I was up most of last night, trying to get the statuettes in my study to drink. The Alfred E Neumann replica (you know, the guy from MAD magazine, looks a bit like a demented Tony Blair) refused any sustenance at all. I had more luck with Tintin, who, being made of wood, seemed to absorb a drop or two. Only the plaster pharaoh, bought outside the Valley of the Kings in a mad moment of tourist shopophilia, displayed any taste for the milk I plied him with. My two-year-old daughter, taking pity on me,gleefully showed me my mistake - and tipped the last half-pint down the front of her doll. "Look, Daddy - dolly drinkin'," she smiled.

This is what I suspect has been going on in Hindu temples from Hong Kong to Luton and throughout the sub-continent. All the photographs I had seen of statues of the gods Ganesh and Vishnu seem to show them awash in a puddle of fast-fermenting milk. But not so, according to hard-nosed reporters sent by major newspapers and agencies to cover the story - we have seen, we have held teaspoons, the gods drank, they said. So now the elephant-headed deity is to be given a place next to various Irish Madonnas, a couple of Neapolitan saints and a vial of St Januarius's blood in the "strange, but true" sections of the more credulous journals.

It is boring (but necessary) to remind ourselves here that all these strange manifestations on the part of religious effigies are easily explicable. Weeping Virgins are made of hollow plaster, which exudes liquid when scratched; liquefying blood is probably thixotropic gel - viscous until shaken; the milk-drinking idols of India actually spread the milk in a thin layer on their rough outer surfaces.

What is really interesting about these occurrences is what they say about the folk who believe them. For instance, why do certain religions give rise to such "miraculous" phenomena while others do not? Is it a lack of superstitious zeal that deprives the Church of England of its own bleeding statues, or a caution born of the fact that C of E vicars seem unable even to pick up a tambourine without going on to bed the parishioners? More credibly, perhaps miracles happen only in semi-peasant societies, where magic still plays a part.

Actually, the key factor appears to be idolatry - use of "graven images". In many religions, such images were invested with magical powers, one of the most important of which was the capacity to take the sins of the faithful upon itself (a bit like Dorian Gray and his portrait, or New Labour and Peter Mandelson). So, before the Reformation, it was common in this country, too, for the images of saints to be accorded supernatural abilities. St Uncumber, in St Pauls, London, for example, was credited with being able to eliminate husbands of discontented wives (they could invoke help by leaving a peck of corn at his statue). Religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries saw the end of idols - and of miracles.

Such an explanation will not satisfy the faithful. As one Irish witness of a weeping Madonna said recently, "If you believe, no explanation is necessary. If you don't, none is possible." But we are entitled to ask him and his fellows why, if the gods really are behind these events, their incarnations are so utterly pathetic. One priest in Delhi was quoted yesterday as saying that the milk-drinking deities were a sign that the gods had come down to earth, "to solve all our problems". But is mankind's biggest problem really excess milk production? I don't think so. And to what conceivable purpose do all these lachrymose saints and virgins weep or wobble?

Nor am I waiting, irreligious as I am, for the symbols of secular society to act before believing. True, I would like to hear that Lenin's embalmed corpse was shaking hands with visitors to Red Square, or that copies of Michelangelo's David all over the world were becoming inexplicably tumescent. But I will finally see the light only when these effigies do something really useful - such as getting out of their shrines and marching en masse to Belgrade. Only then will they deserve to drink.

Comments