BMCR 2021.11.23

The gods of the Greeks

, , , The gods of the Greeks. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2021. Pp. 400. ISBN 9780299329402 $119.95.


Many readers of BMCR are already familiar with Erika Simon’s Die Götter der Griechen from one of its four German editions, the first appearing over fifty years ago in 1969. Maybe you encountered it in graduate school, German dictionary in hand if you are not a native speaker, as you pursued your studies in Greek art or religion. For other readers, this long-gestating English edition of The Gods of the Greeks will be a new discovery and perhaps an introduction to the scholarship of Prof. Dr. Simon, who recently passed away (in 2019, at age 91) and left behind a legacy of brilliant work from a brilliant career.

Long-gestating may well be an understatement judging from the preface authored by Alan Shapiro, the volume’s editor, and I begin this review by congratulating the village of hard workers whose heroic efforts have finally culminated in this final product. As Shapiro explains, the idea of an English translation was first proposed to Simon in the 1990s, with Jakob Zeyl serving as translator. By the publication of Die Götter der Griechen’s fourth edition (1998), the English translation was mostly finished; however, Zeyl needed to withdraw from the project, and Shapiro took the reins as editor. Further revisions to the text and translation followed, Simon and Shapiro assisted in these and other stages of production by a succession of scholars credited in the preface. With 398 pages of text and notes (plus a foreword by Fritz Graf), three indices, and over three hundred illustrations, the result is a literally hefty and breathlessly erudite exploration of the Olympian gods, each meriting its own chapter—even the reclusive homebody Hestia, who did not surface in the German version until the fourth edition.

This genesis of The Gods of the Greeks, and indeed Der Götter der Griechen itself, is essential to understanding the book’s structure and approach. Simon was predictably steeped in the traditions of German classical scholarship: these shine forth in the present volume, down to the sprinklings throughout the text of names like Nilsson (as in Martin Nilsson, author of Geschichte der griechischen Religion, first published in 1941) and Otto (as in Walter Friedrich Otto, author of Die Götter Griechenlands, first published in 1929). In English translation, The Gods of the Greeks goes a long way in introducing readers less proficient in German to those scholarly traditions, which have been so important to the development of classical scholarship writ large. Graf’s foreword and Simon’s own introduction help the reader appreciate fully her place and that of the first 1969 edition of Der Götter der Griechen within the trajectory of the study of Greek religion—and archaeology as well, for Simon’s book differs from many accounts before that point in being steeped in a strong archaeological background and tradition, too.

The thirteen core chapters open with Zeus and his siblings (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, and Hestia—only the underworld-dwelling Hades is absent), proceeding then to the Olympians among Zeus’ children (Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Ares, Dionysus, and Hermes). Despite its title, the book does not attempt to consider all the gods of the Greeks, a fact of which the prospective reader should be aware. Simon does aim for rich, full portraits of her subjects, probing deeply to uncover their historical origins and mythological character. In this, she eschews a reductive view of the gods: where common parlance has limited Aphrodite to “the goddess of love” or maybe “the goddess of love and sexuality/desire,” and Dionysos to “the god of wine and theater,” Simon highlights the Olympians’ multivaried and lesser known aspects, and even their contradictions. This approach is a given in current scholarship—one thinks of the Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series published by Routledge, to give a public-facing/general-audience example—but Simon was already doing it fifty years ago with Die Götter der Griechen’s first edition.

Nor does Simon limit herself to textual sources in her quest for evidence but gives ample attention to visual material, dialoguing between them in the venerable German tradition of Bild und Lied. Among artistic representations, while Athenian vase paintings—our largest surviving corpus of imagery—comprise a predictable proportion, Simon also incorporates freestanding and architectural sculpture, bronzes, terracottas, and ceramics of other sorts from other places besides Athens for a broader perspective. As explained in her introduction, she chose to include only works of art dating before 400 B.C.E., because “the great shift in religious sensibilities of that time also had an impact on the arts” (7). This decision plus Simon’s interest in origins means readers are exposed to earlier material than is often the case in books about art and mythology, even back to the Bronze Age.

In addition to texts and images, Simon brings the landscape and practices of cult places into her analyses, in a way that must have seemed quite forward-thinking with Der Götter der Griechen’s first edition. In her introduction, Simon cites Paula Philippson (Griechische Götter in ihren Landschaften, 1939) as an influence and asserts plainly, “no one who has traveled through Greece, Asia Minor, South Italy, and Sicily can maintain that the Greeks established their sanctuaries without taking the landscape into account” (9). The recent, so-called spatial turn in classical archaeology and scholarly interest in movement and experience are in many ways an outgrowth of such observations, and these portions of the text read as especially timely and fresh.

Simon’s multidimensional approach and personal depth and breadth of knowledge yield a vivid, and importantly, accessible look into the Olympians. The reader is invited to think about the gods in new ways; the chapter on Hera stands out strongly as an example, as Simon pushes past the stereotype of the jealous, vengeful wife to celebrate Hera as mistress of the plains, protector of livestock, and powerful in her own right. Simon’s way of speaking about the gods is no less noteworthy: her occasional shifts from past to present tense, for instance, as if they are still very much alive. (Here one should acknowledge Jakob Zeyl’s translation, which is fluid and a pleasure to read.) I share a few sentences from the Apollo chapter in appreciation of Simon’s writing: “…Apollo too favored mountains. Cliffs, promontories, bluffs and islands were his favorite haunts. However, it was his nature not to be as bound to his isolated temples as other deities were to their abodes. Instead, he appears there on specific occasions, so as to have frequent opportunities to impress by the impact created by his arrival…To be near for only a short period of time, to be distant and to rove here and there, these are behaviors typical of Apollo…” Such immediacy helps strike a balance in the text, so that students and general readers with little background will be able to follow Simon’s discussion and find themselves drawn into the Greek world.

My praise of The Gods of the Greeks does carry a caveat: despite being published in 2021, it essentially embodies the text and references of the 1998 fourth edition of Der Götter der Griechen. As Shapiro explains in the preface, this was Simon’s intent at the beginning of the process, and the English edition’s long gestation, coupled with the rapid pace of modern scholarship, increasingly made updates impossible. References to “recent” excavations therefore mean excavations of the 1960s and 1970s, while newer excavations and post-1990s scholarship are absent from the discussion. This does not diminish the book’s contributions and utility, but specialists will notice.

The Gods of the Greeks has an ambitious program of over 300 illustrations, all black and white but comprehensive in their coverage and a valuable resource of the book. A sizable portion of the images stem from the Hirmer Photo Archive, testifying to Simon’s friendship and many collaborations with photographer and publisher Max Hirmer. Some of Simon’s own photographs are featured and add another personal touch. In lieu of a bibliography, a list of abbreviations gathers the most cited references; each chapter has additional sources listed under the respective headings in the notes, together with the notes themselves. A map, family tree of the gods, and three indices (museum and site index, index locorum, and subject index) further guide the reader. I spotted no typographical or other proofreading errors.

This English edition of The Gods of the Greeks will surely find its place as a staple resource, as much as its German forebear has been for many decades. It is worth the wait.