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Narrative and History of Religion

Entangled concepts

Much about the early history of narrative practices is unclear. It is possible that narration co-evolved as a practice alongside complex communication, although we cannot be certain about this, and we also do not know whether the practice is unique to human speech and languages as they have developed over the last 100,000 years. The material dimensions of the act of telling (and 1 am not referring to the quality of human voices here) were certainly important. Like photos or souvenirs today, many earlier artefacts must have been embedded in the telling of stories, whereas writing itself seems to take on the function of storytelling only secondarily (see Law et al. 2015).

Social life is a narrative, as Margaret R. Somers has argued (Somers 1994, 614). The very nature of narrative emplotment renders narrated persons, objects, and events meaningful only when they are situated within temporal, spatial, and social networks (ibid., 616). The ontological narrative of the individual has to relate itself to the wider and shared public narratives of families, groups, and polities, thus accounting for a complex narrative identity that is not the mechanical result of all the narrative vectors but is, rather, filtered through institutions and practices (ibid., 618-19, 625). As a result, narratives, the emplotment of events that embeds them in time and space and personal relationships, are a major source of orientation for groups (Riisen 1996). At the same time, they are crucial in the dialogical or inter-personal constitution of agency and collective identities. The same holds true for religious agency and religious identities in particular. ‘Religious’ is understood in this sense as a spectrum of experiences, actions, beliefs, and communications that hinge on human communication with super-human or even transcendent agent(s), frequently conceptualized as gods, ancestors, or spirits, as developed in Chapter 3 in this volume.

While this chapter advocates paying attention to narratives in the study of religion more generally, 1 am quite aware not only of the need for generalization (in order to tell, or better, to sell, a memorizable and plausible story to others) but also of the dangers of over-generalization. Hence, again, I base my argument on a selected area and period, encouraging their use to provide comparative evidence and heuristic stimuli. The perspective 1 take starts from Greek and Latin narratives and narrative practices in the ancient Mediterranean religious communication of the Hellenistic and Imperial periods (3rd century все to 4th century се). 1 use these to test and develop more general theories of narratology, which traditionally have not paid much attention to religion. In religious studies of the ancient world, by contrast, narratives have frequently been understood narrowly as specifically mythological narratives. These have been interpreted as constituting the most important elements of ancient ’belief systems’, elements that were either slowly or aggressively supplemented or replaced by systematic philosophical thinking.1 Against such a narrow understanding of the role of narratives in religion, a fresh view is necessary (Riipke and Degelmann 2015).

Starting from a more focused reflection on the forms and functions of narratives in the past, this chapter will then go on to review more general claims about narrative, taking into account insights from cognitive and, more particularly, memory research. These disciplines help to establish perspectives and questions that go beyond analysis of the content of texts and thus help to avoid a narrow focus on the contents of religious beliefs. Instead, what I am interested in here is the communicative, and hence transformative, function of narrative, with this interest being framed by the broader goal of establishing a methodological tool for historical research into religion and religious practices, as outlined at the beginning of this book.

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