Gods of the Iliad

What purpose is served by the members of the Greek Pantheon within the context of Homer’s Iliad?

In examining the role of the gods in Homer’s The Iliad, our inquiry must be twofold. In most Greek mythology the gods display both enormous power and influence over the mortal realm, as well as demonstrating human characteristics in the field of thought and emotion, sometimes to the point in which the conflicts and vacillations of the gods are identical to that of the mortals, differentiated only by their smaller number and greater power. Quoting Xenophanes, Walter Burkert writes, “’Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things which among men are reproach and blame: stealing, adultery, and mutual deception’.” In the case of the Iliad, the gods follow this trend quite perfectly. In fact, we see these transgressions represented clearly in the episode of Achilles appealing to his mother, the goddess Thetis, to avenge his dishonor by asking Zeus to take action against Agamemnon and the Greeks. He deceives Hera by omission and Agamemnon by illusion, upon the request of one whom he owes a favor. “The Homeric gods are ageless and immortal, can possess great knowledge of the future, and are influenced by pleas of one another and the prayers of mortals” (World Mythology, Donna Rosenberg). We must discover both why the gods are so similar to mortals in their whims and ways, and what role they play in the context of The Iliad.

One thing that we must take into account is the corpus of mythology, from which the Greek readers of The Iliad would have been intimately familiar with the characters of the gods. For example, in the tale of Heracles, Zeus resolves that his son should be put through his labors in part on account of his wife Hera, in order to pacify her. “The lord of Olympus wanted to be certain that Heracles earned eternal fame, but he also wanted to please Hera, who hated his children by other women. Therefore, Zeus promised Hera that Heracles would have to perform for King Eurystheus of Tiryns whatever ten labors the king commanded. Only then would Zeus make Heracles immortal” (Rosenberg).

Even though Heracles is the son of Zeus, in the immediate moment the appeasement of Hera is more important than the life of another of his illegitimate children. Clearly Zeus wants great things for his son Heracles, and his decision to put him through the labors demonstrates two things: first that the needs and conflicts of the gods supercede even the lives of mortals; second that the gods appreciate heroes and heroism, and like to reward heroic deeds. Both of these ideas are important in our analysis of The Iliad, in that they illustrate important points of exploration.

The participation of the gods in the affairs of the mortals is based on these concepts, as they intercede either on the account of other gods (and by extension, the children of gods) and on the account of the heroes to whom they have given their support. “The Homeric gods clearly have their favorites among mortals and make an effort to help them” (Rosenberg). These are ideas that the Greek readers would have been aware of, either consciously or unconsciously, through the cultural phenomenon of mythology.

“[Myth literalists] tend to seek factual or historical bases for a given mythological narrative while advocates of one of the many symbolic approaches prefer to regard the narrative as a code requiring some mode of decipher-ment. It is important to realize that the literal and symbolic exegeses of myth are not necessarily mutually exclusive” (The Flood Myth, Alan Dundes). We know for certain that the literalist school has some basis for legitimacy through the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann, who found Troy of The Iliad, as well as Tiryns of the aforementioned Heracles myth, and Mycenae. However, by virtue of the very fact that the gods are active and operating within these stories, we must assume some degree of metaphor and symbolic interpretation. It is imperative that we take into account the deeper levels of meaning which have been attributed to these myths over the millennia.

In a way, the gods themselves, especially Zeus, are the greatest of all heroes, having overthrown the Titans and paved the way for the current world of humankind. Were the gods perfect, pristine, and without sin, they would be impossible models for the mortal Greek heroes, and would have little want to support them, imperfect as the heroes would be by comparison. “The Homeric hero feels the presence or absence of his gods. He often attributes all of his success on the battlefield to them or blames them for his failures and bad luck” (Rosenberg). In The Iliad, the contact of the gods with the heroes is incredibly important, to the point where oftentimes their success or failure does indeed become dependent upon the favor of the gods whom they serve or pay obeisance to. The gods and their faults – emotions and the like – are necessary components of recognizing the power and glory of mortal heroes, particularly in The Iliad. If we return to the event of Achilles’s request to his mother Thetis, and of her appeal to Zeus on her son’s behalf, we see this demonstrated case in point. If the gods were not possessed of imperfect, human-like characteristics, the action of The Iliad would have halted here, for Thetis, being a goddess, would have no care for a mortal’s troubles, nor would Zeus. Instead, Thetis is troubled intensely by her beloved son’s chagrin and calls in a favor from Zeus, by virtue of having saved his life and his kingship from the other gods. The Thunderer’s recognition of his debt to Thetis is yet another case in point example of the necessity of the gods’ emotions for the sake of the both the action of the story, and the eminence of the hero Achilles.

This latter idea is by far the most important. “The gods are particularly partial to heroes because they appreciate and enjoy heroic deeds. Their help enhances the stature of those warriors who receive it” (Rosenberg). In supporting a mortal hero, the gods give them a certain amount of justification and rightness in their actions, as well as enhancing their renown. This is different from the concept of moral standards in that it is a justice based on the sovereignty of the gods. “One may… attempt to speak in terms of a quasi-amoral justice of Zeus – a justice which is not bound to established statutes, is neither predictable nor accountable, and yet is ultimately always in the right, even when it brings destruction” (Greek Religion, WalterBurkert). The gods, and their ability to feel for or favor mortals, are integral for elevating the heroes to a mythic, demigod-like status. As the justice of the gods is flawed, oftentimes even amoral, there is also an equal degree of permissiveness in regards to the behavior of heroic figures. Achilles is one of the most famous warriors in history, and yet in The Iliad he can be construed as petulant and immature. As a result of requesting aid from his mother and Zeus, many Greek soldiers are killed by the Trojans. If we examine the text from a contemporary moralistic stance, it makes little sense why Achilles, often barbaric and uncontrolled, is the hero of the story at all. However, this sort of Judaeo-Christian ethical model simply does not apply to the culture of Greece during the time in which these stories were in circulation, as shown clearly by the examples of their very own divine figures. “[The gods] have not given any moral code to mortals, and they do not live by such a code themselves… It is clear that the ancient Greeks did not require perfection, either in themselves or in their divinities” (Rosenberg). Taking this into account, the actions of Achilles, often seeking vengeance or defending his honor, may be looked at in a more pleasing light, and that the death of the Greeks on account of Achilles is seen as a just and righteous punishment for having offended the great warrior. By adding the support of the gods, any ambiguity as to his rightness vanishes. With the sanction of Zeus, something we might consider horrible by our current standards is perfectly acceptable, and in fact, fervently approved of in the culture of Homeric Greece. The gods are utilized to increase the fame of the hero in question.

Another such case of this is that Greek heroes are ascribed, in many instances, as having one immortal parent. This is true of Heracles, of course, though his deeds are so fantastical that we are more likely to interpret him as a largely mythic figure; however, Perseus, Theseus, Achilles, and other such heroes are described as having an immortal parent. For these three heroes at least, there is a strong chance that they were historical figures per the excavations of Troy and Mycenae, and the Minoan civilization at Knossos, by Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans, respectively. In fact, the evidence evinced from these ancient civilizations indicates that the actual warfare that took place, the physical surroundings, Priam’s massive walls, the many ships of the Greeks, the weaponry, and so on, stands a high probability of having been historical fact. Burkert wrote, “The Bronze Age arose in the third millennium through renewed stimulus from the East… Troy at this time achieves a first period of prosperity to which the Treasure of Priam bears witness.” All of this indicates that the heroes of the period owed their parentage not to gods, but to the spouse of the mortal parent, often mentioned in the mythic narrative. In the case of Achilles, it is unclear whether Thetis was a real woman, or whether he was actually the child of Antigone, but what is clear is that Achilles was a mortal man, and that he was so fearsome a warrior it inspired storytellers and later writers to conclude that he was the child of a god.

It is clear now that the use of the gods, in The Iliad at least, is in large part to glorify the heroes in question and to solidify the justness of their actions in the minds of the readers. If we again examine the episode in which Achilles appeals to Thetis and causes misfortune for the Greeks, the reason for the involvement of the gods becomes increasingly apparent. While any discussion on the reality of the event is purely speculative, removing the impossible or divine elements from Homer’s story offers us a different picture of what may have happened. Achilles, bristling at the insult to his honor, refuses to fight for the Greeks. Agamemnon could have been inspired by a dream, but he may also have wanted to attack the Trojans in order to prove that the Greeks could win without Achilles and promote solidarity among his forces. Either way, the truly heroic course of action for Achilles would have been to come to the aid of the Greek forces and at least attempt to turn the tide of the battle. The only way in which the author of The Iliad could make the hero’s actions appear not only upright, but sympathetic to the reader, is to place the gods squarely upon his side. There is further reinforcement of this idea by Zeus’s response to Thetis. “Zeus, the Cloud-Gatherer, replied, “You are making my life with Hera more difficult by asking this of me. She already complains that I have given the Trojans too much help in battle. Yet I will do as you wish”” (Rosenberg). Zeus is not concerned with the lives of the mortals, nor does he find Achilles’s plea to be unreasonable in any way. His only concern is for how his own circumstance may be affected. Again, this indicates to a Greek reader that Zeus finds no fault with Achilles, and would gladly and openly help if it did not mean angering his sister goddess and wife. These subtle, yet significant reinforcements of the fortitude and valiance of Achilles are extremely important to the story and are cause for the images of him that we think of in the present. Without the gods there would be less affinity for Achilles by the reader, and we might look at certain key events differently. For example, one feels sadness for Achilles upon the death of his friend Patroclus, and it seems that fate is against him, especially because Apollo helps this occur. However, with the gods out of the equation, the pride of Achilles is far more apparent as a cause or at least agent in the cause of his friend’s death, as well as the deaths of many Greek and Trojan soldiers. What emerges is a figure far less the perfect hero, and far more a mortal man, a fearsome warrior with many faults and imperfections and a short-fused temperament to accompany his ferocity.

But why should epic heroes be honored to such a point that, in the text of The Iliad, the gods actually serve a purpose subservient to that of the heroic mortals? “The worship of heroes from the eighth century onwards must… be derived directly from the influence of the then flourishing epic poetry. Greek epic sets up an autonomous world which is deliberately presented as a greater and more beautiful past: the heroes were more powerful than mortals are now. At the same time, this became a common spiritual world for all Greeks… Families and cities took pride in being able to connect their traditions with the heroes of epic” (Burkert).

The actual writing of The Iliad is not placed until the 8th century BC, with the action of The Iliad thought to occur sometime within the 13th century, centuries prior. It is also well documented that these epic stories were originally passed down through an oral tradition of bards and traveling poets. “In early epic art [heros] refers to all the heroes of whose fame the bard sings; the Homeric figures are heroes, particularly the Achaeans en masse” (Burkert). Over the course of hundreds of years, the stories of the war on Troy undoubtedly developed and evolved. The idea of tradition, for both families and cities, mentioned by Burkert above, is the most compelling factor of all. The Greeks wanted to connect themselves to these epic heroes by means of their heritage and their customs, and used these figures as a link between mortal man and the divinities. Therefore, these heroes could not be considered imperfect or without right moral action, and had to represent aretē, “the striving for excellence in particular areas of human behavior” (Rosenberg), to the utmost. At some point between the historical event in question and the development of a tradition of involvement by divine forces, there was a reason for the crafting of these impossible elements. It is the same reason why fledgling myths have emerged about our own heroes, such as George Washington. While stories such as the one about the cherry tree are historically false, they are a representation of what Washington meant for the country; by being an American, we somehow take a part of that heritage of honesty and courage for ourselves. It is no different with the ancient Greeks, who drew courage and faith from their ancestors, and glorified them so that they might glorify themselves. The role of the gods in The Iliad is to help the heroes be as heroic as they possibly can.

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  1. Oprah
    Posted March 3, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Very interesting comments.

  2. Vagisha Mishra
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 2:21 am

    Good observation..

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