Otto, Walter F.

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OTTO, WALTER F. Walter Friedrich Otto (18741958) was a German scholar of classical philology, mythology, and the history and philosophy of religions. The son of pharmacist Hermann Ernst Otto, Walter Otto was born in Hechingen, a small town below Mount Hohenzollern in Swabia. His family, marked by strong pietistic principles, soon moved to Stuttgart, where Otto attended secondary school at the humanistic Eberhard Ludwigs Gymnasium beginning in 1882. After winning the Konkurs in 1892, he was admitted to the Stift, an evangelical college in Tübingen that had been in earlier times the school of the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the philosophers G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. The following year Otto switched to classical studies under Otto Crusius, Wilhelm Schmid, and Ludwig Schwabe. He continued these studies in 1894 in Bonn, where he was strongly influenced by Hermann Usener and Friedrich Bücheler. Under the supervision of the latter, he wrote his dissertation on the origin of Roman proper names, for which he was awarded a Ph.D. degree in 1897.

Following the Staatsexamen in the same year, he taught in a secondary school in Bonn for six months, and from 1898 onward he served as assistant of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae in Munich. As part of this project he became editor of the Onomasticon Latinum from 1905 to 1911, continuing his work in the field of Latin onomastics. In 1905 Otto completed his Habilitationsschrift on Juno at the University of Munich under his former teacher in Tübingen, Otto Crusius. Other major essays on Roman religion appeared in the years 1900 to 1916, most of them in the Real-Encyclopädie. At the University of Munich he became Privatdozent in 1905; he gave Latin style exercises from 1907 on, and was appointed außerordentlicher Professor in 1910. Besides the philological work at the Thesaurus, which led Otto to the acquaintance of Ernst Diehl and Alfred Klotz, he attended the psychodiagnostic lectures of the Bachofen-influenced scholar Ludwig Klages. In 1911 he gave lectures at the University of Vienna, where his friendship with Hans von Arnim started.

In 1913 Otto was appointed ordentlicher Professor for Latin literature in Basel, and the next year he moved, with the same function, to Frankfurt am Main, where he wrote his main works, The Homeric Gods (1929) and Dionysus (1933). Here he was the leader of a major school in ancient culture and religion to which adhered important scholars, such as the classicist Karl Reinhardt and the ethnologist Leo Frobenius (who were Otto's best friends for his whole life), the Sinologist Richard Wilhelm, the philosopher Kurt Riezler and, among the younger generation, the Germanist Max Kommerell (who became Otto's son-in-law in 1936), the historian Franz Altheim, the religious historians Carl Koch and Károly Kerényi, the Iranist Hermann Lommel, and the ethnologist Adolf Ellegard Jensen. Most of these scholars wrote important works within the sixteen-volume series Frankfurter Studien zur Religion und Kultur der Antike, edited by Otto between 1932 and 1938. In those years Otto played a key role in Frankfurt's cultural life, attending both Wilhelm's China-Institut and Frobenius's Forschungsinstitut für Kulturmorphologie (Otto helped to transfer the latter from Munich to Frankfurt). He went several times to the exile residence of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Doorn (Netherlands), where scholars of Frobenius's entourage were invited regularly to hold conferences on myth-related topics. In his last years in Frankfurt, Otto put great efforts into advising the scientific edition of the unpublished works of Max Scheler and Friedrich Nietzsche. Otto was an important member of the scientific committee of the Nietzsche-Archiv in Weimar: together with Karl Schlechta and Martin Heidegger, both appointed to the committee by his suggestion, Otto tried to save Nietzsche's legacy from a mere political use.

Because of his connections with Kurt Riezler and his "clique," the Nazis forced Otto to move to Königsberg in 1934. Here he succeeded the Greek classicist Paul Maas, who had to leave his chair because of his Jewish origins, and became a good friend of the younger scholar Willy Theiler. He was also close to the philosopher Hans Heyse, the art historian Wilhelm Worringer, the musicologist Hans Engel, the archaeologist Guido von Kaschnitz-Weinberg, and the Indologist Helmut von Glasenapp. Besides his academic relationships, Otto took part in Königsberg's cultural life, becoming a member of the Königsberger Gelehrte Gesellschaft and the Kant-Gesellschaft, and attending the aristocratic society of Eastern Prussia (through the families Dohna and Dönhoff he was introduced to anti-Nazi milieus). During this period Otto wrote about Goethe's and Hölderlin's relationship to Greek religion, lectured on Nietzsche and Socrates, and edited the Jahrbücher für die geistige Überlieferung together with Karl Reinhardt and Ernesto Grassi. The second volume of this series was forbidden by the Nazis, who therefore decided to cancel the award of the Kant-Preis to Otto in 1943. In 1944 he escaped the disaster of Königsberg, leaving behind his library and several manuscripts. This heavy loss was important for Otto's shift to a more philosophicaland less philologicalapproach to classical myth, which goes back to the 1920s but is particularly characteristic of his works after 1945. Having spent the last year of war in Elmau (Bavaria), he obtained two teaching assignments in Greek literature in Munich and Göttingen (1945 and 1946), was visiting professor in Tübingen in 1946, and became emeritus in that university in 1955. During this period he was one of the founders of the Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft and the Max-Scheler-Gesellschaft (the latter of which he directed), and lectured on various topics, including Apollo, Prometheus, the spirit of Greek religion, Greek tragedy, Socrates, and humanism.

Starting from studies in Latin onomastics strongly influenced by Usener's Götternamen (1896) and Bücheler's works on ancient Italic languages, Otto moved in his postdoctoral years to a comprehensive interpretation of Roman religion. As a challenge to Georg Wissowa's Religion und Kultus der Römer (1902), Otto concentrated on the autochthon (non-Greek) aspects of the main Roman gods (Fatum, Faunus, Fides, Fortuna, Genius, Janus, and Juno), pointing out their chthonian, as well as their benign, character. In these years he also extended his cognition in the field of history of religions, on which he gave lectures at Munich University (thereby dwelling especially on Greek mystery cults). These interests directed his studies about soul-beliefs in ancient religionsa topic on which he lectured in Frankfurt and wrote his first book in 1923 (Die Manen ).

In another book of the same year (Der Geist der Antike und die christliche Welt ) Otto gave a strongly Nietzsche-influenced view of the Jewish and Christian religions in antithesis to the Greek Olympian world. Here, and in a series of articles leading to his main work, the Homeric Gods (1929; English translation, 1954), he supplied a philosophical interpretation of Greek religion, abandoning the philological method that had guided all his previous works. This methodological shift was due to Otto's classicistic conception of the uniqueness of Greek religion compared to any other. He maintained that the Homeric mode of seeing and thinking of the Olympian gods found continual expression within the Greek world "despite all temporal and individual variations, in the representative works of the Greek genius, whether in poetry, plastic art or philosophy" (Otto, 1929/1954, p. 20), being not only the very essence of Greek civilization, but indeed "the religious idea of the European spirit" and "one of humanity's greatest religious ideas" (p. 13). According to Otto, each Olympian god (he dwells on Athene, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Hermes, not taking into account Zeus) is an Urgestalt des Seins, capable of revealing from its peculiar point of view the totality of realityworldliness and naturalnessin human shape. Such are, for example, Apollo, the anthropomorphic revelation of spiritual freedom and distance from the mortal's world, and his twin sister Artemis, who represents "freedom of another sortthe feminine," which is "free nature with its brilliance and wildness, with its guiltless purity and its mysterious uncanniness" (p. 102). As Goethe had pointed out, Greek religion should therefore be considered as "theomorphic" and not as "anthropomorphic," with the divine in its human appearance being the model for mankindand not the opposite.

Otto deepened his idea of the Greek divine as a revelation of "being" in human form in his other major work, Dionysus (1933; English translation, 1965). Relying on this conception, Otto was one of the few scholars of his time maintaining the Greek provenience of Dionysos, long before Michael Ventris and John Chadwick discovered the god's Mycaenean evidence in 1952. Though not belonging to the Olympian deities, this god discloses "a whole world, whose spirit presents itself again and again in new forms, connecting in an eternal unity the sublime with the simple, the human with the animal, the vegetal with the elemental" (Otto, 1933/1965, p. 188). The very essence of Dionysos lies therefore in the opposition between these incompatible poles; hence his madness, visible in his symbols: the mask (incarnating the simultaneity of presence and absence), the music (embodying both noise and silence), and the wine (symbol of the paradoxical unity of pleasure and pain). This madness, in which brightness and obscurity, and joy and horror, coincide, unifies also life and death, concealing in itself the mystery of procreation. For this reason, the Dionysian world is a feminine one, closely connected to women, as is clearly shown by the god's followers, the Maenads, and his spouse Ariadne.

See Also

Greek Religion; Kerényi, Károly.


Otto's Ph.D. work was written in Latin and published in 1898 in the Fleckeisens Jahrbücher (Nomina propria latina oriunda a participiis perfecti ; Leipzig, 1898), pp. 745932. His most important essays on Roman religion, which made him a renowned philologist, have been collected posthumously in the Aufsätze zur römischen Religionsgeschichte (Meisenheim a. G., 1975). Other major contributions to this topic can be found in volumes 6, 7, and 8 of August Pauly and Georg Wissowa's Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (Stuttgart, 19091913).

The shift to a comprehensive view of the history of religions is evident in Otto's editorial effort in the series Religiöse Stimmen der Völker (a German translation of the major religious texts of the world, published in Jena, 19151923), and in his monograph Die Manen oder von den Urformen des Totenglaubens: Eine Untersuchung zur Religion der Griechen, Römer, und Semiten und zum Volksglauben überhaupt (Berlin, 1923), which challenges Erwin Rohde's notion of psyche by showing the distinction between thymos, the life-spirit, and psychethat is, the immaterial phantom of a person that remains when the life-spirit leaves the body at the moment of death (this distinction can be made in Roman and Jewish religions as well). In 1923 appeared also Der Geist der Antike und die Christliche Welt (Bonn; Italian trans., 1973), a book Otto didn't want republished, followed by his most widely known works, namely Die Götter Griechenlands: Das Bild des Göttlichen im Spiegel des griechischen Geistes (Bonn, 1929; English trans. by Moses Hadas: The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion, London, 1954; Italian trans.: Florence, 1941; Spanish trans: Buenos Aires, 1973; French trans. with a foreword by Marcel Détienne: Paris, 1981; Romanian trans.: Bucharest, 1995); and Dionysos: Mythos und Kultus (Frankfurt a. M., 1933; English trans. with an introduction by Robert B. Palmer: Dionysus: Myth and Cult, Bloomington, Ind., and London, 1965; French trans.: Paris, 1969; Italian trans.: Genoa, 1990; Greek trans.: Athens, 1991; Spanish trans.: Madrid, 1997).

Important writings to evaluate Otto's relationship to the Nazi regime are his booklet Der junge Nietzsche (Frankfurt a. M., 1936; reprinted in Mythos und Welt, Darmstadt and Stuttgart, 1963), and two volumes of the series Geistige Überlieferung, which he edited in Berlin in 1940 and 1942. Otto's literary bequest is evident in his books Der Dichter und die alten Götter (Frankfurt a. M., 1942; Italian trans.: Naples, 1991) and Die Gestalt und das Sein: Gesammelte Abhandlungen über den Mythos und seine Bedeutung für die Menschheit (Düsseldorf and Köln, 1954), where Hölderlin's topic of the "flight of the Divine" is analyzed in relation to the absence of the Olympian gods in modern times. According to Otto, in our epoch only poetry can save humankind from decay, poetry being the only possible approach to the truth of reality, as pointed out in Die Musen und der göttliche Ursprung des Singens und Sagens (Darmstadt, 1954). The importance of Greek myth from a philosophical perspective is pointed out as well in Gesetz, Urbild, und Mythos (Stuttgart, 1951; reprinted in Die Gestalt und das Sein [Dusseldorf and Koln, 1954], pp. 2590, and in New York, 1978; Italian trans.: Rome, 1996), and in Theophania: Der Geist der altgriechischen Religion (Hamburg, 1956), with a biographical sketch by Ernesto Grassi; reprinted with a foreword by Friedrich Georg Jünger and a biographical note by Bernhard Wyß (Frankfurt a. M., 1934; Japanese trans.: Tokyo, 1966; Spanish trans.: Buenos Aires, 1968; Italian trans.: Genoa, 1983; French trans.: Paris, 1995).

Otto dedicated his last efforts to two major figures of Greek philosophy: Socrates (about whom he wrote 1,800 pages from 1940 to 1955, still unpublished) and Epikur, edited posthumously in Das Wort der Antike (Darmstadt and Stuttgart, 1962), pp. 293333; Italian trans.: Parma, 2001). Also published after Otto's death were Das Wort der Antike (Darmstadt and Stuttgart, 1962) and Mythos und Welt (Darmstadt and Stuttgart, 1963), edited by Kurt von Fritz with a critical commentary on Otto's work and a bibliography of his publications by Egidius Schmalzriedt; and Die Wirklichkeit der Götter: Von der Unzerstörbarkeit griechischer Weltsicht (Hamburg, 1963), containing a deep appreciation on Otto's oeuvre by Károly Kerényi. The unpublished work of Otto that survived the flames of Königsberg lies in the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach; it includes roughly 25,000 handwritten pages, mostly stemming from lectures and conferences, and about 1,250 letters from and to Otto dating from 1944 to 1958.

Major biographical sketches of Otto include Karl Reinhardt, "Walter F. Otto," in Vermächtnis der Antike (Göttingen, 1966), pp. 8790; Otto Weinreich, "Walter F. Otto zum 75: Geburtstag" and "Walter F. Otto zum 80: Geburtstag," both collected in Ausgewählte Schriften 19371970, vol. 3 (Amsterdam, 1979), pp. 275277 and 361363; Willy Theiler, "Walter F. Otto +" in Gnomon 32 (1960): 8790; Viktor Pöschl, "Walter F. Otto und Karl Reinhardt," in Literatur und geschichtliche Wahrheit (Heidelberg, 1983), pp. 247273; Gerhard Perl, "Walter F. Otto (18741958) in Königsberg," in Eikasmos 4 (1993): 283285; and Hubert Cancik, "Walter Friedrich Otto," in Neue Deutsche Biographie, vol. 19 (Berlin, 1999), pp. 713714. A biographical picture including information on Otto's unpublished work is supplied by Alessandro Stavru, "Il lascito di Walter Friedrich Otto nel Deutsches Literaturarchiv di Marbach," in Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni 64 (1998): 195222. On Otto's gradual divergence from the ideas of his teacher Hermann Usener see the thorough study of Antje Wessels, Ursprungszauber. Zur Rezeption von Hermann Useners Lehre von der religiösen Begriffsbildung, New York-Berlin, 2003, pp. 185-225.

The only booklength work on OttoJosef Donnenberg's dissertation Die Götterlehre Walter Friedrich Ottos: Weg oder Irrweg moderner Religionsgeschichte? (Innsbruck, 1961)cannot be considered a comprehensive study, since it analyses only his writings on Greek religion and leaves out Otto's interpretation of Roman religion, which influenced profoundly his pupils Franz Altheim and Carl Koch, and was appreciated even by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Der Glaube der Hellenen, Berlin: vol. 1, 1931, pp. 1112, 142, 313; vol. 2, 1932, pp. 328329). In more recent times, following the reprint of Otto's main writings on Roman religion in 1975 by Reinhold Merkelbach, Wolfgang Fauth underlined their importance (Anzeiger für die Altertumswissenschaft 32 [1979]: 105109), whereas George Dumézil criticized them in, for example, La religion romaine archaïque (Paris, 1974).

In a similar way, due to its nonphilological nature, Otto's approach to Greek religion encountered on one hand indifference (or even resistance), and on the other appreciation. This is evident in the reactions of major scholars to Die Götter Griechenlands, which encountered unfavorable criticism in the reviews by Martin Persson Nilsson, Deutsche Literaturzeitung 28 (1929): 13341337; Louis Gernet, Revue de philologie, de litterature et d'histoire anciennes 5 (1931): 9194; Herbert Jennings Rose, The Classical Review 6 (1956): 162; Hubert Cancik, Der altsprachliche Unterricht 27 (1984): 7189. Die Götter Griechenlands was assessed positively by Mario Untersteiner, Il mondo classico 1 (1931): 1523; Bruno Snell, Theologische Literaturzeitung 3 (1955): 152153; Arthur Hilary Armstrong, The Hibbert Journal 54 (19551956): 9698; Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux, Revue de l'histoire des religions 200 (1983): 102103. Dionysus was heavily attacked by Martin Persson Nilsson, Gnomon 11 (1935): 177181, and Hubert Cancik in Die Restauration der Götter, edited by Richard Faber and Renate Schlesier (Würzburg, 1986), pp. 105123; it was evaluated neutrally by Arthur William Hope Adkins, The Classical Review 21 (1971): 147148; and was appreciated by Gustav van der Leeuw, Nieuwe theologische Studien 17 (1933): 8794, and Mario Untersteiner, Il mondo classico 6 (1936): 297305. Other interesting reviews on Otto's interpretation of Greek myth, extending beyond his main works, are those of Ludolf Malten, Gnomon 20 (1944): 113126; Albin Lesky, Gnomon 24 (1952): 432434; Walther Kraus, Gnomon 30 (1958): 561566; Willy Theiler, Gnomon 35 (1963): 619621, and Philip Merlan, Gymnasium 70 (1963): 424429.

The influence of Otto's ideas is mostly evident in the oeuvre of Károly Kerényi, especially in his Dionysos (London, 1976), but it can also be noticed in such scholars as the philologists Bruno Snell (Die Entdeckung des Geistes [Hamburg, 1946], pp. 3044) and Willy Theiler ("Der Mythos und die Götter Griechenlands" in Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur [Berlin, 1970], pp. 130147), as well as in the archaeologists Karl Schefold (Griechische Kunst als religiöses Phänomen [Hamburg, 1959]) and Erika Simon (Die Götter der Griechen, [Munich, 1969]). A much more indirect reception of Otto's thought can be caught in some writings of Walter Burkert (via his teacher Carl Koch) and, in a structuralistic frame, in the later works of Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Détienne.

The importance of Otto's view of Greek Olympian religion for studies in the history of religion has been pointed out by Albert Henrichs, "Die Götter Griechenlands: Ihr Bild im Wandel der Religionswissenschaft," in Thyssen-Vorträge: Auseinandersetzungen mit der Antike, edited by Hellmut Flashar (Bamberg, 1987), pp. 349. The latter scholar contributed also to the success of Otto's interpretation of Dionysian duality in "Loss of Self, Suffering, Violence: The Modern View of Dionysus from Nietzsche to Girard," in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 88 (1984): 205240, making it become a popular hermeneutic paradigm (Anton Harald Bierl, Dionysos und die griechische Tragödie [Tübingen, 1991], pp. 120; Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux, Le dieu-masque [Paris and Rome, 1991], pp. 6263; and Giovanni Casadio, Il vino dell'anima [Rome, 1999], pp. 7981).

Alessandro Stavru (2005)