BMCR 2017.01.10

The Greek Gods in Modern Scholarship. Interpretation and Belief in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Germany and Britain. Oxford classical monographs

, The Greek Gods in Modern Scholarship. Interpretation and Belief in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Germany and Britain. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. viii, 361. ISBN 9780198737896. £75.00.


In certain small circles, that is, in twentieth-century, Anglo-American, post-graduate Classics, the phrase ‘to get to know your German’ functions as an occasional shorthand to denote a double rite of passage. On the one hand, most graduate programmes require you to learn the language, if you have not already done a couple of years of it, enough to cope with a few articles on topics in your field. On the other, getting to know ‘your’ German means that, because pretty much any topic within Classics was put on its modern scholarly footing by some nineteenth-century German, ‘your’ German is whoever that German happens to be. So: get to know him.

This useful survey will make it easier for all students of Greek religion to get to know many of ‘their’ Germans, along with a few British predecessors and one Englishwoman. The French, alas, remain peripheral, but they are not completely ignored. Konaris’ monograph is a revised version of his Oxford PhD thesis, devoted to the modern history of classical scholarship on the Greek gods. The chronological frame of the volume is the nineteenth century down to the first third of the twentieth, though the conclusion also does a quick tour through the most prominent twentieth-century scholars. The volume will be compulsory for all university libraries and the standard reference work for scholars of Greek religion. A history of mostly now-abandoned theories of Greek religion, it is thus closer to a work of reference than an introduction to the discipline. 1 Konaris’ study reminds us that most of these thinkers, our near contemporaries compared to the age of the subject we share with them, are still worlds away from us.

The study opens with a long introductory chapter (pp. 1-51) in which Konaris provides a summary of ancient and enlightenment theories of early religion, followed by an outline of key tensions and pervading attitudes. These include modern idealisations of ancient Greece, rationalist versus romantic readings of the Greek gods and religion, debates on the origins and nature of the Greek gods, complicated Christian attitudes (Protestant or Catholic) to pagan cult and theology, in particular monotheism versus polytheism and the contested boundary between Western culture and ‘the Orient’. These concerns never go away, but new methods and concerns gradually alter the rules of the game. These include the rise of Indo-European linguistics, comparative anthropology and the study of pre-literate cultures and, finally, the advent of archaeology and systematic study of ancient material culture.

In terms of structure, Konaris adopts a biographical mode, but folds it into the doxographic alternative. In other words, we are told about individual thinkers, but they are presented in groups whose members share common approaches. At the same time the central hinge upon which the volume turns is modern nationalities: the volume starts with German scholars (pp. 52-194) and then collects the British responses together in the second half (pp. 195-265). Throughout, Konaris uses Apollo, ‘most Greek’ of the Greek gods, as a standard test-case. By considering how Apollo fares at the hands of different scholars Konaris can compare and contrast them all the better.

Let us now review the content in more detail, starting with the Germans. Konaris’ first class of scholars share a commitment to ‘physical interpretation’ of the gods (pp. 52-130), perpetuating a rationalist interpretation that reaches straight back to antiquity, according to which the gods are primarily or were originally powers of nature. These include P.W. Forchhammer (1801-94) and F. G. Welcker (1784-1868) whose Griechische Götterlehre, published late in his life (1857-63) was reckoned by later scholars as perhaps the most influential single work. Its adherents were among the first scholars to visit modern Greece, where the natural beauty of the landscape inspired sublime sentiments about such natural gods. To turn straightaway to Apollo, for Welcker Apollo was originally the sun and only gradually acquired his later personhood. For L. Preller (1809-61) another advocate of physical interpretation, Apollo is rather the personification of light and order. Although Preller did not oppose Apollo to Dionysus—as Konaris points out, p. 101, Preller’s Dionysus is not essentially different from his Apollo— this general tendency prepared the way for the more famous opposition of Apollo to Dionysus found later in Nietzsche and Rohde. (Preller, I cannot omit mentioning, was co-author with Ritter of perhaps the most widely used textbook of Greek philosophy of all time, a single-volume anthology that went through an astounding 10 editions from 1838 to 1934.) Konaris continues his account of the physical interpreters with F.M. Müller or Max Müller (1823-1900), editor and translator of the Rig-Veda, a German whose entire academic career was in fact spent in Oxford. While a physical interpreter, his contribution to the field was opening up the Indo-European background to ancient Greek and the possibility of retracing through linguistic parallels and historical etymology the earlier history of Greek divine names. The most famous of these discoveries remains the Indo-European sky father, Zeus-pater/Dyaus–Pitar/Jupiter. Konaris offers a nuanced account of Müller’s career and of his political and cultural role in Victorian England. Last of the physical interpreters reviewed by Konaris is W.H. Roscher (1845-1923), a pioneer of the comparative method as applied to Greek and early Roman religion.

Konaris labels his second major class of German scholarship the Historical-Critical approach (pp. 131-179). The two main conceptions of gods advocated in this tradition are Stammesgötter (Family or kinsmen gods) and Universal Gods. In the recurring tension between thinking of the Greek gods as powers or persons, these thinkers plump in the first instance for person over power, but these persons become more universal over time through their integration within a broader pantheon and/or by the accretion of multiple functions. In the case of Apollo, K.O. Müller (1797-1840) attacked the solar-god interpretation and stressed a Dorian connection, while at the same time identifying him with a sense of tranquillity and brightness. At the time, however, his ideas did not find much purchase against the solar-god reading. The cause was taken up by another, unrelated Müller, H.D. Müller (1819-93). Although he accepted the broad Indo-European background of the Greek gods, H.D. Müller criticized the physical approach in order to stress instead the connection of individual deities with specific locales, and considered the construction of the pantheon a historical product. For him, these gods remained at heart manly lords and kings who led their people into battle and granted them victory (p. 159). The third representative of this line is E. Curtius (1814-96). As did the other critics of the physical approach, he stressed the historical contingency of the Greek gods, his own particularity being a greater openness to Oriental influences, especially in the case of female deities such as Aphrodite and Artemis. As for Apollo, Curtius saw him as originating from the Near East, but emphasized his transformation at the hands of the Greeks into the god of purification and, once more, the epitome of the Hellenic spirit.

H. Usener (1834-1905) is harder to classify and gets his own short chapter (pp. 180-94). Although he had a variety of interests, his principal work on religion was his Götternamen of 1896. His approach combined linguistic analysis with historical criticism, but he suggested that the Greek gods arose out of prior multiple and inescapably singular, impersonal power-concepts ( Augenblicksgötter). These denote highly specific aspects of life or the world, and only gradually coalesce to produce what he called Sondergötter. One way to think of these is to equate them with a stage prior to kinsmen gods ( Stammesgötter) in the other theorists, before they become universal gods. For example, Usener connected Apollo to the Latin verb pellere and proposed that he originally had an apotropaic function comparable in specificity to Jupiter Depulsor, only becoming universal when the meaning of his name was lost (p. 185). Usener’s theory was not taken up by his distinguished students including no less than Nietzsche, Wilamowitz, Diels, Deubner and Norden and so had a limited influence, but Götternamen still contains many valuable insights.

The empirical British occupy the last third of the volume (pp. 195-265). Konaris starts with a survey of the growth of folklore studies, ethnology and anthropology in the later nineteenth century in both Germany and Britain, before alighting upon the Scottish folklorist and mythologist Andrew Lang (1844-1912). Lang, along with J. G. Frazer ( The Golden Bough first came out in 1890) first dared to compare the Greek gods to the gods of ‘savages’ and put the vast anthropological data flowing in from the British Empire to comparative purposes in exploring Greek religion. Lang did much to displace the earlier physical and linguistic/Indo-European approaches to the Greek gods, but the dominance of anthropology over alternatives was only truly assured by L.R. Farnell (1856-1934) and the ‘Cambridge ritualists’, whose main representative in Konaris is Jane Harrison (1850-1828).

Konaris devotes a full treatment to Farnell (pp. 209-37). Farnell had studied in Germany and was initially sympathetic to physical approaches, but in his mature work he renounced reducing Greek mythology to ‘highly figurative conversations about the weather’ and aimed instead to offer a comprehensive description of the public names, ideas and full external manifestations of Greek religion. With Farnell’s eventual five volumes of The Cults of the Greek States (1896-1909) we reach the edges of the contemporary discipline in the sense that The Cults are works one could still put on a bibliography. Konaris’ liking of Farnell comes through clearly (p. 209). Farnell sought to give an exhaustive account of Greek religion in its public posture, at the expense of its more private, diffuse and mystic side. He never denied it this side, but actively chose not to delve into it. This emphasis provides a first contrast with Harrison, to whom Konaris devotes pp. 237-65, and whose main aim was precisely to explore these ‘neglected aspects’ of Greek religion. Following E. Rohde’s Psyche (1890) she considered the private and mystic side of Greek religion the more primitive and genuine stratum, rather than the Olympian overlay. Compared to the more prosaic Farnell, of whom she was dismissive, her work is more speculative and has not aged as well. Both however started out with an interest in material culture that is often lacking in earlier work. Harrison in particular integrated the findings of archaeology and the discovery of Bronze Age civilisations into her work. Her 1903 Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (3rd ed. 1922) is simultaneously the strongest statement of the thesis that a male Olympian order supplanted an older chthonian, matriarchal order, and of the primacy of Dionysiac-Orphic mysticism as the object of more genuine religious devotion (p. 260). What of Apollo then? Farnell’s Apollo was a complex historical aggregate of functions but at his peak remained, ‘a brilliant and clearly outlined figure of the genuinely national religion’ (Farnell 1907a quoted by Konaris at p. 233). Harrison’s early view links him to the sun, light and order, while her later views of Apollo are a positively reactionary revival of the sun-god theory of the earlier physical interpreters. As Konaris points out, however, in her more popular writings she presented a much more traditional picture of Apollo (p. 262).

The conclusion (pp. 266-88) gives an outline of the twentieth-century figures and methods, followed by an appendix on Apollo in twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholarship (pp. 289-97) and various indices.

It is time to try a general assessment. Thanks to Konaris, students of ancient Greek religion now have a first map of the modern development of their discipline, while intellectual historians of the period will have a better handle of the uses to which ancient Greece and the Greek gods were put. The selection of figures is judicious and representative, although, as noted above, the French get rather short shrift, and other nationalities next to nothing. Many other figures and aspects could have been considered, but this was inevitable: first forays through a topic cannot hope to be exhaustive. The focus on the gods themselves seems narrow now, but it is justified given the concerns of the discipline at these earlier stages. In terms of current debates, the book presents itself as part of a broader movement to put the gods back at the centre of the study of Greek religion. I am sympathetic, but I am not sure that such an effort to argue for the gods’ relevance is needed. The subject is interesting in its own right. As an aid to scholarship, as I said above, it is not a teaching tool. If scholarship is what helps us make sense of a subject, in this case Greek religion, a history of earlier scholarship is necessarily at two removes from the primary evidence. In any case, students who want an introductory survey are already well served. Yet for those who already have some familiarity with the topic, this history of the discipline will not only allow you to ‘get to know your German’ and a few others, but in doing so you will sharpen and deepen your understanding of the Greek gods and Greek religion. It can be warmly recommended.


1. For a complimentary assessment of the current state of the art, see T. Harrison, Review Article: Beyond the Polis? New Approaches to Greek Religion. JHS 135 (2015) 165-180. For a more advanced introductory survey to mythology, E. Csapo, Theories of Myth, Blackwell 2004.