Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.08

Susan Deacy, Athena. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2008.  Pp. xviii, 175; figs. 19.  ISBN 9780415300667.  $28.95 (pb).  

Daniel Ogden, Perseus. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2008.  Pp. xxiv, 194; figs. 9.  ISBN 9780415427258.  $28.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University (
Word count: 1243 words

In spite of the fact that these two books belong to the same series, Routledge's Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World,1 they are substantively different, and not simply because one deals with a goddess and the other a hero. Both texts follow the prescribed tripartite format for the series which consists of a short introduction to the subject, a core section on Key Themes, and a brief afterword dealing with the reception of the hero or god in the post-classical world. All chapters in the central section conclude with a useful summary called an Overview, and each book has Further Readings and Works Cited sections at the end. Rather the major differences lie in the source material utilized by each author as well as the level of readership to which their texts are pitched.2 Both books are concise, compact and up-to-date summaries of their respective subjects, but the tone is rather different.

According to the series foreword written by its editor Susan Deacy (hereafter D): "the series is intended to interest the general reader." One is immediately struck by some basic differences in this regard. Ogden's (hereafter O) book on Perseus has, in addition to a list of Abbreviations for Ancient Texts and a list of Ancient Authors and Fragments Cited by Names of Editors, several appendices containing Literary Sources for the Perseus Cycle and footnotes. It is clear that this is a text-driven book while D almost eschews ancient texts (there are quotations from Milton's Paradise Lost in the afterword). She relies much more on material culture and archaeological evidence. O's book for instance has a mere 9 illustrations, while D's has 18. Both books contextualize their subjects in interesting ways and demonstrate new methods of explaining their subjects' roles in ancient Greece.

Although Athena is perhaps the most familiar of Greek deities, D accentuates her 'strangeness', from her bizarre birth out of the head of Zeus to her role as a mother, in spite of her virginity. She also explores her 'multi-faceted nature'; Athena, for instance has more attributes (helmet, shield, spear, aegis, gorgoneion, owl, serpent--and I would add belted peplos) than any other god. Unlike previous scholars who have been content simply to list the goddess' attributes or epithets, D seeks an underlying logic to these disparate features. She does this by delving deeply into Athena's relationships with other deities, with many of whom she shares epithets and cults, namely her father Zeus (Polieus-Polias), her rival for the hegemony of Athens, Poseidon (Hippios-Hippia), and her unsuccessful suitor Hephaistos (Ergane). An entire chapter is devoted to her relationship with heroes, either as a friend and patron in the case of Heracles, Theseus and Odysseus or as a dangerous foe in the case of the Trojans. D sees Athena as the ultimate 'networker' who functioned within the Greek pantheon through her multiple and close ties with other divine and heroic males.

After discussing all the textual sources from Hesiod to the Vatican Mythographers , O also takes a comparative approach to the mythical adventures of the hero Perseus. What he calls the 'quest narrative', the beheading of Medusa, is viewed in relation to the katabasis of heroes like Heracles, Theseus and Odysseus, or other classic maturation tales like that of Jason who went in quest of the golden fleece. The rescue of Andromeda from the ketos is a classic 'damsel in distress' tale, and O compares it to that of Heracles' delivery of Hesione from a similar monster--and even to Tristan as dragon-slayer and eventual winner of Isolde. Although less concerned with visual imagery than D, O nonetheless discusses at some length all the possible iconographic parallels for the Gorgon from the Near Eastern monster Humbaba to a recent intriguing suggestion that the bulging eyes, protruding tongue, and drawn-back lips are typical of a corpse after a few days' putrefaction.3 He deals adroitly with the tricky issue of Medusa's gaze: does one turn to stone by looking at her (hence the mirror or shield used by Perseus) or does her stare cause petrification (hence the Cap of Hades which renders the hero invisible)? No answer here, but an excellent summary of the arguments on both sides.

In Greek religion and myth geography is highly significant and both authors address the role of different locales in their subjects' stories. Naturally since Athens is the major cult site of Athena, three chapters of D's book are devoted to the development of her sanctuary on the Acropolis and her main festival, the Panathenaia. In her discussion of the Parthenon and its sculptural program, D devotes an inordinate amount of time discussing and then dismissing Connelly's theory that the central scene of the east frieze represents the sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus--a theory now widely rejected in the scholarly literature.4 In another chapter D considers Athena's presence outside Athens, as Athena Chalkioikos in Sparta where bells play a unique role in her cult, as Athena Oxyderkes ('clear-sighted') in Argos, as a fertility goddess at Tegea in Arcadia, and at Delphi as Athena Zosteria whose purview seems to have been the protection of children in unusual childbirth situations (Apollo, Erichthonios). In a chapter entitled "The Use and Abuse of Perseus" O demonstrates how numerous city states, most prominently Argos and Mycenae, and even the Persian Empire (through Perses, the son of Perseus and Andromeda) laid claim to Perseus. His story was manipulated and emended to suit the needs of Greeks and non-Greeks; Alexander, especially identified with Perseus as a hero between the east and the west. Perhaps the least satisfying section of these brief books is the now nearly obligatory Nachleben. As one who has penned a few myself, I am aware of the challenges and pitfalls--one can never do justice to so vast a topic which lies outside one's field of expertise. O wisely restricts himself to three aspects of the Perseus myth that found resonance with later writers and artists: allegorizations of the Gorgon myth especially in the work of Freud for whom the myth's purpose was to allay fears of castration; the Christian transformation of Perseus into St. George; and finally what O considers "Perseus' greatest moment in western art, the unfinished project of 28 woodcut illustrations for the poet William Morris' The Earthly Paradise. D. examines Athena's denunciation by early Christian authors, her assimilation to the Virgin Mary, her allegorization as Wisdom in the Renaissance, her association in art with famous female rulers like Marie de Medici, her symbolic potential for writers as diverse as Milton (1667) and Roberto Calasso (1993), and finally her role appropriation by the feminist agenda.

D is to be credited with developing the concept and format for an engaging and informative series. Her book on Athena ably fulfills the aims of this enterprise and is accessible to the general reader because it deals with such a broad range of evidence. O's book on Perseus is equally engaging and informative, but its reliance on such a vast array of somewhat arcane texts may put off some potential readers, and in the end he admits that Perseus is easy to admire, but hard to like. Unfortunately, as usual with Routledge books, these are over-priced: nearly $30 for a small-format book of less than 200 pages with only a few black-and-white illustrations. More's the pity, since this series should prove very useful to students who will surely appreciate such a quantity of scholarship condensed into short, manageable texts.


1.   Others in the series include Keith Dowden's Zeus reviewed in BMCR 2007.02.25, Carol Dougherty's Prometheus, Emma Griffiths' Medea reviewed in BMCR 2006.07.52, Richard Seaford's Dionysos, and Lowell Edmunds' Oedipus, reviewed in BMCR 2008.01.43.
2.   There has already been some debate about the level of intelligence of the audience for this series; see Edmunds' response to Fitzpatrick's review in BMCR 2008.02.09 and a response to Edmunds by Fitzpatrick in BMCR 2008.02.37.
3.   S. R. Wilk, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon (New York, 2000).
4.   See my book The Parthenon Frieze (Cambridge 2001) pp. 178-80, for one among many refutations.

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