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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Michael A Williams
Seattle Campus

Special Topics

Offered occasionally by visitors or resident faculty. Course content varies.

Class description

"Heterodox Cosmologies and Social Behavior" Instructor: Prof. Michael Williams [contact instructor for information about seminar Web site]

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. Examples that will be treated include select instances of heterodox early Christian speculation (e.g., texts from the Nag Hammadi Coptic library); Manichaean traditions, from late Roman Empire to its spread across Asia to China; Byzantine movements such as the Paulicians and Bogomils; and medieval Christian heterodox traditions such as the Cathars in France and Italy. Depending on student interest and expertise, we will adjust/expand case studies to include Platonic/Middle Platonic/Neopythagorean philosophical traditions and/or late antique Hermetic literature; or possibly certain Islamic heterodox movements. 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, 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. The relation of cosmology to day-to-day social behavior will be our focus.

Textbooks ordered for the bookstore mostly involve primary sources in translation:


Gardner, Iain, and Samuel N. C. Lieu, eds. Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Hamilton, Janet, Bernard Hamilton and Yuri Stoyanov, eds. Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World C.650-C.1450: Selected Sources (Manchester Medieval Sources Series) (New York and Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998) [now out of print; selections will be placed on Web site]

Wakefield, Walter L., and Austin P. Evans, eds. Heresies of the High Middle Ages: Selected Sources Translated and Annotated. Edinburgh U. Press, 1991.


Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Stoyanov, Yuri, The Other God: Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy (New haven: Yale University Press.

(NOTE: Not ordered for the bookstore, but available remarkably cheaply from Amazon is Hans Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road Presently there are several used copies listed there for about $6 plus shipping. This book is of significant interest for this seminar because it includes translations of Manichaean texts from Central and East Asia.)

Additional readings in primary and secondary works will be may available online, and in books on reserve.

Students with further questions at this point are encouraged to contact the instructor directly:

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Seminar discussion, with students expected to engage in extensive reading/preparation in advance of seminar meetings.

Recommended preparation

Coursework in at least one of the following areas: early Christianity; history of Hellenistic-Roman world; late antique, Byzantine, or medieval European history; history of Islam.

Class assignments and grading

Email essay; one major research paper; assigned responses to essays and final papers.

Quality of papers and seminar participation.

The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Michael A Williams
Date: 12/15/2008