Homeric Theology – An Outline
The gods, as presented in Homer’s Iliad, present a variety of difficulties for the critic. In their stylised and highly anthropomorphised form, they lack close parallels in earlier cultures, and compared to the gods of monotheistic religions seem petty, small-minded, and unworthy, perhaps, of veneration.
Moreover, their role as a literary device is highly contested; some authors, assign to them the function of comedy and light relief, their actions affording a hiatus from the intense fighting of the rest of the poem. Others choose to dismiss their more frivolous and sordid behaviour as unimportant, seeing them rather as truly metaphysical beings, whose relaxed lives merely emphasise their separation from and superiority to the suffering race of men.
The two attitudes are intensely polarised, and difficult to reconcile; however, some form of synthesis is vital for a thorough and non-polemical discussion of the role of the gods in the Iliad. The more frivolous aspects of Homer’s portrayal of the gods shall be discussed first, and the more profound and numinous second. Ultimately, an attempt shall be made to reconcile the two ideas into a coherent appreciation of Homeric theology.
The gods as petty and decadent
As has already been mentioned, the gods in the Iliad have vices and passions, and in their human-like failings differ strongly from the perfect deities of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. This is evident throughout the Iliad – one should remember that the hatred of Hera and Athene for Troy derives largely from the affront to their physical beauty implicit in the judgement of Paris. The continuation of the war, then, may be perceived as having its root in divine vanity. Both goddesses rage unceasingly against Troy from this simple affront by one Trojan; and so great is Hera’s anger, in particular, that she tells Zeus:
Of all cities there are three that are dearest to my own heart:/
Argos and Sparta and Mycenae of the wide ways. All these,/
Whenever they become hateful to your heart, sack utterly./
I will not stand up for these against you, nor yet begrudge you../.
Come then, in this thing let us both give way to each other,/
I to you, you to me…
In short, Hera states she will not resent Zeus’ sacking of these three great cities, the dearest to her of all, if he will allow her to destroy Troy
. This simple statement carries intense gravitas – the goddess’ desire to avenge a single disrespectful judgement of her beauty is such that she would allow her most pious followers to die for it. This undermines to an extent the notion that respect and devotion to the gods will benefit one – the people of Sparta
, and Argos
may all suffer divine wrath and lose Hera’s protection simply because of her hatred towards another city.
This attitude implies a lack of regard for humanity on the goddess’ part, and Zeus, similarly, despite having stated that “there has never been one city/Honoured nearer to my heart than sacred Ilion” acquiesces to Hera’s wish, and allows the city’s destruction.
The picture of the gods so far, then, is one of beings unconcerned with negative consequences for people on earth, egoist and petty in the extreme – an insult to them is more important than the lives of any number of their worshippers. Moreover, the very notion of seeking the gods’ favour is also being questioned, insofar as the reader is shown the reckless and capricious attitude of Hera.
A not dissimilar childishness may be seen in the words of Poseidon in Book 7, when he fears the fame of the Greek wall will exceed that of his own, built around Troy:
Now the fame of this will last as long as dawnlight is scattered/
And men will forget that wall which I and Phoibos Apollo/
Built with our hard work for the hero Laomedon’s city.
Such concern with fame and renown, and the underlying insecurity in such a complaint, is scarcely what one would expect from the brother of Zeus, and one of the mightiest of the Olympians. Nor is this fact unknown to Homer, who has Zeus retort:
What a thing to have said, earth-shaker of the wide strength.
Some other one of the gods might fear such a thought, one who/
Is a god far weaker of his hands and in anger than you are;/
But the fame of you shall last as long as dawnlight is scattered.
This reprimand from Zeus can only serve to highlight the petulance of Poseidon’s complaint, and the reader’s opinion of Poseidon must necessarily be diminished by such concern with reputation from an immortal god. Though less damning than Hera’s petty rage, Poseidon here does appear weak and self-doubting, qualities unsuitable for a mighty deity.
The gods’ very human vices must also be considered, particularly the seduction of Zeus in Book 14. This episode is especially telling, containing as it does two examples of divine lustfulness, and one of the deceit against which Xenophanes railed. Hera, desiring to assist Poseidon in aiding the Achaians, seeks to distract her husband from the battle at Troy:
And now the lady ox-eyed Hera was divided in purpose/
As to how she could beguile the brain in Zeus of the aegis.
Once again, the reader is shown an immoral act on the part of a god; in this case, one which not only subverts the standards of acceptable behaviour, but also the supremacy of the paterfamilias (or rather kurios, the Greek equivalent of the Roman concept). Hera goes on also to trick Aphrodite
into giving her a garment to seduce Zeus (“then, with false lying purpose, the lady Hera answered her”). In short, a goddess is shown to behave in a manner contrary to the bounds of social acceptability, and to have attacked the integrity of the family unit.
Following this act of deceit, the reader is shown the lust of Hypnos; though he at first refuses to gratify Hera’s request out of a very reasonable fear of Zeus’ retaliation, when Hera offers him “one of the younger/Graces for you to marry”, the reader finds out that “Sleep was pleased”, and readily acquiesces.
Finally, the greatest of the gods, Zeus himself, a model for the paterfamilias in a household, and the leader of the Greek pantheon, is shown to shirk responsibility and surrender to his lust:
But now let us go to bed and turn to love-making./
For never before has love for any goddess or woman/
So melted about the heart inside me, broken it to submission,/
Particularly surprising here is the last phrase, “broken to submission
” – this implies not that Zeus is making a conscious choice to withdraw from the fighting to make love, but that he has been conquered by Hera’s beauty, and is forced by his lust to sleep with her.
The reader may well ask himself if this is not an example of ate, particularly as it interferes almost catastrophically with Zeus’ plans for the Trojans. For a human like Agamemnon to allow emotions to override reason is bad enough; but for Zeus to be conquered by unreason affords him a very human vice, and one that even some mortals, such as Odysseus and Nestor, seem to avoid. The anthropomorphising effect here is very strong, and Zeus seems suddenly far from perfect – and certainly very different from the divinely wise and strong ruler of Olympus. Thus, the gods may be seen not only as being bitter and spiteful – they are morally flawed and irrational.
Advantages to the “Gods as decadent humans” portrayal
The gods, as painted in the light above, have a variety of influences on an appreciation of the text, and it is worth considering why Homer chose such a portrayal.
Firstly, it is likely that the familial bickering of the Olympians might well have been more familiar to a Homeric audience than the intricacies of warfare. Certainly, the figure of the hen-pecked husband and bossy wife are familiar even today, whilst it requires a feat of imagination to truly imagine the bloody battles of Ilion. Homer, then, was creating scenes his audience could easily recognise and relate to, in addition to the more difficult scenes of battle.
However, above all, it must create additional pathos for the humans suffering on the plain of Ilion – the contrast between the two worlds is intense, and the relative unconcern of the gods with human suffering must serve to emphasise it for the reader. One notable example of this occurs at the end of Book 1 – having just witnessed the tearful Achilles supplicating his mother, and the end of a terrible plague in the Greek camp, the reader is shown heaven, where “among the blessed immortals uncontrollable laughter/Went up as they saw Hephaestus bustling about the place”, and Zeus “slept and Hera of the gold throne beside him”.
In addition to evoking pathos, such changes in tone do create some variety. Whilst the vision of the gods as solely providing comic relief is extreme, the change from the harsh realities of death and toil to the world of the gods, where vices and petty whims can be indulged, does vary the tone of the epic, and prevent it from ever becoming too grave and stern. Even if the reader disapproves of the frivolous and consequence-free behaviour of the gods, it at least makes a refreshing change from the deadly and very momentous behaviour of the warriors.
The Gods as noble and powerful
Such is one aspect of the gods’ behaviour, and Homer’s portrayal of them. However, there is another more numinous and worthy side to their depiction in the Iliad that shall now be outlined: their role as mighty, inscrutable, and utterly superior forces, in control of the entire war.
The epic actually begins with a representation of the gods in such a way, namely in the rage of Apollo, and one could not fail to be impressed with the gravitas he possesses here:
Phoibos Apollo heard him,/
And strode down along the pinnacles of Olympos, angered/
In his heart, carrying across his shoulders the bow and the hooded quiver; / And the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking/
Angrily. He came as night comes down and knelt then/
Apart and opposite the ships and let go an arrow.
It is no petty deity that is here being described – rather a manifestation of virulent plague as an angry and righteous god seeking justice for his worshipper. Similarly, in Book 3, Aphrodite angrily addresses Helen
Wretched girl, do not tease me lest in anger I forsake you/
And grow to hate you as much as now I terribly love you,/
Lest I encompass you in hard hate, caught between both sides,/
Danaans and Trojans alike, and you wretchedly perish.
These words are intimidating and effective, and there is no doubt in the mind of the reader that the goddess here is powerful. As if to stress the point, Homer states that “Helen daughter of Zeus was frightened”, illustrating Aphrodite’s strength – even one with a divine father fears for her life. In much the same way, Athene
’s descent to earth from heaven in Book 4 is described in fantastic and dramatic terms, lending her a sense of majesty and power:
She went in a flash of speed down the pinnacles of Olympos…/
in such likeness Pallas Athene swept flashing earthward/
And plunged between the two hosts; and amazement seized the beholders,/
Trojans, breakers of horses, and strong greaved Achaians.
Thus it may already be said that petty though the gods may seem in their dealings, they are powerful and magnificent in their apparitions, stronger than any man. Achilles is well aware of this when he addresses Apollo in Book 5, telling him:
You have robbed me of great glory, and rescued these people/
Lightly, since you have no retribution to fear hereafter./
Else I would punish you, if only the strength were in me.
Many actions in the Iliad are attributed to divine intervention, from the breaking of the truce to the trapping of Hector
outside the Skaian gate. This occurs to the extent that Homer eliminates chance entirely, and the will of the gods is visible throughout the Iliad. Even great skill is said to come from the gods – Pandaros
, a very talented archer, is said to have such proficiency because he bore “the bow that was actual gift of Apollo”.
A more complex picture of divinity, then, is emerging – the gods are extremely powerful, more so than any man, and their influence is everywhere. They cannot be dismissed as a solely narrative distraction on the part of Homer, designed to vary the mood of the epic.
Another telling factor is the extent to which religious worship is integrated into the story of The Iliad. Both armies have seers and prophets in their number, who are consulted several times in the course of the epic. In the very first book, Achilles asks:
…Let us ask some holy man, some prophet,/
Even an interpreter of dreams, since a dream also/
Come from Zeus, who can tell why Phoibos Apollo is so angry.
These are not the words of a man who doubts the gods’ power and influence. Similarly, Priam’s son Helenus
is on hand in Book 6 to give aid to Hektor
, and suggest a course of action. The course he does advise is itself an example of how profoundly the characters of the Iliad believe in their gods:
But you, Hektor, go back again to the city, and there tell/
Your mother and mine to assemble all the ladies of honour/
At the temple of grey-eyed Athene high on the citadel.
That Helenus counsels the Trojans’ best fighter to leave the battle to ensure religious ritual is carried out conveys a strong impression of piety on the Trojan side, and a belief that divine favour is as important as martial ability. Another example of this occurs when Pandaros offers a prayer to Apollo before loosing an arrow at Menelaus
in Book 4; it is said, also, of Eumelos in Book 23 after losing that chariot race that:
He should have prayed to the immortal/
Gods. That is why he came in last of all in the running.
The idea that the will of the gods is crucial is of course supported by Homer’s description of battle, with the decisive factor in combat usually being the aid of a god. Even outside of battle, however, the men of the Iliad are careful to make regular offerings to the gods, and Agamemnon addressing Zeus insists that on his journey to Troy:
Never did I pass by your fair wrought altar…/
But on all altars I burned the fat and the the thighs of oxen.
Homeric attitudes to proper burial are complex, and a summary shall not even be attempted here; however, the lengthy battle over Patroklus
’ body, and the repeated defilement of Hektor’s, are indicative of how much importance was attached to the corpse. That this was not merely a matter of honour, but one of real religious conviction, is evident in the words of Patroklus to Achilles in his dream:
As quickly as may be, let me pass through the gates of Hades.
The characters of the Iliad, then, would appear to have a genuine belief in a soul or spirit of some kind, and though such a matter is to an extent distinct from that of religious belief, it is scarcely possible to imagine the one without the other, particularly given Hades
’ role as lord of the Underworld
The human protagonists of the Iliad do not regard the gods as insignificant, but a vital part of their lives, and ritual defines and controls their behaviour. Similarly, Homer shows divine intervention throughout the epic, and makes it clear that the gods are instrumental in every aspect of the battle at Troy. This, then, is the other face of the Homeric gods – as supreme and mighty forces that command devotion from both sides, and who have the ability to give victory to either side as they see fit.
One cannot deny that the change in tone evoked by the more light-hearted transitions to Olympus affords the Iliad a more balanced and engaging mood, if not one of humour. Similarly, the critic faces a stern challenge in seeking to dignify and exalt the Homeric gods solely into numinous and subtle divinities unconcerned with petty hedonism – that they are not so is evident to any reader of the text.
However, it is an equally grave mistake to depreciate the gods as being mere comic relief – proper reverence, piety, and worship is shown as being vital and only proper, and propitiation of an enraged deity is accepted as wholly necessary.
Moreover, their power, influence, and superiority is all-pervasive in the Iliad, and the mightiest of heroes, even those who are part divine, cannot hope to challenge them. In lacking the limitations and tragedies of humanity, the gods allow Homer to better contrast the wretchedly vicious and fragile lives of men with the eternal and consequence-free world of the gods, hence provoking evoking profound pathos.
Though the gods’ self-indulgent profligacy and pettiness may seem irreconcilable with their role as metaphysical beings of profound power, in reality the two roles support each other, and serve to differentiate gods from men, and particularly heroes. Though both have inhuman might and ability, heroes must be responsible, concerned with others, and ultimately come to acknowledge their own mortality.
That gods can shrug off duty of any kind and behave as their whims allow really serves to stress their divine nature – they are so powerful that nothing can trouble them. Not only may the reader perceive their supremacy in this aspect, but once again, this has the potent effect of lending weight to the acts of the mortals by contrastive effect – heroes, unlike gods, must deal with the consequences of their actions, which may well include their own death. With this in mind, the behaviour of Agamemnon, Hector, and Achilles must seem all the more momentous, and they must bear even greater responsibility for it.