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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.

MA- or ResMA-students from outside the History Department (e.g. Classics or Archaeology) can take the course as an optional course; it is however not possible to take the course for 5 ECTS.


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

The student has acquired:

  • 6) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following; in the specialisation Ancient History: 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

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 (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the 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


  • Weekly literature reflection
    measured learning objectives: 1-4; 6; 8-11. ResMA also 5; 7; 12-13

  • Research paper (4000 words, ResMA: 5000 words, see below)
    measured learning objectives: 1-4; 6; 8-11. ResMA also 5; 7; 12-13

  • Participation (ResMA: includes leading a discussion)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4. ResMA also 12


  • Weekly literature reflection: 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.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Blackboard.


The research paper can be revised and resubmitted if it is not sufficient. The other course components cannot be re-taken. The sufficient parts cannot be re-taken.

Inspection and feedback

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.

Research Essay

Students are required to submit written coursework in essay form: 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:

  • publication course outline

  • communication of deadlines

Reading list

  • Our central tekst is: H.S. Versnel, Coping With the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology (Brill 2011). This book is available as 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 euros ( ). 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 on the website

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. K. Beerden