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The Myth of the Eternal Rebirth Critical Notes On G.W. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity1

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In his famous work, Die Untergang des Abendlandes (ET, The Decline of the West [1928]), Oswald Spengler used the language of mineralogy to illustrate his thesis that in the Hellenistic age Greek philosophy and religion provided the hollow forms in which the Oriental material underwent a 'pseudomorphosis'. The simile used was the following: When a crystalline substance fills a hollow left in a geological layer made by a crystal which has disintegrated, the former is forced to take on the mould of the latter, thereby deceiving the observer who does not subject the substance to chemical analysis. In his slim book of less than 100 pages of text, Professor Glen Bowersock propounds a more perceptive view: 'Hellenism'-by which the author means Greek language, philosophy, and religion-did not disintegrate so quickly. Surely the great Dionysus remained alivc for a long time; in the chapter on 'Dionysos and His World', Bowersock cites that Dionysus is the 'controlling figure' in some beautiful late antiquity art work. Rather than effecting a 'pseudomorphosis' of Near Eastern religion, Hellenism was able to bring about a metamorphosis: it became a vehicle for 'strengthening and even transforming local worship without eradicating its local character' (p. 21). Bowersock also correctly notes: 'Christianity had a powerful influence on the paganism that prospered in the late antique world, to a degree [...] no less important than the influence-much more frequently remarked-of paganism on Christianity' (p. 26). However, in his eagerness to demonstrate the influence of Christianity upon paganism, Bowersock unfortunately makes many mistakes. This is rather glaring in his attempt at a 'thorough examination' of Epiphanius' account of the festival in the Alexandrian

Affiliations: 1: Department of Near Eastern Studies The University of Michigan 3074 Frieze Building, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1285


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