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Assess the significance of the Gods in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

Extracts from this essay...

Introduction

Assess the significance of the Gods in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey It is the gods, not fate, who are concerned with the activities of human life in both the ">Odyssey<-" and the ">Iliad<-". The human action is so central that it quite absorbs the gods, as though they had no other responsibilities. We get a sense of this divine participation from the very beginning of the " Iliad "Hera prompts Achilles to call the assembly (1.54); Athene checks his resolve to attack Agamemnon (1.188ff.); Zeus sends to Agamemnon a dream bidding him rally the Achaeans (2.16); Athene prompts Odysseus to prevent them from boarding the ships (2.182ff.); she silences the army to let him speak (2.281); Aphrodite drives Helen to Paris (3.420). Most notable throughout the poem is a hero's might increased by a god (4.439, 4.515, 5.1-2, 5.122, 5.125, etc.). In all these cases, the god achieves nothing supernatural but simply stimulates existing potentialities. It could not be otherwise. Human acts or states of being so stand out in their native quality that no external agency is allowed to affect their true nature. Yet a man's fierce resilience may be quite baffling and may suggest some unsuspected power. Human free-will is something natural an mysterious at the same time. If the matter is seen in this light, it is pointless to inquire how far in Homer a man is responsible for his acts and how far he is influenced by the gods. Any intense moment of experience may seem imponderable. Whence comes a sudden excitement that gives us added strength? It certainly comes from a deep unsounded source in which we may feel a divine power. With equal pertinence Homer says, 'the spirit within him compelled him' or 'a god compelled him.' Initiative is not taken for granted; it does not come mechanically. A body's energy is no different in this respect.

Middle

They are poetically conceived according to the needs of the moment, not subjected to any rule. We can find no theology here. Louder and stronger than any ritual prayers, we hear a cry prompted by the occasion - that of Glaucus (16.514ff.) or of Ajax (17.645ff.). The gods listen, and in most cases they respond. But let us not expect them to be just or fair (Athene tempts Pandarus in 4.92ff. and dupes Hector in 22.226ff.). Their strength lies in intensifying the sense of life, and yet in doing so they inevitably increase the poignance of what is at stake, including the issue of right and wrong. All serious poetry of early Greece involves the gods. The presence of divine agents, visibly at work in what happens, enables the poet to show the meaning of events and the nature of the world. In the"> Iliad <-"we find a rich cast of gods and goddesses. Some take the side of the Achaeans, others that of Troy. There are lively disputes over the nectar on Olympus, as the divine partisans support and oppose their chosen mortals. Sometimes they go down - all save Zeus - and intervene personally on earth, on the battlefield or in private interviews. From moment to moment they seem unedifying: 'Homer makes his men gods and his gods men' comments a great critic in late antiquity, and he was thinking primarily of the Iliad. Gods even suffer, and the shady pair Ares and Aphrodite, who are on the Trojan side and whom the poet seems not to like, are actually wounded by mortal warriors, while even Zeus grieves for the death of his son Sarpedon. Yet the suffering of gods is soon over and lacks the tragedy of that of men, and the phrase 'sublime frivolity' fits them well. For they can be, at moments, sublime as well as frivolous. The ">Odyssey<-", too, has some scenes of the assembly of the gods, and Athene comes down constantly to intervene among men.

Conclusion

It can be argued that the ">Odyssey<-" represents a moral advance on the ">Iliad<-" and that the Odyssean gods watch over the affairs of men with a more developed moral sense than their capricious Iliadic counterparts. In the opening of the poem Zeus gives the keynote speech which seems to put them on the side of justice. He rebukes men for blaming the gods for their misfortunes when it is only too apparent that they bring it upon themselves. Aegisthus is a case in point. The gods sent Hermes to warn that vengeance would come from Orestes if he usurped Agamemnon's throne. Later in the poem there is a divine presence of a kind not felt in the ">Iliad. ">When the companions of Odysseus have killed the cattle of the sun god, the forbidden flesh emits strange noises as it is being roasted. The mysterious light in the hall is attributed to a divine presence. Athene constantly guards the protagonist and appears to him in person to assure him of continued protection. Yet Zeus does not say that all suffering comes to men through wrongdoing, nor does he say that when they are punished they are punished by the gods. The gods have foresight and warn Aegisthus, but they do not compel Orestes to do what he does. The point of the speech is to put the moral responsibility for action firmly upon men. The companions of Odysseus and the suitors die, like Aegisthus, through their own folly. In the ">Iliad<-" the quarrel which leads to the catastrophe similarly results from the free action of Agamemnon and Achilles. The moments of supernatural mystery in the"Odyssey" are included primarily for poetic effect. The relationship between the goddess and the hero is based on the kind of personal affinity that underlies relations between men and gods in the"> Iliad">. It could well be argued that the ingredients are basically the same in the two poems but that they have been mixed differently to express a tragic vision in one, and to serve the interests of a poetic justice characteristic of comedy in the other.

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