All Scholars

NILSSON, Nils Martin Persson

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  • Date of Birth: July 12, 1874
  • Born City: Ballingslöv
  • Born State/Country: Sweden
  • Date of Death: April 07, 1967
  • Death City: Lund
  • Death State/Country: Sweden
  • Education:

    Kristianstad, A.B., Lund, 1895; Ph.D. 1900.

  • Dissertation:

    “Studia de Dionysiis Atticis” (Lund, 1900)

  • Professional Experience:

    Reader Greek, Lund, 1900-9; secretary to Swedish Archaeological Commission in Rhodes, 1905; prof. classical archaeology and Ancient History,1909-39; president, 1936-9; helped establish Swedish Academy in Rome, 1920s; ed., Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 1923-39; secretary, Royal Society of Letters, Lund; memb., Royal Society of Letters, History, and Antiquities, Stockholm; corr. memb, Prussian Academy of Sciences.

  • Publications:

    Books

    Though the majority of Nilsson’s books are listed below, the bibliography is very selective. His complete bibliography contains 1,000 items, without counting his many contributions to lexica.

    Studia de Dionysiis Atticis (Lund, 1900); Griechische Feste von religiöser Bedeutung mit Ausschluss der attischen (Leipzig, 1906; repr. Stuttgart, 1957; Milan, 1975); Die Kausalsätze im Griechischen bis Aristoteles. I. Die Poesie (Würzburg, 1907)Studien zur Geschichte des alten Epeiros (Lund, 1909)Timbres amphoriques de Lindos. Publiés avec une étude sur les timbres amphoriques rhodiens. Academie royale des sciences et des lettres de Danemark. Extrait du Bulletin de l’annee 1909 nos. 1 et 4 (Copenhagen, 1909); Primitiv religion (Stockholm, 1911: repr. 1923, rev. ed. 1934; German translation as Primitive Religion [Tubingen, 1911]; Danish translation as Primitiv Religion [Copenhagen and Kristiania, 1912]); Die volkstümlichen Feste des Jahres. Religionsgeschichtliche Volksbücher für die deutsche christliche Gegenwart R. 3. 17-18 (Tübingen, 1914; Danish translation as Aarets Folkelige Fester [Copenhagen and Kristiania, 1914]; Swedish translation as Årets folkliga fester[Stockholm, 1915]; rev. ed. 1936); Daimon, Gudemagter og Psykologi hos Homer. Studier fra Sprog- og Oldtidsforskningen 1119(Copenhagen, 1918); Die Entstehung und religiöse Bedeutung des griechischen Kalenders. Lunds universitets årsskrift 14: 2, 21 (Lund and Leipzig, 1918; 2d ed. revised); Scripta Minora Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis 1960-61 (Lund, 1962); Die Übernahme und Entwicklung des Alphabets durch die Griechen. Det Kongelige Danske V idenskabernes Selskab. Historisk-filologiske Meddelelser, 1, 6 (Copenhagen, 1918); Olympen. En framställning av den klassiska mytologien (Stockholm, 1918-19; repr. 1964, 1968; Danish translation [Copenhagen, 1923]; repr. 1966); Primitive Time-reckoning. Acta soc. hum. litt. Lund. 1 (Lund, 1920; repr. 1960); Den grekiska religionens historia (Stockholm, 1921; English translation as A History of Greek Religion [Oxford, 1925; 2d. ed. 1949; rev. ed. 1952; reprinted New York, 1964; Westport, CT, 1980]; German translation as Die Religion der Griechen [Tübingen, 1927]; Spanish translation as Historia de la religiòn griega [Buenos Aires, 1961]); Die Anfänge der Göttin Athena. Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab. Historisk-filologiske Meddelelser. 4, 7 (Copenhagen, 1921); Den romerska kejsartiden 1-2 (Stockholm, 1921; English translation of vol. 1 as Imperial Rome [London and New York, 1926; reprinted 1936; reprinted New York, 1962; Chicago, 1974]); Primitiv kultur (Stockholm, 1924; reprinted 1926; Danish translation as Primitiv kultur [Copenhagen, 1925]); Festdagar och vardagar. Uppsatser om folkseder och kalender (Stockholm, 1925); The Minoan-Mycenean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion. Acta Reg. soc. hum. litt. Lund. 9 (Lund, 1927; 2d ed. rev., 1950; repr. New York, 1971); Hellas och de hellenistiska rikena. Nordstedts Varldshistoria 2 (Stockholm, 1928); Rom och det romerska riket. Nordstedts Varldshistoria 3 (Stockholm, 1929); The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology. Sather Classical Lectures 8 (Los Angeles and Cambridge, 1932; reprinted New York, 1963; 1969); De arkeologiska upptäckterna i den klassiska södern och den foma orienten (Stockholm, 1933); Homer and Mycenae (London, 1933; repr. New York, 1968; Philadelphia, 1972); Straff och sällhet i den andra världen i förkristen religion (Stockholm, 1937; repr. as Helvetets Förhistoria (Stockholm, 1963)Greek Popular Religion (New York, 1940; repr1947 as Greek Folk Religion (Philadelphia, 1961; Gloucester, MA, 1971; French translation as La religion populaire dans la Grèce antique [Paris, 1954]); De grekiska tyrannema. Svenska humanistiska forbundets skrifter nr. 52. (Stockholm, 1941); Geschichte der griechischen Religion I. Die Religion Griechenlands bis zur griechischen Weltherrschaft. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 5. 2, 1 (Munich, 1941; 2d ed. revised, 1955,3d ed. revised, 1967); Grekisk religiositet (Stockholm, 1946; 2d ed., 1960; English trans. by H. J. Rose as Greek Piety [Oxford, 1948; reprinted New York, 1969]; Italian trans. by C. Diano as Religiosità greca [Florence, 1949]; German trans. by B. Christ Griechischer Glaube [Bern and Munich, 1950; repr. 1959]; Spanish trans. as Historia de la religiosidad griega [Madrid, 1953]; French trans. Les croyances religieuses de la Grèce antique [Paris, 1955]); Geschichte der griechischen Religion 2. Die hellenistische undrömische Zeit. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 5. 2. 2 (Munich, 1950; 2d ed. revised, 1961); Cults, Myths, Oracles, and Politics in Ancient Greece. Skrifter utg. av Svenska Institutet i Athen, 8.1 (Lund, 1951); Opuscula selecta linguis anglica, francogallica, germanica conscripta 1-2. Skrifter utg. av Svenska Institutet i Athen 8.2: 1-2. (Lund, 1951-52), Vol. 3, Skrifter utg. av Svenska Institutet i Athen 2:3 (Lund, 1960) (Volumes 1-2 contain a large selection of papers and reviews from 1905 to 1939; vol. 3 contains similar work from 1939 to 1958); Die hellenistische Schule

    Anton Bierl and William M. Calder III. "Instinct against Proof: the Correspondence between Ulrich v. Wilamowitz Moellendorff and Martin P. Nilsson on Religionsgeschichte (1920–1930)." Eranos 89 (1991): 73–99; E. Gjerstad, “Martin P. Nilsson in Memoriam” In Scripta Minora Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis 1967-1968 1 (Lund, 1968) (Gjerstad’s memoir is more or less the same as the one printed in Gnomon 40 (1968) 100-103); J. Granlund, “Martin Persson Nilsson, 1874-1967” in Leading Folklorists of the North  (Oslo, 1971) 135-70; K. Hanell, “Martin Persson Nilsson” in Vetenskaps-Societeten i Lund Arsbok 1968, 143-54; M.P. Nilsson, “Lebenslauf” in Scripta Minora 3:ix-xi; “Martin P. Nilsson: In Memoriam,” HThR60, 4 (October 1967) 373; Pasquali, Giorgio. "Martin Nilsson." Atene e Roma 34 (1989): 655–73; Jörg Rüpke, Römische Religion bei E. Norden: die "Altrömischen Priesterbücher" im wissenschaftlichen Kontext der dreissig Jahre. Im Anhang Briefe von E. Norden an M.P. Nilsson (1920–1939) (Marburg, 1993).

    Bibliography

    E.J. Knudtzon, and C. Callmer, “A Complete Bibliography” in Scripta Minora

    Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis 1967-1968 1 (Lund, 1968). 

    Papers

    The University Library, Lund, contains his Nachlaß and a large collection of letters.

    The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age. Skrifter utg. av Svenska Institutet i Athen. No. 5 (Lund, 1957; repr. New York, 1975).

    Articles (Selected)

    ΚΑΤΑΠΛΟΙ. Beitrage zum Schiffskataloge und zu der altionischen nautischen Litteratur,” RhM 60 (1905) 161-89; “Studien zur Vorgeschichte des. Weihnachtsfestes.” ARW 19 (1916-1919) 50-150; “Der mykenische Ursprung der griechischen Mythologie," ΑΝΤΙΔΩΡΟΝFestschrift Jacob Wackernagel (Göttingen, 1923) 137-42; “Die Religion in den griechischen Zauberpapyri.” Kungl. human, vetenskapssamfundet i Lund. Årsberättelse (1947-8) 59-93; “Letter to Professor Arthur D. Nock on Some Fundamental Concepts in the Science of Religion.” HThR 42 (1949) 71-107 (Italian trans. by G. Pasquali as Fondamenti di scienza delle religioni [Florence, 1950]); “Second Letter to Professor Nock on the Positive Gains in the Science of Greek Religion” HThR 44 (1951) 143-51; “Religion as Man’s Protest against the Meaninglessness of Events.” Kungl. Human. Vetenskapssamfundet i Lund. Arsberdttelse (1953-4): 25-92; “The High God and the Mediator.” HThR 56 (1963) 101-120.

  • Notes:

    Martin P. Nilsson is perhaps the greatest of all modem scholars in the field of Greek religion, though his influence extends into many other areas of classical scholarship. No other modem Scandinavian classicist has done more to promote the study of Greco-Roman antiquity.

    Nilsson was born in southern Sweden of peasant parents, and he never lost touch with his agricultural background. He studied the classics at the University of Lund from 1892 to 1895; he also obtained his doctorate there in 1900 with his book on the Attic Dionysiac festivals. His most important teachers were Samuel Wide (Lund), Jacob Wackernagel (Basel), and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Berlin); he is comparable to the latter in his catholic interests, his prolific publications and his long scholarly career, covering seven decades. 

    The first decade of Nilsson’s scholarship demonstrates his unusually wide learning and untiring energy: while struggling for both personal and professional recognition, he published two books on Greek religion, of which Griechische Festefrom 1906, with its comprehensive research, has remained a cornerstone, one book on the history of Epirus, one on Rhodian amphoras found during the Danish excavations of 1905-1907 in which he participated, and two books on Greek and Latin linguistics, besides many scholarly and popularizing articles on innumerable topics, reviews, and travel reports. Though his scholarship from the beginning focused on the history of Greek religion, his interests remained catholic, and quite often he dealt with other problems that came up in his work on Greek religion in separate books and papers.

    Thus, between 1911 and 1920, his publications cover Scandinavian religion and folklore, time reckoning, calendar studies, and the Greek alphabet. A projected lexicon on Greek and Roman religion in cooperation with other scholars came to nothing because of the First World War, but it is a clear indication of his international recognition at that time. Many of his subsequent books and papers were based on his lectures around Europe and the United States; he was elected member of many academies and received several honorary doctoral degrees. He was editor of Archiv für Religionswissenschaft from 1923 to 1939.

    By 1920 Nilsson began to reap the fruit of his many special studies in more comprehensive books on Greek religion and ancient history. While his survey of Greek myths (Olympen, 1918-19) never became known outside Scandinavia, his History of Greek Religion (1921) remains a standard work. His work on this subject is based on no monolithic theory about religion; he once wrote: “The key which opens all locks is usually a picklock.” He had little patience with the approaches of W. F. Otto (1874-1958) or with Freudian analysis. Some basic principles are evident in all his works: a conviction that prehistoric religion is animistic and has left traces in Greek religion of the historical period, that Greek religion is intimately connected with the calendar and practices of an agrarian culture, and that the study of Greek religion must be based on cult and ritual, while myths to a large extent are independent of religion and should be studied within the framework of folklore, folktale, and literature. Even so, his chapter on “The Origins of Greek Mythology” is one of the most concise and illuminating treatments of Greek myths.

    In 1927 came his masterly examination of the Minoan-Mycenean religion and its survival in Greek religion, followed by his Sather lectures, The Mycenean Origin of Greek Mythology (1932) and his Homer and Mycenae (1933), lectures originally delivered at University College, London, in 1929. The combination of archaeological and literary evidence is stunning, his analyses and interpretations subtle and much more open-minded than previous scholarship (e.g. Evans), and many of his observations have since become generally accepted, e.g. on the variety of cults in the Minoan-Mycenean age, the significance of the Mycenean world for Greek religion, the correspondence between the geography of the Mycenean world and the locations of Greek heroic myths, the reflection of the Mycenean society in the organization of the Olympian gods, or on the oral nature of Homeric poetry (this before the work of Milman Parry (1902-35) became known). Besides these monumental contributions to the study of Greek religion, Nilsson in the 1920s also published one major study of the Roman empire and two volumes on Greece and Rome in a Swedish world history.

    Nilsson continued his studies of special topics in Greek religion and history during the 1930s, and with his retirement in 1939 he was ready to launch a series of major books on Greek religion: Greek Popular Religion (lectures originally delivered in the United States in 1939 and 1940), Geschichte der griechischen Religion 1-2 (in Iwan Müller’s Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft), and Greek Piety, all of which are still indispensable tools for the study of Greek religion. Both volumes of GGR consist of a (“static”) description of certain key concepts, rites and practices, and a (“dynamic”) historical account of the development of Greek religion beginning with the Minoan-Mycenean period, and of the cult(s) of the individual deities; the emphasis is on the presentation and analysis of the monumental and philological evidence. Greek religion is always seen against the background of history and politics. Mythology is only discussed when needed to explain a cult or deity, and the personal convictions of the Greeks about their gods are deliberately given a rather brief mention. Nilsson was skeptical of the possibility of identifying a specific, general Greek belief in the gods, since different beliefs belong to different social groups. He did, however, deal with this subject in Greek Piety, in which he concentrated on the beliefs rather than the cults, while his Greek Popular Religion deals more with popular cults and practices.

    During his long retirement Nilsson continued his research on many individual topics (e.g. Cults, Myths, Oracles, and Politics in Ancient Greece and Die Hellenistische Schule), but he also published a number of papers that revealed his more general convictions about the development of religion and its role in human life (see vol. 3 of his Scripta Minora ), e.g., “Religion as man’s protest against the meaninglessness of events,” and “The High God and the Mediator,” the latter describing the development towards monotheism and how the increased remoteness of the cosmic high god required a mediator; the Christians fulfilled that need by means of Jesus, whose help and comfort to all mankind made Christianity victorious in the struggle among the religions of late antiquity. The rationality of man, the first sign of which Nilsson saw already in the anthropomorphism of Homeric poetry, plays a crucial role in this development. In his retirement he also published many studies of local Swedish history, and because of his longevity it fell upon him to write the obituaries of a number of his contemporaries. He also reviewed a considerable number of books.

    Nilsson’s scholarship is a towering example of a historical approach to religion and to classical antiquity in general. He was as much an archaeologist as he was a historian of religion. He called himself an evolutionist; his approach to historical scholarship was eclectic. While his interpretations may be challenged, his presentation of the evidence is unsurpassed. His books are well organized and elegantly written; translations into numerous languages have ensured his widespread influence for more than fifty years. No books on Greek religion can be written for a long time to come without taking the results of Nilsson’s research into account.

  • Sources:

    Anton Bierl and William M. Calder III. "Instinct against Proof: the Correspondence between Ulrich v. Wilamowitz Moellendorff and Martin P. Nilsson on Religionsgeschichte (1920–1930)." Eranos 89 (1991): 73–99; E. Gjerstad, “Martin P. Nilsson in Memoriam” In Scripta Minora Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis 1967-1968 1 (Lund, 1968) (Gjerstad’s memoir is more or less the same as the one printed in Gnomon 40 (1968) 100-103); J. Granlund, “Martin Persson Nilsson, 1874-1967” in Leading Folklorists of the North  (Oslo, 1971) 135-70; K. Hanell, “Martin Persson Nilsson” in Vetenskaps-Societeten i Lund Arsbok 1968, 143-54; M.P. Nilsson, “Lebenslauf” in Scripta Minora 3:ix-xi; “Martin P. Nilsson: In Memoriam,” HThR60, 4 (October 1967) 373; Pasquali, Giorgio. "Martin Nilsson." Atene e Roma 34 (1989): 655–73; Jörg Rüpke, Römische Religion bei E. Norden: die "Altrömischen Priesterbücher" im wissenschaftlichen Kontext der dreissig Jahre. Im Anhang Briefe von E. Norden an M.P. Nilsson (1920–1939) (Marburg, 1993).

    Bibliography

    E.J. Knudtzon, and C. Callmer, “A Complete Bibliography” in Scripta Minora Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis 1967-1968 (Lund, 1968). 

    Papers

    The University Library, Lund, contains his Nachlaß and a large collection of letters.

  • Author: Jørgen Mejer