Raffaele Pettazzoni

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Raffaele Pettazzoni (3 February 1883 – 8 December 1959) was a historian of Italian religion. He was one of the first academics to propose a historical approach to the study of religion. He was editor-in-chief of the journal Numen and president of the International Association for the History of Religions from 1950-1959.


Raffaele Pettazzoni was born 1883 in San Giovanni in Persiceto (Bologna, Italy), graduated in literature and specialized in the capital of Emilia in 1905 with a degree in archeology at the Italian School of Archaeology. In 1909 he was appointed Inspector to the Prehistoric and Ethnographic Museum in Rome.

In 1923 he took the position of chair of the Royal University of Rome, and in 1924 presented his first university course in the history of religions. Pettazzoni introduced this discipline in the Italian academic world and went on to become one of the most important figures. Among his students in Rome there were also Angelo Brelich and Dario Sabbatucci, two other major historians of religions that have founded the so-called "Roman school (Scuola di Roma)." He was director of the History of Religions and Folklore of the Italian Encyclopedia from 1925 to 1937 and in 1933 he was named Academic of Italy, and in 1938 signed the Manifesto of Race. He was the first to apply the methods of comparative history to the study of religions.

Following the end of World War II he was a member of the national Accademia dei Lincei, President of the International Association of History of Religions in 1950 and Editor of Numen. He retired from teaching at the end of the 1952-1953 academic year having reached retirement age. He died in 1959.


Pettazzoni was among the first to propose a historical approach to the study of religion and helped institutionalize "History of religions" as an autonomous historical discipline in Italy. He is the founder of the Italian school of History of Religions (1920s) and the journal Studies and materials of history of religions (1925). Comparison of different forms of religion are not limited to a single field, Pettazzoni writes in God's omniscience. His seven hundred page work was the culmination of a lifetime of research that challenges the theories of Wilhelm Schmidt. During his clerical studies he struggled against the Catholic Church's monopoly on religious studies in Italy and against such anti-clerical secularist academics as Benedetto Croce who held the study of religions to be an academically lazy and uninteresting discipline.


A significant part of Pettazzoni's work was devoted to refuting the theory of primordial monotheism (Urmonotheismus) developed by Schmidt and the study of the conceptions of the Supreme Being in primitive religions. He found evidence of monotheism in so-called primitive societies, and that all societies recognize the Supreme Being as a non-exclusive spiritual entity which is paramount by also opposed by other spiritual entities. He challenged Schmidt's concept of a Supreme Being as necessarily entailing monotheism. Rather, Pettazzoni writes that monotheism is a recent religious development over the course of a slow revolution in polytheism and perhaps henotheism. This debate is carried on by Old Testament prophets who wrangle with the Canaanite god and affirm the ethical monotheism of Israel and one exclusive transcendent deity coexisting with lesser ones. Schmidt confused science and theology, Pettazzoni writes in the booklet The supreme being in primitive religions, 1957. For Pettazzoni the idea of god in primitive religions is not an a priori concept independent of historical contexts; there is only the historical and arises from varying existential conditions within each type of society. It is only within that societal context that the idea of God can satisfy, the Supreme Being does not exist a priori. Therefore, one finds the Supreme Being defined variously as the one who sends the rain, the protector of the hunt, or even an associated with the earth in agrarian societies—unique historical contexts that give rise to their own particular conception of the Supreme Being. Pettazzoni argues that religion is a historical product conditioned by historical and social context with unique influence on other cultural realities within the same society.

As a historical product, Pettazzoni noted that a plurality of stories is a plurality of religions: every nation has its own history and thus their religion and their answers to the great problems of humanity. What makes religion different from other social and cultural phenomena is its significance in the rites of passage: the religion, therefore, concerns the important moments of life of the individual.

For Pettazzoni it is important in the study of religion to preserve a religion's specificity as a cultural product, and requires a particular method. Specifically, Pettazzoni adopted comparative history which shared much in common with the comparative method in classical anthropology favored by British scientists studying affinities and analogies between cultures.


  • Primitive religion in Sardinia, 1912
  • The religion of Zarathustra in the religious history of Iran, 1920
  • Religion in ancient Greece until Alexander, 1921
  • God: training and development of monotheism (Vol. I: The heavenly beings in the beliefs of primitive peoples, 1922)
  • Mysteries, 1924
  • The confession of sins (3 vols., 1929 - 1935 )
  • Essays on the history of religion and mythology, 1946
  • Myths and legends (4 vols., 1948 - 1963 )
  • Essays on History of Religion, 1954
  • The omniscience of God, 1955
  • The supreme being in primitive religions, 1957
  • Religion and Society (posthumously in 1966 )


  • Official website (in Italian)
  • C. J. Bleeker, Angelo Brelich and Geo Widengren, 'In memoriam Raffaele Pettazzoni', Numen, 6 (1959)