1 Nikobar

British Museum Ancient Greece Religion Essays

Our interest in the theater connects us intimately with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nearly every Greek and Roman city of note had an open-air theater, the seats arranged in tiers with a lovely view of the surrounding landscape. Here the Greeks sat and watched the plays first of Aeschylus, Sophokles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, and of Menander and the later playwrights.

The Greek theater consisted essentially of the orchestra, the flat dancing floor of the chorus, and the theatron, the actual structure of the theater building. Since theaters in antiquity were frequently modified and rebuilt, the surviving remains offer little clear evidence of the nature of the theatrical space available to the Classical dramatists in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. There is no physical evidence for a circular orchestra earlier than that of the great theater at Epidauros dated to around B.C. Most likely, the audience in fifth-century B.C. Athens was seated close to the stage in a rectilinear arrangement, such as appears at the well-preserved theater at Thorikos in Attica. During this early period in Greek drama, the stage and most probably the skene (stage building) were made of wood. Vase paintings depicting Greek comedy from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. suggest that the stage stood about a meter high with a flight of steps in the center. The actors entered from either side and from a central door in the skene, which also housed the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform with sets of scenes. A mechane, or crane, located at the right end of the stage, was used to hoist gods and heroes through the air onto the stage. Greek dramatists surely made the most of the extreme contrasts between the gods up high and the actors on stage, and between the dark interior of the stage building and the bright daylight.

Little is known about the origins of Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (?/24–/55 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is Persians, which was produced in B.C. The roots of Greek tragedy, however, most likely are embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereios, which included processions, sacrifices in the theater, parades, and competitions between tragedians. Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus&#; Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the object of cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served a didactic function, linking it as a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium of communication of ideas.

Unlike the Greek tragedy, the comic performances produced in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the so-called Old Comedy, ridiculed mythology and prominent members of Athenian society. There seems to have been no limit to speech or action in the comic exploitation of sex and other bodily functions. Terracotta figurines and vase paintings dated around and after the time of Aristophanes (?/50–ca. B.C.) show comic actors wearing grotesque masks and tights with padding on the rump and belly, as well as a leather phallus.

In the second half of the fourth century B.C., the so-called New Comedy of Menander (?/43–/91 B.C.) and his contemporaries gave fresh interpretations to familiar material. In many ways comedy became simpler and tamer, with very little obscenity. The grotesque padding and phallus of Old Comedy were abandoned in favor of more naturalistic costumes that reflected the playwrights&#; new style. Subtle differentiation of masks worn by the actors paralleled the finer delineation of character in the texts of New Comedy, which dealt with private and family life, social tensions, and the triumph of love in a variety of contexts.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar


For other people named Jane Harrison, see Jane Harrison (disambiguation).

Jane Ellen Harrison (9 September – 15 April ) was a British classical scholar, linguist. Harrison is one of the founders, with Karl Kerenyi and Walter Burkert, of modern studies in Ancient Greek religion and mythology. She applied 19th century archaeological discoveries to the interpretation of ancient Greek religion in ways that have become standard. She has also been credited with being the first woman to obtain a post in England as a ‘career academic’.[1][2][3] Harrison argued for women's suffrage but thought she would never want to vote herself.[4] Ellen Wordsworth Crofts, later second wife of Sir Francis Darwin, was Jane Harrison's best friend from her student days at Newnham, and during the period from to her death in

Personal life[edit]

Harrison was born in Cottingham, Yorkshire on 9 September Her mother died shortly after she was born and she was educated by a series of governesses. Her governesses taught her German, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew, but she later expanded her knowledge to about sixteen languages, including Russian.

Harrison spent most of her professional life at Newnham, the progressive, recently established college for women at Cambridge. At Newnham, one of her students was Eugenie Sellers, the writer and poet, with whom she lived in England and later in Paris and possibly even had a relationship with in the late s.

Between and Harrison studied Greek art and archaeology at the British Museum under Sir Charles Newton.[clarification needed] Harrison then supported herself lecturing at the museum and at schools (mostly private boy's schools). Her lectures became widely popular and people ended up attending her Glasgow lecture on Athenian gravestones. She travelled to Italy and Germany, where she met the scholar from Prague, Wilhelm Klein. Klein introduced her to Wilhelm Dörpfeld who invited her to participate in his archaeological tours in Greece. Her early book The Odyssey in Art and Literature then appeared in Harrison met the scholar D. S. MacColl, who supposedly asked her to marry him and she declined. Harrison then suffered a severe depression and started to study the more primitive areas of Greek art in an attempt to cure herself.

In Harrison began to publish in the periodical that Oscar Wilde was editing called Woman's World on "The Pictures of Sappho." Harrison also ended up translating Mythologie figurée de la Grèce () by Maxime Collignon as well as providing personal commentary to selections of Pausanias, Mythology & Monuments of Ancient Athens by Margaret Verrall in the same year. These two major works caused Harrison to be awarded honorary degrees from the universities of Durham () and Aberdeen ().

Harrison was then engaged to marry the scholar R. A. Neil, but he unfortunately passed away in before they could marry.

She became the central figure of the group known as the Ritualists at Cambridge. In her book Prolegomena on the Study of Greek Religion appeared. Harrison became close to Francis MacDonald Cornford (–), and when he married in she became extremely upset. She then made a new friendship with Hope Mirrlees whom she referred to as her "spiritual daughter".

Harrison retired from Newnham in and then moved to Paris to live with Mirrlees. She and Mirrlees returned to London in where she was able to publish her memoirs through Leonard and Virginia Woolf's press, The Hogarth Press. She lived three more years, to the age of 77, and passed away at her house in Bloomsbury. She is now buried in St Marylebone cemetery, East Finchley.[5]

Harrison was an atheist.[6][7]


Harrison was, at least ideologically, a moderate suffragist. Rather than support women's suffrage by protesting, Harrison applied her scholarship in anthropology to defend women's right to vote. In responding to an anti-suffragist critic, Harrison demonstrates this moderate ideology:

[The Women's Movement] is not an attempt to arrogate man's prerogative of manhood; it is not even an attempt to assert and emphasize women's privilege of womanhood; it is simply the demand that in the life of woman, as in the life of man, space and liberty shall be found for a thing bigger than either manhood or womanhood – for humanity. (84–85, Alpha and Omega)[citation needed]

To this end, Harrison's motto was Terence's homo sum; humani nihil mihi alienum est ("I am a human being; nothing that is human do I account alien.")


Harrison began formal study at Cheltenham Ladies' College, where she gained a Certificate, and, in , continued her studies in the classics at Cambridge University's Newnham College. Her early work earned Harrison two honorary doctorates, an LLD from University of Aberdeen in and DLitt from the University of Durham in This recognition afforded Harrison the opportunity to return to Newnham College as a lecturer in , and her position was renewed continuously until Harrison retired in

Early work[edit]

Harrison's first monograph, in , drew on the thesis that both Homer's Odyssey and motifs of the Greek vase-painters were drawing upon similar deep sources for mythology, the opinion that had not been common in earlier classical archaeology, that the repertory of vase-painters offered some unusual commentaries on myth and ritual.

Her approach in her great work, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (),[8] was to proceed from the ritual to the myth it inspired.: "In theology facts are harder to seek, truth more difficult to formulate than in ritual."[9] Thus she began her book with analyses of the best-known of the Athenian festivals: Anthesteria, harvest festivals Thargelia, Kallynteria, Plynteria, and the women's festivals, in which she detected many primitive survivals, Thesmophoria, Arrophoria, Skirophoria, Stenia and Haloa.

Cultural evolution (or social Darwinism)[edit]

Harrison alluded to and commented on the cultural applications of Charles Darwin's work. Harrison and her generation depended upon anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (who was himself influenced by Darwin and evolutionary ideas) for some new themes of cultural evolution, especially his work, Primitive Culture: researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom. After a socially Darwinian analysis of the origins of religion, Harrison argues that religiosity is anti-intellectual and dogmatic, yet she defended the cultural necessity of religion and mysticism. In her essay The Influence of Darwinism on the Study of Religion (), Harrison concluded:

Every dogma religion has hitherto produced is probably false, but for all that the religious or mystical spirit may be the only way of apprehending some things, and these of enormous importance. It may also be that the contents of this mystical apprehension cannot be put into language without being falsified and misstated, that they have rather to be felt and lived than uttered and intellectually analyzed; yet they are somehow true and necessary to life. (, Alpha and Omega)

Later life[edit]

World War I marked a deep break in Harrison's life. Harrison never visited Italy or Greece after the war: she mostly wrote revisions or synopses of previous publications, and pacifist leanings isolated her. Upon retiring (in ), Harrison briefly lived in Paris, but she returned to London when her health began to fail.


The critic Camille Paglia[10] has written of Harrison's influence on her own work. Paglia argues that Harrison's career has been ignored by second wave feminists whom Paglia thinks object to Harrison's findings and efface the careers of prominent pre-WWII female scholars to bolster their claims of male domination in academe.


Greek topics[edit]

Books on the anthropological search for the origins of Greek religion and mythology, include:

Essays and reflections[edit]

See also[edit]



  • Harrison, Jane Ellen. Alpha and Omega. AMS Press: New York, (ISBN&#;)
  • Harrison, Jane Ellen, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Internet Archive
  • Peacock, Sandra J. Jane Ellen Harrison: The Mask and the Self. Halliday Lithograph Corp.: West Hanover, MA. (ISBN&#;)
  • Robinson, Annabel. The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (ISBN&#;X). The first substantial biography, with extensive quotes from personal letters.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barnard-Cogno, Camille. "Jane Harrison (–), between German and English Scholarship," European Review of History, Vol.&#;13, Issue&#;4. (), pp.&#;–
  • Beard, Mary. The Invention of Jane Harrison (Harvard University Press, ); ISBN&#;
  • Stewart, Jessie G. Jane Ellen Harrison: a Portrait from Letters A memoir based on her voluminous correspondence with Gilbert Murray.

External links[edit]

  1. ^woaknb.wz.sk
  2. ^woaknb.wz.sk
  3. ^Mary Beard "Living with Jane Harrison",Archived 27 May at the Wayback Machine. A Don's Life blog, The Times website, 22 May
  4. ^woaknb.wz.sk
  5. ^"Jane Harrison – Dictionary of Art Historians." Jane Harrison – Dictionary of Art Historians. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 May
  6. ^Rita R. Wright (). Jane Ellen Harrison's "Handmaiden No More": Victorian Ritualism and the Fine Arts. ProQuest. pp.&#;22–. ISBN&#; Retrieved 16 June &#;
  7. ^Gerald Stanton Smith (). D.S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, –. Oxford University Press. pp.&#;–. ISBN&#; Retrieved 16 June &#;
  8. ^"Once or twice in a generation a work of scholarship will alter an intellectual landscape so profoundly, that everyone is required to re-examine normally unexamined assumptions," Robert Ackerman begins his Introduction to the Princeton University Press reprint,
  9. ^Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religionp.
  10. ^See Paglia's Sexual Personae (passim), and the long essay "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" in Paglia's Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays.

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