Is religious iconography quirky? Not necessarily. Can it be quirky? I think yes, especially in a proudly secular city such as Berkeley. We are less religious, by a fair stretch, than the rest of the United States. We know it. It is part of our fabric.
Yet, we have churches among us. We have theological seminaries – many of them in fact – among us, so many that we call it Holy Hill. In 2016, it has become a battleground pitching developer vs. neighbors.
And we display religious iconography in our yards, lawns, porches, windows, and – etc. – to a degree that one would perhaps not expect in such a purposefully secular city.
There was, and is, a fierce debate among Quirky Berkeley insiders as to the quirkiness of religious iconography. Some argue that religious objects are placed in public view as sincere representations of sincere religious beliefs, almost the antithesis of the absurdist ethos behind quirk.
What to do? I drew upon my own very non-quirky religious training at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania (1959-1969), and the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania (1959-1965).
I sought a formal opinion,
I read it, and thought and decided. I had been right. Personal displays of religious iconography can be deemed quirky. So let it be written. If nothing else, they add to the patchwork of our culture. And they are material. They make Berkeley quirky without being necessarily quirky themselves.
I don’t intend to demean or mock religion or religious beliefs. I simply present the material culture of religion absque iudicio. Without judgment. I really do not intend to offend. I suggest we all take a minute and listen to Leonard Cohen.
Okay, where to start? Well, I know where I want to start. But how to say it? Pagan? My Bible the OED defines paganism as “a religion other than one of the main religions of the world; spec. a non-Christian or pre-Christian religion, esp. considered as ancient or primitive.” Well, the definition is what I mean. I discard all negative connotations associated with “paganism” and go there.
Let’s start with ancient Egypt, with the pyramids along the Nile with the Jersey doo-wop group The Duprees – Michael Arnone, Joe Santollo, John Salvato, Tom Bialoglow, and Joey Canzano. First, the ankh, aka the key of life or the key of the Nile. It was the hieroglyphic character meaning “life” and represented the concept of eternal life. Egyptian gods carried it, and a few of us in Berkeley display it:
We find other images of ancient Egyptian religion too. At the risk of displaying my ignorance of Egyptian deities, I think that I found Bastet:
And, predictably, King Tut:
Lastly, tributes to the Great Sphinx of Giza:
And then – the Greeks, a few images here and there. Who is more perfect for Berkeley than Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music, the poster boy of paganism?
Pan plays with nymphs. Are these nymphs or muses? Every schoolboy knows, but I forget.
This one is, I am fairly certain, a muse, which admittedly is pushing it in terms of religious iconography, but it is a nice photo:
I think that this is Poseidon.
Medussa,no doubt, Medussa. Twice
And I am saying that this, the lower face, is Zeus, although one would have to go up on the porch to verify the claim and that act would violate the Quirky Berkeley Rules of Engagement.
From Gods to heroes – a lovely Hercules.
And a final Greek. Who is this Greek? Prize for first correct answer.
Adios Europe, let’s head for the Americas. Here and there you will find a shaman’s mask.
There used to be a great totem pole on Euclid which you could see as you came down the Rose Walk steps. It’s gone, I think. This is the only one I’ve found so far in my walking. I hope for more.
This is close – no cigar, but close:
The most prevalent pre-Christian image from the Americas is, by far, our little friend Kokopelli, the hump-backed, flute-playing fertility deity of the American southwest.
The earliest images of him date from the 8th century, making him post-Christian over there but very much pre-Christian over here. I would not go so far as to say that he is common in Berkeley, but he is not rare either.
He even exists in neon, a wonderful confluence of old and new.
I would be surprised if there are not more examples of pre-Christian religious iconography awaiting me. I will add as I find.