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Greek Gods, Human Lives

What We Can Learn from Myths


Mary Lefkowitz (View Bio)
Hardcover: Yale University Press, 2003.

Greek Gods, Human Lives

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.

"A great success.... Acute and fascinating. " — The New York Review of Books

"Lefkowitz is a super-competent, sometimes controversial and always engaging professional classicist…. 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. " — The Washington Post

"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…. 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.’ " — Publishers Weekly

"Did the ancient Greeks and Romans take their gods seriously? They certainly did, argues Lefkowitz, 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. " — Library Journal

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