Category Archives: Religion

Withdrawal and the sacred: the tides of life

Northumberland flower
Northumberland flower

I have just come back from a short time away in and around Lindisfarne, in the north-east of England not far from the Scottish border. Its other name is Holy Island, reflecting the fact that for a great many years – from its foundation as a monastery around 634 to the 16th century – it was best known as a centre for prayer, worship, and learning.

The Pilgrim's Route across the sands
The Pilgrim’s Route across the sands

Lindisfarne is one of those places which is an island at high tide, and connected to the rest of Northumberland by vast mud flats at low tide. Twice a day the sea comes in and gathers the island into itself, and twice a day the sea withdraws again and allows traffic to pass freely. It’s a most magnificent symbol of the way the human psyche engages with and separates from the world. We have times of busyness, and times of withdrawal. Even if it’s only in sleep, all of us have this tidal cycle running deep in us, and it goes far beyond rest and recuperation.

Singing seals hauled out on the mudflats
Singing seals hauled out on the mudflats

This part of Northumberland also has a huge variety of wildlife – flowers, birds, and insects are everywhere. The birds are at their most striking during the spring and autumn migrations, but there are plenty around in the summer as well. And the Lindisfarne seals sing! Perhaps seals in other places do this too, but I have never heard them. But on a rising tide, as the mudbanks where they are hauled out in their hundreds gradually shrink, you can often hear their song, somewhere between a wolf pack howling and the wind sighing, and not quite like either. There’s plenty of wind on the island as well, but when you hear that song, you have no doubt you are listening to something that a living creature has produced.

No wonder that the founding monks of the Lindisfarne community – Aidan, Cuthbert and all – chose this place to build something which joins both this world and the other. We know comparatively little about occupation of the site before their time, but I’d be confident that it was recognised as a liminal place long before the arrival of Christianity here.

Augustine of Hippo, speaking out of his own religious heritage, wrote that “our souls are restless, until they find their rest in Thee“, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to find both restlessness and rest than here.

High tide again
High tide again

Times have changed a little – the monasteries have been disbanded, the habitual practice of Christianity has changed in many ways, and the island is now connected to the mainland in more sophisticated ways than a footpath. But when you’re on the island, the feeling of being away from the mainland presses closely around you. Spirituality remains a major influence on the life of the island, and people still visit for the purpose of feeding their souls. And the cycle of tides still separates this little place from the mainland twice a day.

 

Superstition

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

I’ve been thinking on and off about superstitions for a little while now, and it’s clear from other people’s blogs that I’m not alone in this. Synchronicity, perhaps.

To be clear, I see a big difference between superstition and religious faith, and I’m not going to be critical of either. They both are built around the conviction that actions in the here and now are not just casual and without consequence. Instead, they carry weighty implications which resonate in both natural and spiritual worlds. Religious people can be superstitious, and non-religious people can be superstitious – though the rational constructions of each of religion, atheism, and science are typically hostile to such practices. People of any religion or none might throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder, or uncross knives in a drawer, or say “white rabbits” at the start of a month, or avoid walking on the divisions between paving slabs!

Religious thought tends to be more systematic, with a careful body of thought surrounding its core principles. Whether embedded in a written or oral tradition, faith encourages theology – rational exploration of the hinterland of a central mystery which itself eludes the possibility of capture. Superstition is based around individual actions which do not necessarily build into a coherent whole. Each such action serves a specific purpose, often placatory, and doesn’t have to be combined with anything else.

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

One of the fascinating things about superstitions is that they are often tied to particular situations. Often this is to do with place – some specific deed must be done in a specific place in order to be effective. So we have all kinds of special places – trees, bodies of water, hills, and so on, often quite separate from the deeply sacred foci of religious thought. A wishing well might be found only a short distance from, say, Stonehenge, or the temple at Karnak.

But as well as a special place, there are special things to do or items to use. Maybe special words to use. For today, out of all the superstitions in the world, I want to focus briefly on leaving gifts of metal. Most old towns in England – and no doubt elsewhere as well – have a wishing well where people leave coins. Often these days the coinage is collected and given to charity, but the impulse is, I believe, much older and much less thought-through than making a donation to a worthy cause.

A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)
A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)

Back in the Bronze Age in northern Europe, metal items were regularly deposited in large quantities in streams and rivers. We find tools, weapons, scraps of spare metal, jewellery and so on – the whole gamut of artefacts. In some cases these might possibly be understood as a ritual deposit of weapons, either captured from some enemy or, perhaps, being ‘retired’ after the death of the wielder. In most cases we just don’t know the reason.

What we do know is that over time this developed into a veritable industry in its own right. We find huge deposits of tools, typically axe heads without the shaft, carefully buried or placed in piles. These represent a huge investment of time and effort – the ore had to be dug, the metal prepared and moulded, and so on. But in many cases these are not items at the end of long and faithful service – they had never been used in either war or peace, and often the metal was far too soft to be useful in any sphere. These axes were made just to be disposed of.

It’s hard to think of a reason for this, given the limited resources available to the societies of the time. Often we humans have indulged in conspicuous consumption and waste, just to prove we can. Perhaps these axe deposits were an offering to placate someone or something. Perhaps the return of metal to the Earth was seen as closing the cycle of extraction. It’s an open field for guesswork, but for today I’m going to link it with the long lineage of metal gifts which also surfaces in wishing wells.

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

But there’s another similar modern habit which – at least in my mind – is connected to this. It is the habit of hammering coins into trees. In some places you can find hundreds of coins all driven into a stump or old tree – the pictures are from Cumbria, between Grasmere and Rydal, but you could find similar scenes in many other places. I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about these trees to start with – but as one person after another follows suit then the place starts to gather its own perceived value.

So the ancient tradition of giving back metal to the planet, whether in water, underground, or attached to a tree, is very much alive still in our century! I wonder which existing superstitions we will take into the future with us, and which new ones we will invent?

Where do you bury the dead?

Silbury Hill, near Avebury
Silbury Hill, near Avebury

Throughout most of human history, we have made great efforts to commemorate the dead, particularly those who were important in some way, or whose actions deserved special honour. Conversely, we have shown disapproval by denying proper burial, or defacing graves and monuments. In ancient Egypt, a person’s name might be obliterated, with the intention of depriving them of both recognition and tangible offerings by future generations. But it is our treatment of the honoured dead which interests me today.

Entrance grave, Samson, Scilly
Entrance grave, Samson, Scilly

We have often buried a body, but we have also often buried the burned ashes of bodies, or items they used in life. In these cases, the tomb serves as a formal reminder of the person rather than an actual resting place. We have buried people singly, but more often in groups, according to family ties or the roles they fulfilled. And very often we have raised our memorials to the dead in prominent places, as an ongoing sign to the living.

Harold Wilson's grave, St Mary's, Scilly Isles
Harold Wilson’s grave, St Mary’s, Scilly Isles

Through most of history, until comparatively recently, we have liked to keep our dead close to us. Looking back in time, it is hard to know what the reasons for this were. Could it have been protection, to ensure that malevolent influences were kept at bay? Or to placate ancestors who might judge the living harshly? Or to provide comfort in a time of mourning? Or simply for convenience, to simplify the process of providing both prayerful respect and tangible offerings? Today, even though we are often geographically scattered from our ancestors, the sight of a grave that has been cared for and adorned with fresh flowers – or more personal items – usually touches and inspires us. Perhaps we see it as a vicarious offering on our own behalf, when we cannot do the same ourselves.

Innisidgen tomb, St Mary's, Scilly
Innisidgen tomb, St Mary’s, Scilly

On the Scilly Isles in the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages, the honoured dead were remembered with large stone cairns. They are now called entrance graves, and the style is largely unknown in most of Europe. A central area, roughly the size of a coffin, was lined with stones on either side. One end was chosen as the entrance, and blocked with a separate stone, often slightly offset so as to leave a gap. Finally, several large capstones were placed on top – this itself must have been a serious undertaking given the weight involved. There is a natural orientation to the graves – the line through the middle pointing in or out of the door – but there is no overall consistency about this orientation.

Few if any of them seem ever to have contained dead bodies, or even extensive grave goods, though ashes and oil have been found in some. Presumably the monument itself was sufficient to commemorate the people involved, even over several generations.

Entrance grave locations on Scilly
Entrance grave locations on Scilly – the shaded area shows the region uncovered in Neolithic times

On Scilly we find these monuments on the tops of hills, clustered together in lines and groups. That in itself is not very surprising, since it made them easily visible. But on Scilly, these hills are situated in a ring on the seaward edge of the land – the central lower-lying plain is now submerged under the encroaching Atlantic. This has happened within historical memory, and accounts from the Roman era through until the time of the Norman kings tell us of the gradual division into the archipelago we now see.

So this raises again the question of motive. Did the builders of these tombs expect that the honoured dead would protect them from invaders from over the sea? Perhaps even from the sea itself, since I am sure that the communities of the time would be aware that ancestral lands were, little by little, being eaten away. Or was the intention to face outwards, so that a person’s tomb remembered a great voyage they had made, or fishing areas that were especially generous?

Bant's Carn, looking down at Halangy village (and across at Tresco and St Martin's)
Bant’s Carn, looking down at Halangy village (and across at Tresco and St Martin’s)

At this remove in time, given that we are dealing with a culture that either could not or chose not to record itself in writing, we cannot answer these questions. They remain as enigmatic as the stones themselves. What we do know is that these places remained important to Scillonians for a very long time. One burial – Bant’s Carn, on St Mary’s, remained intact throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, despite the presence of Halangy village which thrived just down the hill from it for many centuries. The villagers may have continued to hold ceremonies around the tomb, or may have placidly ignored it, but they lived in its shadow and took care not to demolish it. The desire to honour the dead runs very deep in us.

Reusing sacred places

Avebury evening
Avebury evening

Today is another look at prehistoric monuments in England, and in particular the way sites were reused and reinterpreted by later generations. My main focus is going to be religious or sacred use – obviously some houses and forts stay in use for many hundreds of years, but this doesn’t usually involve much change of purpose.

The modern stereotype is that later religious groups are implacably hostile towards earlier ones, violently trying to erase all signs that things were ever different. Certainly this happens from time to time – the attempted destruction of Palmyra is a glaring recent example – but actually, quiet assimilation of a site is very common.

Let’s look first at Stonehenge. Before the raising of the giant stones which are most people’s association with the site, there was a true henge there. The earliest part of the whole structure is a circular bank with an entrance facing compass point. There was also a ring of wooden posts, including a series set at intervals across the entrance, and a few outlying marker stones picking out specific angles from the centre.

Stonehenge building stages (from http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/)
Stonehenge building stages (from http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/)

Now, like most henges of its era, it was built around lunar alignments. The centre of the entrance, the postholes across it, items buried at particular places in the ring – even the main outlying stone called the Heel Stone – all of these pick out significant events in the lunar cycle. Now, since a full cycle takes 18.6 years, and it would take a few such cycles to be sure of the observations given inconveniences such as clouds, this already represents a huge summary of embodied knowledge. But let’s move on.

Time passed, as did the original builders, and the site was reused by new people with new beliefs. They didn’t just put up new stuff – like the stones – they repurposed the whole place. The entrance was widened, but asymmetrically, so that the midpoint was now angled to accommodate a solar orientation. You have to wonder if the newcomers were aware of the previous lunar settings and making deliberate changes, or if they just thought the earlier inhabitants had built it wrong. Even in very recent years, we’ve certainly not understood the builders’ purpose.

Stonehenge I and II (Burl, from Prehistoric Astronomy and Ritual)
Stonehenge I and II (Burl, from Prehistoric Astronomy and Ritual)

Whatever the level of knowledge and the motives of the new users, the end result was to rebrand Stonehenge as a solar monument. The great majority of visitors since then have seen only this more recent, more obvious configuration, and the rediscovery of the older focus on the moon has been slow to emerge.

We know nothing about the transition from lunar to solar beliefs. Was it a peaceful and gradual shift, or a sudden and more violent one? Did the circle remain in regular use throughout, or was it abandoned for a while? It seems to me that the fact that the same site was reused, whether after a gap or not, must say something. It would be all too easy for the new solar-oriented worshippers to simply ignore the very obvious bank of earth and wooden posts, and erect their own monument nearby. Yet they chose to carry on in the same place.

Knowlton church inside the henge (English Heritage)
Knowlton church inside the henge (English Heritage)

Such reuse of an older sacred place by later generations is very common. Many springs and pools held sacred to the traditional religions of the British Isles were adopted by the Romans, Saxons and Normans, often ending up linked with Christian saints and having churches built there. Knowlton church, in Dorset, was situated within the ring of a much older henge, and most of Avebury village is inside the huge extent of the monuments there. In Karnak, part of the Pharaonic temple was used as a Christian church, and subsequently a mosque.

Karnak Temple showing church and then mosque
Karnak Temple showing church and then mosque

What motivates this reuse? Does it represent a kind of spiritual conquest, in which the new element needs to purify the old? Or is it a way to legitimise the new by means of linking it with a place long held to be sacred? Is it simply that people are already used to going there, and this is a way to set up your pitch where there are already crowds of worshippers? Or is it that some places on earth really do have a heavier weight of sacredness than others, and some sensitivity to this motivates the builders of places of worship?

For the monuments I am thinking of, we will never have historical records which might explain the motives. All we have are enigmatic questions, and the clear signs that religious sites changed their focus over the generations as the original purpose became less important.

Looking forward in time, I wonder what might happen if we encounter signs that alien races have built sacred monuments elsewhere in our solar system or further afield? Will we set up our own shrines among the stones and stellar alignments, and in doing so continue our millennia-old habit of reuse? Right now we have no clear signs of extraterrestrial life of any kind at all, still less life that is sophisticated enough to reflect on the universe and build artefacts in holy places. One day, perhaps.

Saturn's rings, with Enceladus and Tethys aligned (NASA/JPL)
Saturn’s rings, with Enceladus and Tethys aligned (NASA/JPL)

Making companionship

Pygmalion and Galatea, by Falconet (Wiki)
Pygmalion and Galatea, by Falconet (Wiki)

Last time I looked at our changing views of the animal world, and our ongoing attempts to find companionship there. But alongside that there has always been the recognition that animal or bird companions don’t quite satisfy. The Hebrew Bible sums it all up with the comment that none of the creatures was ideal as a partner, and moves on to the need for a second human. Whatever you make of the details of that account, the remaining pages of the Bible go on to describe all manner of human relationships – as well as opposite sex and same sex pairs, we find family and strangers, leaders and followers, friends and enemies, pairings which were suitable and entirely unsuitable. The other sacred texts of mankind are the same in this respect – alongside communications with the divine, human interactions are everywhere.

But for some reason, as a species many of us have been perennially disappointed and frustrated with relationships with one other – a sorry trend for which one can very easily find counter-examples, but which has fuelled many of history’s conflicts, both national and personal. Perhaps the autonomy and potential for disagreement in another individual is too disconcerting. Whatever the cause, the idea of building some sort of mechanical person goes back into the ancient world.

Greek myth has several variations on this theme, including Pygmalion’s ivory statue which animated to become his wife, and Hephaestus’ automata who assisted at his forge. In these cases, divine intervention of some sort was necessary to make the transition from dead to living. But in addition, Daedalus is said to have used quicksilver in order to impart speech to his statues, so the possibility of a human invention was considered.

Mary Shelley, portrait by Richard Rothwell (Wiki)
Mary Shelley, portrait by Richard Rothwell (Wiki)

For many centuries, speculation about artificial life circled around biology rather than metallurgy. Medieval alchemists toyed with the idea of homunculi, miniature humanoids whose creation required a series of esoteric steps such as leaving human sperm to incubate in horse manure for 40 days. Suggestions that the true quest of the alchemists was spiritual rather than physical make a lot of sense. The discovery in the late 18th century that human nerves responded to electricity triggered new ideas, which in literature were summed up by Mary Shelley in the person of Frankenstein and his research, leading to the creation of his life-form.

Today, the pursuit of artificial intelligence is largely seen as a technological challenge. By and large, we are working on the assumption that the main breakthroughs need to be in software, and that the container which houses the resulting application is only a convenient package allowing access to various kinds of sensory input. Time will tell if this assumption is valid.

Cover image, I Robot by Isaac Asimov
Cover image, I Robot by Isaac Asimov

We have a mixed attitude to artificial life. On the one hand we welcome it as a possible assistant and helper, but on the other we are anxious about possible failures of control. Will the creation refuse to obey the creator? Will it have end-goals which are hostile to our own well-being? In fiction, and to a degree in actuality, we try to govern this by logic. Isaac Asimov postulated that all robots had to obey three laws intended to protect humanity, and simply asserted that it was not possible to construct an artificial brain without these constraints. Frankenstein, on the other hand, rapidly lost control of his creation, largely through not understanding and empathising with its needs.

In the near-future world of Far from the Spaceports, some of these particular problems have been solved. Slate and her persona siblings are, on many levels, fit companions for Mitnash and the other humans they partner. But not in every way. Mitnash enjoys Slate’s company and her capacity for work, but often finds himself challenged by the ways in which she differs from his expectation. He often does a poor job of maintaining good relationships with both Slate as his working partner, and Shayna as his romantic one. Quite apart from the everyday difficulties of balancing work and life, Mit has to constantly choose how to relate to two quite different female partners. Our society struggles to balance the competing demands of an online world and our immediate family and friends – I have every expectation that this future society will struggle as well.

To finish, just for fun, here is a NASA picture showing the gravity variation on Mars. It has no connection with this blog post, but some of the action of By Default takes place on that planet!

Local Variations in the Gravitational Pull of Mars (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Scientific Visualization Studio)
Local Variations in the Gravitational Pull of Mars (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Scientific Visualization Studio)

Looking for companionship

Early Christian depiction of Adam and eve (Wiki)
Early Christian depiction of Adam and eve (Wiki)

Our quest for companionship goes back a long way. According to the Hebrew Bible, it arose during the time of creation, when God brought all the animals and birds to the man – “the human” would be an appropriate translation. The reason was “it is not good for the human to be alone” Then “the human proclaimed names for all the domesticated animals and for the birds of the skies and for all the living things of the open country“. Sadly, amongst all of this array of life, no suitable helper could be found. So God went on to make a suitable helper.

My point today is nothing to do with how best to understand the creation story in Genesis, but to show that this tradition – along with many others all around the world – presents the idea that mankind has wanted to find companionship of some kind with the natural world for a very long time. We use the natural world all the time in our descriptions, similes, and metaphors about human behaviour, and although there are some mismatches when we try to carry such metaphors cross-culturally, by and large they survive translation very well.

Sekhmet with lioness head on woman's body (Wiki)
Sekhmet with lioness head on woman’s body (Wiki)

The Biblical tradition became, through the course of time, increasingly antipathetic to representing the godhead in terms of animals, but animal metaphors remain strong throughout – eagle, bull, lamb, and so on. In other traditions, where the constraints against idolatry were weaker or absent, living things have been fair game to stand in for gods, demigods, spirit guides, familiar spirits, and so on. The Egyptian tendency to associate animal features with otherwise humanoid deities intrigued (and rather horrified) Europeans. But the Egyptians are very far from the only culture to do this. Classical Greek literature is full of transformations into and from animals, birds, plants, and so on. Hindu sacred texts associate one or more vahanas with each deity. These were – are – devoted companions, often used for riding, and typically taking animal or bird form – bull, elephant, peacock, mouse, tiger, owl, and so on.

Lakshmi with her owl (Wiki)
Lakshmi with her owl (Wiki)

Personally I’m not so bothered about a literal interpretation of all this, but I am very interested in what it might carry in terms of meaning. There’s an obvious connection in terms of linking the qualities of the beast with the god in question. So Sekhmet – with her lion head – was thought to protect the line of pharaohs and lead them in battle. But on another level, followers are encouraged to meditate on the imagery, and to use the real-world object as a vehicle to approach the godhead. Modern neuroscience thinks in terms of an animal brain, and a reptilian brain, and so on, biologically nestled within our human brain, and tending to pop to the surface and dominate our reactions from time to time.

Advert for the Learned Pig, early 19th century (PInterest)
Advert for the Learned Pig, early 19th century (PInterest)

Another modern symptom of the same trend is the quest for animal intelligence. We have found signs of this in dogs, pigs, most of the apes and upper primates, corvids, parrots, dolphins and whales, and so on. The early 19th century saw great interest in Learned or Sapient pigs, able to accomplish a wide variety of tasks… or where they just tricks? Since then we have expanded the study to a whole bevy of other living things, and in the process come to realise that we don’t really understand human intelligence! Which part of the brain is responsible for it? Or is it a generalised response emerging somehow out of the whole organism?

So we are still looking for companionship here on Earth, whether spiritual or intellectual. Arguably the quest for discovering alien life out in the rest of the cosmos is part of this great search. If it really is “not good for the human to be alone” then the quest will no doubt continue for a long time to come… in parallel with the quest to find companionship in the humans alongside us.

Men and women in Late Bronze religion

This post is another in my occasional series looking at aspects of second millennium BCE religion in the Levant – Canaanite religion, if you like. I am going to start with what we can infer from particular kinds of archaeological remains, and then move on to text afterwards.

University of Pennsylvania Museum figurine
Interpreting the significance of archaeological finds is not always easy. A few decades ago there was a tendency for items of obscure purpose to be simply classified as “cult objects” with an assumed religious function… after all, if you didn’t understand what it was for then it must be religion! The best-known case of this is, perhaps, the considerable number of nude female figurines that have been found throughout the area. Perhaps because of presuppositions about Canaanite religion, it was assumed that these were goddess figures used in some interesting way in worship. Since those days a whole variety of other explanations have been proposed, including fertility objects given as part of a marriage ceremony, goodwill offerings during pregnancy, and even educational devices for teaching the young. We just don’t know for sure, and simple single explanations are improbable. The picture is of an item from c.1400 BCE, now in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and originally found at Beth She’an.

If we look at the designs carved into personal authentication seals we find an interesting story. There were several common forms of these – some based loosely on Egyptian scarabs, others on oval amulet designs, and others of cylindrical form. The first two have a design typically on the flat surface, the last one around the outside curve to be rolled onto clay. This last kind, having more surface area to play with, usually has more elaborate and detailed designs worked around the circuit. They are also a common pattern from the Mediterranean across to Mesopotamia, whereas the others were more localised. At this early time, almost all are pictorial, with little or no textual content.

Now through the Late Bronze Age (so roughly from 1550 to 1200 BCE in this area) we find certain recurring patterns. Male and female figures, whether men and women, male and female priests, or gods and goddesses all appear in roughly equal numbers. The Canaanite tales that have become popularised tend to favour the interactions of gods such as El, Ba’al, Mot, Kothar etc. Goddesses such as Anat, Athirat etc appear to take a secondary role in these accounts. But the material evidence we have suggests a more even-handed balance between the sexes, and even in the tales a careful read finds women or goddesses playing key roles. Two of the longer tales (Keret and Aqhat) present women (Hurriy and Dantiy) holding a central position alongside the male figures that we name the stories after. The secondary details surrounding these stories are full of feminine figures including groups of midwives or goddesses, such as the Kotharat, a collective name for a group of “skilful goddesses’.

As we move into the Iron Age (from 1200 until the time of Alexander the Great, but here I am only really concerned with the first few centuries) then this changes. Firstly, representations of female figures diminish quite dramatically in comparison to their male counterparts. Secondly, female figures are more likely to be represented by some abstract symbol such as a star or tree, rather than a human shape. In earlier designs these symbols typically appeared beside the figure, but as time went on the symbol displaced the person. Something happened to the way women were portrayed – and quite probably the roles they played in society – over the transition from Late Bronze to Iron.

What about the text of the Hebrew Bible? There are huge and ongoing debates as to when the various parts of this were first committed to writing, and subsequently collated into a unified text. On the surface, the historical narrative from Exodus to the end of Kings and Chronicles claims to derive from a wide span of time, including both second and first millennia BCE. There are very good reasons for thinking that the text was assembled into a coherent story somewhere in the first half of the 1st millennium. However, there are also very good reasons from analysis of both prose and poetry to think that some parts go back into the second millennium. If so, can we see any trace of the earlier higher profile of women?

The short answer is ‘yes’. The opening chapters of Exodus have a much higher concentration of women actively participating in events than any other part of the Hebrew Bible – there are the midwives who covertly spare baby boys’ lives from execution. Their prominence is comparable to that of female human and divine figures associated with birth in Ugarit. Beside them, we find Miriam and other significant women in Moses’ birth family, the pharaoh’s daughter who raised him, and so on. The images associated with the departure from Egypt deliberately ascribe giving birth and breast-feeding to God, presenting a distinctively feminine aspect to a figure often perceived as male.

The book where the decline of women’s fortunes is presented most starkly is Judges. Within a few chapters (covering at minimum a couple of hundred years) their position declines from an initial ability to inherit land and lead tribes in a prophetic role, down to widespread subordination and exposure to rape, humiliation and death. In terms of historical periods, Judges spans the time from the end of the Late Bronze age through Iron I – exactly the time when images on material artefacts undergo a radical change. Does this reflect increasing situations of personal danger and social anarchy? Or substantial revisions in the framework and basic assumptions of society itself?

In terms of my own writing, In a Milk and Honeyed Land and Scenes from a Life are both set at the tail end of the Late Bronze. They present societies where women have defined and important social roles, and in Kephrath and her three sister towns, inheritance passes through the female line. Households are defined in terms of the mother of the house rather than the father. This reflects what we know of the Late Bronze Age from artefact and text. If I continue writing forwards in time then at some point this happy state has to decline… by the turn of the millennium, so far as we can tell, women in the Levant were routinely in a subservient and threatened position. But there are a lot of books between 1200 and 1000…

Writing about religion

I have been wanting for some time to do occasional posts on the subject of religion in the second millennium BCE. Today’s post is a general start, loosely based on the rather short piece I did for the Orangeberry blog tour (Orangeberry book tour main page, or more specifically a guest post at Just My Opinion)

In that among other things I wrote

I enjoy writing about religion, or more exactly, I enjoy writing about people who have a religious faith. It is simply not possible to write about most ages of past human experience without including the religious life somewhere. Too often in books you come across a few very simple, and in my view quite unrealistic stereotypes. So there is the rabid fundamentalist, who reacts with violence to anything that seems to threaten his or her world view. Or there is the ruthless cynic, who knows it’s all make-believe and just wants to exploit others. Or there is the naïve villager, who is duped and never questions the wider system. Or there is the wise sage who holds to personal spirituality without the inconvenient trappings of any specific religion.

Now, I have at various times in my life mixed with and known people of faith who belong to various different religions, and I have to say that these simple pictures do not do justice to most of them. In terms of religious faith as well as other areas of life, people are more complex, and more interesting, than these stereotypes. They have doubt as well as faith, selfish as well as noble motives, mixed feelings about the religious institution they belong to, and, usually, commitment to a specific form of religion rather than a vague abstraction. They are often keenly interested in other forms of religion as well as their own, even if they think that those are ultimately incorrect.

Castlerigg stone circle, Lake District, England

For today I want to think about the many facets of religious life. The one which seems most obvious, judging from some of the books I read, is that of doctrine. I suppose it seems easy to quantify and approach, and is frequently used as s soft target by hostile writers: “these simple deluded folk really believe that the world was made from a discarded banana skin” or some such. For writers of a scientific disposition, it may seem a natural way to define a religion.

But many people who are spiritually inclined are well aware that this is a very small part of the religious life. In actual fact, doctrine is a serious intellectual pursuit and is frequently, in part, hard to follow. It also typically, in recognition that both the universe and the human organism are fantastically complicated things, has ideas and concepts which at first sight appear completely contradictory. The Egyptians, along with other peoples, were fond of this, making the quest for “Egyptian theology” quite a fruitless one. Some religious traditions have deliberately used these oppositional ideas to try to jog people out of complacency.

But more to the point, doctrine is not the centrally important thing to most religious groups that some writers present it as. To be sure, some groups place a very high store on sound knowledge, but still only as one facet amongst a much larger whole. In the Late Bronze Age world that I write about, doctrine is almost invisible. Readers will get very little sense of the details of Canaanite or Egyptian thinking from my books. The “favourite” goddess in Kephrath is Taliy, hardly one of the better known members of the Canaanite pantheon. Makty-Rasut, the main character in Scenes from a Life, expresses personal devotion to Seshat – again a figure that I suspect most people will need to use Google to learn about!

The second main area that you often find explored in fiction is spiritual experience; this typically gets a positive press, as it seems not specifically to tie in with the details of religion – “Trust your feelings, Luke”. It is certainly true that people recount their personal encounters with the numinous in very similar ways, regardless of their specific personal tradition. It is also true that these experiences are, seemingly, accessible to all, and evidence suggests that many, perhaps most people experience something of this at least once during their lives. Such experiences may be triggered by prayer or praise, but also by natural beauty, or sex, or moments of altruism. But equally, people who experience these moments more than just once in a lifetime have usually been involved with a particular religious tradition for a long time, and are thoroughly steeped in its particular disciplines and habits of thought. Even Luke has to disappear for an unspecified period of time to become trained and effective.

But there are other dimensions of religion which are often overlooked by writers. One is that of personal devotion. It seems attractive to some people to write about big temple ceremonies and lavishly dressed priests or priestesses – but in an agricultural world with no mass transportation, such pilgrimages must have been extraordinarily rare. Social classes below the elite may never have experienced them. For most people, the religious dimension of their life would be expressed in the home, or the village, with their families, friends, or next-door neighbours. Archaeological evidence and ancient texts support each other here, and we have strong evidence of household-level observance of rites and duties. I have equipped Kephrath with a high place, a small stone circle within and around which both religious and social events happen. We know that most settlements in the ancient near east had such arrangements of stones, though we do not know the details of how they were used. Today’s “community centres”, so important to isolated immigrant groups at risk of losing their identity after moving to a new nation, serve a similar purpose of blending religious observance and social need. In the absence of a dedicated religious building, the community centre serves as the focal point. Makty-Rasut, in Scenes from a Life, has a small statue of Seshat that he carries with him as a personal focus for prayer and devotion wherever he is living.

And this brings me on to the final dimension of the religious life for today – the social aspects. For many people in today’s world, in many different religions, social dimensions are in fact the most important ones that define their identity. Many Jews, Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on find their main experience of religion in the intricate web of the society around them. Huge numbers of people now and in the past have identified their religion not by rational assent to a doctrine, nor by vivid personal experience, but by the intimacy of their social network, and the place they and their family hold within it. The shape of a society (or a sub-group within society) is fashioned as an expression of religious commitment. Professor Dunbar has written of the cohesive effect of religion within human society (see for example a presentation he gave at a debate on race, religion and inheritance) – and also questioned whether this can or should continue in the future. That is a subject for another post – for today it is enough to recognise the central place of social interactions within people’s religious life. One of the central difficulties Makty has to face, though he does not really know how to articulate this, is how to step outside his familiar social circle into a different world. His statue of Seshat serves as a link back to the world he has known.

Enough for today – in a while I shall be writing about how religion changed between the second millennium Bronze Age and the first millennium Iron Age.