Universiteit Leiden

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Inventing Origins - The Function of Aetiology in Antiquity

Thursday 17 November 2016 - Saturday 19 November 2016
Pieterskerkhof 6
2311 SR Leiden

At this conference we will enquire the ancient phenomenon of aetiology, that is to say the drive to find and devise stories of origin to explain contemporary situations or to promote innovative practices, be they religious, political, literary or other. Although many studies have analysed the occurrence of aetiological motives in various literary and religious texts and contexts, a comprehensive approach that aims to contextualize aetiology and link it to other ancient modes of representing and thinking about the past and about origins has so far been lacking. 

Papers will address the following topics, among others: 

  • What are the relations, differences, similarities, between aetiological thinking and other ancient discourses about the past, like mythology, genealogy, etymology, annalistic and chronographic writing? Is aetiology part of a linear, teleological conception of time? Is aetiology framed in discourses of continuity with the past or rather with a vision of the past as unconnected points in time and space?
  • How is aetiology linked to space, in particular to the category of places and spaces that are nowadays ranked as ‘lieux de mémoire’? We may think of foundation myths, claims of autochthony, but also sacred spaces, or spaces of the dead.
  • What are the aims of aetiological myths and stories? Do they contribute to envisioning the past or rather function as a technique to authorize contemporary visions of the future?
  • What are the political or social contexts in which aetiology flourishes? We may think of dynastic change, new regimes, peace treaties, but also all sorts of social and natural crises and their aftermaths (war, disease, famine, natural disasters).
  • How does aetiology cross boundaries of different genres (in literature, for instance) or different fields? In other words, how is a phenomenon in one field anchored in another genre, field or context (e.g. in literature: satire in comedy; but we may also think of architecture and politics; politics and religion et al.) and what is the function of crossing the boundaries.


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