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Epilogue: Embodied Gods

The argument presented above can be taken one step further. If lived ancient religion is concerned with action and experience, we should address the question of the god’s particular experience of his own body, as Propertius presents it to his readers. Here, the notion of “embodiment” is of particular value.

Embodiment denotes the conjoining of materiality and corporeal experience, and as such occupies a central position in contemporary epistemol- ogy[1] and anthropology of religion. Pioneering scholarship of the twentieth century that fused phenomenology and cognitive science generated the concept of “embodied cognition” with its powerful impact on discourse on culture and religion. The concept stems from work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908—1961); his phenomenology-driven musings on embodiment advocate the crucial priority of movement and gestures over mind, and the principal role of the body in perceiving environments and structuring the world. The performance of gestures, though they do not cover the whole range of bodily experiences, contextualizes natural entities and their bodies by conveying mental dispositions and enacting emotions, and shapes culturally informed meanings. The human body, along with the conditions of perception it entails, is what nuances subjectivity and places the individual self within culture and society, thus rendering it an “embodied self.”[2] The notion of an “embodied agency” grounded in diverse somatized impulses discloses the social implications of the embodied self.[3] Particularly intriguing here is the extent of alterity issuing from individual operations of embodiment, that is, the set of differentiating, even self-defining processes that are activated by the emotional and gestural modes of an individual’s body.[4] Recent theoretical work on the anthropology of religion has gone so far as to identify in embodied alterity the “phenomenological kernel of religion,” itself a correlate of individual experience, perception, and expression.[5]

Ritual studies, even when concentrated on individual involvement and performance,[6] tend to direct their analysis toward rules and actual or imagined repetitions of sequences of action, as well as on wider societal, economic, or power contexts. The concept of embodiment has shifted the investigations of religious studies to individual involvement and meaning beyond the cognitive level, and has identified new evidence even in historical studies.[7] With regard to communication with invisible gods or spiritual beings in antiquity, ordinary religious action is much more frequently encoded in bodily movements. Given that memory is inextricably intertwined with sensorial mechanisms, emotions produced by sensory input in diverse social contexts are embedded in bodily experience. Thus, religious experience was stimulated by and registered in the form of sensations and movements as well as in postures assumed, for instance, in prayer or in processions, and religious experience is shared by the intersubjective coordination of bodily movements and reactions. Religious practices in the epoch under analysis were only rarely taught through formal religious instruction. It was much more frequently the case that knowledge of these was acquired through appropriation and imitation of movements that were stored in and enhanced by memory. Thus images of rituals or gods in corresponding gestures could evoke embodied knowledge.[8] Paraphernalia, including garments, wreaths, incense, and amulets, alter bodily status (with gender variances that demand attention) for an extended period of time.

The identity of Propertius’s Vertumnus is almost totally defined by bodily experiences: from being clothed, to his memory of different actions, involving manual touch and movements, to the experience of being worked on by sickle or being cast in metal. This is significant within a larger poetic text that gives prominence to emotions, visions, bodily experience such as hunger and thirst, temperature, and colors. My final claim is that Propertius reflects here not only on actual religious practices but also on human experience through the lens of religion. In defining the god through the addition of dedications one must reflect upon one’s own identity, or rather, one must reflect on one’s alterity with regard to others, as defined through

Appropriating Images—Embodying Gods


Slab depicting Isis and her characteristic rattle (sistrum) from the temple of Apollo Palatinus, late first century BC. Museo del Palatino, inv. 379054 and 379641. Photo by J. Rupke, used by permission of Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita Culturali e del Turismo, Soprintendenza Speciale per il Colosseo, il Museo Nazionale Romano e l'Area archeologica di Roma.

instruments, bodily paraphernalia, movement, and being moved. It is the god Vertumnus who, furthermore, also offers the possibility to reflect both on the contingency of such experience as well as on the lasting effects of certain bodily experiences, the constraints produced by them. His memory of time immemorial makes him greater than human. At the same time, in his wooden or bronze form he is much more constrained than his human observers.

I must stop here; I am treading on difficult methodological ground. I might plausibly claim that Propertius does present such reflections, but I can hardly assert that these characterize the experience of every, or even any, person discharging a vow or simply praying to the statue. Nevertheless, historical data is comprised in the very fact of the thinkable being written down and read.

  • [1] Weil and Haber 1999.
  • [2] Noland 2009.
  • [3] Lyon and Barbalet 1994.
  • [4] Reynolds 2004.
  • [5] Csordas 1994.
  • [6] Rappaport 1999; Bell 1992; Grimes 2011.
  • [7] Coakley 1997; Bynum 1991.
  • [8] Gordon 1979.
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