Changes in a New England Meetinghouse

First Parish in Cohasset, where I work, has a meetinghouse built in 1747. When you come at it from the north and see it across Cohasset Common, it looks like the classic white New England church with a simple steeple:

White clapboard New England church set amid lawn and autumnal trees
Cohasset Meeting House from the north

But the tower and the steeple weren’t added until 1799, over half a century after the meetinghouse was first erected. Let’s go back to 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party. There were three young men from Cohasset who participated in the Boston Tea Party (after being encouraged by their Patriot minister), and they might have seen something like this when they came at the meetinghouse from the north:

Line drawing of Cohasset meetinghouse before the tower and steeple were added
My visualization of the appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse c. 1775

Instead of the tower and steeple, there would have been small belfry on the north end of the building. (When you go up into the attic today, you can see timbers in the north end that now serve no special purpose, and it’s possible they served to support the belfry.) I haven’t found any record of what Cohasset’s belfry looked like, but there are drawings of other eighteenth century meetinghouses with belfries. The sketch above shows the north facade with a representative eighteenth century belfry.

This still isn’t the original appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse. Originally, there was no porch on the west side. That porch was built in 1761. In order to create more floor spaces for pews, the original stairs to the gallery in the northwest and southwest corners inside the main building were removed. The porch was added to house a new set of stairs to the gallery. Prior to the addition of the porch, the Cohasset Meetinghouse looked something like this:

Line drawing of meetinghouse
My visualization of the appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse c. 1760

As you can see, prior to the addition of the porch the meetinghouse was just a simple rectangular building with a small belfry on the north end. Mind you, we don’t really know the exact appearance of the building. In my visualizations, I’ve added triangular pediments above the doors, but who knows if there was even that level of ornamentation.

The earliest drawings we have of the Cohasset Meetinghouse date from the mid-nineteenth century. They are fairly consistent in showing the tower with crossed balusters at the bell level, and a steeple with a rounded section before the actual spire — quite different from the present steeple. The meetinghouse was not painted white; it was pea green. In fact, most New England meetinghouses were not painted white prior to the Colonial Revival in the late nineteenth century; documented colors include various shades of yellow, red, and green; there were even a few meetinghouses painted orange. Here’s my digitally edited version of an 1850s woodcut showing the Cohasset Meetinghouse:

Reproduction of a woddcut

There have been several other changes over the years. The clock was added in 1764. Shutters (or more accurately, exterior louvered blinds) were added around 1765. The steeple was completely rebuilt after 1869; it got shattered by a lightning strike in that year. The shutters were removed again around 1986.

In short, like most historic buildings the Cohasset Meetinghouse has changed considerably over the years.

Finding the sacred for Gen Z

Springtide Research Institute recently published a study of Gen Z titled “The State of Religion and Young People 2023: Exploring the Sacred.” They charge twenty-two bucks for the full report, so you might want to check out Religion News Service’s excellent summary.

A key finding, in my opinion: Gen Z are quite willing to find and define sacred moments outside of traditional religion. Tricia Bruce, executive director of Springtide Research, told Religion New Service:

“‘Certainly, we might expect young people to tell us, “Yes, I’ve experienced the sacred when I attended a religious service or in prayer,” and they do, but they also told us “I experienced the sacred in nature,” “I experienced the sacred when I got into college,” “I experienced the sacred in a virtual connection,”‘ Bruce told Religion News Service in an interview. ‘Creative spaces that we may not think of as sacred themselves, or as religious, or we may not materially construct as such, young people are telling us that, in fact, that’s where the sacred lives for them.'”

Actually, some of us do in fact view “creative spaces” as sacred. (1) I’m one of those people, and I’m not even in Gen Z. I’ve had some of my most intense sacred experiences through the arts — in my case, through things like the visual arts, making music with others, poetry, and so on. (2)

Apparently, the survey also found that 69% of people in Gen Z have experienced a sacred moment in nature. Here again, although I’m not in Gen Z, I’m one of those people who experiences the sacred in nature.

Honestly, I don’t often experience the sacred in a worship service. (When I do, it mostly comes through music or group singing.) For me, the point of a worship service is not to experience transcendent experiences, but to provide a community where I can make sense of the transcendent experiences I have in the rest of my life. And then, once I make sense of those experiences, I want to figure out a way to use them to make the world a better place.In my opinion, transcendent experiences can be justified only if they bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice (otherwise they’re just self-indulgent), and if you want to make justice happen you’re going want to be part of a community.


(1) I actually don’t like the term “sacred experiences.” It sounds too Christian-centric to me, and not in a good way. I prefer to talk about mystical experiences, or better yet transcendent experiences.

(2) I’ve always taken this for granted, but I guess it’s not obvious to others. Maybe I need to write more about how I have transcendent experiences through the arts.


Ardoksho (also spelled Ardochsho) was a deity who is best known for her appearances on gold coins of the Kushan (also spelled Kusana) Empire roughly two thousand years ago. The Kushan Empire included parts of today’s nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the northern part of India. Contemporary empires included the Han Empire in what is now China, the Roman Empire, and the Parthian Empire between the Kushans and the Romans.

Gold coin with a crude image of a goddess.
The Iranian deity Ardoksho, reverse side of a coin issues by the Kushan king Huvishka, c. 126-163; Asian Museum of Art, San Francisco, F1999.38.2.

It may be that Ardoksho had never been represented visually prior to her appearance on Kushan gold coins:

“…Taken collectively, the coins of the Kusana include twenty-three (and possibly as many as thirty) confirmed different-named deities, most of whom seem to have been drawn from Iranian, indian, and Greek pantheons. Zeymal has argued that the vast majority of these have no known anthropomorphic form before their appearance on Kusana coins. He asserts that only three of the religious figures depicted on Kusana coins draw from preexistent figural forms, and one of these is the Buddha. However, the rest of the deities, such as Miiro, Mao, Ardochsho, Athsho, and Pharro, are unkonw in figural art before the intervention of the Kusana die cutters. While the exact motivation for this explosion in iconographic innovation is unknown, it is conceivably a by-product of Kusana cultural borrowing. In other words, after the tradition of minting coins with images of deities on the reverse was adopted, such practice was expected, and the coin makers were compelled to create forms for those gods that had no prior iconography….” (1)

Ardoksho was a fixture on Kushan coins for something like five hundred years. As a goddess of prosperity, she would have been a likely candidate for inclusion on a coin. Her origins are not entirely clear: she may be related to the ancient Greek goddess Demeter, or perhaps the ancient Greek goddess Tyche or the Roman goddess Fortuna; or she may have been her origins in a local goddess of eastern Iran known as Ardvi Sura Anahita, a goddess of water and moisture; and she is said by some sources to be the daughter of Ahuramazda. But Ardoksho’s iconography is fairly stable, always relating to prosperity and plenty: she was typically depicted holding a cornucopia or horn of plenty; a cornucopia and a wreath; a flower in her right hand and a wheat-stem in her left hand (not unlike Demeter); or a cornucopia in her right hand and a fillet in her left hand. (2)

Empires tend to bring different cultures together, which can lead to cross-cultural fertilization. Over the centuries she appeared on Kushan Empire coins, Ardoksho is one of the deities who engaged in cross-fertilization:

“…If Greeks were converted to Vaishnavism or came to accept the presence of Bhagavata and Shaiva deities, Indians began to worship deities from across the borders, some of which entered the Indian pantheon, such as the goddess Ardochso in the form of Shri….” (3)

Indeed, the Kushan Empire was quite tolerant of local deities and religious practices:

“Although the Kushans had a favored style of military architecture, it is clear they did not attempt to impose a single religious tradition on their empire but rather patronized key regional cults. Vima Kadphises’ son, Kanishka (127-147), thus dedicated a major ceremonial complex at Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan which combined dynastic statues with a [Zoroastrian] fire-temple but also established a major Buddhist stupa at Shahji-Dheri, in Peshawar to the south. His coinage demonstrates similar plurality, and he was equally happy to be portrayed with the Hellenistic deity Helios, the Iranian deity Adsho, and the Buddha, whose identities were confirmed in Greek script.” (4)

On the coin shown above, Ardoksho appears in the center, with her name written at left. I don’t think she’s holding a cornucopia; I believe on this coin she’s holding a flower in her right hand and what might be a wheat stem in her left hand.


(1) Robert Daniel DeCaroli, Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia (University of Washington Press, 2015).

(2) Prashant Srivastava, A Dictionary of Divinities and Their Symbols on Ancient Indians Coins (WebGuruCool, 2022), pp. 10-11; excerpts from the earlier publication by Srivastava, Encyclopaedia of Indian Coins: Ancient Coins of Northern India up to c 650 AD, 2 vols. (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 2012). See also: British Museum website, “Ardochsho,” accessed 3 Nov. 2023; this web page references J. Rosenfield, Dynastic Art of the Kushans (Berkeley, 1967), pp. 74-75.

(3) Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, p. 223.

(4) Robin Coningham and Mark Manuel, “The Early Empires of South Asia,” in The Great Empires of the Ancient World (London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009/2021), pp. 187-188.

Updated to add more info about Kushan religious plurality.

Doumu in depth

A follow up to an earlier brief post on the deity Doumu.

Porcelain statue of a goddess with eighteen arms.
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco: The Taoist deity Doumu, approx. 1700-1800. China; Fujian province, Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Dehua ware, mold-impressed porcelain with sculpted decoration. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P1362.

Doumu, a Daoist deity, is sometimes called “Dipper Mother” in English because she’s the goddess of the of the Big Dipper, Ursa Major. Her name is variously rendered Doumu, Tou Mu, Dou Mu Yuan Jun, etc. The illustration above shows a Qing dynasty sculpture of her in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Doumu has nine pairs of arms. She also has three eyes. In the sculpture on the cover, the third eye is hard to see, but it’s there — between her other two eyes, in a vertical orientation in the middle of her forehead.

Close-up of the previous photo showing her third eye.
Doumu’s third eye.

Back in 1912, E. T. C. Werner gave a summary of Doumu’s attributes and powers in his book Myths and Legends of China:

“Tou Mu, the Bushel Mother, or Goddess of the North Star, worshipped by both Buddhists and Taoists, is the Indian Maritchi, and was made a stellar divinity by the Taoists. She is said to have been the mother of the nine Jen Huang or Hu-man Sovereigns of fabulous antiquity, who succeeded the lines of Celestial and Terrestrial Sovereigns.

“She occupies in the Taoist religion the same relative posi-tion as Kuan Yin, who may be said to be the heart of Buddhism. Having attained to a profound knowledge of celestial mysteries, she shone with heavenly light, could cross the seas, and pass from the sun to the moon. She also had a kind heart for the sufferings of humanity. The King of Chou Yu, in the north, married her on hearing of her many virtues. They had nine sons. Yuan-shih T’ien-tsun came to earth to invite her, her husband, and nine sons to enjoy the delights of Heaven. He placed her in the palace Tou Shu, the Pivot of the Pole, because all the other stars revolve round it, and gave her the title of Queen of the Doctrine of Primitive Heaven. Her nine sons have their palaces in the neighbouring stars.

“Tou Mu wears the Buddhist crown, is seated on a lotus throne, has three eyes, eighteen arms, and holds various precious objects in her numerous hands, such as a bow, spear, sword, flag, dragon’s head, pagoda, five chariots, sun’s disk, moon’s disk, etc. She has control of the books of life and death, and all who wish to prolong their days worship at her shrine. Her devotees abstain from animal food on the third and twenty-seventh day of every month.

“Of her sons, two are the Northern and Southern Bushels; the latter, dressed in red, rules birth; the former, in white, rules death.”

Drawing of a many-armed goddess sitting on clouds.
Doumu, as illustrated in Myths and Legends of China. Note that in this illustration she has only 8 arms, while the text of the book describes her as having 18 arms. This illustration is attributed to a “Chinese artist.”

Unfortunately, Werner doesn’t tell us his sources. I’d love to know the date of his sources, because all deities have a tendency to change over time. Furthermore, Chinese culture is not monolithic, and I’d love to know the regional origins of Werner’s information. Nor does Werner tell us much about how Doumu’s devotees venerated her — all he says is that they abstain from eating meat two days a month, but what were her festivals, and how did devotees show their devotion on a daily or weekly basis?

Werner also neglects to tell us anything about the temples dedicated to, or named after, Doumu. For that information, we have to turn to other sources. An English language guidebook from 1912 briefly mentions one of Doumu’s temples on Tai Shan mountain:

“After a quarter hour’s climb (6 hrs. 50 min. [from the town of T’ai Fu]), the Toumu-kung ‘Temple of the Goddess of the Great Bear’ on the E. of the road. This temple, within whose walls are to be found a singular mixture of Taoist and Buddhist divinities, was inhabited up to 1906 by Taoist nuns.”

Tai Shan was one of the most sacred sites in China, and served as the home for other temples and sacred sites, as shown in the map below, from this 1912 guidebook. Doumu’s temple, labeled “Tou-Mu Kung,” appears almost in the exact center of the map.

Map of Tai Shan Mountain.
Map of T’ai Shan from Myths and Legends of China.

It would be interesting to know if there were any relationships between the various temples. It would also be interesting to know something about the lives of the nuns who lived in the temple up to 1906. Doubtless there are Chinese language sources that could provide some or all of this information, but I was unable to find anything written in English.

Doumu’s temple on Tai Shan is still in existence. Wikimedia Commons has several photographs of the temple, taken by “Zhanzhugang” on 12 August 2015. Here’s Zhanzhuguang’s photograph of one of the entrances:

A modest building in the mountains, with tourists in front of it.
Along the Tai Shan mountain road —— Doumu Temple

Other temples dedicated to Doumu exist today. For example, Doumu has a temple named for her at 779A Upper Serangoon Road, Singapore. A Singapore government website gives some more information about this temple:

“The Hokkien community refer to Tou Mu Kung as Kiu Ong Yah or Kau Ong Yah Temple (‘Temple of the Ninth Emperor’), which accurately reflects the main Taoist deity worshipped in the temple. While the temple is dedicated to Jiu Huang Ye, it is officially named in honour of another deity, Dou Mu Yuan Jun (‘Mother of the Big Dipper’), who is the mother of Jiu Huang Ye. Believed to be holding the Register of Life and Death, she is venerated by devotees in hope of prolonging one’s life and avoiding calamities. One version of the legend tells of Jiu Huang Ye as comprising nine stars: seven stars constituting the Big Dipper and two assistant stars that are invisible to the naked eye.

“Another legend describes Jiu Huang Ye as a single entity, often represented by an incense burner instead of a statue. This form of Jiu Huang Ye is adopted by Tou Mu Kung which enshrines the sacred incense burner on the upper floor of the two-storey pagoda behind the temple. Access to the pagoda is restricted to males.”

Although Jiu Huang Ye is still venerated by annual rites at the Singapore temple, there is no mention of any rites performed for Doumu.

But there is an annual festival in Singapore for her children, the Nine Emperor Gods. A Youtube video from 23 October 2023 shows scenes from this festival, including people lighting incense, leaving offerings, watching performances, etc. Electronic keyboards play side by side with traditional instruments for the Hokkien opera; flashing lights outline the ceremonial palanquins; devotees dressed all in white line engage in various activities. At one point someone drives a bright orange Lamborghini sports car into the festival. While this festival doesn’t directly involve Doumu, it takes place in her temple. It looks like a fun mixture of contemporary pop culture and folk religion.

A large indoor area with crowds of people.
Screenshot from the video of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, Tou Mu Kung (Doumu Temple), 779A Upper Serangoon Road, Singapore

Doumu entered the Daoist pantheon in the Ming and Qing dynasties, as an adaptation of the the Hindu goddess Marici (Despeux, 2000). Having similarities to Guanyin, she sometimes became associated with that deity. She then traveled beyond China to Southeast Asia, where she became associated with the Nine Emperor Gods.

According to Hock-Tong Cheu (2021), for ethnic Chinese people living in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, veneration of the Nine Emperor Gods takes the form of veneration of Doumu. In Southeast Asia, she may be represented as either a Daoist or a Buddhist deity. Contemporary sculptures in these countries most often depict Doumu with nine pairs of hands. There are nine pairs to represent the Nine Emperor Gods. In sculptures, these eighteen hands hold precious objects “such as the sun’s disk, the moon’s disk, bow, arrow, spear, sword, flag, rosary, book, ruler, scissors, dragon’s head, gourd, fan, pagoda, chariots, precious gem” and other objects. Each of these objects provides insight into Doumu’s abilities:

“Informants reveal that each of these precious objects signifies Doumu’s power. The sun and moon disks, for example, portray her power in controlling the universe, through the manifestation of day and night, brightness and darkness, heat and cold, health and disease, life and death, etc.; the bow and arrow demonstrate Doumu’s power in protecting humankind against war and pestilence, and in maintaining peace and harmony; the flag is used as an emblem to signify her power in preserving human integrity and territorial sovereignty; the rosary acts as a medium through which Doumu inculcates devotion, piety, and asceticism as channels through which salvation [sic] may be attained; and so forth.”

But more than anything else, contemporary devotees of Doumu understand her as the deity of “Lovingkindness and Mercy.” Devotees perform rituals during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, which is held each year for the first nine days and nights of the ninth lunar month, so that these offspring of Doumu will give them blessings of “fu lu shou,” or fortune, prosperity, and longevity.

Doumu hasn’t made much of an impact on Western society; a few practitioners of Westernized Daoism might know who she is, but New Age practitioners don’t seem to pay much attention to her, and she hasn’t made the ultimate leap forward in status by being included in a video game. But she is still widely venerated in east Asia.


Hock-Tong Cheu, entry on Doumu in Chinese Beliefs and Practices in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Partridge Publishing, 2021).

Catherine Despeux, “Women in Daoism,” in Daoism Handbook, ed. Livia Kohn (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2000), pp. 393 ff.

David B. Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey, Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Claudius Madrolle, Northern China: The Valley of the Blue River, A Handbook for Travellers in Northern China and Korea, in the Madrolle’s Guide Books series (London: Hachette & Co., 1912), p. 163.

A Simple Video Youtube channel, “Tou Mu Kung Temple Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2023,” video from 23 October 2023, accessed 30 October 2023, com/watch?v=tZ7U67il2qY

Singapore National Heritage Board, “Tou Mu Kung,” webpage accessed 30 October 2023,

E. T. C. Werner, entry on Doumu in Myths and Legends of China (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1922), pp. 144-145.

Aizen myo-o

The Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco has a polychromed wood sculpture of Aizen Myo-o, the Japanese name for the esoteric Buddhist deity of love and passion. His original Sanskirt name is Ragaraja. I have very little understanding of esoteric Buddhism, so rather than get some details wrong, here’s a 1916 description of Aizen myo-o’s attributes and iconography from a Japanese English-language publication:

A sculpture of a being with red skin, six arms, and a ferocious expression
The Esoteric Buddhist king of passion (Japanese: Aizen Myoo [sic]), 1600-1700. Japan. Edo period (1615-1868). Gilding and colors on wood. Asian Museum of Art, San Francisco: The Avery Brundage Collection, B6059+

Aizen Myo-o, by Noritake Tsuda (expert in the Tokyo Imperial Museum), The Japan Magazine: A Representative Monthly of Things Japanese (Japan Magazine Co., Tokyo), vol 7, no 7, November 1916, pp. 401-402:

“Another familiar Buddhist deity is Aizen Myo-o, though he is not so widely popular as Fudo [Myo-o], treated in our last number of the Japan Magazine. Aizen Myo-o is the Indian god known in Sanskrit as Raga-vidyaraja. Raga usually means color, especially red, which symbolizes love or affection. Vidya means finding, and Raja a king; and sometimes the Sanskrit name used for this deity is Namu-vajra-raga-vidyaraja, or again simply Ragaraja.

“Aizen Myo-o is said to be a partial incarnation of Kongo-satta, in Sanscrit Vajrasattva, who took an oath to expel from mankind all wicked passions and to hasten the coming of all men to Buddha, giving them happiness and good fortune.

“This god is represented commonly in red with three terrible eyes, six arms, the figure seated on a lotus pedestal with lion headdress. Some ideas associated with the iconography of Aizen Myo-o may be inferred from one of the old masterpieces of painting representing him. The most beautiful and interesting of these is in the Hobodai-in temple in Kyoto. The painting is now a national treasure, and at present is on view at the Imperial Museum, Tokyo. A minute examination of the piece shows that the body and features have been painted in red. In the sutra referring to this deity, his heart and body are said to shine as the sun; and it is probable that the red color was selected to represent this, as well as to suggest reality. The gaping, terrible eyes sparkle marvelously in the red face, one of the eyes being placed lengthwise between the usual two. The three eyes are to give the beholder an impression of terror and awe as well as to suggest that this god has the oversight of three different aspects of the world. The eyes are blue with golden eyebrows. The mouth is open and has a grotesque grin with teeth gleaming, a common characteristic of Aizen to represent truth indestructible; the Logos, which, in Buddhism, is symbolized by the first letter of the alphabet.

“The hair on the head of Aizen stands erect in bizzare fashion, and a cap, in shape like a lion, is placed on the head with a fine-pointed kongo-sho stuck in it. The erect hair is intended to symbolize the subjugation of all evil agents. In his first left hand Aizen holds a bell; and in his first right hand another kongo-sho, both of which are symbols of mercy, bringing the peace of Vajrasattva to men. In the second left hand he holds a bow and in the second right hand an arrow, to dispel the four demons and the three other obstacles of man, shooting especially the pessimistic passions. The third left hand is extended in a grasping attitude with nothing in it, and in the corresponding right hand a lotus bud is just opening, the gesture suggesting that the bud is to be thrown at something. This symbolizes the driving out of all worldly trouble by lotus-like purity. The red lotus on which the god is seated, typifies the stability of his will. In front of the pedestal stands a treasure jar, around which are scattered treasure symbols, which suggest the bounty of the deity to all in need.

“It is noticeable that red is the prevailing color in the icons of this deity; and this is always so, because in esoteric Buddhism red always stands for love and the faculties that make for affection and compassion. The painting just described comes down from the 12th century and may be taken to represent Aizen Myo-o in his most orthodox form.

“Several other forms, however, are found among the representations of him, as, for example, some with four heads or two heads and four hands, but such divergences from the conventional form are rare.

“The Aizen Myo-o is the god of the upper classes chiefly, especially since the Fujiwara period, as he is believed to have the power of staying calamities, or gaining happiness, for those who serve him. On occasions of worship an altar of red is erected and a red image of Aizen is placed thereon; and the officiating priests are also robed in red.

“There now remains in Japan some 21 representations of Aizen Myo-o which are listed as state treasures. In addition to the painting above mentioned there is a very beautiful one on silk in the Gokokuin in Tokyo, as well as a very fine gilt statuette of him in the Imperial Museum, Tokyo, which is dated February, 1297 A.D.”

So wrote Noritake Tsuda in 1916. More recently, as can be seen in the Wikipedia entry for Aizen myo-o, there have been Western attempts to recast Aizen myo-o as a deity of same-sex male love and passion. It’s an interesting possibility, but I don’t know enough to judge if this is merely Western wishful thinking, or a considered appraisal of the historical record.

It appears that Aizen myo-o spread beyond Buddhist circle into Shinto rites. In their book Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami (Routledge, 2018), John Breen and Mark Teeuwen document how Aizen myo-o was part of a kanjo or Shinto initiation rite:

“The kirikami [i.e., written notes] of this [Shinto] initiation further reveal that the syllable un, that is at the heart of the ritual, represents not only the mind of enlightenment, but is also the seed syllable (shuji) of Aizen Myoo or King Raga. This figure (which is also bright red) represents human lust and desire, and personifies the insight that one’s innate desires are no other than inherent enlightenment itself…. The practice revealed in Ise kanjo thus teaches the practitioner that the kami [i.e., Shinto deity or power] dwells in his own heart/mind. The initiate is taught to visualize the kami as the syllable un, representing both the mind of enlightenment and his innate desire, in the guise of Aizen Myoo. The insight to be gained from this is that enlightenment and desire are identical…. The kirikami go on to teach that the kami of the Inner and Outer Shrine of Ise appear in our world as a golden and a white snake…. both the kami of Ise and [of] Aizen Myoo are snakes….” [pp. 103-104]

The case of Aizen Myo-o shows yet again that it’s unwise to assume that a deity belongs exclusively to one tradition and has only certain specified attributes. That’s an assumption Westerners, especially Protestants (and their offspring, the crusading atheists), like to make, but it’s often incorrect. Deities tend to have regional variations, just as Ragaraj became Aizen myo-o when he left India fro Japan.. Deities may move between traditions, just as Aizen Myo-o moves between the porous boundaries of Japanese Buddhisms and Shinto. And deities may have more than one manifestation, just as Aizen myo-o can be both a humanoid with six arms and three eyes, and, at an esoteric level, a snake.

You can find quite a few photographs of Aizen Myo-o sculptures and paintings online. The Cleveland Museum of Art has posted the following photograph with a CC0 license, which allows me to repost it here:

Aizen My??, early 1300s. Japan, Kamakura period (1185-1333). Wood with black lacquer and red pigments; overall: 75 x 59 x 35 cm (29 1/2 x 23 1/4 x 13 3/4 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Elizabeth M. Skala 1987.185

A note on orthography: Usually there are macrons over both “o”s in the Romanization of this deity’s Japanese name: Aizen My?-?. And there are supposed to be macrons over the first and third “a”s in the Sanskrit name: R?gar?ja. However, diacritical marks don’t always translate well in all web browsers, so I’ve left them off.

Part of a series on deities.
My definition of “deity.”


I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston yesterday (in part so I could take advantage of their air conditioning on a steamy, stormy day). Major art museums in the West tend to be strange places, because they are typically full of deities from many different cultures. We in the West may have eradicated deities from our homes, and it looks like we’re in the process of slowly eradicating our public places of worship — but we like to salvage a handful of deities from all the cultures we’ve colonized, purify them of their religiosity by calling them “art,” and putting them in glass cases. Such is the trajectory the colonization of religion.

A small household shrine made of terracotta caught my eye. From Phoenicia in the seventh or sixth century before the Common Era, the shrine contains the goddess Astarte. Astarte was a goddess from Canaan. Some sources say that she was merged with, or took over from, the earlier Canaanite goddess Anat, a fierce goddess of fertility and war. Other sources say Astarte traces her origins back to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. Still other sources relate her to Esther, or to Aphrodite. There was plenty of cultural borrowing in the Ancient Near East.

King Solomon is taken to task in the Hebrew Bible because he worshiped Astarte, among other deities: “Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians… So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done” [1 Kings 11:5-6]. One of Jeremiah’s jeremiads was against Astarte. The Shalvi/ Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women has a brief article on Astarte that’s worth reading, and that concludes by saying: “Although our sources do not provide enough information to identify definitively which Israelites were particularly attracted to the worship of Astarte or the reasons for their attraction, it is possible that some devotees were compelled by the presence of a female divine figure in an otherwise male-dominated religious environment.” You can learn a great deal more about Astarte in the Bible in the essay “Astarte in the Bible” by Stephanie Anthonioz, in David T. Sugimoto, ed., Transformation of a Goddess: Ishtar — Astarte — Aphrodite (Academic Press Fribourg, 2014).

But the Phoenicians apparently had no compunctions about worshiping Astarte. This small sculpture shows her nude, as if she were Ishtar. She is given an Egyptian headdress, and the columns on either side of her are topped with depictions of the Egyptian god Bes. She is, if you will, a multicultural goddess. This is not entirely surprising, given who the Phoenicians were. They were merchants and sailors, and they traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, perhaps sailing even as far as Britain. No wonder, then, that they worshiped multicultural deities.

A small terra cotta relief sculpture of a woman standing between two columns.
Household shrine from Phoenicia, with the goddess Astarte
(Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1990.605)

Buildings of religious communities in Oshkosh

As we went around Oshkosh this afternoon, I stopped to photograph six buildings that house religious communities.

It was strange to see how deserted most of these buildings looked on Sunday afternoon. The Christian churches presumably had a lot of activity this morning, but by afternoon the building were dark, the parking lots empty. Even the yoga studio was dark and empty. The masjid was the only building with life: a handful of men using leaf blowers; they were clearly volunteers, because they worked at a relaxed pace and weren’t wearing work clothes.

I like the way the shape of Immanuel Lutheran Church echos the flat midwestern landscape.

Suburban streetscape with modernist church building from the late twentieth century.
Immanuel Lutheran Church, 338 N. Eagle St., Oshkosh

The masjid of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has the most attractive site of any of the buildings I photographed today, with the lovely trees surrounding it. I’m fond of the white fence on the left hand side, which appears to enclose a playground; it balances the minaret on the other side.

Suburban streetscape, modest one story brick building with white portico and a small minaret on one end.
Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, 300 N. Eagle St., Oshkosh

Visually, the most striking aspect of Zion Lutheran Church is the large white cross. It is about as tall as the utility poles along the street. The bright digital sign provides a welcome spot of color on a gray Wisconsin day.

Suburban streetscape, large one story building with low brick wall and gently sloping undulating roof. A large freestanding white cross is as tall as nearby utility poles
Zion Lutheran Church, 400 N. Sawyer St., Oshkosh

The Algome Boulevard Methodist Church, built in 1870, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is an imposing but friendly building. The siting is lovely: the building sits between two streets that meet at about a 60 degree angle, adding drama to an already dramatic building.

Older suburban or urban streetscape, large stone building with an imposing steeple
Algoma Boulevard United Methodist Church, 174 Algome Blvd., Oshkosh. This building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I interpret the word “religious” in a broad sense; from my perspective, yoga studios look and act a lot like religious communities. Embody Yoga & Pilates occupies a storefront in the old downtown section of Oshkosh. The bright and cheerful sign on the window livens up the streetscape.

Urban streetscape, two story brick building with two storefronts on the first floor, one of which has a sign for a yoga studio
Embody Yoga & Pilates, 579 N. Main St., Oshkosh

The imposing mass of the High Ave. location of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish sits on a sloping lot. I like the way the red sign anchors the lot at the lower end (there’s a matching red sign on the upper side of the lot, not visible in the photograph). The somewhat austere building is softened by the trees and bushes planted around it.

A modernist building viewed across an empty parking lot.
Most Blessed Sacrament Parish (Roman Catholic), 435 High Ave., Oshkosh

Each of these buildings uses a muted color palette consisting mostly of earth colors, with occasional bright accents. Most of these building echo the flatness of the Wisconsin landscape. The two Lutheran churches send up nothing more than delicate crosses into the sky; the masjid has a modest minaret lower than the surrounding trees; the yoga studio maintains its modest presence in the first floor only; the Catholic church, though surprisingly large, still fits into the flat landscape. Only the Algoma Boulevard Methodist church rises up in a large mass, though its gray color keeps it from standing out too much.

Depictions of Pangu

I’ve been searching online for depictions of Pangu, a creator deity in Chinese folk religion. So far, I’ve found lots of video game and anime and cartoon depictions of Pangu, which appear to be more or less commercial, and generally from an outsider perspective. But I’ve found few depictions done by religio-cultural insiders. This is probably in part because I’m searching for Pangu using English, and Anglophones don’t appear to be very interested in deities from Chinese folk religion.

But I have found a few interesting depictions of Pangu. Like this sketch in a Chinese manuscript dated c. 1900, currently in the collection of the Library of Congress:

Tian-gong Yuan. “Pangu Kaitian Pidi” (Pangu Creating the World) from Tui Bei Quan Tu, 1820, copied by Wu-Yi Chao Xie, circa 1900. Manuscript. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress (33.1)

Then there’s this depiction of Pangu. Note the horns on his head.

Pangu. Digitally enhanced image from the Sancia Tuhui (1607), as reprinted in Li Ung Bin, Outlines of Chinese History (Shanghai, 1914).

(I had to do a lot of digital repair to the image above; the scan that’s widely available online was apparently made from a poorly done print. I tried to remain as true to the original as I could, but this is really a recreation rather than a direct copy of the original.)

Finally, here’s my favorite depiction of Pangu. Like the previous depiction, he has horns on his head, a beard, and a sort of shoulder cape made of leaves (?).

Temple dedicated to Pangu in Zhunan, Miaoli, China. Digitally enhanced public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s another depiction of Pangu, plus a retelling of a creation story featuring him, over at my curriculum site.

I still have not idea of what Pangu worship looks like, or what it involves. Chinese folk religion is one of those religions where Westerners have a real blind spot. Which makes it hard to find out much of anything about Pangu.

Posts and beams

Some photos from the attic of the 1747 Meeting House in Cohasset:

Truss joint

This image shows the joint in the middle of the second truss from the north end. The ends of the trunnels (treenails) are clearly visible, as are the adze marks.


This photo shows an unusual joint between a beam and a post. This kind of joinery probably resulted because the carpenters also built boats. This photo was taken along the north wall where the Meeting House butts into the tower. The beam across the top of the photo is sawn, not hewn, and is from a later repair. In the background, you can see a PVC pipe, and coaxial cables running up to the cell phone antennas in the steeple.

Arguing that “religion” is an invalid category

For the past two or three decades, there have been scholars who have argued (fairly persuaively, in my view) that “religion” is not a particularly useful category. I’m currently working my way through Tim Fitzgerald’s book The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), and Fitzgerald offers some compelling arguments why “religion” is not a useful category for academic study. For example:

“Claims … that religion is a phenomenon, or humans are religious beings, or all societies have religion(s), or religion is an aspect of society, or society is an aspect of religion imply a further proposition that ‘religion’ indicates some reality that is not already covered by ‘society’ and ‘culture,’ that religion is something over and above and additional to society and culture. Outside of a specific theological claim, this implication is, I believe, a fallacy. This is because there are virtually no situations now in the scholarly literature produced by religious studies writers where religion has any useful work to do as an analytical category pointing us to some distinctive aspect of human reality. The word ‘religion’ is now used to refer to so many different things that it has become virtually synonymous with ‘culture’ and ‘society’ in the broadest senses….” (p. 222)

I find a great deal to agree with in this statement. Having had some training the fine arts, I’m more inclined to think of ‘religion’ as part of one specific aspect of culture, the arts: a religious building combines architecture and installation art; religious services are performance art with music, or maybe they’re drama, improv, theatre games; ritual is conceptual art (or is conceptual art ritual? they’re hard to tell apart).

One of the differences between what we call “religion” and what we call “art” in our culture is that “art” is made by experts and bought and sold by rich people, whereas “religion” is co-created by a few experts and lots more non-experts, and it is (in many cases) self-funded and not consumed but participatory. If that’s the case, then when I look at the continuum from art (created by experts, consumed by rich people) to religion (co-created by non-experts, participatory-not-consumed), I want to be on the far left of the “religion” end of the continuum.