Living With The Gods

Episodes

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04/11/201720171105

Neil MacGregor examines how shared beliefs have shaped societies around the world, from the very earliest days of humanity.

Becoming An Adult20171101

Neil MacGregor focuses on rites of passage, including a hair-binding ritual from Vanuatu.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on rites of passage, marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, including a lock of bound hair, from the collections of the British Museum, which reveals an important ritual for teenage boys on the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Change Your Life20171116

Neil MacGregor focuses on images with a purpose - to change the viewer's behaviour.

Neil MacGregor continues his series about the expression of shared beliefs with a focus on images which seek to change the viewer's behaviour.

A small coloured wood-cut, created in the Netherlands around 1500, offers a particularly gruesome rendering of Christ's crucifixion. Christ is pictured with blood pouring from his torso, his head, his legs and his outstretched arms. These are not realistically arranged droplets; instead we see a flurry of vertical red strokes, tightly packed together and evenly spaced. Neil MacGregor reflects on the purpose of this image.

He also considers a serene figure of the Buddha, a halo behind his head, already in his enlightened state.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Festivals20171110

Neil MacGregor focuses on special gatherings and how they shape a communal identity.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time, and focuses on festivals, and their role in shaping a communal identity.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gifts To The Gods20171107

Neil MacGregor focuses on offerings, including gold consigned to a Colombian lake.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time, and focuses on offerings.

High in the Andes in Colombia, the indigenous Muisca population consigned highly-wrought gold figurines to the waters of Lake Guatavita.

Records of the treasures stored in the Parthenon, Athens, dating from around 400BC, reveal numerous gifts for the goddess Athena - gifts with a double role. The Parthenon was also a kind of central bank, capable of operating as a lender of last resort, creating an intimate connection between the temple of a goddess and the finance of the state.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Global Gods, Local Needs20171123

Neil MacGregor on how gods reach new communities, and how they are adapted and changed.

Neil MacGregor continues his series about the expression of shared beliefs with a focus on gods can reach new communities, and how those communities can then adapt and change the faiths.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gods Living Together20171124

Neil MacGregor focuses on how faiths co-exist in India.

Holy Killing20171108

Neil MacGregor focuses on Aztec human sacrifices, and animal sacrifice in ancient Greece.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time, and focuses on sacrifice..

Displayed in the British Museum is a finely-crafted Aztec knife, dating from around 1500, with a richly-decorated handle. It had a brutal purpose - human sacrifice.

In ancient Greece, animal sacrifice was a vital ritual for connection with the deities: the grounds of a Greek temple were in part a sacred public slaughter-house.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Lines Of Communication20171102

Neil MacGregor focuses on prayer, an individual activity that is also profoundly communal.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on prayer, reflecting on how this most highly individualized of activities is also a profoundly communal act, with objects including a 16th century ivory and gold qibla, used to find the direction of Mecca - a function now offered by smartphone apps.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Living With Each Other20171201

Neil MacGregor concludes his series on shared beliefs with a look to the future and hope.

Neil MacGregor concludes his series on how shared beliefs have shaped societies.

He began with the Lion Man, an object created 40 000 years ago, and now reflects on the present, on the future and on hope.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Living With Many Gods20171120

Neil MacGregor focuses on societies with many gods, including the Romans in Britain.

Neil MacGregor's series on the role and expression of beliefs continues with a focus on societies living with many gods.

In the mid-1840s, a Roman earthenware jar was dug from the earth near Felmingham Hall in Norfolk. Inside, excavators found several belief systems, all mixed up together - for buried in the pot was a jumble of gods, deities of different kinds and origins, that tell us what it meant for people in Roman Britain around the year 250 to be living with many gods.

The great ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh includes a narrative with striking similarities to - but important differences from - the story of Noah in the Bible. Here a council of gods is persuaded to unleash a great flood to wipe out humankind.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Living With No Gods20171128

Neil MacGregor on societies who banished religion, from revolutionary France to the USSR.

Neil MacGregor focuses on societies which aimed to live without religious beliefs.

Neil examines a revolutionary clock, from around 1795, created in the wake of the French Revolution, and designed to mark a new way of living: in an age of reason, there would no longer be royalism or religion in France.

A poster from the Soviet Union celebrates the apparent triumph of scientific progress: the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin floats in space, looks out and proclaims 'There is no God!'. It seems that the heavens are empty of divine beings, but full, instead, of starry promise.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Living With One God20171121

Neil MacGregor's series continues with a focus on societies and faiths with a single god.

Neil MacGregor's series on the role and expression of beliefs continues with a focus on societies and faiths with a single god.

Using objects from both ancient Babylon and ancient Egypt, Neil examines how one god could become central to worship in these societies.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Living With The Dead20171030

Neil MacGregor's series continues with a focus on our relationship with the dead.

Neil MacGregor's series on the role and expression of beliefs continues with a reflection on our relationship with the dead.

In the British Museum, he focuses on mummy bundles from Peru, skeletons wrapped in textiles made of llama wool or cotton. For the living, these were ancestors with great wisdom and knowledge of the world, who could be called upon to help key decision-makers.

He also examines two Chinese 'ancestor portraits', and discovers how and why they were venerated by surviving family members.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Mother And Child20171031

Neil MacGregor focuses on the protection of the newly-born and their mothers.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on how societies and communities seek to protect the newly-born and their mothers, including the role of St Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of childbirth, and the use of protective omamori in Japan.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Our Place In The Pattern2017102720181116 (R4)

Neil MacGregor explores how communities explain their place in the grand scheme of things

Neil MacGregor explores the role and expression of shared beliefs around the world.

Rejecting The Image20171117

Neil MacGregor reflects on faiths which focus on the word rather than the image.

Neil MacGregor's series on the role and expression of beliefs continues with a reflection on faiths which focus on the word rather than the image.

A striking cobalt blue mosque lamp, from around 1570, shows an Islamic way of doing honour to the word: calligraphy.

In Jewish religious ceremonies a yad - a small silver rod with a little hand and a pointing index finger - is used to follow the text during readings from the Torah, to avoid any damage to the delicate parchment.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Replicating The Divine20171114

Neil MacGregor focuses on Russian Orthodox icons and the Hindu goddess Durga.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs with a focus on the making of divine images.

For the painter of a Russian religious icon, the paramount purpose is the continuation of a tradition, in which the painter seeks only to take his proper place, creating an image which opens a gateway to the divine.

The Hindu goddess Durga is at the centre of the popular annual festival of Durga Puja, where communities create images of the goddess in everyday materials - clay, wood, straw and oil paint - which then are endowed with a transcendental character.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Ruling With The Gods20171127

Neil MacGregor on ruling with a mandate from the gods - from the UK to Benin to China.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on shared beliefs with a focus on earthly rulers and the gods.

Queens and kings may be priests of the gods, or their representatives. They may be incarnations - or even gods themselves. Or the relationship may be so close that to divide spiritual from temporal power at all would simply make no sense.

Neil examines these ideas, with the help of objects including a bronze staff belonging to the Oba of Benin, and a bronze vessel from China, whose inscription suggests that its dynastic leaders enjoyed a mandate from heaven.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The House Of God20171106

Neil MacGregor on sacred spaces, from a 4,000-year-old temple to a brand new cathedral.

Neil MacGregor's series on the role and expression of beliefs continues with a focus on the creation of sacred spaces, built for encountering or engaging with the divine.

Stone tablets in the British Museum detail how a temple was designed and formed in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago - the first sacred space for which we have a written record. It was a god's home, complete with private areas crafted to meet his every need: kitchens and dining rooms, family rooms and spaces for guests.

Architect Aidan Potter reflects on the ideas and ideals behind the design of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho, Kenya, consecrated in 2015, and Neil views the original models - starting with a curled cardboard sleeve, used on a disposable coffee cup, which Aidan shaped to suggest the high inverted V-shaped roof

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Making Of Meaning20171115

Neil MacGregor examines how we come to understand images, with a focus on San rock art.

Neil MacGregor continues his series about the expression of shared beliefs with a focus on how we come to comprehend sacred images.

Our understanding of the rock art created by the San people of southern Africa over many centuries is helped by written accounts, so that what first appears to be an image of a hunting expedition becomes a record of a spiritual journey into another realm of experience. "For many years it was a matter of gaze and guess," says David Lewis Williams, an authority on rock art: "You gaze at it, and if you gaze long enough, your guess will take you close to what it's all about - and I'm afraid that's not the case, but we don't have to gaze and guess any more."

In the British Museum, a small 19th century Japanese shrine shows the spirits coming to visit a long-settled agricultural society. The curved doors of a small wooden box open to reveal, inside, a shimmering world of carved gilded wood, and a scene to which Japanese viewers would bring different interpretations.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Other Side Of The Leaf20171122

Neil MacGregor on communities who believe they are not the sole inhabitants of a landscape

Neil MacGregor continues his series about the expression of shared beliefs with a focus on societies who believe that they share the landscape with co-inhabitants who are not visible but are present. Such belief systems can be found in places such as the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

It is difficult, Neil MacGregor suggests, to express this relationship with the landscape in the English language. Words such as spirits, gods or beings do not adequately convey the nature of the co-inhabitants - and although these co-inhabitants cannot always be seen, they are always there, on the other side of the leaf.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Power Of Song20171103

Neil MacGregor on the role of distinctive dress and communal song in weekly gatherings.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on a Kirchenpelz or 'church fur' - a sheepskin coat made in the late 19th century in Transylvania, now part of Romania, for the German-speaking Saxon community there. This was not just 'Sunday Best': to wear this coat was to proclaim in public your allegiance to the Lutheran Church, and your identity as a Transylvanian Saxon.

He also reflects on the importance and power of communal singing within the Lutheran Church and elsewhere: the German theologian and priest Martin Luther did not invent hymns or congregational singing, but he did transform them, making them central to worship as never before.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Protectoresses20171113

Neil MacGregor focuses on Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico, and Artemis of Ephesus.

Neil MacGregor's series on the role and expression of beliefs continues this week with a focus on images.

In Mexico, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe came not from the hand of an artist, but was directly given from heaven - according to its history. Our Lady of Guadalupe is now the most powerful of presiding images, and the Basilica of Guadalupe near Mexico City is said to be the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.

The sanctuary of the goddess Artemis in the great trading city of Ephesus, now in western Turkey, was by far the most celebrated temple of the antique Mediterranean, and the cult of Artemis spread eastwards towards the Black Sea, and westwards towards Spain. Artemis was thought to protect the vulnerable at their moments of greatest personal danger.

Neil MacGregor also visits a shrine devoted to a woman sometimes perceived as a contemporary protectoress.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Search For A State20171130

Neil MacGregor focuses on the faiths that have sought to establish a state of their own.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on shared beliefs with a look at the attempts of some faiths to establish a state of their own.

An over-printed coin from 2nd century Jerusalem tells of the failed attempt of Shimon bar Kokhba to lay claim to a state for the Jews, free from Roman rule - while a white cotton flag, framed in pale blue, flew over Sudan after it had been taken by Mahdist forces and before the Islamic state collapsed in the mid 1890s.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

To Be A Pilgrim20171109

Neil MacGregor focuses on the role of pilgrimage in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time, and focuses on pilgrimage, and its role in Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Turning The Screw20171129

Neil MacGregor on attempts by some societies to outlaw beliefs seen as a threat.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on shared beliefs with a focus on those faiths seen as a threat to the state.

A plain board, to be found on a 17th-century Japanese roadside, offers generous rewards to anyone who informs on Christians. At almost exactly the same time a print from France depicts the officially sanctioned destruction of a Huguenot Church just a few miles east of Paris.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

01The Beginnings Of Belief20171023

Neil MacGregor's series on the role and expression of beliefs begins with the Lion Man.

Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum, begins this series about the role and expression of shared beliefs with the Lion Man, a small ivory sculpture which is about 40 000 years old. The figure has a human body and the head of a lion - it is a being that cannot exist in nature. While we shall never know what the Lion Man meant to the community in which it was created, we do know that it mattered enough for the group to allow someone to spend about 400 hours carving it.

The programme visits the cave in southern Germany where fragments of ivory were discovered in 1939. These fragments were gradually pieced together by archaeologists decades later to re-assemble the figure. Some smoothing on the torso suggests that the Lion Man was passed from person to person in the cave.

Neil MacGregor begins the series with this object because, in his words, 'what the archaeologists did as they pieced together the Lion Man is what societies have always done: work with fragmentary evidence to build a picture of the world. You could say that it's when a group agrees on how the fragments of the cosmic puzzle fit together that you truly have a community - one that endures, encompassing the living, the dead and the yet unborn. What this whole series is about is the role that such systems of belief - and perhaps even more the rituals that express those beliefs - have played in the creation, and sometimes in the destruction, of societies. Are we humans distinguished not just by a capacity to think, but by our need to believe - in a context where the search is not so much for my place in the world, but for our place in the cosmos - where believing is almost synonymous with belonging?'

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.

Photograph: (c) Museum Ulm, photo: Oleg Kuchar, Ulm.

02Fire And State20171024

Neil MacGregor on the fire of Vesta in Ancient Rome, and the Parsi fire temple in Gujarat.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

Many societies have seen the mesmerizing phenomenon of fire as a symbol of the divine. Neil MacGregor focuses on sacred fire which comes to represent the state itself: the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and 'la Flamme de la Nation', the Flame of the Nation, constantly burning beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Producer: Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum.
Photograph: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

03Water Of Life And Death20171025

Neil MacGregor on water's purifying powers, and the significance of the Ganges for Hindus.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time, and focuses on water, including a visit to the Ganges at Varanasi, India.

In Islam, Christianity and Judaism, water is an essential part of religious practice. But for no faith does water - and one particular kind of water - play such a significant role as for Hindus. To bathe in the river Ganges is not just to prepare to meet the divine, but already to be embraced by it. The river Ganges is the goddess Ganga, and the waters of this river, which govern life and death, have not only determined many aspects of Hinduism, but in considerable measure shaped the identity of the modern state of India.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum.
Photograph: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

04Here Comes The Sun20171026

Neil MacGregor experiences the winter solstice in the passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world, and focuses on light.

He experiences the sunrise whilst inside the monumental stone passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, a structure older than Stonehenge or the pyramids in Egypt. Here, on the winter solstice, thanks to the design of the tomb, a bright, narrow beam of sunlight reaches deep inside the structure.

He also considers the story of Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess, whose decision to hide herself in a cave plunged the world into darkness, and reflects on how - centuries later - the image of rising sun became closely linked with Japanese national identity.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

05Dependence Or Dominion?20171027

Neil MacGregor focuses on our relationship with the natural world and seasonal changes.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on the natural world and seasonal change: the Yupik people of Alaska depend on the seal, and ancient Egyptians looked to the god Osiris to bring fertility to their arid land.

Both societies, in radically different climates, devised practices that acknowledged the fact of their dependence on the natural world - and engaged everybody with the responsibility of co-operating with it.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

06Living With The Dead20171030

Neil MacGregor's series continues with a focus on our relationship with the dead.

Neil MacGregor's series on the role and expression of beliefs continues with a reflection on our relationship with the dead.

In the British Museum, he focuses on mummy bundles from Peru, skeletons wrapped in textiles made of llama wool or cotton. For the living, these were ancestors with great wisdom and knowledge of the world, who could be called upon to help key decision-makers.

He also examines two Chinese 'ancestor portraits', and discovers how and why they were venerated by surviving family members.

Producer Paul Kobrak

The series is produced in partnership with the British Museum, with the assistance of Dr Christopher Harding, University of Edinburgh.
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

07Mother And Child20171031

Neil MacGregor focuses on the protection of the newly-born and their mothers.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on how societies and communities seek to protect the newly-born and their mothers, including the role of St Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of childbirth, and the use of protective omamori in Japan.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

08Becoming An Adult20171101

Neil MacGregor focuses on rites of passage, including a hair-binding ritual from Vanuatu.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on rites of passage, marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, including a lock of bound hair, from the collections of the British Museum, which reveals an important ritual for teenage boys on the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

09Lines Of Communication20171102

Neil MacGregor focuses on prayer, an individual activity that is also profoundly communal.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on prayer, reflecting on how this most highly individualized of activities is also a profoundly communal act, with objects including a 16th century ivory and gold qibla, used to find the direction of Mecca - a function now offered by smartphone apps.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

10The Power Of Song20171103

Neil MacGregor on the role of distinctive dress and communal song in weekly gatherings.

Neil MacGregor continues his series on the expression of shared beliefs in communities around the world and across time.

He focuses on a Kirchenpelz or 'church fur' - a sheepskin coat made in the late 19th century in Transylvania, now part of Romania, for the German-speaking Saxon community there. This was not just 'Sunday Best': to wear this coat was to proclaim in public your allegiance to the Lutheran Church, and your identity as a Transylvanian Saxon.

He also reflects on the importance and power of communal singing within the Lutheran Church and elsewhere: the German theologian and priest Martin Luther did not invent hymns or congregational singing, but he did transform them, making them central to worship as never before.

Producer Paul Kobrak

Produced in partnership with the British Museum
Photograph (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.