Sarah Iles Johnston

Sarah Iles Johnston

Sarah Iles Johnston

College and Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Religion, Departments of Classics and Comparative Studies

Areas of Expertise

  • Archaic Greek Poetry
  • Myth
  • Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean


  • B.S. (Journalism) Univ. Kansas 1979
  • B.A. (Classics) Univ. Kansas 1980
  • M.A. Cornell 1983
  • Ph.D. Cornell 1987


Personal Statement:

"It is only by a somewhat severe mental effort that we realize the fact that there were no gods at all, that what we have to investigate are not so many actual facts and existences but only conceptions of the human mind that conceived them."
Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena

"There is no greater bar to the understanding of mythology than our modern habit of clear analytical thought."
Jane Ellen Harrison, Delphika

These two quotations from one of the foundational figures for the study of ancient religions begin to sketch where those of us who continue in the field must stand--poised precariously between trying to think ourselves back into the ancient mind-set (if that's even possible) and yet resisting the lure of some of its more attractive and culturally familiar aspects.

I recently published The Story of Myth, in which I explore the ways in which skillfully narrated myths helped to create and sustain belief in the Greek gods and heroes and in the divine world more generally, drawing on methodologies from media studies, folklore and social anthropology.  Now, I am taking a break from the ancient world to work on literary ghost stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how they responded to the decline of traditional Christianity by providing other ways of asking (and answering) the questions that religions typically do, such as whether there is an afterlife.  Even here, however, I find myself running into the ancient Greek and Roman gods, who populate the literary ghost stories surprisingly often.



          Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece

Hekate Soteira: A Study of Hekate's Roles in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature

Edited Volumes:

Ancient Religions

Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art


Recent Articles:

•”Theurgy and Magic” in Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic, ed. David T. Frankfurter (Brill 2019).

•“Many (Un)Happy Returns: Ancient Greek Concepts of a Return from Death and their Later Counterparts,” in Round Trip to Hades in the Eastern Mediterranean Tradition, eds. Gunnel Ekroth and Ingela Nilsson (Brill 2018) 356-69.

Full CV