Book Write-Up: The Gods of Olympus, by Barbara Graziosi

Barbara Graziosi.  The Gods of Olympus: A History.  New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.  See here to purchase the book.

Barbara Graziosi is a scholar in classics.  The Gods of Olympus concerns views about the Greek gods throughout history.

Here are some items:

A.  Graziosi’s prose in this book is vivid and compelling.  It was like reading an Elaine Pagels book: I am being provided with important background information for understanding the field, but with a narrative that discusses the motivations of the characters.  An example of this is Graziosi’s profile of the gods and goddesses in the Parthenon frieze (fifth century B.C.E.).  So many classics books are dry, and this book is a refreshing exception.  I thought that the sections about the Renaissance and the twentieth century were a little more elliptical, though.

B.  What interested me about Graziosi’s discussion of the fifth century B.C.E. was the theological struggles and questions that occurred in that time.  Some of them were familiar to me.  I took a class on Pagan Allegory a while back, and I learned about how Xenophanes believed that the gods in Homer behaved in ways that were beneath their divine dignity, and that contributed to the emergence of allegorical interpretations of Homer.  In Graziosi’s book, I learned that others were questioning the existence or behavior of the Greek gods in the fifth century B.C.E., in plays and histories.  Thucydides, for example, questioned the wisdom of relying on gods for assistance, for he talked about a city that was pious and did no wrong yet was conquered, notwithstanding its appeal to the gods.  There were also philosophers who promoted what they considered a higher conception of the divine than what was conveyed in Greek mythology: a pantheistic god, or a single god who was unlike humans.  (Graziosi cautions, however, that what we believe about Xenophanes’ thought is largely from later Christian sources, which portrayed him as a monotheist.)

C.  The contrast between the Greek gods and the biblical God was in my mind as I read this book.  The God of Judaism and Christianity is eternal and created the universe.  Zeus and Hera were not eternal but were the offspring of Kronos and Rhea, who themselves were the offspring of the union of heaven and earth (Ouranos and Gaia).  Hera was jealous of her husband’s multiple affairs and persecuted Zeus’ offspring; the biblical God, by contrast, did not engage in affairs.  While the Greek gods were, on some level, amoral, in apparent contrast to the biblical God, there were gods who valued wisdom (Athena) and truth (Apollo).  A lot of this is basic Greek mythology, but it was good for me to be reminded of these concepts, plus Graziosi built on them.

D.  Occasionally, Graziosi mentioned scholarly shifts in opinion.  Many of the prominent Greek gods were worshiped earlier than scholars previously assumed, in second millennium B.C.E. Mycenaean sites.  Graziosi also notes that the marginality of a god is no indication as to whether the god is early, late, or authentically Greek.  Homer marginalized Dionysus, but Dionysus was worshiped as far back as the second millennium B.C.E.; Homer’s problem with Dionysus was the god’s drunken excesses.  Apollo, by contrast, was a prominent Greek god, yet he was “a rather late addition to the Greek pantheon, had no obvious Indo-European credentials, and was at least partly Semitic in influence, identified early on with the Canaanite god Resheph” (page 20).

E.  Graziosi discusses the Roman embrace of the Greek gods, as Romans incorporated the common mythology in an attempt to enhance and preserve their power and influence.  In a number of cases, the Romans already had equivalents to the Greek gods, though there were differences between them.  The Roman gods were responsible and had the function of helping people in their tasks and responsibilities, whereas the Greeks had a colorful mythology about their gods.  Jupiter was “a rather impersonal protector of the Roman republic,” and the “other major Roman gods—-including Juno, Mars, Minerva, Venus, and Mercury—-were also invested primarily with civic responsibilities and were surrounded by a crowd of minor gods who were even more functional and faceless” (page 129).  The Roman god Mercury was respected, whereas the “Greek god Ares…was a crazed, bloodthirsty character despised even by his father Zeus” (page 133).  The Roman embrace of Greek mythology allowed the Romans to develop a more rounded portrayal of their own gods.  Some gods, such as Apollo, had no Roman equivalent and were solely an importation from the Greeks.

F.  Graziosi discusses the political use of the Greek gods.  Alexander the Great and others  conveyed that they were literally sons of a god—-that a god impregnated their mother.  The view of Euhemerus that the gods were once human beings was used by the Romans to argue that human authorities would later become gods.

G.  Graziosi discusses Christian stances towards the gods.  Constantine became a Christian, yet idols remained in his empire, and Eusebius offers the unbelievable explanation that Constantine allowed them so they would be an object of mockery.  A number of Christians regarded the Greek gods as demons.  Graziosi observes on page 177: “Written sources suggest that as statues deteriorated, the demons inside them underwent a subtle change of personality.  Initially seen as extremely dangerous, they eventually became only mildly sinister, and some of them turned out to be demonically useful.”  Such uses included serving as talismans, “averting minor calamities such as rat infestations or heat waves,” or informing writers of important current events.  This stood out to me.  Playing with the occult can be dangerous, but not everyone who worships pagan gods or participates in the occult becomes afflicted or demon-possessed.  Some do, though.

H.  On pages 151-152, Graziosi narrates the transformation of Cleopatra’s image.  Cleopatra was Greco-Macedonian, a worshiper of the gods of Olympus.  But Octavian, who was in conflict with Cleopatra, claimed that the gods were on his side and portrayed himself as “an upright officer determined to uphold traditional Roman values of duty and moderation.”  To contrast himself with Cleopatra, therefore, he depicted her as a native Egyptian, a worshiper of sensual, grotesque, and animal-like gods.  As Graziosi observes, this image has survived: “Virgil, Shakespeare, Liz Taylor, and countless others through the ages have presented Cleopatra as a ravishing Egyptian beauty, though the portraits made during her lifetime suggest a different picture: in those she looks Roman and quite bland.”

I.  On page 213, Graziosi contrasts medieval Christian art with Renaissance art: “Christian art could be emotionally demanding: it inspired worship, humility, horror, gratitude, sadness, ecstasy.  Beautiful naked nymphs dancing in the woods were much easier, not only on the eye but on the heart as well.  It was all right simply to sit back and enjoy them without asking too many questions.  Those nymphs did not matter much, after all.  Unlike suffering martyrs or the Holy Virgin, they did not even exist.”  I like relaxation, but I also like art that makes me think.  The latter kind of art makes me feel that I am not wasting my time.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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