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Coping with Versnel: Debating Ancient Religions


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.

This course is intended for students from a limited number of MA programmes. First year MA students of Ancient History for whom this is a compulsory course will have priority over students from other programmes. Because of the limited capacity available for other programmes, all students who will enroll are placed on a waiting list. The definite admission (by August 25) will be made according to the position on the waiting list and the number of students from each programme.


Curse tablets; epiphanies; magical charms; belief in more than one greatest god at the same time; inconsistencies in ancient religions….this list could be much longer. What you have just read are only a few of the central topics addressed in the revolutionary work on ancient religions by Henk Versnel, Professor Emeritus in Ancient History at Leiden University.

During this course we debate the study of ancient religions at Leiden, with a central place for the work of Versnel. His magnum opus ‘Coping with the gods’ (2011) will be at the pivot of our discussions, but will be placed in the context of Versnel’s earlier work and that of other scholars. This course will, then, familiarise the student with history of a number of the debates in the field of ancient religions, but will also examine in detail the current state of affairs.

My own research interests (and, actually, my decision to pursue a PhD in the first place!) have been greatly influenced by the work of Versnel. I consider his work not only very meaningful and important, but great fun (and a joy to read) as well. I am looking forward to the opportunity to show you why this scholar is such an inspiration to me – and hopefully to you, too.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 2) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 3) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 4) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 5) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  • 6) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly in the specialisation Ancient Historyon unification processes in the Graeco-Roman World, 400 BC – 400 AD; insight into the recent large-scale debates in the field with respect to both the history of mentality and socio-economic history.

  • 7) (ResMA only): Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical foundation of the discipline and of its position vis-à-vis other disciplines.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Literature Seminar

Students will be expected to develop a knowledge and understanding of debate over the nature of ancient religions (500BC – 500 AD) from the 19th century to the present day, with a special focus on Leiden University and Professor Henk Versnel:

The student:

  • 8) Has knowledge of the important work in the study of ancient religions at Leiden, especially by Henk Versnel

  • 9) and has the ability to contextualize his work in current debates in the field of ancient religions

  • 10) Understands the main forms and sources of evidence – literary, archaeological and epigraphic

  • 11) Has the ability to analyze and evaluate literature and sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument;

  • 12) (ResMA only): The ability to evaluate the influence of broader societal change on the sorts of questions asked by ancient historians and social scientists more generally; * 13) (ResMA only): The ability to implement some of the primary sources of evidence –archaeological, literary and epigraphic – in the construction of a characterization of ancient religions.


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Seminars (2 hours per week during 6 weeks): 12 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 98 hours

  • Preparation discussion: 20 hours

  • Writing of essays: 150 hours

Assessment method

  • Theoretical paper (3000 words, see below)

  • Research paper (4000 words, ResMA: 5000 words, see below)

  • Participation (ResMA: includes leading a discussion)


  • Theoretical paper
    measured learning objectives: 1-4; 6; 8-11. ResMA also 5; 7; 12-13

  • Research paper
    measured learning objectives: 1-4; 6; 8-11. ResMA also 5; 7; 12-13

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 2-4. ResMA also 12


  • Theoretical paper: 30 %

  • Research paper: 50 %

  • Participation/discussion: 20%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficent


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.

Theoretical and Research Essays

Students are required to submit two pieces of written coursework in essay form: a 3,000-word theoretical essay midway through the course, and a 4,000-word research essay at the end of the course (5000 words for Research MA students).

The theoretical essay is intended to cover some of the major points of theoretical and epistemological controversy surrounding one of the course’s main themes, while the research essay is intended to give the student the opportunity to research in more detail a sub-topic within broader course framework. Research MA students will be expected to select their own essay questions in consultation with the course tutor.


Students are expected to be actively engaged in discussion of the content and issues raised within the set texts each week, and to be able to summarize the material they have covered for the rest of the group in English. Research MA students will be required to summarize slightly lengthier works, and will be expected also to lead a discussion.

Attendance and General Conduct

Students are required to attend and to carry out the set readings for all of the six seminar sessions. For each session the student should have uploaded written notes on the themes and content of the readings on blackboard, and have prepared themselves to summarise their notes and personal views to the group.

Research MA students are expected to cover a slightly greater depth of reading, both in terms of broader theoretical works, and in engagement with more specific primary and secondary source material. In practical terms this means providing written and oral summaries of whole books and debates between authors, rather than simply assimilating single articles or book sections.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • interaction between lecturer and student

  • providing information to students

Reading list

  • Our central text is: H.S. Versnel, Coping With the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology (Brill 2011).
    This book is available as an ebook, but should students wish to buy the book in print – which I recommend because we will use it extensively – they may do so through Brill MyBooks for the special price of € 25. You do need to register to apply for this service (see website).

  • A further bibliography can be found at Versnel’s page

  • Further literature will be made available on Blackboard and an extensive bibliography of Versnel’s work will be provided.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Dr. K. Beerden