BMCR 2017.03.49

Euripides and the Gods. Onassis series in Hellenic culture

, Euripides and the Gods. Onassis series in Hellenic culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xviii, 294. ISBN 9780199752058. $45.00.


In 1981, Mary Lefkowitz published an important work on The Lives of the Greek Poets (2 nd ed. 2012), arguing that these anonymous works contain virtually no useful information for the historical study of the poets in question. The biographical tradition consists mainly of dubious anecdotes and comic stereotypes and from decontextualized lines of the poems. Euripides is a case in point. Thanks largely to Aristophanes, Euripides’s motives are constructed in the biographical tradition over and against those of his supposedly nobler counterpart Sophocles, and his intellectual inclinations are aligned with Socrates as a radical critic of divine injustice and with Anaxagoras as having radically non-Homeric ideas about the nature of divinity. The comic sendups send biographers into the Euripidean corpus looking for proof texts, which they find in apparently impious remarks on the lips of Euripidean characters. These decontextualized one-liners are then read as if indicative of the poet’s own philosophical position instead of something said by a character in a particular dramatic context. The net result is that Euripides appears in the ancient biographical tradition as a countercultural critic of traditional, Homeric gods. While the general thrust of Lefkowitz’s work in The Lives of the Greek Poets has been well received, the implications for how we talk about Euripides have not taken hold. Euripides and the Gods offers a corrective. Where readers of Euripides have assumed uncritically that the poet must have shared the revolutionary ideas of contemporaries like Socrates and Anaxagoras, Lefkowitz shows that those associations are grounded only in the unreliable biographical tradition. Where Euripides portrays traditional gods acting in ways that modern audiences find objectionable, leading to hypotheses that these must be ironic portraits of the gods, Lefkowitz argues that readers ought to take Euripides’s portrayals at face value. Euripides’s gods, like Homer’s, are individuals who exist to please themselves. Such a view of divinity, Lefkowitz suggests, is difficult for moderns to appreciate, especially monotheists whose notion of divinity involves commitments to universality, omnipotence, and benevolence.

Euripides and the Gods is written chiefly for non-specialists, although its nearly fifty pages of endnotes make it a potentially useful resource for scholars and advanced students (xvii). Professional scholars of Greek drama will appreciate Lefkowitz’s efforts to popularize work of leading classicists: from Hugh Lloyd-Jones, the idea that late nineteenth-century scholars unconsciously identified with Euripides and portrayed him as spokesperson of an imagined Greek Enlightenment; from David Kovacs, the critique of uncritical assent to the Aristophanic portrait of Euripides; from William Allan, Donald Mastronarde, and others, careful readings of particular gods’ actions and behavior in individual plays, especially their unpredictability from the human perspective. Lefkowitz’s signature contribution is the negative point that we would not see religious iconoclasm in Euripides’s plays were it not for his extra-textual reputation as a religious radical and the monotheistic sympathies of later interpreters that led them to imagine and value a Euripidean critique of Homeric divine misbehavior.

In the Introduction, subtitled “Greek Drama without the Gods?” Lefkowitz reflects on the ambivalence or discomfort of modern audiences towards the gods in Greek drama, as suggested by the common omission of gods from modern productions (9–10). While Euripides frequently uses a god to deliver a scene-setting prologue and/or resolves his plots with a deus ex machina, modern directors tend to use narrators or human characters to convey any necessary introductory information and tend to prefer ambiguous endings over closure from a deus ex machina, a device now roundly regarded as tackily artificial. The modern discomfort with Euripidean gods is at least partially attributable to incompatible ideas that modern monotheists have about the “nature of divinity” compared to their ancient Greek counterparts. Euripidean gods strike us as materialistic, self-serving, and indifferent to human suffering. Ancient and modern views of divine justice seem to differ too: in the ancient context, justice is violent, disproportionate, unrelenting, and unforgiving (13–14).

Chapter 1, “Euripides, Socrates, and Other Sophists,” wades into the biographical tradition. The ancient comic tradition associated Euripides with Socrates, Anaxagoras, Prodicus, and Protagoras as intellectual partners, dubious connections which were then perpetuated in the biographical tradition. Lines from Euripidean characters were decontextualized and read as straightforward reflections of Euripides’s own views. Although the connections were originally disparaging, the ascendance of the Socratic star transformed them into badges of honor.

Chapter 2, “Piety and Impiety in Euripides’ Heracles,” takes up the Euripidean play in which the gods’ behavior is shown in the most negative light. Lefkowitz argues that the gods’ inaction in the face of human suffering here is a reflection of how ancient Greeks typically expected gods to behave, not a veiled critique of Greek religion. When Heracles refuses to believe that gods seek out illicit unions and bind each other with chains, maintaining that real gods ought to have no needs (1341–4), scholars have seen influence from philosophers like Xenophanes of Colophon and Socrates. According to Lefkowitz, however, the original audience would have recognized this as Heracles attempting to deny an obvious reality “in his guilt and grief,” not an instance of Euripides philosophizing via Heracles. The same logic can be extended to other passages where doubts about the gods are expressed. These are the product of “despair and isolation,” not philosophical musing (54). The crucial point for Lefkowitz is that “no one in the fifth century BC would have accused Euripides of impiety for writing the Heracles, except in the context of a comedy” (55).

Chapters 3, (“Athena”), 4 (“Apollo”) and 5 (“Other Gods”) deal with the roles played by individual gods in Euripides’s dramas. In the Suppliants, the Erechtheus, and the Iphigenia among the Taurians, Athena acts to preserve Athens and her own cultic honors. The Alcestis, the Ion, and the Orestes have Apollo as the principal deity driving the action. Scholars troubled by Apollo’s apparent cruelty, callousness, and the suddenness of his interventions and brevity of his interactions have described his portrayal as “ironic” and criticized his ultimate solutions as too tidy. Ancient audiences, however, would not have seen the deus ex machina with our jaded eyes, since they understood that the gods could and did step in decisively to advance their own interests. This was especially true of Apollo who, from Homer to fifth-century Athens, surpassed most of his Olympian peers in indifference to the human condition.

Chapter 6, “Gods behind the Scenes,” looks at dramas in which the gods do not have speaking roles but nevertheless control the action. After a few pages on the Medea, the chapter is mainly concerned with gods and the problem of human sacrifice in the Iphigenia at Aulis, the Children of Heracles, the Phoenician Women, the Hecuba, and the lost Erechtheus. The focus is on the invisible divine hand calling for the sacrifices through human intermediaries, and the point is that even in these dramas Euripides is keen to explore the disruptive effects of divine action on the unpredictable and terrifying human experience.

The book’s conclusion revisits the challenge modern monotheistic readers confront in ancient Greek theology, and underscores the distance between conventional Greek religion and modern, monotheistic religion.

Lefkowitz presents a potent account for how Euripides’s persona of “philosopher on the stage” came about, and describes how it then affected reception of his poetic corpus. If one were only interested in Euripides’s original intentions and the likely responses of original audiences, her corrective offers serious food for thought. It is doubtful, however, that this is a question which can ever be fully settled. What we can be certain of is that some among Euripides’s early audiences found it worthwhile (even if only for comic purposes) to portray him as in league with theological mavericks and that those associations have had remarkable staying power because of language he crafted for some of his most tragic and sympathetic protagonists. This last point makes it difficult for me to be fully persuaded by Lefkowitz. Certainly I would hesitate to say that Euripides’s views about the gods must have been entirely conventional, since I continue to find it plausible that Euripides, as an elite Athenian contemporary of figures like Socrates and Anaxagoras, would have been intellectually and theologically affected by the questions they raised.

The central problem posed in this book changes substantially, perhaps even dissipates, if we begin to press back on the historical viability of categories it assumes. Lefkowitz rightly points out that the “conception of divinity” held by most moderns is itself largely incompatible with that of ancient Greeks. And yet it is possible that she does not go far enough. She sometimes writes as if ancient Greeks shared a common “theology” that was inimical to the modern “monotheistic” theologies we are more familiar with (e.g., on p. xv). Even if we take “theology” in the loosest possible sense, many of Lefkowitz’s non-specialist readers may still be misled. The language suggests that ancient Greeks divided the world into a divine, supernatural sphere on the one hand and a natural, human sphere on the other. Lefkowitz lists gods, shades, prophetic dreams, and divine physical transformations as “supernatural” (171), without commenting on why ancient Greeks would see these as separate from a “natural” order. Critical religious studies scholarship has shown that categories like “theology,” the “supernatural,” and even “religion” (as in “ancient Greek religion,” cf. p. 204) are not universals but categories produced in a Christian discourse and used retrospectively and redescriptively (i.e., not descriptively) to make sense of the kinds of talk and behavior in other cultures that we would label religious.1 A consequence for talking about Euripides is that we will be hard-pressed to come up with a “doctrine” or a set of beliefs about the gods which comprised his theology. Theology in that sense is comprehensible when there are humans in a “natural” world speaking of gods in a “supernatural” world, but human theology about the gods is more complicated where humans and gods overlap. Many of Euripides’s human protagonists (Hippolytus, Medea, Ion, and others) are children or grandchildren of gods. In some cases, as with Heracles and possibly Medea, they take on divine qualities at death. While ancient Greeks did speak of theoi and anthropoi, these categories were neither mutually exclusive nor were they the only two possible categories of being for the figures who populate the dramas. Gods, as Lefkowitz rightly emphasizes, were not all on an equal footing; they varied in age, venerability, power, and temperament. All of this combines to make “Euripides and the gods” a promising site for further work on the history of human manipulation of the categories by which we organize experience.

The book includes five grayscale images, endnotes, bibliography, subject index, and index locorum. The non-specialist may be hampered by the fact that works are sometimes referred to by Latin titles and sometimes by an English title. For example, one finds Heraclidae on p. 96 but Children of Heracles on p. 175 and in the index. There are more typographical errors and inconsistencies in formatting than one would expect in a book from Oxford University Press, but none that I noted which would impede the sense.


1. See e.g. Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). On the absence in antiquity of a concept corresponding to our “supernatural,” see chapter two of Dale B. Martin, Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).