BENFEY, THEODOR (b. Nörten, Lower Saxony, Germany, 28 January 1809; d. Göttingen, 26 June 1881; Figure 1, Figure 2), German comparative philologist with a focus on Indian languages. His path-breaking research on the Pañcatantra made him one of the pioneers of comparative folklore studies.

Benfey was born into a Jewish family in a small town near Göttingen during the political turmoil of the Napoleonic era, when Lower Saxony was under French occupation (1806-14). His father Isaak Benfey (d. 1832; cf. Kleinere Schriften, I, p. XVI) was a merchant and Talmud scholar, and had eight children. Theodor’s brother Samuel became a lawyer (Geck). In 1810 the family moved to Göttingen, where Benfey received his primary and secondary education. Göttingen belonged to the Electorate of Hanover (1692-1806), and from 1814 until 1837 the British House of Hanover continued to rule the Kingdom of Hanover (1814-66). The Georg-August-Universität (founded in 1737) was at the beginning of the 19th century one of the most renowned European universities with an outstanding library.

Benfey came of age during a postwar period characterizd by economic empoverishment and the political oppression of both liberals and nationalists. From early on he demonstrated a marked talent for learning languages, and in 1824, at the age of 16, he enrolled at his hometown university. He studied Latin and Greek philology with Ludolph Dissen (1784-1837) and Otfried Müller (1797-1840) in Göttingen, and spent the year 1827 at the University of Munich to work with Friedrich Wilhelm Thiersch (1784-1860). Benfey defended his dissertation in Göttingen in 1828, and received the license to teach university courses (venia legendi) in Indo-Germanic philology (occidentalische Philologie) the following year. But he left Göttingen for Frankfurt/Main, and lived in Heidelberg from 1832 until 1834. From 1834 onwards Benfey taught as an untenured and unpaid lecturer (Privatdozent) at his Alma Mater in Göttingen, while exploring employment options in France (Rabault-Feuerhahn, pp. 296-98). He married Fanny Wallenstein (d. 1902; cf. Keith, p. 931) in 1840. In 1842, the Institut de France awarded Benfey the prix Volney for his Griechisches Wurzellexikon (1839-42), and his university, thanks mainly to the intervention of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the famous explorer and brother of the linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1837), finally appointed Benfey to a salaried lecturership.

Benfey converted to Protestantism in 1848, and the same year he was promoted to an entry-level professorship (Professor extraordinarius), but without an increase in his salary. In 1862, after he had been elected to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich (1856), the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin (1860), and the Académie des sciences de France (1861), his own university awarded him a senior professorship (Professor ordinarius). Later he was also elected to the Göttingen Academy of Sciences (1864), the Austrian Academy of Sciences (1870), the Royal Asiatic Society (1875), and the American Oriental Society (1878). Benfey founded and edited the short-lived quarterly journal Orient und Occident, insbesondere in ihren gegenseitigen Beziehungen (1/1-3/3, 1862-66), where some of his students published their fledgling efforts. His most celebrated student was the Indologist Georg Bühler (1837-98); another famous student was the comparative linguist Jacob Wackernagel (1853-1938), who wrote a comprehensive grammar of Old Indic. Benfey died, after a short illness, of colon cancer in 1881. He was survived by his wife and five children. Their only son was a lawyer who had emigrated to the United States. Their daughter Meta Benfey (b. 1851) remained unmarried and worked as a journalist.

Originally trained in Greek and Latin, Benfey was also versed in Semitic and Iranian languages. In 1836, he published a comparative study of the month names in ancient languages. His co-author was his friend Moritz Abraham Stern (1807-94), a mathematician who had studied with Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) in Göttingen and would later became Gauss's successor. In 1847, Benfey published a study of the cuneiform inscriptions (see Cuneiform Script) at Bisotun, which was based on the most recent publications by Henry Rawlinson (1810-95).

In the early 1830s Benfey taught himself Sanskrit, mastering the language in only four weeks; hard on the heels of this feat, he reviewed a Latin-Sanskrit edition of the Markandeya Purana for an academic journal. His edition of the Sāmaveda in 1848 was widely acknowledged as a major achievement. The only tools available to him were the Sanskrit-English dictionary by H. H. Wilson (1786-1860) and the Sanskrit grammar by Monier Monier-Williams (1819-99), both of which covered Vedic Sanskrit only very superficially. Subsequently Benfey wrote the first in-depth grammars of both classical (1852, 1868) and Vedic Sanskrit (1874) and compiled the first comprehensive glossaries and dictionaries.

Despite an impressive number of publications on a wide range of topics, it was his 1859 study of the Sanskrit Pañcatantra (see Kalila wa Demna) that brought him worldwide fame. Benfey traced in great detail the permutations the work had undergone in East and West. He concentrated exclusively on written versions, although the importance of oral versions had been known since the work of Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859). The Brothers Grimm were among the pioneers of the science of folklore, and between 1830 and 1837 both had been professors and librarians at Göttingen’s university. Benfey viewed India as the single center from which folk-tales had dispersed throughout the world. Moreover, he firmly believed the Pañcatantra to be a Buddhist text and concluded that the great majority of folk-tales stemmed from the Buddhists.  Although this theory, which today is known as “Indian theory,” would soon be called into question, Benfey’s approach had founded the new discipline of comparative folklore.

Benfey’s work laid a very solid foundation for future studies of the Pañcatantra, and his errors were due in part to the paucity of sources available in western Europe in the 1850s. He was the first to recognize the value of a lost Middle Persian translation for any reconstruction of the original Sanskrit Pañcatantra. The Middle Persian translation is only known from its Arabic and Syriac translations, which preserve as part of their frame-tale the information that the Sasanian king Ḵosrow I Anūšervān (r. 531-79) sent the physician Borzuya to India to translate the Pañcatantra and other collections of folk-tales. The title of the Syriac translation refers to Kalilag and Damnag, two jackals who are among the work’s main characters. It was at Benfey’s instigation that the only preserved manuscript of the Syriac translation was brought to Europe, and Benfey wrote a detailed introduction, when Gustav Bickell (1836-1906) published his edition and translation of the Syriac version in 1876. When the oldest Sanskrit version of the Pañcatantra was later discovered in Kashmir under the title Tantrākhyāyika, it became clear that its text was remarkably close to the Syriac translation.


The Universitätsarchiv Göttingen holds Benfey's personal file (Personalakte) of the Universitätskuratorium (Kur 5854). The Benfey papers (4 Cod. Ms. Philos. 184) in the Niedersächische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Goettingen comprise mostly letters to Benfey, and can be searched in its online catalog HANS. The university library also owns several portraits of Benfey in the portrait collection of Max Voit (Sammlung Voit: T. Benfey).

For archival holdings in other German depositories, see Benfey’s entry in Kalliope, the German union catalogue of archival resources:

In 1909, Meta Benfey published a collection of her father’s letters under the title Theodor Benfey: Zum Andenken für seine Kinder und Enkel.

Biographical entries in reference works, in historical order, and memoirs.

For a biographical sketch by Meta Benfey, see the posthumously published

Kleinere Schriften, vol. I/1, 1890, pp. VII-XL (for full reference see below).

Adalbert Bezzenberger, “Benfey, Theodor,” Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol. XLVI, 1902, pp. 358-59.

Hermann Oldenberg, “ Theodor Benfey,” in Nachrichten von der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen: Geschäftliche Mitteilungen aus dem Jahre 1909, pp. 108-112.

Willibald Kirfel, “Benfey, Theodor,” Neue Deutsche Biographie, vol. II, 1955, pp. 46-47.

Hans Jacob Polotsky, “Benfey, Theodor,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., vol. III, 2007, p. 342.

“Benfey, Theodor,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, available at: (accessed on 10 May 2012).

Selected works, in historical order.

A selected bibliography was included in the posthumously published Kleinere Schriften, vol. II/4, 1892, pp. 131- 56 (for full reference see below). For a complete bibliography of Benfey's publications, see R. Fick's exhibition catalogue Theodor Benfey als Begründer der vergleichenden Märchenkunde: Ausstellung anläβlich der 50. Wiederkehr des Todestages von Theodor Benfey, Göttingen, 1931.

Observationes ad Anacreontis fragmenta genuine, Göttingen, 1829.

Griechisches Wurzellexikon, 2 vols., Berlin, 1839-42.

Review of Devimahatmyam by Ludwig Poley, Wiener Jahrbücher der Literatur, 1833, no. LXIV, pp. 114-23.

With Moritz Abraham Stern, Über die Monatsnamen einiger alter Völker, insbesondere der Perser, Cappadocier, Inden und Syrer, Berlin, 1836.

Über das Verhältnis der ägyptischen Sprache zum semitischen Sprachstamm, Leipzig, 1844.

Die Persischen Keilinschriften mit Übersetzung und Kommentar, Leipzig, 1847.

Die Hymnen des Sâma-Veda, Leipzig, 1848; Sanskrit text with German tr. and glossary.

Handbuch der Sanskritsprache: Zum Gebrauch für Vorlesungen und zum Selbststudium, 3 in 2 vols., Leipzig, 1852-54; comprises a Vollständige Grammatik and a Chrestomathie.

Pantschatantra: Fünf Bücher indischer Fabel, Märchen und Erzählungen, tr. from the Sanskrit, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1859.

A Sanskrit English Dictionary with References to the Best Editions of Sanskrit Authors and Etymologies and Comparisons of Cognate Words Chiefly in Greek, Latin, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon, London, 1866.

A Practical Grammar of the Sanskrit Language for the Use of Early Students, 1st ed., Berlin, 1863; 2nd rev. ed., London, 1868.

Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und orientalischen Philologie in Deutschland seit dem Anfange des 19. Jahrhunderts mit einem Rückblick auf die früheren Zeiten, Geschichte der Wissenschaften in Deutschland: Neuere Zeit 8, Munich, 1869.

Einleitung in die Grammatik der vedischen Sprache: I – Der Saṃhitā-Text, Göttingen, 1874.

Kalilag und Damnag: Alte syrische Übersetzung des indischen Fürstenspiegel, ed. and tr. by Gustav Bickell, with an introduction by Theodor Benfey, Leipzig, 1876.

Kleinere Schriften, ed. Adalbert Bezzenberger, 4 parts in 2 vols., Berlin, 1890-92; selections were reprinted in 1 vol. as Kleinere sprachwissenschaftliche Schriften, Berlin, 1894; complete repr., 2 in 1 vol., Hildesheim, 1975.

Other literature.

Samuel Benfey, Commentatio de fundamentis digestorum ordinis, Göttingen, 1825; J.D. diss., Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, 1825.

Adalbert Bezzenberger, “Theodor Benfey,” Beiträge zur Kunde der indogermanischen Sprachen 8, 1884, pp. 234-45.

Martin Geck, “Hey, Julius,” in Neue Deutsche Biographie, vol. IX, 1972, p. 62.

Johannes Hertel, Tantrākhyāyika: Die älteste Fassung des Pañcatantra nach den Handschriften beider Rezensionen, 2 vols., Berlin, 1909.

Henry Max Hoenigswald, “Historiography as Source: The Afterlife of Theodor Benfey,” in Lingua et traditio: Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und der neueren Philologen – Festschrift für Hans Helmut Christmann zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Richard Baum et al., Tübingen, 1994, pp. 423-28.

A. Berriedale Keith, Review of Theodor Benfey, ed. Meta Benfey, JRAS, July 1910, pp. 930-31.

Leo Meyer, ed., Theodor Benfey: Festschrift zur Feier seines fünfzigjährigen Doctorjubiläums am 24. October 1878, Beiträge zur Kunde der indogermanischen Sprachen 4, Göttingen, 1878.

Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn, L’archive des origins: Sanskrit, philologie, anthropologie dans l’Allemagne du XIXe siècle, Paris, 2008.

Jacob Wackernagel, Altindische Grammatik, 2 vols., Göttingen, 1896-1905; repr. in 3 vols., with an introduction by Louis Renou and supplements by Albert Debrunner, Göttingen, 1957.

Monier Monier-Williams, An Elementary Grammar of the Sanscrit Language, Partly in the Roman Character, Arranged According to a New Theory, in Reference Especially to the Classical Languages, with Short Extracts in Easy Prose, to Which is Added, a Selection from the Institutes of Manu, with Copious References to the Grammar, and an English Translation, London, 1846.

H. H. Wilson, A Dictionary in Sanscrit and English, 2nd expanded ed., Calcutta, 1832.

Search terms:

 بنفی ، تئودور  theodor benfeey    

(Thomas Oberlies)

Last Updated: July 29, 2013