God Vs Humans in the Iliad and the Odyssey
Perhaps the two most prominent Greek Epics of all time are The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both were written by Homer and both detail the lives of Greek heroes. The Iliad showcases Achilles– the strongest soldier fighting for the Achaean army in the Trojan War. The Odyssey follows the King Odysseus, who only wishes to return home after fighting in that same war. One commonality in both pieces of literature are the gods who often intervene on behalf of the two heroes and as a result alter the course of their lives. The instances of divine intervention in The Iliad and The Odyssey serve to characterize the status differences between mere mortals and omniscient gods.
In Greek culture, Gods were revered by the people and were often thanked for every good deed that happened to an individual or to a city. Homer reflects that belief in both of his poems. The Gods often sought to remind the humans of their power over them through divine intervention, which not only reinforced their status but also their superiority. Characterized as vengeful and unforgiving, throughout the two pieces of literature, they demonstrate how at their mercy mortals truly are. Take for example, the beginning of the Odyssey. Odysseus has served his time as a soldier in the war, and heads on home via the sea. However, Poseidon does not wish to see the hero home safely because he “bears the fighter an old grudge” for poking Polyphemus, his son’s, eye out (Odyssey 1.91). So, Poseidon calls upon the sea to rage against Odysseus which results in the crew being stranded at sea for years. A small infraction when it came to the Greeks made the god seek such revenge against the mortal. Zeus, the king of all Gods, even attempts to assist Odysseus, but his brother defies him still and in doing so, establishes how even another powerful god can do nothing against their rage. The too fragile mortals cannot escape divine resentment and intervention even if the other god’s have it in their mind to protect them.
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The Iliad also shows the God’s interactions with the humans. Towards the end of The Iliad, Achilles goes on a vengeful tirade after Patroclus’s death and kills everyone in his path. In fact, he throws so many bodies into the river Xanthus (or Scamander) that the river god rises up to stop Achilles and the soldier attacks him. Xanthus drags Achilles downstream and very nearly kills him until the other gods reason with him. Achilles, known for his impressive strength among the humans, is still no match for even one of the lesser gods. He could not overcome the river god as “the pressure of swift water tired him” only too easily (Iliad 21.318). Xanthus, though easily defeated by the other deities, overpowered the great Achilles within moments. The hero is thus shown his place underneath the gods no matter his grand reputation among the humans. The dominance of the deities is shown when even the most powerful human can be beat by the weakest god.
The Gods carefully choose the mortals they interfere with, thus elevating the status of those special few. The Gods only bother with the type of humans that have an almost godly talent that other mortals do not possess. Take for example, Odysseus. When learning of Odysseus and his all too long voyage away from home, Athena, the Goddess of wisdom claims her “‘heart is broken for Odysseus, / the mastermind of war’” (Odyssey 1.67-8). Because Athena associates Odysseus with such admirable traits–traits he shares with her nonetheless– she ‘cares’ enough to intervene in his life. She desires for him to be successful and live a fulfilled life compared to the humans she does not see talent within. Rather than be insulted however, other Greeks would begin to respect Odysseus if they heard he had enough of Athena’s favor for her to come to his aid.
A similar situation occurs in the Iliad, though not with the main hero. When Achilles attacks the river god and Hera, via Hephaestus, saves him, the Gods engage in an argument over which humans are worthy enough for them to aid. In one instance the god Apollo sends courage to Agênor, who he deems a “strong and noble” man (Iliad 21.633). Apollo decides Agênor is worthy enough and rewards these traits by assisting him and therefore displaying his superiority over other mortals. Had he not possessed these characteristics, Agenor would have just been another soldier to the deities, and perhaps would have even been killed in the ensuing conflict. The gods do not pay attention to everyone, so it is a significant event for a mortal to be aided. In the Odyssey, Eumaios, the man who takes Odysseus in when he does finally return home in disguise, is referred to in the book as just a “forester” and “swineherd” (Odyssey 14.56, 65). Someone who was birthed into alow station and who does not possess any extraordinary talent, would not be someone the Gods would take notice of–and they don’t. His life is not interfered with in any way and no deity secretly visits him in disguise as they are so fond of doing. It is an honor to be noticed by the gods, and not everyone is worthy of that honor.
Homer hints the hierarchy of the gods and mortals throughout his poems. Greater gods such as Zeus and Poseidon reside at the top, followed by lesser gods like Hephaestus or Xanthus, then comes the greater mortal heros by the likes of Achilles and Odysseus, and at the very bottom are the normal humans. This hierarchy can be seen at the end of the Odyssey when Odysseus and his son begin to slaughter the men who have wronged him. The great Athena “gave no overpowering aid,” believing“father and son must prove their mettle” during the fight with the suitors. She only steps in once her allies are close to death (Odyssey 22.263, 264). The hero Odysseus must prove his superiority over commoners to still rank as he does in hierarchy and show that he is worthy of the god’s attention. Even so, the lives of the humans are ultimately in Athena’s hands as she makes the final decisions, like casting away the shots of the suitors or even going as far as to fight on Odysseus behalf.
Hera and Hephaestus also “lend a hand” in saving their own hero, Achilles (Iliad. 21.390).When the Xanthos is about to kill the hero, Hera sends Hephaestus–demonstrating Hera’s superiority over the other gods– to boil the river until Xanthos lets Achilles go–which demonstrates the god’s power over the hero. The greatest gods can control anything without fail, while lesser gods can at least control all people on the mortal spectrum. Heros who have the favor of the gods have power over the other humans, while those at the bottom barely have establishment over their own lives.
Divine intervention in The Iliad and The Odyssey reinforce the inferiority of the mortals while still elevating the important heroes and gods. Understanding the motivations of the gods–the true driving forces of the poems– are key in understanding the characters of the epics, as well as the epics themselves.