Brelich, Angelo

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BRELICH, ANGELO (19131977), was an Italian historian of religions. After completing his academic studies in Hungary under Károly Kerényi and Andreas Alföldi, Brelich became the assistant to the chair of history of religions at the University of Rome, a chair then held by Raffaele Pettazzoni, whom he succeeded as professor ordinarius in 1958. His first publication, Aspetti della morte nelle iscrizioni sepolcrali nell'Impero romano (Aspects of Death in the Sepulchral Inscriptions of the Roman Empire; 1937), was based upon a thorough exploration of the Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum and anticipated Brelich's future interest in methodological reflection. There followed in 1949 Die geheime Schutzgottheit von Rom (The Secret Protecting Deity of Rome) and Vesta, which show the strong influence of his teacher Kerényi and bear witness to Brelich's own search for scientific originality. In these two books, which were conceived as a unit, Brelich distinguishes between "analytical research," aimed at delineating the fundamental elements of themes present in a divine figure, and "historical research," which is concerned with the figure's specific content and further developments.

A new period in Brelich's studies began in the 1950s. Tre variazioni romane sul tema delle origini (Three Roman Variations on the Theme of Origins; 1955) emphasizes the theme of historical creativity. Unlike the evolutionist notion of survival (i. e., the notion of vestigial cultural elements surviving merely as erratic blocks in the living stream of more recent cultural formations), Brelich's notion of historical creativity implies the validation of elements already found within different mythological and religious horizons on the part of new, emerging cultural-historical settings. Brelich also makes use of a basic opposition between primordial chaos or "non-order" and the order that results from the organization of the cosmos. These methodological principles recur in the volume Gli eroi greci (The Greek Heroes; 1958), where Brelich advocates the inclusion of the study of the religions of the classical world within the problematic of the history of religions. In the same book, Brelich also reflects on the type of the hero, especially as the object of a funerary cult and in its connection with cosmogonic themes. He was later to alter those views expressed here, however, because of the radicalization of his analytic hermeneutics.

During this period Brelich became deeply interested in polytheism, which had been a rather neglected topic in the field of comparative, cultural-historical studies. He saw in polytheism a religious phenomenon typical of the archaic "high cultures" such as were found in Japan, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece, as well as in Central America and Peru. He believed that the polytheistic conception of "god" or deity was to be distinguished from both the ghosts of animism and the dei otiosi ("idle gods") of some nonliterate cultures. Polytheism for Brelich is a sui generis phenomenon and the proper object of historical research aimed at discovering its structure and raison d'être in the religious history of humankind.

Guerre, agoni, e culti nella Grecia arcaica (Wars, Ritual Competitions, and Cults in Archaic Greece; 1961) marked Brelich's growing interest in initiatory institutions. These institutions are central to his Paides e Parthenoi (1969), which is a study of the way in which tribal initiation rites were adapted to use in the Greek polis once their original purpose had been lost. Here again is seen Brelich's interest in historical creativity. He showed less interest in soteriological and eschatological aspects of these institutions.

Brelich left unfinished a complex history of the cult of Jupiter, a history that was to trace Jupiter's development from the status of an Indo-European prepolytheistic heavenly being to that of the head of an entire pantheon, noting especially the political implications of this development. As for his view of religion as a general phenomenon, Brelich's introduction to Henri-Charles Puech's Histoire des religions (1970) seems to indicate that he accepted functionalist explanations.


A notable work by Brelich not mentioned in the text is his posthumously published Storia delle religioni: Perche? (Naples, 1979). Two memorial volumes for Brelich have appeared. They are Perennitas: Studi in onore di Angelo Brelich, edited by Giulia Piccaluga (Rome, 1980), and Religioni e civiltà: Scritti in memoria di Angelo Brelich (Bari, 1982).

Ugo Bianchi (1987)

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Brelich, Angelo

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