Greek Gods, Human Lives


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What We Can Learn from Myths

Mary Lefkowitz

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Why the Greek myths, more than those of any other culture, continue to captivate us

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.

Mary Lefkowitz is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Department of Classical Studies, Wellesley College. She has taught a highly popular introductory Greek mythology course for more than twenty-five years and has written extensively on ancient history and mythology. Among her books is Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, which led to appearances on national radio talk shows and on 60 Minutes as well as to interviews in the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.

A selection of the Eagle Book Club and the Conservative Book Club

Mary Lefkowitz is the recipient of a 2006 National Humanities Medal presented by President George W. Bush

"This thoughtful and illuminating book deals with a very important set of topics in Greek literature and thought: What is the real role of the Gods? How important are they, and how seriously are they meant to be taken? And is it all, in some sense, true?"—Jasper Griffin, Professor of Classical Literature at Oxford University

"With exacting scholarship, expansive scope, and the courage to call a pagan a pagan, the distinguished classicist Mary Lefkowitz displays the lives of the ancient gods in relationship to our own. The ancient gods are always with us, captivating us with their legends, seducing us with their visitations, and forcing us to admit that we are nothing more, and nothing less, than simply human."—Robert Fagles, translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey

“A survey of Greek myth which takes the roles of the gods seriously and sees the myths as, at least in part, offering moral instruction. . . . Lefkowitz’s decision to take the gods seriously and to see the myths as intended to convey serious instruction is highly laudable. . . . On these grounds alone the book is significant. . . . Eminently accessible.”—Bruce Louden, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“[A] fascinating book.”—Thomas R. Martin, Claremont Review of Books

“An intriguing look at our own cultural presuppositions about the nature of God and the world. . . . Lefkowitz’s work is an absorbing study for those who wish to understand the worldview of the ancient Greeks and to meditate on the meaning of their own faith.”—Paula Reimers, Journal of Church and State

“[The] excellent scholar Mary Lefkowitz . . . briskly retells a bunch of classic myths, not only from Homer, Hesiod and Greek tragedy, but also those to do with the voyage of the Argonauts and the adventures of Virgil’s Aeneas. The cold air of reality blowing through these pages is a tonic. . . . A salutary tract for these times.”—Peter Green, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“In a world where no god can be relied on to love us all, to save us from disaster, or to provide justice in our lives, we may ourselves be driven more urgently to provide the gifts of justice, salvation, and love for each other. Such, as this deeply humane book makes clear, is the message that Greek gods brought to human lives. If only we could learn from it.”—Richard Garner, New Criterion
“[A] deeply humane book.”—Richard Garner, The New Criterion

“Both students and teachers of mythology—indeed anyone interested in the role of religion, faith and spirituality in human experience—will find that this chronologically and thematically arranged compendium of plots punctuated by clear critical analysis is a very helpful companion piece to their reading of primary sources.”—Edward Vodoklys, New England Classical Journal

"A great success. . . . Acute and fascinating."—Jasper Griffin, New York Review of Books

"An important contribution." —Charles C. Chiasson, Southern Humanities Review

“A work of significant interest to a wide readership. . . . Placed beside the Book of Job and Plato’s Euthyphro, Lefkowitz’s work nicely summarizes the pinnacle of Western wisdom on the good life and the risks it involves. From advanced high school students to commuting professionals, this book will find eager readers.”—Virginia Quarterly Review

"The passion of the early pages yields to most meticulous scholarship and it is perhaps other scholars who will benefit most from her rigorous analysis. . . . Ultimately though, for the layman the chief reward of this book is the opportunity to read the ancient works anew. Freed from seeing the myths as merely the playground for action heroes, one has the opportunity to contemplate the terrible power of the gods, the meaning of their sometimes complete indifference to the plight of mortals and their fierce sense of justice."—Carol Herman, Washington Times

"This study of the contribution of myth to our understanding of Greek religion . . . offers much to a popular, nonspecialized audience. . . . A readable prose style. The glossary of names and concepts and her extensive paraphrasing of the works she chooses to illustrate a given myth make the book accessible to those who have not read the original sources, even in translation."—Kelly Macfarlane, Classical World



"Lefkowitz not only makes a convincing case that the Greek gods presided over a valid and meaningful religion, but also demonstrates that the myths of that culture were rooted in its religious practice and belief."—Lesley A. Northup, Religious Studies Review

“This book is a real contribution to the field and will make a most useful supplementary text for students’ use. I highly recommend it.”—F. Carter Philips, Classical Studies, Vanderbilt University
ISBN: 9780300107692
Publication Date: May 10, 2005
304 pages, 6 x 9
53 b/w illus.
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