Walter Burkert

1990 Balzan Prize for the Study of the Ancient World (Mediterranean Area)

Walter Burkert is the most eminent of today’s scholars who work in the field of ancient religion. In a series of remarkable books, he has combined originality with a mastery of all the relevant categories of evidence, from Near Eastern archaeology to the Greek philosophical tradition, and he has demonstrated a profound understanding of the anthropological, ethological, and psychological aspects of religion.

It has long been recognised that investigation of Greek religion demands not only a mastery of all aspects of Classical studies, including literature, archaeology, art and philosophy, but also an understanding of anthropology and a sound acquaintance with the religions of Egypt and the Near East. Professor Burkert has demonstrated, in a series of books of enduring importance, his command of the relevant learning and techniques and also his originality and his readiness to pursue trains of thought suggested by other disciplines.

In his first major work, Weisheit und Wissenschaft. Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaos und Platon, he disentangled the mass of tradition which has accumulated around the name of Pythagoras, distinguishing between the dogmatic and aphoristic doctrines for which Pythagoras claimed supernatural authority and the mathematical and scientific investigations of the later Pythagoreans. In Homo Necans, a study of the history of sacrifice, and an attempt to explain the significance of ritualized collective bloodshed, he went far beyond the conventionally accepted limits of the ancient world, drew upon the evidence afforded by neolithic and palaeolithic cultures, and exploited to good effect some ideas suggested by observation of the behaviour of social mammals in general. His arguments in that book were an important prelude to Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, which includes a penetrating critique of schematic and simplistic approaches to mythology, establishes the relation between myth and ritual, and insists throughout on the historical dimension. The book was the product of the Sather Lectures which he was invited to deliver at the University of California, and in the same year as those lectures there appeared Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche, in which his erudition, clarity of exposition and sense of proportion are all conspicuous; it immediately became the standard work on the subject.

Having extended the diachronic dimension of the study of religion, he effected a similar synchronic extension in Die orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Religion und Literatur, showing that what has long been known as the “orientalizing period” in Greek art was only one aspect of a widespread absorption of Asiatic cultural and religious influences. Most recently, in Ancient Mystery Cults, he has demonstrated his ability to transcend the antiquarianism so often associated with the study of ancient cults and to comprehend the intensity of religious experience and its significance to the citizen of an ancient state. To sum up, no one else has made an overall contribution of comparable scale and importance to our understanding of ancient religion.

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