The gods of Olympus died with the advent of Christianity – or so we have been taught to believe. But how are we to account for their tremendous popularity during the Renaissance? This book offers the general reader a multifaceted look at the far-reaching role played by mythology in Renaissance intellectual and emotional life. After a discussion of mythology in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Jean Seznec traces the fate of the gods from Botticelli and Raphael to their function and appearance in Ronsard’s verses and Ben Jonson’s masques. [Official blurb.]
This wonderful book was written in 1940, long before Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I talked about here. The conclusion implicitly, if not explicitly, reached in The Survival of the Pagan Gods is the same as in Gaiman’s work: they are still around, …. but nobody cares. Well, no, that is wrong. It is not that nobody cares, it is that no one actually worships them anymore, the poignant point made in American Gods.
What is clear is that the Ideas which the ancient gods of Olympus represent continue on, and during the middle ages were turned into Virtues and allegories. The ancient gods changed wardrobe over the ages, appearing as personages in the then modern dress, but during the Renaissance, the wheel of cosmic fortuned made a complete turn, and the gods once again appeared in their original forms.
Seznec has shown that the Olympian gods, and the earlier spirits of field and spring, did not die with the advent of Christianity, but lived on. His work traces the process in which they were already transformed during Late Antiquity, whether embedded within history as transfigured former human beings in the Euhemerist view that was embraced by Christian apologists. or given planetary roles as astral divinities in the worldview of astrology and magic or allegorized as moral emblems. They survive in pictorial and in literary traditions and among the common people went underground to feature in folk culture, took on strange new guises and were transformed in various ways, their myths recast to suit some of the mythic saints of Late Antiquity. Their imagery permeated Medieval intellectual and emotional life. The transformed mythology re-emerged in the iconography of the early Tuscan Renaissance, with new attributes that the ancients had never imagined, and enjoyed tremendous renewed popularity during the Renaissance. [
Stolen Copied from Wikipedia.]
I really enjoyed this book. It is full of illustrations of the works discussed, and makes it easy to follow the transformations of the gods through their various guises and re-emergence again in the Renaissance.
I just wanted to add that the idea of the ancient Pagan deities still living on is delightfully explored in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. I talked about two of them here and here. So perhaps these days we are no longer creating sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings of the ancient gods, but they continue to live on in literature.