File:Jane Ellen Harrison.jpg

Jane Ellen Harrison, by Augustus John (Newnham College)

Jane Ellen Harrison (September 9, 1850–April 5, 1928) was a ground-breaking British classical scholar, linguist and feminist. Harrison is one of the founders, with Karl Kerenyi and Walter Burkert, of modern studies in Greek mythology. She applied 19th century archaeological discoveries to the interpretation of Greek religion in ways that have become standard.

Personal life

Harrison was born in Yorkshire, England and first received tutelage under family governesses in subjects such as the many languages Harrison learned: initially German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, later expanded to about sixteen languages, including Russian. Harrison spent most of her professional life at Newnham, the progressive, recently established college for women at Cambridge. She knew Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Pater, and moved in the Bloomsbury group, with Virginia Woolf (who was one of Harrison's close friends and looked to her as a mentor), Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Roger Fry. With Gilbert Murray, F. M. Cornford, and A. B. Cook, she was inspired to apply anthropology and ethnography to the study of classical art and ritual. Harrison and this later group of people have become known as Cambridge Ritualists.


Harrison was, at least ideologically, a moderate suffragette of the early feminist movement. Rather than support women's suffrage by protesting, Harrison applied her scholarship in anthropology to defend women's right to vote. In responding to an anti-suffragist critic, Harrison demonstrates this moderate ideology: "[The Women's Movement] is not an attempt to arrogate man's prerogative of manhood; it is not even an attempt to assert and emphasize women's privilege of womanhood; it is simply the demand that in the life of woman, as in the life of man, space and liberty shall be found for a thing bigger than either manhood or womanhood -- for humanity." (84-85, Alpha and Omega) To this end, Harrison's motto was Terence's homo sum; humani nihil mihi alienum est ("I am a human being; nothing that is human do I account alien.")


Harrison began formal study at Cheltenham Ladies' College, where she gained a Certificate, and, in 1874, continued her studies in the classics at Cambridge University's Newnham College. Her early work earned Harrison two honorary doctorates, an LLD from University of Aberdeen in 1895 and DLitt from Durham College in 1897. This recognition afforded Harrison the opportunity to return to Newnham College as a lecturer in 1898, and her position was renewed continuously until Harrison retired in 1922.

Early Work

In her time, Harrison was renowned for her public lectures on Greek art and for her unconventional and outspoken views. Her lectures on Greek art, usually given to wealthy, predominantly female audiences, were immensely popular in the 1880s, and her unorthodox fascination with pagan folk rituals often stirred up gossip.[citation needed] Harrison was emancipated intellectually by a reading of David Friedrich Strauss's historical criticism of the life of Jesus, and Johann Jakob Bachofen's Mutterrecht (1861), the seminal analysis of matriarchy in antiquity.[citation needed] Harrison's first monograph, in 1882, drew on the thesis that both Homer's Odyssey and motifs of the Greek vase-painters were drawing upon similar deep sources for mythology, the opinion that had not been common in earlier classical archaeology, that the repertory of vase-painters offereed some unusual commentaries on myth and ritual.

Her approach in her great work, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903),[1] was to proceed from the ritual to the myth it inspired.: "In theology facts are harder to seek, truth more difficult to formulate than in ritual." (p 163). Thus she began her book with analyses of the best-known of the Athenian ferstivals: Anthesteria, harvest festivals Thargelia, Kallynteria, Plynteria, and the women's festivals, in which she detected many primitive survivals, Thesmophoria, Arrophoria, Skirophoria, Stenia and Haloa.

Cultural Evolution (or Social Darwinism)

Harrison alluded to and commented on the cultural applications of Charles Darwin's work. Harrison and her generation depended upon anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (who was himself influenced by Darwin and evolutionary ideas) for some new themes of cultural evolution, especially his 1871 work, Primitive Culture: researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom. After a socially Darwinian analysis of the origins of religion, Harrison admitted that religions are anti-intellectual and dogmatic, yet she defended the cultural necessity of religion. In her essay The Influence of Darwinism on the Study of Religion (circa 1915), Harrison concluded: "Every dogma religion has hitherto produced is probably false, but for all that the religious or mystical spirit may be the only way of apprehending some things, and these of enormous importance. It may also be that the contents of this mystical apprehension cannot be put into language without being falsified and misstated, that they have rather to be felt and lived than uttered and intellectually analyzed; yet they are somehow true and necessary to life." (177, Alpha and Omega)

Later life

World War I marked a deep break in Harrison's life. Harrison never visited Italy or Greece after the war, she mostly wrote revisions or synopses of previous publishings, and pacifist leanings isolated her. Upon retiring (in 1922), Harrison briefly lived in Paris, but she returned to London when her health began to fail.


  1. "Once or twice in a generation a work of scholarship will alter an intellectual landscape so profoundly, that everyone is required to re-examine normally unexamined assumptions," Robert Ackerman begins his Introduction to the Princeton University Press reprint, 1991.


Greek Topics

Books on the anthropological search for the origins of Greek religion and mythology, include:

  • Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903)
  • Heresy and Humanity (1911)
  • Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912, revised 1927)
  • Ancient Art and Ritual (1912+)
  • Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1921)

Essays and Reflections

  • Alpha and Omega (1915)
  • Reminiscences of a Student's Life (1925)

See also

History of feminism

External links


  • Harrison, Jane Ellen. Alpha and Omega. AMS Press: New York, 1973. (ISBN 0-404-56753-3)
  • Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) 1991 (Princeton: Princeton University Press Mythos series). The Introduction by Robert Ackerman is the best easily available brief overview of Harrison's career.
  • Peacock, Sandra J. Jane Ellen Harrison: The Mask and the Self. Halliday Lithograph Corp.: West Hanover, MA. 1988. (ISBN 0-300-04128-4)
  • Robinson, Annabel. The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (ISBN 0-19-924233-X). The first substantial biography, with extensive quotes from personal letters.
  • Stewart, Jessie G.Jane Ellen Harrison: a Portrait from Letters 1959. A memoir based on her voluminous correspondence with Gilbert Murray.

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