Harrison, Jane E.

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HARRISON, JANE E. (18501928), English authority on ancient Greek religion. Harrison, one of the first female students of the University of Cambridge, taught classics throughout her career at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her reputation rests primarily on three works: Prolegomena to the History of Greek Religion (1903), Themis (1912), and Epilegomena (1921).

Prolegomena, published when its author was fifty-three years old, testifies to her recognition of the importance of the still comparatively new disciplines of archaeology and anthropology at a time when most teachers of the Greek and Latin classics were convinced not only that the objects of their study contained nothing of the "primitive" but also that the behavior of "primitive" societies could teach them nothing relevant to their studies. For Harrison, the living essence of Greek religion was not the Olympians, so prominent in the literature and in the major temples of Greece, but the ancient rituals, performed long after their original significance was forgotten. In the spirit of the anthropology of her day, she was both evolutionist and comparatist, but for her, evolution did not necessarily result in progress. In the introduction to Themis she characterized the gods of Homer, the sculptors, and the mythographers as "like a bouquet of cut flowers, whose bloom is brief, because they have been severed from their roots." The goal of Prolegomena was to discover those roots.

Harrison was always open to new influences: in the introduction to Themis Bergson and Durkheim appear, joined in the preface to the second edition (1927) by Freud, who, together with Gilbert Murray, had convinced her that "the full-blown god, the Olympian, has a biological function which could never be adequately filled by the [eniautos- ] daimon [that is, the 'year-spirit'] who lies behind each and every primitive god." The analysis of the year-spirit, together with his ritual, is the goal of Themis. Harrison did not abandon belief in the eniautos-daimon, of whose importance field anthropologists were by this time supplying evidence, but she now acknowledged that the Olympians were not merely the products of art and literature and that they served a religious function. The balance had already been corrected in Epilegomena, whose publication preceded the second edition of Themis. In Epilegomena the influence of Freud and Jung is everywhere apparent, together with that of "the greatest of Russian philosophers," Vladimir Solovʾev.

For a variety of reasons Themis was not well received. It presented so many new ideas, and drew on so many disciplines, that even workers in the field who sympathized with Harrison's approach to her subject confessed themselves puzzled by some of the work. The introduction to Themis claims to give a simple account of the book's contents, but the account merely highlights the complexity. Harrison had an insatiable appetite for new material, for fresh light on the world and its ways. When she wrote Themis her ideas, stimulated by the new material, were still in ferment. The book's plan and argument are less clear than its author supposed at the time of publication. In addition, some readers found the book threatening. Prolegomena concerns ancient Greece, and indeed a period long antedating the Greek classics. Themis may be concerned with explaining certain Greek cults and rituals, but its thesis of the development of deities from the collective representations of group rituals evidently had a wider relevance. Harrison, an agnostic and a lifelong member of the Rationalist Association, had come to value the religious impulse as an attempt to "apprehend life as one, as indivisible, yet as perennial movement and change." But all dogmas and creeds and the gods associated with them were in her eyes "the eidola of man's marketplace dead men, hollow ghosts."

Epilegomena exhibits a change. Its preface states the book's goal as not merely to summarize the results of many years' work on the origins of Greek religion but to indicate the bearing of these results on religious questions of today. Its third chapter, "The Religion of Today," presents an ascetic view of life which commands her approval. Epilegomena most clearly charts Harrison's intellectual development; read before Prolegomena and Themis, it clarifies the views ex pressed in her earlier books.

Breadth of vision, empathy, and enthusiasm characterize Harrison's work. Its fate is inevitably linked with that of the anthropologists, psychologists, and philosophers whose thought stimulated and molded her own. Some of her conclusions, inevitably, are now of merely historic interest, but the subsequent development of the study of Greek religion has been profoundly influenced by her work.


Each of Harrison's three principal works on Greek religion is currently available in a reprint edition: Prolegomena (1903; reprint, Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1981), Themis (1912; reprint, Boston, 1963), and Epilegomena (1921; reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1962). A standard biography is Jessie G. Stewart's Jane Ellen Harrison: A Portrait from Letters (London, 1959).

New Sources

Burnside, Carol Emma. "Jane Ellen Harrison's Contribution to the Study of Religion." Religion 24 (1994): 6772.

Carpentier, Martha C. "Jane Ellen Harrison and the Ritual Theory." Journal of Ritual Studies 8 (1994): 1126.

Peacock, Sandra J. "An Awful Warmth about Her Heart: The Personal in Jane Harrison's Ideas on Religion." In Cambridge Ritualists Reconsidered, pp. 167184. Atlanta, 1991.

A. W. H. Adkins (1987)

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Harrison, Jane E.