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, and it should not mislead the reader into underestimating how far the book succeeds. No work of scholarship is flawless, and one can find things to carp at in this book; but it should be said that nobody else could have produced an account of the subject of comparable range and power. This will be the best history of Greek religion for this generation. The absence of visual illustrations is the only matter for real regret. Burkert has a magisterial knowledge of the archaeological material, both inside and outside Greece, and the notes contain a wealth of references to it. Many of them are in publications difficult to find. Had it been possible to illustrate the book, the reader would have gained greatly.

Two threads run throughout the book. One is the guilt and exultation felt at blood sacrifice of an animal and the communal meal of its flesh: the encounter with death and the affirmation of life. The other is the function of religion as a “supra-personal system of communication” which by means of ritual (“rituals are communication and social imprinting”) defines and strengthens the social group. Both themes have in common the appeasing of anxiety. Every age must find its own ways of approaching so complex a phenomenon as ancient religion, and doubtless no earlier generation would have found it natural to concentrate on anxiety as forming so large a part of the central motive of religion, or on guilt at the shedding of animal blood, or on the idea of communication systems.

Such themes as fertility, for instance, or the desire for immortality, have only a subordinate importance for Burkert. Instead of interpreting sexual or obscene rites as connected with fertility, as used to be almost automatic, Burkert rightly stresses that such rituals in Greece are mostly characterized by crudity and coarseness. The grief of Demeter for the loss of her daughter Persephone, for instance, only began to melt when a woman diverted her by pulling up her dress to amuse the goddess with an indecent display: that myth explained the ritual of obscene jesting on the way to the great annual festival of the Eleusinian mysteries. Such practices suggest to him that the point of the rituals was less as a quasi-magical fertility rite (in general there is very little room for magic in the analyses in Burkert’s book) than an explosive departure from the norm of decorous behavior. In an outburst of crudity, the antagonisms felt between the sexes found release. Women’s festivals in particular were notable for their use of indecent language and gestures, a reversal of the normally constrained behavior of women, and this made it easier for normality to be accepted again at the festival’s end.


Animal sacrifice is an inescapable, pervasive feature of Greek religion. Greek myths, which can exaggerate the realities of cult practices, hint repeatedly at human sacrifice: not now, but at some unforgotten time in the past. Curious rituals, which were no longer intelligible to the Greeks themselves, show an underlying uneasiness about the slaughter of the victim. Animals were supposed to accept their own death. If they did not, the sacrificer might immediately make himself scarce and put the blame on somebody else. Or the animal’s skin might be stuffed and set up as if it were not dead at all. The killing of an animal, which had to be warmblooded—fish did not count—was not entirely different from the killing of a man. During the Golden Age, it was said, there were no bloody sacrifices. Yet on all formal occasions, from state cults to weddings, from international alliances to domestic entertainment, sacrifice regularly took place.

This is all the more striking because the gods envisaged by Homer, serenely independent of men and living on their own food and drink, nectar and ambrosia, clearly had no need of such offerings, and there was no contemporary theory to explain how they were benefited by them.

The Swiss scholar Karl Meuli made a decisive step in clarifying Greek sacrifices when he connected them with very archaic practices still found, early in this century, in Siberia and elsewhere among hunting peoples. They pretended to be innocent of the death of the animals they killed; but they offered back to the god of the animals some choice or representative parts of the body of the slaughtered creature. Such offerings were gestures intended to ensure that their prey would not be withheld from them, on future occasions, by jealous and inscrutable powers. Burkert, who succeeded Meuli in the chair at Zurich, developed this line of thought much further in a book with the sinister title Homo Necans, “Man the Killer.”* In a dazzling argument, he applied Meuli’s approach to an extraordinarily wide range of phenomena in Greek myth and ritual. In the present book he passes over the more speculative and controversial cases, but he insists on the centrality of bloodshed for Greek religion. Greece had a religion remarkably free from priests. Every magistrate or head of a household or chairman of a club performed sacrifices; every group, by age and sex, had a role in them—the girls carrying water jugs and baskets, the boys driving the animals, an older man pouring the libation, the women raising the piercing ritual shriek, at once dirge and cry of triumph, at the killing.

In this way the articulated structure of society is reflected and endorsed, and the drama of the killing, with its elaborate preparations, equivocal moral atmosphere, and eventual overcoming of the gloom of bloodshed in a shared festive meal of the flesh, enacts a pattern of anxiety faced and overcome. This rhythm, contained here in a frame of ritual, serves as a kind of training for people to face other fears and anxieties in life: those who take part, who are marked off for the ceremony as an exclusive group, are strengthened in their solidarity.

Inclusion and exclusion are recurrent polarities throughout religious life. Greek religion was based on local cults, the right to take part in them depending on family membership and place of residence. There was a constant succession of greater and lesser festivals in which ancient Athenians took part: some as members of a family, others as members of a village, others as citizens of the city of Athens. Some were for men, others for women, or for cavalrymen, or for devotees of the ecstatic god Dionysus. A shape was thus imposed on the chaotic monotony of experience, reinforcing the normal forms and values of life, both by exclusion of those who did not belong in each category, and, periodically, by reversal of the usual. There were festivals when obscenity was the norm, or when, conversely, sex was forbidden and men and women were separated, all fires were extinguished, and life plunged into discomfort and gloom. On certain days slaves were waited on by their masters, on others the dead returned to the world of the living, to be banished again at the end of the proceedings. “It is precisely by the most natural and self-evident things being placed in question that their continuity is assured.”


An analysis of this sort puts much more emphasis on the group, on society, than it does on the beliefs or the souls of individual worshipers. Religion, Burkert writes at the beginning of his book, is a system of communication; in line with that point he says that “the formation of the rising generation appears almost the principal function of religion.” Although initiation ceremonies at puberty, as such, are not easy to find in the parts of Greece for which most evidence survives, both Greek ritual and myth contain many hints and traces of older, tribal initiations. Burkert calls attention to “motifs of exposure and sacrifice of children, of seclusion in the wilderness and struggles with a dragon.” The point of such ceremonies, as when the young man is suddenly withdrawn from ordinary life and required to prove his manhood by over-coming hardship and terrors, is of course not to acquire a belief but to undergo a set of experiences, to encounter and surmount specially staged (and therefore controlled) ordeals. That is true of ancient religion generally. The question of atheism presented itself only quite late, toward the end of the fifth century BC. When it did arise, the response was an outburst of collective anxiety and intolerance, as society felt itself menaced at the core. For sharing sacrifices and rituals was the chief expression of unity and good will: that is why bitter communal anger was felt against the philosophical atheists, the Pythagoreans who abstained from meat and so from sacrifice, and against the Christians, who also refused to join in.

Another striking feature of Burkert’s account is that the festivals are treated not in isolation from one another but as forming an emotionally intelligible series. He gives a brilliant sketch of the extended series of festivals that marked the end of the old year at Athens and the beginning of the new. Perhaps one or two small points do not entirely persuade, but his resulting reconstruction of a “rich and meaningful rhythm” of celebrations is as a whole illuminating and convincing. The author is well aware that each festival had its unique atmosphere, unforgettable to the participants, and that gods were not simply created in order to fill a gap in a conceptual scheme, but that they had to reveal themselves to the worshiper. Seen as a whole, the gods of the Greeks form a collective unity with many subtle and complex interrelations. One of Burkert’s most suggestive and original sections deals with pairs of gods—Zeus and Hera, Athena and Poseidon, Apollo and Dionysus. But Burkert does not force schematic connections on material that will not accept them. He allows himself the gentle irony of saying, against the more doctrinaire of the structuralists, “Such relationships are good for thinking, but reality does not always follow suit; a certain stubbornness of the facts remains.”

Ritual, for Burkert, is the more rewarding approach to Greek religion; as for mythology, “the importance of the myths lies in their connection with rituals.” But ritual is not self-explanatory, and in fact it is intimately connected with language, and so with myth. The unique prestige of the Homeric poems gave them the power to affect, throughout antiquity, the religion of the Greeks. We see this, for instance, in the fact that, while pagan polytheism was never a closed system, and new divinities continued to be introduced, those who entered Greece after Homer (Adonis, Bendis, Sabazius, Sarapis) never attained canonical acceptance. The same Homeric influence laid it down as axiomatic that gods could not die; mortality was for men, gods were by definition immortal. Not only Christianity (“To the Greeks it seemed foolishness,” confesses St. Paul) but also certain much older stories, like that of the dismembered and reborn god Zagreus, were condemned by this sharp distinction; Zagreus was the subject of a “mystery,” a secret story for devotees, not told openly. Above all, the Homeric epic made it impossible to detach the gods from the myths.

In those early poems, gods and men interact with remarkable ease and freedom. Athena as a tall and handsome woman converses intimately with Odysseus; to Achilles, at the moment when he seems on the point of striking King Agamemnon down, she says with urbanity, “I have come to check your angry impulse, in case you will be guided by me.” Father Zeus has sired children by mortal women; Aphrodite has borne a son to a mortal man. In one way such all-too-human features were to be a disaster for the gods, when philosophical criticism, starting about 500 BC, began to demand that gods should not resemble men, least of all in sexuality and desires. But the human aspects of the gods had consequences of a very different sort. Greek art presents gods and goddesses as being no different in appearance from ideally splendid men and women. In the Archaic period they are indeed often marked by the possession of iconographic attributes, the thunderbolt of Zeus, the trident of Poseidon, the lyre of Apollo; but classical sculpture as time went on dispensed with them, relying simply on the ethos of the figures, and their grouping, to explain to the spectator that these are divinities. Serenity, majesty, and very often a certain withdrawal, mark these gods as more than handsome mortals. And the sublime was conceived as a human and physical experience, sexuality itself being the province of a great goddess and exalted in significance by the amours of the blessed gods.

Burkert does full justice to these important sides of his subject. The individual gods are described in their origins and nature. Athena, the armed maiden, stands for the virgin citadel, as the breach of a stronghold resembles the rape of a virgin—one could add to the ancient evidence the name of Maiden Castle in England. She therefore naturally combines the ferocity of a warrior with the patronage of the useful arts of peace. This perspective makes intelligible a union of apparently opposite characteristics which can seem arbitrary and unintelligible. Apollo has a highly complex genesis. The name and the connection with young men reaching manhood come from the apella, the assembly of armed men among the Dorian Greeks, and from the accompanying initiation into manly status. From Mycenaean religion comes the title “Paean,” found in the Linear B tablets as a god’s name, but also the name of a musical rhythm associated with healing as well as with a dance. Links with Crete suggest that this reference to music goes back to the Minoans. Thirdly, the bow and arrows carried by a god who is not a hunter, and his many appearances in art accompanied by animals, derive from the Semitic god Resep of the Arrow, who was later identified with Apollo, and whose influence came to Greece by way of Cyprus. From a variety of origins there developed, in ways that Burkert makes intelligible and convincing, the single harmonious figure of the ever-youthful god, archer, musician, healer, and prophet, the embodiment of rationality and insight.

Apollo is above all a god who maintains a distance from men, but all the gods of the Greeks, Burkert writes, “stand at a distance, well-moulded figures, to be viewed from various angles. They do not hold the world in a close maternal embrace.” The gods impose few laws, and they do not sit in permanent judgment on men. That helped to make possible the cool and questioning attitudes of the Greeks; in the end they were turned on the gods themselves. But their religion, although so different from that of Aquinas or Luther, was not shallow or insincere. As Burkert well says, Greek religion, from the time of Homer, always meant acceptance of reality, in a naive yet adult way: acceptance of a reality that included corporality, transitoriness, and destruction.

Morality, in the sense familiar to us from the Mosaic code, the Christian commandments, the Kantian conscience, was only one element among others in such a view of the world. Naturally the irresistible Zeus possessed and exercised a limitless sexual potency. Naturally also the gods and goddesses who represented a deeper reality, the Stronger Ones, opposed one another, and by their interaction produced the irreducible multiplicity of the world of experience and of speculation. Cult could express such contradictions. At the altar the suppliant is in sanctuary, inviolable; at the altar sacrificial animals are slaughtered. On the island of Delos the gods Artemis and Apollo were born; but on Delos pregnancy and childbirth are forbidden. Actions that are forbidden at one time are enjoined at another. Collective solidarity and continuity are more important than the niceties of the individual conscience. The world makes sense less through moral self-examination than through recognition of the gulf that separates mortal men from the serene superiority and shining gaze of the immortal gods.

This Issue

June 27, 1985