It’s strange how folk religion survives.
Vancouver airport must be one of the most pleasant airports, ever. Parts of it serve as an art gallery, featuring stunning sculptures from their greatest First Nation artists. The souvenir shops have genuinely good stuff, reasonably priced- and the food on offer is remarkably good. Pride of place in one section is a massive aquarium full of creatures from the North-East Pacific Ocean, fronted by a large fenced pool preventing people from putting their sticky hands on the glass. And guess what’s lying there at the bottom of the pool. Money, lots of it, hundreds and hundreds of coins from all parts of the world, thrown in by travellers waiting for their next flight.
I’ve always found this practice slightly weird. Occasionally, tourist towns have charity ‘wishing wells’ in the town square, inviting donations. But often, there’s no invitation to give to charity, no obvious ‘good cause’, and people are still chucking their money in, like at the airport. Occasionally, I’ve asked passers-by why they do it, and they shrug, saying something like, 'I don't know,‘ or 'For luck’.
Paying tribute to Lady Luck. Folk religion. There it is, still bubbling around near streams and pools and natural springs in a time when ‘the West’ is allegedly becoming less religious. Without even knowing why, these people are all making offerings to someone or something supernatural who just, might, make their lives a little easier. The custom goes back a long way. The Roman ruins at Bath contained a natural spring dedicated to a local god, and archaeologists who dug deep into the underlying sediment, discovered heaps of offerings, and piles of prayers and curses on strips of folded lead sheeting, all now on display if you visit. The Museum of London has its own collection of helmets and swords thrown into the River Thames by owners presumably wanting aid in battle. Along Hadrian’s Wall and across the Empire, it was the same. Want some help? Pay for it, then.
It’s easy to scoff, but we Christians have had our own versions too. The selling of Indulgences in the 16th century brought the Catholic church into disrepute, but a lot of believers were quite happy to spend good money buying prayers that would hopefully reduce their time in Purgatory.
Are we any better?
It all depends on whether we think we can buy the good intentions of God or the Cosmos by throwing money in a specific direction. Most people, when asked, would say ‘Of course not’. But all those coins are saying something about a basic human wish to keep in with the fates, the spirits, or whoever it is that runs things from behind the curtain.
However, History shows that peoples' ideas can change. The archaeologists at Bath noticed something curious when carbon- dating those buried coins and lead inscriptions. They found that the habit of paying offerings to the shrine-god stopped around AD 400, as a new faith was working its way across the British Isles- Christianity. The desire to leave offerings in the shrine’s water had faded away, because somehow... it wasn't needed anymore.