Fellow Charting the Digital member Alex Gekker has put together a thoughtful piece over at his blog on the experience of devising and participating in a game for a group of undergraduate geographers. If you desire to know about the mechanisms of the game, please read Alex’s post. I also helped put together and play the game myself, and I offer up some of my own thoughts below:
THE PHOTO that heads this post was taken by me on the second stage of the game. In my hand is a geocache command given to my group from another set of students. As the group had chosen Catholicism as their guiding theme, the other group were tasked with devising a series of geo-located commands in order to structure their thinking on the theme. Gozo is a deeply religious island, as is Malta in general, and the inscription of Catholicism on the physical landscape is hard to ignore. Churches dominate the skyline, from wherever you are, and their red tiled roofs make them easily identifiable. Upon the Rabat Citadel we counted something like 12 red-roofed buildings. On the ground its influence is even greater. Madonna niches are on every corner – and I mean every corner. They are ornate, lighted and well-kept.
Religious mosaics, although less common, also provided an interesting talking point for my group. An earlier task on the first stage of the game required them to “eat a food with religious connotation”, and following some discussion (can we drink red wine?) we opted to head to a convenience store for some fresh bread and tinned anchovies (see below). Luckily none of us had an aversion to the latter, although on giving the same task to a later group, eating the anchovies provided a rather haunting experience!
Later, after our delicious meal, we spotted a tiled image on the front wall of a small church. On investigation we discovered its rather delightful symbolism: the fish and basket of bread (below) depicting one of the classically retold miracles. The connection between the initial command (“eat something religious”), the performance of carrying it out (eating outside, on the floor, “humbly”) and the physical architecture (miracle as symbolic object) provided a wonderful opportunity for my group to really interrogate the pervasiveness of Catholicism on this tiny island. And as if to push this connection even further, to really ground the specificity of Catholic practices in Gozo, we discovered another tile – this time in marble on the floor outside the same church – of a desert island scene, complete with palm tree and olive branch-holding bird. It was almost too good to be true.
However, therein lay a potential problem. In advancing an understanding of how Catholicism and island life were intimately entwined its importance became overbearing, if not downright wrong. Discussion spread to all manner of activity from family life and daily chores, to sports meetings, local council decisions, schooling and architecture. It became the explanation for everything and resulted in a kind of religious determinism. Although the island is genuinely one of the most avowedly Catholic places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting I, along with other PhD students and staff, was determined to explore a more pluralistic account of everyday life; one that took into account not only other religions alive and well on the island (yes there were some!), but also Catholicism’s own Paganistic beginnings more generally.
There were two particular moments or sites that allowed us to do so. Firstly, Gozo is home to a Neolithic, megalithic temple complex called Ġgantija. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest man-made religious structures in the whole world, dating back over 5500 years. Critically it isn’t a site of Catholic importance. It isn’t a church, shrine or a niche. In fact, it’s thought it was probably a site connected to a fertility cult. Phallic objects and animal carvings recovered from the site are now preserved in the Gozo Museum of Archaeology. So this early religio-spiritual site predates Catholicism on the island. It suggests an alternative, nuanced history of faith and human belief that does not relate directly to the now dominant religion. As part of our attempt to explore this history we hid a bottle at the location of the temples with a quotation from a journal article for my group to find. The quotation came from a paper by Kathryn Rountree in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute on ‘Localizing Neo-Paganism‘. A picture taken by Rountree of a Maltese Pagan praying at a Neolithic temple on the island on page 3 of the article draws the Ġgantija site and the journal text together beautifully.
The second moment provided less fanfare, but in many ways was just as significant. On the return from a particularly exhausting journey “to the edge” (as part of our exploration of another group’s geocache on ‘boundaries’) I spotted, on an otherwise unremarkable street, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although far less ostentatious than any Catholic basilica, and far less majestic than any Neolithic ritual site, the Kingdom Hall for local followers was in fact no less important and no less central to the investigation of religious practice and everyday life on the island. In what could otherwise have been a rather orthodox reading of Catholic life on the island just about managed to tease open a number of alternative narratives that scratched away at not only the embedding of island life within a longer historical framework, but also the contemporary nuance of religious practice. Although Catholicism certainly dictates large swathes of social and cultural life on the island, it is only half the story. The game acted as a practical device to tease open the thematic content of the island. We hope to tweak and re-run it next year with another group of willing participants.