Walter Burkert may be the world’s leading authority on the religion of the ancient Greeks. Like several predecessors in the field—notably Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Otto—Burkert writes almost as an enthusiast. In a series of important works, he has paid the Greeks the very high courtesy of taking them seriously.
Burkert is a sort of high church sacramentalist on the subject. At the heart of his vision is the blood sacrifice, that primitive act of ritualized violence which—he believes—lies at the origin of human civilization. While some conservatives speak warmly of the Eisenhower years, and there are even a few reactionaries willing to defend the Hapsburg Empire or the antebellum South, in defending the customs of paleolithic man Burkert may be the greatest reactionary of our time.
Greek Religion, a translation of a German work published in 1977, is—by its very nature—less brilliant and controversial than most of his books; it is meant as a one-volume introduction to religion of the classical period. It is, nonetheless, a remarkable synthesis of scholarship studded with the author’s characteristic insights. For him, the sacrificial ritual is the Greek experience of metaphysical equality:
This is not an exchange of gifts celebrated by a hierarchical society of gods, kings, priests, and commoners: together on the same level, men and women stand here about the altar, experience and bring death, honor the immortals, and in eating affirm life in its conditionality: it is the solidarity of mortals in the face of immortals.
No one who wants to appreciate the meaning of the Greek contribution to our own civilization can afford to neglect their religion, and no one who wants to understand Greek religion can afford to ignore Walter Burkert.
[Greek Religion, by Walter Burkert; Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA]