Review of Walter Burkert “Homo necans”

Review of Walter Burkert
Homo necans.
  Interpretationen altgriechischer Opferriten und Mythen.
Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, 32.
Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1972. Pp. xii, 356. DM 88.
First published in Classical World  67.5 (March 1974) : 294-5.
[Republished here by permission of the editor of Classical World].

In this book Burkert boldly enters a field beset by scholarly controversy, conflicting evidence and vested interests. His caution is manifested in the massive documentation from both primary and secondary sources; his generally balanced approach is appropriately reflected in the categorical refusal to discover some true dogma in the Eleusinian mysteries: the evidence is simply too confusing and conflicting.

The book’s name, Homo necans, addresses itself to Burkert’s basic thesis, in the formulation of which ethnology, psychology, sociology and anthropology vie for the starring role. In essence, Burkert argues, it is the prehistoric hunter-tribe which establishes what becomes a pattern for many myths and, especially, religious rituals and festivals. In the act of providing life through death, the hunter must kill his quarry; but in order to insure the survival of food (hunted animals) for the future and also to affirm his close dependence on and similarity to the hunted animal, the hunter feels compelled to offer a sacrifice (renewal). The growth of male hunting associations is seen in time to lead to the establishment of the fundamental sequence of hunt-sacrifice-ritual.

In myths and religious phenomena this sequence will have undergone transmutations (sometimes severely so), but still be discernible in outline. Burkert’s assumption here is that earliest man was a hunter for some 40,000 years before he turned to agriculture 10,000 years ago. The point is thoroughly documented (necessarily, as it is basic to his entire argument) from ethnography. The pattern was thus established very early in man’s history, and antedates by many millennia the commonly accepted agricultural origins (Frazer et al.) of much of Greek myth and religious ritual. It is precisely this point that I find the most original and novel contribution of Burkert’s study, although he openly admits that others have alluded to the matter before he did (pages 20ff.).

Roughly a fourth of the book (pp. 1-96) is used to establish the thesis; the remainder is application to specific myths and religious festivals. Here a reviewer can only be grossly selective.

The story of Polyphemus and Odysseus, for example, as told in both verse and painting, is seen to display a “ritual structure” in the hero’s escape from the cannibalistic monster by clinging to the belly of a ram (identification of man with animal) which is subsequently sacrificed. The blinding of Polyphemus is a vestige of the use of man’s earliest weapon, the fire-hardened spear, and it is only through the death of the animal with which the hero identifies himself that he can be assured the continuation of life. This particular analysis, although interesting, is not wholly convincing.

More lucid is the analysis of the Eleusinian complex, in which animal sacrifice is a central part of Demeter’s mysteries. The theme of nourishing, of death and of survival, though now applied to the agricultural sphere, is seen as having its origin in the pre-agricultural hunter-society and its ritual sacrifice of an animal.

This review cannot do justice to Burkert’s thorough and, at times, exciting presentation; but I hope it will encourage the reader to explore on his own. Excellent indices (cult locales and festivals, divine and heroic names, name and subject index, and Greek words) greatly enhance the book’s usefulness.

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One Response to Review of Walter Burkert “Homo necans”

  1. Yet another review that leaves me wanting to read the book.

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