A review of Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths, by Mary Lefkowitz

In this fascinating book, Mary Lefkowitz, a distinguished classical scholar renowned for her scrupulous analysis of complex questions in ancient Greek literature and history, takes ancient Greek religion seriously as an attempt to understand the role divinity plays in human life. 

As her title suggests, she takes an innovative tack by focusing on mythical stories about the interactions of individual gods with human beings; it is not her goal to survey the beliefs, rituals, and practices of traditional Greek religion. After an introduction discussing conventional approaches to Greek mythology, nine chapters summarize the versions of famous myths told in selected works of literature spanning some nine hundred years from Hesiod and Homer to Apuleius; her concluding chapter concerns "the gods in our lives." She describes the gods' interactions with mortals in each work of literature one by one, instead of, as mythology textbooks often do, compiling overviews of the gods' roles that amount to artificial pastiches. Black-and-white illustrations of the myths depicted on Greek vases complement the text.

Her conclusions are somber: "The gods of traditional Greek and Roman religion do not exist for the benefit of humankind, and they do not always take an interest in what mortals are doing. The gods do not always agree with one another about what should happen in the future, and innocent human beings who are caught up in the conflict suffer or die and are not always avenged. Justice is done in the long run, but often not to the satisfaction of the mortals who are directly involved. It is a religion from which it is possible to derive little comfort, other than the satisfaction that comes from understanding what it is to be human…. [T]he myths, as the ancient authors relate them, do not offer hope so much as a means of understanding…."

She perceptively avoids the misconception that Greco-Roman paganism died out because it didn't engage its adherents emotionally or that it was impersonal and therefore unsatisfying to people as individuals. Instead, she argues that other faiths replaced it because they offered believers a security that it did not: they guaranteed protection and "a promise of redemption and reward both in this life and after death," provided by a beneficent God who, unlike Zeus or Jupiter, was never the source of undeserved evil or harm to innocent human beings.

The disappearance of Western paganism does not mean, however, that its history is only an antiquarian curiosity or merely a reminder that a dominant religion can die out even after centuries of cultural success. Since her central theme is "the attempt of mortal beings to understand and come to terms with forces beyond their control," studying the Greek gods remains useful, she believes, because, 


[u]nlike some modern writers, I am also going to suggest that there is much we still can learn from the religion depicted in the myths, because it describes the world as it is, not as we would like it to be…. [I]ts main advantage is that it describes mortal life as it really is, fragile, threatened, uncertain, and never consistently happy. The myths portray a world where deities exist primarily to please themselves, not to please or serve humanity.

The ultimate lesson taught by the Greek gods, she therefore concludes, is that human beings must turn to each other, not to divinity, to find consolation and comfort in this harsh universe.

Greek myths do seek to reveal ultimate truths about the world of gods and mortals, but it seems inaccurate to imply that deities' not existing to please or serve humanity is a concept distinctive to ancient Greek religion. Does any religion teach that they do? Furthermore, other religions, including modern ones, also stress the fragility and sadness of human life. Her humanistic conclusion seems to imply, at least to modern intellectuals, a rejection of religion as anything other than a kind of colorful natural history or philosophy.

For the ancients, the implications were different, as Professor Lefkowitz well says: "the myths encourage a deep piety, along with a determination to seek in any venture the acquiescence and support of the gods." This is a crucial point: pagan piety was the overwhelming norm in the ancient world, while atheism was unusual. This difference between then and now (at least in the United States and Western Europe) is even more striking than her account suggests, because traditional Greek religion offered its adherents even less security than she grants it. That is, she repeatedly states that the Greek gods, or at least Zeus, their overpowering leader, saw to it that justice was done among human beings here on earth in the long run. She makes an excellent point by beginning her chapters with the works of Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, because Hesiod does claim that Zeus, despite his purposely making life desperately hard for human beings, also cares about justice. Hesiod's motive, however, is to try to persuade his unjust brother to behave morally; he offers no mythical examples of Zeus interacting with people to support his claim.

* * *

As the carefully selected summaries of myths in the following chapters reveal, Hesiod's claim gets precious little re-enforcement from others' stories about the gods. Consider above all the work of literature most crucial to the case for the gods' alleged concern for justice—Homer's Iliad. Prof. Lefkowitz rightly ranks it as "[t]he most important Greek religious text." In her view, it "shows that Zeus, despite playing favorites and following his own timetable, sees that justice is done in the end." This is a difficult claim to substantiate. Zeus speaks in his own voice nearly forty times in the Iliad; not once does he mention justice or any concern for it. Instead, he repeatedly insists that his "will" must be done, at least in so far as it is compatible with "fate." He never asserts or even implies any connection between his will and justice, unless we want to equate justice with revenge. Moreover, Zeus imposes his will regardless of how much suffering, pain, and death it imposes on human beings.

Only one passage in the Iliad mentions a connection between Zeus and justice, and it's not part of the main narrative. In fact, it's a simile, which compares the breakneck pace of Hector's chariot horses to the rushing torrent produced by a violent rainstorm at harvest time. The simile makes Zeus the cause of the storm, "when in resentment he grows angry against men who by violence give crooked judgments in the place of assembly and drive justice out, regarding not the vengeance of the gods…and the tilled fields of men are wasted" (Book 16.386-392). So odd is the passage in the context of the Iliad that some scholars have regarded it as a later insertion into the text. In any case, the gods and heroes elsewhere in the Iliad never even hint that they have heard this idea, nor do they make any decisions based on it. Surely it is significant that Zeus' direct speeches are so blatantly unconcerned with justice or indeed any other moral notions. According to his own words, he is motivated by desire, anger, pride, pity, and revenge. He keeps his promises to other gods whom he currently favors, but this hardly constitutes an abstract principle of justice. Among the gods, emotions rule, and, among them, desire reigns supreme. Aphrodite may be a cowardly goddess, as the Iliad says, but the power she represents rules all the gods, and therefore all mortals as well. If there is justice from the Iliad's gods, it is revenge fueled by desire.

The picture is just as bleak, so far as divine justice is concerned, in the later works that Lefkowitz discusses. She argues that Athenian tragedy also shows the gods concerned with justice; and Athena's intervention to establish courts at Athens in Aeschylus's Oresteia might seem to support her position. But in fact that story makes justice in everyday human life the province of men, not gods. She herself asks the question that shows how difficult it is to discover in Greek tragedy reassuring traces of divine concern for justice in a cosmic sense: 

Why should Oedipus, who had committed no crime, be punished in this way? [That is, by having to kill his father and marry his mother, unknowingly, until the awful truth was revealed through disaster striking Thebes, the city he ruled, whereupon he became a blind and penniless exile alienated from his sons.] The answer is that he was the victim of a family curse, like Orestes, and that if justice is to be accomplished in the long run, the innocent must suffer. This form of justice offers little comfort to Oedipus, or to the chorus, or indeed to any mortal, unless it be the cold comfort that comes from understanding.

I don't see how Oedipus' fate as related by Sophocles can be regarded as justice that yields comfort of any temperature. This seems clear from Sophocles' play Oedipus at Colonus, which Lefkowitz does not discuss. In this play, whose action takes place following that of Oedpius Tyrannus, the exiled Oedipus is in some sense compensated for his sufferings by being honored at Athens with a religious cult after his death. Before dying, however, he exacts a bitter retribution on his own sons, whom he blames for rejecting him: he curses them to suffer death in a civil war. I would call this resolution to Oedipus' history a joyless revenge, rather than justice from the gods.

Or consider Lefkowitz's observations on Greek poetry of the Hellenistic period (the era after Alexander the Great): "even though the gods in the Argonautica [Voyage of the Argonauts, written by Apollonius of Rhodes] are sometimes less interested in justice than mortals would like them to be, they remain powerful and terrifying nonetheless…. Traditional religion and the myths connected with it offer no means of resolving the question of why the good must suffer. It is simply assumed that human beings will suffer, and that only a few will receive compensation or be given relief during their lifetimes. Those who suffer will probably no longer be alive when justice is finally done and the wrongs that they suffered are at long last righted." Again, I question whether "righted" is the correct term; the stories that the poets tell seem to me to show that "revenged" would be more accurate.

The solitary passage in the Iliad linking Zeus and justice echoes sentiments expressed by Hesiod; the passage's emphasis on agriculture and assemblies rendering justice sounds much more like the hardscrabble world of Hesiod's farmers or the nascent polis depicted on Achilles' shield in the Iliad than the world of the heroes over whom Homer's Zeus sheds his tears of blood. The hope of the downtrodden—"The gods will someday give us, or our children, or our grandchildren, or somebody, justice here on earth because our mortal lords never will!"—rarely if ever reappears in the post-Hesiodic selections that Lefkowitz discusses. They instead make justice the work of men.

* * *

I suggest that traditional Greek religion more commonly connected divinity with justice from the same eternal perspective as do religions more familiar to us: by postulating divine judgment after death, with punishment or reward conferred on the basis of how the individual had lived his or her life on earth. Scholars often overlook this aspect of traditional Greek religion because its notion of salvation or damnation after death was certainly far less well-developed than Christianity's or Islam's, but the concept did exist, as we can tell, for example, from the evidence of so-called mystery cults, as well as from stories told by Plato (neither of which Prof. Lefkowitz discusses in detail). 

Plato's stories prepared Greeks for new religious ideas from the eastern Mediterranean and Near East that they encountered following Alexander the Great's conquests. Christianity belonged to that milieu, but it wasn't the first or only religion offering a more developed concept of salvation. The cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, for example, attracted many Greek and Roman worshippers. Isis comes into Lefkowitz's book briefly because she ends her final chapter on literature by discussing the famous ribald novel The Golden Ass (also known as Metamorphoses) by the Roman author Apuleius. The novel's ending turns its story of magic, crime, cruelty, and illicit sex on its head by having Isis save the feckless hero, by no merit of his own, from imprisonment in the body of a donkey and complete moral degradation and public humiliation. He is physically and spiritually transformed by the goddess's kindly grace.

Lefkowitz believes that Apuleius meant his readers to see this salvation as an illusion rather than a reality. What guarantee, she asks, could other worshippers of Isis have that they would obtain the same salvific favor from the goddess? I would answer that Isis, unlike the traditional gods, made an explicit contract with her followers. If they lived morally pure and worshipful lives, then they could depend on her protection and beneficence because she was the creator, among many other things important to human life, of justice, meaning justice in a sense that we would recognize today and not just as revenge. Apuleius in his novel refers to this agreement between the deity and her worshippers, which is amply documented by non-literary sources. It is perhaps one of the limitations of considering only literature in thinking about the ancient gods that this approach omits the information of archaeology, inscriptions, art, and coins. These sources show that many ancient people did not believe that the salvation, promised by Isis in return for living a righteous life, was an illusion.

Professor Lefkowitz is of course correct that this is not the story told by the sources she so adroitly presents, just as she is insightful in stressing that the stories of the Greek gods teach the harsh lesson that mortals cannot in the end control what happens to them. What I find unpersuasive is her argument that her selections show the immortal gods—as opposed to mortals—being concerned with justice for human beings on this earth. That the adherents of traditional Greek religion remained pious despite their gods' unconcern for earthly justice seems to me something worth exploring for the lessons this commitment might teach us.