Philip Freeman must be thanked for his contribution to the process of keeping the Classics alive in the modern world. His biographies of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, for example, not only stimulate the scholar but also entice the newcomer to matters ancient. His volume of myths, Oh My Gods is another contribution to the enlivening of antiquity and like his other works this collection is a thoughtful and essentially well-written work.
There is a short Introduction (xiii-xx) that situates the project in terms of its personal and pedagogical inceptions, its historical background (from the Mycenaean era to the Imperial age), and its structure. While the staunch scholar may quibble at a few statements,1 overall this is a clear outline designed to assist the reader with the project at hand.
This introduction is followed by a thematic series of tales: Creation (1-12), Gods (13-67), Goddesses (68-86), Heroes (87-115), Lovers (116-35), Hercules (136-60), Oedipus (161-74), Argonauts (175-200), Troy (201-29), Mycenae (230-39), Odysseus (240-66), Aeneas (267-86), and Rome (287-95). Freeman sometimes combines a series of sources and the results are usually seamless transitions, as evidenced by his incorporation of Plato’s myth of the spherical people from the Symposium in the chapter on Creation. This keen awareness of continuity is also successfully executed in some of the chapters that pick up from where a previous one left off (the chapter on Odysseus following on from the one on Mycenae, for example). Others begin with a stark yet effective break from previous ones, such as the opening of ‘Troy’: ‘It all began with an apple.’ (the previous chapter being an account of the Argonauts).
The stories are followed by a series of Family Trees (The First Generation of Gods, The Children of Cronus and Rhea, The Descendants of Io, The House of Cadmus, The House of Atreus and The House of Troy), a list of Greek and Roman Gods, a Glossary, Notes, and Further Reading. The Family Trees are clear and would be useful for those uninitiated in the intricacies of mythical genealogies. The list of gods is also helpful, as is the Glossary, which is particularly well done and appropriately fulsome. The Notes are also excellent supplements. Freeman has clearly planned the latter with a scholar’s eye for detail combined with consideration for the non-specialists. The result is a clearly composed series of Notes that include basic background information and lists of supplementary ancient sources, in addition to conversational observations and information. The entry for Further Reading is well balanced for this type of book and the Index is thorough.
At times, Freeman breaks up the potential monotony of straightforward retellings by including direct speech, as in the tales of Odysseus and Aeneas. These passages work particularly well and it is unfortunate that the opening chapter on Creation did not incorporate more of this approach. Overall, however, the retellings provide some refreshing and crisp language that is well suited to a contemporary audience, as illustrated by the passage on Hercules’ penchant for cross-dressing and the politically incorrect intentions of Pan:
During his three years as a slave, Hercules delighted in dressing up in Omphale’s clothes for their romantic evenings together. One night the couple slept in a woodland cave after making love and were spied by the insatiable Pan. The goat god crept up on the pair in the dark and felt a woman’s nightgown. Thinking he could rape Omphale as she slept, he mounted the bed, only to crawl on top of Hercules, who smashed him against the wall of the cave. (157)
Similarly deft passages include the renditions of Eos and Tithonus (83-84), Hector and Andromache (217-18), and Odysseus’ tale at the court of Alcinous (249-59).
While the writing is not literary (or high art), nor particularly striking in terms of originality, it would be somewhat unfair to judge Freeman’s work on such grounds owing to the fact that he did not set out to write literature, nor to replace the originals (as an academic, Freeman is passionate about encouraging readers to turn to the ancient authors themselves). Indeed, as he explains in the Introduction: ‘I simply want to retell the great myths of Greece and Rome for modern readers while remaining as faithful as possible to the original sources.’ (xix).
There are some questionable organizational decisions, such as the inclusion of the tales of Atalanta and Philomela and Procne in the section entitled ‘Heroes.’ Similarly, the stories end rather abruptly with the tale of Lucretia being the last, which is a somewhat unfortunate note on which to conclude. Freeman does salvage this to a certain extent, by including the following quasi-finale:
The long age of monarchy stretching back to Aeneas and the Trojan War, to the Greek tradition and the earliest tales, had at last come to an end. The classical world now entered the age of history, though the ancient myths that so shaped their lives – and still shape ours – were never forgotten.(295)
An Epilogue would have worked even better, laying Lucretia to rest more completely and looking to the future more concretely.
A final criticism is the absence of a clearly defined Glossary of Authors. While Freeman writes that he does ‘describe the ancient authors … in the notes at the back of the book’ (xix), there is no systematic treatment of each source, their dates, genres or language. Had such a Glossary been structured along the same lines as the one included on the cast of characters who constitute the stories, readers would be even better informed.
Oh My Gods is a thoughtful and modest book. It is also scholarly. Students and members of an interested public will enjoy it.
1. For example: Homer composed two poems (which is not a standard line of thought these days); Hesiod really was a shepherd (maybe he was, but maybe he was engaging with a poetic conceit); many Roman myths ‘read like stark political propaganda’ (somewhat of a generalization and a little simplistic).