The Reading Room

Homer’s Iliad The Relationship between Gods and Mortals

The situation at the beginning of Book Three of Homer’s Iliad 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. Tension tortures the text in the moments leading up to the mortal combat. During the fight, Menelaos immediately wins the upper hand over Paris, knocking him to the ground with his spear throw; then breaking his sword over the helmeted-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 bemoans the shame that she, Helen, will now have to endure from the other Trojan women. After an Olympian-level response from Aphrodite, where she threatens to make Helen as hated as she now is loved, 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.
Our question is 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 and 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 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 leads to an even bigger and more difficult one: what exactly is the relationship between the men and the gods?
Some of the funnier analogies I have heard as answers to the question above are these: as ants are to humans as are humans to gods; puppets to puppeteers; favorite characters of dramas on an interactive stage. But there are more earnest analogies: perhaps the gods are like major sponsors and the mortals who receive their favors are like elite athletes. This analogy has some promise: 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 (Il.3.379-382). Odysseus, most cunning of all mortals in Homer’s universe, receives more favor and affection from Athene than any mortal--so much so that even his son receives her blessings (this all occurs in the Homer's Odyssey). 
So, why did the gods dispense their gifts only to those men who were already great in some way or another? A very pragmatic response might be: the decision is appropriate because these gifted individuals would be most capable of seeing to the will of the gods and accomplishing the tasks to which the gods set them. 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. If one reasons like an Olympian, it would be wasteful of the gods to give their gifts to “less able mortals,” much like, one imagines, sponsors would feel about having some less athletic, less influential mortal endorse their wares. The most stark analogy, though perhaps not the most accurate, might be calling the gods political backers or contributors and the men themselves the politicians receiving political support. 
The nature 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; just 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. 
Additionally, 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 furious with mortals for neglecting to sacrifice simply out of vengeful anger? Or was there an element of survival instinct in bitterly punishing those who transgressed: Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia because of either himself or his father neglecting Artemis; Tyndareus was himself cursed 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.

Comments:

Sudhamshu Reddy

The entirety of the war was on a whim by the oldest Olympian. It is unacceptable how helpless humanity was at the hands of these gods. The primary concern that essentially unified the armies of Greece stemmed from their obsession of honour and pride, characteristics which the gods have exploited on multiple occasions. They gift to those who are capable of their plays and direct those without purpose as expendable, ie; Pandorus.
What struck me as awfully odd regarding sacrificial culture during the Trojan War was about Iphigeneia. She was a virgin priestess for Artemis who requested that she be sacrificed. What form of mental games were these? Furthermore, a version of the story implied that she was tricked by Agamemnon under guise of marriage with Achilles, a virgin priestess…