The 19th and early 20th centuries are a key period in the history of modern scholarship on ancient Greek religion. It was in 19th century Germany that the foundations for the modern academic study of Greek religion were laid and the theories formulated by German scholars as well as their British colleagues in the late 19th and early 19th centuries. 20th century exerted a profound influence on the field which would resonate until much later times.
Throughout this period, fierce debates were held on the interpretation of Greek religion: what were the origins of the Greek gods and what light did they shed on their conception in historical times? Was there a monotheistic current in Greek polytheism and if so, how to explain it? In terms of innate human tendency, or of diffusion from abroad? And if the latter, from where? How similar or different was the Greek religion to the religions of other Indo-European peoples, to the non-Indo-European religions of the ancient Near East, or to the modern polytheistic religions of Africa and Asia? In an era of increasing science and professionalization of the discipline, classical scholars in Germany and Great Britain drew inspiration from developments in philology, archeology, comparative mythology, anthropology and, later , sociology to offer surprisingly different answers to these questions.
Take, for example, the question of origins. According to a very influential tradition of comparative interpretation in the 19th century, the Greek gods, like the gods of other ancient religions, derive from the personification of natural elements and domains – Zeus of the sky, Poseidon of the sea, etc. Due to the variety of natural forces and phenomena, Ludwig Preller (1809-1861), one of the most prominent representatives of this approach, described polytheism as a weakness inherent in Greek religion.
During the second half of the 19th century, this view was strongly opposed by scholars such as Heinrich Dietrich Müller (1819-1893) and Ernst Curtius (1814-1896), who rejected the idea that the Greek religion was inherently polytheistic and whose cult of natural powers smacked of irrationality and mysticism. In their eyes, it was typical of Asian religions, but could not have provided the basis for the religion of the Greeks. Far from being personifications of different elements of the natural world, they suggested that Zeus, Poseidon, and the other Olympians were originally universal and omnipotent gods, like the God of Judaism and Christianity. Attributing a form of monotheism to the Greeks, they argued that initially each Greek community worshiped a single almighty god. Greek polytheism was the late result of historical contingencies as the separate gods of the different communities gradually came closer together and their once universal powers began to contract.
This theory was, in turn, contested in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by British anthropology and evolutionism. The concept of gods endowed with universal powers was now considered to belong to the later stages of religious development rather than to its beginnings. Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928), one of the first to apply sociological theory to the study of Greek religion, actually envisioned an early stage of totemism in ancient Greece where no gods had existed. According to her, what was essential in totemism was “the idea of the unity of a group”. The gods were a “by-product” that gradually emerged from pre-existing rituals that expressed group cohesion.
These questions were far from being of simple antique interest. The interpretation of Greek religion in the 19th and early 20th centuries has been heavily influenced and closely involved in contemporary discussions of crucial questions regarding the origins and nature of religion, the roots of Western culture, and its relationship to the “East”, or the attitudes of mankind towards nature. Clashes between devout Christian scholars and supporters of “scientific atheism”, sectarian rivalries between Catholics and Protestants, and national rivalries between Germans and British were some of the factors that informed the study of religion. Greek and made it very relevant to current concerns.
Modern assumptions and agendas of past interpretations of Greek religion highlight the intersection of the history of the discipline with contemporary intellectual, cultural and religious history. They not only enlighten us on why the field evolved as it did, but also invite us to reflect on the interrelationships between current conceptions of Greek religion and their context.
Image credit: Hermes, Dionysus, Ariadne and Poseidon (Amphitrite is also pictured but cannot be seen here). Detail of the Belly of an Attic Red-Figure Hydria, c. 510 BC-500 BC. From Etruria. Photo by Jastrow. Louvre Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.