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The Homeric Gods
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

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Suggested Background Reading

Introduction. Homer's gods often puzzle or offend modern readers. There are two main sources for this difficulty:

(1) the seeming lack of morals and general lack of gravity in Homer's gods, who constantly display all too human weaknesses and at times are cast in overtly comic roles
(2) their constant interference in the lives of the mortals, which seems to cast them in the role of malicious puppeteers, while reducing Homer's heroes to mere pawns in a selfish and often rather petty divine game of one-upmanship

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(1) Morality. Homer's gods display the same values as do his heroes: they are as jealous of their honors (timê) as are, for example, Agamemnon and Achilles in Book 1, and many of their actions are motivated by a desire to preserve face that precisely parallels the motivation of Homer's mortal heroes. (See the Homeric Society page.) For example, when Apollo aids Chryses in Book 1, he does so in large part because Chryses, in sacrificing to him, had offered him timê and thereby incurred a debt or obligation on Apollo's part (1.37-42): to fail to meet that obligation would entail a loss of face. (This notion of incurring obligation by means of favors lies at the heart of Greek religion and of Greek social and political discourse. It is often referred to by the Latin phrase *quid pro quo ["one thing in return for another"] — the equivalent of the modern "one hand washing another.") Moreover, since Chryses is a priest of Apollo, an offense against him is an offense against the god himself: to allow his priest to be affronted would cause the god to lose face, as it were, by association (note Agamemnon's pointed [and quite foolish] reference to the emblems of the priest's office at Iliad 1.28 and cf. Calchas' words at 1.94). In sending a plague against the Greek forces, Apollo does not appear as the divine punisher of Agamemnon's wantonly cruel behavior toward an elderly parent, but as an individual driven by personal wrath, much like Achilles. When the Greeks seek to appease Apollo later in Book 1, they do so by offering him timê through sacrifice (1.447ff.; cf. Achilles' assumption at 1.64-67), much as Agamemnon will attempt to appease Achilles in Book 9 by offering him an immense catalogue of gifts. To take another example: at Iliad 7.442ff. Poseidon is outraged that the Greeks are building a wall that will rival that built by him and Apollo, a direct threat to their timê; he is only appeased when Zeus assures him that he can destroy the Greek wall once its purpose has been served. In all of these instances the gods of Homer are motivated by the same personal interests as are his heroes. While the gods have their favorite heroes, on the whole they seem, like Achilles, to lack any concern for the common good: just as Achilles is willing to see Greeks die by the scores because of a slight from Agamemnon, so Hera is implacable against the Trojans, despite their seeming nobility and piety, because of Paris' offense against her honor. There is nothing here of the kindly, all-knowing beneficence often associated with ideas of god in the West today.

Moreover, in their obsession with timê, these gods squabble among themselves just like Homer's heroes and often are portrayed in an almost ridiculous light. The portrayal of Aphrodite and Ares in Book 5 deserves note here, but perhaps the most egregious example occurs in Book 14, where Hera, desperate to help the Greeks, seduces the ever-amorous Zeus. Having enjoyed Hera's charms, Zeus — like many of his mortal counterparts — promptly passes out, thereby allowing Poseidon and the other pro-Greek gods to turn the battle against the Trojans. It is difficult to imagine such a story being told, e.g., of the god of the Old Testament.

All in all, these gods strike the modern reader as very temporal creatures, and in many ways they are. But they are immortal and powerful, and therein lies the clue to their nature. The Greek view of "god" has relatively little in common with the idea of a transcendent, just, and benevolent deity commonly found in today's western societies. [FN 1] In such societies, "God" (singular, with a capital "G") is associated with a higher reality of some sort, an existence and a set of concerns that transcend the common concerns of daily life here on earth. "God" is both omnipotent and omniscient, and provides an absolute standard of justice and morality. The focus, in such a tradition, is not so much life here on earth as the state of the soul, both in this life and, in particular, after death. Thus, in addition to other matters relating to the gap between modern "Guilt Cultures" and the "Shame Culture" of the Greeks (discussed on the Homeric Society page), there is great emphasis placed upon eschatological issues: the judgment of the soul and its fate in the afterlife.

The Greek view focuses, not on the other world, but on this one. The principal Greek term for "god" is *theos. Originally the term theos was not a noun but an adjective: that is, it did not refer to the independent existence of something called "god," but was predicated of something, much like the English adjectives "green" or "brown." The term theos was used of anything that seemed beyond human capability or understanding, much like the English "weird" originally did. (Perhaps the best illustration can be found in the Greek view of epilepsy, which was called "the sacred disease" because it seemed to entail possession by some uncanny outside force, a sure sign of something that was theos.) Thus the term theos had no connotations of morality, justice, or benevolence; instead, it indicated something mysterious and potentially dangerous. Above all, it indicated power. What set the gods apart from humanity was not their wisdom, perfection, benevolence, or goodness, but their might. The gods were the powerful lords of this earth, who lived forever and knew no sorrow, who controlled the rain, sent disease against livestock or against human populations, and controlled the outcome of battle. Much of ancient Greek religion consists of a communal attempt to please the gods, or at the very least not to offend them. The focus is not on individual salvation but on communal survival, not in the afterlife but here and now. Thus the Iliad shows relatively little interest in the fate of the soul after death: the soul (psyche or "life breath") departs from the body at death, but is portrayed as a squeaking, bat-like creature of relatively little consequence. It is true, e.g., that the ghost of the unburied Patroclus can visit Achilles in his dreams at 23.65ff., but for the most part the Iliad treats death as a final end. It is much more concerned — as was Greek religion as a whole — with the harsh realities of life on earth.

Once you consider the gods as a means of explaining the phenomena of this world, a number of elements of Homer's gods begin to make sense. It is natural, for example, that there be a plurality of gods, each with his/her own particular powers and spheres of influence, to account for the manifold experiences of life. It is natural, as well, that the gods disagree, since the world is filled with contradictory forces. Above all, it is natural that the gods of this competitive society, dominated by its warrior aristocracies, display the same values and operate according to the same set of motivations as the human nobility: the gods are, as it were, the ultimate heroes. The world familiar to the nobility of Homer's day was not a kindly place where fair-play and selflessness assured the individual his/her reward in heaven, but a cruel place where victory was all and defeat could mean total annihilation. Homer's gods accurately reflect both the social hierarchies and the spirit of the Dark Ages (see The Iliad and the Greek Bronze Age page). As we will see, the rise of the city-state, or polis, in the 8th to 6th centuries leads to subtle changes of outlook. The older competitive values remain, but they begin to be tempered to a certain degree by certain cooperative values. As this happens, the competitive, amoral, utterly solipsistic gods of Homer become problematic. Thus, for example, the 4th-century philosopher Plato, in his work The Republic, bans Homer's works altogether from his ideal state on the grounds that he presents a false and debased picture of the divine. The poet Xenophanes also protests against Homer's anthropomorphic and all too flawed deities. Such protests are an indication of changes in moral and religious outlook, the result, in large part, of changes in Greek society.

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(2) Intervention. The second aspect of Homer's gods that distresses the modern reader is the way they constantly intervene in the action, seeming to reduce the heroes to mere pawns. For example, when Patroclus is killed by Hector in Book 16, or when Hector himself falls to Achilles in Book 22, the role played by the gods (Apollo and Athena respectively) is felt to drain all significance from the event: the slain hero seems merely pathetic, a helpless victim facing an opponent he cannot possibly defeat, while the triumphant hero scarcely seems to deserve credit for victory in so uneven a contest. Many modern readers dismiss the poem altogether as a fatalistic tale that can have no human interest because its mortal characters have no control over their own actions, either for good or evil.

At times it is possible to argue that Homer's gods are allegorical representations. When Athena grabs Achilles by the hair at 1.193ff. and prevents him from slaying Agamemnon, we can interpret her appearance as a poetic representation of Achilles changing his mind. Athena is the goddess of wisdom, after all, and an ally of Agamemnon and the Greeks: her intervention need only be seen as a particularly striking way of representing Achilles' second thoughts, in character both for her (since Agamemnon's death would be a terrible blow to the Greek cause) and for Achilles (since, at this point in the poem at least, he is not an overly rash or unreasonable individual). [FN 2]

Such an allegorical approach is not always possible, however. Reread the account of Pandarus wounding Menelaus at 4.86ff. and examine Athena's role in this episode. Like Achilles, Pandarus is urged on by Athena, but this incident is more problematic. First of all, it is more difficult here to read Athena as a mere allegory: Athena not only leads Pandarus to attempt the assassination of Menelaus, but, at lines 124ff., ensures that he misses. The result: the Trojans have broken the terms of the truce, in effect committing a second offense that parallels Paris' abduction of Helen, and the war continues, with the Trojans having doomed themselves to destruction (see 4. 157ff.; cf. 3.298-301). A modern reader feels that Pandarus and the Trojans have been set up: Athena contrives the entire incident, from beginning to end, but it is the Trojans who must pay for it. The curious thing, however, is that the poet clearly blames Pandarus for his act, despite Athena's role: see line 104. A modern reader would tend to argue that when Athena tells a mortal to do something, he can scarcely refuse; for Homer, however, it is clear that Athena's role doesn't absolve Pandarus, or the Trojans. (We will return to Pandarus below.)

Here we encounter a feature of Greek thought that is essential to an understanding of the Greeks' view of the world: the concept of *overdetermination. In the West, modern readers tend to draw a sharp distinction between acts that are divinely ordained and those that are performed willingly: [FN 3] either the gods cause something to happen, they feel, or the individual chooses to do it; there can be no middle ground. For the Greeks, however, there was a middle ground: where the modern reader uses "either ... or" (either the gods cause something to happen or the individual chooses to do it), the ancient Greeks use "both ... and." That is, the Greeks feel that when something important occurs (particularly if it is something unusual or has particularly dire consequences) a divine force of some sort must be involved, whether that force be a general, ill-defined "fate" (often referred to as moira, or one's "portion") or the active intervention of a god. At the same time, however, the Greeks, being a pragmatic people, feel that this same event should be explainable in human terms. Thus you will find Greek authors providing two parallel lines of causation, one on the divine level, the other on the human level. Rather than contradicting one another or canceling each other out, these two explanations are felt to complement one other. (Why does Achilles not kill Agamemnon in Book 1? On the one level, the pro-Greek Athena tells him not to; on the other, being Achilles, he would naturally think better of such an act. — Why does Hector lose to Achilles? On the one hand, it is his and Achilles' fate, part of the will of Zeus mentioned at the beginning of the poem, here abetted by Athena; on the other hand, Hector is the sort of person who would stay outside the walls in order to face Achilles, but is no match for Achilles in battle.) This tendency to discover two levels of causation — one human, the other divine — is known as overdetermination. Compare a modern person who looks back at some particularly important chain of events in his/her life and says, "I guess that it must have been fated to be so: looking back, I can see how everything has come together to lead to the present state of affairs." In retrospect, that person can see a new significance in acts that, at the time, were performed for quite mundane reasons. One way of understanding overdetermination is to see it as this retrospective attitude applied prospectively: through his use of the gods, Homer allows us to sense the larger significance of his heroes' deeds at the very moment they are being committed.

It is difficult for a modern reader to achieve this balance between fate, divine intervention, and human responsibility, nor were the Greeks any more consistent on this matter than are most people today (cf., e.g., Agamemnon's defense of his actions at 19.85ff.). In general, however, it will be natural for the Greeks to find more than one level of causation at work simultaneously. In any case, the charge that Homer's heroes are mere pawns of the gods is not borne out by the poem. The instances of divine intervention in Homer are not arbitrary: you do not find, e.g., Athena helping Thersites to display prowess on the battlefield or inspiring Agamemnon to provide wise counsel; instead, it is Diomedes, Achilles, and Odysseus whom she aids, heroes who possess such abilities in their own right. You might compare hypnosis as it is employed in some of the old thrillers: their plots hinge on an attempt to hypnotize an individual to commit some terrible crime; in the end, the plot fails because, we are told, no one be hypnotized to do something that is fundamentally alien to his/her character. Just so, acts of divine intervention in Homer do not lead heroes to act contrary to their nature. Many of you are familiar with the old saying, "God helps those who help themselves"; the Greek gods go further: they also harm those who harm themselves.

Let's return to Pandarus (discussed above). The above observations are borne out by Pandarus' eventual fate in Book 5. There, at lines 95ff., he again attempts to kill one of his betters with an arrow (the coward's weapon in Homer — note, e.g., that Paris is an archer — since it requires no great strength or skill, nor does it require the aristocrat's income, as does a suit of armor and horse: compare the nobility's hostile reaction to the crossbow and, later, to firearms in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance). Again Pandarus boasts prematurely of his achievement (102-05), and again he fails to kill his foe — all without the intervention of Athena. The clear impression is that the attempted assassination of Menelaus is precisely the sort of thing that Pandarus would be likely to do, not something that he was compelled to do against his nature. Pandarus finally is killed by the noble Diomedes in the encounter at 5.274ff. Note, in particular, the description of his wound at 291-93: many scholars have felt that this wound is significant — the boasting fool, who consistently attempts to assassinate his betters in an underhanded manner, is killed by a spear that severs his tongue.

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Other features of Homer's gods. Today the works of Homer are often referred to as the Greek "Bible" — that is, Homer's poems (along with those of Hesiod) are said to have played a fundamental role in defining the Greeks' notions of the gods and their relation to humanity. This is true, to a certain degree, but the study of Greek religion reveals just how selective and, at times, artificial Homer is in his treatment of the gods when compared to contemporary Greek religious practices. Homer often employs the gods in ways that suit the purposes of his plot and theme. His deities are literary characters and are employed to a variety of ends that have less to do with theology than with poetic narrative. As a result, while Homer's gods are not at all like the Judaeo-Christian God, they are not altogether like the Greek gods either, if by the latter we mean the gods as actually worshipped in Homer's day.

On the whole, Homer's gods are associated with particular concepts, motifs, and "spheres of influence." For example, Athena and Apollo are associated with Greek and Trojan success respectively: neither is ever defeated (as are, e.g., Ares and Aphrodite) and you can more or less predict how a particular battle will go depending on which is active. By contrast, Ares, the god of war, is associated with senseless, largely ineffectual violence and slaughter: he achieves nothing and is humiliated in ways Athena and Apollo could never be. (The contrast between Ares and these other two gods says a great deal about how Homer views war: not as mindless, hate-filled slaughter but as the honorable combat of heroes seeking glory.)

Most interesting of all is Zeus, who is closely associated with Achilles. The two mirror one another in interesting ways: the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon at the beginning of Book 1 is paralleled by that between Zeus and Hera at the book's conclusion; both sit apart from their peers in isolation; both cause the battle to take an unnatural turn in leading the Greeks to be bested by the Trojans; both watch intensely for the Trojans to set fire to the Greek fleet. In accordance with the practice of overdetermination, Zeus' actions provide an explanation, on the divine level, for the dire consequences of Achilles' wrath; on the human level, the withdrawal of Achilles alone is sufficient to explain the sudden confidence of the Trojans and the altered fortunes of the Greeks on the battlefield.

Even Zeus, then, is employed for literary ends. His actions are intimately tied to the poem's plot. This is significant, because it shows just how plastic (or inconsistent) Homer's use of the gods can be. Of all the gods, Zeus comes closest to the Jehovah of the Old Testament: a powerful and august patriarch who oversees the workings of the universe and whose obscure will (see 1.5) determines the fortunes of the mortal heroes. Yet, at the same time, Zeus is also the hen-pecked husband of Hera who is afraid to be seen with Thetis lest his wife get the wrong idea (1.522)! And while Zeus at times seems to control fate, at other times he seems as subject to the dictates of fate as any other character (as, e.g., when faced with the death of Sarpedon at 16.431ff.). These apparent inconsistencies are the result of employing the gods as literary characters. Homer avoids the complaints often lodged against Milton's God by putting a human face on all of his deities, even the lofty Zeus.

On one level, then, Homer's gods are literary devices: they provide variety by allowing the poet to take us away from the battlefield on occasion; they lighten the tone of the poem by providing moments of comedy (hard to come by on the human level); often they will be used to underline the significance of a particular event — the literary equivalent of the clashing of cymbals (note, e.g., the role of Apollo in Patroclus' death: how do you distinguish this momentous event from the myriad other deaths in the poem? — by having the god Apollo himself join Hector in the deed. Or again: how do you lend poignancy and significance to Sarpedon's death? — by having Zeus himself mourn it). The complexity of Homer's treatment of the gods reveals a good deal of the poem's sophistication but makes it a poor source book for Greek religion. In Dickens' A Christmas Carol Scrooge mocks the ghost of Marley, claiming that he is merely a hallucination brought on by indigestion: "There's more of gravy than of grave about you," he says; in the case of Homer's gods it would be possible to say that, often, they involve more of metaphor than of metaphysics.

Perhaps the most important feature of Homer's gods, however, is the perspective that they provide on the human action. Their power, their freedom from death or pain, and the grandeur of their existence provide a sharp contrast to the lives of the mortal characters. The presence of these immortal divinities who, for all of their passion, are essentially untouched by the action on earth highlights the intense suffering of the heroes and the harsh realities of their lives. When Zeus and Hera quarrel, all ends in light and laughter (at the end of Book 1); when Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel, the result is the deaths of hundreds of Greeks and Trojans. Ares and Aphrodite can meddle in war and depart with a mere scratch to whine about (Book 5); for the heroes the consequences of battle are much more dire.

The presence of the gods also reminds the reader that the human agents operate in a world where forces are at work that the mortals cannot perceive. The entire action of the poem is underlain by the "will of Zeus" mentioned in 1.5: that is, the various actions and decisions of the heroes (esp. those of Achilles and Hector) are leading to a fated end of which they are unaware. There is an order to events, and the heroes, through their freely chosen actions, participate in that order without being aware of it. The result is a curiously austere view of human life: one can be assured that the gods are present and that events are not random, but the order represented by the gods is not a comforting one. There is no sense of the good being rewarded or of all turning out for the best. The only certainty is that mortal life is harsh and all too often burdened with sorrows; the best hope: that one can achieve fame (kleos) and so be remembered and honored after death. The odd thing is that this austere outlook does not lead Homer — as it does, for example, the Anglo-Saxon poets — to brooding reflections on the horrors of life or to a resignedly fatalistic view of human existence. The poet sees humanity as capable of a real dignity and nobility, despite the brutal realities of its lot. This curious outlook — the affirmation of human worth combined with a clear, unblinking contemplation of the sorrows of mortal existence — is characteristic of Greek thought and is best described by the adjective "tragic." In his view of life, as in a number of other ways, Homer establishes the paradigm for later Greek tragedy.


[FN 1] In alluding to "western societies" I am referring to the Judaeo-Christian tradition as popularly reflected, e.g., in today's mass media, a tradition that I take as familiar to most students, whether or not they share any of its beliefs. Interesting comparisons of other sorts can be found by setting Homer's gods against other modern religious traditions. [Return to text]

[FN 2] Another interesting example occurs at 11.714-16, where Nestor, talking about his past adventures, mentions an instance where Athena came running as a messenger, at night, to warn his people of an imminent attack. It is difficult not to feel, here, that the goddess and a human messenger have come to be curiously melded — a method of indicating a human messenger who brought a report of particular importance and utility. [Return to text]

[FN 3] Here it is possible to see the influence of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and its emphasis on divine judgment and personal salvation: the notoriously complex debate over the relationship between divinely ordained fate and individual free will shows that this issue is not so cut-and-dried as I present it above. [Return to text]

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