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!

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!


Mysteria Misc. Maxima: August 14th, 2015

Shiva 3
Mysteria Misc. Maxima is a feature which brings together links on religion and esotericism from around the internet. This will be the last MMM for the season. I hope you have enjoyed the (albeit brief) return of Invocatio’s link round-up!

Photo by Adam Cohn.

Mysteria Misc. Maxima: August 7th, 2015

Mysteria Misc. Maxima is a weekly feature which brings together links on religion and esotericism from around the internet.

Photo by Angel Schatz.

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.

Mysteria Misc. Maxima: July 31st, 2015

Mysteria Misc. Maxima is a weekly feature which brings together links on religion and esotericism from around the internet.

Photo by Wiredforlego.

Mysteria Misc. Maxima: July 24th, 2015

Mysteria Misc. Maxima is a weekly feature which brings together links on religion and esotericism from around the internet.

Photo by Jeff Kubina.

Mysteria Misc. Maxima: July 17th, 2015

Mysteria Misc. Maxima is a weekly feature which brings together links on religion and esotericism from around the internet.

Photo by Anne Landois-Favret.

Mysteria Misc. Maxima: July 10th, 2015

Mysteria Misc. Maxima is a weekly feature which brings together links on religion and esotericism from around the internet.

Photo by Emanuele.