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Reference group
Cambridge ritualists [ritual anthropologists] (act. 1900–1914) were a small group of Cambridge and Oxford classical scholars who, at the turn of the twentieth century and on the basis of the comparative anthropological study of ‘primitive’ religion, concluded that the structure of Greek drama originated in prehistoric magical fertility rituals performed in the worship of a deity who died and was reborn. Dionysus was the Greek exemplar of this class of gods, called by Jane Ellen Harrison eniautos-daimones, or ‘year-spirits’. The members of the group were Francis Macdonald Cornford, Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray, and perhaps Arthur Bernard Cook (opinions vary about the extent to which Cook should be thought of as a member).

The immediate intellectual context for the Cambridge ritualists was the burst of evolutionary theorizing that took place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1871 E. B. Tylor, in Primitive Culture, used Darwin's casual remark in the antepenultimate paragraph of The Origin of Species that ‘Much light will be thrown [by evolution] on the origin of man and his history’ to offer a sweeping evolutionary discussion of the major social institutions, including religion and mythology. Tylor's rationalist conclusion—that religion was the result of an error that stemmed from the mental backwardness of ancient humans—was followed up and reinforced by the Scottish historian of religion J. G. Frazer, who in The Golden Bough (1890; 2nd edn 1900; 3rd edn 1911–15) described a quasi-Comtean ladder of mental evolution, with humanity ascending laboriously from magic to religion to positive science, with the ancients and ‘primitives’ illustrating the earlier stages.

A different but equally evolutionary perspective was presented by the Scottish orientalist and theologian William Robertson Smith. In Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889; 2nd edn 1894) Smith propounded a new theory about the relation between myth and ritual. Briefly, he asserted that in ancient and primitive cultures the worshipping community did not concern itself greatly about what its members believed; on the other hand, it was rigid regarding what the members did. For Smith, ritual developed first, when the community enacted and re-enacted what it wished the gods to do; myth arose later, as the verbal description of what the community was already doing. In other words, myth was the libretto for ritual action, which for Smith constituted the heart of primitive religion. This assertion of the primacy of ritual would be a central idea for the ritualists.

The work of the ritualists was an intellectual by-product of the scramble among the European powers in the second half of the nineteenth century for colonies and markets. This produced a large and growing mass of ethnographic and linguistic information about the ‘primitive’ peoples reached by missionaries, soldiers, and traders that had accumulated in the imperial capitals by the end of the century. For those inclined to make comparisons between cultures, much more data was now available than had existed fifty years earlier.

The ritualist position is yet another instance of an interest in, and exaltation of, the primitive and the irrational that has been a constant if flickering aspect of European sensibility since the Renaissance. Bearing in mind the idealization of the ancients, especially the Greeks, that had been an article of cultural faith in Europe for centuries, the counter-argument advanced by Frazer and the ritualists—that the mentality of classical antiquity, its undoubted intellectual achievements notwithstanding, was essentially primitive and could thus be illuminated by comparisons with that of ‘savages’—had the power to shock.

Finally, ritualism may be seen as yet one more of the numerous contentious episodes that marked the history of the conservative field of classical scholarship in Britain during the nineteenth century. Over the decades the historical emphasis on philological and literary methods of explicating texts had been challenged successively by the data and methods of archaeology, numismatics, topography, and other disciplines. By the end of the century comparative evolutionary anthropology was only the latest such ‘alien’ interpretive lens through which the world of antiquity might be regarded.

In 1890 Jane Harrison and her friend Margaret Merrifield published Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens, a guidebook to ancient Athens for the growing number of British tourists interested in the archaeological excavations then taking place. It consists of a translation (by Merrifield) of book 1 of the guide to Greece by the ancient traveller Pausanias and a long historical introduction by Harrison. The following lines from Harrison's preface strongly suggest that she had read Smith's Lectures of the preceding year, and they establish Mythology and Monuments as a harbinger of ritualism, even though at the time she had not even met Murray, Cornford, or Cook:
I have tried everywhere to get at, where possible, the cult as the explanation of the legend. My belief is that in many, even in the large majority of cases, ritual practice misunderstood explains the elaboration of myth … Some of the loveliest stories the Greeks have left us will be seen to have taken their rise, not in poetic imagination, but in primitive, often savage, and I think, always practical ritual.
These words were a result of her first trip to Athens, where she gained a much deeper appreciation from the excavators of the lived reality literally underlying the stories that she had known from literature and from studying Greek vases. They mark a remarkable ‘deconversion’ from an earlier idealization of the Greeks to a perspective based on what today would be called the social construction of religion.

In 1900 Harrison wrote a letter to Gilbert Murray, then unknown to her, in which she expressed her admiration for his History of Ancient Greek Literature (1897), and particularly for the attention he had paid to the seemingly non-rational elements of Greek life. They quickly became friends. Francis Cornford, then a fourth-year student of ancient philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, was enlisted in a similar fashion: having heard Harrison lecture he wrote a letter, and a sympathetic meeting led to a lasting friendship. These three worked most closely together; most of the time Cook was peripheral, usually acting as an erudite court of appeal, to whom their more volatile speculations were submitted.

The modern understanding of the ritualists' relationships is based primarily on the more than 800 letters from Harrison to Murray, who in 1908 became regius professor of Greek at Oxford (she destroyed his replies when she left Cambridge in 1922). Harrison and Cornford saw one another regularly in Cambridge, so any corrective that the correspondence between them might offer is lacking. This means, inevitably, that her lively style and penchant for self-dramatization skew perceptions of how the three worked together.

Harrison's first major publication, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903), is a study of several important festivals in the Greek religious calendar. Its focus on religious ritual rather than on literary texts as the best guide to the Greeks' true beliefs was immediately seen as an important theoretical contribution. Harrison was not happy with the book, however, because she recognized that she had not managed to explain the profound differences between the pre-Olympian stratum of beliefs in ‘spirits’ and the later cults of Orpheus and Dionysus.

Dissatisfied, she soon began to rewrite it. A number of significant archaeological discoveries, and an encounter with the work of the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941) and the sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), caused her to conclude that at the heart of pre-Olympian Greek religion lay initiation rituals, in which the initiate ‘dies’ in his old identity only to be reborn. The structure of this ritual was in turn derived from the primordial agricultural fact of death and rebirth without which human life would be impossible: vegetation dies in the autumn but then, happily, returns in the spring. This fundamental insight produced Themis: a Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912), written in close collaboration with Murray and Cornford, Murray's contribution being ‘Excursus on the ritual forms preserved in Greek tragedy’, and Cornford's a chapter, ‘The [ritual] origin of the Olympic games’.

Murray's ‘Excursus’ is the locus classicus of ritualism, regarded as literary criticism. Analysing nearly all the extant tragedies, ignoring plot, and focusing exclusively on form, he teases out what today would be called their ‘deep’ structure and finds, sometimes relatively clearly (in Euripides) and sometimes vestigially (in Sophocles), the old death-and-resurrection pattern. Themis, depending as it did on innumerable comparisons with literally ‘outlandish’ societies like those of the Australian Aborigines and other ‘savages’, and a distinct paucity of Greek evidence, had a generally adverse reception, with Murray's contribution being the target of especially harsh criticism. Cornford's analysis of the plays of Aristophanes, The Origin of Attic Comedy, published in 1914, proved to be the concluding application of the ritualists' approach.

The ‘ritualist moment’ (1912–14) was over virtually as soon as it started. During the war Jane Harrison learned Russian; after 1918 she turned her back on classics entirely, and left Newnham and Britain in the company of one of her former students for Paris, where Russian and Russians absorbed her. Murray had been heavily involved in Liberal Party politics before the war; afterward, politics and especially the League of Nations took most of his time and energy. Cornford moved from ritual origins to Plato, and his translations and commentaries on that philosopher are recognized as his outstanding achievement. Cook produced what is by far the most impressive work of scholarship of any of the ritualists: the three massive volumes of Zeus (1914–40) contain everything known about the father of the gods.

Although the ritualist analysis of tragedy and old comedy was dismissed by the large majority of their classical colleagues (notably by Arthur Pickard-Cambridge in Dithyramb Tragedy and Comedy, 1927, and later by Gerald F. Else in The Origin and Early Form of Greek Tragedy, 1965), the idea of seeking such deep structures later attracted numbers of post-classical literary critics, and by the middle of the twentieth century it was possible to speak of an Anglo-American school of myth-and-ritual criticism, which has since disappeared. At the start of the twenty-first century, the vast majority of classicists remain unconvinced about the basic ritualist contention that tragedy reproduces, in refracted form, the primordial (or even archetypal) pattern of prehistoric life. None the less, classics has become much more open to considering and assimilating the findings of other social sciences, and in that sense has accepted the ritualists' interdisciplinary way of working if not their conclusions.

Robert Ackerman


BL, F. M. Cornford papers · Newnham College, Cambridge, Jane Ellen Harrison collection · Bodl. Oxf., Gilbert Murray papers · R. Ackerman, ‘Jane Ellen Harrison: the early work’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 13 (1972), 209–31 · R. Ackerman, The myth and ritual school: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge ritualists (1991); repr. (2002) · S. 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 (1990) · M. Beard, The invention of Jane Harrison (2000) · W. M. Calder, The Cambridge ritualists reconsidered (1991) · A. Robinson, The life and work of Jane Ellen Harrison (2002) · R. Schlesier, ‘Prolegomena to Jane Harrison's interpretation of ancient Greek religion’, The Cambridge ritualists reconsidered, ed. W. M. Calder (1991), 185–226