New Research Project: Metaphors of Religious Conversion in Late Antiquity


A new research project at the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) is dedicated to the metaphors, that were used within the descriptions of religious conversion in the Western part of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. CERES researcher Gina Derhard investigates how perceptions of religious conversion in Late Antiquity were linguistically transmitted and how this special use of language on the other hand formed itself novel religious ideas.

Late Antiquity was a time of enormous transformations — not only political, but especially religious: new beliefs arose, changed, overlapped, or replaced ancient polytheistic traditions. Beside new religions, like various Christian and Manichaean groups, intellectual conceptions of god(s) altered, like in Neo-Platonism. Additionally, new radical religious ways of life, like the foremost Christian asceticism as the hermits in the desert, played an important role.

Given this situation, it seems to be no exception to convert to or adopt part of an another religious tradition and conception of gods. Numerable self-testimonies of late antique scholars show that they themselves switched belief systems more than once in a lifetime. To give one prominent example: Augustine of Hippo had a Christian mother and a father, who worshipped to the ancient pantheon. Augustine himself turned to Manichaeism first and became Christian at the age of 30. Today he is widely known as one of the Church Fathers.

But how were those types of religious conversions described in the sources of their time? What metaphors were used for marking this religious adaption, be it practiced as an individual or collective? How were conversions theorised in Late Antiquity? The new project “Metaphors of Conversion in Latin Late Antiquity” will extensively explore this subject for the first time. The focus lies on the period from the middle of the 3rd to the middle of the 6th century — a period that brought up and canonized many novel religious conceptions and subsequently also metaphors of religious conversion. By focussing on metaphors, the project aims to investigate the significant aspect of language that is used for conversion — an approach that was left nearly unnoticed in reserching religious adaptions up to now.

New Ways in Researching Religious Conversions

The project starts at the observation that metaphors function both as models of and for religious conversion: On the one hand religious conversions can be mentally and linguistically processed through metaphors, while on the other hand these linguistic images produce new religious conceptions themselves. The purpose of this project is a precise analysis of metaphors of religious conversion on three levels: Firstly, diverse concepts of conversions should be mapped by taking conversion metaphors as short stories. The metaphor "breaking chains" for example evokes a different image of religious adaptation than "heaping up a hill" or "entering a harbour". Secondly, in regard to the language of conversion, historical questions of semantization and lexicalization need to be answered. By this it can be explored further which metaphors are “worn out” as images and which still hold an innovative metaphoric potential. In this regard, the project aims to close a gap in the historical research of metaphors. Thirdly, the meaning of metaphors for the linguistic communication of religious conversions ought to be discovered as well. On this level, religius conversion is regarded as a religiously interpreted concept that draws linguistic images from a known, sensual, observable, and immanent sphere, and uses it for the unknown, unobservable, abstract, and transcendent.