With a few cosmetic adjustments, the ancient Greek gods could almost be mistaken for an archetypal family from a modern American television show. There's the strong but flawed patriarch (Zeus), the nagging wife (Hera), a mischievous, lovable child (Hermes), and two neatly contrasting pairs of older children. The intelligent, chaste Athena is balanced by the wild and promiscuous Aphrodite, while the rowdy and troublemaking Ares has a counterpart in the sensitive, musical Apollo. Later seasons of the show could feature walk-on spots by an uncle with anger problems (Poseidon) and a mystic, wine-loving son (Dionysus).
Scratch the surface, however, and things become somewhat stranger. Not only do most members of the Olympian family enjoy the aromas of sacrificed animals, they also practice incest (Hera and Zeus are siblings), commit rape and flagrant adultery, and enjoy watching humans suffer and die in their spare time.
The idea of the ancient Greek gods captivating American television audiences might seem far-fetched, but the Olympians have a knack for geographical migration and cultural transformation. Alexander the Great brought the Greek gods as far as India, establishing an altar to the twelve deities in what is now Eastern Punjab. They also survived relocations to ancient Rome, medieval and Renaissance Europe, and even the Arab world. The many wanderings and permutations of the Olympian deities is the subject of The Gods of Olympus: A History, a lively new book by the classicist Barbara Graziosi.
The poetry of Homer and Hesiod offers the richest description of the Greek gods; the historian Herodotus wrote that this pair of poets "first revealed to the Greeks how the gods were born, what they were called...and how they looked." But ancient sculptors and painters also imagined the details of their appearance, often with incredibly vivid results. Ancient visitors to Olympia imagined that the massive gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus would burst through the temple’s roof if he ever rose from his seated position. In Classical Athens, the Parthenon’s frieze showed the twelve Olympians clothed in a style strikingly similar to the dress of Athenian aristocrats; their toned muscles even suggest they may have spent some time in the local gymnasia.
That such familiar human features were ascribed to gods already stirred debate in antiquity. The philosopher Xenophanes argued that images of the gods were subject to cultural variation: Thracians would think the gods were blue-eyed and red haired, while Ethiopians would picture the gods as black. If the gods’ appearance seemed suspiciously rooted in human models and cultures, their behavior was also disturbingly similar to some of humans’ least laudable tendencies. If the poets could be trusted, then the gods lied, laughed at the disabled, committed adultery, feuded, bickered, and stole.
Popular belief in the gods survived this scrutiny, but intellectuals often dismissed the memorable misbehavior described in Homer and Hesiod as poetic license or allegory. Other philosophers doubted the gods even more. Democritus thought lightning was not something hurled by an angry Zeus but just the physical outcome of atoms rubbing together. Heraclitus seemed to deny that the gods could intervene in the world at all. According to him, praying to statues of the gods was about as useful as “holding conversations with houses.”
However astute these objections, the human features of the gods were precisely what made them so appealing. Alexander the Great, for instance, seemed to see the gods as relatives and rivals. He did little to discourage a widespread belief that he was the son of Zeus, and while campaigning near the lower Himalayas, he insisted on scaling a peak he thought Hercules had once climbed. If another son of Zeus could do it, so could he.
Alexander inaugurated a venerable tradition of human rulers claiming close affinity with Greek divinities and their Roman counterparts. The politician Pompey obtained permission from the Roman Senate to dress as Jupiter whenever he went to the Circus Maximus. His rival Julius Caesar, who claimed descent from the goddess Venus, was actually granted the status of a god by public decree in 42 BCE.
The tendency of human rulers to assume god-like status was balanced by a converse trend among intellectuals. The gods, some argued, had originally been humans whose dastardly exploits gradually became exaggerated to cosmic proportions. If some saw humans as gods, others perceived the gods as mere memories of wicked humans.
When the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early fourth century CE, the Olympian gods dwelled in temples across the Mediterranean and North Africa. By Late Antiquity, however, Christian preachers and believers were casting the demons of the pagan gods from these cult statues. The gods often survived only as plundered loot rescued by aesthetes who wanted to save the beautiful statues from destruction.
Such an aesthetic approach to the Olympians would flourish fully in Renaissance Europe. But the gods had to survive the intervening centuries in various disguises. A tenth-century Persian astronomer drew Heracles with a turban and scimitar. In a statue in Florence, Jupiter assumed the garb of a Christian monk, holding a chalice and crucifix. Zeus, naked in ancient depictions, must have been surprised by his latest paraphernalia.
Graziosi narrates the many metamorphoses of the Greek gods with humor and erudition. It would have been enjoyable had she lingered longer on some of the modern incarnations of the ancient gods, but the book is an engaging introduction to a fascinating topic.
Perhaps the best reminder of the lasting influence of the Greek gods is the fact that the planets of our solar system bear their Romanized names. Even in an astral context, a trace of their original natures remains. Our word “planet” comes from an ancient Greek verb that means “to wander.”
Nick Romeo is a Monitor contributor.