A call for papers for the NYU Classics Graduate Student Conference (Dec. 3, 2011):

Ancient Aitia: Explaining Matter between Belief and Knowledge

Why does a shepherd’s song echo in the mountains? What causes epilepsy? Why does the priest of Herakles on Kos wear women’s clothes?

Graeco-Roman sources abound in myths of origins, and they are equally prominent in Near Eastern wisdom literature, apocalyptic texts, and biblical narratives. These texts tell aitia in order to explain names, religious rituals, civic institutions, crafts, natural phenomena or medical conditions. Aitia are a form of collective knowledge, created through tradition and living memory rather than through systematic inquiry. Because they treat topics also covered by ancient sciences such as history, medicine or natural philosophy, aitia sit at the juncture of divine and research-based accounts. Such causation narratives differ also from historical accounts, insofar as the aition replaces the complexities of diachronic evolution with a single, transcending moment of creation.

Aetiology, therefore, is an important locus for examining the intersection of religion and mythology with the various forms of ancient scientific thought and models. How this intersection is defined, where it lies, and what tensions (if any) it gives rise to is culturally dependent.

Since many aitia occur in poetry, a literary approach to aetiology has traditionally prevailed. However, the organizers of this conference maintain that aetiology is a subject that explicitly invites a comparative and interdisciplinary approach. The exchange between students of mythology, literature, and intellectual history, with those of ancient sciences, anthropology and material culture can significantly enhance our understanding of ancient aitia. We invite submissions from all subfields and related disciplines (Graeco-Roman, Near Eastern and Judeo-Christian religion, ancient literatures, the study of material culture etc.) investigating topics such as, but not limited to, the following:

  • conflict and co-existence between scientific and divine explanation; the modern question of the relation between science, religion and the natural world
  • aetiological time vs. historical time
  • socio-cultural and political functions of aitia; transmitting aitia; the significance of sharing explanations of origins; ancient critiques of aetiology
  • cult-aetiology; the religious significance of origins; material remains of cults and their local aitia
  • artistic representations of aitia; aitia about art; aitia of skills
  • the origins of aetiology; what questions invite aitia; the believability of aitia
  • the organization of knowledge through aitia in oral and highly illiterate societies

Graduate students wishing to present a paper at the conference should submit a titled abstract of 300 words or less to ancientaitia@gmail.com by August 17, 2011. Please write your name, institution, contact information, and the title of your abstract in the body of the email. Notifications will be sent in the first half of September.

Papers should be no longer than 20 minutes in length, and NYU and other local students will prepare 5 minute responses. Questions about the conference can be directed to Inger Kuin and Katia Kosova at the same email address.