The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were not, shall we say, moral exemplars. They waged brutal intergenerational warfare (“Father Sky hated all his children”; Zeus, “raised on Crete hidden from the eyes of his father [Cronus],” led an ultimately scorched-earth revolt to overthrow him). They mated indiscriminately with close relatives (Zeus married his ever-and-rightfully jealous sister Hera), as well as mere mortals (poor Leda, raped by Zeus disguised as a swan). They played favorites (Hera tried to impede or kill Hercules—her husband’s bastard son—at every turn during his attempt to redeem himself after a murderous psychotic break, while Aphrodite watched fretfully over the fate of her mortal son Aeneas, refugee-founder of Rome). These gods philandered on an epic scale. They countenanced or encouraged murder. They feuded and fought. In other words, they bore little resemblance to the Judeo-Christian God of scriptures. But they sure do make for a heck of a story.
A virtue of Philip Freeman’s unembellished modern retelling of the classical myths is that he doesn’t pretty these stories up. Oh My Gods does not reduce these myths to children’s fairytales, nor does it seek a prurient narrative line. Instead these retold tales usually excite wonder and questions, such as “What does such a story mean to me?” Occasionally the shorter tales feel flat, lacking in drama or emotional depth. Oh My Gods is best when it tackles longer narratives such as the labors of Hercules, the fall of Troy and the voyages of Odysseus and Aeneas, near the end of the book.
Oh My Gods is probably not a book to read from start from finish in successive sittings. While it is too reader-friendly to be a reference book, it is just the book to dip into when one comes across a mention of an unfamiliar or barely remembered myth. Freeman, who has a Ph.D. in classics from Harvard and chairs the classics department at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, writes, “my goal in this volume is . . . modest. I simply want to retell the great myths of Greece and Rome for modern readers while remaining as faithful as possible to the original sources.” In that he has largely succeeded.