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Religion and Cosmology


Admission requirements

No specific requirements are needed. The main readings will be in English.


Like people today, our ancient ancestors were also fascinated by the enigma of vast space and time. Driven by curiosity, they developed sophisticated stories to account for the history and workings of an unfathomable universe. Their religious systems reflect this cosmological thinking. In this course, we will explore ancient understandings of religion, the universe and their relationship.

We will focus on pre-modern approaches to the questions of the origin, nature and end of cosmos as developed in different religious traditions. We will do so by looking at the ancient cosmological traditions from Mesoamerica, Greece and Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Western Asia, Israel, Persia, India, China and Japan, and critically and comparatively analyzing the following topics:

  • Temporal expansion of the lives of the cosmos: cyclic, linear, or other?

  • Prehistory and the primordium of the cosmos, or genesis-discourse in the respective cosmological traditions;

  • Pre-creation chaos and the created world-order, a dichotomy explaining the inner logic of cosmogony;

  • God, devil and the creation of the cosmos, or the relationship between theology, religion, mythology, and cosmology;

  • Weltkampf, Chaoskampf, or Combat/Conflict Myth: why was the universe (repeatedly) procreated or consolidated through a cosmic war?

  • Differentiated views on cosmography: the axis mundi pattern, the vertical stratification of the universe, and the cardinal expansion of physical space;

  • Nature, gender-categorized human, social institutions, cosmic (dis)order, and their relationship with the universe;

  • Time, apocalypse and eschatology: how to escape the doomsday catastrophes at the end of the present universe, thereby to survive in another new age of the cosmos;

  • The significance of cosmology in human salvation and soteriology;

  • Transmission, acceptance, criticism, and innovation of cosmological knowledge.

Reading primary sources in translation and secondary scholarship, we will explore basic terms and theoretical tools to approach and analyze religious cosmological traditions. By contextualizing ancient cosmologies through a religious lens we will better understand human perceptions of the universe, cognitive, psychological, and metaphysical preferences as conditioned by respective natural environments and cultural habitus, and the ways in which these may have left echoes in contemporary scientific cosmology.

Course objectives

  • You will be able to analyze and explore a specific topic (i.e., religion and cosmology in this case) in various intellectual traditions of the ancient world

  • You will gain a better understanding of the concepts of “cosmology” (including its internal aspects such as “cosmogony” and “cosmography”) as well as “religion”

  • You will be familiar with the general contents of the various cosmological traditions in the world and their correspondent religious text corpora in this course

  • You will learn how to distil information from primary sources and secondary scholarship and analyze it critically

  • You will be exposed to basic terms, theories and methodologies of the field of Religious Studies and other related fields

  • Through class-readings, you will develop abilities in verbal and written expression, and in synthesizing different ideas.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

Assessment and weighing

The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average of the following:

  • Attendance and seminar participation: 20%

  • Reading Responses: 40%

  • Final paper: 40%

In order to pass the course, students need a passing mark (“voldoende”, i.e. “5.50” or higher) for the course as a whole.


A resit of the essay is possible only when the total weighted grade is lower than 5.50. In that case the instructor of the course may give a new deadline.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will be organized.

Reading list

  • Durkheim, Émile, Mark S. Cladis and Carol Cosman (1912; 2008). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Eliade, Mircea, and Willard R. Trask. (1949; 1959). Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

  • James, E.O. (1969). Creation and Cosmology: A Historical and Comparative Inquiry. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

  • Brague, Rémi, and Teresa Lavender Fagan (1999; 2003). The Wisdom of the World. The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Descola, Philippe, and Janet Lloyd (2005; 2013). Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory. General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.

Registration Contract teaching and Exchange

Information for those interested in taking this course in the context of Contract teaching (including taking examinations), e.g. about costs, registration and conditions.

Exchange students having questions regarding registration, may contact the Humanities International Office.