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Walter Burkert


Tracks of Biology in Early Religions

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Religion is puzzling in many ways, not least in its persistence for so long in spite of many attempts by rationalists to dispel belief in it. Burkert seeks to explain this by looking for its biological foundations. He does this by examining the forms that religion has taken in many ancient civilisations, claiming—I think justly—that distance in time allows us to discern the essentials more easily than when we are swayed by the 'tensions and anxieties encircling living religions'.

The first chapter looks at various attempts to account for religion. Burkert's programme might seem to have something in common with sociobiology, so he includes a description of this approach. He doesn't think it can be sustained in its 'strong' form in the case of religion, because the important developments occurred so long in the past that we cannot know anything about them. This chapter is rather diffuse and the tone is somewhat dry and academic. It would be possible to be put off the book at this point, which would be a pity because the remaining chapters have a lot to offer.

In Chapter Two we encounter a number of strange rituals connected with sacrifice. Removal of one or more fingers probably goes back to the Upper Palaeolithic but continued to be practised in classical times and even later. There were various motives for it but it was commonly done to placate a deity—the part for the whole. It was surprisingly widespread throughout the world. As time went by the gods began to accept a ring instead of a finger, which made matters much better for the worshippers. A rather similar sequence can he seen in the transition from ritual castration to circumcision. and again in the substitution of animal sacrifice for human sacrifice.

Chapter Three is about narrative, which is central to much religion and mythology. One of the most important motifs is the quest theme, in which a hero sets forth on a journey to achieve an end, encounters dangers on the way, but finally returns home in triumph. Burkert finds that this is a basic biological theme: a rat goes out to look for food, runs various dangers on the way from predators and competitors, and takes the biscuit back to his lair. Another major mythological theme is the female initiation story of the transition from maidenhood through seduction or rape to motherhood.

Hierarchy, rank, and submission signals are important in many religions. Rituals of submission are found in many animals that live in herds or packs and prostrating oneself, kneeling, or bowing the head can be seen as the same thing in religion; worshippers are expected to abase themselves before God (and often before God's representative on earth, the priest or bishop). This is the subject of Chapter Four.

Chapter 5 is about guilt and religious methods of expiation to appease divinities, especially in connection with disease and misfortune. Burkert is a classicist: he disagrees with the well-known view of an earlier classicist, E.R. Dodds, who distinguished guilt cultures from shame cultures and thought there had been a development in ancient Greece from shame to guilt. Burkert thinks that there is no real evidence of such a transition and that both can be found at all times in many different cultures, not just that of ancient Greece. Such attitudes are not primitive but arise from an 'excessive elaboration of the principle of causality'.

Chapter 6 examines giving and reciprocity. These figure in many animal societies as well as the human society and they also appear in religion. Sacrifice appears again here, and so does the practice of pouring wine on the floor as a libation. The gods, of course, are supposed to give something in return—by granting the wish of the person making the sacrifice as a rule.

Chapter Seven looks at the use of signs and signals. Once again, these are used widely by animals—territory-marking and dominance displays, for example. At the human level the fundamental method of communicating is language. Burkert gives several pages to a discussion of oath-taking, which is backed up in many cultures, including our own, by the idea that the deity will be displeased if people swear falsely and will punish offenders. Another widespread idea is the use of ordeals by fire or water to test the truth of sworn allegations.

The book is cast in a fairly academic form and is not exactly light reading, but there is a lot of interesting information in it and Burkert does an impressive job in bringing together the views of so many cultures in a biological context.

%T Creation of the Sacred
%S Tracks of Biology in Early Religions
%A Burkert, Walter
%I Harvard University Press
%C Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England
%D 1996
%G ISBN 0-674-17569-7
%P xii + 255pp
%K religion

15 March 2009

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