One of the founders of modern studies in Greek mythology, Károly (Carl, Karl) Kerényi (January 19, 1897 - April 14 1973) was born in Temesvár, Hungary (now Timişoara, Romania), and then lived in Hungary. His was a family of some landed property.
At the University of Budapest he followed a program in classical philology with a doctorate on Plato and Longinus and aesthetic theory in Antiquity, and read widely. In the following years he taught in Hungary at the secondary school level, travelled in Greece and Italy and followed courses at Greifswald, Heidelberg and the University of Berlin. His first book Die griechisch-orientalische Romanliteratur in religionsgeschichtlicher Beleuchtung ("The Greek-Oriental Romances in the Light of the history of Religions"), dedicated to Franz Boll, was published in 1927 and earned him an appointment as Privatdozent at Budapest. He became professor of classical philology and ancient history at Pécs (1934), a visiting professor enrollment in Classical Antiquities at the University of Budapest and at Szeged (1941), until he moved definitively to exile, in Switzerland, in 1943, where he remained for the rest of his life, marginal to any Academic engagement and enrollment (a difficulty that became, too, the freedom from any scientific compromise). He explored consecutively and in detail, throughout his life, every classical site, known or unknown, of the entire Mediterranean. In Greece in 1929 he met W. F. Otto, who influenced him to combine the studies of comparative religions and social history, while his friendship with Carl Jung induced him to take the findings of modern psychology into consideration as well, at least for a while. Kerényi's long correspondence with Thomas Mann was published in English in 1975 (a first part, in German, was published in 1946 under the title Romandichtung und Mythologie and a second part in 1960 under the title Gespräch in Briefen: Zweiter Teil (1945-1955)). Also know is his correspondence with Hermann Hesse, Hermann Hesse - Karl Kerényi. Briefwechsel aus der Nähe, published in 1972 by his wife Magda. Both these publications testimony how modern literature had an important role in the development of his own methodological approach to ancient mythology.
His distinguished career took place during decades when far-right ideologies became more and more influential. "The distinguished scientist and thinker Károly Kerényi once said that the spirit of abstraction opened doors to national socialism when Jews as personalities were substituted by the impersonal category of "Jewry" - "to kill Jews" sounds dreadfully; "to liquidate Jewry" resembles a description of some logical operation" (Averintsev). In the post-war turmoil, Kerényi, living in Switzerland since 1943, was doubly tainted as a prominent member of the former Hungarian intellectual Establishment and the bearer of an aristocratic name, unable to find work in the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi after the philosopher-potentate György Lukács, condemned him as "the cart pusher of fascism", Kerényi was forced to emigrate permanently, and became a citizen of Switzerland in the late 1940s. From 1940 onwards, Carl Jung had started to invite him to participate in the Eranos famous annual conferences about religion, mysticism and theological subjects (the Swiss society, located in a Villa of Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn in Ascona). Fascinated by the beauty of the region, Kerényi decided to remain there renting the famous «Villa Sogno», his first house in the land that was destined to became his second homeland. It was through Joland Jacobi, a collaborator of Carl Jung, that he got in touch with the psychologist with whom he became a close friend and, in some way, a collaborator. Carl Jung described him as having "supplied such a wealth of connections [of psychology] with Greek mythology that the cross-fertilization of the two branches of science can no longer be doubted." In 1949 Jung and Kerényi published together Essays on the Science of Mythology: the Myths of the Divine Child and the Divine Maiden. Kerenyi and Jung both furnished commentaries to Paul Radin's The Trickster: a Study in American Indian Mythology, where Kerényi saw the Trickster figure as the "enemy of boundaries."
In 1961 he was inducted into the Royal Norwegian Academy of Sciences. He was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Uppsala and the gold medal of the Humboldt Society.
As a historian of myth as it was embedded in the details of Hellenic culture, its "characteristic social existence" as he put it, Kerényi opposed his "differentiated thinking about the concrete realities of human life" with the "summary thinking" that represented for him the influence of Sir James Frazer on the study of the peoples of antiquity and Greek religion especially (Preface to Dionysus p xxvii).
Kerenyi brought to the Greek myths the art of hermeneutics, interpreted by C. Moustakas (Phenomenological Research Methods 1994) as "the art of reading a text so that the intention and meaning behind appearances are fully understood". Central to his work was his series of book-length essays on archetypes of Greek mythology. Five were translated into English and published as Bollingen Series LXV:
Archetypal Image of Human Existence
Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Princeton University Press, 1976, tracing the career of the cults of Dionysus from his origins in Minoan culture to the cosmopolitan religion of late Antiquity.
Archetypal Image of the Physician's Existence which Kerenyi described as "a tour of the sites where the cult of Asklepios, god of medicine and god of the Greek physicians, was practiced." It includes chapters on "Asklepios in Rome", "Epidauros", "The Sons of Asklepios on Kos", "Hero Physicians and the Physician of the Gods in Homer", and "The Origins in Thessaly".
The Wind, the Spirit, and the God: Four Studies
Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion in which Kerenyi also discusses the mythological underpinnings of Greek communal and political consciousness, and Greek individuality.