Review: Living with the Gods; on Beliefs and Peoples by Neil MacGregor ( 2017) Assessment 6 out of 10

The Book has fine qualities, but limitations.

The fine qualities

It is a pleasure to read, with numerous beautiful colour illustrations.

Reading it, you hear the voice of the polymath, Neil MacGregor. He shows, through objects, places and rituals, how religious impulses built communities and how community built religion and states. “Who do we include in the community, which we call “we”?”

Significant points are made. At times you think, “Why didn’t I know/realise that?”

*”Stories are society”. They create and bind communities.

* Spirits and gods are imagined as actors causing the inexplicable, spirits a leaf away, gods on the mountain tops or, in the heavens, causing thunder.

* “Living with the Dead” is normal, in the Neolithic passing ancestor’s body parts from hand to hand, in Medieval relics and chantries and in modern Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Separating the living and the dead, as “our” culture does, is the exception.

*”A Place in Tradition” describes initiation into manhood in traditional societies. In the modern world, where teenagers know more about digital technology etc than their parents, the young have their own rites of passage.

*The Athenian Parthenon (and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus) were stores of value (Classical “central banks”), as much as places of worship.

*Temples were also abattoirs, the sites of animal sacrifice in clear view. Following the sacrifice, there was a strict order to division of the carcass. Certain parts were burned, going up to the Gods in smoke, the entrails examined for signs of divine approval, then barbecued. Meat was carved and distributed, the only time many Greeks ate meat. Ritual sacrifice thus played an important role in building and maintaining community. It also had importance in Classical theology, adapted by Rome’s child, Christianity, in “the sacrifice of the lamb of God” and ritual of Mass.

* A lithograph shows a Hindu being baptised by a Victorian missionary. It is suggested that, for the Hindu, there would have been no idea of conversion, leaving beliefs behind and adopting new beliefs. Rather, he would have approached the act with the greater tolerance of polytheistic than monotheistic religion. “One more god, and experiencing another ritual, can’t do harm.”

The limitations

The chapter on sacrifice, “Holy Killing”, follows “Gifts to the Gods”, on votive deposition, swords in the stone etc. Any links between the practices of ritual sacrifice and votive deposition, which academics suggest overlap, and are, in part, complementary, are however ignored.

“Beginnings of Belief” describes the 40,000 year old (!) Löwenmensch (Lion-man), a figure, part-lion, part-man, carved out of a curving mammoth tusk. Its production required skill and imagination, the time taken to create such a work of art investment by a community. That it represents totemism, virtually universal amongst hunter-gatherers, the adaptive belief man and nature, man and creatures, are one, with transformations between the two, is ignored.

“The Power of Song” describes the significance of Lutheran music in both faith and culture and how totalitarian regimes exploit synchronised marching and singing. MacGregor doesn’t comment on the way music preceded, and contributed to, the critical emergence of human language.

“Return of the Light” concerns the northern winter solstice. The emergence of the sun-goddess, Amateresu, supposedly ancestor of the Japanese emperors, from a cave in which she had taken refuge, is remembered in the Japanese “Rising Sun” banner.

Amateresu. Not the similarity to the iconography of the Japanese Imperial banner.

Newgrange, a Neolithic passage grave above the Boyne valley, is lit by a sunbeam “at the dead of winter”. It is suggested solstice is when barriers between the living and the dead faded, the beam leading the recently dead to join the ancestors in the tomb’s interior,reminding them that nothing ends in death and darkness, there is rebirth. There is no cross reference from Newgrange to “Living with the Dead”, two chapters later. You are left to feel your own way.

Hougue Bie, Grouville, Jersey lit by the rising sun of the Spring Equinox

“Return of the Light” is focused on images of, and sites marking, the winter solstice. How this ties in with other passage graves, like Hogue Bie, Jersey, illuminated by the sun at the spring and autumn equinoxes, or to the numerous circular British monuments, including henges and stone circles, thought to represent the sky above us, unconsidered.

“Spirits of Place” describes how the Australian landscape is not just the terrain the ancestors once walked and their spirits inhabited, it was created by and from those ancestors. There is a theology of place, which the community, unborn, living and dead, permanently inhabits. Community and place are inseparable. These are people who cannot move away. I wanted to explore these ideas further and found the lack of references frustrating. Throughout, there is a lack of notes, only three thin pages of “Further Reading”.

In “Fire and State”, MacGregor suggests the control of fire, for security, warmth and cooking, contributed to creation of communities. This is a persuasive view, but no supporting reference is provided. Rome’s sacred flame was maintained by Vesta, an unseen virgin goddess. MacGregor alludes to the paradox “found in many societies, that the virgin goddess is also the quintessential mother figure”. You think of the Virgin Mary, who is not referred to here, but, again, there is no note indicating a source for the idea.

Aborigine petroglyphs: the songlines patterns in the human adapted Landscape

A quite separate chapter,”Protectoresses”, [I liked the title, with its lack of gender neutrality!] describes first the Virgin Mary, in her native Mexican aspect, second Diane/ Aphrodite, the chaste goddess of hunt and unmarried girls, and, third and following her death, Princess Diane. Clearly the Protectoress is related to “the virgin goddess [who] is also the…mother figure”, referred to above, but without any cross-reference between the two, that they are not quite the same left unexplored.


I struggled how to score this book. It describes what beautiful objects tell us about religion and community, the hard back book, in its gold paper cover, itself a beautiful object.

Some individual chapters are great with witty chapter-names. However their order is eccentric. You might have expected “The Power of Song” and “Spirits of Place” to appear early in the book and not as the 10th and 23rd chapters, respectively.

I refer above to some of the chapters I liked. There are others, “The Accretion of Meaning”, “Harvest & Homage” etc I found trite. I already knew what MacGregor had to say.

The book’s limitations, (I think), derive partly from being based on a radio series. The separate chapters, (elegant in themselves), fit together poorly. Reading the book from cover to cover, as I did, you begin to lose the thread. Maybe it would be better read as a source book, dipping into particular chapters, but, for this, you would want better cross-referencing and proper notes.

If the book is looked at on the merits of its individual chapters, then I might have rated it 8 out of 10. However, written by Neil MacGregor, a superb writer and broadcaster and holder of the Order of Merit, and with the resources of BBC and British Museum researchers to call on, I have rated it 6 out of 10. Is that fair? Well that’s another question.

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