Karl Otfried Müller  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Karl Otfried Müller (August 28, 1797–August 1, 1840), was a German scholar and Philodorian, or admirer of ancient Sparta, who introduced the modern study of Greek mythology. He is the author of Ancient Art and its Remains; or a Manual of the Archeology of Art.



His brothers were Julius Müller (1801-1878) and Eduard Müller (1804-1875).

He was born at Brieg (modern Brzeg) in Silesia, raised in the atmosphere of Protestant Pietism and educated partly in Breslau (now Wrocław) and partly in Berlin. Here he was spurred towards the study of Greek literature, art and history by the influence of Philipp August Böckh. In 1817, after the publication of his first work, Aegineticorum liber, on the Aeginetans, he received an appointment at the Magdaleneum in Breslau, and in 1819 he was made adjunct professor of ancient literature at the University of Göttingen, his subject being the archaeology and history of ancient art. He deepened his understanding of Greek art by travelling in the summer of 1822 to the Netherlands, England and France.

Turning away from the Enlightenment conception of Greek myth as a reflection of a universal religion in its infancy, Müller placed the study squarely as the outcome of an encounter between the particular character of a people and a specific historical setting, where, in the broadest sense it has remained, though his convictions that the core of each culture is uniquely its own led him to deny the influence of Egyptian art on Greek art, already being recognised at the time.

Müller's position at Göttingen was made difficult by the political troubles which followed the accession of Ernest Augustus I of Hanover in 1837, and he applied for permission to travel, leaving Germany in 1839. In April of the following year he reached Greece, having spent the winter in Italy. He investigated the remains of ancient Athens, visited numerous places in Peloponnesus, and finally went to Delphi, where he began excavations. He was attacked by intermittent fever, of which he died at Athens.


The most important of his historical works were Geschichten hellenischen Stämme und Städte: Orchomenos und die Minyer (1820) and Die Dorier (1824), including the essay Über die Makedonier, on the settlements, origin and early history of the Macedonians. He introduced a new standard of accuracy in the cartography of ancient Greece. In 1828 he published Die Etrusker, a treatise on Etruscan antiquities.

His Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie (1825), in which he avoided the views of G. F. Creuzer and Christian August Lobeck, prepared the way for the scientific investigation of myths. Working without the benefit of modern understanding of psychology, he offered steps towards the "internal idea" of myth and presented techniques for determining the age of a mythus from the mentions of it in literary sources and a notable chapter on how to separate the mythus from the modifications of poets and prose writers, and examined the relations that Homer and Hesiod bore to their traditions, all of this before the supportive contributions of modern archaeology, philological analysis, or the understanding of oral transmission of myth, a remarkable achievement.

The study of ancient art was promoted by his Handbuch der Archäologie der Kunst (1830), and Denkmäler der alten Kunst (1832), which he wrote in association with Carl Oesterley.

In 1841 appeared his posthumous Geschichte der griechischen Literatür. It was translated into English as History of the Literature of Ancient Greece and published the previous year in London: chapters i.-xxii. were translated by Sir George Cornewall Lewis; chapters xxiii.-xxxvi. by J. W. Donaldson, who carried the work down to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. It remained one of the best books on the subject for many years. Müller also published an admirable translation of the Eumenides of Aeschylus with introductory essays (1833), and new editions of Varro (1833) and Festus (1839).


  • "A democracy likes a large mass and hates all divisions."


  • A memoir of his life by his brother Eduard, prefixed to the posthumous edition of Müller's Kleine deutsche Schriften (1847), is the starting-point of all biographical essays.
  • F. Lucke, Erinnerungen an K.O. Müller (Göttingen, 1841)
  • F. Ranke, K.O. Müller, ein Lebensbild (Berlin, 1870)
  • Conrad Bursian, Geschichte der klassischen Philologie in Deutschland (1883), ii. 1007-1028
  • Calder, W.M., H. Flashar and R. Schlesirt, eds. K.O. Müller Reconsidered, (Urbana) 1995.
  • C. Dilthey, Otfried Müller (Göttingen, 1898)
  • E. Curtius, Altertum und Gegenwart
  • J. W. Donaldson's essay On the Life and Writings of Karl Otfried Müller in vol. i. of the English translation of the history of Greek literature.
  • A biography composed from his letters was published by O. and Else Kern, K. O. Müller, Lebensbild in Briefen an seine Eltern (1908); see also
  • J. E. Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, iii. (1908), 213-216.

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