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Comptes rendus et notices bibliographiques

Cognitive Approaches to Ancient Religious Experience

Saskia Peels-Matthey
p. 254-257
Référence(s) :

Esther Eidinow, Armin W. Geertz and John North (dir.), Cognitive Approaches to Ancient Religious Experience, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2022. 1 vol. 16 × 24 cm, xii+299 p. (Ancient Religion and Cognition Series). ISBN : 978-1-316-51533-4.

Texte intégral

1This co-edited volume explores ways in which cognitive studies can help to understand ancient religious experience. The papers are the result of several consecutive meetings of the Cognitive Approaches to Ancient Religious Experience (CAARE) network. This project brought together cognitive scientists of religion with specialists of various ancient cultures. The aim of these meetings was twofold: to better understand individual ancient religious experiences, as well as to experiment with and advance methods for studying them in this interdisciplinary way.

  • 1 Robert Parker, “Commentary on Journal of Cognitive Historiography, Issue 1”, JCH 1.2 (2014), p. 1 (...)
  • 2 Thomas Harrison, “Cognitive Science of Religion as a Challenge to Prevailing Models of Greek Reli (...)
  • 3 Indeed, CSR is not an approach, but a research agenda ; as explained by J.L. Barret, “Cognitive S (...)

2The aim of the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) has been elegantly summarized by Robert Parker as “the attempt to show how minds are capable of harbouring religious conceptions, and in particular that those conceptions are not products of a kind of special religious sensibility but of ordinary cognitive processes”.1 This book clearly moves beyond “the greatest hits from the cognitivist hymn-book” (an expression used by Thomas Harrison to refer to well-known CSR ideas such as minimally counterintuitive concepts and over-attribution of agency),2 and showcases the use of a wide variety of “cognitive” approaches, that is, the use of insights from the fields of psychology, anthropology, sociology, neurobiology, child development, among other domains.3 The volume starts with a good theoretical introduction, followed by eleven chapters (in five book parts) with specific ancient case-studies.

3The first part of the book, on “Ritual”, consists of two chapters. Hugh Bowden (Chapter 1), using Robert McCauley and Thomas Lawson’s Ritual Form Hypothesis, sets out to explain why sacrifice may have appealed to worshippers over many centuries. He argues that burning portions for the gods was the single most crucial ritual in the sacrificial process and may have accounted for the emotive power of sacrifice, due to the strong emotional effects that the smells of burning may have had on participants. This is an interesting argument (even though it could arguably have been made without referring to McCauley and Lawson’s work). Nevertheless, minimizing the role of killing the animal and eating it (which Bowden argues were not religious rituals in the perception of worshippers, p. 31, 34) strikes me as problematic. Another suggestion that may require further explanation is the intriguing idea that we should see sacrifice (taken as one experience again) as a “special agent” as opposed to a “special patient” ritual—that is to say a ritual in which the god is considered to be acting rather than a recipient of human action, p. 39). In what way is the god acting in sacrifice? — Yulia Ustinova (Chapter 2) analyses the cognitive processes involved in the experience of a suppliant at the sanctuary of Trophonius at Lebadeia in Boeotia. Ustinova uses evidence from anthropology, neurophysiology, the cognitive science of religion and other fields to comment on several aspects of suppliant’s experience, who would have descended into an artificial, subterranean cave for a face-to-face encounter with the god to obtain prophetic visions. Various of the observations Ustinova makes in the course of her analysis are clearly illuminating (such as her analysis of cognitive effects of the high investments that participants made, which would have primed them to have a more valuable experience; and the importance of cognitive depletion in the possibility for religious authorities to shape the suppliant’s memory after the katabasis). What, to me at least, is missing somewhat is a deeper analysis on individual points.

4In Part 2, “Representation”, Esther Eidinow (Chapter 3) studies ways in which (anthropomorphic) concepts of Greek gods are formed in the mind. In particular, the chapter is about narrative and narrated rituals (in archaic and early classical Greek literature) with descriptions of smelling a god, and of gods smelling. Eidinow explores how these stories would have informed worshippers’ conceptions of the divine, by applying the theory of situated conceptualization. Eidinow explains how a smell, both the experience and the description of it, may activate an entire (anthropomorphic) god concept, and argues that smell may be a particularly powerful modality to achieve this effect. The question is then how such descriptions “could evoke, and in turn shape, experiences of a divine presence for their audience” (p. 70). Eidinow explores a series of literary examples through this lens, and shows how various examples draw attention to perceived differences between humans and gods, and boundaries between the two. The A. is surely persuasive when she claims that that her topic may inform us about aspects of “belief ” in the ancient Greek gods. This is one of the most interesting chapters in the book. — In Chapter 4, Felix Budelmann studies the deus ex machina of Attic tragedy, in comparison to non-dramatic ritual practices of enacting divinities. The chapter sets out to explain how we are to understand the kind of belief (or disbelief) involved in these cases. Budelmann uses theoretical insights from the study of pretend-play in developmental psychology, the study of narrative fiction, as well as anthropology, to show that spectators of these staged epiphanies would have engaged in a self-conscious make-believe. He convincingly argues that full awareness of the pretense involved in these divine impersonations can go hand in hand with high emotional involvement or commitment, and an experience of divine presence. — In Chapter 5, Maik Patzelt focuses on the song of the Salian priesthood—the carmen Saliare—to get to grips with the religious experience of those involved in this ritual practice, by identifying the cognitive effects that the “leaping, outrageously capering” (p. 129) dance patterns and chanting elicited, and the embodied cognitive aspects of these effects.

5In Part 3, “Gender”, Vivienne McGlashan (Chapter 6) asks whether ritual practitioners of Maenadic rituals were actually “madwomen” in some way, in dialogue with scholars who noted a discrepancy between what we know about civic cult (a regulated cult of the polis, featuring respectable women) and myth (featuring violent, hallucinating madwomen in a state of delirium). Using the theory of predictive processing, McGlashan’s argument that ritual practitioners of maenadic rituals accessed an interpretative schema of the “ideal” maenadic experience that was fed into by artistic, literary, ritual, and historical information, and that this model explains how the two sources of information (myth and ritual) related to one another, is illuminating. The argument in the second half of the paper, an exploration of cognitive processes that may have helped maenads to experience an epiphany of Dionysus, is also interesting. McGlashan argues that sensory confusion (the ritual takes place in the darkness, frantic dancing confuses the senses) causes top-down input to govern the experience, which is how worshippers may have felt that the god was with them, since that is what they expected to happen. This is all well taken. What is missing, to me at least, is some more discussion of how epiphany involves an altered mind-state (as suggested on p. 160). — In Chapter 7, Leonardo Ambasciano focuses on the Cults of Bona Dea. He uses neurosociological and socio-cognitive approaches to human rituals (the Ritual Form hypothesis and Modes of religiosity, also used in Chapter 1) to better understand how Bona Dea cults were organized. Ambisciano is well read in the relevant literature; this is very much an interdisciplinary article. It is also a very demanding article to come to terms with, certainly for classicists, because of the pervasive use of jargon and the frequency of theoretical concepts.

6In Part 4, “Materiality”, Michael Scott (Chapter 8) focuses on walls and other boundaries of temenē and of temples, in particular, those of the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, in order to understand what effects these boundaries may have had on the ritual experience. This is a promising topic: a study of the cognitive processes at work, and of the religious experience involved in entering a temenos, would certainly be very helpful. There is still much to be understood about what happened in the mind of an Ancient Greek person when he or she crossed a visible (or invisible) boundary and entered into “sacred space”. Scott’s analysis of the experience at this particular sanctuary contains various good observations, but the sheer amount of theoretical approaches used, with the consequence that none of them are pursued with the depth that one might perhaps wish for, detracts from the clarity of the individual arguments and makes some of them confusing. — Luther Martin (Chapter 9) studies material evidence from the cult of the Roman god Mithras for evidence of neurocognitive processes, taking religious experience itself as “material, that is as neurophysiological”(p. 220). Martin argues, for example, that sharing meals and drinking wine (that this happened in the cult is clear from archaeological remains of dining couches and iconography showing communal meals) leads to the release of oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. While this is no doubt true, these observations are of such a general nature that it is not easy to know what historians of religions should do with them. In the second part, Martin discusses images of a tauroctony which were at the same time visual representations of Mithras slaying a bull to sacrifice it, and a star-map. This would, Martin argues, have caused cognitive dissonance, and stress and anxiety; as well as pleasure, when the double nature of the scene was fully appreciated. This is a fascinating topic, and a searching analysis of the precise cognitive effects of viewing such an ambiguous image would be welcome, but again, the observations remain at a rather general level.

  • 4 On the relationship between morality and purity in ancient Greek religion, cf. A. Petrovic, I. Pe (...)

7In Part 5, “Texts”, Anders Klostergard Petersen (Chapter 10) argues that the apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, gives his followers a new identity, by inducing in them feelings of disgust (about sexual and social transgressions of non-Christians). Klostergard Petersen uses experimental work by Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, which shows that humans perceive a relationship between physical cleanliness and moral purity. He then argues that Paul, by reminding his followers of their baptism, and then rhetorically “re-performing” it in his speech, provides them with a sense of physical cleaning that helps them regain a sense of moral purity, and in this way, a new identity. This is an interesting argument (even though the theoretical part about “feelings” and “emotions” seemed unnecessary to me). Moreover, though morality = purity is an important embodied metaphor, the A.’s subsequent identification of impurity with disgust is arguably too sweeping. In ancient religions, ritual impurity did not always have a moral component.4 — Isabella Sandwell (Chapter 11) provides a solid and convincing analysis of Gregory of Nyssa’s defense of use of the term “begetting” and the appellations “father” and “son” for God and Jesus, against his contemporary Eunomius. She argues that Gregory may have emphasized the physicality implied in language of sexual generation in order to make the divine more understandable in human terms. Applying work of cognitive scientist of religion Ilkka Pyysiäinen, she argues that Gregory oscillates between implicit or intuitive and explicit or reflective thought on the divine, in an explanation of how his readers should understand divine “begetting” through a similar oscillation.

  • 5 To give but two examples, besides those mentioned in previous footnotes: V. Pirenne-Delforge, “Gr (...)

8Studying this book was a rich, fascinating, though also rather overwhelming experience. I found chapters in which one cognitive approach, or a limited amount of them, was used to analyze one particular aspect of religious experience especially elucidating (e.g. Chapters 3, 4, 6, 11). Future case-studies of a similar kind, on a detailed level, are in my view the way forward, and I am convinced that such work can genuinely help us in getting closer to ancient religious experience. A glossary would not have been a superfluous luxury, even though there is a useful index. Some guidance in the jungle of seemingly similar (?) theoretical approaches from various cognitive angles might also have been useful. For example, what is the relationship between the notions of predictive processing (Chapter 2, 5, 6 and 8) and situated conceptualization (Chapter 3)? These seem to be different cognitive aspects of the fact that humans store information, and that we understand and interpret new information against this inventory of knowledge and experiences. To some extent, the same may be true for the notions of “schemata” and “cultural knowledge” (Chapters 6 and 7). Classical scholars have responded in a variety of ways to applications of CSR to increase our understanding of ancient religions.5 In the light of a general tendency of classicists to be skeptical about CSR, and given the fact that it is not easy to do interdisciplinary research in the first place, it is both commendable and impressive that the editors found funding and participants willing to invest a considerable amount of energy in this project. In my view, this was energy well-invested, indeed. Historians of religions, as well as classicists and historians interested in ancient religions will no doubt profit from the illuminating contributions and the potential for future studies this book offers. The book opens up important new research areas and methods to study ancient religions, in particular showing us how a large variety of “cognitive” approaches (in a broad sense) can help us to understand aspects of ancient religious experience.

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1 Robert Parker, “Commentary on Journal of Cognitive Historiography, Issue 1”, JCH 1.2 (2014), p. 190–191.

2 Thomas Harrison, “Cognitive Science of Religion as a Challenge to Prevailing Models of Greek Religion?”, JCH 4.1 (2017) 34.

3 Indeed, CSR is not an approach, but a research agenda ; as explained by J.L. Barret, “Cognitive Science of Religion: What is it and why is it?”, Religion Compass 1.6 (2007), p. 769, cognitive science of religion is characterized by ‘a piecemeal approach, explanatory non-exclusivism, and methodological pluralism’.

4 On the relationship between morality and purity in ancient Greek religion, cf. A. Petrovic, I. Petrovic, Inner Purity & Pollution in Greek Religion. vol. 1: Early Greek Religion, Oxford, 2016 ; S. Peels, “Moral purity in the Athenian theatre”, in J.-M. Carbon, S. Peels (eds.), Purity and Purification in the Ancient Greek World. Texts, Rituals, and Norms, Liège, 2018 (Kernos, suppl. 32).

5 To give but two examples, besides those mentioned in previous footnotes: V. Pirenne-Delforge, “Greek gods and cognitive sciences: About Jennifer Larson’s Understanding Greek Religion”, JCH 4.1 (2017), p. 47–52 ; F. Budelmann, p. 96–98, in the volume under review here.

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Saskia Peels-Matthey, « Cognitive Approaches to Ancient Religious Experience »Kernos, 36 | 2023, 254-257.

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Saskia Peels-Matthey, « Cognitive Approaches to Ancient Religious Experience »Kernos [En ligne], 36 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Saskia Peels-Matthey

University of Groningen

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