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Me, My God and I: The Individual as Recipient of Divine Epiphanies (1/2)

A053
Panel Chair: Susanne Turner | Monday, August 24, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Epiphany is of cardinal importance for both modern and ancient religious systems. On the one hand, it provides important information about the nature and the form of the deity/deities and their relationship to the world of mortals, while on the other hand, it informs us of the worshippers’ hopes and expectations in regard to their deity/deities. Moreover, the advent of the god into the mortal sphere tells us just as much about the preoccupations and the assumptions of the culture involved. This panel engages closely with the individual as the central agent of religious communication and his or her personal encounters with the divine. The main focus of our panel is to ascertain, on the one hand, the impact and transformative effect these meetings with the divine have had for the chosen few and their respective communities. On the other hand, these much-prized close encounters with the divine often function as authorisation tools which invest their recipients with the authority to contest pre-established power structures and proceed with more or less radical actions or political or religious revisionism. What is an epiphany and how (if at all) does it differ from a theophany? Are these transcategorical concepts or are they to be observed with greater frequency in specific situational and generic contexts, media, or religious traditions? How often do we find an epiphany or a theophany at the heart of a pilgrimage destination? What kind of religious expertise is essential to decipher the divine presence and to expatiate on it? To what extent do these individual encounters with the divine follow a single scenario and to what degree are they shaped by the religious traditions within which the individuals operate? How often do they become embedded in personal agendas of religious innovation and/or reformation and what are their socio-political and/or economic ramifications?

Greg Woolf

Authorizing Epiphany in Classical Antiquity

Cognitive science strongly suggests that the experience of epiphany is linked to particular mental states. Some progress has been made in examining means by which such states have been and may be induced, for example through certain kinds of sensory deprivation, by changes in diet or the ingestion of particular psychotropic substances. But the product of these stimuli were often unpredictable and sometimes deemed socially unacceptable, as were visions and revelations claimed by individuals who had not undergone socially sanctioned preparation. This paper looks at the mechanisms through which ancient religious authorities accepted or rejected individual revelations, or imposed their own interpretation on them. Examples will be drawn from the healing sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros, from the oracle at Claros, from the history of portents at Rome, and from early Christian attitudes to divine epiphany. In each case it will be argued that alongside institutional mechanisms for authorizing and rejecting epiphanies, religious authorities also invested in preventative means through which individuals were 'taught' in advance the kind of epiphanies to expect. For religious entrepreneurs, on the other hand, exceeding expectations and introducing new elements were means of retaining some of the authority conveyed by epiphanies. This dynamic can be inserted into the long dialectical relationship between charismatic and institutional power over the content of religious belief and the conduct of ritual.

Faiza Hussain

From Lan tarānī (“You Shall Not See Me”) to Fa aḥbabtu an u‘raf (“I Longed to Be Known”): Sufi Contribution to Islamic Theological Discourse on the Vision of God

According to the Quranic narrative of Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai, the prophet’s request for visiting God was answered by the divine words, “You shall not see me.” The Quranic verse (7:143) referring to this incident has carried long-lasting theological and mystical debate over the capability of humankind in meeting God in Islamic tradition, itself inducing a variety of other questions such as: How and through what human faculty is visiting God possible? Is such vision peculiar to specific individuals or anybody as humankind can attain it? Resorting to a renowned Hadith in which God states, “I was a hidden treasure, then I longed to be known,” Sufis (Muslim mystics) related this discussion to two concepts of creation and mystical knowledge. Accordingly, a pivotal Sufi discourse on encountering God in the sense of visiting, hearing, conversing with, and being annihilated in Him is formed. Dealing with the basic Sufi theories pertaining to the issue of theophany, this paper discusses the Sufi participation in the interpretation of Moses’ meeting with the Divine from the Islamic viewpoint.

Aditya Malik

God’s Little Horses: Justice and Ritual Embodiment in the Central Himalayas

Kumaon is a mountainous region in the Indian Himalayas bordering on Nepal in the east and Tibet in the north. Together with the province of Garhwal, Kumaon forms one of the most recently established states of India, Uttarakhand. Several powerful gods and goddesses reside here along the banks of sacred rivers and on the snow covered mountain peaks. These gods are also present in hillside shrines in villages and through rituals of embodiment in which they enter and speak through the bodies of sensitive “dancers” (nacnevala) during intense “awakening” sessions (jagar). The most powerful of all the deities is Goludev who is known as the “God of Justice” (nyay ka devta). Goludev’s advice on matters of justice is, among other means, also sought through rituals of embodiment in which the god speaks through a “dancer” to his devotees. The dancers (nacnevala), who are also referred to as the deity’s “horse” or “beast of burden” (ghoda or dangariya) are transformed or “awakened” through the words and music of an “awakener” (jagariya) who tells the story of Goludev which is essentially about the injustices experienced by the deity in his own life. Who are the dancers and how do they become the deity’s ‘little horses’? Moreover, what does it mean, in this context to “awaken” God and to embody him? What does it mean to dance God? Why does God dance? Dance, primarily is a mode of doing with the body, but it is also a mode of knowing by doing through the body. It constitutes knowledge that arises somatically within and through the body. Dance is a mode of movement that results in self-knowledge and consequently justice even for God and for those who observe and participate in his dance. In this paper I explore the possibility of a hermeneutics of dance, divine presence, ritual embodiment and justice in the context of the religious cult of Goludev.

Georgia Petridou

Emplotting the Divine: Epiphany as Status-elevating and Agency-enhancing Mechanism

One of the main points of departure of the Lived Ancient Religion (LAR) approach is that it looks at narratives not as mythological constructs and reflections of religious beliefs, but as means of investing the individual religious actors with skills and competences to develop evaluations and contextualize social experiences, thus, enhancing their agency. Within the wider methodological framework of LAR, narratives are thought of as the literary ‘emplotment’ of events, and as fundamental in the dialogical, the interpersonal constitution of ‘agency’ and collective identity. This paper examines the emplotment of the ‘epiphanic schema’ in two inscriptions, which feature two goddesses manifesting themselves to a rather limited number of people―who, unsurprisingly enough, happen to be identical to the members of the socio-political and/or religious elite of the respective communities. The divine epiphanies featured here enhance the agency of a very small minority consisting of a handful of privileged individuals (especially members of the priestly personnel) and invest them with power, prestige and authority, and often with power to deliver the whole community out of imminent danger. Epiphany provides a minority of privileged individuals with the essential god-sent prestige and validity to resolve certain crises and essentially becomes an effective mechanism of perpetuating or, alternatively, challenging current socio-political formations and power-structures. In that sense, epiphany nuances the formation of both basic societal values and socio-economic stratification in Graeco-Roman antiquity. The paper closes by examining the effectiveness of epiphany in enhancing the individual’s socio-political status and religious agency cross-culturally.

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