WELLESLEY, Mass. -- Mary R. Lefkowitz, professor of classical
studies at Wellesley College, says we can learn much about
what it means to be human by studying the myths of the
ancient Greeks. Her new book, Greek Gods, Human Lives:
What We Can Learn from Myths (Yale University, November
2003), shows how myths have fascinated people through the
ages while helping them cope with the uncertainties of
In October, Lefkowitz presented a Distinguished Faculty
Lecture, "What We Can Learn from Myths," in Houghton
Memorial Chapel at Wellesley College.
"Ancient writers use myths as a means of reminding
humans of the severe limitations imposed upon them by the
conditions of mortality, and the many dangers present in
the world they inhabit," Lefkowitz said. "We
still have much to learn from listening to what the ancient
Greek and Roman writers say, even if we are not prepared
literally to believe in their theology."
For two thousand years, the mythology of ancient Greece
has captivated readers and has formed the basis of Western
civilization. "Greek myths in particular have a continuing
appeal because they are, first of all, great stories,"
Lefkowitz said. "Children love them because, unlike
television, myths make them use their imaginations: Myths
take them into worlds beyond their own experience."
Adult readers can use myths to help them discover who
they are. "As Joseph Campbell put it, 'The latest
incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty
and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second
Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light
to change,'" said Lefkowitz. "The Greek gods
are a perennial source of delight because they seem so
much like us: in their rages, their love affairs and their
obsession with honor, the gods often appear all too human."
A Publishers Weekly review notes, "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…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 means to be human.'"
Reading about the Greek gods in well-known epic poems
like The Iliad and The Odyssey can help modern people,
as they did the ancients, to gain understanding about the
human condition. "The myths help mortals to try to
come to terms with the limits of their own understanding,
to see that even a very clever and courageous mortal like
Odysseus will not always know what he is doing, and will
never completely realize the extent of his own ignorance."
Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing
an excellent liberal-arts education for women who will
make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near
Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all
50 states and 68 countries.