Deborah Lyons, Gender and Immortality: Heroines in Ancient Greek Myth and Cult. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Pp. xvii, 269 with 8 ill. ISBN 0-691-01100-1.
Reviewed by Edward Kadletz, Modern Languages and Classics, Ball State University, email@example.com.
Greek heroines seem to be in vogue at the moment. 1995 saw the publication of Jennifer Larson's Greek Heroine Cults,1 and we now have Deborah Lyons' book on heroines in myth. The two books complement each other nicely and together give as full a picture of the role of heroines in ancient Greece as we are likely to get for quite some time. And in truth we need them both, for Lyons' title is a bit misleading. While she does touch on heroines in cult, her main focus is to provide "gendered analyses of Greek heroine myths" (4, n. 4).
Lyons sets out to show that heroines deserve their own category and should not be viewed merely as weaker exemplars within the category of hero. Heroines, she says, have a different relationship with divinity and immortality than heroes do, which can be seen most clearly in the stories of the apotheosis of a heroine. She declares that "the integration of heroines into our view of Greek heroic myth and cult requires a new model of divine/mortal relations...." (3). Whether Lyons succeeds in this rather daunting undertaking will become clear through a description of her methods.
She begins by showing quite convincingly that, even though no actual word for heroine appears in Greek before Pindar (Pyth. 11,7), the concept is obviously older, as is clear from some of the earliest records. The evidence she brings together to prove this point includes the shrines of Pelops and Hippodameia at Olympia, archaic reliefs depicting heroic couples, and an early Laconian dedication to Helen. She then turns to literature and compares two descriptions of heroic apotheosis in the Odyssey, that of Herakles (11.601-4) and that of Ino-Leukothea (5.333-35), and rightly finds them "strikingly similar" (9). Taking a clue from Gregory Nagy that the word aristos is functionally equivalent to heros, Lyons is able to find still more references in Homer and Hesiod to probable heroines, called aristai or the wives and daughters of the aristoi.
After a review of the etymology of the word heros and an analysis of the different Greek terms for heroine, Lyons presents an overview of the literary sources for her study, particularly catalogue poetry, drama, and the guidebook of Pausanias. (In her discussion of drama, Lyons overlooks the very useful work of Jon Mikalson on religion and tragedy.2) This chapter ends with a critique of Farnell's system for categorizing heroes according to their supposed origins. Lyons finds this method faulty and misleading. She prefers Brelich's more nuanced system, and it is obvious that Brelich, along with Nagy, exerts the strongest influence on her work. She may go too far in rejecting the notion of "fallen gods" in Farnell's work, but this first chapter is a clear, nicely written, useful review.
Chapter 2, entitled "Heroines and Mortals," takes a rather meandering journey through the various relationships that exist between these two groups. First there is an analysis of the Odyssey passage (2.116-22) in which Penelope's skill and wit are compared with the virtues exhibited by some Greek heroines of the more remote past: Mykene, Alkmene, and Tyro. This introduces a literary discussion of the way in which stories of ancient heroes and heroines are often cited in poems and plays as models of correct behavior for characters appearing in the works. There follows a brief presentation of heroines' role in cult, which segues rather abruptly into a discussion of heroines' names. The striking fact here is the variability and interchangeability of these names. The mother of Amphitryon is called either Astydameia, Laonome, or Hipponome, depending upon the person telling the story. And a character named Astydameia also appears in other stories as the mother of Tlepolemos or Ktesippos by Herakles, and as the wife of Akastos and rival of Antigone. This variability is not very common among male heroes. It also seems to be true that heroines who become divine change their names much more frequently than do male heroes who attain apotheosis. Lyons explains all this confusion as the result of the heroine's general lack of a story of her own, of a kleos that goes beyond her rape by a god and her motherhood of a hero. The half-divine birth of the hero, the very beginning of his story, is often the end of the story for the mortal parent, the mother. There are a few exceptions to this anonymity, such as Ino, who has as full a biography as Herakles. The apotheosis of Ino and her name-change to Leukothea leads to the suggestion that the obviousness of transformation in the various stages of a woman's life may be the basis for all these transformations of heroines in myth.
The next chapter deals with the structure of relations between heroic figures and divine ones. After a general discussion of the opposition of hero and god, noting the motif of the theomachos and Nagy's concept of "ritual antagonism," Lyons briefly analyzes three early texts that tell stories of heroes and their relations with gods: Zeus' catalogue of his lovers in Il. 14.313-28, the story of Lykourgos and Dionysos (Il. 6.130-43), and the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite. These three passages share, according to Lyons, "a preoccupation with the necessary differences in the human and the divine condition, and the dangers inherent in any kind of rapprochement between the two" (84). The next four sections examine these dangerous relations between heroic figures and divinity in every combination of gender. The first, "gods and heroes," discusses the love/hate relationships of Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, and Dionysos with various heroes. The second, "goddesses and heroes," looks at the rather various relationships between these two groups, focusing particularly on Hera/Herakles, Aphrodite/Paris and Aineias, Athena/Odysseus, and Artemis/Orion, Hippolytos, and Aktaion. "Gods and heroines" deals with the love affairs of Zeus, Apollo, Ares, and Dionysos. Finally, the section on "goddesses and heroines" discusses the relationships, usually antagonistic, between various heroines and Athena, Hera, and Artemis. There is interesting material here, but no unifying point emerges. Lyons herself sums up the third chapter as follows: "We have seen that for female characters in Greek myth, the range of action is decidedly more limited than for heroes and the price of stepping out of line, higher. While connection with a god, whether erotic or not, may be beneficial to a hero, who may prevail or be exalted under divine tutelage, similar contact for heroines is almost always disastrous, resulting in transformation often of a radical and unwelcome kind" (101).
The fourth chapter deals with Dionysiac heroines, mostly Semele, Ino, and Ariadne. It begins with an overview of current ideas on Dionysos' origins and iconography, and a discussion of the many anonymous groups of female followers, resisters, and nurses of the god. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to the three well-known heroines, all of whom make the transition from mortal to divine. This fact is, of course, very interesting, and, since the title of this book is Gender and Immortality, one looks forward to seeing what insights Lyons will draw from it. Her conclusions are, however, disappointing. She again argues against Farnell's notion that these figures are really "faded gods" and not heroines at all, insisting that "this possibility of transcending heroic status is paradoxically one of the characteristics of heroines, and that this does not in any way undermine the integrity of the category but rather gives it its specificity" (130). But beyond restating her thesis, there is nothing. The chapter ends with a weak glance at Dionysiac heroines as mediating figures in myth and cult. The conclusion is that the heroine/goddesses express roles and attitudes that may have been re-enacted in cult and may have promised immortality to women and may have led women to the worship of Dionysos. This weak climax is understandable because of the paucity of the evidence, but it does cause one to wonder why these matters have been gone through yet again, if nothing new is to be derived from the examination. It must also be said that these three heroines are very much anomalies. Most heroines do not have such complex biographies, nor do they achieve immortality. And their mediation between human and divine is usually limited to the bearing of human, if heroic, children fathered by gods.
The last chapter is on "The Goddess and her Doubles." It begins with an interesting, if speculative, section on Leto and Niobe, which detects possible hints of apotheosis in the story. This brief investigation serves as prelude to the main topic of the chapter, the heroine Iphigeneia and her relationship with Artemis. The argument here is convoluted and murky. It runs from rites of passage and Iphigeneia's associations with marriage, childbirth, and death, through eidola as signs of apotheosis in the myths of Helen and Iphigeneia, and agalmata as reciprocal doubles of eidola, to the abduction of priestesses and agalmata, and Iphigeneia's role as a cult founder. Some of this is quite interesting, but is Lyons' point that Iphigeneia becomes a goddess or only that she is a cult founder? The conclusion of the chapter seems to want both: "Only the gods can confer immortality on mortals, but it is equally true that only mortals can confer cult on the gods. Apotheosis and cult-foundation break down the barriers between mortals and immortals, as goddesses turn heroines into goddesses, and heroines provide the worship without which divinity is worthless" (168). This last clause is rather shocking. Did the gods really need cult, in the same way mortals were supposed to need the gods? But, in any case, during the chapter any focus has been lost in the chaotic marshalling together of evidence on the various points, and the reader is left wondering where the conclusion came from.
A useful catalogue of heroines in myth complements the list of heroines in cult that concludes Larson's book.
This is a rather frustrating book. One observes many interesting ideas and arguments go by, but misses any clear focus to organize them and make sense of the whole work. At first, the reader is led to believe that the book is about the apotheosis of heroines and the meaning of this phenomenon for the whole category of hero as an intermediary between mortal and immortal. Lyons does present some stories that seem to corroborate such an idea, but they are anomalous to the standard biography of a heroine, and the author never ties them to other stories to construct a convincing argument. The focus then shifts to heroines as different kinds of intermediaries, cult founders, but this notion is only weakly associated with apotheosis. So, in the end, the reader is left with a confusion of facts and interpretations, but with no unifying idea. There is certainly nothing presented that "requires a new model of divine/mortal relations," as we have been led to expect. Anyone interested in this topic could easily put together a list of male heroes, and not only the most famous, who achieve immortality and/or found cults. This is all too bad. There is much in these pages to ponder, but the general reader will have trouble finding it, and even the expert will often lose the thread.
1. Jennifer Larson, Greek Heroine Cults. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
2. Jon D. Mikalson, Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Esp. pp. 29-45.