Sunday, January 27, 2013

TFBT; Inspiring Burkert

I needed definitive information on Ancient Greek prayer and sacrifice.  There is only one place to go; Greek Religion by Walter Burkert.  .  Burkert follows the faith of the Hellenes from archaic and inspired to modern and mundane.  He enlightens the reader on the evolution of Greek religion from its misty Minoan-Mycenaean beginning, through ancient rituals and sanctuaries, past the divergent worship of the Olympian, Heroic and Chthonic, on to the impact of cities, mysteries and philosophy. 

All this might seem like too much information and suggest a dry rush of the finish line, but Burkert’s prose often dallies in the sublime.  As in; “they speak of the towering heights, the rocky cliffs of Delphi and the sweet charm of sacred groves with their rustling leaves, singing birds and murmuring brooks…If ever a breath of divinity betrays some spot as the sphere of higher beings, then this is evoked by the institutionalized cult.”

Along with his explanation of the basic forms of sacrifice he enlightens us with further asides. Like mentioning that, sacrificial animals are; sheep, ox, goat and pig.  Ass and horse are excluded because they are late arrivers to Greece.  This answers in my mind the odd occurrence of horse sacrifice.  Though I still have to wonder if cost didn’t have something to do with it.  And explaining that “what is important is not that the libation reaches its destination, but that the offerer surrenders himself to the higher will in the act of serene wastefulness…What distinguishes the outpouring from other gifts of food is it’s irretrievability; what is spilled cannot be brought back.  The libation is there the purest ad and highest form of renunciation. “  

We learn a lot about the gods in general and their attitude;
·        It would be a grievous matter to rescue all the race and offspring of men.
·        the beds of the immortals are never barren - every act has issue.
·        the archaic smile becomes the gesture of sublime inevitability
·        the inextinguishable Homeric laughter of the blessed gods;
·        (In the Iliad) the gods join battle with one anther but this is no more than a harmless expression of the unique , unconstrained natural sublimity of the gods. 
·        The gods are and remain the Stronger Ones. 

Of Zeus he observes; the tragedians did not present him on stage.  And quotes for the reader’s pleasure Thetis’ visit to Zeus in the Iliad;  

“He spoke; and with blue-black brows the son of Cronus nodded,
And the ambrosial locks of the ruler flowed, waving
From his immortal head; he shook great Olympus” 

Of Apollo, “The colossal cult statue of Apollo on Delos held the three Charites, the Graces in his right hand and the bow in his left hand: according to …Callimachus, this signified that the favor of the god is prior to and stronger than the destructive power.”   “In the sixth century the temple at Delphi was engraved with… gnothi sauton, know thyself…not intended in a psychological sense or in the existential-philosophical sense…but in an anthropological sense; know that you are not a god.” “It seemed from a time to be firmly established that Apollo was an Asia Minor or specially a Lycian god… and besides he is an enemy of the Greeks in the Homeric Greek.”  “ That Delphi manifestly failed to foresee the Greek Victory in the Persian Wars and all to clearly recommended surrender badly damaged its reputation.“
Burkert jokingly refers to  Hephaestus, the violent obstetrician  in reference to Athena’s birth.  An odd little aside here (and there will be plenty more listed later) is  “The craftsman god becomes the model of the all-fashioning creator: perhaps the Iliad poet was also thinking of himself in this image.”  Is this to suggest that Homer was blind and lame? 

In referencing Hades during the Titanomachy a touch of the poet comes out in Burkert again, “During the battle of the gods, Hades leaps from this throne and roars in terror least the earth break open and his realm be exposed to the when a stone is overturned revealing putrefaction and teeming larvae.” 


Burkert does a masterful job of handling that twilight realm between Olympian and Heroic worship; where demi-gods become immortals and the historic realm where Olympic athletes  and Athenian poets gain heroic honors.  The greatest example of man to god, Olympian god is of course Heracles.  Burkert recognizes that “Heracles contained the potential to shatter the limits of Greek Religion.”  Adds that, “Heracles cults are spread throughout almost the entire Greek world - Crete is the only notable exception.  Then shares that "when the Cretans show a Grave of Zeus it only serves to prove that they are liars."   Some of his numerous examples of historic men to heroes include; “Temesa where every year the most beautiful maiden had to be taken to the (sanctuary of the local) Hero to be deflowered until the (three time boxing champion at the Olympics)  Euthymos appeared and overpowered him.  And also tells us that, “Sophocles offered shelter to the god (the recently introduced Aesculapius) in his own house until the temple was built and this brought heroic honors on Sophocles himself." 


Of men, Burkert tells us; “Thebes was destroyed about 1250 B.C”  a little historical tidbit I never heard definitively.  He says, “at Plataea (they) remained...for ten days because the omens... did not advise either side to attack. "  And that “ After the battle of Plataea, the Greeks all decide to fetch new fire from Delphi."  And that in the hubristic golden age to follow; "the Acropolis cost the city of Athens no more than did two years of the Peloponnesian War.” And finally he mentions that  A god bewailed as dead, such as Adonis is always felt to be foreign. (to the Greeks)”   Hence,   The dismemberment of Dionysus (Zagreus) …was consciously kept secret…because of the uneasiness of speaking in the light of day about the death of a god.”  “Among the Greeks: to doubt the arts of divination is to fall under suspicion of godlessness." With a  touch of humor he adds (based I assume on the similarity between the Greek word for rampart and that for veil) that  to conquer a city is to loosen her veils”  


Of superstition Burkert reports; For a distinction between chance and causal nexus there is at first neither theory nor methods; experiments can scarcely be risked.  Furthermore the gain in confidence which the signs bring as an aid to decision-making is not  so considerable that occasional falsification through experience does not tell against them.. .” The observation of the flight of birds…whether from right or left, is always of significance…right – good, left – bad is unequivocal; as a rule the seer faces north.   “Faith in signs can persist without religious interpretation  as superstitions.”  Examples are;

·        "Hesiod...warns against crossing a river without washing wickedness and one's hands."
·        "A cult image or sanctuary must always be given a  friendly greeting...even if one is simply passing by.”
·        "a sudden burst of flame from the altar fire is seen as a sign of divine presence"
·        "Pythagoreana: they could not only hear daemons, but even see them…( they were;) “not to poke the fire with a knife; not to step over a broom…not to look into mirror by light…"    The taboos listed hear strike me as odd since a number of them are taboos associated with witches ad vampires. 

Odds and Ends 

·        He mentions, ”The tree marks a sanctuary, is surrounded by a sacral enclosure and is sacred; but when a procession approaches the tree the anthropomorphic goddess is enthroned beneath it.”  “The Acropolis…the enclosed olive tree in the precinct of the Dew Goddess”.  I am reminded that this is an archetypal image, like the High Priestess in the Rider-Waite tarot deck or Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3.6)
·        Speaking of Artemis of Ephesus, he mentions “A society of men, set apart for a year and bound to sexual abstinence…they are called essenes.”  This sounds oddly like the Essene on the shores of the Dead Sea, but clearly couldn’t be.
·        “It is open to question whether the early Greeks ever had a chance to see a live lion.”  A quick Google search came up an unreferenced date of  100 A.D. for the last lion in Greece.
·        “On Mt Ida near Troy cornel-cherry trees growing in the grove of Apollo were cut down by the Greeks to make the Wooden Horse.”
·        “Birth, choes (the jug you drink wine from the first time), ephebia and marriage  these were the milestones in life.  An infant who had died had a little choes jug placed in its grave to make up for what it had missed.”  I went to see a performance of Antigone recently and in the final act I was probably the only person in the audience who understood why the title character wore a wedding dress.  

Walter Burkert built a wonderful review here of gods, heroes and men.  The book is well researched and beautifully written.  Whatever your particular interest in Greek Religion you will find it here in clear prose, moving poetry and interesting bits of knowledge.


  1. In fact, burying unmarried women in wedding-type dresses is found in different cultures.

  2. Maya, If you can name those other cultures, you might have a great article for your blog. I'd be particular interested in they indo-european folk. Hmm, I will look around, I might have notes and articles on the topic of the Unwed Dead.

  3. This is well-known in my country (Bulgaria). E.g.:
    "Dead unmarried young men and women are dressed as for wedding." (source in Bulgarian).
    "Evidence exists that in the village, unmarried young women have been buried in wedding dresses. However, today this custom is not kept and when such a tragedy occurs, they are usually buried in light-colour dresses." (source in Bulgarian).
    Our culture has never been isolated, so I expect similar rituals to have existed throughout Europe at some moment. I tried a Google search in English and I found that in a book by Bremmer & Van Der Bosch, "Between Poverty and the Pyre: Moments in the History of Widowhood", there is such a sentence:
    "Sometimes young single women were buried as brides, cf. G.Kligman, The Wedding of the Dead: Ritual, Poetics and Popular Culture in Transylvania..."
    There is a joke well known in Bulgaria, though I doubt it is originally Bulgarian, because it pre-dates the spread of funeral agencies in the country. An old unmarried lady discusses her funeral with an undertaker. He asks her, "With what cloth do you wish to cover the inside of the coffin?" She asks what the custom is. He answers, "Usually violet is used for married women and white for unmarried ones." She replies, "Use white cloth but decorate it with several violet pieces, lest people think that nobody has ever paid attention to me." The white cloth is of course an allusion to the wedding dress.

    1. Maya,

      Great stuff here. Thanks for the research.