IAHR 2025


Philippe Borgeaud

Philippe Borgeaud is a historian of religion and Honorary Professor at the University of Geneva. His initial research focused on the god Pan (The Cult of Pan in Ancient Greece, Chicago & London, 1988). He then analyzed the role of a savage female deity at the heart of politics (Mother of the Gods, Baltimore, 2004). Since the 1980s, he has been reflecting on the issue of comparatism, linked to that of the construction of a European view of religion. He has written several books in this vein, including Exercices d’histoire des religions. Comparaison, rites, myths and emotions, Leiden, 2016; (with Sara Petrella), Le singe de l’autre. Du sauvage américain à l’histoire comparée des religions, Paris-Geneva, 2016 and La pensée européenne des religions, Paris, 2021, an English version to be published by Cambrigde UP in 2025.

Keynote lecture

Provoking the “Beyond”. Ritual play in a comparative approach

Since the German Romantics and post-Romantics, countless ‘religions’ (with their mythologies) have definitively left the realm of parallels and pure erudition to enter the domain of comparison.

Comparison remains the unshakeable vector of the discipline that we may still call ‘history of religions’. I’ll be looking at comparison using examples that illustrate a basic human desire: the desire to play, which Claude Lévi-Strauss described as a ‘provocation of the Beyond’, involving meta-human agents, gods, spirits, demons, ancestors and so on.

The people who inhabit this “Beyond” demand games. Communicating with them means leaving the everyday world behind, letting go and “acting as if”.

The games that are then played are rites, consisting of doing strange things, very seriously. They have rules. But the gods sometimes allow cheating.

This retreat from what Homo Economicus holds to be “real and important” introduces a theatre that could be pleasing to the spectator, but not without cruelty (bloody sacrifices, ritual killings).