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.

McCombs, Brady. “Mormon Conversion Rate Lags Behind Missionary Increase,” in The Salt Lake Tribune. April 17, 2015.

Plante, Thomas G. “A Shout Out to ‘Recovering Catholics’” in Psychology Today. December 18, 2010.

Rodrigues, Ashwin. “I Had My Personality Tested by Scientologists,” in Vice Magazine. July 27, 2015.

Spellman, Jim. “Recovering Catholics Reveal Spiritual Journeys.” June 19, 2012.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Annual Collection Benefits 35,000 Sisters, Brothers, Priests in Religious Orders.” November 19, 2014.

“What is a Pioneer,”

Photo by Thomas Hawk.

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, 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.

Book Review: Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics

Aleister Crowley, the so-called Wickedest Man in the World,  is quickly becoming a subject of serious academic study. No doubt this is greatly aided by the number of scholars working on the Great Beast, but certainly the quality of scholarship produced must also be affecting perceptions about this controversial figure—for the better!

Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to delve into the field without bumping into Marco Pasi, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who’s also an expert on all things Crowley. His recent book, Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics, looks at Crowley through the lens of—you guessed it—politics, and examines the relationships Crowley had with various movers-and-shakers in the political world. It goes without saying that the book provides significant insight into this specific dimension of Crowley’s life.

I had the opportunity to review this book for The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. If this sounds like your thing, book reviews can be read for free over at the website. Here’s a snippet for those of who you can’t wait:

Throughout Temptation, the reader meets a cadre of well-connected media figures, political agitators and bonafide spies with whom Crowley cavorted during his pragmatic period. These “illuminated politicians,” such as J. F. C. Fuller, Thomas Driberg, and Gerald Hamilton, sought Crowley out as a spiritual guru, and Crowley in turn sought their connections to bring his new religion to the masses. Crowley’s lobbying in this regard has led to much speculation about his relationship to totalitarian regimes (Fascism, Nazism, Communism). Crowley emerges, however, as an ideological chameleon who appealed indiscriminately to large-scale movements which could serve his missionary purposes.

Since this is my first “scholarly” book review, I want to thank Christopher Chase and Chas Clifton over at The Pomegranate for giving me the opportunity to review what is no doubt a very important work for this field. I would also like to thank the folks at Acumen Publishing for generously supplying me with a review copy of the book. Huzzah!

Similia Similibus: Sympathy in Magic and Cursing

This article is cross-posted from, a research project about curses and cursing in the ancient world. If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

Scholarship on curses often explores the significance of cursing rituals—how did performers of curses expect them to work? Did they believe that the malicious things they wished upon their target would come true? For example, a famous “voodoo doll” at the Louvre depicts a female figure with nails driven into various points on the body. Did the person who made this curse hope that the woman would literally suffer from being pierced, or was something else at work?

A Case of Sympathetic Magic?

The term “sympathetic magic” was popularized by Sir James Frazer, an anthropologist who released his influential book on magic and religion, The Golden Bough, in 1890. While much of his work has been questioned (for example, the idea that certain stages of belief were more primitive than others), there can be no argument that his work laid the foundation for investigating magic. For example, it was Frazer who first described how the “magician’s logic” worked:

“From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second [the Law of Contact or Contagion] he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

“Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and the contagious, may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic Magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated by modern science for a precisely similar purpose, namely, to explain how things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.”

(Frazer, The Golden Bough, III.1.1, III.1.2)

Fritz Graf observes that the concept of sympatheia did not originate with Frazer. In fact, ancient thinkers such as Plotinus and Theocritus also believed that everything in the universe was linked and that some things were more connected than others due to sharing similar properties or what not (Graf 205-206). Nevertheless, modern scholars dispute that instances of sympathetic magic indicate a straightforward equivalence on the part of the practitioner, or that a magician is manipulating an “invisible ether.” While there is something to the ideal of similarity, Frazer’s view has generally fallen out of favour, and we’ll see why shortly.

Instances of Sympatheia

So what would constitute sympathetic magic? I mentioned the figurine at the Louvre (pictured here), but there are other ways a curse could be considered in sympathy with its target. In addition to figurines, many curses also included what is called ousia, a Greek word that literally means being or substance. In this context, it refers to physical objects that belong to the victim—things like hair or bits of clothing which stood-in for the persons they represented (Gager 16-17). For example, one “love spell” from the Greek Magical Papyri specifically requests the “magical material” of ousia:

“Wondrous spell for binding a lover: Take wax [or clay] from a potter’s wheels and make two figurines, a male a female. Make the male in the form of Ares fully armed, holding a sword / in his left hand and threatening to plunge it into the right side of her neck. And make her with her arms behind her back and down on her knees. And you are to fasten the magical material on her neck…” PGM IV.296-466

I left out a lot of the rest of the spell, but it would be fitting to disclose it here. Copper needles are stuck in various places on the figurine and supernatural figures are appealed to in order to bind the target and compel her affection. Many of the pin placements (brain, mouth, genitals, etc.) correspond to specific requests that the victim lose her appetite, have restless thoughts, and be hindered sexually. Can we say there is a correspondence? If so, to what extent were such effects expected? Graf argues that “sorcerers did not wish to wound the victim’s members in the same way that they pierced the members of a figurine” (Graf 145). So what was going on then?

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Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Advanced Greek Resource: Hansen and Quinn

Greek: An Intensive CourseAt the upper levels of ancient Greek, it’s easy to focus on translating material and ignore the nuts-and-bolts grammar that underlies the words on the page. I must admit, I am a bit of a cowboy when it comes to translations—I jump right in and translate the words as they are, devil may care!

Of course, the problem with this is that I often occasionally get things wrong. Lately, I’ve been trying to slow down and understand not just the gist of a given sentence, but also how each word is working to generate that meaning.

In other words, I’m paying attention to grammar.

On a practical level, knowing the finer grammatical points helps to smooth out those more bumpy passages, for sure. Plus, professors usually aren’t only looking for one’s translation abilities; they want to see you know your stuff. In the end, being able to distinguish between a natural result clause and an actual result clause simply makes one’s life easier all around.

So I’ve been spending some time brushing up on those areas I’m not quite so firm on. Luckily, my tutor recommended an advanced textbook by Hardy Hansen and Gerald M. Quinn called Greek: an Intensive Course. Unlike introductory textbooks that often have oodles of vocab and practice readings, Hansen & Quinn focuses on grammar. All of it.

There are a few things I really enjoy about this text. First, each section clearly explains the concept at hand and provides the sorts of clues you need to diagnose similar material in the wild. Second, the examples all use a similar (relatively simple) vocabulary. Instead of trying to learn a ton of vocab, you can focus on  syntactical structures and grammatical concepts—noting how small changes can significantly affect otherwise identical sentences. Finally, each section has a set of drills which are very useful and adhere to the textbook material. Again, the focus is on practicing the concept, not on learning vocab, reading, etc. Not that vocab and reading aren’t important—they are!—but working with the examples as they are presented in Hansen & Quinn helps one to better diagnose primary source material.

Best of all, the exercises are of reasonable length. It’s enough to get the concept down, but not so much that you spend all day on it!

If you are in a similar situation, I recommend you get yourself a copy of Greek: An Intensive Course. Even if you don’t work through the exercises, you’ll find it helpful as a general resource. I hope you’ll find it as valuable as I do!

Learning Greek? Here are a few other posts you might find helpful:

Curse Words

This article is cross-posted from If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

Cursing as a practice is looked at from several different angles by scholars. On the one hand, some look to the historical import of cursing to understand the societies that produced material objects such as curse tablets (someone like John Gager fits this bill). Others attempt to categorize curses by the language they use or the subject matter addressed (Christopher A. Faraone, who attempts to categorize cursing formulas fits well here).

It seems fitting that we take a step back and a look at curse words themselves in order to understand the world of of cursing. This is only a partial list—there really are so many terms that a single list would inevitable miss something! Nevertheless, I will do my best to introduce some of the terminology that is associated with curses and the practice of cursing. Think of it as a starter kit for the study of cursing!

The Terms

Anathema A term for a curse used by the Roman Catholic Church. It originally referred to book curses (curses inscribed in books to prevent thievery), but later came to refer to curses in general (Drogin 60).

Ara (ἀρά) Like many “curse words,” this Greek word is a bit ambiguous as it means both a prayer and a curse.

Defigens Someone who creates a defixiones or attempts to bind another person. [see below] (Faraone 5)

Defixiones Curses which are usually inscribed on a lead tablet, though other mediums might be used (Gager 3-4, 14-15). The word indicates that the primary goal of such a curse is to “bind-down” a person.

Epoidos (ὁ/ἡ ἐπῳδος) An ancient Greek term which refers to someone who recites an incantation in order to heal the sick (Dickie 24-25). Also means “wizard” or “witch.” Note also that some funerary curses are composed in meter, perhaps suggesting a similar performative aspect (Strubbe 41-42).

Goaw (γοάω) A Greek word meaning to wail, lament, or mourn. This word is related to several terms such as goeteia (γοητεία) which means sorcery or witchcraft; goes (γόης) a sorcerer “who howls enchantments”; and goeteis (ὁ φοήτης), a term modern persons tend to take as synonymous with sorcerer or magician, but according to the LSJ actually means “wailer.”

Katadesmos (ὁ κατάδεσμος) The Greek counterpart to defixiones with the same linguistic implications of binding. Literally means a tie, band, or “magic knot.”

Euxomai (εὔχομαι) A Greek word with the dual sense to pray and to boast.

A curse.

Judicial Prayers/Prayers for Justice A category of curses defined by H.S. Versnel wherein a person who is wronged inflicts a curse on the unknown guilty party, this curse usually appeals to the gods directly and/or placing the goods in question within their care (Versnel 68-81).

Jussive A grammatical term used by some to describe the wording of curses. (For the grammar nerds out there this refers to an independent use of the subjunctive in the subjunctive mood.) A jussive command is rendered by the formula “Let them…” See, for example, the biblical passage in 1 Samuel which literally commands that the author’s enemies be cursed (1 Samuel 26:19).

Magos (ὁ μάγος) A term which originally referred to Persian fire-priests, but as early as the fifth century BCE it becomes a pejorative term used to refer to those whose religious practices were not easily understood, such as magicians or charlatans (Dickie 27). See also goaw.

Malediction A curse. From the Latin meaning “to speak ill” (male dicere).

Similia Similibus Formula A cursing formula which uses an analogy to effect an outcome. For example, comparing the target’s efficacy to that of a corpse (Faraone 5).

This list is certainly not exhaustive of the many terms which are used to discuss curses and cursing in the ancient world. By all means, if you know of one that was left please contribute in the comments!


Blank, Sheldon H. 1950. “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath.” Hebrew Union College Annual 23: 73-95.

Dickie, Matthew W. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Routledge.

Drogin, Marc. 1983. Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram.

Gager, John G. 1992. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Faraone, Christopher A. 1997. “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells,” in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

J. H. M. Strubbe, “Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones,” in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, eds. New York: Oxford UP, 1991, pp. 33-59.

Photo by Adam Rosenberg.

Modern Maledictions: The Curse of the Billy Goat

This article is cross-posted from If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

In a recent post at, we took a look at sports-related curses—i.e. curses which were employed by athletes and their fans to ensure victory against a competitor. While the ancients were busy “putting the fix in” for various sporting events, the tradition of sports-related curses is no less pertinent today.

In 2012, during an NFL play-off, New England witches provided a bit of, uh, spiritual support for the New England Patriots by supernaturally boosting Tom Brady’s mojo. No less effective were the rumours that pop superstar Jessica Simpson, then dating Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo, had inadvertently cursed the Dallas Cowboys, after the team suffered a string of losses while Simpson sat in the bleachers. More recently, NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick was said to be hexed by a fan of a rival racer. This time, the curse was no rumour, as the person apparently brought their own monkey skull to channel some evil forces.

While we may chuckle at these ideas, a study from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that half of all Americans believe that sporting events are influenced by supernatural forces. Clearly, sports-related curses were not just limited to the ancient world. Even in modern times, these curses are everywhere.

As someone who grew up in Chicago, my favourite sports curse is that of the Curse of the Billy Goat, which is believed to be responsible for the Cubs’ inexplicably long run without a World Series pennant. (The White Sox, however, defeated their “Black Sox Curse” when they won the Wold Series in 2005. Southside!)

For those of you who are not aware of the Curse of the Billy Goat, I’ll provide a bit of background…

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