BMCR 2003.12.16

Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths

, Greek gods, human lives : what we can learn from myths. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. xi, 288 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 0300101457 $30.00.

What can we learn from Greek myths, and how? What (for that matter) is a Greek myth? Over the centuries these questions have been approached in many different ways. For Lefkowitz (henceforth λ myths are basically ‘stories about the supernatural in human life’ (ix), and in this new book she aims to show that the ‘lessons’ of Greek myths are to be found in the relationships between their human and divine characters. Unlike many authors of introductory studies of myth, L concentrates primarily on the role of gods rather than mortals: in her Preface she claims that ‘even people who have read the texts many times will discover that they can better understand the ancient narratives if they concentrate on the gods’ (ix).

There are nine main chapters: these deal with the role of the gods in a range of well-known literary and dramatic texts, in chronological order, beginning with Hesiod and Homer and finishing with Ovid and Apuleius. The structure of each chapter is broadly the same: the texts in question are summarized at length, interspersed with interpretative comments here and there, and each chapter ends with a brief conclusion suggesting the lessons which one might derive from these myths (or ‘texts’ — see below).

Chapter 1 deals with creation-myths as found in Hesiod. L summarizes the narratives of Theogony and Works and Days, arguing that their purpose is to provide an explanation of humans’ place within the created world, as well as an explanation of why human life is so hard. It emerges that ‘Zeus did not create the world for [mortals], but merely tolerates them within it’ (29). L argues that, in general, Greek gods have only a sporadic interest in humans, but an exception to this rule is seen in Chapter 2. Here L discusses those myths (from Hesiod and the Hymns) in which gods have intercourse with humans and produce mortal offspring. Although the children of gods and mortals could expect some degree of special favour, ultimately it is seen that such situations ended in sorrow for the mortals.

Chapters 3 and 4 are concerned with the gods in the Homeric epics. Here a similar picture of the world emerges: human existence, with its suffering, death and powerlessness, is contrasted starkly with the carefree, eternal, omnipotent existence of the gods. The gods’ life is presented as ‘a highly idealized form of human life’ (83), but the unbridgeable gulf between humans and gods is constantly emphasized. Homer sometimes raises, but never satisfactorily answers, the question of theodicy. Despite certain differences in outlook between the Iliad and the Odyssey (85-6, 112), it is assumed by L that the two epics have a consistent outlook (and that they were composed by a single poet [54]).

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with Athenian tragedy. L is careful to stress, along with the best recent scholarship on tragedy, that Athenian dramatic performances were also, in a meaningful sense, religious events. The ‘lessons’ which tragedy has to teach us, she argues, are much the same as those of Homer and the other earlier texts: that humans must acknowledge the gods’ power and their own limitations (113-4), that suffering and misery are an essential part of the human condition (137), and that divine and human standards of ethics and justice are very different (167).

In Chapter 7 L moves forward to the gods’ role in Hellenistic poetry (Apollonius and Callimachus). Here, although the gods’ actions are less visible and the manner of their epiphanies less naturalistic, it is clear that their power over human life remains the same (186). Rather unexpectedly, given that this purports to be a book about Greek myth, the final two chapters are concerned with the gods of the Aeneid and myths of metamorphosis in Ovid, Apuleius and others. It is acknowledged that there may be numerous (large and small) differences between these texts and those dealt with earlier (190-1), but here, as before, L argues that broadly the same ‘lessons’ emerge.

These ‘lessons’ are summarized again in L’s Conclusion (234-9). Myths, we are told, do not offer us hope, consolation or ultimate answers to the ‘big questions’ of human life, but they do nevertheless give us a way of trying to understand the universe. Furthermore, writes L, the insights of Greek myths, though profoundly pessimistic, ‘can still offer a reliable guide to life in our own time’ (239).

This view of the world, as reached through Greek texts, is not exactly new: it will be familiar to all those who have read (for example) Jasper Griffin’s Homer on Life and Death or Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s The Justice of Zeus. Indeed, L in her Preface (ix) acknowledges the influence that these and other scholars have had on her own work. So what sort of book is this, and what sort of readership is L aiming to attract? It is implied (by the Introduction [esp. 6-10] and by the overall form of the book), although it is nowhere explicitly stated, that L is writing for an audience of interested non-specialists. Readers of this type will find that L’s book provides an attractive, lively introduction to some of the central texts in Greek literature and a thought-provoking approach to Greek myth and religion. The book is elegantly written; the standard of design and production is exceptionally high; good photographs of vase-paintings and sculptures, illustrating many of the myths discussed, are well reproduced; there are no obvious typographical errors; the price is extremely reasonable. As a general, introductory book, then, Greek Gods, Human Lives has much to recommend it.

Nevertheless, neither professional scholars nor students will find much of interest here, and it may be worth pointing out a few shortcomings which seem to detract from the book’s value even to non-specialists.

Most strikingly, the impression L gives of ‘Greek myth’ is of a remarkably homogeneous body of material. Similarly, ‘ancient Greek religion’ (238 and passim) is treated by L as a single system of belief — even when it is Roman texts and beliefs that are under discussion. There is no attempt to get to grips with this central concept of ‘Greek religion’. Any historically aware discussion of ‘religion’ should, surely, refer to ritual, or the variations in cult practice between different Greek (and Roman!) communities at different periods, or (at least) make some attempt to define just what ‘religious’ behaviour meant in antiquity — but nothing of this sort emerges. The focus is firmly on texts. It is assumed that all literary texts may be read in more or less the same way: that is, as straightforward reflections of a single belief-system. As I have tried to show in my summaries above, the ‘lessons’ which emerge from these texts seem to be largely the same, no matter what the genre or cultural context. Of course, there are broad similarities to be observed; but the differences between the various texts and contexts need to be stressed as well. In fact, the range of material under discussion is extremely heterogeneous, and much less coherent than L acknowledges.

Despite listing among her influences (ix) the influential work of Denis Feeney and Jon Mikalson, L takes almost no account of the importance of literary genre in the presentation of the gods. But our interpretation of the gods in ‘myth’ depends, to a large extent, on the conventions of the genre of the literary text under discussion. For instance, it has often been seen that the world-view of Greek epic is significantly different from that of Greek tragedy (not just in its theological outlook but also in its presentation of ritual and human society). When discussing characteristic portrayals of the gods in Hellenistic and Roman epic, L does, in fact, acknowledge (e.g. 169, 207) that there is a greater element of ‘fantasy’ and less realism there than in the Greek texts. She interprets this convention as adding to the ‘sense of distance’ between humans and gods, while essentially presenting the same world-view. But the effect might equally stem from a lack of literal belief in the myths (in which case the presentation of the gods becomes a ‘literary’ more than a ‘theological’ problem).

The issue of literary genre turns out to be of crucial importance because, although L claims to be discussing ‘myths’, her subject is actually individual tellings of myths, in the form of specific literary texts. One looks in vain for any more explicit acknowledgement of the complexity of meaning inherent in the word ‘myth’ — a mass of material including not just literary texts but oral traditions, ritual re-enactments, iconography, and much more. L’s title, ‘What We Can Learn From Myths’, seemed to promise a study of ‘myth’ in a broader sense, but this promise is not fulfilled.

L justifies her narrowly text-based approach by claiming that her re-tellings of myths resemble ancient narratives. Her plot-summaries are, indeed, faithful to the originals, but one might expect that a book on this subject would at least have hinted at the wide variety of alternative approaches to ‘myth’. L takes issue (6-10) with certain earlier writers (including Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves) for re-telling myths in a form which suggests that the gods are simply characters in these stories, alongside the human characters. No more is said on the matter, but some discussion of narratological studies of myth might have been interesting in this respect. Twentieth-century scholars have approached the question of ‘what we can learn from myths’ from a wide variety of perspectives, including, notably, anthropology and structuralism: it is unusual to read a modern book on myth in which the names of Lévi-Strauss, Vernant, Vidal-Naquet et al. do not make even a fleeting appearance. But L has nothing to say about these or any other theoretical approaches. Her implicit rejection of the insights of modern scholarship may, perhaps, result from her dislike of ‘anachronism’; but one can hardly claim that all ‘theory’ is anachronistic. Alternatively, it may be that L does not want to confuse the ‘general reader’; but it would be a mistake to assume that non-specialists cannot cope with complex ideas.

There may be another explanation for the absence of any in-depth, culturally-situated discussion of ‘myth’ or ‘religion’. Although in the Introduction L writes, sensibly, that we should try to understand Greek culture on its own terms (6-10), it transpires that she is not primarily concerned with what the Greeks (of different periods and places) actually did and thought. Rather, it is the transhistorical, ‘universal’ significance of myths — i.e., those ‘lessons’ which are still relevant to us in 2003 — that L prefers to unearth from the texts. L believes that, while there are certain cultural differences between ‘us’ and ‘the Greeks’, the ‘lessons’ in the myths remain substantially the same. (I suspect that some of her readers may disagree.)

L’s efforts to stress the continuity between past and present lead to some questionable generalizations. For example, when discussing fifth-century Athenian tragedy, she concludes that ‘the purpose of their dramas, and all drama, is to remind the audience that the gods ultimately control human action’ (114). But this is to imply, first, a single knowable purpose or intention behind drama; second, that all Greek tragedies were composed in order to express the same basic message (is this the same as ‘the Tragic’?); and third, that not just Greek drama but all drama ever written (Shakespeare? Brecht? Gilbert and Sullivan? Television soap-opera?) has the same lesson to teach us…but each of these assumptions would be rather difficult to defend. There are more uncomfortable generalizations in the Conclusion (239), where L repeats her argument about the ‘relevance’ of Greek myth. The main advantage of ‘this religion’, she says, ‘is that it describes mortal life as it really is, fragile, threatened, uncertain, and never consistently happy’. But is ‘this religion’ really a single entity? Is life really like this? — for everyone, of all temperaments, in all cultures, at all periods of history? Again, many may disagree.

In conclusion, then, L’s book is likely to stimulate the reader to further contemplation of myth and religion, but it fails to address many central issues, preferring to concentrate on narrative rather than analysis. We can learn far more from myth, about the Greeks and about ourselves, than L suggests.