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Greek Gods, Human Lives


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About the Author

Mary Lefkowitz is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Department of Classical Studies, Wellesley College. Among her books is Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History.


Did the ancient Greeks and Romans take their gods seriously? They certainly did, argues Lefkowitz (classical studies, Wellesley Coll.), 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.-T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

"direct, lucid... informative and fluently readable" Stephen Halliwell, Times Literary Supplement; "A great success... Acute and fascinating." Jasper Griffin, New York Review of Books; "The excellent scholar Mary Lefkowitz briskly retells some of the 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." Peter Green, Los Angeles Times Book Review; "From a super-competent, sometimes controversial, and always engaging professional classicist, a fascinating study." Tracy Lee Simmons, 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. (Unfortunately, readers not already familiar with Greek literature may struggle to keep up.) 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." (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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