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Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Mythos: The Princeton/Bollingen Series in World Mythology) Paperback – 5 Jun 1991


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Product details

  • Paperback: 718 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; New Ed edition (5 Jun. 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691015147
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691015149
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 4.6 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 932,289 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Book Description

Jane Ellen Harrison (1850–1928) was a pioneer in the academic study of myth. Using the then emerging disciplines of anthropology and ethnology, she demonstrates in this book (from 1903) that the mythological tales of the Greeks embody systems of belief which are widespread among societies both 'primitive' and 'advanced'. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From the Back Cover

"Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion is a book that breathes life. It is an exciting, deeply felt intellectual quest, with a broad view of the role of religion in life, ancient and modern. Harrison is not afraid to look for relevance in archaic cult, and doesn't flinch on finding it. From a study of Greek anthropomorphism, she can conclude, like a seeress looking beyond the early twentieth century: 'to be human is not necessarily to be humane.'"--Richard Martin, Princeton University


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IN characterizing the genius of the Greeks Mr Ruskin says: 'there is no dread in their hearts; pensiveness, amazement, often deepest grief and desolation, but terror never. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Luc REYNAERT TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 20 Oct. 2005
Format: Hardcover
Although partly out-of-date, Jane Harrison's analysis of 'neglected' aspects of Greek religion proves these aspects to be 'essential'. By dissecting rites, ceremonies, festivities and mysteries, she exposes the real obsessions of the Ancient Greek (Plato included). Instead of being 'possessed by a set of conceptions based on Periclean Athens', she shows astonishingly that Ancient Greece was still a totally irrational, savage and primitive society, dominated by ignorance and fear. Her picture is far more gloomy than the rosy one drawn by other scholars, who imposed their own language on ancient societies ('We should not monotheize').
In Ancient Greece, there was no 'civil' law. Law was essentially magic and in the first place a curse. People thought that they could injure their enemies by curse tablets, swathed figures ... In Plato's 'Laws', people who injured other citizens by magic had to die.
Ignorance and fear concerning the souls of the death, sprites, ghosts and demons were a fertile ground for theology (better: demonology). Evil spirits reflected the population's own savage, cruel and irrational passions and relations. (Porphyry: 'No Greek sacrifice of a camel or an elephant').
The Greek believed that evil was a physical infection that could be transferred on animals and human beings. The latter could be sacrificed in order to purify the rest of the population. One is astonished to learn that human sacrifices still took place in the 5th century BC. 'Pharmakoi' were kept and fed at the public expense in order to be slaughtered in rites of Aversion (riddance of evil spirits).
Winds were believed to be ghosts who had to be placated by sacrifices. The latter (humans were better than animals) took also place for mandic reasons.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 17 April 1998
Format: Paperback
This is no easy reading, and it is not for people totally without basic knowledge. Harrison, a great scholar who wrote in the 20s, won't tell you who Athena is- you should have a basic idea in order to enjoy the complex stories about her and all the Olympian deities! We didn't get the background told at school, only the stage when belief in the Gods was actually dead, preserved only as a cultural phenomenon. Harrison will tell you about the time when belief was ALIVE. If you want to know about the ceremonies, the secret rites, the hidden names, the shift of power from goddess to god... and in all this in a factual, reliable manner- then this is the book you should read!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Miketang on 28 Nov. 2010
Format: Paperback
Seminal study of this field. Absolutely brilliant and a difficult but rewarding read. That said, the Amazon introduction is hardly helpful. I thought I knew Greek, but the product summary is a whole new language to me:-)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 9 reviews
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
A Fascinating Classic 3 Mar. 2003
By Mark Cooper - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Although published in the early 1900s and outdated in certain areas, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion is still an essential read for anyone interested in Greek Religion. Perhaps the best description of the book would be to call it the Greek Golden Bough.
In this classic work, Harrison sought to uncover the primitive substratum of Greek religion, so rather than focusing on the
Olympian deities, she spends the better part of the book discussing ghosts, 'demons', and the chthonic deities. The religious landscape that she illuminates is therefore nothing like the cheery and rational world of the Olympians. The dark, the creepy and the uncanny tend to predominate.
The book is very well-written, and the author's fascination with her material is infectious. I found it so powerful a reading experience that I can only describe Prolegomena in terms of a kind of anthropological prose poetry. Although its ostensible topic is a rather specialized and obscure field of enquiry, one comes away from the book with a feeling of having gained a deeper insight into that most general of topics, the human condition.
I have to agree with the other reviewer who emphasizes that this is not a book for those completely unfamiliar with ancient Greek religion. Moreover, parts of it might be frustrating and tedious for readers without knowledge of the ancient Greek language, since Harrison is constantly engaged in the elucidiation and discussion of Greek religious terminology.
All in all, an unforgettable book that, unlike most academic studies, is a piece of great literature.
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
A massive, awe-inspiring and indispensable book. 10 Dec. 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Indispensable, for anyone interested in archaic rite, comparative religion, or ancient Greek culture.
Reading and studying Jane Harrison's Prolegomena was such a pleasure. Her brilliance and wide knowledge shines on every page! Even today (Professor Harrison died of leukemia in 1928) modern scholars and intellectuals such as Walter Burkert and Camille Paglia continue to draw on her magnificent work. There are particular passages -- on ecstasy and asceticism, for example -- of such beauty that they seem to transcend scholarship and border on the divine. Her work is so thorough one begins to understand the weight of a great and complex society which myth itself only brushes. Her other works, including Themis and the dazzlingly concise Epilogemena also enlighten and inspire, but Prolegomena is the place to start.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
"Behind their bright splendours I see moving darker and older shapes." 1 Mar. 2006
By Snowbrocade - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Jane Ellen Harrison was a ground breaking scholar in the field of mythology--she was one of a group of what was called the "Cambridge Ritualists" who believed that contrary to prior belief that myths arose from rituals rather than rituals from myths.

Her primary thesis in Prolegomena is that the religion of the Greeks and Romans has been only selectively reported in order to support a vision of rational, highly civilized people as the progenitors of western thought. Scholarship of the 19th century was founded on the notion that "the integrity of Western Civilization depends upon the exceptionality of the Greeks" (p. xx). This vision was developed by the Romantic movement to support a superior intellectual foundation to western civilization that emerged from the Greek and Romans.

Harrison argues that in fulfilling this desire to have exalted ancestors, the true religion of the Greeks has been overlooked. Her scholarship is focused on what has not been noticed-her conclusion is that the Olympian gods of Homer are the final product of centuries of evolution from a more primitive collection of chthonic deities or forces.

Harrison is more interested in the earlier forms of religion--the underworld beings that were placated to prevent evil. She is a master at examining greek texts and art to delineate these ancient deities. As Harrison says: "Great things in literature, Greek plays for example, I most enjoy when behind their bright splendours I see moving darker and older shapes"

This book can be utilized as a reference to understand certain Greek myths more easily--or read it straight through to get a more thorough understanding of the world of Greek mysticism!!
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Excellent Detailed Information 16 Sept. 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was searching for an answer to the mystery that was in the Greek Mysteries. Harrison provides the answers. Prolegomena provides a very detailed account of the Mysteries that are rooted in worship of the the Chthonic (Earth) Gods that preceded the Olympian deities. The reading level of this book is probably the most difficult I have ever experienced in a book that I am reading purely for pleasure. You must have a burning interest in the field of ancient Greek religion to be able to appreciate this book for the great work it is.
Jaime Gomez
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Man makes the gods in his own image 8 Aug. 2005
By Luc REYNAERT - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Although partly out-of-date, Jane Harrison's analysis of 'neglected' aspects of Greek religion proves these aspects to be 'essential'. By dissecting rites, ceremonies, festivities and mysteries, she exposes the real obsessions of the Ancient Greek (Plato included). Instead of being 'possessed by a set of conceptions based on Periclean Athens', she shows astonishingly that Ancient Greece was still a totally irrational, savage and primitive society, dominated by ignorance and fear. Her picture is far more gloomy than the rosy one drawn by other scholars, who imposed their own language on ancient societies ('We should not monotheize').

In Ancient Greece, there was no 'civil' law. Law was essentially magic and in the first place a curse. People thought that they could injure their enemies by curse tablets, swathed figures ... In Plato's 'Laws', people who injured other citizens by magic had to die.

Ignorance and fear concerning the souls of the death, sprites, ghosts and demons were a fertile ground for theology (better: demonology). Evil spirits reflected the population's own savage, cruel and irrational passions and relations. (Porphyry: 'No Greek sacrifice of a camel or an elephant').
The Greek believed that evil was a physical infection that could be transferred on animals and human beings. The latter could be sacrificed in order to purify the rest of the population. One is astonished to learn that human sacrifices still took place in the 5th century BC. 'Pharmakoi' were kept and fed at the public expense in order to be slaughtered in rites of Aversion (riddance of evil spirits).
Winds were believed to be ghosts who had to be placated by sacrifices. The latter (humans were better than animals) took also place for mandic reasons.

In Greek theology, there were 'no gods at all', only conceptions of the human mind. Theology's formulary was 'panta rei'.
New gods developed out of heroes or crystallized out of a gentler form of ghost or were imported from other regions. One of the new gods was Dionysos coming from Thrace. He was the god of all growing things and of physical intoxication. His double was the god of spiritual intoxication: Orpheus (Orphism). The latter Mystery had a profound influence on Plato and his theory of the immortality of the soul (essentialism).

The author's analysis of the Eleusian Mysteries and Orphism are interesting but partly out-of-date, because new sources of information were discovered after the publication of her book.
For Eleusis I recommend G. Meautis's 'The Mysteries of Eleusis', and for Orphism, W. Guthrie's 'Orpheus and Greek Religion'.

This book contains excellent graphic material, which is magisterially analyzed by the author.
Harrison's book is still a must for all those interested in Ancient Greece. It is the work of a superb free mind.
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