I've been reading Jane Ellen Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion
for what seems like forever; a couple of pages per day has meant that after months I'm still only at page 495 of this 658-page classic from 1903.
I'm always struck by the weird tension between critical writing on dead Mediterranean religions and the refusal to critique the Abrahamic religions, especially in academic texts this old. In this book in particular, there's a constant deference to Christianity, while at the same time scathing opinions about Ancient Greek practices and ideas that are not only so clearly analogous to Christian practices and ideas, but also pretty clearly the direct antecedents of things that go on in churches to this day.
There's a delight in seeing these connections as a contemporary reader, while seeing that the author herself sees them as well, but cannot or will not engage them. It's like reading The Picture of Dorian Gray knowing that Wilde was only able to point to or to encode all the gay content, but being able to fluently read that code (as most contemporary readers can). Jane Ellen Harrison is in some kind of heretical closet.
And that's how she ends up writing intense sentences like this one, after discussing the logical problem of an Orphic trinity:
"On the altar of his Unknown God through all the ages man pathetically offers the holocaust of his reason."
I wonder if such statements were likely to get one into trouble in 1903, or if burying your critique of trinities (and the Trinity) in 600 pages of academic prose is sufficiently insulating - like writing in Latin instead of the vernacular. In some ways I hope that her book was at least a little bit of a scandal.
Labels: myth, religion