Themis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion by Jane Ellen Harrison.

In Harrison’s first major work on ancient Greek religion (Prolegomena), she innovated by applying archaeological data to support her conviction that Homer and the great tragedians gave only a very partial view of the religious life that they purported to reference. She explored a chthonian, matrifocal, and magical stratum prior to, shadowing, and outlasting the Olympian cults. In the later Themis, she is concerned more precisely with questions of genealogy and development. She has embraced Emile Durkheim’s ideas about the primacy of the social, to good effect. She traces several developmental arcs by which the reified forms of magical power (mana in the anthropological argot of her day) become individualized from ambient sanctities of natural forces and generic daimons of generative power into the persons of heroes and “high” Olympian gods. Her contempt for the latter is unconcealed; she finds them sterile, too removed from the vital numen which originates in communal feeling and pre-individual social impulses.

There is some curious irony in her judgment that the “first and foremost among the services Olympianism rendered to Greece” was to “purge … [the] exclusively phallic” components from religion, claiming that such features are “an obvious source of danger and disease” in civilized settings where human culture centers on human activity rather than the rhythms of non-human nature. (460) This passage late in the book is the one in which she most clearly calls out the phallic elements that have been implicit in the daimon concept throughout her account of it. Hers is not a simply phallic theory of religious origins, however. With the reverence for the generative powers in her daimon concept, she mixes a gradually maturing sense of the cosmos, in a sequence that invariably progresses from plants and soil, to storms and weather, to the moon, and then to the sun. (390) (Qabalists will note a symbolic progression up the middle pillar, from Malkuth, through Yesod, to Tiphareth.)

The framing conceit of Themis is that it is simply an effort to explicate a ritual hymn in honor of the birth of Zeus. In the course of the book, however, the hymn is often far over the horizon, while the author expounds one or another feature of ancient Greek religion. At the book’s end, she returns to the hymn, which itself ends with the imperative to “leap … for goodly Themis.” According to Harrison, Themis is a representation of human culture, “collective conscience, social sanction,” and thus “the substratum of each and every god.” (485)

The volume includes contributions from two of Harrison’s peers among the Cambridge Ritualists, an early 20th century circle of classical scholars of whom Harrison–on the evidence of this volume at least–is certainly the most engaging. Gilbert Murray provides a very interesting analysis of the ritual infrastructure of Greek tragedy, illustrated a little too exhaustively with examples that presume the reader’s familiarity with the works being related to the pattern. F.M. Cornford’s chapter on the ritual genealogy of the ancient Olympic games depends on the reader to appreciate a rather generous amount of untranslated Greek. This is a tendency that Harrison herself tends to keep to her footnotes, although she does feel the need to finish the entire book with an untranslated Greek sentence. It should be remarked that this book is clearly the product of a scholarly culture, barely even addressed to the intelligent layman, despite the general interest of its topic. Harrison freely quotes Nietzsche in German and Durkheim in French, without feeling any obligation to assist the reader. (I could manage the former but not the latter.)

Harrison is refreshingly honest about her own religious perspective, in a field where a pretense of clinical detachment was par for the course. “[P]rofoundly as I also feel the value of the religious impulse, so keenly do I feel the danger and almost necessary disaster of each and every creed and dogma,” she writes in her introduction. “As for religious ritual, we may by degrees find forms that are free from intellectual error.” (xxiii) I certainly concur on both counts. As far as her theories of religious evolution are concerned, she sees magic as a necessary prerequisite for religion (215-216), and theology as a non-essential “phase” of religious articulation. (488) The first was a sentiment common to those who, like Harrison, saw themselves in sympathy to the work of J.G. Frazer. But the second was an uncommonly insightful and provocative position for a book published in 1912. [via]