The Iliad, one of the oldest Greek narratives to have survived, depicts the gods themselves using mythology to help to understand, or at least accept, their own misfortunes and the limits of their freedom to act. In his greatest show of strength, Diomedes wounds the goddess Aphrodite. With the help of Iris, she makes her way to the left side of the Trojan battlefield, where she finds her brother Ares. She persuades him to lend her his chariot, which is pulled by two horses with gold frontlets. With Iris to handle the reins, she goes to Olympus, where she finds her mother Dione. As an aid to accepting and enduring pain, Dione presents her daughter Aphrodite with nothing less than a miniature mythological digest, a series of tales of gods’ misfortunes, including the suffering of Ares, Hera, and Hades. Then the mother wipes away the ichor (the divine form of blood) from her daughter’s wound; Athena and Hera have some catty fun at Aphrodite's expense; and Zeus advises the goddess of love that she has strayed too far from her proper field of activity.

No wonder nearly 3000 years later we still find these stories charming and fascinating and continually examine them to find what meaning they might hold for us. The approaches to Greek mythology have long been pleasingly various. Some scholars have found in them a message that transcends all cultures and centuries, a vision of human heroism, of quest and achievement. On this view, the Greeks are seen to be very much like ourselves. Yet a rather different approach, prominent in the closing decades of the twentieth century, treats the myths more as Marxists do history or Freudians do dreams. The surface narrative is held suspect. Each element must be examined to find its symbolic and associative meaning. Once the code has been cracked, the message of this story (or dream) can then be interpreted. In this approach, practiced most exhilaratingly by French Structuralist classicists, the Greeks often turn out to be very exotic and different from us in their ways of seeing their world, its elements, and the place of humanity within it. But this method of reading mythology depends on gathering information and references from the far-flung wreckage of classical antiquity. And the dramatic results often come from juxtaposing bits and pieces drawn from the most disparate types of sources, and from authors separated from each other by so much time and space that one might reasonably expect the various bits of code to be less than fully compatible.

Once the code has been cracked, the message of this story (or dream) can then be interpreted.

In Greek Gods, Human Lives, the classics scholar Mary Lefkowitz proposes a more narrowly focused undertaking using an apparently simple method. Maintaining a tight focus, Lefkowitz examines extended works of Greek and Roman literature in which the gods play a significant role. Lefkowitz recounts these narratives in a detailed outline limited to the content and adhering to the structure of the original works in order to retain the authors' original emphasis and meaning. The book proceeds chronologically, beginning with Hesiod, Homer, and the major Homeric Hymns. There are two chapters for Greek tragedy, the main mythological literature to survive from the classical period. These chapters are followed by a treatment of the Gods in Hellenistic poetry (literature that flourished in the world after the death of Alexander the Great but before the Roman empire solidified its hold on the Mediterranean world). Lefkowitz then devotes a chapter to Virgil’s Aeneid. A final chapter briefly considers early critics of traditional Greek religion and myth and looks at alternative views that arose and found voice in late Latin literature. The book concludes with some general reflections.

Lefkowitz finds a consistent picture from the beginnings of Greek literature though the classical period. Powerful and knowledgeable gods act in their own interests and for their own pleasure. The gods' entry into the mortal world brings joy and pain variously to men but without reliable regard for human piety or innocence. The gods' concern for their own honor and for their own quarrels leads to actions that bring pain and death not only to mortals who have offended the gods but to innocents as well.

Yet, as Lefkowitz notes, Greek religion does not present a random universe of chaos and disorder. The Greeks called the universe the kosmos, a word the meaning of which at the very least is "order" and which usually implies a beautiful order. What could be the order of a universe in which innocent mortals are crushed by the actions of proud, lustful, and vengeful gods? Lefkowitz demonstrates that the Greek mythological and literary narratives often show that a form of justice and order ultimately prevails, especially when Zeus, the most powerful of the Greek gods, is interested. But such justice is realized on a divine scale, which means that it may take much more time to evolve than a single mortal life affords. Wrongs done to the innocent or by the guilty and that disrupt the universal order may be righted only generations later. And even then the late redress may entail further tragedy for additional innocents.

In a world of such complex order, knowledge becomes valuable. The more one knows of the ways and desires of these powerful controlling gods, the greater the chance of avoiding or at least surviving catastrophe. So many Greek myths emphasize the limits of human knowledge even as they show mortals struggling to understand their universe. And thus a myth that may well have originated as a tale to explain why men of the tribe do not fight with their male relatives or sleep with their female ones becomes, in Greek hands, Sophocles’ tragedy of Oedipus the king. The world's cleverest solver of riddles is crushed first by his lack of knowledge and then, with that cruel irony so characteristic of tragedy, by blinding illumination.

So many Greek myths emphasize the limits of human knowledge even as they show mortals struggling to understand their universe.

In addition to Lefkowitz’s main emphasis, many smaller points emerge through her outlines of actions, points that will provide insight and provoke thought both for those new to Greek mythology and for more seasoned scholars of the ancient world. Is it pressing the book’s main point too hard to include a summary of the Iliad's catalogue of ships because an opening request to the Muses emphasizes the importance of divine aid to human endeavor? Or does this nod to divinity further justify a list that so often generates impatience? In pointing out Zeus’ part in pushing Achilles’ friend Patroclus beyond his limits and towards his death in battle, is it fair to emphasize (as Lefkowitz does) lines that were questioned in antiquity and are still held suspect by some scholars? Or does the recognition of pervasive Olympian power help to support the relevance of these verses?

Perhaps more interesting and valuable are the insights that arise from Lefkowitz’s insistent emphasis on divine action in contrast with parallel mortal efforts. We see human limits more sharply when Lefkowitz points out how, in the Iliad, Poseidon can so easily and quickly cross immense distances to do his business, whereas it takes the greatest effort and divine help for the mortal Priam to cover the small distance between Troy and Achilles' tent so that he can beg for the corpse of his son Hector. Similarly, although the gods of the Aeneid can and do settle their quarrels instantly when they wish, mortal strife such as that between Aeneas and Turnus entails complications and rancorous hatred that cannot so easily be halted and healed. As Lefkowitz repeatedly points out, the careless ease of the gods’ existence provides a brilliant foil for our darker lives of care and toil.

When we leave the classical Greek world for Hellenistic and Roman society, the literary atmosphere changes, and the nature and place of the gods in that later literary world shifts as well. Lefkowitz emphasizes two noticeable elements: first, the gods become generally more distant; second, when they and their supernatural world erupt into the mortal sphere, the divine manifestations seem increasingly fantastic and unnatural. Here Lefkowitz sees an increasing emphasis on the powerlessness of mortals. Others might see more the result of the bookish artifice and recherch‚ taste of Alexandria and Rome. Lefkowitz notes that Virgil crafts the visit of Venus to her son Aeneas so that it is a recognizable allusion to the goddess's earlier appearance to Aeneas' father as described in the Greek Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.

Of course, such complex and learned allusion need not be incompatible with the poetic exposition of sincere religious belief. If it were, students would not have Paradise Lost to struggle with. Yet Virgil more than once makes learned poetic allusion to the divine world in ways that emphasize its fundamental opaqueness to mortal view. Among the artworks of Carthage described in the Aeneid is a scene from the Iliad in which the Trojan women take robes to a statue of Athena to ask for her help. Homer tells us that the goddess refused the request. But when Virgil rewrites the scene in Italy, he remains silent as to the goddess’s reaction. Similarly, when Zeus weighs the souls of Hector and Achilles in the Iliad, Homer tells us which way those scales fall; Virgil rewrites the scene for Aeneas and Turnus but pointedly does not report how fate moves the scales. At the very least, knowledge and understanding of the gods are even more difficult to find in Virgil's world than they were in that of classical Greek literature. Some might suspect some deeper skepticism on Virgil’s part.

But when Virgil rewrites the scene in Italy, he remains silent as to the goddess’s reaction.

As Lefkowitz notes, the loose and shifting world of Ovil’s Metamorphoses is not amenable to a sense of overall justice or order, even on a divine scale. Ovil’s kaleidoscopic narrative produces a dazzling sequence of images formed from polished bits of mythic material. But there is no larger divine purpose or pattern to connect one design to another. Here we have arrived in a world truly alien to that of Homer and the Greeks in which the universe could be defined as kosmos, a thing of order and beauty, even if its aesthetic structure is not always to be discerned or appreciated on a human scale.

Lefkowitz proposes that the traditional mythology of the Greeks was abandoned not because its monsters and miracles were incredible but rather because it was all too uncomfortably realistic. It is not easy to live in a world full of powerful forces that are difficult to understand and that provide no assurance that the pious and good will be rewarded, where bad and good mortals alike are making their way towards inevitable death without the hope of eternal bliss awaiting them.

It is perhaps surprising that the ancient vision Lefkowitz describes is not entirely grim. Her analysis brings out the beauty and advantage that can derive from such a harsh view of the gods and their world. The divine Dione may comfort her daughter Aphrodite and tenderly wipe the ichor from her wound, but the Greek gods are unlikely to provide such tenderness to mortals. Yet just such a mythology shows off human affection to greater advantage. When Hector explains to his wife, Andromache, why he must go into battle, their frightened child can make his parents laugh even as they ache. After Hector expresses his love so eloquently, Andromache sheds a huge tear as she keeps turning back to see her husband recede into the distance where his death awaits. Love and loss—loss such as only mortals can feel—are inextricably bound together. Such love draws Odysseus away from a goddess and back to Penelope. In a world where no god can be relied on to love us all, to save us from disaster, or to provide justice in our lives, we may ourselves be driven more urgently to provide the gifts of justice, salvation, and love for each other.

Such, as this deeply humane book makes clear, is the message that Greek gods brought to human lives. If only we could learn from it.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 5, on page 66
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