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Greek Religion Paperback – July 26, 1985

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Chapter titles suggest Burkert's scope and treatment of the multiple facets of Greek religion, focusing upon the period 800-300 B.C.: Prehistory and the Minoan-Mycenaean Age; Ritual and Sanctuary; The Gods; The Dead, Heroes, and Chthonic Gods; Polis and Polytheism; Mysteries and Asceticism; Philosophical Religion. References to publications since the German edition of 1977 are included. Generally, this is a praiseworthy overview of a difficult subject. However, an unidiomatic English translation makes for added difficulties in coping with Burkert's relentless scholarshipreplete with dogmatic hypotheses and often unconvincing conclusions. Greater judicious clarity would have made this important work less frustrating for the scholar and more accessible to the student of religion. Robert J. Lenardon, Classics Dept., Siena Coll. & SUNY at Albany

Copyright 1985 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Greek Religion...already has the standing of a classic, and the publication of an English version, which incorporates new material and is in effect a second edition, demands a toast...Anyone who pretends to survey Greek religion must be phenomenally learned. Burkert is. His book is a marvel of professional scholarship...Anyone with an interest in the ancient world can follow the book with pleasure and advantage. No one whose interest has been caught by the Parthenon or by Homer's stories should miss it. (Jonathan Barnes London Review of Books)

In this new book by Walter Burkert, professor of Greek at the University of Zurich and possibly the most eminent living student of ancient Greek religion, we are given the opportunity to enter into this strange world [of ancient Greece]...Mr. Burkert has told his fascinating story not only with immense learning but in a way that captures the interest and sympathy of the reader. (John Macquarrie New York Times Book Review)

The subject of Greek religion has recently received a masterly and elegant treatment in Walter Burkert's Greek Religion...beautifully translated by John Raffan. Like the Decalogue in the old saw, it arouses feelings of reverence not unmixed with awe at the author's grasp of his material and the acuity with which he uses the insights of psychology and sociology to show how the forms of Greek religion were able to satisfy many of the deepest needs of men...One will not often read a book that illuminates so profoundly what it was like to live in ancient Greece. (Richard Stoneman History Today)

The German edition of this book was published in 1977, and the author has added references to important new publications since that date. The introduction has a survey of previous scholarship, a discussion of the sources, and an explanation of the scope of the volume. What this 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. This new paperback edition makes an important work available at an economic price. (Manuscripta)

The many fine qualities of this book's original German version (Griechische Religion der archaischen and klassichen Epoche, 1977) have been noted in a veritable forest of reviews...The present English translation, with updated references and an inexpensive paperback edition, offers the prospect of use by American teachers and/or students...It is comprehensive in subject, rich in evidence of many types...and current...It is a peculiar excellence of this book that its usefulness to scholars does not make it less appropriate for students. Its length, in fact, is not at all excessive for a college text, and its many subdivisions make it easy to excerpt. (Robert M. Simms New England Classical Newsletter)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (July 26, 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674362810
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674362819
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #589,132 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Sean Francisco Smith on January 30, 2002
Format: Paperback
While the market for Mythology is flooded by books describing Greek Myth (with many excellent versions), too many have been reduced to neo-pagan re-usage, forcing the myths onto a modern metaphor. All too often, books cut and paste the myths into a new age ideal that melts Taosism, Buddhism, American SHamanism into a nasty blend devoid of any of the specific flavorings of any of these rich traditions.
Burkett's book doesn't d othis. If you want to know how the Ancient Greeks PRACTICED religion, this is a great book, filled with fantastic detail. Burkett is neither a Frazer/Campbell Synthesist, nor a true Levi-Strauss Structuralist. Like the latter group, he delves into the details, discussing how the individual greek cities and cults practiced their religion.
By the time the book is complete, the reader has a crystal clear picture of the everyday spiritual life of an ancient greek citizen, from the archaic to the philosophical (even the the curses and phrases).
More than that, the book gives a clear definition of what a Polytheistic system of beliefs is like.
I definite part of any student of Greek History or General Mythology and Religion.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Charissa Gilreath on April 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
Finally, a book that doesn't just go over the main Greek gods and goddesses, list a few of the festivals and some myths, and stop there. This book goes into great depth about what Greek religion was /really/ like, and the motivations, beliefs, and psychology behind it. Relying on archaeological evidence as well as other sources, this book gives an in depth look at ancient Greek religion, even confronting the issue of human sacrifice. Extensive notes in the back further flesh out this fantastic book, providing hundreds of other avenues and sources to explore. The author even provides an index of Greek words if you want to look a term up straight from the original Greek instead of wondering how it's been translated into English so you can look it up in the regular index. The writing might be slightly dense in some areas, but this isn't a problem as the subject is so interesting and so much information is presented. A truly scholarly book.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Christopher W. Roe on August 1, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Walter Burkert's "Greek Religion" is an intense survey of Hellenistic religious beliefs from their earliest Minoan and Mycennean antecedents. This review will summarize the material contained within the study, extrapolate the central themes of the text, and finally shall offer an analysis of the text with regard to its presentation of data, use of archaeological and primary sources, and its intended audience.
The material is diverse within it's scope. Whereas other survey-type texts only include an overview of the basic Olympian Gods, and perhaps a marginal mentioning of some of the major festivals, Burkert's text provides the reader with an in-depth look at all of those issues as well as giving the reader the, "why", as best as he could surmise through his research. He is blunt about stating the lack of comprehensive written resources, and does not speculate too far beyond the scant information he does possess. To the researcher this is valuable, as massive leaps are not made from what does exist to what may possibly have been the case.
As previously mentioned, the first few chapters of the text offer a brief chronology of what was happening spiritually in the pre-Hellenistic Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. This provides the reader with an appropriate historical context within which to frame the discussion of later spiritual beliefs. The scope of the text covers a vast time period of that prehistory, from approximately 1500-1200 B.C., then continues on to describe the formation of a distinctly Greek religion developing from those antecedents at or about the ninth/eighth century.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Joseph O'Neill on April 16, 2002
Format: Paperback
Burkert's Greek Religion is the perfect handbook for any serious student of archaic and classical Greek religion. Burkert is a thorough scholar, and treats the diverse and complex problem of Greek religion from its Minoan-Mycenaean precursors through the esoteric Mysteries. Burkert cleanly and succinctly addresses Greek ritual practices and provides accurate and enlightening
definitions of the mainstays of Greek religion - from temple (naos) to cult image (xaonon) to the gods themselves. Burkert's text is an invaluable resource no student of classical studies should be without.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By no longer a customer on June 22, 2000
Format: Paperback
Solid and fascinating scholarship. Burkert offers detailed and informative entries on the development of ritual, taboo and the slow evolution of the deities from numinous abstractions to theistic personifications; for example, the entry on how Hermes developed from a pile of rocks to Messenger of The Gods was fascinating. There also a few mysteries as well, such as the puzzling evidence that some of the cults of Hercules may have involved transvestitism. Perhaps the definitive text for students of religion; scholarly and solid without pandering to the neo-pagan hoopla.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Luc REYNAERT on February 2, 2013
Format: Paperback
The eminent scholar, Walter Burkert, gives a formidable in depth analysis of Greek religion and its function within the polis. For him, religion is a supra-personal system of communication through rituals and myths.
The Greeks had no sacred books, no priest caste and, not a unique jealous god, but polytheism. Their spiritual unity was founded and uphold by poetry.

Rituals, signs, oracles
Rituals are demonstrative acts, whose aim is to secure group solidarity. Religious rituals are signals towards the super-human gods.
The experience of the sacred is portrayed as an intense display of `mysterium tremendum", by the juxtaposition of threatening (fire, blood, weapons) and alluring (food, sex) things with exhibitions of power and `magic'. It should work as an imprinting force especially for children and adolescents by creating situations of anxiety (abandonment) in order to overcome them by the establishment of solidarity.
During sacrifices everything is a sign (the fire, the animal behavior, its liver ...). Success in the interpretation of signs made the fame of oracles, which were places where gods offered a service for those in search of counsel. The fame of the oracle of Delphi sank deeply when it failed to foresee a Greek victory in the Persian Wars.

Myths, (demi-) gods
Myths are complexes of traditional tales about gods and demi-gods (heroes). For the Greeks, the truth of a myth is never guaranteed and doesn't have to be believed The Greeks didn't have one of the most important myths of all: the creation of man by the gods. Greek gods don't give life, but can destroy it.
Poetry gave individual myths a memorable form.
Cults, the worship of (demi-) gods can be derived directly from the influence of epic poetry.
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