Nilsson, Martin P.

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NILSSON, MARTIN P. (18741967), Swedish classicist. Martin Persson Nilsson enrolled as a student in classical studies at the University of Lund in 1892, where in 1900 he earned his Ph.D. degree with a dissertation on the Attic festivals of Dionysos. He became instructor of Greek language and literature at the same university, and also taught archaeology; under the university's auspices he participated in the Danish excavations at Lindos, Rhodes, between 1905 and 1907. In 1909 he was appointed to the new chair of classical archaeology and ancient history at Lund, which he occupied until his retirement in 1939. Among the numerous recognitions he received were his appointment as member to the Society of Letters (in Lund), membership in the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities (in Stockholm), and membership in the Royal Danish Academy. In 19391940 he taught at the University of California at Berkeley and lectured at various places in the United States under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Norton Lectureship of the Archaeological Institute of America.

In his early years, Nilsson was greatly interested in primitive religion and in anthropology, interests that resulted in publications on primitive culture and religion. Although he himself dated the beginnings of his extensive work on Greek religion to the early 1920s, James G. Frazer wrote as early as 1924 that Nilsson had "long been known to scholars as one of the most learned and sagacious exponents of ancient Greek life and thought," in his introduction to Nilsson's A History of Greek Religion (1925). Among Nilsson's other studies on Greek and Roman religions in general, the most widely known are "Die Griechen," a chapter in P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye's edition of Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (1925), and especially his major work, Geschichte der griechischen Religion (19411950). He dealt specifically with Greek folk religion and piety in Greek Popular Religion (1940) and Grekisk religiostet (1946). By his careful analysis of the impact and influence of the Minoan-Mycenaean religion and culture upon ancient Greek religion, Nilsson has undoubtedly made his most widely recognized contribution to the field. In all his major studies on Greek religion Nilsson discussed this subject, and a number of his publications specifically deal with it, especially The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion (1927).

Among his numerous other publications, several deal with festivals, calendars, and time reckoning, primarily (but not exclusively) using data from the Greek world. Bordering the field of New Testament studies is his The Historical Hellenistic Background of the New Testament (1941), while some of his other essays treat the wider fields of religious studies in general and the history and comparative study of religions. At points, his work touches on some methodological issues. In his writings Nilsson often offers valuable surveys and critical assessments of existing literature. For example, he rejects Erwin Rohde's thesis of the Thracian-Dionysian origin of the belief in immortality; he objects strongly to all antievolutionists and to every approach that he brands "ahistorical" (including that of Walter F. Otto); and he speaks sarcastically about Geo Widengren and other "adherents of the High God Belief." For the context of this last criticism, see his article "Letter to Professor Arthur D. Nock on Some Fundamental Concepts in the Science of Religion" (Harvard Theological Review 42, 1949, p. 105).

Nilsson's own understanding of primitive religion included a modified notion of mana, or sacred power. He opted, with Gerardus van der Leeuw, for the term dynamism to describe the religions of primitive peoples, but he stressed that "power appears to consciousness only in separate phenomena or cases" and that "one cannot speak of a concept of power" (ibid., p. 91). This integral aspect of Nilsson's work, along with his self-confessed evolutionism (not in the sense of historical development but as a conceptual, logical series) are some of the points on which Nilsson has been most severely criticized. Specifically, the impact of his idea of mana on his interpretation of the Greek concept of the daimon as "impersonal power" has been sharply attacked.


Many of Nilsson's numerous publications are available in English translation. A helpful bibliography of Nilsson's major works appears in Jacques Waardenburg's Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, vol. 2 (The Hague, 1974). Other bibliographical resources include Erik J. Khudtzon's "Beiträge zu einer Bibliographie M. P. Nilsson, 19071939," in Dragma: Martin P. Nilsson (Lund, 1939), pp. 569656; and Christian Callmer's article, "The Published Writings of Professor Martin P. Nilsson, 19391967," Scripta Minora Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensia 1 (19671968): 117139. For biographical data, see Carl-Martin Edsman's article, "Martin P. Nilsson, 18741967," Temenos 3 (1968): 173178.

New Sources

Bierl, Anton, and William M. Calder III. "Instinct against Proof: the Correspondence between Ulrich v. Wilamowitz Moellendorff and Martin P. Nilsson on Religionsgeschichte (19201930)." Eranos 89 (1991): 7399.

Gjerstad, Einar, Erik J. Kundtzon, and Christian Callmer. Martin P. Nilsson. Lund, 1968.

Mejer, Jørgen. "Martin P. Nilsson." In Classical Scholarship. A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by W. Ward Briggs and William M. Calder III, pp. 335340. New York and London 1990.

Pasquali, Giorgio. "Martin Nilsson." Atene e Roma 34 (1989): 655673.

Rüpke, Jörg. Römische Religion bei E. Norden: die "Altrömischen Priesterbücher" im wissenschaftlichen Kontext der dreissig Jahre. Im Anhang Briefe von E. Norden an M.P. Nilsson (19201939). Marburg, 1993.

Willem A. Bijlefeld (1987)

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