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Living with the Gods, review – the devil is in the detail

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Goddess Kali being put in the River Hooghly, Kolkata
Goddess Kali being put in the River Hooghly, Kolkata Credit: Jerry Redfern 

Christopher Howse reviews Living with the Gods by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane, £30)

A woman carved in ivory, her hair gilt, stands in prayer, her body elegantly curved backwards in 14th-century Gothic style. What makes the 8in figurine arresting is that she is emerging from the body of a squat, dragonish creature that still has the end of her dress in its jaws even though she has exploded from its belly by the power of the cross, which she once held in her ivory hands.

This is St Margaret, who was accounted a saint because in the third century she was martyred. More than 200 churches are dedicated to her in England alone, including one that stands at the heart of British state power, between Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. She was so widely revered because the legend of the dragon made her a symbolically suitable patron for women in childbirth – in the pre-modern age, the great danger to earthly life and to an orderly entry into the next, fortified by timely sacraments and prayer.

St Margaret would send packing any prowling demons (signified by the dragon) and offer her saintly prayers for the woman who invoked her aid. A relic purporting to be the girdle with which she bound the dragon was kept at the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris and was lent out for births of state importance, including that of the baby who grew up to be Louis XIV.

The 14th-century St Margaret emerging from a dragon  Credit: Trustees of the British Museum 

Compare Margaret with Lamashtu, the “Extinguisher of Life” in ancient Mesopotamia, bringer of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death. A 2,500-year-old stone amulet the size of a mobile phone, kept in the British Museum, shows her with a snarling lion’s head, standing on a donkey, a serpent held in each hand and, hanging on each breast, a wild pig and a jackal. On the back of the plaque is an incantation intended to frighten the Extinguisher away.

The mirror-image female helper and harmer are taken as the focus of one of the 30 chapters of Neil MacGregor’s new book, based on the 30 episodes of his Radio 4 series. It follows the method of his acclaimed History of the World in 100 Objects. Items of material culture suit his aim of examining what societies do and the things they make in pursuit of beliefs that bind their common identity. This is not a history of religion or a study of theologies. It does, though, demonstrate how universal are the rituals of belief (not excluding atheistic beliefs, such as those introduced on November 10 1793 when the Cult of Reason was set up in what had been the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris).

But who’s to tell what the objects stand for, or what they meant to their owners? The book’s radio roots show in the little blocks of talking celebs that intersperse the narrative – Marina Warner or Rowan Williams, Anthony Grayling or Diarmaid MacCulloch.

A 19th-century Japanese shrine containing wooden figure of Dakini riding a fox Credit: Trustees of the British Museum 

Some talk interestingly but not authoritatively. Grayson Perry, the intelligent cross-dressing potter, was asked to comment on a gilt wooden Japanese carving a foot high that he had never seen before. It depicts three foxes, one holding a key and one carrying on its back a plump robed woman holding a sword in one hand and a heart in the other. “It is surely about survival and comfort and good things and the continuation of a healthy, happy life, yet with the sword and the heart, death is hovering,” he hazarded. “Maybe without the anger of the goddess, we might be a bit smug.”

Maybe. But to any Japanese the central figure is instantly readable as the Shinto deity Inari. A third of Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to her, and she is often depicted as coming to earth from heaven riding on a fox. She is associated with the rice harvest, and the key held by the accompanying fox is the key to the rice store. The sword and heart are more tricky, for they seem to have been introduced from the emblems proper to the Buddhist deity Dakini, who sometimes cherishes human hearts and sometimes eats them. The introduction of this element from another mythology is likened by MacGregor to the Arctic reindeer introduced into the story of St Nicholas, alias Santa Claus, attached to the celebration of Christmas.

MacGregor’s method of presenting objects as in some way similar runs the risk of the white cake fallacy that anthropologists must beware. A white cake is eaten at Christmas and at weddings; therefore, one might conclude, Christmas is something to do with weddings. The same danger seems to me apparent in lumping together pilgrimages.

Thousands of Hindu devotees crossing pontoon bridges over the Ganges River at Kumbh Mela 2013 in Allahabad, India Credit: Alamy

Chaucer gets his mention, and in another chapter so does the hajj, the teeming pilgrimage to Mecca, open, by an almost miraculous hospitality, to both Sunni and Shia. (The hajj, by the way, must disprove MacGregor’s contention that in Islam “it is the word alone which is to be revered as the path to God”, for the hajj is a whacking great exercise in bodily sacramental ritual.) But even the millions on the annual hajj are nothing to the Kumbh Mela, the Hindu gathering to bathe in the Ganges at Allahabad, which every 12 years turns into a festival, attracting 120  million people in 2013. I can’t see that a pilgrimage with the Wife of Bath to pray at Becket’s tomb at Canterbury is much like the vast concourse to bathe in the holy Ganges.

The same tendency to iron out differences is seen in MacGregor’s recruitment of John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, to illustrate a section on music as an aspect of Lutheranism. “The theology – the wondrous redemption of sinful humanity by divine grace alone – is impeccably Lutheran,” he declares. You might as well say it is impeccably Catholic, but the fact is that Newton, the converted slaver, was not a Lutheran but a firm Calvinist. He was blamed by his contemporaries (unfairly I think) for driving the poet Cowper into melancholy madness by his unbending doctrine of predestination and election.

There are obvious differences, too, between the Virgin Mary (as venerated by visitors to Guadalupe on the outskirts of Mexico City) and Diana of the Ephesians (represented in figurines with rows of breasts, or some say bulls’ testicles). It seemed reductive of Richard Ford in 1845 to make the comparison in his Handbook to Spain, and since then we should have grown more wary of such facile identifications.

But I couldn’t help being intrigued, in the same chapter, to read of the appropriation in Paris of a gilt-bronze flame (set up in 1989 to mark Franco-American friendship) as a shrine to another Diana, the tragic Princess of Wales. Two decades after her death it is still surrounded by photographs of her and messages from admirers.

This does indeed show the strength of the instinct of man as a ritual animal. The 500 pages of Living with the Gods (weighing in at 2lb 12oz) give dozens more intriguing tales from the spreading delta of human religious expression. Any over-arching theory of secularisation finds a million stumbling blocks presented by modern objects that prove the continuing importance of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or revived Christianity to cultural identity. It is important to realise this, for where there’s culture there’s politics, which from time to time goes off unpredictably with terrible force.

Living with the Gods by Neil MacGregor

512pp, Allen Lane, 
£30, ebook £12.99. Call 0844 871 1514 
to order for £25