Neil MacGregor: Living with the Gods

A beautiful book pondering questions about how religious beliefs shaped societies and how societies formed religion — told through artifacts

Neil MacGregor is a great storyteller: packaging educational content infused in art, shape and form — borrowing from his successful career as head of National Gallery and The British Museum — as if, taking from the dusty corners and archived places artifacts that provoke our thinking.

This time, a yet another beautiful rendition of a BBC Radio 4 podcast and radio series about the intersection of the secular and the religious worlds: how still, as many years before the modern technological world, they come together in myriads of ways.

I would borrow from yet to be summarised book from my backlog by Robin Dunbar about human evolution that myths, political apparatus and religious beliefs take form in those groups of settlers where social practices are required by groups the size above 150 — where the limit of time for personal social bonding requires new tools to be formed that the group would maintain its shape and organisation as well as its cohesion.

The spiritual world is in part needed to fill the void of unknown, rationalise the sudden changes in wind, subjugate it to the benevolence or ire of unknown powerful forces.

Religious beliefs have undoubtedly shaped societies and yet in turn, societies that remain — they too carried forward specific religious attitudes: almighty single gods vs. benevolent trickster gods, donations that often sparked central storage and distribution functions, imbuing of benevolent powers on wearable and carried tokens.

Augustus Denarius

For example, the writing “In God We Trust” appeared on US currency bills only in 1956, when the US decided to further highlight its difference from the Soviet Union. The well known Augustus denarius both carried the name of the emperor but borrowed from the emerging association of ceasar with a living deity — and those who had became priests of the new cult had cut corners of civil service. The denarius design borrowed — or built on — design of Alexander the Great tetradrachm (ox’s horns highlighting we are looking at a god who lived among us).

Alexander the Great tetradrachm

It’s not all about just the money world (a topic that titilates the senses of this blog’s author), on the contrary, all examples highlight the social apparatus that is built in close association with a religious one.

Donation first to Athena cult in Greece, remade by Romans into Juno Moneta — gave rise to the socially important function of weights and measures lodged in the temple — as well as moneta (small change used for donations).

There is so many other poignant stories: about iconoclastic practices of Byzantine empire that first succeeded in fending off the Abbasid khalifate and turned to iconoclasm (something that still have in Muslim faith with all images of Allah and Muhammed forbidden) — and went back to celebrate the culture of icons as it failed to stop the advancement of Ottomans.

The cult of our Lady of Kazan icon for Russia, important as it is closely intertwined with the protection against tatars in 15th century, at the Time of Troubles in 17th century, its manifestation to protect the country against Napoleon, its loss in 1904 anteceding the loss in Russian Japanese war of 1904–1905, and then the use of a copy in processions in Leningrad to protect the city against Nazi armies — all vividly portay the intersection of state and religion.

The book is a good illustrative reference guide to what is part of the social fabric of modern civilisation and how gods look down upon us it develops.