Ioan Petru Culianu or Couliano (January 5, 1950 – May 21, 1991) was a Romanian historian of religion, culture, and ideas, a philosopher and political essayist, and a short story writer. He long served as professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, and also taught the history of Romanian culture at the University of Groningen.
An expert in gnosticism and Renaissance magic, he was encouraged and befriended by Mircea Eliade, though he gradually distanced himself from his mentor. Culianu published seminal work on the interrelation of the occult, Eros, magic, physics, and history.
Culianu was murdered in 1991. His murder has often been suggested to be the result of his critical view of Romanian national politics. Some elements of the Romanian political right openly celebrated his murder. The Romanian Securitate, which he once lambasted as a force "of epochal stupidity", has also been suspected of involvement and of using puppet fronts on the right as cover.
Culianu was born in Iaşi. He studied at the University of Bucharest, then traveled to Italy where he was granted political asylum while attending lectures in Perugia in July 1972. He later graduated from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan. He lived briefly in France and the Netherlands, before leaving Europe for Chicago, in the United States. There, after a stint as visiting professor, he became a professor at the University of Chicago. He took a Ph.D. at the University of Paris IV in January 1987, with the thesis Recherches sur les dualismes d'Occident. Analyse de leurs principaux mythes ("Research into Western Dualisms. An Analysis of their Major Myths"), coordinated by Michel Meslin.
Having completed three doctorates and being proficient in six languages, Culianu specialized in Renaissance magic and mysticism. He became a friend, and later the literary executor, of Mircea Eliade, the famous historian of religions. He also wrote fiction and political articles.
Culianu had divorced his first wife, and at the time of his death was engaged to Hillary Wiesner, a 27-year woman of Jewish origin, also a graduate divinity student at Harvard University.
Minutes after concluding a conversation with his doctoral student, Alexander Arguelles, at noon on a day when the building was teeming with visitors to a book sale, Culianu was murdered in the bathroom of the divinity school, Swift Hall, of the University of Chicago. He was shot once in the back of the head. The identity of the killer and the motive are still unknown.
Speculation arose that he had been killed by former Securitate agents, due to political articles in which he attacked the Communist regime. The murder occurred a year and a half after the Romanian Revolution and Nicolae Ceauşescu's death.
Before being killed, he had published a number of articles and interviews that heavily criticized the Ion Iliescu post-Revolution regime, making Culianu one of the government's most vocal adversaries. Several theories link his murder with Romanian Intelligence, which is widely perceived as the successor of the Securitate; several pages of Culianu's Securitate files are inexplicably missing. Some reports suggest that Culianu had been threatened by anonymous phone calls in the days leading up to his killing.
Ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist involvement, as part of an Iron Guard revival in connection on the nationalist discourse of the late years of Ceauşescu's rule and the rise of the Vatra Românească and România Mare parties, was not itself excluded from the scenario; according to Vladimir Tismăneanu: "[Culianu] gave the most devastating indictment of the new union of far left and far right in Romania". As part of his criticism of the Iron Guard, Culianu had come to expose Mircea Eliade's connections with the latter movement during the interwar years (because of this, relations between the two academics had soured for the final years of Eliade's life).
A biography and an analysis of his death was published by Ted Anton under the title Eros, Magic, and the Death of Professor Culianu (alluding to Culianu's most influential work, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance). See also: Elemire Zolla, Ioan Petru Culianu, Alberto Tallone Editore, 1994; Umberto Eco, Murder in Chicago, in The New York Review of Books, April 10, 1997; Sorin Antohi (ed.), Religion, Fiction, and History. Essays in Memory of Ioan Petru Culianu, Volumes I-II, Bucharest, Nemira, 2001; Sorin Antohi (coordinator), Ioan Petru Culianu. Omul şi opera, Iaşi, Polirom, 2003; Matei Calinescu, Despre Ioan Petru Culianu si Mircea Eliade. Amintiri, lecturi, reflectii, Iasi, Polirom, 2002, 2005(2); and Andrei Oişteanu, Religie, politică şi mit. Texte despre Mircea Eliade şi Ioan Petru Culianu, Polirom, Iaşi, 2007.
He was 41 when he was shot in the head in the men's room in his University, Divine School where he was teaching on May 21 1991. At times he preached against communism and its system of brainwashing youth. It is alleged that he was killed on the orders of outgoing Romanian Communist Party leaders.