Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.01

Robert Ackerman, The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991. Pp. xiv, 253. ISBN 0-8240-6249-3.

Reviewed by William M. Calder III, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Gilbert Murray in 1912 sent Wilamowitz a copy of Jane Harrison's Themis. A good deed never goes unpunished. Wilamowitz, a product of the Enlightenment, replied in enlightened terms:1

In matters of religion I remain old-fashioned. non fumum e fulgore sed e fumo dare lucem. The whole modern tendency seems to me to try to explain the adult man from the life of the embryo. It does not interest me much how Hecuba's grandmother felt; not Plato's for that matter. She was only an old woman and her faith a hag's.
And a bit later:
I can't get along with historians of religion; not with those who really dispose of everything with magic and superstition and in the end have a more intimate relation with old women of both sexes than to Plato, Spinoza and Goethe.

In just this spirit, Werner Jaeger condemned E. R. Dodds as emphasizing the tangential. But A. D. Nock, a Cambridge man, called The Greeks and the Irrational "almost consistently brilliant." Walter Burkert called it the most influential book in classics he ever read.2 Fashions change. It is now PC to consider the Greeks more like primitives than "ein Mensch wie Du und Ich." It is difference not sameness that we stress but not the marmoreal difference of Winckelmann and Nietzsche. That is elitism, and PC forbids it. Crucial for this view of the Greeks was J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists, A. B. Cook, F. M. Cornford, Jane Harrison and Gilbert Murray. These scholars first allowed the findings of comparative social anthropology to elucidate enigmatic practices of ancient Greek religion. That is they allowed analogy from another culture to be proof. They did not devise ideas in a vacuum. Jane Harrison read Darwin, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. She remained the center of the group and inspired the men around her.

Historical interest in the Ritualists began a bit over twenty years ago with an American doctoral dissertation in English not Classics. Robert Allen Ackerman wrote The Cambridge Group and the Origins of Myth Criticism (Diss. Columbia 1969). Theodor Gaster refused it publication at Columbia Press. Two chapters appeared in revised form: "Frazer on Myth and Ritual," JHI 36 (1975) 115-134 and the influential "Jane Ellen Harrison: The Early Work," GRBS 13 (1972) 209-230. The unpublished dissertation remarkably exerted considerable influence: see, e.g., Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, 1981) 121 n. 72. In 1969 Ackerman had two strikes against him. His was a pioneer work and hence ahead of its time. The Cambridge Ritualists were considered a bizarre mistake that allowed Murray to trace Hamlet back to a Year-Spirit and any work on them a waste of time. Further the book fell between the three stools of anthropology, classics, and English, with practitioners of each field denying Ackerman admission. Both these drawbacks conspired to prove the book great. Ackerman's work culminated in his exemplary J. G. Frazer: His Life and Work (Cambridge 1987), typically thought not worth reviewing by editors of classical journals. CP 85 (1990) 80-83 is the exception. That is, practitioners of an historical discipline deny the value of knowing their own history.

Now at last the dissertation is published. The bibliography is updated. There is a preface added. References to subsequent work have been added to the notes. The book is welcome and in no way dated. Ackerman calls it (vii) "an essay particular." As in all his writings Ackerman is informed, extraordinarily lucid even when describing complex theory, and able to write sine ira et studio. With typical candor he states his position at the start (viii): "I find that, although I am not convinced by the arguments of the Ritualists, I am at least willing to listen." His readers should emulate him.

Ackerman is an intellectual historian of Victorian and Edwardian England. His chapters treat: The Eighteenth Century: Rationalism and Reaction; Romantic Historicism and Philology; The Rise of Anthropology: Lang, Tyler, and Robertson Smith; J. G. Frazer; Jane Ellen Harrison: The Early Work; Jane Harrison and the Cambridge Ritualists;3 Years of Achievement: 1912-14; Aftermath. The arrangement is chronological. The scholars' work is seen as part of their lives and time. Obviously Ackerman cannot evaluate Murray's text of the Hymn to the Kouros. Martin West has done that (JHS 85 [1965] 149-159). But he tells us why Murray and Harrison asked ancient sources the questions they did. This West does not do. We should read both for different reasons. Here and there additions can be made, especially from the German side. At p. 19 as influential as Herder's einfühlen was Goethe's Gefühl ist alles (Faust I.3456), cited by Wilamowitz at Pindaros, 201; Glaube I 2.11; Briefe Usener, 56.

The chapter Aftermath may be the most important. Ackerman traces influence. Murray and not Pickard-Cambridge wrote the article: "Greek Drama, Origin" for the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1929). Non-classicists who could not control the evidence accepted ritualist theory. Classicists who read Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy scoffed at it. The exceptions were the Marxist, George Thomson, brother-in-law of Harrison's biographer, Jesse Stewart, and unexpectedly T. B. L. Webster: see esp. BICS 5 (1958) 43-48. Ackerman records influence on the mummers' play through Tiddy, Shakespeare through Janet Spens and Arthurian romance through Jessie Weston. The Ritualists affected literacy theory largely through influential critics like Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye, and Stanley Edgar Hyman. They also influenced comparative religion and biblical and Near Eastern studies through S. H. Hooke and Mircea Eliade and philosophy through Ernst Cassirer. Ludwig Wittgenstein contrarily was outraged by Frazer.4 For their influence on creative writers see John B. Vickery, The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough (Princeton: 1976). Ackerman makes the important point that classicists, e.g., Pickard-Cambridge and Else, discard a theory which they believe "wrong" because not substantiated by what they consider "facts." Arguing from the analogy of psychoanalysis and Marxism (one might add Christianity), Ackerman holds that "right" or "wrong" are not decisive. Rather we should evaluate influence and insights gained. One thinks of the hero as archetypal scapegoat or eniautos-daimon.

I urge Hellenists to read Ackerman, learn from him, and be grateful that he thinks the reception of a chapter in the history of classical scholarship influential enough, outside of classics, to have written two books about it. Thanks also are due Robert A. Segal, editor of the series Theorists of Myth, for including this volume. His brief introduction merits attention.


1. See Anton Bierl, William M. Calder III, Robert L. Fowler (edd.), The Prussian and the Poet: The Letters of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to Gilbert Murray (1894-1931) (Hildesheim, 1992).

2. See Walter Burkert in Robert W. Cape, "An Interview with Walter Burkert," Favonius 2 (1988) p. 51. I owe the reference to Albert Henrichs. Burkert's eminently fair evaluation of the Ritualists has encouraged renewed scholarly interest in them: see Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: Interpretationen altgriechischer Opferriten und Mythen (Berlin/New York: 1972) pp. 29-45 and Greek Religion (Cambridge MA, 1985) pp. 1-4 with nn.

3. See now Robert Ackerman, "The Cambridge Group: Origins and Composition," in The Cambridge Ritualists Reconsidered, edited by William M. Calder III,Illinois Classical Studies Supplement 2 (1991) pp. 1-19.

4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough, edited by Rush Rhees (Brynmill, 1979): see Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (New York: 1990) pp. 310-311.