Making connections to ancient religions on a modern campus

Tuesday, December 19, 2017
group of students posing in College Woods

Students in Paul Robertson’s Greek and Roman Religion course visit College Woods to re-enact an ancient procession and offering to the nature deities Persephone and Demeter. Many students are holding plants, which were tied to rituals concerning season changes.

Most college students would not expect a trip to a dairy barn, an observatory and an insect museum to be part of their Greek and Roman Religion class. However, for students taking this class with Paul Robertson, such field trips help make connections to ancient religious thoughts and practices.     

Robertson, who recently joined UNH after 5 years at Colby-Sawyer College, is a lecturer in the Department of Classics, Humanities and Italian Studies. He challenges his students to explore the ways ancient religion might have been practiced using resources around the Durham campus. For example, students studying the role of honey in ancient Greece visited the UNH Dairy Barn and fed honey to a cow (with permission of course). The act represented the ancient reverence for bees as divine agents of fertility and agriculture. Another group of students set out for the UNH College Woods and reenacted an ancient ritual, using a teddy bear to represent an actual bear, which they “sacrificed” and offered to the nature goddesses.

“My goal in teaching is to get students to understand the average ancient Greek or Roman person. Instead of sitting in the classroom going through texts, written by the elite for the elite, I have tried to get them to physically engage with the activities that represent what 99 percent of the people during that time were doing religiously,” Robertson says. “All the literature shows that active learning is much more successful — students learn and remember more and are able to make more connections.”

For another field trip, Robertson collaborated with astronomy instructor John Gianforte of the Department of Physics so that students could visit the UNH Observatory and discuss how the ancient world viewed the constellations in relationship to the gods.

“I was excited to work with him (Gianforte) and show students how we as professors work together in an interdisciplinary way,” Robertson says.

Although some of this hands-on work might sound playful, it resonates deeply with students. For some, the class has sparked an interest in religion and philosophy in students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. A.J. O’Neil, an information technology major, says the experiential work is an integral part of the course.

cow sipping honey from spoon
A student feeds honey to a cow at the UNH Dairy Barn, representing the ancient reverence for bees as divine agents of fertility and agriculture.

“It’s more engaging and helps demonstrate many things that may have been overlooked, like how they (ancient Greeks and Romans) felt during rituals, the intuitive process involved in spinning a story based on the birds, and the sheer social bravery diviners must have had going person to person giving prophetic messages,” O’Neil says. “I certainly plan on taking more classics courses at UNH, hopefully minoring in it, actually. There's so much we can learn from past societies and so many interesting ways in which they were surprisingly advanced, especially so in the field of philosophy.”

A specialist in religion and ancient thought, Robertson has studied the “dead” languages: Greek, Latin and Syriac. His research spans ancient Mediterranean religion and philosophy, the history of western thought, and the theory of religion that looks to answer what religion is and why it exists. Robertson, who earned his doctorate in religious studies at Brown University, began his academic career as a physics major before switching to the classics and religion. His most recent research focuses on the cognitive science of religion — the intersection between science and religion — and investigates the human brain’s biological evolution to better understand religious beliefs and practices across cultures.

“The humanities and hard sciences are productive joint partners in trying to figure out our world. The big question is how we bring the humanities and sciences together,” he says. “If we were all just focused on science and engineering, we wouldn’t be able to understand our differences, which is essential to democracy. You have to understand differences if you want to have democracy.”

Camryn Luby, a sophomore humanities major, says that Robertson’s approach to learning allows students to learn through experience. She also credits classes in the classics and humanities as helping expand critical thinking skills.

“Humanities provide a deeper understanding of how communities and civilizations throughout time work, and therefore how humans interact, which is an understanding that can be used in the modern world,” Luby says. “They also teach students to synthesize information, which is an important skill for any career.”