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Comparing Paradigms in the Study of Ancient Religions

Panel Chair: Richard L. Gordon | Friday, August 28, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Based on a comparison between Egypt and (Classical) Greece, this panel proposes to examine how ancient Mediterranean religions were studied from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries – in many ways a formative period for scholarship in the field, with a lasting impact on current approaches. In particular we propose to compare the ways in which the collective and individual dimension of these religious traditions were represented. The panel consists of two case-studies, each focused on a particular religious tradition, concentrating on the ideologies that shaped scholarly conceptions of these religious traditions. Concerning Egypt (paper 1), the two major focuses will be on the Amarna period and its role in the history of Egyptian religion, and the place of personal piety versus temple practice. Regarding Greece (paper 3 and 4), the dominant approaches can be roughly correlated with a(n Hegelian) model that prioritised the State and a neo-Romantic elevation of the people.

Janne Arp-Neumann

Monotheism, Orthodoxy and Heresy as Paradigms in the History of the Study of Egyptian Religion

For decades Ancient Egypt was viewed as the cradle of Christian monotheism first attested in the sun cult of the so-called Amarna period, and hence construed as part of Western culture. Simultaneously, Amarna became equated with heresy, as a sudden, severe, or sometimes even revolutionary, rupture in tradition. Against this foil, the subsequent Ramesside period could be construed as a time of restoration of traditional cults and, indeed, return to orthodoxy, and at the same time as “age of personal piety” and “dawn of conscience”. Although some scholars arrived at a completely different interpretation (viewing the Amarna period as a failed attempt to return to the pure/original Egyptian religion), such readings of the ancient evidence were apparently not persuasive. Our paper will scrutinize the structure and transmission of these narratives and discuss the question of why some dominated the Egyptological discourse and beyond, whereas others were forgotten and neglected.

Richard L. Gordon

Constructing Greek religion: From K.F. Herrmann to M.P. Nilsson

Since J.G. Lakemacher, Antiquitates Graecorum sacrae (1734), the study of Greek religion in Germany - a particularly Protestant pre-occupation - was based on a model derived from the study of Judaism, conceived as a population coterminous with its religion. From the 1840s, we find attempts both to insist on the complete congruity of State and religion on the one hand, and on the wide-ranging diversity of belief and practice on the other. The study of Greek religion became a recognised special topic within a specific genre, Griechische Antiquitäten, focused on Classical Greece. The major figure of twentieth century study, M.P. Nilsson, attempted to reconcile these divergent trends by insisting on the primacy of a diachronic approach.

Corinne Bonnet

Post-mortem ideas and symbolic language: Franz Cumont between texts and images

Already in his famous corpus, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra, which appeared in fascicules between 1894 and 1899, Franz Cumont tried to stage a dialogue between texts and images. He thought that the section of his great work devoted to assembling the sources would be its “most enduring” achievement, precisely because it was the “most impersonal” – as though he wanted to suggest that the source-materials, the ancient texts and monuments, spoke for themselves. Yet by virtue of his differential weighting of texts, whether literary or epigraphic, pagan or Christian, poetic or philosophical, and likewise in his interpretation of the “hieroglyphs” (i.e. the iconography), the historian inevitably leaves his personal imprint on the way the pieces of the puzzle are fitted together. Starting from Cumont’s Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains, published in 1942, and republished with a scholarly introduction in 2015, this paper will try to clarify Cumont’s views on the relation between text and image, between formal ideas and symbols relating to death, in what we may call the Graeco-Roman Empire. Cumont tried, behind the texts, behind the images, and beyond their partial imbrication, to reconstruct a “theology” where others see only an aesthetic without religious implications. Such an approach, already then contentious, has since evoked numerous interventions. As a key figure in the historiography of the religion of the Graeco-Roman Empire throughout the first half of the twentieth century, but whose formation belonged essentially to the late nineteenth, Cumont’s views provide important insights into the debate over the relation between individual and collective representations during this period



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