Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.21

Walter Burkert, Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche. Zweite, überarbeitete und erweiterte Auflage (first edition 1977). Die Religionen der Menschheit Band 15.   Stuttgart:  Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 2011.  Pp. 540.  ISBN 9783170213128.  €85.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander Herda, Universität Tübingen (

It is not an easy task to review such an amazing handbook as Walter Burkert's (Burkert's) Griechische Religion. Since the first German edition came out in 1977, it has had a great impact on Religious Studies, Classics, Archaeology, Anthropology, Philosophy and many other fields. Burkert is definitely one of the most influential scholars in the field of Greek (religious) thought in the last sixty(!) years. We only have to think of his famous 1972 book on sacrificial ritual and myth, Homo Necans.

One of the reasons for Burkert's great impact is his openness to new discoveries in the field of Classics and Archaeology as well as the application of (new) interdisciplinary approaches such as anthropology, religio-sociology or socio-biology. This fruitful combination has resulted in a vast and polyglot production of books and articles. The articles, together with a bibliography down to 2010, are now collected in (so far!) eight volumes of the "Kleine Schriften", edited by some of Burkert's pupils.1 These reprints sometimes also include very recent addenda by Burkert himself.2

The book under review has seen editions in different languages, provoking many reviews, starting with an Italian translation in 1984, which was revised and extended in 2003, almost eight years before the German one. In the meantime even a third Italian edition appeared in 2010.3 1993 saw a Greek and Portuguese translation, 2007 a revised Spanish one, edited by Alberto Bernabé.4 For a French edition the readers had to wait until very recently, when Pierre Bonnechere delivered his translation together with an extensive preface and a bibliography on Greek religion.5 The English edition of 1985, translated by John Raffan, as well as the first German one, has had so many remarkable reviews, that I can mainly concentrate here on the question: what is new? And what can I myself criticise?

The new edition is nearly identical with the old one when comparing the contents: the only addition is a short chapter II 9 on magic ("Magie"; pp. 185-187, also missing in the English and recent Italian editions). A minor change is the positioning of the abbreviations and the now much extended bibliography (15 pages in comparison to the four of the first edition) at the end of the book, before the indices. The total number of text pages has increased by 16 pages, though it might be more as the print space is slightly larger now. As Burkert says in the preface (p. 9), the "flood of new publications (...) has become entirely unmanageable". Therefore "a randomness of [Burkert's] personal knowledge and choice cannot be avoided. What one can and should, in accordance with the increase, cut out of the ones previously mentioned, is a delicate matter in every case".

What was cut out and what was added by Burkert can be determined only by comparing the two editions word for word, a task out of the scope of my review but nevertheless a worthwhile effort. An interesting omission is for example the Cambridge School critics in the last half-sentence of paragraph 1, p. 25 of the first edition, also to be found in the English one, p. 3, end of second paragraph: "but at least in Anglo-American literature and literary criticism the Frazer-Harrison tradition is still alive". A surprising addition is found in the last paragraphs of chapter one of the introduction on "Forschungsgeschichte" (pp. 16-17). Here Burkert deals with the French structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his successors in the field of Classics, e.g. J.-P. Vernant, P. Vidal-Naquet and M. Detienne. In the first German as well as in other subsequent editions Burkert had almost entirely left out any discussion about this approach, an omission which has been criticised by some of his reviewers.6 But on p. 333 of the first edition, now slightly altered pp. 332-33 of the second and p. 217 of the English one, Burkert declares: "The danger in this approach is, of course, that historically given reality will perforce be curtailed for the sake of the system and its logical structure." Now he even goes further with his critics when stating p. 16 that "structuralism seems to disintegrate into a diffuse post-structuralism" and that it had an impact only on Italy, Britain and the USA, but "least on Germany". In footnote 31 we read: "The discussion on structuralism need not be documented further here"– a reasonably clear statement. Finally, the differences between first and second edition sometimes consist of insertions of important details: p. 384 n. 108 delivers a new etymology for the Apatouria (from a-patro-horia, "ensuring the common father").

My criticisms are few. As an archaeologist, I regret the lack of any illustrations (and now also maps), apart from the sacrificial scene on the front cover. In the preface of the first edition (p. 5 ) Burkert asked the reader not to see this as a "shortcoming", but as an "incitement to reflection". I wonder how this works. It is not enough that Burkert suggests on pp. 9 and 17 that the reader consult LIMC (Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae) and ThesCRA (Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum). In the preface p. 9 (compare also p. 17) Burkert stresses the rapid increase of archaeological investigations affecting the study of Greek religion, in contrast to the small increase in literary sources, mainly epigraphical. He singles out Lefkandi and Kalapodi, two ambitious excavation projects. When one goes through the notes to look for others, the above-mentioned "randomness of personal knowledge" becomes evident.

One of the few weaknesses of Burkert's approach is overemphasis on the “Oriental” influence on Greek culture,7 paralleled by a tendency to neglect the Indo-European heritage.8 A sentence like p. 198 "höchster Gott ist der Himmelsvater [Zeus, A.H] nur im Griechischen und im Römischen" simply misses out the common Indo-European traditions, present also in the Bronze and Iron Age 'Luwic' cultures of Asia Minor (Hittites, 'Neo-Hittites', Lydians, Karians, Lycians, etc.), where the weather god Tarhunt is the main god.9. Hittite šiu- and Greek 'Zeus' have the same Proto-Indo-European stem *dieu- meaning "god" in general.10 Burkert is himself aware of this when he, in chapter I on the "pre-history and the Minoan-Mycenaean Age" pp. 33-39, introduces the "indogermanischen" (he prefers the German term instead of the English "Indo-European", see ibid. p. 33 n. 1) roots of Greek religion. But regarding the heroes, the 'demigods', another common Indo-European concept also found in Luwic Asia Minor, 11 he again stresses their exceptional role in Greek mythology and religion (p. 311). But what to do with Homer, borrowing in Iliad 16.456 and 674 the verb ταρχύσουσι from Luwic tarh-, "overcome", "vanquish", "revivify", the word-stem also behind lord Tarhunt's name, to designate the ritual of preparing the dead body of the Lycian hero Sarpedon for a mystical "revivification" after death?12

One of Burkert’s impressive capacities is his constant ability to reflect critically on his own work and to develop it further. This affects first of all his theory of sacrifice, now widely extended by socio-biological theories.13 Burkert only mentions it in the introduction (p. 17) but leaves the chapter on animal sacrifice (pp. 93-107) nearly unchanged. To get up-to-date on Burkert's provocative thoughts about sacrifice one has to refer to his paper Zwischen Biologie und Geisteswissenschaft. Probleme einer interdisziplinären Anthropologie, first published in 2010 and already re-published in Kleine Schriften.14

With regard to its importance (and the high price of 85 Euros!), the book may have deserved a better editorial treatment by the publisher: I notice the omission of the very useful maps of the "Greek world" on the endpapers of the first edition. Also missing are the notes on the rules of transcribing words in ancient Greek, given in the first edition, p. 14. In this context the retention of the index of Greek words (p. 537-540) is suprising, as also the omission of some important words in the Greek as well as in the "Namen und Sachen"-indices, already absent in the first edition (cf. e.g. ἀγέλη/ἀγέλα p. 391; ἄμβροτος p. 36; ἀνδρήιον/ἀνδρεῖον, γένος, συσσίτια p. 391, the names of Mycenaean gods [pp. 74-80: Diwija, Drimios, Ipemedeja, Posidaeja, Trisheros etc.] just to mention a few). Also omitted is the timetable on pp. 19-20 of the first edition. Another step backwards in usability is the omission of the sub-headings on the recto pages (cf. e.g. p. 69 "3 Die Minoisch-Mykenische Religion" instead of "3.5 Die minoischen Gottheiten" on p. 77 of the first edition). The addition of a source-index would increase the usefulness of the book as a handbook of Greek religion significantly.15

To sum up: despite minor shortcomings, the new German edition of Burkert's book is highly recommended. This is not only because the first edition has long been sold out (the reviewer himself has tried to get one in vain for a long time), but because Burkert added much new information and bibliography and many new ideas which make his masterpiece even more valuable. This book will remain one of the showpieces of Classical scholarship on "the labyrinth of Greek polytheism"16 and thought, all the more so as it is the achievement of one single learned person.


1.   Walter Burkert, Kleine Schriften I–VIII, Hypomnemata. Untersuchungen zur Antike und zu ihrem Nachleben, Supplement-Reihe Vol. II, eds. C. Riedweg – L. G. Marciano – F. Graf – E. Krummen – W. Rösler – T. A. Szlezák – K.-H. Stanzl (Göttingen 2001–2011). For the bibliography see: Vol. I, 234-256; Vol. VI, 303-308.
2.   Note for example Burkert's addendum on the etymology of Apollo's name in: Vol. VI: Mythica, Ritualia, Religiosa 3. Kulte und Feste, ed. E. Krummen (Göttingen 2011) 19-20.
3.   W. Burkert, La religione greca di epoca arcaica e classica, ed. G. Arrigoni (Milan 2003); third edition: La religione greca di epoca arcaica e classica, terza edizione italiana con aggiunte dell'Autore a cura di Giampiera Arrigoni (Milan 2010).
4.   Greek: Αρχαία ελληνική θρησκεία Αρχαϊκή και κλασσική εποχή , Trans. Nik. P. Bezantákos – A. Abagianoû. (Athens 1993); Portuguese: Religiâo Grega na época clássica e arcaica, trad. de M. J. Simôes Loureiro (Lisbon 1993); Spanish: Religiòn griega arcaica y clàsica, trad. A. Bernabé (Madrid 2007).
5.   La religion grecque à l'époque archaïque et classique appeared only in October 2011 (Picard, Paris).
6.   G. Nagy, CP 77, 1982, 73.
7.   Cf. in the preface p. 9; see also p. 17 and his seminal works Die orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Religion und Literatur, Sitzungsberichte Heidelberg Philosoph.-hist. Klasse 1984, 1 (rev. edition: The Orientalizing Revolution. Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, [Cambridge, Mass. 1992]) as well as Da Omero ai Magi. La tradizione orientale nella cultura greca (Venice 1999; revised German edition: Die Griechen und der Orient. Von Homer bis zu den Magiern [Munich 2003]; English: Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture [Cambridge 2004]).
8.   See already G. Nagy, CP 77, 1982, 72.
9.   M. Hutter, "Aspects of Luwian Religion" in C.H. Melchert (ed.), The Luwians (Leiden/Boston 2003) 211- 280 esp. 220-224.
10.   C. Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon. Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (Oxford 1995) 8.
11.   Watkins, ibid. passim.
12.   G. Nagy, CR 60, 2010, 337.
13.   Creation of the Sacred. Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Cambridge, Mass. 1996); rev. German edition: Kulte des Altertums. Biologische Grundlagen der Religion (Munich, 1998).
14.   In Krummen op. cit. (n. 2) 277-287 (first published in A. Bierl – W. Braungart [eds.], Gewalt und Opfer [Berlin/New York 2010] 57-70).
15.   There are several lapsūs, some of them annoying: p. 35 should be aśvins instead of avins, p. 97 koinōnía instead of koinnía, p. 106 n. 81 "Tempelch-ronik" (wrong partition), p. 147 nn. 94-95 "II 1 Anm. 81" instead of "II 1 Anm. 93", p. 152 "Erecht-heus" (wrong partition), p. 158 n. 11 at the end one full stop too many, p. 499 "Felix Jacoby" instead of "Friedrich(!) Jacoby" (but correct in p. 19 n. 5!), p. 500 "KN = Knossos-Täfelchen" is missing (already in first edition), "MY = Mykene Täfelchen": the reference to I 3.6 n. 239 (p. 74-75) as in the first edition is missing, "Franciszek Sokolowski" instead of "F. Franciszek Sokolowski", p. 511 "Laumonier, Alfred, Les cultes indigènes en Carie" instead of "de Carie" (already in first edition), p. 525 "Ephesia Grammata" instead of "phesia Grammata".
16.   N. J. Richardson, Numen 26, 1979, 262.

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