Dieterich, Albrecht

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DIETERICH, ALBRECHT (18661908), German philologist and historian of Greco-Roman religions. Born in Bad Hersfeld (in the Hesse region of Germany), Albrecht Dieterich completed his secondary studies in the school where his father (who wanted Dieterich to become a theologian) was a member of the faculty. At the University of Leipzig in 18851886, Dieterich studied the New Testament and church history; he also took an interest in the philosophy of religion in general and enrolled in courses in classical philology (taught by Georg Curtius, Otto Crusius, and Otto Ribbeck). He pursued higher studies at the University of Bonn from 1886 to 1888, where the teaching of Hermann Usener (whose daughter he later married) had decisive influence upon his scientific orientation. He also studied under Franz Bücheler, who introduced him to funerary epigraphy, and under Reinhard Kekulé, who taught him to appreciate iconography.

Dieterich consolidated the bases of his philological training at Usener's urging, who had him write a dissertation on Aeschylus. He then worked on an edition (with comments) of the magical papyrus J 384 of Leiden; it was submitted to a competition sponsered by Bücheler and won the prize (the text was published in the Jahrbücher für klassische Philologie, supp. vol. 16, 1888). In this work Dieterich showed his concern for historical and linguistic comprehension of the papyrus's strange elements (that at first glance appear irrational) by paying attention to how these elements manifest the marginal strains of Greco-Roman religion (e.g., Orphism, Hermetism, and Gnosticism). Having obtained his doctoral degree in 1888, he passed his state examination in 1889 with his dissertation addressing the question, "What do we know about the theism or pantheism of Plato?" In 1891 he qualified as a doctor of philosophy at the University of Marburg with his work De hymnis Orphicis capitula quinque, in which the problems of literary and religious history are treated together. (The hypothesis that he advanced in this bookthat of an Alexandrian elaboration of some "Orphic hymns"is no longer supported, but nevertheless it is still generally agreed that certain aspects of Orphism in Ptolemaic Egypt deserve attention.)

He had at first planned to edit another magical papyrus of Leiden (J 395) as part of his doctoral work; it was instead published as an appendix to his Abraxas (1891). This book, written in homage to Usener, displayed Dieterich's remarkable mastery over hermetic and Gnostic literature. He applied himself in Abraxas to uncovering in this literature elements of Stoic, Orphic, astrological, Egyptian, and Judaic origin. Yet for all that he did not neglect Classical Greek literature (especially Aeschylus and Aristophanes). He wrote the article "Aischylos" for the Real-Encyclopädie (1893); in this article the religious sense of tragic grandeur surpasses the level of purely verbal and bibliographical erudition. The origins of Christianity were part of his concern as well. His study of the Apocalypse of Peter, a text discovered in a tomb in Akhmim, Egypt, led to the publication of Nekyia (1893), an in-depth study of the Greek tradition of descent (katabasis ) into the underworld and of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition. It stressed the importance of popular beliefs and of beliefs of popular origin at the periphery of official cults or of Classical paganism.

During 1894 and 1895, a long Mediterranean voyage took him to Greece, Asia Minor, Naples and Pompeii, Sicily, and finally Rome. He thus made direct contact with the objects of his studies: the countrysides, the representational monuments, the common people's way of life, and the ever-living folklore in rustic festivals. The paintings of Campania (commented upon by August Mau) and Italian theater inspired Dieterich's book Pulcinella (1897), a perspicacious study of the history of comic characters from classical antiquity extending into the present. His visit to the Lateran Museum resulted in his publication in 1896 of a commentary on the epitaph of Aberkios (a bishop of Hierapolis, Phrygia) in which he proposed a pagan interpretation, which generated both enthusiastic support (e.g., from Salomon Reinach) and sharp criticism (e.g., from Franz Cumont).

In 1895 he became an auxiliary professor of philology at the University of Giessen, and then became in 1897 a full professor there, succeeding Edvard Schwartz. His teaching on Greek and Latin literature made reference to iconography as well as to popular mythology. Greatly impressed by Erwin Rohde's Psyché (18901894) and Wilhelm Mannhardt's Wald- und Feldkulte (18751877), he became fascinated with ethnography and collaborated in the projects of the Hessische Vereinigung für Volkskunde. In this activity he always insisted upon the necessity of providing a philological basis for comparisons. He held conferences at Frankfurt on the rites of birth and death that served as a prelude for his book Mutter Erde (1905).

Dieterich was interested in the magical aspect of literature manifested in the mysticism of signs, in demonology, and in all the aberrant and disturbing fringes of Greco-Roman paganism, which until then were somewhat neglected by classical philologists. In a similar way, Oriental religions also concerned him. In a letter written in 1897, he argued that the Egyptian deity Sarapis was a syncretic god foreshadowing a kind of henotheism that would pave the way for Christian monotheism. Hugo Hepding, with his book Attis (1903), inaugurated the series "Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten," which Dieterich, along with Richard Wünsch, edited until Dieterich's death. The same year saw the publication of Dieterich's Eine Mithrasliturgie, an expansion of an article he had published in 1902 ("Die Religion des Mithras" in the journal Bon ner Jahrbücher ); the topic was the famous papyrus in the National Papyrus Library in Paris (Supplementum Graecum 574) that contains the "formula for immortality." Although Dieterich's description of this text as a Mithraic liturgy is no longer generally accepted, his commentary does display prodigious erudition.

Dieterich moved to the University of Heidelberg in 1903, succeeding Crusius as professor of classical philology. There he dedicated himself mainly to the history of religions. Beginning in 1904, his editing (at first with Thomas Achelis but from 1905 to 1908 alone) of the journal Archiv für Religionswissenschaft occupied the greater part of his time. This, however, did not prevent him from writing a magnum opus that he had been nurturing for some time: Mutter Erde: Ein Versuch über Volksreligion (1905). In it he defends the thesis that rites of birth and death can be explained as functions of a fundamental belief, a primitive and universal given in the history of religions. His idea enjoyed considerable success. It was answered with justified criticisms (for example, by Olof Pettersson in his book Mother Earth, Lund, 1967); yet the work still has merit, and any criticisms of it ought to be nuanced (see my review of Pettersson's book in Revue de l'histoire des religions 175, 1969, pp. 6971). Significantly, Mutter Erde was dedicated to Usener on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. In the same year (1905), a supplement to Archiv für Religionswissenschaft was also dedicated to Usener; in it, a piece entitled "Sonnentag" by Dieterich drew a relationship between a Heidelberg custom and the ancient and modern feasts of Palm Sunday. He was planning one work on popular religion and another on the origins of Christianity.

Dieterich died of a cerebral apoplexy shortly after beginning a course of lectures at Heidelberg; he was fully active and in the prime of his career. His students (notably Friedrich Pfister, Eugen Fehrle, and Otto Weinreich) bear the clear stamp of his teaching. He contributed to a greater understanding of Greco-Roman paganism by opening classical philology to the exegesis of obscure texts from late antiquity; he also contributed to the comparative study of religions and to the study of popular traditions without ever losing sight of the great Hellenic literary tradition.


Dietrich's published works include the following:

De hymnis orphicis capitula quinque. Marburg, 1891.

Abraxas: Studien zur Religionsgeschichte des spätern Altertums. Leipzig, 1891.

Nekyia: Beiträge zur Erklärung der neuentdeckten Petrusapokalypse. Leipzig, 1893.

Die Grabinschrift des Aberkios. Leipzig, 1896.

Pulcinella pompjanische Wandbilder und römische Satyrspiele. Leipzig, 1897.

Eine Mithrasliturgie (1903). 3d ed. Edited by Otto Weinreich. Leipzig, 1923.

Mutter Erde: Ein Versuch über Volksreligion (1905). 3d ed. Leipzig, 1925.

Kleine Schriften. Edited by Richard Wünsch. Leipzig, 1911. Includes detailed biographical information on Dieterich.

New Sources

Betz, Hans Dieter. The "Mithras Liturgy," Text, Translation, and Commentary. Tübingen, 2003. See pages 1426.

Marchand, Suzanne. "From Liberalism to Neoromanticism: Albrecht Dieterich, Richard Reitzenstein, and the Religious Turn in fin-de-siècle German Classical Studies." In Out of Arcadia: Classics and Politics in Germany in the Age of Burckhardt, Nietzsche and Wilamowitz, edited by Ingo Gildenhard and Martin Ruehl, pp. 129160. London, 2003.

Pettersson, Olof. Mother Earth: An Analysis of the Mother Earth Concepts according to Albrecht Dieterich. Lund, 1967.

Wessels, Antje Ursprungszauber. Zur Rezeption von Hermann Useners Lehre von der religiösen Begriffsbildung (RGVV 51). Berlin and New York, 2003. See pages 96128.

Robert Turcan (1987)

Translated from French by Paul C. Duggan
Revised Bibliography