Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions

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9780674175693: Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions

Sacrifice--ranging from the sacrifice of virgins to circumcision to giving up what is most valued--is essential to all religions. Could there be a natural, even biological, reason for these practices? Something that might explain why religions of so many different cultures share so many rituals and concepts? In this extraordinary book, one of the world's leading authorities on ancient religions explores the possibility of natural religion--a religious sense and practice naturally proceeding from biological imperatives.

Because they lack later refinements, the earliest religions from the Near East, Israel, Greece, and Rome may tell us a great deal about the basic properties and dynamics of religion, and it is to these cultures that Walter Burkert looks for answers. His book takes us on an intellectual adventure that begins some 5,000 years ago and plunges us into a fascinating world of divine signs and omens, offerings and sacrifices, rituals and beliefs unmitigated by modern science and sophistication. Tracing parallels between animal behavior and human religious activity, Burkert suggests natural foundations for sacrifices and rituals of escape, for the concept of guilt and punishment, for the practice of gift exchange and the notion of a cosmic hierarchy, and for the development of a system of signs for negotiating with an uncertain environment. Again and again, he returns to the present to remind us that, for all our worldliness, we are not so far removed from the first Homo religiosus.

A breathtaking journey, as entertaining as it is provocative, Creation of the Sacred brings rich new insight on religious thought past and present and raises serious questions about the ultimate reasons for, and the ultimate meaning of, human religiousness.

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About the Author:

Walter Burkert is Professor Emeritus of Classics, University of Zurich.

Review:

Walter Burkert is...a scholar of great distinction. He is also a man of remarkably wide interests. Works of his that have already been published in translation by American university presses cover matters as various as the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth, ancient mystery cults, and the penetration of Near Eastern religions into archaic Greece...The aim of Creation of the Sacred is even more ambitious: to uncover the very origins of religion... Meaninglessness is in the long run intolerable: if that is how the world is, people are impelled to pretend otherwise. That is Burkert's central theme, and his treatment of it is immensely impressive. As a study of the various ways in which human beings have, by their religious beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, endowed the world with meaning and imposed order on chaos, Creation of the Sacred is a triumph. (Norman Cohn New York Review of Books)

This book is a brilliant comparative account of the social and biological functions of religion throughout human history; philosophically, scientifically, and historically interesting. (Choice)

In general terms, Burkert's work reminds us that, through most of history, religion has had less to do with the dismantling than with the erection of boundaries; less with peace than with violence; less with 'spirituality' than with the efforts to manage physical reality...A lack of interest in ancient Greek or Near Eastern religions is no excuse for ignoring Burkert's work. Reading Creation of the Sacred and his earlier books, scholars...will realize the extent to which a combination of old-fashioned massive learning, a healthy disregard for disciplinary boundaries, and, last but not least, the willingness to go against fashions, is likely to illuminate the problem of the origin and functions of religion. (Gustavo Benavides Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion)

[A] dazzling display of textual learning and an intellectually stimulating look at the universal phenomena of religion through the lenses of sociobiology and ancient Mediterranean religions. (America)

[Creation of the Sacred] is an architectonic text, an impressive attempt to construct a credible natural theology through a detailed and rational study of religious phenomenology in classical antiquity. Using examples from ancient religions, Burkert speculates that rudimentary animal impulses may underlie the entire history of religious practice. Focusing on sacrifice, rituals of escape, the concept of guilt and punishment, the notion of a cosmic hierarchy, and the practice of gift exchange, he argues that all religions are the consequence of biological tendencies. (Darren Middleton Southern Humanities Review)

[A] fascinating exploration based on a lifetime's learning. (Andro Linklater The Spectator)

Like most of Burkert's books, stimulating in its ideas and engaging it its style, Creation of the Sacred attempts to trace the origins of religion back to behavior patterns of our simian ancestors. (John E. Ziolkowski Classical World)

Walter Burkert, in Creation of the Sacred...boldly challenges the nature/culture standoff and brings biological research to bear on religious belief and cult: provocative, compressed and telling. (Marina Warner Times Literary Supplement)

I have got much pleasure and much profit from the study of [Burkert's] deeply learned and intelligent book. (Hugh Lloyd-Jones Times Literary Supplement)

[A] wide-ranging and elegantly written book. (Washington Post Book World)

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