Monks Should Write Nothing at All.

I’ve gotten back to A History of Russian Literature by Victor Terras (see this post), which I set aside and forgot about for a while, and I’ve run into some more great stuff I have to pass along. From p. 116:

Peter the Great put an end to the role of the clergy in Russian literature. In 1701 the boyar Ivan Alekseevich Musin-Pushkin was instructed “to take charge of the Holy Patriarch’s house, the bishoprics, and matters pertaining to monasteries.” Musin-Pushkin immediately ordered that “monks should write nothing at all when alone in their cells, nor should they keep ink or paper; and if they are to write, then only in the refectory, with the permission of their superiors and in compliance with the traditions of the church fathers. […] Feofan Prokopovich, archbishop of Novgorod and a leading poet, man of letters, and preacher of his age, was the father of the “Clerical Regulations,” which in effect severed the ties between the Russian church and Russian literature. In the West, even in modern times, many clergymen were also important men of letters. In Russia no member of the clergy ever entered secular literature with any success.

From p. 117:

Gradually secondary education also began to spread across the empire. […] Russian education developed from the top down. Russia had a distinguished academy before it had a university; it had a university before it had a network of secondary schools; and it had adequate secondary schools long before it had any organized elementary education.

And from p. 118:

Peter the Great launched a program to make Western thought and knowledge available in Russian. […] The translators of all these works were a motley crowd: Muscovite officials and clerks, Ukrainian clerics, Polish noblemen, Swedish prisoners of war, and Germans from the Moscow “German suburb.” Their lexicon was a chaos of Slavonic high style and vulgarisms, Ukrainianisms and Polonisms, loan translations from the German, French, or Latin, and thousands of outright borrowings. The grammar was anarchic, mixing Slavonic, Muscovite, and Ukrainian forms and syntax. Subsequently Russian literature, in particular the theoretical and practical works of Trediakovsky, Lomonosov, and Sumarokov, played a decisive role in transforming the chaotic language they faced as young men into the serviceable literary idiom they left to their successors.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    According to the wikibio of him, Prokopovich spent some years of his wayward youth consorting with heretics and Westerners, going so far as to study in Italy after (temporarily) becoming a Uniate. There’s your problem right there. Even granted that his repentance should be presumed to have been sincere it might have been better to welcome him back into the True Church by assigning him to wash the dishes in a monastery’s kitchen rather than put him in charge of teaching anyone or administering anything. The whole Westernizing craze that followed during the Petrine Captivity of the Russian Church eventually meant that many Orthodox clergy in Russia acquired reading knowledge of Latin (not inherently a Bad Thing . . .) w/o acquiring reading knowledge of Greek, which is, as they say in Church Slavonic, completely bass-ackwards.

  2. I totally agree!

  3. This is a really fascinating post. I had no idea that modern Russian, in its written form, at least, was a result of secularisation and Westernisation.

    The messy process of Westernising vocabulary also took place in the Sinosphere, led, as is well known, by the Japanese. It took a while for standardised vocabulary to fall into place.

    The Mongolian language was “modernised” under Russian influence, with a big contribution from the Buryats. Interestingly, secularisation and the destruction of religion were particularly severe in (Outer) Mongolia. Previously, the temples were almost the only fixed locations in a largely nomadic landscape and played a central role in the education of children, which was not confined to religious studies. Education passed to secular schools after Mongolia became a state in the 1920s and eventually the monasteries were wiped out by Stalin in the 1930s.

    The reshaping of the East Asian world appears to have been a wrenching project, involving the violent creation of modern secular states out a very different landscape.

    That’s the topic of a recent book that I am keen to read, Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire by Matthew W. King published by Columbia University Press. From the blurb:

    “After the fall of the Qing empire, amid nationalist and socialist upheaval, Buddhist monks in the Mongolian frontiers of the Soviet Union and Republican China faced a chaotic and increasingly uncertain world. In this book, Matthew W. King tells the story of one Mongolian monk’s efforts to defend Buddhist monasticism in revolutionary times, revealing an unexplored landscape of countermodern Buddhisms beyond old imperial formations and the newly invented national subject.

    Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood takes up the perspective of the polymath Zava Damdin (1867–1937): a historian, mystic, logician, and pilgrim whose life and works straddled the Qing and its socialist aftermath, between the monastery and the party scientific academy. Drawing on contacts with figures as diverse as the Dalai Lama, mystic monks in China, European scholars inventing the field of Buddhist studies, and a member of the Bakhtin Circle, Zava Damdin laboured for thirty years to protect Buddhist tradition against what he called the “bloody tides” of science, social mobility, and socialist party antagonism. Through a rich reading of his works, King reveals that modernity in Asia was not always shaped by epochal contact with Europe and that new models of Buddhist life, neither imperial nor national, unfolded in the post-Qing ruins. The first book to explore countermodern Buddhist monastic thought and practice along the Inner Asian frontiers during these tumultuous years, Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood illuminates previously unknown religious and intellectual legacies of the Qing and offers an unparalleled view of Buddhist life in the revolutionary period.”

    Edit: I’ve decided to add the following review on Amazon because it gives a better idea of what’s in the book.

    Zava Damdin was a Mongolian Buddhist monk and chronicler who lived from 1867 to 1937, thus seeing the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the coming of Mongolian independence, the takeover by USSR-backed communists, and the beginnings of the holocaust when extremists on the left almost exterminated the monks and traditional Buddhists of Mongolia–5% of the population. Zava Damdin wrote thousands of pages recording the history of the Mongols and of Buddhism as he saw these. His conclusion that essentially all early East-Central Asians were Mongols (or at least close) has not stood the test of time, nor has his dismissal of the spherical earth and other scientific findings contrary to traditional Buddhist cosmology. On the other hand, his scholarship and creative writing and his records of what he himself saw are vivid and fascinating. He wrote in literary Tibetan, which filled the role in Qing Mongolia that Latin filled in medieval Europe. He met many scholars: Tibetans, Russians, Chinese, and of course other Mongols. In a turn that disoriented me a bit, he even met a member of the circle of Mikhail Bakhtin, one of my favorite thinkers and one I never expected to find on the early 20th century Mongolian frontier.

    Matthew King provides Zava Damdin’s biography and attendant history, but the book is really a many-sided exploration of ideas and encounters in Zava’s world. Dr. King handles modern literary, cultural, and historical theory with ease and style. The book is notably well written–an enjoyable read though challenging and thought-provoking. It is not only an excellent work; it is important beyond the confines of Mongolia. Countless such thinkers in traditional cultural settings had to confront sudden, disruptive modernity at that point in time, and few did it with as much reflection and diligence. One can say of Damdin what economists sometimes say of Marx: “He may have gotten some wrong answers, but he asked all the right questions.”

  4. That book really does sound interesting.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    When the Bolsheviks are destroying your civilization it does seem like whoever can be recruited into an ad hoc coalition to resist that dreadful threat ought to be able to agree to disagree on such comparatively trivial issues as whether or not the earth is spherical.

    The reviews don’t mention Damdin crossing paths with the “Bloody Baron” (Roman Fyodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg), but it seems like he could hardly have avoided doing so. Maybe the Bakhtin-disciple was somehow mixed up with the baron?

  6. Brian Thomas says

    I have fond memories of Viktor Terras’s Russian class at Brown in the mid-1970s. He was so courtly and encouraging. One hastily completed assignment he wrote, “Spirited, but rather inaccurate.” He also told compelling tales of his Estonian boyhood, including being quizzed by Stalin during the leader’s classroom visit. “I was very nervous.” Also, a trenchant series of observations about Dostoevsky’s gambling. “Y nevo cvegda systema.” Forgive the hasty transliteration.

  7. There is another interesting book by Mongolian lama Erdenepil written in 1930s for the Communist government – “What is the cause of the religions professed by the Mongol tribes”, unfortunately survived only in Russian translation.

    The manuscript of the Russian translation of the work of Lama Erdenipel “What is the cause of the religions professed by the Mongol tribes” is in the library of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. Information about the Mongolian original, its preservation and location is unknown to us.

    Erdenipel apparently wrote his work in the 1930s, when he was forced to leave the monastery due to political repression against Buddhist monks and the church in Mongolia. Obviously, Erdenipal wrote his book under the control of the communists – this can explain that purely Western materialistic ideas that were alien to the Mongol tradition, purely Western materialistic ideas that “the origins of any religion lie in the invention of the person himself,” and so on, fell into his work. Another explanation is artificial insertions, the addition of translators. Perhaps he worked on his work commissioned by the Mongolian Scientific Committee in the 1920s and 1930s. this practice existed – the Scientific Committee (predecessor of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences) several times initiated the writing of works on the history of Mongolia by famous scholarly lamas or secular writers. A more accurate dating of Erdenipel’s work is possible on the basis of the data available in himself. Speaking about the construction of Erdeni-dzu, Erdenipel writes: “It can be assumed that Erdeni-dzu has existed as such for 353 years from the day Abatai Khan was founded, counting the 28th year of the MPR.” Apparently, he does not mean the date of the formation of the Mongolian People’s Republic (possibly, this is a translator’s mistake) – 1924, but the year of the establishment of Mongolia’s independence – 1911, which was traditionally used in the past in designating dates. In this case, the date of completion of work will be 1939…

    The work was written within the framework of traditional Mongolian historiography, in the genre of the so-called “histories of religion”. This genre originated in Tibet and was adopted by the Mongols. Its widest popularity and productivity in the medieval literatures of the Tibetans and Mongols was associated with the general clerical “orientation” of their writing. Erdenipel’s “History of Religion in Mongolia” tells about the history of Mongolia since ancient times, about the ancient beliefs of the Mongols, about the spread of Buddhism in Mongolia, about the events associated with the entry of the Mongols into the Qing Empire (17th century). The presentation is interrupted in the second half of the 17th century, which suggests that this is only volume I. The manuscript is divided into 14 chapters. The division is conditional, the ordinal number of the chapter is often not indicated, only the title is given.

    Erdenipel used a large amount of factual material, partly unknown to this day, drawing it from numerous Mongolian annals, Tibetan historical writings and Chinese chronicles. Most often, he does not indicate his sources, but sometimes he names them. In particular, he cites the “Golden Legend”, apparently by Lubsandanzan, “Yellow History”, “Crystal Rosary” by Rashpuntsag, “Crystal Mirror” by Jambadorgi, numerous Tibetan sources, for example, “Debter Jamtso” Sumba-khambo, which he calls Debterin Dalai, History of Religion in India by Taranatha, diary of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Chinese chronicles, for example, Meng-gu-yu-mu-tzu. Judging by the information provided by him, he also worked with the composition of Sagan-Setsen, Iletkhel Shastra, Tibetan religious works, correspondence of officials, diaries, etc.

    One can feel the remote acquaintance of the author with some European works and methods of historical science. This combination of education in traditional knowledge with the desire to use new approaches makes his essay interesting not only from the historical, but also from the historiographic point of view. Erdenipel sets his task, if not to analyze events, then at least to explain them, and this makes him look for new data in historical sources with which he was well acquainted, as well as introduce into circulation unknown, forgotten or peripheral works for Mongolian historiography.

  8. About the author:

    Khamba-lama N.Erdenepil had a remarkable and turbulent life: he was born in Hushun Dalai khoshuun (now Ikh-Uul in Zavkhan province), from 1927 to 1928 he was the director of the State Library in Ulaanbaatar, later he worked in Ikh Khuree (now Gandantegchinling Monastery), where in the Dashchoinpel datsan he was awarded the title of gavj. In addition to his monastic duties, he also performed other functions: in 1929 he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; at the same time he was still a monk until 1938. During the repression era, he was a layman, but in 1944 he rejoined the sangha and became the first abbot of the Gandantegčinling monastery after its reopening.

  9. The book is very interesting, especially those “materialist” explanations. Obviously he was not sincere about embracing atheism in general, but some of his “materialist” explanations might well be his own attempt to reconcile modern European knowledge in its Marxist form with Buddhist tradition.

    For example, he gives very matter-of-fact descriptions about shamanist practices and says that shamanism is not really a religion, but a form of mental illness, perhaps even hereditary.

    This is a very refreshing view (and probably close to truth), but it is also something which can’t be said openly in modern Mongolia (nor in the West) due to political correctness.

    A quote:

    Not every person can become a shaman. This requires a predisposition of the organism. It often happens that people from a shamanic family, despite their unwillingness to become shamans, faint and begin to chant. From this it becomes clear that it is precisely such people who are prone to seizures, that is, those who, under the influence of climate and nature, received the makings of a disease transmitted from parents to children, and were considered in ancient times to be people possessed by spirits. This is how shamanism came about. In any case, the connection with the spirit in shamans is in fact a nervous, painful state. It cannot be considered that this is the descent of a spirit or deity.

    The whole book is written like that, with detached, scientific style.

  10. @SFReader: “This requires a predisposition of the organism.” You and Erdenepil made my day with this. A very Russian turn of the phrase, it seems to me.

    Speaking of Feofan Prokopovich, he was a monk (all Orthodox bishops are) and produced a good deal of secular writing, some of it influential. His funeral oration for Peter the Great remained in the textbooks until 1917. (It appears in a Leskov story BTW.) It is said his sermons and secular pieces influenced Andrei Denisov, the great Old Believer author whose epistle on the entry of an elephant in Moscow SFReader quoted a few weeks ago.

    Does Terras mention Andrei Belobotsky (Jan Białobłocki or Białobocki) and his translations from Ramon Llull? The “Polish noblemen” sounds like a reference to him.

  11. “Detached,” maybe; “scientific,” no.

  12. For example, he gives very matter-of-fact descriptions about shamanist practices and says that shamanism is not really a religion, but a form of mental illness, perhaps even hereditary.

    This is a very refreshing view (and probably close to truth), but it is also something which can’t be said openly in modern Mongolia (nor in the West) due to political correctness.

    I’m not sure I agree that it is “refreshing” or “not PC”. It belongs to a tradition of scepticism towards religion that is common enough in the West.

    More to the point, since he comes from a Buddhist background, calling shamanism “not a religion” or saying it is “a mental illness” seems less like scientific accuracy than a partisan viewpoint. There appears to be some antagonism between shamanism and Buddhism in Mongolia.

  13. His funeral oration for Peter the Great

    It deserves to be quoted:

    What is this? How did we live to see this, oh Russians? What is it that we are seeing? What is it that we are doing?

    We are burying Peter the Great!

    Isn’t it a dream? Isn’t it a mirage? Oh, what a true sadness!

  14. whoever can be recruited into an ad hoc coalition to resist that dreadful threat ought to be able to agree to disagree on such comparatively trivial issues as whether or not the earth is spherical.

    Given a choice between attacking the infidels and attacking the heretics, always go after the heretics.

    shamanism is not really a religion, but a form of mental illness, perhaps even hereditary

    This article suggests otherwise:


    Despite efforts to promote traditional medicine, allopathic practitioners often look with distrust at traditional practices. Shamans in particular are often regarded with ambivalence and have been considered mentally ill people. We tested the hypothesis that shamanism is an expression of psychopathology. In the Bhutanese refugee community in Nepal, a community with a high number of shamans, we surveyed a representative community sample of 810 adults and assessed ICD-10 mental disorders through structured diagnostic interviews. Approximately 7% of male refugees and 0.5% of female refugees reported being shamans. After controlling for demographic differences, the shamans did not differ from the comparison group in terms of 12-month and lifetime ICD-10 severe depressive episode, specific phobia, persistent somatoform pain, posttraumatic stress, generalized anxiety, or dissociative disorders. This first-ever, community-based, psychiatric epidemiological survey among shamans indicated no evidence that shamanism is an expression of psychopathology. The study’s finding may assist in rectifying shamans’ reputation, which has been tainted by past speculation of psychopathology.

    I can’t get past the abstract. Note that mental illness means something different in scientific (allopathic) psychiatry and in Soviet “psychiatry”.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    I daresay that shamanism may be a sufficiently variable phenomenon that data about how shamans and “laity” do or don’t differ on some psychiatric metric among a community of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal may not generalize to all shamanism everywhere. Not that the study isn’t interesting for what it is.

  16. I daresay that shamanism may be a sufficiently variable phenomenon that data about how shamans and “laity” do or don’t differ on some psychiatric metric among a community of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal may not generalize to all shamanism everywhere.

    Indeed. But I’m pretty sure that anyone who says “shamans are crazy” is relying more on scientistic prejudice than data of any kind. The prejudice against all manifestations of religion among Dawkinsite zealots is at least as strong as any religious bigotry.

  17. @John Cowan: While I presume that that study was correctly conducted and have no reasons to doubt its conclusions, I want to point out that “allopathic” is considered by many practitioners of science-based medicine to be a derisive term. It is usually only used by people criticizing conventional medical practice.

    @languagehat: While there is indeed plenty of prejudice against religious people among atheists, “at least as strong as any religious bigotry,” it ain’t. Despite decades of interactions in the atheist community, I have never witnessed “new atheist” bigotry anywhere near as virulent as the worst bigotry demonstrated by adherents of one religion against another

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    A bas le scientisme! I do try to keep in my own mind a distinction between actually-existing shamans in traditional non-Western societies and hippie-type Americans of hat’s generation et seq. who professed admiration for what they imagined shamans to be. These often overlapped with the sort of folks who’d read some R.D. Laing and were all “what you call, like, mental illness is actually just another totally valid form of perception and wisdom, man.”

  19. David Marjanović says

    I have encountered islamophobia that strong, but those are the disciples of Sam Harris, not Dawkins so much.

    “allopathic” is considered by many practitioners of science-based medicine to be a derisive term

    Dragging it down to equivalence with homeopathy. Not unlike all those creationists who claim “we’re looking at all the same evidence as the evillusionists and just coming to different conclusions”…

    (…invariably it turns out they have no clue the vast majority of the evidence even exists.)

  20. John Emerson says

    Geoffrey Samuel, “Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies” claims that Tibetan Buddhism is monkish enlightenment for the elite and shamanism/tantrism for the mass. Fascinating, demanding, 700 page book I haven’t finished. He emphasizes the decentered extreme diversity of Tibet and Tibetan religion.
    (Mongol Buddhism is closely related to Tibetan Buddhism).

    Shamanism is more often associated with epilepsy. “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” is about epilepsy/shamanism in t
    a Hmong-American community.

  21. John Emerson says

    “Himalayan Dialogue”, S R Mumford, is about the relationship between Tibetan (tantric) Buddhists and indigenous shamanistic in Nepal. There’s enough in common for the Dialogue to be fruitful, and the shamans seems able to say their piece.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    The quote from Erdenepil that SFReader posted upthread said “prone to seizures” which sounds like epilepsy, and I wouldn’t think epilepsy correlates particularly strongly with the “psychopathology” the study linked by John C. was investigating in Nepal? Erdenepil may not have shared our 21st century Western understanding that epilepsy is a “neurological disorder” and that “neurological disorders” and “mental illnesses” are quite distinct categories from each other, of course.

  23. ə de vivre says

    To call shamanism a mental illness requires a somewhat peculiar definition of healthy and pathological psychology. Healthy minds don’t perceive the world logically and hold only empirically sound beliefs, they rely on feedback from people in their community to determine what’s obviously real and obviously fake. We all believe (or act as though we believe, if that’s a distinction worth making) culturally specific irrational things, but irrationality is only psychologically pathological if the individual is unable to reach an equilibrium with their society.

  24. Well, until someone reads the article and sees whetherallopathic is used as a derogatory or a neutral term, we won’t know.

  25. I have known some rigid self-righteous atheists who I found hard to take. I also remember an article in The Skeptical Inquirer entitled something like “Is religion a mental illness?” This kind of thing rubs me the wrong way, which is why I stay away from publications like that one, and also from Dawkins. It comes down to unwavering instinctive contempt, which doesn’t agree with me.

  26. While there is indeed plenty of prejudice against religious people among atheists, “at least as strong as any religious bigotry,” it ain’t. Despite decades of interactions in the atheist community, I have never witnessed “new atheist” bigotry anywhere near as virulent as the worst bigotry demonstrated by adherents of one religion against another

    We all witness what we choose to witness and remember what suits us. I am very sensitive to this kind of thing, and I assure you it is real. If you insist I will dig up vicious anti-religious rants that should convince you.

  27. (And atheists have murdered a whole lot more religious people than vice versa.)

  28. atheists have murdered a whole lot more religious people than vice versa

    Just curious which atheists you’re referring to. It just takes a couple, of course…

    My own suspicion is that religious people have murdered a whole lot more religious people than religious people have murdered atheists or vice versa.

  29. Just curious which atheists you’re referring to.

    Mainly Stalin and Mao, of course, but plenty of names can be added to the list.

  30. And you’ll be hard put to find any religious figures who have managed to kill on Mao’s scale.

  31. It only takes two atheists if they are Stalin and Mao. But since the non-religious are a minority, you can’t just compare absolute numbers like that.

  32. There’s also the problem of adjusting for population size. Timur/Tamerlane (a pious Sunni fellow by some accounts) is probably responsible for fewer deaths than Stalin or Mao in absolute numbers, but plausibly outdid them on a percentage-of-total-contemporaneous-Earth-population (or contemporaneous-Eurasia-population) basis. If you’re willing to limit geographical scope a bit, on a percentage-of-locally-available-victims basis Pol Pot probably outdid his fellow atheists.

  33. “Is religion a mental illness?”

    Take comfort in the maxim that a question in the title means the answer is negative.

  34. Mao didn’t kill anyone in the name of atheism so I‘m not sure that’s fair. It‘s not even clear that Mao himself was an atheist in the strict sense. The CCP made a concerted effort to destroy traditional religion but didn‘t promote „atheism“ as an ideology.

    Stalin was also less aggressively „atheist“ than a lot of the original Bolsheviks, and the Soviet leadership realized by WWII that aggressive atheism undermined a lot of the unquestioning beliefs needed to hold an abstract concept like a „nation“ together. Which leads us to Putin‘s current weird combination of Soviet ideology and Orthodox Christianity.

  35. More to the point, since he comes from a Buddhist background, calling shamanism “not a religion” or saying it is “a mental illness” seems less like scientific accuracy than a partisan viewpoint.

    Erdenepil does it very skillfully.

    First he says that the cult of fire isn’t shamanism, but a borrowing from “”Brahmin religion” (ie, Hinduism, though I would rather link it to Zoroastrianism).

    Then he goes on to say that worship of local spirits (spirits of mountains, lakes, etc) isn’t shamanism either, but a traditional custom of Mongols (by the way, he never explicitly denies existence of these spirits, so presumably belief in spirits is perfectly compatible with Buddhism).

    And what is left of Mongolian shamanism after you take out these components?

    Just shaman trance and associated practices which can be easily dismissed as “not a religion”, but a “painful, nervous state” of mind.

    Perfect deconstruction of shamanism.

  36. Just shaman trance and associated practices

    I don’t think you can dissociate religious ritual and practices of any kind from religion itself. Meditation, drugs, etc. are part of some religious experiences because they appear to open a pathway to God (or to ourselves). Mortification of the flesh is a part of many religions. Ritual designed to impress or to admit people to a divine presence is a part of much religion. Speaking in tongues is part of Christian tradition. It’s a bit unfair to single out trances or séances as being any worse than other practices. And I still maintain that the fact that this dismissal of shamanism is coming from a Buddhist is partisan.

  37. I once saw the first part of Ulrike Ottinger’s documentary, Taiga, about Mongolia. One scene showed an old shaman in a trance, assuming the spirit of a bird. It was a strongly moving experience, and did not suggest anything close to what I have seen and would call mental illness.

  38. I don’t think you can dissociate religious ritual and practices of any kind from religion itself

    That’s the trouble with shamanism. No holy books, no doctrine, no organized structure.

    Hardly any believers even. (in Mongolia, both shamans and the people who engage their services are Buddhists. And in Siberia, they are Orthodox Christians).

    So you are left only with a set of (quasi?) religious practices and beliefs (many of which are not even unique to shamanism, but shared by Tibetan Buddhism, for example).

    No wonder representatives of organized religion fail to see it as a religion.

  39. Japanese Shinto is barely a religion, either.

    It is organised, sort of, more by State intervention and support than by any inherent doctrinal coherency or overreaching world view. I suspect that very few animistic religions would make it by your criteria, either. What about voodoo? People believe in it but it doesn’t seem to be regarded as terribly respectable, or perhaps even as a religion.

    Or are you only willing to call belief systems that are institutionally organised and aligned with or supported by political power structures “religions”.

  40. It appears to me that one can talk of Mongolian shamanism as a religion only if we include all non-Buddhist religious elements – worship of local spirits, ancestor cult, cult of Genghis Khan, etc.

    These are genuine religious traditions (possibly survival of pre-Buddhist Mongol religion), but what is their relation to shamanism?

    The answer is not very clear. If we take Erdenepil’s position and remove them all as being of non-shamanic origin, then what is left is not a religion in any recognizable form.

    According to a view common in Soviet historiography, traditional Mongol religion was not shamanism, but a somewhat organized religion (possibly related to Tibetan Bon religion). Shamanist practices co-existed alongside with Mongol traditional religion just like they co-exist with Buddhism now.

    Then the Mongol traditional religion lost it’s organization and got replaced by very organized Tibetan Buddhism, but many of its rituals and beliefs survived (but in a very eclectic manner).

    Some of these rituals are now conducted by shamans, some were incorporated by Mongolian Buddhism, some were appropriated by the state.

  41. “Religion” is a useful concept within a certain context, but becomes a hindrance when you try to apply it more generally (e.g., to every pattern of thought that doesn’t follow the rules of modern science).

  42. Erdenepil’s position sounds an awful lot like a No True Shaman fallacy.

  43. John Emerson says

    In the books by Samuel and Mumford above, shamanism and Buddhism interpenetrate, though some individuals are only shamans and some only Buddhists. I saw the same mix match relationship in Taiwan. Between Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and popular religion, with a little Christianity or a few secular principles sometimes thrown in. (Victor. Hugo was a sort of deity in one Vietnamese sect).

  44. John Emerson says

    Shamanism is a set of religious practices without a religious organization. Even the name “shamanism” was given by outsiders.

    Mumford or Samuel treats the indigenous Tibetan Bon religion as one of the sects of Tibetan Buddhism. He also treats (classical, traditional) Tibet as a stateless society, with no overriding authority to establish or repress religions and their practices. The result he describes is chaotic diversity.

  45. Surely in the discourse of homeopaths (including the quoted passage), “allopathic” is disapproving, but not “derogatory”? The latter characterization (to connect with the current thread, where I substantially agree with Hat) reminds me of American Christians claiming to be “persecuted” when they mean “no longer the whole show.”

  46. According to a version proposed by some Russian scholars, Cao Dai religion was invented by French intelligence in 1926 for purposes of colonial control

    Inclusion of Victor Hugo as a deity in Cao Dai is a literary joke by some French intelligence officer.

    Easter Egg.

  47. John Emerson says

    I doubt the Russian version. It’s quite normal in the Sinitoc world (which includes Vietnam) to put historical figures into the pantheon, and many pantheons were syncretic. I don’t doubt that the origins of Cao Dai were murky.

  48. John Emerson says

    Trivia: a personal disciple of Hugo from the Jersey days was important in ado all midwestern American politics in the late XIXc. Among other things, he helped write the Constitution of the state of ND. The author Meridel LeSueur was his granddaughter

  49. @hat:

    daniel boyarin’s most recent few books are excellent historical explorations of the ways that “religion” is a specifically christian category – both through some genealogical/philological deep diving: one explores “religio” and “thrēskeia”; the other “judaism” and “iudaismos”.

    “religion” may have some use for thinking about some other things (for instance, certain strains of muslim practice) because of the ways they have developed in parallel to and perhaps with influence from christian models, and other others (for example, certain strains of contemporary jewish practice) because of the ways that they have internalized a christian model, but even those uses are pretty limited.

  50. John Emerson says

    When you read the history of Christianity, even on religious sources, over and over again you hear about the conversion of whole nations by a political process. and these conversions require suppression of other religions. “Religion” is partly a political concept— “something capable of functioning as a state church.

  51. daniel boyarin’s most recent few books are excellent historical explorations of the ways that “religion” is a specifically christian category – both through some genealogical/philological deep diving: one explores “religio” and “thrēskeia”; the other “judaism” and “iudaismos”.

    Thanks, those look really interesting!

  52. David Eddyshaw says

    “Religion” is indeed a loaded term which smuggles in a whole load of preconceptions. I’ve often felt this when talking about Kusaasi “religion”; it’s really not an apt term at all, though it’s also not easy to come up with adequate alternatives. I tend to use it to mean “those aspects of traditional Kusaasi culture which strike a typical Westerner as quite analogous to religion”, but that’s not exactly snappy.

    I’m not convinced that “religion” = “Christianity” (though rozele’s books sounds interesting.) At least, it’s a gradient thing, not all-or-nothing: Islam is a whole lot more religion-y in that kind of way than most “traditional African religion”, for example, which itself is very far indeed from all the same in this respect. Come to that, not all Christianity is the same on this sort of axis either by any means.

    Surely “religious” also presupposes “secular”? The term implies a division between two supposedly different kinds of experience and praxis which is characteristic of our own culture, but probably approximately no others.

    To complicate the issue further, I think there’s been a definite tendency for other traditions impacted by ours to reconceptualise their own cultures in a way which forces them into a similar mould, too. I was just thinking this the other day when I saw an article about Vodun, which was very keen to establish that the relevant aspects of Fon culture were a “proper” religion, rather than questioning whether this was actually a valid way of looking at the matter at all. Seems to me people could do with decolonising their minds a bit more, though I’m hardly the ideal person to say so .. (it’s true though.)

  53. I’m not convinced that “religion” = “Christianity” (though rozele’s books sounds interesting.) At least, it’s a gradient thing, not all-or-nothing: Islam is a whole lot more religion-y in that kind of way than most “traditional African religion”, for example, which itself is very far indeed from all the same in this respect. Come to that, not all Christianity is the same on this sort of axis either by any means.
    I would say that discussing religion as a special part of the culture, cordoned off mentally from the other aspects of culture, is someting we can already observe in late Republican Rome. The reasons were probably the exposure to so many other cults in the empire, many of which spread to Rome itself, and Greek philosophy. And perhaps it’s even earlier, looking at currents of skepticism in Greek philosophy, or how e.g. Platon discusses religion as part of statecraft in the “Republic”.

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, that’s a good point. I think the common thread is that to regard something as a “religion” is implicitly to put it in opposition to something, whether “secularism” or another “religion”, or something else that then gets treated as if it were a religion, even if the reality is rather different.

    I suspect rozele’s recommended books must mean something more than this, though, to the effect that there is a characteristic bundle of additional attitudes associated with Christianity specifically.

    Can you tell us more, rozele? (unless this margin is too narrow …)

  55. You can get a good chunk of the Kindle edition as a sample, and you don’t have to have a Kindle to read it on — Amazon will create a Reader tab on your computer. Click on “Send a free sample” in the right margin here.

  56. Oh, but you’ll probably have to go to, won’t you? Sorry. Imagine a world without borders…

  57. J.W. Brewer says

    It seems plausible that Islam, in particular, resembles a model of “religion” that is a good fit for (many sorts of) Christianity, given the historical connections and, um, interactions (that sounds politer than conflicts, right?). A more interesting question would be how that model does or doesn’t fit Buddhism, which is the ambitious non-Abrahamic player in the world market that spread quite widely from its original homeland, sometimes came into a particular new society with the sponsorship (sometimes heavy-handed) of the local political elite, sometimes came in in different ways, had similar issues to both Christianity and Islam with how it did or didn’t make itself congruent with pre-Buddhist local culture, etc.

  58. Well, Barton and Boyarin are more focused on the ancient world, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind their approach being applied more widely.

  59. They say:

    Our resulting study is divided into two, with each half containing a close semantic study followed by an attempt to place the word in the broad context of a particularly pertinent author’s language and life world. The book begins with an analysis of Latin republican and early imperial religio, followed by a reading of Tertullian, the (second- to third-century C.E.) African writer who did the most to mold Latin to the new Christian movement. The second half of the book treats of Greek thrēskeia in its earlier usages and in the Christian apologists, followed by a study of its functions in the world of Josephus, the (first-century C.E.) Judaean historian and writer who made the greatest and most complex use of this word. We have also made the acquaintance of many of the Latin and Greek words in the general semantic fields of religio and thrēskeia: pudor, conscientia, fides, scrupulus, superstitio, therapeia, sebomai, eusebeia, deisidaimonia, pistis, timē, although we have not given them nearly the attention they deserve.

  60. David Eddyshaw says


    Yes; as a Christian from my particular tradition I can imagine myself into the shoes of a Sunni Muslim fairly readily, though of course “imagine” is very much the word: I must inevitably be interpreting real Muslim experience through a filter of preconceptions which will be introducing distortions I am unaware of, possibly very serious ones. More radically yet, I may be imagining the wrong sort of thing entirely: the experience of being a pious Muslim may really be different in kind from being a (not-very-pious) Christian. Still, much the same caveats apply to any attempt to imagine yourself in the position of another person, and my experiences talking to Muslims make it seem unlikely that my imaginings are as far from the mark as that.

    Imagining myself into the “religious”* experience of a traditional Kusaasi takes a lot more processing power; it’s clear to me at least that it really isn’t much like being a Calvinist at all

    I’ve always rather liked the idea of Buddhism, but I really have little notion of what it would be like to actually be a Buddhist; my imaginings seem to end up embarrassingly close to California Zen …

    *I don’t like the scare quotes; they look uncomfortably like condescension. But I don’t see a handy way of doing without them in this context.

  61. There’s this, regarding India:

    As Benson Saler points out, Louis Dumont, in his classic work, Homo Hierarchicus, attempted to understand India in terms of its “holism” and “hierarchy,” and noted that what westerners “intuitively call religion” could not usefully be distinguished from “social structure” (i.e., caste) in the Indian case. Dumont contrasted India with the West, “in terms of a distinction between Indian holism on the one hand, and Western individualism and differentiated domains on the other.” Dumont developed “comparative analytic categories which cross-cut our usual distinction between ‘religion’ and other domains,” analytic categories that help us to clarify and map the concomitants of Western categorical distinctions (for example, the ways that domain distinctions “religion, politics, economics,” are necessary for our individualism). Had Dumont been looking to compare entities of the genus “religions,” he would not have made his discoveries.

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks, Hat.

    Seems to be what in linguistic terms one might call a diachronic rather than synchronic account; interesting nonetheless.

    [Edit: referring to your first snippet; the second one looks more contemporary-anthropological]

  63. J.W. Brewer says

    Of course Buddhism started within an Indian social/cultural matrix but then went traveling abroad, leaving comparatively few traces in its Urheimat, and that’s exactly what might make it easier to distinguish Buddhism from generic “social structure” in the other societies it reached/influenced/transformed. The fact that in East Asia plenty of people do both some Buddhist stuff and some Shinto-or-Taoist stuff seems weird to the Western mind, but the fact that as best as I can tell the locals know they’re doing this and know which is which means they have some way of thinking of Buddhism as a distinct phenomenon that can be talked about separately from “social structure.”

  64. David Eddyshaw says

    Bathrobe will know a lot more than me about this, but I believe Shinto was pretty much made into a Buddhism-like “religion” as a deliberate decision by Japanese nationalists; in fact, an example of the sort of reinterpreting of one’s traditional culture in terms of foreign categories that I was talking about before.

  65. The “Cow-dyes” were featured as the enemies (although not villains) in Frederick Pohl’s first novel, Slave Ship (1956). The fact that Victor Hugo and Haile Selassie were among their saints is mentioned, although I wonder how many readers of the original serial version had any idea that the religion in the story was real.

  66. I first learned about the Cao Dai from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

  67. A fond mention of St. John Coltrane Church, a San Francisco institution and by all appearances a group of very nice people. Their weekly radio show always starts with A Love Supreme, listening to which is one of their central sacraments. I used to pass by their old storefront church and see the big Byzantine-style icon of John Coltrane on the wall.

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    Dukes gives good icon.

  69. I believe Shinto was pretty much made into a Buddhism-like “religion” as a deliberate decision by Japanese nationalists

    The book I always recommend for understanding this at ground level is Rearranging the Landscape of the Gods: The Politics of a Pilgrimage Site in Japan, 1573-1912 by Sarah Thal.

    It looks at the history of the Konpira shrine in Shikoku. While this is currently a Shinto shrine, it started out worshipping the Indian god Konpira, went on to incorporate Buddhism within its precincts, was forced to drop the Buddhist parts when the government decided to separate Buddhism and Shintoism, and became caught up in the Meiji state-building project. Nowadays it has apparently partly embraced the modern Japanese cult of the cute.

    I found it a very interesting book showing that what is regarded as “traditional” is often the result of multiple reimaginings through history.

    Erdenepil’s book strikes me as possibly being one such “reimagining” under the influence of atheistic socialism. This does not make it wrong by any means and it sounds like a fascinating read. Nevertheless, I doubt that it can be read without reference to its political and intellectual background and that of its author.

    Buddhism in Mongolia has been routed and not everyone nowadays has respect for Buddhist monks, despite its comeback in the post-Soviet era. There are still links between Lamaism in China and Mongolia. One abbot I met in Alaxa in Inner Mongolia told me he had been to the main temple in UB (Gandan), but also mentioned the difficulties posed to relations with co-religionists in Mongolia by the jealousy of the Chinese state (although he didn’t use those words).

    Shamanism is apparently also making something of a comeback. I actually met a prominent shaman once. Since I’m not very interested in shamanism I didn’t have a lot to say to him. However, he did tell me that he belonged to some kind of international shamanism organisation with members all over the world. I didn’t ask him in a lot of detail but the impression I got was that it sounded rather “New Agey”. (Shamans in California? Come on!)

  70. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan also has a discussion of State Shinto, although I fear I have forgotten most of it.

  71. There is an International Shamanic Community online, although it doesn’t mention any members in Mongolia. According to the site, “All our work is Spirit-led. Our aim is to create a nourishing and supporting community, and find healing ways to bring shamanism to the world.”

    As we have learnt here on LH, all roads lead to Scandinavia. The community is affiliated with the SCANDINAVIAN CENTER FOR SHAMANIC STUDIES based in Denmark…

  72. @Hans:

    that’s exactly what boyarin & barton dispute, after looking at every attestation of “religio” they can locate. the book’s worth reading.


    the margin’s a bit narrow, but here’s an attempt at part of it…

    (o! and as i do, i should flag that boyarin – i don’t know barton’s other work – has a bit of a [stereotype-of-]sapir-whorf streak that may be off-putting. i don’t agree with him that a concept can’t be circulating without a word for it, but i find his arguments persuasive)

    boyarin & barton’s big point, as i take it, is about “religion” as a category: the notion that there is a thing – “religion” – that is separable from (what this view insists are ‘other aspects of’) how life is lived. that idea, of a separable sphere, is what they’re historicizing. part of its genealogy is the greek/roman idea of the ‘philosophic school’, but those are understood as about relation to a teacher/lineage (to some extent analogous to an ethnos-as-lineage*), not as separable abstractions in the way that christianity comes to define itself (and invent a category to be part of).

    christianity as a project comes to be based on the notion that there is a separable thing called “religion” – that’s what makes ‘neither jew nor greek in christ’ make any sense at all – but that is an innovation. neither jew nor greek agrees, and neither do the romans – apart, of course, from those who are followers of the crucified one. (there’s a certain amount of jewish walking down that path, followed by a swift retreat – hence “judaism” is exclusively a christian concept until quite recently)

    but to be clear (again, in my reading, though i think it’s pshat): they aren’t saying “religion can’t be extricated from social structure”. they’re saying that once you’re talking about whether religion can or can’t be separated from another thing (“politics”, “social structure”, whatever), you’re already within a very specific ideological field that christianity invented, and that hides more than it reveals about most societies / cultures / ways of life.

    the category clearly works to one degree or another for non-christian systems with universalist aspirations, especially ones that mainly center belief rather than practice (some forms of sunni islam being the obvious examples). but that’s mostly, as i see it, because they resemble the phenomenon that the category was built around more than the things it was built to distinguish that phenomenon from. personally, i’d question how useful the category of “religion” actually is for understanding most actually existing forms of christianity, as opposed to normalizing them as a black-box standard of comparison.

    * “lineage” of course to be understood as based on affinity and affiliation to a way of living more than bloodline. the jewish model makes explicit (the convert says “abraham our father”) the common practice…

    an article about Vodun, which was very keen to establish that the relevant aspects of Fon culture were a “proper” religion, rather than questioning whether this was actually a valid way of looking at the matter at all.

    absolutely! because in a christian-dominated intellectual and political landscape (like the ones where most practitioners of afro-atlantic initiatory systems live), you don’t have much choice if you want to be taken seriously (and not get targeted for prosecution**). and that’s multiplied by all the usual factors of white supremacy, class, etc: it’s easier for a (tenured) jewish writer about jewishness to make this argument in print than a babalawo (though i’ve heard similar analyses from initiates i know).

    ** it wasn’t until the 1990s that the u.s. started even paying lip service to lucumí, vodun, etc as falling under the “freedom of religion” aegis that could give practitioners protection from prosecution for observance. the Hialeah decision didn’t actually stop prosecutions, but it does have a bit of a chilling effect (when targeted folks can afford a lawyer).

  73. David Marjanović says

    The fact that in East Asia plenty of people do both some Buddhist stuff and some Shinto-or-Taoist stuff seems weird to the Western mind

    …though the number of Americans who believe in karma is staggering.

    (That’s what I should have mentioned instead of “God helps those who help themselves” in whatever other thread it was.)

    “abraham our father”

    That’s also casually mentioned in Catholic Easter liturgy, doubled up with “our fathers, the Sons of Israel”.

  74. David Eddyshaw says


    Thanks very much. Interesting stuff.

    Good point about the legal implications of whether or not what you do is a “religion.” I hadn’t thought of that.


    “abraham our father”

    This reflects a theological position called Supersessionism, which historically has pretty much always been the mainstream Christian position:

    The sort of Christians who vote for Trump have been heavily influenced by a non-Biblical doctrine called Dispensationalism, invented by the charismatic but extremely weird founder of the Exclusive (Plymouth) Brethren, John Nelson Darby:

    The story of how his basically heretical views on these points got mainstreamed in American Evangelicalism is quite interesting in a melancholy sort of way.

    It accounts for the peculiar views these people have towards contemporary Israel, which are very much tied up with their eschatology; while superficially more friendly to Jews than the traditional Supersessionist stance, there are rather a lot of Unfortunate Implications. With friends like these …

    Personally, I prefer somebody who tells me that my religion (sic) is wrong to someone who makes out it’s perfectly fine for people like me – and only people like me – because it’s all part of the master plan of his religion that I practice mine.

  75. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Even without the depth of Barton and Boyarin’s (2016) philological research, words like pietas and religio are famously difficult for schoolchildren to translate. So the claim that ancient Romans lacked a word equivalent to our own word “religion” seems easily persuasive.

    It’s less obvious the claim also implies that ancient Rome lacked the concept of a cordoned-off religious sphere. Is that what Barton and Boyarin argue? What do they make of the traditional distinctions between fas and ius, or between res divinae and res humanae? Undoubtedly those pairs of concepts may be widely misunderstood by non-experts like me, but surely they aren’t entirely made up?

    It’s least obvious that lacking our concept of religion implies lacking the phenomenon. Robert Segal (2006) has a scholarly rant against the postmodern argument that “religion is a modern Western invention:” a rant that I confess I enjoy a bit too much, and which I believe can be read un-gated at

  76. John Emerson says

    In Rome, Athens, and China the state was not “secular” as we think of it but had its own religious rituals and institutions. Religious pluralism was allowed but only if it did not deny or defy the state religion (which Christians and Jews sometimes did do in Rome). The tolerated religions were thought of as private, personal, or familial.

    At one point on China Buddhism was thought to be detrimental to the state, and was repressed.

    The secular state came along very late in the game. At independence all 13 states had established state religions, or most of them, and even after disestablishment most of the US was de facto Protestant.

  77. In Rome, Athens, and China the state was not “secular” as we think of it but had its own religious rituals and institutions. Religious pluralism was allowed but only if it did not deny or defy the state religion (which Christians and Jews sometimes did do in Rome). The tolerated religions were thought of as private, personal, or familial.

    But all of those statements are truer if you delete or replace “religious” and “religion” as appropriate. The use of those terms just enables us to nod in lazy acceptance rather than trying to figure out how those societies actually worked.

  78. It’s kind of difficult to avoid terms “religion” or “religious” when we talk about religion in Rome, because the Romans themselves used these terms.

    Res religiosae (“religious matters”) – legal term in Roman law.

  79. David Eddyshaw says

    In the course of his sustained straw-manning, Robert Segal seems to be implying that disputing whether “religion” is always a useful category is ipso facto “postmodernism.” This is plainly not the case, unless you declare all such questioning “postmodern” by definition.

    I must confess I was predisposed to disagree with him by this, near the start:

    The most apt metaphor for the modern study of religion is that of diagnosis. It is not that religion is an illness but that the scholar is like the doctor and the religious adherent like the patient. Just as the patient has the disease but defers to the doctor’s diagnosis, so the adherent has religion but defers, or should defer, to the scholar’s analysis. The scholar, not the believer, is the expert. The scholar’s medicine kit contains what the believer lacks: theories. In religious studies, as in medicine, the doctor knows best.

    Leaving aside that this is a transparently false analogy anyway:

    I am no wishy-washy social-worker type, and I practice in a specialty which is nigh-orthopaedic in its apparent objectivity: but “the doctor knows best”, presented as self-evidently true, betrays a stunning lack of understanding of how medicine actually works in real life.

    On the plus side, this gives me a pretext for once again reiterating my favourite Richard-Asherism:

    “Listen to the patient. He is telling you the diagnosis.”


    Ah, but the point is that the classical Latin religio doesn’t mean “religion.” It means “conscience, sense of morality, duty.”
    This is in accordance with Eddyshaw’s Rule of Latin: “no word transparently derived from Latin in a modern language means the same thing as the original Latin word.”

  80. It’s kind of difficult to avoid terms “religion” or “religious” when we talk about religion in Rome, because the Romans themselves used these terms. Res religiosae (“religious matters”) – legal term in Roman law.

    No, the Romans used the terms religio and religiosae, they did not use the terms religion and religious. That’s not a quibble, that’s at the heart of the issue. These are classic (and classical) faux ami. You might as well say there are no problems understanding котлеты if you know what cutlets are. It is important to find accurate translations especially when the foreign words are temptingly similar.

  81. Good point about the legal implications of whether or not what you do is a “religion.”

    Similar attempts to thread the needle have been wound around the balancing act between U.S. drug policy and freedom of religion, culminating in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which allows Indians to use peyote in religious ceremonies but other U.S. citizens not. The law was passed to override a Supreme Court decision that there was no such right under the Constitution, so it is a mere creature of statute. Since the right is limited to Indians of federally recognized nations (a opposed to the usual, but not universal, definition of “Indian” as any person descended from pre-European inhabitants), but excludes those who happen to be in prison at any time, it’s rather messy.

    “abraham our father”

    I think what Rozele is talking about is that converts to Judaism, lacking an ordinary patronymic, are formally called “ben Avraham”, and the Abraham meant is the patriarch.

    “Listen to the patient. He is telling you the diagnosis.”

    Indeed. But not consciously. Most of the time it is the doctor who makes the patient’s implicit knowledge explicit, and when the patient does it, the doctor can be startled. When I was having recurring cellulitis in my left calf, after a while I would just make an appointment and go to my clinic, thus:

    Me: Hello, I have cellulitis in my left calf, and you need to prescribe Cipro [ciprofloxacin] for it.

    If the doctor knew me, all was well, and I paid at the front desk and went off to my pharmacy. But if not, things went like this:

    Doctor: Well! I will make the diagnosis and treatment plan mys— Well, you may be right at that.

  82. David Eddyshaw says

    I think what Rozele is talking about is … converts to Judaism

    Yes, my original (pre-time travel) version of my comment didn’t make it clear that I was replying to DM’s comment about the use of the term in Catholicism rather than to what rozele said; Hat kindly fixed it, but it’s still rather confused (though I say so myself.)

  83. John Emerson says

    Perhaps I should have said that neither the Greeks nor the Romans or the Chinese recognized a separation between a religious and a secular realm. Every group, trade, town, crossroads, etc., had its own gods and rituals, and there was little or no effort to bind these gods and rituals into a distinct unity called
    “religion” contrastive to something else which was not “religion”.

    But to me, gods and rituals can be called religion, even though some call them superstition.

  84. They can be called anything you like; the question is to what extent what you call them helps or hinders understanding. Imagine aliens coming to Earth and classifying our activities according to some pattern unknown and incomprehensible to us; we’d get pretty annoyed when they said smugly “Of course you’re doing that; it’s part of your xblrghh pattern!” Our annoyance, of course, is neither here nor there (they can always neuralize us if we get uppity), but their smug assumptions would probably keep them from figuring us out.

  85. PlasticPaddy says

    Re religio, the word can be applied to (a complex of) beliefs or superstitions or to an individual belief or superstition. Cf. Caesar, de Bello Gallico 6.16.1-6.16.2
    “Natio est omnis Gallorum admodum dedita religionibus, atque ob eam causam, qui sunt adfecti gravioribus morbis quique in proeliis periculisque versantur, aut pro victimis homines immolant aut se immolaturos vovent, administrisque ad ea sacrificia druidibus utuntur…”
    To be affected by religiosity is sort of like being feverish, drunk or possessed by a demon, something to be taken in very small doses. So I suppose Christianity had either to reject the word (which presumably had also a legal meaning in Imperial Rome) or repurpose it.

  86. John Emerson says

    I guess I miss your point . I’d say that gods and rituals pertaining to them is pretty much what we think of as religion, and it strikes me as a pretty good concept. I’d like to stay away from the “Why is there air” / “Do ‘atoms’ really exist?’ level of philosophical skepticism.

    And those three peoples all had religious things of that type, but did not have a social political or cultural area free of those things (a secular area). They also didn’t unify these practices into “a religion” and by and large did not force “a religion” on the populace or forbid nonstandard religions, though impiety was punished.

  87. David Eddyshaw says


    Even there, of course, religio is clearly not equivalent to “religion.”

    When called upon to describe a particularly repellent “religion”, Tacitus famously calls it an exitiabilis superstitio (Annals 15:44.) You say religio, I say superstitio

    @John Emerson:

    You can have a religion without any gods; Buddhism is, at least in some sense, though here (of course) you immediately run into the problem that “god” is also a highly culture-bound concept …

  88. Whatever meaning Roman authors attached to “religio”, I very much doubt that it would differ significantly from the current range of definitions of “religion”.

    In fact, Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as

    “Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.”

    And Cicero says that

    religio est quae superioris cujusdam naturae (quam divinam vocant) curam caerimoniamque affert

    (‘Religion is what brings with it the care and cult of some higher power which they call divine.’)

    OED definition even appears to paraphrase Cicero’s quote.

  89. I guess I miss your point . I’d say that gods and rituals pertaining to them is pretty much what we think of as religion, and it strikes me as a pretty good concept.

    Whatever meaning Roman authors attached to “religio”, I very much doubt that it would differ significantly from the current range of definitions of “religion”.

    You’re both missing the point, or at least not taking it on board. If “pretty much” and “pretty good” and not differing significantly are good enough for you, that’s fine; they’ve been good enough for everyone for a long time, just as the Kilogramme des Archives used to be good enough for physicists. But at some point, some people want more accuracy.

  90. David Eddyshaw says

    I very much doubt that it would differ significantly from the current range of definitions of “religion”.

    You’d be wrong. Have a look at a Latin dictionary. These things are not mysterious.

  91. I mean, you’re not providing any information by saying “what the Romans talked about sounds a lot like what we talk about.” Of course it does! But that doesn’t end the discussion.

  92. John Emerson says

    The godlessness of Buddhism is an artifact of Orientalism. The highest realms of philosophical Buddhism deconstruct the Gods like everything else, but they also deconstruct you and me.

    Hat: well, by calling a dog a dog you don’t provide new information about dogs, but someone knows what a dog is, the label is useful.

  93. But religio is not religion, it just looks kind of like it. You’re calling a wolf a dog.

  94. PlasticPaddy says

    @de, sfr
    I would agree that the semantic sphere of religio is quite distinct from religion, so any dichotomy between religion and the secular sphere would not transfer to religio, someone else said the distinction there was more between “sacred” and “profane”worlds.

  95. When Augustine wrote City of God, he was advocating for a stronger notion of dualism than was commonplace in the Roman world. Yet there have certainly been other societies that has even less demarcation between the sacred and profane realms than the Romans. On one hand, the Romans had a formal college of city priests, and there was a complex system of laws, privileges, and taboos associated with these prelates and priests.* On the other hand, the pater familias of a house was automatically the high priest of the family’s lares, with the veneration of these and other household deities smoothly integrated into domestic life.

    * The two nominally highest-ranking priests, the Rex Sacrorum and the Flamen Dialis, were prevented by various taboos from having meaningful military or political careers after their elections. Among the things forbidden were spending nights outside the city gates, riding on horseback, and gazing upon mustered troops. While these restrictions were probably envisioned in the early republic as preventing the concentration of civil and religious power in a single personage, the actual result was the transfer of real religious authority downward in the nominal hierarchy to the Pontifex Maximus.

  96. My favorite religio is the one that prohibits peeing against a temple wall.

  97. David Eddyshaw says

    Give me that old-time religio …

  98. John Emerson says

    I haven’t spoken of religio though, though I now remember that religio was the topic about 500 feet up the page. I think, understanding the difference between organized religion and widespread but disorganized religious practices, to use “religion” for both, and that the phrase “religious practices” is meaningful. If the Romans didn’t have a word corresponding exactly to our “religion”, I don’t think it’s too significant, though I’ve suggested several reasons why we need the word and they didn’t.

  99. My favorite religio is the one that prohibits peeing against a temple wall.

    In Japan, one way of stopping men from urinating against particular walls is to paint the sign of a Shinto gate there (it looks something like 开). I don’t know how effective this actually is.

  100. @rozele
    that’s exactly what boyarin & barton dispute, after looking at every attestation of “religio” they can locate. the book’s worth reading.
    I’ll add it to my reading list, but I am not sure I’ll get around to it this lifetime… for my reading list alone, I’d need either immortality or a kind of reincarnation where I will be able read and actually do remember the stuff I read in my previous lives. 🙂
    That said, I agree with GP here. And I have read Cicero; he makes the impression on me that he does look in a detached manner at religious practices as something from a sphere of their own. I don’t think that the Christian concept of religion came out of nowhere, and I think that Greek and Roman philosophers had laid the groundwork for it. But maybe I need to re-read Cicero as well, as I read him a long time ago.

  101. And I have read Cicero; he makes the impression on me that he does look in a detached manner at religious practices as something from a sphere of their own. I don’t think that the Christian concept of religion came out of nowhere, and I think that Greek and Roman philosophers had laid the groundwork for it.

    The point is not that Roman concepts and systems had nothing whatever in common with our understanding of religion and that there has been a monstrous and inexplicable misunderstanding comparable to calling clouds or trees “dogs,” the point is that they’re close enough that we can easily slip into thinking of them as equivalent, leading us to misunderstand them, like calling wolves “dogs.” It may be good enough for many purposes, but not if you want to actually understand the sacred sphere in Roman society. You can, of course, keep using “religion” and “religious” while rigorously training yourself to understand those words in a different way (incidentally making it difficult or impossible to discuss the subject with those who have not been so trained), but it seems simpler to talk about them in a different way to minimize the risk of confusion.

  102. I’ll repeat the point I made. There is such a great deal of variation, confusion and disagreements regarding definition of “religion” today (as evidenced in this thread) that Roman definition of it would fall within this range easily.

    Besides, I am pretty sure that there was similar variation in Roman definitions as well (what Cicero meant by this term differed from what Caesar meant and both meanings were different from common word).

    Let’s limit exoticizing and orientalizing to people who are actually alien and exotic (like, say, Kusaasi) and not the people who literally founded our civilization.

  103. So you prefer to keep thinking of Romans as modern Westerners in togas? Fine, you’re in good company, but some of us want to understand them on their own terms.

  104. I would argue that Romans are closer to us in mentality than medieval Europeans.

    In some aspects, for example, in attitudes to sexuality, we are closer to Romans than 19th century Europeans.

  105. Or take for example sports.

    Many medieval hagiographies deal with Christian saints devoured by lions, stoned by mobs or slaughtered in various ways in arena of Roman Colosseum.

    These far-fetched stories betray complete lack of understanding about concept of mass commercial sports. It must have appeared to medieval Christians that these giant structures were only Satanic designs for torturing and killing Christians.

    Only with advent of mass professional sports in in 20th century for the first time in centuries it became possible to understand what kind of passions rage in stadiums and what a mob of sports fans (or hooligans) is capable of if their entertainment is interrupted.

  106. David Eddyshaw says

    I would argue that Romans are closer to us in mentality than medieval Europeans.

    You’re not alone. This is a very common mistake. Ever since the Renaissance there has been a concerted effort to retcon the Romans and Greeks to make them into the supposed origin of innovations that in fact first appeared at that time. In the process, the ancients have been systematically misrepresented as peoples with an essentially modern sensibility, separated from our own days by a major discontinuity caused by Barbarians and Christians and the like. This has caused major misinterpretation of Classical thought.

    Your statement that the Kusaasi are paradigmatically alien and exotic reminds me that the key Kusaasi “religious” concept win, which the Bible translation shanghais for “god”, in fact is quite close to the Latin genius; much closer than to “soul” or “god.”

  107. David Eddyshaw says

    On Classical attitudes to sexuality (which were by no means identical between the Romans and the Greeks) I would strongly recommend Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality. Greek attitudes to sex were really not at all like those of modern liberals.

    Respectable Athenians kept their wives in purdah.

    On Roman attitudes, consider the famous story of Cato the Censor (famous for his stern old-fashioned virtue) saying Macte virtute “Well done!” on seeing a young man of good family emerging from a brothel. The point of his praise was not that he approved of sexual licence (he degraded a man from the Senate for kissing his wife in public) but that the the young man had chosen a much better option than having an affair with a respectable woman, which would be Very Bad Indeed.

    Slavery among the Romans naturally implied sexual slavery. This was regarded as perfectly normal. A freed slave was expected to continue to offer sexual services to his old master, as a matter of common gratitude for being freed.

    It was not possible, as a matter of law, to rape an actress. By being an actress, she had forfeited any such legal protection.

  108. abraham our father

    yes to JC’s onomastic point, but what i was pointing to is more elaborate as well. to expand a little (mostly leaving aside the supercessionist elements of christianity):

    in jewish terms, the “father” part in “abraham our father” isn’t figurative (or spiritual, in the ways that the christian embrace of the phrase is) – but it’s literal within an understanding of lineage that’s explicitly based on affinity and affiliation rather than blood descent.

    the rabbinic debate i was citing (beginning around the time the rabbinite canon of tanakh & talmud was being formed, if i remember shaye j. d. cohen’s writing on it correctly) was very specifically over whether there was the same lineage relationship between abraham and jews by choice as between abraham and jews by bloodline.* if not, then a ger (in the sense of ‘jew by choice/convert’) – or the descendant of a ger – should say different words where the ritually required** prayers say “abraham ovinu”.

    the decision – which was occasionally reopened in some communities until the 1500s (christian reckoning), but not since – was that the relationships were the same: that a ger, by the fact of affiliation to a jewish community and its way of life, has become a descendant of abraham in the same sense as any other jew. or, in more abstract terms, that lineage is not a matter of blood but of affinity. which is not an unusual way to understand lineage (except in the Blut-und-Boden framings that structure nationstates***).

    to my eye, that backdrop is one of the things that shows how innovative the christian concept of separable “religion” was. for the separate sphere to exist, living in a certain way has to not make you part of the lineage group that lives that way (which is the model of the philosophic school as well as the ethnos) – otherwise “christian” couldn’t transcend “jew” and “greek”, it could only be co-equal with them.

    and i see that flowing into a lot of different aspects of christian rhetoric. believers are “brothers in christ”, not their founding figure’s sons. groups condemned as heretical, by contrast, are generally named for a founding father (even when one has to be invented for the purpose) – the sons of arius, of marcion, of bogomil. the only paternal role allowed in the picture is the divine one, with god understood as the universal father who dissolves all lineage distinctions precisely to make the point that christianity is the proper state of all people. it’s fascinating!

    * who are axiomatically blood descendants of abraham.

    ** as usual, only men are jews for the purposes of these debates.

    *** which is why the zionist project is the only widespread jewish framework to openly reject it, through on the one hand the blood quantum approach used for the Law of Colonization and on the other the very christian approach of state-mandated-doxy used in family law and to refuse to recognize whole jewish communities as validly jewish.

  109. J.W. Brewer says

    To the “Abraham our father” point, “fictive kinship” is I believe a standard anthropological term because it’s such a widespread phenomenon. Obviously sometimes it’s consciously understood to be fictive while other times those in a particular group (esp. an ethnic or national one in the 19th-century-et-seq sense) at least talk as if the rhetoric of shared common descent is literally historically/biologically true even if the founding progenitor must have been back in prehistorical times in order for the math to account for the current size of the group. Of course various large groups of humans do inevitably have a Most Recent Common Ancestor, but the way in which nationalistic narratives of this variety work tend not to be informed by the latest statistical understandings of how population genetics works over long time frames.

    In terms of the Christian overcoming of the Jew/Greek distinction there’s maybe a certain asymmetry because “Greek” is often sort of a synecdoche for “non-Jew” that doesn’t imply some particularistic coherent internal way-of-life structure like Jewishness does. On the other hand, one of the NT verses I heard yesterday morning (per the lessons appointed in my particular church’s lectionary) was Colossians 3:11, saying in part “neither Greeke, nor Iew, circumcision, nor vncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian” etc., indicating an understanding that if you wanted to discuss the goyische world really comprehensively, just saying “Greek” was inadequate.

  110. It was not possible, as a matter of law, to rape an actress. By being an actress, she had forfeited any such legal protection.

    What is this thing about actresses? They were outlawed from kabuki because of problems with prostitution…. Even just a few generations ago it was regarded as a disreputable profession in (many?) Western societies.

    Not to mention Harvey Weinstein. It looks like he would have been right at home in ancient Rome.

  111. J.W. Brewer says

    A separate linguistic angle re the striking universality of the particular “fictive kinship” (if that’s what it should be called) proposed by Christian (as well as some post-Christian) rhetoric is the lovely American political-journalism term “bomfog.” The usual etymological story is that 60-odd years ago when he was a prominent national figure and potential presidential contender, Nelson Rockefeller used the phrase “the brotherhood of man [and/under] the fatherhood of God” so frequently that the journalists covering his speeches just started scribbling down “B.O.M.F.O.G.” in their notes, and it then became a running joke, and then a useful jargon word to describe similar vaguely-uplifting-sounding blather from other politicians.

  112. J.W. Brewer says

    Actresses were viewed negatively in the early Church. The Apostolic Canons (probably actually post-apostolic and from maybe the 4th century) provided that a married man could be ordained (although an already-ordained man couldn’t necessarily get married – it’s not the same thing), but “He who has taken a widow, or a divorced woman, or an harlot, or a servant, or one belonging to the theatre, cannot be either a bishop, priest, or deacon, or indeed any one of the sacerdotal catalogue.”

  113. Yes, I’ve always loved “bomfog.”

  114. Actresses were viewed negatively in the early Church

    Surely that’s a consequence of the Church being part of Roman society.

  115. J.W. Brewer says

    Yes, although per bathrobe if the Church had been part of Japanese society instead maybe you would have had the same result. There’s a theological rationale (although it’s a contentious one) for the bar against marriage to the previously-married; the rationale for avoiding marriage to women from dubious or scandalous or sinful prior backgrounds is in tension with some other theological teachings, although that sort of tension is probably unavoidable given the historical/institutional context.

  116. David Eddyshaw says

    IIRC, a special law had to be passed for it to be possible for Justinian to marry Theodora.

    This loss of legal protection for bodily integrity wasn’t confined to actresses; it was a consequence of infamia (in the legal sense), which was distinct from outright slave status:

    Wikipedia has a good (if somewhat depressing) account of “sexuality in ancient Rome”:

    Everything you could possibly want to know, and a fair bit that you wish you didn’t.

  117. Surely in certain significant ways, there were structural similarities between the late Republican/Imperial Roman world and ours that shaped attitudes to religion and made them closer to ours than to those of medieval Europe. Vast areas with differing practices were brought into a single realm, where there was something new – a marketplace of cults that one could pick and choose from. Identities were shifting in ways they don’t seem to have before, as loyalty to a city, the primary locus of cult, and its central god, waned. People were inventing not just new gods, but new ways of thinking about gods or god. Did proselytizing have any real meaning in 700 BC or 700 AD? Perhaps in the sense of proselytizing royalty, but in any other sense? But Judaism, Christianity, the cult of Sol Invictus, the mystery cults, all were looking for converts under the Empire.

    Did that fluidity exist in Europe or the Mediterranean in the middle ages? I think there are others here who know more than I, but my sense is not. Did it exist in the Hellenizing period, or prior? Interpretatio Graeca seems a completely different phenomenon, something more like the ecumenism of the early 20th century that had some Jewish congregations moving Shabbat to Sunday, and not like the openness of our more global era, when large numbers of people have left their churches, and many of you likely know, as I do, people who’ve converted to Judaism, Buddhism or Islam (or perhaps vice versa, though my personal examples moved out of Christianity).

    I remember being in Chiapas, and suddenly realizing that the distinctive garb of each village created an interlocking set of allegiances and meanings. If you saw a woman in a certain type of shirt on market day, you might know she was from your village; but you might also know she was from the village that specializes in pottery, or especially tasty tomatoes; or the village whose patron saint specialized in healing warts, or coronaviruses. But that such a set of meanings could only extend so far, and as soon as people travel to more distant parts, a camisa that isn’t recognized becomes meaningless.

    I wonder whether the system of city gods functioned similarly. While your world was Greek, you could remember the cities, their patron gods and their specialties, so that the fraternity of merchants from Pylos and the fraternity from Corinth and the warriors of Sparta were known entities. As your world became a little larger, you could integrate the cults of Jerusalem, Sidon, Biblos and Tyre into your system by trying to make their gods correspond, even while recognizing that they didn’t entirely, and that the correspondences created no new loyalties. No sister city relationships between the city of a Semitic god and the city of the matching Greek god, united under the banner of Saturn.

    As the empire grew beyond the ability of normal people to hold in mind the meaning of the civic identities of everyone who might wander into town, the ethos, the set of interlocking identities and meanings, fell apart, creating the need for an imperial, imperious god, but first creating a free-for-all, as varying groups vied to make their god the one.

  118. January First-of-May says

    Did proselytizing have any real meaning in 700 BC or 700 AD? Perhaps in the sense of proselytizing royalty, but in any other sense?

    700 AD was partway through the “let’s convert all those pesky pagans in Northern Europe” period. If that’s not proselytizing, I’m not sure what is.

    In particular, the Anglo-Saxon mission in Frisia was active at the time (under Willibrord), and while they notably didn’t manage to convert the local king Redbad, they appead to have been fairly successful otherwise.

    No comment about 700 BC, though I’m sure there’s something from that period as well.

    [I’ll try to get to the rest of the thread later.]

  119. The lack of respect for actresses that is found in many cultures has some understandable, if unfortunate, roots.

    If you begin with the perception that the primary responsibility of women in society is raising children and maintaining the household,* then women who are working outside the home are automatically going to be held to a higher standard of scrutiny than homemakers. There was always a suspicion that they would not have time to serve their husbands and children adequately. More particularly, women who traveled as members of performing troupes were often deemed simply incapable of being respectable women, because they were not going home to their husbands’ or fathers’ dwellings each day, to take care of their female duties.

    It was also commonly presumed that the only reason to put a woman on the stage was to titillate the audience sexually. If in impresario was presenting a soberly dramatic work and one of the characters was supposed to be a women, he could just as well cast a man in the role. After all, people thought a man was bound to be a better actor than any woman; and that was how directors as disparate as Sophocles and Richard Burbage did things. A woman in the theater was presumed to be there to entice the (largely or exclusively male) audience.

    These factors led to a vicious circle of negative synergy. If it was impossible for actresses to be respectable, careers in the theatre were most attractive to women in already difficult straits—who were already likely to have a hard time commanding respect, who might also be more willing to engage in sex work, and who, even if there were not willing, were vulnerable to exploitation. If little distinction was made between actresses and sex workers, it could be hard for a woman in the theater to find roles where she was not expected to strip or to work as a prostitute after the shows.

    * Keeping the males from peeing on the kitchen fire, as Freud would have it

  120. while we’re on the subject of categories that don’t match contemporary ones…

    “professional performer”* in a lot of western asia (including the european peninsula [peninsulae?]) sprawls over territory that we now partition into “occupation”, “gender”, “sexuality”, and “ethnicity”. anthony shay has some fascinating articles dealing with this in relation to (what he describes as**) male solo dancers in the arab-persian-turkish world, and the presumption of professional performers’ sexual availability and expansive sexual interests in that context. similarly, in the parts of southeastern europe where “professional perfomer” generally also means “not part of the locally dominant language/culture group”, the groups most consistently identified with that occupational/ethnic zone are also the ones seen as different/deviant (jews and rroma, in particular) in gender/sexuality terms. and in the anglophone world, there’s probably a dissertation’s worth of analysis to be done of the interweavings of nationality/ethnicity, sex work, and occupation in either My Secret Life or Daniel Deronda alone…

    * using the phrase in a normative understanding that excludes the sex trades; sex workers are of course professional performers by any rigorous definition.

    ** whole other can of worms, but i tend to think that shay’s use of contemporary christian/roman gender categories to define his material isn’t helpful to his analysis.

  121. Daniel Deronda

    My wife and I just finished reading it! Very hurried and unsatisfactory ending (Mirah’s father swipes the ring and sneaks out, never to be heard of again), but a fascinating novel, with, as you say, much to think about in terms of nationality/ethnicity, sex work, and occupation. It should be better known; it’s not the best Eliot, but even second-rate Eliot is better than a lot of stuff people gobble down with pleasure.

  122. Kusaasi win … Latin genius

    Boas seems to be making a similar comparison with genius here:

    A consideration of the religious ideas of the Eskimo shows that the tornait, the invisible rulers of every object, are the most remarkable beings next to Sedna. Everything has its inua (owner), which may become the genius of man who thus obtains the qualities of angakunirn*. I am not quite sure that every inua can become the tornaq of a man, though with the Greenlanders this was possible. I learned of three kinds of spirits only, who are protectors of angakut: those in the shape of men, of stones, and of bears. These spirits enable the angakut to have intercourse with the others who are considered malevolent to mankind, and though those three species are kind to their angakut they would hurt strangers who might happen to see them. The bear seems to be the most powerful among these spirits. The tornait of the stones live in the large bowlders scattered over the country. The Eskimo believe that these rocks are hollow and form a nice house, the entrance of which is only visible to the angakoq whose genius lives in the stone. The tornaq is a woman with only one eye, in the middle of the brow. Another kind of tornaq lives in the stones that roll down the hills in spring when the snow begins to melt. If a native happens to meet such a stone, which is about to become his tornaq, the latter addresses him: “I jumped down in long leaps from my place on the cliff. As the snow melts, as water is formed on the hills, I jump down.” Then it asks the native whether he is willing to have it for his tornaq, and if he answers in the affirmative it accompanies him, wabbling along, as it has no legs.
    The Central Eskimo (1888)
    *angakoq is sometimes equated with “shaman”

    And another 19th-century writer using the same term:

    At the entrance to one of the narrow defiles of the Cordilleras, in which the Indians are often overtaken by violent storms, Sanchez told me that he had seen a large mass of rock with small cavities upon its surface, into which the Indians, when about to enter the pass, generally deposit a few glass beads, a handful of meal, or some other propitiatory offering to the “genius” supposed to preside over the spot and rule the storm.
    —Edmond R. Smith, The Araucanians : or, Notes of a tour among the Indian tribes of southern Chili (1855)

    So these guys must have had enough classical education to have heard of genius, and expected that their audience did too.

  123. christianity as a project comes to be based on the notion that there is a separable thing called “religion” – that’s what makes ‘neither jew nor greek in christ’ make any sense at all – but that is an innovation.

    I think the question is already present in Alexander’s empire. After the founding of Alexandria, there are eventually more Jews there than in Palestine (in a geographical sense), and the LXX translation is made by Jews for the large number of Jews who have neither Hebrew nor Aramaic. So are these Alexandrians: (a) Greeks who believe in the Jewish God (Hellenes of the Jewish faith, as it were), (b) Jews who have adopted some-but-not-all pagan customs (including language), or (c) not Jews at all? The fact that the question needs to be asked and answered shows that there is already a separation between religion and ethnicity long before Christianity arises.

    There are even earlier adumbrations: the Jews, we are told in the New Testament, have no dealings with the Samaritans (Jesus is personally rather inconsistent on the point), but the Samaritan Tractate says they are Jews when they are doing Jewish things and goyim when they are doing goyish things. What is more, in a generation or two all Samaritans (by patriarchal reckoning) will also be halakhic Jews (by matriarchal reckoning) because inbreeding. Which will set the cat among the pigeons.

    the Blut-und-Boden framings that structure nationstates


    Civic nationalism is a new thing in the world (whereas empire and nation-state are older than history), and it is always engaged in a struggle against ethnic nationalism, most bloodily, perhaps, in the U.S. Civil War. Civic nationalism starts as ethnic nationalism but then widens its scope until it takes in all or almost all residents.

    That is what was happening in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the third of the great 18C constitutional republics), where the szlachta ‘nobility, gentry’ had expanded to 10% of the population. I think by the 21C it would have been universal if the state had survived instead of first being partitioned three ways and then breaking up into six ethnic-national states. Eventually the serfs would have been emancipated by their own Aleksander II (the first being the Jagiellonian) and from there, there is nowhere to go but up.

  124. Speaking of actresses, this is from the article about Procopius in Wikipedia:

    Secret History portrays Belisarius as a weak man completely emasculated by his wife, Antonina, who is portrayed in very similar terms to Theodora. They are both said to be former actresses and close friends. Procopius claimed Antonina worked as an agent for Theodora against Belisarius, and had an ongoing affair with Belisarius’ godson, Theodosius.


  125. David Eddyshaw says

    The Secret History is so far over the top that you end up believing nothing of it all. (Justinian is basically a vampire.)

    Even if it were all true, the astonishing contrast with Procopius’ prortrayals of the same people elsewhere reveals the man as an extraordinary hypocrite (even making all due allowances for the undoubted wisdom of flattering live emperors as much as possible.)

  126. Everything relating to Theodora and Antonina in Secret History is basically pornography.

    Procopius is even more explicit than Ibn Fadlan, another great medieval pornographer.

  127. An article about Buryat shamanism, which was the subject of a book by a major Mongolian author. (Obviously a translation from Mongolian because it’s so damned hard to understand, but it does discuss the relationship between Buddhism and shamanism.)

  128. depicting magical phenomena such as drinking a mushroom drink that gives magical power, traveling through the spirit world, connecting with ancestral spirits

    Well, after drinking hallucinogenic mushroom drink, traveling through the spirit world is exactly what you would expect to happen.

  129. Two contrasting excerpts illustrating Erdenepil’s writing style.

    Very traditional narrative common to Mongolian (or even Asian) historiography:

    Bogdo-Tszonkhava believed that religion should be based on the rules of the Kadampa teaching established by Ju-Atisha. For thirty years he worked on drawing up an expanded charter of religious doctrine, which he wrote in the form of an interpretation to Atisha’s narrative “The Lamp, Illuminating the Path to Holiness” (Mong. Bodi Murin Zula), calling it “Steps of the Path to Holiness” (Mong. Bodi muriin zereg). In addition, he studied all the largest works of Indian pandits on traits-properties (tsannids) and based on this he wrote several works about this, putting forward new ideas. Many scholars of Tibet, for example, from Sakya, became indignant, saying: “Some Tsonghava from the lower land of the Tangut decided to preach a new teaching. We must arrange a dispute with him, suppress his mind and thereby destroy his ideas. ” Many arranged disputes with Tszonghava Lubsandagwa, but each time they were defeated themselves, after which they became his disciples. As a result, more and more educated and learned people of Tibet began to turn to the teachings of Tsonghava …

    And then his narrative goes into something completely different:

    Tsonghava, creating his doctrine of attributes-properties, based it on the work “The Basis of Wisdom” by the Indian scientist Nagarjuna, as well as on the commentary to this work entitled “Possessing a Clear Word”, also compiled by Indian scholar Indrakirti.

    In general terms, this teaching boils down to the following reasoning. If you take a piece of gold and try to study it, then it will be necessary to decompose it into its component properties: weight, stiffness, color, shape, etc., or decompose it into internal elements, down to the smallest particles. What will then be left of the piece of gold? In its individual constituent parts, there are no signs of form and matter – neither a solid piece, nor gold. If the totality of the constituent parts is called gold, then this totality, as mentioned above, is decomposed into constituent parts, and then we will not find in it the sign of the totality. If we take a piece of gold and use a special tool to decompose it into its component parts and examine it, we will see that gold has decomposed into dozens of different metals, and it does not exist as such. Having decomposed a piece of gold into the smallest particles, we will see that these particles also have component parts. While they are called “matter”, they are characterized by changes, decomposition, decay. On the other hand, if we mix a piece of gold with matter of a different property, then due to the circumstances that arose during mixing, it can become matter with properties opposite to gold. Therefore, the gold itself and the matter obtained from its changes are only the semblance of mutual relations, and they do not have a definite, independent property. Consequently, the formation of an object and the receipt by it of this or that property is the result of the accumulation of various properties by matter. In the same way, living and inanimate bodies formed from a combination of various causes and effects, following the state of these causes and effects, change as a result of the actions of climate, temperature, favorable and unfavorable conditions, etc. Therefore, they, each individually, do not have their own special properties , their properties are acquired, and this is tantamount to a miracle. Although all bodies depend on causes and conditions and do not have their own special properties, due to the regularity of the action of causes, various properties of objects can be useful or harmful. These views are called the doctrine of emptiness, that is, non-existence or absence of matter.

    Bogdo-Tszonkhava, who disseminated these ideas in Tibet, died in the year of the yellow pig (1419), on the twenty-fifth of the first winter month, reaching sixty-three years. After the death of the teacher, his students decided to erect the best of them in his place and entrust him with the work of the yellow religion.

    The contrast is striking.

    One paragraph in Erdenepil’s history is written like a medieval chronicle and the next one is straight from “The Proceedings of the Physical Society”.

  130. David Marjanović says

    straight from “The Proceedings of the Physical Society”

    No, straight from Indian philosophy.

  131. Now I’m curious how “Chandrakirti” became “Indrakirti.” Unless there’s another author who wrote a commentary on Nagarjuna with a title that translates as “Clear Words.”

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