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Understanding Ancient Religious Experiences

Cognitive approaches are a promising gateway to a new understanding of ancient religious experience which is otherwise only accessible through texts and archaeological objects. Researchers from classical studies and cognitive science were recently gathered at Aarhus University to explore what the different disciplines can learn from each other.

29.06.2016 | Ulrik Albert Vosgerau

“Humans in ancient times were much like humans today. Therefore it is natural to consider the possibility of applying new understandings of contemporary humans to those of ancient times,” explains Professor Armin W. Geertz, who, together with Associate Professor Esther Eidinow, was leader of the recently held workshop “Cognitive Approaches to Ancient Religious Experience” (CAARE) at Aarhus University.

The academic access to ancient religions has traditionally been limited to what can be construed from classical texts and archaeological objects, but cognitive approaches are opening promising avenues in understanding ancient religious experiences.

“The texts and objects of ancient cultures are still central to understanding these cultures, but cognitive approaches might offer a new understanding of the minds that created and interacted with these objects. It offers the possibility of doing archaeological and classical studies in another way,” says Geertz.

New research on the way

The third and final CAARE workshop will be held in London in December. Here renowned classical researchers such as Professor Robert C.T. Parker from Oxford University and Professor Hugh Bowden from King’s College London will also be attending.

“We are very happy about the interest in the CAARE workshops attracted by the possible interplay between classical studies and cognitive science. It is our experience that the workshops are very fruitful and that we learn a lot from each other across disciplines and sciences. Therefore we also expect new cross-disciplinary research to be published by the participants as a concrete outcome of the workshops,” says Geertz.

Watch video with impressions from the workshop:


In March 2016, Aarhus University hosted the second workshop of the project Cognitive Approaches to Ancient Religious Experience, led by Esther Eidinow (Nottingham) and Armin W. Geertz (Aarhus), and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK.

The papers developed themes from the first workshop, held in London (July 2015), which explored evidence for ancient religious activities. The final conference of the project, bringing ancient and modern approaches together, will be held in London in December 2016.