Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 2

In The Iliad, the gods are unfathomable: an element of mystery exists in their doings. Diomedes finds out that no one really can be sure who is or is not a god. The lines between gods and humans are blurred. Generally, the gods are recognized by an aesthetic element (splendor), which they can choose to reveal or to hide at any given moment to any given person. Men are as the gods insofar as they display one or more characteristics of the gods. A person does not need to display every divine quality to be called god-like. So Paris can be called god-like because of his physical beauty, even though he is a great coward. Incidentally, in The Republic, Plato critiques Homer for attributing evil to the gods. Would Zeus fit the model of the philosopher king? Are the attributes of the gods worth emulating?

Fate is a factor separate from the gods, seemingly, the allotted time that each being has upon the earth (which no one knows or understands, including the gods). Some believe Fate to be a pre-Olympian god, a more primitive being that is not as complex or sophisticated as the Olympian gods.

Man’s actions in Homer can be ascribed to three possible sources, though these overlap and are blurred:

  • Fate
  • Intervention of the gods
  • Man’s choices/mistakes

An example of this blurring of lines can be the instance when Athena makes a young arrow shooter break the truce after Menelaus’ duel with Paris. Athena chooses this young man because he’s the best archer, but he is also young and foolish, so very possibly he could have acted in the same way without Athena’s enticing. Another example can be taken from the tension between Helen’s action and the gods’ intervention in her life to make her follow Paris to Troy. Is she to blame? Or are the gods to blame?

At times, the wills of the gods—including Fate—clash. Zeus seems to fight against fate with his own son, Sarpedon. It’s difficult to determine whether Zeus actually has power over fate, or whether he just seems to have it. In the end, Zeus gives in to fate and lets Sarpedon die, though not without shedding tears of blood. When the gods intervene in the world of men at times they can receive pain, for example, when a loved human dies or when the gods are physically wounded—like Venus and Ares who are attacked by Diomedes. Even pain does not seem to stop the gods from meddling with the human world.

Humility has no place in Ancient Greece. Pride is fitting, but it should not come out of proportion. Agamemnon overstepped his boundary of pride with Achilles (Book I) and recognizes it (Book IX). This was not humility but recognition. Achilles (and all Greece) recognized his own strength and value, and he felt that everyone should value him, as was his due. In Homer’s culture, honor and recognition seem inseparably tied to material things (plunder, gifts, etc.). When Achilles did not get what he believed was his due—and it was his due—he became angry.

Agamemnon tries to rally the troops to battle by insisting that they should go home. One can find a theme of arousing men to fight by words all throughout The Iliad. Hector has to arouse Paris to fight against Menelaus before the duel because Paris is a coward. Before each difficult battle, either a warrior or a god gives a speech that stirs men to courage and to fight.

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