Conversations with Students II: Wars between Gods and Mortals in Homer’s Iliad

“…so now this is no horrible war of Achaians and Trojans, but the Danaans are beginning to fight even with the immortals.” (Homer, Iliad, Bk V 379-380. Lattimore tr.)

A lot has happened in the text since our last conversation: Agamemnon has failed to rouse his men, just to leave the task to better speakers: Odysseus and Nestor. We have met Thersites, ugliest and worst of the Achaians, and seen him brutally, but necessarily dealt with. We caught our first glimpse of heroic looking but cowardly Paris, and the grim and honest berating of him by his far superior brother, Hektor. We then saw the view of the Achaians from the top of the Trojan Wall, the so-called teichoscopia, where Helen described Agamemnon, Odysseus, Aias the Greater, Menelaos and Idomeneus to Priam, while, sadly, she did not see her brothers Castor and Polydeuces because they had already fallen.

We meet the great fool, Pandaros, and his cursed bow, and his failed attempts at eternal glory–letting loose shafts at Menelaos and Diomedes, injuring both, but killing neither. We see Aphrodite make a pest of herself on the battle field, saving Paris from dying and ending the Trojan War with no more death, and then attempting to save her son Aineias, but allowing a mortal “pin-prick” to make her lose her grasp, leaving the task of saving her son to her much stronger half-brother, Apollo.

We viewed the aristeia of Diomedes, or his heroic, and near invincible deeds after Athene breathes strength back into him and lets “the mist fall” from his eyes so that he might see Ares, Aphrodite, and Apollo on the battlefield.

Some of the major questions which were asked:

Who, exactly, was at fault for the rekindling of the Trojan War? This question involves the actions and mutual agreements of Zeus, the direct intervention of Athene, and the conscious decision of a mortal Trojan: Pandaros. So, in its simplest form, the question boils down to this: did Pandaros have the choice to shoot his arrow at Menelaos and restart the war, and even if he had not, would the gods have found a way to insight the war without him, or some other human?

This situation is this: a truce had been called between the Trojans and the invading Achaians after nine long years of war in order to allow for a single-combat, winner-take-all, fight to the death between Paris, who started the war by stealing Helen, and Menelaos, the husband from whom Paris stole Helen. The tension was palpable. During the fight, Menelaos immediately wins the upper hand over Paris, knocking him to the ground with his spear-cast, then breaking his sword over the head of Paris, and then attempting to strangle him with his own chin-strap. Paris, beloved as he is by Aphrodite, is saved by her in a mist, and she safely deposits him, unharmed and apparently washed and re-dressed, like a man “from a dance”, in the bedchambers of his stolen wife, Helen. Now, Helen is none too happy to see her husband, and she rebukes Aphrodite for not letting him die and the shame that she, Helen, will now have to endure from the other Trojan women, but after an Olympian response from Aphrodite, Helen capitulates.

In the aftermath of Aphrodite stealing Paris from the battle, Menelaos prowls about the battlefield, alone, looking for Paris. It is during this time that Zeus and Hera, high on Olympos, come to an agreement: should Zeus allow the destruction of Troy, his favorite city, so must Hera allow for one of her three favorites: Sparta, Mykenai, or Argos some day to be expunged by Zeus. Hera then sends Athene to convince some fool Trojan to “fire the arrow that will restart it all”, and that easily convinced and fooled Trojan is Pandaros–ever in search of, but just short of, eternal glory.

The question which occupied my students was this: was it Pandaros himself, the mortal, who was at fault for rekindling the war by shooting his arrow at defenseless Menelaos and reigniting hostilities between the Achaians and Trojans, or was it due to the divine influence of Athene–Hera–Zeus that the war began? Essentially, could the war have started again without human determination. Even had Pandaros not been the fool who was tempted, would not have some other mortal have been easily tempted, and was it not precisely because Pandaros had this quality (or lacked integrity) that he was chosen for the task? It is a difficult question, because there are times when the gods act of their own volition on the battlefield–Ares fighting and stripping armor of the fallen Periphas in Book V 840-855, or Apollo himself slapping the back of Patroklos’ back in Book XVI 785-795, and of course Aphrodite saving Aineias and attempting to save Paris just as Hephaistos saves the son of his priest, Idaios son of Phegeus, Book V lines 20-25. So, why exactly the gods needed a mortal man to enact their will is a troubling and ambiguous question which led the students to an even bigger and more difficult one: what exactly is the relationship between the men and the gods?

Some of the funnier analogies of the day were shared in answer to the question above: as ants are to humans so are humans to gods; puppets to puppeteers; favorite characters of dramas on an interactive stage. But then the analogies began to be earnest: perhaps the gods are like major sponsors and the mortals who receive their favors are like elite athletes. This analogy has some ground–the gods do not dispense their gifts evenly in the Ancient Hellenic world–they give to those already “gifted”. Diomedes, a prince, strong and clever, is healed and given the ability to see gods by Athene. Paris, a man remarkable for his handsome looks, is given Helen by Aphrodite, and then saved from death by her (Bk III 379-382). Odysseus, most cunning of all mortals, receives more favor and affection from Athene than any mortal–so much so that even his son receives her blessings (though, this all occurs in the Homer’s Odyssey). So, the question became, why did the gods dispense their gifts only to those men who were already great in some way or another? The students had an interesting, and very pragmatic response: because these men would be most capable of seeing to the will of the gods and accomplishing the tasks they were set to. Diomedes attacks and wounds both Aphrodite and Ares under the instruction of Athene, Odysseus helps in the construction of the Trojan Horse and destruction of Troy, and Agamemnon masses an army which floods and ends the nation of Troy as it is; by the students’ reasoning, it would be wasteful of the gods to give their gifts to lesser mortals–much like, one imagines, sponsors would feel about giving having some smaller, less influential mortal endorse their wares. The analogy, perhaps even more intelligent, was brought up of calling gods political backers/contributors and the men the politicians. Our students are becoming very perspicacious indeed.

The nature, though, of the relationship between the gods remains something of a mystery–perhaps once given contour and direction by the famous mysterious Eleusinian Mysteries, but the fact that the gods have favorites, can breed with mortals and have children with them (Aineias, Herakles, Sarpedon, and Achilleus–to name a few of the hero-children who were part of or frequently mentioned in Homer’s Iliad) means that the relationship is in many ways a close one for the Ancient men of Hellas. The gods frequently took the form of men, had the desires and passions of men, but their power was far greater. A question the students had, which I could only echo, was: what is the relationship between the prayers and offerings of men to gods (like hekatombs to propitiate) and the power of the gods? Did the gods become so furious with mortals for neglecting to sacrifice simply out of vengeful anger? Or was their an element of survival instinct in so bitterly punishing those who transgressed: Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia because of either himself or his father neglecting Artemis; Tyndareus was himself curses to have adulterous daughters (Helen and Klytaimestra most famously) for neglecting Aphrodite; and Apollo in Book I doles out plague to the Achaians for Agamemnon treating his priest, Chryses, without due respect. Is the anger which the gods feel at these snubs simply due to the fact that such inferior and unworthy creatures might dare not recognize their might and majesty, or is there some relationship between the beliefs and offerings to the power and splendor of each Olympian god, just as proper funerary rights and the subsequent cults were essential to the deification of a hero (cf. the story of Herakles and Philoktetes burning his hydra-poison-ridden body in Sophocles’ Philoctetes). The question, here, remains open.