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Divining the divine: book review

To hear that victorious armies carried home the heads of conquered gods, only to set them up for worship back home, makes us realise that holiness possessed its own distinctive currency in the ancient world. Though their followers died, Gods survived to live another day. A review of And Man Created God, by Selina O'Grady.

Jessica Frazier
5 March 2013
SelinaOGradyMan.jpg

To the scholar, Selina O’Grady’s tour of ancient global history feels like a birthday treat: a bit of revisionist history in which all the children forgotten at previous parties (the cults! deities! forgotten messiahs!) get invited at last. But what tune will they be forced to dance to once they are on stage? One feels that an unsettling surprise may be in store for them. 

This continent–leaping exploration of the intellectual landscape of the silk-road stretching from Rome to China during the centuries surrounding Christianity’s birth definitely has a point to make. But it takes its time, weaving its evidence together with the infinite patience of the good historian – this despite its polemical title and the illustrative image of Adam zapping God into existence on the cover of the American version.

This patience combined with O’Grady’s love lust almost - for the past in all its detail, gives us hope that she will really have something to add to the oft-repeated adage that humans have created religion. That’s a message that should be familiar by now, since we have heard it so many times, whether as a claim that religion was created to give comfort (Karl Marx), wish-fulfilment (Sigmund Freud), practical aid (J.G. Frazer), social cohesion (Emile Durkheim), self-understanding (Ludwig Feuerbach), or just a sense that there really is something meaningful out there in the wilderness of the world (Peter Berger). So if O’Grady wants to add to this century-old chorus, one can’t help but feel that she’d better have something new to say. 

One of the book’s aims is nothing less than to provide us with the sure-fire, Edward-Gibbon-and- Friedrich-Nietzsche-approved Idiot’s Guide to creating a world-dominating super-religion. This is the book’s implicit hook from the start. O’Grady proceeds almost as if the reader were Augustus Caesar approaching the oracle to ask how best an aspiring emperor might grab the reigns of history. Like a diviner with a magic mirror, she shows us the long-lost moments that shaped the history we know today. 

Emperor Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD).
Wikimedia Commons/Aiwok. Some rights reserved.

In the opening chapters we drop in on the Emperor Augustus as he promotes himself to Godhood by way of imperial propaganda. We travel east with the Pythagorean holy man Apollonius as he is courted by Babylonian kings; veer south to meet the Nubian queen Candace Amanirenas who holds power by virtue of inherited divinity; and east again to watch the emperors of India adopt Buddhism, and those in China a range of heavenly helpers from Confucius to the divine Queen Mother of the West. Along the way O’Grady shows us so many bloody deaths and nubile dancing girls that MGM could have filmed the book with Charlton Heston in a loincloth. 

But nevertheless the book’s message comes through: religions and governments both survive through the symbiotic alliance of religion and power. This is a pattern that over the millennia in deserts and cities, among agrarian communities and warrior peoples, between men and women, and theistic and atheist faiths alike, the book illustrates again and again. O’Grady’s tale of history echoes the best-selling novel Cloud Atlas. The same stories happen repeatedly, unknowingly played out by the same protagonists in different guises. But for O’Grady, the story is not one of struggles-for-justice as in Cloud Atlas, nor of political-conspiracies as in Umberto Eco’s recent The Prague Cemetary. Here, instead, we have the age-old Marxist history of governments-hijacking-Gods. 

O’Grady is a veritable Scheherazade. Each chapter takes us to a new land and tells us a new story with the sting of a political exposé in its tail. And like the author of the Arabian nights, she keeps our attention along the way with the thrill of the exotic. This book is full of eunuch priests howling like dogs, and ascetics perched on giant phallus-tips, kings feasting on tender dishes of tiger loins, while armless boys play the trumpet with their feet. In one chapter, self-castrated young men hurling their bloody genitals through random city doors, while in another Rome’s men bestow so many ‘light kisses on the mouth’ on each other that Tiberius must ban them in order to end a herpes outbreak. O’Grady’s ancient world is as colourful as any historophile could desire, even if it sometimes veers into the realm of the Orientalist itself, with its irrational Indian masses celebrating ritual dances of ‘lust’, and its ‘monumentally fat’ Nubian queen ‘revealing one pendulous breast’. 

But, dubiously mouth-watering as her characterisations sometimes are, they often teach serious lessons about history. To hear that victorious armies carried home the heads of conquered gods, only to set them up for worship back home, makes us realise that holiness possessed its own distinctive currency in the ancient world. Though their followers died, Gods survived to live another day just as treasure never dies but gets passed from hand to hand. Hearing of Pompey’s shock on tearing back the curtain of the temple to discover that the Hebrews housed a bodiless ‘purely mental’ deity in their Holy of Holies, we can begin to imagine a world in which religions were practically treated as commodities to be stolen and sold in the market place, alongside reams of silk, and jars of myrrh. 

O’Grady shows us that divinity was never so rare and distant a thing in the past as it has become in the monotheistic modern West. This is a key to understanding O’Grady’s ancient world, and one that will resonate with anyone who has travelled through the religious landscapes of Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Bali, China or any other countries that still preserve the animist religious beliefs that predominated two thousand years ago. 

One will not be shocked by O’Grady’s revelation that Vespasian was called the ‘Saviour’, and Queen Candace Amanirenas was deemed a living deity, when even today one finds shrines across Thailand at which the Earth Goddess is revered together with images of the Queen of Thailand, the Boddhisattva Guanyin, the Hindu Goddess Durga and a dog-eared photo of somebody’s grandma. 

O’Grady describes the animist culture of the ancient world as a “jumbling mass of gods”, “merging, amoeba-like” and competing in a Darwinian natural selection by best fit-to-environment. In the delirious tragi-comic contingency of great history, when monsoon winds may deny a proselyte access to the city that would have made him a saint, or the madness of an emperor may skew the progress of a civilisation, religions seem like so many Sinbads, thrust by sea winds into foreign lands where they rely as much on luck as on their intrinsic virtues. A deity carried away on the trade winds may return home elevated in status, or it may perish.

In many ways And Man Created God is a travel-book; the chapters take us city by city along the trade routes that wove together Europe, Africa and Asia, then as now. This sense of a shared landscape suggests a world that was global in its very fabric (inch by crop-producing inch, and mile by bandit-filled mile), and not merely global in its virtual technologies and mass media. This is perhaps the great success of the book, conducting us on our own eclectic pilgrimage through cities we never thought we would see alive, such as Jordan’s bustling, busy Petra. 

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Byzantine Empress Zoe (978 – 1050).
Wikimedia Commons/Myrabella. Some rights reserved.

O’Grady’s stylistic talent is in trusting her historical imagination to weave a wide range of sources together, making us feel that she really is showing us the past. We smell Rome as a living breathing reality around Augustus and Livia, stand before the temple with Jewish rebels, and feel Indian pearls and silks under our fingertips, as we pass onward over the Himalayas toward Buddhist-Confucian-Taoist China.

But story-telling is both the most revealing and most concealing way to do history. Occasionally the text is seduced by its own florid scene-setting, making us forget the point the chapter intends to make. The book can be a bit repetitive, and many readers may want to skip a lost-city of the near-east or two. Some of the ideas that organise all these details can also look rather crude. Reducing the whole of Hinduism to the Brahmin-dominated caste system, as the Indian chapters threaten to do, is not only risibly reductionist, but also disturbingly colonialist. The use of Rome as a paradigmatic case of success can give the book a somewhat triumphalist tone – surely unintended. And it seems a bit dogmatic to claim offhand that Nubians under Queen Candace did not prize themselves as individuals. Many scholars of religion would raise an eyebrow at O’Grady’s use of theories like Max Weber’s opposition between popular ritual religion and elite rational religion, noting that such simplifications serve as a sneaky way for the elite to congratulate themselves on their ‘superiority’. 

But the overall effect is that of the Arabian Nights, subtly weaving an idea into our minds with each new tale. And as in the Arabian Nights, important insights about human nature abound. Since the early twentieth century, the modern west has come to see ‘spirituality’ as a form of therapy – a set of methods for feeling better. But O’Grady reminds us that religions flourish partly by making demands that keep us invested (like giving up certain pleasures), and partly by highlighting threats (such as meaninglessness, moral punishment, or annihilation) that drag our attention back from the insistent but shallow tasks of quotidian life.

The best thing, for me at least, about this book is that by shifting us backward in time, it changes all of our assumptions about the shining ‘modern-ness’ we seem to have achieved after a century of war and doubt, travel and communication. Globalisation has become the buzz-word of the early twenty-first century, but O’Grady’s magic mirror shows that it is one of the oldest features of the civilised world. Does New York seem the proverbial city of immigrants? One would do well to look more closely at Ancient Rome and Alexandria. Is London negotiating a new ‘multi-cultural’ religious identity? Consider the solutions long-ago tested out on the Gangetic plain or in Andalusia. Do Cairo and Tunis today seem the centre of popular uprisings against foreign-influenced tyrants? One could learn a lot from looking to the peasant revolts of Ancient China or the angry rebellions that took place in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

In following O’Grady’s grand narrative we see that every divine regent, usurper or prophet dies in the end – only the ideas survive. And therein lies the secret to immortality, the book hints. The man who is also an idea may die and yet live, rising from the tomb to speak again to his friends, and even to strangers in other lands.

But above all, in a media culture flooded with access to different ideas, the ancient citizen who struggled to choose between Isis, Apollo, the latest mystery cult, and Pauline Christianity, has much in common with today’s ambivalent census-filler, Wikipedia-ing his or her way between faiths on a laptop in Starbucks, while buses carrying paid-up Humanist advertisements pass by. 

Atheism is just another of the hawkers in today’s global market – and not a new one, by the way, for it has existed in India and Greece for that matter, for two and a half thousand years. The real question for the everyday person through the ages, is how to look past the state funding and the slick sophism, and choose for oneself a point of view – or abjure them all for an honest, quiet agnosticism.

In the final chapter of the book, entitled ‘And Paul Created Christ’, there is no thought-provoking insight to add anything to the standard, rather crude reading of Nietzsche, Gibbons, Marx, Engels, Hitchens, Dawkins and the rest. One feels the author has said more during the journey than she does here. O’Grady is not interested in understanding the ideas behind Stoicism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism or the worship of Atargatis, Isis, and Yahweh. She writes with the mind of a spin-doctor, primarily concerned with charting the practical uses of the ideas, not the content that made them so useful. The result is little interest in following the lives and experiences of the world’s populace through their doubt, faith, and everything in between. O’Grady wants to stay up on the balcony with the cynical aristocrats, watching the masses below battle out issues of truth and meaning through the medium of gods and goddesses, secrets, lies and hopes.

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Isis at the Louvre Museum.
Wikimedia Commons/Marie-Lan Nguyen. Some rights reserved.

This leaves a crucial interpretive gap in the book’s attempt to explain the rise of Christian Rome over its competitors. One of the most telling moments in the whole book is when she wonders aloud why the first-century holy man Apollonius, so much more famous than the little Jewish carpenter, nevertheless failed where Jesus succeeded. “Maybe Apollonius did not have the right message”, she speculates - and there she leaves us cliff-hanging over an ocean of ideological debate. There is so much more to say here about the contrast between Pythagoreanism and Jesus’ ‘new Judaism’, or the other philosophies that fought for the soul of Europe, Africa and Asia in those crucial centuries from 400 BCE to 400 CE. But O’Grady passes over such matters in silence to tell us still-more anecdotes about Machiavellian murders and self-castrating eunuchs.

In many ways O’Grady’s book serves as a titillating reminder of alternative realities that are lost to us today. The west might have grown to modernity under the political gaze of a human god-emperor, or in the embrace of Isis, our-Mother-in-Heaven, or in a cosmos ‘saved’ by Apollonius’ reverence for the divine geometry of the stars – with Brian Cox as the latest in his line of prophets. There are other histories reaching through the fabric of this book, wider contexts asking to be remembered, and different tales that might have been told; all of which is to say that this is quite good history, but not very good history. While it is good to see so many neglected deities present at this party, they still haven’t been allowed to say very much… which suggests to me that the whispering of the Gods must still wield some of their old power over us after all. 

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