Michael A Williams
Offered occasionally by visitors or resident faculty. Course content varies.
What relationships exist between myths about the origins and nature of the cosmos and social behavior or lifestyle? This seminar will focus on this question with particular regard to cosmological myths that are often considered more “dualistic,” or that imagine the cosmos to be the product of, and under the control or influence of, forces other than the highest “god” or most sublime level of reality. Historical examples include certain ancient philosophical traditions; select instances of heterodox early Christian speculation (e.g., texts from the Nag Hammadi Coptic library; the North African writer Arnobius of Sicca); Hermetic literature (e.g., the Poimandres); Manichaean, Mandaean and Islamic mystical texts; and Byzantine and medieval Christian heterodox traditions such as the Paulicians, Bogomils, and “Cathars.” Fascination with most of these traditions stems from their association with esoteric or “heretical” teachings. They have evoked a very large bibliography of research, with the majority devoted to philologically oriented studies on recovered sources (editions, translations); description and comparison of deviant mythologies; theories about their origins and interconnections; and reconstructing the history of the theological conflicts surrounding them. There has also been significant interest in the impact of these traditions on social and political history, again primarily in terms of the historical significance and consequences of socio-political conflicts between “orthodox” and “heretical” factions. What has not received sufficiently careful study is the question of what differences, if any, such heterodox cosmologies actually make in day-to-day social behavior. It is true that attempts have been made to construct generalizing sociological typologies about the alleged affinities of certain “world-denying” myths with patterns of social deviance or “radical” behavior—e.g., various types of asceticism (rejection of marriage or sexuality; dietary deviance). However, it has been recognized for some time that such patterns are not found universally among the movements in question, and in fact, there seems to be quite a diversity of lifestyles attested among them.
Student learning goals
General method of instruction
The work of the seminar will begin with the close reading, analysis, and comparison of a few selected cosmological myths from philosophical and religious traditions ranging from Mediterranean antiquity to the modern Middle East (e.g., the modern Mandaeans). Because these traditions include texts in a variety of languages, all of which will not be controlled by seminar members, we will use English translations of selected texts to provide a basis for common discussion in the seminar.
The specific content of material treated in these case studies will be tailored to the interests and strengths of enrolled graduate students. Options may include traditions from Asian cultures, Native American myth, or others.
There is an expectation that students in the seminar will be working with at least one example in its original language, if possible.
Class assignments and grading
We will apportion to individual seminar members some specialized responsibilities for various texts or authors that are of relevance for the seminar’s topic. In the last sessions of the seminar, each student will develop and present a research paper on a case study of the student’s choice.