The Gods of Olympus: A History, by Barbara Graziosi

Susan Deacy on true immortality

December 12, 2013

Deploying an intriguing combination of old-fashioned and inventive approaches to the classical world and its reception, Barbara Graziosi here breaks new ground in the interpretation of the major Greek gods.

Around the middle of the 20th century, the gods fell out of scholarly fashion, ceding their place to such topics as divination, sacrifice and polis cults – all of which involved them, but without privileging them as subjects of enquiry. Where the deities’ reputation for fascination and charisma endured was in the realm of coffee-table books aimed at audiences beyond the academy, whose authors might likewise come from outside its confines. In recent years, however, the study of the gods has gradually returned from the scholarly margins, as part of the investigation of a range of interacting features of ancient Greek religion, culture and society. Graziosi’s book not only describes the Olympians as the majestic figures beloved of all those coffee-table volumes – Zeus, “cow-eyed” Hera, “earth-shaker” Poseidon, the huntress Artemis, violent Ares and the rest – but at the same time contributes to the quest to determine why and how the gods matter.

Graziosi paints the Olympians as in some respects beautifully easy to understand, and in others elusive of any attempt to be reduced to a particular meaning. She outlines these divergent ways to approach the deities at the book’s outset when she recounts a story told by Cicero about the poet Simonides, who was tasked by the tyrant of Syracuse with answering the question: “What is a god?” At first, Simonides thought the task would be simple enough, but he kept finding it necessary to request more time because the more he thought about the question, the less he found he was able to answer it.

Simplifying the gods and showing the impossibility of such a task is in line with Graziosi’s reading of how they have ever been perceived

In places, Graziosi presents the Olympians in accordance with Simonides’ initial assumption that the gods make sense: as a family of distinct individuals, each with his or her clearly defined roles, powers and characters. Zeus is the patriarch who prefers “the negotiations of family life to the loneliness of absolute power”. His siblings and children respond in various ways to his rule: “Little Hermes”, for example, “made him laugh no matter how disobedient he was.” A glossary towards the end of the book continues this tendency to depict the gods as distinct, clear-cut individuals. Thus, for example, “Aphrodite is the goddess of love and sex, especially sex with women…” This approach matches the array of such definitions in traditional handbooks and dictionaries of mythology, where, for example, Artemis is the virgin huntress and Hephaestus the lame blacksmith, and where the Roman “equivalents” of the Greek gods – Diana, Vulcan et al – are tagged on as though that is all that need be said about them. As the entry on Minerva in a recent mythological dictionary puts it: “see Athena”.

In other respects, however, Graziosi sees the gods as rather more than individualised personages that can be easily described and conveniently pigeonholed. She surveys how Homer and Hesiod – credited by Herodotus with setting out what the gods looked like, what their names were, how they came into being and how each was honoured – were also attesting to the gods’ essential unknowability. The tension between the desire to explain them and the objective of showing them to be intangible was evident even in Augustine’s attempt to provide an “all-encompassing” (and hostile) account in his City of God Against the Pagans. Even then, Graziosi observes, “the gods were never quite tamed into a coherent theory”. From antiquity onwards, individuals have tried to understand the Olympians while becoming frustrated by their elusiveness. Graziosi’s slippage between simplifying the gods and showing the impossibility of such a task is therefore in line with her reading of how the Olympians have ever been perceived.

When I first saw the title of this book, I was intrigued to find out how a scholar might write “A History” of the Olympians and what sort of work would result. In one respect, this is cutting-edge history, which reads Western culture through its unfolding engagement with the Olympian gods and which considers varying ways to read this past as both distant and as something that “we” own today. In another, we are given an old-fashioned style of seeing gods as the “great men” of history: a family of charismatic, clever individuals whose “disturbing behaviour impelled history onwards, into the Renaissance and towards modernity”. These deities are described in terms of various leadership roles, as councillors or as politicians “deeply involved in the developments of the classical period”. Graziosi tempers the “great man” approach with decidedly post 18th-century notions of individuals as victims of history.

In this respect, the gods’ position can be seen to change from leaders to migrants. Having left their homeland, they shifted shape to fit in with their new surroundings: as Alexander the Great’s ancestors and as strolling players in a Renaissance Pope’s military victory parade; as the heavenly bodies studied by Muslim astronomers and as the echoes seen by conquistadors in the faces of Inca gods; and as dramatis personae in the writing of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Nietzsche, Hölderlin and Borges. And yet, all the while, as Graziosi notes, such “far-flung travels did not make [them] forget their Mediterranean roots”.

In showing how the ancients individualised and humanised the Olympians while never being able to know for sure what the gods were, Graziosi sheds light on why the Greek deities retain their mystery and their appeal. This book has appeared at a time when some of those gods are being given new meanings and addressed to new audiences – for example, Lady Gaga opting to present herself as Venus, updating the ancient deity via Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, which itself drew on classical images of Venus and Aphrodite. The resulting package is exotic, foreign, hybridised but also a fresh product of American popular culture.

The Gods of Olympus weighs up how the myths matter to us as they allow us to draw from the past while reflecting the question of who owns that past. This is emphasised above all via the contribution Graziosi makes, at the start of the book, to the debate over the “Elgin Marbles” on display in the British Museum. Her reading is that behind the political controversy over the Parthenon frieze lies a “deeper truth”: namely, that centuries of transformation have made the gods at home in London as well as in Athens – and “in many other places as well”. Such is Graziosi’s take on the nuances of what happens when the ancient world is received – when reception is never passive, and as it adapts, it transforms and updates the past. The Olympians may be the products of a long-gone culture, but they refuse to go away. And, from Graziosi’s 21st-century vantage point, they “seem set for immortality as I write this”.

The author

If a good fairy could give her the gift of a talent she does not now possess, says Barbara Graziosi, it would be “dancing the tango”.

Professor of Classics at Durham University and director for the arts and humanities at its Institute of Advanced Studies, Graziosi was born and raised in Trieste, Italy, “a windy city that faces out on to the sea, arranged like an ancient theatre on the hills around the northern-most gulf of the Adriatic.

“Unsurprisingly,” she adds, “people love sailing there. Everyone has a sailing boat, or knows somebody who does. The Barcolana is the largest amateur sailing regatta in Europe; it is total chaos and fun.”

Asked if she would agree with the view that her native city, which was annexed to Italy only after the First World War, is the least Italian of Italy’s major centres, Graziosi demurs: “I don’t know about that: there are many cities that could claim that trophy. It is a very diverse country! But in Trieste there is certainly the sense that you could hop on a boat and sail south, or east, or west, anywhere in the Mediterranean actually. And coming across from the hills on the Carso in the northeast, you feel the influence of Austrian and Slovenian culture.”

She now lives in Durham, “a very pretty place: the cathedral and castle face each other on top of a hill, and the river winds around them. I live with my husband, colleague and all-round partner at work and play, Johannes Haubold, and our children Laura and Roberto. There’s some pressure to acquire pets, but I’m resisting that: they would rob me of the last traces of my nomadic spirit!”

Among the city’s many charms, Graziosi says, is its friendliness: “I love the way I get called ‘professor’ and ‘pet’ all in the course
of my average day.”

After undertaking her secondary school education at a liceo classico in Trieste and then at the United World College of the Adriatic, she read Greats at the University of Oxford. “I loved my time as an undergraduate: I just could not believe how much effort and care my teachers devoted to my education – I was used to a ‘sink or swim’ situation in Italy. Ewen Bowie was my tutor for ancient Greek literature, and he must have the best teaching record for Classics in Europe. I have to say, though, that when I went to lectures, I had the odd feeling that the Greeks and Romans were becoming quite British, and upper-class.”

In her spare time, she says, “Music is important to me: singing, and also some violin playing (at the moment mostly playing with the children and making sure they practice too!)”

Some day, Graziosi observes, “I’d like to live in a big city: Rome or New York, preferably. But I also have a special fondness for the places where I have lived already, and would not mind returning: Trieste, Oxford, Cambridge. Or perhaps the tiny Mediterranean island where I spent my summers as a child, provided I had access to a sailing dinghy. An Optimist would do; I’m quite small.”

Listen to our podcast interview with Barbara Graziosi

Karen Shook

The Gods of Olympus: A History

By Barbara Graziosi
Profile, 288pp, £18.99
ISBN 9781846683213 and 47654281 (e-book)
Published 14 November 2013

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