About TLAR

The TLAR (Teaching and Learning about Ancient Religions) network was set up by Esther Eidinow (Bristol), Susan Deacy (Roehampton) and Jason Davies (UCL) in November 2013 during a colloquium at Roehampton. Our aim is to establish an international network interested in teaching and learning about ancient religions. This reflects a sense that there is something distinctive about this particular area, even within the broad field of classics. Our initial expectation is that the centre of interest will be the classical world though we are not deeply interested in patrolling boundaries on this.

Material Culture and Ancient Religion: Suggestions from a Museum and University Collaboration


Material Culture and Ancient Religion: Suggestions from a Museum and University Collaboration

Dominic Dalglish (Oxford)

Wednesday October 16th, 2019; Room B05, Darwin Building, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, 5pm-6pm

One of the stated aims of the Empires of Faith project (2013-2018, British Museum & Oxford University) was to explore ways of better understanding religion through the study of material culture. In this session, Dominic Dalglish, one of the members of the project, will discuss the range of activities undertaken over five years including the Imagining the Divine exhibition (Oct. 2017 – Feb. 2018, Ashmolean Museum), the Talking Religion program for postgraduates, and their work with local religious communities through the photography exhibition, Those Who Follow (Nov. 2017 – May 2018).

Discussion themes will include:

  • Is ‘material religion’ a discipline? Is it relevant to the ancient world? Can we ‘teach’ it?
  • How do we use material objects and their associated images to think about religion when removed from archaeological contexts?
  • How do we teach the skills of analysis that allow students to do more than work with just the material in front of them?
  • How can collaborative approaches help to develop these skills?
  • What use can be made of presenting research to a public audience?
  • What is the value of considering modern responses to religious material culture for the study of ancient religion?

The room is on the basement floor and is accessible for wheelchair users via stairs and a lift. Information about accessing the venue is available here (opens in new window): Accessing UCL’s Darwin B05. If you will be using a wheelchair or have mobility questions by all means contact Jason in advance to look for you, and provide any assistance you might need.

All are welcome. Please send any inquiries to esther.eidinow@bristol.ac.uk, s.deacy@roehampton.ac.uk, or j.p.davies@ucl.ac.uk.


Ancient Deities in Bloomsbury: A Walking Tour

Thursday July 18, 2019, starting at 4.15pm. Please gather outside the Montague Place entrance of the British Museum. Led by Dr Tony Keen, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame (USA) in England.

The walk looks at the way mythological gods, goddesses and other figures are embedded in the architecture of the Bloomsbury area of London.

There is no charge for the tour, but please let us know if you plan to attend (to aid logistics). Bearing in mind the current inclement weather, we will send a message to the Classics Liverpool list at 2pm on Thursday July 18 to confirm that the walk will take place as well as tweeting (@tlarnetwork).

Visiting the Oracle: An Immersive Experience

One challenge in teaching ancient religion is that you need to evoke the kinds of experiences that are profoundly unfamiliar.

Esther Eidinow and a team of Bristol students have used 360-degree video to give their audience a sense of what it might have been like to consult an Ancient Greek oracle.

Visiting the Oracle: An Immersive Experience is intended as a teaching resource. It consists of four short films that re-enact historical oracular consultations at the ancient Greek oracle of Zeus and Dione, at Dodona in Epirus. The films can be viewed separately or as one, longer film (‘in one film‘).

This immersive version of oracular consultation is the beginning of a larger project: if you have feedback about these films or want to learn more about the project, please email esther.eidinow@bristol.ac.uk



Classical Myth as a Learning Opportunity for Autistic Children

The Hercules panel in Roehampton University's Adam RoomWhat would Hercules do? Turning classical myth into a learning opportunity for autistic children

Professor Susan Deacy (Department of Humanities, University of Roehampton)

Thursday 6 December, 1–2pm 2018, Adam Room, Grove House, Roehampton (Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Special and Inclusive Education – CIRSIE)

“Elitism runs deep in my discipline: classics. Yet classics is changing, including through the work of democratically-minded classicists who are to seeking to surmount the structural and historical factors that perpetuate classics as a subject that excludes particular groups. This paper will concern a project I have developed to bring classics to a particular public: autistic children.

I shall briefly introduce the rationale behind my project, which I began after a meeting in 2008 with a Special Needs teacher who told me that, in the experience of herself and her colleagues, autistic children engage especially well with learning about an aspect of the classical world, namely its myths. I began thinking that this might be the case, and, then, started to wonder how I could contribute as a classicist whose key interest is in classical myth. My academic life was transformed from this moment, leading, for instance to a role as a disability co-coordinator and a blogger: https://myth-autism.blogspot.com/. Indeed, my paper will include a brief recommendation of blogging: for immediate dissemination of research, for reaching a wider public, and for the opportunity to develop a more reflective voice to complement the traditional, results-focused, voice that dominates academic writing.

Above all, I shall discuss the first of three sets of activities that I have developed to encourage autistic children to negotiate issues that, challenging for any child, can be especially difficult for those with autism. These activities centre around Hercules, a figure who, I shall show, has particularly rich potential to engage autistic ways of thinking and being. The activities are part of a European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood: The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/ (2016-2021). As I shall set out, each activity is accompanied by educational goals which will help teachers decide which activity to use according to their goals and their students’ abilities. These are divided in relation to the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy of ‘cognitive,’ and ‘affective,’ goals, while a third part deals with the students’ social skills and how these are promoted through the activities.

I shall then share the outcome of a workshop, held autumn 2018, with specialists in autism research to seek expert feedback on the activities. When I come to market these resources more widely, the collaboration and endorsement of these professionals will be integral. I hope, too, that they will take up these resources for use in a therapeutic context. After this, I shall discuss a pilot study of the activities with pupils aged 5–11 in a specialist autistic unit in a London state primary school. I shall end by outlining my plans for further pilot studies. The Hercules activities I have developed are intended to be inclusive and thought-provoking – and fun. They offer an opportunity for autistic children to think about such matters as how to cope with new scenarios and change, and how to engage in decision-making. They also offer a gateway to classics for those whose access to shared aspects of culture can be particularly challenging”.

Approaches to Teaching Students with Anxiety: Meeting Report


September 13 2017, 10am-5pm, at the Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House, London room 349
Organised by Esther Eidinow and Susan Deacy

Supported by the Institute of Classical Studies; funded by the HEA (National Teaching Fellowship) and  CUCD Education Committee


This one-day event was set up in response to requests from the members of Teaching and Learning about Ancient Religions network. They identified it as an issue on which they would like help to enable them to support the needs of students. Increasing numbers of students are living with anxiety and anxiety-based depression, and those teaching them face a wide range of challenges in providing appropriate support. Religion is a key feature of many Classics/Ancient History programmes, and it can also generate a variety of specific concerns among students, exacerbating anxiety and mental health conditions.

We soon found that there was a broader audience for this topic, and the workshop developed accordingly. We invited speakers who taught at School-level, and who were teachers of different disciplines, including drama and history of art. We also advertised widely across the Liverpool List, reaching out to teachers of other areas of Classics, as well as asking colleagues to spread the word across disciplines within their institutions. We were grateful that people responded in the same spirit, and, as a result, the participants in the workshop came from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including neuroscience and history as well as Classics and Ancient History, and comprised not only HE professionals but also secondary school teachers and school governors.

The Presentations

The presentations at the workshop offered individual case studies as well as more general investigations of the educational environment.

1. Narrative, Fantasy and Latin: A Teenager Talks about His Worlds.

Steve Hunt (Cambridge)

Steve began the day with an inspiring case study focused on his experience of teaching Latin to a student with mild Aspergers, as part of a small class of students who had chosen to take the language as an extra subject, taught via fortnightly classes. Steve identified a gap in the literature on supporting autistic students and other disabled students, namely a discussion of what students themselves experience. He reported on how, through talking about the stories in the textbook (the Cambridge Latin Course), the student was enabled to explore his own feelings, something that he otherwise found it hard to do. Steve brought out the role that stories play in language teaching and its potential for enabling students, with and without mental health issues, to learn about the lives of others.

A summary of Steve’s presentation is also available.

2. Supporting Postgraduate Students with Mental Health Conditions: The Role of Supportive Supervision

Chrysanthi Gallou (Nottingham)

Chrysanthi began her presentation with an account of her own experiences supervising a student with mental health issues. She expanded this with a presentation of the survey that this had prompted her to carry out into the experiences of supervising PGR students with mental health issues. This was conducted as her PGCHE project: it collected data from among staff in the seven departments of the School of Humanities at the University of Nottingham. In this paper, she used this research to explore the needs of research students with mental health conditions,  examining how these conditions may affect their ability to engage with their research. She went on to offer some initial answers to the question of how research supervisors can support these students more efficiently, and make the supervision process more effective and engaging.

3. Temples, Classrooms and C-PTSD

Emma Griffiths (Manchester)

Emma drew on personal experiences to explain how students’ anxiety can evolve into a form of ‘Complex PTSD’, where the experience of being in a learning environment triggers further anxiety and hence impedes learning. With a series of vivid images, she demonstrated the effects of this disorder, revealing how it distorts perceptions of people and places. Drawing in insights from the study of religion, she went on to show how, by thinking about how we define spaces as ‘sacred’, ‘formal’, etc., teachers can make simple changes to their teaching practice. These can support not only students with anxiety disorders, but also all students to feel more relaxed and focussed.

4. Thinking about Assessment: Formative Assessments and Anxiety: Essay Plans and Presentations

Gaby Neher (Nottingham)

One of the ways in which anxiety can impact on a student’s engagement with a course of study is through a drop off in attendance, particularly towards a course deadline. As Gaby explained, the ensuing vicious cycle of anxiety impacting on attendance, creating poor performance, leading to poor performance impacting on a student’s ability to engage with an assessment is well known and difficult to manage. Extensions for pieces of work often just shift the problem, rather than resolving it. Formative, scaffolded assessment may be one way to address some of these issues, and in this talk Gaby explored two case studies focussing on formative and summative assessment of both essay plans, and presentations.

5. MA Students: Mental Health and Magic

Jane Draycott (Glasgow)

Jane brought us back to ancient religions and magic by discussing the development and implementation of a module on Women, Witches and Witchcraft, which she convened at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David for the Classics department’s postgraduate courses. She described how the module originated (the requirements of the institution, rather than her own research interests), and the approach she took, bearing in mind the cohort and the students’ needs.

The text of Jane’s presentation is also available.


Emerging Themes

During the day, the discussions highlighted the following ideas:

  • The level and nature of support that teachers are expected to be able to provide to students with mental health issues: participants often observed the contrast in the approach taken to physical and mental health at universities. Specifically, whereas teachers are not expected to offer guidance/advice or support to students about their physical health, they are often expected to support students suffering from mental health issues. This is made worse by a lack of adequate resourcing for counselling services within institutions.
  • Lack of institutional support in times of crisis: Colleagues from different institutions stated that they had felt particularly unsupported by their institutions in times of crisis, for example, when students who suffered mental health issues blamed the lecturer for their own lack of progress. They observed that the structures for dealing with such complaints were not even-handed: for example, the student was not required to provide evidence to support their complaint, while the staff were required to gather evidence to show that this was not the case.
  • The lack of discussion around or support for the mental health of staff: there is a notable lack of provision of support for staff who are supporting students. It was observed that providing such support is stressful in itself; moreover, the experience may exacerbate existing mental health issues for staff.
  • The gendered nature of support for students with mental health issues: anecdotal evidence suggests that the provision of support for students with mental health issues falls largely on female members of staff. This can be a very time-consuming and emotionally draining process, which is difficult to record in official workload, and so tends to go unrecognised.



The workshop was intended to provide a space for shared reflection on the pedagogical issues raised by teaching students with anxiety. We aimed to offer participants a safe space within which to raise problems that they had encountered and discuss possible approaches that they had tried—with more or less success. This was very much ‘a toe in the water’, intended to raise awareness, build a network across institutions and encourage related initiatives. We are pleased that a number of ideas were raised by participants for taking particular themes and topics further, including a survey among Classics staff investigating experiences of mental health issues during their supervision of PGR students; and a workshop that would bring school and university teachers together to examine the challenges of teaching ancient religions.

Feedback from those present, via an anonymous survey sent a couple of days after the event was mostly very positive, though one respondent noted something that it will be important to address, especially if we continue conversations between HE and school teachers:

  • ‘It was very focussed on academic level and not so much on the teaching younger people. Academia and school education are two different fields and should be treated differently.’

Other comments included:

  • ‘The speakers were all very competent and talked about relevant topics.’
  • ‘I liked the different student cases and how teachers dealt with them.’
  • ‘The diverse topics covered; the vivid discussion after each paper.’
  • ‘This was an excellent and eye-opening event. Definitely worth attending more of this kind.’
  • ‘It was really helpful to be able to discuss the challenges students face in learning situations specific to our subjects. Student anxiety is a real concern and many of the established teaching methods we have (eg for language teaching) are tricky to use with mixed ability groups, or are framed in a way that student don’t find inclusive. Hearing about innovative practice and the things that worked was very helpful & made me feel more confident about teaching my new module this year.’







Personal Belief and Teaching Ancient Religions: from minefield to pedagogical tool

  • Room 243, Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House, London
  • May 3rd 2017, 5.30-7pm

Ailsa Hunt agm46@cam.ac.uk

Religion (along with sex and politics) is proverbially banned from the dining room, but what about the lecture room, class room or seminar room? Few teachers, I suggest, would feel confident about bringing their sexuality or political leanings into discussion, say, of a passage of Aristophanes, even if they did deem such a perspective useful. Personal religious beliefs are probably even less appealing, a minefield to be avoided at all costs in the name of impartiality. And it is easy to see how reluctance to talk about our own religious position could spill over into our pedagogical practice, resulting in students who feel that their beliefs are to be left at the door of the class room and reclaimed on the way out.

But is it reasonable, beneficial, or even possible to talk about ancient religions, whilst pretending that modern religions don’t exist? If you identify as Hindu or Catholic or agnostic, should you try to ‘dissasociate’ from your religious identity when teaching or learning about ancient religions? This presentation argues ‘no’, and does so by exploring pedagogically valuable ways of introducing the religious beliefs of teachers and students into the learning environment. I show how this can both kickstart and deepen students’ engagement with ancient religions, providing intellectual routes in, as well as intellectual blocks and challenges which are themselves informative. At the same time, I do not wish to diminish the difficulty of introducing personal belief into the class room: this is a minefield, but not one to be avoided at all costs. Thus my discussion focuses on appropriately bounded and sensitive ways that personal belief can be given not just a place in the class room, but a positive role to play within the learning dynamic.

Ailsa Hunt


Introduction. Short Description of the Lesson (Summary of the Last Part of the Talk)

(This post is a reflection by Elena on the session she gave for us. You’ll find that immediately below).

If we imagine a teacher preparing a series of classes on the religion of the ancient Greeks, we can easily forecast the problems that he or she will have to deal with. And I am not talking about the philological, historical rigour required, or about the choice of texts to use – although that’s all very demanding as well.

I am talking about the effort which every Classics teacher makes to predict and prepare for the educational needs of their students, to imagine and anticipate, right from the planning stage, their doubts and questions, interests, yes, even the bait which we need to use to lure them through the complex labyrinth of Classical studies. In the final analysis, after having carefully examined everything which has to be studied, we can’t escape the need to make the Classics more appealing, and to do this without compromising the rigour of the discipline.

With this in mind, and remembering the last points that have just been made (about how to make the Classics more appealing), a good choice of topic might be initiation rituals – the very phrase evokes exotic, intriguing, images and scenes.

However, it’s just these images and scenes that make the teaching challenge even greater: the theme of initiation rituals brings up many of the difficulties inherent in teaching ancient religions:

  • Difficulties of definition: what are initiation rituals? What did the Greeks themselves call them, was there an emic term? How do we now define them in modernity, and why do we define them as we do?
  • Textual difficulties: what are the sources on initiation rites? Do they date from the period in which the rites were practised (or at least close to that period)? Or are they much later?
  • Difficulties linked to the scarcity of sources: how can we reconstruct rituals, when the textual sources are few and far between? Or when the sources are very late and are describing archaic rituals? Do we turn to comparative methods?
  • And here is another problem which has to be tackled with regard to the ancient religions: should we use comparative tools? And if we should, with the initiation rites of which religions should those of the ancient Greeks be compared? With which methodological tools? Should comparisons be diachronic or synchronic? Or should we just not make them?

These are some of the problems that the teacher has in mind when he or she walks into the classroom and starts to teach ancient religions, very possibly to students who have been drawn to the class by their fascination with the idea of initiation.

This fascination is somehow connected with the so-called “vogue for initiation” that fascinated scholars until into the 1990s. In spite of the fact the we have no clear and indisputable proof of the existence of tribal male initiation rituals in Ancient Greece, scholars tried to apply Van Gennep’s pattern to many religious rituals and cults. Their work shed important light on the real initiatic phenomen of Ancient Greece: an initiatic way of thinking the world. Combining the inheritance of The Black Hunter, Buxton, and Graf’s later work, and – more indirectly – that of Propp, the extent to which initiation rites function predominantly at the mental level is becoming increasingly evident: at the level of a paradigm which permeates the very structure of the stories told in connection with certain myths and rituals, which are somehow patterned in terms of initiatory activities. It’s as if the people telling the story – it’s as if our sources – thought in initiatory terms, and gave an initiatory (even tripartite) structure to the events which they were describing. And so we read about heroes who move away from their communities and then, after undergoing certain trials, return transformed, bearers of civilization; or of rites which involve young men leaving, and subsequently being reintegrated into, their community; of ritual combat which, if one survives, sanctioned entry to a particular group or society; of celebrations with tripartite structures to symbolize the renewing of the community: the Hyacinthia in Sparta, for instance, or the Anthesteria. And doesn’t the story of Dionysus seem rather initiatory? And that of Achilles? Not to mention the Argives, who used to cut off their hair when they’d been defeated. I could go on forever, or at least until the point at which we have to ask ourselves: but – if we see initiations everywhere we look, is it not possible that we are seeing reality through an initiatory filter?

This last question is very challenging. Even more challenging, however, is the following question: how can we explain all this to our students? I tried to do it this year in the context of my Ancient Greek History source by applying the flipped classroom methodology and the cooperative learning.

First I introduced the problem of initiation rites in ancient Greece, using the traditional, frontal, method; then I gave them a task on a text or context of their choosing: to find a story or a context, of any kind, which they thought could be described in terms of initiation; third I corrected the task and gave them individual feedback, sharing the most important comments with the whole class; finally I gave them some chapters from The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians by Xenophon (2-4) and Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus (16-18) in class. After 20 minutes, I divided the class into groups of 4 and invited them to compare their work and prepare a synthesis of it. There was a total of about 15 groups. I managed to apply the cooperative learning approach by dividing them in groups: they had to cooperate in order to co-construct a body of knowledge, from a perspective of knowledge sharing and in a context of peer-to-peer activity.

In the last 30 minutes of the lesson I invited them to help me fill in a chart showing the – supposedly – initiatory elements. I drew this chart in a post on Edmodo and filled in the elements so that the students could follow the completion of the chart on the slide projector. The students from the different groups raised their hands up and conveyed the remarks of their group in order to share the acquired knowledge with their peers- and with me.

In the final debate we tried to challenge the initiatory interpretation of the agoge by speculating one or more initiatory filters. The results were amazing.


At the end of the module, I asked the students for eedback, which they  gave anonymously.  The questions were:

  1. How did you feel during the group work?
  2. (if applicable) Did you find it difficult to work with people whom you didn’t know well?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 5, how well do you feel you now understand the problem of the initiatory pattern in the study of the religions of Ancient Greece?

Here’s the feedback, divided into two columns: the basically positive and the more negative. The last two are very pertinent (and interesting), and so I’ve put them in the centre.

 Most positive

Least positive

Well, I think this approach should be used more often.

It’s a stimulating approach, but too time consuming.

Well, having to find an initiation story autonomously has made me understand the term “initiatory paradigm”.

It’s a useful approach, but tiring for us students.

Well, I thought I hadn’t understood but then, explaining to the group what I had understood, I realised that in fact it was more than I’d thought!

Shy people are more at ease in frontal lessons.

Working in a group, I perceived aspects of the problem that otherwise I’d have ignored.

I prefer frontal lessons for learning stuff. For learning methods,
though, group work and the inverted classroom.

Working in a group made me analyze the texts in greater depth.

In the group I had to waste time teaching people who knew less than me.

Seeing that the others had the same problems as me in the individual work made me feel more confident.

I don’t like group work because individual responsibility is lost.

I’ve been able to relate to people who have different ideas and feelings and knowledge to me.

It’s more important to work on stuff alone. 

It was easier to share my doubts with the group than to ask the teacher about them.

It was an experience that allowed me to clear up doubts and uncertainties about some things that I might not have realised I had if we hadn’t done the “fieldwork”

I really felt I was being a researcher, and it was a good feeling!

I enjoyed working on a text, and being able to apply the method I’d learnt.

It was difficult to throw myself into it. But without challenges we don’t get anywhere.

I think whether or not frontal lessons or flipped classes combined with cooperative learning work depends on the topic being studied. If I don’t know anything about a subject, I prefer frontal lessons, but if I do have a basic knowledge I prefer preparing at home first and then group work in class. 

For bibliography see E. Franchi, “Guerra e iniziazioni a Sparta e a Yulami:
il miraggio spartano nell’antropologia oceanistica”, in I quaderni del
d’oro on-line, n.3, 2010, pp. 193-227 and E. Franchi, “Destini di
un paradigma: il rito iniziatico tra antropologia e scienze dell’antichità”,
Mythos 5, 2011, pp. 175-90.