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.


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