Objects and Ancient Religions
- Jay JohnstonJay JohnstonUniversity of Sydney
Objects are implicit in understanding ancient religious practice. Taken as any material artifact used by an individual practitioner, faith community, or religious hierarchy for devotional or ritual purposes, objects can be interpreted as playing a number of roles in ancient religious practice. These roles include being a marker of faith identity; the physical locus of a metaphysical agent, able to be utilized in devotional practice; a talisman imbued with apotropaic effect; or an object ascribed with a ritual function (distinct from other objects of the same type), for example, a chalice. These objects are large and small, stationary and mobile. They can be carried by groups in ceremonial procession or by an individual person; worn as jewelry or installed on a domestic or public altar; buried or purposively broken; and exchanged with others to create and maintain social and interfaith relations. In addition to the recognized statue forms embodying divinities, examples may also include ancient Egyptian funerary goods, carved gemstones (e.g., Gnostic gems), pendants (e.g., Thor’s hammer or a Christian cross),votive images and dedications (including small figurines and models of building complexes), amulets (e.g., inscribed objects or texts worn on the person), sacred robes or headdresses, temple furniture, musical instruments used in rituals, relics, and pilgrim’s mementoes.
Religious studies as an academic discipline has historically emphasized the textual foundations of belief practice; however, a turn toward “Material Religion” since the beginning of the 21st century, informed by broader material culture studies, has increasingly focused research upon the significant role of objects in religious practice. Of especial interest is their role in establishing, signaling, and maintaining individual and community identity and worldviews. This emphasis on material agency, although initially applied to interpreting prehistoric and indigenous “religion,” has more recently been employed to rethink identity and practice in faith traditions both ancient and contemporary. The very process of production (smelting, using naturally formed material, which may have been carved or painted,etc.), as well as how this is to be understood within a religious framework, including the metaphorical associations attributed to different types of material, has also been an area of sustained inquiry. Thus, these religious objects and what can be known of their use are “read” to understand lived religious practice. Rather than viewed as “secondary” to the written text, they are seen as crucial to the practice and development of faith. However, debate remains vibrant concerning those objects and their accompanying iconography when no, or limited, supporting textual sources exist and where conflicting interpretations have been presented. Further, there is increased recognition and critique of the degree to which academic fashions of the past have placed emphasis upon certain types of objects rather than others: for example, Greek statues contra artifacts involved in practices designated “magical” (and therefore not orthodox or mainstream; e.g., phylacteries, ritual handbooks, “demon bowls”), those employed in domestic piety (with associated gender bias), objects designated “low” culture, or objects of a rural or village practice rather than those found in urban centers.