The ancient Egyptians were surrounded by various manifestations of their many gods. Though their gods usually lived in heaven or in the netherworlds, they were permanently represented on earth by monuments, statues, symbols, animals, and plants, as well as by social concepts. The Egyptians described their gods by various names and images, always aware that in the end their true personalities and characters remained elusive. The ancient Egyptian universe comprised heaven, earth, and netherworld, all part of creation and surrounded by eternal darkness. Though separate areas, they were permeable for the gods and the dead. The universe ran smoothly as long as there was respect and cooperation between them and the living. This formed an ideological, social, and economic cohesion. The gods were powerful but benevolent, and approachable in many ways. The divine king was the hub between the world of the gods and the human sphere. He was the main entity responsible for organizing the supply and welfare of the humans, and for keeping order. During official festivals, the living, the gods, and the dead celebrated together, but there were also a number of more personal ways to approach deities. The various sites of interaction between gods and men formed a vast network connecting all the players: the gods were responsible for creation and abundance, the kings and elites were primarily responsible for ensuring that the system ran according to Maat (“Order”), and the people were responsible for living and working throughout the country. The system of ancient Egyptian gods structured Egyptian ideas, policies, and everyday life from the end of the 4th millennium bce to the rise of Christianity and beyond. The ancient Egyptians’ beliefs were polytheistic, acknowledging the existence of thousands of gods and endless deceased humans. At times, the ancient Egyptians appeared to be henotheistic and would exalt a deity in his or her uniqueness. Moreover, with Akhenaten, they were the first to experiment with monotheism, though that did not last much longer than a decade. The ideas and images created for the Egyptian gods and religion had an impact on many contemporaneous cultures, as well as on later religions.
Gods in Ancient Egypt
Islam, Art, and Depictions of Prophets
The history of figurative painting in Islamic lands, although limited to certain regions and periods, includes a meaningful variety of saintly iconographies, mostly as book illustrations. Produced from the turn of the 14th to the early 17th century in Iranian capital cities or in the Ottoman Empire, paintings of prophets illuminate manuscripts of universal histories, encyclopedias, didactic poetry, and anthologies of prophetic biographies (Stories of the Prophets). They depict personages, not necessarily prophets, from the Old and the New Testaments, two Arab prophets mentioned in the Qurʼan, and finally Muhammad (and ʿAli, although he was not a prophet). The acts of these figures served as moral and spiritual models for the individual believers and, no less so, for the desired behavior of Muslim rulers. In Iran, the message of the illustrated texts and their paintings shifts from historical to moral, and often to mystical. In the Ottoman Empire, in addition, the prophets were conceived as forefathers of the Ottoman dynasty. In Moghul India, only Solomon and Jesus were depicted, not very often, while Joseph’s story was quite popular in late Kashmir. The impact of Western iconography and style, which characterize the recurrence of Jesus’ image, is seen also in later Iran, where portrayals of Solomon, Joseph, and Jesus were painted mainly on decorative objects, such as pen boxes and book bindings.
Magic and the Occult in Martin Luther’s World
Kathryn A. Edwards
In the 15th- and early-16th-century German-speaking lands, reports circulated of spirits shaking the walls of houses, comets presaging imminent doom, and dwarves warning miners to leave their tunnels. Widely accepted, such accounts point to a worldview in which the natural was believed to encompass a far broader swath of beings and activities than modern definitions of the term. Humans were enmeshed in a world where forces beyond human experience and, at times understanding, were active; they accepted their place in it and manipulated it, if necessary. When studying such attitudes and the practices surrounding them, scholars of late medieval and early modern religious movements must move beyond truisms about “magical” or “enchanted” worlds to understand the impulses driving both reformers and those they wished to reform. Certainly 15th- and 16th-century Germans accepted that the divine permeated all creation, as creation was a product of God, and they saw divine manifestations throughout their world. Based on this truism, scholars have debated the extent to which pre-modern Europe was an enchanted world for approximately a century. Yet the powers imbuing that world had a more complex relationship to divinity than the somewhat romantic connotations of “enchanted” found in various modern works. Magicians, witches, devils, and other entities were all created beings who could access powers beyond the normal ken but were certainly not divine, despite any claims they might make to the contrary. Because such powers were imbued into nature itself, they were accessible to ordinary humans as well. And access them humans did! They were invoked to protect a village, cure ill children, and ward off injuries to livestock. They could also be used for evil, and archival and print documents attest to the practice of maleficent or demonic magic by learned clergy and illiterate peasants alike. When Protestant reformers demanded recognition of God’s omnipotence, they implicitly condemned this applied, occult magic and, in the process, practices that reflected a complete cosmology, that is, an understanding of how this world and the heavens operated. In this circumstance, it is not surprising that even the early reformers themselves could seem reluctant to abandon this immanent occultism.
Magic in the Graeco-Roman World
Magic in the Graeco-Roman world is a disputed concept among modern historians, whose interpretation has changed significantly over the last 200 years of study. In studying it we may either focus on terms from ancient languages translatable as “magic,” or examine materials and practices that may be classified as “magic” according to modern definitions. Ancient terminology centers around terms such as the Greek word mageia, and its Latin cognate magia, referring to superhuman practices that often involved the manipulation of the natural and divine worlds through secret knowledge and ritual. Objects identified by modern scholars as magical include curse tablets, written objects intended to injure, bind, or render harmless their victims, magical handbooks written on papyrus, providing instructions for rituals, and amulets, often in the form of semiprecious stones inscribed with images of deities and short texts. While some of these practices are reflected in ancient literary sources discussing magic, literary texts also show an exaggerated discourse, in which magic-users may be stereotyped according to their ethnicity (exotic magicians from Egypt, Syria, or Judaea) or gender (lurid images of witches), and practices are depicted as fantastical and extreme, involving acts such as human sacrifice. Popular images of magic and actual practice come together in laws and regulations against magic and its users, primarily from the period of the Roman Empire. These may be in the form of imperial law, or else Christian and non-Christian cultic rules, which prescribe social exclusion or even death, so that accusations of magic could be a potent tool in social conflicts.
Popular Culture and Religion in America
Lynn Schofield Clark and Seth M. Walker
“Popular culture” is a term that usually refers to those commercially produced items specifically associated with leisure, media, and lifestyle choices. To study religion in popular culture, then, is to explore religion’s appearance in the commercially produced artifacts and texts of a culture. The study of popular culture has been a catalyst of sorts in the context of studying religion. Some have speculated that with the increasing presence of religion in commercially produced products and specifically in the entertainment media, religion may be reduced to entertainment. Others, however, have argued that religion has always been expressed and experienced through contemporary forms of culture, and thus its manifestation in popular culture can be interpreted as a sign of the vitality rather than the demise or superficiality of contemporary religions. Popular culture is worthy of study given its role in cultural reproduction. The study of popular culture and religion encourages scholars to consider the extent to which popular cultural representations limit broader critical considerations of religion by depicting and reinforcing taken-for-granted assumptions of what religion is, who practices it and where, and how it endures as a powerful societal institution. Alternately, popular culture has been explored as a site for public imaginings of how religious practices and identities might be different and more inclusive than they have been in the past, pointing toward the artistic and playful ways in which popular religious expression can comment upon dominant religion, dominant culture, and the power relations between them. With the rise of an ubiquitous media culture in which people are increasingly creators and distributors as well as consumers and modifiers of popular culture, the term has come to encompass a wide variety of products and artifacts, including those both commercially produced and generated outside of traditional commercial and religious contexts. Studies might include explorations of religion in such popular television programs as Orange Is the New Black or in novels such as The Secret Life of Bees, but might also include considerations of how religion and popular culture intersect in practices of Buddhism in the virtual gaming site Second Life, in the critical expressions of Chicana art, in the commercial experiments of Islamic punk rock groups, and in hashtag justice movements. The study of religion and popular culture can be divided into two major strands, both of which are rooted in what is known as the “culture and civilization tradition.” The first strand focuses on popular culture, myth, and cultural cohesion or continuity, while the second explores popular culture in relation to religion, power, and cultural tensions.
Religion and Humanity in Mesopotamian Myth and Epic
Concepts of religion and humanity form an integral component of Mesopotamian narrative literature, and these ideas are evidenced in the frequent exploration of themes involving mortality and immortality, power and authority, and creation and destruction. Through the use of plot, characterization, literary themes and techniques, and also structure, Mesopotamian myths and epics transmit religious ideas and beliefs, as well as informing on cultural identity and meaning. In both oral and written transmission, storytelling is a powerful medium for exploring ancient theology. Religious ideas are expressed in a wide array of Mesopotamian literary works, and while some features, such as the polytheistic view of the divine hierarchy, remain generally constant, different texts and “genres” show changes in focus and in the perception of the divine and the human. While deities and supernatural creatures have a prominent role in literature, Mesopotamian myth is not only concerned with theistic matters, but also with what it means to be human. It is often observed in modern scholarly works that humans, in the Babylonian Flood narrative of Atrahasis, and the creation myth of Enuma Elish, were born to serve the gods and perform their menial tasks. This is undoubtedly an important observation for the analysis of humanity and religion, yet the presentation of human/divine relations as one of simple subjection gives a misleading and superficial impression of the interaction between the mortal and divine spheres, one that is at odds with the subject’s complexity, variety, and subtlety. Myths and epics provide a multifaceted picture of a number of different types of relationships between gods and humans: even in the narrative of Atrahasis, individual deities interact with humans in different ways; there is no “one size fits all” divine connection in Mesopotamian literature. Despite a rigid hierarchy in favor of the divine, these relationships are frequently close, involving strong emotional bonds. The human/divine connection is not solely beneficial to either party, but reciprocal and often mutually rewarding. At the same time, the relations between humans and deities can be destructive and damaging—with the harm most often depicted to occur on the human side, possibly because of the vulnerability offered by mortality and the lack of supernatural abilities. Humanity is reflected in the anthropomorphic representations of deities and also the sociomorphism of their family-oriented community structure. For heroes of epic literature, the divine connection can be perilous, but also rewarding. The success of heroes in accessing divine support is frequently (but not exclusively) linked to the morality of their actions. Religion and humanity in literature concern not only deities’ interactions with humans, but also how the authors of literature conceptualized and gave meaning to the human condition. It is clear from Mesopotamian literature that close, positive relationships with the divine were important for survival and success during the human lifespan (and even beyond), yet at the same time, the answer to questions of finding meaning in mortal existence is at times presented in very human terms. Love, alongside shared human achievements and experiences, is presented in several literary sources as essential for giving meaning to the human condition.
Religion in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greek religion was a polytheistic religion without a book, church, creed, or a professional priestly class. Due to the extraordinarily rich regional varieties in cult, fragmentary evidence and conjectural interpretations of it, conflicting mythological accounts, and the span of time treated, not a single absolute statement can be made about any aspect of Greek religion and exceptions exist for every general rule stated here. Since Ancient Greeks perceived all aspects of nature as either divine or divinely controlled, and all aspects of individual and social life were thought to be subject to supernatural influence, paying proper respect to the gods and heroes was understood to be a fundamental necessity of life. Since no aspect of individual or social life was separate from “religion,” scholars refer to Ancient Greek religion as “embedded.”1 The closest Ancient Greek comes to the English word “religion” are the noun thrēskeia (“acts of religious worship, ritual, service of gods”) and the verb thrēskeuō (“to perform religious observances”). Basic components of religious worship were the construction and upkeep of divine precincts, statues, altars, and temples, the observance of festivals, performance of sacrifices, bloodless offerings and libations, prayer, hymning, and observance of ritual abstinences and purifications. The closest Greek equivalents to “belief” were eusebeia (“reverent piety,” “respect”) and pistis (“trust in others” or “faith”).2 Both words could qualify a relationship between humans, as well as a relationship between humans and a supernatural entity. Since the Ancient Greeks did not have authoritative or divinely sent books of revelation, there was no script telling them what or whom to believe in and outlining the reasons why. The Greeks did not have professional priests who preserved, interpreted, and disseminated religious norms.3 However, Greek literature is brimming with gods, and the stories about the gods, which they (and we) call “myths,” were not only in all their texts, but everywhere around them: depicted on their pottery, painted on their walls, chiseled on the stones of their buildings.4 In the public space, there were countless divine statues, and the temples, altars, sacred groves, and divine precincts were everywhere around them. Ancient Greeks learned about the gods by hearing, watching, and doing: by seeing their parents perform a sacrifice, by observing them as they prayed, swore an oath, or performed libations, by participating in processions, singing and dancing in the chorus, eating the sacrificial meat in the sanctuaries, and by drinking wine, the gift of Dionysus. Ancient Greeks had no immediate need for theodicy, for the gods could be either benevolent, or angry, and their benevolence was perceived as a sign that the worship the community offered was appropriate, whereas natural catastrophes, crippling defeats in wars, or epidemics were interpreted as manifestations of divine anger, provoked by some human error or misstep.5 Ancestral gods and heroes and the traditional way of worshipping them formed the cornerstone of Greek religiosity.
Tibetan Buddhism and the Gesar Epic
Solomon George FitzHerbert
In both eastern Tibet and in Mongolia, the Buddhist cult surrounding the figure of Ling Gesar (Gling ge sar) or Geser Khan in Mongolian versions is an outgrowth of Gesar’s standing as the eponymous hero of an elaborate oral epic tradition. Today, the epic and the Buddhist cult exist side by side in a relationship of symbiosis. Gesar’s sanctification as an enlightened being—as the combined manifestation of the Three Bodhisattva Lords and as an “emissary” or “manifestation” of Padmasambhava—whose tricksterism is enacted on behalf of the forces of goodness, justice, and the White Side in its perennial battle against the forces of evil, injustice, and the Dark Side—is both an outgrowth but also a source of nourishment for the epic tradition as it has continued to adapt and develop up to our own times. The Gesar/Geser epic, in all the three main regions in which it survives (eastern Tibet and its neighboring regions, the Mongolic regions as far west as Kalmykia, and Ladakh and neighboring regions), is a living and mobile tradition of oral recitation and improvisation. The available textual corpus of this epic is very large, though none of it is very old (the oldest available epic texts in Tibetan are from the 17th century and in Mongolian are from 18th century). Thanks in part to sustained state patronage in the PRC, there are now over 200 published volumes of non-duplicating Gesar epic narrative and song, mostly from eastern Tibet. A lot of this material is of a directly oral provenance. Many modern volumes are the direct transcriptions (with some editing) of the oral repertoires of contemporary bards, some of which have been very lengthy. To take one example, the recorded repertoire of the bard Samdrup (Bsam grub) (1922–2011) was over 3,000 hours long, much of which has now been published. As for literary versions, the authors of Gesar epic texts often make explicit the debt that their tellings owe to oral renditions that they have heard. The mid-18th-century author of the famous Horling Yülgyé (Hor gling g.yul ’gyed), for example, mentions that he based his telling on the oral repertoires of “some twenty bards,” several of whom he cites by name. Due to the heterogeneity and sheer volume of this available textual corpus, it is hard to make categorical assertions about the relationship between Buddhism and the epic tradition, since that relationship varies from version to version. However, some general observations may be offered. In the ritual cult devoted to Gesar that evolved from the epic tradition, matters are somewhat clearer. In the ritual texts devoted to Gesar—which are mostly offering texts—the unruly polyphony of the epic (many bards, many characters, many perspectives) is replaced with a neater integrated vision, in which the hero is praised as a totalizing culture hero and enlightened lord—a hero in every register, both worldly and spiritual, both chivalric and shamanistic.