Divine Might: Goddesses in Greek Myth

Image of Divine Might: Goddesses in Greek Myth
Release Date: 
January 2, 2024
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by: 

In her introduction to Divine Might: Goddesses in Greek Myth, Nathalie Haynes reflects on the view explored in her publication, that we humans create gods in our own image (rather than the alternative view of God making us in His).

She also poses the question which she herself is frequently asked, “Why—if we create gods in our own image—didn’t the Greeks design nicer ones?” Her preliminary answer is “that the Greek gods are capricious and destructive because they are connected with the natural world which can often be the same . . .” Which is to say that she believes that the often violent and irrational behavior of their gods helped the Greeks make sense of and justify the vicissitudes they experienced in their natural world.

When Haynes talks about “gods” here she also, of course, means “goddesses,” which are the focus of her eight chapters (The Muses, Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Hestia, Athene, and The Furies), who are presented in both their Greek and Roman incarnations through tragedies, poetry, and other artefacts such as statues, frescoes and vases.

Periodically Haynes tries to make the basic feminist argument that as her goddesses are created by male authors, they reflect the patriarchal and misogynistic values of Greek and later Roman, society. She extends this comparison to our new set of “gods” Superman, Wonder Woman, James Bond etc, seeing as a distinctive gender difference that female characters must always have the “allure of sexiness.” But isn’t James Bond supposed to be sexy, too?

This simple feminist argument does not always hold true for her material as the gods and goddesses as gloriously depicted here are often nasty, discriminatory, and vengeful in similar ways, and both gods and goddesses can (conversely and counterintuitively) also sometimes demonstrate what we would like to think of as warm human behavior.

In fairness, Haynes often acknowledges the poor fit between her rich material and any basic feminist rationale. In closing her chapter on Artemis for example, she writes, “Nothing has perplexed me more in exploring Artemis worship across the Ancient Greek world than the apparent contradiction between her connection to animals and girls and her remorseless taking of their lives. . . . No matter how many different aspects of Artemis we examine . . . She is a true predator . . .”

And in one of her most detailed chapters, dedicated to the goddess Athene, whom she often names as her favorite goddess, she has to admit that “I can’t defend her against charges of pettiness and gendered favouritism.”

It goes without saying that Haynes has an unparalleled grasp of this complex material, and the evolution and elaboration of her main characters in the hands of successive Greek and Roman authors, and as well as extensions to their modern equivalent (Katniss Everdeen channelling Artemis?), or sometimes a failure to find that equivalent: Can we call Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes’ Muse as they inspired each other and both were equally celebrated?

Readers with some familiarity with Greek and Roman literature will probably enjoy Haynes’ witty reflections, explorations, and explanations the most. Relative neophytes would probably benefit from some discrete indexing or background notes, bringing together for example the names and dates of the Greek and Roman authors whose major works are discussed here; the Greek and Roman alternative names for goddesses (Aphrodite/Venus; Hera/Juno; Demeter/Ceres; Artemis/Diana, etc.) and others, which are often used as simultaneous alternatives in the text.

And while each chapter is fronted by an appropriate illustration of the relevant goddess, Haynes’ very vivid descriptions of sculptures, frescoes, vases and paintings (including Renaissance paintings by Bernini, for example) cry out for some additional visuals.