Skip to main content

Culianu, Ioan Petru


CULIANU, IOAN PETRU (January 5, 1950May 21, 1991), a scholar of Romanian origin, was born in Iaşi, Romania. He descended from ancestors who played an important role in the cultural milieu of this city, the ancient capital of the province of Moldavia. His grandfather, Neculai Culianu, was the dean of the University of Iaşi in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century as well as a member of the influential cultural group Junimea (the Youthhood), founded in 1867 and directed by the literary critic Titu Maiorescu. Culianu's interest in the history of religions was precocious despite the political and ideological circumstances of his early scholarly career. In 1967 he left Iaşi for Bucharest, where he enrolled in the Faculty of Foreign Letters at the University of Bucharest. He studied Italian Renaissance thought under the guidance of Nina Façon and in 1971 delivered a thesis on the philosopher Giordano Bruno and the magical aspects of his works. Obtaining a short-term scholarship for Italy (University of Perugia) after graduating from Bucharest, Culianu decided to pursue his academic interests as an émigré rather than return to Romania. He spent the rest of his life outside his native country, living in Italy (19711978), the Netherlands (19781986), and finally the United States (19861991), where he died when he was shot in a bathroom at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. According to Tereza Culianu-Petrescu, "of all the hypotheses regarding the murder, the only one privileged by evidence is that of a political assassination" (in S. Antohi, Zool, p. 57). His biography also includes long stages of research in France and after 1986 frequent return trips to Europe.

Despite the interdictions of the communist-totalitarian regime of his Romanian youth, he discovered and pursued early the writings of Mircea Eliade (19071986) and placed himself for many years as a disciple of the great Romanian-born historian of religion. Culianu's first book (1978) was a monograph on Eliade as a historian of religions and as a writer. It was the first in western Europe to systematically discuss many of Eliade's important books and articles written in the Romanian period (19241940/1945). Culianu inherited from Eliade the interest for the comparative study of religion and groundbreaking themes, for different axial fields of the discipline, for literatureafter 1967 Culianu published novels in Romanian as well as in Italian and Englishand for modern Romanian culture. For a span of five years Culianu was also the administrator responsible for Eliade's legacy, his writings and archives preserved in Chicago, and was adopted in the 1980s as his most faithful disciple. Eliade and Culianu published together The Eliade Guide to World Religions (1991), which was translated into various languages, but despite its title, the project and the writing of this manual was entirely due to Culianu. The fourth and last volume of Eliade's A History of Religious Ideas was edited and published in German in 1990, and a long and significant scientific correspondence between the two scholars has been preserved in the Culianu family archive.

Culianu's Italian period was productive. In this epoch he was a steadfast contributor to journals like Aevum and Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni, writing many articles and book reviews pertaining to various fields of the history of religions, always with a sharp interest in methodology. The following orientation of his research can be discerned through his articles published in prestigious journals like Numen after 1975 and Revue de l'histoire des religions after 1976. In 1975 Culianu was appointed the assistant of Professor Ugo Bianchi (19221995), his mentor, at the Catholic University of Milan, and began his doctoral thesis. The results of many years of Italian research was collected and refined in a masterly synthesis on eros and magic in the Renaissance, which was finally published in Paris in 1984 as Éros et magie à la Renaissance. By analyzing the phantasmagorical background of different religious techniques of humanists like Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno, Culianu demonstrated how the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century censure of Renaissance imagination played a huge role in evacuating from the European religious scene the baffling techniques of manipulation through magic. In Italy, Culianu published a book on Gnosticism, including an interview with Hans Jonas, that shows the great interest he developed for ancient Gnostic thought and its fictitious posterity in modern revivals (Gnosticismo e pensiero moderno: Hans Jonas, 1985). In the Netherlands, Culianu taught religious studies at Groningen University and taught Romanian language and literature while making several small contributions in neo-Latin and Romanian topics following the mentorship of Professor Willem Noomen, for whom Culianu edited a Festschrift in 1983.

Culianu then embarked upon a new doctoral thesis (doctorat d'État ) at the Sorbonne on Gnostic mythical dualism under the supervision of Michel Meslin. This followed the writing of two very useful syntheses, one dealing with "the ascension of the soul" in historical and comparative perspectives (Psychanodia I: A Survey of the Evidence concerning the Ascension of the Soul and Its Relevance, 1983) and the other on the topic of ecstasy, ascension, and visionary description of the otherworld (Expériences de l'extase: Extase, ascension, et récit visionnaire, de l'héllenisme au Moyen Age, 1984), books that continue to be important for the clear exposition of all their sources, the lucid inquiry into most difficult and fascinating topics of religious studies, and the critiques they directed against the inadequacy, unfounded presuppositions, and factual errors of the German school of the history of religions. Starting in the early 1980s Culianu became more and more interested in different aspects of Gnosticism, yet he equally improved his skill in divergent disciplines like anthropology, cognitive science, literary criticism, and contemporary culture.

Arguably the most important turning point in Culianu's academic career was his departure for the United States in 1986. There he first worked as a fellow and then as an associate professor at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. He adopted a fresh approach to the study of different variants of Gnosticism, aiming to trace in his books on Western dualisms (the two editions of which are different from one another) the different types of Gnostic exegesis applied to the first paragraphs of the Book of Genesis, from the early Gnostics to some contemporary Gnostic-fashioned thinkers and artists. By classifying all the types of exegesis and all the possible combinations between the models adopted through the ages by the Gnostics, Culianu revealed the neglected parallel history of Christian dogmatic interpretation and their religious and mythological patterns. The discovery of invariants along two millennia in religious and secular paradigms concerning the exegesis of Genesis showed Culianu determined to engage a new type of approach to cognitive studies. In 1990 he founded, with the aim of combining historical and philological scholarship with the epistemology of cognitive studies, an international journal, Incognita, which did not survive after his premature death (only the first four volumes appeared in 1990 and 1991). Culianu's last writings include discussion on the hypothesis of determining the nature of religion as a mind game. In Out of This World: Other-Worldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein, his last book (published posthumously), he convincingly combined fresh enquiries on the major transcendent journeys in the mythologies from the ancient Middle Eastern civilization to China with the epistemological speculation about the fourth dimension. In this research, sustained by a brilliant capacity of attracting the attention of different types of readers, Culianu met some of the current hermeneutical paradigms in Italy, France, and the United States, aiming like his mentor Eliade to conceive the history of religions as a total discipline, capable of interacting with a huge constellation of other disciplines and methods of enquiry.

The wide range of topics and academic skills Culianu expressed from his very youth to his death were the subject of internationally acclaimed exegesis. All his major books are accessible in English translation, and many of them have been translated into German, Italian, and other languages. Meanwhile some work of his last period pertaining to the introduction of cognitive sciences' methods into the frame of religious studies was sometimes criticized. The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism (1992) is probably his masterpiece, but one can only guess the developments Culianu aimed to pursue. Because of his untimely death he was not able to accomplish several planned works, such as A History of Magic and an essay on Raimundus Llullus's ars combinatoria. His scholarly posterity remains vivid, as can be appreciated through the two-volume Gedenkschrift edited ten years after his death by Sorin Antohi, a Romanian historian of ideas, including more than forty scholarly and biographical contributions from Italy, Romania, and the United States (Religion, Fiction, and History: Essays in Memory of Ioan Petru Culianu, 2001). A subsequent Romanian edition was published in 2003. After 2000 a collection of Culianu's books began publication in Romanian by Bucharest's Nemira Publishing House and in Iaşi by Polirom; the latter editorial project aimed to present about forty volumes containing Culianu's collected papers translated into Romanian, of which fifteen have been published, including Culianu's minor writings edited and introduced by Antohi, Culianu's contributions to the Encyclopedia of Religion and other encyclopedias, edited by Eduard Irinischi, and the Eliade-Culianu corpus of correspondence, edited by Tereza Culianu-Petrescu and Dan Petrescu. These new volumes better expressed Culianu's solidarity with and, later, important divergences from, his Romanian master, as well as the difficulty in assuming the scholarly heritage of Eliade. The Ioan Petru Culianu Lectures on Religion, delivered by major scholars in the field, were established at the Central European University of Budapest, also through the effort of Sorin Antohi.

See Also

Eliade, Mircea.


Culianu, Ioan Petru. Mircea Eliade. Assisi, Italy, 1978.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Iter in silvis: Saggi scelti sulla gnosi e altri studi. Messina, Italy, 1981.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. "Religione e accrescimento del potere." In Religione e potere, edited by Gianpaolo Romanato, Mario Lombardo, and Ioan Petru Culianu, pp. 173252. Turin, 1981.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Psychanodia. Leiden, 1983.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Éros et magie à la Renaissance, 1484. Paris, 1984. American ed., Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Translated by Margaret Cook. Chicago, 1987.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Expériences de l'extase: Extase, ascension et récit visionnaire, de l'héllenisme au Moyen Age. Paris, 1984.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Gnosticismo e pensiero moderno: Hans Jonas. Rome, 1985.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. I miti dei dualismi occidentali. Milan, 1989. French ed., Les gnoses dualistes de l'Occident: Histoire et myths. Paris, 1990.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Dictionnaire des religions. With Mircea Eliade, in association with H. S. Wiesner, Paris, 1990. English ed., The Eliade Guide to World Religions. San Francisco, 1991.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Out of This World: Other-Worldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Boston, 1991.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism. San Francisco, 1992.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Pǎcatul împotriva spiritului: Scrieri politice (The sin against the Holy Spirit: Political writings). Bucharest, 1999. Contains political articles from 1989 to 1991, first published in New York.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Studii româneşti I: Fantasmele nihilismului; Secretul doctorului Eliade. Bucharest, 2000. Translated by Corina Popescu and Dan Petrescu as Romanian Studies I: The Phantasm of Nihilism; The Secret of Dr. Eliade.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Jocurile minţii. Istoria ideilor, teoria culturii, epistemologie (Mind games: History of ideas, theory of culture, epistemology). Edited by Mona Antohi and Sorin Antohi. Iaşi, Romania, 2002.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Iocari serio. (Science and art in Renaissance thought). Translated by Maria-Magdalena Anghelescu and Dan Petrescu. Iaşi, Romania, 2003.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Cult, magie, erezii. Articole din enciclopedii ale religiilor. Translated by M. M. Anghelescu and D. Petrescu. Iaşi, Romania, 2003. Includes a postscript by Edouard Irinischi about the Eliade-Culianu relationship in the making of the Encyclopedia of Religion, including useful previously unpublished material from Eliade's archives.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Dialoguri Întrerupte. Corespondţă Mircea EliadeIoan Petru Culianu. Edited by Tereza Culianu-Petrescu and Dan Petrescu. Iaşi, Romania, 2003. Contains revelations concerning their relationship, 19721986, and for the historiography of the history of religions.

Eliade, Mircea. Geschichte der religiösen Ideen. Vol. 3, pt. 2. Edited by Ioan Petru Culianu. Freiburg, Germany, 1990.


Culianu, Ioan Petru. La collezione di smeraldi. Milan, 1989.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Hesperus. Bucharest, 1992.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Pergamentul diafan. Bucharest, 1992.

Culianu, Ioan Petru. Arta fugii: Povestiri (The art of fugue: Short stories). Iaşi, Romania, 2002.

Works on Ioan Petru Culianu

Antohi, Sorin, ed. Religion, Fiction, and History: Essays in Memory of Ioan Petru Culianu. 2 vols. Bucharest, 2001.

Antohi, Sorin, ed. Ioan Petru Culianu: Omul şi opera (The man and the works). Iasi, Romania, 2003.

Anton, Ted. "The Killing of Professor Culianu." Lingua Franca, SeptemberOctober, 1992.

Anton, Ted. Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu. Evanston, Ill., 1996.

Casadio, Giovanni. "Ricordo di Ioan Petru Culianu (19501991)." Religioni e società 8 (1993): 8592. Republished with minor changes in Manichean Studies Newsletter, 1993, pp. 415.

Casadio, Giovanni. "Ioan Petru Culianu ou la contradiction." Archævs 5 (2001): 1524.

Casadio, Giovanni. "Ioan Petru Culianu, ovvero la storia delle religioni come vita e come arte." Archævs 6 (2002): 313324.

Eco, Umberto. "Murder in Chicago." New York Times Review of Books (April 10, 1997).

Idel, Moshe. "Ioan Petru Culianu." Archævs 5 (2001): 1114.

Marchianò, Grazia. "Un uomo per altre latitudini: Ioan Petru Culianu." In Estetica 1993: Oriente e Occidente, edited by Stefano Zecchi. Bologna, 1993.

Marchianò, Grazia. "I primi dieci anni postumi di Culianu: Congetture su un pensiero fermato." Archævs 5 (2001): 710.

Zolla, Elémire. Ioan Petru Culianu. Turin, 1994. Reprinted in E. Zolla, La filosofia perenne, Milan, 1999, pp. 179205.

Eugen Ciurtin (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Culianu, Ioan Petru." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 21 Nov. 2018 <>.

"Culianu, Ioan Petru." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (November 21, 2018).

"Culianu, Ioan Petru." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved November 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.