BMCR 2017.08.35

The Gods of Greek Hexameter Poetry: From the Archaic Age to Late Antiquity and Beyond. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, 56​

, , , The Gods of Greek Hexameter Poetry: From the Archaic Age to Late Antiquity and Beyond. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, 56​. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. xiv, 472. ISBN 9783515115230. €69.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a particularly rich collection of papers on a very interesting subject that has not as yet been examined at so impressive a span of time. Taking its cue from the influential work of Denis Feeney, The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition (Oxford, 1991),1 the book under review spans Greek hexameter poetry from the Archaic period down to Late Antiquity (the last two chapters on Greek literature cover the Argonautica of Orpheus and the Sibylline Oracles), also offering a glimpse of resonances of the Greek gods in Latin poetry (Virgil, Ovid) and modern literature (Tennyson, Walcott, Oswald). Given the wider ramifications of this (seemingly confined) topic for the history of Greek literature, the employment of the solemn and majestic hexameter verse within a range of genres, and the association of literary presentation with societal norms, the volume should appeal to a wider audience, while also engaging with scholarly discussions in more specialised fields. Furthermore, several papers include a well-rounded introduction to the text they are discussing and could be used in course syllabuses.

The volume seeks to trace “developments in religious thought and practice and ongoing philosophical and literary-critical reflection about the nature and representation of the divine” (p. 1). As appears from the discussion, divine presence and action lie at the centre of concern in Archaic hexameter poetry, with Hesiod and the longer Homeric hymns representing the first stages in the formation of the Olympic pantheon before its establishment in Homer. This can be seen in the story of the Iliad, deeply warlike and antagonistic, and without doubt, following the will of Zeus. The Odyssey, on the other hand, foregrounds a more settled context in which strife lurks in the background and the gods, as suggested, provide patterns for human demeanour, while the Cyclic Epics and the Shield feature more anthropocentric world views. One may have concerns with this evolutionary, historical model in Archaic hexameter poetry, not only since in some cases evidence is scarce, but mainly because the works representing the proposed stages are very different in themselves. For instance, should it not be expected that the Theogony would suggest an outlook dissimilar to the Works and Days ? Equally, to what extent does the story itself in each of the two Homeric epics influence the presentation of the gods? These questions are of course difficult to answer; but still one of the merits of the present volume is that it advances balanced discussions about this, and other issues, that generate thinking in broader terms.

In Hellenistic times things are not as complicated, though no less varied and intriguing. Despite the poets’ association with, and even adherence to, the Homeric and Hesiodic models, the canonical status of divinities becomes a reflection of political power, while the gods are depicted more distant in the narrative. The latter feature is evident in Imperial poetry too, which additionally plays with ancient exegeses, philosophical thinking and a stronger tendency towards religious syncretism.

It is perhaps impossible to thematically categorise in a fair manner all the papers of the volume, since another strength of this collection is the variety of the issues discussed, which bears witness to the richness and manifold aspects of the topic of divinity and its depiction in Greek literature. Recurrent themes that receive special attention include the struggle for and succession of power among the gods, the features that distinguish deities from humans, divine action and interference in the story, the issues of double motivation and fate, as well as the association of divine performance with contemporary religion(s) and theological beliefs. These themes are treated from three main angles: narrative analysis (of character and plot), intertextual dialogues (predominantly with Homer, Hesiod, Callimachus, and Apollonius Rhodius), while a few papers approach the subject chiefly through religion and cult. The papers are sufficiently, or even heavily, footnoted, and the secondary literature used is extensive and (to my knowledge) up-to-date.

Inclusiveness in reviewing a volume of so wide a scope is far from realistic an aim. Thus, in what follows, I have tried to discuss most of the contributions (yet not all of them evenly), while regrettably not examining others at all. For more information the reader may wish to consult the comprehensive summaries of papers in the editors’ Introduction.

Reflecting the development and establishing process of the Olympian pantheon, the volume sets off with Strauss Clay’s paper on Hesiod, which seeks to underline the different nature between gods and humans, arguing for the absence of a justice ( dike) for the gods in the Theogony, since this notion, as we may see in the Works and Days, is associated with the scarcity of goods and is therefore an intrinsic feature of the human condition.

With the longer Homeric hymns we enter into the next stage of formation of the Olympian pantheon. This sort of development is also reflected in the narrative of the hymns, which devote minimal lines to the voice of Zeus and do not preserve even a single hymn for the father of the gods. Taking these features into account, Falkner elaborates on two pairs of hymns that present a contrast in tone (‘Demeter and Apollo’, ‘Hermes and Aphrodite’) from the perspective of divine features and cult.

Ormand considers the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women from the angle of Zeus’ agency and the human knowledge of it, and he persuasively argues that this fragmentary work represents a stage intermediary between the Theogony and the Works and Days; in the first poem Zeus’ power is inescapable while in the second poem it is impossible to grasp. The Catalogue, however, narrates events from a slightly different perspective: humans (i.e. heroes), although already separate from the gods, may still entertain interaction with them but, in all their attempts, they ultimately fail to fully conceive of Zeus’ will.

Marks’ paper provides a subtle reading of Zeus’ plan in the Iliad, focusing on Olympian assemblies and their sequels. As appears from his examination, Zeus is a master of words who, in the process of advancing his carefully concocted design, resorts either to threats and intimidations or to more nuanced strategies that include complex and subtle language. A minor concern about Marks’ argument refers to the suggestion that Zeus could have been aware of Hera’s plan in Book 14 (pp. 66-7).

Employing findings from the fields of myth and cult (drawn on Linear B tablets and later texts), Martin’s reading of Poseidon’s function in the Odyssey sheds light on some important associations between Poseidon and Odysseus.

The Epic Cycle receives a well-rounded treatment by Tsagalis, who carefully traces its divine themes (wrath, rivalry, metamorphosis, to mention but a few), also by reading them against the background of Homeric poetry.

The issues of divine involvement in the plot and interaction with humans are the subject of Clauss’ paper from two main standpoints: the Apollonian influences from the Hesiodic Catalogue, and the distancing of the Olympians (though not of the minor divinities) from mortals, a stance that reflects beliefs contemporary to Apollonius’ times. I have not, however, been convinced by the suggestion that the Apollonian allusion to the Catalogue, by means of the construction ξυνὸς γὰρ … ξυνοὶ δέ (twice in A.R.), implies the common era in which gods interacted with mortals; other than this shared construction, the three passages do not appear to have much in common (pp. 136-9).

Ryan investigates how Aratus’ Phaenomena negotiates the dual and conflicting interpretation of constellations as objects of scientific observation and products of mythical thinking.

Petrovic, in one of the most interesting and rewarding papers of the volume, entertains the possibility of the performative nature of the Callimachean hymns and, by reading them against the background of the Homeric hymns, makes a strong case for the absence of strife within the Olympian family and the absolute rule of Zeus as a reflection of the Hellenistic monarchy.

Morrison’s chapter on Moschus’ Europa and Eros on the Run argues for an “aestheticized” treatment of the gods as “a subject for narrative” aimed at the pleasure of the audience (p. 207), a depiction that does not include much detail and lies outside any (performative) context we may see in Homeric epic and Archaic hymnic poetry.

Divine presence in Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica is examined in a well-rounded paper by Bär. Despite Quintus’ tendency towards over-Homericizing, Bär highlights the Posthomerica ’s divergence from the Homeric model (e.g. reduced references to divinities, the almost complete absence of verbal interaction between the gods [‘depersonalization’], the decreased amount of double motivation, an elevated authority of Zeus), and aptly interprets this “shift from conventionality to singularity” (p. 223) as serving Quintus’ narrative purposes.

Miguélez-Cavero argues for the employment of ancient exegeses (mainly the Scholia and Heraclitus’ Homeric Problems) in the interpretation of the gods in Triphiodorus’ Sack of Troy. This poet generally follows Homer in key issues, such as anthropomorphism and double motivation, but tends to favour allegorical reading of the gods too. In Miguélez-Cavero’s discussion, however, the issue of fate receives too brief a treatment.

Bartley’s paper, a celebration of intertextuality, highlights Artemis’ rivalry with other deities in the Cynegetica, as well as examining the representation of religious syncretism in the portrayal of the goddess.

Schelske’s well-documented discussion addresses the translation of philosophy into the epic poetry of Late Antiquity, arguing for the combination of Orphic and Neoplatonic elements in the two theogonies of the Argonautica of Orpheus.

Briggs, in a well-balanced examination of the subject in Virgil’s Aeneid, draws attention to the political and historical aspects of the gods and their differences from deities in Homer.

The volume includes a general Index, though more detailed references to ancient sources (which are cited by title only), perhaps through the inclusion of a separate Index locorum, would make the references more accessible. Typos are minimal,2 and in general the book is nicely produced.

Overall, the present collective volume succeeds in examining the main aspects of the depiction of the gods in Greek hexameter poetry, and, where appropriate, contributions foreground associations of this issue with history, religion, and cult, along with contemporary trends in literary representation. Readers will benefit from many papers in this collection, and it is certainly a fortunate occasion that a topic of such significance is treated in mainstream alongside less studied authors and texts, which, in all their diversity, share the hexameter as a single element of construction.

Authors and Titles

1 James J. Clauss, Martine Cuypers and Ahuvia Kahane, Hiero’s Question: An Introduction
2 Jenny Strauss Clay, The Justice of Zeus in the Theogony ?
3 Andrew Faulkner, The Gods in the Narratives of the Homeric Hymns
4 Kirk Ormand, Divine Perspective and the Plots of Zeus in the Hesiodic Catalogue
5 Jim Marks, Herding Cats: Zeus, the Other Gods, and the Plot of the Iliad
6 Richard P. Martin, Poseidon in the Odyssey
7 Christos Tsagalis, The Gods in Cyclic Epic
8 Timothy Heckenlively, Ares in the Pseudo-Hesiodic Shield
9 James J. Clauss, Heldendämmerung Anticipated: The Gods in Apollonius’ Argonautica
10 John Ryan, Zeus in Aratus’ Phaenomena
11 Ivana Petrovic, Gods in Callimachus’ Hymns
12 Massimo Giuseppetti, Gods in Fragments: Callimachus’ Hecale
13 A. D. Morrison, Erotic Battles? Love, Power-Politics and Cosmic Significance in Moschus’ Europa and Eros on the Run
14 Silvio Bär, Reading Homer, Writing Troy: Intertextuality and Narrativity of the Gods and the Divine in Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica
15 Laura Miguélez-Cavero,‘With a Little Help from my (Divine) Friends’: Double Motivation and Personification in Triphiodorus’ Sack of Troy
16 Adam Bartley, The Huntress and the Poet: Artemis in the Cynegetica
17 Domenico Accorinti, Naming the God of Metamorphosis: The Ever-changing Shape of the Infant Dionysus in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca
18 Anna Lefteratou, Jesus’ Late Antique Epiphanies: Healing the Blind in the Christian Epics of Eudocia and Nonnus
19 Enrico Magnelli, Gods and Men in Colluthus’ Rape of Helen
20 Oliver Schelske, The Argonautica of Orpheus as ‘Poetic Theology’? Divine Hierarchies in Late Antique Philosophy and Poetry
21 J. L. Lightfoot, Polytheism in the Sibylline Oracles
22 Ward Briggs, Homer’s Gods and Virgil’s Aeneid
23 Fritz Graf, The Gods in Ovid’s Fasti
24 Edward Adams, From Epiphanic Idyll to Faith-bound Epyllia: Tennyson’s Poetic Descent from Virgil to Gibbon


1. BMCR 03.02.08

2. I have noticed the following misprints: p. xiv: “the names [of] ancient authors”; p. 1: “where[as]”; p. 269: “an attempt [to] replace”; p. 286: “and thrrefore”; p. 362: “its is she”.