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Lecture | Symposium

Religion and Fantasy (12th Leiden Symposium on New Religiosity)

Monday 22 April 2024
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden





Tara B.M. Smith: Nuns with Guns: Warhammer 40,000 as a Site for Religious Engagement






Markus Altena Davidsen, Jim du Pau and Joep Rovers: Tië eldaliéva (The Elven Path): The First Legally Recognised Tolkien Church in the World




The discussion continues in a nearby pub

The symposium is hosted by the Leiden Centre for the Study of Religion (LUCSoR). The symposium is public and free; registration is not required.

More information?
Contact Mriganka Mukhopadhyay for more information.


  • Tara B.M. Smith
  • Markus Altena Davidsen, Jim du Pau and Joep Rovers
Be'lakor the Dark Master, a character from Warhammer. Credits: Tara B.M. Smith.

Tara B.M. Smith

Nuns with Guns: Warhammer 40,000 as a Site for Religious Engagement

Abstract. The science fantasy grim dark universe of Warhammer 40,000 (40k) is steeped in religious symbolism, conflict and dogma. This mainly takes the form of medieval Christian biblical symbols, motifs and extremism, and demonic themes. This paper takes a Gamenvironment approach, as informed by Radde-Antweiler and others, that positions the environment of a player  to extend beyond a single engagement with the game world. The 40k religious gamenvironment includes a variety of mediums such as tabletop gameplay and rules, painting, YouTube videos, online forums, and the input of perspectives from writers, designers and players. As religion in the increasingly so-called secularised societies of the Western world continue to move away from churches and other organised settings we see, counterintuitively, a pervasion of religious influence across popular culture.  While this influence in relation to video games has been noted before, many tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Warhammer 40k also contain numerous magical, occult, and religious themes. While scholars like De Wildt and Fiadotau have argued that this is mostly done for aesthetics purposes, and this is undeniably an important component, this paper argues that at least in the context of 40k it extends well beyond this. 40k has fostered a culture of discussions on religion in the world outside of the lore and additionally, religion is incorporated into tabletop game play that affects the way the players play.  Finally, the argument is made that 40k is a religious gamenvironment and should be incorporated into the field of religion and games.

Bio. Dr Tara B. M. Smith is an early career interdisciplinary academic that works in the fields of science fiction, literature, religion and popular culture. Currently she is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at the Harvard Divinity School, Boston, writing on religious ideas and experiences of people that paint and play within the science fiction “grim dark” universe of Warhammer 40,000. Tara’s Doctorate thesis (2022) explored the role of science fiction in promoting positive social change. Her current monograph New Religious Movements as Expressed in Science Fiction is expected to be published in 2024. When Tara is not studying, she spends time with her two cats Thomas and Momo and fiancé Luke.

Markus Altena Davidsen, Jim du Pau and Joep Rovers

Tië eldaliéva (The Elven Path): The First Legally Recognised Tolkien Church in the World

Abstract. In 2005, a small group of Americans founded Tië eldaliéva –Tolkien Elvish for ‘The Elven Path’. The group was led by Aikanar (Dave Woosley), a long-time Tolkien aficionado and neo-shaman, and Calantirniel (Lisa Allen), a professional astrologist, psychic, and herbalist. Other core members had backgrounds in Heathenry, ceremonial magick, and esoteric Christianity. The ‘birthing ritual’ of the group, which the geographically dispersed members carried out together with a conference call on the phone, was based on Wiccan circle casting.

Tië eldaliéva can best be characterised as a Tolkien-based reconstructionist group. It was not the first group to draw spiritual inspiration from Tolkien’s works, but the first to systematically ‘reconstruct’ (as they say) the spirituality of Tolkien’s Quendi (Elves) and Dúnedain (the most elevated human race in Middle-earth). Central to Tië eldaliéva’s reconstructionist endeavour was the creation of a ritual calendar (which Ainakar based on the calendar of the Elves in Rivendell) and a ritual format for each full moon and solar celebration (written by Calantirniel). The collective performance of these rituals – first on phone, then on Skype, and now on Patreon and YouTube – still constitutes a core element of the group’s practice.

The aim to construct a purely Tolkien-based tradition impacted the social dynamics of the group. The steady course helped the group consolidate, and it was the first (and so far only) Tolkien-based spiritual group to gain legal recognition – in 2020 – as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt religious charity in the United States. At the same time, heated theological debates fostered schisms, with Ilsaluntë Valion (The Silver Ship of the Valar) hiving off in 2007 to specialise in ‘gnostic research’ on Tolkien Legendarium, and other core members breaking off to pursue Elven-but-not-exclusively-Tolkien-based spiritualities elsewhere. To distinguish itself more clearly from the movement of self-identified Elves, Tië eldaliéva recently decided to rebrand itself as The Way of Arda’s Lore (WAL).

Bio. Markus Altena Davidsen is a university lecturer in the sociology of religion at Leiden University. His PhD dissertation (2014), The Spiritual Tolkien Milieu: A Study of Fiction-based Religion, explored individuals and groups that have in different ways drawn spiritual inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga.

Jim du Pau is a student in the MA Religious Studies at Leiden University. He specialises in contemporary occultism and is a research intern on the project “The Spiritual Tolkien Milieu Revisited”.

Joep Rovers holds an MA in Philosophy and another MA in Religious Studies, both from Leiden University. He currently works for the Netherlands Court of Audit (Algemene Rekenkamer) and is part of the research team on the project “The Spiritual Tolkien Milieu Revisited”.

Previous Leiden symposia on New Religiosity

2012: Hekserij in Holland
2013: Identity and Tradition in Contemporary Paganism
2014: New Forms of Sacrality in the Netherlands
2015: Playing with Religion
2016: Elves, Spirits, and Aliens: Superhuman Entities in New Religions
2017: What Cards and Coins Reveal: Divinatory Techniques in the Netherlands
2018: Stories of the Supernatural: Encounters with the Other Side in Literary and Everyday Narratives
2019: The Paranormal: Experiences and Experiments
2021: Mormonism 200 Years On: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 200 years after Joseph Smith’s first revelation
2022: The Tell-Tale Art Divination and Oracular Practice from All Angles

2023: QAnon and Alien Gods: Plausibility Construction in the Cultic Milieu

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