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Testing the viability of lived religion for research into pastreligion

The value of employing the concept of lived religion in the analysis of premodern religion has been proposed only recently (Riipke 2012b), but has already been tested in numerous studies (Gasparini et al. 2020). Against the background of the discussions about lived religion in contemporary societies mentioned above, the main thrust when employing this concept with reference to premodern societies is not to revive or expand notions of popular or everyday religions. Rather, with a view to the dynamics of religion in the making, research based on the new concept engages critically with the notions of ‘state’ or ‘civic religion' and (elective) ‘cults’, understood as clearly defined, bordered, and rule- or belief-based systems that can be compared to the ‘state religion’ and ‘world religions’ of today. With regard to the latter, members of

Lived religion 69 the elites of circum-Mediterranean ancient cities - and these cities will be my test case in this chapter - certainly used the possibilities offered by religious communication for various purposes. For political actors, reference to divine agents was ideally suited to the creation of a communicative space beyond that of families and clans. Thus, they could emphasize shared interests and yet could also use religious activity as a field in which to compete and obtain distinction. This flexibility helped ritual activity and religious architecture to achieve a high degree of dynamism: ever new possibilities for religious communication were invented, or existing traditions appropriated and altered in order to deal with the problems thrown up by urban growth, increasing social differentiation and competition, or the increasing geographic extent of ancient empires. Civic religion - religious practices that were organized by the political elite for themselves and the wider populace and employed to bolster a city-focused political identity in processes of slow and ongoing state formation - is thus to be reconceptualized (see also Lichterman 2013; Lichterman and Eliasoph 2014). It is now to be understood as part of lived religion rather than as the over-arching framework that allowed for inconsequential acts of popular religion and its irrelevant variations and innovations, or for elective cults that similarly form a politically unimportant sector of local religion (Rüpke 2018, 109-57).

In contrast to the aforementioned concepts of civic religion or elective cults, the concept of lived ancient (or, if you like, dead) religion stresses the similarity of practices and techniques for creating meaning and knowledge across the whole range of addressees of religious communication, as well as the high degree of local innovation. What is important for this approach is not competing religions or cults, but symbols that are arranged in ever new configurations within a broad cultural space. It was professionals who expended enormous efforts to establish and secure the group boundaries, be they rabbis seeking to create a specifically non-Christian brand of Judaism or Hindu nationalists seeking to minoritize Indian Muslims. Religions as seen ■from below’ are the attempt - often by just a few - to at least occasionally create order and boundaries rather than a normative system that is only imperfectly reproduced by the citizens. Such boundaries would include notions of the sacred and profane, the pure and impure, the public and private, but also gendered conceptions of deities. Institutionalizations such as professionalized priesthoods and the reformulation of religion as knowledge that is kept and elaborated by such professionals constitute further features that are crucially important for sketching a history of such institutions. This is religion in the making, and it is always pretending to be religion as made for all time. We should not underrate the importance of religious entrepreneurs and their ability to make us, as historians, look at things through their eyes. Indeed, this problem will be the central subject of the second part of this volume.

Instead of starting from polities and supposedly coherent religious groups, analyses based on lived ancient religion start from the assumption that socially embedded individual actors and their agency underlie all our available evidence (e.g. Weiss 2019; Gasparini et al. 2020). This has two corollaries - one theoretical, one methodological.

The theoretical corollary is that religion is theorized from the point of view of religious agency, as I called it in the previous chapter. Involving ‘divine actors’ or authorities (‘gods’ as much as ‘demons’ or ‘ancestors’) enlarges the field of agency of the human agent. Religious agency offers extended possibilities of imagination and intervention, of support imagined, invoked, and even experienced in certain situations. In this way, religious agency, the attribution of agency to divine actors, allows the human agent fantasies that transcend the situation in question and. thus, inspire the development of appropriately creative strategies, whether, for example, as the lead in the implementation of a ritual or as a person possessed. (One should not, however, neglect the opposite effect that can also be triggered by the same mechanism: an abjuration of personal agency that results in impotence and passivity, with agency being reserved for those actors who are ‘special’ in some way.) The character of space and time could be changed by acts of sacralization; distant actors too - enemies behind city walls, fugitive thieves, travellers - could be reached remotely by the use of rituals, oaths, and curses, or by inserting pins into dolls (Gordon 2013a). New directions could be given to political decision-making processes through the transfer of religious competencies or the invocation of oracles (Belayche et al. 2005; Santangelo 2013). However, it is important to keep in mind that such invocations and attributions of agency to powers beyond the immediate social constellation and beyond human hierarchies of power were inherently risky, due to the peculiar character of divine agents, who always need medial representation because they are different or even distant. Individuals could and did base far-reaching claims on the support of agents that were far from commonly accepted, even in principle. In doing so, they might become successful in establishing their agency as visionaries or prophets. They thus arrogate an authority that might give them power in future situations. More frequently, however, agents based their situational claims on more commonly shared concepts and operated within collective religious identities that they presumed to be shared by the other participants, thus having agency without establishing permanent religious roles, and conforming to rather than questioning existing human power relations.

From a methodological perspective, acknowledging individual appropriation and the production of meaning in situations (Eliasoph and Lichterman 2003; Lichterman 2012; Lichterman et al. 2017) excludes a straightforward employment of culturalist interpretations, which draw on meaning established in other parts of a dense and coherent web of meaning. Individual evidence can no longer be regarded as part of a culture that can be read as a text in the Geertzian sense (cf. Geertz 1973, 1984). Hence, specific perspectives and methods need to be deployed, as will be illustrated in the rest of this chapter. In particular, those accounts of ‘traditional’ religion that have been used as historical sources and been given a central role in the development of the idea that ‘ethnic’ or ‘ancient’ religions are ordered systems of gods (‘panthea’) or systems of rituals must be questioned as to their own interest in the systematization of religious practices or signs and the elaboration of religious norms. Academic history has reiterated such claims rather than inquired into the historic constellation of their producers and the latter’s ‘speech acts'. Implicit or explicit in those past enterprises was the claim that religious knowledge is important and is part of religious agency when it comes to dealing with divine addressees - a claim easily shared by modern historians of religion. At the same time, the very preservation and transmission of such ‘documents’ from a scriptographic culture by repeated copying and quoting (and perhaps through interesting processes of modification, e.g. Haines-Eitzen 2012) warns us to take into account how discourses about norms and interpretations can modify the individual appropriation of ritual practices or religiously relevant narratives (e.g. Kindt 2016).

In what follows, approaches to some standard problems in the scholarship concerning historical religions will be sketched. They illustrate how a lived ancient religion approach grasps religion in the making. I will start by taking up again, and elaborating on, the issue of identity, which is central for any discussion about the notion of optional cults. 1 then go on to discuss the contribution of literary sources to the study of lived religion and, finally, I consider the contribution of archaeological sources, here addressed under the heading of ‘material religion’. Three examples from religion in the Roman Empire will serve to illustrate my points.

 
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