by Grace Morgan
Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples
Neil MacGregor, Allen Lane, 2018
Simon Schama once wrote of Neil MacGregor that ‘what he cares about most is the museum as more than a lodging house of masterpieces’. MacGregor’s latest book, which draws almost entirely on the collection of the British Museum, is testament to the verisimilitude of this remark.
Living with the Gods explores the influence of spiritual belief in shaping societies across the world and throughout history. This ambitious subject is viewed almost entirely through the lens of visual sources: the structure of the book’s narrative is orientated around objects and pieces of art, which serve to both prompt and illustrate its arguments.
MacGregor first showcased this winning formula in 2010, in his critically acclaimed History of the World in 100 Objects, which sought to trace the history of human cultures and civilizations through material objects. In Germany: Memories of a Nation, which followed three years later, he used the same template to examine attempts to forge a sense of German national identity throughout the country’s history. As the case with the publication of both of these books, Living with the Gods was also preceded by a multi-part BBC 4 Radio series and a major exhibition at the British Museum.
MacGregor is perhaps best known for his success in transforming the reputation of the British Museum, during his tenure as its Director from 2002 to 2015. Taking the helm at a time when the museum was generally viewed as stale and elitist, he set about redefining its purpose and image, launching a series of provocative and incredibly successful exhibitions. Such was his popularity that he is apparently still referred to with affection by those that work at the museum as ‘Saint Neil’.
His recurring focus on visual sources in his writings has proved incredibly popular commercially. Since History of the World in 100 Objects was first published, there have also been innumerable imitations of its style. A quick Internet search reveals an array of copycat publications, including: Waterloo in 100 Objects, A History of the Church in 100 Objects, Wales in 100 Objects, RAF in 100 Objects, and even Pink Floyd in 100 Objects. The abundance of books in this format seems to promote a somewhat tokenistic approach to visual sources in historical analysis, presenting their use as a novelty.
Whilst the abundance of these 100 Objects histories undoubtedly point to the appeal of visual historical narratives, one must question whether this is the best way to present the use and value of objects and art as historical sources: it seems rather arbitrary and disingenuous to reduce a complex subject to a mere 100 convenient talking points. There is a danger that this method can prove reductive, in that its very premise encourages the historian to condense millennia into a body of selected artefacts. This process of curation thereby enables the historian to more easily distort a topic to suit their predetermined agenda, by simply selecting visual subjects that fit within the trajectory of a preconceived narrative. As MacGregor himself admits at the end of his History of the World, ‘other objects would have yielded different stories and taken us along different paths’.
MacGregor does, however, put forth a strong case in favour of his method, arguing in the opening pages of Living with the Gods that ‘the silence of objects allows us into territory difficult to enter in other ways’: in essence, allowing us to access the often historically inaccessible. This book does not claim to be a history of religion, and in fact he stresses from the outset that it is not, nor is it an argument in religion’s favour. He instead frames the book as a study of the way in which communities throughout history have defined themselves through practices and rituals of faith. Living with the Gods is thus not a discussion of private spirituality or the beliefs of individuals; it examines the communal aspects and material culture of belief, an angle that MacGregor points out provides us with the opportunity to examine religion as ‘practice rather than doctrine’.
The potential merits of this approach are evidenced in the opening essay, ‘The Beginnings of Belief’. This chapter is devoted to the ‘Lion Man of Ulm’, a small, worn, and rather unprepossessing figurine, which at first glance appears to have been made from fragments of wood glued together. This extraordinary sculpture was in fact carved from mammoth ivory around 40,000 years ago: MacGregor informs us that this constitutes the earliest-known visual representation of something beyond human existence. As its name suggests, the Lion Man depicts a human body with a leonine head, a combination which is historically remarkable: in combining the animal and the human, its maker created something abstract, a being that can only exist in the imagination. Moving beyond mere specious dismissal of its quality, closer examination indicates that it is the product of hours of intricate and highly skilled work. From experiments with similar tools, it has been calculated that it would have taken at least 400 hours of work to produce. MacGregor deduces from the degree of skill required to create this piece that it cannot have been the first of such images made by its sculptor.
The small community in which it was made 40,000 years ago inhabited a precarious world, which relied almost entirely on hunting for survival, and whose primary concern was most likely to protect and provide food for their families. This prompts questions as to why this community would allow one of its members to spend a substantial amount of time honing their craftsmanship to produce images such as the Lion Man, which did not contribute to their survival. This image must therefore have served a spiritual purpose, and played a role within a narrative or ritual constructed by the community that made it. MacGregor draws on the expertise of a historian at the British Museum, who suggests that this spiritual story involving the Lion Man was presumably ‘about something beyond ourselves, beyond nature, which can somehow help to strengthen a community and enable it to overcome dangers and difficulties’.
The Lion Man provides us with invaluable insight into the earliest social manifestation of spiritual belief, undocumented in written form. Much of MacGregor’s subject matter in Living with the Gods is similarly concerned with social behaviour performed as a product or practice of faith, forms of spiritual expression, and thus this approach proves highly effective.
MacGregor’s confident and able use of parallels to draw out similarities between radically different societies are generally incredibly perceptive, and serve to highlight recurring patterns of thought across history and the globe. Objects, artefacts, clothing and holy sites from disparate origins are interspersed throughout his essays, making for innovative – albeit at times rather tenuous – comparisons.
In his discussion of the role of rituals such as prayer, song and sacrifice in holding a community together through a sense of collective identity, MacGregor examines the varying processes of induction used to socialize a child born into a society, drawing comparison between a mid-18th century German Torah Binder and a bundle of human hair discarded by the people of Vanuatu, dating from the 19th century. The Binder, a strip of cloth used to swaddle a boy during circumcision, and then embroidered by the women of his family, depicts an image of the Torah to represent the course of learning he must to this day take in order to become a Bar Mitzvah, ‘son of the law’. The bundle of hair is the product of a process still carried out on the island Tanna, in the Republic of Vanuatu, in which the senior men 'bind' knowledge required for adulthood into the hair of the adolescent boys of the community. Once this is completed, the hair is then shorn. These objects, though vastly different, are both artefacts of instruction and initiation enforced by communities upon their young: a construction of a communal tradition within which newcomers must earn their place.
There are instances when it appears unclear whether the practices MacGregor discusses can be described as religious, spiritual or simply cultural idiosyncrasies – but this complaint is dissolved by his aforementioned disclaimer that Living with the Gods is a study of ‘belief’, rather than religion as defined by doctrine. This can be seen in his essay ‘Fire and State’, which interrogates perceptions of fire as an image embodying the spirit of a community. His format of analysis is arguably integral to examining something so tied into perception. The flame as a reflection of a state’s spirit is illustrated by a Roman coin, dating from around 200 CE, and a portrait of ‘Elizabeth I of England holding the sieve of a Vestal Virgin’ (1583). The Roman coin depicts a flaming cauldron, around which the priestesses of Vesta, the so-called Vestal Virgins, gather to tend the sacred flame of Rome. The fire was considered the central symbol of the Roman state, and thus had to be kept alight at all times by women whose virginity was assured: should the flame extinguish, the woman suspected of breaking her chastity would be buried alive. Elizabeth’s portrait serves to compliment this narrative of the spiritual and political potency of the flame and its guardians: the monarch clasps a sieve to not only recall a story of a Vestal priestess who had proved her virginity by holding water in sieve, but also as an affirmation of her fitness as an unmarried woman to rule and ensure the survival of the state.
MacGregor’s portrayal of belief as a cohesive force which serves to unite a community around one shared set of values, practices, and ideas, and thus one shared identity is certainly convincingly argued. Through careful curation of artefacts, which range from the opulent to the mundane, MacGregor constructs a written and a visual narrative that coalesce to explore the ways in which societies consciously and subconsciously construct these forms of spiritual expression, a form of social tradition within which to exist.
Whilst the larger portion of MacGregor’s essays promote religion and belief as unifying otherwise somewhat disparate peoples, it would seem that little time is devoted to exploring just how divisive religion has proved throughout history. A glaring omission presents itself in the absence of discussion of wars waged in the name of religious beliefs, which would seem an obvious topic of discussion, particularly with reference to its continued contemporary relevance. Although allusions are made to exclusive aspects of beliefs, in terms of race and gender, there is only real mention of the exploitation of religion as a means of social exclusion towards the end of the concluding chapter of essays, ‘Power Earthly and Divine’.
Here MacGregor examines the way in which rulers have used religious belief as a vehicle for political oppression, by excluding minority faiths that attempt to publicly express their distinctiveness. He links the French government’s abortive attempt of 2016 to ban the wearing of burkinis on its beaches, including an image of one such sign, to the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan, which is represented with a fumi-e. These were sculpted plaques depicting religious imagery, upon which suspected Christians were forced to stamp. There is an eerie poignancy to their faintly legible outlines, which have been worn away by the treading of feet: as images created specifically to be destroyed, MacGregor points out that the fumi-e constitute an ‘almost unique category’ in the history of art.
This largely positive depiction of belief systems can perhaps be related to the way in which he explains his choice of subject matter: the ‘politics of prosperity has in many parts of the world been replaced by the rhetoric and politics, often violent, of identity articulated through belief’. The recent and surprising rise of organized religion has alarmed the increasingly secular West, and it remains a major player in global politics. As MacGregor writes, this means that ‘one of the obvious phenomena we need to try and understand better is why religion matters so much to so many people’. This is undoubtedly the object towards which his book strives: for, ‘deciding how we live with our gods we also decide how to live with each other’.
MacGregor’s prose is tightly argued yet incredibly readable, and his frank, conversational tone eases the reader through topics that are highly complex. His trained eye expertly teases out detail from the objects he analyses, in a way constituting a form of visual translation. Extracting elements of different religions to fit within an overarching narrative, Living with the Gods constitutes a collection of vignettes, which provide insight into social manifestations of belief. Its sources have been wisely selected, the book is sumptuously and generously illustrated, and there is no doubt that MacGregor is a masterful storyteller. Yet an instinctive kernel of doubt remains: can the history of humanity really be reduced to a series of well-lit photographs of objects, on their big day out from the dusty old British Museum? The approach seems somewhat jejune, perhaps an indictment of our eagerness for the spoon-feeding of information, neatly packaged and conveniently facile.
Art by Abigail Hodges
GRACE MORGAN reads History at St. Anne's. She spends far too much time curating her extensive collection of corduroy trousers.