BMCR 2004.01.18

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.

[An editorial slip meant that this review was not paired with its partner, BMCR 2003.12.16.]

Greek myths are, arguably, the single most important gateway to the study of the classics. More people, I suspect, make their first contact with the study of classical Greece and Rome by reading Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Vergil, or Ovid, in translation, than through any other means. The myths have fascinated and stimulated for millennia now, but succeeding periods have tended to content themselves with considering only a surface meaning. Perhaps this is because post-classical Western culture, under the influence of Christianity (which too often denies or ridicules conceptions of other gods), has tended to strip the myths of much of their original significance and function, regarding them only as entertainment, fanciful, often absurd, invention devoid of serious instruction. Western culture thus now resembles Lucius, Apuleius’ protagonist, who finds every inset tale he hears grand entertainment but fails to see that each story is actually about himself. In the ironic climax of this tendency, Lucius witnesses a reenactment of the Judgment of Paris, only to launch into extravagant condemnation of how easily judges are corrupted, rather than learn from the myth, and realize that he is Paris.

Lefkowitz (hereafter L) partly addresses this situation by offering a survey of Greek myth which takes the roles of the gods seriously and sees the myths as, at least in part, offering moral instruction. Noting that some previous studies have minimized, if not entirely dismissed, the gods’ role (discussed in her introduction), she provides readings of many of the most well known myths, focusing on the doings of the gods. Among her influences she lists Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Jasper Griffin, Jon Mikalson, and Dennis Feeney. But this book does not concern itself much with theoretical developments, and seems aimed at a very general audience.

L’s Introduction sets forth her principal themes: the remoteness of Greek gods from mortals’ suffering and hardships, their essential self-involvement, Zeus’ lack of complete control, the Olympians’ very different sense of time as compared to mortals’. She also initiates an intermittent dialogue between Greek and Biblical myth. Her text is accompanied by numerous ancient depictions of the gods in Greek myths, primarily from vase paintings.

Her first chapter, ‘Origins,’ traces the gods’ roles in Hesiod’s two poems, amplifying her earlier assertion that ‘the gods take only a sporadic interest in mortals’ (24). Among several stances not often taken by commentators she sees ‘moral initiative’ in Earth’s intervention to get Heaven to stop concealing his children within her. Chapter Two, turning mainly to the Homeric Hymns and some Hesiodic episodes, focuses on immortals coupling with mortals. Here L often focuses on the damage immortals inflict upon mortals through their anger.

The third and fourth chapters deal respectively with the gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey. L regards the former as the most important ancient Greek religious text. She reiterates her focus on the potential for selfish behavior among the Olympians, except for Zeus. She regards everything that happens in the poem as the result of the will of Zeus. In the Odyssey she notes that Athena’s actions are more beneficent than is usual for the Olympians. Overall she concludes that in Odysseus’ epic the gods administer justice more fairly than in other myths and that right and wrong are here more clearly distinguished.

L follows with two chapters focusing on the gods’ roles in Greek tragedy. Chapter 5 suggests that a central thrust of most tragedies is the need for mortals to learn their own limitations, their incomplete understanding as compared with the gods’ power, a lesson rarely learned. She reiterates her emphasis on the gods’ frequent indifference to human suffering, as well as their concern for justice, albeit within a different sense of time than mortals have. She effectively notes the tension in Euripidean tragedy between a rather Homeric depiction of the gods on the one hand, and the audience’s increasing sense of the gods’ limitations and awareness that the gods’ actions sometimes increase their sufferings. Chapter 6 concentrates on Apollo’s role in tragedy and on how the gods treat mortals who are reluctant to heed their commands. Of Oedipus the King she correctly, in my view, regards the title character’s suffering as an instance of inherited guilt (though she does not use the term). L continues her focus on the gods’ frequent indifference to humans’ suffering, and their, at times, ruthless pursuit of their own honor at mortals’ expense.

The seventh and eighth chapters conclude the classical period with respective surveys of the gods in Hellenistic poetry and in the Aeneid. In Hellenistic narratives L sees a greater objectivity by the authors because they are writing in Alexandria, not Greece, and because they been exposed to other peoples’ religions. But she sees a continuing, nonetheless, of earlier tendencies, such as Zeus being the only god in the Argonautica who is concerned with justice, and that Hera exploits Medea for her own ends much as Aphrodite does Phaedra. The chapter on the gods in Vergil’s epic largely sounds again her earlier themes: the stark force of a god’s wrath, the gods’ often unfeeling manipulation of mortals, and the gulf between gods and mortals, most apparent for L in how easily Juno and Jupiter resolve their quarrel as contrasted with the mortals’ deadly struggles below. She concludes that Vergil’s gods seem more remote than Homer’s because we never observe them eating and drinking, arming and mounting chariots, as we do in Homer.

The ninth and final chapter charts some changes in how Ovid depicts the gods in the Metamorphoses and Apuleius in The Golden Ass. L prefaces this chapter with a discussion of Greeks such as Xenophanes and Heraclitus who began to question traditional Greek religion and posit alternatives, including monotheism. From this larger context L proceeds to argue that in Ovid’s lengthy work the gods are shown as having lost their traditional dignity, and that Apuleius’ Isis differs from the traditional roles played by Greek gods in having no particular reason to help Lucius (such as connection by birth), and in being a more steadfast deity. L’s conclusion restates her central themes while adducing some fresh observations. Ancient Greek religion, she argues, emphasizes the fragility and difficulty of human existence. Intriguingly, she suggests that people eventually turned away from it because it was too realistic in its depiction of the unpredictable nature of life.

L’s decision to take the gods seriously and to see the myths as intended to convey serious instruction is highly laudable, and unusual in an age when commentators typically prefer to focus more on critical theory itself and fall back on bland generalizations about patriarchy, tricksters, or the like, when it comes to offering interpretations of myths. On these grounds alone the book is significant. By de-emphasizing a theoretical framework and focusing on the texts of the myths themselves, L is clearly aiming at a general, literary audience, and her book is thus eminently accessible. I appreciate her sustained treatment of ate, first in the Iliad and then in Greek tragedy. I also particularly appreciate her occasional engagement of parallels between Greek and Biblical myth, though I wish that there were more of these, and that they were pursued at greater length.

But there are drawbacks to pursuing such a general approach. A high percentage (too high, in my view) of the book consists of summaries, or retelling of the myths, emphasizing the gods’ roles. While this does serve L’s purpose of focusing on the gods, it makes the book less attractive for those who already know the myths reasonably well. L is at her best when bringing out differences between the behaviors of mortals and gods, and is particularly good on noting the different sense of the passing of time for gods and mortals. Perhaps related to L’s aim for accessibility is a lack of the usual terms and tools one might associate with discussion and analysis of Greek myth. For instance, L notes that it is less common for a god to appear openly to a mortal (57), as Athena does to Achilles in the first book of the Iliad, but does not give the term for this, theophany, which might help readers align the scene with theophanies in the Hippolytus, and elsewhere. Similarly, though L occasionally discusses the tendency for myths to explain why things are the they are, she never uses the term etiology or considers it as a contributing factor in, for instance, why Hera remains wrathful at Heracles. Perhaps more importantly, she never applies or considers the notion of overdetermination, that a god and a human both take part in making something happen, which might temper her assessment of Aphrodite’s treatment of Phaedra (166).

Similar gaps arise from L’s not considering that differences among types of myths result in differences in how the gods are portrayed. For instance, Athena in the Odyssey clearly behaves in a way that runs counter to several of L’s recurring points about how aloof the gods are, yet she does not consider why, or note that Romance, for example, requires a different sense of the gods’ participation in mortals’ affairs, though she considers several other myths colored by Romance conventions (the Ion, Helen, Iphigenia Among the Taurians, The Golden Ass).

Similarly, L has little consideration for how texts of very different periods may differ from each other. Greek myth evolves and arguably does develop a greater interest in a positive afterlife as it approaches the Christian era, but this may be more evident from what we know about the Eleusinian Mysteries outside of any of the principal texts of Greek myth.

But perhaps the biggest weakness is that a persistent focus on the gods’ roles, though welcome, inevitably leads to a somewhat imbalanced presentation of Greek myth. Her focus on the gods leads L to conclude that ‘the myths show a world full of evil forces, unpredictable change, difficult conditions, and inevitable death and defeat’ (236). While I don’t necessarily disagree with the remark, such a focus on the gods allows for little or no discussion of some of the more positive aspects of Greek myth, such as the hero’s typical triumph over death, which surely is meant, by implication, to contain some of the sense of a positive afterlife which later Christianity will more fully exploit. Thus incidents such as Heracles’ retrieving Alcestis from Hades, which surely asks for comparison with Jesus’ restoration of Lazarus (at John 11:1-41), are absent from this work, though they might be seen as fully relevant to the arguments presented here.

Given L’s subtitle, ‘What We Can Learn from Myths,’ there are, of course, additional, rather significant topics that might be included, such as how tolerant the Greeks were of other peoples’ beliefs and gods (compared with the Bible’s intolerance and ridicule of other gods; see especially the parodic theomachy at I Kings 18). It was polytheistic Greeks, not monotheistic Israelites or Christians, who invented democracy. Some of the earliest Greek myths, especially the divine councils in Hesiod’s Theogony already show the Greeks employing the kind of consensus-building that is central to the development of democracy, whereas monotheistic Biblical myth remains locked into the model of monarchy, a significantly less moral form of government. These too are part of what we could learn from Greek myths.