European Pagan Memory Day

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Walter Friedrich Otto is quite unknown by contemporary pagans, and sometimes he's avoided on purpose, but actually his works are really important, for many reasons. Otto is especially known because of his work The Homeric gods, but his intuitions about ancient Hellenic paganism can be valuable also for other European Pagan religions.

Of course we can't consider Otto's works as a bible, as well as we can't do that with other scholars who nevertheless gave a great contribution to the renewal of paganism we are living today. So instead of talking specifically about Otto's thought, that you can understand better by reading his books, here we'll underline some of his better intuitions about paganism, considering also the cultural context in which they had origin.

Probably, as it happens for other German scholars of the same period, most of the distrust towards Walter Otto is due to suspicion of being a Nazi, at least in the ideological meaning, if not in the meaning of being collaborative with the Reich. It's the same misunderstanding Nietzche underwent to, and the Italian scholar Cristaldi defined "a Nazi old little book" Otto's work Classical spirit and Christian world (I couldn't find any news about its translation from German to English, so I simply translated the original title of the book; I also couldn't find any bibliography of English editions of Otto's works. If someone could, please tell us at This is Otto's work that most of all shows the cultural debt that Otto has with Nietzsche. We must anyway remember that, in spite of a poem by Hitler naming Odin, written in 1915, Nazism has never been actually pagan: even though it used pagan symbols and ideas to make propaganda for its ideas, included the racist ones, Hitler has been rather compared to Luther and Christ. Walter Otto was marginalized during Nazi years because of the scholars he used to attend: many of them were Jews and their 'club' was committed in spreading 'humanistic' ideas that the regime considered not fit for teaching people how much the German race was better than others because these ideas had their roots in Latin tradition. Otto never left Germany, but was fully restored in the academic ambient only in 1955. He was born in 1874 and died in 1958.

Unlike other scholars of ancient religions, what distinguishes most Walter Otto is his impetus, passion, affection towards the ancient Greek religious world; the only essay written about him in Italian (I don't know if there is any in English, and I'm quite sure that this one hasn't been translated yet) is entitled Walter Friedrich Otto: a theologian of paganism. In the Italian preface to Walter Otto's Theophania, Caracciolo says that "the study of religion is, according to him (i.e. Walter Otto), an especially religious matter"; we could interpret this sentence giving to the word 'religious' both a meaning close to the current one and a meaning closer to the original Latin one, that is "attention, care". After all, Otto demonstrated the Greek origin of the god Dionysus only through the mean of philology, before the archaeological proofs.

Just to have an idea of the impetus Otto has, you should read Classical spirit and Christian world (I think it's not available in an English version in German is Geist der antike und die christliche Welt), written in 1923. The importance of this book for paganism is not the critic to Christianity, that so much owes to Nietzsche's though, and this is maybe the reason why Walter Otto didn't want it to be printed any more. The importance is in the description of the pagan Greek religion, that, according to Otto, reached its highest point with Homer. Many things in this book are really objectionable, belonging to the cultural context of those times, first of all the opposition between active and manly paganism and passive and feminine Christianity, so attributing to the feminine nature a weakness and a tendency to submission that is actually a result of Christian education. The studies about education and the difference between what really is in the nature of children and what instead is a result of education began much later, in the 70es, about twenty years after Otto's death, who anyway never looked at the effects that monotheism produces on people. What Otto is very aware of is the risk of looking at pagan antiquity through what he calls "the lenses of Christianity", that is through a completely different religious perspective, so that we may deform pagan antiquity.

The most important credit of Walter Otto for what concerns nowadays paganism, the reason why every pagan should take a look to his works apart from the chosen path of paganism, is his definition of ancient Greek religion as "religion of reality", a definition that he considered true also for Roman religion, but according to myself is true for every pagan religion, at least the western ones. Religion of reality means that the Human Being feels the divine in the forces of the surrounding world and in him/herself: the perception of the divine is that feeling of strength, power and fullness that takes the human being when in front of a natural spectacle or when taken by a tension, an impulse to act. That is the theophany, the apparition of the god. There isn't faith in something we can't reach; we can nearly touch the presence of gods and goddesses. So we can't separate pagan religion from experience, body, will and action.

From the apparition of the god, the poet gives shape to the myth, but the myth is always based on the appearing god or goddess. Here, Otto breaks with the old tradition of studies in mythology that, since Middle Ages, considered the myth as an attempt of explaining moral values or natural phenomena. The god is in the phenomenon, it's not its external cause, so when in Homer we read that a god or goddess inspired the thought or the action of a hero, it doesn't mean that the hero couldn't have thought or acted without the god, but that the god or goddess appears in the force that leads the hero to think or act. Otto completely refuses the idea that the myth could have been created by a population lacking in logical thinking, that is in a 'prelogic' level of humanity as the positivism defined it. Animals too have their own logical thinking, says Otto in Theophania, so a 'prelogic' level of the humanity doesn't exist. According to Otto, the god or goddess don't appear just because the human being desires to see them or to see the explanation of something; the deity is a part of the objectivity of reality. This apparition of the deity causes the original sparkle of the religious element inside the Human Being, who understands the sacredness of existence. From the encounter with the divine, the myth and the cult are born.

In works by Walter Otto we can't find any hint about whether he wanted to bring the cult back to life or not, so we can't absolutely say if he was a full round pagan or not. Certainly, he was pagan in his way of thinking and we can see that even in his critic to Christianity, when he detaches himself from the mere repetition of Nietzsche's ideas. Without being deceived by appearances, Walter Otto understands that Christian mortification of the ego is actually an exaltation of the ego itself. If suffering is a value, he who exalts his own suffering is actually exalting his own value. These Christians claim that their god is at the center of their thought, but actually there is the ego of the person mortifying himself. To Walter Otto this is easy to understand because he considers the original and primitive Christianity just one of the many eastern religions, quite close to the Mystery religions. In Classical spirit and Christian world, Otto criticizes Mystery religions especially because the adherents mortified themselves in front of a goddess: here Otto is thinking to the castration practiced by some initiated to Cybele's cult; he doesn't consider that there are other Mystery religions without similar practices, both following a god or a goddess. Later, Otto wrote The sense of Eleusinian mysteries (again, I couldn't find any version in English, and I simply translated the title of the book) where he shifts his attention to the theophany of Mysteries, and partially changes his idea about them. At this point in his personal history, Otto has already faced the condemnation by the Nazi regime and is shifting his attention on paganism, rather than on the comparison with Christianity: he wrote The sense of Eleusinian mysteries in 1939, after The Homeric gods (1929) and Dionysus (1933).

Even though some of his ideas are now outdated or mostly unacceptable, Otto is nevertheless a scholar that is worth studying.

Manuela Simeoni


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