Müller, Karl O.

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MÜLLER, KARL O. (17971840), German classical historian and mythologist. Karl Otfried Müller was educated at Breslau and at Berlin under the classical philologist August Böckh. In 1819 he was appointed adjunct professor of ancient art and literature at Göttingen and taught there until 1839, when he left Germany to study and travel. He died of fever in Athens the next year.

Müller may be claimed as the most balanced and versatile classical historian of his time, especially in the area of Greek religion and myth. None before him had portrayed this ancient religion and mythology within such a broad and unfolding historical context. Müller's innovation, as Henri Pinard de la Boullaye said, was "not a thesis but a method." Müller related cult and myth, for example, to such complex matters as the shift from agriculture to war and hunting, the founding of cities and colonization, the movement of tribes, and the way differences in locale and climate affect ritual and belief. His many-sided approach gave scholarly rigor to Johann von Herder's emphasis, a generation earlier, on seeing national culture as an organic whole, developing from its own historical roots, language, customs, and geography. Müller thus opposed the Romantic view, common in his time, of Greek religion as patently derived from India and the East, usually by way of migrating priests. He treated Greek civilization in its own terms and applied any useful method: philology, the history of religions, aesthetics, cartography, archaeology. By this variety of means, he clarified what might be called the historical topography of Greek cults and myths as they arose, flourished, and spread. He traced the way this changed over time, and he tried to assign causes, explaining, for example, how a single deity (such as Demeter) was replaced by the Homeric pantheon, how earlier cults remained visible in later and different forms, why the role of local sanctuaries changed, and why mystery religions emerged.

Müller postulated that cult originates in symbol, which is both a transcending and a material representation; myth comes afterward, as an explanation of the cult. He treated myth mainly as a historical document, a clue that the Greeks themselves gave to the meaning of existing customs, beliefs, and important events. He took myth to be a most reliable guide, however, and he was convinced that the folk mind speaking in myth does not falsify or even invent. (Here he reflected the influence of his friends the famous German folklorists Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.) The most exalted role Müller allowed myth was that of giving an ideal representation to otherwise realistic matters.


Müller's major works are Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie (1825), translated as Introduction to a Scientific System of Mythology (London, 1844); Geschichten hellenischer Stämme und Städte, 3 vols. (Breslau, 18201824), translated as The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1830); and A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, 2 vols. (London, 1840). First published in English, this last work is a translation of Müller's Geschichte der griechischen Literatur bis auf das Zeitalter Alexanders, 2 vols. (Breslau, 1841).

For a general discussion of Müller and other classical historians of his time, see G. P. Gooch's History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1952), chap. 3. A sympathetic view of Müller in the context of history of religions is given by Henri Pinard de la Boullaye in his L'étude comparée des religions, vol. 1 (Paris, 1922), pp. 268276 and 389. A condensed and learned account of Müller and his disciples and opponents is Otto Gruppe's Geschichte der klassischen Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte (Leipzig, 1921), pp. 157165. Müller as a mythologist is discussed, with translated selections, in The Rise of Modern Mythology, 16801860, compiled by me and Robert Richardson (Bloomington, Ind., 1972), pp. 416425.

New Sources

Calder, William M., and Renate Schlesier. Zwischen Rationalismus und Romantik. K. O. Müller und die antike. (Hildesheim, 1998).

Calder, William M., R. Scott Smith, and John Vaio. Teaching the English Wissenschaft: The Letters of Sir George Cornewall to Karl Otfried Müller (18281839). New York, 2002.

Fittschen, Klaus. "Karl Otfried Müller zum 150. Todestag: Ansprache anlässlich der Gedenkfeier am 25. Oktober 1990." Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. Athenische Abteilung 106 (1991): 17.

Gercke, Hans-Joachim. "Karl Otfried Müller und das Land der Griechen." Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. Athenische Abteilung 106 (1991): 935.

Momigliano, Arnald. "K. O. Müller's Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie and the meaning of Myth." Annali della Scuoloa Normale Superiore di Pisa 13 (1983): 673689. Momigliano was also the editor of a monographic issue of the same journal entirely devoted to this German scholar (Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa 14, 1984).

Nickau, Klaus. "Karl Otfried Müller, Professor der Klassischen Philologie 18191840." In Die klassischen Altertumswissenschaften an der Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. Eine Ringvorlesung zu ihrer Geschichte, edited by Carl Joachim Classen, pp. 2750. Göttingen, 1989.

Unte, Wolfhart, and Helmut Rohlfing. Quellën fur eine Biographie Karl Otfried Müller (17971840): Bibliographie und Nachlass. New York, 1997.

Burton Feldman (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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