As the definitions in the previous post suggest, there is much within religion that is nebulous and perhaps even impossible to delineate. Describing religions as systems is not mean to evoke a sense of meticulous order, but rather the mere concatenation of a variety of components that contribute to a unifying purpose. This leaves us with little firm ground to stand on in these investigations, which perhaps suggests why these investigations have been only lightly pursued. However, we do have a modicum of evidence in the survival of texts and objects as well as in the historical documentation of events. These sources will form the foundation of this critique. I want to emphasize that this series will focus primarily on form and not content, though specific contents will become relevant to discussions of form insofar as specific forms are suited to the promotion of specific kinds of content. These essays could become unwieldy even with just these objectives, so I will limit the discussion of the particulars of any form to what seems to be widely applicable. Religions have seized upon certain forms and exploited them to a high degree of efficiency, but we are interested primarily in discovering a general purpose for the form so that it may be effectively employed. Since this series will not attempt to suggest a content for future religions, those movements will require their creators to choose useful forms for their specific content; the exploitation of these forms for specific goals is up to a future creator.
This process of investigating form suggests that we begin with a taxonomy of forms in order to differentiate them. I will break them down into three different categories: texts, objects, and events (a later essay will discuss titles, persons, and other kinds of beings, as well as organizations and hierarchies). A larger scale differentiation is also crucial, since some forms compose the crux of religions while others merely recommend the crux forms to the audience. Thus, it is necessary to differentiate these forms into primary, secondary, and tertiary categories. Finally, there is need of taxa below the level of the form itself to differentiate forms within the larger genus. This will lead us to the following designations: Priority (primary, secondary, tertiary), Type (text, object, event), and Form (various. Below the level of form there may be some differentiation as well, but this will differ case by case.
For ease of reference in later essays, the taxonomy will follow outline form.
A. Primary Sources
These sources form the crux of religions, and their purpose, through a multitude of avenues and methods, is to define or reinforce the supremacy of a religion (which then enables the religion to reorder the life and values of the believer). These forms represent primary technologies for accreting faith. They are not always effective or timely, and the real works that exemplify the forms often partake of several categories at once. These works also vary in effectiveness. There will also be works that appear to be outliers to this scheme, but I hope to account for them if they arise later on.
A.1 Primary Texts
A.1.a Cosmogony: Cosmogonies present narratives of the beginning of the universe, the world, and/or humans. A primary feature of these sources is that their narratives are always set in the past at some distance (a distance which causes great strife for literalists, especially when the distance is calculable). Often, they include explanations up to and including the beginnings of human civilization. When applicable they describe the arising of gods or other supernatural beings. In some religions, cosmogonies are valued as a means of connecting present events and figures to primordial events and figures, which generates greater ethos for the contemporary entities (the Abrahamic religions are the most obvious examples here). Others de-emphasize the initial cosmogenesis in order to communicate the vastness of their cosmogenic history (the various strains of the Vedic religions commonly pursue this tactic; cosmogony is everywhere but a beginning is lost in the massiveness of the collections and the infinitude of time).
But crucially, cosmogonies almost always mythically represent a metaphysics by providing a narrative of what is prior to the contemporary world. This metaphysics often extends into ethics and morality, a primary method for exerting power over the participants within a religion. This metaphysics may also allow the religion to define a telos that appears to derive from the very nature of the cosmos. Christianity would transform the Judaic cosmology’s metaphysical idea of original sin into a telos that Christ fulfilled, which enabled them to transform the notion of the promised land, a telos for Judaism, into the Christian idea of an eternal life in heaven, granted conversion, ritual participation, and moral exactitude. The way in which Christianity inherited and transfigured the cosmogony represented in the Torah represents a masterful innovation in telos-shifting.
A.1.b History: This category covers texts that discuss a narrative, ranging from mostly true to utterly imaginary, of human civilization or a specific human civilization, which can include periods from the beginning of human existence up to events contemporary with the writer. This mythologizing of history can serve many purposes: defining a continuity for the religious community (sometimes stretching back to prove a divine pedigree), explaining away defeats and announcing victories from previous wars, taking control of the historic narrative from enemies and thus asserting power over images of the community, providing sheer catharsis or entertainment within an approved tradition, marking out patriarchs and heroes for devotion, condemning or glorifying forms of government, providing historical backing for the pursuit of a telos, encoding tactics and methods for future wars and conflicts, providing claims to specific lands or resources, explaining the ways in which objects achieved sanctification, the list goes on and on. History can provide connecting tissue between texts, objects, people, deities/beings, states, and places. Its absence typically signals that a religion seeks legitimacy on other grounds, though it is rare that neither a history nor a biography is present within a religion.
A.1.c Biography: Spiritual biography in its primary form typically concerns a founder, primary teacher, savior, leader, or other important figure. For religions that center around an individual, these texts are typically of paramount importance. They chronicle at least part of the life of an individual and likely include events of an inexplicable or miraculous nature. In some cases, they record important speeches, sayings, and practices of the individual while simultaneously projecting the individual’s supremacy. Everywhere, power, courage, and wisdom are on display. It’s important to note that this power need not have a magical basis, though most religions attribute magical powers to these individuals. What is most crucial is that the narrative is captivating and that the individual, whether real or imagined, has some potency that transcends the mundane. The individual has also typically achieved a kind of supremacy on the moral plane, and the surrounding cults often use the individual’s biography as an example of right behavior. Other texts will focus on specific captivating episodes and sayings within the biography, so it is crucial that the narrative provide meaningful opportunities to do so. Biography can form the culmination of a history or cosmogony or it can stand on its own. This latter form is most common in mid-level religions that focus solely on an individual, but it achieved great success in Buddhism, partially due to the fact that the biographical texts about Siddhartha Gautama are minuscule in comparison to the massive sutras, which, though they consist of conversations that purportedly occurred during the life of an individual, represent a different form more focused on doctrine than narrative.
A.1.d Allegories, Apocalypses, Prophecies, and Oracles: This fourth kind of narrative represents metaphorical, visionary material where such material does not fall into any of the previous categories more cleanly (though we often see apocalyptic, prophetic, or allegorical material in the previous categories; these distinctions do not necessarily delineate hard definitions. Individual texts often employ multiple forms). Methods of divination that do not directly issue from the proclamations of or texts of an oracle fall into another category; the utterances of the oracle herself or books of her prophecies are what falls into this category (see for instance the Sibylline Books, not extant but referenced often throughout Classical history; another example would be the calendrical prophecies of the Mayan oracle Chilam Bilam, which synthesizes the calendar and this form). Often, texts of this sort provide metaphysical or ethical expansions in the form of either i) a more legible metaphorical material so that a concept can be illustrated more clearly, or ii) a mysterious narrative that the writer makes no attempt to explain. Often, these narratives project into distant or near futures, using robust symbologies (sometimes generated out of cosmogonies or even just general traditional material) to delineate misty, impossible-to-confirm futures in mythic forms. In prophecy, these projections can be combined with poetry, history, and polemic to provide justifications for these allegorical events. Apocalypses can also project not into the future but merely just beyond the world. Visionary journeys full of allegorical significance or trans-worldly beings fall into this form.
Many of the texts this category includes benefit from purposeful obfuscation of the boundary between the real and the metaphorical. This technique enables the writer to generate authority on both sides of the divide, which can be useful insofar as they create/document encounters with beings beyond belief. Though there are some examples of allegories that prefer simplicity over phantasmagoria (see Christ’s parables or Zen stories, for example), many of the texts in this category brim with magic, superhuman beings, cosmic events, and dreamlike imagery (at times, they even concern dreams expressly). By projecting into the future, these texts can sometimes enhance or even generate a telos; the notion of a promised Zion for the Israelites primarily issues out of the Book of Isaiah, for instance, and the notion of judgment in Christianity occurs mostly in the Revelation of St. John. As long as such a telos remains unfulfilled, it is open to be fulfilled by a future movement or even a wholly different religion.
A.1.e Polemics: Often combining with other forms, these works scathingly critique some aspect of the world or stridently argue for a religion’s supremacy directly. They figure most heavily in the writings of zealots and prophets. These writings serve as moralistic goads to zealotry or righteous condemnations of outsiders, persecutors, or in many cases the community itself. Jeremiah wrote the most famous of these, combining it with apocalypse and prophecy, but they are also common within sermons and in the speeches of evangelists. Using a voice that evinces supreme authority and sometimes even claiming to present the words of divine beings, polemics accord ethos to the opinions they express, and these opinions and condemnations serve to exalt the religion by diminishing all else. This strategy is especially appealing in the employ of a charismatic speaker or in a writer of elegant and convincing prose.
A.1.f Metaphysical Works: Whole religions have arisen out of metaphysical treatises. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the Tao Te Ching, a founding text of Taoism, written by Lao Tse himself, who, according to legend, after giving the text to a guard along the wall, exited into the wilderness never to be seen again. This example illustrates the way a creator might exercise the power of authorship; often, metaphysical treatises trade on the authority of their creator. However, they are most tuned to religious content that relies on metaphysical systems that are either i) complex (Plotinus’ Enneads) or ii) difficult to comprehend (the Tao Te Ching, though to be honest, we should probably place the Enneads as an example of both i and ii).
This form can be found in religions that rely on the text as a single, centralized foundation on which all others rest, such as in Taoism; or it can be one of a great proliferation of texts in religions whose cosmogonies are complex, contradictory, or various, such as the many treatises within the many versions of Gnosticism or in the Upanishads of Hinduism. Regardless, the goal of this form typically involves the direct explication of a metaphysics to a follower of the religion, relying on the explanatory power of logic (or in the case of Taoism, the collapse of logic) or the splendor of vertiginous metaphysical structures as a rhetorical method. This form often combines with the dialogue form and the exegesis form, all of which find expression in one of the most impressive works of this category, the Zohar of Kabbalah.
A.1.g Laws, Moral Codes, and Behavioral Guides: Texts that delineate moral codes or religiously-mandated laws most often feature a direct and lucid style. This can extend into the organization of the text which commonly includes numbered sections and often even subsections. An obvious explanation for this stylistic choice is that the creators wish to remove all doubt as to the meaning of the text. Since these texts are focused on behavioral control, they cease to function well when the reader is unable to comprehend them. There are many examples of these forms, including the Confucian Analects, the Buddhist Dhammapada, and the majority of the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy from the Abrahamic faiths. These works almost always rely on the authority of a central figure, state, or divine being in order to recommend their adoption by the audience. They epitomize the desire to command a society to order, and thus find much use in religions where centralized power dominates.
A.1.h Dialogues, Aphorisms, or Proverbs: This form contains many sub-forms, the most common of which is perhaps the dialogue between teacher and student that forms a preliminary catechism for the clarification of doctrinal questions. The teacher often dispenses metaphysical lore and occasionally even allegories to sate the questioning of the student. Dialogues also find use as a synthesis of multiple views, revealing the complexity of a conflict (though most often in dialogues that are primary sources, there is one dominant view that wins out in the end). Aphorisms and proverbs are also popular versions of this form; this form is an excellent container of wisdom, which is essentially a kind of practical awareness developed through experience that is also transmissible to others through language.
Voices for these texts often derive from an internal hierarchy; these texts often issue from the mouth of a central teacher/master figure or possibly an elder, as in the case of Ecclesiastes. The Buddhist Sutras are without a doubt the pinnacle of this form, representing one of the largest repositories of wisdom (as described above) in known human history. Plato’s dialogues also figure in the same range however, and represent a perhaps more exciting climb; for an audience whose telos is the discovery of knowledge or the understanding and therefore control of human society, no texts exert as much influence on these matters as Plato’s dialogues do.
A.1.i Doctrinal Glosses, Sermons, Epistles, Proclamations, Writs, and other Communiques: Though this form is predominantly reserved for secondary sources in the form of theology, some religions include these documents as primary texts. They represent aids to understanding difficult or encoded doctrines, and can also serve to distort or manipulate other texts (as in the case of the letters of St. Paul). By including these sorts of texts as primary documents within a religion, a sense of authoritative exegesis emerges, which can guide future schools of exegesis or even just the initial reception of the text. They are stays against heresy and sectarianism, calling upon the authority of a high-ranking member of the community or possibly a central individual. As writings, these appear most often in later religions, where correspondence and communication can reliably occur; there is also no need for a gloss on the doctrine when a single priestly order controls doctrine as such (thus these forms can sometimes play the role of internal or esoteric documents of this caste). Instead, proclamations, writs, bulls, and the like are distributed from the top down in order to clarify or specify a decision on a rule or dogma. Of course, these sorts of documents have often found use as a method for demonizing specific sects, denouncing heretics, and declaring wars, all of which can serve useful if also entirely problematic purposes in solidifying the supremacy of a religion (or a group within a religion).
Sermons are a specialized form of these sorts of texts in that they combine with liturgy and provide doctrinal glosses to a captive audience. Sectarianism and specific schools of theology often inform these speeches, which the audience experiences directly through the portals of the ear. Combined with regular services (see below), sermons more deeply recommend other texts to the listener, or serve as interpreter of those texts, which invites a deeper sense of their supremacy as the sermon renders them accessible to lay believers.
A.1.j Poetry and Song: To define a function for poetry is often to miss its value. The kinds of poetry that figure as primary sources in religions are so myriad that it would be impossible to properly delineate them. Poetry can serve to console, to mystify, to purge, to glorify, to thank, to supplicate, to condemn, to elevate, to invoke, and to perform many other important functions. Examples abound, but here is a short list to illustrate the variety: the Thunder Perfect Mind, Rumi’s Mathnawi, the Psalms, the Song of Songs, the songs of Milarepa, the Zen death poem, and perhaps the most powerful, the Rig Veda.
A.1.k Spells and Secret Teachings: These texts are comparatively rare within organized religions but they figure prominently where they have existed. They encode secret magical rituals or heavily guarded metaphysical formulae that are only available for i) specific occasions or ii) an initiated member who is pursuing them on specific pathways. The Egyptian religions employed spells for their funerary rituals. Spells and secret teachings are central to Tantric faiths such as Vajrayana Buddhism as well as esoteric forms of the Abrahamic religions, especially in certain traditions of Kabbalah. Typically, religions hold that these forms must remain secret due to their power, but there is often also a need to keep them secret due to their absurdity, amorality, sexuality, or otherwise transgressive qualities. They become available to the adherent based on a specific devotion to the faith in order to ensure that the initiate will not wield them as a weapon against the religion. Secrets such as these also assist a cult in defining degrees and orders or other hierarchical structures, which can also create layers of authority and power within the internal politics of a religion.
A.1.l Creeds, Prayers, Chants, and Mantras: These forms invite devotion in their repetition and memorization. As either i) ritually-invoked statements of belief, ii) ritually-conditioned imprecations to divine beings, or iii) tools to access mystical states through the religion as gatekeeper, they each are activated by the utterance of a believer. They are thus a kind of private ritual that can also be shared communally. Their power derives from their ability to incite action from the participant; rather than merely absorbing meaning from these texts, the participant asserts them or reinforces them for themselves. These texts thus feature heavily in religion, because they encourage the believer to perform ritual in privacy and for personal use, thus infiltrating the time spent outside of sacred spaces with sacred material.
A.1.m Liturgy and Ritual Instructions: Liturgy, what is read during a ritual, and the specific instructions for performing a ritual, often rest solely in the hands of a priestly caste. Sometimes these texts exist only in oral form, as seems to be the case for the Hellenistic mystery cults. They often bear little interest to the lay audience, since the audience will receive oral instruction for their part of the ritual in the course of the reading of the liturgy. Liturgies and instructions can become incredibly complex, requiring the use of specific objects, spaces, music, motions, dances, etc. The liturgies of the Bön traditions of Tibet can include labyrinthine rituals surpassed only by certain traditions western occult traditions in their Byzantine passages. This form heavily overlaps with specific kinds of events that will appear later in this discussion.
A.1.n Calendars: These texts are crucial not just for time-reckoning but also time-sanctification. They record the cycles of specific holy days, festivals, commemorations, astronomical events, and prophecies. Since calendars are astronomically based, they can be subject to dizzying complexity in order to resolve the untidy calculations that arise in astronomical dating. This can also find resolution in secondary and even tertiary calendars within calendars, as is the case with the Mayan system. Calendars can link with many of the above forms to provide specific functions, but shine most prominently as a means of organizing behavior. Ramadan and Lent’s appearances on calendars signal long periods of fasting or self-denial; in Judaism, jubilees every fifty (or so…) years announced the forgiveness of all debts. Calendars are thus a form of discipline, and even where their explicit use is not apparent, they are usually in play but hidden from view, tracking all time in anticipation of scheduled events, seasonal changes, and the end of days.
A.1.o Codices, Compilations, and Books: These sorts of text blur the line between text and object, insofar as they often serve as a physical conduit for text. Large books of various texts, even where they include some secular texts, originally served at least in part as a convenience, in that they held important and useful things in a single physical shape. However, the process of curating the texts that will compose these compilations and codices more appropriately works as a kind of writing. Selection of the texts might be performed with a variety of motives in mind, especially since the selection process has depended on the particular technological circumstances of the age, the ease of copying manuscripts, and the control that an organization will exert on the text (i.e. will this be the only copy/will it reside only with the priest or other leader/etc). Sometimes other external circumstances force the selection of texts; for instance, we must wonder what Gnostic texts have been lost to the ages simply because the creator of the Nag-Hammadi archive jar did not have access to them for preservation.
Perhaps the most integral characteristic of this form is the definition it provides to a tradition. The body of text that a religion produces can often grow vast and unmanageable. Compilation texts extract crucial portions of the religion’s textual apparatus and present them as an accounting of the whole. Finally, compilation of text also enables this form to serve a multitude of aesthetic functions, allowing for contradiction and synthesis to coexist under the selector’s gaze, building the case for supremacy on a variety of planes and for a variety of audiences.
A.2. Primary Objects
A.2.a Food and Water: Food and its prohibition forms a central part of many religions. The Vedas dramatize the churning of butter from cream; Jesus’ body is bread, and he multiplies fish and loaves; manna from heaven condensed on grass for the Israelites to eat; who knows how many rites are dedicated to the fertility of fields; the buffalo assumed a role of enormous significance to western Native American tribes; Passover, saints-days, festivals, harvests—all suggest feasts; hunting is a primary ritual in many religions throughout the world; and don’t let us forget fruits, those sources of immortality and/or death. The list goes on. Of course, food is its own justification, but there is good reason for spirituality to surround food. The lord giveth and the lord taketh away; food is subject to vicissitudes ranging from weather (a province of many gods) to disease (a punishment of many gods) to theft by enemies (who will be punished by many gods). It is the basic motor of life, and thus, where religion can stake a claim on food, the eating of that food and the sustenance it provides becomes an example of the supremacy of the religion. Indeed, food-customs and religion (or at least magic) seem to develop in tandem at times. So much work has been done on this subject that it seems pertinent to end here; but I do think it’s crucial to consider the current state of food customs and environmental concerns vis-a-vis this crucial element of spiritual aesthetics.
Water often plays a prominent role in religions that develop in the desert, but since water is a necessity of life and is essentially everywhere in some capacity, it is a primary symbol for religions. It can appear both as a purifying substance for bathing, or adrink to quench a spiritual thirst. Holy figures can walk upon it, or draw it from stones, or bend rivers to their will. Like food, the assertion of supremacy over water is an assertion of power over life and death. By pursuing this end, religion can use the survival instinct to its advantage in pursuing supremacy. One can only imagine how religions might make use of flooding and droughts as the climate begins to change.
A.2.b Architecture and Space: Religions lay claim to various kinds of space, but especially in their declarations of sacred space, a designation that can render an area (or object or person) holy or taboo. The difference between these two forms of sacredness is not as great as it may seem, but that is a topic for another essay. More important for this one is the way in which sacred space is delineated or enclosed. Some sacred space is natural; caves, mountains, springs, pools, and groves are perhaps the most common kinds of natural sacred space, though religions with a focus on the natural world, especially animist religions, can endow basically any place with spirit. Natural spaces sometimes feature minimalist architecture or other markings to define the space as sacred. Examples include the circle of standing stones, the Shinto shrine, the Sibyl’s tripod, etc. Other religions use spaces with that feature an architectural or cultural basis. These spaces can also have immense variety. The Tabernacle of the Israelites, the Kaaba (a meteor), the Roman hearth (sacred to Vesta), etc, are all examples. Larger buildings tend to feature heavily in religions that are established as a feature of a state or that aspire to statehood.
Temples of various kinds enclose space in myriad ways; massive works on architectural style in various religions exist that discuss methods of design for enclosing sacred space. Tombs can also serve religious functions, especially in state religions. Massive tombs and temples evoke supremacy physically, and thus elevate the sacred spaces and objects they enclose. Even the planning of cities can form an instrumental part of the method a religion uses for inspiring faith with architecture. Christianity’s ability to transform famous pagan temples into Christian churches, thus co-opting pilgrimage routes, represented a major innovation in the evangelizing process and contributed in part to the swift transition of the Roman empire into a Christian state.
A.2.c Altars and their Tools: Altars are essentially surfaces with ritual significance. They typically appear near the holiest portions of sacred space, because these spaces host sacrifices. They vary in appearance from rough-hewn to ornately carved, and are typically stone. The reasoning for this probably has to do with the act of sacrifice; stone does not break when a blade strikes it. Altars have evolved into many forms in religions where their blood-sacrificial function does not figure into the system’s rituals. They still typically represent an offering site for gifts given to gods or other divine entities, which is merely sacrifice in a different guise. The most elaborate of these sorts of altars can be found in Haitian Vodun; these altars to the Loa can be massive, hosting thousands of objects, representations, offerings, etc, of all qualities, including everything from cigarettes to phalloi to commercial toys to food and drink to beautiful art and everything between. Altars can also serve as sites of divination, and their centralized, sanctified presence lends these rituals an increased air of supremacy and mystique.
Finally, they can also serve the purpose of defining the sacred space in funerary and marriage rites (among others), lending a sense of sanctity to these rituals while simultaneously gathering communal power into the altar. Because entire communities convene around these rituals, the central position of the altar organizes these communities around it, involving all convened in its sanctification. The very act of uniting in one place for an important ritual and allowing the altar to render its power upon the ritual also concentrates power on the altar itself, making the assembled community complicit in acknowledging its supremacy in the ritual context. The simple act of inviting persons external to a religion to a ceremony at a religion’s altar becomes a way of sanctifying that altar further, and can serve as a kind of deeper invitation to join the fold.
A.2.d Statuary, Fetishes, Masks, Amulet,s and Icons: While most plastic representations of deities and other entities more appropriately fall into secondary priority, images and cult statuary can form primary sources of spirit (or sites of text, as in the case of the Mayan stelae). Hellenistic religion’s relationship to statuary is particularly representative of this impulse. The statue of a god often held the same significance as the god itself. The Lares, household gods, had to be physically moved from place to place; The Aeneid‘s central plot basically concerns the movement of Trojan household gods to Rome. Statuary and other objects can also gain magical significance. Fetishes and their control forms a central part of both African and Native American religions. In the religion of the BaKongo people in the Congo, a nkisi is an object or statue that becomes imbued with the essence of a spiritual being and thus confers power or presence on the keeper. Amulets also serve as magical invocations of deity or spirits, though they often serve specialized purposes rather than standing in for specific beings; curses, protection from curses and the evil eye, wealth, and luck represent some of the many uses amulets have served through the ages.
Statues and other plastic representations of divine beings are primarily useful as a method for localizing the being’s supremacy and for inspiring through an objective correlative of the divine presence. Masks can also serve the same significance, except that they temporarily transforms a ritual participant into a god or other divine being, which enables the celebrant to act as a kind of living statue of the god. The masks and ritual garb of the Hopi religion evoke the Kachinas, allowing the celebrants to create physical and temporal relationships between these beings in elaborate ritual plays.
A.2.e Clothing and Jewelry: The clothing of powerful persons within a religion is a surprisingly potent source of aesthetics. As with other forms, the variety of clothing across religion is immense. Some clothing evokes power, order, hierarchy, and purity; see the Catholic Pope’s ritual dress, with its multiplicity of layers, ornate headgear, and whiteness. Some ascetics live only in ragged shifts or walk about naked; Isaiah is famed to have walked naked across a desert. Jewelry also commonly evokes status as it does in its non-religious cultural associations, and thus inspires a certain sort of supremacy; but simple clothing and an absence of jewelry can also evoke supremacy beyond worldly things. As always, style is everything.
A.2.f Tools, Weapons, and Vessels: These items can hold sacred significance as well, either as tools for specific rituals, sacred weaponry for priests and divine warriors, receptacles of sanctified water or unguents, scepters of symbolic worldly power, etc. The list of possibilities is endless, and differs for every religion. Weapons in particular can hold great significance. All Sikh men must carry a sword. Weapons can also receive blessings before battle. Weapons may also be primarily psychic as opposed to physical. The vajra or dorje of Buddhism and Hinduism is conceived as an unbreakable weapon that the gods, demons, and bodhisattvas wield. This weapon, in physical form, has no clear method for its use, and functions primarily as a symbol of the indestructibility of the divine or the Buddha-nature.
A.2.g Plants and Drugs: Plants and drugs can often transcend the category of object and rise to the level of divine being. This is especially prominent in animist religions, which is where the most prominent use of drugs in religious contexts occurs. However, many religions have employed and even deified alcohol or wine; this form need not induce hallucinations to be a powerful method for invoking supremacy, though hallucinogens, such as ayahuasca, Tabernathe Iboga, peyote, and Psilocybe Cubensis are certainly useful in that context. This category also includes powerful deliriants such as Amanita Muscaria and Datura Stramonium, used respectively by Siberian shamanic religions (there is no good evidence that Christians used them) and Ancestral Puebloan religions. There is also some speculation about ritual use of henbane in Hellenistic mystery cults, and there is ample evidence that poisonous rhododendron honey has featured in various religions in modern-day Turkey and the Himalayas. These substances can induce hallucinations but also a general sense of delirium (which can be incredibly dangerous; many of these plants are deadly in the wrong dosage). Regardless of the forms these substances take, they often figure into i) initiation rites, ii) the induction of mystical states, or iii) festivals. These substances are not common in religions with a strong centralized power structure, unless they form an esoteric branch of the religion open only to certain sorts of devotees. Drugs are difficult to control. This makes them more prominent in religions where unified doctrine is less significant than a plurality of metaphysical ideas. This applies to other methods for inducing mystical states, but some are more amenable to authority than others.
A.2.h Unguents, Oils, Holy Water, Ash, Body Paint, Tattooing Inks: Substances can be sanctified in order that the power of the substance can transfer onto the receiver of the substance. Sometimes this requires that the substance appear in specific patterns on the person, such as the intricate tattoos of the Maoris. This kind of work can function similarly to masks, as described above, or can signal initiation into specific societies, rituals, or the religion itself (see Baptism). This process can be permanent or temporary, depending on the ritual and the substance.
A.2.i Ornament: Even the patterns that adorn objects and spaces can have spiritual aesthetics. It should be clear that the intricate arabesques on the interior of mosques can inspire a sense of supremacy. Complex patterns also appear in Gothic architecture, in passages through Egyptian pyramids, in Mayan carvings on palaces, on Viking tombs, in the beadwork of the Navajo, in the brocades of the Confucian emperors. Ornament can have symbolic significance or it can merely strike the viewer with an sense of almost superhuman complexity. Some believe that the ornate illumination in the Insular style found in the Book of Kells actually issued from the pen of an angel, not a man. Ornament is in some ways impossible to avoid; because religions often cover vast areas of space, ornament serves to designate important sites as well as to define a unique visual style (which may or may not have symbolic significance, as stated above).
A.3 Primary Events
A.3.a Festivals, Feasts, and Holidays: Festivals are a vast subject, but essentially what they represent is a sanctified period of time. During these periods, a new set of laws and mores applies based on the content and purpose of the festival. These laws and mores override (at least in part) those of the prevailing state and secular culture if only temporarily (Bakhtin called this quality of suspension the carnivalesque and applied it to the time that novels inhabit). This suspension enables the religion temporary access to the whole (or majority) of a community’s life within that period; even if the festival is merely an intrusion into a person’s life, it is still thereby an exertion of power upon that person (states, of course, figured this out long ago, so that now the festival form seems positively secular in light of the fact that most western festivals are merely state-sanctioned pleasure carnivals).
The content of festivals varies greatly. It can include inversions of political orders, such as in the Roman festival of Saturnalia where masters served their own slaves; it can include gift-giving, which is always a form of sacrifice; it can include solemn processions, vigils, fasting, textual recitations, prayer schedules; it can include dancing, orgies, games, theater, or music; it can involve dispensations to the rich or poor from state or church coffers; it can include practices of great specificity such as the throwing of colored particulate or smearing the face with ash. This variety, however, should also give a sense that the festival form is always specific, in that it focuses around certain rituals. Though a generalized content of practices such as theater and games might typically accompany the main content of a festival, the religious festival itself centers around specific rituals tuned to particular moments in time (this is where festivals and holidays combine with calendars to perform a matrix of spiritual aesthetics across the whole of the year). By sanctifying specific sections of time so that sacred space generalizes throughout the entire community, religious festivals become an assertion of supremacy in that they reveal the religion’s power to loosen the grip of the state and the market on the community. Obviously, this excites the community members as it can temporarily grant them special freedoms, wealth, or at the very least respite from labor; but it is impossible to ignore that festivals are also an assertion of power over the community in their ability to interrupt culture, trade, and the legal order, lending the religion an extra-legal sovereign quality that no doubt contributes to the accumulation of supremacy.
A.3.b Coronations and Deifications: Religions also assert their supremacy over the state by crowning rulers and defining rulers in their position in the hierarchy of divine beings. These rituals indicate that the state receives power from [a being within] the religion or as a direct incarnation a divine being. These rituals typically include massive displays of power by the state, which ultimately serve a dual purpose in glorifying the state but also enhancing the supremacy of the power offering coronation. Deification might seem a method for the state to infiltrate religion; however, it might also function as a method for proclaiming the supremacy of a religion by uniting a glorified figure with the divine metaphysics the religion provides. It solidifies the presence of religion within the state (while, no doubt, continuing to glorify the state itself). These events can include complicated rituals and oaths (more on oaths below), festival trappings, and even dispensations. Regardless, they differ from typical festivals in that they represent a partnership between religion and state in reinforcing each other’s greatness. The supremacy, however, rests with the religion.
A.3.c Oaths: Oaths, presided over by religions or divine beings, seal compacts, agreements, marriages, promises, treaties, statements to courts, acceptance of offices, and other situations and documents that might otherwise lead to the violation of trust between two or more parties. Oaths provide a religious sanction for law and sovereignty and signal divine consequences for anyone who might break them. In this way, oaths provide a touch-point for religion to access levers of state power where it is normally excluded. More importantly, the oath is a signal of the supremacy of religion in compelling honor. By making this signal at the crucial moments when oaths must be sworn, the believer elevates the supremacy of religion by placing it above the most important pacts that seal together the state, the family, the alliance, and the law. Freemasonry is famous for the complexity of its oaths, sworn upon rising to different degrees, but its central oath of secrecy is perhaps its most well-known.
A.3.d Comings of Age: Coming of age rituals are often crucial events within a community and for individual participants. They signal the child’s entrance into the community as both a political being and as a practitioner of the community’s culture. Religion typically here plays the role of initiator; the person coming of age often makes a journey into a spiritual realm (even if only symbolically) and emerges as a fully-realized being. This process, apart from the fact that the initiation ordeal typically involves some amount of suffering or fear, resembles the coronation in that the religion is claiming supremacy in presiding over the adult life of the child. As a keeper of the threshold, the religion is the gatekeeper into adult life and thus asserts its power over it; no one can become an adult without the permission of the religious order.
Likewise, the initiation ordeal itself is an extreme assertion of power over the individual. The ritual is not only a means of testing the fitness of the child, but also a means of forcing the child to bear the suffering that the religion chooses to dispense. This can incite the devotion and reverence of the child by associating the intensity of emotion and pain with religious symbols and the hierarchy of the community. Other coming of age ceremonies include sacrifices of various kinds (including gift-giving), dances, hunts, or other secondary rituals, often especially where religion has infiltrated them.
A.3.e Marriages: Communities appeal to religions to bind families together and to license their sexuality. Though the state is often now in possession of the power to bind together two people, even secular couples include the trappings of spirituality within these rituals. At these joyous occasions, the presence of spirituality galvanizes the assembled community and infiltrates the memory of the event, which for the couple is typically of great importance even where it is only celebration. They document and remember marriages as long as the relationship lasts and often longer, thus clearing a place for spirituality to live even where it did not necessarily preside.
A.3.f Funerals: Funerary customs are some of the earliest documented evidence of spirituality. They can be so important that they form the origin for a religion’s aesthetics (see, for instance, Ancient Egyptian religion and its proliferation of funerary texts and monumental tombs). This form provides so much material for discussion that it would be tiresome to read here, especially since a multitude of excellent books proliferates on the subject. However, two central issues seem crucial to this form. The first is speculation on the afterlife and the soul, which is an area that religion excels in exploring. As death is supreme in that it is inevitable (it is also the only power that can annihilate a being), providing an account of an afterlife might form an attempt to assert an even greater supremacy of religion over the process of death. Supremacy here does not necessarily connote truth but rather a kind of greatness or a power to inspire. Accounts of the afterlife can come to bear on the entirety of a life as well as on death, a supremacy which few other forms can manage.
A second issue is the account of death itself. Death is a mystery, but in funerary customs, a spiritual account of death can suggest a kind of mastery over the mystery. Ash to ash, dust to dust; thus the memory of a person is sealed into eternity. By accounting for the mystery of death before an assembled community, religion reaches for supremacy in the mind of a grieving multitude, vulnerable as they are, in search of the meaning behind an impossible mystery: the death of a loved one. This is an area of enormous power, and currently one of the last such areas where spirituality still has a foothold in modernity.
A.3.g Services, Schooling/Study, Organized Prayer, and Encouragements to Ritual Practice: It shouldn’t be a mystery how regimented prayer and church attendance solidify the supremacy of a religion in its practitioners. Though religions direct this form at those who have already entered the fold, it is crucial for maintaining the flock, as it infiltrates the believer’s time with further inducements to faith. Indeed, at these events religions often even invite practitioners to the contemplation of the religion’s (or divine being’s) supremacy, or to the abolition of their doubts about the religion’s value. These encouragements to practice feature in religions that rely on obedience rather than on mystical states, as mystical states often become their own justification for seeking them out. It should also be apparent how these forms invite the believer to experience other forms as discussed above, particularly text. Where reading text is mandated or encouraged as a form of worship, it leads the audience deeper into the supremacy-generating process by giving them a way into the complexities that sacred text can involve.
A.3.h Sacrifices: Sacrifices have many masks and sub-forms, and there is no consensus for how they function even if many have made attempts. But this can be said: sacrifices involve a ceding of power by a practitioner to some aspect of the religion. This ceding of power also involves an (at least) implicit recognition by this aspect of religion, be it a god, a church’s community, or a hierarch of the church itself. Recognition here induces others to sacrifice by inspiring them to seek out their own recognition. It also justifies the energy expenditure of the practitioner, which can become a circular/self-fulfilling cycle. There is no doubt also an element of mystery within sacrifice, a kind of untouchable sacredness that simultaneously repels and invites curiosity. The bloody sacrifices of yore were great spectacles, but even the sacrifice of tithing solidifies communities where it bleeds them. The commandment to sacrifice thus plays a role primarily for solidifying belief rather than inviting the nonbeliever to worship, but it is a powerful method for ensuring the integrity of a community.
A.3.i Divination and Omens: Divination serves to determine or clarify the future, a course of action that may take place in the future, or the power or character of an individual or group. These rituals, often esoteric and known only to the priests performing them, involve the observation of a specific natural phenomenon which is claimed to transmit knowledge of the above subjects. Sometimes the diviner consults manuals detailing the results of the event (see, for instance, the I Ching). Often, the priest merely interprets the phenomenon. These phenomena vary widely. Objects used in divination include but are not limited to the following: dreams, lightning, burning yarrow stalks, tortoiseshells, random pages of books, the guts of a slaughtered animal, birds in the sky, playing cards, dice, the list goes on. Omens happen when an event outside of prescribed divination rituals occurs and suggests a good or bad portent. The priests performing these interpretations can easily manipulate the result to serve the purposes of the religion. These proclamations are always spoken in the ethos of divine authority.
A.3.j Hunting and Agricultural Rites: These rituals often differ greatly from one another but they both involve the acquisition of food by magic. Whether the participant is taking on the role of the hunted animal or the sewn seed, whether the call to the gods is for propitious weather or a bountiful hunt, whether weapons or fields receive blessings, the participants will return thankfulness or penance afterwards. Where a religion overtakes these customs, they reinforce its supremacy referring success or failure to the gods. No doubt there is some psychological relief accorded by this suspension of responsibility, but more importantly this process awards the religion great power. Divine beings are given control over the sustenance and therefore the life and death of the tribe, and thus become the ultimate power within the community.
A.3.k Wars and Purges: Religious wars and purges of heresy are primary forms of external and internal violence. Though war is often the province of the state (and as mentioned previously, some states fit the definition of religion this essay uses), religious inducements to war can provide a method, if an extremely dangerous one, for solidifying the supremacy of a religion. The way this works should be obvious: victory is assured by the religion (until it isn’t), and participation confers some sacred benefit (promised lands, heavens, glory, etc) or proves one’s devotion. Victory then becomes an example of supremacy, and defeat becomes an example of the demoniac nature of the opposing side where there is anyone left to mourn the loss.
Religion also infiltrates secular wars in much the same way. As war is a totalizing force, overtaking and organizing every aspect of life under its power and subjecting its participants and bystanders to continual vulnerability and violence, it is a particularly powerful event for religion to infiltrate or use. This is so much the case that a primary reason many provide for their abandonment of religion is the amount of violence religions incite; few other systems even have the power to declare war, and even fewer have the ability to make war seem palatable or even righteous to their soldiers.
B. Secondary Forms
Secondary forms consist of forms composed by devotees or adherents of religions that further adduce the supremacy of that religion. These consist of works that glorify or recommend, either explicitly or implicitly, a religion to their audience. They usually take the form of artworks, some of which emulate or use the forms described above. This is a very fine line, but typically these works evince some expansion outside of religious doctrine. They are not typically intended to receive devotion. Statuary provides an excellent example of this phenomenon: Michelangelo’s David, for instance, clearly does not intend to contain the actual presence of David the king; rather, the audience contemplates the human form as exemplified in the supreme example of David. Apuleis’ The Golden Ass forms another example. Though Lucius finds relief from his sad metamorphosis through his devotion to Isis, the book contains many more episodes that are unrelated to the cult of Isis. Though Apuleis may be recommending this kind of devotion, he is primarily working as an artist, combining entertainment and mundane reality into his spiritual aesthetics.
Religion also has little control over secondary forms. Even theology and philosophy fall more under the control of the writer than the religion. Of course, the writers of early primary texts also exerted a great deal of control since often the religion as such was quite different or existed in a very different form. But secondary forms always come after the primary form. This is the sense of priority I mean to invoke. Secondary priority forms can only follow, and often have other motives than adducing the supremacy of a religion. Thus their spiritual aesthetics often plays an ancillary role to their general aesthetics, and in some cases, these works merely use the assumed supremacy of the religion to enhance the greatness that they hope to gain for their own work.
I don’t intend to diminish the presence of art by this discussion, but it is important to distinguish that art does not seek to be an object of devotion or worship in the way that the primary forms of a religion do. This is especially the case with religious art, as religious art does not aspire to eclipse primary religious forms in supremacy. There is a case to be made that sermons belong in this category, and indeed many biographies and histories belong here too; but sermons rarely have functions that work outside of the religion itself, and therefore they make more sense as a primary form.
I won’t list the variety of secondary forms. This article is already too long. Secondary forms are nonetheless crucial to the latter stages of religions insofar as they show the extent to which the religion has infiltrated culture with notions of its supremacy. This then becomes a further reinforcement of its burgeoning supremacy. When a religion becomes a basic assumption of artists, it has achieved widespread power in a culture and will continue to grow in power for some time.
C. Tertiary Forms
Tertiary forms are objects, texts, and events that retain mere trappings or suggestions of the primary forms of religions. These forms are prominent within the religious community but also can appear, sometimes accidentally, absolutely outside the religious community (or as a critique of the religion). They might serve as a tinge of religiosity in the decoration of a home (say, the Tibetan prayer flag often pinned on walls by non-Vajrayana Buddhists); they might be a token of a previous religiosity or a family member’s religiosity; they might be a badge of adherence or interest, such as the cross necklace or the prayer bead bracelet; they might be rituals enacted blasphemously in order to provoke or condemn; they might be souvenirs of travel and tokens of an othered culture; they might be the mere adoption of religious aesthetics for secular purposes. Whatever the result, tertiary forms are even deeper reminders of the scope of a religion in a culture in that they appear ubiquitously and often unconsciously throughout all layers of cultural production.
Tertiary forms are not necessarily crucial to maintaining the supremacy of a religion as they are evidence that a religion has achieved that status (somewhere, at some time, to someone or some group). Thus, no matter whether they are a cross-stitched proverb or a satirical black mass, they reinforce the notion of a religion’s supremacy, at least inasmuch as the tertiary form suggests that a religion and its aesthetics are objects worth engaging. Tertiary forms also contribute to the common connotation of the terms spiritual or spirituality. Often, these terms, self-applied, suggest that the believer accumulates tertiary forms of religiosity without actually arriving at a system or attributing supremacy to a system. This kind of low-level syncretization is becoming more and more prominent and essentially amounts to a kind of agnosticism (which amounts to a kind of atheism).
Such a phenomenon could only occur in a global marketplace, and often represents a belief in the impossibility of supremacy (common in the “all religions are just different versions of the same message” crowd but also the “religions are bad” crowd). This ideology no doubt presents a serious problem for the development of a true religion. Its primary forms are doomed to become commodities, which in some cases can have the effect of reducing them to tertiary forms (how many households own a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead? How many people have tattoos of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life? What is the sound of one hand clapping?). How can religions invoke supremacy against the market’s flattening? How can primary forms of spiritual aesthetics rise out of the sea of media? These are questions for a further exploration.
The next article in this series will expand on the notions of functionality presented here. Now that we have a language of religious forms, a deeper sense of what they do collectively is possible.
Updates to this article may occur as I remember categories I’ve forgotten.