H L Mencken once compiled a list of dead gods, or of gods who were no longer worshipped. It was quite a long list, three or four columns which filled a page. I can’t recall whether the gods of Olympus were included. Perhaps they should have been, perhaps not. It’s probable that nobody now builds temples or altars for them, yet there is a sense in which they still live. The expression ‘by Jove’ may be out of date, but Nietzsche’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian poetry remains of critical interest at least. We know the planets of the solar system by the Roman names for the Greek gods. Poets and other artists may still owe allegiance to the Muses, subordinate figures of the Olympian world. Even restricting one’s survey to the Mediterranean, one may say that the gods of the Philistines and Egyptians are dead as mutton, but there is still life in the Olympians, sufficient life, certainly, for Barbara Graziosi to have written this erudite and engaging account of their history and remarkable survival.
The origin of the Olympians is lost in the obscurity of the past. Nobody knows how they came into being or what stories were first told about them. They go back, undoubtedly, beyond their earliest literary appearances, in Homer and Hesiod. Yet if it wasn’t the poets who gave them