Albert Henrichs (December 29, 1942 – April 16, 2017)
On June 14, 1969, Albert Henrichs arrived in Vienna from Cologne, carrying four lumps of ancient leather in a cigar box. An expert Austrian conservator gradually unpeeled what turned out to be 192 pages of a tiny book measuring 1.4 x 1.8 inches, written in Greek and dating from the fifth century CE. By evening the following day, Henrichs had transcribed the text. It was a sensation for the history of religion: a detailed tract about Manichaeism, a rival of Christianity, founded in Mesopotamia in the third century by a young mystic called Mani, whose autobiographical account of his divine revelations is quoted in the text. Henrichs was 26. His publication of this astonishing codex, together with Ludwig Koenen, curator of papyri at Cologne, sealed his reputation as a Wunderkind of classical scholarship.
As a baby, Henrichs was rescued from the carpet-bombing of Cologne to spend his early years in Bad Ems, originally a settlement on the northern border of the Roman empire. After the war, American GIs barracked in a nearby villa made the cherubic toddler their mascot, spoiling him with oranges and peanuts; Henrichs later attributed his affinity for the United States to that early memory from a war-stricken childhood. Subsequently educated at Cologne (PhD 1966), he spent two years working on the papyri collection at the University of Michigan, returning to Cologne for his Habilitation and then moving to Berkeley in 1971. He was appointed with tenure at Harvard in 1973 at the precocious age of thirty. In 1984 he was appointed the tenth Eliot Professor of Greek Literature, the first to have been neither born in the United States nor educated at Harvard.
Henrichs’ training as a papyrologist afforded him a second sensational coup: the publication of 46 fragments from a second-century papyrus codex containing excerpts from a lurid Greek novel, Phoinikika (“Phoenician Saga”), by an otherwise unknown Lollianos. In it, a frank account of the protagonist’s loss of virginity pales into insignificance beside a subsequent episode, in which the protagonist, having joined a band of robbers in Egypt, participates in an act of human sacrifice and cannibalism, consuming the heart of a murdered boy to seal his oath of allegiance to the gang. All this Henrichs pieced together and explicated from the most daunting jigsaw of broken pieces. Unparalleled command of ancient Greek and its literature, profound knowledge of the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, and the papyrologist’s tenacious attention to detail were the hallmarks of his scholarship.
In his latter years, with his halo of white hair and rotund form, Henrichs resembled Silenus, a prominent figure in the boisterous revelry accompanying Dionysus, Henrichs’ favorite god and a persistent theme in his scholarship. In the latter half of the twentieth century, scholarship on Greek religion focused on ritual. Henrichs brought it back to the question of the gods, and what made them so: immortality, anthropomorphism, and power. He showed that the dancing of the tragic chorus, hitherto interpreted as a vestige of the ritual origins of tragedy, is a unique element of each play, crafted by the playwright to reflect an emotional response to the unfolding of the plot. His scholarly publications—nearly 200 in all—always bloomed afresh, rooted in the history of scholarship, which he knew intimately. The reception of Dionysus in modern culture also fascinated him, as did writers and cultural icons as varied as Rilke, Yeats, Mark Twain, Jim Morrison, and Lawrence of Arabia. His writing, whether in his native German or (flawless) English, was clear, compelling, and electric with insight.
As a teacher, Albert Henrichs was unforgettable. His learning was legendary, and yet in every class he approached the text with the excitement of somebody discovering it for the first time. He taught until shortly before his death, stopping only when he could no longer reach Boylston Hall. At home, his hospitality was worthy of a devotee of Dionysus. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He is mourned by generations of devoted students and colleagues the world over, and by his wife, Sarah Nolan; his children by his first marriage, Markus and Helen; their mother, Ursula; and two grandchildren.
Submitted by Kathleen M. Coleman, Harvard University, with gratitude to Sarah Nolan for much vivid detail.