• Silvio Bär

Reviewing the Classics II: Walter Burkert, Homo Necans

Man is a killer. This simple, but decisive insight constituted the starting point of a book which was published in 1972 and which was going to make its author the leading historian of ancient religion in the twentieth century: Walter Burkert (1931–2015), former Professor of Classics at the University of Zurich (Switzerland), claimed that homo sapiens became “killing man” – homo necans – when he became a hunter, and that ancient Greek sacrificial rituals and myths show traits of this pre-civilization state all over the place. Therefore, Greek rites and myths can (and should) be interpreted and explained in light of anthropology and evolutionary biology. Homo Necans is arguably one of the most stimulating pieces of scholarly writing that have ever been produced – and reading it almost fifty years after its first publication, while humanity is put to the test in view of a global health crisis, is illuminating and thought-provoking.

The main hypothesis of Burkert’s book can be summarized, roughly, as follows: at some point in the history of mankind, palaeolithic man invented killing at a distance, and thus man became a hunter. The ability to hunt, kill and eat animals – an option that had been out of reach before – did not only give our ancestors a great evolutionary upswing (because the consumption of meat, especially cooked meat, made their brains grow), but it also turned them into predators (predators with bow and arrow, that is to say). That way, man became a “hunting ape”, and thus “we can understand man’s terrifying violence as deriving from the behavior of the predatory animal, whose characteristics he came to acquire in the course of becoming man” (p. 17 [quotes are taken from the English translation from 1983]).

However, the new hunting skills bore great risks: “the wooden spear and wedge provided man with weapons more dangerous than his instincts could cope with”, and hence the male hunters had to be “educated to suppress these inhibitions for the sake of the hunt” (p. 18). Consequently, “killing man” turned his (latent) intra-species aggression towards his prey: “in place of a biologically fixed relationship of beast and quarry, something curious occurred: the quarry became a quasi-human adversary, experienced as human and treated accordingly” (p. 20). And it is this early identification of the prey with a quasi-human being, the treatment of the chased animal as a human-like equivalent, that triggered the development of what eventually became sacrificial rituals.

Sacrificial rituals are, ultimately, the result of a form of “collective aggression”; this “collective aggression”, in turn – stemming from the age-old evolutionary developments as outlined above – creates “a sense of community” (p. 35). According to Burkert, then, it is not only sacrificial rituals that can be explained along those lines; as a matter of fact, all forms of collective aggression can be regarded as variations of one and the same pattern. Funerary rituals are, in essence, just the other side of the same coin (“dead men and dead animals are treated alike: both rituals basically deal with death”, p. 49); myths constitute the narrative implementation (or sublimation) of ritualistic performance; death penalty is a distorted form of human sacrifice; and military expeditions (viz., war) are ‘hunting expeditions’, commissioned by the government and implemented through the collective aggression of those performing the action. “For the ancient world, hunting, sacrifice, and war were symbolically interchangeable” (p. 47).

Consequently, Greek myths about human sacrifice – such as that of Iphigenia who must be killed in retaliation for her father having killed one of Artemis’ sacred deer – do not need to be interpreted as memories of grim prehistoric times when humans really killed their own kind in order to appease the gods. Rather, a myth like that of Iphigenia illustrates the interchangeability of man and animal in the sense that the hunters used to treat their prey as their equal. And indeed, according to some versions of the Iphigenia myth, Artemis replaces the girl with a deer at the last moment and instead takes her to Tauris, where she henceforth serves as a priestess at the temple of Artemis.

One scholar whose work had a great influence on Burkert’s thinking was the Swiss classicist and ethnologist Karl Meuli (1891–1968). To Meuli, Burkert owed the insight that hunt should be regarded as the key to understanding sacrifice. In an epoch-making study on Greek sacrificial rites from 1946, Meuli described and analysed the hunting rites of Sibirian people and compared those insights with descriptions of sacrificial rituals in Ancient Greek texts. Thus, he developed his theory about the sense of guilt of the hunter: the hunter attempts to dampen his guilt he feels towards the killed animal by rituals such as the collection and careful arrangement of the bones in order to facilitate the later resurrection of the animal. Such behaviour, in turn, entails the idea of the killed animal as a quasi-human being, as an equal. (The custom of hunters in continental Europe to put a little branch of a tree – the so-called “last bite” – into the mouth of the killed deer is just a variation of the same idea.)

The other towering figure whose theories influenced Burkert significantly was the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz (1903–1989). In his book On Aggression from 1963 (German original: Das sogenannte Böse: Zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression), Lorenz developed the theory of intra-species aggression. According to Lorenz, all forms of authority and control in human societies are ultimately based on institutionalized violence – and this institutionalized violence is grounded in evolution. Consequently, collective aggression leads to a sense of community. Aggression can be used as a form of demonstrating community – like in the famous example of a pair of grayleg geese whose ‘gaggle of triumph’ (“Triumphgeschnatter”) does not serve to chase off an enemy, but to reinforce and reconfirm a sense of community. Likewise, according to Burkert, sacrificial rituals are forms of intra-species aggression diverted towards an exterior ‘prey’, and the collective execution of the ritual reinforces and reconfirms the sense of community of those exercising the ritual.

When Homo Necans was published, the synthesis of theories and approaches from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, ethnology, sociology, psychology, biology, and ethology – combined with a rigorous philological method and an equally rigorous source criticism – was unprecedented (and much of it still appears strikingly modern today). This may be the reason as to why Homo Necans was hardly taken notice of at the time of its first publication in 1972 (no reviews appeared in Gnomon and The Classical Review, the two most important review journals in Classics). It was only when the English translation was published in 1983 that it began to acquire its fame. In the preface to this edition, Burkert rightly noted that the theories as presented in his original publication from 1972 “could claim to be revolutionary in various respects” (p. xiii) – but he was most certainly wrong when he predicted on the same page that “what was originally novel and daring may […] soon appear antiquated”.

On the contrary – in 1997, the German original was reprinted with an afterword where Burkert discussed some of his most “revolutionary” and “daring” hypotheses afresh. Reading this afterword with the distance of another two and a half decades is at least as illuminating and thought-provoking as reading Homo Necans itself. First, Burkert acknowledged the fact that some disciplines such as genetics and behaviour science had made so much progress that an entirely new book would need to be written, whereas other fields and approaches came to be regarded as problematic for political reasons (most prominently because of Konrad Lorenz’ past under the Nazi regime). Secondly, Burkert took a criticial stance towards several of his own views: for example, he no longer believed that funerary rituals necessarily had to be regarded as developments from hunting rituals; “maybe they are older than hunting rituals, in any case they can be understood independently” (p. 342 [my translation]). Thirdly, he saw his own hypotheses with a fresh pair of eyes in the mid-late 1990s, and he optimistically stated that “ritualistic and solemn killing appears to be impossible in our culture; public executions, which always looked a bit like human sacrifices, no longer exist” (p. 339 [my translation]).

Homo Necans had originally been written when World War II was still considerably closer than it is today, when the Vietnam War was a sad reality, and when the Cold War presented a real threat. Burkert’s afterword, in turn, was written a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War – in a political climate where universal peace eventually seemed to be within reach. Now, in 2020, we live in a world where such a goal appears to have become much less attainable again. Examples of collective aggression are legion – in all parts of the world, on all sides of the political spectrum. Through the global rise of the internet, collective aggression has taken a completely new and unprecedented upswing, ranging from phenomena like cyberbullying in social media to the world-wide dissemination of the atrocities committed by members of the so-called, self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (and the latter brutally proves Burkert’s point about the abolishment of public executions wrong too). Right now, the ongoing conflict between the US and China augurs new forms of collective aggression – while at the same time, new and unexpected forms of solidarity (perhaps also new forms of “sense of community”) have arisen in the context of the current global health crisis. It would be interesting to see how Burkert might re-evaluate his theories anno currente.

Walter Burkert was undoubtedly one of the most highly respected Classics scholars in the twentieth century. A little anecdote may illustrate this: in 1999, the British historian of ancient religion Robert Parker published a short note in the review journal Gnomon, apologizing for a remark he had made elsewhere about the lack of a review on Burkert’s second edition of Homo Necans in Gnomon. It is stated in this note that despite “energetic attempts to secure a review” of the work, as many as five scholars had declined the offer because they felt they “did not possess the necessary learning”. (At great last yet another “eminent scholar” then agreed to review the book, but ultimately “failed to deliver [it]”.) I hope that my ‘review’ will not be misunderstood as a form of hubris. On the contrary – it is meant to affirm my deepest respect for a distinguished scholar whose work must not be forgotten, but should be read – and reread – because there is a great deal to learn from it, again and again.

References (print):

  • Burkert, Walter. 1972. Homo Necans: Interpretationen altgriechischer Opferriten und Mythen. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter (2nd ed. 1997 with a new afterword).

  • Burkert, Walter. 1983. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Translated by Peter Bing. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

  • Lorenz, Konrad. 1963. Das sogenannte Böse: Zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression. Wien: Borotha-Schoeler.

  • Meuli, Karl. 1946. “Griechische Opferbräuche.” In: Olof Gigon et al. (ed.), Phyllobolia: Für Peter von der Mühll zum 60. Geburtstag am 1. August 1945. Basel: Schwabe, 185–288.

  • Parker, Robert. 1999. “Apology.” Gnomon 71: 383.

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Sacrifice of a pig, a sheep and a bull (so-called suovetaurilia) to the Roman war-god Mars. Relief from the panel of a marble sarcophagus, first half of the first century B.C., now in the Louvre, Paris. Picture from Wikipedia (public domain).

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