- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

In the 1996 “Not Out of Africa,” classicist Mary Lefkowitz made an impassioned case that history should not be manipulated to suit modern political constructs such as Afrocentrism. On her way to proving that the Greeks did not steal their philosophy, theology and science from the Egyptians, she showed why myth and history are not one and the same.

With “Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths,” the author goes one step further, asserting that modern readers misunderstand the role of ancient myths in history when they pay more attention to the mortal players of these stories than to the deities who govern them. Asserting that “nothing, or virtually nothing, happens without the gods,” it is her aim to take readers “back in time so that [they] can see what the myths meant to audiences in the ancient world.” She adds that “we do the Greeks an injustice if we assume that their religion was frivolous or immoral.”

To see the myths as vehicles for communicating ancient religion in an ancient context is not easy for 21st-century readers. As the author notes, “Today more people learn about Greek mythology from modern stories than from any ancient writers.” The task she sees for herself in this book is to return readers back to the original commentaries. Before doing so, however, she takes a few prisoners.

Using the “Odyssey” as a kind of bellwether, she charges that much writing about myths has been incomplete, misguided or downright wrong. She points out that Thomas Bulfinch, writing in 1855, Edith Hamilton in 1940 and Robert Graves in 1955, abridged if not utterly eliminated the influences of and emphasis on the gods.

But it is for Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), who popularized the myths in recent years, that she reserves particular opprobium. “Campbell believed, with some reason, that myths of all peoples are full of reason and can enrich our lives, if only we are ready to listen to them. But he also proceeded on the basis of the rather questionable assumption that all myths, from all cultures, conveyed the same basic messages and followed virtually the same narrative patterns. In his view, all founders of religions have gone on a quest that included departure, fulfillment, and return.”

She adds that Campbell “inserts an element of spirituality in the travels of Odysseus that is entirely absent in Homer. The Island of the Sun is ‘the island of highest illumination,’ where Odysseus might have achieved full enlightenment. Campbell’s Odysseus, like a yogi, is searching for self-knowledge and seeking to renounce worldly values.”

As she points out, “the episode of the Island of the Sun is not the moment of highest illumination, in fact, but the nadir of the hero’s journey, the beginning of seven years of lonely isolation from other human beings on the goddess Calypso’s island, and of intensified desire on his part to return to his wife and native land … By adapting the myths to modern ways of understanding, Campbell deprives them of their original meaning.”

After dispatching those who tampered with the myths, the author sets about — in a calmer voice — to steer people away from such misapprehensions. It is at this point in the book that she begins her close readings of traditional myths and narratives in ancient epic and drama, illuminating “the attempt of mortal beings to understand and come to terms with forces beyond their control.” She reminds readers that “this is a book about religion as it is described in myth.”

From the dynamic accessibility of her early chapters, the author goes on to chart the roles of the gods in the “Iliad,” the “Odyssey,” Hellenistic poetry and drama. The average reader may be daunted by the exactitude of her mission. The passion of the early pages yields to most meticulous scholarship and it is perhaps other scholars who will benefit most from her rigorous analysis. But even a lay reader cannot help but be captivated by the spotlight placed on the denizens of Mt. Olympus who challenge, guide, thwart, deceive, befriend and abandon the mortals of these stories.

And there are lovely breaks taken to luxuriate in the stories themselves and with the beleaguered mortals who inhabit them. Zeus inspires awe, but it is Odysseus who makes one weep.

Ultimately though, for the layman the chief reward of this book is the opportunity to read the ancient works anew. Freed from seeing the myths as merely the playground for action heroes, one has the opportunity to contemplate the terrible power of the gods, the meaning of their sometimes complete indifference to the plight of mortals and their fierce sense of justice.

It is no surprise that of all the literature surveyed here, it is the “Iliad” (“the most important Greek religious text”) that is the most memorable. Through Homer’s great work, the author makes an interesting point: “The subject of the ‘Illiad’ is the anger of Achilles, the mightiest of all warriors of his time, but without the gods one man’s anger would not have been so memorable nor could it have caused the destruction that it did.” (She also takes time to consider who Homer was and whether there was more than one poet we call Homer, pointing out that the evidence is inconclusive).

Beginning with the discussion of the “Iliad” and moving along, each of the works under consideration is accompanied by subheads that highlight the actions of the gods: “Apollo and Athena intervene,” “Zeus favors the Greeks,” etc. These headings change only slightly as other works are examined. The prevailing spirit is keeping an unwavering eye on the actions and reactions of the gods.

The book ends with the author noting that “because there is no orthodoxy and no one deity to depend on, the burden is left to the individual. It is a religion for adults and it offers responsibilities rather than rewards. Yet despite its realism, and its clear differences from any of the religions we are now used to, these stories still offer a reliable guide to life in our own time. We still have much to learn from what the ancient writers say, even if we are not prepared to believe in their theology.”


By Mary Lefkowitz

Yale University Press, $30, 288 pages

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