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The Gods of Olympus: A History, by Barbara Graziosi, Profile, RRP£18.99, 304 pages
The Gods of Olympus is not a simple retelling of Greek myth. There are already plenty of those to choose from; Robert Graves’s compendious account (with his own wayward analyses of origin and meaning) will give you the bare stories and their many variants. What Barbara Graziosi, a professor of classics at Durham university, aims to explain is the persistence of the Greek gods themselves. How did they manage to outlast their acolytes?
It’s a story that requires us to see many things afresh. Millennia after their birth, the Olympian gods are so potent still in art and culture that it takes an effort to realise that their survival wasn’t inevitable. The first clue is that, from the beginning, they were seen as more than local powers. This was implicit in the Theogony, composed around 700BC. “Hesiod was not trying to create a parochial little myth,” Graziosi writes. “His gods were universal powers and insights about them could be gathered far and wide.”
Inspired by Hesiod and Homer, the Greek philosophers and playwrights grappled with concepts of divinity. Were the gods real, or historical personages who had died in the normal way? Were they elements? Could the old stories hold clues to the nature of the material world? Euripides poked fun at literal belief with his riddling plots; but too much questioning and joking could be dangerous, as the trial of Socrates proved. He was accused not just of corrupting the youth of Athens but of “introducing new gods”.
With Rome’s conquest of the Hellenic world came a new era for the Greek gods, as they found themselves incorporated into the expanding republic’s religious life. This was by no means a straightforward process. Romans had what Graziosi describes as a “bureaucratic” relationship with their deities and expected them to be civic-minded – something that did not come naturally to the rambunctious Olympians. Dionysus, known in Rome as Bacchus, was deemed particularly subversive and found his cult brutally suppressed by the Senate in 186BC.
The most fascinating, because lesser-known, aspect of Graziosi’s tale is the part where she traces the gods’ progress through the centuries that followed the collapse of the Roman empire, when they acquired scimitars and turbans to appeal to Muslims and frequently appeared in Christian or knightly garb – Venus in a tall pointy hat, Jupiter in a suit of armour. On a church in Florence, Jupiter even appears as a tubby monk.
As the heavens opened up to Arab scholars, the Olympians scored another coup: they became planets. They “found ever more creative ways to exert their power in the Middle Ages – and eventually, after a long identity crisis, they emerged victorious,” Graziosi says cutely. She skilfully traces the long, complex interaction between the gods and the Christian faith.
Some of her assertions seem obvious – that in the Middle Ages “people did not think of themselves as inhabiting a dark and oppressive period between antiquity and the Renaissance”, for example – but on the whole she avoids the too-easy connections and elisions so frequently made in cultural history.
We assume the Olympians ruled over the Renaissance, with Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as its core image, though Graziosi quotes another scholar to the effect that in any one year, only about 2 per cent of datable paintings were devoted to mythological themes. Even so, it’s these works, the Bacchuses and Ariadnes, the Dianas with their Actaeons, that seem most alive to us now. They tend to go quiet over Christmas; but the 12 Olympians are far from dead.