The Greeks and Their Gods by W. K. C. Guthrie

Perhaps the leading 20th Century scholar on the subject presents to the reader "the relations between man and divinity as they appeared to the Greeks of the classical period". Unfortunately (for me at least), much of the discussion is aimed at those with intermediate or advanced knowledge of the subject. Mostly for this reason, I found much of the book to be dull. Others with a greater interest and background in the topic may come to a very different conclusion.

Along the way, however, there are many interesting insights and analyses that allowed me to at least want to finish the book. For instance, on page 18 we read that

it is a universal truth that it is in his religion that man is at his most conservative. He may have completely forgotten the reason for the ritual acts which he performs, but he is loth to cease performing them.
Guthrie describes the emotional and mystical forms of Greek religion, their contrast with the religion of the Olympians, the interaction of the two and their respective contributions to the whole religious outlook of the Greeks. Through this analysis of the evolution of Greek religion, one can see many of the common threads that unite all religious beliefs. God(s) are initially created out of superstition in an attempt explain the world people are born into. As time passes, these original gods become less believable so they evolve into concepts (spirit, etc.) that can be more easily rationalized with common, every-day experience.

Rather than dwell exclusively on the major writers of the periods (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, etc.), Guthrie seeks to find the religion of the 'ordinary man'. Chapter 10, which is entitled "Hopes and Fears of the Ordinary Man", was my favorite in The Greeks and Their Gods. Most of the others require at least a beginners background of the subject before they can be appreciated. At a minimum, someone should read something like D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths before attempting this work. A familiarity with Homer will also prove useful.

"The book is more than 'a kind of religious companion to the Greek classics.' It is a brilliant example of scholarship by a don whose writing manages to be as gay as it is profound." -- Saturday Review

"Mr. Guthrie's book, which is refreshingly unpedantic in tone, is an examination of the meaning of the major gods, taken individually, and of the groups of less important divinities and semi-divinities... He is always cogent and rewarding." -- The New York Times