Living With the Gods: Storytelling through artefacts with Neil MacGregor


BBC Radio 4 has begun airing Living With the Gods this month, an exploration of community and religion as they have influenced society from the Ice Age to present day. The thirty part series, hosted by Neil MacGregor – retired director of the British Museum, art historian, and impassioned Christian – is complemented by a related exhibition of religious objects that has been on display at the British Museum from 2 November.

This series is MacGregor’s fourth foray into pairing storytelling with artefacts on the BBC, having previously collaborated with the British Museum on world history, Shakespeare, and history. Living With the Gods, in short fifteen minute bursts, closely considers the ways in which our traditions and beliefs shape our senses of self and belonging. MacGregor has no qualms about drawing connections between the realms of politics and religion, going so far as to say that the notion of separating the two is impossible – that “[b]oth are about how you live with the world around you”.

The first episode, “Beginnings of Belief” examines a 40,000 year old sculpture of a figure with a man’s body and a lion’s head discovered in 1939. Dubbed the Lion Man, the figure was a product of an estimated 400 hours of whittling a woolly mammoth’s tusk and represents a pre-historic “material expression of an enormous imaginative leap”. The Lion Man represents our ability to fathom the idea of the otherworldly. Other objects included in the exhibition are a 20th-century embroidered “hundred-bird coat” used by the Miao of south-west China in order to strengthen spiritual links with the beyond, a 14th century mosque lamp from Aleppo in Syria, and a 16th century Qibla indicator used to determine the direction towards Mecca.

From an episode that explores the nature of private prayer and its pervasiveness in the public sphere (“Lines of Communication”), to an episode dissecting the spiritual significance of the waters of the Ganges River (“Water of Life and Death”), Living With the Gods deftly weaves together the physical with the metaphysical in an easy-listening experience.

Listen here:

Ayan Goran