17th International Conference for Ancient East-Mediterranean Studies in Tartu (ICAEM 2017): “Crises in Early Religions”

8–11 June 2017

General information

There is no registration fee for participating in the conference. If you need information on hotels and other practicalities, please contact the organisers at


Hall of the Senate, University Main Building, Ülikooli 18, Tartu, Estonia
[Google maps]

Keynote speakers

Prof. Allan Janik (University of Innsbruck): “Religion: the Father and King of All”

Prof. Tim Whitmarsh (University of Cambridge): “When oracles don’t come true”



Special workshop

During the conference there will also be a special workshop Developments in Ancient Near Eastern Pantheon Structure’ organised by Peeter Espak and Vladimir Sazonov

Conference description


It is generally accepted that social and ideological, including religious, development is closely linked: religion often serves as the ideological fundament of a society and one of the foremost expressions of its culture. It is equally obvious that in the development of societies and civilizations the periods of relatively stable evolution can alternate with more or less rapid changes when the previous social relations and beliefs are questioned and transformed. It seems that from time to time cultures lose their faith in themselves, their old values, and start to look for something new, or at least criticize the traditional religion. The periods when this happens can be, and indeed have been, viewed as periods of crisis. These times are highly interesting in the history of ideas as intellectual freedom is triggered by the decline of traditional values.

However, the interplay of constant evolution and changes within a short time span, and the connectedness of social, political and religious development, makes the definition of a crisis a complex and often debated issue. In the framework of an examination of the usefulness of the concept of crisis for analysis of historical developments we want to dedicate this conference to crises in the field of religion. Our approach will be broad and comparative, gathering examples from different ancient religions and regions, in order to look at religious, intellectual and historical developments and their complex relationship.

We will ask how can a crisis in religion be defined? In which way is the questioning of traditional beliefs and values related to transformation and possible intellectualization of belief systems? For example, questioning divine justice, the problem of theodicy seems to be one indicator for a kind of intellectualization of religion. What are the causes for religious crises and how can they be understood and analysed? How do we, the moderns, perceive and describe crises in early cultures, and how were the crises perceived in antiquity? How does the internal and external view interact? To what extent are religious changes preconditioned by social and political realities? Do changes in religion trigger historical changes? How would a crisis be resolved: crisis versus reform? How can the relation between social crisis, moral crisis and religious crisis be defined? What was the role of individuals in triggering and resolving the crises in religions? How did power (of rulers) and charisma (of religious and intellectual leaders) interrelate?


Possible subjects for discussion


Mesopotamia. Several changes and developments in the Mesopotamian pantheon and religious ideas can be viewed as a “crisis”. The arrival of new ethnic groups to the Sumero-Akkadian territory introducing new ideas and causing changes in the pantheon structure. Defeated (City) gods – religious crisis through defeats. Enlightenment and Crisis in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Adjustment of different and sometimes conflicting religious systems, including new deities to the existing pantheon, for example, the adjustment of the god Marduk to the Sumero-Akkadian pantheon during the First Dynasty of Babylon. Similar situations can be detected in the third millennium religion, be it the unification of different city states, the hypothetical fight of the two high gods Enlil (hypothetical newcomer) and Enki (hypothetical ancient god), etc.

Egypt. The Intermediate periods and religious change. The reform of Akhenaten: a crisis of traditional religion or political strife in religious disguise?

Israel. Prophets and social crisis – a matter of the monarchic or Persian period? Prophets as the critics or scribes as the critics? Change from polytheism to mono­theism, tensions between personal and universal god(s). Royal ideology with and without king – emergence of the messianic theology? Political disasters and the emergence of monotheism? Group identities in the Hellenistic period. Judaism versus Hellenism.

Greece. Moral and religious responses to social crisis in the Archaic period (Hesiod, Solon, Seven Sages)? Mystery cults, Dionysus, Orphism and Pythagoras: a crisis of traditional religion? Pre-Socratics as indicators of a crisis of the traditional world-view? The Persian Wars and the transformation of Greek moral and religious attitudes? Sophistic movement: enlightenment and the criticism of religious and political tradition. Socrates and Plato as indicators of crisis in Greek morality and religion?

Iran. The emergence of Mazdaism as a crisis in traditional Indo-Iranian religion? Mazdaism and the formation of the Achaemenid empire. Zoroastrianism and the new religious movements – the Manichaeism and the Mazdakite movement in Iran in the Sasanian Period. Islam and Zoroastrianism.

Republican and Imperial Rome. The spread of the Oriental cults as a crisis of the traditional Greco-Roman religion? Mystery cults as a sign of the crisis of polis traditions? Greek philosophy and the criticism of Roman religious traditions. The Roman state religion and the Bacchanalian crisis (186 BC). Oriental cults and religions (Isis, Manichaeism) and the Roman politics of religion. Traditional religions and the emergence of Christianity. Gnosticism as a protest religion.

India. Emergence of Buddhism as reaction to the Vedic-Brahmanic orthodoxy and religiously justified high position of the Brahman class (last centuries of the 1st millennium BCE). Mahayana as innovative movement versus conservativism of Bhikkhu communities (Hinayana) within Buddhist sangha and religion (first centuries of CE). Decline of Buddhism as elitist teaching in conditions of social crisis and the march of popular Hinduism (end of the 1st millennium CE).

China. Socio-political crisis and emergence of the “Hundred Schools” (Warring States period of 5th to 3rd centuries BCE). Confucianism and “extreme” spiritual movements. The coming of Buddhism and its “sinization” in the period of political turmoil and disunity (3rd to 7th centuries).

Organizing committee


Mait Kõiv, Urmas Nõmmik, Märt Läänemets, Ivo Volt, Thomas R. Kämmerer

Research Center of Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Cultures, University of Tartu, Estonia

Sebastian Fink


Department of Ancient History, University of Kassel, Germany

Kerstin Droß-Krüpe


Department of Ancient History, University of Kassel, Germany