Walter Burkert
Walter Burkert is a German scholar of Greek mythology
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

 and cult.

An emeritus professor of classics at the University of Zurich
University of Zurich
The University of Zurich , located in the city of Zurich, is the largest university in Switzerland, with over 25,000 students. It was founded in 1833 from the existing colleges of theology, law, medicine and a new faculty of philosophy....

, Switzerland
Switzerland name of one of the Swiss cantons. ; ; ; or ), in its full name the Swiss Confederation , is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities. The country is situated in Western Europe,Or Central Europe depending on the definition....

, he also has taught in the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 and the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. He has influenced generations of students of religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

 since the 1960s, combining in the modern way the findings of archaeology
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

 and epigraphy
Epigraphy Epigraphy Epigraphy (from the , literally "on-writing", is the study of inscriptions or epigraphs as writing; that is, the science of identifying the graphemes and of classifying their use as to cultural context and date, elucidating their meaning and assessing what conclusions can be...

 with the work of poets, historians, and philosophers.

He has published books on the balance between lore and science among the followers of Pythagoras
Pythagoras of Samos was an Ionian Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the religious movement called Pythagoreanism. Most of the information about Pythagoras was written down centuries after he lived, so very little reliable information is known about him...

, 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
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

 world of Near East
Near East
The Near East is a geographical term that covers different countries for geographers, archeologists, and historians, on the one hand, and for political scientists, economists, and journalists, on the other...

ern and Persian culture, which sets Greek religion in its wider Aegean and Near Eastern context.

First academic era

Burkert was born at Neuendettelsau
Neuendettelsau is a local authority in Middle Franconia, Germany. Neuendettelsau is situated 20 miles southwest of Nuremberg and 12 miles east of Ansbach. Population: 7.833 ....

, Bavaria
Bavaria, formally the Free State of Bavaria is a state of Germany, located in the southeast of Germany. With an area of , it is the largest state by area, forming almost 20% of the total land area of Germany...


Burkert married Maria Bosch in 1957 and has three children, Reinhard, Andrea and Cornelius. His career as a successful scholar was clearly foreseen in his early years, as a student in higher education. He studied classical philology
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

, history
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

, and philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 at the Universities of Erlangen
Friedrich-Alexander-University, Erlangen-Nuremberg
The Universität Erlangen Nürnberg is a university in the cities of Erlangen and Nuremberg in Bavaria, Germany. It is the second largest state university in Bavaria, having five Schools, 308 chairs, and 12,000 employees. There are 28,735 students enrolled at the university, of which about 2/3 are...

 and Munich
Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich
The Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich , commonly known as the University of Munich or LMU, is a university in Munich, Germany...

 (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
Center for Hellenic Studies
The Center for Hellenic Studies is a research institute for classics located in Washington, D.C. at 3100 NW Whitehaven Street. It is affiliated with Harvard University....

 in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

 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
Technical University of Berlin
The Technische Universität Berlin is a research university located in Berlin, Germany. Translating the name into English is discouraged by the university, however paraphrasing as Berlin Institute of Technology is recommended by the university if necessary .The TU Berlin was founded...

 (1966–1969), and as Guest Professor at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 for a year (1968).

Second academic era

The start of a new era began in 1981 when his work of ancient Greek religious anthropology, Homo Necans
Homo necans
Homo Necans: the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth is a book on ancient Greek religion and mythology by Walter Burkert, which won the Weaver Award for Scholarly Literature, awarded by the Ingersoll Foundation, in 1992...

, 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
University of California
The University of California is a public university system in the U.S. state of California. Under the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the University of California is a part of the state's three-tier public higher education system, which also includes the California State University...

 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
Gifford Lectures
The Gifford Lectures were established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford . They were established to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God." The term natural theology as used by Gifford means theology supported...

 at the University of St Andrews in Scotland (1989). After holding these posts and receiving numerous honorary awards (including Balzan Prize
Balzan Prize
The International Balzan Prize Foundation awards four annual monetary prizes to people or organisations who have made outstanding achievements in the fields of humanities, natural sciences, culture, as well as for endeavours for peace and the brotherhood of man.-Rewards and assets:Each year the...

 in 1990, for Study of the Ancient World), he retired as an Emeritus in 1996.

Academic works

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). Burkert still writes on ancient Greece and its religion.

In his preface to the English translation of Homo Necans Burkert, who characterised himself on this occasion as "a philologist
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

  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
Jane Ellen Harrison
Jane Ellen Harrison was a British classical scholar, linguist and feminist. Harrison is one of the founders, with Karl Kerenyi and Walter Burkert, of modern studies in Greek mythology. She applied 19th century archaeological discoveries to the interpretation of Greek religion in ways that have...

's Themis and the use of structuralism to elucidate an ethology
Ethology is the scientific study of animal behavior, and a sub-topic of zoology....

 of Greek religion, its social aspect. Burkert confirmed that an impetus for his book had come from Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Zacharias Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch...

, 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).

Burkert's Theory of Sacrificial Ritual

In 1985, Burkert claimed to have put together some of the pieces of how the sacrificial ritual actually proceeded. Firstly, under the direction of the priest, father or king, or priestess, 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 The Odyssey, onlooking women raise a cry of worship at this point.
After the animal was skinned and cut into pieces, the inner parts were disposed and a part burned on the altar with incense. The remainder was roasted and eaten. If the entrails were of normal shape and color, it was an omen that the sacrifice was acceptable to the gods. In The Odyssey, men 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.


  • (1972) Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, Translated by Edwin L. Minar, Jr., Harvard University Press
    Harvard University Press
    Harvard University Press is a publishing house established on January 13, 1913, as a division of Harvard University, and focused on academic publishing. In 2005, it published 220 new titles. It is a member of the Association of American University Presses. Its current director is William P...

    , ISBN 0-674-53918-4.


Some articles by Walter Burkert

  • 'Das hunderttorige Theben und die Datierung des Ilias
    The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

    ' in Wiener Studien vol. 89 (1976) pp. 5–21.
  • 'Kynaithos
    Cynaethus or Cinaethus of Chios was a rhapsode, a member of the Homeridae, sometimes said to have composed the Homeric Hymn to Apollo.The main source of information on Cynaethus is a Scholium to Pindar's second Nemean ode...

    , Polycrates
    Polycrates , son of Aeaces, was the tyrant of Samos from c. 538 BC to 522 BC.He took power during a festival of Hera with his brothers Pantagnotus and Syloson, but soon had Pantagnotus killed and exiled Syloson to take full control for himself. He then allied with Amasis II, pharaoh of Egypt, as...

     and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo
    Homeric Hymns
    The Homeric Hymns are a collection of thirty-three anonymous Ancient Greek hymns celebrating individual gods. The hymns are "Homeric" in the sense that they employ the same epic meter—dactylic hexameter—as the Iliad and Odyssey, use many similar formulas and are couched in the same dialect...

    ' in Arktouros: Hellenic studies presented to B. M. W. Knox ed. G. W. Bowersock, W. Burkert, M. C. J. Putnam (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979) pp. 53–62.
  • 'Lydia
    Lydia was an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor located generally east of ancient Ionia in the modern Turkish provinces of Manisa and inland İzmir. Its population spoke an Anatolian language known as Lydian....

     between East and West or how to date the Trojan War
    Trojan War
    In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. The war is among the most important events in Greek mythology and was narrated in many works of Greek literature, including the Iliad...

    : a study in Herodotus
    Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

    ' in The ages of Homer: a tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule
    Emily Vermeule
    Emily Dickinson Townsend Vermeule was an American classical scholar and archaeologist.-Biography:She was born on August 11, 1928 in New York City. She earned an undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr College in 1950, and earned a master's degree from Radcliffe College in 1954, and a Ph.D. from Bryn...

    ed. Jane B. Carter, Sarah P. Morris (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995) pp. 139–148.

External links

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