The role of the Gods in relation to people.
Throughout The Iliad, Homer offers us a glimpse into the lifestyles of the ancient Greeks and their beliefs. They are a very spiritual and in many ways superstitious people. The main thing to note throughout The Iliad is the interaction between the gods and the humans. Any way one looks at the situation, they can immediately see that humans are mere pawns to the gods in their game of chess.
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The success and failures of the humans depends on what god would be helping which group and at what particular time. This essay will explain the three main reasons the gods in The Iliad intervened with humans: Firstly, gods who act on their own personal motives, secondly, gods who act as favors to other gods, and finally gods who act as favors to humans.
The first instance when a god came down to help for her own personal motives is when Hera sends down Athena to stop Achilles from killing Agamemnon in fit of rage.
“And as this tumult swayed him, as he slid the big blade slowly from the sheath, Athena came to him from the sky. The white-armed goddess, Hera, sent her, being fond of both men…gripped his red-gold hair.” (Book I; 157-64)
Hera despises the Trojans and rather than watch Achilles kill Agamemnon she decides to intervene and calm Achilles down by offering him an abundance of gifts. “…break off this combat…Here is my promise, and it will be kept: winnings three times as rich, in due season you shall have in requital for his arrogance.” (Book I; 177-82) This scene also contrasts the difference in beliefs between Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles respects the gods and knows that it is in his best interest to sheathe his sword and not allow his hubris to cloud his judgment.
Yet Agamemnon will not allow anyone, human or divine, be better than him or tell him what to do and takes Briseis from Achilles. Shortly after this, the Achaeans go to Troy to call a duel between Paris and Menelaus to end the war. Venus watching this knows she has a vested interest in the Trojans, but more specifically Paris and Helen. The two begin to duel and just as it appears Menelaus has defeated Paris and awaits the final blow Venus steps in.
In the great love story of this epic, Venus sees the impending death of Paris and knows that if Menelaus kills Paris, Helen will be given to the Achaeans and killed thus ending the love story and the war without the fall of Troy. Therefore her saving Paris from certain death not only allows them to continue their affair but also helps set up the fall of Troy. As the epic continues and the battles become more intense it is clear which gods are on whose side. In an attempt to help the Achaeans, Hera devises a plan to make Zeus fall asleep rendering him helpless. She then goes to Sleep and offers him a golden seat and the hand of the youngest Grace. He happily obliges and as soon as Hera beds Zeus he is put in a deep slumber and Hera continues to help the Achaeans for her own personal means.
Another interesting relationship throughout The Iliad is that of the gods among themselves. They are worshipped by the humans and thought to be some omnipotent supreme beings that hold the powers of the universe at their fingertips, however they quarrel just as humans do. It is this quarrelling and bickering that leads to the next motive to help the humans, gods favors to other gods.
Just as humans befriend others and hold allies, so to do the gods. It is this relationship between the gods that, unfortunately for the humans, can change the tide of war at any given time simply for calling in a favor. After the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon, Achilles cries out to his mother Thetis to help him. “…go to Olympos, pray to Zeus, if ever by word or deed you served him-and so you did, I often heard you tell it in Father’s house: that time when you alone of all the gods shielded the son of Kronos from peril and disgrace.” (Book I; 357-62)
Here is one of the greatest if not the greatest of the gods, Zeus, complying with Thetis’ plea to help the Trojans, and his biggest concern is upsetting his wife. This scene contrasts how the humans lives are in the hands of feeble gods who are sometimes unable to make uninfluenced decisions without the influence of others or worrying about what another will think or say to them simply because she will be ‘scolding all day long’. Another favor which helped turn the tide of war in favor of the Achaeans again involves Achilles and Thetis, however this time she seeks the aid of Hephaestus. Thetis goes to Hephaestus because Achilles armor is in the hands of Hector who killed Achilles dear friend Patroclus.
Finally there are the favors that the gods actually do at the request of the humans. While they may be personally motivated either by gifts to them or sacrifices, they are still listening and answering the prayers the humans ask of them. When the Achaeans sack one of the towns of Troy, Agamemnon claims Chryseis as his prize. Her father is a priest of Apollo and offers to pay a huge ransom, however Agamemnon refuses and thus Chryses is left to pray to Apollo.
“O hear me, master of the silver bow, protector of Tenedos and the holy towns, Apollo…let my wish come true…when he heard this prayer…Nine days the arrows of the god came down broadside upon the army…” (Book I; 8-26)
This is one of the most tragic passages in the epic; with Achilles not fighting, Patroclus ventures out to battle to try and turn the tide for the Achaeans, however, it is not fated for him to take Troy so the gods help Hector kill Patroclus, yet when Hector kills Patroclus he also seals his own fate signaling the beginning of the end for himself and Troy.
The interaction between the gods and the humans in The Iliad is a one sided affair. The humans think that by praying to the gods they will please them therefore invoking their goodwill and luck. However that is not always the case. Homer makes it abundantly clear that the fate of humans rests in the hands of the gods. Be for personal motives, a favor to another god or favors to a human, the gods do not allow the humans to act without their divine interference.
Homer, Bernard Knox (Introduction), Robert Fagles (Translator) “The Iliad” Penguin Classics; Reissue edition, 1998