Forum Antiquum 6 October: The Greeks and the Counterintuitive

On Thursday 6 October Professor Jennifer Larson (Kent State University) will deliver a lecture on Greek ritual and religion. This lecture is organised on the special occasion of the 80th birthday of Emeritus Professor Henk Versnel (Leiden, Ancient History). All welcome!

The speaker

Jennifer Larson is Professor of Classics at Kent State University in Ohio (USA). A lifelong student of Greek poetry, mythology, early Christianity, and Greek religion, she is the author of five books, including Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore (Oxford 2001); Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide (Routledge 2007); and most recently, Understanding Greek Religion: A Cognitive Approach (Routledge 2016).

Location and time

Note that this lecture takes place in LIPSIUS/003, and starts at exactly 15:30. There is no need to register; everybody with an interest in the subject or special memories of Henk Versnel is invited.


Why do people the world over believe in the existence of superhuman beings such as gods, spirits and ghosts, and pursue interactions with them? Why do these interactions take predictable forms in the activities we recognize as rituals? Using examples from Greek religion, this lecture shows how the cognitive science of religion can shed light on these perennial questions. Most myths and other religious representations are constructed upon violations of the spontaneous, extracultural assumptions humans make about categories of things in the world. These “counterintuitive concepts” (e.g. an immortal person, a bleeding statue) have a selective advantage in cultural transmission. In the second half of the lecture, I describe cognitive tools activated during the performance of rituals, showing how mental architecture which evolved for other purposes shapes simple rituals such as a wine libation, divination by flames, and purification with water. Finally, I discuss two theories of ritual dynamics which propose correlations between the cognitive variables in rituals and their social contexts.


After the lecture there will be drinks at De Grote Beer (Rembrandtstraat 27), offered to us by Brill Publishers.

Last Modified: 26-09-2016