giving birth. Author also brings in an evil counterpart from Hindu – Lamashtu who brings in miscarriage and infant death. The sale of amulets protecting from her is a thriving business. Similar traditions exist in Europe and Japan. Author also discusses hierarchy of bodies that he finds in monotheistic religions who put male body above female.

Chapter 8: A Place in Tradition

Here author discusses how people are born into tradition and, as an example, provides artifact from Jewish community in Germany in 1750: circumcision cloth with record of newborn’s and his father names and some blessing. Author traces life from birth to bar mitzvah when a Jewish boy becomes adult after satisfying traditional requirements.  After that author looks at quite similar and colorful traditions of primitive tribe in Melanesia, in this instance instead of reading and discussing bible they go for haircut.

Chapter 9: Let Us Pray

This chapter moves to one-sided communication with god – prayer. It starts with discussion of Millet’s painting from 1881 that became extremely popular in France. Then author switches to Islam and technical difficulties Muslims experience in trying to find direction to Mecca they need to face during prayers. He also discusses Buddhist rituals. At the end he points out to interesting paradox of public call to private prayers, which is expressed by Church bells or Islamic call to prayer.

Chapter 10: The Power of Song

The last chapter of this part is about songs and music that synchronize people’s mood and put them and semi hypnotic condition. Author discusses use of music in Christian denominations, at the end referring to Obama’s singing of “Amazing grace” at funeral, which was immediately joined by all present, creating very powerful scene.

Part Three: Theatres of Faith

Chapter 11: The House of God

It starts with Gobekli Tepe and continues discussion of religious architecture through the contemporary structures. Author discusses how architecture of sacred spaces instills communality of people and reinforces common believes.

Chapter 12: Gifts to the Gods

This chapter is about typical attitudes to anthropomorphic god: attempts to acquire good will by bringing gifts. It starts with actual Eldorado: lake Guatavita in Andes where Muiska Indians for centuries deposited gold as gift to gods.  Then author moves to ancient Greeks, Parthenon, and their gifts to gods. There is interesting discussion here about separation of regular state finance and sacred finance when gifts to gods became kind of banking fund from which it was allowed to take loans, which them had to be returned.

Chapter 13: Holy Killing

This is about flesh sacrifices to gods. It starts with always charming Aztecs and their murderous rituals with cutting hearts from living humans, and then moves to European traditions of using animals for the similar purposes.

Chapter 14: To Be Pilgrim

This is discussion of another complex set of rituals: pilgrimage to holy places. For a change author starts with relatively recent Canterbury tales describing travel around Europe medieval Christian holy places, then moves to similar Sikh places in India, then 4 great sites for Buddha followers, and the most spectacular and crowded of all – Muslim Hajj.

Chapter 15: Festival Time

Obviously there is no religion without festivals and author uses Sakha in Yakutia to discuss working of this type of ritual. I guess author decided to use this unknown group because it provides a good example of heavy suppression for decades of Soviet Russian rule and eventual resilience of native believes that survived even nearly complete obliteration of culture, religion, and language. The second part of the chapter is an interesting review of very recently created festival, which has some religious flavor, but not very strong and provides very attractive secular way to rejoice – contemporary American Christmas. There is very well documented process of development of this holiday, which was created by lots of individuals pursuing various needs from promoting books and worldviews by Dickens to selling soda drink by Coca-Cola.

Part Four: The Power of Images

In this part author discusses what he calls “community of the image”.

Chapter 16: The Protectoresses

He starts in Mexico with the image of Lady of Guadalupe, which practically became the symbol of Mexico. Then he moves to the ancient world of Europe and discusses image of multi-breasted Artemis / Diana, and completes this chapter with emerging cult of images of Princess Diana.

Chapter 17: The Work of Art in Times of Spiritual Reproduction

The next set of images that author discusses comes from Russia with its Lady of Kazan that was supposed to protect this country, and completes with Indian images of Durga that have very temporary use during Durga Puja festival and discarded when festival ends.

Chapter 18: The Accretion of Meaning

It starts with discussion of nativity paintings where unnatural images of light emanated from body creates combination of real and imaginary amplifying religious story. Then author moves to cave images in different places depicting hunting and other scenes from live somewhat realistic, but somewhat idealistic. Author also looks at Japanese Shinto shrines and their images and completes chapter by discussing contemporary images in South Africa trying to unite diverse people.

Chapter 19: Change Your Life

This starts with poetry of Rilke in which Greek images prompt contemplation about need to change one’s life. Then it goes into the meaning of Christ suffering and gory images of it, discussing different interpretation of where it directs Christians. This follows by discussion of Buddha and his smile. Ironic ending of the chapter is the image of starving child used to elicit donations.

Chapter 20: Rejecting the Image, Revering the Word

This chapter is about another time-venerated tradition – hating and destroying images. Author starts with Taliban, contemporary representatives of this tradition then he moves to medieval Christians destroying Greek and Roman art. After describing hate to images author inserts discussion of destruction of Jewish Temple that initiated Jewish tradition of building religious community around much more flexible artifact – sacred and not so sacred books that allowed Jews survive as specific group despite moving all the time, mostly involuntary. Author ends it with Muslim worship of Koran, which interestingly enough in treated more as image than book, albeit very complex one.

Part Five: One God or Many

This part is about monotheistic vs. polytheistic societies and political implication of difference in believes.

Chapter 21: The Blessings of Many Gods

This starts with discussion of Romans who had a god for just about everything and keep adding additional gods from conquered tribes. Author compares the story of Noah with Epic of Gilgamesh – in both cases man gets direction from above to build ship to escape disaster, but in case of Noah it is one powerful god who decides both to start flood and to save Noah and one couple of every species. For Gilgamesh it is more complex with multiple gods intriguing for and against annihilation of humans with chief god Enlil ordering it, while his younger brother sabotaging his decision. It ends with charming story of a really existing bureaucrat Dr. Ambedcar, author of Indian constitution, being added to Indian pantheon of multiple gods. Author makes point that polytheism is much more tolerant than monotheism, but it is not always so.

Chapter 22: The Power of One

Here author goes to ancient Mesopotamia to look at origin of monotheism. There is interesting tablet from around 580 BC, in which one god Marduk kind of takes over responsibilities from all others, declaring that he is real power behind all of them.  Author here presents thesis that unlike secular contemporary world, the world before knew no difference between political power and theology, so concentration of political power in one hands necessitated transfer to monotheism. In addition of Babylonian artifacts author adds history of Egypt pharaohs to support this thesis.

Chapter 23: Spirits of Place

This is kind of deviation from big gods to small local spirits, which are, while supernatural, nevertheless very limited in their power. Author looks at English folklore, Thai spirit houses, and spirits of Yolngu people in Australia to demonstrate how it works.

Chapter 24: If God be with us

This chapter is about use of Gods in military campaigns where their support is absolutely necessary for victory. It starts with English movies of WWII referring to battle of Agincourt during religious wars of XVI century. Then he shows how it was used in Christian Ethiopia during wars again Italian invasion. One interesting fact from this is that Haile Selassie had become known as Ras Tafari or Rastafari, generating a specific branch of Christianity that become popular in Africa and in Jamaica.

Chapter 25: Tolerating and Not Tolerating

The chapter on tolerance starts with discussion of Indian tolerance either under Hindu or under Muslim rulers. Then author moves to religion of Sikhs and to contemporary world when the tolerance became a lot weaker and both Hindu and Muslims are often militant against each other.

Part Six: Powers Earthly and Divine

This part is about relation of ideology and politics from divine rules of kings to direct rule by god, as transferred by politicians, to atheistic societies were religious believe is not allowed, substituted by kind of secular religion usually centered around the great and infallible leader.

Chapter 26: The Mandate of Heaven

This starts with coronation of English queen in 1953 and then moves on to XIX century Oba from kingdom of Benin and symbols of royal power. The second part of the chapter about complex religious – political constructs of China and idea of Mandate of Heaven.

Chapter 27: Thy Kingdom Come

This chapter starts with the Jews, their story and ideas of Kingdom to come – the future resolution of all problems by God’s direct intervention.  After briefly retelling Jewish struggles with Roma Empire through bar Kokhba revolt, author moves to XIX century Islamic state in Sudan and their struggle with British Empire kind of intermixing these two stories.

Chapter 28: Turning the Screw

Here author discusses intolerance to religious expression. His examples are French authorities forbidding burkinies – Muslim bathing suits in 2016 and Japanese forbidding Christianity in XVI – XVII centuries. Then author discusses French annihilation of Huguenot Temples and overall religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe, ending by noting that burkinies were allowed after all, indicating kind of progress in our time.

Chapter 29: ‘There Is No God!’

This chapter is about another form of intolerance – intolerance of religion. Author starts with French revolution and its massive attempt to substitute Christianity with the Cult of reason. He looks at details of this attempt such as new calendar, festivals, and so on. Similarly he discusses Soviet Atheism that proved to be deficient as ideological foundation of society during WWII, forcing Stalin to pull a bit back by restoring legality of Orthodox Christianity, albeit closely controlled by secret police. Author then describes how after fall of communism Orthodox Christianity returned to its place as ideological foundation of Russian society.

Chapter 30: Living with Each Other

The last chapter comes down to the quite trivial idea that we all should tolerate each other’s ideologies religious or otherwise and move along through the wheel of life that author presents as Buddhist illustration:

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It is always interesting to trace various religious believes of people through time and space and author does a pretty good job going through multitude of artifacts representing these ideologies from Lion man of 40,000 years ago to Soviet Cosmonaut of 50 years ago. For me these all are various attempts to build some societal consensus of believes that allows big numbers of people cooperate more or less effectively and at least somewhat defines individual behavior the way consistent with wishes of controlling individuals of society. However any believes tend to take various forms inside brain of each individual, it is always supplemented by use of force just to make sure that deviations are not too big. One common feature of all of these is an attempt to substitute art either as narrative, graphical, musical, or architectural for scientific understanding of the world. I think that this type of ideological construction is coming to its natural end because the new approach – scientific pragmatic and theoretical / experimental ideological construction after proving its efficacy over the last few centuries will become more and more dominant, making all other into just curious historical artifacts. Currently the latest religious attempts to build ideological foundation of society supporting strict forms of control such as global warming or socialism turns to quasi-scientific forms. This demonstrates that old forms of ideological construction: revelations and art do not have the same convincing power they used to have, probably because of increase in literacy and technological savvy of population.  I hope that current attempts to build the new controlling narrative will fail due to the same factors, but one never knows the future. It is possible that with advance of AI, robotics and decrease of needs in human labor, humanity will be divided into two parts: small elite living interesting and challenging live of achievement; and masses drowned in entertainment, drugs, and cheap substitutes for real live. However I could also imagine future without any overwhelming controlling narrative, in which every individual has freedom to believe whatever ideological framework he/she is comfortable with and had something to do either in art or science or both. In either case, I think purely material needs of subsistence both material and psychological will remain in the past and issues of the future would be different from whatever we could imagine now anyway.

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