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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Book Reviews


Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths by Mary Lefkowitz. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003, 288 pages, $30.

Mary Lefkowitz, who is a professor of classics at Wellesley College, has written down what she has been saying to her students on the subject of god and myth for the past 25 years in her classical mythology course. Courses such as these are a money-making staple for classics departments across the nation because students, looking for something not too demanding as a humanities general-education credit, gravitate toward classical myth. The Midwestern state university I attended over 50 years ago, just when the GIs had returned to clog the works, fielded a course in mythology with some 2,000 students in it, whose overworked, ill-paid, instructor-level lecturer made it possible for the institution to offer me what were almost private tutorials, reading texts in the original Greek and Latin, taught by senior research professors. Mythology courses are always popular with students, since most everyone likes a good story — and that’s what myth is at its most basic. Sometimes the light is dulled by the importation of theory, such as the psychoanalytic, the Freudian, at much the same time the Marxist, then later the structuralist, and so on; but the average student who enrolls in a mythology course to get the humanities credit looks with disgust upon these intrusions. Nothing like theory to ruin a good story!

Lefkowitz’s book is dedicated to one important proposition: the gods of the ancient Greeks were essentially indifferent to the human race and inflicted pain and suffering on them, often quite out of proportion to any wrongdoing, often even without any misdeed as the provocation. She offers this, although in muted tones, as a corrective to the American Judeo-Christian notion, derived from the respective scripture, that the godhead is a caring parent, often angry and punitive, but essentially with the best interest of his human charges always in his mind. In sum, the loving father.

It is a lesson in need of learning in a country whose suburbs are filled with citizenry who have always acted as though they were God’s chosen people, whether in despoiling the land of its bounty, eradicating its indigenous peoples, or manipulating the reward system so that it flows to some and not others. They are entitled, thus sayeth the Lord. Lecturing year in and year out to a sea of faces of privileged, overachieving, overly demanding young women in an elite private institution, such as the one with which Lefkowitz is affiliated, might well produce a kind of revulsion. At least that was my reaction when I taught in such places. It makes you want to scream that life doesn’t work that way, it isn’t what you’ve seen in television ads since you were babies; there are no smiling faces out there other than on billboards. Nothing gives a classics professor greater pleasure than insisting upon the tragic sense of life. If only, one always hopes and speculates, if only you could break through their mindless self-satisfaction.

One can only speculate on Lefkowitz’s motives. Whatever the reason, the book is an excellent lesson on an alternative view of the universe, something that can offer a more reasonable metaphysical explanation of such enormities as the Holocaust as well as mere blips on the screen of disasters such as the deaths of all those people in the World Trade Center. God just doesn’t care.

In the time-honored tradition, Lefkowitz tells the stories. She has, however, confined herself to certain major narratives from the ancient tradition: Hesiod’s Theogony, The Iliad, The Odyssey, various ancient Athenian tragic dramas, some pieces of Hellenistic poetry, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid. In her introduction, Lefkowitz is very clear on the rationale for selecting these pieces, omitting so many others, notably all prose authors, as well as variant versions of the myths. It is these stories (see her preference for “highly developed literature” [p. 11]), partly because of their detail, that offer the best evidence for how the Greeks construed their deities and the religion that constituted their worship.

One might say that Lefkowitz’s firm, clear, authoritative statement of purpose in her introduction anticipates the criticisms that her method must provoke. The first would inevitably be her easy use of the myth-stories as a basic expression of the religious practice of the ancient Greeks. First, the ancient Greeks were not a culturally unified people; religious practice was various throughout the language group. Second, religion is defined by most students of the subject by cult practice, by festival practice — all sorts of acts that tend to define and enact the relationship of man to god — not by verbal narratives. Third, many students of myth would not agree that elongated story narratives even constitute evidence for the subject, adulterated as they are with motive, psychology, details establishing background and foreground. When these narratives are used, particularly the more refined “literary” texts, the question of authenticity must be immediately raised; authorship, context, and circumstance so distort the myth material.

The Iliad and The Odyssey, products of a late oral culture passing into literacy, are not the same thing as Athenian tragic drama of the fifth century BCE or a Latin poem produced at the moment of the ascendancy of Caesar Augustus. They cannot innocently be used to support a search into ancient religion without qualifying material that would fill another volume the size of the present one. In a culture that offers evidence of the cult worship of a myriad of deities, from the god of the hearth to the nymph of the woods to the Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis, it is a very difficult matter to generalize about deity. In essence, this book is a select view of the way in which certain ancient writers envisioned the gods who appear in the traditional stories that are the basis of their narratives. Its title is entirely misleading. But then, the complicated, problematic view of things that the subject demands is so far beyond the powers of the contemporary, popular, so-called learned public, as opposed to those grabbing Danielle Steele or John Grisham off the shelves at the airport bookstore, that there is no way a publisher (even Yale University Press) would allow such a book. It is a disquieting revelation, as though one needed it, of the level of American sophistication.

Perhaps nothing so distinguished Jews and Christians from the pagan Greeks and Romans as their possession of The Book. Scripture, which demands in varying degrees absolute belief, was foreign to the pagans. The Book can go anywhere, and the worshiper is with his god. All those men and women on the New York subway reading their way through the Bible, at one with their god, involved in a religious experience, are alien from the ancient who might have sensed something divine in the wind rippling through a glade or stared awestruck as the priestess held up the wheat in a blaze of light at the Eleusinian Mysteries, but who did not enlarge his or her religious sensibilities from reading The Book.

Curiously enough, Lefkowitz adopts almost a fundamentalist reading when she discusses the ancient Greek texts she has chosen. In a sentence such as, “By waiting until the last moment to make his appearance Apollo illustrates in the most vivid manner possible the difference between divine and mortal understanding” (p. 138), Lefkowitz attributes to a god what is the work of the human author of the text. Likewise, to ask, “Why should mortals worship gods who offer them so few benefits?” (p. 235) dismisses the fact that these gods do not exist independent of humanity; they are, rather, the projections of certain societal or psychological needs in human society. This extends then to dismissing human esthetic choice as the motivating factor in the representation of divinity in these texts. For instance, it seems odd to talk of the quarrel between Zeus and Hera with Hephaistos the peacemaker at the close of Book I of The Iliad without addressing its parallel, which is the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles with Nestor the peacemaker earlier on. To say (p. 94) that Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave “is in more danger because Athena is not ready to help him” is as though Lefkowitz were privy to Athena’s thinking, and dismisses authorial control by not mentioning the theory that Olympic deities do not appear in fairy-tale narration. You know what Lefkowitz means when she says, “Without the gods there would have been no Iliad” (p. 55), although it impels one to think the retort: Without the poets there would have been no Iliad. Note the Odyssey poet’s irony in lines 347f., where he has Telemachus tell Penelope (who has been objecting to the subject matter of Phemius’ song) that it is not the poets who are to blame for the humans’ troubles they sing of, but Zeus — although Zeus, in fact, has just declared that humans bring on their own misfortunes, which leaves the poets who fictionalize these narratives responsible for manufacturing human disaster.

Language usage is sometimes unsettling. “The most important Greek religious text was the Iliad. To us today it seems a surprising choice” (p. 53). Setting aside the very arguable proposition that The Iliad constitutes a religious text, we might wonder the more at the idea of “choice.” Who made this choice? There was no rabbinical council at work, no Kulturkampf like that led by St. Athanasius. It just doesn’t seem to be a choice at all. On the same page, the words, “the story provides…an introduction to the tragic vision,” seems a curious phraseology when it is, in fact, humans who have contrived a tragic vision of life from such works as The Iliad. Or arguing (p. 59) that the invocation to the Muses before the Catalogue of Ships is “not just a formal convention; it is a serious act of piety”: piety — or religious reverence, or compliance in the observance, religious devotion, coming from the Latin pietas — hardly seems to describe whatever might be the attitudinal position of the bard at this juncture. One will remember W. H. Auden’s remarking on poets’ peculiar fascination and pleasure in catalogues and imagine the invocation to be the equivalent of an exultant whoop.

Lefkowitz argues for the elaborated text by saying that “prima facie explanations of ancient writers may offer better interpretations than we can give” (p. 11). Well, yes, maybe. Most would opt for the distanced, more objective view, even if blinkered by ignorance and prejudice, that obtains in our contemporary world. Still, a contemporary observation such as, “They [the mortal spectators] can agree that his [Dionysus’] punishment is too harsh, and even if they are powerless to help they can derive some comfort from knowing that life was hard even for the great heroes” (p. 168), doesn’t get us very far into the Bacchae text. Again, when Lefkowitz writes, “Only the man who entertains no hopes and no ambitions can avoid the sufferings that are experienced by the families of rulers and heroes” (p. 147), the reader seeks more context. This oft-expressed choral caution against rocking the boat is essentially so antidemocratic one would like to explore how it works on behalf of which interest groups and their role in making the drama.

Overall, considerably more analysis would be welcome in these pages. The stories, just the stories, and Lefkowitz’s identification with the divine entourage in these stories as though she were a priestess of the established religion, does not move us far enough beyond the level of an introductory handbook.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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