Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Cult Corners in the Ancient Near East

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How did people of the ancient Near East, including the Levant (ancient Israel and Phoenicia) worship the gods at a daily level? Did they attend the temple with its priests (male and female) and pomp and ceremony on a regular basis? Did they offer quiet, rationally structured prayers to a deity? Not really, for the picture is somewhat different than we might expect.

They used what is called a “cult corner,” found in many domestic structures. A cult corner may be defined as a “small area or part of an area in a larger building or courtyard, with or without a bench, and containing ritual objects that could accommodate two to three people” (Louise Hitchcock, “Cult Corners in the Aegean and the Levant,” p. 321). It may take the form of a partition or niche in a wall, a platform, bench, or plastered surface, usually in a corner of a room or in a courtyard. Objects found include stands for vessels and offerings, small altars, standing stones, drinking and libation vessels, arrowheads and knives, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines, model furniture and vehicles, amulets, beads, pendants, animal bones, tools for food preparation, and remains of food offerings. Here one paid reverence to the ancestors (who were often buried in a vault beneath the floor) and sought the favor of usually capricious household gods.

The problem here is that the identification of cult corners is somewhat ambivalent. The reason is that such identification is made intuitively by archaeologists, assuming clear distinctions between the sacred and the profane. The catch is that in the limited space of domestic life, with its many animals and human beings (around ten), space was multifunctional, or, rather, it was constantly reproduced through its usage (as Henri Lefebvre would put it in The Production of Space). The fact that some cult corners appear in transitional areas such as passageways and gates enhances this reality. This means that what may have been used for cultic purposes may also be used for everyday activities, except that to describe it in such a fashion assumes a sharp separation between the two. Instead, while the corner was the location for a sheaf of grain, worked animal bone, amulet, figurine, incense, jug of beer, or a representation of food left for the sake of a god of harvest, or perhaps for animal wellbeing, safe birth of a child, or for the rains at the right time, it was also the place to put a cooling cooking pot, a loaf of bread before a meal, or some clothes needing repair. Or, if a room was used at times for oil pressing, wine production, or weaving, then the processes may have required regular libations at different stages, or the notching of bone scapulae in a way that was integral to the processes themselves.

This flexible use – by both men and women – indicates the way the sacred was interwoven with everyday life. The capricious spirits and gods were part of the very structure of the world, for to them were attributed both the stillborn lamb and the welcome survival of disease, both the blight on the corn and the full harvest, both the many aches of pre-pain-killer life and the birth of a child. These cult corners were one with the everyday (what we would call) chance occurrences that counted as manifestations of the sacred, whether the appearance of a wild animal, the behavior of one’s flock, the path of an ant or scorpion, the strange color of the sky, the entrails of a sheep upon slaughter.

Roland Boer, who is actually home for a short while.

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Apart from voyages by freighter ship and riding my bicycle as far and as long as I can, I like to write. My recent work has focused on the engagements with theology by leading critics in the Marxist tradition (The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, 5 vols, 2007-14; Lenin, Religion, and Theology, 2013). I am currently working on Mao Zedong, pursuing another dimension of this tradition. In the last few years, I have focused on Eastern Europe and China, stumbling on a number of significant (and almost lost) texts relating to early engagements between Christianity and communism. As a result I am the Xin Ao International professor at Renmin University of China (Beijing), as well as being a research professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia.