Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 1

The Iliad, Chapters 1-8

Concerning the involvement of the gods in the life of men, why do the gods care so much about humans? The Iliad is just as much a story about the gods as it is about men. Is it a mere entertainment to them, each having a pet favorite human or a way to assert their power among other gods? Zeus seems to be entertained by humans, though he is bound to Thetis to intervene, and he pities those who pray to him. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite have personal interests in the fight, and seem to be driven more by selfishness and pride than anything else. If men did not exist, would the gods have other things to do? It seems that the times that the gods are in Olympus unaware of what is happening in the world below are few.

Perhaps Homer is merely pointing out one instance in the lives of human beings wherein the gods were very involved, as in the case of Job in the Bible. One difference with Job’s account would be that the gods here are fighting for their own selfish gain rather than to prove a man. Another difference is that Job is largely unaware of what is taking place in heaven above, while the Trojans and Argives perceive the involvement of the gods more frequently.

Concerning humanity and deity, what makes a man god-like? Particularly the kings (Agamemnon, Priam) and princes (Hector, Diomedes) are described at times as “like a god.” Is it mere physical beauty or courage or strength? Is it something that is merely apparent to the eyes (i.e., the person looks like a god)? Ares and other gods describe Diomedes’s actions as “almost supernatural” (Book V) because he fights against the gods and wounds Aphrodite and Ares. These questions seem particularly difficult when thinking of Paris, who is described as “magnificent as a god” and “brave” (Book III, 129-130), but yet in the middle of the battle with Menelaus disappears from combat to appear in a bedroom with Helen. At this time, Helen calls him a coward, and Hector chides him for not going out to fight with Trojan men who are dying. If Paris is a coward, in what way is he “magnificent as a god”? Does he receive this description merely because he is handsome and strong? Finally, are men described as “god-like” whey they are actually descendents of a god, for example, as in the case of Achilles or Aeneas? It seems evident that this, at times, is the case.

It also may be asked what the difference between a god and a man is. Apollo’s words to Diomedes indicate a divide: “we are not of the same breed, we will never be, the deathless gods and the men who walk the earth” (Book V, 178-179). Nonetheless, the lines seem blurred when we note that Zeus sleeps, just like Agamemnon does, and that Ares bleeds, just like Aeneas. Both gods and men eat and drink, both get angry and pity, and though the gods have immortality, they are able to rescue men from dying (e.g., Paris being rescued by Aphodite). Is the difference one of power? Or is it ruling over more men, as Nestor points out, makes Agamemnon powerful (86)? For a difference of power exists even among the gods, as well as a difference of ruling over many or few. In addition, the gods have the gods have limitations, but why is this so? Is it to make them more “realistic”? If Zeus can devour other gods, their immortality, then, would be conditional, and they would be more like men. So the lines dividing gods and men seem to be blurry at times.

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