Saturday, 25 November 2017

Living With the Gods

The Lion Man

I'm in the middle of an arts course, because I don't know much about fine art, and would love to understand it better, and I'm unsurprisingly finding that one of the easiest ways I can penetrate and decipher art is through the delight of story. 

Not all art tells a story, but at the moment, with my little knowledge, this seems to me to be the overarching theme of most art, from its very beginnings, and often the story that the artist wants to tell, is that of the gods. This led me to recall the programme I’ve been listening to on Radio 4, Living With The Gods, a 30-part series of fifteen minute talks, written and presented by Neil MacGregor, a former director of the British Museum. To run alongside, the British Museum have an exhibition of some of the artefacts MacGregor is using to illustrate his talks.

 Throughout the radio series MacGregor draws upon objects and curatorial insights from the British Museum to talk about daily and weekly religious practices, festivals, pilgrimages and sacrifices, power struggles and political battles between beliefs across millennia. He uses the artifacts, some thousands of years old, to illustrate and explore how the human race has lived with gods. This week, he took an earthenware cooking pot, about 1,750 years old, discovered to contain many little bronze statuettes…a household Roman god, two tiny birds, perhaps a raven and a dove which are often found in pre-roman societies in Northern Europe to symbolise deities,  plus some gods of more import – the Greecian god Minerva, the Roman God Jupiter, god of sky and thunder, and a spoked wheel, a symbol of Taranis, a Celtic god worshiped in Gaul and Britain. As Taranis was also a god of thunder, the Romans and accepted him alongside their own Jupiter.

The Roman Baths, Bath
MacGregor explained how the Romans exported their gods to the newly conquered lands, but were also able to ‘go global’ and assimilate the gods they found there, building temples to new and old, such as the Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath in the UK. The Romans seemed to understand that if you honour other peoples gods, they become less strange. As McGregor says…The Romans will change, and so will they. It was an approach which allowed the Roman Empire to become a long-lasting multi-racial, multi-faith state. As the Roman Senate is recorded to have written; “The Immortal Gods are the same everywhere.” This allowed them to live on good terms with very many very different peoples, absorbing many cultures into what became a world view.

MacGregor explained that polytheism –  the worship of many gods – has had a bad press which has left us almost blind to the fact that across the span of human history, multi-theist one god systems have been the exception rather than the rule. And in the very distant past, the acceptance of what other people believe, or what previous people believed, was possibly stronger than it is today.
It’s not just in Bath, at the Roman baths, that I’ve understood this fact for myself.  There is a wonderful landscape on The Gower, in South Wales, called Parc le Breos. This is a Norman Deer park with a hunting lodge you can stay at if you have sufficient readies. It is also a walkers, climbers and campers paradise, and it contains not only a  many-chambered passage grave, but also a cave, called Cathole, high up on a cliffside, which hides an exciting secret.

Cathole has recently been discovered to hold a prehistoric carving. It’s a reindeer, scratched in with a sharp flint too, to expose the redness of the rock below. It may be 14,000 years old – the oldest rock art yet found in Britain. I’ve been to Cathole many times, climbing up a steep, wooded path through the gorge to reach it. There are inner and outer chambers, and although it’s not that deeply cavernous, there are parts that are very dark indeed. So, despite my exploration of the cave, I’d never spotted the carving, and neither had any of the parties I’d been with. Since it’s official discovery, the cave has been gated, to prevent the public entering, so I’ll probably never see it now.
Thirty metres scrabble down into the valley of Parc le Breos Parc is an even older monument to ancient peoples; a  Neolithic chambered burial tomb over 5,500 years old. Locally known as the Giant’s Grave, it was partly restored in the 1960s, which is sad in a way as it no longer looks as it did when discovered, but it does mean we can have a reasonable idea of how it might have been (minus its capstones, which were plundered, probably for a 19 century building project). The layout is perfect for the games we liked to play in such places. The Giant’s Grave, or Parc Cwm, as it’s properly called, was where we fought off Tolkein’s Wargs as members the Fellowship of the Ring, and became a brilliant crossing place over the River Styx, on our way to Cathole, an even more brilliant Hades.

Inside the tomb, the human bones of at least 40 people were found. Examination showed that the women were all petit, the men all big and burly. Like many Neolithic sacred sites, it was used for almost 1,000 years – generation after generation – each passing down the stories of what this tomb meant to the people. There is a link to Cathole, too; it’s possible the cave was used to dry out and expose the bones of the dead before they were placed in the tomb.

Those people lived long before Cathole was used again. Then, during the last Ice Age, the people who came after the hunter-gatherers buried their own dea there. In the Bronze Age, it was used again for ritual burials. People came back to Parc Le Breos time and again, for over 3,000 years, to use the landscape, and especially the cave, time and again. 

McGregor gives a very ancient example of ‘more gods work better than less’ – he explains how the story of Noah, in the Bible, is echoed by a cuniform tablet from Mesopotamia, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’,  which tells the exact same story of a flood and an arc. The difference, apart from the names of the characters involved, is that in the Bible, only one God, Jehovah, orders the flood and drowns his disobedient people. In Gilgamesh, there is a council of the gods in which the main god, in a dictatorial move, orders the flood. However, mankind is saved when one whistleblower god secretly tells a local family to build an arc. After the flood is over, the gods understood that the flood was a wrong decision, and too much power can be bad, even for gods. 

It would be nice if we could all listen to that Roman advice that The Immortal Gods are the same everywhere, and try to accept other peoples' belief systems, while never trying to impose our own upon anyone.

You can learn more about Living with the Gods, at
and listen to the programme, if you’re in the UK. You can also buy the book (

And if you’re in London between now and next April, you can see the exhibits MacGregor talks about in his work at the British Museum. 

No comments:

Post a Comment