BMCR 2020.10.59

Albert Henrichs. Greek myth and religion

, Albert Henrichs. Greek myth and religion. Collected Papers 2. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. xxvi, 605. ISBN 9783110446654 €129,95.

Table of Contents

With the passing away of Albert Henrichs (1942-2017), Greek religion lost one of its most learned students, the undoubted master of its historiography, and a fabulous teacher.[1] Having been trained in Cologne, he soon moved to the United States, where he became a professor at Harvard at the young age of 31, after brief stints in Ann Arbor and Berkeley.[2] Henrichs was no author of monographs, even though he wrote some, but he published a great number of articles, which are now being collected in four volumes (Papyrology/Literature; Dionysos; Myth and Religion; Reception and Forschungsgeschichte). The first one published, which is reviewed here, contains a selection of his contributions to Greek myth and religion. The title, Greek Myth and Religion, is not really apt, as ritual is much more important in the volume than myth, and religion also plays an important role in the other volumes; moreover, one misses several articles on myth that should have found a place in this volume.[3] However that may be, all articles stand out for their complete mastery of the evidence, careful analysis and many fine observations on Greek vocabulary. As the editor Harvey Yunis observes in the Preface, Henrichs did not subscribe to any school, and theory was not really his thing. Still, his interests show that he belongs to the generation of students of Greek religion who were heavily influenced by the writings of Walter Burkert, much more than that he felt attracted to Jean-Pierre Vernant and his équipe. Yet different from either of these, Henrichs was especially interested in the gods of the Greeks; here, one can notice the influence of Walter F. Otto (1874-1958), whose writings on the gods, Dionysos in particular, clearly fascinated him, despite his reservations regarding Otto’s interpretations.[4]

The volume is divided into four sections: Sacrifice and ritual, Gods and myths, Divine epiphanies, and Manichaica. Significantly, Sacrifice and ritual starts with a 1969 discussion of the term τετράγυιον μέγαρον in a sacrificial ritual, where Henrichs still unquestioningly uses the qualification ‘chthonic’ in connection with the sacrifice (see below on Ch. 7), but also pays attention to wineless libations (see below on Ch. 4). Given that he was only 26 at the time, one is astonished by the breadth of his knowledge, which effortlessly combined literary and epigraphical evidence. He persuasively argued that the term megaron denotes a human construction and not a cave in the rites of the Thesmophoria.[5] Ch. 2 famously discusses the allegations of cannibalism and incest against the Jews, although his suggestion that the charge of ritual murder was invented by Roman Jews lacks any evidence.[6] The article’s background was Henrichs’s discovery of the papyri of Lollianus’ Phoenikika, whose description of a human sacrifice he accepted as actual reporting instead of fiction, an interpretation that has not been universally accepted. Ch. 3 continues the interest in human sacrifice with three case studies. It illuminatingly compares the myths of Iphigeneia and Kallisto but, rather surprisingly given his interest in ritual, does not discuss the sacrifice of a hind, which probably reflected local practices.[7] He also convincingly demonstrates that Themistocles did not sacrifice Persian prisoners by showing that Phainias’ account of the sacrifice is fiction, inspired by the local cult of Dionysos the Raw-Eater (see also p. 165), and in the third section he returns to Lollianus in a discussion of the Eucharist as interpreted by the Gospel of John (6.53). Ch. 4 analyses the theme of wineless libations in the Derveni Papyrus (Col. VI), thus picking up a theme first noticed in Ch. 1.[8] Even though our knowledge of the text has since been greatly improved,[9] Henrichs’s discussion of the libations and cakes remains valuable with its solid collection of passages, as does his discussion of the role of the Eumenides as souls. On the other hand, he may have been too quick in stating that the author of the Derveni papyrus could not have known the cult of the Eumenides. Independently from one another, both Vojtěch Hladký and I have argued that the author, if not Athenian, certainly lived in Athens for a long time.[10] That would also make the connection with the Eleusinian Mysteries much more certain and understandable than he suspected. Ch. 5 contains the entries ‘Fasting’ and ‘Bouphonia’ of OCD4. Ch. 6, originally published in the 1998 Festschrift for Burkert, first notes, with interesting examples, the scarcity of emic interpretations of Greek rituals before critically discussing Burkert’s theory of guilt in connection with sacrifice. Henrichs points out that Burkert transferred the ‘dramatisch geladene, an Ausnahmesituationen orientierte Emotionalität’ of tragedy to everyday sacrifices and convincingly rejects that approach. Despite this difference of opinion with Burkert, Henrichs remained equally fascinated by Greek animal sacrifice during the course of his life. In Ch. 7 he discusses the distinctions between chthonic and Olympian sacrifice in a highly nuanced manner. Although, in the end, he cannot suggest a better distinction, he clearly points out the problems connected with this distinction. Ch. 8 returns to Burkert’s sacrificial theory. Henrichs importantly notes the difference between thyein and sphazein, of which the first is the unmarked term, whereas the second denotes the violent and emotional aspects of sacrifice. He also offers a fine analysis of Aeschylus’ description of Iphigeneia’s sacrifice and the relations between animal and human sacrifice in tragedy. Once again, he rejects Burkert’s idea of guilt, even though he missed the fact that the Bouphonia must have been more widespread than in Athens only, as is suggested by the related names of the months Bouphonion and Boukation.[11] Ch. 10 turns to the problem of what constitutes a priest. He convincingly questions this modern term when applied to ancient Greece and appends an illuminating selection of definitions, from Karl O. Müller to Richard Gordon, which illustrates the difficulty of properly defining the priest’s role. Ch. 11 looks at the Orphic Gold Leaves. Typically, he analyses modern qualifications (Orphic, Pythagorean, etc.) in great detail in order to show how difficult it is to find their exact place in Greek religion. At the same time, he makes various excellent observations and, rightly, shows his gratitude to Burkert for the latter’s great contributions to our understanding of Orphism.

The second section, Gods and Myths, opens with a brief 1968 piece on the meaning of the name Demeter, in which Henrichs shows that Euripides’ etymological explanation of Demeter’s name in the Bacchae (275-76) closely resembles that of the Derveni Papyrus (col. XXII Kouremenos = § 76 Kotwick), thus displaying his early interest in that papyrus and in Prodicus. Ch. 12 is one of the best and most interesting pieces in this volume. Starting from Pindar’s [δέσπ]οιν[αν] Κυβέ[λαν] ματ[έρα] (fr. 80 Maehler), Henrichs embarks on a wide-ranging investigation into the title Δέσποινα, in which he shows that Pindar employs cultic language at this point. Differentiating this from epic Sprachgut in tragedy, he also shows that in the case of Athena Despoina has to be seen in a ‘reich differenzierte Bild von synonymen Kulttiteln und wechselnden göttlichen Machtbereichen’ (p. 233), but for Kybele Despoina was certainly part of her Kultsprache, as it was for the related Dea Syria. On the other hand, he wrongly identifies Kubaba and Kybele, which have different roots, the former coming, eventually, from Karchemish, the latter from Phrygia.[12] Ch. 13 on the changing views of the Greek gods in the history of religion is another highlight. This 1987 study was perhaps the first to plead for new attention to the gods after their relative negligence by Nilsson and Burkert. Henrichs notes the long-time interest in the origin and primitive character of the gods, as, in their different ways, can be seen in Nietzsche, Jane Harrison and Frazer. However, their merit is that they shifted the attention from the individual gods to their social background. He also notes the fateful separation of myth from religion, starting with Heyne, which opened the door for the misguided interpretations by Creuzer, the Müllers and Preller, which today are no longer even readable. Henrichs shows an open mind for the then emerging positions of Burkert and Vernant, but, typically, in the concluding section, when discussing their views, pays the most attention to Walter F. Otto, whose interpretation of Dionysos as epiphanic god and incarnation of polarities evidently fascinated him. In the end, he states, not implausibly, that the gods of the Greeks will be relevant to us as long as they mean something to us. However, they are not ahistorical entities, but their meaning changes whenever our idea of the Greeks changes. Ch. 14 studies unknown and anonymous gods, but concentrates on the famous ‘unknown god’ (the singular being a monotheistic interpretation as Norden already saw) of the Athenians as reportedly mentioned by Paul on the Areopagus (Acts 17.22-23). After a survey of the evidence, he convincingly argues that the only ‘unknown gods’ were the Erinyes/Semnai Theai and illuminates the usages of Erinyes/Eumenides/SemnaiTheai in drama and cult. Ch. 15 analyses the relationship between myth and history by focusing on the theme of human sacrifice, one of Henrichs’s favourite subjects. He returns to the anecdote about Themistocles’ sacrifice of three Persian princes, which he had discussed in 1981 (see above on Ch. 3), but inspired by the publication of a new fragment of Myrsilus with Dionysos’s epithet Omestes, he now notes that the historian demythologises Dionysos by transferring the epithet to a human surrogate and the realm of ritual. He also notes now that Phainias follows the basic mythical pattern ‘with astonishing accuracy’ and thus ‘fictionalised’ history, thereby setting the stage for the descriptions of human sacrifice in the Greek novel.[13] This conflation of myth and history can be seen, too, in the traditions concerning Dionysos, if in Hellenistic times in more extreme forms, as he shows in a fine analysis of Dionysos in Theocritus Idyll 26, whose image also owes its existence to Prodicus (above, Ch. 11). The latter’s redefining of the nature and role of divinity paved the way for the Hellenistic ruler cult as exemplified in the famous Athenian hymn for Demetrius Poliorcetes, the analysis of which concludes this fine chapter. Ch. 16 discusses the important question of what constitutes a Greek god. After illuminating observations on the term ‘theology’ and the nature of Greek polytheism, Henrichs notes the modern tendency to study gods separately instead of looking at them as being part of a pantheon and argues for three divine properties that set the gods apart from mortals: immortality, anthropomorphism,[14] and power. Ch. 17 and 18 give four lemmata from the OCD4 (Dionysos,[15] Hades, Hecate, Clymenus) and Der neue Pauly (Zeus, Oidipus, Moira, Parcae), respectively. These are dense, well-written lemmata with excellent bibliographies, but the genre forbids detailed discussions, which leaves them somewhat unsatisfactory.

Part III, Dionysos, contains three studies of epiphany, concentrating on Dionysos as the epiphanic god par excellence.After another one-page entry on Epiphany from the OCD4, there is the nice surprise that Ch. 20 presents an unpublished lecture on epiphany, given in Cambridge on 26 November 2009, which unfortunately could not be taken into account by the two important monographs on epiphany that have appeared since.[16] Henrichs starts by listing five definitions of epiphany, dating from 1924-1990s – an approach that we can see in his study of the Greek priest as well (Ch. 10). Such listings illuminate what is at stake and the sometimes very different solutions proposed: they should be applied more often in scholarly discussions. Here, as he observes, the various definitions immediately demonstrate that most scholars were more interested in the appearing gods than in the human worshippers. In a fine discussion, with much attention to the vocabulary used, he demonstrates the close correlation between divine self-revelation and human sight, not only in Herodotus but also in the Eleusinian Mysteries, mantic scenes and the Bacchae. Part III is concluded with a piece on Dionysos as epiphanic god (Ch. 21), which must have been written more or less contemporaneously with the previous chapter. It partially also overlaps with it in its focus on the Bacchae, which Henrichs now discusses in dialogue with W.F. Otto, whose construction of Dionysos as the ‘polaren, aus Gegensatzpaaren konstituierten’ god he interestingly locates in an Orphic-Dionysiac background, although this does not detract from its influence in antiquity and today. Moreover, he now also discusses Dionysos’s epiphany in cult through his arrival, whereas before he had mainly concentrated on his epiphany in myth and literature. In the end, though, however much this god fascinates us, we can see him at best, as he argues, as ‘Replik und Konstrukt’, whereas Horace could still claim to have seen Dionysos (Bacchum … vidi).

Part IV, Manichaica, takes us to the wondrous world of Mani and Manichaeism, the only world religion that has become extinct. Henrichs has played a prominent role in the renaissance of interest in Mani and Manichaeism in recent decades, as he brought the Cologne Mani Codex (CMC) to Vienna in June 1969 to be made legible. Although he did not continue cooperating on the CMC until the completion of the edition, Mani and his religion kept his interest, as these chapters show. One can only read them with great admiration, given his young age and the erudition displayed regarding an area in which he had not been trained. Ch. 23 stresses the authenticity of the traditions contained in the CMC, which is natural, so short (1973) after the discovery of the Codex, but it should be noted that recent investigations have become more sceptical.[17] Henrichs also notes Mani’s insistence on his own singularity, the prevalence of divine revelation in the first twenty years of his life and the similarities between the Elchasaites and Mani’s baptists. He ends the chapter on a sombre note as he realised that even after his brilliant discovery ‘we are once more left with conjecture and imagination as our only guides’. This may be true, but should not obscure the fact that our knowledge of the Manichaean tradition was greatly enlarged due to his heroic efforts. Ch. 23 is another amazingly learned article, in which he discusses the myth of the tree-cutting Erysichthon in Callimachus and notes its nature as ‘Strafwunder’.[18] From the Greek tree nymphs, he moves effortlessly to talking trees and bleeding vegetables in Manichaeism, via Tylor’s nineteenth-century ideas of animism, which already included a brief discussion of Mani’s bleeding plants, and Frazer’s Golden Bough, to, finally, India. Here, he persuasively sees the origin of the combination of animism and metempsychosis, which he convincingly ascribes to Mani’s own journey to India.[19] However, as he shows, Mani adapted the Indian tales under the influence of a Jewish tradition as, for example found, in the Testament of Abraham. In the course of time, though, people stopped believing in trees with souls, and this eventually put an end to this kind of storytelling. Ch. 24 tells the thrilling story of the earliest stages of the decipherment of the CMC, the smallest manuscript known from antiquity,[20] and, therefore, would have been better placed at the beginning of the Mani section. It also discusses the connection with the Elchasai(tes), which later scholars consider much less certain than he did, undoubtedly swayed by his Entdeckerfreudeabout the CMC.[21] Ch. 25 looks at the CMC from a literary point of view and notes its ‘astonishing variety of narrative forms’ (563), elements to which Henrichs was always very attentive. He shows that the third thematic unit of the CMC(pp. 72-99) is the most informative part of the biography. Ch. 26 analyses the timing of supernatural events in the CMC, but starts with a comparison of Mani’s first mission with the Acts of Thomas and some interesting comparisons between the lives of Mani and that of Jesus. Similarly, he notes the striking indifference of the Gnostics to historical events compared to Mani’s obsessive recording of dates and episodes. He then proceeds with an analysis of various kinds of time in the CMC: ‘cosmic time, historical time, and biographical time, on the one hand, and soteriological as well as aretalogical time on the other hand’ (574), all illustrated with ingenious and enlightening diagrams. The Manichaeans, as he observes, were only interested in time as a function of the process of salvation. Ch. 28, His final study of the CMC, which originally appeared in a volume on teachers and pupils, concludes Section IV. It briefly relates again the discovery of CMC and stresses the importance of the succession of bearers of revelation, which, via Adam and Paul, culminated in Mani himself. He also points to Mani’s new idea of religion, as he no longer thought of his religion as ethno-specific, but explicitly proclaimed its universality. Mani combined this new approach with a preference for books, in this respect, like early Christianity, moving beyond traditional Greek and Roman religion. At the same time, Mani remained a pupil of ‘überirdische Offenbarungsträger’, although also being a teacher for the world to the very end. This final chapter is also the last published article in this volume.

The editor and the publisher have done Albert Henrichs’s memory a real service with this nicely produced and carefully edited book, which is virtually without misprints.[22] It is a real pity, therefore, that the volume does not contain an index, which would have allowed seeing the developments in Henrichs thinking as well as his recurrent interests, and one can only hope that the next volumes will do better in this respect. Nevertheless, the book is a true monument to a great scholar, whose views on Greek religion and its historiography will remain influential for a long time to come.


[1] This is clear from the Festschrift which he could still see but read no more: K.M. Coleman (ed.), Albert’s Anthology (Cambridge MA, 2017). See also the special issue of Nota Bene 25.1 (Winter 2020), with touching memories of Albert Henrichs and the vivid obituary by K.M. Coleman.

[2] This memorable fact was also noted by Erich Segal in his 1986 novel The Class: ‘They’re super people, don’t you think?’ asked Sara as they were unpacking a few moments later. ‘I mean so easygoing and friendly. You’d never guess from the way he talks that Meyer (= Henrichs) was a full professor at thirty-one. And for a German he seems very un-Teutonic. Maybe they’ve California’d him up.’

[3] Especially ‘Philodems De Pietate als mythographische Quelle, Cronache Ercolanesi 5 (1975) 5-38; ‘Die Kekropidensage im P. Herc. 243: Von Kallimachos zu Ovid’, ibid. 13 (1983) 33-43 and ‘Three Approaches to Greek Mythography’, in J.N. Bremmer (ed.), Interpretations of Greek Mythology (London/Sydney, 19882) 242-277.

[4] Cf. O. Leege, Walter F. Ottos Studie ‘Dionysos. Mythos und Kultus’ (Würzburg, 2016) 235f.

[5] See, most recently, K.R.L McLardy, ‘The Megara of the Thesmophoria: reconciling the textual and archaeological records’, Chronika 5 (2015) 1-8.

[6] Cf. J.N. Bremmer, ‘Early Christian Human Sacrifice between Fact and Fiction’, in F. Prescendi and A. Nagy (eds), Sacrifices humains: discours et réalité (Turnhout, 2013) 165-76.

[7] Cf. C. Chandezon, ‘Particularités du culte Isiaque dans la basse vallée du Céphise (Béotie et Phocide)’, in N. Badoud (ed.), Philologos Dionysios: Mélanges offerts au professeur Denis Knoepfler (Geneva, 2011) 149-82.

[8] Cf. V. Pirenne-Delforge, ‘Les codes de l’adresse rituelle en Grèce: le cas des libations sans vin’, in ead. and F. Prescendi (eds), “Nourrir les dieux?” (Liège, 2011) 117-47.

[9] See now the new edition of M. Kotwick, Der Papyrus von Derveni (Berlin, 2017), reviewed by M.A. Santamaría Álvarez, BMCR 2020.05.13.

[10] V. Hladký, ‘Derveni Papyrus – Study 6 (Revised 2)’, (removed since July 2019 from, as Hladky is preparing a book on the Derveni Papyrus, to appear with OUP); J.N. Bremmer, ‘The First Columns of the Derveni Papyrus and Polis Religion’, Eirene 55 (2019) 127-41.

[11] Bouphonion: Karystos (IG XII.9.207), Chalkidike (SEG 38.671), Delos (IG XI.2.203 A; SEG 35.882) and Tenos (IG XII.5.842). Boukation: M. Egetmeyer, Le dialecte grec ancien de Chypre, 2 vols (Berlin and New York, 2010) 1.312-15.

[12] Cf. J.N. Bremmer, ‘Kubaba, Kybele and Mater Magna: the long march of two Anatolian goddesses to Rome’, in M. Kerschner (ed.), The Cult of Meter / Kybele in Western Anatolia (Vienna, 2020), forthcoming.

[13] See now also M. González González, ‘Who Should Be Sacrificed? Human Sacrifice and Status in Plutarch: Themistocles 13, Pelopidas 21-22, Philopoemen 21’, Arethusa 52 (2019) 165-79.

[14] Cf. R. Parker, On Greek Religion (Ithaca and London, 2011) 64-102; A. Baratz, ‘The Source of Divine Immortality in Archaic Greek Literature’, SCI 34 (2015) 151-64. Somewhat surprisingly, Henrichs does not discuss Vernant’s idea of the Greek gods being powers rather than persons.

[15] This lemma would have better fitted the forthcoming volume of the Collected Papers that is dedicated to Dionysos, as it is a kind of summa of H’s ideas about the god.

[16] V. Platt, Facing the Gods (Cambridge, 2011); G. Petridou, Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture (Oxford, 2015).

[17] Cf. I. Gardner, The Founder of Manichaeism (Cambridge, 2020).

[18] Overlooked by Ch. Faraone, ‘Boubrôstis, Meat Eating and Comedy: Erysichthon as Famine Demon in Callimachus’ Hymn to Demeter’, in M.A. Harder et al. (eds), Gods and Religion in Hellenistic Poetry (Leuven, 2012) 61-80.

[19] Henrichs has not been taken into account in the discussion of Mani’s stay in India by Gardner, Founder of Manichaeism, 41-45. More recent studies argue that Mani may have learned about plant souls from the Jains: R. Fynes, ‘Plant Souls in Jainism and Manichaeism: The Case for Cultural Transmission’, East and West 46 (1996) 21-44; M. Deeg and I. Gardner, ‘Indian Influence on Mani Reconsidered: The Case of Jainism’, Intern. J. of Jaina Studies (Online) 5.2 (2009) 1-30.

[20] For such miniature codices, see T.J. Kraus, ‘Die Welt der Miniaturbücher in der Antike und Spätantike’, Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt. A 35 (2010) 79-110 and ‘Fragmente zweier christlicher Kodizes in der Bodleian Library, Oxford’, in D. Minutoli (ed.), Inediti offerto a Rosario Pintaudi per il suo 65o compleanno (Florence, 2012) 39-52.

[21] Cf. G.P. Luttikhuizen, Gnostic Revisions of Genesis Stories and Early Jesus Traditions (Leiden, 2006) 170-84; A. de Jong, ‘A quodam Persa exstiterunt: Re-Orienting Manichaean Origins’, in A. Houtman et al. (eds), Empsychoi Logoi. Religious Innovations in Antiquity. Studies in Honour of Pieter Willem van der Horst (Leiden, 2008) 81-106.

[22] I only noted; p. 153 note 10: Dillery 2009 mssing in bibliography; p. 506 note 9: severly > severely; p. 585 note 41: Altheim-Stiel > Altheim-Stiehl.