Hermann Usener

Hermann Karl Usener
Born October 23, 1834
Weilburg, German Confederation
Died October 21, 1905(1905-10-21) (aged 70)
Bonn, German Empire
Nationality German
Fields Classics
Doctoral students H. A. Diels
U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff
Hermann Osthoff
Other notable students Eduard Schwartz
Friedrich Leo
Paul Natorp
Hans Lietzmann
Albrecht Dieterich
Richard Reitzenstein
Aby Warburg

Hermann Karl Usener (October 23, 1834 October 21, 1905) was a German scholar in the fields of philology and comparative religion.


Hermann Usener was born at Weilburg and educated at its Gymnasium. From 1853 he studied at Heidelberg, Munich, Göttingen and Bonn.

In 1858 he had a teaching position at the Joachimsthalschen Gymnasium in Berlin. He was Professor 1861 to 1863 at the University of Bern, then at the University of Greifswald, before becoming professor at the University of Bonn.[1]

The Bonn School of classical philology was led by Usener with Franz Buecheler.


Usener was a large-scale thinker who combined scholarly research with theoretical reflection. His research on the ancient world used a comparative method, drawing on a variety of ethnological material for the study of social and religious matters. His theoretical method was phenomenological or hermeneutical, and centered on social psychology and cultural history.[2] He was influential most of all through his work on the formation of religious concepts, which influenced thinkers such as Albrecht Dieterich, Ludwig Radermacher, Aby Warburg, Walter F. Otto, and Ernst Cassirer.[3] In his book on “the names of gods” (Götternamen, 1896), Usener introduced the concept of a momentary god.[4] This phrase entered the English-speaking world, to describe deities who seem to exist only for a specific purpose, time and place.[5]

He also trained an impressive list of students, [6] and belonged himself to a long dynasty of students of Winkelmann.[7] One such student was Friedrich Nietzsche: after initial support, Usener turned against him as a scholar after reading The Birth of Tragedy. Other students included Hermann Diels,[8] Paul Natorp,[9] Hans Lietzmann,[10] Albrecht Dieterich, Richard Reitzenstein,[11] and Aby Warburg.[12] Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, the leading German classical scholar of the following generation, studied at Bonn 1867-9; but tended to disagree with Usener. Their correspondence has been published.


His works include:


  1. nomenclator philologorum
  2. James P. Holoka, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 1996, vol. 7 no. 14: a review of Renate Schlesier, "'Arbeiter in Useners Weinberg.' Anthropologie und Antike Religionsgeschichte in Deutschland nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg", in Hellmut Flashar, ed., Altertumswissenschaft in den 20er Jahren: Neue Fragen und Impulse (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995), p. 329-380.
  3. See Antje Wessels, Zur Rezeption von Hermann Useners Lehre von der religiösen Begriffsbildung (De Gruyter, 2003, no. 51 in the series “Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche Und Vorarbeiten”).
  4. momentary god
  5. Momentary Gods, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 16. Kessinger Publishing, 2003. Pages 777–778. ISBN 0-7661-3693-0.
  6. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, ‘’Bryn Mawr Classical Review’’, 2004, vol. 2 no. 43: a review of Suzanne Marchand, "From Liberalism to Neoromanticism: Albrecht Dieterich, Richard Reitzenstein, and the Religious Turn in Fin-de-Siècle German Classical Studies”, in Ingo Gildenhard, Martin Ruehl, eds., ‘’Out of Arcadia: Classics and Politics in Germany in the Age of Burckhardt, Nietzsche and Wilamowitz’’ (London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2003), BICS Suppl. 79.
  7. Camille Paglia spoke of a 150-year-long dynasty of German scholars following the idealizing Winckelmann, such as Hermann Usener, Werner Jaeger, and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who bitterly warred over the character and methodology of classical studies. See Camille Paglia, “Erich Neumann: theorist of the Great Mother”, in ‘’Arion’’, vol. 13, no. 3 (2010).
  8. PDF, p. 4 and later
  9. Paul Natorp (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  10. Bauer-Appendix 2
  11. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.43
  12. , .: Critics have stressed the importance of Warburg's professor Herman Usener, the great classical philologist and scholar of comparative religion, whose Götternamen investigated the etymologies of deities' names in order to shed light on the changing psychology of religious beliefs; Warburg's iconological project, with its ambition to illuminate historical psychology, strives for an analogous goal.

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