On September 1st-3rd, the Classics Department held an international conference entitled ‘Encountering the Divine: Between Gods and Men in the Ancient World’, organised by Dr Susanne Turner and Alastair Harden. Speakers and delegates alike agreed it was a huge success!
We welcomed twenty-eight scholars from eight different countries – our furthest travelling speaker joined us from New Zealand – to discuss and debate the ways in which Greek and Roman men and women forged relationships with the gods. The aim was to move beyond the functionalist models which have dominated the way we approach ancient religion. Ritual was an integral part of daily life in the ancient past, but scholarship has often found it much easier to take seriously the ways in which men competed with other men at sanctuaries and festivals, for instance, than it has the very dynamic ways in which those same men constructed and enacted relationships with their gods through the active processes of dedication, prayer and sacrifice (etc…).
The focus of our debate was interdisciplinary: we asked speakers who work on a range of topics (from inscriptions to hymns, from archaeology to historical texts, from philosophical thinking to visual images) to work together to conceptualise human and divine interactions with greater conceptual sophistication. Some speakers explored the metaphorical bridges ancients built between themselves and their gods through the mediating figures (snakes and hybrids, heroes and emperors, daemons and doctors, and even poets and sculptors). Other speakers focused on deconstructing the role of the imagination in reaching out to divine (envisioning them on votives, or encountering them in the landscape) – while still others were imaginatively reconstructing religious feeling and ritual framing (especially in the case of mystery cults!). Some speakers brought together different bits of evidence to explore mortal-divine relationships through the relationships between texts and between objects; others brought their ancient sources into dialogue with modern theories, shining a self-conscious spotlight on our own efforts to articulate the elusive rapports between gods and men.