Skip to main content

Kerényi, Károly


KERÉNYI, KÁROLY (18971973), was a Hungarian-born scholar of classical philology, the history of religions, and mythology. He was born in the southeastern corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the town of Temesvár (now Timisoara, Romania). Growing up in a Roman Catholic family of small landowners, Kerényi learned Latin and was drawn to the study of languages. Classical philology was his major subject at the University of Budapest; his doctoral dissertation (1919) was entitled "Plato and Longinus: Investigations in Classical Literary and Aesthetic History." He spent several years as a secondary-school teacher, traveled in Greece and Italy, and undertook postdoctoral studies at the universities of Greifswald, Heidelberg, and Berlin, under Hermann Diels, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Eduard Norden, Eduard Meyer, and Franz Boll. To Boll he dedicated his first book, Die griechisch-orientalische Romanliteratur in religionsgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung (1927), the scholarly reception of which led to Kerényi's appointment as privatdocent in the history of religions at the University of Budapest. He became professor of classical philology and ancient history at Pécs in 1934 and at Szeged in 1941, while retaining his docentship at Budapest.

During a visit to Greece in 1929, Kerényi met Walter F. Otto (18741958), whose approach to the history of religions influenced him profoundly. He resolved to combine the "historical" and the "theological" methods and to go beyond the limits of academic philology. His first works in this new direction were the essay collection Apollon (1937) and Die antike Religion (1940).

Two significant influences from outside his field came to bear on Kerényi in the 1930s. In 1934 he began a correspondence with Thomas Mann (18751955) that, except for a wartime hiatus, lasted until Mann's death. In the late 1930s Kerényi came into contact with C. G. Jung (18751961), and their first joint publication on mythology appeared in 1941. Jung encouraged Kerényi's move to Switzerland in 1943 as a cultural attaché charged with maintaining contact with the Western democracies, in spite of Nazi domination of Hungary; the following year, when the Germans occupied his homeland, Kerényi could not return to Hungary and chose permanent exile in 1947. Fifteen years later he and his family became Swiss citizens. They lived near or in Ascona, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where Kerényi led the life of an independent humanist, though he taught occasionally in Basel, Bonn, and Zurich. He was a cofounder in 1948 of the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, where he also lectured.

In the course of his work with Jung, Kerényi conceived a plan to study the Greek gods with the aim of developing a view of the Greek pantheon that modern people could encompass; to this end he took the findings of psychology into consideration, while maintaining that he followed a path separate from that of Jungian psychology. As Kerényi saw it, every view of mythology is a view of human culture. Thus, every "theology" is at the same time an "anthropology." Kerényi's method was to test the "authenticity" of mythological tradition by examining stylistic traits. The essence of his work, Kerényi thought, consisted in establishing a science of ancient religion and mythology based not merely on a detailed knowledge of the literature and archaeology but also on a reciprocal sympathy between the interpreter and his material; this would broaden the field of learning already opened by traditional historical methods. Mythologie der Griechen (1951) and Die Heroen der Griechen (1958) are his most comprehensive achievements in this regard.

In exile, Kerényi's reputation as a mythologist prospered among scholars, and he also became known as a popular interpreter of myths. His honors included membership in the Norwegian Royal Academy of Sciences, an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala, the Humboldt Society gold medal, and the Pirckheimer Ring of Nuremberg. In addition, he was a Bollingen Foundation fellow from 1947 until his death in 1973. Between 1941 and 1963 he lectured frequently at the annual Eranos conferences in Ascona.

The Science of Mythology

Kerényi's approach to Greek religion in his first book on Hellenistic romance literature was consistent with the standard historical method. In the 1930s he followed Otto's interpretation of the Greek godheads as "forms of being" (Seinsgestalten ), that is, ideal figures corresponding to particular spheres of reality in the common experience of the world, whose essential aspects are represented by means of symbolic features. The exposure to these "forms" has a strong emotional impact, but the impact is not merely a psychic phenomenon, because it has an objective reference. Kerényi, like Otto, made use of the anthropologist Leo Frobenius's Ergriffenheit the idea of "being-grasped" by prominent phenomena of the external worldwhich promotes myth-making activity in human cultures. Kerényi claimed that scientific inquiry into religions does not face the mind's "illusions" but rather its "realities" ("Realitäten der Seele," in Apollon, 1937, p. 27). Mythology, in other words, is grounded in actual human life, not insane or childish imagery, as positivism had envisaged it. At the same time, however, such fundamental "humanism" cannot be understood, as historicism understands it, by explaining religion as if it were only the output of a given cultural and social setting. The human "reality" reflected in myths and symbols is something deeper than a simple matter of facts. It is a complex interaction between a human being's consciousness and the riddles of the existence by which he or she is "grasped" and stimulated to reflect and to interpret. Kerényi's perspective is thus equally distant from metaphysical theology and from atheistic anthropologythough it is "theological" (in a Greek sense), because the representations of the gods are taken seriously, and also "anthropological" insofar as the human being is the ultimate concern of religious discourse. For this reason it has been defined as a peculiar form of religious phenomenology or hermeneutics (Magris, 1975).

The basic difference with respect to Otto lies in the fact that Kerényi shares only partially his mentor's neoclassical patterns of thought. Kerényi does not consider the Greek mythological figures as exclusively luminous and positive forms of being contemplated by the Hellenic "spirit." He aims to analyze the divine forms to underline their negative aspects or "dark side" (Schattenseite ). For example, Apollo appears on one hand as linked to beauty and light; but on the other hand he is a gloomy death-bringing god, whose symbol is the wolf. The objective experience of the polarity of life and death, of world and afterworld, is part of the complexity of human reality: this is what can actually "grasp" the mind and be given a mythological form.

While working out this research project, Kerényi found Jung to be a natural partner; their collaboration lasted for a couple of decades after their joint programmatic work, The Science of Mythology (1941). The founder of analytical psychology had been keenly interested in mythology since his break with Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical movement. Jung assumed that along with the individual unconscious, which owed its existence to personal experience, a second psychic system existedthe collective unconsciousinherited by all individuals and consisting of primordial forms, the so-called archetypes, whose main manifestations within human history were mythological constructs. According to this view, which Kerényi accepted in principle, a comparison among different cultures was suitable because essentially the same archetypes appear everywhere as a common heritage of humankind. In The Science of Mythology, for example, the Greek myth of Persephone parallels the religious tradition of a remote Indonesian tribe (discovered by Adolf Jensen, a pupil of Frobenius), although any historical link between the two cultures is highly hypothetical.

Another issue Jung and Kerényi shared was the analogy between the internal structure of myths and dreams, so that, as Kerényi put it, the myth can be defined as a "collective dream," and the dream as an "individual myth." The mythologist is allowed to apply the method of free association that Jung had been using with his patients, thus uncovering in apparently minor details a decisive connection between different mythological figures or events, in which an analogous archetypal theme is expressed (e.g., the femaleness portrayed in different ancient goddesses). But the most important thing Kerényi derived from Jung was undoubtedly the idea of the essential ambivalence of human nature. The Jungian distinction not simply between consciousness and unconscious, but also between the soul and the "shadow," and between animus and anima (the male and female aspect of each individual soul), should have stimulated Kerényi's view of the mythological thought as expressing the human ambivalence through the polarity of light side and dark side, and through the deep meaning of gender symbolism. Moreover, Kerényi applies, in a way, to the understanding of mythology the method of the analytical therapy, according to which the formation of the "self" takes place when one is able to establish a constructive interaction with one's hidden "double." In a similar way, the protagonist of a mythological narrative also has to cope with and overcome the manifold figures of death. This is the archetypal meaning of the different situations Kerényi investigated with profound sensitivity: the fight against a dragon; travel in unknown lands; the descent to the underworld; initiation; and the heroic contest. Psychology enhances the study of myths by adding a keener insight into the basic questions all humans generally face (allgemeinmenschlich ). The mythologist thus performs a "humanistic inquiry on the soul" (humanistische Seelenforschung ).

Nevertheless, Kerényi carefully avoided appearing as a psychologist or a Jungian historian of religions like Eric Neumann. Kerényi adopted a softer version of the archetype theory. He proposed that this term should be employed (in keeping with ancient Greek) only as an adjective, not as a noun. There exist no "archetypes" as everlasting psychical structures in human minds, but rather "archetypal" images, meanings, and situations that are deeply rooted in the universal human experience. Moreover, these archetypal images and meanings are given historical consistency only in one specific cultural setting, or more than one, provided that their being interconnected is supported by anthropological evidence. The science of mythology deals with "culture-typical" phenomena (kulturtypisch ), but it achieves its goal as a "humanistic" discipline by trying to grasp their "archetypal" relevance (archetypisch ) at a deeper level than the historical one.

Kerényi carried out this kind of "excavation" (the method of archaeology offering in his view the nearest resemblance to the mythologist's work) in the fifteen books and several brilliant papers he wrote from 1942 to 1962, the most creative period of his scientific career. The Greek religion emerged in the Mycenaean and archaic age on the background of the pre-Greek Mediterranean substrate, mainly evidenced in the Minoan culture of ancient Crete. Its general frame seems to have been a dialectic of life and death, as well as a sort of circularity between the natural world and the underworld. This dialectic was symbolically exhibited in such ritual performances as the labyrinth dance (Labyrinth-Studien, 1942; Werke 1) or portrayed in key mythological figures that underwent a complicated "culture-typical" evolution. Initially, the female godhead prevails, whereas the male godhead plays a subordinate function as begetter (Poseidon-type) or divine child (Dionysos-type). The archetypal mother-begetter scheme evolved eventually to the husband-wife couple (Zeus und Hera, 1972). The idea of the origin of life also appears in a masculine version in the Cabyrian couple (father-son) around whom the mysteries of Samothrace were centered (Mysterien der Kabiren, 1944).

The idea of life as being essentially exposed to death but nevertheless triumphant over death and suffering is another basic archetypal idea expressed in different ways by the figures of Hermes and Dionysos (Hermes, 1943; Dionysos, 1976). The feminine version of the same idea is embodied in the mother-daughter couple (Demeter and Persephone) of the Eleusinian mysteries. In this case, the rape of the maiden by Hades (for Kerényi a form of chthonic Dionysos) emphasizes the dark side of the gender relationship, but the male's violence also implements the female's transition from virginity to motherhood, whereby a divine child (a form of younger Dionysos) is given birth miraculously within the realm of the dead. It is noteworthy that many issues were interlaced in an apparently simple tale: the complexity of the female nature; the process of the mother-daughter, father-son duplication; the switching from negative to positive; and the knowledge, transmitted by the mystery cult, that even the sinister sphere of death allows life to endure and the deceased to join it again (Mysterien von Eleusis, 1962).

The science of mythology does not aim to build a systematic theory. Its work consists in analyzing definite blocks of mythical and ritual tradition; its requirements are cleverness and extensive acquaintance with philology, archaeology, and even the "indirect tradition" offered by the very sites and landscapes to which mythological tales were linked. Moreover, as Kerényi pointed out in his only methodological essay (Umgang mit Göttlichem, 1955; Werke, 5.1), the historian of religions, as well as the historian of art, cannot operate as a pure scholar, since dealing (Umgang ) with the divine requires a certain sense or taste for its object. The historian of religions must appreciate in the mythological figures the attempt made by the human mind to elaborate in symbolic form its experience of something transcending it. Even if mythological figures did not "exist" anywhere, they ought not to be dismissed as a bare human invention, for the divine represents the deeper levels of being that humans actually experience every day (though they are unable to master them). The foremost mythogenic situations are birth, begetting, and death (the "high moments of life," Höhepunkte des Lebens ); in Kerényi's formula, "the myth is myth of man."

In his last years, the debate on the "demythologization" question raised by Rudolf Bultmann (18841976) offered Kerényi the opportunity to clarify his own assumptions. Religion ought not be "demythologized" in order to be authentic, because it is grounded neither on doctrines nor fables, but on events (Geschehen ) in which the divine dimension of reality is perceived while crossing the dimension of ordinary life. Only the myth is appropriate for expressing the deeper level of the experience. Thus the Greek word for "god" (theos ) originally had an adjectival rather than a substantive meaningit stood for a property of the experienced event and was not a definition of an abstract object (see Werke 7).

See Also

Brelich, Angelo; Jung, C. G.; Otto, Walter F.



Kerényi (Károly, Karl, Charles, or Carlo, according to the language in which his work appeared) produced 295 separate original works, chiefly in German, but also in Hungarian and Italian. With different versions and translations, the total number of his publications is more than five hundred; some 470 appeared during his lifetime and some forty were issued posthumously. Kerényi's first book is Die griechisch-orientalische Romanliteratur in religionsgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung (Tübingen, Germany, 1927, second edition Darmstadt, Germany, 1962). The collected works, including monographs on philology, mythology, and literature, as well as diaries and travel journals, have been published in eight volumes (twelve were originally projected) as Werke in Einzelausgaben, published by Langen-Müller (Munich and Vienna), and originally under the editorship of Kerényi's wife, Magda Lukács. For a complete bibliography, excluding articles published in periodicals, updated to 1975 by Lukács, see the Langen-Müller edition of Dionysos (1976), pp. 447474.

The Langen-Müller program was suspended after publishing eight volumes, each one containing several essays under a general title:

  • 1. Humanistische Seelenforschung (1966)
  • 2. Auf Spuren des Mythos (1967)
  • 3. Tage- und Wanderbücher (1969)
  • 4. Apollon und Niobe (1980)
  • 5.1. Wege und Weggenossen I (1985)
  • 5.2. Wege und Weggenossen II (1988)
  • 7. Antike Religion (1971)
  • 8. Dionysos: Urbild des unzerstörbaren Lebens (1976)

Klett-Cotta (Stuttgart, Germany) later republished vol. 8 (1994), vol. 7 (1995), and vol. 1 (1996), adding Mythologie der Griechen (1997), Töchter der Sonne (1997), and Urbilder der griechischen Religion (1998, containing Hermes, Asklepios, Mysterien von Eleusis and Promethus ). See also the correspondence with Thomas Mann, Gespräch in Briefen (Zurich, 1960) and with Hermann Hesse, Briefwechsel aus der Nähe (Munich and Vienna, 1984). Also of biographical interest is the correspondence with Furio Jesi, Demone e mito: Carteggio 19641968, edited by Magda Kerényi and Andrea Cavalletti (Macerata, Italy, 1999). Kerényi's writings in Italian have also been published under the title Scritti italiani (19551971), edited by Giampiero Moretti (Naples, Italy, 1993). After the fall of the Communist regime in Hungary, Kerényi's early writings in Hungarian, along with some Hungarian translations of his German works, were published.

Many of Kerényi's major works have been translated into English:

Apollon: The Wind, the Spirit, and the God (1937). Translated by Jon Solomon. Dallas, Tex., 1983.

The Religion of the Greeks and Romans (1940). Translated by Christopher Holme. New York, 1962.

Essays on a Science of Mythology (1941). Coauthored with C. G. Jung. Translated by Richard Francis C. Hull. Princeton, N.J., 1969; reprinted as The Science of Mythology; London and New York, 2001.

Hermes, the Guide of the Souls (1942). Translated by Murray Stein. Zurich, 1976.

Goddesses of Sun and Moon (1944). Translated by Murray Stein. London, 1979; reprint, Dallas, Tex., 1991.

Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence (1946). Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton, N.J., 1997.

The Gods of the Greeks (1951). Translated by Norman Cameron. New York, 1951; reprint, London, 1974.

Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (1952). Translated by Murray Stein. New York, 1978.

Asklepios: Archetypal Image of the Physician's Existence (1954). Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York, 1959; reprint, 1997.

The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (1954). Co-authored with Paul Radin and C. G. Jung. Translated by Richard Francis C. Hull. Reprint, New York, 1990.

The Heroes of the Greeks (1958). Translated by Herbert Jennings Rose. London, 1974; reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1997.

Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter (1962). Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York, 1967; reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Zeus and Hera: Archetypal Image of Father, Husband, and Wife (1972). Translated by Christopher Holme. Princeton, N.J., 1975.

Mythology and Humanism: The Correspondence of Thomas Mann and Karl Kerényi. Translated by Alexander Gelley. Ithaca, N.Y., 1975.

Dionysos: Archetypal Image of the Indestructible Life. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton, N.J., 1976; reprint, 1996.


Earlier evaluations include Charles Picard, "Un bilan moderne de la religion antique," Diogène 25 (1959): 125141; Hervé Rousseau, "La présentification du divin: L'oeuvre de Karl Kerényi," Critique 15 (1959): 433454; Geo Widengren, "Karl Kerényi siebzig Jahre," Numen 14 (1967): 164165; Karl Kerényi: Der Humanismus des integralen Menschen (Mannheim, 1971); Furio Jesi, Letteratura e mito (Turin, Italy, 1968), see pp. 3544; and Hellmut Sichtermann, "Karl Kerényi," Arcadia: Zeitschrift für vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft 11 (1976): 150177.

The only encompassing monograph as of 2004 is Aldo Magris, Carlo Kerényi e la ricerca fenomenologica della religione (Milan, 1975). Several further studies are available in Italian, including Furio Jesi, Materiali mitologici (Turin, Italy, 1979), pp. 380, where Magris's work is strongly criticized. A survey on Kerényi's theory of language is presented by Serena Cattaruzza Derossi, "Il problema linguistico in K. Kerényi," in Miscellanea 4 (Udine, Italy, 1984): 81119.

Several papers illustrate Kerényi's relationships with leading Italian scholars of the history and philosophy of religion. These include Dino Pieraccioni, "Mario Untersteiner e Carlo Kerényi: Due spiriti europei in un epistolario," Nuova antologia 2162 (1987): 293328; Nicola Cusumano, "Károly Kerényi in Italia," Il Veltro 37 (1993): 161170; Riccardo Dottori, "Karl Kerényi ai Convegni internazionali di Enrico Castelli (19551971)," Mythos 7 (1995): 3357; Paola Pisi, "Dioniso da Nietzsche a Kerényi," Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni 69, no. 27 (2003): 129218; and Natale Spineto, "Károly Kerényi e gli studi storico-religiosi in Italia," Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni 27, no. 2 (2003): 385410. See also Giampiero Cavaglià, "Karl Kerényi e Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Il viaggio ermetico," Rivista di estetica 24 (1984): 1831; and Volker Losemann, "Die Krise der 'alten Welt' und die Gegenwart: Franz Altheim und Karl Kerényi im Dialog," in Peter Kneissl and Volker Losemann, eds. Imperium Romanum: Studien zur Geschichte und Rezeption (Stuttgart, 1998).

Miscellaneous books dedicated to Kerényi include, Kerényi Károly és a humanizmus (Zurich, 1977); Edgar C. Polomé, ed., Essays in Memory of Károly Kerényi (Washington, D.C., 1984); Luciano Arcella, ed., Károly Kerényi: Incontro con il divino (Rome, 1999); and János György Szilágyi, ed., Mitológia és humanitás (Budapest, 1999).

William McGuire (1987)

Aldo Magris (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Kerényi, Károly." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 20 Mar. 2019 <>.

"Kerényi, Károly." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (March 20, 2019).

"Kerényi, Károly." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved March 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.