Barbara Graziosi's The Gods of Olympus centres the twelve Olympian gods, describing their changing forms and depictions, attributes and stories. She takes a chronological approach, ending with the Renaissance: within each of six broad periods there are three chapters on different themes, and within those she focuses on a few key literary or artistic works.
Helen Morales' Very Short Introduction emphasises the continual reworking and reuse of mythology, seen as a process rather than a product, with a particular focus on the Roman adaptation of Greek mythology and on uses of classical mythology in the twentieth century. Her seven thematic chapters each probe a few topics.
Both works are scholarly, with references as well as more readable "further reading" suggestions, but they are also engaged and energetic, and they provide enough context to be accessible to readers without a background in classical literature or ancient history — or, for that matter, the history of art or religion. Both include a small but useful selection of black and white halftones.
Beginning with archaic Greece, Graziosi looks at the role of the gods in the creation of a unified Greek identity, their representations in the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and early critical views.
"The Power of Xenophanes's skepticism was such that already during his lifetime, in the sixth century BC, Theagenes of Rhegium issued a defense of the Homeric gods aimed precisely at protecting them from charges of anthropomorphism and immorality."
In the classical period she focuses on Athens, looking at artistic representations, questioning of the gods and its interaction with politics (notably in the death of Socrates), and Plato's simultaneous use of myth and criticism of epic poetry.
"Pericles himself never once mentioned the Olympians in his funeral orations. The fallen Athenians had died on the battlefield not in order to obey the will of the gods, but because they wanted to impose their own will on other Greeks. Likewise, political and legal speeches rarely appealed to the gods."
Alexander the Great set a precedent by claiming divinity himself; the Hellenistic period also saw the rise of astrology and identification of the gods with planets. Graziosi looks here at Euhemerus' Sacred Register, "a fascinating mix of Greek, Near Eastern, and Egyptian mythologies", and the sophisticated literary and philosophical world of Alexandria under the Ptolemies.
"Far from being simply nostalgic, the Alexandrians presented themselves as the sophisticated culmination of their complex Greek heritage. They collected all previous cults and myths and created a new, highly learned, and inventive synthesis. Whether this synthesis was addressed primarily to the Greek elites or had a wider appeal is difficult to establish."
The Roman adoption and adaptation of Greek gods was part of a broader cultural process, but Graziosi emphasizes its political uses: by Ennius as the personal poet of general Fulvius Nobilior; by Caesar, Pompey and Cicero attempting to validate their political agendas; and by Virgil and Ovid under Augustus.
"Today, we are used to thinking that the Greeks and Romans worshipped the same deities... But matching them up was not so simple. Apollo had to be imported wholesale from Greece. ... The Greek god Ares was a crazed, bloodthirsty character despised even by his father, Zeus; the Roman Mars, by contrast, was a central and highly respected deity in the Roman pantheon."
Christianity and Islam ended pagan religion, but stories about and in many cases physical representations of the Olympian gods persisted. Here Graziosi considers the New Testament story where Paul and Barnabas perform a miracle only to have the locals identify them with Zeus and Hermes, the treatment of Olympian statuary, and how Islamic scholars dealt with the gods in their reading of Homer, Aristotle, and Ptolemy.
"The gods as demons, as real people, as products of the imagination: These different theories were not entirely compatible, of course, but all had their roots in antiquity."
In the Renaissance, Graziosi looks at Petrarch's Africa, Malatesta of Rimini and his temple, and the role of the classical gods in the interpretation of the New World and its religions:
"To this day, many historians take at face value early Spanish reports that the Aztecs worshipped a pantheon of twelve deities, without realizing that these are in fact the Olympians in disguise."
There is no attempt to cover more recent representations and uses of the Olympian gods.
Morales begins with the myth of Europa and her abduction by Zeus as a bull, looking at its use in modern Greek and European propaganda, on Greek euro coins and in the children's cartoon series "Captain Euro", at its earliest traces in Homer, and at the Roman emphasis on the origins of "Europe".
"The myth (lore) of Europa may have remained largely the same from archaic Greece to Augustan Rome, and the iconography of her riding the bull showed remarkable constancy, but the myth (ideology) of Europa changed at different periods for different political and cultural ends."
To give some feel for the complexities of origins and reuses, she touches briefly on the debate sparked by Bernal's Black Athena and on the use of classical mythology by modern Arabic poets.
Greek mythology was a key part of an elite Roman education and mythographers produced handbooks to help students out, but there were also vocal critics of myth in education. Morales gives us a tour of Rome's Palatine Hill and its temples. In the last century, she touches on the position of myths in places such as the English National Curriculum and compares two very different political uses of the story of Prometheus, in the statue by Paul Manship at the Rockefeller Centre and in the film Prometheus by Tony Harrison.
In Greek mythology, Marysas was one of the many mortals who challenged the gods and came off the worse, but the Romans made him an exemplar of liberation from patrician rule. Two millennia later, the 1930s photographer Madame Yevonde represented British notables as goddesses, part of a long history of such representations, such as the bust of the Roman emperor Commodus as Hercules. And Morales asks why Theseus was a hero and Lycurgus not:
"Heroes were heroes because they captured the Zeitgeist and embodied the fantasies of the people. The heroes of classical mythology were figures from the past. But what made them heroes, their mythism, if you like, always came from their importance to the present."
Morales probes the ideological contrasting of mythos with logos: "Before Plato, there's little evidence that muthos had any consistently negative connotations". And she explores the broader interaction of myth with philosophy, in Plato and Aristotle and Heraclitus and the Stoics, and with early and medieval Christianity.
"What is impressive about the Ovid Moralisé, is that, in combining poetry with commentary, and in mulling over a variety of interpretations of each story, it encourages its reader to engage with the myth on an intellectual as well as an aesthetic level. Christian ideology is promoted, but self-consciously so, and the malleability of mythic lore and the possibilities of alternative readings are also recognized."
Looking at psychoanalysis and Freud's obsession with the Oedipus myth, Morales speculates: "had Freud taken Antigone, rather than Oedipus, as his point of departure, psychoanalysis might have paid more attention to understanding the developing female psyche". And things would have been different if he had taken a Roman myth (the story of Cupid and Psyche, say) or a non-classical one.
"Whereas for Freud, myth is largely a diagnostic tool, for Jung it is largely a therapeutic one. People who, consciously or unconsciously, are following or not following the archetypes within them can be helped back on the right path by analysing their dreams and their relation to myths."
"The sheer amount of rape in classical myth is staggering" and, though modern adaptations tend to omit or romanticize it, classical myths remain "powerful agents of misogyny". Morales also considers various approaches to queering them, from the Roman fascination with Ganymede to Tiepolo's painting The Death of Hyacinth and Xena: Warrior Princess. And she touches on some feminist approaches to myth-making, by Christine de Pizan, Carol Ann Duffy, and others.
A final chapter looks at the New Age movement's revival of classical mythology. Here Morales touches on astrology but gives a potted history of modern goddess worship, touching on Dianic Wicca and the Fellowship of Isis, Marija Gimbutas (The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe) and Robert Graves (The White Goddess) and the goddess art movement. Here, as in several other places, she can't avoid passing judgement:
"New Age spirituality purports to promote change – its mantra is 'transformation' – but, in reality, it endorses the status quo. ... New Agers use classical myth to ensure that the spirit is soothed, the horoscope reassuring, and the house clean, but the world stays the same."
Classical mythology has been reworked and reused in a bewildering variety of ways. Graziosi and Morales both offer excellent guided tours of highlights from this history and, since there's almost no overlap between their offerings, I recommend reading both of them. Even those familiar with classical mythology will find much that is new.
- External links:
The Gods of Olympus: A History
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Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction
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