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Assuming the Supernatural: Cognitive Approaches to Greek Religion and Magic

Chair: Esther Eidinow

Following the discipline of anthropology, scholars have tended to ascribe the beliefs and practices of ancient Greek religion and magic to the workings of ‘culture’. However, as some anthropologists argue, these explanations may seem partial and unsatisfactory, tending to emphasize factors that promote the spread of ideas, rather than those that constrain them; to treat universal and local properties of culture as mutually exclusive; and to leave the specific processes involved opaque and mysterious. Scholarship in the cognitive science of religion offers some alternative perspectives on the organization of religious/magical ideas. Each paper in this panel examines a different aspect of religious/magical representation, including myth, text, ritual and doctrine. They explore how some recent cognitive theories may support and deepen our understanding of the ontological assumptions implicit in ancient Greek, including Christian, representations of gods and the supernatural, by analyzing processes of cognition universal to human beings.

Sarah Hitch

Cognitive approaches to Anthropomorphism: the Case of Ancient Greece

In Greek myths, the traditions that broadly functioned in ancient Greek societies as religious discourse, gods are often portrayed as subject to many of the physical limitations of humans: in Homer, for instance, gods are unavailable or ignorant of human activities due to physical absence, sleep and other distractions. For many Classical scholars, this picture of divinity could only be reconciled with the extensive ritual performances attested throughout the Greek world by divorcing practice from myth, a segregation supported by the lack of explicit attention to gods as recipients of sacrifice in the majority of myths. In the cognitive science of religion, such a contrast between practice and text can be collapsed through an understanding of the narrative factors that are mentally appealing and promote memory and transmission of texts. In cognitive terms, a paradoxical notion of omnipotent anthropomorphism is a typical, and very successful, feature of religions worldwide.

Esther Eidinow

Ritual Competence, Magical Power

Scholarship on ancient magic, examining evidence over time and place and across different media, has focused on the role and identity of ritual specialists, investigating the nature and source of their perceived expertise. Less attention has been paid to those intended or identified as the targets of ‘magical’ rituals, who tend to be described simply in terms of their role as passive victims. Focusing on an experience of occult aggression reported by the fourth-century CE orator Libanius, this paper examines how the perceived power of magic was not rooted simply in the exercise of a single ritual. Drawing on the cognitive theory of ritual form developed by Robert McCauley and E. Thomas Lawson, it examines not only the rituals of the practitioners of magic, but also those of their victims, and the ways in which, together, they created the perceived power of ancient Greek magic.

Hugh Bowden

Sensory Approaches to Divine Epiphany

Research into the ‘cultural life of the senses’ carried out by the Concordia Sensoria Research Team (CONSERT) in Montreal over the last 25 years has raised important questions about the ‘hierarchy’ of the senses. Ancient accounts of encounters between mortals and gods in Greek texts often include descriptions of unusual sensory impacts. This paper uses these accounts to explore the role of the senses in Greek religious perceptions. To what extent can we see specific sensory experiences underlying the (obviously culturally constructed) accounts of ‘epiphanies’ in our texts? How far do these accounts follow identifiable patterns? How far were certain actions aimed at invoking the actual presence of divinities, rather than pleasing them from a distance? Focusing on smell in particular it aims to bring insights into work on sensory cognition into the analysis of ancient religion, and to provide material for the broader study of the senses in history.

Bella Sandwell

Are Ancient Christian Doctrinal Formulations Cognitively Costly?

Those working in the Cognitive Science of Religion usually classify Christianity as a ‘cognitively costly’ religion because the complexity of its key concepts, as formulated in doctrinal statements, make it a poor fit with the structures of the evolved human mind and necessitate that it be transmitted and made memorable by regularly repeated, explicit modes of transmission (Boyer Religion Explained and Whitehouse, Modes of Religiosity). This paper will focus on late antiquity, the period when Christianity gained the features that CSR sees as distinctive of it (complex doctrine and routinized communication in the form of preaching), to argue that this might not be the best way to view the situation. It will suggest three ways in which the doctrinal formulations and the way they were transmitted by Christian preachers might actually have had some cognitively optimal features and that this explains the ultimate success of Christianity as a world religion.


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