You are on page 1of 17

Religion (2000) 30, 211227

doi:10.1006/reli.2000.0267, available online at on

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion

L J. A
In his studies of ancient cultures, Walter Burkert has usually focused on materials
derived from Greece and the ancient Near East. In Creation of the Sacred, he examines
religious universalia in order to account for the ubiquity and persistence of the
phenomenon of religion and to produce a general theory of religion. The themes and
problems he has examined in previous books have led him to the claim in Creation of
the Sacred that religion can be traced to origins in biology, and that religion derives
 2000 Academic Press
from biology and language as genes and culture co-evolve.

What has been the raison dtre for religion in the evolution of human life and culture
hitherto? Is there a natural foundation of religion, based on the great and general
process of life which has brought forth humanity and still holds sway over it, beyond
chance and manipulation, personal idiosyncrasies and social conditioning? (Walter
Burkert, Creation of the Sacred, pp. xxi)

At the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion held in San
Francisco, the Comparative Studies in Religion Section scheduled a session entitled On
Walter Burkert and the Natural History of Religion. For this symposium Gustavo
Benavides and Robert Segal have revised the papers they presented, and Steven
Wasserstrom has developed his response to the papers into an analysis of problematic
aspects of Burkerts theory of religion. A fourth paper, by C. Robert Phillips, treating
the applicability of Burkerts theory to Roman religion, has been written specifically for
this symposium.
My objective in this introductory essay is to present an overview of Burkerts studies
of religion. As a prelude to sketching the argument of Creation of the Sacred (hereafter
CS), I shall examine selected topics, themes and problems discussed in several previous
books, for the most part neglecting the evidence he adduces to support and test his
interpretations in favour of tracing the development of his theory. I want to consider the
issues that have led him to claim in CS that religion can be traced to pre-human biology
and that religion derives from biology and language. Insofar as CS constitutes a theory
of religion that accounts for the ubiquity and persistence of religion, it will be important
to understand how Burkert composed the theory during more than forty-five years of
scholarly labour. Although from the beginning of his academic career Burkert aimed to
produce a definition of religion based on solid theoretical foundations, and actually does
oer such a definition and theory in CS, he frequently suggests tentative markers for the
term religion to launch his projects. In CS he indicates that religion is distinguished
from other cultural phenomena by the non-empirical character of much of its content,
by its manifestation in human interaction and communication, and by the priority that
many, if not all, cultures grant it. At this point we may also say that his method aims at
historical reconstruction rather than definitive proof. Probabilities are the most he can
produce, according to his principle that social rules must fit the natural landscape.

Tradition: Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism

Already in Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism (hereafter LSAP) Burkert displayed
several tendencies that continue to characterise his scholarly work. Burkerts Pythagoras
 2000 Academic Press
0048721X/00/030211+17 $35.00/0


L. J. Alderink

was an early Greek shaman rather than a scientist, mathematician or philosopher. The
knowledge he sought and taught was mystical and secret, and was the possession of
initiates who practiced a way of life, sought otherworldly benefits and relied on an
authoritative tradition. Above all, what later Greek tradition considered the philosophy
of Pythagoras was actually an achievement of Plato, constituting a union of knowledge,
ethics, science and religion in a coherent, if problematic, perspective.
But how does Burkert reach these conclusions? Burkert works at points of
intersection, for the figure of Pythagoras, less a historical person than a name, suggests
a union of religion and philosophy . . . and science (LSAP, p. 3). Quite naturally,
investigators shape material into patterns they are looking for, since tools used in inquiry
shape the results of the inquiry. However, circularity is not necessarily involved since
the tools do not determine the inquiry but merely make it possible. Burkert seeks a
cross-disciplinary pattern, and thus in LSAP he must make and use the kinds of tools
that will enable him to produce the multidisciplinary pattern he seeks.
Moving beyond the procedures of source analysis that most scholars of
Pythagoreanism have employed, Burkert develops the technique of tradition analysis
to enable him to separate and identify the various strands and strata of a particular
tradition and, in addition, to find causes to explain both the continuities and the
discontinuities within the tradition under investigation. Further, no one feature of a
tradition need be construed as its centre or essence, for each will be given its due in the
eort to display the tradition as possessing an identity that undergoes change as the
various features interact. Burkert has thereby abandoned the methodology of source
analysis in favour of the analysis of traditions. This innovation is more than one of
method; it implies a scope of analysis that in principle cannot be limited if traditions
interact. Burkert is well on his way from the Pythagoreanism of his early work to the
Sacred of his most recent book by making tradition the focus of his investigation.
Although the concept of tradition will enable us to account for the extension of a group
over time, Burkert is also on his way to refining the concept of tradition since it, too,
is problematic, containing as it does possibilities of both discontinuities and continuities
as well as the diculties of identifying and tracing the borders that distinguish one
tradition from another.

Aggression and Anxiety: Homo Necans

Greek tradition is once again the focus of analysis in Burkerts Homo Necans (hereafter
HN). By searching for the factors that give coherence as well as durability to that
tradition, Burkert adds a new problem to his inquiry. In the move from LSAP to HN,
the scope of theoretical interests grows as Burkert weds attention to a group within a
society to an activity that pervades an entire society and, probably, all societies. That
activity is ritual.
The materials that Burkert assembles as representative of practices in the ancient
Greek tradition are the festival rites of Lykaia and Lycaon, Thyestes, and the Delphic
tripod with their cannibalistic scenarios; the Panathenea and New Year Festivals, in
which feasting follows fasting; the Anthesteria, with its rituals of repentance, new wine,
and sacral union of Dionysos with the wife of the archon basileus; and the Eleusinian
mystery rites, with the sacrifice of a pig and the yearly descent/ascent of Kore, which in
the interplay between Hades and Zeus, constitutes a double existence between the
upper world of the living and the lower world of the dead, and thus assumes the duality
of life and death rather than any striving to overcome death. Linking all these diverse

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion 213

phenomena are aspects of Greek religion and of humanity . . . which are not
particularly edifying, not the ideal, or the most likable traits of Greek culture (HN,
p. xxv). All these instances, and many more, Burkert places in the category of the sacred,
which he defines as sacrificial killing (HN, p. 3): the act of piety is bloodshed,
slaughterand eating (HN, p. 2). Here the sacred is neither the essence or core of
religion nor a transcendental realm but something made: the act of sacralising produces
the sacred.
Raising the coherence of a society or a group in a society to problematic status implies
new methodological directions, committing Burkert to the analysis of social rather than
theological aspects of religion, and to a combination of structuralism and functionalism
as well as ethology in order to account for what he wants to account for: social
coherence and social solidarity. Burkert uses a form of structuralism to demonstrate how
the elements of myths and rituals interact in a patterned fashion and eventually develop
a life of their own, as intellectual activities reflect but also direct the interactions of social
forces. He uses a brand of functionalism to account for the stability in ancient Greek
society from pre-Mycenaean times to its demise in Roman times. Functional explanations are also combined with a broad historical perspective to demonstrate that despite
migrations of new populations and political transformations, the Greek tradition, while
undergoing modification and development, did not lose its identity, as continuity was
perpetuated through myths and rituals. On this view, Burkert is using religion to
understand society rather than vice versa. Thus religion is neither an essence
impervious to historical change nor a core that persists despite surface change but rather
is a factor which contributes to both social change and continuity. Religion deals
with more fundamental layers of communal human life and . . . its psychological preconditions which have changed only slightly from the earliest times until now . . .
religious forms were more a prerequisite than a consequence of these developments
(HN, p. xxii).
Attending to the activities that establish and maintain social unity also requires facing
such new methodological problems as accounting for rituals of sacrifice (not mentioned
in LSAP) and the imprinting eect of cultural transfer (not a problem in LSAP).
Tradition has become an explandum in HN because Burkert wishes to identify the factors
providing group solidarity, particularly the religious factor, even in the face of
destructive social forces. He must consequently specify the tools that will do the job.
One tool is a form of structuralism designed to demonstrate how the elements of myths
and rituals interact in a patterned fashion as cognitive activities that reflect and display
the interactions of social forces and needs. In order to avoid the dehistoricising or
detraditionalising of religion that would distinguish and even sever culture from biology,
Burkert turns to ritual, both pre-human and human, as the key ingredient of tradition.
Burkerts eort is historical and scientific rather than theological, as he insists that
prehistoric and ancient Greek religion, and in principle any religion, constitute a subject
in need of translation from a foreign and extinct culture into modern, secularised
scholarship, from which it follows that the discussion of religion must then be anything
but religious (HN, p. xxi).
By considering the materials he has chosen with the methods he has devised, Burkert
reaches striking conclusions in HN. He argues that order and authority in ancient Greek
societyand eventually, he will argue, in nearly any human societyare based on
institutionalised violence, on death brought about by human acts of sacrifice. Further,
there is continuity between non-ritualised hunting and sacrificial ritual, for both aim at
the restoration of life, given the hunters need to kill in order to live. As predatory


L. J. Alderink

animals kill violently, so human predators kill to eat and indeed imitate the behaviour of
predatory animals. Need for food and the aggression necessary to procure it lie at the
basis of hunting. Anxiety about the food supply becomes intense, since killing too much
game will result in eliminating the supply, but not killing enough will result in
starvation. Further, the act of killing itself is surrounded by anxiety, since a predatory
animal can kill the hunter, and a dead animal can produce no more animals. Ritual
provided our ancestors with a conceptual tool for coping with their aggression and
anxiety. Hunters lived with feelings of guilt with regard to the slaughtered animal. The
ritual provides forgiveness and reparation . . . the ritual betrays an underlying anxiety
about the continuation of life in the face of death . . . the gathering of bones, the raising
of a skull . . . is to be understood as an attempt at restoration, a resurrection in the most
concrete sense. The hope that the sources of nourishment will continue to exist, and the
fear that they will not, determine the action of the hunter, killing to live (HN, p. 16).
Prehistoric hunting rituals continue into historical times. As sacrificial rituals, they
perform a new and even greater function. Characterised by repetitive and stereotypical
actions, they are behavioural patterns that prevent misuse and misunderstanding.
Moreover, in sacrificial rituals the primary function of non-ritualised huntingkilling
animals to eatis displaced by a new function, that of communication by dramatising
the common life and order of a given community. Funeral rituals, for example,
contribute to the continuity of society by honouring the dead and instructing the
young. The social solidarity that derives from hunting and sacrificial rituals also includes
a potentially dangerous threat in the aggression enshrined in the rituals: aggression aimed
at animals can easily turn back upon the hunters, and the aggression performed in the
sacrificial ritual can become socially destructive rather than useful. Once humans have
initiated violence, the violence may overcome them, or strike at unintended or
unanticipated objects. No wonder anxiety lies at the basis of religious activities.
A constructive direction is, however, possible when myths are linked to rituals. A
myth need not grow directly out of ritual but will name that which the rituals intends
(HN, pp. 334). Whereas ritual redirects aggressive energy but remains at an as-if level
of emotion and thinking, myth contributes reality to the ritual:
In hunting and then in sacrifice, aggressive modes of behavior between men are
diverted onto animals; in the myth, on the other hand, is a human victim. Fears are
displayed in the preparatory rituals; the myth names someone who is to be feared. The
ritual is shaped by gestures of guilt and submission; the myth tells of some stronger
being and of his power. The myth develops what the gestures contain in nuce: a
threatening gesture becomes murder, sorrow acted out becomes genuine mourning,
erotic movements become a story of love and death. The as-if element in the ritual
becomes mythical reality; conversely, the ritual confirms the reality of the myth. In this
way, by mutually arming each other, myth and ritual became a strong force in
forming a cultural tradition, even though their origins were dierent. (HN, p. 34)

Together, myth and ritual perform the socially necessary function of redirecting
violence from socially destructive to socially useful purposes. In ancient Greece, they
served the goal of maintaining the cultural tradition in a second way: they were the
foundation for concepts of deities. Because hunters kill and eat flesh rather than
vegetables, hunting involves aggression against animals, big and male, who are one of
the family and thus friends, or at least fellow living beings. Yet they are doomed to die
and to become the source of food and human life. By analogy, animals become father
substitutes and father figures. Since hunting is a demanding endeavour and depends on
skill, a long period of training is necessary, during which the aggressive impulses of the

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion 215

younger must be restrained by the authority of the older, if hunters are to trust and
cooperate with one another. Ritual is a form of demonstrative communication, a social
activity marked by repetition and theatrical exaggeration as attention is directed away
from practical activity and towards proper social interaction and communication. Ritual
is a form of thinking. It provides practice for living as well as a demonstration of the
skills necessary to maintaining life in a dangerous environment. In myth, a Father God
is identified with the sacrificial animal, thereby allowing both appreciation for the
acquired food and resentment for the authoritative repression of aggressive impulses.
Myth allows for the possibility of playing with the idea that the god and the sacrificial
animal were identical (HN, p. 76).
Hunting rituals and myths thus portray killing and eating to exhibit and enhance
tensions between renunciation and fulfilment in the social order. The male gender of
divine beings is determined by the interaction of social aggression with social conformity
as they are expressed in ritual. Burkerts theory is also capable of accounting for female
deities. Some scholars have interpreted Venus statuettes with round thighs, open legs
and pendulous breasts as evidence for prehistoric matriarchy, but Burkert proposes an
alternative. Because hunters sought to support families, they killed for the sake of the
mother and the children. While hunting, they were absent from the mother and the
children, and thus were sexually frustrated and filled with hunting and killing aggression.
They also felt the presence of the Mother while on the hunt. That presence was
conceptually transformed into the Great Goddess as the higher will whose presence stays
with the hunters, who is wife and mother, who at once demands death (of the hunted
animals) and gives new life, or continuity of life, beyond death.

A Religion: Greek Religion

If HN displays a burst of theoretical energy in attempting, as Burkert puts it, an holistic
synthesis, Greek Religion (hereafter GR) is an accomplishment of another kind. True,
GR extends the eort to compose a holistic account of a single religion, and thus attends
to combinations of myths and rituals with ritual assigned priority over myth. GR also
combines psychological and sociological features of religion within an historical
perspective, all founded on basic biological action programs. But in GR Burkert reasserts
his emphasis on history in conscious dissent from the present [1977] . . . focus on an
ahistorical structuralism concerned with formal models and confined to presenting in
their full complexity the immanent, reciprocal relationships within the individual myths
and rituals (GR, p. 4). Indeed, Burkert also reasserts the brand of structural analysis that
he employed in HN, insisting on connecting both myth and ritualthat is, religionto
history and societythat is, to tradition. Thus Burkerts method is less to discuss
individual religious phenomena than to make connections among them in all their
variety and diversity. Further, the formal designation for Burkerts methodology is
reconstruction: Trying to reconstruct the ideas of concepts of preliterate ages is a game
in which nothing can be verified (HN, p. 72). But as in GR, he aims to go beyond
description to the attribution of meaning to the tradition he has selected for analysis
through the investigation of representations, ideas, and beliefs [which] can be at best
only a preliminary goal: only when these are incorporated within a more comprehensive
functional context can they become meaningful (GR, p. 3).
In HN, Burkert argued the bold thesis that groups united by religious ritual have
historically been the most successful (HN, p. xv). GR continues Burkerts interest in the
sacrifice of animals and the communal meals that found and continue the social group.


L. J. Alderink

Whereas HN raised dicult issues in the attempt to account for group solidarity in
ancient Greek culture by arguing for a continuity between prehistoric hunting societies
and historical Greek society, GR focuses on the religion of the late geometric, archaic
and classical periods, from 800 to 300 BC. Evidence from earlier times is also taken into
account, from prehistoric hunting as well as Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. The
terminal point of GR is 300 BC, when the Hellenic world passed into the Hellenistic
world. The end of Greek religion coincided with the end of the Greek polis, signalled
first by Platos Laws as presenting a utopian rather than an actual polis and later by the
development of the very large and amorphous city . . . the megalopolis of the ancient
world that Christianity would most easily find a foothold (GR, p. 337).
One result of Burkerts approach is that while the Greek religion of his GR may be
unique and unrepeatable, it is also deprived of the splendid isolation concealed in the
glory that was Greece of poetic fame. Another result is that Burkerts theory of Greek
religion undergoes development and refinement; his Greek religion is an organic
system. Connecting all the diverse phenomena that Burkert coversritual and temple,
Olympian deities, chthonic deities, mysteries and asceticism, and philosophical
religionis the distinctive feature of Greek religion: the polis and its corollary,
polytheism. Since Greek religion was bound to the polis as a public religion with
sacrifices, processions and communal meals, Burkert does not oer a definition of the
religion but instead sketches its chief traits: religion as social rather than personal, a
religion of relations rather than attitudes and a religion of acts rather than faith. Further,
Burkert insists that by considering the Greek pantheon as a closed system, structural
analysis misses both the Greek openness to outside influences and the transformations
the religion underwent. By contrast, a biological basis provides a more fruitful
perspective. Thus in GR ritual is a complex display of basic human experienceseating,
sex and deathand their incorporation into communal life. Myths and rituals are both
forms of intellectual activity and ways to cope with reality (see GR, p. 8).

Myth and Ritual: Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual
The problems that preoccupied Burkert in HN and GR continue in Structure and History
in Greek Mythology and Ritual (hereafter GMR). These problems are, however, treated in
new and extended ways in order to work out the thesis of the book: that historical
evolution and cultural transmission determine the semantic structures of myths and the
persistence of rituals. The organisation of all three books follows a similar pattern: first,
Burkert identifies the theoretical issues he will face (and the scholars who have faced
them dierently) and states the theses and methods that will guide his research; then he
provides the theoretical framework that he will apply to the materials he will use as
evidence for testing, extending, and revising his theories; and finally, he works his way
through the evidence with his theory as the guide to research. In HN, he first addressed
problems of ritual before he turned to those of myth: in GMR, he considers ritual in
twenty-four pages after he devotes thirty-four to myth. He addresses additional
problems in his discussions of both myth and ritual. Previously, he oered clear but
minimal definitions of each. Now he transforms definitions into problems in the process
of fashioning new tools for more ambitious explanations.
The definition of myth in GMR is more ambitious and complex than the definitions
oered in previous works. Working through particular myths of Kumbarbi and Kronos,
Herakles, the Great Goddess, Adonis, and Demeter, Burkert oers four theses, each in
conscious opposition to the theory of Claude Lvi-Strauss. The first is that myth, or

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion 217

non-factual story telling, belongs to the more general class of traditional tales, based on
the assumption that history or tradition takes priority over mathematical structuralism
and thus provides more insight into myth as traditional, i.e. told and retold in new and
dierent contexts (GMR, p. 1). A further component of this thesis is that although
myths lack empirical referents, be they metaphysical or social, they form sign systems of
communication because the sense of a tale consists of what the tale tells.
The second thesis is that the identity of a traditional tale, including myth,
independent as it is from any particular text or language and from direct reference to
reality [empirical or meta-empirical], is to be found in a structure of sense within the tale
itself (GMR, p. 5). Here structure means that a system consists of definable relations
among units of plot action, or the elements of a whole, and allows for predictable
transformations. Sense indicates that the meaning is internal to the tale itself as
non-factual storytelling. Following Vladimir Propps Morphology of the Folktale, Burkert
classifies and interprets myths on the basis of their structures, not their content.
Burkert rejects the theory of Lvi-Strauss on the grounds that it does not oer testable
hypotheses and thus lacks explanatory power. Because myths for Burkert do not have
direct referential power or refer to empirical reality, and because a meaningful system of
signs requires some form of reference, a third thesis is necessary: tale structures, as
sequence of motifemes (or functions), are founded on basic biological or cultural
programs of action (GMR, p. 18). This thesis incorporates the term sequence to
represent the semantic rule which determines the meaning of the elements in a
narrative, all of which reduce to one verb, to get, and its corresponding substantive,
the quest (GMR, p. 15). The source of this structure of sense is neither imagination nor
idea but biology. The structure of tales is thus reducible to programs of action, which
are themselves reducible to need. In HN, ritual and biology were linked, and myth was
added to provide reality to the as-if of ritual. In GMR, myth and biology are
connected to forge a stronger bond between myth and ritual and to overcome the
severing of culture from nature.
The three theses Burkert proposes can account for the grammar of myths, can show
how myths contain and deliver meanings on the basis of internal structures, and are
based on biological programs of action. But myths are told and retold by human beings
and thus are cultural phenomena. How can Burkert account for this fact? By a fourth
thesis that connects myth to history: myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial
reference to something of collective importance (GMR, p. 23). This thesis enables
Burkert to abandon the eort to define myth by either its content or its characters and
instead points to the uses to which myths are put. He claims that myth-in-use displays
a generative power or the ability to deal with new facts, with the unknown because a
tale creates a system of coordinates to cope with the present or even with the future
(GMR, p. 25). Thus myth can look simultaneously in two directions: to society, because
it represents content of importance to the society of which it is a part, and to history,
because it layers the meanings it develops through its self-transforming capacities. In
sum, Burkerts view of myth is that it begins with internal tension (thesis 1), achieves a
meaning or symmetry (thesis 2), and is a form of communication within a society that
enables it to retain its past and map its future (thesis 3) by creating new applications for
new situations (thesis 4).
In HN, Burkert had made ritual the central focus, assigning myth a secondary status
both as a theoretical problem and as a topic in its own right, with myth not even given
a separate chapter. In GMR, however, ritual remains central, but is joined by an
extensive consideration of myth that actually precedes the consideration of ritual. As


L. J. Alderink

Burkert rethinks his ideas about ritual, he increases the range of examples to be
examined as well as the scope of his theory. Hunting rituals remain important, as do
sacrifices and scapegoats, but in GMR the analysis grows in to a general theory of ritual.
Once again, Burkert surveys the current wisdom regarding ritual: Mannhardts and
Frazers theories of fertility and vegetation spirits. Freuds theory of obsessive acts driven
by unconscious motivations, and van Genneps and Victor Turners theories of
structural interpretations. As he moves into his own territory, biology again paves the
way. He defines ritual as action redirected for demonstration. Characteristic features of
ritual in this perspective are: the stereotyped pattern of action, independent of the actual
situation and emotion; repetition and exaggeration to make up a kind of theatrical
eect; and the function of communication (GMR, p. 37).
Stereotypy invites us to compare ritualised with a non-ritualised behaviour that
underlies the ritual. A test case is provided by herms in ancient Greece, those pillars
surmounted by a bust of Hermes and decorated with an erect phallus, from which
Burkert concludes that the basic function of sexuality is suspended for the sake of
communication: every individual approaching from the outside will notice that this
group does not consist of helpless wives and children, but enjoys the full protection of
masculinity . . . the power is neither in the phallus nor the stone; they are signs
conveying a message of potency (GMR, pp. 401).
As a form of communication, rituals distribute information among participants in the
rituals and convey the information from generation to generation. Often they do so in
a particularly dramatic fashion, largely to make a message memorable. Repetition is also
an important aspect of ritual and serves the purpose of transmitting information
eciently by eliminating unnecessary information and background noise. Exaggeration both abstracts crucial elements for communication and imprints the eect of the
ritual on the minds of the participants. A central function of ritual is to direct attention
to the aggression internal to a group or a society with the aim of provoking rather than
relieving the anxiety over the aggression. The aggression is transformed into ritual
anxiety for the purpose of stimulating social reflection and social direction. On this
view, the ritual is a deliberate plan of action designed to provoke and direct social
anxiety. When the social stress is linked to the distribution of goods in a society, social
change is ritualised into a form of giving:
Anxiety is transformed: Dont be too anxious to get, dont be too anxious about losing,
be anxious to give and you will get your due. At the same time, as abandoning turns
into conscious giving, mans anxiety about the future is both aroused and pacified. . . .
Language will spell out the contract of do ut des, or rather quod dedisti, do ut des. Give,
as I gave: these are the terms of ancient prayer. More advanced morality has been
trying to overcome or sublimate the unabashed selfishness of this acts of piety, without
too much success. Expectation of reciprocal altruism definitely is a strategy for ones
own good. Still proposing, as it does, some guarantee of universal stability, it may claim
to be called religious even in a deeper sense. (GMR, p. 54)

Ritual, then, redirects the forces of pragmatic, non-ritualised behaviour from socially
destructive aggression into socially healthy channels, as aggression becomes sociability.
Some rituals, perhaps most, have served their purposes unaccompanied by myths.
Similarly, many myths have served their purposes without corresponding rituals.
However, rituals and myths may coincide as modes of communication, since both
perform social functions and serve as social action programs,

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion 219

promoting mutual understanding and solidarization. Myth means telling a tale with
suspended reference, structured by some basically human action pattern; ritual is
stereotyped action redirected for demonstration. Thus both are dependent on action
programs, both are detached from pragmatic reality, both serve communication; tale
structures seemed to be prefigured in a series of imperatives, and the imperative has also
been called the stabilizing form of ritual. Ritual is older, since it occurs even in animals;
but this does not mean that myth necessarily originates in ritual: tales are direct
elementary verbalizations of human actions . . . myth and ritual can form an alliance for
mutual benefit, indeed, a symbiosis; they are propagated separately, but they nearly
form a new species. (GMR, p. 57)

GMR is among Burkerts most theoretically sophisticated books, advancing solutions

to the problems Burkert raised in HN but going beyond them. As GR focused on one
religion and HN developed the concepts of tradition and change, so GMR moves
towards subsuming cultural phenomena in general and religious activities in particular,
under general categories. The interest in categories prefigures the principle in CS that
the similarity of religious phenomena makes them a general class transcending single
cultural systems (CS, p. 4). Burkert has worked out and refined major categories useful
for the study of religionmyth, ritual, tradition, historywith the goal of reducing the
phenomena to explanatory concepts, and he has developed a consistent methodology
structural and historical, comparative and traditional, linguistic and cognitive, macroscopic and microscopicto interpret religion as an adaptive social behaviour. Yet at
least one issue remains: linking culture to biology in a persuasive way. To account for
culture without denying its biological origins and influences is the task Burkert set for
himself in CS. He seeks to establish a natural theory of religion.

Genes and Culture: Creation of the Sacred

Burkert begins CS by observing that most current approaches to the study of religion are
restricted to single cultures to the neglect of relations among cultures. Productive as
these approaches are, they fail to work out a transcultural understanding of other
civilisations whether past or present and an accounting for the ubiquity and persistence
of a phenomenon such as religion (CS, p. 3). Going beyond culturalist scholars,
including Durkheim and Geertz, Burkert takes religion as one of the universalia of
human civilisations, connecting religion to such basic universals as eating, drinking,
defecating, working, sleeping, sex and procreating, growing sick, and dying (see CS,
p. 3).
Burkert is one in a long line of scholars trying to explain the origin, ubiquity and
persistence of religion. He strikes out in a new, biological direction, as his subtitle
indicates: tracks of biology in early religions, adding that these tracks are followed by
cultural choice (CS, p. 23). The hypothesis that guides CS is that religious behaviour
can be traced to human origins in the animal world. Dealing with invisible and ineable
superiors, manifested through interaction and communication, and so serious as to claim
prioritythese family resemblances or characteristics of natural religion Burkert deems
sucient to identify religion in most of its instances, but the source of religion calls for
a perspective that takes into account human evolution and the even more general
evolutionary process of life (CS, p. 8). His sociobiological premise thus aims to unite
culture with biology to build a theory of explanatory power, without relying on the
social Darwinian principle of group selection, and instead insisting on the centrality of
the coevolution of genes and culture with constant feedback between the two (CS,
p. 10).


L. J. Alderink

A central problem that Burkerts sociobiological project faces is that biology and
culture seem to be so dierent. Whereas religion requires, and is a part of, cultural
learning and is acquired by imitation, biological programs follow predetermined
programs that antedate the human species (CS, p. 17). The discovery of religious genes
would demonstrate the unity of the two, or at least their fusion, but the closest tie that
Burkert finds is a relation of analogy rather than of homology between humans and
other primates. The issues to which Burkert turns his attention are more historical.
Arguing that although, as many interpreters of religion suggest, religion may be socially
dysfunctional, religion may also turn out to function as a stabilising factor in society.
What must Burkert demonstrate to establish his claim?
He begins with assertions about language, that exclusively human universal which
displays a correlation between culture and biology. The vocal equipment necessary for
speech is lacking in our near relatives. Hence a genetic alteration was the biological
precondition for the emergence of language, and human language thus may be called a
hybrid of culture and biology (CS, p. 18). Similarly, art is unique to humans, as is
religion. One of the main aspects of religion, the communicative, is thus a parallel to
language, while another aspect, the ritualistic, is also a form of communication but is
pre-verbal and pre-linguistic. The main conclusion to follow from these observations
about language, art and religion is that all three survived in a symbiotic relation, uniting
biology with culture. Language and religion are the link that ties humans to their genetic
history yet frees them for cultural developments. Genes made possible the emergence of
culture, and culture would alter genetic patterns and successive generations.
How can one demonstrate this tie between culture and biology within a sociobiological perspective? Burkerts proposal is that we use the metaphor of landscape
(cf. GMR, p. 58), imagining that religion did not emerge in a void any more than
language emerged without biological preconditions. He warns against separating
culture from biology or religion from substructures formed within the evolution of life.
Religions hybrid characterbetween biology and culturecalls for an interdisciplinary
meeting of methods: derivation should go together with interpretation. In this sense, an
analysis of religious worlds in view of the underlying landscape may be attempted (CS,
p. 23).
Whereas sociobiological methods using experiment and observation cannot be used
to establish the thesis of the coevolution of genes and culture because of the enormous
temporal span of the evolutionary process, a method of reconstruction may yield
probabilities that shed light on that long history. Reconstruction can proceed by making
a distinction between social rules and the landscape they will fit if they are to function
in a society and be transmitted throughout generations. Rules will fit a landscape or will
be forgotten or replaced. Another feature of Burkerts method is that he construes
culture, religion and the human mind as software, in that they can be copied and passed
from generation to generation yet remain bound to preconditions of the
hardwaregenes and brainsfrom which they were produced. These points do not
drive Burkert into biological or genetic determinism, and they certainly do not
encourage the separation of culture from biology. They do, however, enable him to
propose an interaction between biology and culture that incorporates both biological
conditions and cultural choice, because language and religion together enable humans to
design alternative courses of action as well as to make choices between options.
Whether religion possesses a survival value or contributes to the survival of a group
remains an open question to be answered by testing the sociobiological hypothesis,
particularly since fitness will mean inclusive fitness or the eects of the reproductive

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion 221

success on close relatives as well as on individuals. To demonstrate his case, Burkert will
need to show the social utility of religion as well as the conditions for its emergence.
Certainly some strategies for survival will be more successful than others, and thus the
question about the social value of religion will be answered by reference to the
contribution religion makes to a society.
The similarities between language and religion oer Burkert a striking point of
departure for the attempt to analyse religious worlds in view of the underlying
landscape (CS, p. 23). Because language gave humans the possibility of transmitting
information across generations, genetic survival did not severely restrict human
development. The origin of language paved the way for a common world, and because
language can devise imaginary worlds as well as function as a tool in gathering food and
self-defence, it can construct a common worlduseful but bereft of any evidence for its
existence. Thus the common world of early human societies moved to the borders of
experience and beyond, into a realm beyond facts and evidence. A crucial feature of
religion, both in ritual and in words, enabled this move: the reduction of the complex
world of actual experience to conceptual claritybeing, causality, goodnessprovided
orientation to both social and natural realms of experience, and the idea of perfection,
most desirable yet unattainable, could be found in religious concepts. How could
religion work here? By preserving through ritual and language the information that
served one generation and could be passed to the next. Thus some conscious picture of
the world, stored in religious representations, enabled our ancestors to survive in
dangerous and hostile environments and even to control them. Burkert writes, Lifes
achievement is self-replication, self-regulation, and homeostasis. Hence the gods are the
most persistent guarantors of order, the most forceful regulators. . . . Religion is basically
optimistic (p. 33).
Chapter 2 of CS, Escape and Oerings, is devoted to one of the more obvious and
pervasive realia of religion, the phenomenon of sacrifice. A prototypical example dates
to the second century BC, that of Aelius Aristeides, long a hypochondriac in Pergamon.
After spending ten years in the sanctuary of Asclepius in the vain hope of healing, he was
notified by the god that he would die within three days unless he performed several
sacrifices, one of which had to be of part of his own body. A severed finger would
suce. Later the god accepted a ring rather than the finger, as though to allow a
substitute for the finger, just as the finger was earlier a substitute for the entire body.
Similarly, the Furies pursuing Orestes after he killed Clytemnestra relented and indeed
became benign when Orestes bit o one of his fingers. Odysseus also bit o a finger to
placate the Cyclops Polyphemus in order to escape death at the hands of a superior
How can we explain such stories, which are found the world over? Burkerts
conclusion is that a basic choice is required: Salvation has to be bought by means of a
small yet serious and irreplaceable loss, unflinching separation from what is treacherous
and dangerous . . . a sensible choice indeed (CS, p. 38). The explanatory principle is
pars pro toto, a thoroughly rational choice that uses calculation and causality in pursuit of
definite goals. It is also found in other animal species, a biological program, Burkert
calls it, genetically fixed . . . that works in [the spiders] particular habitat with clear
survival value as the smaller loss is outweighed by the very fact of survival (CS, p. 41).
In the human world the biological program is equally functional, but the animal and the
human are, again, related as analogies rather than homologies, meaning that humans
consciously calculate the means to achieve their goals, whereas animals follow instinctive


L. J. Alderink

What works for individual animals and humans also works for groups with a plan that
is simultaneously rational and emotional. The principle can be extended to group
dynamics in the case of scapegoating, as religious rituals provide mechanisms for dealing
with the guilty consciences by attributing guilt or pollution, or even semi-divine status,
to the victim. Burkerts conclusion is that the biological parallel illumines the cultural
practice in cases ranging from circumcision to demonic activity:
In the situation of the herd vis--vis the carnivorethe zebra attacked by lionswhen
one individual is killed, the others feel safe for a time. The instinctive program seems
to command: take another one, not me. This ancient program is still at work in
humans, still fleeing from devouring dangers and still making sacrifices to assuage and
triumph over anxiety. In this perspective sacrifice is a construct of sense that has proved
almost universally eective throughout the history of civilization. (CS, p. 55)

Chapter 3 of CS, The Core of a Tale, moves from the theme of sacrifice to the topic
of narrative. As sacrifice in human society makes use of capacities not found in the
animal kingdom, particularly rational estimating and planning of outcomes, language
and religion enable humans to generate knowledge and to cooperate in the service of
group survival. Knowledge is thus to be appreciated for its own sake but also for its
utility, with survival in physical or social danger but one of its uses. Knowledge is also
stored in various forms, of which the tale is certainly ubiquitous and perhaps the earliest.
The central feature of talestheir ability to reduce information to communicate
intricate and complicated experiencesprompts Burkert to turn to Propps Morphology
of the Folktale, as he did in GMR, because the functions, or motifemes, of Proppian
analysis, limited in number and fixed in sequence, can be applied to a wide range of
tales. Tales can be reduced to their component parts and the message they communicate. In particular, Burkert applies Propps pattern to the Greek myths of Perseus,
Heracles and the Argonauts as well as to Sumerian myths, the shamans tale and the
maidens tragedy, all to show how tales are a general and transcultural form of
organizing experience (CS, p. 62). Burkert argues that the sequences and functions
comprise a storage system that allows for a variety in content yet retains remarkable
similarity in pattern. The basic functions form a biological program of action that
describes the search for food and the quest for life, with all the obstacles and dangers
involved. Human need is therefore a biological fact taken into religious representations.
If religion and language conspire to produce worlds that lack empirical referents and
ideas for which there is no evidence, it is important to examine closely the relations
among language, social structure and gods, who appear to be one of the distinguishing
features of religion. All three come together in chapter 4 of CS, Hierarchy. In his eort
to account for the concept of gods, Burkert turns to the role of rank and dependence
in religion, which implies subordination and submission in society. Religion as a
pervasive feature of early human societies with traces in the Paleolithic period can be
considered a purely social construction, since we have no reason to think that religion
is inscribed in our genetic code. It can also be viewed as social in the sense that it must
be taught anew to each generation. On this view, religion is social or cultural, leaving
open the possibility that it performs biological services that contribute to human
survival. Religion provides meaning at times of helplessness and perplexity, guidance
when confused, and confidence and comfort when facing danger. These particular
services are directly connected to gods.
Burkert traces gods to the role of ranking in society. Early human societies were
arranged with some members higher and some lower, with some having power over

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion 223

others. Some will be kings or chiefs, and some will be commoners. The principle of
hierarchy means that the higher will be honoured and the lower protected and
governed, with attention and honour focusing upward and power flowing downward.
The strong will submit to the stronger, and the weak will defer to the stronger. The
stronger will exercise power and authority legitimately in order to maintain their
position, or they will give way to others, and the weaker will live with the benefit of
security and protection, since traditional forms of domination . . . always include some
mutual obligation (CS, p. 82). Rank and hierarchy impose social order on chaos, which
confers the benefit of survival on groups by creating structures of sense.
The experience of diculty and danger moves persons to attribute power to the gods.
Rituals of submission and tokens of humility function to support the system of ranking
and ensure continuity throughout the system. Working in the opposite direction are
strategies of praise. As the king is ritually lifted up to stabilize the system of rank and
power, praise for an even higher power, a god keeps the entire cosmos in place. Burkert
concludes that Religion operates to stabilize the accepted order, praising its highest
starting point (CS, p. 92). Power is thus two-tiered, localised in king and god, through
the alliance of religion and power (CS, p. 93), according to which submission and
sovereignty inhabit the same hierarchic structure. Dependence on unseen powers
mirrors the real power structure, but it is taken to be its model and to provide its
legitimatization. It is a two-tiered sovereignty that stabilizes itself through this structure;
god is to ruler as ruler is to subjects (CS, p. 95).
An additional step is taken in the hierarchical system as power flows from top to
bottom and communication at all levels increases. Thus, as Burkert argues, the system
creates a new rolethe messenger of power who transmits information: With the
system of two-tiered power, royal orders and actions can take the shape of divine
ordinances . . . the chain of promise and command is clear, starting from the highest god
and transmitted to the ruler, with minor gods serving as messengers and the king acting
accordingly (CS, pp. 989).
The model Burkert presents portrays the relation between a society and the religious
representations of the society. The social relations will be dynamic as power and
aggression, and the accompanying anxiety, are in continuous interplay, but by contrast,
the representations of kings and gods will display power as stable, authoritative, and
beneficial to the entire society and putting every member under a system of multiple and
mutual obligations. Such an ideal situation is vulnerable to several limiting conditions,
chief of which are disaster due to nature, aggression from an external enemy and conflict
internal to society. Factual conditions which contradict the theologies and myths of a
particular society do not mean either their superficiality or their doom, since the gods
and myths about them can become ways to understand the actual social diculties.
Chapter 5 of CS, Guilt and Causality, attends to the problem of disaster. Humans
blame themselves for misdeeds and catastrophes, and then oer gifts to make atonement
in order to find forgiveness for a wrong allegedly done, to restore a lost social balance,
to avert further disaster or to express gratitude for having survived a disaster. Burkert
finds a pattern with the following elements: the experience of disaster and the anxiety
it arouses; the intervention of a mediator who possesses superhuman knowledge; the
analysis of the cause of the disaster and the fixing of blame; and finally, acts of
atonement. This pattern is widespread, ranging from the Iliad to the biblical Philistines
to Sophocles and Vergil as well as to modern Israel and contemporary Africa. Two
objectives are paramount: to establish the cause and to prescribe the cure. Cultic ocials
will do the work, but more than agency is required, for the pattern must make some


L. J. Alderink

sense before the cultic activity can be eective. As Burkert writes, Sense is created by
finding a way to speak coherently about events (CS, p. 112). Here we see how religion
functions in dealing with problems in a society, for prophets, priests, messengers and
diviners can identify the source of the problem by making sense of it, and thus
integrating new and conflicting information into the mental world or the social system,
thereby restoring the breach caused by the original catastrophe. The experience of
diculty and danger often moves persons to attribute power to the gods and to blame
themselves, rightly or wrongly, for a catastrophe, but if they know what gifts to oer to
which god or gods, the superhuman powers may give in return the knowledge necessary
to expel the polluting agent, overcome a wrong done, restore a lost social harmony or
even avert further disaster. Giving a gift to the highest power may secure favour from
the gods, or at least believing that it will be beneficial to a society. The main
accomplishment is the concept of causality, as Burkert concludes somewhat nostalgically
and even fearfully:
In short, I postulate a dynamic program that operates in dierent civilizations and
epochs, from so-called primitives to high cultures, a program dealing with the causality
of evil. It appeals to unseen powers through what has been called transcendent
diagnosis, and it tends to establish and to reiterate religious ritual in order to restore the
previous situation of normalcy. It turns out to be one of the main factors in enforcing
religious practice. By establishing connections of fault, consequence, and remedy, it
creates a context of sense and premises a meaningful cosmos in which people can live
in health and at rest; it is in fact the postulate and the acceptance of a surplus of
meaning in the world, sharply contrasting with the reductions made by empirical
science. . . . Danger is overcome by constructing or reconstructing a world of
meaning. However fictitious, it often proves eective. Modern science, which is
fascinated by chaos beyond causality while worlds of meaning are fractioned and
pulverized within our multicultural mass society, will not easily prevail. People prefer
to cling to the surplus of causality and sense, and there is no lack of mediators to
explore the hidden connections. (CS, pp. 1278)

Making oerings and giving gifts to gods can be a strategy for turning disaster into
reform or for preventing further diculty, but a further reason for gift giving is the
concern of chapter 6 of CS, The Reciprocity of Giving. The phenomena arrayed in
this chapter range from ancient to modern societies, from the bronze age to the market
economy. In reciprocal giving, the objective is to create a stable and orderly world of
human exchange, which require signs that in turn demand interpretation; nonreciprocal giving, however, dispays the asymmetry of giving away without getting back.
Religious giving involves giving to the gods in the hope of receiving in return,
according to the formula do ut des, which underwrites stability in the network of
exchanges. Burkert argues, further, that reciprocity is a form of morality, even though
the Prisoners Dilemma may instead suggest defection if one of two prisoners does not
know whether the other will cheat in order to receive a lighter punishment; and if
cheating pays well in a single case, then cheating soon and often may oer the more
appealing option. At the same time, religious giving, with its cooperation and
reciprocity, may be beneficial in the long run, since giving to the gods as well as giving
within society creates a harmonious system.
A major problem is that such systemic consistency does not fit all, let alone most, cases
of giving to gods, thus undermining the principle of reciprocal giving as well as the
rationality of the principle itself. Giving to gods in the hope of return may well produce
social harmony and stability. Yet as Burkert himself points out, any gifts the gods may
give in return are not verifiable, so that giving to the gods conflicts with the principle

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion 225

of reciprocity. Giving to the gods with the expectation of return is also subject to the
charge of bribery, as Plato argued, as though the gods would give favours because they
were given gifts. Only gods lacking in goodness would succumb to bribery. Similarly,
giving gifts to the dead, another almost universal practice, does not fall in the category
of reciprocal giving, since the gifts the dead give in return are neither obvious nor
verifiable. Giving to gods and to the dead is neither reciprocal nor direct, for in both
cases the gifts can be destroyed, as in libations poured out, or can be recycled, as in the
case of sacralised begging in Buddhism. Burkert returns to the phenomenon of sacrificial
giving to explore this problematic aspect of gift-giving.
In CS, Burkert argues that sacrifice in ancient Greece, which he had analysed
extensively in HN and GMR, consists of killing and eating an animal in the controlled
environment of sacred rituals, an act of food-sharing after food-hunting, with the
portions of the meal distributed according to the rules of social hierarchy. Why sacred?
And how are the gods present? Burkerts answer is that sacred rituals prepare and protect
the act of killing the animal by provoking and overcoming the anxiety involved, and
that the gods are the unseen presence at the meal holding the group together socially as
the animal holds the group together physically. The gods at the meal serve the purpose
of consolidating the group by establishing a superior authority, and ensuring continuity
in the precarious transfer of life (CS, p. 151). Sacrificial killing of animals and also gifts
to the dead have a common focus on the horror of death which is the clear background
of these fears (CS, p. 153). The gods and the dead display the extremes of reciprocity.
The asymmetry introduced into reciprocal giving by the godly presence in sacrificial
rituals embraces the vicissitudes of life within a rational and optimistic frame that
includes both the change and the stability that a society needs to maintain itself:
The principle of reciprocity in dealing with human partners as in dealing with gods is
not only a nice and widely successful strategy but a postulate acted out to create a
stable, sensible, and acceptable world, gratifying both intellectually and morally and
bridging the gap of annihilation. . . . The postulate of cosmic sense overrides the
evidence of deplorable examples of catastrophe. . . . Life is bound to optimismeven
this may be called a biological necessity. (CS, p. 154)
Did the principle of reciprocity become fixed in mens minds as a widely successful
strategy for dealing with reality? Or is it just that the main mechanism of optimism is
designed to circumvent or to hide the irreversible flux by concentrating on closed
circles which indicate stability? The more trendy theories current today enthusiastically
embrace chaos, and many contemporary observers have come to suspect the ideal of
the mathematically ordered universe is more a projection of the mind in quest of
stability than a reflection of what is at the heart of matter. In all this, biology is still at
work. Life is homeostasis: a transient stability depending upon the just exchange; a
precarious equilibrium in the flux of matter and energy. The rational postulate of
reciprocity fits the biological landscape, and it is duly inculcated through religious
tradition. (CS, p. 155)

A theme discussed in an earlier chapter centring on the topics of language,

communication and sense reenters the argument in chapter 7 of CS, The Validation of
Signs. Burkert begins with the observation that a living being takes up the cues from
its surroundings and reacts accordingly. In its turn, it gives signals to which other living
beings of the same or of another species will react. The communication consists of the
use of signs, without which complex adaptive evolution in the whole realm of life
would be impossible (CS, p. 156). The ancients used mythology, their main repertoire
of meaning, as a projected world picture that tied them to the external world in which
they hunted, planted and sailed. Such signs are in between the reality they represent


L. J. Alderink

and the psyche which gives them their meaning, and they provided individuals and
groups with the opportunity for orientation. Whereas primitive organisms with simple
brains work within a closed system by reacting instinctively to specific signs, human
brains have no fixed program for structuring and selecting what can and should be
known (CS, p. 161). Thus the human capacity for communication through language
gives culture a range of capacities that biology does not give other species.
Humans must interpret signs and can do so in ways that produce multiple meanings,
with divination the art of interpreting signs based on the assumption of sense within the
universe, and the ordeal a way to receive and interpret signs from gods in times of
conflict or chaos. Humans can also change the environment to adapt it to the
presuppositions and categories of their common mental world (CS, p. 165). Whether
by marking stones or making figurines or designing body markings, human culture
enables human beings to connect the common mental world to the natural environment
through the medium of the human body. Signs thus shape the world and create what
Burkert calls a second level of realityimages for orientation or maps for living in the
world reality (CS, p. 166). At this point the limitations of language become apparent,
for the capacity to deceive and the ability to tell the truth fall equally within the scope
of human communication. Oaths come to play a central role in ancient religions in
order to create a cosmos of sense by establishing univocal and dependable meanings.
Witnesses will be necessary to guarantee the meanings fixed by the oath and rituals will
generate and instill awe and order to leave indelible mental marks and thus to evoke
allegiance to the shared mental world. The parties swearing the oaths can be held to
their words by the witnesses who rank high in society and can thus insure accountability. The highest witness, of course, will be gods:
all the gods and powers venerated by established tradition who guarantee hierarchical
order, who are made partners in gift exchange, who are experienced in terror and held
responsible for the well-being or illness of the individual, the family, tribe, or country,
are used in the context of oath-taking and prove to be useful indeed. The guarantee of
absolute truth is with god. (CS, p. 172)

Where the objective is to create a stable and orderly world of human exchange,
hierarchy and exchange require signs that in turn demand interpretation. We have
communication between humans and divination to transmit information between
humans and gods, with the consequence that social order is enhanced and social sense
becomes necessary for the well-being of the society. With gods as guarantors of human
transaction, beings present as vigilant and truthful partners who hold humans to their
words of promise, the ethical demands of the deities guarantee the social order.

Walter Burkerts theory is that religion has persisted throughout human history because
it is an adaptive strategy for survival in the immense history of human cultures; that its
function has been so to shape societies as to preserve them in the face of external threats
and internal conflicts by transforming aggression into socially useful structures, and by
turning developing biological drives into cultural creations; that religion originated in
the human species as genetic developments made communication possible through
language and ritual; and that common mental worlds, adapted to specific landscapes,
were produced through myths and beliefs, distinguished by superhuman powers or
beings who guaranteed the system in which they were basic elements. No wonder,

Walter Burkert and a Natural Theory of Religion 227

then, that religion has been ubiquitous as well as persistent, deriving as it does from a
common human biological nature. The connection forged by language and religion
between evolutionary history and culture accounts for the recurrence of religious
representations, with rituals to direct aggression along socially constructive channels and
myths to store the socially useful information, with hierarchies and messengers to link
the various sectors of a religious world, with explanations for success and failure within
a particular religious framework, with gifts and reciprocity to enable a system to operate,
and with signs and guarantees of meaning to make sense of both experience and the
Burkerts theory is a natural theory of religion in two senses. First, though not natural
in the sense of being so widespread and generally accepted in many or even most
societies, and so instilled by processes of socialisation or so integrated into a particular
social system as to appear obvious or self-evident, religion for him is natural in the sense
that human biological origins both constrain and create possibilities for cultures. It
follows that beliefs in gods are not constructed by observing nature or natural
phenomena. Second, religion for Burkert is natural in the sense that it is to be
understood scientifically rather than theologically by an appeal to revelation or a
supernatural realm. Religion is quite natural: Natural religion, that is, basic and
common forms of addressing the supernatural, did not develop in a void but through
adaptation to a specific landscape, conditioned by the age-old evolution of human
life (CS, 21).
Questions remain, of course, and the essays that follow pursue them. Gustavo
Benavides inquires into the disparity between the origin of religion and its subsequent
growth, particularly as technology allows the human organism to move from conditions
of scarcity to a luxurious surplus of religious forms. C. Robert Phillips raises questions
about the adequacy of HN and CS to account for the data of Roman religion. Robert
Segal questions the links Burkert forges between myth and ritual and of both to biology,
between animal and human rituals, between biology and culture, between social threat
and social solidarity. Steven Wasserstrom asks us to think about the adequacy of
Burkerts theory to deal with negative forces and irrational features in society, and to
consider dysfunctional aspects of religion. Walter Burkert responds to all of these

Burkert, Walter, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology In Early Religions, Cambridge, MA, Harvard
University Press 1996.
Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion, trans. John Raan, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press;
Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1985 [1977].
Burkert, Walter, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, trans.
Peter Bing, Berkeley, University of California Press 1983 [1972].
Burkert, Walter, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, trans. Edwin L. Minar, Jr, Cambridge,
MA, Harvard University Press 1972 [1962].
Burkert, Walter, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, Berkeley, University of
California Press 1979.

LARRY J. ALDERINK is Professor of Religion, Concordia College. He is the author

of Creation and Salvation in Ancient Orphism (Scholars Press, 1981) as well as of articles on
ancient Greek religion. His current research focuses on Greek tragedy.
Department of Religion, Concordia College, Moorhead, MN 56562, U.S.A. E-mail: