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Level 7

7AACK805 Sacred Tales and Pilgrimage in the Graeco-Roman World

Credit value: 20 credits
Module convenor/tutor: Dr Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis
Assessment: 1 x essay of 5,000 words (100%)
Teaching pattern: 10 x 2-hour weekly seminars
Availability: Please see module list for relevant year

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand: there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

Why did the Greeks and Romans undertake long, difficult and often dangerous journeys to worship gods in specific places? What did they do when they arrived at those shrines?  How did they enact and describe their engagement with the gods?  The module tackles this question through an exploration of the rich evidence for pilgrimage in antiquity. In doing so it examines how the Greeks and Romans engaged with sickness, uncertainty and their very bodies.  The evidence used ranges from first hand literary accounts of sacred journeys through the material evidence of cult images, votive offerings, temples and sanctuaries to the rules of ritual which governed pilgrims’ behaviour. This fascinating material is analysed both for what it reveals about Graeco-Roman culture and religion and for its connections to Early Christian pilgrimage.

Through a series of case studies we explore the different types of sacred travel in the Graeco-Roman world.  This includes panhellenic pilgrimage to Olympia in Classical Greece, local pilgrimage and civic festivals in the Roman empire, holy men and charlatans as objects of pilgrimage, miraculous bodily healing and early Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The dividing line between tourism and pilgrimage will also be explored through cross-cultural comparisons. The module offers students the opportunity to engage with the widest range of evidence – architectural, material, literary and ritual across the social range from popular to elite – while exploring some of the most important cultural phenomena in both the ancient and the modern worlds.  Students will thus develop skills in analysing different types of evidence and synthesising a coherent picture from them, while at the same time deepening their insights into the role and expression of religious systems within their cultural contexts.

Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these books is not mandatory.

Two key texts on pilgrimage in the Greek and Roman worlds:

  • Dillon, M. Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in ancient Greece (1997)
  • Rutherford, I. and Elsner, J. (eds), Seeing the Gods: Patterns of Pilgrimage in Antiquity (2005)
Anthropological studies of pilgrimage and modern cross-cultural comparisons:
  • Morinis, A. (ed.) Sacred Journeys: the Anthropology of Pilgrimage (1992)
  • Reader, I., and Walter, T. (eds) Pilgrimage in Popular Culture (1993)
Background reading on Greek and Roman religion:
  • Bremmer, J.N. Greek Religion (Greece & Rome: New Surveys in the Classics No. 24) (2004)
  • North, J.A. Roman religion (Greece & Rome: New Surveys in the Classics No. 24) (2000)
  • Beard, M., North, J. and Price, S. Religions of Rome 2 vols (1998)
  • Veyne, P. Did the Greeks believe in their myths? An essay on the constitutive imagination Translated by  Paula Wissing (1988)
Useful websites on pilgrimage studies:
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