Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, who died suddenly of an undiagnosed cancer aged 62, was an innovative and influential writer about ancient Greek culture. Her training was as a classical archaeologist and her special interest was in Greek religion, but she stepped deftly over disciplinary boundaries and made incisive contributions in many areas.
She was equally at home with, say, Minoan iconography, the origins of tragedy, the ethnic identity of the ancient Macedonians, and the pre-puberty rituals for young girls conducted in the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron. Much influenced by structuralism, she insisted, long before it was fashionable to do so, that cultural products - texts, images, myths, rituals - do not bear their meaning on their face but need to be decoded: the title of a collection of her essays Reading Greek Culture (1991) summed up her approach.
With this methodological sophistication she combined powerful scholarly skills and scrupulous respect for evidence. Even scholars who found her methodological rigour unappealing often had to yield to the sheer force of her conclusions, and conference papers that she delivered in her early twenties are still remembered by those who heard them.
Her parents were both from Corfu, where she spent her early years, though she was actually born in Volos, on the east coast of mainland Greece. Her father was an officer in the Greek army, her mother a teacher of economics and eventually a headteacher; remembering her mother, she was always annoyed by classicists who generalised on the basis of anthropological studies of village life about the backward and cloistered life of women in "modern Greece". The family moved to Athens and she became a star pupil in the University of Athens of the famous excavator of Santorini, Spyridon Marinatos.
She graduated in 1966 as the top student of her year in the philosophical (ie classical) school, and was soon producing published work. After a period in Rome working on the early form of Greek known as Linear B, she came to Britain in 1969 and after a brief spell in Birmingham wrote a DPhil in Oxford (where she lived for the rest of her life) on Minoan and Mycenaean afterlife beliefs.
From 1976 to 1978 she was a lecturer in classical archaeology in Liverpool, from 1990 to 1995 a senior research fellow of University College, Oxford, and then, till 1998, reader in classics at Reading. It was a grief to her and a matter of incomprehension to her many admirers that she never secured a tenured university position at Oxford. But her international standing was recognised when she was invited in 1994 to give the prestigious Carl Newell Jackson lectures in Harvard, from which emerged her book Tragedy and Athenian Religion (2003).
She wrote six books in all and many articles. Most had a relevance as demonstrations of method far beyond the particular subject under discussion. A 1978 article on the cult of Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri showed how a myth familiar throughout Greece could assume a remarkable new significance in a local context: at Locri, Persephone ceased to be the victim of rape, and became instead a model for brides. Archaeologists used to seek earnestly on the ground for traces of the gods who inhabited the Delphic oracle before Apollo: Sourvinou-Inwood argued compellingly (1987) that the myths telling of these previous inhabitants were just that, myths. A study (1983) of a supposedly historical incident of the 7th century BC told by Herodotus exposed it as a fanciful explanation for a ritual.
Reading Greek Death (1995) is a book of almost 500 pages arguing that existing interpretations of a two-line funerary epigram assumed an attitude to death impossible in archaic Greece. Her essay What Is Polis Religion? (1990) is unquestionably the most influential article on Greek religion of the last 25 years; it showed how religious life was controlled by the polis, ie the city, and so established a new framework for the understanding of the subject.
In later years she alternated academic work with writing detective novels about ancient Greece. Three have appeared in Greek, and one is about to appear in English (Murder Most Classical, under her pen name of Christiana Elfwood). She was a warm-hearted, affectionate, impulsive and vulnerable person. For many people both in Britain and in Greece, young scholars in particular, she was a rock of devoted friendship and counsel over many years. Her marriage to the philosopher Michael Inwood was a very close and happy one. Like many a heroine in the Greek tragedies that she so loved, she combined a passionate loyalty to her friends with strong resentment of what she felt as hostility or slights. She once asked a condescending male in an Oxford common room: "Are you patronising me because I'm a woman or because I'm foreign?"
But nobody was less conceited, and friends often had to restore her flagging morale by reminding her of the international esteem in which her work was held. As a teacher she was inspirational, but it was above all her friendliness and care for them that caused many students to repay her with lifelong devotion.
Her husband survives her; a first marriage ended in divorce.
· Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Hellenist, born February 26 1945; died May 19 2007