The Gods

The Gods and the hero

The connection between the fragility of life and the pursuit of greatness is made more poignant by the presence and intervention of the gods in the Iliad. Their interest and the love they profess to feel for the mortal characters of the poem raises those characters' achievements to a more elevated level. For it is not just that they are honoured by their fellow humans, but also by the immortals. However, the fact that the gods do not need to fear death, are willing to see their favourites killed and to withdraw their involvement in the conflict, if it threatens their own peace and tranquillity, marks them out as essentially superior and thus causes us to see the true impotence of the human condition. This is what Achilles has realised by the end of the poem, when he says to Priam 'this is the fate that the gods have spun for poor mortal men, that we should live in misery, but they themselves have no sorrows' (24.525-6). For although they claim to care about certain mortals, the deaths of those same mortals seem to affect the gods very little. Sarpedon, Patroclus, Hector and Achilles can all lay claim to divine favour, but it does not prevent their deaths in the poem (or, in Achilles' case, in the near future) and nor does it bring the immortals prolonged grief on the mortal scale. For, in truth, it is the certainty of early heroic death that attracts the gods to them. The acknowledgement of the fragility of their lives (in contrast to the timeless nature of the gods) and the consequent suffering that they undertake is what makes them heroes and what elevates them above the average human in the eyes of the gods.


The only god that we see who does not fit into such a conception is Thetis, Achilles' mother. She is important, not only for being the catalyst for the start of the action of the poem, but also because of her position as an intermediary between the immortal and mortal worlds. Unlike the human characters, she is able to influence the gods directly; but unlike the gods, she feels real grief at human suffering, most obviously that of Achilles. For evidence of this, we only need note that when Achilles is most upset or grief-stricken in Books 1 and 18, his mother comes to comfort him and provides him with important aids to maintaining his reputation as a hero, namely her petition to Zeus and the divine armour. She understands her son and makes no real attempt to dissuade him from being what he is, a hero. Yet, at the same time, she grieves for his fate privately, as we see in her lament to her fellow Nereids (18.52- 64).

The Character of the Gods

The Homeric gods are fascinating because they are not moral exempla. They are not dignified in the way that we expect. In truth, they are little better morally than the mortal characters, but are simply blessed with eternal life and superhuman powers. They are an amalgam of the majestic and the ridiculous, the impersonally powerful and the personally weak. Zeus is the god whose nod shakes Olympus and who can alter the fortunes of either side in the war, yet he also has to avoid upsetting his domineering wife. Aphrodite is the goddess whose gift can cause the whole Trojan War, yet who runs crying to her father's lap when she is injured by Diomedes. Hephaestus can create divine armour of awesome beauty and strength, yet he is also laughed at by his fellow gods in Book 1, as he bustles around. The power of Homer's depiction is in the frequent juxtaposition of these scenes. Zeus' fear of Hera's wrath is followed by his awe-inspiring assent to Thetis' request (Book 1). The wounds dealt by Diomedes to Ares and Aphrodite, in Book 5, are followed by Apollo's warning to the hero that he should never try to be the equal of the gods. While Zeus' seduction by Hera in Book 14 is followed by a re-assertion of his power in Book 15, which sees all the other gods bow to his command.

This juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime emphasises the ultimate power of the gods and their superiority over the mortals whose lives they govern. The contrast is marked throughout. The gods can disagree, yet they do not concern themselves with loss of face, as the hero must, for their lives are not limited. It is not important for them to prove themselves before their allotted time runs out. Similarly, they may enter the battlefield secure in the knowledge that they will not be killed, a situation that means that they are risking nothing and that consequently they can leave the battlefield without any questions being asked. The battlefield is an interest and amusement, not a matter of life and death.

Constantly, we are reminded of the frivolous nature of the conflict for the gods, in contrast to its deadly seriousness for mortals. In Book 1, Zeus and Hera quarrel over Zeus' decision to honour Thetis' request

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