European Scholar

HARRISON, Jane Ellen

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1850-09-09
  • Born City: Cottingham, Yorkshire
  • Born State/Country: England
  • Parents: Charles, a timber merchant, and Elizabeth H
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1928-04-15
  • Death City: Bloomsbury
  • Death State/Country: England
  • Education:

    Cheltenham Ladies College; honors in Women’s matriculation, U. of London, 1870; Newnham College, Cambridge; study of Greek art and archaeology, British Museum, 1880-97.

  • Professional Experience:

    Latin Teacher, Notting Hill High School and Oxford High School, 1879; Lecturer, Newnham College, Cambridge, 1898-1922; LL.D. (hon.) Aberdeen, 1895; D. Litt. (hon.), Durham, 1897.

  • Publications:


    Myths of the Odyssey in An and Literature (London, 1882); Introductory Studies in Greek Art (London, 1885; 2d ed., 1892; 3d ed., 1894; 4th ed., 1897; 5th ed., 1902); Mythology & Monuments of Ancient Athens. Being a translation of a portion of the “Attica" of Pausanias by Margaret de G. Verrall. With an introductory essay and archaeological commentary by Jane E. Harrison (London and New York, 1890); Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cambridge, 1903; 2d ed., 1908; 3d ed., 1922; reprinted New York, 1955; 1962; 1975; 1980); The Religion of Ancient Greece (London, 1905; reprinted 1913, 1921); Primitive Athens as Described by Thucydides (Cambridge, 1906); Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, with an excursus on the ritual forms preserved in Greek tragedy by Gilbert Murray and a chapter on the origin of the Olympic games by F. M. Cornford (Cambridge, 1912; 2d ed. revised with preface and supplementary notes, 1927; reprinted with a preface by John C. Wilson, New York, 1962; 2d printing 1966); Ancient Art and Ritual (London, 1913; reprinted 1918; London, 1927, 1935, 1948; Oxford, 1951); Alpha and Omega (London, 1915); Aspects, Aorists, and the Classical Tripos (Cambridge, 1919); Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Rdigion (Cambridge, 1921; reprinted in Thémis. Edited by John C. Wilson: xvii-lvi); Mythology: Our Debt to Greece and Rome (Boston, MA, 1924; reprinted New York, 1963); Reminiscences of a Student's Life (London, 1925; reprinted in Arion 4 (1965) 312-346; The Book of the Bear (London, 1926) (Twenty-one tales newly translated from the Russian by Jane Ellen Harrison and Hope Mirrlees, with a preface and epilogue.); Myths of Greece and Rome (London, 1927; reprinted 1928, 1933).

    Articles (Selected)

    “Erwin Rohde. Psyche. Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen. Erste Hâlfte." Review. CR 4 (1890) 376-7; “Erwin Rohde. Psyche. Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen. Zweite Hâlfte." Review. CR 8 (1894) 165-6; “Delphika.—(A) The Erinyes. (B) The Omphalos.” JHS 19 (1899) 205-51; Pandora’s Box,” JHS 20 (1900) 99-114; “Mystica Vannus Iacchi.” JHS 23 (1903) 292-324; 24 (1904) 241-54; “Greek Religion and Mythology.” The Year’s Work in Classical Studies, ed. Cyril Bailey (London, 1915): 71-80; (London, 1917): 79-101.

  • Notes:

    Jane Ellen Harrison remains even today one of the most influential and controversial of the classical scholars working at the tum of the twentieth century. She was the earliest and the most consistent of those who integrated archaeology and anthropology, sociology and psychology into the study of the history of Greek religion. Her vivid, immediate, mystically emotional attitude toward the traditions of archaic religion had an inspiring effect on the younger generation of scholars, especially on her comrades in arms in the Cambridge Ritualists, Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) and Francis Cornford (1874-1943). Her innovative heterodoxy and her enthusiastic idiosyncrasy in dealing with textual and pictorial evidence discredited her work with the majority of her conventional colleagues. Nevertheless, what Gilbert Murray wrote in 1955 is still true: “Few people would accept the whole of J. E. H.’s conclusions, but nobody can write on Greek religion without being influenced by her work” (Stewart, xi).

    Jane Ellen Harrison was born in 1850 in Yorkshire; she grew up there and in Wales. Thanks to the business connections of her father, a timber merchant, she conceived in early childhood an enthusiastic interest in Russia, which, finally, in the last fifteen years of her life, was to determine her interests almost exclusively. The death of her mother four weeks after her own birth was decisive for the dramatic course of her life and work: idealization of religious matriarchy was united with rebellion, in theory and practice, against patriarchal rule, marriage, and family. To the end of her life her strong passions and her capacity for enthusiasm toward human beings, animals, and the subjects of her studies remained undiminished. She, for whose sake her mother had to die, identified herself not only with the she-bear, but above all with the ker, the daimon of death. In numerous friendships with congenial men—friendships that often lasted for years and were characterized by intellectual excitement and sublimated eroticism—she again and again experienced disappointments in love.

    She was predisposed to these experiences by her father’s remarriage five years after her birth. Her extremely mystical and puritanical stepmother (who had previously been her governess), a Welsh Evangelical “of the fervent semi-revivalist type” (Reminiscences: 19), subjected her to a strict religious upbringing that included training in playing the organ, memorization of entire sermons, and the fundamentals of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German. When her stepmother objected to her close attachment at age seventeen to a young curate, she was sent away in 1868 to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a strictly evangelical boarding school for daughters of the upper middle class; the school offered an ambitious program of education that went far beyond training in housekeeping and also sought to inculcate the silence and self-control appropriate to a convent. In 1869-70 Harrison broke with her principal, Dorothea Beale, whom she revered, when she read David Friedrich Strauß’s Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (1835-6), recently translated by Marian Evans (George Eliot) in 1846. Harrison began to advocate an historical and mythological interpretation of the Bible. After taking honors in Women’s Matriculation at the University of London in 1870, she returned to her family as governess to her younger siblings and, gradually and increasingly breaking free from her Christian upbringing, became an agnostic.

    In 1874 she passed the Higher Local Examination for Cambridge University, and her excellent marks won her a scholarship at Newnham College, Cambridge. The college had been founded in 1871 by the philosopher and former Fellow of Trinity, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), as Cambridge’s second women’s college after Girton. Harrison quickly became the dominant figure among the residents and came into conflict with the principal, Ann Clough, who, like Harrison’s stepmother and the director of Cheltenham, was a Welsh evangelical conservative and watched over the modesty and decency of her charges. Although the students were permitted to perform the Medea in 1876 Clough vetoed the performance of Euripides’ Electra that was planned for 1877. Playing the title role in the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s production of the Alcestis, Harrison was a great success. Among her closest student friends was Ellen Crofts (1856-1903), who later became the wife of Charles Darwin’s son Francis, his father’s secretary and biographer.

    Her teachers in Greek and Latin were the Trinity College Lecturers in Classics Samuel Henry Butcher (from 1874) and Arthur Woollgar Verrall (from 1877), who later became the husband of Margaret de G. Merrifield (1857-1916), her lifelong closest friend from the Newnham days. Henry Butcher (1850-1910) was already engaged but was also paying court to Harrison; in 1876, however, he went to Oxford to marry Rosa Julia Trench (1840-1902). The fact that most Cambridge Fellows showed mistrust and resistance toward the newly founded women’s colleges was one of the bitterest experiences of Harrison’s academic life. Female students received certificates only and were excluded from taking degrees in Cambridge until 1947 (in Oxford until 1920). Newnham quickly became a focal point for distinguished visitors. During Harrison’s student days, she met liberal politicians such as William Ewart Gladstone, the Russian writer and social critic Ivan Turgenev, and George Eliot, whom she especially esteemed. In 1878 a lecture on Olympia by Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), then director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, stimulated her interest in classical archaeology. After receiving only a Second Class in the Classical Tripos in 1879 and teaching Latin without enthusiasm for a term at Notting Hill High School and at Oxford High School, she went to London in 1880 to study ancient Greek art and archaeology. Not she, but her rather more conventional friend Margaret de G. Merrifield, was chosen as Classical Lecturer at Newnham.

    During the last two decades of Queen Victoria’s reign, which Harrison spent in London beginning with her thirtieth year, she was one of a circle of artists and writers (Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Pater were also members) who devoted themselves to an “aesthetic” enthusiasm for Greek classicism in the footsteps of Shelley and Keats; she appeared in “Homeric theatricals” and tableaux in elegant salons and encouraged Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) in her first attempts to introduce ancient Greek elements into the dance. By becoming a member of two clubs, teaching at the Girl’s Public High School, and sharing rooms with a teacher of nursing, she came into contact with the movement for women’s rights. Throughout her life, however, her attitude toward the suffragists was skeptical. Harrison’s teacher in archaeology, Charles Newton (1815-94), keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum, who had visited Olympia with Colvin in 1875, gave her the opportunity to deliver lectures in the galleries of the sculpture and vase collections, and arranged for her to publish in the Journal of Hellenic Studies.

    In her first book, Myths of the Odyssey in Art and Literature (1882), one can already detect something of the unconventional spirit, receptive to new intellectual currents, which unmistakably predominates in her later publications. Here Edward Burnett Tylor’s (1832-1917) Primitive Culture (1871), which was soon to exert a decisive influence on the anthropological studies of Andrew Lang (1844-1912), William Robertson Smith (1846-94), and James George Frazer (1854-1941), was already used as a basis for drawing analogies between the myths of “primitive” peoples and those of the Greeks. The use of vase-paintings as evidence for rituals and festivals, which was to figure largely in Harrison’s major works, here makes its first appearance. Harrison’s claim to offer the English reader something new is fulfilled in the treatment of works of visual art as myth—“commentaries” that stand on an equal footing with the literary evidence; for Homer and the vase-painters “drew their inspiration from one common source, local and national tradition” (Ibid., ix). This was precisely the epoch-making insight of Karl Otfried Müller (1797-1840), to whose authority Harrison from this point on appeals. His works and the writings of other, chiefly German, archaeologists had been brought to her notice by Wilhelm Klein (1850-1924), her exact contemporary, who had been staying in London in 1880 and would later be Professor Ordinarius of Classical Archaeology in Prague. In 1881, on the first of her many research journeys, which she financed in part by means of an inheritance left her by her mother, she examined collections of antiquities abroad and made the acquaintance of Ernst Curtius (1814-96) and Carl Robert (1850-1922) in Berlin, Heinrich Brunn (1822-94) in Munich, Wolfgang Helbig (1839-1915) in Rome, and, most important, the young architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld (1853-1940), who had been Curtius’s collaborator at Olympia since 1877 and after 1882 directed Schliemann’s campaigns of excavation in Troy and Tiryns.

    In her lectures at the British Museum, Harrison at first inspired herself and her fashionably blasé audience—chiefly wealthy London society ladies (“British Lionesses”)—with an enthusiasm for a classicizing aestheticism that declared the Elgin Marbles to be the supreme artistic and educational ideal. In her second book, Introductory Studies in Greek Art (1885), which was intended for a more general, educated public and stands out among her other works by its conventionality, she celebrated the ideality, harmony, and humanity of classical Greek art in contrast to the art of the ancient Orient, which she condemned as magical, monstrous, and inhuman. In 1886 she met Dugald Sutherland MacColl (1859-1948), a man nine years her junior and artistically talented, who later became keeper of the Tate Gallery. His stern criticism of her sermonizing style of lecturing precipitated an intellectual crisis, which she experienced as a sort of conversion. Under the influence of MacColl, who gave lectures on folklore and spread the gospel of Impressionism, she began to think of her taste for art in the Olympian and transfigured style as a “sin.” She rejected his proposal of marriage but nonetheless maintained close relations with him until his marriage in 1897. Together they attended Dörpfeld’s lectures in Athens in 1888 and took part in the first of his legendary sightseeing tours. In her autobiography she writes, “It was worth many hardships to see forty German professors try to mount forty recalcitrant mules” (Reminiscences, 65). In the course of an adventurous journey of several months through Greece to Constantinople, alone with MacColl, she gave the abbot of a monastery, who was quite taken with her, a photograph of herself in a ballroom gown and was delighted when he placed it beside the icon of the Theotokos.

    After her return from the trip she published in 1890 Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens, a decisive step toward the establishment of the ritualistic school. In a detailed commentary on sections of Pausanias’ Attica (translated by Margaret de G. Verrall), she consistently developed the method of archaeological “mythography” that she had sketched out in her first book. Like Pausanias, and in the spirit of Schliemann and Dörpfeld, she treated figures of myth as historical persons, and she amalgamated the ancient aetiological method of interpretation with a theory of myth explanation that went back to Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), the Oxford scholar of comparative religion and linguistics: “In the large majority of cases ritual practice misunderstoodexplains the elaboration of myth” (Ibid., iii). During her London years between 1880 and 1898, her three much-discussed books, her numerous articles and reviews, and the interest roused by her lectures (which were delivered even at prestigious boys’ schools like Eton) won her a reputation as a scholar of the first rank and personal recognition from respected scholars in Britain and abroad. She was elected to the Council of the Classical Association, received honorary doctorates from the universities of Aberdeen and Durham, and in 1896 became a corresponding member of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut in Berlin. Yet despite abundant testimonial from scholars throughout Europe, she twice (1888 and 1896) failed to secure appointment to the Yates Professorship in Archaeology at University College, London.

    At the age of forty-eight she was awarded one of the first Newnham Research Fellowships, and in 1898 she returned to her college as Resident Lecturer in Classical Archaeology; even after the expiration of her fellowship in 1903 she was to remain on the staff of the college until 1922. The sixteen years preceding the outbreak of the First World War were the high point of Harrison’s career and of her scholarly productivity. This period also brought perhaps the most intense, and yet the most painful, personal experiences of her life. In Cambridge (under Edward VII the center of innovations in the sciences in England) she took an active role in intellectual activities that extended far beyond the field of classics, together with her teachers and friends from student days and above all with the circle of Henry Sidgwick, the Verralls, and the family of Ellen and Francis Darwin. She studied Sanskrit and the history of Indian religion with Robert Alexander Neil (1852-1901), a Fellow of Pembroke, who as a classical scholar and Orientalist had been giving lectures in women’s colleges since the late 1870s, and she discussed with him the preliminary stages of new works. They had planned to be married when he unexpectedly died in 1901.

    Jane Harrison’s most fruitful and, from the point of view of the history of scholarship, her most significant ties were the friendships that she formed, shortly after her return to Cambridge, with the newly elected Fellow of Trinity and later Classical Lecturer, Francis Macdonald Cornford (1874-1943) and with Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), who in 1889 had succeeded Richard Jebb (1841-1905) as Professor of Greek at Glasgow. In 1899 Murray withdrew into the country for reasons of ill health; in 1905 he returned to Oxford and became Regius Professor of Greek there in 1908. Harrison had enthusiastically hailed his first book, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (1897), and in 1900 the Verralls introduced her to him and his wife. Despite differences in outlook—Harrison, the mystical agnostic, sympathized with the Tories, whereas Murray, a teetotaller and vegetarian, who believed that the immortality of the soul could be scientifically demonstrated, was a politically active Liberal—he remained until her death, as her eight hundred letters to him testify, the most reliable source of order in the chaos of her life and the most sympathetic critic of her scholarly work.

    No less stimulating, but full of emotional drama, was the course of her relationship with Francis Cornford, twenty-four years her junior, who had sought a conversation with her after one of her public lectures. With him she took many trips—to the east coast of England, to France, and most importantly to Crete and the Greek mainland; with him she studied ancient oriental languages and entered enthusiastically into academic and religious heresy. His name for her was “Queen of Sheba”; she called him “Solomon.” His marriage in 1909 to her student Frances (1886-1960), the daughter of Ellen and Francis Darwin, the friends of her own student days, was probably the deepest emotional wound she ever received.

    In the period of her first acquaintance with Cornford and Murray, two long essays of hers appeared in the Journal of Hellenic Studies: “Delphika” (1899) and “Pandora’s Box” (1900). In these articles the central themes of her epoch-making book Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) are already clearly visible: 1) Her dualistic theory, which has points of reference in Aeschylus, Isocrates, Plato, and Plutarch and appropriates Bachofen’s (1815-87) evolutionistic concept of matriarchy, con- tended that a “division of labor” existed between the Greek deities; this finds expression in two contrasting forms of ritual: the formula do ut abeas corresponds (she maintains) to the cult of the older matriarchal Chthonic deities, whereas the formula do ut des corresponds to that of the younger patriarchal Olympians; 2) Influenced by Robertson Smith’s totemism theory, she held that in the evolution of the Greek gods and ghosts theriomorphism was a primitive stage that preceded anthropomorphism (this is most clearly visible in their worship in serpent form); 3) She interpreted the Olympic pantheon, almost canonical since Homer, as a mythological and theological construct that was meant to expel the preliterate archaic worship of the maternal earth-divinities and amorphous demons, though these still retained their importance as “survivals” (in E. B. Taylor’s sense) in local cult festivals in the classical age.

    Literary sources that pointed to Crete and, above all, the excavations begun there in 1900 by Arthur John Evans (1851-1941) were construed by Harrison as suggestive confirmations of these postulates. In 1901, accompanied by her student Jessie Graham Crum (later Mrs. Hugh F. Stewart), she traveled to Italy and Greece; in Athens she met the Swedish historian of religion Sam Wide (1861-1918), who would later become an active proponent of her theory of the metamorphosis of the chthonic gods into sky gods, and she took part in Dörpfeld’s tours of the Peloponnese and the islands. On Crete, Evans showed her his first discoveries. A clay seal was in her eyes a revelation of the Mountain-Mother, escorted by lions and worshipped ecstatically by a youth. This was one of the basic motifs of her book in progress: the ritual connection between mother- goddess and son that had preceded the worship of the patriarchal usurpers.

    Religious ecstasy had been a preoccupation of Harrison’s since her earliest studies of vase-painting. Erwin Rohde’s (1845-98) book Psyche: Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen, the two volumes of which (1890 and 1894) she had immediately and enthusiastically reviewed in the Classical Review, had brought the uniqueness of the worship of Dionysus and the question of asceticism in the Orphic mysteries to the center of her own researches. Her fascination with Dionysian ecstasy, further stimulated by Rohde’s former friend and predecessor Nietzsche, was intensified during the writing of the Prolegomena by conversations and correspondence with Murray about his simultaneous studies of Euripides and, especially, about his translation of the Bacchae. She confided to him, “The whole centre of gravity of the book has shifted. It began as a treatise on Keres with a supplementary notice of Dionysus. It is ending as a screed on Dionysus with an introductory talk about Keres” (Stewart, 25). Her exchange of ideas with Murray also left its mark on the thesis, developed in the book’s final chapters, that Orphism was a mystical spiritualization and transcendence of the ecstatic religion of Dionysus. In 1902 they studied together in the British Museum and in Naples the gold tablets that had recently been discovered in graves in Southern Italy and in Crete; inscriptions on these tablets speak of the dead being deified, which Murray and Harrison interpreted as evidence of an Orphie eschatology. Murray, whom Harrison recognized as her main authority in philological matters, added to the Prolegomena a “Critical Appendix on the Orphic Tablets.”     

    In 1928, in the first of the Jane Ellen Harrison Memorial Lectures that Newnham College had instituted, Murray praised the Prolegomena as a “work of genius” (Murray, 11). Here for the first time the study of ancient Greek religion found its focus in the rituals. These, the “things done,” are the “some neglected aspects” (Ibid., vii) to which Harrison, supported by the concreteness of her examples from the visual arts, wished to draw the attention that had hitherto been preoccupied with things thought and written, the myths. The work is brilliantly written; it is learned, though often imprecise in details; it still retains its fresh and revolutionary effectiveness; and, despite objections and reservations on the part of the scholarly guild, it was an immediate success in Britain and abroad. Only one year after its appearance, five of the examination questions in the Classical Tripos, part II, referred to the Prolegomena, as Harrison remarked with pride (Stewart, 54).

    But she was beginning to have serious problems with her health, and because of nervousness and shortness of breath, perhaps due to a malfunction of the thyroid gland, she was obliged to undergo medical treatment and to renounce temporarily the cigarette smoking and whisky drinking that she loved. She wrote sarcastically to the Murrays, “If giving up drink is like the wrench from a lover . . . , giving up smoking is like parting from the best friend” (Stewart, 101).

    Her predilection for these two delightful poisons, like her fashionable outfits, was among the eccentricities with which she had been provoking dons and bluestockings since her student days. Her lectures, rhetorically polished and furnished with a background of sound and lighting effects, were famous for extravagance and drama. Even her use of lantern slides as visual aids, a practice that dated back to her London period, was an original innovation; far more so were the drums and bull-roarers on which friends, concealed in the background, were obliged to perform in order to bring home to the audience at her Newnham lecture on Orphism the religious awe in the fragment of Aeschylus’ Edonoi. The great value she ascribed to the most authentic possible presentation of ancient cult appears in her attempt, the failure of which she deeply regretted, to find in the Louvre adequate xoana(primitive wooden images of the gods) to serve as models for Aphrodite and Artemis for the Lyric Theatre’s 1904 production of the Hippolytus, the first staging of one of Gilbert Murray’s Euripides translations. To enable her to exhibit the liknon (winnowing basket), during a lecture on the Eleusinian mysteries, as the cradle of the Holy Child at the moment of its revelation, Francis Darwin obtained an antique winnowing fan from some French peasants; covered at first, it was unveiled at the fitting moment.

    Her detailed study of the liknon—“Mystica Vannus Iacchi”—appeared in the Journal of Hellenic Studies in 1903 and 1904. In this paralipomenon to the Prolegomena, the new directions that Harrison’s work was taking were already apparent. Referring to Frazer’s Golden Bough, yet in partial disagreement with it, she intended to focus on the social significance of vegetation cults.

    But for the present she was consolidating what she had already achieved. After publishing in 1905 the booklet The Religion of Ancient Greece—a schematic but still instructive summary of the postulates and problems sketched out in the Prolegomena—she traveled with Cornford to Greece and Crete. In 1906 she published Primitive Athens as Described by Thucydides, a tribute to Dörpfeld, which was related to the Pausanias commentary in Harrison’s third book. Here she attempted to support Dörpfeld’s interpretations of his excavations in the Athenian agora with her expertise in the history of religion and to defend them against Frazer’s 1898 Pausanias commentary.

    Harrison continually encouraged her friends and coworkers Cornford and Murray in their studies on the origins of Greek religion, literature, and historiography, and her encouragement bore its first fruits in 1907. In that year appeared both Cornford’s first book, the still debated Thucydides Mythistoricus, which brought to light the religious undercurrents in the history of the Peloponnesian War, and Murray’s The Rise of the Greek Epic, his Harvard lectures of 1907, which presented Homer as having transcended barbaric institutions and cults. Both authors emphasized their debt to Harrison, who was the undisputed center of the triad that came to be known as the Cambridge School and/or the Ritualists, which left its mark on several generations of scholars and still influences the study of ancient Greek religion.

    Affiliated loosely with the group was Arthur Bernard Cook (1868-1952), who began his researches on Zeus in 1900, while their friend Verrall remained skeptical toward their ritualistic credo. But they were met with especially embittered resistance by their colleagues William Ridgeway (1858-1926) in Cambridge and Lewis Richard Farnell (1856-194) in Oxford. These two Hellenists, archaeologists, and historians of religion, who were Harrison’s slightly younger contemporaries, shared with the Ritualists an anthropological orientation, but they particularly opposed the universalistic concept of a pretheistic “year- spirit,” the eniautos-daimon, a concept that Harrison had been pondering since 1904. The name is derived from a Hymn to Zeus Kouros and the Curetes, an inscription dated to the second or third century CE that R. C. Bosanquet (1871-1935) had discovered at Palaikastro in Crete and published, jointly with Murray and Harrison, in 1908-9. The name of the goddess mentioned at the end of the hymn was chosen by Harrison as the title of her next book, which she had previously intended to call “Epilegomena” and that she would later describe as her “central work” (Réminiscences, 73): Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912). In this year the collaboration of Harrison, Cornford, and Murray culminated in the simultaneous publication of Cornford’s From Religion to Philosophy, Murray’s Four Stages of Greek Religion, and Harrison’s Themis. Cornford contributed to Harrison’s book a chapter, “The Origin of the Olympic Games,” and to Murray’s, “Excursus on the Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy.”

    Modifying her previous theory, Harrison no longer defined ritual as the “thing done”—for that, she said, is never religious—but as the “thing re-done or pre-done,” i.e., as a commemorative or anticipatory form of representation. “The element of action re-done, imitated, the element of mimesis, is, I think, essential. In all religion, as in all art, there is this element of make-believe. Not the attempt to deceive, but a desire to re-live, to re-present” (Themis, 43). The ritual par excellence was the dromenon;according to Harrison this was a primeval new-year’s cult play, ancestral within the tribe; in Greece it was performed in the spring and had originally lacked a deity; it was connected with male puberty rites and served the purpose of initiation into matriarchal mysteries. The young men in this rite would identify themselves with the dying and resurrected megistos kouros, the holy eniautos-daimon. Building on Harrison’s thesis that “the myth is the plot of the dromenon” (Themis, 331) and his own researches on Pindar, Cornford interpreted the Olympic victor as the incarnation of the year-spirit, whose death and rebirth Murray likewise found embodied in the structure and the characters of tragedy. In Harrison’s view, the goddess who presided over the religious System that derives from the seasonal festivals was Themis, the personification of the life-preserving ties of social cohesion, to whom even the Olympians had to submit and who preceded all religion: “Behind Gaia the Mother, and above even Zeus the Father, stands always the figure of Themis” (Themis, 2d ed., xxii).

    In the years after the Prolegomena, Harrison had come to regard the Olympians as not merely nonprimitive, but even as nonreligious, figures, while Dionysus and Orpheus crystallized in her thoughts as being essentially religious. She understood their myths to be descriptions of bloody rites that had actually been practiced, and Harrison, sometimes called “Bloody Jane,” felt repelled by their barbaric cruelty and obscenity. For, essentially, despite her enthusiasm for serpent-cults and archaic mysteries, she remained loyal all her life to the Puritanism of her Christian upbringing, the rationalism of the theory of evolution, and the classical ideal of Greece. In the introduction to Themis she formulates an apologia: “I… still confess, that I have little natural love for what an Elizabethan calls ‘ye Beastly Devices of ye Heathen.’ Savages, save for their reverent, totemistic attitude towards animals, weary and disgust me, though perforce I spend long hours in reading of their tedious doings. My good moments are when, through the study of things primitive, I come to the better understanding of some song of a Greek poet or some saying of a Greek philosopher” (Themis, 2d ed., xxv).

    She found welcome support for her attempts to accept and justify these fundamentally religious “errors and licences” (Thémis, 2d ed., xi) in Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and his school, whose studies on the sociology of religion had begun to appear in the 1890s and in the philosophical and psychological works that Henri Bergson (1859-1941) began to publish in 1907. Disregarding the differences between them, Harrison amalgamated Durkheim’s interpretation of religion as the primeval representation of collective thought and emotion with Bergson’s sublime conception of durée: the persistence of social and organic life she found unconsciously expressed in Dionysus, god of the mysteries, but consciously reflected in the Olympians. Against this background, and with the help of extensive data from comparative cultural anthropology, she gave special emphasis to the theory of religion to such concepts as mana, magic, tabu, and totemism. Here she drew on Frazer’s postulate of the sacral king as the original medicine-man, Evans’s interpretation of Minoan tree- and pillar-cults, and Arnold van Gennep’s (1873-1957) Rites de passage of 1909. Appealing to the neutral deity Themis, Harrison damns both chthonic phallic worship and the Olympian individualism that is realized in the institution of marriage. This monumental work is the ultimate expression of the religious experiences she had suffered through and the emotional scars that she bore.

    In 1912 Jane Harrison journeyed to Greece for the last time. In Athens she met Samuel Butler 1835-1902), who tried without success to win her over to his theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman, and she traveled across the sea to the coast of Athos. To her, Mt. Athos was a shrine of the Mountain-Mother, and the monks, who forbade women to set foot on the promontory, were the descendants of the Curetes. On board ship her Themis, which had just appeared, and Murray’s book on Homer were being studied by Arthur Pickard-Cambridge (1873-1952), whose theory of the origin and development of tragedy, which was aimed directly at Harrison and Murray, was to become canonical.

    Harrison’s new book provoked a far more massive protest than the Prolegomena had, and the “sound scholars” replied to it with valid criticisms. Her health, which had long been fragile, was further weakened by operations, and in the fall of 1912 she traveled to Switzerland to undergo electrotherapy. There she was vouchsafed in a dream the easing of her hatred for Frances Darwin, who three years earlier had become Mrs. F. M. Cornford; at the same time she experienced a spiritual rebirth, comparable to mystic communion with a being which, however, did not in Harrison’s view deserve the name of “God.” Writing to Murray of this experience, she asked, “Do you think a blasphemous Ker could be converted?” (Stewart, 113).

    Her last journey to Italy took her in 1913 to Venice, where Titian and Tintoretto left her indifferent. In the same year she published Ancient Art and Ritual; the book, not so unwieldy as Themis, was an attempt to explain the transformation of ritual (dromenon) into art (drama). Despite all the emotional setbacks of her life she remained physically vigorous and intellectually youthful. Even in 1913 she made reference to the Turkey Trot and Ragtime in an article “for fear of being out of touch with the young,” as she acknowledged to Murray (Stewart, 182). She maintained close relations with friends a generation younger than herself—writers, painters, actors, London’s “latest-fashion people” in the Bloomsbury circle of Virginia Stephen (1882-1941) (after 1912 Mrs. Leonard Woolf); among them were Roger Fry (1866-1934), whom she had known since the days of her boys’ school lectures, the Post-Impressionist Clive Bell (1861-1964), her Newnham colleague Pernel Strachey (1876-1951), and the latter’s brother Lytton (1880-1932).

    The outbreak of the First World War was for Jane Harrison a painful turning point in her scholarly interests and in her relations to her friends of the Ritualist group. In 1915 she published a collection, entitled Alpha and Omega, of lectures and pamphlets composed between 1907 and 1913, which contained autobiographical elements. The views therein expressed seemed to her now “like faded photographs” (Alpha and Omega, vi), and she added to the volume a stirring appeal for pacifism, composed after the beginning of the war. She, who shortly before had glorified collective emotional ties as forces making per definitionemfor unity and the preservation of life, now reacted with shock and bewilderment to the masses’ aggressive enthusiasm for war and to the anti-German political and military activities of her colleagues and friends, Murray and Cornford among them. Seeing her theoretical principles refuted in practice and forfeiting the maieutic conversations that she sorely needed with the men who had hitherto been closest to her, she felt paralyzed; her energy for work was diminished and her tendency to depression deepened, and she began to look about for new tasks. The fulfillment of her obligation to review new publications on Greek religion and mythology for Cyril Bailey’s The Year's Work in Classical Studies in 1915 and 1917 was, she felt, like a visit to a grave.

    During the winter of 1914-15, she went to Paris for treatment by a heart specialist; there she came into contact with the École des Langues Orientales and began to learn Russian. In 1916 she gave English lessons to foreign refugees in Cambridge, and in the “Union for Democratic Control” she supported Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who had been dismissed from his lectureship at Trinity because of his pacifism. Meanwhile, her study of the language and culture of Russia had become the center of her interests, and in this study she found consolation and renewed energy. She hailed the March revolution in Russia in 1917 as the only good thing the war had brought about. In 1919 she studied Russian at the École Orientale in Paris together with her student and friend Hope Mirrlees (1887-1978), who had come to Cambridge in 1909 and was to be her companion to the end of her life in 1928. In 1919 she also published Aspects, Aorists, and the Classical Tripos, in which she underscored the similarities between Russian and Greek. At her first encounter with the language of the land of bears of her childhood dreams, she had confessed to Murray, “Nothing has made me so happy as the ‘aspects’ of Russian verbs since I first had sight of the Greek particles” (Stewart, 156).

    From 1919 until her final departure from Cambridge in 1922 she taught Russian at Newnham; after a trip to Spain in 1920 she also taught Spanish. In 1920 she gave a lecture on the similarities between Cretan and Spanish bullfighting, and she outraged Cambridge society, in which Communism was not yet à la mode, by her acquaintance with a “real live Bolshevik bear” (Stewart, 175). In 1921 she witnessed male-chauvinist demonstrations and a vandalistic attack on Newnham by rioting students after the proposal to admit women to degrees (a proposal that had been accepted at Oxford and was supported at Cambridge by many dons) failed once more. Not only her opponents, such as Ridgeway, but also such close scholarly colleagues as A. B. Cook, had voted against the measure.

    The last work she wrote while still at Cambridge was the Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1921), a résumé of her two great books. Here she drew on Durkheim’s Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse of 1912, the second volume of Cook’s Zeus (1921), and the third edition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as well as her reading in the latest psychological and philosophical literature—C. G. Jung’s Psychologie des Unbewufiten, Vladimir S. Soloviov’s Justification of the Good, and, not least, Sigmund Freud’s Totem und Tabu (1912-13), the sexual theory of which, however, she did not accept. The Epilegomenabegins with a dualistic division of primitive ritual into rites of expulsion, directed against evil, on the one hand, and rites of impulsion, operating in favor of good (i.e., fertility and nourishment), on the other. After an attempt at biological justification of both primitive and Olympian theology, she ended the book with a panegyric on asceticism, which she felt was necessary in the modem world. Gilbert Murray, who had long sought to bring Harrison to such a view, assured her that this was “the best thing you have ever written about religion” (Stewart, 182).

    In 1922, the year of the third and last edition of the Prolegomena, Harrison gave up her residence at Newnham College, and most of academic Cambridge bade her farewell with expressions of gratitude and respect. She burned all letters and manuscripts, dispersed her library, and settled in France with Hope Mirrlees “to see things more freely and more widely” (Reminiscences, 90). From 1922 to 1925 she lived in the American University Women’s Club in Paris and took an active part in the cultural life of the French capital, in which the Russian avant-garde was also active. In 1923 and 1924 Paul Desjardins (1859-1940), Professor at the Collège de Sèvres, invited her to the “Décades”—“Entretiens” on literature, religion, and politics—that he conducted at the Abbaye de Pontigny; there she met the crème of the Nouvelle Revue Française and its internationalist comrades-in-arms. Desjardins’s guests too welcomed and honored her; among them were André Gide (1869-1951), André Maurois (1885-1967), Jean Schlumberger (1877-1968), and Heinrich Mann (1871-1950), as well as Harrison’s final passion, the Russian Prince David Mirsky (1890-1939). Jean Jaurès (1859-1914), the Socialist politician who had been murdered at the beginning of the First World War, had been one of the first French intellectuals to applaud Harrison’s Thémis, and in 1925 it was placed on the syllabus of the Paris École des Hautes Études. 

    In her Reminiscences of a Student's Life, which was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in 1925, Jane Harrison praised the passions that stirred her even in old age. “Life does not cease when you are old, it only suffers a rich change.... You even go on falling in love, and for the same foolish reasons—the tone of a voice, the glint of a strangely set eye—only you fall so gently; and in old age you may even show a man that you like to be with him without his wanting to marry you or thinking you want to marry him” (Reminiscences, 89-90). During the last four years of her life she affirmed anew her old love for the pure beauty of the poetic imagination in the classical literature of all ages, signifying the conquest of anxiety as the quintessence of all transcendent religion, in her last two brief books, Mythology: Our Debt to Greece and Rome (1924) and Myths of Greece and Rome (1927). In two works of Russian religion and folklore that she edited and translated together with Hope Mirrlees, The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum and The Book of the Bear (1926), she celebrated the Russian soul as a model to be emulated.

    Before she finally settled in London in 1926, she traveled through the south of France and visited Cambridge once more, where she became interested once again in her old favorite subject, Orphism—now from the diffusionist and Orientalist point of view—a subject that she had studied long before, with Cornford and Murray. In her last publication, the preface to the second, almost unaltered edition of Themis, she noted that her “dangerous” book had turned many young scholars into freethinkers and that her old “heresies” were now generally accepted: “that gods and religious ideas generally reflect the social activities of the worshipper; that the food supply is of primary importance for religion; that the daimon precedes the full-blown god; that the Great Mother is prior to the masculine divinities” (Themis, 2d ed., ix). She herself, she said, could not take part in the further development of these theories, for “between the two editions lies the great war which shattered much of academic tradition, scattered my fellow-workers all over Europe to be killed or drilled, and drove me, for I am no Archimedes, to fly from Greece and seek sanctuary in other languages and civilisations—Russian, Oriental, and, finally, Scandinavian—bringing with them no bitter tang of remembrance” (Ibid.).

    In the spring of 1928, Jane Harrison died of leukemia in London at 11 Mecklenburgh Street.

    Jane Ellen Harrison was one of England’s first women scholars, and in her fields of study she attained outstanding rank, comparable to that of Beatrice Potter Webb (1858-1943). She was an energetic woman and a fascinating personality whose enthusiasm was contagious. Her shining eyes and expressive hands were famous; her appearance reminded contemporaries of a sybil and also of a sailor. Her rebellion against educational, religious, social, and political institutions made her a lifelong outsider, despite all the recognition and the friendships that her knowledge, her powers of persuasion, and her personal charm won for her. That she was not broken by her deep-seated ambivalence toward religion and sexuality is probably due to her inexhaustible vitality; with its help she managed time and again, in the face of numerous disappointments, to respond enthusiastically to all that was new and vivid.

  • Sources:


    Shelley Arlen:The Cambridge Ritualists: an Annotated Bibliography of the Works by and about Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray, Francis M. Cornford and Arthur Bernard Cook (Metuchen, N.J. & London: The Scarecrow Press/Shelwing, 1990).


    F.M. Cornford, “Jane Ellen Harrison,” DNB 1922-1930: 408-9; Jessie Stewart, Jane Ellen Harrison. A Portrait from Letters(London, 1959); Sandra J. Peacock, Jane Ellen Harrison. The Mask and the Self (New Haven & London, 1988); Annabel Robinson. The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison (Oxford, 2002); Mary Beard, The Invention of Jane Harrison (Cambridge, MA: 2000); Robert Ackerman, “Some Letters of the Cambridge Ritualists,” GRBS 12 (1971) 113-36; ------, “Jane Ellen Harrison: The Early Work,” GRBS 13 (1972) 209-30; Park McGinty, “Jane Ellen Harrison and the Study of Dionysos,” in Interprétation and Dionysos. Method in the Study of a God. Religion and Reason 16 (The Hague, Paris, & New York, 1978): 71-103, 207-222. (Reviewed by Robert Ackerman, Gnomon 52 [1980] 673-75.); Gilbert Murray,  Jane Ellen Harrison. An Address. Delivered at Newnham College, Cambridge, 27 October 1928. Cambridge, 1928 = Thémis. Ed. John C. Wilson, 559-577; Camille Barnard-Cogno, “Jane Harrison (1850-1928), between German and English Scholarship,” European Review of History 13, 4 (2006) 661-76.


    Jane Ellen Harrison Papers, Newnham College Archive, Cambridge.


  • Author: Renate Schlesier (Translated by Michael Armstrong)