Alana Johns is a writer at Bard High School Early College in Cleveland. She is the recipient of the 2019 Achievement Awards in Physical Education and Advisory.
The Iliad by Homer is a story of love, lust, rage, greed, murder, and revenge, all pertaining to the lives of mortals and immortals. Faith in a higher power(s) leaves mortals to feel safe, guarded, and loved, while being the object of such faith leaves gods to feel like the quintessential leaders of humanity. When discussing Homer’s epic, a focal point is often the roles of the gods in man’s life. Whether their presence is believed to be overbearing or overly modest, their presence is what strikes readers as the most significant element of the epic. But the function of the gods is petty when compared to the burden mankind must face because of it. In this paper, I will explore human accountability in The Iliad, as the presence of divinity has shaped the livelihood of mankind.
In my research I ask “what is the role of the gods?,” and Jasper Griffin provides an answer with his interpretation of what they offer. In his work, Homer on Life and Death, Griffin examines how significance is granted upon humans and gods alike, as well as the thin line between reality and myth. Griffin explains that gods are “divine watcher[s] of whom justice and indignation is expected,” and explores the role of the gods as a “divine audience” as they act as witnesses to the sins of mortals (Homer on Life and Death). They are divine protection, divine observation, and divine punishment. The gods are the advisors of the ancient Greeks, lending their power when they feel that the actions of a human will reflect badly on their own desires. They openly interact with their followers to ensure the everlasting survival of mankind’s loyalty and blind following. The gods sit at their thrones watching humans run themselves into their own graves and even sometimes persuading them to do so.
Consequently, human consciousness has become conjoined with the will of higher powers. The goddess Athena tells Achilles that “if a man obeys the gods, they’re quick to hear his prayers” as a way to sway his intentions to favor her wishes (Homer 84). Griffin states that “gods intervened openly with human affairs,” and it was this very intervention that created a codependent relationship between man and god, the worshipers and the worshiped (Homer on Life and Death). The gods should not be so brutish whilst desiring to look over the human race. Their immortality is all that differentiates them from humans, but this should not be the case. A divine being should not act in the same manner that humans do but should instead be models for decency. Why are gods so conceited, so enraged, and so quick to action? The gods are too much like humans to lead the human race as they are too like minded
The everlasting threat of death humbles mortals so that they may never challenge immortality. Cockiness and pettiness is what leads to an individual’s demise, not a single one of us is ignorant to this truth. Despite this, we continue to act in such a way that encourages our toxicity to progress. It is our nature, as mortal beings, to fight for dominance in all situations as submission is perceived as weakness. We are in constant penitence for our flaws, we punish one another and ourselves for behaving in such manners. A favorable god would neither act as we do nor mimic our actions; they would instead act as the model for idealism. The Homeric gods are far from exemplary. There are countless occurrences of a god ignorantly abusing their power over mortals. During the final battle with Troy, Achilles fights through the Trojan army in an attempt to get to the warrior Hector, but a god blocks his way. Apollo flaunts his invulnerability to Achilles by saying, “you can’t kill me–I can never die–it’s not my fate!” and continues to not let him pass so that he may slay Hector (Homer 542). Gods flaunt their abilities to preserve their image as the superiors and take action only because they know that they cannot be defeated and this is both cowardly and selfish. Following Apollo’s teasing, Hector is eventually slain by Achilles, but only because none of the deathless gods wished to pluck him from the cold grip of death. Even Apollo acknowledges the absurdity of this situation by exclaiming that the gods are “hard-hearted” and that they “live for cruelty” after watching Hector’s body be put to shame by Achilles (Homer 589). Humans are vulnerable to the will of the gods. As gods, they flaunt their invulnerability and this includes the ability to judge mankind. Multiple cases of gods acting as judge, jury, and executioner towards mortals are shown, each resulting in hostility building between man, leading them to stray away from humanity but remain faithful to their offenders. This leaves the world in a position of god versus man versus man.
In The Iliad, the gods are presented as “defined individuals, in the manner of human beings,” and it is this human nature they flaunt which lessens their divinity (Cambridge Companion to Homer). They are known to “live at ease” and make themselves “strangers to death,” but this along with their assumed humanity makes them appear to readers as nothing more than immortal humans beings (Griffin). The gods work within a realm that is unknown to mortals. They are a fantasy to most, a myth, motivation in Homeric adaptations. Some scholars see Homer’s adaptations as nothing but a literary device to further the plot. The gods are nothing but overpowered literary figures used to explain things such as human emotion, natural phenomena, and forces that give characters leverage they otherwise would not have, thus stripping them of their religious factor completely.
For the gods, mortal lives are nothing but interactive entertainment. The consequences we face mean nothing to them, and therefore they give no thought to our or their actions. They act in a way that you would expect from a human, not a heavenly being. Their cruelty and general behavior has proven that they are not beings worth following. The Iliad is a work of fiction, but the gods are not. They are part religion and were truly worshiped by ancient Greeks. If we can understand why they were worshiped unconditionally and examine their effects on humanity, we may be able to identify why religion is still, to this day, so prominent in our world.
Fowler, R. (Ed.). (2004). The Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge Companions to Literature) 59-73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, Jasper. Homer on Life and Death. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983 (179-204).
Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard Knox. The Iliad. , 1998. Print.
Turkeltaub, Daniel. “Perceiving Iliadic Gods.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 103, 2007, pp. 51–81. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30032218.