Gods in the age of Empire

What happens to the gods in the age of empire?

This week, I’ve been reading David Raeburn’s translation of Metamorphoses by Ovid, arguably the most influential ancient myth retelling on modern myth retellings. To clarify, I’m not challenging the view that, overall, Homer remains the most influential ancient poet. But as far as how mythology is understood and retold in our time in Anglophone literature, Ovid seems to have the more immediate impact.

At the two-thirds mark, where this stands out to me especially is in how Ovid depicts the gods as compared to how Homer does.

Homer’s gods often fail to understand mortal experiences. They spin schemes that are beyond mortal knowledge and comprehension and use mortals as instruments in these schemes. Playing counterpoint, though, is their intimate affection for humans, demonstrated in large and small ways. In the Iliad, for example, Zeus ensures that proper funeral rites can be held for his beloved son Sarpedon, at whose death Zeus weeps tears of blood onto the battlefield. Hera sends Athena to prevent Achilles from killing Agamemnon because she loves them both. In the Odyssey, Ino gifts Odysseus her immortal veil for no other reason than that she pities him. Zeus and Athena intervene to prevent Odysseus from becoming monstrous at the end of Odyssey 24. Examples could go on and on and on.

This feels very different from the cold fury of Apollo flaying Marsyas or Athena transforming Arachne into a spider. Or the many violent rapes that make Metamorphoses at times extremely distressing to read.

I have not made a study of Ovid, though, so I have a request and a question. The request is for recommended scholarship on Ovid. The request is for your impressions on points of connection and divergence between how the myths are told in archaic and classical Greek texts vs. in Hellenistic and Roman texts.

2 thoughts on “Gods in the age of Empire

  1. I love your insights here. As a fan but relative outsider of Greek and Roman mythology – a “casual” in fandom lingo, I guess you could say – I tend to see the Greek gods and fascinating but not particularly kind to humans, with some exceptions. But the fact that you’ve showed these nuances in their behavior depending on how these two great storytellers depicted them is so eye-opening. Thanks for giving me a lot to think about – as you so often do!

    I wish I could answer your question about Ovid scholarship, but alas, as a “casual”, I’m afraid I can’t, but I hope you find something good soon!

    1. Thank you, Alysa! Reading Ovid recently really opened my eyes to how differently the archaic and classical Greeks portrayed the gods and heroes. It has kind of sent me down a whole other rabbit hole. I’m happy you find it thought-provoking as well! 🧡

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