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Jun 08 2009

Strange Religious Imagery In My Neighborhood

Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve been increasingly conscious, not just of how unsupported religion is, but of how deeply strange so much of it is. You know how religions that you’re familiar with seem relatively normal, but religions that you’re unfamiliar with often seem deeply bizarre, even surreal? Along with a lot of other atheists, I’ve found that when you step back from all religion, even the ones you’re familiar with, they all start to seem pretty strange. (The Eucharist? Really?)

And ever since I got an iPhone, I’ve been noticing this strangeness show up in imagery all around me. Having a camera on me 24/7 has made me start paying closer attention to the look of the world around me generally; and it’s definitely made me start paying attention to some of the more striking and unusual religious imagery in the neighborhoods where I live and work.

I’ve been taking photos… and I thought I’d start sharing some of the better ones. (You can click on them to enlarge if you like.)

Lazarus

This is the one that started it all. At first I thought it was supposed to be Jesus, and I even had a blog post all ready to go about the artist who took the phrase “Jesus H. Christ on a crutch” a little too literally. Fortunately, before I made an ass of myself, I did a little Googling, and discovered that it’s not Jesus. It’s Lazarus.

Still an odd thing to want in your home, though.

Death

This is Death. There are many, many sculptures of Death available for sale in my neighborhood. I’m especially fond of this one, because of the owls perched at his shoulders, and the sack of money at his feet. (He’s Death. What does he need with money?)

Alien meditating

No, your eyes do not deceive you — this is a space alien, meditating. Click to enlarge — the spaceships over his shoulder confirm it.

Poseidon

This is Poseidon. Fairly straightforward, actually. But I find it deeply and delightfully strange that, in the midst of the predominantly Christian, Eastern, and woo religious imagery in the neighborhood, someone decided to include Poseidon in the mix. I also like the scuba diver at his feet.

Angry goddess

I’m not sure which Goddess of Wrath this is, but I definitely want to stay on her good side. Especially as she seems to be giving birth to… I don’t know what that is. A dreidle with the face of another god, perhaps.

Death 2

Death again. I could do a whole series of Death Images In My Neighborhood. With this one, I like the blending of the Death iconography with the Justice iconography; and the bony foot resting on the world just adds that special touch. And the fact that Death is wearing a skull around his neck is almost comically self- referential, even if it does have just a smidge of overkill. As it were. Dude, you’re Death. You’re a skeleton in a black cloak wielding a scythe that’s apparently the size of Jupiter. You really don’t need a skull around your neck to make yourself look more ominous.

Rabbit in sky

The Great Rabbit in the Sky. Borne up on clouds by pudgy, podlike little angel- demon things.

Three symbols

No one of these is particularly unusual: I just like their juxtaposition. It’s sort of like those “Coexist” bumper stickers in street-art form. “Can’t we all just get along?”

And now for my very favorite, the religious image residing in that part of our neighborhood that is our living room:

Obama candle 1

The Obama Prayer Candle.

These showed up everywhere in our neighborhood between the election and the inauguration. I’m not sure what the intent was behind them, or if they were self-mocking or serious, or what. But we just had to have one. More precisely, Ingrid just had to have one, and I griped about it and was secretly delighted. (Don’t tell her.)

Anyway. I feel like I should sum these up in some clever or insightful way. But it’s almost three in the morning, and I don’t think I have anything to add at the moment other than: Religion. Weird.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Sue

    I *need* an Obama prayer candle. Wonder if you can get them in Europe anywhere?

  2. 2
    vjack

    I would have bought an Obama prayer candle too. Way too good to pass up!

  3. 3
    lizatblackrose

    Ah, San Francisco — especially the Mission — is a treasure trove of weird religious images, what with the heavy Mexican influence and the number of people into yoga, Buddhism, and Eastern spirituality. But for the best experience of strange (well…aren’t they all strange?) religious paraphernalia in your face at every turn, you can’t beat India! I was told there is a god for every day of the year, so they have a lot to work with!

  4. 4
    Maria

    Very nice pictures!! Thank you for sharing.
    Even though I’ve been an atheist all my life, I’ve always been almost obssessed with religious imagery, objects and architecture. Whereever I go I love visiting churches. One does not have to buy into any beliefs or messages to be awed by the sheer beauty of some things, or by the skill of the creations, or – as with some of your photos – by the pure weirdness and bizarreness of so many of these images and objects. I have a great fondness for the often very kitshy and sometimes downright macabre art and objects that are one manifestation of religious beliefs.
    Also, art is one of my biggest interests and art through history contains a whole lot of religious and mythical motifs. One must understand something about religion to appreicate much of the art of older centuries.

  5. 5
    Sunshine Love

    Nice collection. I want send one of those Obama prayer candles to my grandparents, but they’d probably try to exorcise it or something.

  6. 6
    Nan

    The Goddess looks suspiciously like Kali on the burning ground — she is the dark mother, both womb and tomb — although I don’t think she’s usually pictured giving birth to a dreidel.
    I, too, want an Obama candle. Never saw any for sale here in Atlanta, although I swear there was every other conceivable souvenir item being hawked around town.

  7. 7
    Nurse Ingrid

    Man, I am SO sorry now that I didn’t buy up a whole bunch of those Obama candles when I had the chance. I could be selling them on eBay right now, from the sound of it! Damn.

  8. 8
    Raul

    Hi there, nice blog and interesting post, however I really wish you *had* said something insightful. Right now you just come across as ignorant. And I don’t mean “ignorant” as an insult, I mean it in the literal sense of the word…
    This could have been an interesting comment on the populations you live with. Just commenting that “Religion:weird” its simplistic and empty, like saying ice cream is sweet.
    I think these images have interesting insights about race and gender norms. Some things that I personally find interesting about some of the images you posted:
    Man in crutches: He is not only Saint Lazarus (or Saint Rocco), but also Babalu Aye. Yeah, the same Babalue Ricky Ricardo sang about while beating on his drum. He reigns over disease…some people with AIDS/HIV are specially devoted of him.
    Death: La Santisima Muerte. Sycretism with Miclanecihuatl, the Mexica goddess of the underground. There is a large cult for “La Santisima” in Mexico, specially among drug dealers. “La Santisima” is always referred to as female deity, some say it is a dark path of Tonatzin, the mother goddess of the Mexica (“Aztecs”).
    Poseidon (and also mermaids): Male and female aspects of the ocean, specifically Yemaja (the mother of fish and humans. Also protects children and gay men) and Olokun (the male aspect, chained to the bottom of the sea. His domain includes tidal waves, and the fury of the ocean). The ocean is one deity with both genders, all in one.
    Saint Martin the Porres (Obama Candle): Peruvian Saint, first Saint of Color in the Americas. You know…people of color like having their own “representatives”.
    Dark Goddess: Yeah, the one passing the dreidel – probably a Cihuateteo, the spirit of a woman that died at childbirth. Cihuateteos were considered warriors, they went to a special “heaven” usually reserved for men that died in battle. They also had the honor of bringing the sun down at the end of the day.
    Anyway, I’m not one of those over sensitive Latinos that hate “hipsters” that “invade” the mission…but I do see this dismissive/smart ass attitude often, specially around Dia de los Muertos celebrations in November.
    I also think there is a double standard. If I made fun of passover or something like that I would be called an antisemite.
    I’m also an atheist but just because *I* don’t believe in something doesn’t mean I can’t learn from it. If people just walk around being a smart asses about other people’s beliefs…how can we ever find a common ground?
    I do hope for more respect of the Latino history and the culture of the neighborhood. It is a constant source of inspiration for my art.

  9. 9
    Maria

    Noting that something is weird does not necessarily mean that it is not interesting. And Ice Cream isn’t really that profound, it IS sweet, it’s pretty much its only purpose!

  10. 10
    yogurtbacteria

    Can I safely assume you’ve seen the Obama Head O State dildo? Link NSFW

  11. 11
    Elin

    I love Day of the Dead imagery, all the skulls and skeletons reminding us of the ever-closeness and reality of death, even though I don’t really subscribe to the idea of the veil between the worlds thinning on any particular day of the year.
    It is interesting that you don’t see a lot of Jewish imagery around. I don’t know why this is…it may have something to do with the “no idols” commandment, but I am not sure.
    Yes, religion is weird. But most of the images you posted are also very beautiful. It would be great if you could have the beauty and awesome diversity without the superstition, ignorance, and hatred, but unfortunately the two seem to be bound.

  12. 12
    Greta Christina

    Raul: I have been thinking about your comment, and want to reply to it. But I think it will take more than a comment to give it the thoughtful and thorough reply it deserves. I’m working on a separate blog post with my reply; hopefully, I’ll be able to do that in the next couple/few days. Thanks for your patience.

  13. 13
    hoverFrog

    Wot no FSM?
    The strangest thing I see about Christianity all over the place is their choice of symbol. A crucifix is an instrument of torture and death yet Christians decorate their communities, vehicle and selves with these gory images. It’s weird and more than a little bit disturbing. It’s like worshipping Odin and wearing a severed eye round your neck, it’s obscene.

  14. 14
    DuWayne

    This totally makes me wish I still had my “Smoking Joints for Jesus” tee-shirt – unfortunately I wore it clean out…

  15. 15
    Rachel

    I think that first death is actually intended to be Mardi Gras Skeletor, who would have slightly more use for a huge bag of money.

  16. 16
    ko shon Bob Hanson

    I really enjoyed this one, many thanks. Those who come after you should really get a life. Yes, we are on the edge when we raise the questions about the value of these symbols, but that is how we grow as human beings. Your insights are helpful to me, peace a retired pastor a Buddhist now, and a poet.

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