Living with gods

Living with gods

peoples, places and worlds beyond

Believing in spiritual beings or gods has been the foundation of every society in history. Although fewer people claim to be religious today, the world, countries, communities, politics, and so forth, would not run the same way if these belief systems had never been established. As part of a collaborative project with the BBC, the British Museum has gathered objects from all over the world and time in order to make sense of the different belief systems of the past and present. Rather than focusing on what people believe, the museum has unearthed objects and images to show how different religions worship or connect with the spirit world.

Living with gods is divided into themes that are common to many of the world’s religions. Some ideas date back to pre-historic times when historians and anthropologists can only speculate on their true meanings. Although religions can be vastly different, there are similar methods of worship and beliefs that suggest they have stemmed from comparable or matching beginnings. This exhibition focuses on the objects that have developed and become vital for individuals and communities throughout the world to express their religious and spiritual beliefs.

We think and we believe.


The Lion Man.  © Ulmer Museum.

After entering the quiet room complete with subdued lighting, a maze-like pathway leads visitors to the first exhibit. Standing at 31 centimetres tall is the exhibition’s oldest evidence of religious belief. Sculpted from a mammoth’s tusk, this ivory statue, named the Lion Man, was found in Stadel Cave in Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany in 1939, and is estimated to be 40,000 years old. With a head of a lion and the body of a man, this Ice Age masterpiece represents an idea or supreme being that does not exist in the physical world.

The Lion Man is not only an ancient artefact, it is the first evidence that people created physical objects, talismans, idols, etc, long before the initiation of accredited religions. Naturally, there is no one to ask what the true meaning or purpose of this statue was for, however, it is evident that it was handled often, resulting in the wearing away of parts of the body. This suggests that the Lion Man may have been part of a ritual or ceremony in which he was passed from person to person.

It cannot be proved for certain, yet, the hybrid statue indicates some sort of belief in a connection between humans and animals, thus giving the impression that this ancient civilisation was intrigued by the workings of nature, on which they heavily relied upon for survival.

This leads on to the first theme tackled in the exhibition: Light, water and fire. These three elements are essential for human life, without them, nothing could survive. As a result, many past forms of religion, as well as ones still in existence today, incorporate these fundamentals into their worship.


Mosque lamp. From Aleppo, Syria, c. 1300–1340

Light, for example, was often represented by the sun and symbolised life and hope. Around 4,000 faiths throughout time have focused on this idea. Darkness can bring fear, sorrow and danger, however, the rising sun brings promise for the new day. Religious books such as the Bible and the Qur’an contain verses about God creating light to drive away darkness (Genesis 1:3) and “Allah is the light of the world” (24:353).

A glass mosque lamp dating from 1300-1340AD is on display, which contains the verse that represents Allah as the light. It is amazing how something so fragile has remained in almost perfect condition over the past centuries. Coming from a mosque in Aleppo, Syria, the lamp was probably only used for religious purposes and not handled by many people, therefore, preserving its quality.

For Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, light is a very important part of their religion. During the four darkest nights of the new moon in late October, they celebrate the festival of lights known as Diwali. It is a celebration of good triumphing over evil as well as the opportunity to worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fertility.


Diwali London 2015 celebrations

Water can have various meanings depending on the belief or religion. For some, it represents death, danger and monsters, whereas, others celebrate it as a cure or means of purifying and cleansing. The British Museum has a selection of objects used in the past that reveal how important water was to some faiths. In Christianity, containers were filled with water and blessed by priests to be used in various ceremonies. Smaller flasks, which could be carried on a person, were filled with other forms of holy water, for example, from the river Jordan (Christianity), from the holy Zamzam well (Islam), and from the Ganges (Hinduism).

Fire, despite its propensity for destruction, has been widely considered to provide warmth and protection. It is often used symbolically, for example, on a painted panel from Germany (late 1400s) that depicts Christ rising from his grave and his mother Mary and followers being visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of flames.


Tiles from a Parsi home shrine showing the constantly burning fire of Ahura Mazda, god of Zoroastrians. Gujarat, India, 1990.

In Zoroastrianism, every ritual must take place with fire. It symbolises an unseen god and delivers prayers directly to him. Shrines are found in houses as well as community places of worship and may be decorated with tiles, such as the ones on display. These depict the prophet Zarathustra and King Lohrasp, standing either side of the burning flame of their god, Ahura Mazda.


“God gave us music that we may pray without words.”
– St Augustine of Hippo (AD354-430)

As the exhibition reveals, people use all of their senses when worshipping the spirits or gods they believe in. Most cultures include music, either with words or without, as a form of praise. Some are comforted by the touch of an object and others, the taste of a ceremonial meal. The sense of smell, however, is essential in Jewish culture, particularly on the Sabbath. Candles are used to represent holiness, peace and joy, and spices are used to uplift the spirit.

In Christianity, the sense of taste is required during the Eucharist or Communion service involving the partaking of bread and wine. The bread represents the body of Christ, and the wine, his blood. Participants renew their spiritual union with Christ through eating and drinking in this shared meal. Plates and cups, such as the ones from Ethiopia (1850) in one of the glass cases, are essential for the blessing and serving of these victuals.

Senses are also used during times of prayer, the way in which most faiths speak to the spiritual forces or gods. This can be a spontaneous, individual experience, or planned and carried out as a group. The British Museum has found objects that demonstrate various methods of praying. For some, it may only be a case of closing one’s eyes and sitting quietly, however, each religion differs in some way. Zoroastrians wear a cotton prayer shirt whilst Jews wear prayer caps or a Kippah. These are sometimes decorated with symbols and a variety of colours. On the other hand, Quaker’s have always worn plain clothing, such as the silk and card bonnet on display.

In order to help people pray, physical aids have been developed by a number of religions. Many will already be familiar with the Catholic rosary, however, Islam and Buddhist followers also use a string of beads to assist them. Muslims use 99 beads to help them recite the 99 names of God, whereas, the Buddhist Mala is a reminder of the cycle of life: birth, death, and rebirth.

Buddhists also use prayer flags and handbells, and the latter has also been used throughout the history of Christianity, particularly in monasteries. The Jews, however, have an entirely different approach to prayer. They attach two small, black, leather boxes, one to the forehead and the other to the left arm, near the heart, which contain verses from the Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

Although prayer is often regarded as a quiet, contemplative affair, they also take place as part of public celebrations, festivals and processions. In many cultures, these are complex affairs that take hours of preparation and are conducted in a ritualistic-like manner. In China, participants dress up in special, embroidered clothing that contains symbols and patterns to represent the spiritual realms. Indian festivals include elaborate chariots or juggernauts that are pulled by horses or bullocks to allow the crowds to view the images of their deities, of which there are over 330 million. The exhibition contains a scaled-down model of one of these which the museum acquired in 1793.

Throughout the world, the types of festival change depending on both religion and location. For example, Meskel is a Christian festival celebrated in September, but only in Ethiopia. This is a religious holiday to commemorate the day Saint Helena discovered the True Cross – the site of Christ’s Crucifixion. Helena was the mother of the Roman emperor, Constantine, the first Christian emperor. After his mother’s discovery, he had the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the site in Jerusalem (AD 328). A souvenir model is owned by the museum.


In Nepal, India, Hindus celebrate the Holi Festival of Colours to acknowledge the end of winter. This usually takes place during the full moon at the end of February or beginning of March. In Buddhism, the full moon during July is Dharma day, in which they celebrate Buddha’s teachings. On a cotton thangka hanging on the wall just over halfway through the exhibition is a 19th-century colourful painting, which was used to demonstrate the wheel of life. On this particular textile, the world is shown in the arms of the demon Mara who represents death.

As the exhibition continues, religious artefacts turn from those of prayer and celebration to those of protection and healing. In the western world, spiritual healing is often rejected and laughed at, however, for other areas of the world, it is a serious aspect of their belief system. Pilgrims travel miles to reach holy lands or buildings in order to pray to a particular god, saint or spirit, for example, the Church of Guadalupe in Mexico City in which miracles are rumoured to have occurred.


Ibeji figure. Yoruba, made in Nigeria, probably early 20th century.

People of all religions pray for the protection of one sort or another. Often, children are the target of these prayers, in particular twins in Yuroba-speaking countries of West Africa. Although twins are not a rare occurrence, this area of the world sees four times the amount and are often regarded as having special powers. Unfortunately, the death of one or both of the babies is also a high risk, therefore the religious community produces wooden ibeji to represent the lost child. This prevents bad fortune from befalling their family and their neighbours.

The final section of the exhibition takes on a different theme with a less positive outlook on religion. For hundreds of years, religion has been the cause of wars and conflict throughout the world, particularly in Asian countries. When more than one belief occupies the same region, it is understandable that arguments over whose faith is right or wrong would arise. Unfortunately, the ways in which these have been dealt with have been extremely severe.


Noticeboard offering of a reward for information against Christians. Ink on wooden panel, 1682.

In the 15 and 1600s, the political powers in Japan wished to eradicate Christianity from the country. In order to do this, public executions were staged and citizens encouraged to inform authorities of any Christian practices. Notice boards were displayed with rewards on offer to entice the Japanese to denounce their neighbours and friends. Within a century, Christianity had almost been wiped out of the country.

Time and again, politics has misused religion to its advantage, for example, in Marxist Russia and Communist China. Recent events in Syria continue to show the exploitation of religion. The objects displayed in the exhibition have shown the positive, peaceful, and joyful aspects of different faiths, and it is distressing that these beliefs have been targetted by corrupt leaders.

“The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science.” – Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Living with gods provides an insight into the many different religious practices across the globe. The amount of objects collected is impressive and are interesting to peruse and read about. Unfortunately, it does little to heighten knowledge about particular religions, how they were established, what they believe in, and so forth. Visitors may come away knowing little more than they did upon arrival.

Nonetheless, the British Museum has curated an intriguing exhibition that navigates through various themes. It can be a little confusing at times in regard to current practices and those that are a thing of the past, however, most of the objects are dated to give an indication of the era they were in use.

The low lit room creates a respectful atmosphere to house the sacred artefacts and visitors automatically reduce their voices to a whisper as they would in a church or temple. Whether it is worth the £15 entry fee is, however, debatable.

Living with gods is part of the fourth collaborative project between the British Museum, the BBC and Penguin Books. It builds on a Radio 4 series of 30 daily programmes over six weeks presented by former Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor.

One thought on “Living with gods

  1. Beyond belief. How can you, week after week produce work of exceptional quality? Once again you have produced a most interesting article with illustrations. You really are a huge talent and I feel privileged that I get the opportunity read your work.
    Thank you again.

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