Glencairn Museum News | Number 2, 2012
Religious people communicate stories that are sacred to them by means of oral tradition, scripture, and myth. In some cultures these stories are brought to life by re-enacting them in rituals that have transformative power. Glencairn Museum’s current exhibition, “Sacred Stories: Scripture, Myth, and Ritual,” presents religious rituals from a variety of cultures and time periods, carried out in order to recreate sacred stories for believers.
The exhibition includes objects ranging in date from circa 1450 BC to 1960 AD. One of the oldest is a sculpture of a woman (see lead photo) from an ancient Greek tombstone (perhaps 3rd century BC). The woman is holding a rounded object, most likely a pomegranate, a fruit that figures prominently in the myth of the goddess Persephone. According to myth, Hades, the god of the Greek afterlife, abducted Persephone and took her to the realm of the dead. Her mother, the goddess Demeter, wandered mournfully in search of her. Eventually Persephone was discovered and was able to visit her mother. However, because she had eaten a pomegranate in the realm of the dead, she periodically had to return to the afterlife as the bride of Hades.
The myth of Persephone was central to a set of ancient Greek initiation rituals that took place at the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis, a site near Athens. During the multi-day ritual, initiates mirrored some of the mythic actions of Demeter when she had lost Persephone; this included walking fourteen miles from Athens to Eleusis in the same way that Demeter had wandered the earth in search of her daughter. Once initiated, participants in the “mysteries” at Eleusis believed they would experience a happier afterlife than the gloomy existence offered by Hades.
Also included in the exhibition are several pieces of ancient Roman jewelry depicting Isis, a goddess who had been worshipped in Egypt for millennia. Isis figured prominently in Roman mystery rituals, which were derived from earlier Egyptian rituals and retained the link with older Egyptian myth.
Egyptian myth told the story of the murder of King Osiris (sometimes called Serapis by the Romans) at the hands of his brother Seth, who trapped Osiris in a coffin. Isis, Osiris’ wife, retrieved the coffin, but Seth stole it from her and dismembered Osiris’ body, scattering the parts along the length of the Nile. Grieving, Isis wandered to collect the pieces. Using magic, Isis reassembled the body of Osiris and instilled in him new life, positioning Osiris for his role as king of the afterlife. Romans believed that initiation into the worship of the compassionate goddess Isis would provide them with access to Isis’ gift of resurrection after death. Initiates were offered symbolic rebirth into a new existence that included the hope for a happy afterlife.
Among the medieval objects in “Sacred Stories: Scripture, Myth, and Ritual,” is a 13th-century enamel reliquary from Limoges, France. This reliquary, which originally contained a fragment of the body of Saint Thomas Becket, was created to participate in sacred ritual. The scene on the box depicts the brutal martyrdom of the saint by knights of English King Henry II; one of the soldiers lunges forward to sever the saint’s head, while his companion flees the scene. Reliquaries were often displayed on the altars of medieval churches to focus the meditations of pilgrims, who journeyed from church to church to claim the power of Christian saints through proximity to their physical remains. Evidence suggests that in church services priests might have actually picked up and displayed reliquaries to draw the attention of their congregation, and we also know that they were carried in procession on special feast days or in times of special need. They were hardly the stable objects we see protected in museum cases today. They were props for ritual performance, and as they moved, they glittered with reflective light.
The only 20th-century object included in the exhibition is a communion kit owned and used by the late Rev. Clayton Priestnal. Rev. Priestnal was a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister and a close friend of Helen Keller, who was herself a Swedenborgian Christian. Keller was an author and political activist whose life has become widely known through the film, The Miracle Worker. She expressed her Swedenborgian views in her 1927 book, My Religion. Rev. Priestnal administered the Holy Supper (or Eucharist) to Helen Keller at her home in May 1960 using this portable communion kit.
“Sacred Stories: Scripture, Myth, and Ritual,” is open through Saturday, June 23, 2012. Admission to the exhibition is free (donations are welcome). The exhibition is open Saturdays 1 to 4:30 pm. The exhibition is included with guided tours on weekdays at 2:30, and can also be seen by appointment.