WIDENGREN, GEO . One of the most famous historians of religions of the twentieth century, Geo Widengren (1907–1996) was born on April 24, 1907, in Stockholm, Sweden. From his early youth, he devoted his entire life to conducting research and teaching in the universities of Sweden. He studied Iranian and Semitic languages and religions under the supervision of Henrik Samuel Nyberg (1889–1974), the patron of the Uppsala Oriental school for many decades. Immediately after graduating in 1936, Widengren published his Ph.D. thesis under the title The Accadian and Hebrew Psalms of Lamentation as Religious Documents. His most important book from his early career, however, is Hochgottglaube im alten Iran, one of the most influential monographs of the Swedish school of Iranian studies. Widengren was appointed professor of the history of religions at the University of Uppsala in 1940, a post he held until 1973. During his tenure at the University, Widengren supervised many dissertations, including Feuerpriester im Kleinasien und Iran (1943, published 1946), written by his younger colleague, Stig Wikander (1908–1983).
In his early writings, Widengren was influenced not only by the works of scholars such as Nyberg and Tor Andrae, but also by Richard Reitzenstein and Raffaele Pettazzoni. Consequently, his books include themes, motifs, and methodological assumptions that often appear in the influential paradigms of the history of religions in the interwar period. His strongest influence came from Nyberg; like him, his mentor specialized in several philological fields and wrote critical appraisals of textual sources pertaining to both the Semitic and Iranian religions. Widengren's work, however, was usually much more accurate, insightful, and innovative than that of most of his predecessors. After publishing his first monographs, Widengren became inspired to synthesize the philological, historical, archaeological, and ethnological studies pertinent to the Near and Middle East using the phenomenological method—involving description, arrangement, interpretation and typology of historical data—that he applied in his imposing treatise Religionens värld (World of religion; Swedish edition 1945, German revised translation 1969). If, for instance, the formula Hochgottglaube (Faith in a high God) as a recurrent pattern in Near Eastern religions depends at least partially on the impact of the Germanic ethnologic school (as postulated by Wilhelm Schmidt and his followers of the Vienna school), Widengren illustrates the hypothesis by a more comprehensive and insightful usage of the sources.
As Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin wrote in his 1996 obituary, Widengren had a comprehensive knowledge of all the religions and literatures of the ancient Near and Middle East. His academic expertise encompassed the whole territory conquered by Alexander the Great, from Greece on the west to the eastern border of Iran and Central Asia, for over a thousand years. Widengren's oeuvre must therefore be viewed as sustaining the Swedish school of history of religions, located mainly in Uppsala (see Widengren, 1953; and Carl-Martin Edsman, 2001), although he could sometimes be polemic, as were his fellow renowned representatives of the Uppsala school, Stig Wikander and Carl-Martin Edsman.
Widengren's series of monographs titled King and Saviour (Parts I-V, 1945–55) represents probably the best example of his fine mastery of sources and method. Writing about a major theme in such an extensive cultural geography as that of the "Heavenly Book," for instance, he reviewed religious concepts and symbols from Accadian, Arabic, Aramaic (Mandaic, Samaritan, Syriac), Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Iranian, Sumerian, and Ugaritic vocabularies, but never lost sight of the local oral traditions that are so influential to the formation of a religious corpus.
Widengren also wrote extensively on Gnosticism (authoring various books and many inspiring articles despite his avowed distance from the new approaches adopted by scholars after the publication of the Coptic editorial tractates), Manicheism (including a short but valuable encompassing survey), and Mandeism. His main contribution to the latter field, published in 1982, discussed all the favorite motifs of the German and Nordic Religionsgeschichtliche Schule related to astronomical symbolism, apocalypticism, the destiny of the soul after death, the influence of Mesopotamian and Iranian motifs in Mediterranean religions of antiquity and Middle Ages, and special topics such as the origin and diffusion of The Hymn of the Pearl or the vividly disputed shamanic patterns in Zoroastrianism. Widengren's long-lasting familiarity with several ancient and early medieval Iranian civilizations allowed him to study the cultural ties between the Islamic and Iranian beliefs as represented in motifs such as the "tree of life" or the "heavenly ascension" of Muḥammad, (Widengren, 1950 and 1951). For a time, he explored the relevance of Jungian psychology to the study of religions (Widengren, 1967), but he never participated in the Ascona Eranos meetings, nor contributed to the Eranos Jahrbücher. Instead of assuming a nonhistorical description of religion after studying ancient documents, Widengren expressed his immense erudition by outlining an evolution of ideas and by linking his conclusions to historical events. His book Iranisch-semitische Kulturbegegnung in parthischer Zeit (1960) remains a seminal study, and his many articles on sacral kingship were planned to comprise a great autonomous book, never published.
Religious scholars in the 1960s critiqued these themes, but Widengren continued to defend the importance of Iranian influence throughout his career (see Widengren et al., 1995). In Europe, as in North America, his view supported a pan-Iranist model of historical diffusion. In the twenty-first century, however, religious scholars have largely refuted his vision of ancient Iran as the source of many ancient and modern religious motifs.
Monographs like Widengren's Mani and Manicheism proved his ability to elegantly master in a rather small space the complex problem of the Manichean relationship to Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity, including developing a political and historical synopsis of Iran under Shapur.
Together with his Italian and Dutch colleagues Raffaele Pettazzoni, Gerardus van der Leeuw, and C. J. Bleeker, Widengren founded the International Association of the History of Religions (IAHR), and he participated in the first IAHR congress, held in 1950 in Amsterdam. He also helped establish the international journal of the IAHR, Numen. First published in 1954, the journal quickly developed into one of the major periodicals in the field of religious studies. In this journal, Widengren published a long article (which scholars continue to consult) pertaining to the state and future tasks of Iranian religious history (Stand und Aufgaben der iranischen Religionsgeschichte, 1954 and 1955).
Contributing to the initiative of Erik Gren and of other colleagues in close connection with the Nordic School of Oriental and Religious Studies, including Alfred Haldar, Ivan Engnell, Nils Simonsson, and Stig Wikander, Widengren assumed the role of co-editor of Orientalia Suecana, which soon became a major scholarly organ and promoter of research. His erudite skills and intellectual stamina were represented in the journal by his rare and illuminating studies such as his micro-monograph on clowns, harlequins and dervishes and their habits in the ancient and medieval near and middle east.
Widengren served as the president of the IAHR from 1960 to 1970. He presided over the Twelfth Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions in Stockholm in August 1970, at which time he resigned his post. Widengren also worked as one of the editors of those proceedings, thus helping to ensure international recognition of the Swedish school of religious studies.
During the last twenty years of his life, Widengren refined some previously developed themes, including the role of Zoroastrianism under the Sassanids and Syriac religious literature. His successor in the chair of Uppsala, the Egyptologist Jan Bergman, edited a double-volume Festschrift, Ex Orbi Religionum. Studia Geo Widengen oblata, and dedicated it to Widengren in 1972 to commemorate his sixty-fifth birthday. Having received worldwide acclaim from his fellow historians, Widengren died on January 28, 1996. Unfortunately, however, no comprehensive record of his publications exists.
Books and Selected Articles of Geo Widengren
The Accadian and Hebrew Psalms of Lamentation as Religious Documents: A Comparative Study. Diss. Uppsala, Sweden, 1936.
Hochgottglaube im alten Iran. Eine religions-phänomenologische Untersuchung. Uppsala-Leipzig, 1938.
The Great Vohu Manah and the Apostle of God. Uppsala-Leipzig, 1945.
Religionens värld. Religionsfenomenologiska studier och översikter. Stockholm, 1945 (German translation, 1969).
Religionens Ursprung. En kort framställning av de evolutionistiska religionsteorierna och kritiken mot dessa. Stockholm, 1946 (2d ed. Stockholm, 1973).
Mesopotamian Elements in Manicheism (King and Saviour II). Uppsala-Leipzig, 1946.
The Ascension of the Apostle and the Heavenly Book (King and Saviour III). Uppsala-Leipzig, 1950.
The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient New Eastern Religion (King and Saviour IV). Uppsala-Wiesbaden, 1951.
"Iranischer Hintergrund der Gnosis." Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 20 (1952): 97–114.
"Die Religionswissenschaftliche Forschungen in Skandinavien in der letzten zwanzig Jahren." Zeitschrift für Religion und Geistesgeschichte 5 (1953): 1–30.
Muhammad, the Apostle of God, and his Ascension (King and Saviour V). Uppsala-Wiesbaden, 1955.
Sakrales Königtum im Alten Testament und im Judentum. Stuttgart, 1955.
Stand und Aufgaben der iranischen Religionsgeschichte. Leiden, 1955. (Previously published in Numen 1 (1954): 16–83 and 2 (1955): 47–134.)
"Recherches sur le féodalisme iranien." Orientalia Suecana 5 (1956): 70–172.
"Quelques rapports entre Juifs et Iraniens à l'époque des Parthes." Vetus Testamentum, Suppl. IV (1957): 197–241.
Iranisch-semitische Kulturbegegnung in parthischer Zeit. Cologne, 1960.
"The Fate of the Soul after Death." OS 9 (1960): 102–106.
Iranische Geisteswelt. Baden-Baden, 1961.
Mani und der Manichäismus. Stuttgart, 1961 (English translation by Charles Kessler; London, 1965).
"The Principle of Evil in Eastern Religions." In Das Böse, foreword by Carl Gustav Jung. Zürich, 1961. (Translated into English by Ralph Manheim and Hildegard Nagel as "Studies in Jungian Thought," edited by James Hillman. Evanston, Ill., 1967).
Die Religionen Irans, Die Religionen der Menschheit Band 14. Stuttgart, 1965.
Religionsphänomenologie. Berlin, 1969.
Der Feudalismus im alten Iran. Cologne, 1969.
"The Death of Gayōmart." Myths and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade, pp. 179–193. Chicago, 1969.
"The Establishement of the Sassanian Dynasty in the Light of the New Evidence." In Atti del Convegno internazionale sul tema 'La Persia nel Medioevo' (31 March–5 April, 1970): 711–82.
Editor, with C. Jouco Bleeker. History of Religions. 2 vols. Leiden, 1972.
"La méthode comparative: entre philologie et phénoménologie." In Problems and Methods in History of Religions, edited by Ugo Bianchi, C. Jouco Bleeker, and Alessandro Bausani, pp. 5–14. Leiden, 1972.
The Gnostic Attitude. Translated by Birger A. Pearson. Santa Barbara, Calif., 1973.
Editor, with C. Jouco Bleeker and Eric J. Sharpe. Proceedings of the XIIth International Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions. Leiden, 1975.
"Iran, der große Gegner Rom: Königsgewalt, Feudalismus, Militärwesen." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW) II.9.1 (1976), pp. 219–306.
Editor. Der Manichäismus. Wege der Forschung Band 168. Darmstadt, 2d ed. 1977.
Editor. Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Gnosticism, Stockholm, August 20–25, 1973. Stockholm, 1977.
Editor. "Der Manichäismus. Kurzgefasste Geschichte der Problemforschung." In Gnosis. Festschrift für Hans Jonas, edited by Barbara Aland et al., pp. 278–315. Göttingen, 1978.
"Révélation et prédication dans les Gīthās." In Iranica, edited by Gherardo Gnoli and Adriano V. Rossi, pp. 339–364. Naples, 1979.
Der Mandäismus. 2d ed. Wege der Forschung Band 167. Darmstadt, 1982.
"Leitende Ideen und Quellen der iranischen Apokalyptik." In Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East. Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Apocalypticism, Uppsala (August 12–17, 1979), edited by David Hellholm, pp. 77–162. Tübingen, Germany, 1983.
"Bardesanes von Edessa und der syrisch-mesopotamische Gnostizismus." In The Many and the One. Essays on Religion in the Graeco-Roman World, presented to H. Ludin Jansen, edited by P. Borgen, pp. 153–181. Trondheim, 1985.
"Aramaica et Syriaca II." Orientalia Suecana 33–35 (1984–1986): 479–86. A sharp critique, but not so convincingly argued, of Carl-Martin Edsman's 1940 Ph.D. thesis, Le baptême de feu (Uppsala-Leipzig).
"On Some Astrological Correspondence in the Writings of Pure Brethren." In Orientalia Iosephi Tucci memoriae dicata, vol. 3, edited by Gherardo Gnoli and Lionello Lanciotti, pp. 1551–1559. Rome, 1988.
Apocalyptique iranienne et dualisme qoumrânien. Paris, 1995. (Widengren contributed a general introduction and the article "Les quatre âges du monde.")
Contributions on Geo Widengren, the Swedish School of History of Religions, and Current Exegesis
Ardvisson, Stefan. Ariska Idoler. Den indoeuropeiska mytologin som vetenskap och ideologi. Stockholm, 2001.
Bergman, Jan, et al., eds. Ex Orbe Religionum. Studia Geo Widengren oblata. 2 vols. Leiden, 1972. Includes a complete bibliography of Widengren through 1972.
Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. "Geo Widengren (1907–1996)." Studia Iranica 25 (1996): 263–72. Includes a selected bibliography focusing on Widengren's Iranian studies.
Edsman, Carl-Martin. "Ein halbes Jahrhundert Uppsala-Schule." In Festschrift für Anders Hultgård, pp. 194–209. Berlin, 2001.
Eliade, Mircea, and Raffaele Pettazzoni. L'histoire des religions a-t-elle un sens? Correspondence 1926–1959. Paris, 1994.
Filoramo, Giovanni. "Geo Widengren e la fenomenologia storica della religione." In Fenomenologia della religione, edited by Geo Widengren, pp. 13–62. Bologna, 1984.
Gnoli, Gherardo. "Geo Widengren." East and West (1996): 495–497.
Hultgård, Anders. "In Memoriam, Geo Widengren." Orientalia Suecana 43–44 (1994–1995): 7–9.
Kahle, Sigrid. H.S. Nyberg: en vetenskapsman biografi. Stockholm, Sweden, 1991.
Pearson, Birger A., ed. Religious Syncretism in Antiquity: Essays in Conversation with Geo Widengren. Institute of Religious Studies, University of California, 1972. Missoula, Mont., 1975.
Timus, Mihaela, and Eugen Ciurtin, eds. "The Unpublished Correspondence between Mircea Eliade and Stig Wikander." Archaeus. Études d'Histoire des Religions (Bucharest), 4 (2000), fasc. 3, p. 157–185, fasc. 4, p. 179–211; 5 (2001), fasc. 1–2, p. 75–119; 6 (2002), p. 325–394.
Eugen Ciurtin (2005)
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