Call for papers for an interdisciplinary workshop, 19-20 May 2022
Travel literature and the study of religions have been closely intertwined since even before the study of religions emerged as an independent field of research. When Pausanias wrote his Description of Greece in the second century AD, this ancient travel writer presented what could be considered the first systematic account of the mythological landscape of Greece as a space that can be traversed by a traveller-folklorist; and when James George Frazer wrote his six-volume translation-cum-commentary of the Description in the 1880s and 1890s, he used the accounts of more recent travellers to elucidate the work of the ancient Greek traveller-mythologist. Thus, travel writing can be both a mode of thinking about sacred landscapes and a source for their later study. Where it aims to present a kind of literary ethnography, travel writing at its best can contain vast stores of information about the religious landscape of the country travelled through; and for the armchair traveller on his or her desk, this literary ethnography can provide rich glimpses of a country’s religions that can be turned into another book. Many of Frazer’s most brilliant passages, like his account of “The God of the Corycian Cave” in Anatolia, so heavily draw on travelogues that they could well be described as travelogues at one remove.
Other travel writing, with the works of Freya Stark maybe counting among the most magnificent examples, aims not (only) to give an account of the present of the travelled country, but reflects travel that itself is done for the sake of the fascination of the past. Often, this takes the form of an affluent Westerner (including the ostentatiously poor backpacker) coming to distant countries thought to possess ancient wisdom that would allow the traveller to complete a spiritual quest (which the Hippy search of enlightenment on the Indian subcontinent turned almost into a mass movement); or the traveller wants to reenact travels in the footsteps of ancient paradigms (such as the many voyages in the wake of Odysseus). Texts reflecting such travels breathe a view of the history of religions that is drawn to distant shores not least for the myths that once were, or were thought to have been. In travel literature of this kind, the traveller goes to remote countries to experience a history thought to be more present there, in the enchanted distance, than here, in a home felt wanting and trivial.
Other travel writing again can be a spin-off, and literary mirror image, of an academic quest for understanding distant religions, practices, or beliefs. Konrad Maurer, one of the founding fathers of the study of Icelandic ‘folk belief’, not only in 1860 published a landmark study of folk belief and folk storytelling in Iceland that virtually created this field of research, but he also spent much of his later life working on a travel book about the same visit to Iceland during which he had collected much of the material for his academic monograph. Even though Maurer’s travelogue was published only long after his death, it still provides an early example of a merging of literary ambitions that can be seen also with other important figures of the study of religions: that of the academic-cum-travel writer. Rudolf Otto, whose Das Heilige (“The Idea of the Holy”, 1917) was one of the most influential – albeit deeply theological – books in the study of religions in the twentieth century, also dabbled with travel writing by publishing a series of articles about a journey to the orient he undertook in 1911. Mircea Eliade not only wrote a plethora of studies of Indian religiosity, but in 1934 he also published a literary travel diary that dealt with his experiences of living, learning, and travelling in India.
The conference, and an edited volume planned to emerge from this conference, aims to pursue the manifold ways in which travel writing and the study of religions are entangled. This includes, but is not limited to topics such as:
• travel writing as a source for the study of religions;
• past and present religions as the object of travel writing;
• travel writing inspired by academic studies;
• scholars in the field of the study of religions as travel writers;
• travel writing as religion, i.e. as providing surrogate (or not so surrogate?) religious experiences through the act of reading about religions;
• religious travel writing in the past (religious travelogues, pilgrim records);
• developments of travel writing in the ‘digital age’.
The conference aims to put particular emphasis on the fundamental methodological question of how travel writing can be tackled in the field of the study of religions without losing sight of its intrinsic character as literature; and how conversely approaches to travel writing in literary scholarship can profit from a dialogue with the study of religions. Or in other words: how can the methods of both the study of religions and of literary criticism be brought together to deepen our understanding of a type of texts that is relevant to both, giving literary accounts of religious phenomena, often even driven by religious motivations as much as by literary ambitions?
The conference will take place on 19-20 May 2022. Confirmed speakers include Professor Alessia Bauer (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris), Professor Max Deeg (Cardiff University), Dr Mihaela Gligor (The Romanian Academy, “George Bariţiu” Institute of History Cluj-Napoca), and Prof. Dr. Catherina Wenzel (Goethe-University Frankfurt). It is hoped that the conference will take the form of an in-person event. Expressions of interest including a title and short abstract (c. 300 words) should be sent to the organiser, Dr Matthias Egeler, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Institute for Scandinavian Studies and Inter-Faculty Programme in the Study of Religions, by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 31 January 2022. There is a limited amount of funding to help attendees to defray travel expenses.