SACRED NATURE: Animism and Materiality in Ancient Religions


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Drawing upon the notions of nature as a community of other-than-human persons and of relational cosmos, the overarching aim of the CAMNES webinar is to discuss and highlight different ways of understandings the relationships occurred between human beings, animals, plants and the land in the religious life of ancient societies. During the online conversation, scholars of different disciplines (archaeology, anthropology, iconography, philology, history of religions) will explore the perception of nature and its other-than-human inhabitants and readdress some notions about nature, personhood/agency, divinity/sacrality, and materiality/spirituality in religions and cosmologies of ancient communities inhabiting both the Old and the New World. Especially we wish to pinpoint those beliefs, representations and practices that express relational and non-binary ontologies, epistemologies, cosmologies, according to which nature is a place of agency, relationality and spirituality, and that challenge dualities such as immanent/transcendent, material/spiritual, body/soul, disclosing a multiplicity of relationships. In this line, the conference aims at promoting starkly inter-disciplinary and religious-anthropological approaches to definitions of ‘sacred nature’ that will take on the categories of animism, totemism, analogism and naturalism as analytical concepts that can enhance the investigation of human-environmental relations in the ancient religious conceptions, representations and practices. Finally, in order to uncover and further explain the connection between nature, the sacred, and the materiality of ancient religions interpreted as embodied experiences, particular emphasis will be devoted to those researches finalized at answering questions related to how nature materialized cosmological and spiritual essences. 

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May 20th-21st - 2021

School of Religious Studies (SoRS)
Center for Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies (CAMNES) Florence, Italy


Anna Perdibon (SoRS)

Nicola Laneri (SoRS, Università di Catania)

For info requests please contact: Anna Perdibon

Graham Harvey (The Open University)
"Before Nature: perspectives from new animist world-making"


Timothy Insoll (Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, UK)
"The ‘Polysemic’ Qualities of Shrines in Northern Ghana"

Presented papers will be included in the proceedings of the Workshop and published in 2022 in a peer-reviewed volume of the new CAMNES Material Religion in Antiquity (MaReA) Series published by Oxbow Books.

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Workshop Program

Guido Guarducci; Stefano Valentini (CAMNES)
Nicola Laneri (SoRS-CAMNES, Univ. Catania)
Anna Perdibon (SoRS)
“Sacred Nature: Animism and Materiality in Ancient Religions”
Graham Harvey (The Open University)
“Before Nature: perspectives from new animist world-making”
16:00-16:10 Break
Laura Feldt (University of Southern Denmark)
“Bird and Forest Persons and Wilderness Spaces in the Old-Babylonian Sumerian Stories of Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh”
Massimo Cultraro (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Catania/Università degli Studi Palermo)
“Constructing Sacred Nature: Sulphur waters, Springs and Divine Rivers in Sicily before the Greeks”
17:10-17:20 Break
Esther Jacobson-Tepfer (University of Oregon)
“Structures of Meaning in Rock Art of the Mongolian Altai: Signs of Liminality”
Erica Hill (University of Alaska Southeast)
“Watercraft as Hybrid Assemblages in the Western Arctic”


15:00-19:00 (CET) 15:00-16:00  
Seth Richardson (University of Chicago)
“In Mantic & Hostile Lands: Surveillance and Mimesis by Divination”
Valentino Nizzo (Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome)
“The dawn of the Potnia. Reception and reinterpretation of an archetypal model in protohistoric peninsular Italy”
16:00-16:10 Break
Davide Nadali (Università La Sapienza, Rome)
“King-Tree or Tree-King? On the Metaphorical, Iconographic Interplay in Ancient Assyria”
Mari Jørstad (Duke University)
“Falling Short: What Failures to Fulfill Obligations Say About the Responsibilities of Other-Than-Human Creatures in the Hebrew Bible”
17:10-17:20 Break
Federico Squarcini (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice)
“Hey, ‘human animal’, what’s wrong with you? Suggestions from Sanskrit sources toward an ecological and natural history of humanity’s perverted relationship with ‘nature’”
Timothy Insoll (University of Exeter)
“The ‘Polysemic’ Qualities of Shrines in Northern Ghana”
Nicola Laneri (Director, School of Religious Studies)

Abstracts of presentations


Graham HARVEY (The Open University)
Before Nature: perspectives from new animist world-making 
Many contemporary Indigenous people treat the world as a series of communities of living persons, most of whom are not human. They encourage and inculcate life-long improvements in respectfully interacting with their relations – human or otherwise. Some relations are only closer than others and may involve interactions which could be considered “sacred”. That is, locally valued forms of respectful etiquette typically inform sacred ceremonies that make, re-make or maintain the world. In recent multidisciplinary debates inspired by newfound respect for Indigenous knowledges, these and similar themes have influenced the ontological turn, the new animism and Actor-Network Theory. My purpose in this keynote is not to assert that ancient religionists must be interpreted according to animist protocols. Rather, it is to provoke further questioning of the application of Modernity’s nature/culture dualism to the other-than-Modern religions of the ancient world.  

Massimo CULTRARO (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Catania/Università degli Studi Palermo)
Constructing Sacred Nature: Sulphur waters, Springs and Divine Rivers in Sicily before the Greeks
In the last decades the archaeological activity in Sicily has produced new and unsuspected information for a general reassessment of contents and modalities of the religious practices since the Bronze Age until the Greek colonization. The culture material shows specific artefacts strictly connected to the ancient belief systems, where gods and humans were embedded into a symbolic multi-layered network (Cultraro 2015; 2019). This paper aims at exploring the natural contexts where some practices have been put in place in relation to specific elements, perceived as cosmic entities, as caves, mountains and watercourses. Springs and waters played a significant role in the constructing the symbolic and ritual meanings in Prehistoric Sicily.  A specific focus is on the evidence of Sulphur springs attested in different areas of island, where depositions of animal bones and miniature vases attested cultic practices, as in Aragona near Agrigento and in the San Calogero Mount at Sciacca. The exploitation of Sulphur springs at Palike, in the Catania Plain confirms the long-time use of these places as sacred landscape connected to cosmic entities with therapeutic attributes and healing powers. Belonging to these religious beliefs is the evidence of a cult dedicated to a female entity Anna, attested by some no-Greek inscriptions found at Terravecchia di Cuti, along the border between Sikan and Elyminan lands. The connection to the pre-Roman Anna leads to reconstruct a divinity connected to the magic power of thermal spring and motherhood. In this context it noteworthy the mention of Nestis who, according to Empedocles, is a genuine indigenous goddess conceived of as mother, great purifier and healer by virtue of its pure water. 

Laura FELDT (University of Southern Denmark)
Bird and Forest Persons and Wilderness Spaces in the Old-Babylonian Sumerian Stories of Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh
In this paper I investigate the narratives involving non-human bird and forest-related persons – Anzu and Huwawa – and their spatial setting in a mountainous forested wilderness area not controlled by humans, in a set of Old-Babylonian Sumerian texts related to the human heroes of Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia. Taking inspiration from the criticism of the concept of “nature” in the study of religion and anthropology, I present an approach that combines “after-nature”-study of religions perspectives with narrative and spatial theories. The paper addresses specifically the presentation and roles of the non-human characters of Anzu and Huwawa in these texts and their relations with other characters – humans, non-human animals, deities, plants – and the narrativity of the spatial setting of the mountain forest as a domain not controlled by humans. The paper argues that the wilderness and the bird- and tree-persons of these texts should not be understood in a dichotomous way and that they are decisive characters and spaces that reveal much about environment-relationality in ancient Mesopotamia. On the basis of the analysis, I wish to discuss understandings of the role of the non-human environment in religion in ancient Mesopotamia.

Erica HILL (University of Alaska Southeast)
Watercraft as Hybrid Assemblages in the Western Arctic
Watercraft, like amulets and harpoons, were critical components of the maritime Arctic toolkit. Two forms of skin-covered watercraft were in use across the Western Arctic: the umiaq, a large open boat, and the smaller, decked kayak. Comprised of driftwood and animal skins and constructed through the complementary labor of men and women, watercraft mediated the realms of land, ice, and water, operating as liminal agents between human and animal worlds. This presentation explores watercraft of the Western Arctic coast as hybrid assemblages of raw materials that were themselves implicated in relational networks. Inspired by McNiven’s (2018) view of Torres Strait canoes as ‘object-beings,’ I consider the evidence of the Late Thule and early contact period in Alaska and the islands of the Bering Sea (c. AD 1400–1850). Routine watercraft construction and maintenance, from this perspective, become complex social processes that transform, renew, and connect humans, animals, and materials (driftwood, seal skins) with their own agential properties.

Esther JACOBSON-TEPFER (University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon)
Structures of Meaning in Rock Art of the Mongolian Altai: Signs of Liminality
Bronze Age rock art in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia is intensely naturalistic and pictorial. The panels pecked into boulders and bedrock are charged with narrative vitality; but what lies at the base of those narratives is not clear. Do the scenes refer to this world or to the next? Or to the passage between both? In this mountainous region of northwest Mongolia, there are no continuous cultural traditions to the present; and from that region there are no records—written or archaeological—that would clarify meaning in the Bronze Age. By analyzing a number of rock art compositions dating over a period of one thousand years, it is possible to identify several threads of meaning. Woven together they reveal a narrative tradition rooted in the perceived interdependency of humans, animals, and the land and in the lack of boundaries between life and death. Analysis of the repetition and variation of specific elements within the compositions reveals the basis of this narrative in a contemporary understanding of the liminal nature of all being. This paper will make extensive use of imagery drawn from two great rock art complexes in the Mongolian Altai. It will also turn to the ethnography of Siberian peoples to seek distant echoes of what we find in the petroglyphs.

Mari JØRSTAD (Duke University)
Falling Short: What Failures to Fulfill Obligations Say About the Responsibilities of Other-Than-Human Creatures in the Hebrew Bible
It is clear from such texts as Genesis 1 and Leviticus 18-26 that other-than-human creatures in the Hebrew Bible have divinely appointed responsibilities. The sun, moon, and stars are to rule the night and the day. The land is obligated to rest on the sabbath. This paper will consider how the ancient authors of the Hebrew Bible conceptualized these responsibilities by looking at texts in which other-than-human creature fail to uphold them. I will consider three ways in which biblical writers describe such failures: sickness, grief, and sin/abomination. Texts will be drawn primarily, but not exclusively, from the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel). Drawing on new animism and its emphasis on relationships between humans and other-than-human creatures, I will conclude by discussing what a better understanding of the responsibilities of other-than-human creatures suggests about righteousness. I will propose that righteousness in the Hebrew Bible is a relational concept that emphasizes interdependence, rather than simply an adherence to a set of rules. As such, it applies to all creatures. This does not require imagining that the sun or the land are aware of written rules. Instead, it suggests an idea of righteousness that sees healthy relationships as the measure and proof of righteousness. 

Davide NADALI (Università La Sapienza, Rome)
King-Tree or Tree-King? On the Metaphorical, Iconographic Interplay in Ancient Assyria
Representations of trees are very common in Assyrian art: while some plants clearly refer to the natural representation of the landscape the Assyrians face and meet while on military campaigns or they carefully artificially cultivate in their lush gardens, a special tree occurs in specifically denoted pictures on the Assyrian palace wall reliefs, it is replicated on several objects (e.g. seals, buckets, jewels) and surfaces (e.g. embroideries of clothes). Usually called “Sacred Tree” or “Plant of Life”, scholars have for long debated (and still they do) on both the nature and meaning of this iconography. Starting from a contextual approach, I will try to distinguish the role(s) of the so-called Sacred Tree in the Assyrian visual cultural, via a metaphorical interpretation of the evidence.

Valentino NIZZO (Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome)
The dawn of the Potnia. Reception and reinterpretation of an archetypal model in protohistoric peninsular Italy
This contribution aims to deepen the complex iconographic dossier of Potnia Theron by focusing attention on its early stages of reception and reinterpretation in protohistoric peninsular Italy. The analysis of the mode of reception and reinterpretation of this mythical archetypal model offers important insights for the understanding of cultural and religious dynamics of interaction among the proto-historic populations of ours Peninsula, central Europe and the Mediterranean world during the eighth century BC.

Seth RICHARDSON (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)
In Mantic & Hostile Lands: Surveillance and Mimesis by Divination
In this paper, I will survey the evidence for Babylonian divinatory practices of the Late Old Babylonian period (ca. 17th c. BC). This is a period in which procedures of liver divination and sacrifice, documented in administrative texts, were often used to predict and protect conditions of travel across open territory to shrines, cities, temple, fields, and forts. Catalogs of omens from this time also voice this concern for safety and transit in the countryside. These everyday concerns are reflected in state letters concerned with obtaining information about the movement of troops, the location of enemies, and the safety of goods and forts through scouts, watchguards, and tribal camps. The parallel concerns for surveillance at the mantic and tactical demonstrate an identifiable epistemic discourse newly focused on non-urban spaces and concerns. This was a systematic and explicit way of knowledge managed through interlocking administrative, ritual, and textual practices mimetic of a changing Babylonian social and political world which was increasingly characterized by non-state actors and powers in the countryside.

Federico SQUARCINI (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)
Hey, ‘human animal’, what’s wrong with you? Suggestions from Sanskrit sources toward an ecological and natural history of humanity’s perverted relationship with ‘nature’
Nowadays human animals are very much concerned with ‘nature’, with her status, her needs and with the role she should play regarding them. This is occurring in order to face and cope with disrupting environmental crisis, scarcity and lack of natural resources, growing sea level, land and air pollution, bio-diversity extinction. Nevertheless, this is not a ‘striking news’. For centuries, anywhere on the globe, the shaping of the ideal status of ‘nature’, the ‘host’ (from latin hŏspes, to late medieval french hôte), has been constantly rearranged and affected according to her guest’s needs. In fact, within many and ‘diverse’ intellectual traditions, the basic notion of an ‘hosting nature’ has been articulated and variously represented by the leading voices of her ‘parasite’ guests, so to state, ‘univocally’, what she, the ‘hosting mother’, do really is. The notion of a ‘sacred nature’ –an idealized entity postulated to counteract the idea of a ‘profane nature’ that stands at the foundations of contemporary profane desecration of nature– is the most striking example of this never ending discursive manoeuvre.
But how discourses pronounced by human animals, being the demanding nature’s parasites, could help her not to be infected, affected, exploited and ruined by themselves? Isn’t nature ‘sacred’ enough to be in need of such an ‘external’ aid? Moreover, the same human animal that could supply her with additional ‘sacredness’ is a ‘natural beings’, a status that imply that this animal should also be understood as having a ‘double nature’. A duplicity that would make him an ‘hosted/guest’ embedded with ‘sacred/profane’ interests, drives, urges, needs. Such an ambiguous ‘spiritual/material’ parasite, therefore, cannot be really trusted, since he is, simultaneously, kind and brutal, concerned and careless, generous and voracious, supportive and greedy. The perverted consequences of such ‘natural duplicity’, indeed, would seriously compromise the quality of human animal’s discourse on the two ‘natures’ of ‘nature’.
Seen from this perspective, the long history of human animals discourses on nature could provide a new ground to understand that such discursive manoeuvre has been the privileged way to hide the embarrassment human animals feel regarding their own duplicity, ambiguity and perverted parasitism, which is the effective ecological problem of past and present times.

Timothy INSOLL (Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, UK)
The ‘Polysemic’ Qualities of Shrines in Northern Ghana
Agency, relationality, animism, nature, and more, are referenced and combined in shrines in northern Ghana. This will be explored with reference to archaeological and ethnographic research completed amongst the Talensi of the Tong Hills, to assess the complex multi-faceted meanings of shrines and how this is indivisible from their materiality. Linked with this is the process by which some shrines are created, imbued with differing degrees of agency and animism, that are spread by ‘franchising’ and maintained by intra-shrine relationships. Moreover, some of these shrines can also blur and challenge culture/nature definition and distinction, rendering the concept of ‘sacred nature’ problematic if culture is omitted. This cultural and natural blurring is not unique to the Tong Hills and will also be explored in wider West African contexts to indicate the diversity surrounding this aspect of African indigenous religions, both in the deeper, and more recent past.

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