the nature of god and man in the Iliad

Games in honour of funeral of Patroclus - Book 23 of Iliad epic poem by Homer detail of chariot race

-Post being updated in parts

The Iliad is one of the finest and oldest works ever written in western literature. One of the most interesting themes prevalent throughout the poem that I found when studying the Iliad was the relationship between the gods and men. Homer takes quite a radical position on this front. It is clear that Homer does not believe in any bridging the gap between gods and men: You are born a mortal and you die a mortal; there is no transgression or ascension to immortality. In book III Helen looks out over the walls of Troy in search of her two brothers Castor and Polydeuces amongst the armies of the Greeks; Homer tells us “She spoke, not knowing the rich soil already covered them, in Lacedaemon, their sweet native land.” In most myths Castor and Polydeuces become demi-gods and have two stars named after them yet Homer makes a very deliberate and distinct point; that there can be no crossing the bridge between gods and men. This is a theme prevalent throughout many greek myths, perhaps not to the same  degree.

In book I the first thing that we notice when we explore the gods is their power, infinitely greater than any mortal. To quote Roberto Peregalli[1], ‘he who sees everything has the power to turn to his advantage that which is invisible to those with limited vision’, the gods see everything, mankind has limited vision and so has limited power and this creates a division of infinite length as mortals cannot even begin to call themselves equals with the gods. Zeus, king of the gods has power even to frighten Hera, his husband and queen of the gods, ‘So he spoke, and the ox-eyed queen Hera was afraid’. This tells us that no matter how interested the gods become in mankind in book I and indeed throughout the whole of the Iliad, we are inferior in every way. This is shown by the fact that humans make sacrifices to the gods every day to keep in favour with them for fear of bringing down the anger of the gods upon, and even sacrifice a hecatomb, one hundred oxen in order to appease Apollo who has been ravaging the Achaian camp. A hecatomb is a lot of meat and wealth spent considering the Greeks ate a diet that mostly contained fish and not meat, and shows the lengths that the Greeks went to appease the gods.

When we do read about the gods, seldom is it that we read about their own lives and the happenings on Olympus. In book I the only time that we see the gods discussing matters on Olympus they talk of human matters, and when that gets quite heated, the seriousness of the discussion is undercut by Hephaestus ‘bustling to and from in the palace’ and the gods laugh and human maters are forgotten and they return to feasting. This says something about mortals, that however important their affairs are, they are not important enough to ruin the feasting of the gods, Hephaestus is almost reminding them of the triviality of the argument about mere men.  The gods help determine human affairs but have few of their own. Michael silk refers to them as ‘Divine Spectators’ and although there is truth in this, the gods do more than just spectate on the lives of humans.

Quite often in Book I the gods interfere with human affairs for example when Athene tells Achilles not to kill Agamemnon. These divine interventions are usually to stop a hero acting irrationally, Athene telling Achilles not to kill Agamemnon, or to put sudden impulses into heroes’ heads that have significance, Hera telling Achilles to call an assembly. These are times when the gods have decided on their own to intervene and there is something worth commenting on here. Homer obviously didn’t know that Hera gave Achilles the idea to call an assembly and it could well have been that Achilles thought of the idea without divine intervention and that he checked himself and realised that it wouldn’t be a good idea to kill Agamemnon, king of the Achaians, but the fact that Homer attributes these moments of significance to a divine intervention tells us that Gods are a symbol of heroism, that when an action or decision is heroic or ‘godlike’ Homer puts it down to the Gods intervening. It could be thought that this diminishes the achievement made by Achilles but instead the divine involvement symbolises its importance. ‘The Iliad offers a projection of heroic autonomy, but on divine ground[2]’ (Michael Silk).

In the relation between god and man some symmetry can be found. At the beginning of book I the humans are quarrelling on earth and at the end of the book the gods are quarrelling in heaven. This brings to light the nature of the gods’ care for humans. For the Greeks, the argument will cost many lives and prolong the sacking of troy, for the gods their argument is to them trivial as they will not be affected by the outcome, indeed no human worries matter to the gods as they are so inferior to them.

When Thetis appears to Achilles ‘she rose up from the grey sea like a mist’. She is concealed by the mist so that none may see her. This device of mist and indeed of other deceptive means of contacting humans, mist, sleep, souls and dreams are used quite often in Homeric work and is sent to obscure the sight of men so that they cannot see the coming of the gods who are not meant to be seen by human eyes. This mist creates a distance between gods and men, and the fact that Thetis appears to her own son shrouded in mist even though she is a very minor god says something about their relationship and highlights man’s impotence.

There however is one hero who does have a special relationship with the gods; Achilles. In Greek mythology, any human who sets eyes upon the true form of a god dies in some way or another, but Achilles is worthy of Athene’s presence who ‘came up behind him and caught the son of Peleus by his yellow hair’ and even has the audacity not to worship her and speak to her sarcastically. This is significant as it highlights the importance of Achilles to the gods as she doesn’t kill him for his insolence. Another point to make is that Achilles is the one hero who is allowed a glimpse of his own future, entrusted to him by Thetis, his mother and this is another pointer to his importance among the gods, however comparatively insignificant.

In conclusion the gods of Homer’s epic poems are powerful beyond imagine and humans are hardly worthy of their attention as they quarrel over their short lived lives and the gods quarrel trivially as they have eternity in which to quarrel. But when the gods do get involved, it is to answer a prayer of significance, to decide the winner of a dispute or help a particular side in the Trojan War. Homer brings gods and man closer together ‘godlike’ but never to the extent that a human hero is described as a god. However Longinus, author of ‘On the sublime’ has this to say of the relationship, ‘Homer has done his best to make the men in the Iliad gods and the gods men’, a point which bases its reasoning on the fact that Homer often raises men up towards the title of ‘god’ by enhancing their actions and deeds with involvement by the gods, and that the gods choose to become involved with humans even though they are many times more important than them, which suggests that humans are not irrelevant after all but play a major part in defining the gods; Athene is called ‘bright eyed’ because when she is talking to Achilles ‘there was a fearful gleam in her eyes’ and so her interaction with mortals decides some of her characteristics which highlights the apparent closeness of the gods to mankind.

 

[1] R. Peregalli, The embroidered armour; chpt I, pg 23

[2] Michael Silk, Homer: The Iliad; pg 72

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