Religion and Urbanity at the EASR annual conference 2019 (part one of two)

From 25 to 29 June the 17th annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions took place in the Estonian University town of Tartu. The overarching topic was “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions”, a broad theme which was interpreted in many different ways and across a wide range of times and locations. (See here for the programme).

Tartu itself is a city with a long and varied history. Indeed, the town iself illustrates aspects of the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity. Much of the town’s development was connected to the fact that the town was the seat of a bishopric. Similarly, the influence of the Teutonic Knights, an order which understood itself as primarily religious in nature, continued to influence the fortunes of the town for centuries. And even now, the ruins of Tartu Cathedral are one of the key factors in the urban toruist economy, besides being the site of many ghost stories, many of which participants heard during a “Ghost Tour”.

Tartu Cathedral Ruins (Source: Wikipedia)

The KFG was present with two series of panels, one on women’s agency and the second one (subject of the forthcoming second part of this conference report) on urban religion, intellectualization and the invention of ritual. The first panel series was organised by Asuman Lätzer-Lasar, post-doctoral fellow of the research group, and consisted of two linked panels on the theme of “Women’s Agency and Religious Networks”. The panels were co-organised with Julietta Alexandra Steinhauer-Hogg, lecturer at University College London and a former fellow at the Max Weber Centre, and Sabine Neumanm, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Marburg.

The panel explored the agency of women in and via religious networks, taking an interdisciplinary and comprehensive approach. Throughout the history of religions, women have initiated, shaped and maintained religious networks in their capacities as founders, priests, benefactors, dedicands, worshippers and more. Female agents were responsible for cult foundations, cult transfers and the creation of new religious organisations. Yet Research on female networks, agency and ‘religious creativity’ is limited, partly owing to the place of women on the margins of many societies. The panel aimed, on the one hand, to narrow the gap in knowledge with regard to female agency and the establishment, maintenance and decline of religious networks. On the other hand, it raised questions about current approaches to gender and religion. This perspective allowed speakers and the audience to see beyond the single category of gender by taking into account the various factors that shaped an individual’s (religious) experience, such as origin, social, and marital status.

Radwa Salem delivered a paper on women and rituals in classical Athens. The paper shed light on the role of women as active agents in shaping society and maintaining the “cultural System”. As “cultural Systems” are maintained by rituals, the significant role of women as patrons of culture can be identified by studying their role in the performance of rituals. Classical Athens provides a good case study as the role of women in creation, change and maintenance of death rituals is recognized in both the textual and material evidence. Most phases of the mortuary treatment were the responsibility of the Athenian women and so it is them who were directly associated with the performance of death rituals and the ones responsible for the continuity and survival of different aspects of culture from ancient times until the modern-day Greece. As the paper showed, the diverse society of Athens during the classical period provided a significant atmosphere of cultural interaction that clearly influenced female identity and the way women expressed that identity.

Sabine Neuman‘s presentation on “Women’s agency in cults for non-Greek deities in Classical and Hellenistic Athens” analysed the agency of women in religious cults for so called non-Greek deities in Athens during Classical and Hellenistic times. Previous studies stated that women played an essential part in ancient Greek religion because men provided priests for male deities and women for female deities. Ancient Greek religion is therefore regarded as a traditional sphere for the agency of women. The paper explored which roles women played in the introduction of so called non-Greek deities and new religious cults for i.e. Kybele, Isis, Bendis and Isodaites. Inscriptions and literary sources attest women, Athenians as well as migrant women, who introduced new deities, dedicated votive offerings and were active in cult associations for non-Greek goddesses. The paper drew particular attention to material culture, for example representations of priestesses. A closer look at these sources shed light on how Athenians and migrant women shaped the religious life in Classical and Hellenistic Athens.

Julietta Alexandra Steinhauer-Hogg‘s paper was entitled “Religious associations, women and agency”. It explored the social dynamics of religious associations in Hellenistic Greece with a focus on priestesses and female agents. Religious associations offered individuals the scope to create and shape a socio-religious space for themselves and their fellow worshippers. Societal norms and restrictions such as ethnic origin, gender and civic status often played a marginal role. Women, whether local or non-local, could therefore hold leading positions often associated with men, as presidents, priests, religious specialists and secretaries, as well as benefactors and simple members. However, owing to the restrictions inherent in the overwhelmingly epigraphic evidence, it is often difficult to decide to what extent the positions described in the texts meant that these women held actual agency. By comparing certain inscriptions referring to female agents in Asia Minor, the Aegean and Athens, the paper illustrated the potential for this line of research and the limitations faced when solely relying on epigraphy.

The Main Building of Tartu University, Venue of the EASR Annual Conference (Source: Wikipedia)

The second panel was opened by Anna Mech, who delivered a paper on “Women in religious life in Roman Dalmatia. Were they really silent?”. The paper attempted to reconstruct the religious life of women who lived in Dalmatia – one of the most ethnically diverse Roman province. The paper presented not only the choices that women made when engaging in religious life but also some important aspects of their private life. Epigraphic monuments were set up – among other reasons – to express the social position of the dedicant. Therefore, it is possible to track the dedicant’s ethnical origin, find their husbands and children or examine the individual intentions of their prayers. Through this Analysis, the paper argued, valuable insights can be reached into the beliefs of individuals and in what ways the “female religiosity” differed (if at all) from the dominant ancient male narrative.

The paper by Carmen González-Gutiérrez, associate of the KFG and COFUND fellow at the Max Weber Centre, moved the discussion to medieval Spain. She showed that European historiography has traditionally assumed that the Islamic urban landscape in the Middle Ages was predominantly a male arena, in which the presence and actions of women were relegated to the interior of the domestic spaces. However, new methodologies and perspectives pioneered in the history of gender, combined with the advances in research on Islamic cities – especially Al-Andalus – allow us to glimpse quite a different reality. The most recent analyses show that the division between the public and private spheres was not so strict, and that determined women could take an active part in providing cities with mosques and other religious facilities, as well as in encouraging specific religious practices. Through a combination of written and recent archaeological sources recovered for al-Andalus, the paper showed that the presence of women in streets and public spaces influenced their configuration; furthermore, the papers addressed the conscious dynamics through which the female patronage, mainly by founding mosques and other pious legacies, became an essential part of the normal functioning of the city and of women’ visibility.

The discussions after the papers showed how much potential the further exploration of women and their agency has. Taking an inter-disciplinary and wide-ranging view yielded some fascinating points of comparison, as well as showing points of divergence between different regions and times. Undoubtedly, women and their networks are not always immediately apparent and their presence in the sources has to be unearted through layers of evidence and, in some cases, also disentangled from a male-dominated historiographical narrative. But, as the two panels clearly showed, this is an essential undertaking if we want to gain a more accurate picture of the past.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2019, July 15). Religion and Urbanity at the EASR annual conference 2019 (part one of two). Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from

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