Column: The Shrine in the Surgery Ward

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Shrine to Astarte. Palestinian, reportedly from Jordan (Mt. Nero), Iron Age IIB-IIC, ca. 800 BCE. Terracotta. On display at the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archeology. Photo by the author.

Shrine to Astarte.
Palestinian, reportedly from Jordan (Mt. Nero).
Iron Age IIB-IIC, ca. 800 BCE. Terracotta.
On display at the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archeology.
Photo by the author.

For the most part, I spend the hours of my life allotted to religious devotion at my altar or outdoors, working in the spaces I have built and in the spaces provided by the Goddess herself. I do not usually need much: a table and some candles, or even just a quiet path in the woods. But every so often I feel the need for something else, and in those times, I find myself entering museums, seeking a window onto the past.

Today I am sitting on the floor in front a glass case in the University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archeology. The museum building housed the university hospital a few years ago; I am told that this room, which holds the collection of materials from the ancient world, was once the surgery ward. (The gods of Egypt dwell in a case standing where an operating table once lay, I’m told, which makes a certain kind of macabre sense.) The museum is quiet, as it is a few days before Thanksgiving and most students have fled Columbia for their hometowns; the only noise I hear is my own breath and the intermittent chatter of the security guards.

The case in front of me holds a terracotta shrine, nearly three thousand years old, surrounded by miniature water vessels and clay bowls with bottoms burnt by ancient fires. The shrine comes from Jordan, around Mount Nebo. A placard notes that the shrine appears to be a miniature copy of the designs for temples to Astarte in that region. The shrine and its vessels were found buried together, along with a horse-shaped rhyton, and have been kept together to show the shrine more or less in situ. The only addition to the exhibit is a tiny icon of Astarte herself, placed in the center of the shrine where her statue would have stood in the full-sized temples of this style.

I had only known this shrine existed for a few days: a friend in the Art History and Archeology program had mentioned it during a holiday get-together the weekend before. Immediately I felt a need to see it in person, indeed, a need to venerate it, which struck me as odd. I have no standing relationship with Astarte, certainly no stronger bond than I have with some of the other gods represented by items in the museum collection. Perhaps it was that peculiar word, shrine, and the way my friend described it as likely having been some long-forgotten household’s personal devotional space. In this collection and others, I had seen many icons of deities, some of which roused feelings of the sublime in me, but I could not recall seeing the actual altar of an ancient pagan before, not in person, anyway.

An icon can mean many things, even to a non-Pagan viewer: one can look at an icon and be reminded of myths, of history, or even of the way a human body is rendered. An icon can be adored, but as a lone object, it invites the viewer to interpret it as needed. (It must be said that this interpretative freedom, at least within the space of a museum, is usually achieved precisely because these icons are no longer found in the context of the space in which they were originally viewed.)

A shrine, on the other hand, exists for the daily work of religion: pouring libations, offering sacrifices, pausing in the midst of daily chores to glance at the face of the goddess. A household shrine like this one would have belonged to the thrum of a family’s life, as essential as the hearth or the table. It had been created, in short, to be used. And while I suppose the same could be said for any number of items in the museum collection, from the black iron blades hanging behind the shrine to the assortment of clay jugs and bowls surrounding it, it seemed particularly sad to me for the shrine to lay dormant. I cannot make use of the shrine in the way its original owners did, since I suspect the museum staff would object to pouring new libations from those ancient cups, but I can meditate on it, taking a few moments to venerate the goddess within.

The question crosses my mind as I sit contemplating the shrine of the process by which it came here, how it came to be dug up, bought, sold, and transported across the world from Jordan, and whether I have any right to it; the museum trade is, perhaps unavoidably, embedded within colonialism, and while I don’t have any reason to assume that this shrine was acquired unethically, it belongs to a tradition of Europeans and Americans taking as many of the interesting bits of other cultures as we can get our hands on away from the lands where they were made and used to sit in our museums. I would never suggest an end to museums or exhibits like this, because I know how much they have enriched my life, both culturally and religiously, but the thought does give me pause.

Such thoughts remind me that we are always in communion with a sea of ghosts: the ancient Palestinians whose hands lifted these vessels in devotion to Astarte, the archeologists and historians who uncovered this shrine and brought it here, the modern Pagans who brought the name Astarte to my lips as a child, the surgeons and the patients of the surgery ward, the modern Jordanians who would look upon this shrine and perhaps see something very different than I do. These shadows crowd the floor of the museum exhibit, looking at the shrine and the icons and the collection of Roman coins, speaking to one another of the strange paths that led them here, to this shrine to Astarte. But a human voice calls from the foyer, and the phantoms vanish at the sound.