BMCR 1999.05.06

Ansichten griechischer Rituale. Geburtstags-Symposium für Walter Burkert

, , Ansichten griechischer Rituale : Geburtstags-Symposium für Walter Burkert, Castelen bei Basel, 15. bis 18. März 1996. Stuttgart and Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1998. viii, 500 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9783519074335 DM 198.

Even the most determined enemy of Festschriften might baulk at refusing one to Walter Burkert, for there are few scholars whose work has been more universally admired and applauded. On the occasion of his 65th birthday in 1996 a group of former pupils (Graf, Riedweg and Szlezák) and fellow scholars of Greek religion gathered at the Römerstiftung René Clavel in Augst near Basel to celebrate his achievement with a symposium. The proceedings constitute this volume, with one exception; Martin West’s contribution has since appeared as chapter 3 of The East Face of Helicon (Oxford 1997). In its place in the Festschrift he offers a Greek carmen gratulatorium of singular charm.

The book begins with Altrektor Karl Pestalozzi’s greetings in the Aula of the Museen Basel, the same hall, he tells us, in which Nietzsche lectured on the birth of tragedy, Burckhardt lectured on Kulturgeschichte, and Karl Meuli delivered his inaugural address in 1926 on “Sagas of Dionysos”. Bachofen lived just around the corner. Fiction could not have arranged a better venue.

The academic contributions begin very well with an important paper by Jan N. Bremmer, “‘Religion’, ‘Ritual’ and the Opposition ‘Sacred vs. Profane’. Notes towards a Terminological ‘Genealogy'”. He demonstrates inescapably that “the terms ‘religion’, ‘ritual’ and the opposition ‘sacred vs. profane’ originated or became redefined around 1900” (31). He traces the modern construction/redefinition of these terms in pivotal works of the fin de siècle when the study of religion was emerging as a field in its own right. Scholars will henceforward need to be more aware of the historically conditioned meanings of these terms. Bremmer does not advocate abandoning them, but offers his study as part of the continuing effort to keep observers’ and actors’ categories suitably balanced.

Albert Henrichs’ “Dromena and Legomena. Zum rituellen Selbstverständnis der Griechen” is typically learned and insightful. He starts with the observation that though Greek culture was extraordinarily rich in rituals it was just as extraordinarily lacking in explicit discussions of their nature and purpose. To get at Greek ritual self-consciousness one has to cast one’s net rather widely. In this preliminary attempt to “take the Greeks’ statements on rites seriously as products of their ritual self-understanding” (37) Henrichs explores a series of passages: Eur. Bacch. 200-03; Heraclides the Periegete fr. II 9 Pfister;1 Hes. Theog. 535-41, 553-57; P.Derveni col. VI 5-10; Heraclitus 22 B 5; Arist. Nub. 298-313; Thuc. 2.38.1; [Xen.] Ath. Pol. 2.9; Plato Leg. 910b8 ff.; Strabo 10.3.9 p. 467F; Aretaeus 3.6.11; Sallustius De dis et de mundo 16. Though the selection is avowedly inexhaustive I could have wished to hear Henrichs’ thoughts on the Euthyphro too, and would have given Xenophon’s delightful description of his estate and its attendant festival, Anab. 5.3.7-13, at least a look-in. In the course of discussion Henrichs challenges Burkert’s own assessment of the prevailing mood at a sacrifice, arguing mainly from vase-paintings that the participants did not feel particularly guilty about the killing; if the vases seldom show the act itself, some startling exceptions demonstrate that this rarity is due not to guilty suppression but simple indifference. I am not sure this follows; iconography can develop its own traditions in response to various imponderables including artistic taste, and one cannot forget the ritual exclamation point added to the act of killing by the ololyge, nor all those myths which problematize sacrifice, not to mention tragedy. However that may be, Henrichs’ closing point is not unlike Bremmer’s, that to attempt to understand Greek religion is to be torn constantly between the opposing tendencies of seeing them as fundamentally like us and inexpressibly alien; whose self-understanding is in question?

Peter Blome, “Das Schreckliche im Bild”, investigates how Greek art represents horror (which he takes to exclude ordinary battle scenes or scenes in which heroes slay monsters or other worthy victims). He chooses seven subjects: the death of Astyanax; the death of Troilos; the sacrifice of Polyxena; the sacrifice of Iphigeneia; the killing of Medea’s children; cannibal feasts (mainly Itys); and the death of Pentheus, and shows that the artists display a marked reluctance to depict the deeds directly. The dismemberment of Pentheus is an exception which Blome perhaps does not need to work as hard as he does to minimize. He notes how the artists repeatedly show the dreadful acts taking place (or rather, about to take place) at an altar, even when the literary tradition (as in the case of Astyanax) is clear that the victim was killed elsewhere;2 the altar appears to underscore the outrageousness of the act. Violence perpetrated upon sacred objects is the worst perversion; but perhaps there is more to it than that. Blome closes with the reflection, Burkert-like, that in a society where the altar, the site of ritual blood-letting, stands at the heart of religion, violence itself is sacred, and the horrible cannot but be conceived as “sakralisiert und ritualisiert” (95).

Robin Hägg, “Ritual in Mycenaean Greece”, reviews “the evidence, of all categories, for what we know (or rather think we know) about religious ritual in Mycenaean Greece, ca 1550-1100 B.C” (99). The evidence is of three sorts: archaeological (buildings and other fixed structures, animal bones, cult instruments, figurines, etc.), iconographical (images of various kinds), and epigraphical (Linear B texts). Hägg’s survey is concise and authoritative and should serve as the starting point for anyone interested in the subject until further finds necessitate a revision. He concludes, “the main rituals of the Mycenaeans are the fireless animal sacrifice, combined with libations, bloodless offerings and communal feasting” (113).

Nanno Marinatos, “Goddess and Monster: An Investigation of Artemis”, questions “the prevailing assumption that Artemis retains many characteristics of the Aegean Nature Goddess”, arguing instead “that the Greeks created a deity of peculiar harshness and anti-sexuality” (114) under Near Eastern influence. The main witness is iconography; Minoan images of the potnia all show a goddess who nurtures and protects her animals, whereas the Greek images of Artemis show the aggressive hunter. Marinatos admits straight out that a nurturing Artemis is not hard to find in Greece, e.g. at Brauron, but thinks such Artemises are creatures of local cults and not part of the “panhellenic and more abstract iconographical conception of her persona” (117). “Moreover,” she adds, “we should not forget that it is to the interest of the hunter to protect the young animals so as to ensure a steady supply of game.” This observation rather weakens her principal argument; if the gentle side of Artemis could exist alongside the harsh Greek iconography, her harsh side could have existed alongside the gentle Minoan iconography. Even while telling of her terrifying demand for human blood, Aeschylus reminds us that Artemis is kindly to the young ( Agam. 140). The connections Marinatos discovers between Artemis, Medusa, Gorgo, Lamia and the Near Eastern Lamastu seem tenuous. While allowing for changing emphases, we should probably continue to accept the validity of the connections between Artemis and the Minoan potnia theron long noticed by scholars.

Erika Simon writes on “Archäologisches zu Spende und Gebet in Griechenland und Rom”, devoting equal attention to libations of wine and their frequent companion offerings of incense. Much of the article is taken up with the interpretation of cult images of gods holding a phiale, which the author suggested already in her 1953 Berlin dissertation, Opfernde Götter, indicated the god’s readiness to receive prayers. Nikolaus Himmelmann-Wildschütz, “Spendende Götter”, in Minima archaeologica (Mainz 1996) 54-61,3 has contested this interpretation, arguing that the phiale simply indicates the god’s divinity; “Spendende Götter,” he writes, “sind erscheinende Götter in der Selbstdarstellung ihrer eigenen Heiligkeit” (quoted by Simon p. 137). All images of gods with phialai have the same connotation in his view. Simon responds that distinctions must be drawn, particularly between scenes in which only gods are represented pouring libations amongst themselves, and scenes involving gods and men. So much one can concede, but Simon’s argument that her reading of the gods-with-men scenes is right consists mainly in repeated assertion. One helpful point, however, is that by analogy with cult statues holding other things in their right hand, e.g. Charites or a Nike, the phiale too should denote something the god is giving in return to the prayer of which the phiale is the undisputed symbol (viz. a favourable response). In the course of discussion she identifies a late Hellenistic bronze statuette in the Cleveland Museum of Art, previously thought to depict a beggar, as a man praying and holding in his hand either a phiale or an incense burner (the beggar’s cup is a modern restoration); Ethiopians were after all especially beloved of the gods for their piety.

Gerhard Baudy writes on “Ackerbau und Initiation. Der Kult der Artemis Triklaria und des Dionysos Aisymnetes in Patrai”, with the aim of restoring agriculture to favour as a key to the interpretation of myth, on an equal footing with initiation. Although the importance of agriculture in Greek religion, as in Greek life generally, ought never to be forgotten, and the initiatory reading of rites and myths can (heaven knows) be overdone, this particular myth-cult complex, known from Pausanias 7.19, was perhaps not the best one Baudy could have chosen to attempt his project, for its agricultural connection is very far to seek. Only two details point in that direction: the famine inflicted by the goddess (but this is a standard punishment for the violation of a sanctuary), and the wreaths made of sheaves of grain (symbolic interpretations of various kinds readily suggest themselves). Other agricultural connections have to be manufactured by ingenious but doubtful means. The point that agricultural and initiatory motifs can co-exist at the heart of ritual is easily conceded in connection with e.g. the Eleusinian mysteries, but the cult of Artemis Triklaria and Dionysus Aisymnetes should continue to be read as one of initiation only.

John Scheid exposes modern constructs in “Nouveau rite et nouvelle piété. Réflexions sur le ritus Graecus“, which may be read alongside his contribution in HSCP 97 (1995) 15-31, ” Graeco Ritu : A Typically Roman Way of Honoring the Gods”. He demonstrates how scholars, more or less consciously denigrating the sterile ritualism of traditional Roman religion, have seen the adoption of “Greek rites” on various occasions as a mark of improved spirituality amongst the Romans. What is really lacking is modern scholars’ ability to understand Roman ritualism. Scheid discusses three instances offered by J. Champeaux in her article, “‘Pietas’. Piété personnelle et piété collective à Rome”, Bull. Ass. Budé 1989, 263-279: the lectisternium of 399; the time spent alone by Scipio Africanus in the cella of the temple of Juppiter Optimus Maximus, early in the morning before beginning the day’s business; and the prologue of Plautus’ Rudens. The first of these, though very similar to the Greek rite of theoxenia, is not designated ritus Graecus by the sources, and Scheid shows that there is much that is traditionally Roman in the festival. Scipio’s peculiar habit has something in common with the private meditations of Pythagorean sages in the presence of cult statues, but such private visits are amply documented in a purely Roman context; the odd thing about Scipio’s was their regularity and the place chosen. Scheid argues that they had more to do with his pretensions to divine ancestry than with renewed piety. Nor does the Rudens‘ prologue, properly read, oppose old and new piety. In any case where Romans adopt Greek (or any foreign) rites, the story is usually a complex one of accommodation and adaptation to traditional Roman ways under the pressure of particular circumstances; the idea that the Romans implicitly admitted the inferiority of their religiosity is surely to be rejected.

Philippe Borgeaud, “Taurobolion”, argues that if we leave aside the later Christian texts supposed to refer to this rite, mainly Prudentius Peristeph. 10.1006 ff., so memorably evoked by Frazer in The Golden Bough, and begin with earlier texts, a rather different picture emerges of a rite involving the castration of a bull and the manipulation of the testicles in the context of a mystery religion, to which (Borgeaud further argues, after others) Clement of Alexandria Protrepticus 2.12 f. also refers. The famous passage of Prudentius is not a description of the taurobolium at all, but is an example among others of vague and tendentious descriptions or outright misreadings of pagan rites by Christian authors. He makes a convincing case, though one must admit that the evidence is hardly conclusive. Borgeaud’s essay recurs as part of his recent book, La mère des Dieux (Paris 1996) 156-68.

Fritz Graf, “Kalendae Ianuariae”, documents continuity and transformation of the festival in the later empire, particularly in Antioch. It turns out to be an especially good case for demonstrating the concepts of inversion and liminality, and for illustrating the reflection of social structures, values, and self-images in rituals. The essay is a valuable supplement to M. Meslin’s 1970 book and D. Baudy’s article in RhMus for 1987.

Henk S. Versnel, ” καὶ εἴ τι λ[οιπὸν] τῶν μερ[ῶ]ν [ἔς]ται τοῦ σώματος ὅλου [ …” (… and any other part of the entire body there may be …). An Essay on Anatomical Curses” contributes the longest essay and the most cumbrous title; scholars everywhere in transcribing it will be tempted to make use of its subject. Apart from that, the essay is excellent, continuing as it does Versnel’s careful and astute analysis of curses in Magika Hiera (ed. C. A. Faraone and D. Obbink [Oxford 1991] 60-106). He distinguishes here between those curses which name a few body parts appropriate to the object in view (e.g., binding the tongue of an opponent in litigation) and those which present a far more extensive list of body parts, which cannot all be relevant to the immediate purpose (sometimes none is). This second group he dubs “anatomical curses” and argues persuasively that they are not mere extensions of the first type owing to an urge for completeness typical of magical procedure, but belong in a different social context with different purposes. The lists are “characteristic of formulas concerning (at least allegedly) ‘legitimate’ and socially accepted revenge and retribution” (240), and as such overlap with (and are often identical with) public curses. They display “a marked intensity and emotional involvement”, focus “consistently on the cursed person as a person”, and aim “not to bind (= render inoperative), but to hurt: the victim must suffer” (265). They belong especially to two spheres, justice (where the curser perceives himself as the victim of wrongdoing) and love (where the curser… ditto! Versnel here supplements Jack Winkler’s famous essay in a most attractive manner, and does not fail to quote Sappho fr. 1). Naturally, there are borderline cases and problems of classifications (“Whoever wants absolute consistency here should choose a different profession”, p. 243) but the analysis appears to hold good. — A small notandum : at p. 250 n. 94 Versnel notes that the language of Soph. Trach. 1051 ff. is paralleled in erotic magic (supplementing C.A. Faraone in Helios 1994).

Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones in “Ritual and Tragedy” revisits, thirty years on, Burkert’s most famous article, “Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual”, GRBS 7 (1966) 87-121. Like many scholars, he was not convinced at first but has for many years now accepted Burkert’s argument that tragedy was so named because of the sacrifice of a goat, not because of any connection with goatish satyrs. It is another question whether the ritual origin of tragedy influenced the content of surviving plays. The dominant tendency since 1966 has been to answer in the affirmative, whether by discovering traces of the ritual beginnings in mature tragedy or by stressing tragedy’s role in the contemporary polis and Dionysiac cult. Lloyd-Jones resists this tendency, pointing out that sacrifice is only one ritual among many in tragedy, none of which can be said to have determined its essential shape and character. If rituals collectively are prominent in the genre, that is because they were so both in myth and in contemporary life as an important way of communicating with the gods; and tragedy is about nothing if not religion. Lloyd-Jones’ piece may be read together with Jasper Griffin’s broadside (“The Social Function of Attic Tragedy”, CQ 48 [1998] 39-61) against those who think that tragedy is mainly about the polis and ideology (on this term cf. Lloyd-Jones p. 279). Return fire is inevitable. Critics will want to say that ritual influences tragedy not only in specific but in more diffuse ways, and not just on the surface but on deeper levels; for instance, by creating common structural patterns such as the resolution of crisis by the establishment of a cult. Nevertheless, the desire to seek explanations on the level of the greatest abstraction (a desire which, particularly when linked with a search for origins, cannot escape the charge of residual Romanticism) has led critics to overlook or even deny the obvious, to believe that the subtler interpretation must always be the more credible (“Neo-Verrallianism”), or to find no difference between theatre and metatheatre.

Eveline Krummen, “Ritual und Katastrophe. Rituelle Handlung und Bildersprache bei Sophokles und Euripides”, adopts a middle position on these issues. While agreeing, with Burkert, Bierl, Goldhill, Henrichs, Seaford, and others that ritual pervades tragedy in ways broadly unacceptable to Lloyd-Jones, she argues forcefully that the connections between mature tragedy and contemporary rituals are a quite different question from the connections between mature tragedy and its ritual beginnings. The ritual of tragedy is a transformed, literary kind of ritual, taken from life by the poet and re-worked for particular purposes; this is a valuable point. She finds that Sophocles’ Ajax is shot through with references to purificatory ritual and (overlapping with this to some extent) mystery rites, which offer “release” from the evils after death; in Euripides’ Troades she examines the presence of wedding and funerary ritual, finding that Euripides has gone further than Sophocles in literary transformation and re-application. This is a careful and interesting study, though I did not find every one of her ritual connections equally convincing.

Claude Calame offers a brilliant reading of the OC in “Mort héroique et culte à mystère dans l’ Oedipe à Colone de Sophocle. Actes rituels au service de la création mythique”. Depending on how much of this myth and cult may have existed before Sophocles wrote, the play is an outstanding example of either invention or re-interpretation to suit new exigencies. Calame highlights first the “symbolic construction of space” in the play, on two planes: horizontal (Thebes — Colonus — Athens) and vertical (the underworld — earth — heaven); spatial imagery is pervasive in the drama. Within that space the transfiguration of Oedipus takes place; but his is no ordinary hero-cult. The hero’s grave is not available for tendance; it is not even clear if he is below the earth or in heaven above. Calame argues that the mythical paradigms of autochthony and of the Eleusinian mysteries are overlaid upon the ordinary hero-cult to produce a completely new kind of cult complex. The OC is aetiology in the making, an aetiology, moreover, with the unique opportunity to enact itself in drama; here are dromena indeed. The ritualism of the stage is powerfully persuasive in the circumstances, and Sophocles presses it to full advantage. — A small addendum: the scholion cited on p. 344 (n. 26) led Schneidewin to conjecture τρικορύφου in line 1595, thus eliminating Thorikos (relevant to the speculation on p. 342).

Christoph Riedweg, “Initiation — Tod — Unterwelt. Beobachtungen zur Kommunikationssituation und narrativen Technik der orphisch-bakchischen Goldblättchen”, offers a very important study of the Orphic leaves. He analyses, almost narratologically, the language and perspective of the different texts, in order to work out who is saying what to whom when, and thus to reconstruct the original ritual context, whether in initiatory or funerary ritual. As an appendix he offers texts and apparatus criticus of all previously published tablets of the “A” and “B” groups, with a list of other documents in the “C” group. This should be the first port of call on the subject, along with Robert Parker’s article “Early Orphism” in A. Powell, ed., The Greek World (London and New York 1995) 483-510.

After this piece, Hans Dieter Betz’ “‘Der Erde Kind bin ich und des gestirnten Himmels’. Zur Lehre vom Menschen in den orphischen Goldplättchen” is a disappointment. He makes heavy weather of problems on which consensus now exists; Zuntz is his basic point of reference instead of Parker, whom he does not cite. The Derveni papyrus figures nowhere. In his final section he offers “notable analogies in early Christian literature”, firstly from St. Paul (not very close to my eyes) and secondly from a gnostic text (not helpful, for we are in a different, syncretistic world by this time).

Thomas Alexander Szlezák closes the volume with a most elegant piece, “Von der τιμή der Götter zur τιμιότης des Prinzips. Aristoteles und Platon über den Rang des Wissens und seiner Objekte”, discussing the connections between the concepts of τίμιον, θεῖον, ἀρχή and ἀγαθόν in Aristotle, then showing how much he does and does not owe to Plato. The Festschrift and Greek Religion both close on the theme of philosophical religion.

The last word goes to Burkert himself, thanking the participants, and looking back on some key points in his career. The contributions in this fitting tribute well illustrate the range of his influence, which it would be hard to overstate. Much of the work in this volume would not be possible without his lead. Noteworthy, on the other hand, is the number of times the contributors disagree with the honorand, even challenging his most cherished notions. Such is the inevitable fate of scholarship, and disagreement can be the most sincere kind of compliment; but one can understand why Burkert in his postscript was reminded of the scholar who when presented with his hefty Festschrift exclaimed, “Heavens above, it will cost me a whole year’s work to refute all this!” We await his refutation keenly.


1. Jan Bremmer adds to the list of opinions on this passage A.D. Nock, Essays on Religion and the Ancient World (Oxford 1972) i 313 n. 34.

2. It is worth pointing out that in the case of Medea’s children, upon which Blome remarks “she did not have to kill them at an altar” (93), another early tale (Creophylus FGrHist 417 F 3) had the Corinthians killing them precisely on the altar of Hera Akraia; I wonder if the artists knew the story. For the aetiology of this cult see Burkert GRBS 7 (1966) 118 n. 71.

3. Repeating a view first advanced in 1959; this is an old quarrel.