Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.19

Anton Bierl, Wolfgang Braungart (ed.), Gewalt und Opfer: im Dialog mit Walter Burkert. MythosEikonPoiesis Bd 2.   Berlin/New York:  De Gruyter, 2010.  Pp. viii, 434.  ISBN 9783110221169.  $154.00.  

Reviewed by Richard P. Martin, Stanford University (


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The title evokes signature themes of the Zürich emeritus, who turned eighty this past February. Rather than compile another Festschrift (he already has two), the editors sagely chose to elicit analytical responses to Burkert’s wide-ranging work by fourteen experts, half of them Classicists, the others from theology, biology, anthropology, Egyptology, and modern literary studies, all but two writing in German. The chapters originated in a colloquium that Burkert attended at the University of Bielefeld in November 2007. While violence and sacrifice are just a portion of his vast output (witness the eight-volume Kleine Schriften), they form a useful core to which contributors tunnel in from various intellectual locations. This results in a serious, valuable, and richly annotated book, providing some helpful interrogation of Burkert’s thinking and a solid basis for new research.

The editors’ contributions bookend the volume. Anton Bierl gives a superbly exact assessment of Burkert’s contributions to the study of Greek literature from Homer to the novel, especially tragedy. Placing him in the context of post-war fascination with the irrational, Bierl stresses the importance of Burkert’s single-handed resuscitation of topics that many thought expired with the Cambridge Ritualists; he concentrates on how these affect Burkert’s readings of texts. The ensuing dialogue with Burkert’s writing precisely sketches the difference between Bierl’s own myth-ritual poetics and the older scholar’s method, which aims at deep structures rather than the inflections of stylized performance. An appended bibliography lists forty works by Burkert, considered here by Bierl, along with more than a hundred other items relevant to the latest research on the dozens of topics Burkert has covered, from Pythagoreans and Orphics to Near Eastern literature and sociobiology—a wonderful orientation.

At the other end, Wolfgang Braungart’s concluding essay illustrates a major point from Bierl: that Burkert’s breakthrough ) Homo Necans continues to make an impact far beyond the area of ancient Greek culture. Braungart’s dazzling display of a myth-ritual poetics approach uses Burkert’s theory as an heuristic device for the explication of three modern German dramas that raise questions of guilt, both individual and corporate, and the means humans deploy for suppressing or legitimating violence. If guilt-induced ritualization strategies used by palaeolithic hunters underlie ancient animal sacrifice, and ultimately, the genre of tragedy, Heiner Müller’s Philoktet, in Braungart’s interpretation, closes this developmental circuit, as Neoptolemos at play’s end shoulders his victim (Philoctetes) like a hunter with a carcass.

Between these more literary essays, a series of chapters moves increasingly from art to science, as the participants seek to track Burkert’s distinctive melding of disciplines. Heading them up are Burkert’s own two contributions, which combine personal retrospective with some new notions. The first piece acknowledges the continuing influence of ethologist Konrad Lorenz as it investigates horror quite literally by looking at the universal experience of goose-bumps (Gänsehaut) in relation to feelings of the horrible and holy. What other Hellenist before Burkert would connect a physiological throwback from our animal predecessors with the psychology of religion and aggression, and then explicate the precise semantics of phrikê (the Greek equivalent of horror) through close reading? Burkert’s second piece traces his intellectual development within the broader story of 20th-century thought from Freud to Richard Dawkins, featuring concise opinions about naïve social Darwinism, the refinements of sociobiology and brain science, and the primal paradox of divinely sanctioned killing. Inspired by the earliest Greek attempts to describe the world as a whole, he believes we are still not on the brink of a final synthesis. One wishes this contribution could be translated for the wider audience it deserves.

Jan Bremmer points out that already in the 1966 essay “Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual” (GRBS 7) Burkert speculated about biological and deep prehistorical origins. Following these themes as they surface in articles on the Arrephoria and the Lemnian new fire, as well as throughout Homo Necans, Bremmer develops an appreciative and respectful critique of the way Burkert configures myth with ritual. To show what endures in the overall work but also where it might over-reach, he compares Robert Parker with Burkert on the Athenian Anthesteria, indicating where the latter’s concentration on guilt and sacrifice gives us a highly colored picture of that complex civic ritual.

Albert Henrichs takes into account nearly a score of Burkert’s works relevant to mystery cults, a subject that Reinhold Merkelbach encouraged his star student to pursue as early as the 1950s. Along with offering a magisterial survey of the last four decades of scholarship on the subject, Henrichs delicately unravels the complex criss-crossings of Orphic, Dionysiac and Eleusinian rites and rhetoric, carefully plotting the growth of Burkert’s views against the trajectory of new discoveries, from the Derveni papyrus to “Orphic” lamellae and the finds from Olbia. Henrichs also makes important interventions regarding some key problems (e.g. the use of book-rolls in ritual, and the gold leaf from Pherae). This is one of the richest contributions.

Renaud Gagné frames Burkert’s “refoundation of the field of Greek religion” (115) within the intellectual history of the discipline by adducing another foundational moment, the rejection by 17th-century Humanists of the dominant late-antique Judeo-Christian exegesis of Greek religion. In a detailed and erudite study, Gagné investigates one specific case, “ancestral fault” as variously interpreted by the natural-law theorist Hugo Grotius (De iure belli ac pacis, 1625) and the orthodox Calvinist (and critic of Grotius) Jan Lomeier (Epimenides, 1681). Using the same texts (mostly Plutarch), these early moderns arrive at their rejection of inherited guilt (whether as an encroachment on liberty, or a Satanic superstition) by different routes. But Gagné well shows how their paths were deeply determined by the religious struggles of the time—a moral lesson for modern workers in a field unusually sensitive to contemporary tremors.

Both Renate Schlesier and Eveline Krummen return to areas partially discussed by Henrichs and Bierl, but the former delves more deeply into Burkert’s long-standing interest in the Dionysos complex and the latter into case-studies on myth, ritual and performance. It is useful to be reminded that, until the decipherment of Linear B during Burkert’s student years, Dionysos was viewed as an “eastern” import. For Burkert, as Schlesier shows, the god is instead deeply embedded in Greek ritual, and associated with myths that echo the oldest stages of sacrificial practice. She gives a helpful guide to Burkert’s evolving views, from his earlier focus on sacrifice and initiation to more recent suggestions about shared Bronze Age cult features, and raises important questions about the role of parthenoi in Dionysiac activity. Krummen situates Burkert’s scholarship within emerging trends in the study of ritual and forms of communication. Her focus is the ritual-and-text link. By way of three excellent contrastive analyses of the “Orphic” tablets, the Iliad’s scenes of lament, and the Louvre partheneion of Alcman, Krummen insists on the finer details we need to appreciate in thinking through texts and rituals as performances, the varied cultural usages and audiences involved, from private texts-as-tokens to choral poetic representation of a Spartan civic rite. As with Bierl’s contribution, Krummen affords a good sense of the current generational attention shift from static deep structures to surface nuances.

Susanne Gödde puts into practice close reading of literary features in a meticulous and appealing analysis of the language of sacrifice within tragic texts. Is violent killing sacrilege or sacralisation? How does the paradigm of animal killing infiltrate metaphorical extensions of sacrifice (as in the Oresteia)? In what ways is sacrifice already itself aestheticized, so that literary allusions represent a second order of distantiation? Gödde’s thoughtful answers pivot around the concept of “euphemism,” conceived as a mode of “saying it is good” rather than mere ritual silence. Her precise explication of Agamemnon 241ff. is one of many highlights in this piece. Her striking conclusion is that homo necans is also of necessity homo ludens.

“Violence and sacrifice” are of course the key themes of another well-known theorist, René Girard. In a wide-ranging essay that begins the series of chapters moving beyond Greek literature, Wolfgang Palaver concisely contrasts the approach of Violence and the Sacred with that of Homo Necans. While Girard privileges mimetic desire in the aetiology of violence, and the scapegoating mechanism as a primal solution, Burkert, following Meuli, looks rather for historical evolution; the former seeks a universal thesis, while the latter favors empirical evidence in ethnography. Girard optimistically recognizes a sea-change in the Judeo-Christian re-interpretation of scapegoating as a true cleansing of sin, whereas Burkert, stressing sacrificial violence, finds cultural continuities rather than clean breaks in cultural development. The contributions of Christoph Antweiler and Eckart Voland respond more to Burkert’s 1996 book, Creation of the Sacred and its attempt to find “tracks of biology” in early religion. Antweiler unpacks Burkert’s metaphors, carefully indicating weak points in the light of a systematic evaluation of the notion of “evolution” in Darwinian and other senses. His quite abstract analysis aids thinking through concepts often unexamined by humanists: what exactly is a “similarity” or a “universal” in cultural terms, and most importantly for Burkert’s theories, does a seeming “universal” (e.g. art or religion) —if it is not merely an artifact of early human diffusion—require a biological explanation? Voland seems not to have worried about these strictures, speaking of “religiosity” as being woven into human nature. Taking an evolutionary view of culture (again, without the precise definitions of the preceding chapter), he finds in spiritual praxis three features that qualify it as a suitable adaptive mechanism: therapeutic value (from mystical and ecstatic states); an aid to group-identity formation (via ritual and in-group branding); and a spur to social order (through ethical precepts and fear of divine retribution). Left aside, curiously, in this optimistic narrative is the very topic of Burkert’s earlier work, the ties between violence and ritual—unless Voland assumes that the invention of sacrifice makes them unproblematic.

Three further contributions take their starting points from significant themes in Burkert’s oeuvre and develop them to a large extent unmarked by analytical critique. Michael Neumann integrates the idea of “the maiden’s tragedy” (Burkert’s term for the action-program found in myths of Danae, Kallisto and others) into a larger theory of narrative structuration, using Vladimir Propp’s “functions” (of which Burkert had made explicit mention), with some significant findings about mis-matches. Further association of the basic pattern with the transformations undergone by young women confirms Burkert’s bio-mythic method, but Neumann questions to what extent violence in myth is solely a narrative stylization of initiatory Angst: actual initiations, as he points out, can be pretty bloody affairs. Eva Kocziszky deals with one such initiatory myth, Niobe and her doomed children. Although Burkert cites the tale rarely, its reception-history not only includes interesting dramatic experiences (plays by Müller, Tieck, and Schütz in the 18th century; a Brechtian one-act by Jochen Berg from 1985); it also embeds visions of the heroine that inevitably introduce some sort of sacrifice, real or metaphorical, despite the absence of that motif in the old story (which Kocziszky thinks made it less attractive to Burkert). Finally, a wonderfully learned but lilting piece by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann explores how Mozart’s Zauberflöte is structured like an ancient mystery experience—not accidentally, as the composer knew about Egyptian cults, a staple of the Freemason imaginary. Schiller and others were also excited by the thought of initiatory secret societies (as they believed them to be, vaguely imagining them similar to Eleusinan and Orphic rites). Assmann makes a fine case that the reception-history of the mysteries had a powerful impact on late 18th-century ideas about civil religion, anti-clericalism, secret wisdom, and above all, the Sublime.

In sum, this surpasses most conference volumes by being thematically well-knit and focused. A book that will endure, demanding to be fully absorbed, it represents a fitting tribute to a towering figure.

Authors and titles:

Anton Bierl, “Walter Burkert – ein Religionswissenschaftler als Inspirationsquelle für eine moderne Gräzistik und kulturwissenschaftlich geprägte Literaturwissenschaft,” p.1

Walter Burkert, “Horror Stories. Zur Begegnung von Biologie, Philologie und Religion,” p.45

Walter Burkert, “Zwischen Biologie und Geisteswissenschaft. Probleme einer interdisziplinären Anthropologie,” p.57

Jan Bremmer, “Walter Burkert on Ancient Myth and Ritual. Some Personal Observations,” p.71

Albert Henrichs, “Mystika, Orphika, Dionysiaka. Esoterische Gruppenbildungen, Glaubensinhalte und Verhaltensweisen in der griechischen Religion,” p.87

Renaud Gagné, “Haereditarium Piaculum. Aspects of Ancient Greek Religion in the 17th Century,” p.115

Renate Schlesier, “Dionysos. Riten und Mythen im Werk von Walter Burkert,” p.149

Eveline Krummen, “ ‘Vom geheimen Reiz des Verborgenen’. Antike Mysterien, Mythen und Kulte zwischen anthropologischer Deutung und moderner Ritual- und Kommunikationstheorie,” p.173

Susanne Gödde, “Unschuldskomödie oder Euphemismus. Walter Burkerts Theorie des Opfers und die Tragödie,” p.215

Wolfgang Palaver, “Religion und Gewalt. Walter Burkert und René Girard im Vergleich,” p.247.

Christoph Antweiler, “Evolution, Analogien und Universalien. Eine Systematik naturalistischer Modelle anhand von Walter Burkert,” p.267

Eckart Voland, “Homo naturaliter religiosus. Umrisse des soziobiologischen Arguments,” p.293

Michael Neumann, “Danae, Rapunzel und ihre Schwestern. Zu Walter Burkerts Konzept der Mädchentragödie,” p.317

Jan Assmann, “Verwandelnde Erfahrung. Die großen Mysterien in der Imagination des 18. Jahrhunderts,” p.343

Eva Kocziszky, “Gewalt und Trauer. Niobe-Tragödien,” p.363.

Wolfgang Braungart, “Walter Burkert. Kulturtheorie und Poetik der Tragödie. Sophokles, Philoktet, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Der Besuch der alten Dame, Heiner Müller, Philoktet,” p.383

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