Scholia Reviews 14 (2005) 8.
Mary Lefkowitz, Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003. Pp. xi + 288, incl. 55 halftone illustrations, two maps, a glossary, bibliography, recommendations for further reading, and an index. ISBN 0-300-10145-7. UK£19.95.
Department of Classics, University of South Africa
In her 1996 book, Not out of Africa, Lefkowitz endeavoured to expose 'how Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as history' (the subtitle of the book). In her latest, attractively presented publication, she attempts to show that myth may be taught as religion, and -- even more controversially -- that aspects of that religion are still worth considering today. Although Greek Gods, Human Lives ostensibly aims at a broad readership, its author is an eminent scholar whose views are worthy of note to fellow classicists.
In the preface, Lefkowitz claims that the Greek gods are still part of our lives through the role they play in classical mythology. The book offers a reading of the myths as religious experiences, as opposed to the general approach in popular mythology books such as those of Bulfinch, Hamilton, and Campbell,[] where the role of the gods are misleadingly downplayed, depriving the myths of their true meaning. She also -- justifiably -- criticizes scholars who view depictions of the gods as mere literary techniques, that is with no relationship at all to contemporary beliefs. Her express purpose is 'to show how important the gods are in human lives' (p. 6). She does this by treating a selection of the most important literary presentations of myths, and not the usual disembodied stories which lend themselves to free and varied interpretation. Nine chapters are devoted respectively to 'Origins' (Hesiod), 'Gods among Mortals' (Catalogue of Women, Homeric Hymns), the gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey, in drama, in Hellenistic poetry (Apollonius and Callimachus), the Aeneid, and a chapter called 'Changes', in which (in the author's view) dissenting voices are treated (mostly Ovid, Lucian and Apuleius). In a final chapter, 'The Gods in our Lives', she voices her conclusions. Traditional Greek religion enables human beings to establish their true place in the world, and offers a realistic view of what humans may reasonably expect in their lives: uncertainty, suffering and hardship, inevitable death, slow justice. Mortals can never aspire to full knowledge, and they cannot control the events of their lives. They cannot expect consolation from the gods, and therefore must turn to each other. Traditional religion proposes a mode of life in which mortals must try to align themselves with the will of the gods as best as they can. The sense of security, redemption, and reward offered by other religions (such as that of Isis in the Golden Ass may be attractive, but it is unrealistic and ultimately false, robbing humanity of its best attributes.
Religion, as we know, is contextually determined and cannot be evaluated properly from outside its own logic. As Lefkowitz does not elaborate on her own hermeneutics, one can but speculate on her reasons for offering the ancient views of humanity and the divine as solution to twenty-first century issues. On the level of methodology, although it involves the risk of expecting from the book what it does not intend to offer, a classical reviewer is confronted with several issues, some of which may briefly be mentioned.
The bulk of Greek Gods, Human Lives offers rather tedious reading, consisting entirely of source paraphrase and shallow interpretation. The overall method is to simply retell the action, but to linger and often directly quote wherever the gods come into the picture. This obviously creates a lopsided impression of the original works to the unsuspecting (first level mythology course?) reader. Even within the parameters of her popular aim, Lefkowitz too easily skips over huge areas of classical research with observations such as that myths 'are essentially stories about religious experience' (p. ix), that the purpose of all Greek drama 'is to remind the audience that the gods ultimately control human action and are determined to see that justice is done in the end' (p. 114), and that the Oedipus Rex is about a family curse (p. 145).
With so much effort devoted to retelling, Lefkowitz is guilty of not developing her themes to any level above the simplistic. She does not tell us what she thinks the traditional religion consisted of, what 'worship' meant in ancient Greek culture, apart from the fact that the gods were powerful and that mortals depended upon their favour (p. 235). Nor is the concept of justice analysed. If it consists of the idea that wrongs will finally be set right, how is justice accounted for in the case of numerous individuals who innocently suffer in the process? If justice is defined purely from a divine- centred perspective -- if the honour of a god is slighted, punishment even by excessive cruelty is justified -- does it bear any resemblance at all to human justice? Clearly, the social consequences of a might-is-right theology are for modern humans just too ghastly to consider. To be fair, Lefkowitz does not intend a théodicée, only a description of reality. But when gods acting like Athena and Apollo in the Iliad, and Aphrodite in the Hippolytus, have departed, what would the rationale be for advocating their 'return', apart from teaching mortals to beware of the capricious cruelty of absolute power, and to submit as 'natural' to institutionalized hierarchy and favouritism?
The author furthermore does not develop the great depth and variety of theological views in literature. The relationship between religion and myth as societal phenomena is problematic enough, much more so that between religion and a particular presentation of myth by a specific author. This may be illustrated with reference to Homer alone. Firstly, the novelty of Homer's Olympians is not put in any history-of-religions context. Secondly, the various levels on which the Iliadic gods operate, do not feature.[] Thirdly, the fundamental difference between the two epics is not brought out sufficiently. The Iliad's depiction of the gods gives a rational explanation for the fate and suffering of humans, but the Odyssey draws a quite opposite picture: here, the gods blame the humans' fate on their own actions (Od. 1.47), and the very existence of the gods is made dependent on their ability to exact justice (Od. 24.351). These two mutually excluding views existed alongside each other for many centuries, with Euripides cleverly juxtaposing them in, for instance, the Hippolytus and the Heracles.[] Not considered in this book are the differences between open-ended myth, authorial intent (ambiguous or not) and audience response (unanimous or mixed). The great works are those that play most effectively with these interrelationships. Homer and the tragedians were certainly not simple moralizers, preaching a single little sermon of watchful submission; their art also entertained and inspired, it caused fear and trembling, but also identified with heroic suffering and resistance.
In the attempt to promote the prominence of the gods in the ancient world, various criticisms already voiced in antiquity (Xenophanes, Plato etc.) are relegated to the radical fringe, and the rest are presented as rather monotonic. The overriding aim, to stress the centrality of the gods in the plots of literary works, causes some ingenious interpretation.[] But it is not the same thing to deny that the Greeks took their religion seriously, and to accept the fact that their gods were often depicted to be frivolous and not morally superior to humans. Neither can the central role the gods play in literary plots be equated with a religious message; more often the gods present the unifying ideology as background to the action, agreed upon but not necessarily shared by all members of ancient audiences alike.
Lefkowitz identifies three options available to the people of antiquity: trying not to offend the gods, trying to forget them, and turning to other gods (p. 223). Her view that the traditional gods were finally abandoned because they presented a too accurate picture of the world, is certainly thought-provoking. The ancient world view indeed solves many problems caused by idealistic religious systems. Much of the current world can do with a reality bite, a more honest appraisal of things as they are. But wouldn't most of us have chosen what the ancients ultimately did: to clothe in metaphysics our hopes rather than our despairs?
[] Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable (London 1912); Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York 1942); Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God. (Harmondsworth 1959-1964).
[] Cf. H. F. Fränkel, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy: A History of Greek Epic, Lyric, and Prose to the Middle of the Fifth Century (Oxford 1975) 53-75. English translation of Dichtung und Philosophie der frühen Griechtums (Munich 1962).
[] Cf. W. Kullmann, 'Gods and Men in the Iliad and the Odyssey', HSPh 89 (1985) 1-23.
[] For instance, Protagoras' dictum, 'man is the measure of all things', is understood not as the relativity of all knowledge to the knower, but as the philosopher's denial of limits to human knowledge and judgment, p. 211.