What's religious about ancient Mediterranean religions? This is the theme of the Inaugural Meeting of the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religion, held on June 28 2009, at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, Italy. And I'll be there! Wah-hoo!
At the inaugural meeting of the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions, we plan to begin our discussions by considering the ways in which the conceptual category 'religion' is applicable to the study of ancient cultures. Sacrifice, prayer, pilgrimage, private and public devotion, beliefs about gods and goddesses - all of these practices and ideas seem to fall safely enough within the category of 'religion'. A question worth thinking about, however, is whether the boundaries of this modern category - and indeed the category itself - match up with any patterns of practice or belief held by the people we hope to understand. In other words, what did it mean to be 'religious' in the ancient world? Perhaps behaviors that we might now call 'religious' are better understood as falling within the realm of political acts, or as practices that delineate certain tribal or familial identities. Matching up ancient and modern ideas about this cluster of ideas and practices promises to reveal significant mismatches in our conceptual lexica where religion ancient and modern is concerned. We hope that it will also give rise to useful reflections about this inter-disciplinary project that we have initiated: what different methodological presuppositions do students of ancient Mediterranean cultures bring to the study of religious phenomena and what do we stand to learn from each other?