A professor of classics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, he taught in the UK and the US. He has influenced generations of students of religion since the 1960s, combining in the modern way the findings of archaeology and epigraphy with the work of poets, historians, and philosophers.
He published books on the balance between lore and science among the followers of Pythagoras, and more extensively on ritual and archaic cult survival, on the ritual killing at the heart of religion, on mystery religions, and on the reception in the Hellenic world of Near Eastern and Persian culture, which sets Greek religion in its wider Aegean and Near Eastern context.
|Born||February 2, 1931|
|Died||March 11, 2015 (aged 84)|
|Awards||Balzan Prize (1990) |
Sigmund Freud Prize (2003)
Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2008)
|Alma mater||Erlangen University |
|Sub-discipline||Ancient Greek Religion|
|Institutions||TU Berlin |
|Notable works||Homo Necans (1972)|
Burkert married Maria Bosch in 1957 and has three children, Reinhard, Andrea and Cornelius. He studied classical philology, history, and philosophy at the Universities of Erlangen and Munich (1950–1954), and obtained his doctorate in philosophy at Erlangen in 1955. He became an Assistant in course teaching at Erlangen for five years (1957–1961) and, following his marriage, returned to his former University as Lecturer for another five years (until 1966). From early 1965 he worked as a Junior Fellow in the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. for one year. The first academic era of his life ended with a placement as Professor of Classical Philology at the Technical University of Berlin (1966–1969), and as Guest Professor at Harvard University for a year (1968).
The start of a new era began in 1981 when his work of ancient Greek religious anthropology, Homo Necans (1972), was published in an Italian translation, followed in 1983 by an English translation. The book is today considered an outstanding account of concepts in Greek religion. He was Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Zurich (1969–1996); Visiting Professor of Classical Literature at the University of California for two years (1977 and 1988); Lecturer at Harvard in 1982; Dean of the Philosophical Faculty I at Zurich (1986–1988); and presented the Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews in Scotland (1989). After holding these posts and receiving numerous honorary awards (including Balzan Prize in 1990, for Study of the Ancient World), he retired as an Emeritus in 1996.
Three of his most important academic works (a selection from seventeen books and two hundred essays, including encyclopedia contributions and memorabilia), which are still at the base of the study of Hellenic religion, are Homo Necans (1972, English 1983), Greek Religion (1977, English 1985), and Ancient Mystery Cults (1982 lectures, published 1987).
In his preface to the English translation of Homo Necans Burkert, who characterised himself on this occasion as "a philologist who starts from ancient Greek texts and attempts to find biological, psychological and sociological explanations for religious phenomena", expressed some of the principles underlying a book that had seemed somewhat revolutionary to German readers in 1972 in its consistent application of inter-relationships of myth and ritual, the application to texts of the kind of functionalism espoused in Jane Ellen Harrison's Themis and the use of structuralism to elucidate an ethology of Greek religion, its social aspect. Burkert confirmed that an impetus for his book had come from Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, "which seemed to offer new insight into the disquieting manifestations of violence." The book argues that solidarity was achieved among the Greeks through a sacred crime with due reparations: "for the strange prominence of animal slaughter in ancient religion this still seems to be the most economical, and most humane explanation" (p. xv). Its first chapter "Sacrifice as an Act of Killing" offers conclusions that are supported in the ensuing chapters through individual inquiries into myth, festival and ritual, in which the role of poetic creation and re-creation are set aside "in order to confront the power and effect of tradition as fully as possible". The term gods, Burkert concludes, remains fluid, whereas sacrifice is a fact (p. xv).
In 1985, Burkert used ancient sources (both literary and visual representations) to put together some of the pieces of how ancient Greek sacrificial ritual actually proceeded, and to link together the ritual with myth. Firstly, under the direction of the priest, priestess, father, mother (at least, in certain women's rites like Thesmophoria), or king, a basket containing the utensils and a bowl of water were placed around the altar. The participants then dipped their hands into the consecrated water, and sprinkled it on the altar, victim and offerer. Salted-barley corns from the basket were thrown on the animal’s head and into the altar fire. A lock of hair from the animal is then cut and burned, libation being poured on the altar with prayer. After silence is proclaimed, the music of flutes begins and the animal is slain. The larger animals were killed with a sacrificial axe. The head is turned toward the heavens, and the throat cut. The blood then spreads on the altar and is caught in a vessel. In early literary sources such as the Homeric epics the Iliad and Odyssey, onlooking women raise a cry of worship (ololugma) at this point in the ritual.
After the animal is skinned and cut into pieces, the inner parts are tasted and shared, and a part burned on the altar with incense. The remainder is roasted and eaten by all participants present. If the entrails are of normal shape and color, it is an omen that the sacrifice is acceptable to the gods. In both the Iliad and Odyssey, as well as other early sources such as the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the priest or sacrifice-leader wrapped the thigh pieces in fat and burned them on the altar. The tail and back, along with other bones and pieces with less meat left over were burned with a libation. After this procedure, it was then that the worshippers shared the roasted meal, while music and dance took place in the service of the gods. At some special festivals, there are instances where everyone in the banquet consumes hundreds of animal sacrifices.
In Greek mythology, Antiope (; Ancient Greek: Ἀντιόπη derived from αντι anti "against, compared to, like" and οψ ops "voice" or means "confronting") was the daughter of the Boeotian river god Asopus, according to Homer; in later sources she is called the daughter of the "nocturnal" king Nycteus of Thebes or, in the Cypria, of Lycurgus, but for Homer her site is purely Boeotian. She was the mother of Amphion and Zethus.Athenian festivals
The festival calendar of Classical Athens involved the staging of a large number of festivals each year.Atra-Hasis
Atra-Hasis is the title of an 18th-century BC Akkadian epic recorded in various versions on clay tablets. It is named for its protagonist, Atrahasis, whose name means "exceedingly wise". The Atra-Hasis tablets include both a creation myth and a flood account, which is one of three surviving Babylonian deluge stories. The name "Atra-Hasis" also appears on one of the Sumerian king lists as king of Shuruppak in the times before a flood.
The oldest known copy of the epic tradition concerning Atrahasis can be dated by colophon (scribal identification) to the reign of Hammurabi’s great-grandson, Ammi-Saduqa (1646–1626 BC), but various Old Babylonian fragments exist; it continued to be copied into the first millennium BC. The Atrahasis story also exists in a later fragmentary Assyrian version, having been first rediscovered in the library of Ashurbanipal, but, because of the fragmentary condition of the tablets and ambiguous words, translations had been uncertain. Its fragments were assembled and translated first by George Smith as The Chaldean Account of Genesis; the name of its hero was corrected to Atra-Hasis by Heinrich Zimmern in 1899.
In 1965 Wilfred G. Lambert and A. R. Millard published many additional texts belonging to the epic, including an Old Babylonian copy (written around 1650 BC) which is our most complete surviving recension of the tale. These new texts greatly increased knowledge of the epic and were the basis for Lambert and Millard’s first English translation of the Atrahasis epic in something approaching entirety. A further fragment has been recovered in Ugarit. Walter Burkert traces the model drawn from Atrahasis to a corresponding passage, the division by lots of the air, underworld and sea among Zeus, Hades and Poseidon in the Iliad, in which “a resetting through which the foreign framework still shows”.
In its most complete surviving version, the Atrahasis epic is written on three tablets in Akkadian, the language of ancient Babylon.Cabeiri
In Greek mythology, the Cabeiri or Cabiri (Ancient Greek: Κάβειροι, Kábeiroi), also transliterated Kabiri , were a group of enigmatic chthonic deities. They were worshiped in a mystery cult closely associated with that of Hephaestus, centered in the north Aegean islands of Lemnos and possibly Samothrace—at the Samothrace temple complex—and at Thebes. In their distant origins the Cabeiri and the Samothracian gods may include pre-Greek elements, or other non-Greek elements, such as Thracian, Tyrrhenian, Pelasgian, Phrygian or Hittite. The Lemnian cult was always local to Lemnos, but the Samothracian mystery cult spread rapidly throughout the Greek world during the Hellenistic period, eventually initiating Romans.
The ancient sources disagree about whether the deities of Samothrace were Cabeiri or not; and the accounts of the two cults differ in detail. But the two islands are close to each other, at the northern end of the Aegean, and the cults are at least similar, and neither fits easily into the Olympic pantheon: the Cabeiri were given a mythic genealogy as sons of Hephaestus and Cabeiro. The accounts of the Samothracian gods, whose names were secret, differ in the number and sexes of the gods: usually between two and four, some of either sex. The number of Cabeiri also varies, with some accounts citing four (often a pair of males and a pair of females), and some even more, such as a tribe or whole race of Cabeiri, often presented as all male.The Cabeiri were also worshipped at other sites in the vicinity, including Seuthopolis in Thrace and various sites in Asia Minor. According to Strabo, Cabeiri are most honored in Imbros and Lemnos but also in other cities too.Deception of Zeus
The section of the Iliad that ancient editors called the Dios apate (the "Deception of Zeus") stands apart from the remainder of Book XIV. In this episode, Hera makes an excuse to leave her divine husband Zeus; in her deception speech she declares that she wishes to go to Oceanus, "origin of the gods", and Tethys the "mother". Instead Hera beautifies herself in preparation for seducing Zeus and obtains the help of Aphrodite. In the climax of the episode Zeus and Hera make love hidden within a golden cloud on the summit of Mount Ida. By distracting Zeus, Hera makes it possible for the Greeks to regain the upper hand in the Trojan War.The peculiarities of this episode were already being discussed in Antiquity. Even early commentators were shocked by the storyline and its implications for the morality of the gods. An expression of this moral criticism is found in Plato's Republic.Later, as it became fashionable to question whether certain passages of the known text of the Iliad were really composed by Homer (see Homeric scholarship), the genuineness of the "Deception of Zeus" was doubted. Albrecht Dihle listed the linguistic features unique to this section and "found so many deviations from the normal traditional use of Homeric formulas that he concluded that this section of the Iliad could not belong to the phase of oral tradition but was a written composition." Richard Janko, by contrast, describes the episode as "a bold, brilliant, graceful, sensuous, and above all amusing virtuoso performance, wherein Homer parades his mastery of the other types of epic composition in his repertoire". The debate on this issue is not yet settled.
Walter Burkert found that the passage "shows divinity in a naturalistic, cosmic setting which is not otherwise a feature of Homeric anthropomorphism", and linked it to the opening of the Babylonian Enuma Elish where Apsu and Tiamat, respectively the fresh and salt waters, are the primordial couple who "were mixing their waters." Like Tethys and Oceanus they were superseded by a later generation of gods. Tethys does not otherwise appear in early Greek myth and she had no established cult.Devotio
For the late medieval religious movement, see Devotio Moderna. See also Devotion (disambiguation).In ancient Roman religion, the devotio was an extreme form of votum in which a Roman general vowed to sacrifice his own life in battle along with the enemy to chthonic gods in exchange for a victory. The most extended description of the ritual is given by the Augustan historian Livy, regarding the self-sacrifice of Decius Mus. The English word "devotion" derives from the Latin.
Devotio may be a form of consecratio, a ritual by means of which something was consecrated to the gods. The devotio has sometimes been interpreted in light of human sacrifice in ancient Rome, and Walter Burkert saw it as a form of scapegoat or pharmakos ritual. By the 1st century BC, devotio could mean more generally "any prayer or ritual that consigned some person or thing to the gods of the underworld for destruction."Eleutheria
The Greek word "ἐλευθερία" (capitalized Ἐλευθερία; Attic Greek pronunciation: [eleu̯tʰeˈria]), transliterated as eleutheria, is an Ancient Greek term for, and personification of, liberty. Eleutheria personified had a brief career on coins of Alexandria.
In Ancient Greece, Eleutheria was also an epithet for the goddess Artemis, and as such she was worshipped in Myra of Lycia.
The Roman equivalent of the goddess Eleutheria is Libertas, the personification of liberty.Erechtheus
Erechtheus (; Ancient Greek: Ἐρεχθεύς) in Greek mythology was the name of an archaic king of Athens, the founder of the polis and, in his role as god, attached to Poseidon, as "Poseidon Erechtheus". The mythic Erechtheus and the historical Erechtheus were fused into one character in Euripides' lost tragedy Erechtheus (423/22 BCE). The name Erichthonius is carried by a son of Erechtheus, but Plutarch conflated the two names in the myth of the begetting of Erechtheus.Erinyes
In ancient Greek religion and mythology, the Erinyes (; sing. Erinys , ; Greek: Ἐρινύες, pl. of Ἐρινύς, Erinys), also known as the Furies, were female chthonic deities of vengeance, sometimes referred to as "infernal goddesses" (χθόνιαι θεαί). A formulaic oath in the Iliad invokes them as "the Erinyes, that under earth take vengeance on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath." Walter Burkert suggests they are "an embodiment of the act of self-cursing contained in the oath." They correspond to the Dirae in Roman mythology. The Roman writer Maurus Servius Honoratus wrote that they are called "Eumenides" in hell, "Furiae" on earth, and "Dirae" in heaven.According to Hesiod's Theogony, when the Titan Cronus castrated his father, Uranus, and threw his genitalia into the sea, the Erinyes (along with the Giants and the Meliae) emerged from the drops of blood which fell on the earth (Gaia), while Aphrodite was born from the crests of sea foam. According to variant accounts, they emerged from an even more primordial level—from Nyx ("Night"), or from a union between air and mother earth. Their number is usually left indeterminate. Virgil, probably working from an Alexandrian source, recognized three: Alecto or Alekto ("endless"), Megaera ("jealous rage"), and Tisiphone or Tilphousia ("vengeful destruction"), all of whom appear in the Aeneid. Dante Alighieri followed Virgil in depicting the same three-character triptych of Erinyes; in Canto IX of the Inferno they confront the poets at the gates of the city of Dis. Whilst the Erinyes were usually described as three maiden goddesses, the Erinys Telphousia was usually a by-name for the wrathful goddess Demeter, who was worshipped under the title of Erinys in the Arkadian town of Thelpousa.Hera
Hera (; Greek: Ἥρᾱ, Hērā; Ἥρη, Hērē in Ionic and Homeric Greek) is the goddess of women, marriage, family, and childbirth in ancient Greek religion and myth, one of the Twelve Olympians and the sister-wife of Zeus. She is the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Hera rules over Mount Olympus as queen of the gods. A matronly figure, Hera served as both the patroness and protectress of married women, presiding over weddings and blessing marital unions. One of Hera's defining characteristics is her jealous and vengeful nature against Zeus' numerous lovers and illegitimate offspring, as well as the mortals who cross her.
Hera is commonly seen with the animals she considers sacred including the cow, lion and the peacock. Portrayed as majestic and solemn, often enthroned, and crowned with the polos (a high cylindrical crown worn by several of the Great Goddesses), Hera may hold a pomegranate in her hand, emblem of fertile blood and death and a substitute for the narcotic capsule of the opium poppy. Scholar of Greek mythology Walter Burkert writes in Greek Religion, "Nevertheless, there are memories of an earlier aniconic representation, as a pillar in Argos and as a plank in Samos."Her Roman counterpart is Juno.Homo Necans
Homo Necans: the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (German: Homo Necans: Interpretationen Altgriechischer Opferriten und Mythen) is a 1972 book on ancient Greek religion and mythology by Walter Burkert. It won the Weaver Award for Scholarly Literature, awarded by the Ingersoll Foundation, in 1992.Hunting magic
Hunting magic is the magic associated with hunting in hunter-gatherer cultures, both contemporary and prehistoric.
Walter Burkert in Homo Necans (1972) suggested that rituals associated with hunting magic are at the origin of religion.
Henri Breuil interpreted the paleolithic cave paintings as hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals.Kleine Schriften
Kleine Schriften is a German phrase ("short writings" or "minor works"; Latin: Opuscula) often used as a title for a collection of articles and essays written by a single scholar over the course of a career. "Collected Papers" is an English equivalent. These shorter works were usually published previously in various periodicals or in collections of papers (such as a Festschrift) written by multiple scholars. A scholar's Kleine Schriften may be contained in a single volume, or several volumes published at once or (more commonly) in series within a period of a few years. Multi-volume collections may contain a scholar's minor or lesser-known book-length works as well.
The title is usually reserved for the collected works of a scholar who wrote primarily in German or whose first language was German. The collection of a scholar who worked or taught internationally will often contain essays in more than one language; the multi-volume Kleine Schriften of Walter Burkert, for instance, includes work in German, English, and French. In the case of expatriates, articles in the host language may outnumber those in German. This is particularly true of German philologists who emigrated in the 1930s, many of whom published much of their research in English or French; Friedrich Solmsen's three-volume Kleine Schriften, in which English articles outnumber German, is an example.
Kleine Schriften may also appear as an explanatory subtitle; for example, Gotica: kleine Schriften zur gotischen Philologie, a collection of papers on the extinct Gothic language by Ernst A. Ebbinghaus.Myth and ritual
Myth and ritual are two central components of religious practice. Although myth and ritual are commonly united as parts of religion, the exact relationship between them has been a matter of controversy among scholars. One of the approaches to this problem is "the myth and ritual, or myth-ritualist, theory," held notably by the so-called Cambridge Ritualists, which holds that "myth does not stand by itself but is tied to ritual." This theory is still disputed; many scholars now believe that myth and ritual share common paradigms, but not that one developed from the other.Potnia Theron
Potnia Theron (Ἡ Πότνια Θηρῶν, "The Mistress of the Animals") is a term first used (once) by Homer (Iliad 21. 470) and often used to describe female divinities associated with animals. The word Potnia, meaning mistress or lady, was a Mycenaean Greek word inherited by Classical Greek, with the same meaning, cognate to Sanskrit patnī.Homer's mention of potnia theron is thought to refer to Artemis and Walter Burkert describes this mention as "a well established formula". An Artemis type deity, a 'Mistress of the Animals', is often assumed to have existed in prehistorical religion and often referred to as Potnia Theron, with some scholars positing a relationship between Artemis and goddesses depicted in Minoan art and "Potnia Theron has become a generic term for any female associated with animals."Many depictions use a female version of the widespread ancient motif of the male Master of Animals, showing a central figure with a human form grasping two animals, one to each side. The oldest depiction has been discovered in Çatalhöyük.
Another example of Potnia theròn is situated in Museo civico archeologico di Monte Rinaldo in Italy: plate illustrates goddess that wears a long dress and holds hands with two panthers.Sacrifice
Sacrifice is the offering of food, objects or the lives of animals or humans to a higher purpose, in particular divine beings, as an act of propitiation or worship. While sacrifice often implies the ritual killing of an animal, the term offering (Latin oblatio) can be used for bloodless sacrifices of food or artifacts. For offerings of liquids (beverages) by pouring, the term libation is used.
Scholars such as René Girard have theorized that scapegoating may account for the origins of sacrifice.Skira
The festival of the Skira or Skirophoria in the calendar of ancient Athens, closely associated with the Thesmophoria, marked the dissolution of the old year in May/June. At Athens, the last month of the year was Skirophorion, after the festival. Its most prominent feature was the procession that led out of Athens to a place called Skiron near Eleusis, in which the priestess of Athena and the priest of Poseidon took part, under a ceremonial canopy called the skiron, which was held up by the Eteoboutadai. Their joint temple on the Acropolis was the Erechtheum, where Poseidon embodied as Erechtheus remained a numinous presence.At Skiron there was a sanctuary dedicated to Demeter/Kore and one to Athena.
As a festival of dissolution, the Skira was a festival proverbial for license, in which men played dice games, but a time also of daytime fasting, and of the inversion of the social order, for the bonds of marriage were suspended, as women banded together and left the quarters where they were ordinarily confined, to eat garlic together "according to ancestral custom", and to sacrifice and feast together, at the expense of the men. The Skira is the setting for Aristophanes' comedy Ecclesiazusae (393 BCE), in which the women seize the opportunity afforded by the festival, to hatch their plot to overthrow male domination.Ullikummi
In Hurrian mythology, Ullikummi is a giant stone monster, son of Kumarbi and the sea god's daughter, Sertapsuruhi or a female cliff.
The narrative of Ullikummi is one episode, the best preserved and most complete, in an epic cycle of related "songs" about the god Kumarbi, who aimed to replace the weather god Teshub and destroy the city of Kummiya; to this end Kumarbi fathered upon a rock cliff a genderless, deaf, blind, yet sentient pillar of volcanic rock, Ullikummi, which he hid in the netherworld and placed on the shoulder of Upelluri. Upelluri, absorbed in his meditations, did not feel Ullikummi on his shoulder [Upelluri stands in the netherworld, holding the earth and sky on his shoulder like the Greek Atlas; a mere giant such as Ullikummi is barely noticeable, although Upelluri does feel a bit of pain in his shoulder once Ullikummi has grown up]. Ullikummi grew quickly until he reached the heavens. Ullikummi's brother Teshub thundered and rained on Ullikummi, but it did not harm him. Teshub fled and abdicated the throne [the weather god and his vizier and brother, Tasmisu, are defeated in their first battle with Ullikummi, as Tasmisu relates to Teshub's wife, Hebat; as a result Teshub is banished to a "little place," probably meaning a grave]. Teshub asked Ea for help [Ea, who lives in the Apsu, underground source of earth's waters, obtains the toothed cutting tool with which heaven and earth were cut apart shortly after creation; this tool will disable Ullikummi]. Ea visited Upelluri and cut off the feet of Ullikummi, toppling him [that is, Ea cuts Ullikummi loose from Upelluri's shoulder and then urges the weather god to fight again; the end of the story is broken away and scholars simply assume Ullikummi is finally defeated].The "song of Ullikummi" was recognized from its first rediscovery as a predecessor of Greek myths in Hesiod. Parallels to the Greek myth of Typhoeus, the ancient antagonist of the thunder-god Zeus, have been elucidated by Walter Burkert, Oriental and Greek Mythology, pp. 19–24, and Caucasian parallels in his "Von Ullikummi zum Kaukasus: Die Felsgeburt des Unholds", Würzburger Jahrbücher N. F., 5 (1979) pp. 253–61.Unit-point atomism
According to some twentieth-century philosophers, unit-point atomism was the philosophy of the Pythagoreans, a conscious repudiation of Parmenides and the Eleatics. It stated that atoms were infinitesimally small ("point") yet possessed corporeality. It was a predecessor of Democritean atomism. Most recent students of presocratic philosophy, such as Kurt von Fritz, Walter Burkert, Gregory Vlastos, Jonathan Barnes, and Daniel W. Graham have rejected that any form of atomism can be applied to the early Pythagoreans (before Ecphantus of Syracuse).Unit-point atomism was invoked in order to make sense of a statement ascribed to Zeno of Elea in Plato's Parmenides: "these writings of mine were meant to protect the arguments of Parmenides against those who make fun of him. . . My answer is addressed to the partisans of the many. . ." The anti-Parmenidean pluralists were supposedly unit-point atomists whose philosophy was essentially a reaction against the Eleatics. This hypothesis, however, to explain Zeno's paradoxes, has been thoroughly discredited.
Recipients of the Sigmund Freud Prize