Jane Ellen Harrison

For other people named Jane Harrison, see Jane Harrison (disambiguation).
Jane Ellen Harrison
Born (1850-09-09)9 September 1850
Cottingham, Yorkshire, England
Died 15 April 1928(1928-04-15) (aged 77)
Bloomsbury, England
Resting place St Marylebone cemetery, East Finchley
Nationality British
Alma mater Cheltenham Ladies' College; Newnham College, Cambridge
Occupation Classical scholar, linguist and feminist
Organization Lecturer, Newnham College, 1898–1922
Known for One of the founders of modern studies in Greek mythology
Awards Two honorary doctorates, an LLD from University of Aberdeen in 1895 and DLitt from the University of Durham in 1897.

Jane Ellen Harrison (9 September 1850 – 15 April 1928) was a 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. Contemporary classics scholar Mary Beard, Harrison's biographer, has described her as "in a way ... [Britain's] first female professional 'career academic'".[1] Ellen Wordsworth Crofts, later second wife of Sir Francis Darwin was Jane Harrison's best friend from her student days at Newnham, and during the period from 1898 to her death in 1903.

Personal life

Harrison was born in Cottingham, Yorkshire on 9 September 1850. Her mother died shortly after she was born and she was educated by a series of governesses. These governesses taught Harrison German, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew, but she later expanded her knowledge to about sixteen languages, including Russian. Harrison spent most of her professional life at Newnham, the progressive, recently established college for women at Cambridge. At Newnham, one of her students was Eugenie Sellers, the writer and poet, with whom she lived in England and later in Paris and possibly even had a relationship with in the late 1880s. Between 1880 and 1897 Harrison studied Greek art and archaeology at the British Museum under Sir Charles Newton. Harrison then supported herself lecturing at the museum and at schools (mostly private boy's schools). Her lectures became widely popular and 1600 people ended up attending her Glasgow lecture on Athenian gravestones. She travelled to Italy and Germany, where she met the scholar from Prague, Wilhelm Klein. Klein introduced her to Wilhelm Dörpfeld who invited her to participate in his archaeological tours in Greece. Her early book The Odyssey in Art and Literature then appeared in 1882. Harrison met the scholar D. S. MacColl, who supposedly asked her to marry him and she declined. Harrison then suffered a severe depression and started to study the more primitive areas of Greek art in an attempt to cure herself. In 1888 Harrison began to publish in the periodical that Oscar Wilde was editing called Woman's World on "The Pictures of Sappho." Harrison also ended up translating Mythologie figurée de la Grèce (1883) by Maxime Collignon as well as providing personal commentary to selections of Pausanias, Mythology & Monuments of Ancient Athens by Margaret Verrall in the same year. These two major works caused Harrison to be awarded honorary degrees from the universities of Durham (1897) and Aberdeen (1895). Harrison was supposed to marry the scholar R.A. Neil, but was unable to as he died in 1901 before they could be married. She became the central figure of the group known as the Ritualists at Cambridge, and in 1903 her book Prolegomena on the Study of Greek Religion appeared. Harrison became close to Francis MacDonald Cornford (1874–1943), and when he married in 1909 she became extremely upset. She made a new friendship with Hope Mirrlees whom she referred to as her "spiritual daughter". Harrison retired from Newnham in 1922 and then moved to Paris to live with Mirrlees. She and Mirrlees returned to London in 1925 where she was able to publish her memoirs through Leonard and Virginia Woolf's press, The Hogarth Press. She died three years later at her house in Bloomsbury and is now buried in St Marylebone cemetery, East Finchley.[2] Harrison was an atheist.[3][4]


Harrison was, at least ideologically, a moderate suffragist 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 the University of Durham 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

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 offered some unusual commentaries on myth and ritual.

Her approach in her great work, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903),[5] 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 festivals: 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 argues that religiosity is anti-intellectual and dogmatic, yet she defended the cultural necessity of religion and mysticism. In her essay The Influence of Darwinism on the Study of Religion (1909), 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 publications, 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.


Literary critic Camille Paglia[6] has written of Harrison's influence on her own work. Paglia argues that Harrison's career has been ignored by second wave feminists whom Paglia thinks object to Harrison's findings and efface the careers of prominent pre-WWII female scholars to bolster their claims of male domination in academe.


Greek topics

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

Essays and reflections

See also


  1. Mary Beard "Living with Jane Harrison", A Don's Life blog, The Times website, 22 May 2009.
  2. "Jane Harrison – Dictionary of Art Historians." Jane Harrison – Dictionary of Art Historians. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 May 2013.
  3. Rita R. Wright (2009). Jane Ellen Harrison's "Handmaiden No More": Victorian Ritualism and the Fine Arts. ProQuest. pp. 22–. ISBN 978-1-109-15132-9. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  4. Gerald Stanton Smith (2000). D.S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, 1890–1939. Oxford University Press. pp. 105–. ISBN 978-0-19-816006-9. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  5. "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.
  6. See Paglia's Sexual Personae (passim), and the long essay "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" in Paglia's Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays.


Further reading

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