The British Museum Is Living With Gods In A Revelatory Exhibition

Living with Gods, The British Museum ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 50 months ago

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The British Museum Is Living With Gods In A Revelatory Exhibition Living with Gods, The British Museum 4
These tiles feature the constantly burning fire to represent Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. © The Trustees of the British Museum

What unites 85% of the world's population? It's the faith in something or someone greater than themselves, driving the the 4,ooo or so religions that exist today.

This British Museum exhibitions looks at world religions from the familiar Abrahamic faiths, to the more obscure beliefs of the Sami people in Finland. It examines what makes religion meaningful, vital and perhaps inevitable.

A beautiful model of the Holy Sepulchre church made from wood and mother of pearl. © The Trustees of the British Museum

A half man half lion greets us as we enter this show. It is 40,000 years old and the oldest evidence of human spirituality, suggesting that our belief in transcendence is innate. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said:

No state has ever been founded without religion serving as its base.

The lion man is over 40,000 years old and the first known evidence of religion. © Museum Ulm, photo: Oleg Kuchar, Ulm

The exhibition then takes us on a whirlwind tour of global faiths by progressing through a series of themes. Water is referenced in Islamic flasks used to store Zamzam water from a sacred well, which is said to have miraculously sprung when Abraham's son Ishmael was crying from thirst in the desert — the well continues to run today. A very different take on water is a sculpture of a native American figure performing a rain dance. This contrast is typical of this show that bounces between religions at breakneck speed.

We learn about how in Shintoism dragons are seen as responsible for earthquakes, there are reindeer skinned drums used by shamans to enter a trance and Japanese couples hoping for children will often leave a wooden phallus at a temple.

These lion dogs are designed to keep evil spirits away. © The Trustees of the British Museum

As well as fascinating insights into other beliefs, there are beautiful and intriguing objects on display: from a water chestnut necklace that belonged to a Sufi mystic, to a pair of ceramic lion dogs that protect a home from evil spirits. There is a stunning wood and mother of pearl model of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and a a scale representation of a Hindu temple vehicle is exquisite in its detail.

The Hindu God Shiva performs a dance of creating and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

This show deserves particular praise for the active choice that has been made to not simply focus on the more familiar faiths such as Christianity and Islam. It shines a light on faiths from across the world and highlight how diverse world religion is from the Yoruba of West Africa to the Zoroastrians in India and Iran.

A miniature prayer book believed to have belonged to Elizabeth I. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Even a section on conflict surprised us as we were expecting wars that used religion to justify them, such as the Crusades. However, the focus is instead on the persecution of religions, such as Christians who were executed in 16th and 17th century Japan and the Soviet Union attempts to remove religion altogether — there's a propaganda poster of a cosmonaut floating through space and seeing that 'there is no God'.

We learned a lot from this show and exited feeling like our world knowledge had broadened significantly. By jumping between religions the show kept us riveted throughout. The British Museum can't possibly cover everything about world faiths in one show but this is a fantastic starting point to educate and make visitors want to learn more about different beliefs in the world.

This Tibetan mask is formidable so it can serve its purpose of scaring evil spirits away. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Living with Gods: Peoples, places and worlds beyond is on at The British Museum from 2 November to 8 April. Tickets are £15 for adults.

Last Updated 17 November 2017