Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer, David A. Warburton (ed.), The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe. European history of religions. Durham; Bristol, CT: Acumen, 2013. Pp. xiii, 456. ISBN 9781844657094. $140.00.

Reviewed by Christoph Auffarth, University of Bremen (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This first volume of a handbook aims at a comprehensive description of a "European history of religions"; however, the chosen phrasing is "religions in Europe" in antiquity. As a European history of religion the handbook represents a new endeavor; concerning religions in ancient Europe there are forerunners worth to be mentioned (but, as it seems, unknown to the editors): namely Carl Clemen (1926)1 and Franz Mone (1821/22).2 Other monographs should also be mentioned, which tackle the issues in a more systematic way.3 The new handbook comprises 28 chapters, beginning with (1) the introduction of the editors, followed by 10 chapters concerning prehistoric religions on 83 pages, and then 16 chapters on the religions in historic times on ca. 300 pages.

Every chapter is clearly structured, comprising on the one hand succinct descriptions of the historical phenomena in partly chronological, partly systematic order, and in the other sections on debates and discussion. The chapters conclude with some notes and a bibliography of suggested reading. Therefore I would call it a companion rather than a handbook. 30 pages of a bibliography (423-453), a systematic index on 3 pages and a chronological time line round off the volume. Some of the chapters are well illustrated and include e.g. maps, others do not provide any visual illustrations. The binding is not of the best quality.

The different titles of the series and the first volume raise a dilemma and point to an ongoing debate concerning the crucial question: Do we need a history of religions in Europe, side by side with one on religions in Africa etc.? Or is the task of a European history of religions to explain a specific evolution of religion which is a proprium of Europe and which occurs nowhere else? If the latter is the case: when did this singular development begin: in the Renaissance and in Early Modern times, or earlier – in Late antiquity or the Middle Ages?4

The concept of European religion characterized by alternative religious and value options coexisting side by side in the same space and time, that is, a form of religion which cannot be simply equated with the history of Christianity in Europe, was outlined by Burkhard Gladigow in 1995.5 Referring to Max Weber's theory of a unique development of religion in the Occident6 the handbook Europäische Religionsgeschichte in 2009 [ERG]7 discusses and describes diachronically in a systematic and comparative way concepts, structures, continuities, and reformations or secularisations. The price to pay for that is a focus on Western European perspectives. In contrast to this endeavor, the handbook under review outlines a material history of the religious cultures of all regions of Europe prior to the Middle Ages, going back as far as the prehistoric period.

The choice of 'Europe' as the object of enquiry poses a problem: can we speak of Europe as a unitary whole before it was conceptualized as a mental map in the Middles Ages?8 What links the subarctic region with the Iberian civilizations? And vice versa: was there a dividing line between Greece and Asia Minor? The editors do not attempt to give an answer: "The picture of religion in ancient Europe…is one of diversity and complexity" (p. 3). In antiquity, until the great divide brought about by Mohammed and Charlemagne (the Pirenne thesis) the relevant entity is the Mediterranean, which includes the southern and eastern part of what we now call Africa as well as the Near East; it is necessary to conceive of it as a typically Mediterranean history and study its longue durée.9 The editors are not aware of that as a problem, when they speak of "Europe as a bounded geographical entity"(p.4).

Let us now come to the substance of the book. A great challenge for the reconstruction of religions in prehistoric times is that the findings of archaeology cannot be combined with the interpretive discourse of the cult practitioners. Any scholarly interpretation of the findings must therefore remain to an important degree hypothetical. This leads to the next question: since when can we speak of 'religion'? Is religion an anthropological phenomenon or rather an answer to the challenge raised by sedentary communal living during the so-called neolithic revolution? (the editors prefer this solution, p. 18). Did religion evolve from ritual burial and the cult of the ancestors or rather from the observation of the movement of planets and stars?

Apart from these only two alternatives offered by the editors (p. 18) there are many other hypotheses. The reader might wonder why the editors do not take into account Walter Burkert's homo necans thesis, which links religion to the suspension of intraspecific killing, which was substituted by ritual killing of animals.10 Neither do they consider Durkheim's thesis that society represents, experiences, and celebrates itself in performance during festivals. Or theses stemming from the aesthetics of religion and positing that men attempt to make sense of life by fascinating beauty. Emmanuel Anati, on Palaeolithic religion, offers a bit more in Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe 36-44.

As a link between the "mute" prehistoric and the historic religions (for a good deal of them the written evidence is not earlier than the High Middle Ages), a longer chapter by David Warburton deals with Minoan und Mycenean religion (103-138). It is a succinct, problem-oriented outline: was there a goddess, were there temples? The hypothesis of a central ritual of epiphany (Marinatos and Hägg) is not discussed. His treatment of the links to the Ancient Near East and Egypt, the continuity of language, and ethnic continuity with the Greeks give a good insight into the ongoing debates. Only at the end, concerning the continuity with 'Greek' religion (230-138), Warburton falls back two generations (to Walter F. Otto), behind the topics discussed in modern study of religion-approaches such as that of Burkert or Bremmer.

Jean Turfa (139-155) presents the Etruscan religion without the—habitual—mysterious aura. She offers a lot of interesting hints to different aspects of Etruscan religion. After the description of Iberian by Marco Simón 156-172 follows the pre-Roman Italy (Guy Bradley; Fay Glinister, p. 173-191). Though Susanne William Rasmussen (192-207) does not take into account the difference between Roman religion vs. religion of the Romans ("a number of foreign cults were integrated into the official religion" p. 204), she provides an appealing description with good quotations of the ancient evidence. She avoids the history of a decline: "As far back as we can trace it, Roman religion was multi- cultural"(192). The role, however, which she assigns to religion (and explicitly not of religio Romana) in the process of (self-)Romanization in the Roman Empire, does not correspond to the state of the art.11

Lars Albinus (208-227) starts his article on Greek religion from the unity of Greek language and the myths of the Homeric epics, which in his view constituted the beginning of Greek religion: unity, not diversity, which assimilated "Greek religions" by means of unifying dynamics such as the Panhellenic games.12 The marginal, elusive, and in many aspects rather late Orphics are assigned a prominent role before Albinus speaks about rituals (employing the much-discussed and not clear-cut difference between Olympic/chthonian) and the festivals, although these two features usually form the guiding thread of the study of Greek religion. As issues of the debate he discusses the alternatives of Indo-European structures (including the 'Greek wonder' as the birth of Europe: "The culture of Greece has always been regarded as pivotal to European self-understanding" 220) vs. the Oriental legacy of religious models like the assembly of the gods on the mountain in the North etc.

The only chapters that could be called handbook articles with full notes are the chapter by Brigitte Bøgh, 228-241, about the Graeco-Roman cult of Isis, and the outstanding chapter by Manfred Clauss, 242-262, concerning Mithras. It was a convincing editorial decision to include a chapter on religious Platonism, a short version of a monograph by the authors Kevin Corrigan und Michael Harrington (263-277). Yet the conclusion is surprising to me: "So-called Christian Platonism differs completely from its pagan sisters" (267). Here one problem of the volume becomes evident: there is neither a chapter on Judaism nor on Christianity as ancient religions.

Chapters 21-28 describe religious cultures in the periphery of Europe such as insular Celtic besides continental Germanic (Rudolf Simek, 291-304), Anglo-Saxon religion (John D. Niles, 305-323), old-Norse religion (Britt-Marie Näström,324-337), Slavic religion (Leszek Słupecki, 338-358), Baltic religion (Sigma Ankrava, 359-371), Religion in prehistoric Finland (Veikko Anttonen, 372-391) and the religion of the Sami (Håkan Rydving, 392-407).

To sum up: The first comprehensive book on the history of religions in Europe (as opposed to a Europäische Religionsgeschichte, i.e. a European history of religions or the history of European religion) turns out to be more a companion than a handbook. The conception of unity (why Europe?) is not questioned, and the question of at least common features is neither asked nor answered. Nevertheless, the individual chapters are valuable introductions to the religions all over the European continent.14


1.   CC: Religionsgeschichte Europas. Band 1. Bis zum Untergang der nichtchristlichen Religionen. 1926. Bd. 2 Die noch bestehenden Religionen. Heidelberg 1931.
2.   Friedrich Creuzer: Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, besonders der Griechen in Vorträgen und Entwürfen. 4 Bände, Leipzig; Darmstadt 1810-1812. 21818-1821. Continued by Franz Joseph Mone: Bd. 5 und 6: Geschichte des Heidenthums im nördlichen Europa. 1821-1822.
3.   See the massive volumes by Carsten Colpe on the history of religions in antiquity, which include the Near and Middle East until the Islamization under the issue of "Enthellenisierung" (De-Hellenization).
4.   With respect to the Middle Ages Christoph Auffarth: Pluralismus im Mittelalter? Münster 2007 (Aristotelism, Islam, Astrology, Antiquity as constitutive elements of the history of medieval religion). Christoph Auffarth: Die Ketzer. Katharer, Waldenser und andere Bewegungen. München 2005, 22009 (religious movements instead of the concept of hierarchy of the papal church, which never was a reality, perhaps with the exception of Innocent III.)
5.   Burkhard Gladigow: Europäische Religionsgeschichte. in: Hans G. Kippenberg; Brigitte Luchesi (Hrsg.): Lokale Religionsgeschichte. Marburg: Diagonal 1995, 21-42; see also the research report by B.G.: Europäische Religionsgeschichte der Neuzeit. In: ERG 2009, 15-37. A ‚ERG revisited' Christoph Auffarth in: Theologische Literaturzeitung 135 (2010), 755-768.
6.   Explicitly in Michael Mitterauer: Warum Europa? Die mittelalterlichen Grundlagen eines Sonderwegs. München: Beck 2003, 42004.
7.   Europäische Religionsgeschichte, ed. by Hans G. Kippenberg; Jörg Rüpke; Kocku von Stuckrad. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2009. Table of contents.
8.   Robert Bartlett: The making of Europe : conquest, colonization, and cultural change, 950-1350 , Princeton, N.J : Princeton University Press, 1993.
9.   Burkhard Gladigow: Mediterrane Religionsgeschichte, Römische Religionsgeschichte, Europäische Religionsgeschichte: Zur Genese eines Fachkonzepts. In: Kykeon. Studies in Honour of H.S. Versnel. Ed. H.F.J. Horstmanshoff et al. [Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 142.] Leiden 2001, 49-67. Burkhard Gladigow: Elemente einer longue durée in der mediterranen Religionsgeschichte. In: Ute Pietruschka (Hg.): Gemeinsame kulturelle Codes in koexistierenden Religionsgemeinschaften. Halle 2005, 151-171.
10.   Once touched upon by Albinus 222 "sacrificial violence". Concerning the theme "Violent origins" see Robert G.. Hamerton-Kelly (ed.): Violent origins: Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on ritual killing and cultural formation. Stanford CA 1987. Fritz Graf: One Generation after Burkert and Girard. In: Christopher A. Faraone and F. S. Naiden (eds.): Greek and Roman animal sacrifice. Ancient victims, modern observers. Cambridge 2012.
11.   Greg Woolf: Becoming Roman, Staying Greek: Culture, Identity and the Civilizing Process in the Roman East. in: Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 40 , 1994 , 116-143. Greg D. Woolf: Becoming Roman. The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul. Cambridge: CUP 1998. Jörg Rüpke: Wie verändert ein Reich Religion und wie die Religion ein Reich? Bilanz und Perspektiven der Frage nach der Reichsreligion. In: Hubert Cancik; Jörg Rüpke (eds.): Die Religion des Imperium Romanum. Tübingen 2009, 5-18.
12.   Simon Price: Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Cambridge 1999.
13.   Is that true for e.g. Synesios? See Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler: Konversion zur Philosophie in der Spätantike: Kaiser Julian und Synesios von Kyrene. Stuttgart 2008. On Platonism in der Late antiquity, eadem: Theurgy in Late Antiquity: the invention of a ritual tradition. (Beiträge zur europäischen Religionsgeschichte 1) Göttingen 2013.
14.   Albinus is aware of the differences and the importance of the Greek-Byzantine-orthodox tradition in Eastern Europe, p. 220f.

1 comment:

  1. An evident deficiency of this volume seems to be the lack of a chapter on the religion of ancient Thrace.
    Peter Delev