The religion of ancient Greece is a subject that is in a way well known and apparently intelligible—the Parthenon, the Olympic games, the Greek myths are more or less familiar—yet in other respects it remains alien and extraordinary. Are not many of the myths too immoral for any religion? What are we to make of gods and goddesses who in art are represented in radiant unabashed nudity? What is the meaning of animal sacrifice? Was it possible, finally, for intelligent people to take seriously a religion both polytheist and anthropomorphic?
Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion appeared in German in 1977, under the title “Greek Religion of the Archaic and Classical Age.” The English title obscures the fact that the book covers only the period from 800 to 300 BC, although it opens with an important and learned account of the preceding period and concludes with a summary of what was to follow. It ends with the rise of Christianity, whose triumph Burkert associates with the coming of very large and amorphous cities, in which local roots and family connections were lost. “It was in the megalopolis of the ancient world that Christianity would most easily find a foothold.” The book has established itself as a masterpiece, packed with learning but also rich in ideas and connections of every sort. Its appearance in a good English translation is an event not only for Hellenists but for all those interested in the study of religion.
The great difficulty of the subject lies in the enormous size and variety of the material. Almost every extant work of classical literature has a bearing on religion, and late writings often contain vital evidence of practices of great antiquity. The mythology is colossal in its complexity. Archaeology is constantly producing new evidence. It has become clear that Greek religion cannot be understood in isolation either from what preceded or from what surrounded it. That means not only the cults of Mycenaean and Minoan Greece, about which there has been a flood of discoveries in this century, but also the primeval religion of the nomadic and hunting periods, which lie behind the second millennium BC, and whose significance Burkert has done more than anyone to emphasize. Greece was also open to very important influences, in art, cult, and myth, from various neighboring peoples, both Indo-European and Semitic, such as Hittites, Phoenicians, and Egyptians. One wishes that the real world were conveniently divided up, as universities are, into separate departments for prehistory, Egyptology, classics, and the rest.
Burkert himself writes, “An adequate account of Greek religion is nowadays an impossibility in more ways than one: the evidence is beyond the command of any one individual, methodology is hotly contested, and the subject itself is far from well defined.” What his book seeks to do is “to indicate the manifold variety of the evidence and the problems of its interpretation, always with an awareness of the provisional nature of the undertaking.” That is said with characteristic modesty …