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My Idol and Me
Or, Material Culture without Materialism.
“’[W]hen a bear has been killed the Ainu sit down and admire it, make their salaams to it, worship it, and offer presents of inao ; when a bear is trapped or wounded by an arrow, the hunters go through an apologetic or propitiatory ceremony.’ The skulls of slain bears receive a place of honour in their huts, or are set up on sacred posts outside the huts, and are treated with much respect: libations of millet beer, and of sake, an intoxicating liquor, are offered to them; and they are addressed as ‘divine preservers’ or ‘precious divinities.’ The skulls of foxes are also fastened to the sacred posts outside the huts; they are regarded as charms against evil spirits, and are consulted as oracles.” (James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough).
In the Book of Acts, Christian legend recounts the near-disastrous riot caused by a conflict between St. Paul and an Ephesian silversmith named Demetrius. Demetrius made his living crafting statues of Artemis, and Paul’s decrying of the idolatry in Ephesus meant an end to his lucrative trade. So the jeweler roused a crowd to religious fervor to the point where local authorities had to step in and Paul’s disciples had to restrain him from being martyred by the crowd.
We Pagan folk love our idols, and that seems to be the case historically and contemporarily. A look through the local occult shop or online sites like AzureGreen or 13Moons reveal dozens of statues from a variety of pantheons, including modern fantasy and fairies. Sites like The Poisoner’s Apothecary provide skull-and-bone-based totemic talismans and jewelry, sometimes including decorated skulls from a variety of animals. We may be enamored of oils and herbs, but clearly we also spend a good bit of our energy (and money) on physical representations of our chosen divinities or on ‘divine preservers’ like the ones mentioned in the Frazer quote above. We make offerings of smoke or wine or water before statues or bones or monoliths. Not all of us do, of course, and there are many who would find the idea of modern idolatry silly and embarrassing, but the fact remains that such an investment in material religion has a place in modern Pagan practice for many followers.
The study of material culture by folklorists and anthropologists is still a relatively new field. According to the American Folklilfe Center:
“During the first half of the twentieth century, folklorists tended to confine their studies to (1) orally transmitted lore — especially songs, stories, legends, proverbs, and riddles — (2) certain customary traditions, such as rituals and festivals, and (3) traditions related to belief systems — luck, weather prediction, divination, and the like. Often neglected was the whole realm of human activity concerned with “craft,” the traditional aspects of how objects are made and used.”
In recent years, the emphasis on material and vernacular culture—the physical manifestations of those stories, beliefs, superstitions, etc.—has been growing. I sometimes find myself wondering what an anthropologist would say looking at a modern Pagan altar. On my own altar, for example, I have a variety of objects which might be considered vernacular markers:
1) A mass-produced statue of Fortuna picked up in San Francisco’s Chinatown
2) A found juvenile deer skull and a set of bones, used to call in ancestral forces
3) An decoupage mask representing a specific spiritual entity
4) A set of homemade prayer cards with pictures and prayers to a number of folk saints and heroes of American magical traditions
5) A Marian statue I inherited from my Catholic mother after she passed away
6) A small brass urn which once housed the ashes of my father
7) A copper bell picked up on clearance from a retail store where I worked during my younger years
8) A pair of saint statues purchased from a small arts shop in one of the funkier districts of my city
9) Half a dozen working spells, including honey jars, candle spells, coins, animal parts, oils, and herbs
That makes for a very crowded altar, one which I’m quite fond of, but which stays very “busy,” for lack of a better word. Despite the mass-produced nature of several of the pieces, the personal attachment remains, either through inheritance or use. Many of the idols I keep are propitiated on a weekly basis, and my interaction with them has helped me grow close to the objects and the forces they represent over time. The items which I have had a hand in creating may contain elements of commercial culture (I certainly did not make the glue for the decoupage mask myself, for instance), my participation in shaping their current form unites me to fetish and spirit.
One of my worries, however, with all of this is that I will gravitate towards something for its purely decorative value. It makes me very nervous when my material culture rubs against the materialism which permeates the modern Western lifestyle. This is not to say I am a curmudgeon who cannot appreciate my iPhone or who rejects consumer culture out-of-hand (my steady addiction to buying books borders on unhealthy). What I do recognize is my own need to temper material acquisition with spiritual meaning. If I am going to be an idolater, I want a relationship with my idols—no one night stands on my nightstand, as it were. Instead, I hope to make a these figures and objects a part of my lived religion, a component of my everyday life.
William Morris—a Victorian artist, poet, and philosopher—once wrote “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I think that is a fine maxim for approaching the material culture of Paganism. Before I can allow myself to pick up a statue, add a ceramic dish, or design a new prayer card, I have to know that it will do more than simply tie a few design elements together. The question of beauty becomes tricky, because I may well believe something is beautiful and choose never to work with it in a spiritual way. For me, though, the beauty of a sacred object must inspire me, resonate at some level deeper than the aesthetic agreement of its parts. Beautiful things must be ‘precious divinities,’ worthy of a relationship even if they do not ward of evil or provide good luck. At the same time, I must guard against the Demetriuses of the world, who would feed upon my spiritual devotion to sell a few more silver Artemis figurines (not that I completely side with St. Paul in that story—I just tend to think Demetrius’ motives were less than pure). That does not mean I can’t pick up a statue from an online store, of course, but that I must know its use or believe in its beauty before I press the “add to cart” button. In some cases, that decision is easier to make—buying from The Poisoner’s Apothecary always means I’m getting a fetish of value—but the question of use and beauty must be present in my mind.
In Karelia, western Russia, the daily activities of life can be measured out by following sunlight through the house:
“[T]he house functioned as a sun clock: when the sun shone through the window by the door along a notch cared in the window pane, it was nine o’clock. When it had moved to the side window, shining straight across the floor boards, it was noon. The sun shining through the back window along the floor boards indicated that it was six o’clock in the evening. When the sun had reached the window on the women’s side of the room, shining straight from the neighbor’s fishing ground, it was nine o’clock in the evening (Keinanen 22)”
This is the kind of relationship with the vernacular I crave. The house in which the Karelian women live defines the motion and activity of their day. The architecture of that house shapes the practice of life, and the performance of sun-related duties, including religious ones. For me, that is the pinnacle of a material-spiritual culture: idols which drive my action and motivate my behavior. Physical objects which offer me use and beauty every day of my life.
So what does your material culture say about you? How do you acquire tools, statues, etc., and develop your relationships with them? Comments and stories are welcome!
Thanks for reading,
Sources & References:
1) Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough.
2) Douay-Rheims Bible.
3) Keinanen, Marja-Liisa. “Everyday, fast and feast: Household work and the production of time in pre-modern Russian Orthodox Karelia.” Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life (2012).
4) “Material Culture.” American Folklife Center (Library of Congress, 2013).
5) Morris, William. “The Beauty of Life.” Available online.
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