Tacitus in Calgary

Although blog posts have been sparse as of late, it’s not without good reason: I’ve been working hard on my grad school courses. Needless to say, this takes a lot of time and attention!

Luckily, the hard work appears to be paying off and 2016 is off to a good start! I am happy to announce that I will be presenting a paper at this year’s Religion & History Graduate Student Conference which is held by the Department of Classics & Religion at the University of Calgary. The conference takes place on April 14th and 15th.

My paper focuses on Tacitus’ Histories, specifically book five, and the anti-Judean content in his discussion of the ritual of Sukkot. Here’s the abstract:

Refutatio Romana:
The Political Dimensions of Religious Difference in Tacitus’ Histories 5.5

The Roman historian Tacitus coined the phrase interpretatio Romana to describe his attempts to understand foreign religion within a Roman framework. This strategy of cultural translation, however, is abandoned in his discussion of the Judeans in book five of the Histories. Although Tacitus is confronted with several opportunities to bring Judean and Roman religion into sympathetic conversation, he instead draws an acrimonious picture of Judean ritual. This religious alterity is especially seen in his characterization of the celebration of Sukkot, a festival he describes as “absurd and filthy” in contrast with the joyous practices of the Roman god Liber. Using Sukkot as a lens for Tacitus’ discussion of the Judeans, this paper seeks to answer a significant, but often overlooked question implicit in Tacitus’ discussion: Why is Judean religion portrayed with such hostility? This paper argues that Tacitus’ rhetoric underscores the identity politics at work within this treatise, and moreover serves a larger political function which reflects unprecedented imperial goals in Judea. On the one hand, Tacitus’ rhetoric sits within a larger milieu of Roman discourse on the Judeans, but this discourse also held political possibilities: the unfavourable portrayal of the Judeans legitimated a uniquely religious conquest of the region as centered on the temple locus. By examining the historical context of religious alterity in the Histories we can better understand this puzzling turn in Tacitus’ portrayal of foreign religion.

I am eager to present this paper since it has a little bit of something for everyone. The event itself is free, so if you are in Calgary and want to lean a bit about Tacitus, feel free to stop by!

Photo courtesy the University of Calgary.


Ancient Curses Research Project: An Honourable Mention

Last year I undertook an independent research project on curses with Tony Burke at York University. (Learn more about this project at the Ancient Curses website!) While the course itself included curses from many different genres (Roman curse tablets? Yep. Biblical curses? Those too!), my major research project focused on Roman-era curse tablets, specifically those found in holy sites.

This paper was submitted to the York University Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Sciences essay competition. The LAPS consists of 25,000 students, and recognizes eight papers every year for special recognition: One award at each educational level (first year, second year, third year, and fourth year), and four honorable mentions. Obviously, there were a lot of contenders here!

Here is how the award is judged:

“The jury judged the essays by the following criteria: clarity of presentation, coherence and cogency of argument, appropriateness of organization, felicity of expression, and ‘brilliance,’ which may manifest itself as wit, originality, persuasive power, or insight.”

With the other winners at the York University Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Sciences essay competition award ceremony.
With the other winners at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Sciences essay competition award ceremony.

I am happy to report that my research paper received an honourable mention for research! This is really important since the paper itself was not only undertaken within a niche area of study (Greco-Roman religion), but it focused on an even more niche research topic (curses). These are two pretty specialized areas which are far removed from many fields of study, so it was nice to take my place amongst the other winners, whose essays tended to focused on more modern and accessible topics. Who says antiquity isn’t relevant!

My understanding is that this paper will be published in a York-specific publication, Prize Winning Essays. Of course, my thanks to Professor Burke for undertaking this project in the first place and for nominating my essay for an award. In addition to finding the overall project fun, it’s an area which may come into play in my future research, and this project was a great introduction to the study of curses. In the meantime, however, I’ll content myself with this wonderful recognition.


Ancient Miracle Workers: The Emperor Vespasian

VespasianWhen we think about miracle workers in antiquity, holy men usually come to mind: historical figures who captured the imagination through their supernatural talents and their working of divine miracles. Although Roman emperors were deified, and thereby considered godlike by default, their special talents generally relate to success on the battle field or their ability to mobilize the public. The emperor Vespasian, however, is an exception. Indeed, before he became princeps, he was working miracles in Alexandria.

Let me step back and clarify—the miracles in question are disputed. Our report here is comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who takes a skeptical view of Vespasian’s holy deeds. Of course, like any savvy politician, Tacitus knew that to win political power one must first win the hearts of the people. And this is exactly where we find Vespasian. A future leader who has yet to become emperor, he is laying low in Egypt during a time of civil strife.

As the story goes, during this time, Vespasian was the subject of several miracles which indicated that the gods favoured him. The biggest indication came, however, from two men—one who was going blind and the other who was crippled in his hand. Each, thinking that Vespasian held divine power, accosted the would-be emperor and sought to be healed. One man by Vespasian’s spit, the other through the power of his footprints:

e plebe Alexandrina quidam oculorum tabe notus genua eius advolvitur, remedium caecitatis exposcens gemitu, monitu Serapidis dei,…precabaturque principem ut genas et oculorum orbis dignaretur respergere oris excremento. alius manum aeger eodem deo auctore ut pede ac vestigio Caesaris calcaretur orabat. Vespasianus primo inridere, aspernari; atque illis instantibus modo famam vanitatis metuere, modo obsecratione ipsorum et vocibus adulantium in spem induci.

Of the Alexandrian people, one man who learned that there was decay of his eyes fell at his [Vespasian’s] knees, imploring him with a groan for a remedy of his blindness, since he was advised by the god Serapis…he begged the princeps that his cheeks and circles of the eyes were deemed worthy to be sprinkled with his spit. Another man who was sick in his hand spoke to this same god and father [Serapis] with the result that his hand might be walked on by the Caesar’s foot and footprints. At first, Vespasian laughed and these requests were rejected. Through these instances, he feared that he would acquire a reputation for vanity, but he was finally led to hope by the entreaty of these very people and the cries of adulation.

Histories 4.81

Although initially unsure whether to attempt to heal these men, Vespasian is swayed by the crowd. But this dude is a cool cookie. He knows that, if things go right and the men are healed, he will be viewed as a god. But if the men are not healed, he will look impotent and foolish. So he does what any cunning politician would do—he takes a poll. Seeking out doctors, he assesses the chance that these men might be healed of their illnesses and how this might come about. Vespasian, you see, isn’t so much interested in working miracles, as he is in giving the appearance that he can work miracles:

postremo aestimari a medicis iubet an talis caecitas ac debilitas ope humana superabiles forent. medici varie disserere: huic non exesam vim luminis et redituram si pellerentur obstantia; illi elapsos in pravum artus, si salubris vis adhibeatur, posse integrari. denique patrati remedii gloriam penes Caesarem, inriti ludibrium penes miseros fore. igitur Vespasianus cuncta fortunae suae patere ratus nec quicquam ultra incredibile. laeto ipse vultu, erecta quae adstabat multitudine, iussa exequitur. statim conversa ad usum manus, ac caeco reluxit dies.

Finally, he ordered them to be checked out by some doctors or to learn if such a kinds of blindness or debility might be surmounted with human aid. The doctors talked in various ways: for the one man, the power of light was not gone and it would return if obstacles were removed; for the other man, his muscles slipped into a crooked form, but if he was held with good power, it was possible that he could be made whole….if the remedies were performed, there would be glory for Caeser. But if they were of no importance to the unfortunate men, there would be mockery. Therefore, Vespasian imagined that all fortune was available to him, and nothing could be more incredible.

Histories 4.81

As the crowd stood by with baited breath, Vespasian weighed the odds, concluding that it was possible to heal these men—not through his sorcerous spit or magic footprints, but through the application of medical techniques (which aren’t fully named beyond a bit of physiotherapy for the guy with the dodgy hand). Of course, Vespasian gambles a bit here, but decides that he’s been especially blessed by the gods lately, so why not give it a shot.

So how does it go? Vespasian is victorious! Moreover, he is victorious in front of an eager crowd, who eats up his flashy smile as he heals the men of their ailments.

laeto ipse vultu, erecta quae adstabat multitudine, iussa exequitur. statim conversa ad usum manus, ac caeco reluxit dies.

With a happy appearance, he stood among the multitude which had gathered, and he performed the prescriptions. Steadily, the hand turned to use and the day shown again for the blind man.

Histories 4.81

Tacitus, nevertheless, remains skeptical, although he claims that no one has anything to gain by repeating this story, and that fact alone is indicative of its veracity. The skepticism comes in the nature of the healing: although effected with the help of medical professionals, Vespasian indeed heals these men and perhaps that is enough of an indicator of divine favour.

Like other holy men in antiquity, Vespasian is portrayed as deriving his power from a divine source. He is noted as being especially favoured by the gods, and the success of his healing is framed as being a result of a divine providence (with a bit of rational calculation thrown in for insurance). But this holy man didn’t come from the fringes of society; he was a major player in Roman affairs and a future emperor. In this way, it is a bit surprising to see Vespasian in the role of divine holy man. Nonetheless, the events in Alexandria suggest that, like others in antiquity, emperors were able to perform miracles as agents as the divine.


2015 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium Wrap-Up

The third York Christian Apocrypha Symposium was held last week at York University. This event takes place every two years, and brings together the top North American scholars on Christian apocrypha and related literature. (Some of you may even recall that I worked behind the scenes on the the previous one.)

I only had the chance to attend the second day of this year’s symposium, so I won’t be sharing my thoughts here. Luckily, several other attendees are writing their thoughts and recaps, and I am happy to pass them along:

Tony Burke: Apocryphicity Blog

James McGrath: Exploring Our Matrix

Timo S. Paannanen: Salainen Evankelista

Eric Vanden Eykel

The lively discussion on Twitter

It should be noted that Tony Burke and Brent Landau have launched a society for scholars of the Christian apocrypha, and that in future years, the YCAS will be traveling under the aegis of The North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature. You can learn more about this organization here.

It’s really great to see how this conference has grown over the last few years and see this sort of work take root in the scholarly community in such a way. If you are at all interested in this genre of Christian literature, I urge you to get involved!



Is Scientology a Religion?

“Scientology is clearly a made-up thing, and would be a great plot for a TV series or movie, not necessarily a real-life commitment.”
— Ashwin Rodrigues, Vice Magazine

I recently watched the exposé documentary on Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Like many who watched this documentary, I found it well put together, entertaining, and educational. This isn’t the first critical look at Scientology, and those who have read other accounts, such as Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology or Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky, will be familiar with the more controversial aspects of Scientology detailed in Going Clear, such as allegations of abuse and L. Ron Hubbard’s pre-Scientology activities.

While I think the abuses brought forward in Going Clear and elsewhere are certainly problematic, I couldn’t help but be concerned at the way Scientology was consistently portrayed as “not a religion” by its critics in Going Clear and in other cultural discussions, such as a recent article on the Vice website. In fact, despite claims to the contrary, it appears that Scientology meets several criteria for being a religion.

I want to look at a few dimensions of what we would normally consider criteria for religion and see if Scientology fits the bill. These are the criteria that come up time and again in classrooms in response to the question, “How do you define religion?” Although many, if not all, of these criteria apply to all religions, much of my comparison here is with Christianity. The reason for this is two-fold. First, Christianity is the dominant religion in the West and thus our normative definition of “religion,” it speaks to a common currency of knowledge in a way other traditions do not. Second, I do not wish to speculate in-depth about traditions I have limited knowledge of and have restricted my discussion to cogent examples which exist within my knowledge base.

I write this not as a supporter of Scientology, nor is this meant to be a defense of their beliefs and practices, and I want to make clear that I do not condone the alleged abuses perpetrated by the church. Nevertheless, I support Scientology’s claim of being a religion. The answer why may surprise you.

Does Scientology have a soteriological goal?

One critique of Scientology is that while Christians or Muslims or Buddhists have an end-game, Scientology does not. Such a religious quest, called a soteriological goal, suggests that the adherent is saved by a particular religious message and by living according to the tenets of that faith. For example, a Christian soteriological goal would be to go to Heaven (and conversely avoid Hell). A Buddhist would similarly seek Nirvana (and avoid reincarnation). These aims are said to bring the adherent to eternal peace, a peace that is granted through religious activity.

Scientology does have such a goal. In Going Clear, “The Bridge” is frequently mentioned. This is a mythical metaphor for the spiritual path of the Scientologist. Through the various techniques Scientology offers, the adherent ascends “The Bridge” to the state of “Clear” and later to that of Operating Thetan. Scientology scholar David G. Bromley describes this as a progressive attainment of personal salvation through which a Scientologist “restores themselves to their original, natural condition” (92).

This idea of personal restoration to an original state is also found in Judaeo-Christian faiths, Gnostic beliefs, Kabbalah, and even Buddhism (e.g. cleaning the mirror to reveal the true self). The idea that there has been some event that has led to an imperfect humanity that needs to be restored to perfection is not unique to Scientology, and is a common motif of religious thought rather than a “strange” credo.

Does Scientology have a soteriological goal?
Answer: Yes.

Do Scientology’s adherents see themselves as religious or spiritual?

One of the things that stuck me about the documentary Going Clear were the accounts of ex-Scientologists. In particular, the story of Sea Org recruit Hana Eltringham Whitfield. The Sea Org is a division of Scientology which consists of elite members, but which has also come under scrutiny for abuses, such as unpaid labour. (Although it must be noted that several religious orders require service of their members for similarly low wages which are often re-donated to the religious group in question.)

Although later disenchanted with Scientology, Whitfield mentioned her initial joy at being invited to join the Sea Org. In fact, she said she was “so ecstatic…I was on my way to the greatest adventure in my life.” She describes her experience as a result of a “heady mix of emotion and belief.” Whitfield isn’t the only one to describe their involvement with Scientology as a spiritual or religious journey. In Going Clear, Ex-Scientologist Jason Beghe also describes his initial enthusiasm for Scientology as being “on a spiritual adventure.” While both Whitfield and Beghe have moved on and are now vocal critics of Scientology, it is interesting that both saw their early involvement as a spiritual journey.

Do Scientology members see themselves as on a religious or spiritual quest?
Answer: Yes

Does Scientology have an evangelizing mission?

Some faiths, some forms of Christianity for example, have evangelization as a component of their religion: the spreading of a “good message” in order to convert others to their religious beliefs and practices.

Scientology, too, engages in such “evangelizing.” On one level, the recruitment of members and sale of Scientology literature, criticised as a high-pressure, is a huge feature of Scientology, and recruiters are lauded for their numbers. Being praised for conversion numbers or promulgation of literature is not unique to Scientology, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons also engage in such “high pressure techniques” in an attempt to sway converts.

But Scientology, like the LDS church, isn’t just about boosting numbers—they believe they are saving souls and saving the planet (Bromley 92). Whitfield states that through her involvement with Scientology, she “was deeply convinced that we were going to save the world.”

The idea that the entire world needs to be saved stems from the creation myth of Scientology. Although often mocked for the belief in evil space aliens, this myth is an apocalyptic tale which reveals the fall of mankind and the eventual defeat of evil (here personified in the galactic leader Xenu). This fall, caused by the evil Xenu, currently threatens the spiritual path of humans (Bromley 91). Through various practices, it is believed this evil influence can be eliminated, thus saving the world. Of course, this universal salvation narrative is not unique to Scientology. Replace “Xenu” with “Satan” and you have the underpinnings of Christianity and other Judeo-Christian traditions.

Does Scientology have an evangelizing mission?
Answer: Yes

Does Scientology Have a Holy Text?

Scientology can be considered to have several holy texts. Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s first book to outline the basic principles of Scientology could be considered a holy text, as can the various literatures associated with internal Scientology study (including those related to Xenu and the creation myth). These works form the core of Scientology teachings, providing a template for member belief and practice. That these works have metaphysical import suggests that they may be considered religious texts.

Does Scientology have a holy text?
Answer: Yes.

Does Scientology have a savior figure?

L. Ron Hubbard is viewed as the father of Scientology and the one who developed the specific “spiritual technology” to “go clear.” While alive, Scientologists revered him to the point of servitude (see Whitfield’s interview in Going Clear), and he continues to be revered by Scientologists after his death. It could be argued that, for Scientologists, Hubbard is a savior figure in that he invented the means for various individuals to “Go Clear.”

He is not, however, a savior in a Christian sense—he is not seen as dying for Scientology. Rather, his role here is different. Bromley sees Hubbard as a “Prophetic persona” who “claimed to have discovered both the source of human misery…and a technology for realizing the godlike potential that all individuals actually possess” (88). Scientology has valorized Hubbard’s role as the founder of Scientology, imbuing it with special meaning and a salvic quality. In this way, Hubbard is more akin to a prophet or holy man, albeit an extremely important one, who provides key religious knowledge to their followers.

Does Scientology have a Saviour Figure?
Answer: Yes

Does Scientology have Holy Places?

The most obvious candidate for a Scientology holy place would be the church buildings themselves. In a promotional video on the Scientology website, one person likens a Scientology church to any other house of belief saying, “We have our Sunday services, we do marriages, we do naming ceremonies.” Clearly, the Scientology portrays its churches (which also provide courses on the “theology of Scientology”) as sacred places for the transmission of the beliefs and practices of Scientology.

Does Scientology have Holy Places?
Answer: Yes.

Is Scientology a Religion?
Final Verdict: Yes.

Scientology appears to share the same attributes of traditional religions. It has a soteriological belief system which promises its members salvation, its adherents see themselves engaged in a religious or spiritual quest, the organization evangelizes not just for individual but universal salvation, it has holy books and a prophetic leader who claims to have a special message, and its members meet in holy places in order to learn and transmit those teachings.

If Scientology is a Religion, Why the Criticism?

Many of the religion-specific criticisms leveled against Scientology by former adherents can be found in the critics of any religion who found themselves disillusioned over time. (See, for example, the number of self-identified “recovering Catholics.”) These are their experiences of Scientology, and as such their criticism can and should be taken as an insider perspective, albeit a critical one. The flipside is that anyone within the church, when providing their insider view, is liable to paint a diametrically positive view of the church. In other words, opinions are subjective. As we have seen, no matter how one feels about Scientology, it looks, acts and speaks like a religion and should be treated as such.

So why is there so much opposition?

The allegations of abuse certainly do not help Scientology. It is this dimension of abuse—but not belief—that most strongly recommends Scientology to be a cult in the modern sense. For many, I would imagine that it is difficult to separate religious practices from the sordid stories of kidnapping, harassment, and mistreatment which surround the church. But I do not think that this is the only reason there is so much opposition to Scientology.

That Scientology is a New Religious Movement is no doubt the biggest obstacle to acceptance. Established religions have the benefit of time to institutionalize and validate their beliefs and practices. Myths about omnipotent Gods, heaven and hell, savior figures, otherworldly prophets, and angels from the sky become accepted tradition that is passed along unquestioned. Beliefs about salvation become entrenched, and what were once fringe beliefs (Remember, Christianity was just one of many marginal Jewish beliefs which existed in Christ’s day) become an accepted way to perform religion.

New religious movements don’t have those benefits. New stories about sky gods and evil figures sound silly, or like science fiction. What modern person, armed with science and knowledge, could believe that their life is controlled by some superhuman figure from outer space? A holistic view, however, would note that there is little difference between a sky god named Zeus, a vengeful figure named Jehovah, or yes, a spiteful galactic ruler named Xenu.

Certainly, L. Ron Hubbard famously admitted that the best way to make money was to establish a religion. And, yes, Scientology is an invented tradition, but I would argue that all religion is invented tradition relative to the time of their adoption. Scientology clearly draws off timeless religious narratives as it reconfigures tales of humanity’s fall and salvation into a new belief system with modern spiritual technology (Hello, e-meters! Goodbye, confession!). Scientology’s newness doesn’t make it any less valid—or potent—as a religion. Its myths and methods are the similar to, or the same, as those found in other, older, belief systems.

We have seen that Scientology meets several criteria for a religion: it has a salvic goal, its members proselytize in order to save the world, it has a savior figure and holy places and a religious mythology preserved in books and literature. Scientology appears to very much be a religion. Is it a “true” religion? That doesn’t matter. What matters is that its adherents believe it to be true.


Bromley, David G. “Making Sense of Scientology: Prophetic, Contractual Religion,” in Scientology. Edited by James R. Lewis. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Gibney, Alex. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. 2015.

“Income of Members of Religious Orders,” Social Security Administration. https://secure.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/0500810700

McCombs, Brady. “Mormon Conversion Rate Lags Behind Missionary Increase,” in The Salt Lake Tribune. April 17, 2015. http://www.sltrib.com/news/2413326-155/conversion-rate-lags-behind-mormon-missionary

Plante, Thomas G. “A Shout Out to ‘Recovering Catholics’” in Psychology Today. December 18, 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201012/shout-out-recovering-catholics

Rodrigues, Ashwin. “I Had My Personality Tested by Scientologists,” in Vice Magazine. July 27, 2015. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/i-had-my-personality-tested-by-scientologists

Spellman, Jim. “Recovering Catholics Reveal Spiritual Journeys.” CNN.com. June 19, 2012. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/19/recovering-catholics-reveal-spiritual-journeys/

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Annual Collection Benefits 35,000 Sisters, Brothers, Priests in Religious Orders.” November 19, 2014. http://www.usccb.org/news/2014/14-193.cfm

“What is a Pioneer,” JW.org. http://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/jehovahs-will/what-is-a-pioneer/

Photo by Thomas Hawk.


Eight Tips For Going Back to School

Sarah Veale GraduationLast week, I finally graduated from York with an honours bachelor’s degree. Moreover, I graduated in the top 3% of my faculty, and received the the highest honour in the Canadian university system, Summa Cum Laude. After five years of hard work, it was nice to go out on a positive note!

Rather than detail my experiences as an undergrad or whatnot, I thought I would provide some quick tips for those who are thinking of going to school. York is not my first school; it is the fifth post-secondary institution I’ve attended (sixth if you count a non-credit course at Ryerson). I was 35 when I began classes, and I’m 40 now. Like many of you, I’ve had an nontraditional educational trajectory, but I’d like to think that my experiences contributed to my success. So here are my tips for going back to school and getting your degree:

1. Start Where You Can

Reviewing courses with the Husband at York.

You don’t have to look at going back to school as a massive project that gets done all at once, just put one foot in front of the other and see where it goes.

Older students often have obligations that younger students don’t have, like work and family, which means you may have to take it slow and there is nothing wrong with that. (In my case, I worked at a law firm while going to university and picked up side work as a research assistant to pay the bills.)

Classes add up. So even if you can only fit one in here or there, eventually you will reach your goal.

2. Have a Big Goal and a Small Goal

I went back to school with two goals. The first was simple: get my degree so that I was more competitive on the job market. The second, larger goal, was to go to graduate school. The big goal helped me set my long-term approach to my studies. But my small, attainable goal ensured I stayed focused when graduate school seemed far away, and reminded me of my basic reason for going back to school.

Relaxing in Gothenburg after ESSWE4.
Relaxing in Gothenburg after ESSWE4.

3. Find Like-minded People

It will help you greatly if you can find people who work in areas that you are interested in. These people may or may not be your professors, and they may or may not be your fellow students. The good news is that even if you find yourself alone on campus, the internet provides a ton of ways to meet others. Contact some folks through academia.edu. Join a professional society. Attend local (or far away!) conferences. These days, there are so many ways to get involved that you don’t have to toil in the darkness.

A typical bus ride home from school.
A typical bus ride home from school.

4. Don’t Compare Yourself To Others

While it’s good to have goals and look to others for how to progress through your academic career, it’s easy to look around you and feel like other people are getting advantages or moving ahead while you are stuck in place. I know I often looked at my fellow classmates who received student funding or lived at home with their parents and got insanely jealous that they didn’t have to spend three hours a day on a jam-packed bus or reduce their course-load when home emergencies cut into their savings, as I had to do on a number of occasions.

Obviously, this sort of attitude can easily lead to bitterness and resentment, which is certainly not productive or healthy. Conquer the green monster by focusing on your game. The only person you should be measuring yourself against is you! It may be difficult to do at times, but the best strategy is to be happy with small victories, focus on your work, and ignore the rest.

5. Try Community College

I am proud to say that my first degree was from a community college! Forget the naysayers and look at the benefits: the courses are cheaper, the schedule is flexible, and often you can transfer your degree to a four-year university without issue. Bonus: Your local community college likely offers the same core curriculum as a big name university for a fraction of the price.

6. Avoid Debt

Sure, the promise of a fancy education sounds great, but the truth is, despite the promises of recruiters, there may not be a similarly fancy job waiting at the end of the rainbow. Rather than pile-up the student debt, be smart. Work your way through school, and pay cash for your classes (and everything else!). You might not be living the life of luxury (I know I’ve eaten my fair share of pasta dinners over the past few years!), but you’ll be happy when you have the financial freedom to chart your own course post-graduation.

7. Do Something You Love

Presenting on John the Baptist at the CSBS. (Photo by Tony Burke)

I’m not going to bullshit you with the old adage, “Do what you love and the money will follow!” Let’s face it, that is not a realistic approach. If it were, I would be getting paid to eat burritos and sing advertisement jingles.

Right now, academia is a bad place to be. Good jobs are disappearing and being replaced with bad ones, and cut backs mean that there is a lot of competition for the few positions that do exist. Why mention this? Because this dim scenario is all the more reason to do something you love! The skills you learn in university are definitely transferable to the private sector, so you might as well spend your time working on things you find interesting, and building your skill set that way, rather than slaving away towards a profession that may or may not exist in ten years.

8. Be Grateful For Your Support Network

Although going to class, studying, and writing research papers is 100% on you, no one works in isolation. I was enormously lucky to have a husband who encouraged my studies. Having his support made everything much, much easier. I was also fortunate to have professors who encouraged my work and provided me with amazing opportunities, friends who offered timely advice, colleagues who helped me grow as an academic, and a boss who gave me the day off if there was a big test that needed studying for. All these people contributed to my success in one way or another, and I am eternally grateful for that.

Going back to school isn’t always easy, but with a little determination it can be done. If you keep your goals realistic and take things one step at a time, you’ll find yourself succeeding in ways you never imagined sooner than you think!


A Few More Awards…

On Tuesday, I will be graduating (finally!) from York. This will bring to a close a chapter of my life that was an enormous amount of work but also enriched my life in so many ways.

Before I leave the campus for good, I want to share with you some good news: I received a few more awards in conjunction with my academic work. I anticipate this will be the last stretch of awards for a bit, so if you don’t mind, I am going to enjoy the moment:

1. The Vanier Convocation Prize in Religious Studies/The Vanier Convocation Prize in Classical Studies.
Technically two awards, each award is given to a student graduating Summa Cum Laude, who has the highest GPA in each specific major. Since I am a double major of both programs, I was able to hog both awards this year! Don’t let anyone tell you that hard work doesn’t pay off!

2. Vanier College Council 50th Anniversary Award
This one was a bit of a surprise as it’s given to a student who has demonstrated commitment to the student body. Sure, I was a peer advisor, but I was honored when this came through the door. My thanks to whomever put me up for this award!

3. Vingt-deux Master’s Honour Roll
Being a “Vandoo” means that you are one of the top 22 graduating students in Vanier College, a college which encompasses fifteen programs and has a student body of around 7000.

My thanks to everyone who helped to make my time at York a total success—I have been very lucky to have been surrounded by so many supportive people who encouraged me to produce my best work. Huzzah!


More Good News! SSHRC 2015

Applying to graduate school was quite an involved process. There were transcripts, essays, letters of recommendation, and resumes that had to be prepared and sent to every department. In addition to these materials, I also applied for a government scholarship to pay for my studies. This award, the Canada Master’s Scholarship, is awarded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of the government of Canada. It is given to the nation’s top scholars to facilitate their research.

I am very happy to announce that, indeed, I was awarded one of these prestigious scholarships! The University of Toronto awards 295 of these scholarships across all the fields of study. To put that in perspective, the total graduate student population at University of Toronto numbers around 16,000 students. While certainly these are not all Master’s students, we can guess that quite a few of them are!

Here’s what the scholarship is:

The objective of the Canada Graduate Scholarships-Master’s (CGS M) Program is to help develop research skills and assist in the training of highly qualified personnel by supporting students who demonstrate a high standard of achievement in undergraduate and early graduate studies.

The CGS-M Program provides financial support to high-calibre scholars who are engaged in eligible master’s or, in some cases, doctoral programs in Canada. This support allows these scholars to fully concentrate on their studies in their chosen fields.
The CGS M Program supports 2,500 students annually in all disciplines and is administered jointly by Canada’s three federal granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The selection process and post-award administration are carried out at the institutional level, under the guidance of the three agencies.

This scholarship will help to fund my research into Dionysiac associations of the Roman Empire, which intends to explore the nature of religious identity in antiquity.

It goes without saying (but it must be said) that I offer my thanks to everyone who helped make this happen, including my referees and the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. And, of course, my thanks to the powers that be that award these scholarships. Huzzah!


Conference Presentation: Two Martyrdoms of John the Baptist at the CSBS

At the end of May, the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences hosts their 2015 Congress, a simultaneous gathering of Seventy Canadian academic associations in Ottawa, Ontario.

I am thrilled to announce that I will be co-presenting a paper with Apocrypha scholar Tony Burke as part of the Canadian Society for Biblical Studies (CSBS). We will be presenting new English translations of the martyrdom of John the Baptist—that’s the story where John the Baptist is beheaded.

My understanding is that my text, which I am translating from a Greek manuscript, has some bits that the other accounts lack. I do know that there is sex and murder in my version, so we already have two main ingredients for an interesting story!

Burke and I will be presenting these texts on June 1st at 1:30 (that’s a Monday). For those who may want to swing by and hear some new (or sorta new) biblical stories, the abstract is below:

Tony Burke and Sarah Veale (York University)
Two Martyrdoms of John the Baptist

In 1904 Alexander Berendts (Die handschriftliche Überlieferung der Zacharias-und Johannes-Apokryphen. TU, N. F. 11/3. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs) published a comprehensive survey of five martyrdoms of John the Baptist extant in Greek and Slavonic. Of these, only Passion 5 (the Life and Martyrdom of John the Baptist; CANT 181) has seen much attention—a critical edition and French translation was published by François Nau (“Histoire de saint Jean Baptiste attribuée à saint Marc l’Évangéliste,” PO[1908]: 521-41) and an English translation was prepared by Andrew Bernhard for New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (forthcoming). As for the other four texts, there is much confusion in Berendts’ and Nau’s reports about the contents of the unpublished manuscripts. This paper seeks to make some progress in sorting through the various witnesses by presenting editions and English translations of two texts: Berendts’ Passion 2 (the Decapitation of John the Forerunner attributed to his disciple Eurippus; CANT 180.2) and an unedited, related but lengthier text (untitled but also attributed to Eurippus; CANT 180.4). The translations will appear along with introductions in the second volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures.

For more information, you can download the full CSBS programme here. I hope to see you there in Ottawa!


Graduate School: An Announcement!

When I returned to university in 2010, it was with the goal that I would go to graduate school. At the time, I saw a lot of people doing really cool work and I wanted to be a part of it. After five years at York (this one, not the one in England!), graduation is right around the corner. And yes graduate school remains in my future.

I began researching my options several years ago. Most graduate programs are applied to a year in advance, and each has their own requirements. Because I wanted as many options as possible, I ended up putting on a double major at York (Religious Studies and Classical Studies). This turned out to be a sound strategy, even if it meant an extra year of course work!

I applied to four graduate programs for my master’s degree: University of Toronto Classics, University of Toronto Religion, York University Ancient History, and York University Humanities. As a mature student, moving around for a master’s degree wasn’t really on the table. Luckily, Toronto has some fantastic schools that make relocating a bit of a moot point—why leave when you have the best right at your door?

And then something amazing happened: All four programs offered me admission!

Deciding which program to attend was not easy by any means. It didn’t help that a strong case could be made for all my options. Moreover, while most programs offered a fully-funded graduate school experience, one of my top choices did not. I had a number of long conversations with prospective departments, conferred with my academic mentors, and talked with my colleagues about what road to take. Objective friends tempered my aspirations with practicality. Of course, The Husband provided a patient sounding board as I deliberated night after night, switching my decision back-and-forth between two programs which offered equally amazing—yet entirely different—opportunities. For someone who is normally very decisive, this was new for me.

The Winning Offer…

Anyway, I am happy to announce that I will be joining the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion in the fall!

The University of Toronto is Canada’s top-ranked university, and is ranked sixteenth internationally. The Religion program itself is highly competitive, and attracts the top students from all over the world. Every admitted student must have an A- Grade Point Average or higher, though this alone does not guarantee admission. Many highly qualified applicants are turned away from the program—for every 100 applicants to the MA/PHD program at the DSR, only around 20 receive offer letters. Needless to say, I am thrilled to be one of those persons admitted to the program!

For those of you who have read this far and still want more details: The Department for the Study of Religion is an extremely diverse program, and thus divides itself into nine sub-fields. I will be working within the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity section. This is an exciting group of students and faculty who are working on a number of ground-breaking projects in antiquity. Some of the projects currently being worked on include prophesy and ecstatic religion, early Christian manuscript diffusion, and even curses (!). I am really looking forward to being a part of this group and contributing to the scholarship which is currently being produced.

My proposed project seeks to challenge existing models of religious identity in antiquity through the lens of Dionysiac associations in the Roman Empire. This project allows me to continue working with “on the ground” source material, such as inscriptions, and I hope that my research will broaden our understanding of Dionysiac cult as well provide a new approach to religion in the Roman Empire. Of course, I will have a lot of coursework to sift through before that happens, but it’s a challenge I am eager to begin! Huzzah!



A Dramatic Example of a Confession Curse: Sophocles’ Antigone

This article is cross-posted from AncientCurses.com, a research project about curses and cursing in the ancient world.

Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the better known Greek dramas. It relates the tragic events that follow after a power struggle in ancient Thebes. The political dispute ultimately continues among family, when formerly warring factions find themselves under the same roof.

The protagonist of the play, Antigone, is at odds with Kreon—the new Theban dictator who also happens to be her uncle and guardian. The issue at stake is whether or not the body of Polyneices (Antigone’s brother and Kreon’s nephew) should be buried. Kreon says no—Polyneices was an enemy of the state; Antigone says yes, and even more, that the gods demand it.

Long story short: Antigone buried her brother in contravention of Kreon’s edict. For this she is condemned to death.

In a pivotal scene of the play, Antigone is led by guards to the cave where she will die. As she laments her fate, she unleashes a final curse upon her enemies, saying the following:

ἀλλ᾽ εἰ μὲν οὖν τάδ᾽ ἐστὶν ἐν θεοῖς καλά,
παθόντες ἂν ξυγγνοῖμεν ἡμαρτηκότες:
εἰ δ᾽ οἵδ᾽ ἁμαρτάνουσι, μὴ πλείω κακὰ
πάθοιεν ἢ καὶ δρῶσιν ἐκδίκως ἐμέ.
(Antigone 925-928)

But if these [actions of men] are good to the gods,
having suffered this, I could agree that I had erred;
but if these men err in these matters,
let them suffer no fewer bad things
than what they do unjustly to me.
(Translation mine)

This curse could be considered a confession curse, and it is likely that Athenian audiences would have recognized it as such, for reasons we will see shortly. Such curses seek to exculpate a person when they have been accused of wrongdoing. Confession inscriptions fight fire with fire, so to speak. By inviting the god to punish them, the author effectively demonstrates their innocence and turns the gods against their enemies.

Two examples of confession inscriptions will serve to illustrate this point. The first is an inscription from the first century BCE found in Cnidus, in Asia Minor. In our first example, a woman has been accused of poisoning her husband. She pleads her innocence, and asks that the gods punish her accuser:

I hand over to Demeter and Kore the person who has accused me of preparing poisons/spells against my husband. Having been struck by a fever, let him go up to Demeter with all of his family, and confess (his guilt). And let him not find Demeter, Kore, or the gods with Demeter (to be) merciful…I hand over also the person who has written (charges) against me or commanded others to do so. And let him not benefit from the mercy of Demeter, Kore, or the gods with Demeter, but instead suffer afflictions with all of his family. (Gager no. 89=DT 4 no. 85)

The second also comes from from Cnidus and also involves a case of poisoning. Here, the woman (coincidentally named Antigone—no relation!) submits herself to divine punishment in the event she is truly guilty of her crime:

I, Antigone, make a dedication to Demeter, Kore, Pluto and all the gods and goddesses with Demeter. If I have given poison/spells to Asclapiadeas or contemplated in my soul doing anything evil to him…[if so] may Antigone, having been struck by a fever, go up to Demeter and make confession, and may she not find Demeter merciful but instead suffer great torments. (Gager no. 89 = DT 1 no. 81)

It is easy to see the parallels between Sophocles’ Antigone and the confession inscriptions here. Both seek to clarify the nature of the punishment in proportion to the crime. Both argue that they are willing to accept the punishment, as long as it is just. They also request divine retribution in the event that they have been treated unfairly. The function of these curses is obvious: These persons  are using them to clear their name, explain their situations, and enact revenge on their accusers.

Confession curses are thought to be very important in situations where legal redress wasn’t always possible. In such cases, the gods themselves are called upon to rectify matters (Assmann 150-151). Confession curses expand upon this theme; there is the question of whether proper action has been pursued, and an appeal to higher powers for a reevaluation. Clearly, it is hoped that the gods will determine, once and for all, the degree of appropriateness of a given punishment.

For Antigone (the one in the play), the laws of the gods are timeless and superior to any temporal, ad hoc decisions made by humans. She specifically lays out here reasons for disobeying the laws of Kreon by citing the supremacy of the gods. For example, in one passage she says:

οὐ γάρ τί μοι Ζεὺς ἦν ὁ κηρύξας τάδε,
οὐδ᾽ ἡ ξύνοικος τῶν κάτω θεῶν Δίκη
τοιούσδ᾽ ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ὥρισεν νόμους.
οὐδὲ σθένειν τοσοῦτον ᾠόμην τὰ σὰ
κηρύγμαθ᾽, ὥστ᾽ ἄγραπτα κἀσφαλῆ θεῶν
νόμιμα δύνασθαι θνητὸν ὄνθ᾽ ὑπερδραμεῖν.
οὐ γάρ τι νῦν γε κἀχθές, ἀλλ᾽ ἀεί ποτε
ζῇ ταῦτα, κοὐδεὶς οἶδεν ἐξ ὅτου ‘φάνη.
(Antigone 450-457)

It seems to me that Zeus was not the one who was declaring these things,
nor did the Justice of the gods below lay down these very laws for men,
Nor did I think that your proclamations were strong in such a way as to be able to prevail, because you are being mortal,
and since the laws of the Gods are unwritten and unshaken.
Indeed, the laws of the gods are not something that had been placed today or yesterday,
but these things live on always,
and no one knows from when it was revealed.
(Translation mine)

As Mark Griffith observes, appeals to “universal codes of morality” were frequently used in court cases to challenge the validity of a charge (Griffith 201). And I think this is where the confession curse comes in. Antigone has been defeated by the mortal courts, which she had little faith in to begin with. As such, she appeals to what she see is the real authority in the case—the gods. It is the gods she looks to rectify what she see as an unjust situation. Sophocles tacitly supports this view as the play—and Kreon’s life—unravels. It is the gods who have the final say in the affairs of men.

Confession inscriptions then can be seen as a key component of extra-legal redress, not just in situations where access to recompense is hindered, but also where human adjudication may not render the desired outcome. The gods are viewed as superior to humans, and thus able to rectify situations gone wrong on earth. Antigone’s curse represents the incorporation of a cultural practice into a dramatic literary form. It is likely that ancient audiences would have clued into her final invocation of the gods and recognized her actions as an attempt at divine exoneration.


Assmann, Jan. “When Justice Fails: Jurisdiction and Imprecation in Ancient Egypt and the Near East,” in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 78 (1992): 149-162.
Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Sophocles. Antigone. Edited by Mark Griffith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.