Sharpening the knife: Making religion effective in everyday life

Sharpening the knife: Making religion effective in everyday life

Opening conference for the ERC research project
Lived Ancient Religion: Questioning “cults” and “polis religion”

11th to 14th June, 2013
Erfurt, Max Weber Centre of the University of Erfurt/Augustinerkloster

– Call for Posters –

The conference: Looking at methodology, sharpening its knife
As the title of the conference indicates, methodology is crucial for research in the history of ancient religions. The concept of “lived religion”, chosen as a starting point, has been developed for the description and analysis of contemporary religion (Meredith McGuire). It does not address how individuals replicate a set of religious practices and beliefs preconfigured by an institutionalised official religion within their biography – or, conversely, opt out of adhering to tradition. Of course, considering the relationship of individuals to tradition, such an assumption could in principle work in a religiously pluralistic and a mono-confessional society. Instead, “lived ancient religion” focuses on the actual everyday experience, on practices, expressions, and interactions that could be related to “religion”. Such “religion” is understood as a spectrum of experiences, actions, and beliefs and communications hinging on human communication with super-human or even transcendent agent(s), for the ancient Mediterranean usually conceptualised as “gods”. Ritualisation and elaborate forms of representation are called upon for the success of communication with these addressees.
When concentrating on practices, one should accept and account for incoherence rather than coherence (even in research into contemporary religion), the stressed role of mediality and the importance given to knowledge and biographical coherence. Ancient religions are only partially receptive of techniques established in social studies so as to create new data by means of empirical or experimental procedures. It cannot be hoped that extensive descriptions of rituals stem from people whom we know to have practiced them, or that people whose reflection on religion is preserved in the literary tradition left other evidence of personal practices. The generalisation of the individual instance (hardly ever representative in a methodologically plausible way) is just as problematic as the reliability of elite descriptions of mass behaviour – this is, of course, the overall situation in the historical critique of sources. By drawing on the model of “lived religion”, scattered evidence could be contextualised and interpreted by relating it to individual agents, their use of space and time, their forming of social coalitions, their negotiation with religious specialists or “providers”, and their attempts to “make sense” of religion in a situational manner and thus render it effective.
This is not a material statement about any logical priority of the individual, but a methodological option, which provides a radical alternative to “cults” and “polis religion” and a way to overcome the latter’s deficits. The “lived religion” approach, as proposed by the Erfurt project induces methodological modifications in the process of selecting and interpreting the evidence, as it focuses on: experience rather than symbols; embodiment rather than ritual; and culture in interaction rather than habitus, organisation or culture as text.
In order to bring such an approach to bear on the available evidence, research will have to concentrate on indi­vidual appraisal and interaction in diverse social spaces: the primary space of the house and familial interaction (including familial funeral space), the secondary space of religious experience and interaction in voluntary or professional associations, the spaces shared by many individuals or groups in the public sites of sanctuaries or festival routes, and finally the virtual space of literary communication and the intellectual discourses formed therein. To analyse the whole continuum of social interaction ranging from domestic cult to public spaces and professionals is of particular importance. The use and construction of these social spaces by individual agents have to be indexed topographically, for instance, by domestic or coemeterial, urban, and extra-urban, open or architecturally defined sites. This form of indexing enables the contextualisation of religion in everyday life. A further dimension has to be considered: When were these spaces used in terms of calendar dates or frequency? Clearly, the permanent use of an amulet differs from a one-time ritual (that might, however, be remembered time and again). Religious traditions form part of such an environment; therefore they should not be studied as if they are an independent variable, but rather as a product of providers of religious knowledge and services, “priests” or professionals. Most of the evidence at our disposal is best to be interpreted neither as “authentic” individual expression nor as institutional “survival”, but as media, as the results of a culture created in interaction.
The scope of this conference is to bring together scholars working in different fields and types of sources to propose and discuss methodological approaches that have proven or might prove helpful for elucidating the dimensions of “lived ancient religions”. Short contributions of about 20 minutes – leaving enough time of discussion for each contribution as for cross-reference –, starting from different types of evidence (but concentrating on methodology within the oral presentation) should create a panorama of innovative approaches and inspire further elaboration and new ideas. For the time being we suggest grouping contributions and discussions into five groups, each bringing together expertise of various disciplines.

Preliminary program:

Tuesday, 11th June, 2013 – Barocksaal Staatskanzlei, Regierungsstraße

17.00 Opening
Welcome Address of the Thueringen Minister of European Affairs, Frau Marion Walsmann
Introduction Jörg Rüpke (Erfurt)
Public lecture: Rubina Raja (Aarhus): Sieh mich an! Mein Vater war berühmt: Selbstdarstellungen von Priestern im römischen Nahen Osten als Mittel zur Herstellung situationsbezogener Bedeutung

Wednesday, 12th June – Augustinerkloster

I The Role of Objects
The papers in this session shall ask how objects were used to create different meanings in different situations. The main focus is on approaches that stimulate new insights into the pragmatics of objects (with or without textual, pictorial or epigraphical representations). The papers should discuss new fertile methods and illustrate them with a case study of their respective fields of expertise. The latter shall not evolve into a standard theory, but pinpoint the variety of experiences and memories stimulated.

*     Lucinda Dirven (Amsterdam): Imagining Religion in Mithraic Cults. The Case of Dura-Europos
*     Lara Weiss (Erfurt): Conceptualizing the Creation of the Sacred: Mass Production Vs. Handmade Figurines
*     Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser (Göttingen): Semper odoratis spirabunt floribus arae: Sacrificed Poems in the Third Book of Statius’ Silvae
*     Michael Satlow (Providence, RI): Vows and Curses in Late Roman Palestine


Guided tour through the medieval city

II Group Styles
Instead of asking about norms, rules, organization, or specific dogmatics, “lived ancient religion” invites to inquire into types of interaction – gestures, modes of speaking, semantics, communication – that are developed within groups. Such a group style can but need not be used in the presence of outsiders to establish or avoid boundaries. It might be seen by others as simply “odd” or characteristic. The papers of this session should attempt to develop methods to capture such characteristics of religious grouping.

*     Markus Vinzent (London): Practical and Cognitive Dissonance: Jewish Liturgical Traditions, Innovations and Counter-rites in Marcion’s Roman Community
*     Marlis Arnhold (Erfurt): The Last One Shuts the Door: Cult-Groups Communicating Through (In)Visibility
*     John North (London): Funeral Rituals and the Significance of the Nenia

Thursday, 13th June – Augustinerkloster

III Meaning in Situations
Meaning is situational and not constant. It can change and changes can create new meanings. Meanings can even differ in the same context for various agents. In this session we want to explore “meaning” in situational constructs and examine the effectiveness of religious instruments as employed in order to create, change, and enhance meanings. Methodologies developed in this session could give us a lens through which aspects of lived ancient religion can be examined through a variety of sources ranging from textual to archaeological material.

*     Anton Bierl (Basel): Lived Religion and Construction of Meaning in Greek Literary Texts and Contexts. Genre, Situation, Occasion, Intention
*     Eric Rebillard (Ithaca, NY): Everyday Christianity in Third-Century Carthage
*     Vered Noam (Tel Aviv): Ritual Impurity and Human Intention
*     Christopher Smith (Rome): „Aus altrömischen Priesterbüchern“


Poster session

IV Appropriation
The aspect of appropriation focused on in this session draws particular attention on the individuals behind the actions that led to the construction of rituals and buildings as well as the production of meanings in difference to established traditions. The papers should explore methods in identifying variations in the appropriations by different individual or collective agents.

*     Karen King (Harvard): “Religion(s) of the Book”/“Textual Communities”.
*     Michal Bar-Asher Siegal (Beer Sheva): The Transmission and Collections of Traditions in Anthologies
*     Zsuzsa Varhelyi (Boston): Just Like the Emperor and his Family: Appropriating the Emperors’ Religion in the Roman Empire
*     Angela Standhartinger (Marburg): The Beginning of the Eucharist or Constructing the Lord’s Supper
Friday, 14th June – Augustinerkloster

V Learning and Memory
Individual religious practice depends upon the intellectual as well as embodied availability and the situational salience of “traditions”, that is, complex belief systems or simple sequences of ritual action. This dimension of “lived ancient religion” is addressed and focused upon by the terms “learning” and “memory”. These terms refer to processes of acquiring knowledge by formal training or constant repetition and to instances of recalling emotions, complex patterns, cognitive or bodily knowledge. Again, papers should reflect about approaches to identify such processes in our sources.

*     Jörg Rüpke (Erfurt): The Implicit Reader of Antiquarian Literature
*     Katharina Waldner (Erfurt): Reading, Knowledge and Religious Practice: The Derveni Papyrus and its Context



Organisation: Dr. des. Marlis Arnhold, Ursula Birtel-Koltes (,
Posters: Please apply with a short summary (1 page) and CV until 15th March, 2013 via email to Dr. des. Marlis Arnhold (
Fee: A participation fee of 80 Euros will be charged for participants without papers (covering all meals).

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