Making the myth-ritualist theory scientific

Robert A. Segal*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Working from his base in ancient Greek religion, Walter Burkert has come to propose a theory of religion generally. That theory rests on the work of ethologists and, more recently, of sociobiologists. While concentrating on ritual, which for him is the heart of religion, Burkert links ritual to myth to offer his own version of the myth-ritualist theory. Rejecting the old-fashioned view, epitomised by James Frazer, that myth and ritual function to spur the crops to grow, he maintains that the two function at once to unify society and to alleviate anxiety. Their function is sociological and psychological rather than magical. Put another way, their function is symbolic rather than practical. For Burkert, as for Frazer, myth-ritualism arose in the stage of agriculture, but for Burkert it is tied to the prior stage of hunting. How original is Burkert's theory of myth-ritualism and of religion? Why does he turn to ethology in particular? If he is seeking to provide a scientific theory of religion, what does he mean by 'scientific'?

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)259-271
Number of pages13
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2000


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