Teaching history of religion by comparing different religions: initiation rituals as a case study (Elena Franchi, University of Trento)

Senate House, Room 246 5.30 November 2, 2016

Elena Franchi (University of Trento- Department of Humanities: elena.franchi@unitn.it)

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In previous centuries religious phenomena – rituals, for example – tended very often to be explained through comparisons with similar rituals in another culture, regardless of the temporal and spatial distance between the different historical contexts.

This approach allowed scholars to understand some, but not all, aspects of the rituals concerned; however, comparisons were sometimes off-target and led to creative cultural misunderstandings (White 2006): this was exactly what happened in the case of the initiation rituals of boys in Ancient Greece (Graf 2003).

In fact, ancient Greek boyhood initiation rituals were constructed by comparing them with modern initiation rituals. These comparisons were, however, misleading. Indeed, civic rituals performed in Ancient Greece were described as initiation rituals stricto sensu by classicists adopting a widespread ethnographical paradigm (Franchi 2010).

The aim of my talk is to show how to teach initiation rituals in Ancient Greece by exploring, with our students: a) the similarities and differences between Greek and other initiation rituals; and b) the pitfalls of comparativism in connection with the paradigm of initiation rituals.

The talk will therefore address the following points:

  • the question of the initiation rituals of boys in Ancient Greece
  • the use and abuse of comparativism in studying Ancient Greece
  • how to teach the initiation rituals of boys in Ancient Greece by:
  1. reading translated documents about these rituals in Ancient Greece ( e.g. Xenophon; Plutarch)
  2. reading descriptions by classicists of these rituals in Ancient Greece (e.g. Jeanmaire 1939)
  3. reading translated documents about these rituals as they were described by 19th Century ethnographers (e.g. Herdt 1999)
  4. comparing the content of these documents and inferring creative misunderstandings
  • how to use the inverted classroom methodology (Baumgartner-Fraefel 2014) in teaching points 1, 2 and 3 and the cooperative learning methodology (Terwel-Gillies-van den Eeden-Hoek 2001) for point 4″.


S. Baumgartner, J. Fraefel, “Mobile Sprachräume. Mobile Unterrichtsszenarien in einem Forschungs- und Entwicklungsprojekt der Pädagogischen Hochschule Zürich”, in K. Rummler [ed.], Lernräume gestalten – Bildungskontexte vielfältig denken, Münster 2014, 213-218.

F. Graf, “Initiation: A Concept with a Troubled History”, in C. Faraone-D.B. Dodds, Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narratives: New Critical Perspectives, London-New York 2003, 3–24.

E. Franchi, “Guerra e iniziazioni a Sparta e Yulami: il miraggio spartano nell’antropologia oceanistica”, I Quaderni del Ramo d’Oro on-line, 3 (2010), 193-227.

G.H. Herdt, Sambia Sexual Culture, Chicago 1999.

H. Jeanmaire, Couroi et Courètes, Lille 1939.

J. Terwel, R. M. Gillies, P. van den Eeden, D. Hoek, “Co-operative learning processes of students: A longitudinal multilevel perspective”, British Journal of Educational Psychology (2001), 71, 619-645.

R. White, Creative Misunderstandings and New Understanding, The William and Mary Quarterly, s. 3, 63 (2006), issue 1, 9-14.


With thanks to the Institute of Classical Studies for their hosting us.


Threshold Concepts and Teaching Ancient Religion: a Trifold Approach#2 (Jason Davies, UCL)


6TH BIENNIAL THRESHOLD CONCEPTS CONFERENCE: Thresholds on the Edge…June 15-17, 2016 at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada

Having given a talk to ancient historians about using threshold concepts in September 2015 for this Teaching and Learning Ancient Religion Network, I then gave a talk about ancient religion to threshold concept afficianados at the biennial Threshold Concepts conference at Dalhousie University in June 2016. Both proved a bit ambitious in the sense that we could only begin to touch in the tricky aspects of each, but it was a start. This is written for this blog (ie ancient religionists) but I might redescribe it elsewhere for that audience. This particular piece has ended up being much more of a thought experiment than a report, but that’s being reflective for you…

The threshold concepts community is eclectic, a motley crew of many but not all academic disciplines, sharing a common interest in a useful heuristic tool (described in the first link above, but see also Mick Flanagan’s painstakingly maintained overview and bibliography). As I explained at Dalhousie conference, threshold concepts, as a pedagogic heuristic, seem to me to be particularly well suited to teaching ancient religion, given how teaching ancient religion requires the re-appreciation of existing materials (eg myth) without displacing the existing understanding: we don’t seek to overwrite the understanding of (eg) Ovid as literature and political commentary when thinking about the plentiful religious aspects of his writing, but to see it from a distinct perspective.

Some background

What is this idea, in a nutshell?

I’m suggesting that students start learning about ancient religion by first exploring, in a tangible way, some of the underlying ideas before they start tackling the ancient material. There are three stages:

  • Framing: introduction of a key transformative idea (threshold concept);
  • Struggle and experimentation;
  • Integration and application.

The ancient material really starts to feature only in the third phase. Generally we have been doing it the other way round, presenting students with material and warning them it might not make sense to start with. Gradually they start to identify ways of getting to grips with it but it can be hit-and-miss; more importantly they can be very unsure of whether they have understood. This also has a tendency to lock their understanding down to the ancient world when they are also learning some much broader and interesting conceptual stuff.

What are Threshold Concepts?

There is a brief outline in the preceding blog post.

Threshold Concepts and the Humanities

There is much discussion and some hand-wringing in that community about the humanities having rather a lot of potential threshold concepts, and it therefore being difficult to identify ‘key’ or ‘important’ ones. I can cheerfully reveal that not only are there an awful lot, but that there is actually very little else.

Scientists might confidently, and more or less successfully, ‘isolate’ patterns of relevance that are empirically repeatable, and then detect strange and wonderful insights amidst that material. However in (eg) History, the entire practice is discursive judgements: to study history is to make history and there is no more than the practice of it: that is why we don’t call it science.

So the material is not going to help dictate which threshold concept you work with in ancient religion, and since they generally implicate one another, it may be that it is not critical to find ‘the most important one’ though some are more amenable to the approach outlined here than others.

Why ancient religion and threshold concepts are a particularly good fit

One of the key issues with ancient religion is that people generally arrive already thinking they know what religion ‘is’ and a major task is to create enough space in their thinking to see that ancient religion is (probably) an (almost) entirely different creature from their assumed model. So if students begin to grasp it, it must be transformative (italics here indicate my running through the checklist of likely threshold concept features). Given how visceral many people’s position on religion is nowadays, especially with the hardening of atheist position, there are likely to be some troublesome aspects.

The second thing that has to be got across is that ‘religious material’ is potentially anything we know about the ancient world. The gods are potentially implicit in any account or omission, any action or inaction.

Thirdly, ‘religion’ tends to come in a single module in the latter part of a relevant degree (and students from another degree course entirely might be doing it): therefore it must be integrative and reconstitutive. There is more: understanding religion should not displace the understanding gained in other modules. Myth is still public literature, still enmeshed in power relations, statecraft and professional rivalry: seeing it as religious is a distinctive aspect, do the understanding must remain bounded.

Because it is not possible to cover every possible piece of evidence, we must try to get the appropriate historical gaze across to students so that they will be able to tackle new material in a distinctively religious way: as such it needs to be irreversible: there are findings across the disciplines that show that even if students can use sophisticated analysis in familiar contexts, it is not uncommon for them to revert to unproblematised assumptions when facing new material or situations. We want them to be able to recognise when they can usefully bring a religious perspective to bear. (I should probably clarify at this point that phrases like ‘religious perspective’ do not mean ‘interpreted according to religious ideas’ but rather ‘responsibly and historically interpreted as religiously significant in that context’). Thus it also invokes Meyer’s and Land’s take on liminality which (departing rather from anthropological ideas of initiation) involves crossing and re-crossing the threshold of understanding: it can be messy really mastering a threshold concept.

All of this is quite tricky to keep track of in one module. With this many considerations, it is difficult to design a curriculum that keeps these at the centre. There is also (let’s not forget) quite a lot of material we want them to become familiar with.

Why a structured approach to using Threshold Concepts?

The rationale behind formulating a structured way of using threshold concepts is that it emphasises the way threshold concepts describe learning
as a process which, like the initiation model that indirectly underpins it, has a distinct beginning, middle and end. One reason is therefore simply that we may as well organise ourselves explicitly and openly according to our method.

But the second reason is to permit and encourage teachers to take the lid off and find an approach and curriculum that not only works for them but also throws it open to students playing to their strengths or picking up possibilities that intrigue them and which they can see a relevance in. If you structure it right, you can give them room to fail, be eccentric, bring things to your world you had never heard of and most importantly, work something out by thinking it through in new ways (there’s a nod here to the anthropologist Timothy Ingold and Lego Serious Play which, if done well, can be surprisingly profound).

This expansiveness grounded in the students’ own world is what educational strategies like UCL’s Connected Curriculum set out to promote (judging from the general interest, this is coming from my university to yours in the near future).

To put it another way, can we find a a way to stretch their understanding in a way that is closer to serious play than frivolous work? The trifold approach I’m suggesting is obvious to anyone who is familiar with initiation as framed by van Gennep, so obvious it took me years to see it. Threshold concepts is the ideal launchpad for teaching and learning as initiation (not like initiation but as initiation).

Since the audience in this second talk was familiar with threshold concepts already, the trick was to tell them enough about ancient religion to understand how my suggested ‘trifold approach’ might work. I suspect all I did was baffle many of them. I originally intended to paraphrase the session as a report below but what emerged was a fuller piece thinking through some of the things there was not time for, so it’s more of a commentary and supplement.

A trifold approach

My proposed method was the same as presented in September but presented differently as it involved explaining just enough about ancient religion to get us started.

1. Framing: presenting a threshold concept in the abstract

In van Gennep’s scheme, this would be the initial separation of the initiands from the familiar. The task here is to re-present the world as unfamiliar, loosen the already-always understanding that they have. By ‘framing’ I mean choosing a threshold concept to work with and frame the material when we get to it. Other fields have taken a similar approach, explicitly foregrounding the threshold concept.

In very simple terms this means that the module opens with an explanation of what’s going on: before we address the ancient material, or what ‘religion’ was in the ancient world, we are going to explore ‘transcendsnce’ (or ‘ritual’, ‘belief’, ‘pilgrimage’ etc). Thinking in terms of curriculum planning, this session would involve setting people up to go off and ponder. Remembering that absolutely the hardest thing in teaching is explaining an activity that is perfectly clear to whoever devised it, this will probably take up the whole session.

What are you asking them to do? To find examples or explorations of the nominated concept and return able to articulate something about it. Here are some suggestions:

Let’s say you nominated pilgrimage. As will become clear, this is more accessible than many others.

Possible ways to explore this:
– research actual pilgrimages, preferably to familiar landmarks and find out where people came from. Get ethnographic accounts or travel diaries.
– design a pilgrimage from their home to the next teaching session
– redescribe a recent holiday as a pilgrimage
– create an artefact representing pilgrimage.

The point is that they should immerse themselves in the experience somehow, get inside it, taste it. If they hate it, they can say what they hate about it (possibly more revealing than enjoying it). Of course they have to work out what is the difference between being a tourist, an immigrant and a native.

Or you might nominate ritual. You will need to prime them not to be entirely negative (the default in our society). Ritual as structured and automated decisions and declarations are everywhere. Rappaport’s idea of ritual as ‘digital versions of analog processes’ might be a useful reference point here. Why do we vote every few years? Why are you legally an adult the minute you reach 18? Why does the Queen become absolute ruler of the country for a few moments between Prime Ministers?

They could:

  • go to a ritual (politely) and observe what goes on and their reactions
  • keep a diary of things that might usefully be ritualised (rotas for washing up, anyone?)
  • identify all the apparently arbitrary moments that their lives are structured for them (Timetables? Opening hours of shops?)
  • design a day in their lives as ritualistic and live it at least once, noting their experience: set mealtimes, eating in silence — things like that.

And of course you would run the following teaching session as a ritual.

One more example: if it is ‘transcendence’ then they might be prompted to think about:

  • electricity
  • light
  • matter
  • silence
  • (potential for) life

Then send them out to struggle with the concept, not to master it, solve it, answer it or anything like that: explicitly to struggle, to find what doesn’t make sense, to experience it without understanding it, and to come back ready to articulate that somehow.

2. Struggle: getting one’s head inside the abstract threshold concept

This phase is conducted outside the classroom. It consists of following the kinds of cues suggested in the framing but very much with their being able to devise their own version of the activity.

Calling this phase ‘struggle’ is very deliberate: it will not come easy (if it does, little is being learned). Send the students out into the world (or do an activity) that has them think hard, and problematically, about the nominated concept, and generate materials of some kind to show and discuss with the rest of the group.

This is where all sorts of interesting possibilities (and ‘failures’) arise. The important bit is that they create something (or, not as good, come across an artefact) and then get a chance to articulate what transcendence is in relation to that.

So this might occur in two parts: the identification or creation of an artefact, and a commentary on it. In fact, what we might hope for is something where it is difficult to articulate everything the student has seen. Someone might look at a blank piece of paper and be inspired by the idea that it implies an infinity of ideas. Should they wish to run with that, you might suggest finding a range of papers, from cheap A4 to vellum and or virtual spaces, and consider how that material ineluctably implies a certain kind of writing or representation — your cue for considering inscriptions as a genre…) Someone else might try to build something out of Lego that implies transcendence yet locatedness (cue prayer, statues and temples). Another might make a short movie of abstract shapes (cue finding of meaning in shapes and phenomona — dreams? divination? After all Artemidorus mentions divination by cheese-making….).

This phase requires the teacher to be responsive in various ways to guide and prompt; at this stage they don’t know that much about ancient religion, after all. You might give them short group meetings to discuss ideas and quick responses shortly after setting the task.

I’m not suggesting anything incredibly elaborate: this is something to get them started thinking without getting stuck in ideas about religion as religion. I’ll run with ‘transcendence’ in the examples below.

3. Integration: bringing it to bear

The exact form you might want to give this will vary: you might have a series of ‘show and tell’ activities; you might create a VLE activity where they show the artefact and do a short commentary, either audio/video or written. Then they have to familiarise themselves with at least (eg) five contributions and come to a seminar able to discuss it briefly.

The critical bit will be that they need to articulate something about the artefact in relation to the threshold concept: that’s where the learning will be. I would suggest setting some kind of minimum compliance level that is compulsory but not assessing this work summatively.

So at this point you will students in a variety of positions: some will have really seized on something, preferably beyond their ability to articulate it fully; others will perhaps be feeling very stumped and in the worst-case scenario, be in danger of withdrawing psychologically. You can head some of that off by stressing that the ‘normal’ teaching will follow (we are perhaps 2-3 weeks into a 10 week module here). Some will not see the relevance, and so on.

However, as you then present the material in a more conventional way, you can ongoingly integrate it with aspects of the threshold concept that came out in the early phase. Translations could be provided that bring out (or play down) aspects of transcendence, for instance. In a sense this phase lasts for the vast majority of the module (though I can imagine repeating the threefold cycle in the second half).

To prevent students getting stuck on there being only one important threshold concept, you can bring the structure of threshold concepts themselves to the fore, so that you can introduce further ones as the course progresses. As they get to grips with using them, you will be able to signpost difficult ideas, or indicate there is more to them than might initially be apparent: ‘we should probably treat that as a threshold concept’. Hanging signs saying ‘tricky — expect to struggle to get your head around this’ can shape their expectations appropriately.

An outline curriculum

Below is a suggestion for what a curriculum might look like, to ground the previous discussion.

Curriculum 1: Religion in the Graeco-Roman world

Let’s have a general ten-session course on the traditional classical world, based on transcendence as our starting threshold concept.

1. Introduction (framing): ‘transcendence’, threshold concepts and ancient religion

Introducing the notion of threshold concepts briefly, and outlining transcendence as a relevant theme. Ancient religion can initially be framed as a set of interesting and difficult questions about a wide range of material.

A few examples (glimpses) eg temples, prayers, moments in literature, role of religion in political life in one or two examples (preferably slightly contrasting)

Task set: create an artefact and start a commentary on transcendence.

2. (Struggle)

Have some interim ‘am I doing this right?’ presentations or seminar discussions about transcendence and where they are going: students present something or discuss something. Depending on numbers this might be in groups, with PGTAs and so on.

3. (Integration)

Now the group brings out all kinds of issues around transcendence; some might have a model temple (virtual or actual); some have written a prayer explaining to a deity why they cannot get to the temple but asking for help regardless; some found out about electricity, complete with a diagram about how batteries work; another with an Escher-like model to represent infinity in a physical or notional form. Some kind of general discussion can draw things out and link them together. It’s a sort of solo-yet-group effort to get to grips with it all.

4. Politics and Religion

Now we have more traditional presentation of issues: different states with different arrangements with their gods. We think here about the role of the gods in public institutional life.

What was going on when Athens built the Parthenon? Why did Roman generals vow temples in battle (or more interestingly, why didn’t they, sometimes?) Temples and statues can be brought in steadily with a circling around transcendence. You might also bring in something on divination here, and the relationship between military (or local) advisors and those back home.

You might organise chronologically or more thematically.

5. ‘Private religion’

Was there any? What does it mean if there was? Henotheism; monotheism. Perhaps philosophers in this session. Vows, pilgrimage and so on. Seems a good moment to start worrying in earnest about ‘belief’ as a possible threshold concept.

6. Oracles and divination

Also luck, fortune, destiny and so on. More importantly, can we integrate this kind of stuff into ‘real’ lives? How transcendent was it? What was being transcended? And what can we appropriately call ‘beliefs’.

7. Religious alternatives

Assuming the course is anchored in a pagan perspective, what other religious ideas were present in antiquity, and how did they affect traditional religion? Obviously Christianity has to feature at some point but this would also include alternative ways of living and organising (eg the Bacchanalia of 186 BCE), Judaism, Manichees, cult of Theos Hypsistos and so on.

8. Religious transformation

Imperial cult might get closer scrutiny here than before, and again, Christianity but this time as the new imperial religious mode, after Constantine. You might direct special attention to the threshold concepts you’ve been working with: what was distinctive about Christianity in terms of transcendence and beliefs? That could be a springboard for drawing in other aspects: don’t get locked into the threshold concept you started with.

9. The religion of everyday life

As part of the tying-up of the course, this session could be two or three snapshots at different times and in different places, perhaps working with inscriptions and archaeological records, showing how religion permeated life in the ancient world.

10. What sort of religion?

The final session could be a review: by now, we would hope that the students had used the threshold concepts as a ladder or trellis and gone past them. This could be a chance to bring in a new element that acts as a capstone or new element (to drive home that our enquiry is never complete), or to look beyond the module to wider issues, such as the organisation of cognitive life by institutional strictures. Or it might be a deconstruction of secularism.

This kind of curriculum might seem light on material compared to the information-rich (or -dense) ones that we are accustomed to but the explicit focus on modes of understanding forces that material to be ancillary to the understanding rather than constitutive of it. Learning (about) ancient religion needs to be more than just cramming material in though: it is deeply hermeneutic and constructed.