Jim's Reviews > Greek Religion

Greek Religion by Walter Burkert
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's review
Nov 19, 10

bookshelves: ancient_greece, religion
Read from November 14 to 19, 2010

Greek Religion is not a particularly easy read, but it is an enlightening one. In fact, I would have a hard time envisioning a more useful one. The problem is in the multifarious nature of Greek polytheism: It's way too easy to get lost in the byways of Greek theogony, as Roberto Calasso demonstrated in his excellent The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. When dealing with the tales of the hundreds of gods and heroes, many of which gleefully contradict one another, one comes up against a brick wall.

Walter Burkert points out that Greek religion is based primarily on the work of epic and lyrical poets:
The peculiar quality of Greek religion is ... [that] there is no priestly caste with a fixed tradition, no Veda and no Pyramid texts, nor is there any authoritative revelation in the form of a sacred book.
And yet, the citizens of the Greek polis actively participated in a rich religious life. It is here that Burkert excels, by describing to the maximum extent possible, the way the Greeks actually worshiped and the way they would act as priests for a while and pass the duty on to others after a given time.

Another interesting point is that the moment that prose made its appearance in Greek literature, the whole structure of religious thought changed:
Previously, speaking about gods in public had been the exclusive privilege of poets. Homer and Hesiod had provided the outlines of the divine personalities, and the lyric poets had elaborated ever more ingeniously on the familiar material, presenting it in new colours and shadings; even the reflections of wise men like Solon were put into poetic form, in the language and concepts of Homer and Hesiod. By keeping to the laws of poetry, each formulation is bound to contain a playful element. This falls away at a stroke in prose writing: the supports and predetermined paths of epithets and formulae disappear and literary tradition remains in limbo for a time, while writers attempt to state in a matter-of-fact manner what is the case.
And it is this matter-of-fact manner which gives birth to philosophy, to the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, and all of Western thinking.

If you are interested in the subject of Greek religion, I would recommend beginning with a highly readable classic such as Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion. Where Burkert is useful is as an advanced text and as a jumping-off point for detailed textual research. There are, after all, well over a hundred pages of endnotes, together with excellent bibliography and indexes in both Greek and English.
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11/14/2010 page 54
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Justeenetta (new)

Justeenetta when my sister was a girl she made a family tree of the greek gods, it got very huge.
I'm enjoying the seneca, also disagreeing with him quite a bit: look like every one else but be different. no long hair? he's speaking of men, but as one who cut her hair last in july think no one should cut their hair, & clothes should be only ruled on if governments gave an allowance for them.


message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Remember this about Seneca: On the one hand, he was a brilliant thinker; on the other, he was tutor to the Emperor Nero. It's like trying to judge Albert Speer's 1940s architecture without taking into account that he was Hitler's wartime head of production (and slave labor).


message 3: by Justeenetta (new)

Justeenetta Right. ^ in the preface, the translator notes that Seneca was a hypocrite, even noted so himself.


message 4: by Justeenetta (new)

Justeenetta that's july 1967. I remember? putting in the date, would it have been somehow edited out as "an obvious lie"?


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