Greek Gods, Human Lives / Edition 1

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The mythology of ancient Greece has fascinated readers for two millennia and has formed the basis of Western civilization. The Greek gods are a perennial source of delight because they seem so much like us: in their rages, their love affairs, and their obsession with honor, the gods often appear all too human.
In Greek Gods, Human Lives, preeminent classicist Mary Lefkowitz reintroduces readers to the literature of ancient Greece. Lefkowitz demonstrates that these stories, although endlessly entertaining, are never frivolous. The Greek myths-as told by Homer, Ovid, Virgil, and many others-offer crucial lessons about human experience. Greek mythology makes vivid the fact that the gods control every aspect of the lives of mortals, but not in ways that modern audiences have properly understood. We can learn much from these myths, Lefkowitz shows, if we understand that they are stories about religious experience-about the meaning of divinity, the nature of justice, and the limitations of human knowledge. These myths spoke to ancient audiences and helped them to comprehend their world. With Mary Lefkowitz as an interpreter, these myths speak to us as well.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A great success. . . . Acute and fascinating.”—Jasper Griffin, New York Review of Books

“[The] excellent scholar Mary Lefkowitz . . . briskly retells [some of the] classic myths, not only from Homer, Hesiod, and Greek tragedy, but also those to do with the voyage of the Argonauts and the adventures of Virgil’s Aeneas.”—Peter Green, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[From] a super-competent, sometimes controversial, and always engaging professional classicist, . . . [a] fascinating study.”—Tracy Lee Simmons, Washington Post

The New York Times
[Lefkowitz's] thought-provoking new book, Greek Gods, Human Lives, is precisely an attempt to write the gods back into Greek myths. She maintains that modern accounts concentrate on the human dimension of these extraordinarily resilient tales, with a distorting playing down of the divine. Joseph Campbell -- whose highly influential hero (The Hero With a Thousand Faces) is presumably still waiting for the lights to change on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue -- is perhaps her central target. — Oliver Taplin
The Washington Post
Lefkowitz is a super-competent, sometimes controversial and always engaging professional classicist. While the general reader can read the book with profit, too, it might make for some tough going. This fascinating study isn't merely introductory, though it is, Lefkowitz tells us, an "overview" of divine activity in Greek and Roman literature. In fact, it's a brief in which she argues that modern readers, with our modern presumptions, have for too long treated Greek mythology as little but a charming set of stories and, in doing so, have discounted the serious role of the gods as supernatural beings holding cunning or arbitrary sway over human life. For it is the gods, Lefkowitz believes, who hand us the keys to unlocking the mysteries of the Greek mind and spirit. — Tracy Lee Simmons
Publishers Weekly
The many readers of Wellesley College professor Lefkowitz's book Not Out of Africa (1996) discovered what her academic colleagues had known for decades-she has an encyclopedic grasp of classical literature and a knack for lucid if austere prose. But where that book addressed the intensely contemporary issue of Afrocentrism, this one takes a more Olympian perspective. Twentieth-century interpreters from Freud to Joseph Campbell plumbed Greek myths for their insights into human character, but Lefkowitz suggests the myths have something to say about divinity itself. Is it possible that Greeks actually believed in their pantheon of flawed and fallible gods, with their deceptions, adulteries and petty quarrels? Lefkowitz insists that we take that possibility seriously. She offers chapter-long retellings of texts like the Iliad and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, showing how central the gods are to those texts. (Unfortunately, readers not already familiar with Greek literature may struggle to keep up.) The gods, she says, are distant and only rarely interested in individual mortals, and divine justice moves slowly. Yet for Lefkowitz this "religion for adults" is commendably realistic, delivering little comfort "other than the satisfaction that comes from understanding what it is to be human." (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Did the ancient Greeks and Romans take their gods seriously? They certainly did, argues Lefkowitz (classical studies, Wellesley Coll.), whose many books include the controversial Not Out of Africa, which attacked Martin Bernal's black Athena thesis. While stories of the gods in ancient sources are often entertaining, they are not frivolous but rather an integral part of a fundamental piety. Too many modern accounts of classical mythology, from works by Thomas Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton to those by Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell, tend to distort or divert our attention from the roles of the gods by focusing on the human. Lefkowitz sees her book as a corrective, focusing on the ancient descriptions of divine action to show a complex relationship between humans and the cosmos and our understanding of the limits of experience. Drawing on original sources, her treatment is both accessible to the general reader interested in mythology and stimulating to the specialist. Highly recommended.-T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300107692
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,559,246
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Lefkowitz is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Department of Classical Studies, Wellesley College. Among her books is Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History.

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Read an Excerpt


What We Can Learn from Myths


Copyright © 2003 Mary Lefkowitz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10145-7

Chapter One

The ancient Greeks did not have a sacred text like the Bible. No one decided what versions of the myths were authoritative. Authors were free to tell the stories as they chose, with their own emphasis, provided they preserved the principal characters and basic plots. The Greeks learned about the gods from poetry written in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., the most important and influential of which, Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, and the great epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, still survive. Hesiod's poem Theogony offers an account of the beginnings of the world and a genealogy of the gods, detailing their names and how they are related to one another. At the same time, it explains why, in a world with so many different gods, the lives of humankind are dominated by a particular family of gods on Mount Olympus, the head of which is Zeus. Hesiod describes how Zeus came to be the most important god and shows why it is better for the world as a whole that Zeus (rather than his predecessors) is in charge. Hesiod's Works and Days tells myths that explain why Zeus has made life hard for humans and why they must work to survive while the gods live at their ease, free from cares. Hesiod wrote his epic poems in roughly the same era as Homer, probably in the eighth-seventh centuries B.C., although no one knows exactly when, or even whether he came before or after Homer. But unlike Homer, Hesiod does tell us something about himself in the course of his two poems, as the information becomes relevant to his theme. He says in the Works and Days that his father came from Cyme in Asia Minor, "fleeing from cruel poverty, which Zeus gives to men, and he settled near Mount Helicon in a miserable village, Ascra, cruel in winter, harsh in summer, no good at any time" (Works and Days 638-40). But even though Zeus made his father's life hard and drove him away from his home, Hesiod tells us in the Theogony how Zeus's daughters the Muses gave him the gift of song. The gods give both bad and good, and no mortal can accomplish anything extraordinary without the help of the gods.

Zeus became the most important god because he used intelligence as well as power, and he used his intelligence to ensure that he would not be replaced by an even stronger successor. He cared about justice, and he gave the other gods rights and privileges in return for their allegiance to him. But even though Zeus, a male god, is the ruler, he works in conjunction with other gods, including many goddesses, who encourage, discourage, and even direct the actions of the male gods. Sexual attraction allows females to get their way without force, by a deception so potent that Zeus can use it as a means of punishing humankind. In Works and Days, Hesiod explains how Zeus took the "means of life" away from mortals, but another god, Zeus's cousin Prometheus, stole fire from the gods to help humans. In reprisal Zeus ordered the god Hephaestus to create the first woman, who was sent to punish men, not, like Eve in Genesis, to be a helper and a comfort. So Zeus has made life hard, like God in Genesis after Adam and Eve disobeyed him. But, as Hesiod shows in other myths, mortals have made it even harder for themselves by refusing to honor justice.

Hesiod's Theogony begins with an invocation to the Muses of Mount Helicon. He describes how the nine Muses, the daughters of Zeus, wash in one of the nearby springs and then go to dance on the peaks of the mountain. From there, wrapped in thick mist, they walk at night singing of Zeus and Hera of Argos, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon, Themis, Aphrodite, Hebe, Dione, Dawn, the Sun, the Moon, Leto, Iapetus, Cronus, Earth, Oceanus, Night, and all the other immortal gods. After mentioning the names of all these gods Hesiod relates what the Muses once said to him:

They once taught Hesiod beautiful song, as he was pasturing his lambs beneath holy Helicon. First the goddesses, the Muses of Mount Olympus, the daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus, addressed this speech to me: "Shepherds of the wilderness, evil disgraces, mere bellies, we know how to tell many lies that are like the truth, and we know, when we wish, to speak the truth." So spoke the daughters of great Zeus, ready of speech, and they gave me a staff, a branch of live laurel to pluck, a wonderful thing, and they breathed divine song into me, so that I might sing of what will be and what was before, and they told me to sing of the race of blessed ones that live forever, but always to sing first and last of themselves. (Theogony 22-34)

These lines tell us that Hesiod has learned his song from the Muses, but when they gave him the staff that marked him as a poet, they offered him a sharp reminder of the difference between themselves and mortals like himself. He is a miserable creature, a slave to his stomach who lives in ignorance of what is really true and what is not. The Muses know the difference, because they are gods. The branch of laurel wood marks him as someone to whom they have given a precious gift, but it means that his duty as a singer is to praise the gods, beginning and ending with themselves.

So Hesiod stops talking about himself and begins to speak of the Muses, "who with their singing gladden the great mind of Zeus on Olympus, telling of what is and what will be and what was before, each taking up the song" (36-39). The Muses sing and dance, so that the peaks of Olympus resound with their song. They sing of Earth and Heaven and their children, and then of Zeus, the greatest of the gods, and finally of men and of the giants. Then the poet tells the story of the Muses' birth, how Zeus lay with their mother, Memory, for nine nights, and how they now live a short distance from Olympus, with the Graces and Desire. They go to Olympus, singing of how their father overcame his father Cronus, and how he assigned the gods each a place and awarded them honors.

Once he has described the Muses' song, Hesiod gives all their names: Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Urania, and Calliope. Each has powers of her own, but Calliope is the head of them all, because she accompanies kings. A king whom the Muses love can speak sweetly, and his people can see that he rules justly and is able to stop quarrels; they honor him as if he were a god, and he stands out from the others in the assembly: "Such is the sacred gift of the Muses to humankind" (93).

Song is not only a means of conveying information: it gives pleasure and takes away pain (96-103). In that way it is an even greater gift for mortals than it is for the gods, who have no real sorrows to forget, since death and disease cannot affect them. Hesiod now asks the Muses to help him sing about the genealogy of the gods (104-5). He requests that they sing of the gods who were born from Earth and Heaven, and Night, and the children of the Sea, and their children, who divided the wealth and distributed the honors among them, and who first occupied Mount Olympus: "Tell me all this, Muses who dwell in Olympus, from the beginning, and tell me who were the first among the gods" (114-15). Even before Hesiod begins his main narrative he indicates that a central theme of his poem will be the division of power and the distribution of honors among the gods, and that Zeus and his family, the dwellers on Mount Olympus, are the most important gods.

From the Void (Chaos) was born the goddess Earth, "who is the seat, fixed forever, of the gods who hold the peaks of Mount Olympus" (117-18); other gods came from the Void as well, and Earth gave birth to Heaven, who became her husband, "equal to herself [in size], so that he might form a complete boundary for her, and that he might be a seat for the blessed gods, fixed forever" (127-28). Then she bore the Mountains, the Nymphs, and the Sea. With Heaven as father, she gave birth to more children, including Oceanus, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus the crooked-minded, who hated his father, and the one-eyed Cyclopes, who later gave Zeus the thunderbolt and made the lightning for him. Heaven hated all his children, and he put them back again inside their mother so they could not come into the light. "Heaven was pleased with his evil work, but great Earth moaned as she was constrained within, and she thought of a deceitful plan" (158-60).

Earth got Heaven to stop hiding his children inside her by taking the moral initiative against the injustice. She asks her children to avenge the "evil outrage of your father, for he was the first to plan disgraceful deeds" (165-66). All the others are afraid, but Cronus the crooked-minded agrees to help her, echoing her words, "I do not care about our accursed father, for he was the first to plan disgraceful deeds" (171-72). Earth hides Cronus in ambush, then creates and gives him a great sharp sickle of gray stone. When Heaven comes to make love to Earth, Cronus uses the sickle to cut off his father's genitals. The avenging deities called Erinyes are born from the drops of blood, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire, grows out of the genitals themselves, which Cronus throws into the sea. Heaven in his anger calls his children Titans, a name that reflects what has happened: his children "had strained [titainontas] in deception to punish him, for which in time there would be vengeance" (209-10).

Only after cataloguing the children of the other Titan gods, such as the monsters and rivers of the world, does Hesiod relate the story of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, who are the parents of Zeus and his brothers and sisters Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. Cronus swallows Zeus's five siblings as soon as they are born, because he had learned from his parents that it was fated for him, strong as he was, to be overcome by his son (461-65). Rhea, like her mother Earth before her, takes the initiative against her husband to save her children. Before Zeus is born, Rhea asks her parents, Earth and Heaven, to think of a plan to save him and to make Cronus pay for the crime he committed against his father. They tell her to go to Crete when the child is about to be born, so she brings him there at night and hides him in a deep cave, where Earth takes care of him. Rhea then wraps a great stone in swaddling clothes and gives it to Cronus: "He picked it up and put it into his stomach, the wretch; he did not realize in his heart that thereafter instead of the stone his son remained invincible and untroubled; he soon would conquer him and drive him by force from his power and would rule among the immortals" (487-91). Hesiod emphasizes the unthinking and violent behavior of Cronus, which contrasts with how Zeus later uses his intelligence to see to it that he will not be replaced by a successor.

Zeus grows up rapidly, as only a god can. A year after swallowing them, Cronus vomits up his children, tricked by Earth and overpowered by his son Zeus; the stone ends up in Delphi, later a principal shrine of Zeus's son Apollo. Zeus's first act is to release Heaven's sons the Cyclopes, and in gratitude they give him thunder, lightning, and the thunderbolt: "Trusting in these he rules over mortals and immortals" (506). Then he reckons with the Titan gods who have not been loyal to him, first confronting the children of his uncle Iapetus: Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus. Zeus subdues Menoetius with a thunderbolt and sends him into the darkness; he compels Atlas to stand at the ends of the earth holding up the broad sky with his head and hands. He binds Prometheus to a rock and sends an eagle to feed every day on his immortal liver, which always grows back again.

The reason Prometheus must be punished is because he tried to outwit Zeus. The story of Prometheus, curiously, involves mortals, although Hesiod makes no attempt in this poem to explain why they were created or by whom. Mortals and immortals had gathered for a feast at Mekone (later known as Sicyon), in the northern Peloponnesus, many years earlier. Prometheus sacrificed an ox, and after the meat was cooked he tricked Zeus by wrapping the bones in fat so that they, rather than the meat, would appear to be the more appetizing portion. Zeus saw what Prometheus had done, but he took the bones anyway, and since that time people have offered the gods the bones of the animals they sacrifice and kept the meat for themselves. This trick with the bones made Zeus angry, so in requital he took fire away from the mortals; Prometheus then deceived Zeus by stealing fire in a hollow reed and giving it back to them.

So Zeus retaliated against men for the theft of fire. He had his son Hephaestus create a maiden from earth and give her a golden diadem, and caused his daughter Athena to dress her. "When he had made this beautiful evil in return for good, Zeus took her where the other gods and men were" (585-86). Both gods and men were amazed when they saw this "headlong deception, which men cannot manage; from her come generations of women, a great pain for mortal men on earth; women are no help in times of cruel poverty, but only in times of plenty" (589-93). Hesiod compares women to the drones in a hive whom the other bees must work hard to feed; "so Zeus who thunders on high made women as an evil for mortals, companions in harsh suffering" (600-602). In addition, Zeus gave another evil in recompense for good: if a man should escape marriage, he will have no children to look after him when he is old or to inherit his property. A man is fortunate if he gets a sensible wife; "for him bad fights against good throughout his life" (609-10). But a man who gets an evil wife has unending sorrow. "So it is not possible to deceive or evade the mind of Zeus" (613).

The cunning and intelligence of Zeus are made to stand out in this telling of the story, but Hesiod does not explain why Zeus should punish men for the deception Prometheus practiced on him, or why Prometheus is willing to run the risk of incurring the wrath of Zeus by stealing fire back again. Hesiod's audience must have understood that there was some special connection between Prometheus and humanity; according to a later story, it was Prometheus who created man, possibly in the hope of having allies in the struggle against Zeus. In any event, men are punished for the trickery of Prometheus, not for their own transgressions, as was Adam in the Hebrew Bible. God made Eve as a helper and companion for Adam, but Zeus sends woman to increase man's suffering. The best women can offer their husbands only a mixture of good and evil, and the worst can bring only sorrow. Zeus did not create humankind, and he is not primarily concerned with their welfare.


Excerpted from GREEK GODS, HUMAN LIVES by MARY LEFKOWITZ Copyright ©2003 by Mary Lefkowitz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Origins 13
2 Gods Among Mortals 30
3 The Gods in the Iliad 53
4 The Gods in the Odyssey 85
5 The Gods in Drama I: Apollo and Orestes 113
6 The Gods in Drama II: Apollo, Athena, and Others 141
7 The Gods in Hellenistic Poetry 169
8 The Gods in the Aeneid 190
9 Changes 209
Conclusion: The Gods in Our Lives 234
Notes 241
Glossary 251
References 261
Recommendations for Further Reading 267
Index 269
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