January 27, 2012

Our household gods

Filed under: Uncategorized — podtourz @ 10:13 pm

Lares et penates; the household gods. We think of God as a single, omnipotent presence; but if you were Roman, you had your own gods, the gods of your household. Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, were all very well, but it was the household gods who had to be propitiated every day, and the ancestors, whose masks were kept in the house.

In India, too, there are household gods; Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, guards thresholds and ensures wealth, or Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and learning. Near me in Norwich, an Indian cafe has a little Krishna shrine in it, just the way it might have a Cats Protection League calendar on the wall. In a house just outside Aleppey, where I waited for my canoe to pick me up, I took tea under the watchful eyes of two Krishnas and a hologrammed Shirdi Sai Baba, as the portable TV flickered.

That’s the great thing about household gods. We worship them but we also take them for granted. They’re not distant, transcendent gods, but involved with the business of our lives – the baking, the banking, the sweeping of the floor, the joys and the sorrows and even the frustrations.

In Russian Orthodox homes there’s a ‘red corner’ for the ikons. Protestantism, alas, offers no household gods, but instead an all-seeing eye to watch for and punish transgression. It’s unforgiving in that way. Nor is a pious text a household god; you can’t go to a text and ask it for help, nor weep in front of it. You end up making your own little shrines, of dead butterflies or airfix skeletons or collections of shed cats’ claws, whatever it is, some kind of magic like the mummified cat built into the wall in the Aitre Saint-Maclou, in Rouen.

I suppose the Athena poster of the girl in tennis whites scratching her arse would be understood as a household god by any earth-visiting Martian with half a degree in ethnology.

But the days of our household gods are numbered. There’s a new shrine on the block. The television first replaced the hearth; it became the centre of the household – so obviously where people have excavated the chimneybreast to put a screen there instead. (O tempora, o mores: I remember sitting in an inglenook in a friend’s home in Somerset, reading in the warmth for an entire afternoon, undisturbed.) Now, it’s replaced the household gods, too. We give our lives over to Big Brother instead of Ganesh, Nigella Lawson instead of Lakshmi.

We need better gods.

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