Living with gods: peoples, places and the worlds beyond

Exhibition Overview


Wheel of Life or painted cloth
Wheel of Life or painted cloth, Painted cloth thangka. This painted teaching or meditation aid, thangka, shows the wheel of life. The lives of humans and the gods are all held by Yama, Lord of Death, whose limbs represent the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age and death. From Tibet, 1800–1900

The British Museum sheds fresh light on the eternal search for meaning with an exhibition on the ways in which religion and faith have shaped human societies. The show begins with one of the world’s oldest sculptures, the 40,000 year-old Lion Man carved in ivory and found in a cave in Germany in 1939. Visitors are taken on a journey past Siberian shamanic outfits to Buddhist wheels of life, and on to displays challenging traditional conceptions of religion. Soviet propaganda posters and a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book remind us that belief, in all its forms, remains at the heart of even the most secular communities. The show is accompanied by a BBC Radio 4 series written and narrated by Neil MacGregor, the museum’s former director.

(Photo: Wheel of Life or painted cloth, Painted cloth thangka. This painted teaching or meditation aid, thangka, shows the wheel of life. The lives of humans and the gods are all held by Yama, Lord of Death, whose limbs represent the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age and death. From Tibet, 1800–1900, © the Trustees of the British Museum)

Exhibition Highlights


Zoroastrian tiles
Wonder Toad
Prayer book
Lion man head
Lion man full
Exhibition Highlights
Zoroastrian tiles, 1980s
© the Trustees of the British Museum
Set of shrine tiles from a Parsee household show the constantly burning fire representing Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god
Wonder Toad, Late 1800s – early 1900s
© Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany
Homes and businesses in China often have images of the three-legged toad that has a third foot on the end of its tail. With coins placed in their mouths, they bring wealth and happiness
Prayer book, 1540–1576
© the Trustees of the British Museum
This enamelled gold case contains a unique miniature printed book of morning and evening prayers, hymns, psalms and meditations. It was worn on a belt and may have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. From London.
Lion man head, 40,000 BC
© Museum Ulm. Photo: Oleg Kuchar
The Lion Man sculpture from Stadel Cave in Baden-Württemberg, south-west Germany is the oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world
Lion man full, 40,000 BC
© Museum Ulm. Photo: Oleg Kuchar
The Lion Man sculpture from Stadel Cave in Baden-Württemberg, south-west Germany is the oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world
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