How do gods exist? Overcoming the triviality of objects

Dominic Dalglish, a co-founder of Talking Religion, reports on the group’s Fourth and final workshop of the term hosted by the British Museum focussing on how we overcome the triviality of objects.

When we think about religion through material culture, big theoretical and methodological problems will certainly arise. In the series of posts on the Talking Religion workshops so far, this has certainly been the case – what is materiality, in what way can an image or object be religious, what even is religion? We spent a long time discussing these concerns as a group, as much to make ourselves aware of the problems as to try and fix them – sharing our thoughts on these issues is half the battle. In our fourth and final venture of the term, we geared the subject to focus on the practical problems of using objects from the start, looking at the topic of ‘gods’.

The purpose of a trip to the zoo

Like all good projects ours involved a day trip, in this case to the British Museum. It’s always nice to do something a little bit different, and I’ve no doubt that some if not all of our group enjoyed being able to say where they were off to. All illusions of grandeur were hopefully quashed as we descended into the lower reaches of the museum with Dr Thorsten Opper, curator at the Greece and Rome department, for our first handling session.

Talking Religion Group 1
The Talking Religion group in the British Museum with Dr Thorsten Opper.

What we actually do in such sessions is difficult to plan, but it definitely should be! Whilst people generally enjoy getting close up with objects, the learning objectives can remain a touch murky. My last trip to the zoo was fun on a number of levels, but I can confirm that I learnt precisely nothing whilst there – in other words, I went to amuse myself, and look at amazing animals, not necessarily to come away with a better understanding of the natural world.

Orangutan from Dresden Zoo
One of the many highlights of Dresden Zoo.

Of course, it could be claimed that I did in fact learn a great deal – knowledge that slipped in without me knowing. But the point I’m making is that excursions of these kinds, particularly for students from a range of academic backgrounds, not all of whom are used to working with images and objects, have to be more than distractions from office or library work. The difficulty comes from pitching your material to the right level, opening it up from what you know, but allowing insight from others that builds on their own skills, which might be quite different from your own.

The triviality of objects

The question of how we learn from objects ties in to one of the major issues we have. Texts are always the starting point for the study of religion, whether we turn to scripture for beliefs, or accounts of the actions of gods and men in a host of other textual sources. These tend to make general claims – about what people believed or should believe; about what groups did; about what gods were.

Objects and their images rarely if ever possess such power because of how they exist – they are what they are, in a very real sense, which makes them particular. If they communicate anything, and if they tell us about anyone, it is only for those who might have seen, used, or possessed them. The tendency of some, if they do use objects, is to try and remove this particularity. This is not an unreasonable thing to do – it is an attempt to raise the significance of what an object or image is, above its material confines.

Taking a closer look
Taking a closer look – Fuchsia and Hugo getting to grips with the material.

The most common means of doing this is through contextualisation. This can mean simply understanding where an object came from. Though often lost to us, in some cases we know that objects were found in wells, or in temples, in the home, or that they were smashed in the town square. This can tell us a great deal about how something might have been used and understood. But contextualisation also involves reference to other knowledge that we possess. In the case of religion, this is very often textual.

Much of the power that objects might have had in terms of what they reference and what knowledge they relied upon, should not be ignored when we look at objects. But if all that material culture can be is a reference point to wider bodies of pre-established knowledge, then it becomes almost irrelevant as an object of historical study. If we are to make use of objects and images, there has to be a moment in our analyses when we view them for what they are.

Objects, gods, and labels

Gods are a good place to start when approaching this problem. For many in the past, and also today, gods exist in the physical representations they have been given. Whether or not the objects themselves are believed to be the god, they give form to a god like nothing else can – they make the god present. This means that we have in the depiction of gods something that texts can only describe, and never fully represent – here, objects and images can be what they are, and cannot be fully subsumed by texts.

It’s important for the people running such enterprises to have at least a vague understanding of what they’re looking at, and the larger questions that arise. Our own work on ‘Mithra’, a name that crops up in an extraordinary number of contexts, separated by continents, millenia, languages, and material forms, provided us with some useful insight. Gods also feature a great deal in Imagining the Divine, and as our students will soon present their own research in the context of the Ashmolean exhibition, the topic was a good one for all concerned.

Serapis 1864,0220.58
A small bronze bust of Serapis, British Museum n.1864,0220.58

We began in the morning by thinking about some issues in representing gods – the importance of their appearance, the media forms that they were represented in, and the fluidity of the manners of god-representation. Take the Graeco-Roman god Serapis. In image, it is made abundantly clear that this was a god by the peculiarity of appearance – the modius or kalathos hat is not a common headdress. The form of the god also draws particularly on representations of Zeus or Jupiter. As objects, these depictions use a well-known means of depicting a particular god, but clearly mark it out (with the hat) as something different. But when we look at it, can we clearly say that Serapis was a different god to Zeus? On the basis of images, it is far from clear whether they should always be thought of as different, or if this is Zeus in a funny hat. The remark is not entirely flippant – this can tell us a lot about what gods in the ancient world, at least, were and about how they existed.

Serapis or Zeus 1970,0216.1
British Museum n.1970,0216.1 listed as ‘Serapis’, but without his modius, suspiciously similar to a representation of Zeus, Jupiter, or a whole host of other male deities.

In the afternoon, we took a more practical approach, writing object labels for an imaginary exhibition. With a label, you can talk about what an object is and why it matters – tell a story from an object. But which story? With only fifty words, you have to make a choice. Do we speak about the material more than the shape or form; do we discuss images over an inscription; was an object reused, and if so, which use is more interesting? This proved to be an extremely effective way of first opening up discussion of objects, and then about how to condense this information to focus on specific questions. All of the efforts showed a real passion for the material, and some (it pains me to admit) were better than anything I could have produced on the objects.

Talking Religion in action
Talking Religion in action in the British Museum’s Asia study room.

All in all, we got the sense that it was not only a fun, but a constructive day. As Talking Religion moves into its second phase, with the students working on their own research over the summer, we hope that the ground has been firmly laid for a series of fantastic talks over the course of Imagining the Divine in the autumn.

Many thanks to Thorsten Opper, Sushma Jansari, and Robert Bracey of the British Museum for their hospitality and help on the day, and of course all of the students for taking part.


Author: Dominic Dalglish

Photos © 2017 Empires of Faith; BM n.1970,0216.1, and n.1864,0220.58 © the Trustees of the British Museum.

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